US senators seek to declare Uighur ‘genocide’ by China in bipartisan push

Republican senator John Cornyn says resolution ‘is the first step toward holding China accountable for their monstrous actions’

Protesters in Los Angeles display photographs of prominent Uighur intellectuals detained by China during a global day of action on 1 October. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images
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US senators have sought to declare that China is committing genocide against Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims, a step that could increase pressure on Beijing over the plight of an estimated one million-plus people being held in detention camps.

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”.

The resolution was introduced on Tuesday 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.

Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, said the resolution would show that the US “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,” he said.

Other co-sponsors include Marco Rubio, a close ally of Donald Trump on foreign policy, and Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee.

Rights groups say that more than a million Uighurs languish in camps in the Xinjiang region as Beijing attempts to forcibly integrate the community and erode 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.

Trump’s administration has decried the situation in Xinjiang and placed sanctions on the Communist party’s top official there, Chen Quanguo, but has stopped just short of declaring genocide.

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, said this month that “if not genocide, something close” to it is taking place in Xinjiang.

Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said in an interview on Tuesday with news site the Print on a visit to India 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 Trump in pre-election polls, has called China’s actions genocide and vowed a tougher response.

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

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

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.

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