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Senator Marco Rubio authored the Uygur Human Rights Policy Act. Photo: EPA-EFE

US Senate passes Uygur Human Rights Policy Act

  • The Senate passes legislation that would pave the way for targeted sanctions against government officials in China over alleged human rights abuses
  • While no tally was taken, around two-thirds of the Senate had previously signed onto the bill as cosponsors. It must now go to the House for a vote

The US Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would pave the way for targeted sanctions against government officials in China over alleged human rights abuses against Muslim ethnic minority groups in the country’s northwest.

The legislation directs the White House to submit a report to Congress within 180 days identifying those deemed responsible for torture, extrajudicial detention, forced disappearance and other “flagrant denial[s]” of human rights in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

These individuals would be subject to sanctions, including the freezing of assets in the US and denial of entry to the country.

Introduced by Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat, the Uygur Human Rights Policy Act was passed under the Senate’s unanimous consent rules, used to move non-controversial legislation without the need for a vote.

Yet while there was no tally taken, more than two-thirds of the Senate had previously signed onto the bill as cosponsors, a significant show of bipartisan support in the 100-strong chamber.

Among its backers were former Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand.

As well as its provisions on sanctions, the legislation also directs the US State Department to produce a publicly available report on the state of human rights in XUAR, including official estimates on the number of individuals detained in mass internment camps.

Beijing claims that the internment centres are “vocational training centres”, where individuals receive education on a voluntary basis, a claim that has been contradicted by a numerous high-profile leaks of internal government documents.

China sends Uygurs from Xinjiang camps to other parts of country

Released by a consortium of media outlets in November, one set of leaked documents, known as the “China Cables”, detailed stringent security measures to prevent “students” from escaping.

Different versions of the bill were passed by both the House of Representatives and Senate last year. The legislation approved on Thursday removes a section on export controls that had been included in the version passed by the lower chamber by 407 votes to 1 in December.

Following the Senate’s passage of the bill, Rubio took to Twitter to call on the Democratic-controlled House to approve the bill within one day. Any further amendments brought by the House would require additional approval by the Senate.

But should the House approve the legislation in its current form, it will travel to the White House, where US President Donald Trump must choose either to enact or veto the bill within 10 days. A presidential veto can be overturned by a two-thirds majority vote in Congress.

Xinjiang’s rules against domestic violence expand ‘extremism’ front

Contacted soon after the bill’s passage by the Senate, the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not immediately respond to questions about when, or if, she would seek to move the legislation forward.

Pelosi is one of Capitol Hill’s most vocal critics of China’s human rights record, and has accused Beijing of carrying out “unabated abuse and repression” of the Uygur people.

Any bills that have not been passed by both chambers and sent to the White House before the end of the current Congressional session in January, 2021 will be wiped off the docket.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Congressional Republicans have adopted a more hardline approach when it comes to confronting China compared to Democrats, many of whom have expressed concern that language targeting the country risks stirring up anti-Asian racism in the US.

But the Senate’s approval of the Uygur Human Rights Policy act on Thursday, coming at a time when Congress has been largely focused on legislative responses to the pandemic, was a sign that substantial bipartisan consensus around some China-related issues continues to exist on Capitol Hill.

“Today’s action by the Senate sends a clear message that the United States will not be distracted and will not stand by as millions of Uyghur Muslims continue to be unjustly imprisoned, subjected to a mass surveillance state, and forced into labor camps by Beijing’s autocratic regime,” said Menendez.