British companies will need to switch their supply chains away from Xinjiang under a new raft of policies announced by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Tuesday, as international actions grow over allegations of human rights violations by China against Uygur Muslims in the region.
Addressing parliament, Raab said that evidence existed of forced labour among Muslim Uygurs in Xinjiang; the United Nations has estimated at least 1 million Uygurs, among others, have been held in internment camps.
"I have made my concerns over Xinjiang clear directly to China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi," Raab said. "China's response is to deny, as a matter of fact, that any such human rights violations take place at all. They say it's lies."
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"Our aim, put simply, is that no company that profits from forced labour in Xinjiang can do business in the UK, and that no UK business is involved in their supply chains," Raab said. "Any company profiting from forced labour will be barred from public procurement in this country."
The government, Raab said, would provide guidance and support for all British public bodies to use public procurement rules to exclude suppliers where there is sufficient evidence of human rights violations in supply chains. This presumably applies to all companies around the world that supply the British government.
Financial penalties will be assessed for businesses and organisations that fail to meet their statutory obligations to publish annual modern slavery statements, which is required under Britain's Modern Slavery Act, which was enacted in 2015.
Raab said that Britain wanted to make sure it was free from any products with links to Xinjiang, which among other materials accounts for roughly 20 per cent of the world's cotton production.
"Xinjiang's position in the international supply chain network means that there is a real risk of businesses and public bodies around the world, whether it's inadvertently or otherwise, sourcing from suppliers which are complicit in the use of forced labour.
"The government will conduct an urgent review of export controls as they apply specifically geographically to the situation in Xinjiang, to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to prevent the export of any goods that can directly or indirectly contribute to human rights violations in that region," Raab added.
Liz Truss, the secretary of state for international trade, said in a statement: "Forced labour, anywhere in the world, is unacceptable. This government wants to work with businesses to support responsible practices, and ensure British consumers are not unwittingly buying products that support the cruelty we are witnessing against the Uygurs and other minorities in Xinjiang."
We will not ignore modern slavery. To ensure that UK companies do not unwittingly profit from forced labour in Xinjiang, @DominicRaab @pritipatel and I are announcing:
Updated business guidance
Export controls review
New financial penaltieshttps://t.co/w4zhwefxRG
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) January 12, 2021
Last week, the British retailer Marks & Spencer signed on to a call to action - brought by a coalition of civil society organisations and labour unions - concerning human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Tom Tugendhat, an MP from the ruling Conservative Party and chair of the House of Commons' foreign affairs committee, said it would be "essential that these new rules are comprehensively enforced", adding: "We must continue to work with like-minded democracies to protect universal human rights."
Opposition lawmakers, while praising the move, are critical of Raab's lack of even tougher action, including sanctions against Xinjiang officials or taking steps towards recognising the situation in Xinjiang as genocide.
Labour MP Shabana Mahmood called on Raab for "efforts to allow UK judges to provide input and make preliminary determinations on genocide", which she said would be "the only legal route to hold the Chinese government to account".
There have been calls in the House of Lords for the government to commit itself to not having trade deals with countries judged to have committed genocide.
The move also marks another escalation of diplomatic pressure on China; Britain is preparing to welcome, later this month, the first of potentially millions of eligible Hongkongers who wish to resettle in the United Kingdom.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Britain to ban China imports linked to Xinjiang Uygur camps over forced labour, reports say
- US bill banning Xinjiang imports over forced labour concerns fails to become law