The Trump administration characterized the repression of Muslim Uyghurs in The Chinese province of Xinjiang as genocide, in a last-minute move that will increase pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden to respond to the allegations.
Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, said, “I think this genocide is happening and we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy the Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state.”
Mr Pompeo took the plunge on his last full day in office, accusing China of crimes against humanity, including forced sterilizations and torturing some of the “more than a million” civilians he said were detained under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
He called on “all relevant multilateral and competent legal bodies to join the United States in our efforts to promote accountability for those responsible for these atrocities.” He said the US State Department will continue to investigate and make the evidence available to relevant authorities and the international community.
The Trump administration has moved several times censor Chinese authorities over the alleged treatment of Uyghurs, but stopped short of calling it genocide, a term that first applied legally to the planned mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
Biden’s new team had previously called the oppression of Uyghurs genocide during the presidential campaign and called on Donald Trump to act, saying Mr. Biden opposed it “in the strongest terms.”
Senior State Department officials had been considering taking such a step for more than a year, but had stopped short of political considerations at higher levels, according to several people briefed on the matter.
Sam Brownback, Ambassador General for International Religious Freedom, a spent years campaigning on behalf of Uyghurs during his time in administration, and Uyghurs have regularly participated in events that the Trump administration has organized in support of religious freedom.
Mr. Pompeo called on China to release all those arbitrarily detained “and to abolish its system of internment, detention camps, house arrest and forced labor.”
He also called on Beijing to end coercive population control measures, which he said include forced sterilizations, forced abortion, forced birth control and the removal of children from their families.
China routinely denies the mistreatment of Uyghurs and has sought to limit the scope of human rights discussions at the UN.
Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch, whose activists have documented abuses against Uyghurs for 25 years, welcomed the move, but added that a multilateral approach was needed. Mr. Trump has withdrawn the United States from the UN Human Rights Council.
Mr Biden’s team have vowed to toughen their approach to China with bipartisan support, although they also plan to seek cooperation in some areas such as climate change.
Antony Blinken, Mr Biden’s choice as secretary of state who is due to appear in a confirmation hearing in the US Senate on Monday, is a strong advocate for human rights.