The Debate | Opinion

China’s Human Rights Abuses Invite US Leadership

The oppression in Xinjiang is a test as to whether nations actually adhere to the principle of Responsibility to Protect.

By Pierfilippo M. Natta for
China’s Human Rights Abuses Invite US Leadership
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

In recent weeks, attention pivoted toward the so-called “voluntary education and training” camps located in China’s Xinjiang region. World governments have raised restrained concerns over the treatment of China’s minority Uyghur population since 2019. While sanctioning government officials and measures that limit trade are effective means to economically impact China, far more substantial action is needed to alter Beijing’s calculus and end its most egregious human rights violations.

The United States has led efforts to condemn the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs by enacting legislation and policy specifically tailored to Xinjiang. In January 2020, the U.S Department of Homeland Security issued a formal strategy to halt the importation of goods suspected to be produced with forced labor and the United States is the only country that imposes civil and criminal penalties linked to the importation of such goods. In June 2020, President Donald Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 into law, which imposes sanctions on foreign individuals and entities who engage in human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. Even U.S. mega-corporations such as Coca-Cola and Nike were called out in a report issued by the Congressional-Executive Committee Commission of China, where they were “suspected of directly employing forced labor or sourcing from suppliers that are suspected of using forced labor.”

In July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated, “the United States will not stand idly by as the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang.” Pompeo proceeded to place visa restrictions on three CCP officials, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption,” which was enacted in December 2017.

These U.S. actions may appear strong on their surface, but they fail to alter Beijing’s political calculation. Following Pompeo’s issuance of visa restrictions, new videos emerged identifying Uyghur citizens forced to produce face masks and medical supplies in what appears to be forced labor conditions as defined by international law. This demonstrates that China places a greater importance on the perceived political threat of its minority populations in far-flung regions than the economic consequences of systematic human rights abuses.

The days where President Bill Clinton ordered a NATO intervention in a sovereign state to stop mass atrocities are long gone. The outcomes of subsequent and comparatively unilateral U.S. interventions have proved dismal. President Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya in 2011 left the country deeply unstable, and while the United States’ intervention in Syria weakened the Islamic State, a long-term solution to the conflict escapes all parties. However in this case, the goal of U.S. action would be alter Beijing’s calculation through holding a mirror to its actions on the international stage. The international community has time to prepare coordination efforts before engaging with the Chinese government. Will shaming the government in the international arena lead to change? Or will a permanent coalition set up by the international community need to be established to ensure that the Chinese government addresses all violations over an extended period of time?

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The current response of the United States appears to be a mere extension of its trade war with China. However, real U.S. leadership on the Xinjiang issue requires the formation of a coalition of countries. In the early 1990s the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) emerged in international law following the atrocities in Rwanda and the Balkans. This eventually led to the 2005 World Summit outcome adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Heads of state affirmed that there was a “Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.” They further agreed to be “prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, […] should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from […] ethnic cleansing.”

In Xinjiang, the Chinese government has systematically destroyed neighborhoods and sites that are important to the native Uyghur population. Since 2014, the Chinese government has used terrorism to justify their erasure of Uyghur culture and named this effort the “Strike Hard against Violent Terrorism Campaign.” This campaign transformed the Xinjiang region into a forced labor production supply chain. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted that “more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, and some of them were sent directly from detention camps.”

The United States should provide evidence of Chinese ethnic cleansing to other nations and request that they join forces to invoke the principle of R2P. This would require the Trump administration to set aside its ambivalence toward international law and multilateralism, decouple the Uyghur issue from its broader trade war, and  focus on using political means to motivate Beijing to alter its behavior.

A pragmatic suggestion was proposed on July 28 by France’s foreign minister, Jean Yves Le Drain. He called for a U.N.-led observer mission headed by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to assess the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang. This is the first case in which a Western democracy proposed any form of intervention within Chinese borders.

The U.N. has launched a number of country visits as part of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Right’s mandate. A special rapporteur generally leads the mission and brings a team of experts with them. A strict agenda is maintained and shared with the receiving government, who in turn should facilitate the mission by granting access to the areas, which are often difficult to reach. The report produced by the Special Rapporteur is then presented to the Human Rights Council. In this case however, it would be best to present the report to the General Assembly as it would call for publicly shaming a nation that is committing serious human rights violations and is part of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Le Drain’s proposal should be backed by powerful nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom if it is to succeed. This will provide cover for nations with more vulnerable relations with China to join the effort, such as Australia. In recent years the United States reduced its influence in the Asia-Pacific and allowed China to gain substantial soft power within the international arena. Now is the time for the United States to reassert itself and lead the international community to take peaceful but actionable steps to hold China accountable.

What next? The U.N. mission would undoubtedly find convincing evidence that there are signs of widespread, systematic human rights violations linked to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity as reported by Adrien Zenz. Such a scenario would warrant the Western world issuing an ultimatum to China. Although a situation as the one highlighted would be difficult to achieve given that China holds veto power within the Security Council, this may be the first time in history where we see the international community adopt new measures against a permanent member. This is the international community’s chance to set reverse the precedent of inaction that it set during Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Pierfilippo M. Natta holds an LLM from Duke University, School of Law. He recently published paper in Kluwer Wolter’s Global Trade and Customs Law Journal titledEradicating Forced Labor from Global Supply Chains.” Follow him on Twitter @piernatta.