Who Will Be China’s Khashoggi?
by Mathew Lee
The world’s worst cholera outbreak had been ongoing for two years in Yemen, infecting over 400,000 people and taking 2,000 lives since it began in 2016. Meanwhile, starvation and malnutrition ravaged the population, to a point where children did not “even have the energy to cry.” Until October 2018, little diplomatic action aside from United Nations Security Council Resolution 2402 was taken to address Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, which has claimed a total of 6,800 civilian lives so far.
How might a traditional, great power politics analysis explain the lack of interest in a diplomatic solution? The conflict in Yemen could be framed as a competition for power between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Antagonism toward Iran led the West to support Saudi Arabia in a military coalition to fight the Houthi rebels, who were portrayed to be aligned with the Shi’a Iranian government. Civilian suffering, while unfortunate, was merely collateral to maximizing collective security against a hostile Iran. Human rights may be enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the cost of enforcing them is too great when in conflict, particularly when balanced against the need to safeguard national interests.
Across the Indian Ocean, China appears to operate with the same sense of reckless abandon as Saudi Arabia on human rights with their mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang. As many as 1 million Uighurs have been sent to “re-education centers” in order to complete “de-extremification.” Daily life in the camps is centered around indoctrination, where men must recite communist ideology and chant “long live Xi Jinping.” Those who resist are subject to sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, and even waterboarding.
While the scale and brutality of this detainment program by China is astounding, it fits into a longstanding effort to eliminate the cultural roots of the Uighurs, who are deemed a threat to the Chinese government’s legitimacy in the region. Thus far, this behavior has drawn little international objection aside from limited criticism from the UN and the U.S. State Department.
At this point, the pursuit of upholding universal values seems to not be on the agenda of the international community. Yet cases of public moral outrage occasionally have the capacity to disrupt the decision making of great powers in ways that the rational, realist tradition could never fully predict.
As details of Saudi Arabia’s orchestration of the gruesome dismembering of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi emerged, Western alliances with Saudi Arabia were put under public scrutiny. Despite Saudi Arabia’s importance as a strategic partner in the Middle East for many Western liberal democracies, an alliance with the country now carried a new level of toxicity. Khashoggi was not just another Saudi Arabian that was being eliminated as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) consolidated his power, but also a D.C. insider who had befriended many American foreign policy thought leaders and practitioners. The horror of seeing the brutality of authoritarian regimes up close, against “one of our own,” had a more powerful emotional effect on western audiences than the many reports of starvation and death in Yemen.
The U.S. Senate has since passed a resolution that would halt support for Saudi airstrikes into Yemen—a tactic that has led to significant civilian casualties since its inception in 2015. A more-concentrated effort spearheaded by the UN led to peace talks in Stockholm, with one early sign of progress from the peace talks emerging when all sides agreed to allow for medical evacuations and additional humanitarian aid. Issued on December 21, 2018, UN Security Council Resolution 2451 reaffirmed the agreements from the Stockholm peace talks and authorized an advanced monitoring team on the ground.
This shift in priorities in Yemen demonstrates that universal values can be a broad window for creating political opportunity. As nations seek to uphold a rules-based order and maintain legitimacy in the international sphere, violators of norms experience power dynamics shifting against their favor. Even though it was a crucial regional ally to most North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, Saudi Arabia’s blatant disregard for human rights caused the state to fall out of international favor. Once seen as a modernizing force who would further integrate Saudi Arabia into the international system, MBS now carries a tarnished reputation, with the chance of improving relations with the West put on pause for the time being. In effect, the Khashoggi murder presented the West with a chance to recalibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Like Saudi Arabia, China sees its economic interdependence with other nations as leverage to prevent retribution for its human rights record. China maintains extensive trade relations with every nation with the political power and will to reprimand it on this front. While this sense of security may be valid to some extent, it does not fully negate the risk that comes with blatantly violating universal values, something that Saudi Arabia has learned the hard way.
The protection and enforcement of human rights is not simply an aspiration that withers away in favor of nations protecting their self-interest. It is also a rallying point that the politically opportunistic can use to gain international legitimacy. With China already at odds with the United States and European Union over issues such as trade and espionage, its Uighur detention program poses a significant risk to its legitimacy. If this program catches the eye of mainstream Western media in the same way as the Khashoggi murder, this violation of human rights could significantly harm China’s international standing. Groups with such inclinations can utilize the issue of Uighur detention as a catalyst for action, given the popular notion that it is necessary to balance against the threat of a rising China.
What would it take for China to set off a response like the one to Khashoggi? A case that exposes a familiar face from the West to the harsh realities of China’s authoritarian practices would draw the combined reaction of empathy and shock that can electrify a news cycle. Perhaps it will be a dual citizen with Uighur heritage who survives to tell their tale of the conditions of detention. Or perhaps it will be something that resembles China’s recent detainment of Canadian citizens. Whichever straw breaks the camel’s back, China’s current trajectory of human rights abuse means it is only a matter of time before the state commits an act that captivates the world’s attention like the Khashoggi murder.
Courtesy of Preston Rhea / Flickr
Mathew Lee is a second-year graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy focusing on environmental issues and international negotiations.
While at Fletcher he has interned with the Carbon Disclosure Project and consulted for the World Bank. Mathew is also on Twitter @One_t_Lee.