The Detainment of Uighur Muslims: An Ineffective Approach to Counterterrorism

Image showing detained Uighur Muslims in the re-education camps.
Detained Uighur Muslims. Source: 牙生, Yahoo Images.

For the past several months, the plight of the Uighur Muslims (pronounced wē-ˌgu̇r) has been covered extensively in national and international news. Under the guise of counterterrorism, the Chinese government has been holding the Uighur in detention camps. While the detention of the Uighur is in and of itself a human rights violation, the torture and inhumane treatment that they experience in these camps has been the greatest cause for concern for human rights activists. Undeniably, the detainment and treatment of the Uighur is concerning, but the counterterrorism measures taken by the Chinese government are just as concerning; not only are they arguably ineffective for decreasing the likelihood of attacks, but they also could inadvertently lead to an increase in radicalization.

Background

The Uighur are a Muslim, Turkish-speaking minority group who make up less than 1 percent of the Chinese population, or around 11 million people. Xinjiang, the province in which the majority of the Uighur live, was annexed in 1949 and has been under China’s control since. While the Uighur have historically been subject to discrimination by the Chinese government, this discrimination increased when the Chinese government formally identified the Uighur as a threat to security in China. It is irresponsible to claim that all Uighur are a security threat, but there have been attacks carried out by Uighur militants in China; the Turkistan Islamic Movement, an extremist Islamic group founded by Uighur militants, has carried out more than 200 attacks with the goal of creating an independent state for the Uighur. While the Chinese government has an obligation to protect the citizens of China, this does not justify the Chinese government’s discrimination against and detainment of the Uighur.

Measures taken by the Chinese Government

China first began its crackdown on the Uighur in 2017, when men were prohibited from growing long beards, women were prohibited from wearing the niqab, or the face veil, and several mosques were demolished. Further, the government began using face recognition technology and phone monitoring to track the Uighur. However, the Chinese government took the most drastic measures a few months ago, when over a million Uighur were detained and placed in camps. When reports first began to emerge on the mass detention of the Uighur, the Chinese government claimed that the camps were solely vocational training centers. However, this past November, leaked governmental documents proved that the camps were built to be re-education centers in which the Uighur are forced to renounce their religion and language, or simply put, their identities.

The Camps  

The purpose of re-educating the Uighur is highlighted throughout the leaked documents, wherein it is made clear that they must not only renounce their previous beliefs and traditions but must also accept and adhere to the new beliefs they are indoctrinated with. Thus, the process of indoctrination is twofold; first, the Uighur are forced to admit that their belief in Islam is illegal, criminal, and dangerous, highlighting the negative views the Chinese government holds towards Islam, and second, they are forced to pledge allegiance to President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. In an interview with Uighur-American lawyer and human rights advocate Nury Turkel, the Intercept details the methods used to ensure the success of the re-education process. Based on testimonials of people who have fled the country, the process includes starvation, sterilization, torture, rape, and even killing. According to Turkel, this is all done to eradicate the Uighurs’ religious and ethnic identities, as these identities are perceived as signs of disloyalty to the Chinese government.

Image showing the outside of the re-education camps.
Exterior of a re-education camp. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Wrong Approach

While measures must be taken against any group of people who pose a security threat to a country, the methods used by the Chinese government are inhumane. After the vast number of attacks carried out by Uighur fighters, it is understandable that the Chinese government should attempt to deter future attacks from happening. However, the methods that have been implemented are not only violating innocent people’s basic human rights, but they may also have the reverse effect. There are examples that have occurred elsewhere that can be used to highlight this. First, Tajik officer Gulmorod Khalimov, who made headlines after he left the Tajik army to join ISIS. He explained that he made this decision after he was exposed to anti-Muslim rhetoric during his anti-terrorism course training in the United States, illustrating that a harmful or negative rhetoric about Muslims, similar to the one currently being propagated in China, can lead to and encourage radicalization. Second, when David Cameron, previous British Prime Minister, announced his plans for cracking down on extremists in Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain argued that this would only push people further towards radicalization, noting that the “problem is the constant talk of legislation, harassment, and monitoring… [which] is what’s leading young people towards radicalism.” This is another instance that exemplifies the faulty approach taken by the Chinese government; when stringent measures are taken, such as monitoring and detainment in the case of the Uighur, there can be the unexpected outcome of increased extremism.

The Chinese government claims that they have detained the Uighur to prevent terrorism and extremism, but the methods used are neither humane nor effective. While there need to be measures taken to guarantee the safety of the citizens of China, there are many other methods that can be utilized to achieve this. Further, if the Chinese government does indeed want to address this problem, an approach that does not involve stigmatizing a whole ethnic group and religion is the only way to effectively do so.

COVID-19: A Glimpse to the East

An image of a crowd of people in Wuhan, China. They are all wearing masks as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
2019-20 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

COVID-19, otherwise known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, has spread to many countries around the world, affecting many immunocompromised populations and impacting millions of people worldwide. My colleagues have referenced hotspots where the response has impacted the most, from the Middle East to migrants right outside U.S. borders. They have illustrated how discrimination, isolationism, and plain ignorance have shattered families and populations, destroyed economies, and brought fear and terror into the hearts and minds of Earth’s people. It is in that essence that this article will continue to explain the impact of COVID-19 in another hotspot of the world, Asia.

The Asian continent, comprising 48 countries, according to the United Nations, encompasses immense diversity and roughly 60 percent of the global population within its boundaries. This diversity includes, but is not limited to, having the highest and lowest points on Earth, “the world’s wildest climatic extremes,” and “the birthplace of all the world’s major religions.” For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on three countries that are handling the virus very differently, India, China, and South Korea.

Food Insecurity

Having one of the highest populations in the world, India is often referenced as a case study when examining the impact of overpopulation, economics, and food security. In 2012, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, 60 million out of 200 million people were considered living below the poverty line. Economic inequality has further negatively impacted India’s poorest communities with “57 billionaires controlling 70 percent of India’s wealth” as of 2017. Such inequality has led to the increase in poverty, a lack of medical equipment and access, poor living conditions, and a lack of food.

