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Uyghur advocate calls for US to cut ties to forced labor, protect refugees at congressional hearing

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (6-A04-W96-K38-S41-V38/WikiCommons)
May 08, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Lawmakers must act to cut U.S. ties to forced labor and expedite asylum for Uyghur refugees, and Washington should push the global community to end what it has designated a genocide in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), witnesses told a Congressional hearing Thursday.

Speaking at a virtual hearing on “The Atrocities Against Uyghurs and Other Minorities in Xinjiang” at the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Nury Turkel, chairman of the board of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) advocacy group, denounced what he called a “lackluster international response” to ongoing rights abuses in the XUAR.

“The end goal of this policy is the destruction of Uyghur culture, traditions, language, and faith.  The Chinese state has criminalized being Uyghur,” he said.

Turkel, a Uyghur American lawyer and commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan and independent federal government body, told the committee that Beijing has worked to systematically crush Uyghur culture, language, and religious traditions since 2017.

Early that year, authorities launched a campaign of mass incarceration that has seen up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held in a vast network of internment camps in the region.

“I want to emphasize that genocide denial is in full swing. The Chinese government is not only implementing a brutal policy of state violence, causing immeasurable human suffering. It is demanding that the world praise its policy,” he said.

While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China in 2019 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 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. Former detainees have also described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.

Amid increasing scrutiny of China’s policies in the XUAR, the U.S. government in January designated abuses in the region part of a campaign of genocide—a label that was similarly applied by the parliaments of Canada, The Netherlands, and the U.K.

In addition to the genocide designation, the Trump administration slapped sanctions last year on several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in the region, including XUAR party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment in June of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA).

The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them. U.S. customs authorities have also blocked imports of wigs and other products believed to be produced by forced labor in the region.

Recommendations for lawmakers, government

On Thursday, Turkel called on lawmakers in the U.S. to do more, including pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which aims to address the systematic use for Uyghur forced labor in the XUAR and ensure that U.S. companies are not complicit.

He also urged Congress to “urgently” pass the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act, which designates Uyghurs who are at risk of refoulement in multiple countries as priority refugees.

Turkel also called on the government to urge every signatory to the 1949 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to uphold their obligation to prevent genocide, which experts say the situation in XUAR meets the definition of based on China’s state-sponsored “intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

“Even without making a legal atrocity-crimes determination, Article I [of the convention] obligates states to take action to prevent an unfolding genocide,” he said.

Additionally, Turkel called on members of the committee to “ensure that American Olympic athletes are not forced to compete in the shadow of concentration camps at the 2022 Olympics” in Beijing.

He urged the U.S. to “coordinate with like-minded countries” to relocate the Olympics as long as abuses continue in the XUAR.

Lastly, Turkel urged the government to do more to prevent Silicon Valley and U.S. universities from cooperating with Chinese companies selling facial-recognition systems which are being used to monitor Uyghurs in the XUAR as part of a high-tech surveillance state.

‘Scar on my heart’

Turkel was joined in providing testimony on Thursday by James Millward, professor of Inter-societal History at George Washington University and an expert on Uyghur history, and Tursunay Ziyawudun, a former detainee who described the torture and sexual violence she endured in two different internment camps, as well as efforts by China’s government to undermine her activism.

Ziyawudun said that the time she spent in detention had left “an unforgettable scar on my heart.”

She described overcrowded conditions in which inmates were constantly monitored by camera in their cells, which only had buckets for toilets, and given meals of little more than “watery soup and a bun”—all while being regularly forced to pledge loyalty to the Communist Party.

“Girls would be taken away and only brought back days later … and then I, myself, was taken [along with another woman],” she said.

“I was tortured with an electric stick pushed inside my genital tract. I could hear the other woman’s screams in the next room. I knew the guards were raping her. After that, she never stopped crying.”

Ziyawudun told the committee that she was not asking for sympathy for herself, but for governments around the world to “wake up.”

“The world should not allow genocide to continue in the 21st century,” she said.

G7 statement on China

The hearing came a day after foreign ministers from the so-called “G7 nations” of Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan called on China to abide by its obligations under international and national law during a meeting in London.

In a joint statement, the group said it was “deeply concerned” over rights violations against Uyghur in the XUAR, as well as against minorities in Tibet, while also calling for an end to increasing restrictions against pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin fired back on Thursday, dismissing what he called “unfounded accusations against China” and for interfering in Beijing’s internal affairs.

“We urge the relevant countries to face up to their own problems,” Wang said, adding that the G7 should focus on ways to improve the global economy, rather than “generalizing on the concept of national security as well as other wrong practices.”