The United States marked International Human Rights Day Friday with the announcement of sanctions on dozens of people and entities tied to rights abuses in China, Myanmar, North Korea and Bangladesh, while blacklisting a Chinese artificial intelligence company.
The financial and visa sanctions came on the final day of President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy, where he unveiled policies to bolster democracy against threats around the world and appealed for solidarity among some 100 participants.
“On International Human Rights Day, Treasury is using its tools to expose and hold accountable perpetrators of serious human rights abuse,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said in a statement.
“Our actions today, particularly those in partnership with the United Kingdom and Canada, send a message that democracies around the world will act against those who abuse the power of the state to inflict suffering and repression,” he added.
The sanctions on China slapped a U.S. visa ban on the current and previous chairmen of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (XUAR), Erken Tuniyaz and Shohrat Zakir, and came a day after a tribunal in London found that Chinese policies in the region constituted genocide.
“During their tenures, more than one million Uyghurs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups have been detained in Xinjiang,” Treasury said in a statement.
Surveillance with facial recognition
Both Tuniyaz and Zakir, ethnic Uyghurs, presided over intrusive surveillance in Xinjiang using the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, an artificial intelligence system that tracks millions of Uyghurs through biometric records and digital surveillance. I a program that resulted in mass detentions, the statement said.
“The mass detention of Uyghurs is part of an effort by PRC authorities to use detentions and data-driven surveillance to create a police state in the Xinjiang region,” it added.
For its development of a “facial recognition programs that can determine a target’s ethnicity, with a particular focus on identifying ethnic Uyghurs,” the Chinese artificial intelligence company SenseTime was added to a list of "Chinese military-industrial complex companies,” and subject to a U.S. investment ban, said Treasury.
In a move also taken by Canada and the United Kingdom, the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on four regional ministers of the military junta that overthrew Myanmar’s elected government on Feb. 1. One is Myo Swe Win, who heads the junta’s administration in the Bago region, where 82 people were killed in a single day in April, Treasury said.
Sanctions were also slapped on military entities for their role in military attacks on civilians, including the Directorate of Defense Industries, the Quartermaster General Office, and the Myanmar War Veterans Organization, the statement said.
“The persons sanctioned today are associated with the military regime’s ongoing attacks on democracy and brutal repression,” Treasury said.
So far 1,325 civilians have been killed since the military takeover, with nearly 8,000 arrested, according the Bangkok-based NGO, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Treasury also sanctioned North Korea’s Central Public Prosecutors Office for using courts “to prosecute and punish persons for political wrongdoing in a legal process involving fundamentally unfair trials” that send people to the country’s horrific prison camps.
Sanctions were also imposed on North Korea’s government-run animation studio, SEK Studio, for using front companies to evade sanctions and raise money for the country offering cheap animation work, and on the Russian university European Institute Justo for facilitating North Korean labor exports.
‘Much more is needed’
Financial sanctions on the notorious Bangladeshi police unit Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and six of its current and former officers, saying they were responsible for serious human rights abuses.
The force, comprising members of the police, army, navy, air force, and border guards, is accused of more than 600 enforced disappearances in the past 12 years, a similar number of extrajudicial killings, and use of torture, the Treasury statement said.
The announcement of the sanctions came a day after the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent panel in London ruled that Chinese policies toward Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the XUAR constituted genocide and that Chinese authorities committed seven out of 11 crimes against humanity recognized by the International Criminal Court.
Uyghur advocacy groups hailed the U.S. decision on the heels of the tribunal ruling.
“Today’s U.S. sanctions prove that those who commit atrocities and are complicit with these crimes will eventually be brought to justice,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress.
“It’s clear those officials who aid and abet Xi Jinping’s Uyghur genocide will be held responsible,” he added.
Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, called the addition of the two top Uyghur officials to the list of sanctioned XUAR officials a welcome but insufficient move.
“Shohrat Zakir and Erken Tuniyaz are responsible for unspeakable brutality in the Uyghur homeland. They should be on every country’s sanctions list,” he said in a statement.
“But even with today’s announcement, there are still only 10 PRC officials under U.S. sanctions for the atrocities. Much more is needed,” added Kanat.
The sanctions were announced as Biden wound down a two-day online Summit for Democracy.
“As this gathering has demonstrated, the democratic world is everywhere,” Biden said in closing remarks from the White House.
“Autocracies can never extinguish the ember of liberty that burns in the hearts of people around the world, in every portion of the world.”
Speaking before the sanctions were unveiled, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused the U.S. of trying to “weaponize democracy, by openly convening this so-called Summit for Democracy to incite division and confrontation for geopolitical gains."
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