While You Weren't Looking

If history has taught us one thing, it’s that while we’re focused on one crisis, the next is just around the corner. A weekly update on emerging global stories, written by Foreign Policy staff writer Amy Mackinnon. Delivered Monday.

Will the United States Sanction China Over Xinjiang?

The Senate just passed a bipartisan bill condemning Beijing’s human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims. Its enforcement remains uncertain.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A demonstrator takes part in a protest against China’s human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims, calling on the U.S. government to take action against Beijing, in Washington on April 6, 2019.
A demonstrator takes part in a protest against China’s human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims, calling on the U.S. government to take action against Beijing, in Washington on April 6, 2019. Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: The U.S. Senate passes the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, meaning Chinese officials could be hit with U.S. sanctions; shocking violence in Afghanistan threatens to derail the fragile peace process; and Iran scales back its presence in Syria as its economic woes grow worse.

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U.S. Senate Passes Uighur Human Rights Bill

The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill on Thursday that could bring sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the mass detention of Uighurs and other Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang region. The move is the latest signal of U.S. lawmakers’ appetite for a more hard-line approach to China, and it is likely to provoke Beijing’s ire.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act requires the president to submit to Congress a list of senior Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Those named on the list could see their assets in the United States frozen and be subjected to visa bans under the Global Magnitsky Act. The bill leaves significant discretion in the president’s hands to hold off on imposing sanctions if it would damage U.S. national interests.

The Trump administration already has the power to sanction Chinese officials for human rights abuses but has so far delayed any action over fears that it could disrupt trade talks. As I reported last year, U.S. officials told human rights advocates that the Trump administration was poised to unveil sanctions on Chinese officials in late 2018, but concerns were sidelined in favor of trade talks. With the trade deal derailed by the pandemic, action may be more likely.

“This is the first piece of legislation to explicitly recognize gross human rights abuses in Xinjiang and set out U.S. policy responses to those,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch. “A lot depends on how enthusiastically this is enforced.”

Over a million Uighurs and other members of predominantly Muslim minorities have been detained arbitrarily in a vast network of camps in China’s western Xinjiang region, part of Beijing’s so-called reeducation campaign, which has been described as a cultural genocide. Those living outside of the camps are subject to round-the-clock surveillance enabled by a vast network of facial recognition cameras, cell-phone monitoring apps, and police checkpoints, while hundreds of thousands of others have been dispatched to forced labor elsewhere in China

Broad support. Despite intractable partisan divides in Congress, the Uighur human rights bill received overwhelming bipartisan support. Introduced by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a longtime advocate for Uighurs, and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, the bill was co-sponsored by over 50 senators from both parties and passed with unanimous consent. It will now return to the House, where an earlier version passed with 407 votes last December. On Thursday, Rubio tweeted he hoped the House would vote on the bill as soon as today.

Decoupling? Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has fueled calls for an economic decoupling from China, as FP’s Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer reported this week. While the bill likely would have passed with bipartisan support regardless, the pandemic has increased awareness of the global ramifications of China’s oppressive practices. “I do think that more people now see quite visibly what a lack of respect for freedom of expression in China can mean for the rest of the world,” Richardson said.

What We’re Following

The nine-dash line. The United States sent three Navy ships to patrol near oil and gas projects off the coast of Malaysia this week, the latest move to deter China, which has dialed up its efforts in the South China Sea. In April, a Chinese survey ship harassed an exploration ship that belonged to the Malaysian energy company Petronas. Beijing has long sought sovereignty over clusters of islands to justify its claim to some 85 percent of the sea under the “nine-dash line,” which is recognized by none of its maritime neighbors. On April 18, China announced the establishment of two new administrative districts in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. “These actions, and the response by the United States and the countries in the region, will determine whether the region’s future will be one of openness and shared prosperity or coercion and conflict,” Robert A. Manning and Patrick M. Cronin argue in FP

Disputed Claims in the South China Sea

Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies, Permanent Court of Arbitration

Violence, from cradle to grave. Gunmen stormed a maternity ward in Kabul on Tuesday, killing 24 people including two newborns in an attack that left the war-torn city shaken to its core. Among the dead was a baby boy born just four hours before the assault began. His mother had spent seven years trying to conceive. “We gave him the name Omid [“hope” in Dari]. Hope for a better future, hope for a better Afghanistan, and hope for a mother who has been struggling to have a child for years,” the infant’s grandmother told Reuters. The same day, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a funeral in Nangarhar province. That attack was claimed by the Islamic State, and the assault on the maternity hospital also bears the hallmarks of the group.

The Taliban have denied involvement in either attack, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the military to resume offensive operations against the group and other armed militants, a move that will likely spell the end of the country’s fragile peace process.

Ukraine’s banking bill. Lawmakers in Ukraine have passed a landmark banking bill that could pave the way for the country to unlock $5 billion in International Monetary Fund loans. The law prevents nationalized banks from being returned to their former owners. It takes direct aim at the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, once a close associate of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In 2016, the government bailed out Kolomoisky’s PrivatBank—the country’s biggest—after he and another owner were accused of siphoning away $5.5 billion, pushing it to the brink of collapse. Kolomoisky has since sued to regain control of the bank, but the law passed on Wednesday makes that impossible.

Zelensky was elected last year on an anti-corruption platform, and the new law is an important test of his willingness to take on an influential former ally, who still controls significant assets in Ukraine including an airline and television channel. “This is hardly the end for Kolomoisky, but it should be the end of his alliance with Zelensky,” Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council told the Washington Post.

Keep an Eye On 

Iran’s tactical drawdown in Syria. U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey confirmed reports that Iran has begun withdrawing some forces from Syria as Tehran feels the double squeeze of U.S. sanctions and the economic turmoil brought on by the pandemic. “We do see some withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces. Some of that is tactical, because they are not fighting right now, but it also is a lack of money,” Jeffrey said, speaking at a virtual think tank event on Tuesday. Earlier this month, Israeli defense officials said that they had seen a reduction in Iranian forces in Syria and that Tehran began evacuating military bases near the border with Israel as the pandemic began.

Lesotho’s prime minister in trouble? Lesotho’s coalition government collapsed on Monday, giving embattled Prime Minister Thomas Thabane until next Friday to tender his resignation. A fixture of Lesotho’s political scene for decades, the 80-year-old is no stranger to controversy, but when his second wife Maesaiah Thabane was charged with the 2017 murder of his ex-wife, calls for him to step down grew. The prime minister is suspected of involvement in the plot, but no charges have been filed. The claims have divided Thabane’s All Basotho Convention party. A party spokesman told the BBC that the prime minister would not receive immunity from prosecution: “Our stance is that like all citizens, he must stand trial and clear his name there,” he said.

Odds and Ends

There’s an app for that. A smartphone app developed by a business consultant in Mosul, Iraq, aims to help patients find which pharmacies have the medications they need at the best price. With many hospitals destroyed by years of conflict, Iraqis have come to depend on private clinics that often rent space from pharmacies. Doctors direct their patients to the partner pharmacy, but prices are often inflated. Ameen Hadeed, the creator of the Pharx app, said he got the idea when his father underwent heart surgery in 2015, when Mosul was ruled by the Islamic State.

“I had to look for hours for a pharmacy that had the specific medicine while my father is in [the] surgery room suffering,” he told Oxfam, which supported the project. “That day, I promised myself and my dad that I will one day do something to address this issue in our country.”

That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack