US senators seek to declare China 'genocide' against Uighurs

Rights groups say that more than one million Uighurs languish in camps in the Xinjiang region. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US senators sought on Tuesday (Oct 27) to declare that China is committing genocide against Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims, a step that could ramp up pressure on behalf of the estimated one million-plus people in camps.

The resolution was introduced by senators across the political spectrum, although it is unlikely to move immediately as the Senate is out of session until after next week's election.

The text states that China's campaign "against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region constitutes genocide."

"This resolution recognises these crimes for what they are and is the first step toward holding China accountable for their monstrous actions," said Senator John Cornyn, a Republican who sponsored it.

Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, said the resolution would show that the United States "can't stay silent".

"China's assault on Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups - escalating surveillance, imprisonment, torture and forced 're-education camps' - is genocide, pure and simple," Mr Merkley said.

Other co-sponsors include Mr Marco Rubio, a close ally of President Donald Trump on foreign policy, and Mr Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Rights groups say that more than one million Uighurs languish in camps in the Xinjiang region as Beijing attempts to forcibly integrate the community and root out its Islamic heritage.

China has denied the numbers and describes the camps as vocational centres that teach skills to prevent the allure of Islamic radicalism following a series of attacks.

Mr Trump's administration has decried the situation in Xinjiang and slapped sanctions on the Communist Party's top official there, Mr Chen Quanguo, but stopped just short of declaring genocide.

Mr Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security advisor, said earlier this month that "if not genocide, something close" to it is taking place in Xinjiang.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview on Tuesday with news site The Print on a visit to India, said that China's actions "remind us of what happened in the 1930s in Germany".

The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who is leading Mr Trump in pre-election polls, has called China's actions genocide and vowed a tougher response.

Cautious use of word

Successive US administrations have been reluctant to use the term genocide, cautious about legal implications at home and abroad.

Mr George W. Bush's administration described Sudan's scorched-earth campaign in Darfur as genocide, while Mr Barack Obama's administration said likewise about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group's mass killings, rape and enslavement of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities.

Then secretary of state John Kerry made the determination shortly after the House of Representatives unanimously described the ISIS campaign to be genocide.

Ms Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation who studies human rights in Asia, said that a genocide resolution on Xinjiang could put pressure on the administration to follow suit and pave the way for additional sanctions.

"Obviously it would be great to have the executive branch say that this is genocide and/or crimes against humanity," Ms Enos said.

"But I think, in lieu of that, this would be a very strong, bipartisan message that the US government cares about the state of the Uighur people, even and especially when the Chinese Communist Party does not," she said.

The UN convention on genocide, drafted in the aftermath of the Holocaust, obligates states to prevent and punish the "odious scourge".

It defines genocide to include actions such as killing as well as preventing births "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group".

A data-driven study by German researcher Adrian Zenz found that China has forcibly sterilised large numbers of Uighur women and pressured them to abort pregnancies that exceed birth quotas.

The Trump administration earlier described Myanmar's brutal campaign against the mostly Muslim Rohingya people as "ethnic cleansing".

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