An image of Indian Census data from 2011. The country is seen with an immense population density per square kilometer. Uttar Pradesh and the city of Kolkata are most dense.
Demographics of India. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

However, this pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to food by Indian residents that comes on the heels of Prime Minister Nahendra Modi’s announcement to begin a “21-day nationwide lockdown.” With such an announcement also came with rising panic from Indians, crowding grocery stores and shops with people panic buying everything in sight. Under Modi’s plan, the “Prime Minister’s Poor Welfare Scheme”, individuals will be able to receive five additional kilograms of rice or wheat for the next three months. Although proposed to benefit 800 million people, many are wary of its success due to the closure of interstate travel, trains, and flights. It is under this lockdown that residents could face two years in jail and a financial penalty if they leave their home for non-essential reasons. In an interview with Time, an autorickshaw driver expressed concern over Modi’s decree to lockdown the entire country. Before the decree, his main concern was to save enough money to help get his son through college. However, “as he stays home with no daily income, his main concern is putting food on the table. He’s not sure what he will do” once those savings run out. When examining a singular issue impacted by COVID-19, the situation in India highlights the issues that countries with an enormous informal sector may face due to economic hardship and lack of infrastructure. For example, India can grow enough food for its growing population, although millions are left underfed due to “bottlenecked supply chain[s], inadequate logistics, food wastage and sharp societal inequalities.” The virus has further called to attention the lack of food security that many around the world face on a daily basis which infringes upon their basic human rights and a Sustainable Development Goal that must be achieved by 2030, Zero Hunger.

Government Control

An image of the spread of the coronavirus in January. The Wuhan province is shown to be the most effective, colored in black.
Timeline of the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic from November 2019 to January 2020. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

Being the most populated country in the world, China is often criticized for its drastic measures and horrifying treatment of Muslim minorities. When examining the pandemic, COVID-19 is known to have originated in the Wuhan province in China and was noticed by Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Dr. Wenliang had used a private online chat to explain his worry for the novel virus, which quickly went viral, resulting in him being reprimanded by Chinese police. Following this observation, the province had shut down, cutting off transportation and sealing residents off from the outside world. In an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, “the leader of the World Health Organization team that visited China,” had praised the Chinese government’s decisive actions towards preventing the spread of the virus:

“I think the key learning from China is speed — it’s all about the speed.” — Dr. Bruce Aylward

Although the Chinese government has sought to demonstrate its prowess and handling of the virus, through building hospitals in 10-days and publishing photos of patients who have been cured of the disease, many human rights groups have expressed concern and worry over the treatment of those who have been critical of the government. For instance, Chen Qiushi, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was “put under quarantine”, Fang Bin, a citizen journalist, disappeared in February, and Li Zihua, another journalist, was taken away by a group of men. Dr. Wenliang had died due to the virus early February of 2020. With the news of his death, thousands of comments flooded Chinese social media site Weibo criticizing the Chinese government and censorship in the country with top hashtags such as “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech.” According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), when they searched for the hashtags a day after Wenliang’s death, they disappeared having been censored alongside many comments aimed at the Chinese government.

From Wuhan province, we now turn to the Xinjiang province in Western China, where the imprisonment of millions of Uyghur Muslims could prove to be a breeding ground for the virus as it spreads throughout the world. You can read more IHR blogs about The Uyghur Muslims in the context of Crimes Against Humanity here and how this crisis is affecting refugees on the US-Mexico border here. In Xinjiang, there are an estimated three million people detained in re-education camps in Western China, mostly of Uyghur Muslims who have been suppressed by the Communist Party. As alleged by Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a jailed Uyghur academic, some of the “conditions at the detention centers offered the perfect chance for coronavirus to spread” citing “systematic abuse, serious overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions inside the camps.” Given allegations of China’s unwillingness to publish the truth about these conditions combined with the alleged suppression of critics and ethnic minorities, it is deeply concerning to gauge the risks of infection amongst those who have been cited as not having enough to eat or doctors on staff to treat those infected. This is also a signal to international groups and organizations to ensure that all people have the chance to be cured and not suffer as a result of the virus or violating the human rights to freedom of speech.

An image of China divided into province. The Xinjiang province is highlighted with the highest concentration of Muslims
Xinjiang Region, China. Source: Flickr, futureatlas.com. Creative Commons.

Some Potential Success?

Amongst all the panic buying and the loss of toilet paper throughout the country, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel manifesting itself through ‘flattening the curve’. This method has seemed to be close to perfected by South Korea whose growth in COVID-19 cases has significantly slowed compared to the United States. When examining South Korea, many writers have explained the situation by comparing it to religion and culture, chalking it up to higher levels of social trust and the lingering aspect of Confucianism. However, that does not seem to be the case. By flattening the curve, South Korea has demonstrated that it is due to “competent leadership that inspired public trust.” Having tested more than 5000 people per million inhabitants than the United States, it is no wonder that taking early action and mobilizing health officials could lead to a successful response.

“No sacred Confucian text advised Korean health officials to summon medical companies and told them to ramp up testing capacity when Korea had only four known cases of COVID-19.” — S. Nathan Park

Compared to China, India, and even the United States, South Korea did not have to “lockdown entire cities or take some authoritarian measures,” rather, they learned from their past experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Such preparation allowed the South Korean government to be proactive and “improve hospital infection prevention and control.” Combined with South Korea’s industrial and developmental advantages over both China and India, the government was able to take a proactive approach and deter the worst effects of the virus. Once South Koreans started getting sick in early February, the government immediately began “testing aggressively to identify cases — not only testing people who are so sick that they’re hospitalized but also mild cases and even suspected cases.” This initiative has allowed South Korea to quarantine those at a high risk while also managing to keep their factories, schools, hospitals, and entire cities open while other countries around the world are having to shut down everything to contain the spread.

An image of the cumulative and new cases of coronavirus in South Korea. The graph is showing a flattening of the curve.
2020 coronavirus cases in South Korea. Source: Wikipedia, KCDC. Creative Commons.

Conclusion

Looking back at India, China, and South Korea, it becomes apparent that a swift and proactive response is necessary in order to not allow for the lockdown of entire cities and countries. However, that proactivity must balance itself between being lax and aggressive. For example, China’s efforts to curb the spread of the news rather than the virus has made human rights concerns more apparent to the world, especially since the freedom of speech for civilians is being curbed to protect China’s global reputation. In India’s case, the pandemic has shown many human rights groups and countries the issues that a country with a massive impoverished population faces during difficult times. By being able to demonstrate good leadership and mobilizing experts, South Korea has ultimately done what many other countries would only hope to accomplish. Such success has already inspired other Asian countries to follow suit, especially Singapore, Japan, and others. And although South Korea’s population is significantly small compared to that of India and China, their success is one that can be successfully implemented worldwide. Instead of casting these successes aside as an element of Confucianism or culture, it is necessary for us to be able to model our response like South Korea’s so that were such an event to occur again, we will be able to swiftly contain the spread rather than suffer through weeks and months at home without physical human interaction.

