Recent weeks have featured developments in yet another high-profile international crisis in the White House. The Trump Administration has continued its negotiations with China in an effort to reach a long-awaited trade deal. Yet, during round table discussions in May, White House officials willfully ignored the elephant in the room: China’s ongoing mass human rights violations and persecution of minorities. Despite growing media coverage depicting China’s inhumane treatment of its minority Uighur Muslim population, the U.S. has steadfastly refused to take effective action to leverage its trade position to combat China’s violations of international law. This simply marks the latest in the U.S.’s retreat from international law, closely following its bullying of the ICC into closing its investigation into Afghanistan.
Recent years have sparked increased persecution of the Uighurs, a largely Turkic-speaking Muslim minority based in Xinjiang, an autonomous region within China. China has targeted the Uighurs through its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.” Under the auspices of national security and counter-terrorism, the Chinese government has arbitrarily arrested large numbers of Uighur Muslims throughout Xinjiang, placing many in detention centers and prisons, and forcing others into hundreds of political “re-education” camps. Many of the detainees are not charged with crimes and have been deprived of due process rights to challenge their detentions. Pursuant to research by the Council on Foreign Relations, Uighurs detained in the re-education camps are forced to renounce Islam, learn Mandarin, and praise communism. Reports of forced self-criticism, psychological and physical beatings, and torture have also emerged from the camps.
To easily identify and monitor Uighurs, the Chinese government has implemented a mass surveillance system throughout Xinjiang and other Chinese provinces. China’s use of facial recognition software, police checkpoints, and cell phone monitoring has effectively turned Xinjiang into a surveillance state. China uses this surveillance to identify those in violation of restrictive laws against Uighur Muslims, including the banning of long beards and the use of Muslim names for newborn children.
While the exact number of Uighurs detained is unknown, officials within the Trump Administration have estimated that the figure falls between one and three million. These conditions, disturbingly reminiscent of the concentration camps employed by Nazi Germany, have prompted widespread charges that China is actively engaging in ethnic cleansing. In fact, China’s targeted attack on the Uighurs encompasses violations of various international human rights treaties to which China is a party, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Moreover, China’s mass detention, torture, and enforced disappearances of Uighurs could constitute crimes against humanity or even genocide under international criminal law.
International human rights organizations, legal scholars, and state governments have vocally condemned China’s international crimes and human rights violations, yet minimal practical action has been taken against the Chinese government. While calls have been made for the U.N. to commence an investigation into China’s treatment of the Uighurs, at this point, none has been ordered. In fact, the practical impact of any potential investigation is uncertain. In its role as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a non-party to the Rome Statute, China enjoys a substantial level of protection against sanctions and ICC prosecution.
The U.S. has been aware of China’s ongoing human rights violations for years. Members of Congress have repeatedly requested that the Trump administration impose sanctions on high-ranking Chinese officials in response to growing evidence of Uighur mistreatment. In a July 2018 op-ed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recognized China’s mass detention of Uighurs, while applauding the “Trump administration’s [passion for] promoting and defending international religious freedom.” Yet, while the U.S. government apparently considered issuing sanctions, it has failed to effectively act to halt China’s persecution of the Uighurs.
In early April, a group of 43 bipartisan member of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, again formally requesting economic sanctions be imposed against China for its gross human rights violations against the Uighurs. Yet, despite growing publicized condemnation and concern, the current administration’s conduct indicates it will do little to bring China into compliance with international law. The ongoing trade talks with China present the perfect opportunity for the current administration to call for China to end its persecution of the Uighurs under threat of sanctions. Yet, as the New York Times reports, the U.S. has not raised the issue of China’s international crimes at any time during the trade talks, viewing it as a potential impediment to negotiations. Instead, in mid-May, following failed U.S.-China round table trade talks, President Trump issued an executive order declaring a national economic emergency and empowering the U.S. government to ban the use of technology of “foreign adversaries” deemed to pose a risk to national security. Nearly immediately thereafter, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed Huawei Technologies, the company responsible for creating many of the surveillance tools used to monitor the Uighurs, on a “trade blacklist,” thereby greatly obstructing its ability to conduct business with U.S. companies. Yet, in failing to publicly address China’s mistreatment of the Uighurs and Huawei’s complicity in the Uighur surveillance while taking such action, the Trump administration fell significantly short in defending international law and human rights.
As a world power and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. bears responsibility to bring an end to China’s ongoing international crimes. The Trump administration’s failure to effectively leverage its trade position to bring China into line with international law not only undermines the U.S. policy of promoting global freedom of race and religion, but also prioritizes its commitment to capitalism and financial profit at the expense of human rights.