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Uyghur Tribunal: London

Volume 697: debated on Monday 14 June 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the treatment by the Chinese Government of witnesses giving evidence to the Uyghur Tribunal in London.

We are disturbed by reports of attempts to intimidate those appearing at the recent hearing of the Uyghur Tribunal. We have previously made it clear that any attempt by China to silence its critics is unwarranted and unacceptable. The United Kingdom supports freedom of expression both as a human right in and of itself and as an essential element for the enjoyment of a full range of other rights. The freedom to speak out in opposition to human rights violations is fundamental.

The Government have repeatedly expressed our serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, and the United Kingdom has led international efforts to hold China to account for its human rights violations in the region. Yesterday’s G7 leaders’ communiqué called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang. In March, the Foreign Secretary announced sanctions against four Chinese officials and one entity responsible for those violations, alongside the European Union, the United States and Canada. In January, we launched a package of measures to help ensure UK businesses and the public sector are not complicit in human rights violations or abuses in Xinjiang. The Foreign Secretary has consistently raised the UK’s serious concerns directly with the Chinese Foreign Minister, State Councillor Wang Yi, most recently in a phone call on 27 May.

Rather than continuing to issue denials in the face of overwhelming evidence and seeking to silence their critics, we call on the Chinese Government to address the breadth of concerns being raised internationally about Xinjiang. As a matter of urgency, China must grant the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding expert unfettered access to Xinjiang to verify the facts on the ground.

I reiterate that the Government welcome any rigorous and balanced initiative that raises awareness of the situation faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in China. I met Sir Geoffrey Nice in April to discuss the Uyghur tribunal, and we are following its work. My officials will study any resulting report very carefully indeed.

The Uyghur tribunal is an independent investigation of alleged genocide and crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region, led by Sir Geoffrey Nice. It started its hearings between 4 and 7 June in London and will reconvene later in the year. It was set up because the Chinese Government have reservations on the genocide convention and a veto at the UN Security Council, which prevents investigation by the International Court of Justice, and China is not party to the International Criminal Court.

It is a disgrace that, on Wednesday 9 June, the Government of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region held a press conference featuring relatives of Uyghur exiles abroad, who were coerced to give statements that claimed to falsify the testimony of those who had given evidence to the Uyghur tribunal. We know already that the Chinese Government monitor, intimidate and harass Uyghurs living abroad, including UK citizens. We have also seen attempts to intimidate Members of this House. An Amnesty International report collated evidence from more than 400 Uyghurs in 22 countries, including the UK, who live in daily fear of the Chinese authorities. The harassment included aggressive messages and threats.

The first question is whether the Government will give evidence to the tribunal. If not, perhaps the Minister could explain why.

Rodney Dixon, QC, has alleged that Uyghurs are deported from third countries to China, where they go on to face genocidal atrocities. What assessment have the Government made of the credibility of the harrowing evidence provided by the Uyghur tribunal, and how will they act on its findings?

Do the Government support the involvement in the UK economy of firms that are complicit in the surveillance and monitoring of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including surveillance firms such as Hikvision and telecommunications firms such as Huawei? Why have the Government rejected the recommendation of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee to require companies operating in Beijing to provide convincing evidence that their supply chains are not tainted by forced labour? Where are the provisions in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to give force to those concerns?

As I said, China exerts pressure on foreign states to deport Uyghurs who have fled the country back to China—states including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Will the Government immediately commit to complaining formally and publicly to those countries, and tell them to stop that process at all costs?

I thank my right hon. Friend yet again for his work in this area and for bringing this important issue to the House’s attention. As I said in my opening remarks, we welcome any rigorous and balanced initiative that raises awareness of the situation faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in China. We will follow the tribunal closely and study any resulting report carefully.

Of course, my right hon. Friend knows that it is the policy of successive UK Governments that any determination of genocide or crimes against humanity is a matter for a competent court. We are therefore not in a position to provide evidence, testimony or other official support to the tribunal.

My right hon. Friend is right to mention the press conference held by Chinese authorities. We are disturbed by reports of attempts to intimidate those appearing at the hearing. We have previously made it clear that any attempt by China to silence its critics is unwarranted and completely unacceptable. As I have said, we have engaged with Sir Geoffrey Nice. We have pointed him to some open-source information to be of assistance, which is some of the most compelling evidence on what is going on in Xinjiang.

With regard to the Select Committee report that my right hon. Friend referenced, we announced on 12 January that we will work with the Cabinet Office to provide guidance and support to UK public bodies to exclude suppliers where there is evidence of human rights abuses in any of their supply chains. That work is continuing. As he will appreciate, that is a BEIS-led approach.