Justice(s) for Crimes Against Humanity: The Uyghur Muslims in China

*a topographical map depicting where many Uyghur Muslims live in Western China*
“Outline map showing Keiry / Yutian County in Xinjiang, China” by centralasiatraveler, Creative Commons

In early November 2018, the United Nations confronted China about the Chinese government’s human rights record since 2013, with UN Member States pointing specifically to China’s suppression of the Tibetan people and for the barbaric ‘re-education camps’ used to indoctrinate the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.  China flatly denied these allegations, contending they are politically motivated and violate Chinese national sovereignty.  While the ongoing conflict regarding Tibet has been covered for decades (you can read an IHR post about it here), the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in China is arguably less familiar to laypersons with vested interests in human rights.  This blog post explores the history of the conflict with the Uyghur, how the international community typically handles these kinds of human rights violations, and what everyday citizens can do to help the Uyghur.  For another perspective on the plight of the Uyghur, read my colleague Dianna Bai’s post here.

History of the Conflict

The Uyghur are an ethnically distinct group, hailing originally from the Altai Mountains in Central Asia, now spread through Central and East Asia (Roberts, 2009).  Scholars frequently debate the heritage of the Uyghur; government-sanctioned Chinese historians claim the Uyghur are indigenous to the Tarim Basin (located within the Chinese Xinjiang province), while most historical accounts situate the Uyghur as descendants of peoples in modern-day Mongolia (Roberts, 2009).  Until recently, many scholars believed that the Soviet Union groomed Uyghur nationalist sentiments during the Cold War, intending to use the fledgling Uyghur people as a colonized Soviet pseudo-nation to exert political and cultural influence in the East Asian theater (Roberts, 2009).  This view has since been challenged, as Uyghur Muslims have long defined themselves an ethnically distinct group with the goal of creating their own nation on sovereign territory, intended to be called Uyghurstan (Roberts, 2009).  Today, the Uyghur of China largely practice Sunni Islam, speak their own language (similar to Uzbek), and some Uyghur label the territory they inhabit “East Turkestan”, not the Xinjiang providence of China.

The Xinjiang providence, located on the fragments of the ancient Silk Road, is rich in resources and attracted the migration of many Han Chinese to the province (aided and abetted by the Chinese government).  This migration brings us to the present day.  Beginning in 2009, the Chinese government has cracked down on Uyghur dissidents and rioters expressing a frustrated desire for autonomous rule (some of these Uyghur were subsequently exiled to the United States).  In 2016, the Chinese government amped up their approach to the Uyghur, attempting to squash Uyghur cultural practices to create a culturally homogenous Xinjiang province.  The Chinese justified these practices by claiming their motivation was to reduce religious extremism in the Xinjiang region.  Homogenization efforts included banning baby names (such as Medina, Jihad, and Muhammad) and restricting the length of beards; both aforementioned names and the tradition of long beards stem from the Uyghur’s Islamic faith.  These tactics are part of the Chinese government’s “Strike Hard” campaign, designed to specifically monitor the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang.  In addition to cultural destruction, the Chinese have recently implemented surveillance programs designed to monitor separatist movements, jihad-ism, or proto-nationalist sentiment.  Surveillance programs largely take the shape of indoctrination (or ‘re-education’) camps.

The United Nations has received verifiable reports that up to one million Uyghur (approximately 10-11% of the adult Muslim population in the region) are currently held against their will in these re-education camps.  The Chinese government, however, claims these are vocational centres, designed to empower the ethnic Uyghur to learn the Chinese language, Chinese law and ideology, and gain workplace skills.  Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (more on the WUC later), has publicly decried the camps, as they incessantly monitor Uyghur prisoners through sophisticated facial recognition software, designed with the intention to predict individual or communal acts of protest through the analysis of the prisoners’ micro-expressions (and no, the current year is not 1984).  The prisoners in these camps are expected to ‘secularize’ and ‘modernize’; the Chinese government conditions the entrapped Uyghur Muslims by forcing the prisoners to wish Chinese President Xi Jinping ‘good health’ before the prisoners are given food, thank the Chinese government and Communist Party, and renounce devotion to the Islamic faith.  Furthermore, Uyghur Muslims have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol during their imprisonment which, for many devout Muslims, is forbidden by the Islamic faith.  One escapee who found asylum in Kazakhstan testified that she “worked at a prison in the mountains” in Xinjiang and was forced to teach Chinese history during her imprisonment.

The Chinese government has not limited its repression to these detention centers.  Beginning in 2016, Uyghur Muslim communities in the Xinjiang province have been subjected to China’s “Becoming Family” initiative (also directed by the government’s “Strike Hard” campaign).  The Chinese government mandates ‘home stays’ (lasting between five days and up to two months) within these communities, dispatching over one million cadres to closely monitor the private homesteads of the Uyghur communities.  These cadres monitor ‘problematic behavior’ such as suspected alcoholism, no alcohol consumption whatsoever (a sign the family is devout Muslim), uncleanliness, and other signs that the Uyghur are becoming ‘too Muslim’ for the secular Chinese government.  Finally, these cadres are tasked to promote ‘ethnic unity’ in the region, spouting the dangers of Islamism, pan-Turkism, and so on.  These spies of the state document every move of the Uyghur communities, reporting intelligence back to the Chinese government, who then specifically targets individuals and families suspected of dissident behavior.  It is impossible to track how many ‘dissidents’ (whether in their home communities or in the Uyghur detention centers) have been murdered by the Chinese government.  A prominent Uyghur human rights activist recently lamented,

Every single Uyghur abroad has relatives waiting for a slow death in these camps… innocent Uyghurs are now counting their final days of isolation under physical, psychological, and spiritual torture.

This begs the question: how do human rights organizations (from the United Nations to the Institute for Human Rights) classify this level of social, cultural, and civil repression?  And furthermore, how can human rights organizations utilize this classification to mobilize aid for the Uyghur Muslims?

A pair of Uyghur elders lead a donkey and boy across a Chinese marketplace
“Uyghur elders” by Todenhoff, Creative Commons

Addressing Crimes Against Humanity

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 7, broadly characterizes Crimes Against Humanity (CAH) as:

any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

  1. Murder;
  2. Extermination;
  3. Enslavement;
  4. Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
  5. Imprisonment or other sever deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
  6. Torture;
  7. Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
  8. Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
  9. Enforced disappearance of persons;
  10. The crime of apartheid;
  11. Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

In theory, the plight of the Uyghur Muslims certainly falls within this definition, as the Chinese government is violating parameters 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 11 of the Rome Statute.  Again, in theory, this means the international community has an obligation to both classify this as a CAH and prosecute both the Chinese government as a whole and individual officials directly responsible for the repression of Uyghur Muslims.  In practice, however, formally prosecuting CAH are tricky.

