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Blinken: Human rights are a ‘central interest’ but not the only one

Report slams China, Myanmar for abuses; Blinken says rights are part of a ‘multiplicity of interests.’

By Alex Willemyns for RFA

March 20, 2023

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a briefing on the 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the State Department in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2023. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Human rights are a “central interest” of the Biden administration’s foreign policy “but not the only one,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday as he launched the annual U.S. country reports on human rights, which slammed China and Myanmar for abuses.

This year’s reports again denounce Beijing for “genocide and crimes against humanity” against ethnic Uyghurs in China, and accuse Myanmar of using “violence to brutalize civilians and consolidate its control,” including killing nearly 3,000 people and imprisoning 17,000.

But it also delves into human rights abuses in close U.S. allies like Israel, which is accused of a spate of rights abuses including “arbitrary killings” of Palestinians and Saudi Arabia, which is accused of “extrajudicial killings,” “enforced disappearances” and torture.

Speaking at the State Department to launch the reports, which are mandated by Congress and offer analysis of the rights situation in all 193 U.N. member states, the top U.S. diplomat was asked why the reports’ findings don’t always influence American foreign policy.

“We’re not pulling our punches with anyone,” he replied. “Sometimes we do it more publicly; sometimes we do it more privately. We’re trying to determine in each instance how we can hopefully be most effective in advancing human rights and advancing human dignity.”

Blinken said that his job was to focus on “all our interests.”

“At the same time, as we’re working in different ways with different countries, we have a multiplicity of interests that we’re working on,” he said. “Human rights is a central interest of ours; it’s not the only one.”

Genocide and crimes against humanity

The reports identify grave human rights abuses across Asia, including in North Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam, which are each accused of crimes including arbitrary killings, torture and political persecution, to varying degrees of severity. But its most serious criticism in the region is reserved for the governments of China and Myanmar.

The report again accuses the Chinese government of conducting a genocide against the mostly Muslim Uyghur population, most of whom live in the far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The crimes, the report says, included “arbitrary imprisonment” or detainment of more than 1 million civilians, “forced sterilization” and abortions, “more restrictive enforcement” of China’s birth control policies, rape, torture and forced labor, as well as “draconian restrictions” on the freedoms of expression, movement and religion.

In this Dec. 3, 2018 photo, residents line up inside the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center which has previously been revealed by leaked documents to be a forced indoctrination camp at the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Myanmar, which is listed under the name Burma, is again accused of carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity, with the report saying the human rights situation has worsened since the 2021 coup.

“Deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other leading members of the deposed civilian government and National League for Democracy party remained in detention,” the report says, noting that “armed opposition efforts” had “continued to disrupt the regime’s ability to exert full administrative control.”

“The regime responded,” it says, with “the continued arrest of political opponents, the reported use of extensive lethal violence against unarmed persons, torture, sexual violence, and other abuses.”


Myanmar has also engaged in “punishment of family members for alleged offenses by a relative,” recruitment of child soldiers, arbitrary killings of civilians and restrictions on religion, particularly against the mostly Muslim Rohingya on the Bangladesh border, the report says.

“Limitations on freedom of movement for Rohingya in Rakhine State were unchanged. Rohingya may not move freely; they must obtain travel authorization to leave their township,” it says, defying “the pre-coup rule that Rohingya traveling without documentation could return to their homes without facing immigration charges.”

In this March 14, 2021 photo, anti-coup protesters carry an injured man following clashes with security forces in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo)

Up to 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine, it says, even after “the genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and forced displacement of more than 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017,” but are not regarded as a “national ethnic group” so remain stateless.

Inward reflection

Blinken said he recognized that the United States was itself not perfect on human rights. But he said the difference was that the U.S. system of government accepted such criticism and actively tried to correct identified problems.

“While this report looks outward, to countries around the world, well, you know, the United States faces its own set of challenges on human rights,” he said. “Our willingness to confront our challenges openly, to acknowledge our own shortcomings – not to sweep them under the rug or pretend they don't exist – that is what distinguishes us.”

Blinken’s message was mirrored by Erin Barclay, acting assistant secretary of state for the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, when asked at the morning State Department launch event about a rival report on human rights and democracy in the United States, which was released by China’s foreign ministry on Monday.

At his regular press briefing on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also accused the United States of engaging in “power politics and the law of the jungle” by applying human rights-based economic sanctions on other countries, which he claimed was “gravely violating other countries’ human rights.”

American officials “always welcome critique of the human rights situation in our country,” Barclay replied, “as long as it is credible and fact-based.”

“We don't sweep our problems under the rug,” she said. “We are ready to shine a light on them and work to improve them in our own country.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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