Amnesty USA Endorses Key Uighur Legislation Making Its Way Through Congress
By Francisco Bencosme, Asia Advocacy Manager
Amnesty International USA is mobilizing its two million members and supporters behind two key pieces of human rights legislation — S. 178, the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, and the UIGHUR Act. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and 20 other Senators introduced the Act of 2019. The UIGHUR Act of 2018 (H.R.7384) was initiated by Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and four other legislators. Up to one million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are being arbitrarily detained in so-called “re-education camps” –an afront to international human rights law. The new Congress needs to assert its leadership on this key human rights issue and swiftly pass legislation without haste.
While commentary on the legislation has centered on targeted sanctions, the legislation has other components which will significantly shape U.S. policy as it confronts this human rights crisis in the Uighur region. In order to follow U.S. policy on China look closely to how these bills make their way through Congress. They will be important barometers for whether Congress plans to elevate and apply pressure on China’s human rights record, particularly on Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Last year, Amnesty International spoke with more than 100 people across four continents who say they have lost touch with relatives and friends inside the Uighur region and fear that they have been detained. In a report titled “Where Are They”, we documented cases of brainwashing, torture and punishment from verbal abuse to food deprivation, solitary confinement, beatings and use of restraints and stress positions in these mass detention camps. People have been reported to be detained for travelling abroad for work, education or being in contact with people outside China. What we are witnessing in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is the mass subjugation of its Muslim ethnic minority in camps and the erasure of their ethnic culture and traditions under the guise of national security concerns. How does the bill address this?
Leadership Begins at the Top
On personnel issues the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act creates a new position within the Department of State which would serve as the United States Special Coordinator for Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region who would “coordinate diplomatic, political, public diplomacy, financial assistance…” within the U.S. government. Special envoys or elevated positions can be a useful tool to marshal the full forces of the U.S. government, cut through bureaucracy, and elevate the role those issues play in our foreign policy — however, its success will ultimately depend on the political will bestowed on the position and whoever gets appointed to it. Take for example, the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues position, which has remained vacant now for years while policy on the issue atrophies. The Ambassador for International Religious Freedom position, however, has helped the Trump Administration elevate the issue, in part due to high-level engagement from senior level officials across government (State, USAID, USUN) and by a high-profile candidate to fill the position. With no confirmed U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor or an Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, having credible and empowered personnel on Asia human rights issues will be critical.
Another component of the bills is that it requires the U.S. Department of State to undergo documentation and reporting that would assess the scope of the problem; methods used; a list of individuals who are responsible; and a description of diplomatic efforts. The UIGHUR Act even requires the Department of State to report on the human rights implications of China’s social credit system. A central feature of the bill is that it helps identify the companies who are committing human rights abuses and the forms of advanced technology used to employ their mass surveillance apparatus constructed in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Human Rights Watch’s report details how U.S. companies were complicit in creating technologies that were then used to surveil Uighurs in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Human Rights Crisis that extends around the globe
The two pieces of legislation also address that this issue cannot be seen through a bilateral lens. Families all over the world have been separated as they lose touch with their loved ones for fear of putting their families lives at risks. China is pressuring countries like Malaysia to extradite Uighurs where if returned their lives can be put at risk. The UIGHUR Act makes advocacy at the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Countries, and Central Asian states a priority for the U.S. government. The Uighur Human Rights and Policy Act has the U.S. Department of State establish a voluntary database to which U.S. citizens or permanent family members would be able to provide details about missing Uighur family members to help them expedite their asylum claims. The U.S. State Department would then press for accountability on returns of those families. It also allows U.S. law enforcement to prevent harassment, threatening or intimidation of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents including Uighur, Chinese-Americans, Chinese nationals and ethnic minorities being targeted by the Chinese government. The Federal Bureau of Investigations, including the Secretary of State, would have to also provide a report on those individuals who have been harassed. Nothing encapsulates this more than Section 14 of the UIGHUR Act, which gives the
Congressional Executive Commission on China the mandate to examine issues that are beyond China’s geographical scope.
In March 2018, Amnesty International issued an urgent appeal for 20 relatives of Hoja — a 17-year veteran Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporter — who “have been detained and are at risk of torture” and is believed to have been targeted for her work with RFA. The UIGHUR makes it U.S. policy to “use all appropriate instruments of United States influence to seek the release of United States citizens and aliens lawfully admitted for permanent resident in the United States” including NGO employees or journalists, and specifically highlights Radio Free Asia journalists. Section 10 of the UIGHUR Act goes so far as to expand the availability of and capacity for Uighur language Radio Free Asia programming in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, help overcome any jamming barriers, and commend the work they do on human rights. The UIGHUR Act even requires a legal strategy under international law to address censorship through the Great Firewall.
Congress has an important opportunity to take the reins on a key human rights priority. The Chinese government must be held accountable for a massive breach of international human rights law –. Congress should mark up both bills and send them to the President’s desk. Amnesty International USA members will be holding Congress’ feet to the fire to do just that.