Travis Weber is Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs at Family Research Council. Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Washington Examiner on January 21, 2021.
On his last full day in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally declared that China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its campaign of repression against Uighur Muslims. Pompeo’s declaration is the strongest rebuke from any government of China’s atrocities in Xinjiang, and one that is sure to affect how the incoming Biden administration interacts with China.
Noting that the crimes are still ongoing, Pompeo specified that Beijing is responsible for the arbitrary imprisonment of more than a million people, forced sterilization, torture, forced labor, and restrictions on freedoms of religion, expression, and movement.
When reports emerged detailing the Chinese government’s large-scale efforts to limit Uighur births by forced sterilizations and abortions, it became increasingly clear to onlookers that Beijing was intent on reducing the Uighur population, an action that falls under the international definition of genocide. This prompted Pompeo’s statement, “I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state.”
This parting shot at China is the latest and most meaningful of a long list of actions that Pompeo’s State Department has taken to confront China’s human rights abuses. Yet, with Pompeo's exit, it falls to the Biden administration to hold China accountable.
The declaration will inevitably affect the way Biden’s administration deals with China. Although a Biden campaign spokesperson once called China’s actions against Uighurs a “genocide,” many of Biden’s incoming foreign policy advisors have emphasized issues such as climate change as their priority when it comes to China. The declaration should help focus the new administration’s efforts on what Pompeo has called the “stain of the century.” Now that the U.S. recognizes an ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, it will rightfully be more difficult for Biden to treat China just like any other country.
Genocide is the most serious of international human rights violations. A finding of genocide requires not only that horrific crimes are taking place, but also that they are intended to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Such destruction can occur by killing, the method traditionally associated with genocide, but also by other means such as “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” a practice identified by Pompeo in this week's declaration.
The finding increases the moral and legal pressure to act. Contracting parties to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (which include the U.S.) agree “that genocide...is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.”
As next steps, the Biden administration must continue to identify individuals and entities to sanction in connection to human rights abuses. U.S. officials should publicly raise concerns about the 2022 Winter Olympics being held in China while a recognized genocide is ongoing. Congress should also pass the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act which requires companies that produce goods in Xinjiang to prove that forced labor was not utilized.
Uyghur activists in the U.S. have long called for an atrocity determination. Rushan Abbas, a Uighur activist whose sister has been condemned to 20 years in prison in Xinjiang, said, “As any victim will tell you, having the eyes of the world community see us, and acknowledge that our horror is real, means everything.” The declaration is sure to raise the profile of the Uighur people’s suffering and lend added urgency to their cause.
The U.S. has been a world leader in advancing human rights, and this is an important milestone in that calling. The governments of all free countries should be encouraged to follow suit in calling China’s actions genocide and crimes against humanity. Yet, international law does not enforce itself. It will require a coalition of countries to courageously hold China accountable for its actions on the world stage.
What is occurring in Xinjiang is one of the most blatant evils of our day. History will remember how we respond to it. Thankfully, yesterday will be recognized as the day the U.S. boldly called China’s abhorrent treatment of the Uighur people what it is — genocide and crimes against humanity.
Though China remains a formidable world power that is growing in economic and militaristic influence, Secretary Pompeo promised that the U.S. “will not remain silent” about Beijing’s atrocities in Xinjiang. The incoming Biden administration should affirm this promise and take appropriate steps to hold China accountable.