US to roll out export control programme targeting tech used in human rights abuses

The announcement will come on the second day of the US-convened Summit for Democracy. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The United States and several other countries are set to roll out on Friday (Dec 10) an export control programme to monitor and restrict the spread of technologies used to violate human rights, with certain Chinese companies likely to be affected.

The announcement will come on the second day of the US-convened Summit for Democracy, which virtually gathers dozens of global leaders to discuss how to better strengthen and promote democracy around the world.

"We'll announce with a group of like-minded governments tomorrow a commitment to work together, over the coming year and beyond, to determine how export control tools could better monitor and, as appropriate, restrict the proliferation of such technologies," a senior US administration official told reporters on Thursday.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official noted that the US has taken action recently to delist intrusion software, including blacklisting Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group, as well as other companies whose end-users are using technology to violate human rights.

He said: "Our hope is… to work towards what will start as a non-binding code of conduct around how governments can better control their licences for these dual-use technologies that can be used to violate human rights."

The end goal, added the official, is to get more governments involved and set regulations and laws over time "to make sure that these technologies are used for good and not for ill".

The Financial Times reported this week that the US will bar Americans from investing in SenseTime, a Chinese facial recognition software company, for allegedly enabling the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

The Trump administration previously placed SenseTime on a Commerce Department blacklist, known as the entity list, which blocked it from buying American parts, in October 2019.

Officials said then that the artificial intelligence start-up's technology had been used to develop Beijing's pervasive surveillance system of the Uighurs.

Beijing has defended its high-tech surveillance as necessary to counter extremism, and said that its detention centres for the Uighurs are education and vocational training camps.

It has accused Washington of misusing national security justifications to target Chinese companies.

The US position is that China's repression of the Uighurs, which involves severe curtailment of their freedoms and even forced sterilisations, amounts to genocide.

The blacklisting will come on the same day that SenseTime is set to launch its Hong Kong initial public offering, in which it hopes to raise US$767 million (S$1 billion).

The export control programme is part of a series of initiatives to bolster democracy around the world, and expected to cost US$420 million.

Named the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, it includes programmes to support free and independent media, fight corruption and support democratic reformers, as well as defend free and fair election processes.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called for America to strengthen its own democracy and anti-corruption efforts, so it could better promote those values abroad.

The US also unveiled on Thursday a fresh round of sanctions against Central American, African and European individuals and entities accused of corruption and human rights abuses.

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