Human Rights Abroad: China’s Treatment of Uyghur Muslims

Tony Hemphill
May 7 · 4 min read

Image Source: WBUR

President Biden has repeatedly been the target of attacks from former President Trump and other Republicans about his foreign policy as it relates to China. Conservatives argue that the Biden administration is “too weak” as it pertains to holding China accountable on various fronts. Most of the critiques surround economic and national security issues such as securing a competitive environment for domestic manufacturers and protecting personal data from government authorities. However, one point that both Republicans and Democrats have been nearly silent on is the situation in the Xinjiang region of Northwest China. The Uyghurs, an ethnic, mainly Muslim minority that is indigenous to the region, has been the target of numerous of human rights violations. The situation for the Uyghurs is beginning to resemble a genocide, and there appears to be little that world leaders are willing to do about it.

There are approximately twelve million Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province, and many are in danger of Chinese persecution. Over the past decade, there has been growing separatist sentiment in the province. In 2009, approximately two-hundred people died in protests against the Chinese government in Xinjiang. China has blamed this violence on the Uyghur population, and has since made what appear to be clear attempts at eradication. In supposedly cracking down on rebel activities, China has placed the region on constant surveillance; many Uyghurs have been placed in what the Chinese government defines as “reeducation camps.” China argues that they are holding individuals to combat extremism and for social integration purposes. By the reports of what is happening in these camps, the actions that are occurring are far more sinister.

Civil rights groups and humanitarian organizations have been publishing reports on the atrocities occurring in the region for a significant period of time, although politicians and media organizations have given the matter very little attention relative to its significance. Reports range from accusations of indoctrination to sterilizing female Uyghurs. Recently, news reports have documented systemic actions of sexual violence in these reeducation camps as well. To add to the atrocities, the Chinese government has never levied any charges against many of the Uyghurs being held in these camps. China calls this type of detainment an “administrative detention.” Of course, Xi Jinping, the leader of China, has vehemently denied these allegations, and reported that they are “winding down” these camps. However, recently released data has suggested that the Chinese government has built almost four-hundred camps,forty percent more than previously believed.

It is bewildering that a Republican government that seemed unceasingly determined to strike down Chinese influence would remain mostly quiet on this issue. It would seem to be a strong talking point for rationalizing why China must be held to account. It is an especially strong talking point when considering how quiet Democratic party members have been on the issue. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of genocide against the Uyghurs on the Trump administration’s last day in office; however, Pompeo’s statement appears to be more of an attempt at political sabotage against the Biden administration rather than an actual rebuke of Chinese policy in the region. After all, the Chinese government has been committing these actions for years, why wait until the last day in office, when effectively nothing could be done about the issue, to speak out on it? The Biden administration has attempted to carefully sidestep the issue, perhaps because of the considerable obligation that the United States possesses should he term the situation a genocide.

According to international customary law, or “norms,” countries have what’s known as a “responsibility to protect” or R2P. This term means that if a state is carrying out genocidal actions, leaders in the international community have an obligation to intervene to stop the atrocities. Such intervention can even include military intervention, if the violating government does not respond to economic or diplomatic sanctions. When it comes to China, a military and economic leader, no state is willing to embroil themselves in such a situation. China would most likely not respond to sanctions, as the country has been sanctioned several times in the past in response to other issues to no avail. A military incursion into China, if it were even possible, could trigger world war, with massive casualties and potentially billions of dollars of damages. Nobody wants to call what is happening in Xinjiang a genocide, so world leaders are doing everything that they can to try and sidestep the issue in the hopes that it gets swept under the rug.

International norms are no excuse to ignore widespread human rights violations. If the international system allows millions of individuals to be abused and sometimes murdered, then what point is there to have an international community in the first place? The world order is designed to prevent atrocities and human rights violations; it is useless to have a world order that creates elaborate, eloquent treaties that it has no intention of upholding. The atrocities in China are the most difficult issues that world leaders have encountered since the formation of the United Nations, but that is no reason to ignore the issue. For if it is proven that China is exempt from accountability in international law, there will be nothing to stop them from committing even worse violations in the future, if worse violations are even possible.

Originally published at

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