The US State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor concluded earlier this year that China’s mass imprisonment and forced labor of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang amount to crimes against humanity, but there is insufficient evidence to prove a genocide. Former Secretary of Defense Mike Pompeo tweeted one day before former President Trump left office that “I have determined that the People’s Republic of China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, China, targeting Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups”. From then on, the Biden Administration has reaffirmed Pompeo’s stance and backed off a recent claim Biden’s UN envoy pick, Linda Thomas- Greenfield, made in her confirmation hearing that the designation will be under review.

Genocide, overall, can be difficult to prove in court. International courts have come to define genocide as, according to the Genocide Convention, that the “perpetrator must intend to destroy the relevant group in a biological or physical sense” wrote Todd Buchwald, who served as the special coordinator for the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice during the Obama administration. International legal experts see this view on genocide as too narrow.

According to the Genocide Convention, there are five categories of genocide. The first entails of the killing of members of a protected group but also including acts aimed at preventing a victim’s ability to bear children and forcibly separating children from their communities. The second type consists of causing serious bodily and mental harm. The third type, defined by the Convention, consists of “deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction”, as critics of the State Department’s legal stance have argued that they are focusing too much on the first type of genocide. It will be interesting to see the Biden Administration’s reaction to the investigation to overall genocide claims. In this sense, the US does have some historical/international prestige in its response to Bosnia and Iraq in 1993/95, as well as claims against Hutu extremists in the infamous Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Miguel Terrazas