To prosecute CAH, a step towards retributive justice, one of two forms of jurisdiction must apply: the state must either (a) be a member to the Rome Statute / International Criminal Court (ICC); or (b) the case is referred to the ICC Prosecutor by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).  In this case, China is not a State Party to the Rome Statute, so requirement (a) is out.  Regarding requirement (b), the UNSC can indeed refer this to the ICC Prosecutor.  However, since China is a permanent member of the UNSC with full veto power, it seems extremely unlikely the Chinese government would permit a prosecution against its own state.  So what options are left for the international community to protect the Uyghur Muslims and hold their repressors to justice for this ‘unofficial’ Crime Against Humanity?

If the international community suspects a state conducts COH, accusatory states may take indirect action to punish the offender state.  Here’s one example of such indirect action: US Senators Rubio (R-FL) and Menendez (D-NJ) and US House Representatives Smith (R-NJ) and Suozzi (D-NY) are set to introduce legislation to US Congress proposing (a) the creation of a State Department role to monitor the persecution of Uyghur Muslims; and (b) the Secretary of Commerce enact sanctions to state agents in the Xinjiang province.  Indirect action, whether government-led sanctions or non-governmental tactics (e.g. ‘naming and shaming’), aims to overcome the absence of international legal precedent in circumstances such as these (Franklin, 2015).  The endgame of indirect action in circumstances such as these is to either offer an incentive for states to cease CAH or increasingly layer punishments (whether economic or otherwise) to render the CAH more trouble than it’s worth.  In this case, the ideal outcome for US Congress members is that the threat of economic sanctions would punish the Chinese, forcing the state to choose economic growth as a higher-ranking priority than repressing the Uyghur.

A final alternative to addressing CAH is that of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRC; Landsman, 1997).  TRC’s are structured around the idea of restorative justice, meaning that in the wake of CAH, damaged communities themselves work with the international community to: (a) collect ‘facts-on-the-ground’ about ongoing repression, (b) negotiate with the repressing state to end the CAH, and (c) devise solutions to repair the trauma caused by the CAH (Longmont Community Justice Partnership, 2017).  This is a human-driven approach, placing the victims themselves at the center of the process to document, cease, and heal from CAH.  In the this case, this would mean international NGO’s would connect with local Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Province; document the short-, intermediate-, and long-term needs of the afflicted communities; and allow this joint collaboration to drive local and international efforts attempting to bring the CAH to a close.

 

an Uyghur group holds their native flag while protesting repression against the Uyghur people
“Uyghurs protesting” by Paul Keller, Creative Commons

Justice(s) for the Uyghur

Resolving the plight of the Uyghur is a highly complex issue.  Formal legal mechanisms, such as referring this case to the International Criminal Court, are constrained by the structure of international governing bodies.  Indirect action, such economic sanctions proposed by members within the US Congress, have historically had a low success rate (~34% rate of success) to compel policy change (Pape, 1997).  Finally, truth and reconciliation commissions have been criticized for their toothlessness regarding holding human rights violators responsible for their crimes (Van Zyl, 1999).  What, then, can we do?

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), whose president Dolkun Isa is an exiled Uyghur Muslim, is taking a hybrid approach to seeking justice for the Uyghur.  The WUC’s platform combines the three previously discussed approaches (retributive justice, economic sanctions, and restorative justice), channeling their efforts into international governance, state-level policy and advocacy, and community-driven capacity building.  The WUC, steered by survivors of the conflict themselves, aims to achieve justice(s) for the Uyghur people, through a multi-lateral and multi-level approach.  While many of their efforts are aimed at high-level government officials and advocacy networks, the WUC additionally aims to engage, educate, and empower ordinary citizens (like you, the reader) to make meaningful contributions towards ending the repression of the Uyghur, ranging from advocacy training to planning peaceful protests.  The WUC (and other innovative NGOs addressing other global human rights violations) understands that it is not only the United Nations and its member states that can end human rights violations.  Ordinary citizens themselves must take up the mantle of protecting human rights when the hands of the international community are tied.  Creating justice for crimes against humanity is the responsibility of all global citizens – and here’s what you can do to help.

References

Franklin, J. C. (2015). “Human rights naming and shaming: International and domestic processes” in H. R. Friman (Ed.) The Politics of Leverage in International Relations. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Landsman, S. (1997). Alternative responses to serious human rights abuses: Of prosecution and truth commissions. Law and Contemporary Problems, 59(4), 81-92.

Longmont Community Justice Partnership (2017). Restorative Conversations and Agreement: Structured Conversations for Resolving One-on-One Conflict. https://boulderhousingcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Restorative-Conversations-and-Agreement-Meetings-for-BHC-Manual.pdf

Pape, R. A. (1997). Why economic sanctions do not work. International Security, 22(2), 90-136.

Roberts, S. R. (2009). Imagining Uyghurstan: Re-evaluating the birth of the modern Uyghur nation. Central Asian Survey, 28(4), 361-381.

Van Zyl, P. (1999). Dilemmas of transitional justice: The case of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Journal of International Affairs, 53(2), 647-667.

A Humanitarian Crisis in Xinjiang

by Dianna Bai

Uyghur children in old town Kashgar, China.
Child’s play – Uyghur children in old town Kashgar, China. Source: Sherpas 428, Creative Commons

Among the corpses frozen in exodus over the icy mountain pass, will you recognize me? Our brothers 

we begged for shelter took our clothes. Pass by there even now and you will see our naked 

corpses. When they force me to accept the massacre as love 

Do you know that I am with you. Perhat Tursun, translated by Joshua L. Freeman

In the arid and ashen deserts of Xinjiang, the northwestern province of China, as many as 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps by the Chinese government for mandatory “re-education.” Scores of the compounds can be seen vividly from satellite images. Enclosed by concrete walls, barbed wire, and guard stations, they have the imposing sterility of prisons. Inside, the detainees, Uyghurs, and members of a few other ethnic groups who practice the Muslim faith, are forced to participate in a program of indoctrination, listening to lectures, singing songs that praise the Communist Party of China, and writing essays of “self-criticism.” They are also coerced into abandoning traditional practices tied to Islam: praying, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, and abstaining from pork and alcohol.

The stated aim of the campaign is to eliminate extremism in a region that has been marked by unrest and separatist violence, to produce “transformation by education.” One revealing official document reviewed by Agence-France Press states that to produce this change, the centers must “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” It’s clear that in Xinjiang, China has gone far beyond fighting separatism and works actively to erase a great cultural tradition for the purposes of political stability. The mass detention underway is a reflection of the Xi Jinping government, a nationalistic, hardline regime that often glorifies the practices of the Mao years. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, millions of youth from Chinese cities were sent to the countryside for “re-education.” The recent spate of mass detentions should come as no surprise.

