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Human rights cannot be subservient to climate change

How the Biden administration should lead in addressing a genocide

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October 29, 2021

This weekend, world leaders will meet in Rome for the G20 Summit to discuss climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Immediately following, over a hundred world leaders are expected to attend the Glasgow Climate Change Conference. Prior to his trip abroad, President Biden is urging Congress to swiftly reach an agreement on the reconciliation package, in order to demonstrate America’s commitment to care for the climate.

Climate change is one of President Biden’s top priorities—so much so that he has downplayed severe human rights concerns with the world’s largest polluter: the People’s Republic of China (PRC). John F. Kerry, Biden’s envoy for climate, has reportedly pressured leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives to delay consideration of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act for fear of the bill’s impact on climate discussions with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Since 2017, the CCP has waged a systematic war of persecution against the Uyghur people, a predominantly Turkic-speaking ethnic group in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost territory. Uyghurs are subjected to totalitarian tactics that include pervasive surveillance, forced detainment and placement into internment camps for “political reeducation,” forced labor, forced birth control, sterilization or abortion, rape, physical and psychological torture and forced organ harvesting. Estimates vary, but experts believe that China has detained between one million and three million Uyghur people in these facilities.

While climate change is an important issue for global leaders to collectively take up, countering the CCP’s ongoing genocide against the Uyghur people must be an immediate priority, coupled with bold leadership from the United States and our allies.

According to Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), they are concerned that, “Mr. Kerry is downplaying the genocide precisely because he intends to import solar panels that are produced using forced labor in the People’s Republic of China to the United States in order to meet the administration’s climate goals.” Indeed, the Biden administration found itself caught between these concerns in July, in the wake of reports linking solar panel production to Uyghur slave labor in Xinjiang. At the time, Kerry’s cohort fought and won an interagency turf war that limited Biden’s response and kept the door open for climate negotiations. Reuters reported Oct. 8 that the “U.S. remote-control maker Universal Electronics Inc (UEIC.O)  struck a deal with authorities in Xinjiang to transport hundreds of Uyghur workers to its plant in the southern Chinese city of Qinzhou, the first confirmed instance of an American company participating in a transfer program described by some rights groups as forced labor.” This appears to be the reason Kerry seeks to desensitize others to this immoral and unnecessary tradeoff by mischaracterizing it as merely a “tough choice.”

On the final day of the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an official determination that the PRC is, “committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, China, for targeting Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups.” By making the genocide determination, the United States became the first country to adopt these terms to describe the CCP’s unconscionable human rights abuses. The Biden administration has maintained that the genocide is ongoing—a welcome bipartisan development.

The term “genocide” was coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944, as he sought to find a word to accurately describe the systematic and brutal murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime. They formed the word genocide by combining “geno-”, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with “-cide”, from the Latin word for killing. Declaring a genocide is a strong, legal action that must be followed by moral leadership from the United States.

The United States and our allies must send a strong message to the CCP that we will not kowtow on the issue of human rights and international religious freedom. We must raise our voices and speak up for those who are rendered vulnerable by oppressive regimes.

Notably, this is the first G20 Summit since the United States made its official genocide determination. This action must hold significant weight for the United States as we attend both the G20 Summit and the Glasgow Conference. Per the G20’s own admission, the top priorities of the summit are “people, planet, prosperity.” Every country represented at the summit should resolve not to succumb to the pressure from the CCP to place any objective above human life. One of the critical roles of government is to protect human rights and religious freedom for all people, and to stand up to authoritarian regimes that place profit above people.

After the horrors of the Holocaust, the world boldly declared, “never again.” Never again would we stand idly by while an entire population was snuffed out at the hands of despots. The United Nations was formed in part to ensure that human rights would be honored and upheld around the world. As President Biden prepares to meet with global leaders, he must act with moral leadership and courage. The lives of millions of Uyghurs depend upon it.

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik serves as the Director of Public Policy with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in the Washington, D.C. office. Previously, she worked on Capitol Hill on pro-life policies, domestic and international religious freedom, adoption, and foster care issues. Chelsea has been published at the Wall Street Journal, … Read More