Almost exactly a year ago, as aides to former President Donald Trump debated whether to label the Chinese government’s abuse of Uyghur Muslims a “genocide,” Joe Biden’s presidential campaign beat them to the punch.
In a statement given for a POLITICO story, a spokesperson for the campaign said Biden believed the Uyghurs were genocide victims and that Trump needed to “take action” to stop the group’s suffering. “The unspeakable oppression that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China’s authoritarian government is genocide and Joe Biden stands against it in the strongest terms,” the spokesperson, Andrew Bates, said in the statement.
Biden’s stance was hailed by human rights advocates deeply worried about the fate of millions of Uyghurs subject to forced sterilizations, long-term detention and various types of exploitation. According to a person familiar with the campaign, Biden reached the position weeks earlier after briefings from advisers, and he’d shared his view at a fundraiser before POLITICO’s inquiry. The stance made Biden look moral and tough on China following allegations, denied by Trump, that the incumbent president had encouraged China’s leader to persecute the Uyghurs.
But it raised a question: If Biden thought the Uyghurs were genocide victims, did he believe the same thing about Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, who’d been facing mass slaughter, mass detention and mass displacement? Many of the human rights activists, U.S. lawmakers and foreign government officials worried about the Uyghurs had already concluded that the Rohingya were genocide victims. At the time, the Trump administration was still officially reviewing the Rohingya case.
When a POLITICO reporter raised the Rohingya question to the Biden campaign following its Uyghur declaration, the furthest Bates would go was to say, “The systematic atrocities being committed against the Rohingya community in [Myanmar] are grotesque and bear all the marks of genocide.” He would not flat-out call it a genocide.
Since he took over as president, Biden and his team have essentially stuck to the same position, calling the Uyghur atrocities a genocide while using terms that fall short of that official designation for the Rohingya.
The Biden administration’s stance puzzles lawmakers, activists and others, who say it is intellectually inconsistent. Multiple investigations, including by United Nations officials, have determined the Rohingya were victims of genocide or that there was strong evidence of it. Dozens of countries, led by The Gambia, have pushed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice accusing Myanmar of genocide.
“This administration is undermining the legitimacy of its human rights policy by failing to make this declaration,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon who has visited Myanmar and seen the Rohingya plight firsthand. He added that, by not designating the Rohingya’s case a genocide, the Biden team “undermines the legitimacy of the U.S. declaring other situations a genocide, particularly the way the Uyghurs are treated.”
Later this month, the world will mark the fourth anniversary of the Myanmar military’s worst crackdown on the Rohingya, a campaign that killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Rights activists hope Secretary of State Antony Blinken will use the occasion to declare that the Rohingya were genocide victims.
Such a designation by the U.S. government will bolster the Rohingya’s international legal cases against Myanmar’s rulers while sending a warning to other would-be genocidaires, advocates say. It would signal that Biden, Blinken and others aren’t letting the politics of China determine if they will call a crime a crime. And it would offer evidence for Biden’s claim that human rights are key to his foreign policy, advocates say.
“The administration has had ample time to think about this, and there’s a moral imperative for them to issue a clear determination about what the Rohingya people have been enduring,” said Matthew Smith, co-founder of Fortify Rights, a group that investigates human rights violations.
There’s no sign, however, that the Biden team is willing to make the call.
While the Rohingya have supporters in Washington — the House of Representatives has overwhelmingly declared them genocide victims, and dozens of NGOs, including Rohingya groups, are currently preparing a letter due to be made public Tuesday that demands the Biden administration do the same — their cause does not animate U.S. officials, lobbyists and other power players in Washington the way ones more directly linked to China do.
A recent military coup in Myanmar and related concerns involving China are complicating the calculus as State Department officials review the Rohingya case. Some State Department officials also say that it’s not fair to compare the Uyghur and Rohingya plights, and that the U.S. has to make determinations for each situation based on its own, often unique characteristics, while also considering America’s interests.
A spokesperson for the State Department insisted, however, that the Rohingya case is being weighed carefully. “The current regime [in Myanmar] is composed of the same people who committed atrocities against Rohingya,” said Ned Price, the spokesperson. “We’re clear-eyed about that, and there is no debate about the need to pursue accountability for previous and current abuses. That is a top priority for us.”
In a sense, the Trump administration paved the way for its successor’s seemingly inconsistent position on the Rohingya and the Uyghurs.
The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution in Myanmar, where the majority Buddhist population has long considered the darker-skinned Muslims illegal migrants. Myanmar stripped them of their citizenship in 1982, one of numerous legal, political and military moves against the group.
That oppression intensified during the Barack Obama years, even as Myanmar, also known as Burma, transitioned from a military dictatorship to a partial, civilian-led democracy. The Obama administration supported the democratic transition, including by lifting U.S. sanctions as the country opened from decades of international isolation, while fruitlessly urging Myanmar’s leaders to stop mistreating the Rohingya.
The worst crackdown in the Rohingya’s history, however, came during Trump’s first year in office. In late August 2017, the Myanmar military, saying it was responding to a deadly attack by Rohingya insurgents, waged a brutal campaign of killing, raping and burning that left several thousand Rohingya dead and led around 700,000 to flee over the border into Bangladesh, where they remain in squalid refugee camps today.
Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, appalled by reports of Rohingya children being thrown into fires, called the atrocities an “ethnic cleansing.” That term is damning, but it has little meaning in international law.
The State Department launched an investigation into what happened, with the goal of compiling a body of evidence to help U.S. officials decide whether to declare the situation a crime against humanity, genocide or both. Both of those terms are crimes under international law, and if the U.S. declares an atrocity a genocide, in theory (according to some interpretations) it is obligated to somehow intervene.
Trump fired Tillerson before he could make the declaration, and Mike Pompeo took over as secretary of State in spring 2018. By late summer 2018, Pompeo was given the results of the State Department’s investigation, and he was expected to announce whether what had happened to the Rohingya was a genocide, a crime against humanity, or both. But Pompeo scrapped the announcement after POLITICO obtained and published elements of the investigation’s findings in advance.
In September 2018, the State Department quietly released a report on what its investigation had uncovered, but it steered clear of labeling the shocking findings as crimes against humanity or genocide. Pompeo also did not take a position on the matter.
A major Reuters report in March of this year indicated that Pompeo may have avoided a declaration in part because he was angry about the leak to POLITICO. But State Department officials had earlier told POLITICO that his reasoning involved China: that Pompeo worried that calling the Rohingya situation a genocide would alienate Myanmar’s civilian leaders from the United States, damage the country’s transition to democracy, and strengthen Beijing’s influence in Myanmar and beyond. Holding out on making a decision gave the U.S. some leverage, the officials said.
Pompeo did not reply to questions for this story sent via an intermediary.
In the second half of Trump’s term, the U.S. relationship with China grew worse, and bipartisan concern about Beijing’s global ambitions spread rapidly in Washington. At the same time, the dire situation of the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in China received heightened U.S. attention. A State Department official testified in late 2018 that “Chinese authorities have detained at least 800,000, and possibly more than 2 million, Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities in internment camps for indefinite periods of time.” The detainees were subject to a variety of abuse, including sexual, reports from China’s Xinjiang province indicated.
Worries about the Uyghurs dovetailed with the Trump administration’s increasingly hostile rhetoric toward the Chinese Communist Party. Pompeo imposed sanctions on Beijing related to the Uyghurs, and he pushed the State Department to see if a genocide declaration was possible.
People familiar with the issue say many State Department lawyers and other officials were not convinced that the Uyghur case met various legal definitions of genocide, and they told Pompeo this. One reason some human rights watchers, even today, aren’t completely sold on the idea that the Uyghurs case falls under the category of genocide is that there haven’t been known instances of mass killings of the group.
But other State Department officials argued that the Uyghur case met the legal criteria. In part that was because of reports that the Chinese government was forcing sterilizations on Uyghurs, indicating it was trying to curb if not end the group’s long-term existence. The officials who supported a Uyghur genocide label also pointed out that the goal of such declarations should be to stop such atrocities early on before they get worse, not wait until it is too late and then put a label on it.