All our policy towards China is agreed by the National Security Council, and detailed implementation is co-ordinated by the National Strategy Implementation Group for China. These are senior officials across Whitehall. These governance structures are kept under review to ensure that effective co-ordination at all levels is always upheld.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have stood at this Dispatch Box and urged the Government to take stronger and more robust action against the atrocities of the Chinese state as it relentlessly persecutes the Uyghur people. I have also lost count of the number of times that the Government’s response has been woefully inadequate. From the blocking of the genocide amendment, to the failure to sanction Chen Quanguo, to last week’s rejection of many of the recommendations in the BEIS Select Committee’s report on forced labour, the reality is that the Government’s response to the genocide that is taking place in Xinjiang has fallen miserably short of befitting any credible definition of global Britain, so far amounting only to sanctions on a few lower-level Chinese officials.

Five days ago in Xinjiang, we had the chilling spectacle of relatives and friends of witnesses who have so bravely testified to the Uyghur tribunal being paraded in front of Chinese TV cameras, clearly under duress, and made to discredit the evidence that their family members had presented. Having attended the tribunal myself, I can tell the House that the evidence is truly harrowing. I therefore ask the Minister: what assessment have the Government made of the credibility of the evidence presented to the tribunal? Will the Government be testifying at the tribunal and will the Minister himself be attending the tribunal? When will we see the changes to the Modern Slavery Act promised by the Foreign Secretary in his statement to the House on 12 January? How is, in the Foreign Secretary’s word, the “urgent” export control review progressing, which also began on 12 January? Do the Government support the opening of an ICC investigation into the international crimes of the Chinese officials who are orchestrating these abuses? Why are the Government not doing more in the UN to get independent human rights observers into Xinjiang? What steps are the Government taking to protect Uyghurs living in the UK from harassment and intimidation by the Chinese authorities?

The witnesses who have testified at the tribunal have shown huge courage and leadership. Let us hope that the Government will at some point start to follow in their footsteps.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I disagree on a large part of his thesis that this Government have taken no action. This Government led the first two statements on Xinjiang at the UN. We have used our diplomatic network to raise the issue up the international agenda. We will continue to work with our partners across the world to build an international caucus of those willing to speak out against these human rights violations, and we have seen that caucus raised from 23 countries to 39. We will increase the pressure on China to change its behaviour.

We have backed up our international action with robust domestic measures: on 22 March, under the UK’s global human rights sanctions regime, we imposed asset freezes and travel bans on four senior Chinese Government officials and an asset freeze on one entity. On 12 January, the Foreign Secretary announced measures to help to ensure that businesses are not complicit in violations or abuses in Xinjiang. Of course, we are continuously keeping our sanctions regime under review.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the intimidation of the Uyghur diaspora. We are absolutely aware of this. We are very concerned about members of the Uyghur diaspora, including in the UK, being harassed by the Chinese authorities. This is an effort to intimidate them into silence, force them to return to China or co-opt them into providing information on other Uyghurs. This activity is unacceptable. We have raised our concerns directly with the Chinese embassy in London.

In my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), I mentioned that we are not in a position to provide evidence, testimony or official support to the tribunal, but we have engaged: I have engaged personally with Sir Geoffrey Nice on this measure, and I understand that my noble Friend the Minister for human rights in the other place has spoken with him on no fewer than four occasions. We are following the tribunal’s work closely, and clearly we will be studying any resulting report.

I very much welcome the urgent question; my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) is absolutely right to ask it and to focus on the Uyghur community who have been so brutally injured, tortured and, indeed, sterilised by the Chinese state.

What has my hon. Friend the Minister done to work with partners around the world, from China to Canada, the United States and indeed New Zealand, to stand together against the united front that is not just torturing and seeking to exploit the weakness of the Uyghur peoples as they seek refuge and peace, but actually seeking to undermine the freedom of the British people and other people around the world by trying to shape our universities, silence our free speech and intimidate our citizens? Is he standing up for Britain?

I thank my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The short answer is yes, we are standing up for Britain. He is right to raise the question whether we are working with international partners on the issue. It is absolutely correct to do so; it sends the clearest possible signal of the international community’s serious concern and our collective willingness to act.

Our announcement on 22 March of sanctions against the perpetrators of gross human rights violations against Uyghurs and other minorities was made alongside the United States, Canada and the European Union. I can give the Chairman of the Select Committee some other examples in which we have worked together with partners and it has delivered: the Hong Kong visa offer, work with Canada, Australia and the EU on scholarships, export controls and extradition suspension in Hong Kong, parallel sanctions announcements on Xinjiang, and forced labour measures with Canada. We will continue to work with our international partners. He will have noticed the communiqué yesterday from the G7; we are very pleased to be able to lead that charge.

