What should happen after we declare a genocide is occurring?


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Secretary of State Antony Blinken has declared that China is committing genocide against an ethnic Muslim minority, the Uyghurs. Such declarations do not deter murderers unless followed by specific actions. American citizens should lead the way in not allowing genocide declarations to devolve into rhetorical statements devoid of meaning.


What happens after the United States announces that a genocide is occurring? Yazidis in Iraq were seeking an answer after the 2016 genocide declaration. Today, Uyghurs in China are asking the same question.

Unfortunately, the short answer to date is nothing.


Under U.S. law, declaring a genocide doesn’t obligate the U.S. to do anything. As a political matter, the Obama and Trump administrations treated genocide declarations as rhetorical rather than actual calls to action. The jury is out on whether the Biden administration will follow the same practice. I was working at the State Department in March 2016 when Secretary Kerry declared the Islamic State was committing genocide by mass-murdering Yazidi men and enslaving and mass raping Yazidi women. I proposed in internal meetings pragmatic actions such as increased humanitarian relief and refugee admission for Yazidis and restored U.S. war crimes and forensics training for Iraqi prosecutors.


Then Deputy Secretary Blinken (who coordinated refugee efforts) and then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers refused.


Those steps would have required sustained coordinated action in Iraq that the administration was seeking to pivot away from. The administration was in its last year, and anyway, their staffs said, continuing the existing military effort against IS was the best step — though the U.S. refused under Obama to target IS oil truck convoys that were generating the funds to keep the genocide going. Regarding the Uyghurs, the gist of the genocide case is the ongoing forced sterilization and abortions of Uyghur women held in detention camps, one of the enumerated acts under the 1948 Genocide Convention specifically “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” If history is a guide, we are in the early stages of this genocide.


In the 1930s, the Nazis began their careers in genocide with mass detention and sterilization of an ever-widening range of persons deemed physically, mentally, or racially inferior. Applying the principles of racial hygiene, the Nazis claimed to be following the science of the day. Today the Chinese Communists claim to be liberating Uyghur women from being “baby-making machines.” What has the U.S. done in response to the Uyghur genocide? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on the last full day of the Trump administration, declared that China was committing genocide, kicking any consequences to the incoming administration. Pompeo’s State Department had laid the groundwork in congressional testimony for a genocide declaration more than two years earlier. The Biden administration endorsed Pompeo’s declaration in Secretary Blinken’s Senate confirmation hearing and first press conference. President Biden says he raised the Uyghurs in his first telephone call with President Xi Jinping. But to date, no specific measures are forthcoming.


The American public shouldn’t passively wait for our government to take action. We must lead in taking “Never Again” seriously.


What can we do today as American citizens? Here are three suggestions:

First, lobby our political leaders. Taking tough steps against China for genocide is complicated and involves coordinated planning and implementation within the U.S. Government and with our allies. The best way to ensure any of that happens is to keep after our leaders and, if need be, name and shame: · Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who often cites his family history with the Holocaust and who has publicly declared the China genocide; · USAID Administrator Samantha Power, who built a journalistic career denouncing U.S. inaction on previous genocides and who could use her powerful charisma to push good policies in the bureaucracy; and · National Security Council coordinator for Asia Kurt Campbell, whose strategic advisory firm The Asia Group has worked in China.


Second, boycott Chinese companies. Chinese law requires all private-sector companies to be guided by the Communist Party. Companies trading on U.S. stock exchanges have been implicated in the oppression of Uyghurs. Americans should call on pension funds, companies, and individual investors to divest on moral grounds.


Third, use our civic organizations to call on our and other nations’ Olympic Committees to boycott the 2022 Winter Games in China. If we believe China is committing genocide, why would we want to repeat the mistake of 1936 by participating in an Olympic Games which glorify a genocidal regime?


Both Republican and Democratic administrations have now declared that China is committing genocide. The time of rhetoric is well past, and the hard work of policy is overdue.


We must not allow our leaders to continue treating genocide as a box-checking press statement. When people commit genocide, we must reflect the horror and brutality of those actions with tough, meaningful counteractions.



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Bob Silverman is a former senior U.S. diplomat and former president of the American Foreign Service Association. He is currently President of IJMA – Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance and a lecturer at Shalem College in Israel.


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