The US Congress recently introduced bills that would call on the Trump Administration to press China over its treatment of the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. This would seem to be a good fit, as Trump has been critical of China throughout his time in office. And religious freedom–under which this would initiative would fall–seems to be the one area of human rights his Administration cares about. But any US pressure on China will be undermined by the similarity between some of China’s Uighur policies and the Trump Administration’s Muslim travel ban. This relates to a broader point I’ve been trying to raise (unsuccessfully) with international religious freedom advocates who praise Trump: he may implement a few policies in line with your initiatives, but the overall tenor of this Administration will undermine the cause.
The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that has been horribly repressed by the Chinese government. China had initially placed strict controls on Xinjiang–the region in which most Uighurs live–for alleged counterterrorism reasons. This expanded into broader restrictions on Uighur’s way of life, targeting their faith. China has tried to force Uighurs to act contrary to their faith, even requiring Uighur shopowners to sell alcohol. This recently escalated into the detention of Uighurs in concentration camps in which they will be “re-educated.”
For many, Saudi Arabia finally went too far. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; reports suggest he may be dead. Pundits who gave Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, also known as MbS—a chance to prove his reformist credentials have become critical. In the midst of all this, a commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom—(USCIRF) a government-affiliated human rights watchdog—announced…that Saudi Arabia is making great progress on protecting religious freedom? At first glance, this is confusing, but it may be an indication of the powerful role of strategic framing and policy gatekeepers in eroding international norms.
In “Bono made Jesse Helms cry,” international relations scholar (and permanent Duck of Minerva contributor) Joshua Busby discussed the dynamics through which activists can influence states’ foreign policy; his article also inspired the title for this post. Activists can intensify the appeal of their moral arguments by strategically framing their campaigns to match the cultural value of targets. And when they specifically target “policy gatekeepers,” who provide direct access to the relevant policymaking tools, their appeals can change states’ behavior.
Most assume this dynamic is a positive one, a way for activists to spread altruistic ideas and get states to adopt them. But what if it could be used by states themselves to undermine human rights norms?