Condemnation Isn’t Enough – The UK Must Act to Protect Uyghur Rights

Paul Ritchie discusses why the UK must take the lead in acting to protect Uyghur rights in China.

The prisoners are led from the train – heads shaved, hands bound, blindfolded. Surrounded by policemen in black uniforms, they sit, hunched over, in rows upon the ground. All the while a drone lingers overhead, recording the operation.

You’ve probably seen the video I’m describing. Originally posted last September, and subsequently verified by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), this leaked drone footage gained prominence in July as chilling proof of the mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, China. Alongside satellite images, survivor testimonies, leaked documents from inside the Chinese Communist Party, and even seized human hair, it is one link in a chain of evidence that documents a range of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government since 2016. Scholars argue that this systematic oppression – which includes the extrajudicial internment of at least 1.5 million Uyghurs, mandatory sterilization, torture, rape, forced labour, authoritarian surveillance, and the suppression of religious freedoms – is genocide.

The situation demands action and the UK must respond. Societies have an ethical imperative to protect the vulnerable and, in their recent analysis of the Xinjiang injustices and international law, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales (BHRC) determined ‘It is the responsibility of all States…to seek to bring any on-going violations to an end’.[1]

So far, the Government’s approach has been cautious: in July Dominic Raab condemned China’s ‘gross, egregious human rights abuses’ against the Uyghurs but did not commit to further action. The problem is that condemnation alone has already failed to resolve matters. Last year, the UK joined 21 other countries in raising concerns and calling on Beijing to give independent observers ‘meaningful access to Xinjiang’. UN rights experts repeated that appeal this June. Yet these efforts were to no avail; we need a new strategy to persuade China into protecting Uyghur rights.

There are multiple routes available to the UK. Lisa Nandy recently spoke about the possibility of using Magnitsky-style sanctions against Chinese officials, whilst the BHRC suggests triggering a resolution mechanism through the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (an agreement signed by both Britain and China).[2] Both options would indicate a tougher stance against human rights breaches, but economic pressure – encompassing domestic and foreign policy – is more likely to effect material change.

The Government should start by ensuring no international corporations trading in the UK are complicit in Beijing’s activities. In March, ASPI identified 27 factories across China that have used forced Uyghur labour and claim involvement in the supply chain of 83 major brands, including Apple, Jaguar, and Microsoft.[3] The subsequent month, Global Legal Action Network and the World Uyghur Congress similarly alleged that cotton produced with forced labour has been sourced by companies such as Uniqlo and Muji. Several of the corporations implicated have since investigated these claims or changed their supply procedures, but the Government must enshrine this responsibility in law. The long-standing Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act already prohibits imports ‘produced wholly or in part in any foreign prison’, but the UK can build on this by requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence.

Britain is also in the position to build a global consensus for these measures. The UK will hold the G7 Presidency in 2021 and should place Xinjiang on the agenda at next year’s summit, with the aim of securing legislative commitments from all nations involved. If seven of the world’s leading economies require transnational corporations to carry out transparent supply chain audits, China would lose some of its economic incentive to continue unethical practices. These solutions will not directly prevent the full range of abuses targeted at the Uyghurs, but they would mark the beginning of a concerted effort to hold Beijing accountable.

It will take immense political willpower for the UK to take any action against China, especially as we look to develop our own post-Brexit, post-Covid economy. But this is an issue where intervention is a moral necessity. The Government has an opportunity to show that Global Britain will be a leader in protecting human rights. They must take it.

This article was shortlisted as one of twelve finalist pieces in the Young Fabians Political Writing Competition 2020. 

Paul Ritchie is a graduate from the University of Oxford, where he read English. He currently lives in Peterborough and works in the charity sector. When not trawling Twitter for the latest hot takes, he can be found trying to make some headway into the library of books he keeps ‘accidentally’ adding to.

He tweets @paul_ritchie7.


[1] Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, Briefing Paper: Responsibility of States under International Law to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, China (London: 2020), p. 9.

[2] Bar Human Rights Committee, pp. 33, 52.

[3] Vicky Xiuzhong Xu and others, Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2020), pp. 4-5.

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