UK Court to Hear Uyghur Demands to Ban Xinjiang Cotton

A Uyghur organization and human rights group are taking the UK government to court to challenge Britain’s failure to block the import of cotton products associated with forced labor and other abuses in the western Xinjiang region, in the far west of China.

Tuesday’s hearing at London’s High Court is believed to be the first time a foreign court has heard Uyghurs’ legal arguments on the issue of forced labor in Xinjiang. The region is a major global supplier of cotton, but rights groups have long claimed that the cotton is harvested and processed by China’s Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslim minorities in a pervasive system of state-sanctioned forced labor.

The case, brought by the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress and the Global Legal Action Network, a nonprofit organization, is one of several similar legal challenges aimed at pressuring the UK and European Union governments to Follow the example of the United States, where a law came into effect this year to ban all cotton products suspected of being made in Xinjiang.

The researchers say that Xinjiang produces 85 percent of the cotton grown in China, making up a fifth of the world’s cotton. Rights groups argue that the scale of China’s rights violations in Xinjiang, which the UN says may amount to “crimes against humanity”, means numerous international fashion brands are at high risk of using labor-tainted cotton. forced and other rights abuses.

Gearoid O Cuinn, director of the Global Legal Action Network, said the group submitted nearly 1,000 pages of evidence, including company records, NGO investigations and Chinese government documents, to the UK and US governments in 2020 to support your case. British authorities have not taken any action so far, he said.

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“Right now, UK consumers are systematically exposed to forced labor contaminated consumer goods,” O Cuinn said. “It shows the lack of political will.”

Researchers and advocacy groups estimate that 1 million or more Uyghurs and other minority groups have been herded into detention camps in Xinjiang, where many say they were tortured, sexually assaulted and forced to abandon their language and religion. The organizations say the camps, along with forced labor and draconian birth control policies, are a radical crackdown on Xinjiang’s minorities.

A recent UN report largely corroborated the accounts. China denounces the accusations as lies and argues that its policies were aimed at crushing extremism.

In the US, a new law gives border authorities more power to block or seize imports of cotton produced in whole or in part in Xinjiang. Products are effectively prohibited unless the importer can show clear evidence that the goods were not produced using forced labour.

The European Commission proposed last month to ban all products made with forced labor from entering the EU market. The plans have not yet been agreed by the European Parliament.

The British government’s Modern Slavery Act requires companies operating in the UK to report what they have done to identify rights abuses in their supply chains. But there is no legal obligation to conduct audits and due diligence. In a statement, the UK Conservative government said it is “committed to introducing financial sanctions for organizations that fail to comply with reporting requirements on modern slavery.”

Lawyers representing the Uyghurs will argue in the High Court on Tuesday that the British government’s inaction breaches existing British laws that ban goods made in foreign prisons or linked to crime.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, one of the most vocal critics of China in the British Parliament, said the UK has been “slow” on the issue due to “great institutional resistance to change” after years of dependency. of trade with China. Britain’s Conservative government has not taken the threat from China seriously enough, he argued.

“Treasury and the business department are desperate not to destroy ties with China and (officials) are still living in the kowtow project,” said Duncan Smith. Compared to the US and the EU, “we are far behind” on the cotton issue, he added.

Earlier this month, O Cuinn’s organization made a separate submission to the Irish government demanding an end to the importation of forced labor products from Xinjiang. Meanwhile, lawyers representing a survivor of detention and forced labor in Xinjiang have also written to the UK government threatening to sue over the matter.

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The plaintiff in that case, Erbakit Ortabay, said he was detained in detention centers, where he was tortured and beaten, and then forced to work without pay in a garment factory. Ortabay, who was finally released in 2019, is currently seeking asylum in Britain.

Clothing is among the top five types of goods the UK imports from China, accounting for around £3.5bn ($4bn) of imports in 2021. The UK does not publish shipping data detailing the trade with the Xinjiang region.

But Laura Murphy, a professor of human rights at Sheffield Hallam University, identified 103 well-known international fashion brands, including some that trade in the UK, that are at high risk of having Xinjiang cotton in their supply chains because they buy from intermediate garment manufacturers. which in turn are supplied by Chinese companies that source cotton in Xinjiang.

“What we found is that a lot of Xinjiang cotton is also shipped to other countries to make garments. So it doesn’t always come directly from there; it could come from a company that makes clothing in Indonesia or Cambodia,” Murphy said.

In the US, the new ban on Xinjiang cotton has forced apparel companies to step up tracking technologies to trace the origin routes of their products, according to Brian Ehrig, a partner in the firm’s consumer practice. management consulting Kearney. The ban is also accelerating the migration of clothing production in China to other regions such as Vietnam and Cambodia.

Some experts believe the US law has also forced companies to block Xinjiang cotton products from other markets. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights watchdog, said that even if companies wanted to divert Xinjiang-linked products to other markets, a “substantial reorganization” of their supply networks would be necessary.

Figures from the China National Cotton Information Center show that sales of cotton produced in Xinjiang in the year to mid-June fell 40 percent from a year earlier to 3.1 million tonnes. Commercial inventory of cotton produced in Xinjiang stood at 3.3 million tons at the end of May, up 60 percent from a year earlier, according to Wind, a Chinese financial information provider.

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