The United States highlighted a deteriorating picture for human rights across the world on Tuesday, calling out China's repression of Uyghurs and Russia's targeting of political dissidents, among other abuses.
The State Department released reports on the rights situation last year in nearly 200 countries, which are required annually by law and include detailed reports on geopolitical rivals like Russia and China. The report said that Beijing is committing “genocide and crimes against humanity” and the country's Muslim minority in the western region of Xinjiang.
According to the report, “Genocide and crimes against humanity occurred during the year against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.”
The report highlighted crimes such as the arbitrary imprisonment of more than 1 million civilians, forced sterilization, rape, torture, forced labor and “draconian restrictions” on freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of movement.
"The trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a news conference in Washington. Blinken said some governments had used the coronavirus crisis as a "pretext to restrict rights and consolidate authoritarian rule."
China is furiously denying any accusation and saying that authorities are fighting terrorism within the country. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking on the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, said, “Basic facts show that there has never been so-called genocide, forced labor or religious oppression in Xinjiang.”
Although Beijing has acknowledged the existence of the camps in Xinjiang, it asserted that they are vocational skills training centers necessary to tackle “extremism.” Western countries are increasingly opposed to Beijing's treatment of the Uyghurs amid growing tensions between the United States and its allies and China.
The report on China issued on Tuesday used more assertive language to describe the Chinese government's mass detention program in Xinjiang province. Blinken said in January that he agreed with a determination by his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, that China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, which China denies.
In addition to the "more than 1 million" Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups it said were in extrajudicial internment camps, the report said there were "an additional 2 million subjected to daytime-only 're-education' training," a new reference not included in the previous year's report.
In China, authorities facilitated the disappearance of four citizen journalists reporting on the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Academics in China who strayed from the official narratives about the pandemic faced harassment, censorship and in some cases interventions by universities and police, the State Department said.
The report on Russia highlighted the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who was jailed earlier this year when he returned after receiving treatment for being poisoned with a nerve agent. It said "credible reports" indicated officers from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned Navalny.
In Ethiopia, the department called out what it said were significant human rights issues. It accused the government of at times not taking steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses, "resulting in impunity for abusers." It also said limited access to the Tigray region, where thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes, makes it difficult to determine the extent of human rights abuses and violations.
The United Nations has raised concerns about atrocities being committed in Tigray, while Blinken has described acts carried out in the region as ethnic cleansing. Ethiopia has rejected Blinken's allegation. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's spokesperson and a government spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment early Thursday.
Blinken also said that the State Department would reintroduce topics regarding reproductive health in the country reports, topics removed by the former administration of President Donald Trump.
An addendum will be released later this year that will cover the issues, which include information about maternal mortality and discrimination against women in accessing reproductive health care, Blinken said.
"Because women's rights – including sexual and reproductive rights – are human rights," Blinken said.