TIME: The U.S. Must Use the New Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act to Hold Chinese Officials to Account for the Persecution of Turkic Muslims

Jun 8, 2020

This op-ed was originally published by TIME, on June 8, 2020.

By USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel


On May 28, after years of hard work and dedication, the House of Representatives passed the historic Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, following the unanimous vote in the Senate earlier in the month.

This is the first in history that a law is dedicated to promoting the rights of Uyghur and other Muslims in China, who have faced systematic persecution as a result of their religious beliefs. It will ensure U.S. policy toward China takes into account the Chinese government’s violations of religious freedom.

And  now, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act awaits President Donald Trump's signature.

The new law also directs the U.S. government to impose financial sanctions and visa bans under the Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese government officials responsible for the persecution of Muslims.  Significantly, it requires an FBI report to the Congress on efforts to protect Uyghurs from Chinese government intimidation and harassment on American soil. Additionally, it would require the administration to report on human rights abuses in the Uyghur region, including formal estimates of the number of individuals detained in concentration camps.

Sadly, there’s no shortage of complicit officials in China. I urge President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to impose sanctions on Chinese officials, including Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo. In addition to overseeing the concentration camps in Xinjiang, the Chinese region in Central Asia that is home to most Uyghurs, Chen is also responsible for creating an Orwellian surveillance state in Tibet that monitors Buddhist monasteries. The U.S. government should also target former Political and Legal Affairs Commission Chief Zhu Hailun, the architect of China’s repressive policies against Uyghurs.

In addition, I urge Congress to build on its recent momentum and swiftly pass a second bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would direct the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to presume that any goods produced in the Uyghur region are the product of forced labor. The CBP has already blocked imports from individual Chinese companies due to concerns about forced labor. This bill would help ensure that no American consumer makes purchases that would violate their sense of justice.

I understand the hesitancy of some U.S. officials to use this authority and further complicate the already complicated U.S.-China relationship. However, now is the time for bold action; we must demonstrate that there will be serious consequences for the Communist Party’s crimes against humanity.

While no country has a perfect record on human rights, nothing illustrates the differences between China and the United States better than how they treat their Muslim populations. In China, the Communist Party treating Islam like a mental illness and has interned millions of Muslims who display their faith visibly, such as by growing beards or wearing veils. By contrast, in the United States, a Muslim Uyghur-American was appointed to the National Security Council in 2019. In Urumqi, the regional capital, authorities have waged campaigns against halal dietary restrictions. In Washington, D.C., Uyghurs have opened several restaurants.

My own story—and how I came to advocate for my fellow Uyghurs, is only possible in America. I was born in a Chinese reeducation camp in 1970, during the height of the Cultural Revolution. While there are many things I love about my ancestral homeland, East Turkistan, which the Chinese authorities call Xinjiang, China provides few opportunities for ethnic and religious minorities like me. In 1995, I came to the United States for graduate school and was fortunate to receive political asylum. I later pursued my dream of becoming a lawyer.

Though I am living the American Dream, many of my friends and family—along with millions of other religious and ethnic minorities—are living in a Chinese dystopia. Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained an estimated 1.8 million of my fellow Uyghurs, along with Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in concentration camps. Starting in 2019, Chinese officials have forced thousands of Uyghur and other Muslim detainees to work in factories. There have been credible reports that some American companies operating in China, including Apple and Nike, source from suppliers using Uyghur forced labor. (Both companies have said they are committed to ensuring their suppliers do not use forced labor.)

I have used my liberty living in America to promote the cause of millions of Uyghurs. In 2003, I co-founded the Uyghur Human Rights Project and also served as president of the Uyghur American Association. I was honored on May 22, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed me to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I will advise the U.S. government on the promotion and protection of religious freedom abroad. That same week, the U.S. Congress took a major step toward that goal.

The passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act comes after years of hard work. Just a few years ago, few Americans had heard about the plight of the Uyghur people. Now, senior U.S. government officials regularly champion our cause. Secretary Pompeo has raised the Uyghur more than two dozen times since last fall including to call China’s treatment of the Uyghur as the “stain on the century.

Ensuring that Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and all Chinese citizens can worship as they choose will require even more years of hard work. Yet, the first time in years, I have some reason for optimism.