I, too, commend the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important question. The Uyghur tribunal is an important event and a moment of clarity for a lot of us. I express our solidarity with the brave organisers of the event and with the witnesses and their relatives.

I have a couple of concrete questions for the Minister. If we all agree that the tribunal deserves our support, will he detail what practical measures the Government are bringing forward to support the people giving evidence and their relatives? Will he at least commit to a future statement in the House and a debate on the tribunal’s recommendations when they come forward, so that we can all consider its very serious testimony properly?

We absolutely welcome any initiative that is balanced, rigorous and raises awareness of the situation that Uyghurs and other minorities in China face. Sir Geoffrey Nice and those involved in the tribunal are distinguished figures. We will continue to engage with Sir Geoffrey and with those involved in the tribunal. We are more than happy to follow up on his work and we will study incredibly carefully the reports and any conclusions that the tribunal brings forward. As I said in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, we pointed Sir Geoffrey, prior to the tribunal starting, to some compelling evidence via open source information as to what is going on in Xinjiang.

I suspect that the Chinese Government do not care a damn what we say in this Chamber, but they do care about what British business is doing and if it withdraws business as a result of human rights violations. There are plenty of other friendly countries such as India that can do anything China can do, so what has the Minister done to summon in businesses, name and shame them and say that they should move their imports and exports from China? These people are no better than Bristol slave traders of the 18th century, building their businesses on the backs of misery.

We are providing businesses with the guidance that they need to understand the moral, reputational, legal and economic risks of conducting business in Xinjiang. It is for businesses to reassure themselves and their customers that their activities in no way contribute to human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang. We also know that many businesses take the egregious violations of human rights in Xinjiang as seriously as we do. Many have already acknowledged the risks and have taken action. Our guidance is clear on the risks that they face when operating in Xinjiang, and we expect all businesses to take appropriate action in response.

Listening to these reports—the latest in a series of accounts of disappearances, deportations and detentions of Uyghurs outside China—it is clear that the Chinese Communist party has no problem with coercion outside its borders. The eyes of the world will be on the Chinese Government at next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics. A diplomatic boycott by the UK would send a clear signal that this sort of transnational repression is totally unacceptable. Does the Minister agree that this boycott is necessary, as without taking meaningful action, we can expect only more of the same from the Chinese state?

I attended the tribunal and I saw images of mass crematoriums and a young mum who was incarcerated for a couple of years. Her triplets were returned with marks around their necks, and one was returned as a frozen corpse. For her bravery to give evidence to the inquiry, she had her family paraded on TV by the Chinese authorities. The right thing for the Minister to do would be to support the tribunal publicly. Otherwise, as the United Nations, we end up as a broken flush when it comes to holding China to account.

I thank my hon. Friend, again, for her dogged determination on this subject and many others surrounding human rights. I have said before during this session and during the four or five previous urgent questions on this issue that we will continue to hold China to account on its human rights abuses. With regard to the tribunal, we welcome any initiative that is thorough and balanced, and that raises awareness and provides us with detailed information of the situation that is faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in China.

China appears to want only to crush dissent and to suppress expression of freedom. How are the Government going to hold China to account? Will the Minister spell out the key measures that he is going to take to do so?

It is as clear as the nose on your face that China is an authoritarian state. It has different values from our own and we are holding it to account. As I said in a previous answer, we led the first two statements on Xinjiang at the UN. We have led on this. We ensured that, in the communiqué yesterday, there was reference to what is going on specifically in Xinjiang. We will continue to work with our partners across the world. We have built the international caucus of countries prepared to call China out on what is going on in Xinjiang. We will continue to do that work. We will take all evidence that is presented before us, such as what will come out following the conclusions of the tribunal, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to lead international efforts to hold China to account for its human rights violations.

Does the Minister agree that the G7 communiqué and our previous sanctions announcement represent a great example of the UK working with international allies to combat the Chinese rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong? They are an important step forward but do not go far enough, so will the Minister advise us of what further practical actions can be taken to bring the atrocities to an end?

Not only did the G7 communiqué call on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang, but I direct my hon. Friend to the global human rights sanctions that we announced, alongside 29 other countries, in March. That demonstrated our international leadership on this issue. We are committed to working with others to hold China to account for the human rights commitments that it has freely assumed under international law and its own constitution.