Who are the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

Xinjiang is a province in China that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. China is dominated by the Han majority, which comprises over 90 percent of the population, but is also home to 55 ethnic minorities. About 10 million Muslim Uyghurs (and other Muslim minorities) live in the Xinjiang province. The Uyghurs, who feel a stronger kinship with the peoples of Central Asia than with the Han Chinese, speak a distinct Turkic language similar to Uzbek and practice a form of Sunni Islam. They have left a distinct mark on the history of Inner Asia, having ruled their own kingdom that stretched from Manchuria to the Caspian Sea in the eighth and ninth centuries but is now concentrated in Xinjiang. Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, Xinjiang has been ruled by China as an “autonomous” region that is not truly autonomous. Freedoms and liberties for the Uyghurs have been curtailed heavily – the recent mass detentions are only a piece of the larger picture of repression that Uyghurs face.

Uyghurs are divided in opinion over their political autonomy. Some support remaining a distinct culture within the Xinjiang Autonomous Region or integrating into the Chinese system, while others call for becoming a separate state called “East Turkestan.”  For China, Xinjiang is an important province, the biggest domestic producer of oil and gas that is also a critical logistics hub for the “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious trillion dollar infrastructure plan meant to strengthen China’s global influence. China is also concerned that unrest in Xinjiang will spark unrest in other provinces such as Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan.

The brutal measures toward the Muslims in Xinjiang are only one aspect of the broader repression levied against religious groups in China under Xi Jinping. The U.S. State Department has long designated China as a “particular country of concern” with regards to religious freedom. An authoritarian state that fears the rise of civil society, China has placed restrictions on all religious groups—from the Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners. Throughout the history of the PRC, the state has been monitoring the activities of major religious organizations and even banning groups such as the popular spiritual movement Falun Gong, which had gained approximately 70 million followers in China before it was declared illegal. On the Tibetan plateau, where there are six million adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and its exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, we see some of the most extreme measures. Paramilitary police patrol the streets to monitor the movements ethnic Tibetans, reinforced by a fleet of video cameras recording all events for review. The “grid management” system that Xinjiang now employs was tried and tested first in Tibet, where an army of community workers oversee sections of the city divided into “grids” to provide security officials with real-time data that could uncover the first signs of potential unrest.

Since Xi Jinping has consolidated power, the crackdown on religion has intensified. The uptick in repression has been especially visible for Protestant churches and quasi-Christian groups since 2016. Reports from Christians in China tell of an alarming increase in Bibles burned, churches demolished, and pastors detained. As Heritage Foundation fellow Olivia Enos explains, “I think that the Chinese government, like so many authoritarian governments around the world, recognizes that religion gives an alternative authority to the government and it requires the allegiance of the people to an authority that is, frankly, far higher than the government.”

a Uyghur man
Uyghur man. Source: Todenhoff, Creative Commons

A Police State Emerges in Xinjiang

Maintaining political stability in Xinjiang has been paramount for China, especially as discontent has flared up in recent years. As Xinjiang has developed economically since 1949, the government has encouraged the migration of Han Chinese into the region. Tensions have arisen as many Uyghurs resent discrimination by the government and the Han Chinese. Uyghurs have watched the higher paying jobs go to the ethnically Han Chinese while the Uyghur “minorities” have been given the labor-intensive jobs for lesser pay.  Long-simmering tensions exploded in 2008 and 2009 when thousands of Uyghurs took to the streets to riot in Xinjiang over the unfair treatment by the government and the Han Chinese.

Blaming the 2008 and 2009 riots on Uyghur separatists, China has since implemented increasingly repressive policies to control the Uyghurs in Xinjiang under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.  Several Uyghur-led rebellions against the Chinese government have punctuated the history of Xinjiang, dating back to the early 1900s. During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial government’s attempt to assimilate the Uyghur people into China created antagonism between Uyghurs and the Chinese government that became a foundation of the newly formed Uyghur identity. Today, there also exist extreme separatist groups in Xinjiang with ties to global jihad, including the Turkestan Islamic Party, which took credit for a series of attacks in 2008. In one sense, it is easy to see why the current government of China would be vigilant about violence and ensuring that the Uyghurs never rise up again as they have in history. They fear that China will splinter if regional separatist movements gain traction and inspire each other. Yet China has gone far beyond fighting the perceived threat, now detaining innocent people and infringing on so many aspects of their daily lives.

The brutal repression of the Uyghurs expanded dramatically in 2016 with the installation of a new Party chief, Chen Quanguo, who has brought his experience quelling unrest as the former Party chief of Tibet. In 2017, Xinjiang’s security spending increased by more than 90 percent to $8.52 billion. Xinjiang is now a police state where the government intrudes into many aspects of people’s lives. According to one detailed report that summarizes the findings of numerous accounts in the media:

  • “Uyghurs have been banned from fasting during Ramadan, refusing to eat pork, refusing to wear shorts, refusing to watch state TV or listen to state radio, wearing burqas, having “abnormal” beards, performing traditional funeral rites, speaking to family members overseas, travelling overseas, and giving their children Islamic names such as Mohammad and Fatima.”
  • Chinese flags and Communist slogans have been installed in mosques.
  • “Convenience police stations” have been set up every 500 meters in the capital city of Urumqi
  • Local officials have been required to “live, eat, and study” with local families.
  • Volunteers are assigned households to monitor. They are charged with finding out what organizations people belong and “the sort of lives they lead” including their political opinions.
  • 40,000 face-recognition cameras have been installed to track Uyghurs
  • All drivers in Xinjiang have been required to install GPS trackers in their cars that will monitor their movements
  • Police have taken voice samples, DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans.
  • Uyghurs are regularly required to have their ID cards checked doing typical activities in a day such as traveling and filling up gas.

Perhaps the most drastic measures have been the mass detentions. Uyghurs who have committed no crime other than practicing their religion – activities such as reading an Islamic verse at a funeral or making a pilgrimage to Mecca – have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang. As former detainees tell their stories, the world has gotten a sense of what takes place inside of the camps. It’s not the sunny “vocational education” that Chinese officials and state television have propagated. Part of the detention involves education: former detainees have described being taught daily lessons in Pinyin, the Romanized system of Chinese. Other lessons are less innocuous—songs praising Xi Jinping, curriculum about the hero Lei Feng to inspire devotion to communism. Detainees have reported being forced to recite “126 lies” about religion. “Religion is opium, religion is bad, you must believe in no religion, you must believe in the Communist Party,” one former detainee remembers.

The use of force is not uncommon in the camps. Official documents obtained about the camps include a procurement order for 2,768 police batons, 550 electric cattle prods, 1,367 pairs of handcuffs, and 2,792 cans of pepper spray. Another detainee has told the BBC that they were forced to wake before sunrise every morning for mandatory runs. Those who didn’t run fast enough were beaten and kicked by guards. More beatings were in store for detainees who couldn’t recite correctly the laws they were forced to memorize. In one case, an ethnically Kazakh man who had been detained revealed to NPR that he had been tortured for resisting the orders of a guard to make his bed and throwing the mattress at the guard—though he was the only one at his camp to actually be tortured rather than just threatened. He’d been forced to wear a suit made of metal weighing over 50 lbs that stretched out his limbs and caused him immense pain in his back. “They made people wear this thing to break their spirits,” he told NPR. “After 12 hours, I became so soft, quiet and lawful.”

The humanitarian crisis against Muslims in Xinjiang can hold lessons for the United States as well, especially with regards to the recent travel ban against five Muslim majority countries. In the name of national security, China has swept a broad swath of society into one vilified category and carried out massive human rights violations against their own citizens on the basis of faith. China doesn’t honor religious freedom or the rights of minorities. To the Chinese government, there is no sense that these rights should be protected when larger objectives are at stake. These protections, however, are a defining characteristic of the United States as a democracy. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal. Honoring the fundamental rights of one group means honoring the rights of all. It ensures that there will be no “tyranny of the majority.” While the travel ban does not compare to the vast violation of civil liberties in China, it undermines the spirit of democracy and contributes to the widespread prejudice and discrimination against people of religious faith in America.

 

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

The Plight of China’s Migrant Workers

by Dianna Bai

a photo of a Chinese shoemaker
The shoemaker’s children always go barefoot. Having an issue with one of your shoes? No problem, the old cobbler on the sidewalk corner can help you. There are less and less street workers like that now in China, but is some places of cities, we can easily found plenty of them. They are mainly old people, who I guess has always been doing this, in this place, from winter to summer, even when it is raining. The price is still attractive for clients who prefer deal in the street rather than in shops… but for how long. This is China. Source: Gauthier DELECROIX, Creative Commons

China’s newfound economic prowess since the reform and opening has been shouldered by its massive population of migrant laborers. A significant surplus of unskilled workers and a lax regulatory environment has given Chinese factories, like those in many developing countries, a competitive edge over their counterparts in the Global North. In this troubling “race to the bottom,” a great number of Chinese factories overwork and underpay their rank-and-file employees, at times subjecting them to sordid and dangerous conditions. Although brands such as Nike, Walmart and Apple have been pressured by the international media and human rights organizations to take responsibility for labor rights within their supply chains, it is difficult to separate the profits of these corporations from their habitual exploitation of the weak human rights standards and ineffective enforcement of regulations in countries like China.

For most of China’s 131 million migrant workers, leaving the village and traveling to the city to find gainful employment is the greatest opportunity as well as the most harrowing journey of their lives. The freedom and ability to leave their rural hometown are points of pride for migrant workers, yet the enormous surplus of labor in the urban areas has led to fierce competition in the market, forcing them to accept low wages, no benefits, poor working conditions, strict work regimes, and little job security. In the documentary China Blue, we see employees of the blue jean factory worked for pennies an hour, less than the minimum wage, and are often forced to work overtime – even overnight – to meet shipping deadlines. Some are so exhausted by continuous hours of labor that they fall asleep at their workstations, risking reprimand by their supervisors. Factory workers often do not get paid on time and new workers lose their first month’s paycheck as a “deposit,” a sum of money they never receive if they choose to quit. Furthermore, migrant workers have no access to healthcare or education in the city as a result of the discriminatory hukou system that binds them legally to their rural hometowns. China has a comprehensive set of labor laws including minimum wage, but local and provincial officials rarely enforce them in order to attract foreign businesses and boost their regions’ economic growth. As a result, migrant workers are exploited on dual levels, by the factories that employ them and the state that fails to protect them.

Most migrant workers do not understand their legal rights; they have no organized way to defend them. Workers have some inkling of their rights when it is most obvious. However, they lack knowledge of the comprehensive but unenforced regulations protecting them. In China Blue, the workers at the blue jean factory held a haphazard strike after their pay had been delayed for three months. There have also been some success stories of migrant workers taking legal actions against their employers. Lawyers like Zhou Litai have made triumphant careers from helping injured workers litigate with their employers for rightful compensation. Yet a string of individual cases won by workers has not changed the basic conditions of factories. Because of an authoritarian government that fears the rise of civil society, the Chinese government has not allowed independent labor unions to form in China. In developed countries, these types of organizations undergirded the labor rights movement during the industrialization process. They educated workers, negotiated with factory owners on their behalf, and organized strikes when necessary. If Chinese workers are not empowered to speak up for themselves, then who has the luxury to speak for them?

One might argue that Western consumers have the luxury to speak up for these exploited workers by demanding corporations to “clean up” their supply chains. The anti-sweatshop movement has gained great momentum in the past two decades. Due to negative media attention and pressure from NGOs, many multinational corporations that source overseas have devoted significant resources and efforts to audit the factories in their supply chains, even establishing social compliance divisions solely dedicated to this goal. Brands such as Nike at first defended the conditions in its Indonesian factories, contending that their corporation has created thousands of jobs for people who lack better opportunities. Philip Knight, the founder of Nike, pointed out: “People argued that we were taking advantage of the poor Japanese workers 20 years ago. Now Japan makes no Nikes and imports $100 million of them.” Nevertheless, Nike soon followed cues from other corporations and drafted a code of conduct for its factories.

a portrait of a Chinese farmer
Happy Farmer. Farmer after working in the morning – getting ready to deliver vegetables to town for lunch. Jiashan, China Source: DaiLuo, Creative Commons.

The global movement for labor rights has brought international attention to the plight of workers in developing countries and put the issue on the table for multinational corporations. However, there is a serious inherent problem in letting corporations police themselves: a misalignment of incentives. The primary aims of private corporations are to make profits, satisfy customers, and reward shareholders. They accomplish these goals by constantly trying to improve cost efficiency, which is what attracts them to developing world factories. Apple, for example, produces its products in China because of the huge economies of scales that can be achieved there as opposed to the United States. The speed and flexibility of the Chinese manufacturing sector has drawn in companies like Apple, but it comes at the price of poorer labor conditions. Cost efficiency puts the corporations’ incentives in misalignment with social compliance divisions. Because social compliance divisions do not usually cooperate with buying departments, multinational corporations are essentially asking factories to improve the conditions for their workers while still demanding the same low prices. This disjunction has led to massive falsification of records by factory owners, undermining the integrity of the audit process. The audit profession itself is also plagued with human capital problems and instances of bribery. Corporations, in turn, have little incentive to investigate fraud so long as they can present a picture of compliance to concerned consumers. They can essentially pay lip service to the human rights movement by going along with the records presented to them. In the case of mass falsification, concerned consumers cannot even be certain that a brand which claims to buy from only factories with good labor conditions is, in fact, doing so.

Instead of simply paying attention to better audits of factories from corporations, consumers who are concerned about the labor conditions in China should also demand “responsible prices” at the manufacturing level. Currently, the prices that brands pay to factory owners in China are so low that they face the dilemma of improving labor conditions and losing business or falsifying records to comply with labor standards. Timberland, for example, will pay only $20 per shoe that it buys from a manufacturer, while selling it to the retailer for $50, which then sells it to consumers for $100. In the $80 of revenue gained after the product has been purchased from the manufacturer, there must be some room to offer the manufacturer a better price without passing on the cost to consumers. Consumer groups should scrutinize the profit structure of brands and retailers and buy goods that pay manufacturers better, so that manufacturers can pass on the generosity to their workers. This requires the buying department and the social compliance division to work together to establish an agreeable price for products that takes into account favorable labor conditions. This doesn’t necessarily have to come with a loss of profits for the brands and retailers. Favorable corporations will gain the loyalty and goodwill of a growing number of consumers who are concerned about emerging market labor conditions.

However, a consumer can only do so much on the demand side. Much of the work to be done on labor rights must come from the workers themselves. NGOs working in this field must continue educating workers on labor rights, encouraging them to organize, and advocating for the establishment of true, independent labor unions. China’s official labor union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), functions more as a peacekeeping organ between workers and management rather than a labor union truly representing the interests of workers. Although the ACFTU has considerable political clout at the national level and lobbies for labor protection laws, its chapters at various factories rarely make demands on behalf of workers. ACFTU union leaders are generally chosen by the factory management and remain beholden to the management. Chinese workers need unions with democratically elected leaders who will truly represent their interests rather than serving as a “bridge” between workers and the management. Without autonomous labor unions representing them, workers cannot bargain collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Their rights enshrined by Chinese law will go unheeded.

From one perspective, multinational corporations that choose to manufacture their products in China are giving thousands of Chinese workers opportunities they would never have had in the countryside. Although migrant workers often face laborious conditions in factories, they are earning far more than their rural counterparts and gaining more consumption power. As China becomes wealthier as a result of the economic growth driven by the export-oriented manufacturing sector, workers will naturally begin to demand more rights and better living standards. This process has taken place during the industrialization process in many former developing countries. In the meantime, however, multinational corporations are keen to exploit – for as long as they can – an inherently broken legal system and a profoundly undemocratic culture that has relegated millions of Chinese migrant workers to second-class citizenry. When China introduced in law in 2006 to give labor unions more concrete power, multinational corporations were the first to protest by implying they would move their factories elsewhere. Rather than relying on a social compliance scheme that often tolerates the falsification of records during audits, consumers should also urge corporations to offer responsible prices for manufacturers so that they can give workers better treatment without losing business. Most importantly, the Chinese and international human rights movement must continue their efforts to educate workers on labor rights and promote a political environment that will allow the formation of independent labor unions.

 

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

Continuity and Change on the Korean Peninsula

**As Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump prepare for the North Korean Summit in Singapore on Tuesday, this repost from last Spring sheds light on the complexity and seriousness of this summit. 

by GRIFFIN LEONARD

a picture of two North Korean soldiers looking through binoculars towards the South
North Korean Guard looking South. Source: Expert Infantry, Creative Commons.

A lot has been said recently about the seemingly worsening relationship between the US and Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK). Unsurprisingly, much of the commentary revolves around the Trump Administration at a time where the new President seems confronted by numerous international “situations.” The dropping of a MOAB in Afghanistan and missile strikes against Syria, when taken together with heightened tensions between the US and the DPRK, paint a broader picture of the direction the Trump Presidency is taking. While this may be helpful to Americans as they try to understand their President’s decisions, putting Trump as the centerpiece of analysis has the dangerous potential to obscure other important factors, namely the continuity and change that has marked the US-DPRK relationship. Only by including both in our analysis can we begin to understand the events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula.

Change

Like any relationship, that of the US and DPRK does not exist in a vacuum. Their bilateral relations are well known. Diplomatic efforts have failed to yield real progress towards a resolution of the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, much less move towards a sustainable arrangement between the parties involved there. Border incidents that have claimed the lives of South Koreans, North Koreans and Americans have been ongoing for as long as the current border has existed. These incidents have, of course, been the cause of heightened tensions at different times between the US and DPRK.

The relationship is also subject to changes in the international environment. Authoritarian practices in South Korea following the end of the Korean War forced the US to consider what exactly the South Korean people had inherited from the devastating conflict. The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 raised concerns of nuclear terrorism and therefore nuclear proliferation more generally. The growing power of China in military and economic terms continues to raise the significance of the steps they are or are not willing to take in trying to tackle the issues at hand on the Korean Peninsula. These and other global trends influence the measure of significance which the US attaches to the Korean Peninsula at any given time; and the way by which they choose to engage with the DPRK.

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump could be, or cause, another significant change in the US–DPRK relationship. Of central importance is Trump’s demonstrated impulsive and inconsistent behaviour, especially when it comes to how he communicates with others. He differs from other Presidents because not only are the policies towards adversaries and allies in question, but as an international community, we find ourselves wondering how he will behave on a more basic level. Will he put aside basic and long-standing diplomatic decorum, aggravating other world leaders with hostile rhetoric akin to what he employed during his campaign for the Presidency?

The same countries and their leaders that Trump dealt out insults to as 2016 ticked by are the same countries and leaders that he must deal with in 2017.

Of more concern is whether Trump will be able to communicate a clear message to adversaries at all. It remains to be seen whether Trump can frame the many public announcements he has to make in a way that appeals to his domestic support base (something all politicians do) but also conveys the US’ position on important matters to other world leaders, adversary and ally. Doing this requires consistency and coherency across the many mediums through which the President now communicates: social media, informal television interviews and formal White House events and statements. The outlook is not good so far.

a picture of the DMZ between north and south Korea
Joint Security Area, North Korea-South Korea border. Source: SarahTz, Creative Commons.

It has been widely reported that the Trump Administration’s statements regarding the DPRK have been hostile and inflammatory. This is undoubtedly true. An important aspect to note is that through deliberate decision-making or gaffe, much of the communication by the Trump Administration has created confusion among the parties invested in the Korean Peninsula.

I will explain this point using two examples. First, the vague statement released by Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, following a recent missile test by the DPRK and Trump’s refusal to answer questions on the matter on American television. Trump has long promoted the idea that not to reveal his next move is, in and of itself, a smart move. The issue is that when states do not want to fight over an issue, they seek information about how far they can push their luck, making as large a gain as possible (whether this be in terms of prestige or something more material) while avoiding direct conflict. In other words, they attempt to discern when to yield. To do this, a state must have some idea of what their adversary is willing and/or capable of doing to resolve a dispute in their own favour.

For all the absurdities of the North Korean regime, it is highly unlikely that they want to ever see a direct confrontation with the US. Vagueness on the part of the Trump Administration keeps the DPRK in the dark as to where the line is and increases the chance that they will trip right over it. The DPRK wants to make gains in the form of developing its missile capability. Trump needs to find a way of communicating to their leadership when, where and how the US is willing to act; therefore, talks with DPRK are far from being complete.

The second example is the mistake made by Trump and other officials when an “armada” heading towards Australia was said to be heading in the direction of North Korea. Inaccurate information compounds all the issues related to ambiguity mentioned above. What is more, this error unsettled South Korea with politicians and media outlets questioning Trump’s will and ability to deal with the DPRK. This response should, perhaps, not be unexpected. Given their common border, the DPRK could inflict massive damage on South Korea through conventional weapons alone. Similarly, Japan feels threatens due to their proximity and the 50,000 US troops stationed there. Experts vary in their predictions of by which date the DPRK could develop a missile capable of reaching the US.

Taking these two examples together, while it is clear the rhetoric emanating from the White House is inflammatory, it is less clear whether it is effectively conveying information to the parties involved regarding America’s stance and intentions.

It is important to say that this is not simply a matter of finding Trump to be a distasteful person. His public performance in dealing with this issue is of real significance. While academics debate whether rhetoric utilised by politicians has any influence over the course of events in foreign affairs, policy makers themselves seem to place great importance on the public pronouncements made by state officials. In reading the autobiographies of former US Presidents, one quickly realises that they believe their words are important in directing the course of events; therefore, we should not be surprised that politicians place a lot of value in their own words! The South Korean response to Trump’s mistake in stating that the US was sending an armada towards the Korean Peninsula is an indicator of the importance that other world leaders place in the statements of their colleagues. Trump’s statements can heighten tensions with adversaries and offend allies whom he claims he would persuade to take more of the financial burden of dealing with said adversaries.

Regarding the DPRK, few governments, if any, are so committed to the “performance” of governance. Large portions of the DPRK’s state structure are committed to promoting the party line to both the domestic population of North Korea and the international community. Strict media and Internet control by the state demonstrates the significance attached to the control of public information.

DPRK officials do this precisely because they know that other state leaders and intelligence agencies monitor speeches by regime officials, television broadcasts, and internet traffic, to read between the lines and get a better picture of what happens in their secretive society. Similarly, they would remain committed to trying to glean information from the televised interviews, public speeches and, yes, even tweets of Donald Trump’s Administration. To think otherwise is naïve.

a picture of the 3rd Tunnel which joins North and South Korea
The 3rd Tunnel – joining North and South Korea. Source: Dushan Hanuska, Creative Commons

Continuity

It is easy to allow our focus to drift too quickly to new developments in this unfolding situation. Some elements of the continued tension between the US and DPRK, while not as exciting or topical as Trump’s Presidency, are equally as important in explaining the current state of affairs. One such element is the presence of nuclear weapons. Three parties involved in the dispute, the DPRK, US and China, are nuclear capable to one degree or another.

In an indictment of nuclear deterrence theory, the very manoeuvres–diplomatic, military and otherwise–that both the US and DPRK make due to the significance they attribute to a dispute in which nuclear weapons are involved, may be the very thing that, deliberately or otherwise, spark the use of military force on the Peninsula. Even if it were true that, as proponents of nuclear deterrence advocate, weapons of mass destruction make the cost of entering and engaging in conflict so high that no reasonable state leader would consider doing so, the constant need to balance armaments leads to an arms race that only serves to heighten the tensions one wishes to avoid, increasing the risk of unplanned escalation. It should not be lost on us that this current round of tensions was triggered, in large part, by exactly this: the DPRK undertaking missile tests. Moreover, as explained below, not only could state leaders consider using nuclear weapons despite knowing the consequences, they have!

It is simply a convenient out to equate the problems generated by nuclear weapons with the current occupant of the White House. Throughout his presidential campaign, the question of whether (Trump) was the “type of person” that we would want having control of the US nuclear arsenal was often raised. While this question is reasonable at face value, it suggests that the threat of nuclear weapons does not have so much to do with the weapons themselves as the person empowered to use them or the state that possesses them.

As to the last point, having to ask this question of US electoral candidates belies the idea that certain types of states can be trusted to possess nuclear weapons. One could argue that democratically elected leaders must consider domestic support for a decision to use nuclear weapons, whereas dictators do not. However, of all the situations in which we can imagine decision-makers considering the use of nuclear weapons, cases in which contemplation could be given to domestic support for the idea make up only a small portion. It is likely that such a situation would be characterised by small time-horizons and partial information. If nothing else, it is perfectly consistent with democratic systems that a person we would not want in charge of nuclear weapons can be elected.

Here we are back to the notion of whom. If there are types of people we cannot trust to be in charge of nuclear weapons then perhaps there are types of people that we can trust too?

In the well-known documentary, The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara imparts lessons from his life, he describes the parties involved (and the world) as having “lucked out” in avoiding nuclear confrontation during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regardless of what one thinks of John F. Kennedy, perhaps it is not too strong to say that he was a more experienced political operator than Donald Trump. Yet, even JFK and the leaders of the Soviet Union and Cuba–all rational people, per McNamara, came exceptionally close to making decisions that could end their societies, as they knew them. McNamara concludes the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. This is not due to the character of one particular person but the inescapably imperfect process of human decision-making.

The failure to understand both the current events and long-term processes at work in this situation has consequences beyond a lacking analysis. Trump and the members of his administration need to be included in any understanding of US-DPRK relations. On one hand, the Trump Administration undoubtedly plays a role in determining the course of events regarding the Korean Peninsula, so attempts to downplay the administration’s significance is to remove their accountability for the dispute’s trajectory. On the other hand, to ignore ongoing issues, such as the presence of nuclear weapons in this dispute, suggests a fatalistic perspective where the resolution of all international affairs rests on the shoulders of one person – the US President. There are a multitude of drivers of this conflict and thus a multitude of levers that can be pulled in trying to steer the course of events towards a peaceful resolution. Groups of concerned people tackling the issue of continued nuclear stockpiling are only one example. While we rightly continue to understand our political leaders’ decisions, holding them to account for the consequences thereof, it is important to remember that they are not the sole causes or agents of social change.

 

Griffin Leonard is a third year PhD candidate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago. His research analyses the role of US Presidential rhetoric in determining militarised interstate dispute outcomes involving the US since 1950. His expertise is in American foreign policy and diplomatic history.