Pompeo’s Mistimed Uighur Genocide Declaration Hands China Ammo

A botched process will end up helping Beijing’s propaganda.

Chinese police assault Uighur women protesting
Chinese police assault Uighur women protesting at a street in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China, on July 7, 2009. Guang Niu/Getty Images

With one foot out the door on Tuesday, the Trump administration issued a formal declaration that China is committing genocide in Xinjiang, its westernmost region. Activists have been begging for such a designation for years. The details emerging from Xinjiang since 2017 have been grim, and it has long been clear to both Uighur and other victimized communities and to many international lawyers that China’s abuses may constitute genocide. The incarceration of over 1 million people in so-called reeducation camps without process of law; the massive, high-tech surveillance operation aimed at detecting any expression of Uighur identity; the suppression of cultural and religious practices; the forced sterilization of Uighur women—all of these suggest the presence of the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” required to establish the crime of genocide.

So imminently outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement that he has “determined that the People’s Republic of China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang” should have been welcome news. And for some, no doubt, it will be. For victims of mass atrocities, the relief of recognition can be profound. This is especially true when that recognition comes from an actor as powerful as the United States. But for many who have watched the situation in Xinjiang unfold with growing horror, Pompeo’s declaration triggers only frustration. A statement that a genocide is occurring in a foreign country is a political act, not a legal finding, and its impact therefore depends entirely on the reputation and credibility of the speaker. And right now, Pompeo, for all his boasts of having restored “swagger” to the State Department, has very little of either. Nor does the United States itself.

Pompeo announced the determination at perhaps the worst moment imaginable: The United States is at the absolute nadir of its standing in the international community, with the lame duck Trump administration counting down its final 24 hours in office after an abortive and violent attempt to subvert the will of the electorate and cling to power. The Trump administration has been briefed on the events in Xinjiang for at least three years, making the decision to do this while clearing out their desks a bizarre one. The delay may reflect President Donald Trump’s own Islamophobia, disdain for human rights, and search for a grand bargain with China. After all, this was the president who, per his former National Security Advisor John Bolton, told China’s Xi Jinping the camps were “exactly the right thing to do.”

Further undermining its weight, the statement was made following an opaque process that offers little to bolster the credibility of the determination. Prior U.S. administrations have made determinations of genocide in five cases: Bosnia, Rwanda, the Anfal campaign in Iraq, Darfur, and the Islamic State’s attack on the Yazidi. There is no set procedure that the State Department follows in making these determinations, nor do they have any overt legal effect—although they can catalyze public and congressional support for measures ranging from targeted sanctions to humanitarian intervention. However, a report by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the history of U.S. genocide determinations noted that for the last two decades, successive administrations have chosen to pursue “a structured and deliberate process, aimed at mobilizing other governments to help prevent atrocities.” This has meant State Department investigators conducting their own systematic documentation efforts in order to determine whether genocide has occurred.

And, in fact, this is precisely what the Trump administration did in its still-unresolved Rohingya genocide determination process. Working in partnership with the Public International Law & Policy Group, the State Department surveyed a representative sample of 1,024 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to “provide an accurate accounting of the patterns of abuse and atrocity crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.” Mirroring the process pioneered in Darfur in 2004, this documentation exercise generated rigorous evidence that could be marshaled to support a genocide label as well as a diplomatic push to convince other governments to do likewise.

On Aug. 25, 2018, human rights advocates waited with bated breath for the results of the U.S. genocide determination process, expected to be released on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the assault on the Rohingya. It never came. Instead, at 10:53 p.m., Pompeo tweeted an anodyne statement commemorating the attacks and calling on the Myanmar military to respect human rights. A month later, the State Department posted the results of its investigation online with no accompanying public statement or press release. No determination was ever made as to whether the atrocities documented in the report amounted to genocide or crimes against humanity.

The unfinished saga of the Rohingya genocide determination process underscores what an aberration Tuesday’s announcement is. Pompeo could have left a full dossier for the incoming Biden administration, which has already used the word “genocide” to describe the atrocities in Xinjiang, and strongly encouraged them to make a formal declaration. A decision by the Biden administration in a month or two’s time would have come with significantly more moral force, uncontaminated by Trumpism or Pompeo’s own obsession with China. Instead, Beijing will be empowered to paint the measure as part of Trump’s tainted legacy.

Pompeo has turned what should have been a human rights victory into one final pitch for recognition as worst secretary of state ever. The Uighurs deserved better.

Kate Cronin-Furman is an assistant professor of human rights at University College London.