President Biden’s statement on the genocide against Uyghur Muslims in China, proclaiming China’s actions as a “cultural norm” to defend the lack of US intervention in the matter, has sparked international controversy. As gatekeepers of international development institutions, the US utilizes the defence of Asian values and Asian exceptionalism as a convenient facade to selectively intervene in international humanitarian crises.
Asian exceptionalism is usually employed by authoritarian actors – notably by former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew – making its use by a so-called democratic pioneer (the US) to cover up human rights deficiencies rather ironic. This article analyzes historical instances of selective US intervention enabled by a monopoly over international institutions to prioritize their own development. Selective intervention by the US refers to the sets of excuses used by the democratic pioneer to avoid intervention in situations that conflict with economic and political interests. The front of Asian values and exceptionalism is yet another disappointing example of such commodification of humanity and aid.
On February 17th, in a televised event discussing the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims – a minority religious group in China – by President Xi Jinping, President Biden defended the lack of US intervention in genocide as “there are different norms in each country and their leaders are expected to follow.” Biden’s association of religiously motived genocide as a cultural norm while also reaffirming “repercussions” against China’s human rights violations is confusing and contradictory. Instead of condoning humanitarian atrocities, these “repercussions” are likely an attempt at restoring an international trade alliance hampered by the Trump administration’s sanctions and tariff war.
Straying from Cold War strategies of containment, US military intervention is commonly associated with the “responsibility to protect.” One of the earliest instances of US military intervention for humanitarian purposes was in Somalia in 1992 by the Bush administration. The US’ position as a protector of democracy and freedom is supposedly reflected in its foreign policy.
A shaky history
However, the US lack of action in genocidal conditions is, unfortunately, not a unique phenomenon. Only two years after the US intervention in Somalia, Hutu extremists in the Rwandan armed forces shot down a plane holding Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and the President of Burundi in 1994. This event sparked a catastrophic ethnic genocide that resulted in the murder of approximately 800,000 Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, in 100 days. Despite the obvious evidence of an ongoing genocide including US intelligence in late April of that year which suggested that there was “no end to the unprecedented bloodshed … in sight”, the US response was abysmal.
The international community failed to respond to the pleas of Rwandans. Belgian peacekeeping forces that had been established in Rwanda to prevent civil war reduced their foothold by almost 90%. The disregard of information regarding the genocide extended to UN headquarters as General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN peacekeeping mission, sent cables to the Security Council of the UN informing them of the violence, meaning international decision-makers, including the UN knew about the ongoing situation, contrary to their claims. In March of 1998, four years after the genocide, Bill Clinton acknowledged that the US and the world community “did not do as much as we should have” in Rwanda. The “Clinton apology” hid the reality of US involvement in the Rwandan genocide. The US supported the removal of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda and blocked “authorization of UN reinforcements” while refusing to “use its technology to jam radio broadcasts” that were instrumental in the Hutu coordination and dissemination of propaganda against Tutsis. Furthermore, the US was hesitant to term the violence as a “genocide” in order to shirk any legal responsibility.
This time, while the US has categorized China’s behaviour against the Uyghur Muslims as a genocide, their reluctance to intervene remains consistent with past events. This brings us to the lingering question: Will the US use its power to stop a genocide? Or will it continue to justify inaction by emphasizing Chinese “cultural norms”?
While President Biden’s election this year served as a glimmer of hope for the values of American democracy, his recent international responses and efforts to maintain the political and economic dominance of the world reiterate previous patterns of negligence and the hypocrisy of the “right to protect”. Another recent example of this is the “recalibration” in Saudi Arabia’s relations inherited from the Trump administration. The recent release of US intelligence reports confirmed that the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 was approved by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince. However, rather than taking action against the Crown Prince, the US State Department instead instituted the “Khashoggi Ban” , banning from US entry 76 Saudis who were believed to be “engaged in threatening dissidents overseas”. This is yet another grim reminder of just how much the US will forego to maintain relations and economic interests.
American response, motives, and the future?
In June of 2020, former president Trump disapproved of sanctions against Chinese officials regarding the mass detention camps due to its potential interference in “a major trade deal” with Beijing. Despite signing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in 2020, Trump’s ignorance towards the Magnitsky Act of 2016 echoes previous US closed-eyed responses to international humanitarian crises. Trump’s justification for not using the Act was simple: “nobody’s mentioned it specifically to me with regard to China.” The transactional approach employed by the US is revealing of the selective intervention in human rights issues. Whereas the US has been relatively generous in imposing sanctions on countries in the Middle East, funding wars in the Gulf, and intimidating Venezuelan executive actors in connection to human rights abuses, it has been relatively Janus-faced in their ignorance of similar abuses committed by potential allies and trade partners.
Despite designating itself as a protector of democracy and freedom, the US has remained selective in its approaches to humanitarian intervention. The US has on countless occasions either used excuses to forego intervention, such as in China, or refused to acknowledge humanitarian crises, such as in Rwanda. While the reasons for US selective intervention in humanitarian crises mentioned here are not exhaustive, it is difficult to deny that the US has historically tended to intervene only when they have something to gain by doing so.
The contradiction in both declaring the violence against Uyghur Muslims in China as genocide and then defending limited US involvement because of different “cultural norms” is a stark reminder of the Janus-faced developmental diplomacy that forefronts US interests and provides yet another convenient facade for non-interventionist policy.
Edited by Helia Mokhber
Photo credits: by Kuzzat Altay, published on March 3, 2021, licensed under Unsplash. No changes were made.
Aakanksha Mathur is a second-year student at McGill University studying International Development Studies and Communication Studies. She is engrossed in understanding and evaluating global humanitarian issues and the effects of media in politics. Having lived her entire life in a cultural melting pot, Dubai, she has a keen interest in assessing topics via a cross-cultural perspective.