Thursday 19 August 2021

‘If it’s a genocide, declare it a genocide’: Inside the Biden administration’s vexing Myanmar debate

Source Politico, 9 Aug

China, the case of the Uyghurs and politics loom as the administration mulls whether to call the Rohingya massacres an international crime.

Rohingya refugees walk at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Tuesday, Feb.2, 2021.

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 slaughtermass 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.

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