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Does the Global Consensus on Apartheid in South Africa Hold Clues for the Uyghurs?

September 12, 2022
Maria Lotito


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Maria Lotito, an analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense, analyzes chow consensus on apartheid South Africa was achieved.

A new report from the United Nations finds that China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and that human rights violations are ongoing. The abuse flows from China’s “Strike Hard” campaign, executed to counter separatism and extremism, subjecting Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities to mass detentions, forced labor and sterilizations, cultural suppression, and surveillance. The report comes months after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, before which some governments sympathetic to the Uyghurs’ plight staged diplomatic boycotts, to little avail.

The UN report, much like the Olympic boycotts, will change few minds. What does it take to generate intergovernmental consensus around broad-scale human rights violations? Such convergence, even upon opposition to egregious human rights abuse, is rare and difficult to achieve. This is because violating governments are skilled at subverting international human rights norms and onlooking states have many reasons to avoid acting. Abusive practices might be reframed as responsible policy, or covered up. Meanwhile, supposedly compliant governments contend with a panoply of bilateral interests, some incompatible with international norms.

Judging from the most prominent historical case, international consensus on abuse in Xinjiang will take much more than this report. The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa merits renewed consideration given the unmatched volume of state support it received. According to data we collected at the University of Denver, 61 distinct foreign governments supported the anti-apartheid movement during the peak of consensus between 1985–1988. This is nearly twice the amount that supported any Arab Spring protest or Color Revolution. Three drivers encouraged international consensus against apartheid, from which we can draw ideas for accelerating consensus today.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance