Learning from Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide: How Should We Approach China’s Uyghur Crisis?

The Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) sanctions implemented against Chinese persons for human rights violations against the Uyghur community on July 9 and July 31 are a significant step forward in holding China accountable to universal human rights standards. Although these sanctions call out the gross human rights violations committed within the Xinjiang region, the short history of the GMA does not give much hope for such sanctions to effectively end the violations. If we look further south to Myanmar, the case of the Rohingya genocide gives the U.S. government a ready case study that shows how this particular program works—or fails—in addressing genocidal actions in Asia. Despite the vast differences in global power between Myanmar and China, human rights advocates and governments can take lessons learned from Myanmar to adjust their approach to fighting for the Uyghur community’s human rights in China.

Background on the Global Magnitsky Act and Impacts

The GMA is the only global sanctions program in the U.S. that focuses exclusively on targeting human rights violators and entities complicit in financial corruption by targeting their financial assets. The financial targeting is limited to U.S.-controlled markets, and therefore may not completely debilitate those targeted. However, once implemented, the sanctions inevitably make it difficult for those added to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) list within the Treasury department to participate in any international activity due to the pervasiveness of the U.S. dollar within the global economy. Other significant trade partners with the U.S. may not be willing to conduct business or continue relations with persons designated under this sanctions program, as these connections to sanctioned persons will cut off trade partners’ access to the U.S. marketplace. While sanctions appear to be one of President Trump’s favorite tools of foreign policy, they are only one small and rather unpredictable method for achieving human rights goals globally.

A China-Myanmar Case Comparison

The first sanctions under the GMA were passed on December 21, 2017, approximately one year after the Act was signed into law. Former Chief of the Burmese Army’s Western Command Maung Maung Soe was among those designated under this first round of sanctions due to his direct involvement in attacks on Muslim-minority Rohingya communities in the northern Rakhine state in August 2017. Although he was fired from his position within the Army, the Myanmar government intentionally did not assign responsibility for the genocide to Soe, which remains a trend among Myanmar military and government officials in relation to the Rohingya. Since this initial designation, ten additional entities were sanctioned through the GMA on August 17, 2018 and December 10, 2019 in connection with the continuing genocide in Myanmar. However, little has changed the government’s denial of the crisis. Despite evidence of continued violations, repeated sanctions and international condemnation of the Rohingya genocide, the Myanmar government refuses to acknowledge its complicity.  

In contrast, the GMA had previously been used against only one Chinese national prior to these most recent designations, and little attention outside of Chinese human rights groups was paid to these sanctions. Within China, the Uyghurs represent another ethnic minority targeted for their religious affiliation. However, China, with its power on the world stage, has a greater advantage than Myanmar in the ability to absorb or disregard the sanctions, and in some cases even deflect actions meant to hold the government accountable. China’s veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council all but guarantees that no concrete action on these atrocities can be taken by the United Nations system. The history of the Asian values debate within human rights, particularly embraced by China, also makes it unlikely that the strongholds of political order and stability will crack to allow for domestic human rights criticisms.

The GMA sanctions have been imposed on Chinese government entities and representatives within the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for their complicity in the Uyghur internment camps; they follow a pattern not dissimilar to the Myanmar sanctions, as both focus on those directly connected to human rights abuses. However, the trade relationship between the U.S. and China, though strained under the Trump administration, is still stronger and much greater in magnitude than U.S.-Myanmar trade. Although China has announced retaliatory sanctions on U.S. officials and civil society leaders in response to U.S. sanctions over human rights violations in Hong Kong, there appears to be no reaction from the Chinese government on the Xinjiang sanctions. This may be due to their focus on implementing the National Security Law in Hong Kong or maintaining social stability through severe domestic floods and the coronavirus pandemic. However, an alternative explanation is that the Chinese leadership has learned from Myanmar that it can get away virtually unscathed from these sanctions’ supposed punitive measures. It is also important to note that China has been resistant to holding the Myanmar government accountable for the Rohingya crisis, perhaps because it is comparable to its own policies towards Chinese Muslim minorities.

Takeaways and Alternate Methods

The Myanmar-China humanitarian crises comparison draws attention to the bleak ineffectiveness of enforcement of human rights protection. What actions can be taken to hold powerful government actors accountable for blatant human rights violations, in a world where news stories are quickly shuffled out of the collective memory in favor of new issues? Particularly in situations where it is best to act quickly, how can we impel governments to act without getting bogged down in bureaucracy?

With these questions, we see that the Myanmar case also offers some hope. Both foreign governments and civil society have consistently applied pressure on the Myanmar government, as the International Court of Justice case moves forward and NGOs continue advocating for regional support for Rohingya refugees. The Black Lives Matter movement that has taken the public by storm may indicate that with the current pandemic, we may have finally reached an environment where the average global citizen cannot look away from atrocities. Organizations forming a coalition for change may have a higher impact on the consumer markets in the current economic downturn, particularly in regards to clothing purchases. The coalition has gained ground in convincing shoppers that they also have the potential to affect the lives of Uyghurs, among other oppressed groups, as garments may be a product of forced labor. These recent GMA sanctions may be part of the initial wave of action needed to hold China accountable, but in order for justice to be achieved for the Uyghurs, Rohingya, and other groups suffering human rights violations, the media in particular needs to sustain the momentum on their coverage of the crises. Keeping these violations at the forefront of the general population’s consciousness reinvigorates the push for human rights justice.

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Sarah Allis

Sarah Allis is a recent Master of Human Rights graduate from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and University of Minnesota. Her research has included issues of child soldiers, cultural relativism, and sanctions within human rights, with interests focused more broadly on human rights in Asia.

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