British lawmakers call for sanctions over Uighur human rights abuses

ICIJ, 14 October 2020

Below is an article published by ICIJ. Photo Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

A group of British lawmakers has called for sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for human rights violations against the Uighur minority and for trade restrictions on goods made with forced Uighur labor.

In a debate held Monday at the House of Commons, the politicians referred to an increasing amount of evidence showing that members of the Muslim minority in the Chinese region of Xinjiang are being detained, subjected to political indoctrination and forced to work in factories under dire conditions.

“The suffering that the Uighur Muslims have undergone, and sadly continue to undergo, is nothing short of horrifying,” Member of Parliament Chris Evans said in a speech that kicked off the debate.

“The petition calls for action and asks the [U.K.] government to take any necessary steps to stop such breaches of human rights.”

The parliamentarians urged the U.K. government to follow the example of the United States, which recently passed a bill authorizing sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the human rights abuses and is now considering passing another bill to ban imports linked to Uighur forced labor.

China has repeatedly called allegations of human rights abuses as slanderous and defended their policy in Xinjiang as necessary to combat terrorism.

The Chinese government opposes the U.K.’s interference in China’s “internal affairs,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a July press conference.

To support their claims, the British MPs cited information from leaked classified documents, satellite imagery and witnesses’ accounts reported over the years by journalists and researchers.

Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained top secret Chinese government documents detailing Beijing’s mass detention and surveillance program in Xinjiang.

The China Cables investigation revealed how Chinese officials were instructed to hold detainees in prison-like conditions and to use sophisticated surveillance and data collection systems to police and detain Uighurs and other minorities.

More recently, reports by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and other researchers have documented the existence of more than 400 detention camps, the destruction of hundreds of mosques and Muslim cultural sites and the implementation of a camp-to-factory system that allegedly forced Uighurs to work in factories across China.

ASPI estimated that more than 80,000 Uighurs from Xinjiang were transferred to work in 27 factories throughout China between 2017 and 2019.

And more than 1 million Uighurs are estimated to be detained in camps, according to UN figures.

During the debate — which was scheduled in response to a petition signed by 148,000 people — some MPs raised the concern that products made by Uighur laborers are sold in their country, including personal protective equipment and ventilators used in the fight against COVID-19.

“We must do much more as a country to ensure that … the labor of the Uighur people is not found in either the clothes we wear and the technology we use or the kit that our national health service uses,” said MP Shabana Mahmood.

“No amount of trade can wipe out the actions of a regime that is committed, in the case of the Uighur population, to genocide,” Mahmood said, echoing a message already shared by others.

In September, Mahmood was one of more than 100 British lawmakers who sent a letter to the U.K. Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming, condemning the ethnic cleansing of the Uighur people.

Xiaoming was criticized for saying, during a BBC interview, that Uighurs have a “harmonious” life and for dismissing video of hundreds of chained Uighurs being loaded onto trains headed for detention camps as a “transfer of prisoners.”

Questioned about his government’s response to the issue, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently said that he and his foreign ministry “raise these concerns directly with the Chinese authorities and will continue to do so in the G20, the U.N. and every other context.”

The U.K. was also part of a coalition of 39 countries that submitted a joint statement at the U.N. General Assembly on October 6 expressing concerns about human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.