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US Congress passes Uyghur Rights Act authorizing sanctions against China for abuses in Xinjiang

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (6-A04-W96-K38-S41-V38/WikiCommons)
May 28, 2020

The U.S. Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 on Wednesday, marking the first legislation by any government to target China for its persecution of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), despite threats of retaliation from Beijing.

The passage comes as the U.S. House of Representatives voted 413-1 via proxy to approve the bill that would sanction Chinese government officials—including regional Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo—responsible for arbitrary incarceration, forced labor and other abuses in the XUAR, home to internment camps holding as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslims.

The bill, which was also passed unanimously by the Senate in mid-May, condemns the Chinese Communist Party for the three-year-old internment camp program and requires regular monitoring of the situation in the region by U.S. government bodies for the application of sanctions once signed into law by President Donald Trump.

It also addresses Chinese government harassment of Uyghurs living inside the United States—an increasing threat from Chinese diplomatic missions and Communist Party-controlled United Front organizations in Western countries.

In a statement following its passage in the Senate, Republican Senator Marco Rubio—who along with Democratic Senator Bob Menendez introduced the legislation—said China’s “systematic, ongoing efforts to wipe out the ethnic and cultural identities of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is horrific and will be a stain on humanity should we refuse to act.”

While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.

But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.

China has slammed moves to pass legislation in support of the Uyghurs as interference and warned of retaliation “in proportion” if Chen were targeted.

Among those who have called for Beijing to shut down its camp system and end other rights violations in the region are U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and several high-ranking lawmakers.

While President Trump has largely remained silent on the situation in the XUAR, his administration has taken an increasingly tough stance against China amid tense relations over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, its likely rubber stamp passage of a new security law in Hong Kong that observers have warned severely threatens freedom of speech there.

In the unlikely event that Trump vetoes the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, Congress could override him because of the near unanimous support the bill has received in both the House and the Senate.

‘A matter of priority’

On Wednesday, the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, welcomed the House approval of the bill following the Senate vote earlier this month and called on Trump to “urgently” sign it into law.

“These recent developments have shown a renewed resolve from the U.S. government to take urgent, meaningful and sustained action to address the crisis in East Turkistan, that the act provides for,” the statement said, using the name preferred by Uyghurs for their homeland.

“Once this bill is signed into law, it will constitute the first legislative initiative by a national government to address the Uyghur crisis. The bipartisan support for the act evidences by these recent votes gives hope to the Uyghur people and a mandate for the U.S. to implement the provisions of the act as a matter of priority.”

The WUC noted that for three years, Uyghurs around the world have been calling on the international community to take concrete measures against the Chinese government for its abuses in the XUAR, while friends and family members of those in the diaspora increasingly disappear into the camp system.

“We urge President Trump to sign the Uyghur Human Rights Policy into law as a matter of priority and take immediate steps to implement it,” WUC president Dolkun Isa said.

“Our community needs the U.S. government and governments around the world to take real, meaningful action, as is provided for in this act. After years of suffering and frustration, the Uyghur people need hope.”

The WUC also called on other government to emulate the U.S. in passing legislation that will hold China to account for the situation in the XUAR.

The bill’s passage was also welcomed by the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), which said it would “help ensure that the issue is on the global policy agenda.”

“The House and Senate have shown true global leadership,” UHRP director Omer Kanat said in a statement.

“This is a signal to the entire world that now is the time to take action to end the Chinese government’s atrocities in East Turkistan.”

Other actions

Congress may also soon deliberate new legislation would prohibit imports from the XUAR to the U.S. amid growing evidence that internment camps in the region have increasingly transitioned from political indoctrination to forced labor, with detainees being sent to work in cotton and textile factories, many of which are located on the same grounds as the detention facilities.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, introduced in March, would block imports from the region unless proof can be shown that they are not linked to forced labor.

Meanwhile, the executive branch has been taking steps to hold entities responsible for enabling the persecution of Uyghurs to account by subjecting them to additional scrutiny.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security announced that nine additional parties would be added to its Entity List for their involvement in human rights abuses in the XUAR, including eight companies and the Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science. The new additions mark an expansion from 28 entities placed on the list in October last year.

Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection placed a withhold release order on hair products made by Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories in order to ensure that products made with forced labor do not reach U.S. shelves. The company was registered in an industrial park in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Lop (Luopu) county, in the same location as a detention camp.

In a statement Wednesday, the UHRP welcomed U.S. government efforts to prevent the importation of goods made with Uyghur forced labor and encouraged other nations to take similar steps to address the issue.

The organization also applauded House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi for her recent appointment of Washington-based Uyghur attorney Nury Turkel to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body that reviews violations of religious freedom internationally and makes policy recommendations to the White House, State Department, and Congress.

In a statement welcoming the passage of the bill on Wednesday, Turkel said that Congress had sent “a powerful bipartisan message to the world that the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uyghurs is not forgotten.”

“The passage of this bill shows the best of this country and the American people to speak out in defense of those oppressed peoples’ rights and dignity,” he told RFA.

“USCIRF thanks the Members of Congress who tirelessly worked on this bill for more than a year. We urge President Trump to sign the bill into law soon for it to be enforced to address the ghastly human rights abuses that the Chinese government has committed against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in China.”