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US economic sanctions against human atrocities in China and Myanmar

Gary Clyde Hufbauer (PIIE) and Euijin Jung (PIIE)



Two humanitarian crises in Asia are confronting President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a dilemma that has frustrated many previous administrations and indeed the international community as a whole: how to impose effective sanctions on countries that commit genocide or equivalent atrocities. In one case, the Biden administration is contemplating stiffer sanctions against Myanmar, partly in response to the military coup in February 2021 and genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine, which has been going on for several years. The other case is China's persecution of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang.

In its annual State Department human rights report, released on March 30, the Biden administration declared that China has engaged in "genocide and crimes against humanity," citing Beijing's "mass detention" of the Uyghurs, as well as evidence of forced sterilization, rape, torture, and forced labor. A week earlier, on March 22, the Biden administration—in conjunction with the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada—imposed economic sanctions on top Chinese officials over the persecution of the Uyghur people. The Trump administration had also strongly denounced China's repression of the Uyghur people as genocide but addressed it with less publicity than his other sanctions against China over trade and security issues. Trump had publicly sanctioned China for trade and technology offenses and the crackdown on political rights in Hong Kong. Less well known is that he also imposed financial sanctions in July 2020 on a Chinese company and two officials engaged in Xinjiang labor abuses, and the US Customs and Border Protection barred US imports of certain products made in Xinjiang.

On Myanmar, neither the Trump administration nor the Biden administration so far has designated atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims as genocide. The Biden State Department has imposed sanctions on military and police officials over their role in the coup but not for the Rohingya genocide (which was tolerated by the de facto head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was ousted in the coup). Previously, Trump also sanctioned Myanmar's military officers for drug dealing and other criminal activity but not for the Rohingya genocide. Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom have also imposed sanctions on Myanmar's military officials.

Despite their worthy intentions, economic sanctions imposed by the United States to punish genocide or atrocities against civilians have a mixed record. The historical evidence suggests that such sanctions alone are often ineffective unless accompanied by stronger actions, such as US military intervention—for example, against Yugoslavia and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).1 US willingness to take military action against Myanmar or China is inconceivable at present.

Yet mass atrocities cannot be met with indifference from the community of nations, even when the only practical action is undertaken more to send a message and take a stand than to bring about change. The United States has many issues of concern about China's economic might, from technology theft to the power of its state-owned enterprises. China's military and political power projections raise legitimate concerns in Washington, but there are also areas where cooperation with Beijing is needed, particularly on climate change. These imperatives have unfortunately forced the plight of the Uyghur people to take a backseat. But they must not be forgotten.

One way to bolster that message is to work with allies to take coordinated steps, as the Biden administration started to do in March with regard to the persecution of the Uyghur people. In addition, the United States can seek a broader response through the United Nations, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), both of which sit in The Hague in the Netherlands.2 Only one country, The Gambia, has brought a case to the ICJ on behalf of all Muslim nations against Myanmar for the massacre of the Rohingya people.

Background of the term "genocide"

The term "genocide" has been difficult to define and disputed by various parties in conflicts over many decades, in which massive numbers of civilians on all sides have been killed. The UN General Assembly adopted the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, following what universally recognized to have been genocide carried out by the Nazi regime in Germany in World War II. But only a few leading perpetrators have been brought before the ICJ or the ICC.

Prosecutions under the UN Genocide Convention have been few and often delayed, as was the case in the aftermath of the Rwanda civil war in the early 1990s. The trial following the genocide of ethnic Tutsis in the Rwandan civil war in 1994 was not concluded until September 1998 and was the first in which the UN Genocide Convention was enforced. The slaughter of civilians in Darfur in western Sudan in the first decade of this century is the only active genocide-related investigation in the ICC. Former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and his associates are awaiting trials in charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. For the first time, in 2007, the ICJ concluded that the massacre of Bosnian Muslims was genocide, ruling that Serbia committed a breach of the UN Genocide Convention in the 1990s.

US sanctions responding to government atrocities

The United States, meanwhile, has an uneven record of recognizing genocide, though it has deplored mass atrocities in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, often perpetrated in the context of civil wars. For example, the United States imposed financial sanctions on individuals and entities in response to mass killings by the regimes of Prime Minister Pol Pot in Cambodia and President Idi Amin in Uganda in the 1970s, even though the State Department did not recognize the killings as genocide.3 Since the end of the Cold War, the US State Department has made statements that genocide has occurred regarding at least five distinct situations: Bosnia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Iraq (1995), Darfur (2004), and areas under the control of ISIL (2016 and 2017). The situation in Xinjiang, China, is the latest to be added to this list.

The table records economic sanctions in eight cases officially recognized or discussed by the State Department as genocide. In the remaining seven genocide cases, economic sanctions were imposed to achieve broader humanitarian goals, as noted above, or the atrocities were not discussed or officially designated as genocide.4 (The sanctions against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and its nuclear program between 1990 and 2003 were not specific to the Kurdish genocide, though the State Department officially recognized it as such in 1995.)

