Analysis: How to enforce the Uyghur genocide recognition

Following the US administration’s recognition of the genocide against the Uyghur minority in China, the government, businesses, and the international community need to take concrete steps.

This is a translated and slightly shortened version of an article I wrote for the Dutch magazine De Kanttekening (in Dutch).

Just hours before the end of his tenure as US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo made a drastic decision by calling the oppression of the Uyghur minority in China a crime against humanity and genocide. “I believe […] genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” Pompeo said.

Since the beginning of 2017, the reports coming from the Xinjiang region in Western China about the Chinese government’s oppression of minorities, particularly of the Uyghurs, have become more frequent and more detailed.

The US government, but also United Nations experts and organisations such as Human Rights Watch estimate that more than one million Uyghur Muslims have been illegally detained in camps, where they are indoctrinated and often form part of forced labour schemes. Twelve million people are under state surveillance that curtails their fundamental freedoms, UN experts estimate.

Lack of international response
to Uyghur genocide

Until now, however, the international community and foreign governments have been largely inactive, except for a few initiatives. In 2020, more than 30 countries spoke out at the Human Rights Council. In the United Kingdom, members of the House of Commons have introduced a bill that would ensure the government takes a genocide determination into consideration when concluding trade agreements. The fact the proposal was voted down, however, speaks to the sensitivity of the issue and the struggles of Western countries to take action.

The United States is the first major country to recognise the crimes in China as genocide. However, the fact that former President Donald Trump’s administration waited until the last day suggests that it wanted to issue rhetoric but did not want to take action, says Zachary D. Kaufman, Associate Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Houston Law Center. “That the Trump administration didn’t also declare that offenses committed against Rohingya in Myanmar constitute genocide suggests a political motivation specifically aimed at the Chinese government.”

Consequences of Uyghur
genocide determination

The Genocide Convention, to which the US is a party, requires states to prevent incidents of genocide and punish the perpetrators.

What the decision means in practice, however, is still unclear. The options available to the US are limited, not least because China is a major power. “Humanitarian intervention would provoke a catastrophic war,” Kaufman said.

Moreover, with its veto power in the UN Security Council, China is able to block measures such as the imposition of UN sanctions or the referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court.

Still, Nadira Kourt of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, considers the genocide designation not only an important step for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the diaspora communities around the world, but also a warning sign for China. “I do not expect the behaviour of the Chinese government to change overnight, but as international pressure continues to rise so will the cost of the Chinese government’s behaviour towards Muslim minorities,” Kourt said.

In order to increase the pressure, businesses are seen to play an important role. “The methods [of oppression] have shifted over time, as we see mass detention evolve into mass forced labour schemes”, Peter Irwin of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) explained.

Businesses as part of
the problem and the solution

As a consequence, businesses like Volkswagen, which operates a car plant in Xinjiang, have been seen as part of the problem, but are also part of the solution. The international community should ensure that businesses are not active in the region anymore, Irwin said. “The economic impact will be significant, and that’s the language that the Chinese government speaks.”

As a concrete measure, Kourt proposes stricter measures to ensure the US is not importing any goods produced with forced labour. Import bans for the US have been imposed already for cotton and tomato products. Ideally, however, foreign companies should exit the region entirely, since it has become virtually impossible to ensure that no forced labour is involved in Xinjiang, Kourt said.

In addition to economic pressure, Kaufman suggests political measures, such as an extensions of priority refugee status to Uyghur refugees, and efforts for China to be stripped of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Inconsistent genocide

At the same time, the new administration of President Joe Biden should make genocide determinations more consistent than in the past, including by recognizing historical genocides, such as the Armenian genocide, and contemporary genocides, such as the Rohingya genocide.

“Because the United States has inconsistently applied the term ‘genocide’ when it is warranted and because the U.S.-China rivalry is so notorious, the Chinese government may feel that it can dismiss the allegation as politically motivated and continue their abuse of Uyghurs as before.”

Moreover, the recognition of the crimes as genocide could change how they are seen by the public. Last year, for example, Walt Disney came under pressure for shooting parts of the remake of its “Mulan” movie in Xinjiang, and for thanking local authorities that were reportedly involved in the oppression of the Uyghurs. Pressure on other industries is growing, too. Because of the weight of the allegations, an official genocide designation could strengthen international boycott movements.

Kourt said, “regardless of China’s response, it is crucial that governments and businesses around the world do not stay silent and inactive in the face of an ongoing genocide.”