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Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act: Holding China Accountable for the Persecution of Ethnic Minorities

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In July 2015, outside the Id Kah Mosque in the ancient Silk Road trade town of Kashgar, Uyghur men and women pray during Eid al-Fitr, a joyous Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Police vehicles and security line the public square in Xinjiang, China.
In July 2015, outside the Id Kah Mosque in the ancient Silk Road trade town of Kashgar, Uyghur men and women pray during Eid al-Fitr, a joyous Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Police vehicles and security line the public square in Xinjiang, China. —Alexandra Williams

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, the first legislative response to China’s large-scale abuses against its Uyghur population, became United States law on June 17, 2020. The Act requires the tracking and reporting on human rights violations against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang and the enactment of sanctions on individuals participating in their persecution. The passage of the law follows increasing attention to the Chinese government’s campaign of mass detention and persecution against the Uyghurs, which the US Holocaust Memorial Museum declared earlier this year could amount to crimes against humanity.

Who are the Uyghurs?

“Uyghur” refers to the ethnic minority group of the larger Turkic Muslim minority community, who reside primarily in the Xinjiang region of China. The Turkic Muslim population is estimated to be approximately 12 million (with the Uyghur population estimated at 11 million people), which represents around 50% of the total Xinjiang population, but less than 1% of the total population of China. 

Uyghurs have a unique cultural identity characterized by a rich history of language and literature, religious traditions and education, music, traditional dance, cuisine, art, and science. Xinjiang, which Uyghurs refer to as East Turkestan, is a resource-rich area dominated by rugged mountains and vast desert basins. Its oasis towns were a key part of the ancient Silk Road and are now critically important to the government’s global infrastructure “Belt and Road” initiative. 

What is happening in Xinjiang?

While the Uyghurs have been persecuted for decades, the Chinese government’s mistreatment of Uyghur and Turkic Muslims has rapidly escalated over the past three years. 

During this time frame, China has built and filled an estimated 500 to 1,400 detention camps with Uyghur civilians, which the Chinese government claims are for “re-education” or “vocational training” purposes. One million Turkic Muslims, overwhelmingly Uyghur, are estimated to be currently detained within these camps and as many as three million people in total are estimated to have been detained in a camp for some period of time. During this same period, there has also been a sharp increase in surveillance and monitoring that facilitates the detention of Uyghur and Turkic Muslims. 

The Uyghurs’ unique cultural identity is under serious threat from forced assimilation policies of the Chinese government. Uyghur and Turkic Muslims are being detained due to non-criminal expressions of their culture and religion. China has instituted policies and laws restricting Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims from speaking their local languages, wearing traditional clothing, using traditional Islamic greetings, and performing a number of religious and cultural practices specific to these minority groups. China has also destroyed Uyghur/Turkic Muslim cultural and religious sites, including the razing of mosques.

To learn more about what is happening to the Uyghurs, see the Simon-Skjodt Center’s country page, the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report  and the Congressional Executive Commission on China’s Annual Report. 

What does the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 do?

Introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate (unanimous consent) and the House.  

This new law:

  • Requires the President to submit reports to Congress, at least annually, that identify foreign individuals and entities responsible for severe human rights violations, including torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without trial, disappearances or abductions, or other denial of life, liberty, and security of a person. 
  • Mandates the President to impose sanctions against the foreign individuals and entities identified by these reports, including asset blocking and visa restrictions, and penalties provided for in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
  • The law allows the President to exempt certain foreign individuals or entities from these sanctions if he were to determine that doing so would serve the national interest. Any exemptions would need to be justified to Congress. The President can terminate the sanctions against an individual or entity, and notify Congress that the sanction target was not involved in human rights violations, was appropriately punished for such violations, has significantly changed behavior after consequences, or that it is in the US interest to end such sanctions. Unless Congress acts, the sanction mechanism contained in the law expires five years after enactment.
  • Requires relevant executive agencies to provide public reports to Congress, including on the general human rights situation in Xinjiang; on efforts to protect US citizens and residents, including ethnic Uyghurs and Chinese nationals  living, studying or working in the United States from harassment and intimidation by China of; and on security and economic implications for the United States stemming from the situation in Xinjiang. The Act also requires that a classified report be submitted to Congress on these matters.

What has the US Holocaust Memorial Museum done in relation to the plight of the Uyghurs?

Following troubling reports of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide expanded its work to cover Xinjiang. The Center is bringing attention to the ongoing and escalating mistreatment through hosting public events and participating in public briefings. 

On March 5, 2020, the Simon-Skjodt Center hosted a public event highlighting the plight of the Uyghurs. The Simon-Skjodt Center warned that there are reasonable grounds to believe that China is committing crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs, specifically (1) imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty and (2) persecution. This determination was later cited during the Congressional debate on the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020. To learn more about this event, read the remarks of Simon-Skjodt Center Director Naomi Kikoler and Holocaust survivor Al Munzer on China’s systemic persecution of the Uyghurs.

Is there other legislation related to the situation of the Uyghurs?

Earlier this year, Senator Rubio and Congressman James P. McGovern (D-MA) introduced the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (S. 3471; H.R. 6210, 116th Congress), which is currently pending in Congress. These bills seek to prevent goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang from entering the United States market.

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