The Trump administration is increasingly calling out China for its detention of Muslim ethnic minorities in the country’s western region, even comparing those prisons to detention camps in 1930s Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
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China is “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday as he introduced the department’s annual human rights report.
The report, the first authored under Pompeo’s tenure, details the human rights record of every country around the world, bringing together information from the United Nations, nonprofit advocacy groups, the media, and embassies and consulates.
While this year’s report again calls out partners like Saudi Arabia, the administration has also received some criticism for appearing to pull some punches or diverging from President Donald Trump’s praise for dictators and the grim reality on the ground in their countries.
In particular, Pompeo laid out in his preface the Trump administration’s approach to human rights and foreign relations — one that’s been criticized for being more transactional or praised for being more pragmatic: “The policy of this Administration is to engage with other governments, regardless of their record, if doing so will further U.S. interests,” he wrote, but added those interests “will only be served if governments respect human rights and fundamental freedom.”
“You haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s — of rounding up, I mean, some estimations are in the millions of people, and putting them into camps, and trying to — torturing them, abusing them, and trying to basically erase their culture and their religion,” said Amb. Michael Kozak, the senior bureau official for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “It’s just remarkably awful.”
The detention camps target Uighurs, a majority-Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group in western China, as well as ethnic Kazaks and other Muslim groups. In what the U.S., U.N., and others have described as a worsening crackdown, the Chinese government is increasingly using a new surveillance state, with tools like facial recognition technology, to detain people “at record levels” and “erase their religious and ethnic identities,” according to Pompeo.
The Trump administration has yet to sanction any Chinese officials or entities over the camps, although Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said Tuesday it was under active consideration.
The report’s chapter on Saudi Arabia highlights the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by “government agents” and criticizes the kingdom for changing “its story as facts came to light,” not providing an “explanation of the direction and progress of the investigation,” and creating an “environment of impunity.”
But it makes no mention of any potential role by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA has reportedly assessed was involved in the murder plot — a charge the Saudis deny and Trump has cast doubt on.
Kozak said the report didn’t try “to draw our own conclusions over who was and who wasn’t responsible. … Trying to speculate about who might or might not have been involved is not productive.” But he added that the Saudis do not have “a complete, by any means, investigation at this point, so we’re sort of in the middle of that movie.”
Like in year’s past, the report also highlighted accusations against the kingdom of torture, executions, forced renditions and disappearances, arbitrary arrest, and restrictions on freedoms of movement, religion, and more.
Trump continues to praise his “friend” Kim Jong Un and recently came under criticism for washing Kim’s hands of American college student Otto Warmbier’s death after his detention in North Korea. But the human rights report again calls out Kim oppressive regime for its insidious control of daily life in North Korea, through killings, forced disappearances, prison camps with 80,000-120,000 souls inside, torture, rape, forced abortions and infanticide, censorship, and severe restrictions of citizens’ movements and other freedoms.
The report omits the word “egregious” when describing North Korea’s human rights abuses, but Kozak said that was because of streamlining and use of a new template that made country comparisons easier.
Despite Trump’s talks with Kim, Kozak said the U.S. hasn’t “noticed any progress on human rights … It’s still one of the worst human rights situations in the world. It has not improved, and that’s going to be part of our effort for some time to come.”
Pompeo, who has been the administration point person on North Korea negotiations and says the U.S. raises it with North Korea, made no mention of the regime in his remarks.
While this year’s report reiterates the details of a fact-finding investigation into Myanmar’s military’s attacks against the Rohingya in 2017, it again labels the violence “ethnic cleansing” instead of “genocide,” as the U.N., the Holocaust Museum, Congress, and others have called it.
But it seems now the administration has ruled out following suit: “The usual reason you say something like that is you’re trying to call attention to it. Our feeling is we’ve called plenty of attention,” Kozak told ABC News, calling a designation a “messaging management tool.”
A “genocide” designation does not have legal implications, but critics say it bolsters the pressure on Myanmar to stop this behavior, hold people accountable for it, and create the conditions for Rohingya refugees to return to their homes.
“The fact that he called legally defined crimes under international law a mere ‘messaging management tools’ is extremely troubling,” said Francisco Bencosme, Asia-Pacific advocacy manager for Amnesty International, adding it undermines the department’s fact-finding report: “All of those stories they heard, the people who had to relive their trauma — that was not for a messaging tool, it was for the U.S. to take a stand on what actually happened in Rakhine state.”
Kozak defended the steps the administration has taken, including sanctions and visa revocations, and said they’re focused now on reigning in the military and supporting the civilian government in its efforts to take greater control.