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The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill calling for sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority, on the 3rd December, calling for the closure of mass detention camps in the north-western region of Xinjiang. The Uighur bill requires the president ‘to condemn gross human rights violations of ethnic Turkic Muslims in the western Xinjiang region’ and calls for ‘an end to arbitrary detention, torture and harassment of these communities. The bill, in addition to the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act which was passed by the U.S. Senate in September, still needs approval from the Senate before the President’s signature is required.
‘We are sending a message to Beijing. America is watching and we will not stand silent,’ said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republican Congressman Christopher Smith said that the Xinjiang detention programme was ‘on a scale not seen since the Holocaust’ soon after signing the legislation. ‘This Congress wants to hold the Chinese government and Chinese companies accountable for crimes against humanity and the cruelty they inflicted.’ Nury Turkel, chair of the Uighur Human Rights Project advocacy group in Washington described the passage of the bill as ‘historic’ and said, ‘The scope and scale of the crisis in the Uighur region demand urgent action in Congress to send this bill to President Trump’s desk for his signature.’
The bill accuses China of “systematically discriminating” against Uighurs by ‘denying them a range of civil and political rights, including the freedoms of expression, religion, movement, and a fair trial’. The bill has called out policies carried out by China against Muslims in Xinjiang, including pervasive, high-tech surveillance including a collection of DNA samples from children and the use of QR codes outside homes to gather information on how frequently individuals pray. United Nations experts and activists have said that at least a million Uighurs and members of other largely Muslim minority groups have been held in internment camps in Xinjiang.
The Uighur bill is a stronger version of a bill that was passed in September, criticizing the treatment of protesters in Hong Kong and allows US-imposed economic sanctions and travel bans on Chinese officials in Hong Kong. Activists and members of the Uighur community have been trying to raise awareness over Uighur imprisonment for a number of years, however, the tough sanctions by the US were only considered recently when 24 pages of documents confirming mass data collection and subsequent detainment measures upheld in Xinjiang, were leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Germany also stepped up criticism of China’s actions after seeing this report and outlined that the treatment of minorities had the potential to have a ‘very big impact’ on future relations between China and the European Union.
This appears to be the start of a chain of political reactions from the world’s biggest countries such as the US, despite much opposition from China, with China urging the US to not interfere in China’s domestic affairs and smear efforts to eliminate and combat extremism and threating to impose trade sanctions. This is despite evidence showing that many Uighurs are detained for simply expressing their faith, language, and roots, in what points to cultural genocide. The BBC’s China correspondent John Sudworth said that if the bill became law, it would mark the most significant international attempt to pressure China over its mass detention of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. Now that Xinjiang is in the spotlight, China must not underestimate the strength of global opinion and power in continuing to pursue its policies with no regard to international obligations on human rights.