The secretary of State has tremendous latitude on such declarations. In one of his final acts, Pompeo said the Uyghurs were victims of genocide. But he left office without making the same declaration on the Rohingya. He stayed silent on their case even though most of the State Department staffers who supported his Uyghur declaration urged him to make the same call for the Rohingya. Those staff members warned Pompeo that ignoring the atrocities in Myanmar would look inconsistent and weaken his case against China on the Uyghurs.
When Blinken took over as Biden’s secretary of State, he didn’t have to make a genocide declaration about the Uyghurs because Pompeo had done so — making it official U.S. policy. Moreover, the Biden campaign had already asserted that the Uyghurs were genocide victims months earlier.
Blinken knows well the Rohingya’s plight. In 2015, he visited Myanmar as deputy secretary of State. There, Blinken urged Myanmar’s leaders not to impose new laws that appeared aimed at reducing the Rohingya population. They ignored him.
Since taking over at Foggy Bottom, lawmakers and journalists have repeatedly asked Blinken about when he will decide on whether the Rohingya faced a genocide, crimes against humanity or both. As Pompeo did when he was pressed on the matter, Blinken keeps saying the issue is under review. “We’re bringing together the facts, the legal assessments, and both are being very actively considered,” Blinken said in July as he released a report on global atrocities.
It’s not clear when the Rohingya review will be finished, but a senior State Department official told POLITICO, “We are working on this as an urgent matter.” When asked why the Biden administration took a different approach to the Uyghurs, the official said: “Each situation is unique, and we undertake a careful evaluation of the facts — through the prism of our values and our interests — in every case. Comparing one response to another assumes that the circumstances are analogous when they, in fact, never are.”
At least one top Biden aide has said the Rohingya faced genocide: Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Power, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about genocide, used the term on multiple occasions when Trump was in power, urging Pompeo to make the designation.
One major development in Myanmar would, at first glance, seem to make Blinken’s decision on the Rohingya easier.
Just days after Biden took office, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, staged a coup. Military commanders, upset about the results of recent elections, detained the country’s civilian leadership, including famed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The coup appeared to render moot the argument some U.S. diplomats had made: that accusing Myanmar of genocide would weaken its transition to democracy and possibly spur a military coup.
The Tatmadaw previously ruled Myanmar for decades and carried out repeated crackdowns on the Rohingya, including the one in 2017. Even when the military allowed a partial democracy to take hold over the past decade, it never put itself or its operations under civilian control.
Since the coup, however, some State Department officials are arguing that a genocide declaration will make it even harder to convince the ruling junta to reverse course and put the country back on the democratic path. But those arguments come as the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on the military because of the coup, moves that don’t help mollify U.S. relations with the junta.
Some officials in the State Department’s East Asia bureau are further arguing that making a genocide declaration could backfire for another reason: other ethnic groups in the country, who also have clashed with the military, will resent what may come across as U.S. favoritism toward the Rohingya.
Human rights analysts and some former U.S. officials dismiss this argument, which was earlier reported by The New York Times. They note that the Rohingya have never had much support from other groups in Myanmar, in part because the state propaganda against them was so pervasive. They also point out that there are signs the coup actually has fostered more sympathy toward the Rohingya as Myanmar’s civilian population as a whole finds itself under the Tatmadaw’s boot.
China also hangs over the Rohingya discussions. Like the Trump administration, Biden aides are keen to contain Chinese power in Asia. Beijing’s influence over Myanmar’s military rulers is limited, but the possibility that a genocide declaration could push the junta closer to China weighs on U.S. diplomats’ minds.
Some rights activists question whether corporate interests are driving some of the Biden administration’s decision-making on the genocide question.
Companies like California-based Chevron, which has oil and gas interests in Myanmar, would feel even more pressure to stop doing business with the military junta. While the coup has led the Biden administration to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar, it has held off on penalizing the country’s oil and gas sector amid discussions about the impact on firms like Chevron.
The senior State Department official denied that firms like Chevron are driving the conversation. “Corporate interests aren’t part of our decision-making,” the official said. “America’s national interests and values are.”
