The Daily Telegraph
Tugendhat: Ban Uyghur goods
Our country has a proud tradition of standing up to vile authoritarianism. We must do so again
BRITAIN should ban all imports of cotton from the Xinjiang region of China, where the government has been accused of crimes against humanity towards Uyghur Muslims, Tom Tugendhat has said.
The Conservative MP, who has been tipped for a ministerial job in the Foreign Office if Liz Truss wins the Tory leadership contest today, said Britain had “banned slavery a long time ago and we should not be buying goods made in such a way”.
A UN report into alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of north-west China said last week that the regime may have been guilty of crimes against humanity there.
The report said “labour and employment schemes” in the region “may involve elements of coercion and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds”, following reports of Uyghur people being forced to pick cotton for little or no pay.
Mr Tugendhat, the chairman of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, writes in today’s Daily Telegraph that the next prime minister should “explore the possibility of banning the import of all cotton products known to be produced in whole or in part in the Xinjiang region, in line with WTO rules”.
It is understandable that when we are confronting other urgent matters, the question of how to deal with China falls down the domestic agenda. But the recent UN Human Rights Commissioner’s report on Xinjiang should remind us of the need to be firm with the regime in Beijing now more than ever. The report concludes that the Chinese Communist Party’s “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslims may constitute “crimes against humanity”.
That is not a term used lightly. Yet it was the unavoidable outcome of an investigation that discovered, among other gruesome acts, the forced sterilisations of women, with some threatened by police for violating “family planning policy” or forced to have abortions. Families have been separated and many are still looking for lost relatives.
To understand why this report is so striking, context also matters. Every step along the way, Chinese diplomats put enormous pressure on the UN to shut down the investigation. Ultimately, the report was published just minutes before midnight on the final day of Michelle Bachelet’s term as Commissioner, bringing to an end months of speculation about whether it would be published at all.
Still, it is not as if the findings are a surprise. They merely confirm the tragic stories that have emerged from Xinjiang over the past three years. For that insight we have the brave activists who have fled the region to thank, as well as researchers who have pored over documents and satellite imagery to trace concentration camps. In recent months, we have seen leaked images from Xinjiang police files which show the faces of prisoners as young as 12 years old.
According to some estimates, around a million people have been arbitrarily detained, comparable to every resident in a city the size of Leeds simply disappearing into camps. To fit them all, local authorities in Xinjiang have been on a prisonbuilding spree: the region now has at least 380 detention centres – with one so large that it fits 10,000 inmates, twice the size of Vatican City. More than crimes against humanity, what is happening there is likely to meet the international definition of genocide.
That is something our country cannot ignore, and there are several things that we should do.
First, we should stop buying any technology that facilitates repression in Xinjiang. The region is unique in the way that its authorities have utilised mass surveillance. Cameras monitor every corner, many with facial recognition enabled. Uyghurs are forced to download tracking apps. Some have even been arrested for the crime of texting family members. Given the human rights catastrophe that is unfolding, it is unacceptable for the UK to be complicit by buying cameras and surveillance equipment from the same providers.
Next, we should explore the possibility of banning the import of all cotton products known to be produced in whole or in part in the Xinjiang region, in line with WTO rules. We now know the high risk of coercion in Xinjiang. Your cotton T-shirt may well have been made with materials picked by an Uyghur in slave-like conditions. Britain banned slavery a long time ago and we should not be buying goods made in such a way.
Finally, we must continue the pursuit of justice through every avenue. As painful and protracted as these processes are, the UN Commissioner’s report is a key step in the path to action. It follows several years of tough diplomacy. The next government should engage in dialogue with the International Criminal Court about the feasibility of a proprio motu investigation into crimes committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and beyond.
This report should be a moment to reflect on the tragedy of what has happened in Xinjiang and to hold to account those responsible for the suffering. It is clear that the crackdown was ordered by the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party, which seeks to preserve power at any costs, and the people of Xinjiang are suffering from the extreme logic of that party’s authoritarian mind-set.
Some elements were trialled in Tibet – others, like language control, are now being used in Inner Mongolia. We must confront such brutality before it is repeated elsewhere.