The newly appointed first Uyghur member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom talks about USCIRF and the struggle against religious persecution in China.
by Marco Respinti
The persecution of Uyghur and other Turkic minorities in China is increasing, as is the persecution of all ethnic minorities and religious groups. It is thus of high relevance that Mr. Nury Turkel, a well-known Uyghur advocate, was recently appointed a Commissioner at USCIRF, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Mr. Turkel was born in a re-education camp at the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and spent the first months of his life in captivity with his mother. He came to the United States in 1995 as a student, and was granted asylum in 1998. Holding a Master of Arts in International Relations and a Juris Doctorate from the American University in Washington, D.C., he is the first U.S.-educated Uyghur lawyer, specializing in regulatory compliance, federal investigation and enforcement, anti-bribery, aviation, legislative advocacy, and immigration.
A human rights advocate, he serves as the Chairman of the Board for the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C, which he co-founded in 2003. He also served as the president of the Uyghur American Association, whose work obtained the liberation of prominent Uyghur leader, Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, in March 2005. A friend of Bitter Winter, Mr. Turkel shares with us his reflections and perspectives.
Can you explain to non-Americans what USCIRF is, and how it operates?
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government commission with a mandate to promote and protect religious freedom abroad. We monitor religious freedom conditions in countries around the world, and make policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and State Department. USCIRF uses international standards to assess religious freedom conditions, so we are not trying to impose American values on other countries, but rather holding them to the shared, universal norms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other UN treaties.
The Commission was created by Congress through the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, alongside the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. Unlike the State Department, however, USCIRF’s independence enables it to unflinchingly criticize the records of U.S. allies and adversaries alike. We also focus on the worst violators of religious freedom, such as China, rather than attempting to cover the entire world.
You are a prominent leader in the Uyghur diaspora. What is the meaning of your appointment as a Commissioner at USCIRF?
I am truly honored that Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked me to serve on the Commission. According to IRFA, Commissioners should be “distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law.” But I also realize that this appointment is about more than me. My appointment is a clear statement from the highest levels of the U.S. government that we will never cease advocating on behalf of the Uyghur people and all religious communities suffering due to China’s war on faith.
I plan to use my time as a Commissioner to continue advocating on behalf of the Uyghur Muslims being detained by the Chinese government in concentration camps. However, I also hope to help shine a spotlight on other religious communities around the world that have not received the attention and support Uyghurs have during the past few years. The Uyghur community abroad has learned a lot about effective advocacy, and I plan to share some of that experience.
In China, the CCP regime harshly persecutes Uyghurs accusing them to be separatists and even terrorists. How do your respond to these charges?
There is no evidence that the millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims who are in concentration camps committed any crime, except seeking to practice their faith without interference. In fact, as Associated Press reported earlier this year, leaked Chinese government documents show that authorities in the Uyghur region targeted Muslims because of their religious practices, such as growing a beard or wearing a veil, not because they posed a security risk or had committed a crime. Earlier this month, the German information channel in English Deutsche Welle reported that Chinese authorities regularly convicted Uyghur detainees in sham trials and forced them to pick from a list of “crimes” they should confess to, which included praying or wearing a headscarf.
If the Chinese government has any reason to believe someone has committed a crime or extremist act, that person should be prosecuted in a fair, open trial, and allowed a defense attorney of his or her choosing. The Chinese government has been violating even its own counterterrorism law, by extrajudicially detaining millions of Uyghurs and others. International law requires governments to use proportional means to crime and combat terrorism, to avoid violating rights. Detaining millions of individuals and criminalizing an entire culture is not a proportional response. Last November, a panel of UN experts warned that the “disproportionate emphasis placed by the authorities on the repression of rights of minorities risks worsening any security risk.”.
Uyghur and other Turkic minorities that are persecuted by the CCP are Muslim. Yet, the Islamic world seems to be rather cold toward them. Some prominent Muslim leaders, for example in Saudi Arabia, even justified this persecution. Why?
USCIRF is extremely disappointed that the international community has not rallied against the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslims. Shockingly, in March 2019, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) issued a statement commending—not condemning—China’s treatment of its Muslim community. Some countries seem wary of jeopardizing close economic or security ties with China. Moreover, the Chinese government retaliated even against slight criticisms of its human rights record. For example, in February 2019, when Turkey’s government described the camps as “a great embarrassment for humanity,” the Chinese government closed an important consulate in Izmir.
USCIRF urges the U.S. government to increase funding for public diplomacy efforts of the State Department and USAID, so they can explain to key stakeholders in other countries the overwhelming evidence documenting China’s persecution of Muslims. Indeed, in some countries like Indonesia, we have seen that U.S. public diplomacy can raise awareness of these issues. The State Department also needs to be more active in regional organizations, such as the OIC, so that we can counteract the efforts of Chinese diplomats to stifle criticism of China’s human rights record.
What’s next, then, for USCIRF and you on the Chinese front?
Last month, Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. This is the first major piece of U.S. legislation focused on promoting the rights of Uyghur and other Muslims in China. USCIRF welcomes this major victory, but our work is not over. I urge President Donald Trump to sign the law swiftly and to use his authority to enact targeted sanctions against Chinese officials who are responsible for serious religious freedom violations.