US economic sanctions related to genocide and equivalent atrocities, including cases where sanctions were imposed but without an official US declaration of genocide 
Genocide Senders Target Goal Time period of sanctions Score of 9 or higher indicates successful outcome US sanctions imposed US recognition as genocide
Guatemalan genocide US Guatemala Human rights 1977-2005 9 F Discussed
Genocide in Bangladesh US India and Pakistan Military disruption 1971 4 F, X Discussed
Genocide under Idi Amin US, UK Uganda Destabilize Amin; human rights 1972-1979 12 F, X, M None
Ikiza genocide   Burundi       None Discussed
Cambodian genocide US Kampuchea Human rights and deter Vietnam 1975-1979 2 F, X, M Discussed
Genocide of Isaaqs UN, US Somalia Human rights; end war 1988 2 F, X None
East Timor genocide US, the Netherlands Indonesia Human rights in East Timor 1991-1997 2 F, X None
Kurdish genocide (Anfal campaign by Saddam Hussein)   Iraq       Nonea Recognized in 1995
Bosnian genocide UN, US, EU Yugoslavia End war 1991-2001 9 F, X, M Recognized in 1993
Tutsi genocide UN, US Rwanda End violence 1994-1995 2 F, X Recognized in 1994
Bambuti genocide (Effacer le tableau) US Democratic Republic of the Congo End violence and atrocities 2006-present 2 F None
Darfur genocide US Sudan Human rights 2006-2017 9 F Recognized in 2004
Genocide of Yazidis US Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) Antiterrorism 2015-present 9 F Recognized in 2016 and 2017
Rohingya genocide   Myanmar       Noneb Under discussion
Uyghur persecution Canada, EU, UK, US China Human rights 2019-present 2 F, X, M Recognized in 2021
a. The sanctions against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and its nuclear program between 1990 and 2003 were not specific to the Kurdish genocide, though the State Department officially recognized it as such in 1995.
b. US sanctions have been imposed for the military coup in Myanmar.
F = financial sanctions; X = export restrictions; M = import restrictions
Sources: Buchwald and Keith (2019) for cases that the United States discussed or designated as genocide; Hufbauer et al. (2009) for scoring success of sanctions; and US Treasury Sanction Programs and Country Information for sanctions programs.

Outcomes in genocide cases are scored following our methodology in Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd edition (Hufbauer et al. 2009).5 In five cases where sanctions were imposed, the outcome was scored as successful (a score of 9 or higher). Outcomes were scored as less successful in the remaining seven cases where sanctions were imposed (a score of 8 or lower). When sanctions are combined with military measures, the military dimension may be decisive. Successful campaigns against Yugoslavia and ISIL involved significant military action. In six cases, humanitarian goals went alongside US efforts to destabilize the regime or to end the war: President Idi Amin in Uganda, Prime Minister Pol Pot in Cambodia, President Siad Barre in Somalia, President Slobodan Milošević in Serbia, President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, and ISIL in Iraq. Sanctions against Myanmar also have a regime change goal (Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his military associates).

As noted earlier, the United States has not to this date sanctioned Myanmar for the Rohingya genocide, but in March President Biden issued an executive order to impose sanctions against 12 military officers, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, responsible for the Myanmar military coup.

Unlike other instances of genocide, Chinese repression of the Uyghur minority appears not to entail mass killings but rather "reeducation," resettlement, and kindred measures to fit the Uyghur people into Chinese cultural norms. Nevertheless, two US Secretaries of State, Mike Pompeo and Antony J. Blinken, have proclaimed human rights abuses against the Uyghur people as genocide. US financial sanctions have been specifically imposed against two Chinese officials and a firm directly responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Following almost unanimous passage in the US House of Representatives in 2020, the Senate is now considering the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The act presumes that goods originating in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are the product of forced labor and bans their importation, unless proven otherwise. Similar restrictions have already been enforced, under existing legislation, by US Customs and Border Protection.6

The European Union's sanctions against the persecution of Uyghur Muslims opened the door for President Biden to work with allies to mount economic and legal pressure on Myanmar and China. Countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are highly reluctant to punish fellow member Myanmar, and countries worldwide are reluctant to offend China. Hence, the United States should continue to work with Western allies to coordinate economic pressure and consider taking the persecution of the Rohingya and Uyghur people to the International Court of Justice.


1. ISIL is also known as ISIS (short for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Though less accurate, the name ISIS has become entrenched in the international lexicon and is still used by many politicians and news companies.

2. The International Criminal Court can investigate crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, but China—like the United States—is not a court member, so the situation in Xinjiang would have to be referred by the UN Security Council, where China could veto such a move.

3. According to Buchwald and Keith (2019), legislation adopted by the US Congress in 1978 found that the Ugandan government under Idi Amin had committed genocide and expressed its sense that the US government should take steps to "dissociate itself from any foreign government which engages in the international crime of genocide" (Section 5 of Public Law 95-435 [1978]). Because the authors had not been able to locate publicly available records of executive branch use of the term "genocide" or discussions of its applicability in Uganda, however, they did not cover this case.

4. State Department officials probably argued in several cases that the designation of "genocide" would compel the United States to take military or economic measures against the perpetrators and do long-term damage to US relations with the offending country. To this day, Turkey vigorously contests the use of "genocide" to describe the killing of more than 700,000 Armenians between 1915 and 1922.

5. To measure sanctions' success score, the policy result index (from 1 to 4) is multiplied by the sanctions contribution index (from 1 to 4), which results in range of values from 1 to 16. As a successful outcome, a score of 9 or higher means that sanctions made a substantial contribution to the sender's goals and that the goals were in part realized; a score of 16 means that sanctions made a decisive contribution to a successful outcome. By contrast, a score of 1 indicates that the sender country clearly failed to achieve its goals or may even have been left worse off, in foreign policy terms, than before sanctions were imposed.

6. The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) bans imports of tomatoes and cotton originating from the Xinjiang region. As well, the United States has imposed import controls and travel bans on Chinese firms and government officials seen to be responsible for Uyghur persecution. 

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