Horrific scenes from Ukraine splash across our screens. Russian forces have shown not just disregard for collateral casualties, but deliberate targeting of civilians. Evidence of torture and mass graves mounts against the Russian forces that invaded Ukraine on February 24.
They are not isolated acts. We must hold Vladimir Putin and his cronies accountable for these war crimes—what President Biden has called a genocide against the people of Ukraine.
But we must also not forget about the victims of other atrocities across the rest of the world.
The Chinese government is engaged in ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity targeting Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang province. Beginning in 2014, the Chinese government began interning an estimated one-million Uyghur and other Muslim, Chinese citizens in so-called re-education camps where they face forced labor, mass sterilization, and mandated abortion.
A genocide also occurred in Myanmar, which the United States formally recognized in March 2022, declaring the Burmese military’s actions against the Rohingya minority a genocide. The Rohingya people, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, have faced persecution for several decades in the majority Buddhist country.
Violence against the Rohingya recently spiked between 2016 and 2017, when the Burmese military destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages and forced an estimated 800,000 people to flee to refugee camps in Bangladesh. The government has held over 100,000 people in internment camps since 2017.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending a twenty-year conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
Yet during Ethiopia’s recent civil war, fought in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia and bordering Eritrea, gross human rights violations have occurred, perpetrated by all parties to the conflict. Yet the violence against civilians—Tigrayans, who are a minority ethnic group in Ethiopia that once held power—has amounted to what
Secretary Blinken referred to in March 2021 as “ethnic cleansing.” Tigrayans have faced forced expulsion from their homes, rape, extrajudicial killings and have been cut off from access to food aid, medical supplies, and fuel. Ethiopian soldiers have murdered humanitarians working in the conflict zone.
In Syria, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, specifically chlorine gas, against civilians in addition to indiscriminate aerial bombardments on civilian locations during the civil war.
The regime has also detained thousands and routinely tortured prisoners. Many Syrian prisoners never faced charges and have been executed or tortured to death—satellite images confirm reports of mass graves. An estimated 192 journalists and aid workers have been targeted in Syria including American journalist Austin Tice in 2012, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
The Russian state-sponsored private military contractor known as the Wagner group has worked in certain African countries to assist autocratic governments in cracking down on opposition groups and supporting counterterrorism operations. In the Central African Republic, the group has been accused of executing civilians, attacking UN peacekeepers, and targeting Muslim communities.
In Libya, the UN Human Rights Council found evidence that the Wagner group conducted mass executions and tortured civilians.
In Mali, Wagner Group and Malian army soldiers are believed to have summarily executed 300 civilian men in the town of Moura on suspicion of being Islamist fighters.
These are only a handful of examples across the world. Holding perpetrators accountable, especially the heads of states, is difficult. Few, if any, will be tried and convicted at the International Criminal Court.
The United States has used sanctions as a key tool through Global Magnitsky and other designations like the 2019 Caesar Act, named for a Syrian military photographer who defected and testified before Congress to the atrocities committed within Assad regime prisons. It has sanctioned Chinese biotech and surveillance companies and banned imports from Chinese companies allegedly using forced labor.
It has also sanctioned Burmese, Ethiopian, Iranian, Syrian, and Russian actors engaged in human rights abuses connected to these conflicts. Additionally, the United States has assisted with funding to investigate crimes.
Diplomatic stunts, such as the Biden administration’s boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games, seek to generate pressure on regimes for change.
US officials also use their public platform to call attention to human rights abuses worldwide, and the US government publishes a report on human rights practices in each country annually.
As we are outraged by what Russian forces have perpetrated in Ukraine and move to hold them accountable, we must also ensure that we do not forget the other victims of such abuses elsewhere.
The images of these conflicts fade from memory and slip from our consciousness. New snapshots of violence replace the old, and the world moves on. The role of human rights in America’s foreign policy is unique.
The United States must continue to seek justice for all victims of human rights atrocities worldwide.