The Russian invasion of Ukraine confronts the world again with the absolute value of democracy and human rights. Dictatorships at each point in history have led to violations of basic rights, to war, and to the destruction and loss of millions of lives. This is what is happening in Ukraine now.
The rejection of Russia’s aggression by NATO countries is important. If more countries would join in the condemnation of Russia and support Western sanctions, the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his troops and end the attacks on the people of Ukraine would intensify.
Crimes against humanity are committed in other countries too. However, the rejection of these crimes is far less clear. And economic sanctions against those countries committing these crimes — such as Turkey and China — are largely nonexistent.
In Turkey, the government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused more than 1 million members of the judiciary, human rights advocates, military service members, and others of “terrorism.” Their only “crime” was that they were citizens with non-extremist but critical religious beliefs, were defending social and cultural rights of Kurdish or Alevite people, or were critical of the Erdogan regime.
In June 2021, Mary Lawlor, United Nations special rapporteur, appealed to Turkey to cease prosecuting human rights activists and release those currently being held on anti-terrorism laws. Lawlor said, “I am greatly concerned that anti-terrorism laws are being used extensively to silence Turkish human rights defenders and disrupt their legitimate work defending human rights.” Similarly, the organization Turkey Tribunal reached the same conclusion.
Yet torture is systematically applied, and enforced disappearances are still going on. Any critical press is forbidden, journalists are imprisoned, and human rights activists such as Osman Kavala are sentenced to long prison terms. Turkey has refused to comply with a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights that Kavala should be released.
In 2021, the Uyghur Tribunal established the commitment of crimes against humanity in China under President Xi Jinping, such as torture, deportation, arbitrary imprisonment, and enforced disappearances of mostly Muslim Uyghur. By preventing births within the group, the report noted, genocide is being accomplished. Internment camps — or as Chinese officials call them, “education centers,” where about a million Uyghur are reportedly held — remind us of Nazi Germany and the Gulags under the Soviet regime. The lives and culture of millions of people are threatened. The existence of the Uyghur people itself is in danger.
Neither Turkey nor China faces a strong reaction from the international community. Though the United States imposed restrictions, starting Tuesday, on goods imported from the Xinjiang region of China, where forced labor has been documented, not enough is being done to protect human rights in these countries.
Outrage against Russian aggression in Ukraine is needed. But we cannot close our eyes to the massive violation of human rights by Turkey and China. Selective application of fundamental human rights allows for murder, imprisonment, and torture. This is the lesson of World Wars I and II. It is time to enforce recognition of human rights globally by imposing sanctions against all countries that deny them. The people of Turkey and China can no longer wait.
Enes Freedom Kanter is a National Basketball Association player and human rights activist. Johan Vande Lanotte, former deputy prime minister of Belgium, initiated the Turkey Tribunal.