Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on Tuesday that China is "committing genocide" against Uighur Muslims and other minority groups.
In a statement issued on his last day in office, Pompeo said China "has committed crimes against humanity" against Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.
"I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state," he added.
He cited forced sterilisation, forced labour, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, severe deprivation of physical liberty, and draconian restrictions on freedom of religion and beliefs, freedom of expression and freedom of movement as the reasons behind his declaration.
He demanded China release those arbitrarily detained and end its "system of internment, detention camps, house arrest and forced labour" and called for "all appropriate multilateral and relevant juridical bodies, to join the United States in our effort to promote accountability for those responsible for these atrocities."
The genocide designation is a rare step for the U.S. government, which did not apply it to the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda until much later.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell designated the situation in Sudan’s western Darfur region a genocide in 2004. Former Secretary of State John Kerry applied the term to the Islamic State’s repression and massacres of Yazidis and other ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and Iraq in 2016, but he couched it by saying it was a legal determination only, that did not mandate action by the U.S. government.
The declaration does not come with immediate repercussions but opens the door for further sanctions. Washington has already implemented a range of restrictive measures against senior Chinese Communist Party leaders and state-run enterprises that fund the architecture of repression across Xinjiang.
It is also unlikely to be opposed to by the incoming Biden administration which has expressed support for such a designation in the past.
Antony Blinken, Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of State, told his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he endorses Pompeo's declaration of genocide by the Chinese authorities.
"That would be my judgement, as well," he said. "The forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps; trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all fo that speaks to an effort to commit genocide."
A Chinese Foreign ministry's spokeswoman lashed out at Pompeo's determination, calling it "null and void."
"North worth the paper it's written on. Because he is so notorious for lying and cheating. By the way, he is indeed successful in making himself the Clown of the Century!," she added.