US lawmakers relaunch Uyghur caucus

The caucus fell into a lull after its chair retired at the 2022 midterm elections.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
2024.04.16
Washington
US lawmakers relaunch Uyghur caucus Uyghur activists present two U.S. lawmakers with accolades for their long support for Uyghurs on April 16, 2024, at the Capitol building in Washington. From left to right: Nury Turkel, commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Rishat Abbas, chairman of the Uyghur Academy International, Rep. Chris Smith, (R-NJ), Elfidar Iltebir, president of the Uyghur American Association, Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, and Ablikim Idris, executive director of the Center for Uyghur Studies.
Alex Willemyns/RFA

UPDATED at 4:03 P.M. ET on 04-17-2024

The Congressional Uyghur Caucus is back.

Though the caucus never disbanded, the activities of the bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers slowed to a trickle after its chair, Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat from New York, retired from his district, which Republican Rep. George Santos then won in the 2022 midterms.

Shortly after his shock win, Santos’ personal biography was proved to be a series of lies by a New York Times report. He was then expelled from the House of Representatives in December, less than a year after taking his seat, which paved the way for Suozzi to return.

The former attorney said he was pleased to be back at work.

“We just do not hear about the Uyghurs enough, and I am excited to come back to Congress to work with you to make sure that we let more people know what is happening,” he said at an event Tuesday on Capitol Hill relaunching the Congressional Uyghur Caucus.

The most pressing priority of the revamped caucus, Suozzi said, would be to more widely spread awareness of the plight of Uyghurs in China’s far-west, whom the U.S. government says are subject to an ongoing genocide and are often detained in forced-labor camps. 

Beijing, though, says the Muslim minority were only taken to vocational training centers, most of which it says are now shuttered.

“We have to figure out how, as a team, can we make this part of the national conversation, and the global conversation?” Suozzi said on Tuesday. “There's no question of the abuse. There's no question about how horrific it is. There's no question that it's being done.”

“There's no question it would rise to the level of the things that would most offend most people – if they were educated about it,” he added. “but we can't get it to be part of everyday conversation.”

‘Looking askance’

Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and will be a co-chair for the Congressional Uyghur Caucus, said the caucus had a lot of work left over from when it was last working at full steam.

“To think that, as we meet,” Smith said, “there's a genocide going on this very minute.” 

He accused both the White House and the State Department of “looking askance” at the genocide when it served their diplomatic ends, such as the current warming of ties with Beijing.

“That's usually both parties: Once they get the White House, human rights become an asterisk on a bunch of talking points when they meet with foreign leaders like [Chinese President] Xi Jinping,” he said. “It's brought up, but it’s not brought up in a way that is meaningful.”

Smith said he wanted to see the caucus push the passage of the Uyghur Policy Act, which would force the U.S. State Department to place a Uyghur speaker in every American consulate in China and include Uyghurs in outreach programs in Muslim countries.

He also said the Senate should take up a bill that passed the House in a 414-2 vote last year that would place sanctions on Chinese officials involved in forced organ harvesting, which Uyghur activists say is rife in far-western Xinjiang region where most of the minority live.

“The Uyghurs are suffering from this in a horrible way,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get it done. I'm almost at a point of outrage.”

He added the bill was now “sitting idly languishing, collecting dust over in the U.S. Senate,” and that he did not believe organ harvesting “gets raised” properly by diplomats in meetings with Chinese officials.

Also attending the event was Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat from Virginia whose district in the state’s north is home to many Uyghurs. 

Wexton, who was previously one of the most outspoken members of the caucus, is now set to retire at the end of the current congressional term after being debilitated by progressive supra-nuclear palsy, a disease she described as “like Parkinson’s [disease] on steroids.” 

Using an assisted speaking app on her phone, Wexton said she hoped the revamped caucus was able to pass legislation that would help end the “gut-wrenching” situation taking place in the Xinjiang region.

“We have made great strides in this fight,” she said. “But as all of you know, it is far from over. While I may not be serving in Congress for much longer, I want you to know that I will not give up this fight.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

The story was updated to correct Nury Turkel's title in the photo caption.

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Uyghur
Apr 17, 2024 11:12 AM

The caption of the image have an error. Nury Turkel is no longger is the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, but a Commissioner