‘A great disservice’
Supporters of a Rohingya genocide declaration say the bottom line is that the U.S. should call a crime a crime.
“To me it’s a clear case that the attacks on the Rohingya are a genocide, and the United States government should say so and act accordingly,” said Michael Posner, a former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor during the Obama administration. “If it’s a genocide, declare it a genocide.”
Another former U.S. official said that argument has come up frequently during discussions about the Rohingya and the Uyghurs under both Pompeo and Blinken, but that the East Asia bureau ignores it. Like other regional bureaus at the State Department, the East Asia bureau’s priority is not human rights but rather maintaining and managing government-to-government relations.
Whether under Democratic or Republican administrations, the United States has a long track record of trying to either sidestep genocide declarations or subjecting them to politicized decision-making.
As the Rwandan genocide was underway in 1994, U.S. officials avoided the term. According to a then-secret memo, officials feared such a label would commit the Clinton administration to “actually ‘do something.’” The rampage in Rwanda killed around 800,000 people.
In 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell drew praise for calling the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan a genocide. Later on, it was revealed that Powell’s aides decided using the label “would have no immediate legal — as opposed to moral, political or policy — consequences for the United States.”
During the Obama administration, Christian groups pressured then-Secretary of State John Kerry to include Christians among the victims as he decided whether to accuse the Islamic State of genocide. Kerry did so, naming Christians alongside Yazidis and other groups abused by the extremist militants.
When the Trump administration took over, Tillerson remade the same declaration, even though he didn’t have to because it was already U.S. policy. Word had spread among Christian activists, many of whom were big Trump supporters, that the Trump team might re-neg on the Obama declaration, and Tillerson said he wanted to remove doubts about where the new administration stood.
As questions arose as to why the Trump administration wouldn’t do the same for the Rohingya, some of its representatives tried to downplay the entire concept of a genocide declaration. Michael Kozak, who temporarily led the State Department’s human rights bureau, said labels like genocide were simply a “messaging management tool,” even though it is a crime under international law.
The United States has, at times, intervened militarily to prevent mass atrocities: in Libya in 2011, for example, as dictator Moammar Gadhafi threatened to wipe out an entire city amid the Arab Spring rebellion; or in 2014, when then-President Obama authorized airstrikes and other aid to help thousands of Yazidis who’d fled to Mount Sinjar to escape Islamic State terrorists.
But U.S. officials have not always interpreted laws governing genocide declarations as requiring American military intervention. Often times the acknowledgement comes too late to save anyone. In other cases, U.S. officials say humanitarian aid, sanctions and other tools can qualify as the intervention.
In the case of both the Rohingya and the Uyghurs, the United States, starting under Trump, has repeatedly used sanctions and other means to call out and penalize the perpetrators of the atrocities. But critics say the Biden administration’s unwillingness to label what’s happened to the Rohingya a genocide is hurting the Rohingya’s ability to draw the attention and resources they need to find justice, even if justice is many years away.
“When the U.S. holds back in situations like this it’s doing a great disservice,” said Smith of Fortify Rights.
Biden himself has been willing to set aside geopolitical considerations to make at least once genocide declaration: He became the first U.S. president to announce without ambiguity that Armenians were victims of genocide in the early 20th century. Biden used the label despite threats from Turkey, a NATO ally increasingly at odds with Washington, which denies its ruling forebearers engaged in such an atrocity.
In fact, Blinken expressed regret to Armenian-American leaders that the Obama administration had failed to take the same stance. “We were on the wrong side of that issue,” Blinken is reported to have said. “We should have gotten that right.”
Still, many are not surprised at the Biden team’s unwillingness to make the call when it comes to the Rohingya. Despite its assurances that it cares about human rights, the Biden administration remains subject to the same forces as any other, activists and researchers say.
“Politics is what makes the determination on these things, and there’s just not the political appetite for it at the moment,” said Azeem Ibrahim, an academic who has extensively researched the cases of the Uyghurs and the Rohingya and believes both are genocide victims. “‘It’s the right thing to do’ is always the right answer, but it’s not always the most realistic answer.”