This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 into law on Wednesday, authorizing the use of sanctions against Chinese officials deemed complicit in the persecution of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The bill, which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress last month, highlights 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.
In addition to condemning the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the three-year-old internment camp program, the new law requires regular monitoring of the situation in the region by U.S. government bodies for the application of sanctions. It also addresses Chinese government harassment of Uyghurs living inside the United States.
“The Act holds accountable perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses such as the systematic use of indoctrination camps, forced labor, and intrusive surveillance to eradicate the ethnic identity and religious beliefs of Uyghurs and other minorities in China,” Trump said in a statement released by the Office of the White House Press Secretary after the signing.
Trump notes in the statement that the act “purports to limit my discretion to terminate inadmissibility sanctions,” which he said could be inconsistent with his constitutional authorities to receive foreign officials as diplomatic representatives, and therefore would consider the relevant section “advisory and non-binding.”
He said that his administration would make efforts to notify relevant congressional committees before removing inadmissibility sanctions against any officials targeted by the new law.
The signing comes amid tense relations between the U.S. and China, with the Trump administration taking multiple jabs at Beijing in recent months for its lack of transparency in handling the coronavirus pandemic, trade policy, and expansive territorial claims.
The president has also said he would take steps to remove special trade status for Hong Kong and sanction both Mainland and Hong Kong officials, citing Beijing’s encroachment on the territory’s autonomy.
It also came as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a closed-door meeting with China’s foreign policy chief, Yang Jiechi, in Hawaii on Wednesday, marking the first high-level meeting between the two countries since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Moments before they entered talks, Pompeo and his counterparts from the other Group of Seven major industrial democracies put out a joint statement voicing “grave concerns” over China’s plans to proceed with a security law that would prohibit subversion and other perceived offenses in Hong Kong, and urging Beijing to “reconsider this decision.”
New law welcomed
Trump’s signing of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act into law drew applause from the Uyghur exile community and others who have championed the rights of the Uyghur people.
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, welcomed the new law.
“This is the greatest gift and hope given to the Uyghur people at a time when China is committing crimes against humanity in East Turkestan,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service, using the name preferred by Uyghurs for their homeland.
“We will celebrate this historic day and will never forget that America has stood with the Uyghur people in their darkest hour.”
Separately, the WUC issued a statement saying the new law “shows a real commitment to ending the suffering of the Uyghur people.”
“Passing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act finally moves the approach to the crisis in East Turkistan beyond mere rhetoric, to taking concrete action to stop the crisis,” it said.
Washington-based Uyghur attorney Nury Turkel, who last month was appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said the new law signified a “great day for America and the people of East Turkistan.”
“This is the first bill in the history of the Uyghur people being put in place to protect their political, social, and religious rights,” he said.
“It’s particularly significant in light of the fact that it received bipartisan and bicameral support, showing that the American people and the U.S. government are seriously concerned about the Uyghur crisis, entering its third year.”
USCIRF Commissioner Gary Bauer called on the Trump administration in a separate statement to immediately proceed with sanctions against Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo, former Political and Legal Affairs Commission chief Zhu Hailun, video surveillance products manufacturer Hikvision’s chairman Chen Zongnian, “and any other Chinese official responsible for the crimes against humanity occurring in Xinjiang.”
Omer Kanat, executive director of Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), said in a statement issued by the UHRP that, because of the signing, “Uyghurs around the world are celebrating.”
“It’s the kind of news we have been waiting for,” he said, “but the United States cannot be the sole nation acting to hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes.”
“Uyghurs call on countries around the world to work together against ethno-religious persecution, profiling and cultural genocide.”
In a separate statement to RFA, Kanat vowed that “there will be consequences for the atrocities against the Uyghur people.”
Washington-based Campaign for Uyghurs also called on other governments to follow the lead of the U.S., saying Chinese officials complicit in abuses in the XUAR “must not be allowed to continue to enjoy the benefits of free societies while denying it to millions of human beings.”
Lawmakers weigh in
The chorus of appreciation included Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who, along with Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, first introduced the act in 2018.
“By signing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 into law, President Trump took a historic step in support of Uyghur Muslims worldwide and against China’s egregious human rights abuses and probable crimes against humanity,” said Rubio, who is also cochair of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).
“As the Chinese government and Communist Party continues its mass internment of at least a million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities, the United States will hold the CCP and its enablers accountable for their heinous crimes.”
U.S. Senator Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the internment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the XUAR “reprehensible and inexcusable,” adding that the CCP and Chinese government “must be held to account.”
“This legislation is the product of a true bipartisan, bicameral effort, and I look forward to its full implementation soon,” he said in a statement.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps in the XUAR, 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.
Warning of retaliation
While China’s government has yet to officially comment on Trump’s signing of the act, Beijing had earlier slammed Congress for approving the bill after the House of Representatives’ May 27 vote of 413-1 to pass it and send it to the president’s desk.
“The relevant act of the U.S. Congress criticizes Xinjiang’s human rights situation and China’s Xinjiang policy without cause, blatantly smears China’s counterterrorism and deradicalization measures and seriously interferes in China’s internal affairs,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing in Beijing at the time.
“China deplores and firmly opposes this. Xinjiang-related issues are not about human rights, ethnicity or religion, but about fighting violence, terrorism and separatism.”
Beijing has previously warned of retaliation “in proportion” if Chen Quanguo were targeted as part of legislation in support of the Uyghurs.
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.
Congress may also soon deliberate new legislation which 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.
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.