Recognizing the Uighur Genocide was the Right Decision | Opinion

On January 19th––the last full day of the Trump administration––the State Department announced its determination that the Chinese government is committing a genocide against the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Prospective secretary of state Antony Blinken confirmed the genocide determination. The facts on the ground made this an easy call, but we shouldn't take the consequences of the decision for granted.

Recognizing genocide has been the exception, not the rule, for the United States. When Talaat Pasha slaughtered the Armenians, the United States stayed silent rather than risk entanglement in the First World War. When Hitler's Germany was gassing, shooting and starving the Jews of Europe, President Roosevelt prioritized the military campaign rather than divert any resources to save the Jewish people. In 1975, the U.S. sat idly by as the Khmer Rouge hacked Cambodians to pieces, rather than return to Southeast Asia or challenge an enemy of Vietnam. The list goes on and on; whether it was Hussein gassing Kurds, Milosevic butchering Bosnian Muslims or Hutus murdering thousands of Tutsis every day, the U.S. was largely and woefully inactive.

In each of these cases, American administrations prioritized diplomatic or military interests over our nation's commitment to protecting human rights. They steered clear of calling the genocides what they were, because acknowledging the truth would oblige them to do something. And unfortunately, political pressure was largely absent. Whereas taking action could potentially backfire politically, the American people don't usually care enough about genocide to make a politician pay for inaction. So senior officials engaged in cynical and implausible evasions of responsibility—they acted as if corroborated refugee reports couldn't be trusted, and engaged in crude both-sides-ism to condemn both the persecutor and the persecuted. In the vacuum of American leadership, the killings went on.

With this history in mind, it makes sense to be skeptical of the motivations behind the Trump administration's recognition of the Uighur genocide. There is a growing bipartisan consensus that China is a threat to U.S. hegemony and that, Uighurs aside, American interests lay in the direction of "getting tough on China." Furthermore, statements that come off as grandstanding about the Uighurs to score domestic political points––Secretary Pompeo's comment that the Uighur issue is a particularly conservative one comes to mind––undermine bipartisan commitment and risk turning a human rights catastrophe into another battle in the culture war. Genocide prevention and, unfortunately, genocide toleration are both bipartisan endeavors.

Nevertheless, an alignment of political interests with urgent human rights violations does not make those human rights concerns any less sincere. Nor does the sincerity of government messaging have any bearing on the correctness of its policies. The horror of concentration camps, organ harvesting and forced sterilization requires a response.

Uighur protest
Uighurs of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) hold a rally to protest the 71st anniversary of the People's Republic of China in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 1, 2020. NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP/Getty

Human rights activists should be happy, not tied up in knots, about the alignment of humanitarianism and general strategic interest. We have a genuine opportunity to work alongside the Uighur people. A genocide designation compels the United States to act in accordance with its commitments under international law. The question that we should be asking is whether that action, whatever it is, will advance the humanitarian interests of the Uighur people or instead use the Uighurs as a pawn within a broader conflict with China.

There are good reasons to watch out for the latter. Using the Uighurs as a rhetorical tool might reduce them to a casus belli, and escalation could give the Chinese government cover to treat Uighurs not just as extremists but as insurgents. A preventative policy designed specifically to help the Uighurs might be more effective, but less satisfying for China hawks looking to execute an existing agenda.

Meanwhile, as dystopia unfolds on the ground in Xinjiang, Uighur diaspora communities face problems that the United States could have addressed but until now has not—the protection of Uighur refugees in countries like Turkey, for example, and the immigration limbo of asylum seekers here in the United States. There's no reason, when the United States has recognized a genocide on the ground, that Uighur refugees in America should have to wait years for their asylum applications to be approved. We should also prioritize the narratives and freedom of individuals such as Ekpar Asat, a young Uighur man locked away in prison after participating in a U.S. State Department leadership program.

Addressing these problems would center our national attention on the most important matter at hand––Uighur people themselves––and would disarm both the cynics abroad who question America's commitment to human rights and the cynics at home who give them reason to. If we are as serious about Uighur human rights as we now claim, let's prove it within our own borders and in coordination with our allies, not only when it is part of a direct confrontation with China.

We must take the important step of securing the wellbeing of Uighurs in diaspora, and ensure that we are not complicit in this genocide through the purchase of consumer items made with forced labor. There will doubtlessly be many other policies proposed that ought to be discussed responsibly and in good faith. This must occur in consultation with Uighurs themselves, guided by the specific and unwavering objective of saving Uighur life and limb, while it is still possible. No one should be afraid to harness this hawkish moment if doing so will save lives on the ground, but neither should we lose sight of the reason why.

Jonah Kaye is a student at the University of Chicago, studying philosophy and computer science and Director of Communications at The Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom (JMUF), an international and multi-denominational Jewish movement seeking to organize Jewish communities around the world to take action against the Chinese government's ongoing genocide of the Uighur and other Turkic peoples in the Xinjiang/East Turkestan region.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.