Jan. 19 (UPI) -- In its final day at the United States' helm, the Trump administration on Tuesday declared that China's repressive treatment of its Muslim minority Uyghur population amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday that China has systematically discriminated against and surveilled Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in its northwestern Xinjiang region since at least 2017 to eradicate them.
"I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state," he said. "The governing authorities of the second-most economically, militarily and politically powerful country on earth have made clear that they are engaged in the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group, even as they simultaneously assert their country as a global leader."
Pompeo also accused China of committing crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs, including arbitrary imprisonment of at least 1 million civilians, forced sterilization, torture of those arbitrarily detained, forced labor, and draconian restrictions on freedom of religion, expression and movement.
"Their morally repugnant, wholesale policies, practices and abuses are designed systematically to discriminate against and surveil ethnic Uyghurs as a unique demographic and ethnic group, restrict their freedom to travel, emigrate and attend schools and deny other basic human rights of assembly, speech and worship," he said. "PRC authorities have conducted forced sterilizations and abortions of Uyghur women, coerced them to marry non-Uyghurs and separated Uyghur children from their families."
The move is not accompanied by any punitive measures but calls on the international community and juridical bodies to hold China responsible. Pompeo also said he has directed the State Department to continue to investigate and collect information regarding China's actions in Xinjiang and to make the evidence available.
The move is the latest and probably last by the Trump administration against China concerning its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, sanctioning numerous Chinese officials, government departments and companies over their involvement in repressing the Uyghur population.
Last week, the United States banned cotton produced in the autonomous region over fears of forced labor.
China has vehemently denied the accusations, stating its actions in the region are to combat terrorism and secession, warning the United States and other countries to stop interfering in its internal affairs.
The move is expected to further fray relations between Beijing and Washington with Hua Chunying, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, rebuking Pompeo's declaration in a tweet as being "null and void."
"Not worth the paper it's written on," she tweeted.
Last week, Xu Guixiang, a deputy spokesperson in Xinjiang, said during a press conference dedicated to Xinjiang that there were no concentration camps and accusations it has detained a million Muslim minorities were a groundless "and vicious smear."
Pompeo made the declaration hours before he was to hand the State Department to the Biden administration, which has nominated Antony Blinken to succeed Pompeo as secretary of state.
Blinken, during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, told lawmakers that he will undo a lot of the foreign policy actions taken by the Trump admonition but that he was in agreement with its determination that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity.
"I think we're very much in agreement," he said. "The forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect re-educate them to be adherents to the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide."
The declaration by Pompeo was met with praise from several human rights organizations though some questioned the timing of it and its effectiveness.
"The United States is right to bring the brutal, years-long repression of the Uyghurs within the framework of genocide," Grant Shubin, legal director of the Global Justice Center, said in a statement. "However, the human rights community should be alarmed at reports that this decision was motivated by policy goals instead of a legal obligation to prevent and punish genocide."
Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, said he "welcomes" the declaration as it underscores the importance of international investigation and prosecutions of officials for committing genocide in Xinjiang but that he is "baffled" that Pompeo didn't issue a similar declaration concerning Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya population.
"The integrity and effectiveness of the U.S. government's human rights policy depends on a willingness not only to speak truthfully, but to do so in a consistent manner," Schwartz said in a statement. "In the incoming Biden administration, such a willingness -- reflected in a determination of genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya -- would help to defend the rights of all those subject to egregious abuses around the world."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the incoming Biden administration is now given "the unique opportunity" to confront China's atrocities, calling on the new government to seek an independent, international fact-finding mechanism to investigate China for its treatment of its Uyghur population and to sanction those responsible.
"We urge American and other world leaders and corporations to condemn the genocide and crimes against humanity of the Communist Party of China that have been directed at Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims," USCIRF said in a statement. "The perpetrators must be held to account."