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Lawmakers Seek $70 Million to Enforce Uyghur Forced Labor Act

U.S. lawmakers are urging colleagues to greenlight Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) $70 million budget request to “vigorously” implement forced-labor import restrictions in the 2023 fiscal year.

In a letter to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security this week, Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Representatives Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) underscored the “critical need” to fulfill the terms of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bars products from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) based on the rebuttable presumption that they are made using modern slavery.

The funding is necessary to add enforcement personnel, technological capabilities, training and other activities necessary to “faithfully implement the law,” wrote the legislators, who are all leading members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “We strongly support this request given the critical need to support compliance with this new law, protect U.S. consumers from products tainted by forced labor, and reduce unintended adverse impacts on supply chains.”

Congress previously approved $27 million in funds in the 2022 fiscal year omnibus appropriations bill to enforce the measure’s requirements, including the development and implementation of a Forced Labor Enforcement Task Force strategy to prevent goods made with modern slavery from entering the United States.

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“That appropriation appropriately reflected the urgency of increasing U.S. Government resources to crack down on the import of products of forced labor and the overwhelming bipartisan support to do so,” Rubio et. al. said. “With enforcement burdens set to increase following the implementation of the aforementioned import prohibition…the additional funding requested by CBP will support compliance by addressing staffing, technological and administrative shortfalls.”

CBP estimates that executing the prohibition, which is set to go into effect next month, will substantially increase the number of transactions subject to review and enforcement from less than 1 million to more than 11.5 million per year. The additional funds would allow the agency to fill 300 extra positions as well as increase its capacity for technology, strategy, training and outreach.

“We championed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act because of the appalling evidence of widespread forced labor in the XUAR, as well as elsewhere in China via coercive labor transfers, and our conviction that U.S. consumers should never be unwittingly complicit in supporting slavery,” the letter said. “Enactment of this law sent a resounding signal of the U.S. commitment to address the activities that fund genocide, protect U.S. consumers, and defend human rights. Fully funding the CBP request will support the bipartisan, bicameral vision of the U.S. Congress.”

The proposal comes as a cache of hacked Chinese police photographs and documents, published by several media outlets, shed new light on conditions at internment camps across Xinjiang, where human-rights groups say that more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being held against their will. The trove describes draconian security protocols, including the use of batons and shackles to physically subdue detainees and directives to shoot to kill anyone attempting to escape. In the files, the youngest person detailed was 15, while the oldest was 73.

“This is by far the most important leak of evidence from the region and the largest and the most significant,” German researcher Adrian Zenz, who secured the files from an anonymous source, told Al Jazeera. “It’s much more significant than anything we’ve seen before because it contains evidence on so many levels.”

The Biden administration said it was disturbed both by the documents and the lack of accountability by Chinese authorities, which have continued to deny any wrongdoing. Previous revelations from the region include coerced labor, forced family separations, forced sterilization, torture and sexual violence.

“We are appalled by the reports and the jarring images of the PRC’s internment camps in Xinjiang from 2018, those reports that are— and those images that are being shared online,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday, using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “Unfortunately, the PRC’s genocide and crimes against humanity against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and Muslims of other ethnic and religious minority groups remain ongoing in Xinjiang, and this new reporting further adds to an already damning body of evidence of the PRC’s atrocities in Xinjiang, including evidence previously…seen in satellite imagery and gathered via witness testimony from survivors and escapees of the internment and forced labor camps.”

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet is in the middle of a long-anticipated fact-finding trip to China, which will include a visit to Xinjiang. Speaking to Bachelet Wednesday via video conference, ​​Chinese leader Xi Jinping rejected any “patronizing” lectures about Beijing’s human-rights record, according to state-operated news agency Xinhua.

“When it comes to human-rights issues, there is no such thing as a flawless utopia; countries do not need patronizing lectures; still less should human rights issues be politicized and used as a tool to apply double standards, or as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” Xi said.

The ruling Communist Party has also derided the leak as an act of sabotage that is “politicizing” human rights. It had previously defended its so-called “vocational education and training centers” as benevolent and voluntary schemes designed to alleviate poverty and stave off religious extremism.

“The U.S., Britain and other Western countries have been repeatedly staging political farces around the UN high commissioner for human rights’ visit to China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing Tuesday. “They have first openly pressured and strongly demanded that the high commissioner visit China and Xinjiang, and conducted the so-called investigation with the presumption of guilt.”