Xinjiang Abuses at Forefront of Global Human Rights Decline in 2020: State Department

‘Genocide’ in the region takes center stage in Secretary Blinken’s introduction of an annual rights report.
By Joshua Lipes
2021-03-30
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Xinjiang Abuses at Forefront of Global Human Rights Decline in 2020: State Department A facility believed to be an internment camp located north of Kashgar, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, June 2, 2019. AFP
Photo: RFA

Abuses in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), recently labeled crimes against humanity and part of a policy of genocide, are indicative of a larger trend of declining human rights around the world, the U.S. Department of State said Tuesday.

Speaking at a press briefing for the release of the agency’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken immediately pointed to the situation in the XUAR as one of the worst examples of global rights abuses in the past year. Authorities in the region are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since 2017.

“The report we’re releasing today shows that the trendlines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction,” he said.

“We see evidence that in every region of the world, this is happening. We see it in the genocide being committed against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.”

The outgoing administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump officially designated the abuses in the XUAR part of a campaign of state-sponsored genocide and crimes against humanity in January and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has embraced the label, working in tandem with global allies on measures to hold the Chinese government to account.

Secretary Blinken also used his introduction of the new State Department report to highlight what he said was the use by authoritarian governments of the coronavirus pandemic to institute emergency laws that further curtail already restricted human rights, including that of China, where the outbreak originated.

While RFA’s Uyghur Service has been unable to confirm whether any outbreaks within the country spread to the XUAR’s extralegal internment centers, experts have warned over the past year that the camps are ripe for mass infection, based on reports of cramped and poor conditions, as well as lack of adequate medical care. Outbreaks in the region repeatedly led to city-wide lockdowns in the region last year, according to RFA investigations.

Blinken defended multilateral sanctions led by the U.S. against Chinese officials and entities deemed responsible for the ongoing abuses in the XUAR and dismissed retaliatory measures by Beijing, saying that Washington must speak out against oppression globally.

On March 22, the European Union, U.S., Canada, and the U.K. issued travel bans and asset freezes for Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau; senior Chinese officials Wang Mingshan and Wang Junzheng; and the former head of the XUAR, Zhu Hailun. Additionally, the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps’ Public Security Bureau was also targeted.

Last year, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in the XUAR, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment in June of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA).

He acknowledged that the U.S. has its own human rights problems, including with systemic racism against ethnic minorities, but said that—unlike China, which claims that internment camps in the XUAR are “voluntary vocational centers” and that Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities enjoy full autonomy—“we don’t pretend these problems don’t exist or try to sweep them under the rug.”

“We don’t ignore them. We deal with them in the daylight with full transparency,” he said.

‘Broad range of tools’ available

Blinken applauded his agency’s human rights report but added that it is “not enough” to deal with countries that are restricting human rights.

“We will use a broad range of other tools to stop abuses and hold perpetrators to account,” he warned, including through Congressional legislation such as the Global Magnitsky Act, the Hong Kong Human Right and Democracy Act and other laws.

“Another way is by imposing consequences through economic sanctions and visa restrictions as the United States did recently in unity with Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom on individuals engaged in atrocities being committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”

He also dangled incentives for countries to join in the pursuit of positive human rights initiatives, including trade benefits and development aid.

The recently passed Kashoggi Act, he said, will be applied to individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in counter-dissident activities outside of its borders—a practice that Washington has routinely accused Beijing of doing against the U.S.-based Uyghur community.

Blinken promoted the new administration’s focus on a multilateral approach to confronting rights abusing nations, noting that under Trump the U.S. had pulled back from such alliances and created vacuums in which authoritarian governments had been able to grow their influence.

He also noted that while the previous administration had removed a section in the State Department’s annual rights report about sexual and reproductive rights, the Biden administration will be reinstating it later this year 

While Blinken did not specifically mention issues in the XUAR as the impetus for the reinstatement, a June 2020 report by German researcher Adrian Zenz linked decreases in the birthrate and natural population growth rate in the XUAR in 2018 to forced sterilization and concluded that such measures amount to genocide under United Nations definitions.

Blinken dismissed criticism from Beijing over the most recent spate of Western sanctions related to the XUAR as being part of a coordinated effort to suppress China’s growing role on the global stage and an interference in the country’s internal affairs.

“We’re not trying to contain, for example, China or keep it down. What we are about is standing up for basic principles, basic rights, and a rules-based international order that has served us and countries around the world very, very well,” he said.

“When any country in whatever way seeks to undermine those rights or undermine that order, yes, we will stand and speak out forcefully about it … And I think what you’ve witnessed in recent weeks, particularly with regard to the international response to the abuses being committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, for example, the quashing of democracy in Hong Kong … that are fundamentally attacks on the international rules-based order, you’re seeing country after country speak out in unison.”

Blinken noted that China had responded to sanctions from the West with retaliatory and asymmetrical measures that targeted government officials, but also scholars and think tanks, and suggested such actions would ultimately hurt Beijing’s bid to counter reports of persecution in the XUAR.

“I suspect that is only going to redouble the concerns and the focus that other countries give to the actions that the government in Beijing has taken in abuse of human rights,” he said.

Hong Kong rights issues

In the State Department’s annual rundown of the rights situation in 2020, it said that the genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred last year included “the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians; forced sterilization, coerced abortions, and more restrictive application of China’s birth control policies; rape; torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained; forced labor; and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.”

It noted reports of custodial deaths related to detentions in the internment camps, enforced disappearances, pressure on overseas relatives of XUAR-based Uyghurs who spoke out about abuses in the region, and monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet connectivity, and state-sponsored incentives for majority Han Chinese to move into—and essentially dilute—the Uyghur community.

The report also touched on increased restrictions to Hong Kong’s autonomy during 2020, including restrictions on democratic rights enshrined by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law of the special administrative region which specified that, except in matters of defense and foreign affairs, the territory would enjoy a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework.

It listed as significant human rights issues the establishment of national security organs with sweeping powers and little oversight, allegations of police brutality against protesters, arbitrary arrests, and politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside of Hong Kong.

Additionally, it listed abuses including serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; use of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions to impose restrictions on departing Hong Kong; the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; and restrictions on political participation.

Earlier this year, Hong Kong police charged 47 pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians with subversion under a draconian national security law after they organized and took part in a democratic primary to select the best candidates with a view to winning at least 30 seats out of 60 in LegCo and blocking government legislation.

Police also have used the Public Order Ordinance to target hundreds of participants in a 2019 protest movement, bringing charges of "illegal assembly" or "incitement to participate in an illegal assembly" against dozens of pro-democracy activists.

By the end of January 2021, 2,457 people had been charged with "rioting," "unlawful assembly," and other protest-related offenses, the English-language South China Morning Post reported.

So far, 565 have been convicted, 49 have had their charges withdrawn and 156 have been acquitted, the paper said.

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