The U.S. Senate is likely to soon vote to approve the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which would allow for sanctions against officials deemed responsible for rights violations in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to media reports.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that the bipartisan bill introduced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio would pressure U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to sanction “those responsible for the repression,” such as XUAR Communist Party Chairman Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
“I expect the Senate will soon look to pass Senator Rubio’s Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act,” McConnell told the Senate.
Reuters News Agency cited a person familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying a vote could come as soon as next week but might still be delayed. The Senate ended its weekly session on Thursday and reconvenes on Monday.
The outlet cited Rubio’s office as saying it hopes the bill could be passed by unanimous consent soon but could not predict when the Senate might do so. It said McConnell’s office would not elaborate on what he meant by “soon.”
Since April 2017, authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” in some 1,300 internment camps throughout the region.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, 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.
Growing US pressure
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.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved a version of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which would also target entities involved in the construction and operation of the camps, in late 2019. If the Senate passes its version of the act, the legislation is expected to go back to the House for a final vote to reconcile any differences before being sent to Trump for him to sign into law.
Amid pressure from the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the European Union and the United Nations, experts believe that China has begun sentencing those held in internment camps to prison as part of a bid to legitimize their continued detention, or relocating them to factories both inside and outside of the XUAR as forced labor, under the guise of providing them jobs connected to their so-called vocational training.
Last week, U.S. Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey called the last three years since the introduction of the camp policy “grim” for Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China and urged Congress to pass the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which he introduced to the House in 2018.
He also called on Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which he introduced in March, and which would prohibit imports from the XUAR to the U.S. unless proof can be shown that they are not linked to forced labor.
Reports that the Senate could move forward with the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act come amidst increasingly tense ties between Washington and Beijing over the coronavirus pandemic and the latter’s transparency in dealing with the outbreak that originated in Hubei province’s Wuhan city late last year.
China has slammed moves to pass legislation in support of the Uyghurs as interference and warned of retaliation “in proportion” if Chen were targeted.