While in Fiji for a recent Indo-Pacific Security Conference, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN and current USAID Administrator Samantha Power spoke about climate change and tweeted a video of herself playing rugby. She did not mention the threat China poses to the region or any of China’s human rights abuses, including the genocide against its own Muslim population.
Back in 2021, she tweeted a video of herself playing volleyball in Darfur, Sudan. While in Darfur, she never mentioned China’s role in funding the genocide there. Her priorities seem to have changed since she won the Pulitzer Prize for A Problem from Hell, her 2002 book about America’s history of failing to intervene to stop genocide.
The Chinese government is committing a well-documented genocide, and Power knows it. Forced sterilization and forced abortion for the purpose of eradicating an ethnic and religious group meet the legal definition of genocide. Yet since being named USAID administrator, she has not spoken much about it publicly. (I found a single vague reference to it in a speech at the National Press Club in 2022.)
There are more than 1 million Muslims being enslaved, forcibly sterilized, and tortured in concentration camps with a “shoot to kill” policy for attempted escapees. Prisoners range in age from 15 to 73. In women’s camps in Xinjiang, guards use what has been referred to as an “electrified stick,” which is essentially a cattle prod, to repeatedly rape the detainees. One Uyghur woman, who was forced to handcuff prisoners before they were tortured, managed to flee to Kazakhstan. In an interview, she said she still hears the screams and will never stop hearing the screams.
In A Problem from Hell, Power refers to a different type of screamer. “Screamers” were “those frustrated few who spoke up in the newspapers and public meetings against Nazi atrocities.” According to the old Power, “all of the latter-day Screamers treated silence as if it were a further crime against humanity.” It turns out, the new Power is not a Screamer.
A Problem from Hell brilliantly and passionately details America’s catastrophic failure to meet its obligation to stop genocide. Power famously criticized the Clinton administration’s use of the phrase “acts of genocide” to describe the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994. In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department officially called the actions of the Chinese government genocide. The Biden administration has not revoked this designation, yet Power is still not screaming.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide has been binding international law since the 1950s and requires the international community to intervene to stop genocide. The beloved neoliberal principle, “the Responsibility to Protect,” also requires action in the face of genocide. Yet the administration she works for barely mustered a hollow condemnation and limited sanctions against small numbers of individuals and companies from Xinjiang, even though forced Uyghur labor is being used in factories outside of Xinjiang.
These and other symbolic gestures, like clothing retailer H&M refusing to use cotton suppliers from Xinjiang, will not change China’s behavior. They are not really intended to pressure China because, in the end, China makes them rich. These companies and politicians are merely playacting to evade the substantive costs of disentangling themselves from China. And when bureaucrats like Power refuse to “scream,” it makes it easier for them to profit from the genocide.
Despite the “rules-based” international order, the Chinese government has flouted international human rights law with impunity for decades inside and outside of China, particularly throughout Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children as young as 9 work in dangerous conditions in Chinese-owned cobalt mines. Apple and other technology companies use cobalt in lithium-ion batteries for smartphones and laptops. Chinese middlemen in companies like Congo Dongfang International Mining pay the children about 65 cents a day for the cobalt they mine.
In 2020, before working for the Biden administration, Power gave a speech explaining how China undermines human rights wherever it has influence, particularly at the UN. For example, in order to protect its oil interests in Sudan, China threatened to veto any Security Council resolutions critical of the Sudanese government during the genocide in Darfur. China also prevented the deployment of peacekeepers there.
In 2015, about 700 Chinese peacekeepers were deployed to South Sudan where they essentially protected Chinese oil fields and not civilians. As fighting continues in and between Sudan and South Sudan, both countries remain dependent on China. The only condition China has placed on them is that they do not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. So, one of the few things these famine-afflicted, war-torn enemies agree on is that Taiwan belongs to China.
The Chinese government harvests the organs of political prisoners; arrests and “disappears” publishers, book-sellers, and protesters in Hong Kong; plunders the waters around the Galapagos Islands; detains and tortures lawyers, human rights activists, scientists, and journalists; and imprisons and fatally beats Tibetans for handing out pamphlets or teaching their language to their children.
The government’s strategy for containing the coronavirus included installing bars over the doors and windows of homes as well as barricading and welding apartment doors shut to prevent people from leaving. This resulted in a number of people starving to death, including a boy with cerebral palsy whose father and only caregiver was suspected of having coronavirus and so was forcibly removed from their home and quarantined. As China’s power grows, so does the threat to human rights everywhere. Samantha Power used to say this out loud.
Power should be “screaming” about human rights and the genocide in China. If she wanted to, she could make genocide prevention a priority for the Biden administration.
A Problem from Hell details how the promise of “Never Again” proved hollow in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica because government officials knew genocide was occurring but chose to do nothing. Did Samantha Power change her stance on genocide?
Maybe former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden chose her for top positions in their administrations not because of her specific concern for human rights but because of her support for military intervention more generally. Either way, her name must be added to the list of government officials who knew and chose not to “scream.”