The 116th Congress’s Record on International Human Rights: The Good, the Bad, and the Unfinished Business

This has been an unprecedented year as the world has been shut down and shut in by the coronavirus. As Americans prepare to vote in the November election – described by many as the most important election in modern history, for both the United States and the world — now is the time to take stock of the 116th U.S. Congress’s record on international human rights.

The 2019-2020 congressional session has been marked by important progress in addressing the human rights of Uyghurs in China, but also by devastating setbacks for Yemeni civilians subjected to war crimes and for asylum seekers denied access to protection at the U.S. border.  Meanwhile, there was limited movement in Congress on addressing the human rights of Venezuelans and the Rohingya, and little action to address international human rights amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Good News on International Human Rights

Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act Became Law in June 2020:  In spring 2020 Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (“Act”), which President Donald Trump signed into law on June 17, 2020 (S. 3744Pub.L. 116–145).

The Chinese government has detained an estimated 1 million Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (“Xinjiang”) since 2017. Chinese authorities have imposed a “Regulation on De-extremification,” which treats displays of religious and cultural affiliation as “extremist.”  The ostensible offenses include growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, or regular prayer.

As the Chinese government has intensified its campaign of mass detention, surveillance, political indoctrination, and forced cultural assimilation, it has also steadfastly resisted calls to admit independent monitors into Xinjiang, allowing only carefully stage-managed tours for select journalists and diplomats. Meanwhile, friends and relatives of people believed to be detained remain cut off from information and unsure where their loved ones are.

China’s campaign against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims extends well beyond China’s border. The Chinese government has tasked embassies and consulates abroad with collecting information about members of these groups residing in other countries, including the Uyghur diaspora residing in the United States.

In response to these human rights violations, Congress passed, and Trump signed into law, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which requires the State Department to report on mass detention, surveillance, and other human rights abuses by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.

The act directs the Trump administration to submit a report to Congress identifying Chinese officials responsible for torture; prolonged detention without charges and a trial; abduction; cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of Muslim minority groups; and other human rights violations of people in Xinjiang. Persons identified in the report would then be subject to sanctions, which include asset blocking, visa revocation, and ineligibility for entry into the United States. The president can decline to impose sanctions against Chinese officials if he or she determines and certifies to Congress that holding back on sanctions is in the national interest. The president’s report is due to Congress within 180 days, by mid-December 2020.

The act is a critical first step in holding Chinese government officials accountable for mass detention and surveillance in Xinjiang, and in creating a framework to deter further human rights violations.

The Bad News on International Human Rights

While Congress and the president worked cooperatively to enact the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, these two branches of government clashed at the highest pitch on two critical areas involving human rights:  (1) the Trump administration’s arms sales to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition committing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law against Yemeni civilians; and (2) Trump’s Proclamation on Declaring a National Emergency concerning the U.S.-Mexico border.  In both situations Congress swiftly acted to respond to actions taken by the President; in both situations Congress passed bipartisan human rights legislation which the President vetoed.  Following the vetoes, Congress failed to meet the two thirds majority needed to overturn a Presidential veto.

Despite swift action, Congress was unable to block the Trump administration from selling arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition committing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law against Yemeni civilians: Amnesty International has repeatedly found evidence that U.S.-made munitions have been used by Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition (“coalition”) forces to target Yemeni civilians. Amnesty has documented 36 airstrikes across six different governorates by the coalition that appear to have violated international law. These airstrikes have claimed more than 500 civilian lives and appear to have deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, markets, and mosques.

Although European countries have suspended arms transfers to the coalition, the U.S. government continues to provide the coalition with military support and arms sales. The United States, therefore, has been complicit in the coalition’s violations in Yemen, some of which amount to war crimes.

In 2019, the Trump administration signaled that it would circumvent Congress and sell arms to Saudi Arabia. In response, Congress swiftly passed three resolutions (S.J. Res. 36, S.J. Res. 37, S.J. Res. 38) to block several arms sales to the coalition. The president vetoed all three resolutions despite solid bipartisan support in Congress. Following the veto, Congress failed to meet the super-majority threshold required to overturn a presidential veto.

Congress was unable to prevent Trump from raiding other agency accounts to fund his U.S.-Mexico border wall: In February 2019, angered that Congress had declined to fund his desired wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, the president issued an executive order declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border (Proclamation 9844), citing the National Emergencies Act, and ordered the diversion of $8 billion in funds previously appropriated to other agencies and ordered it spent to build his wall instead. The redirected funds were made up of $3.6 billion previously assigned to military construction, $2.5 billion for the Defense Department’s drug interdiction activities, and $600 million from Treasury’s forfeiture fund.

Proclamation 9844 was the first emergency declaration by a U.S. president intended to circumvent Congress and spend money for something lawmakers previously had expressly refused to authorize. The resulting project – a border wall that the representatives of the people had rejected — threatens to harm asylum seekers, escalate migrant deaths, trample upon the rights of Indigenous people and border communities, and wreak environmental destruction.

Shortly after the president issued Proclamation 9844, Congress acted to terminate the national emergency declaration by passing joint resolution (H.J. Res. 46) with bipartisan support.  The President vetoed the joint resolution, and Congress failed to meet the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto.

Much Unfinished Business

NO BAN Act passes House, awaits action in Senate: In July 2020, the House passed the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants Act (“NO BAN Act”) (H.R. 2486, formerly H.R. 2214).  The bill would undo the Trump administration’s Muslim ban that has been in place since 2017; curb the president’s ability to discriminate on the basis of religion; rescind the administration’s initiatives to unlawfully limit the right to seek asylum at the U.S. border; and remove impediments placed on refugees who are already subject to more vetting than any other group entering the United States.

