U.S. and Multilateral Policy Options to Address Abuses Against Uyghurs in Xinjiang

(Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles discussing human rights violations against China’s Uyghur population. The first article, by Lisa Reinsberg, discusses the forced sterilization allegations against China, the history of the practice, and its prohibited status in international law.)

Amid heightened attention to reports of forced labor being used to produce personal protective equipment, the seizure of a 13-ton shipment of hair products reportedly coming from Xinjiang’s “reeducation camps,” and resurfaced drone footage of blindfolded and shackled men being led into a train, increasing evidence suggests that the Chinese government is also engaged in a widespread and systematic policy of forced sterilization and targeted population control of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Xinjiang). These allegations add to long-standing international concerns that between 800,000 and two million Uyghur, Kazakh, and other ethnic minorities are subject to extreme persecution in Xinjiang, including arbitrary detention, forced labor, and torture in “re-education centers” akin to concentration camps. China’s imposition of measures to prevent births may amount to genocide under the terms of the Genocide Convention, to which China is a party. Moreover, as discussed by Lisa Reinsberg in her companion Just Security article, even absent a genocide finding, enforced sterilization is a human rights violation infringing on individuals’ rights to bodily integrity, family, personal liberty and security, and humane treatment.

The Trump administration has taken belated measures to hold the Chinese government accountable for its actions in Xinjiang. In many ways, these actions have been too little too late and are clearly colored by President Trump’s self-interest. As Chinese President Xi Jinping expanded the “people’s war on terror” in Xinjiang in 2016-17 to include mass detentions, Trump reportedly told him that constructing Uyghur internment camps was the “right thing to do.” In 2018, as further disturbing evidence of forced labor and psychological abuse emerged, Donald and Ivanka Trump received a combined 18 trademarks from the Chinese government — over half of the total issued that entire year.

In light of the Trump administration’s slow response amid the ongoing human rights crisis, what else can the United States do to counteract China’s abusive Xinjiang policies? Although there is no automatic government process for addressing extraterritorial human rights violations, atrocities, or acts of genocide, the U.S. government could consider a range of diplomatic, foreign assistance, economic, humanitarian, and judicial responses to allegations of ongoing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Broadly, potential responses can be separated into unilateral and multilateral actions.

Unilateral Actions

Unilaterally, the United States can look to further and more effectively expand its targeted sanctions regime against perpetrators. While the administration has begun this process, it can still be improved. On July 9, the administration imposed economic and visa-based sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on four Chinese officials and one government entity responsible for persecution in Xinjiang. Among those sanctioned were senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials Chen Quanguo (Politburo member and Party Secretary of XUAR), and Zhu Hailun (Deputy Party Secretary of XUAR). Both Chen and Zhu were directly identified in the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 as “bear[ing] direct responsibility for gross human rights violations committed against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups.”

One option would be to widen the scope, either via new legislation or an executive order, of these sanctions by introducing “secondary sanctions” provisions contained in the recently signed into law Hong Kong Autonomy Act to cover Xinjiang abuses as well. Secondary sanctions prohibit U.S. firms and banks not only from dealing directly with the sanctioned entity, but also from transacting with designated third parties that are found by the U.S. government to have engaged in “significant financial transactions” with the primarily sanctioned entity. For example, a French, Saudi Arabian, or Japanese bank that seeks to do business with a sanctioned Hong Kong entity could itself be sanctioned — essentially forcing a choice between doing business either with the sanctioned entity or with the entire U.S. financial system. Thus, this expansion would effectively prevent all non-Chinese firms and banks that have an interest in doing business with the United States from engaging in significant financial transactions with implicated Chinese persons, thereby cutting the abusers and those who profit from abuse out of the global economy.

Beyond direct sanctions, the United States could seek to curtail supply chains involving Xinjiang that are potentially implicated in forced labor. The administration has issued guidance to firms with supply chain exposure in XUAR recommending they conduct heightened due diligence to mitigate the reputational, economic, and legal risks associated with being connected to forced labor practices in Xinjiang and elsewhere. However, this guidance is nonbinding, does not have the force of law or executive order, and announces no new government policy.

To more thoroughly restrict supply chains that may operate on forced labor, Congress and the president should push to pass into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would establish a rebuttable presumption that all labor occurring in Xinjiang, or labor anywhere in China related to the “re-education through labor” program targeting Chinese Turkic Muslims, constitutes forced labor. Goods deriving from this forced labor would be banned for export to the United States. Moreover, the State Department would have 90 days to determine whether such forced labor is “systematic and widespread and therefore constitutes an atrocity.” Finally, the bill would impose economic and visa sanctions on foreign persons who knowingly engage in, are responsible for, or facilitate, either the forced labor itself or the exportation of goods made by forced labor in Xinjiang.

Finally, the United States should formally investigate abuses in Xinjiang, as it did in Sudan and Myanmar, among other places. To accomplish this, the government can commission studies to determine whether actions in Xinjiang appear to legally constitute genocide or other atrocity crimes. At the same time, the United States should work with civil society organizations to document international crimes in Xinjiang while also providing aid and assistance to China’s Uyghur community and other persecuted Turkic Muslim populations.

Multilateral Actions

The United Nations record on responding to the human rights crisis in Xinjiang has been limited. As Reinsberg’s article describes, responses have largely taken place within U.N. treaty bodies like the Committee against Torture.

This limited response is in part due to a lack of U.S. engagement and the Chinese government’s growing influence in international affairs and multilateral institutions — a trend not lost on the Trump administration, which recently appointed a special envoy to curb Chinese influence in this regard. Despite calls to explicitly denounce China’s abuses in Xinjiang from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the World Uyghur Conference, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has yet to do so. Guterres insists that he raised the issue of Xinjiang in April during a visit to Beijing, but publicly his office has issued only vague and ambivalent statements on China. On Xinjiang, Guterres’ press officer said that the  Secretary-General told the Chinese, “that it is very important to act in a way that each community feels that their identity is respected and that they belong, at the same time, to the society as a whole.” This is far from a meaningful condemnation.

Recently, there have been some efforts by U.N. member states and independent experts to generate attention on Xinjiang. On June 26, nearly 50 U.N. independent human rights experts issued a statement expressing “grave concerns” over the treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet and calling for all member states to renew their emphasis on engaging China over its human rights record. On June 30, 27 countries — including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, and Japan — issued a cross-regional joint statement urging China to grant the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights access to Xinjiang and raising “deep and growing concerns” related to Hong Kong.

The United States should support these efforts and add its weight to calls for transparency made by independent experts and like-minded U.N. member states. Even if China could block many available options — for example, a U.N. Security Council resolution referring the situation in Xinjiang to the International Criminal Court — international pressure and increased transparency can help strengthen the basis for collective action and are likely to make any U.S. policy aimed at improving the plight of China’s Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups more successful.

Image: Protesters from the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) hold a demonstration in front of the World Bank’s Headquarters in Washington DC, on December 20, 2019, to protest the World Banks $50 Million Funding of Chinese Vocational Training Centers where Uyghurs are being held involuntarily. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Connor O'Steen

Connor O'Steen is a former Foreign Service Officer and Policy Analyst. He currently consults on the evolving U.S.-China relationship and the increasing use of sanctions, trade, and investment restrictions as foreign policy tools.