The U.N. finally calls out China’s atrocities. So where’s U.S. action?

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 The U.N. finally calls out China’s atrocities. So where’s U.S. action?

A security guard watches from a tower at the detention facility in China’s Xinjiang region on March 21, 2021. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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On her very last day in the job, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released her long-delayed report on the Chinese government’s mass atrocities against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the western region of Xinjiang. The damning findings are shocking — but they should come as no surprise, considering the world has known about these abuses for years. So why isn’t the U.S. government doing more to stop them?


The U.N. report stops short of designating China’s abuses in Xinjiang as an ongoing genocide — contrary to the Biden administration, which has described the situation in exactly those terms. But the authors paint a gruesome picture of abject suffering for millions of innocent people in Xinjiang at the hands of the Chinese authorities. U.N. investigators determined that Beijing’s policies — including the unjust detention of more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in prisonlike camps — “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

The U.N. report also validated as “credible” claims by camp survivors that inside the camps, which Beijing calls “vocational education and training centers,” innocent civilians are subjected to torture, sexual violence, forced abortion and forced sterilization. Beijing’s policy of coercive population control, targeted at specific groups, fits the legal definition of genocide under U.N. conventions even if Bachelet’s report doesn’t admit it.


Sixty-three Uyghur advocacy groups released a joint statement praising the report, setting aside their past criticisms of Bachelet’s delays and her trip to China, which was carefully managed by the Chinese government. The Uyghurs’ main message is that the world can no longer sit idle and allow these atrocities to continue.

“Now that the leading U.N. office on human rights has spoken, there are no more excuses for the failure to hold the Chinese government accountable,” said Elfidar Iltebir, president of the Uyghur American Association.

But expectations for further U.N. action are low. After all, it took five years for this office to confirm what researchers, journalists and independent tribunals have already proved: The Chinese government is combining mass internment, population control and forced labor in the cruelest way — despite Beijing’s blanket denials and its worldwide propaganda campaign.


The best hope for real action lies in Washington. But lawmakers in both parties believe that the U.S. government has been dragging its feet. This past December, the administration reluctantly supported a bipartisan bill called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that designates all Xinjiang products as tainted by forced labor, thus banning them from entering the United States unless importers can prove otherwise. But implementation of the law has been spotty.

For example, agricultural products such as red dates from Xinjiang (which are produced by a state-run paramilitary conglomerate banned under the law) can still be found today in supermarkets across the Washington metropolitan area. Moreover, although the Biden administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese companies and officials for atrocities in Xinjiang in the past, it hasn’t used the new law’s sanctions powers even once.

Frustrated by this lack of enthusiasm, lawmakers are pressuring President Biden to do more. Last month, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would expand U.S. sanctions to punish any company that does business with a Chinese company implicated in forced labor.


Congress is also upset that the Biden administration hasn’t implemented a 2020 law called the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which calls on the president to identify and impose sanctions on Chinese officials who persecute Uyghurs and their family members in countries around the world.

“The administration must move forward with sanctions designations under the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, as well as with the new authorities that this bill provides, and work with our allies and partners to hold China to account for its crimes,” Menendez said in a statement.

The Menendez-Rubio bill is the Senate’s version of legislation introduced in the House in June by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who chairs the Republican Study Committee, a grouping of more than 150 conservative House members. While the administration has imposed sanctions on some officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, there are several other culpable Chinese companies and officials that the U.S. government is letting off the hook, according to Banks.


“Despite the Biden administration’s refusal to take the issue of Uyghur slave labor seriously, there are still bipartisan efforts in the Congress to strengthen our laws and close loopholes,” he told me.

The Uyghur genocide is so horrendous that it has seemingly become the one issue that can bring together Democrats and Republicans in today’s Washington. Americans in both parties overwhelmingly want the Biden administration to do more to confront China’s human rights abuses, even if that harms economic relations.

The Biden administration appears to be torn between its desire to do the right thing on human rights and its efforts to manage rising tensions with China. But Beijing is counting on Washington’s complacency to let it evade responsibility and continue perpetrating these injustices. There’s never a convenient time to try to stop a genocide.

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