President Trump’s Muslim ban violates the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other internationally recognized human rights standards, and is an affront to human dignity. The Muslim ban, along with other xenophobic policies implemented under the guise of national security, have fueled anti-Muslim sentiment and caused direct harm to families in the United States and abroad.

By passing the NO BAN Act, the House sent a clear message that the United States welcomes and protects people from all faiths and backgrounds. The Senate has yet to take up the No Ban Act.

Venezuela Temporary Protected Status Act passed by House but blocked in Senate: In July 2019, the House passed the Venezuela Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”) Act of 2019 (H.R. 549).  The TPS bill permits Venezuelans in the United States to apply for TPS, which provides work authorization and reprieve from deportation for a limited period of time. Despite passing the House in 2019, the TPS bill failed twice in the Senate on unanimous consent when a single Senator objected, most recently in September 2020.

For over a decade, Venezuelans have suffered an appalling human rights crisis. Inflation has skyrocketed by 53 million percent since 2016, leaving Venezuelans unable to afford basic goods, and the shortage of food products and essential medicines has left many Venezuelans starving and seriously ill. The government of Nicolás Maduro has overseen the deaths of hundreds of political dissidents and the arbitrary detention of thousands more.

This grave humanitarian and human rights crisis has impelled 4.7 million Venezuelans — over one in every 10 Venezuelans — to seek protection and safety outside Venezuela. While the United States has provided humanitarian assistance to help South America respond to Venezuelan refugees, the Trump administration and Congress have failed to protect Venezuelans already in the United States who fear deportation.

Many Venezuelans may be at risk of grave human rights violations if deported.  An estimated 200,000 Venezuelans in the United States could potentially benefit from TPS.

Human rights legislation to protect Rohingya passes House but languishes in Senate: Three years ago in August 2017, Myanmar security forces, led by the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw), attacked the Rohingya in villages across northern Rakhine State, driving more than 740,000 into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar security forces carried out a relentless and systematic campaign, killing at least 10,000 Rohingya, including children; raping hundreds of Rohingya women and girls; torturing Rohingya men and boys in detention sites; and burning hundreds of villages in a targeted and deliberate manner.

Today more than 54 percent of the Rohingya who had previously lived in northern Rakhine State are now living in massive, threadbare refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They number nearly 1 million.

For those Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, they are confined to squalid detention camps within Rakhine State, wholly reliant on humanitarian assistance for their survival. The Rohingya’s rights to equality, a nationality, freedom of movement, and access to adequate healthcare, education, and work opportunities are routinely violated.

In response to these crimes against humanity, the House in 2019 passed the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act (H.R. 3190) and Burma Political Prisoners Assistance Act (H.R. 2327). These bills would apply much-needed pressure against Myanmar authorities to halt atrocities against the Rohingya. H.R. 3190 would hold senior Myanmar military officials accountable for human rights abuses, while H.R. 2327 would direct the State Department to assist civil society organizations in Myanmar working to free prisoners of conscience. Although the House passed both bills in 2019, they have languished in the Senate with little indication that they will get a vote this session.

Congress yet to pass legislation to address international human rights amidst COVID-19 pandemic: Of course, the biggest news of 2020 was the onset of a once-in-a-century pandemic, with the richest country in the world becoming one of the hardest hit. Congress has yet to take necessary action to address the threats to international human rights presented by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

As the United States failed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, leaders around the world have used the pandemic as cover to arrest critics, intensify surveillance, seize emergency powers, and discriminate against marginalized populations. Some governments, like authorities in Nicaragua, Poland, and Tunisia, have criminalized or suppressed information and government critics. Other leaders – in India, Hungary, Philippines, Thailand, Azerbaijan, and Zimbabwe — have used the pandemic to aggrandize their power and crack down on free expression and civic action.

Congress has yet to pass legislation addressing human rights impacted internationally by the pandemic. The bipartisan Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act (“PHRDPA”) (S. 3819 /H.R. 6986) was introduced in both chambers in June 2020. In late September 2020, the House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up and approved H.R. 6986. The Senate has yet to take up its companion bill.

The PHRDPA would require the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to outline a five-year strategy to address persistent issues related to internationally recognized human rights in the aftermath of the COVID-19 response. It also would authorize the establishment of foreign assistance programs designed specifically to support civil society organizations and human rights defenders in countries where the abuse of emergency measures has resulted in the violation of human rights. The bill would also prohibit, subject to a waiver in extraordinary circumstances, the U.S. government from providing security sector assistance to countries engaging in a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” by way of “emergency laws, policies, or administrative procedures.”

Conclusion

As the curtain closes on the 116th session of Congress, the need for unified action on international human rights has never been greater. In 2021, the next Congress and the president will have to tackle multiple international human rights crises presented by the pandemic, the global economic downturn, record numbers of displaced people, and a rising tide of hate and racism around the world.

IMAGE: This photo taken on Sept. 12, 2019 shows people walking next to a Uighur cemetery in Shayar in the region of Xinjiang. – China is destroying burial grounds where generations of Uighur families have been laid to rest, leaving behind human bones and broken tombs in what activists call an effort to eradicate the ethnic group’s identity in Xinjiang.  (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Joanne Lin

National Director, Advocacy and Government Affairs, Amnesty International USA. Follow her/him on Twitter (@JoanneLinDC)