The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act blocks all imports from Xinjiang unless strict conditions are met.
Protestors hold signs during a rally for Uyghur Freedom in New York, with participants calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to "combat the Uyghur genocide through diplomacy and economic pressure," March 22, 2021.
A bill banning imports from the Xinjiang region of China unless they are certified as not made with forced labor passed the U.S. Senate unanimously on Thursday, clearing the way for signing into law by President Joe Biden in what one Uyghur advocate called the “beginning of the end of ‘business as usual.’”
Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act will block the import of goods into the U.S. from Xinjiang without "clear and convincing evidence" that they were not made with forced labor, and authorize sanctions on foreign individuals and entities found responsible for rights abuses.
Thursday’s unanimous vote in the Senate followed a unanimous vote Tuesday in the House, in what was seen a rare and strong show of bi-partisan support for U.S. policies to counter widespread abuses of the 12 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang.
“This bill represents our country’s commitment to protecting human dignity and leading the fight against forced labor. We have a moral and economic imperative to eliminate this practice from our global supply chains, including those that run through Xinjiang, China, and exploit Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities,” said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
“By passing this bill with strong, bipartisan support, the United States can set an example for the world to follow,” she said in a statement.
After the House approved the bill on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki indicated it would be signed into law by Biden.
"The administration will work closely with Congress to implement this bill to ensure global supply chains are free of forced labor, while simultaneously working to on-shore and third-shore key supply chains, including semiconductors and clean energy," added Psaki.
“This law is the beginning of the end of ‘business as usual,’” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP).
“With mountains of evidence that Uyghurs are subjected to state-imposed forced labor — whether they are business owners, teachers, nurses, students, or farmers — it is about time that we put the burden of proof on companies.”
“If you want to import products from a region filled with hundreds of prison-camps and work-camps, you will now have to prove that you are not sourcing forced-labor goods,” added Kanat.
Genocide ruling, lawsuits
The vote came a week after the independent Uyghur Tribunal in London ruled that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
The ruling was based on evidence from survivors, witnesses and experts on the Chinese policies in the region, including the network of detention camps in which China has held as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since 2017, forced birth control, and forced labor. China rejects the accusations.
Although the tribunal is non-binding and has no state backing, Uyghur groups responded to the findings of genocide and crimes against humanity by preparing or proceeding with lawsuits in Argentina and the U.K.
The UHRP, based in Washington, and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), headquartered in Germany, said Tuesday they are preparing to submit a criminal complaint in Argentina. The country’s universal jurisdiction provisions enable courts to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity or genocide under international law, regardless of where they have taken place.
On Wednesday, The High Court of England and Wales gave the WUC approval to proceed with a case against U.K. authorities for permitting the importation of cotton goods produced with Uyghur forced labor in China.
The Biden administration and its predecessor have ramped up U.S. policies in response to Xinjiang rights abuses, including visa restrictions, sanctions, export controls and import restrictions, and the release of a business advisory on forced labor.
Earlier Thursday the Commerce Department added to its export blacklist 34 research institutes and tech companies in China that have been identified as developing technologies that can be used to surveil and repress minorities.
Citing abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere, the U.S. and five other countries announced last week that they will send athletes but not government officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which open in February.
‘Humanity won today’
Although parts of the U.S. business community are reported to have lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, the US-China Business Council (USCBC) said its members are already addressing forced labor.
“USCBC members have extensive prohibitions on the use of forced labor in their operations and by their suppliers. Forced labor violates basic respect for human rights, and it puts anti-competitive pressure on companies paying a living wage to their employees elsewhere in the world,” said Doug Barry, the Washington-based group’s senior director of communications and publications.
“Responsible sourcing is a fundamental business priority, an expectation of our members’ customers, and a core principle that guides their operations,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service in an e-mailed statement.
The WUC hailed the passage of the bill and called on Biden to quickly sign it into law.
“By sharply constraining corporate complicity in forced labor, and putting real economic pressure on the Chinese government, this bill gives renewed hope to oppressed people across the Uyghur region,” it said in a statement.
“Responsible companies should take steps now, without waiting for the UFLPA to go into effect,” it added.
China has angrily rejected the genocide allegations and condemned U.S. sanctions and the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. But recent weeks have brought a series of rebukes to Beijing, and Uyghurs are urging more countries to follow suit.
“Humanity won today. By taking this tangible action, the U.S. Congress told the world that slavery/forced labor in any form, in any part of the world, cannot be tolerated,” said Elfidar Iltebir, secretary of the Uyghur American Association.
Reported by Alim Seytoff and Nur Iman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written by Paul Eckert.