U.S. Designates Uyghurs’ Persecution “Genocide” And “Crime Against Humanity”

On the Trump administration’s last full day in power, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnically Turkic minorities in Xinjiang both genocide and a crime against humanity. In 2017, Chinese authorities began to construct vast internment camps as part of a purported “re-education drive” aimed at Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz . Over the following three years, authorities are believed to have arbitrarily imprisoned over one million people, while subjecting millions more to one of the world’s most invasive digital surveillance regimes. Conditions inside the camps are reportedly inhumane, with released detainees sharing stories of abuse, sterilization, and forced labor. The State Department’s designation makes the United States the first nation to label China’s persecution of Uyghurs and other groups genocide. In a statement accompanying the announcement, the State Department detailed the reasoning behinds its designation:

  1. After careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that since at least March 2017, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the direction and control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has committed crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other members of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. These crimes are ongoing and include: the arbitrary imprisonmentor [sic] other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians, forced sterilization, torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained, forced labor, and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement. The Nuremberg Tribunals at the end of World War II prosecuted perpetrators for crimes against humanity, the same crimes being perpetrated in Xinjiang.
  2. In addition, after careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that the PRC, under the direction and control of the CCP, has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state. The governing authorities of the second most economically, militarily, and politically powerful country on earth have made clear that they are engaged in the forced and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group, even as they simultaneously assert their country as a global leader and attempt to remold the international system in their image. [Source]

Pompeo’s probable successor, Antony Blinken, concurred with Pompeo’s genocide assessment during Senate confirmation hearings:

The statement comes one week after the Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s annual report called for an official inquiry into whether events in Xinjiang constituted genocide. China is party to the United Nations’ Genocide Convention, which requires signatories to punish genocide perpetrators, “whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.” In June, Uyghur activist groups filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in an attempt to trigger an investigation into whether China’s actions constituted genocide, but The Hague declined to investigate, claiming it lacked jurisdiction. At The New York Times, Edward Wong and Chris Buckley reported on what the State Department hopes to achieve by designating China’s policies “genocide”:

The determination of atrocities is a rare action on the part of the State Department, and could lead the United States to impose more sanctions against China under the new administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who said last year through a spokesman that the policies by Beijing amounted to “genocide.” Other nations or international institutions could follow suit in formally criticizing China over its treatment of its minority Muslims and taking punitive measures. The determination also prompts certain reviews within the State Department.

[…] One U.S. official said the best rationale for the genocide label on China was the use of forced sterilizations, birth control and family separations to destroy Uighur identity.

Several State Department officials said the decision was rooted in trying to meet policy goals; they said they hoped the move would spur other nations to take a harder public line against China on this and other issues.

[…] Mr. Biden, a critic of China’s human rights record during his decades in office, has used forceful language to describe its repressive policies. In August, he released a statement calling China’s actions “genocide” and pressed the president to do the same. Mr. Trump, he insisted, “must also apologize for condoning this horrifying treatment of Uighurs.”[Source]

Biden’s demand that Trump apologize for his statements about Uyghurs is in reference to an allegation made by Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton that Trump endorsed the camps. From John Hudson at The Washington Post:

President Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, however, said Trump expressed approval for China’s use of Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang during a meeting with Chinese President .

“Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do,” Bolton wrote in his memoir “The Room Where It Happened.” The administration has denied this account.

[…] “It’s an indication of serious concern, but that it’s coming literally less than 24 hours to go in this administration — so that in some ways undermines that message,” said Sophie Richardson, a specialist on China issues at Human Rights Watch. [Source]

At Reuters, Humeyra Pamuk reported on the legal mechanics of the State Department’s designation

The rare U.S. determination follows intensive internal debate after Congress passed legislation on Dec. 27 requiring the U.S. administration to determine within 90 days if forced labor or other alleged crimes against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are crimes against humanity or a genocide.

[…] The U.S. decision does not automatically unleash any penalties, but it means countries will have to think hard about allowing companies to do business with Xinjiang, a leading global supplier of cotton. Last week the United States imposed a ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang.

“We’re hoping that the determination today will encourage others to speak out… and to also join us in taking actions to hold those responsible for these atrocities,” a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters.

[…] In the past 30 years, the U.S. State Department has declared a genocide occurred in at least five situations – Bosnia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994, Iraq in 1995, Darfur, in 2004, and in areas under Islamic State control in Iraq in 2016 and 2017. [Source]

Immediate reactions to the announcement were mixed, with some praising the move and others lamenting that it was too little, too late:

Also on Tuesday, an effort in the U.K. Parliament to attach an amendment to the country’s Trade Bill that would allow it to terminate any trade deals with countries found to have committed genocide failed. The measure, aimed at China’s treatment of Uyghurs, only failed to pass by 11 votes. At Bloomberg, Kitty Donaldson:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson defeated a rebellion by his own lawmakers on Tuesday after they pressed for British judges to be able to rule if China’s Muslim Uighur minority is suffering genocide.

The House of Commons narrowly voted down an amendment to a proposed law on international trade agreements which would have allowed victims to ask the High Court in to rule on claims of genocide against potential trading partners, including China. The government would have had to consider pulling out of trade deals with the states involved.

[…] Last week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sought to appease the rebels by announcing the U.K. will fine companies if they cover up imports from the Xinjiang of China, where international observers have accused Beijing of overseeing forced labor by Uighur Muslims and human rights abuses such as forced sterilization.[Source]

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