Hundreds gathered in Washington over the weekend urging the Trump administration to sanction those responsible for human rights violations in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), amid increasing calls for action against Beijing from the international community.
Uyghur exile leaders were joined by members of international rights groups and exiled Chinese dissidents in leading the Uyghur Freedom March on Saturday, demanding that the government take steps to punish XUAR Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo and other officials targeting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities with repressive policies in the region.
“We must move beyond words to concrete action before it is too late,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
“The U.S. should set an example by using the Global Magnitsky Act to apply targeted sanctions to culpable officials as a matter of priority. The Congress must act by passing the pending human rights bills.”
Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project director Omer Kanat also called on lawmakers to level sanctions against Chinese officials in the XUAR as soon as possible.
“American citizens of conscience are expecting our Congress to act—we must urgently appeal to our representatives in Congress to act without further delay,” he said.
Several U.S. lawmakers also sent letters of support of proposed sanctions, which were read to those gathered for the rally on Saturday.
“What is happening to Uyghurs in China today is unconscionable,” said Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey. “It should be treated and declared as a crime against humanity.”
“We must all continue to speak with one voice on this issue,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “The Chinese government’s creation of a vast system of internment and surveillance cannot be tolerated in the 21st century.”
Beginning in April 2017, Chen established a network of political “re-education camps” in the XUAR that have since held an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas.
China’s government has established a police state in the region, where residents are subjected to regular monitoring with cutting-edge surveillance technology, DNA collection, endless checkpoints, and routine home searches.
Speakers at Saturday’s rally highlighted the bipartisan “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act” (UHRA), put forward in January by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, which would dedicate new resources from the U.S. State Department, FBI, and other intelligence agencies to documenting abuse in the XUAR, as well as Beijing’s intimidation of U.S. citizens and residents on American soil.
The UHRA would require the Director of National Intelligence to issue a report in coordination with the State Department on the security threat posed by China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs, as well as a list of Chinese companies involved in the construction and the operation of re-education camps in the XUAR.
The act calls for “high-level U.S. engagement” on the issue, as well as the application of travel and financial sanctions against Chinese officials who are responsible for the policies in the XUAR under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The Global Magnitsky Act is based on an earlier U.S. measure created to address human rights abuses by the Putin regime in Russia.
January marked the second time legislation aimed at holding China accountable for its treatment of the Uyghurs was proposed, following the announcement of a similar act known as the Uyghur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response Act in November 2018, which was not taken up by the Senate before the end of the congressional session.
At the time, China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai threatened retaliation if Washington were to sanction Beijing over human rights abuses in the XUAR, telling Reuters news agency in an interview that China is working to “re-educate” terrorists and should not be punished for what he suggested is a more humane approach to counter-terrorism.
On Saturday, Nury Turkel, chairman of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project exile group, warned that failure to act in the interests of the Uyghurs is not an option for the U.S. government.
“History won’t be kind to those who turned a blind eye or pretended to be deaf,” Turkel told those gathered for the rally, adding that “staying silent on this evil is untenable.”
“Let’s not forget silence is a tacit approval of the crime. When this is over, we will remember the silence of our brothers and friends in the West, not the words of those communist leaders in Beijing.”
The weekend’s rally came as China is facing mounting pressure from the international community to account for its policies in the XUAR.
Last month, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she had called on China to allow international monitors access to the region to verify reports of arbitrary detentions in the camps, while U.N. religious freedom investigator Ahmed Shaheed revealed that he had also requested access to the XUAR in February to investigate concerns over China’s “de-extremification” law.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown 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.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, earlier this month said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
Last week, the U.S. State Department said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned by China’s highly repressive campaign” against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the XUAR,” but added that it was unable to forecast potential sanctions or comment on future legal actions.
“The Department of State is committed to protecting and promoting human rights and combatting corruption with all of the tools at our disposal,” the statement said.
“This includes using the authorities under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.”
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.