With one foot outside the door, the Trump administration made a formal statement Tuesday that China is committing genocide in Xinjiang, its westernmost region. Activists have been asking for such a designation for years. The details that have emerged from Xinjiang since 2017 are grim, and it has long been clear to Uyghurs, other victim communities and many international lawyers that China's abuse can constitute genocide. The incarceration of over 1 million people in so-called re-education camps without legal process; the massive high-tech surveillance operation aimed at detecting every expression of Uighur identity; the repression of cultural and religious practices; the forced sterilization of Uighur women – all of these indicate the "intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group" necessary to establish the crime of genocide.
Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo's imminent statement that he "has established that the People's Republic of China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang" should have been welcome news. And for some it will no doubt 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 with growing horror, Pompeo's statement only causes frustration. To make a statement that genocide is taking place in a foreign country is a political act, not a legal determination, and its implications therefore depend entirely on the reputation and credibility of the speaker. And right now, for all its boasting about having restored the "boast" at the State Department, Pompeo has very little of either. Nor is the United States itself.
Pompeo announced determination at perhaps the worst possible moment: The United States is at rock bottom in its standing in the international community, and the lame Duck Trump administration is counting its last 24 hours in office after a failed and violent attempt to undermine that Will of the electorate and hold on to power. The Trump administration had been kept abreast of what was happening in Xinjiang for at least three years, and the decision to do so while clearing their desks was bizarre. The delay could reflect President Donald Trump's Islamophobia, contempt for human rights, and search for big business with China. After all, it was the president who, according to his former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, told China's Xi Jinping that the camps were "just right".
The testimony, which further undermines its weight, was made through an opaque process that offers little to add to the credibility of the provision. Previous US governments have found genocide in five cases: Bosnia, Rwanda, the Anfal campaign in Iraq, Darfur and the Islamic State attack on the Yazidis. There is no set process by which the State Department makes these determinations, and they have no apparent legal effect – although they can catalyze public and congressional support for actions ranging from targeted sanctions to humanitarian interventions. However, a report by the United States' Holocaust Memorial Museum on the history of genocide regulations in the United States found that successive administrations over the past two decades have adopted a "structured and deliberate process aimed at mobilizing other governments to to help prevent atrocities ”. This has led State Department investigators to conduct their own systematic documentation efforts to determine if genocide occurred.
And that is exactly what the Trump administration did in its as yet unsolved process to determine the genocide in Rohingya. Working 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 account of the patterns of abuse and atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine State. "This documentation exercise mirrored the 2004 Darfur trial and provided rigorous evidence that could be gathered to support a genocidal label, as well as a diplomatic drive to persuade other governments to do the same.
On August 25, 2018, human rights activists waited with bated breath to hear the results of the U.S. genocide determination process, which is expected to be released on the year-long anniversary of the start of the attack on the Rohingya. It never came. Instead, at 10:53 p.m., Pompeo tweeted an anodyne statement commemorating the attacks, calling on the Myanmar military to respect human rights. A month later, the State Department published the results of its investigation online without an accompanying public statement or press release. It was never determined whether the atrocities documented in the report were genocide or crimes against humanity.
The unfinished saga of the Rohingya Genocide Trial underscores the divergence Tuesday's announcement is. Pompeo could have left a full dossier for the future Biden government, which has already used the word “genocide” to describe the atrocities in Xinjiang and has urged them to make a formal statement. A decision by the Biden administration in a month or two would have brought far more moral force without being contaminated by Trumpism or Pompeo's own obsession with China. Instead, Beijing will have the power to paint the measure as part of Trump's tainted legacy.
Pompeo has turned a human rights victory into a final place for recognition as the worst secretary of state of all time. The Uighurs deserve better.