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Uyghur Forced Labor Bill Inches Toward Law

President Joe Biden could be signing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law sooner rather than later.

The House of Representatives passed by unanimous vote Tuesday evening a compromise bill that reconciles differences between versions passed in the House and Senate.

“BIG NEWS: The House just passed my bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, to oppose the Chinese government’s genocide and crimes against humanity being committed against Uyghurs & other Muslim minorities, of which forced labor is a key factor,” Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, tweeted after the vote. “There were some who said we couldn’t get this done. That corporate special interests were just too powerful. They were wrong. This is an important advance for #HumanRights. I urge the Senate to quickly pass my bill and get it to President Biden’s desk asap.”

The bill will now be dispatched to the Senate “for swift action, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday. If it passes, as it’s expected to, it will be delivered to President Biden for his John Hancock.

“The ongoing genocide perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities is a challenge to the conscience of the entire world,” she said in a statement. “If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights any place in the world.”

Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who co-authored the Senate version of the bill, praised the bipartisan effort to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would create a “rebuttable presumption” that all products from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are made with forced labor and therefore barred from entering the U.S. market unless the Customs and Border Protection commissioner grants an exemption.

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“The United States is so reliant on China that we have turned a blind eye to the slave labor that makes our clothes, our solar panels, and much more,” Rubio said in a statement. “That changes today. Our Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act will require businesses importing goods into the United States to prove that their supply chains are not tainted with slave labor. It is time to end our economic addiction to China.”

Americans must send a ”resounding and unequivocal message against genocide and slave labor wherever these evils appear,” Merkley added. “This deal to get the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to the President’s desk is essential in that effort. It ensures that American consumers and businesses can buy goods without inadvertent complicity in China’s horrific human-rights abuses. As the Chinese government tries to whitewash their genocide and claim a propaganda victory with the upcoming Olympics, it is more important than ever for us to speak out and take action.”

Discrepancies between the House and Senate versions included how quickly the import ban would be implemented and whether companies are required to disclose the extent of a wide range of business dealings in Xinjiang.

“The reconciled version protects the core component of the bill: the rebuttable presumption that goods produced in whole or in part in the Uyghur region are made with forced labor and therefore prevented from entering the U.S.,” Allison Gill, forced labor program director at the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, told Sourcing Journal. “As credible human-rights due diligence is not possible in the Uyghur region, companies are required to cut their ties to the region. This puts the onus on companies to map their entire supply chains to ensure that they are not complicit in or using forced labor.”

The White House indicated for the first time that President Biden will sign the measure once it clears Congress.

“We have been clear that we share Congress’ view that action must be taken to hold the [People’s Republic of China] accountable for its human rights abuses and to address forced labor in Xinjiang,” press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing Tuesday. “We’ve already taken action on the global stage in that regard, leading an effort at the G7, putting in place financial sanctions and Global Magnitsky visa restrictions, and I think that’s evidence of our commitment to this.”

The Biden administration has previously declared China’s alleged crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim groups in Xinjiang as genocide, which Beijing has vehemently denied.

“China firmly opposes the interference by the U.S. Congress in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues,” China foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a media briefing following the vote. “By cooking up lies and making troubles on such issues, some U.S. politicians are seeking to contain China and hold back China’s development through political manipulation and economic bullying in the name of ‘human rights.’ Their vile scheme will never succeed, and will only further damage the credibility and image of the U.S. government and Congress in China.”

News of the reconciled bill comes as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights prepares to release a long-awaited report showing “patterns” of Chinese government human rights violations against Uyghurs and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

“The Uyghurs tribunal has brought to light more information that is deeply disturbing in relation to the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang,” spokesperson Rupert Colville told a UN briefing in Geneva Friday, referring to an independent London-based council that ruled last week that China has committed genocide and that the Communist Party’s senior leadership, including President Xi Jinping, should take “primary responsibility” for the acts.

”We have of course similarly identified patterns of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in institutions, coercive labor practices and erosion of social and cultural rights in general,” he added.

The World Uyghur Congress, with the support of the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN),  has also just been granted permission by the High Court of England and Wales to challenge British authorities for allowing the importation of cotton goods produced with forced labor in China, which it says “freely enter the U.K.”

“The U.K. customs authorities are applying far too high an evidential threshold in their assessment of whether goods are made in conditions of detention in East Turkistan, and this must now be addressed by the Court,” Dearbhla Minogue, a legal officer with GLAN, said in a statement.  “Additionally, the National Crime Agency has taken an astounding approach in arguing that, as long as they pay good money for it, companies can source as much forced labor cotton as they like. This is wrong in law. Their combined approach means that companies are freely profiting from the misery of forced labor.”

If the motion is successful, the court will declare the government’s approach unlawful and possibly set a world-first precedent by ruling it impermissible under the Proceeds of Crime Act for companies to purchase the proceeds of atrocity crimes.

“Living in a free country which upholds respect for human rights, it hurts so much to know that the products that are used in this country are the fruit of the enslavement of my people,” said Rahima Mahmut, the U.K. director for the World Uyghur Congress.  “I have full confidence that the British government will make the right decision in line with its legal framework which champions the highest standards of human dignity.”