The outgoing U.S. secretary of state orders a review to determine if China’s repression of Uighurs constitutes genocide.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ordered a review to determine whether China’s repression of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang amounts to genocide, several officials and people familiar with the matter said, raising expectations that America’s top diplomat may charge China with committing genocide before he leaves office next month.
Pompeo has instructed Morse Tan, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for the Office of Global Criminal Justice, to oversee the internal review. The review would involve an assessment by the State Department’s acting legal advisor, Marik String, and the head of the State Department’s internal intelligence shop, as well as the department’s human rights and regional bureaus, according to current and former officials.
Officials said the timing of when the determination will be made is unclear. If it is made in the final weeks of the Trump administration, it could significantly raise tensions between Washington and Beijing just as President-elect Joe Biden enters office—though Biden’s campaign already used the word “genocide” to describe the crackdowns in Xinjiang as early as August.
The review comes as lawmakers from both parties have increasingly called on the Trump administration to act over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In October, Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, introduced a bipartisan resolution designating China’s treatment of the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang as genocide.
The United States rarely makes a formal declaration of genocide, considered one of the most serious crimes against humanity in international law. If confirmed, this would be the first genocide determination by the State Department since March 2016, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry determined that the Islamic State terrorist organization was “responsible for genocide” against the region’s Yazidi, Christian, and Shiite Muslim minorities. In August 2017, President Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also concluded that the Islamic State was “certainly responsible for genocide.”
During the George W. Bush administration, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the Sudanese government had committed genocide against ethnic minority groups in Darfur, a decision that was followed by a U.N. Security Council resolution triggering an investigation into mass atrocities by the International Criminal Court, which later charged the country’s then-president, Omar al-Bashir, with genocide. President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, also cited the mass atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda as genocide.
In recent years, China has undertaken a sweeping campaign of repression against what are estimated to be millions of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in its western Xinjiang province under the guise of security and counterterrorism programs. Human rights groups have reported that Uighurs are being rounded up in mass internment camps and face human rights abuses such as forced labor, brainwashing, arbitrary detentions, mistreatment, torture, and even forced abortions and sterilization.
The Chinese government has consistently denied any wrongdoing, dismissing reports from human rights organizations and claiming the internment camps were for vocational training and countering extremism. It has rejected Western criticisms of its human rights records and rebuked the United States for “interfering” in its internal affairs.
The Trump administration levied sanctions against Chinese officials involved in running the detention camps and designated companies that allegedly used forced labor from the camps. But top Trump officials have so far shied away from labeling the crackdown in Xinjiang as a genocide. In August, Politico reported that the Trump administration was considering the move, but until this point hasn’t kickstarted the formal determination process.