At the UN, China was urged to allow unfettered access to Xinjiang, where the recent Uyghur tribunal reaffirmed that Chinese authorities are committing grave human rights violations. [Inaudible]—testimony of the horrors taking place, which include three crimes against humanity: detention, persecution and torture. As international courts cannot deal with the Chinese Government over allegations of genocide, and China holds a veto on the UN Security Council, will the Government commit to co-operating with and examining and acting on the findings of the Uyghur tribunal?

I struggled to hear all of that question, but I can pick up on a key point to which the hon. Gentleman referred: the inability of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to access the region. If China really wants to dispute the compelling evidence of systematic violations in Xinjiang, all it has to do is, as the hon. Gentleman said, allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent credible body urgent and unfettered access. That will allow such a body to investigate and verify the truth.

Human rights violations should always be condemned wherever they take place. The world knows that such violations are happening in Xinjiang—we know they are happening—but they are not prevalent in the public eye and so are not as effective in terms of making action take place. What steps is the Minister taking to rally further international support for action on Xinjiang?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and is right to highlight that. We will continue to work with our international partners to build that international caucus of those who are prepared to speak out—sadly, there are plenty of countries that are not prepared to speak out on this issue—and increase the pressure on China to change its behaviour. We have gone from a situation in which China was denying what was going on—denying the very existence of these o camps—to a situation in which it now at least has to acknowledge the existence of the treatment. We have led joint statements and UN human rights bodies, and most recently we were joined by 38 countries at the UN General Assembly third committee in October. We will continue to work alongside our international partners to keep the pressure on China.

At the tribunal, we heard the evidence of Tursunay Ziyadin about how beatings and internal torture in the camps had left her sterile—we in the Jewish community are all too familiar with such evidence from events 80 years ago. In China, a woman whom Tursunay did not know was presented as a good friend and claimed that infertility was why Tursunay’s husband left her, but he actually died in a car crash. How will the Minister ensure protection for those who give evidence, many of whom have sought political asylum in our country? In response to the direct witness evidence we heard, what is he going to do to ensure that fake testimony and false news are not spread in the UK or internationally?

We are disturbed by the reports of attempts to intimidate those who have been appearing at the recent hearing. Any attempt by China to silence its critics is unwarranted—it is completely unacceptable, as we saw at the press conference held in China most recently. We are aware of reports of members of the Uyghur diaspora being harassed by the Chinese authorities in an effort to intimidate them into silence. Again, we have called out that behaviour and raised our concerns directly with the Chinese embassy in London.

In order to combat the human rights abuses heaped upon the Uyghur Muslims by China, it is obviously vital that we build the broadest possible coalition of support across the world. In particular, what is my hon. Friend doing about building a coalition of Muslim-majority countries, which seem to be silent on supporting their brothers and sisters in Xinjiang, so that we can ensure that China gets the message that its human rights abuses are unacceptable to the entire world?

My hon. Friend is spot on, yet again; we wish to see a broad international caucus of countries, including Muslim-majority countries, speaking out about the widespread human rights violations in Xinjiang. He is absolutely right to point out that not enough of those countries are speaking out on this issue. I can reassure him that this has been a particular focus of our diplomatic efforts. Through our diplomatic network, and with my ministerial colleagues, we engage our counterparts regularly to set out our concern about the situation in Xinjiang, and we make sure that they are aware of the measures the UK is taking in response. We will continue our focus on building as much support as possible.

We have all been appalled at the evidence now being given to the tribunal of the experience of the Uyghur people and, specifically, of the experiences of Uyghur women, including forced sterilisation, forced abortions and repeated sexual violence. So what are the Government doing to tackle this specific issue of gender-based violence against Uyghur women?

Obviously, gender-based violence, wherever it takes place, is unacceptable. We continue to work very hard on this area internationally and commit a significant amount of our support in this regard in countries where it is an issue. We will, of course, continue to look at all options available to us for further action to address the human rights violations that are going on in Xinjiang.

It is clear from the testimonies given at the Uyghur tribunal that there are major threats to minority communities within China’s borders and, given what we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), threats to the Uyghurs in this country, too. For that reason, does my hon. Friend agree that the UK must uphold a clear, principles-led foreign policy, acting in line with the Government’s integrated review, which yielded its clear-eyed assessment of China as a “systemic challenge” to the UK?

Yes, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The integrated review makes it clear that UK policy towards China is defined by our national interests, and the Prime Minister has said that we need to be “clear-eyed” about the challenges posed by China, but we must take an overarching, balanced approach that also seeks to manage disagreements, capitalise on the opportunity and co-operate on shared interests.

In light of the harrowing evidence presented to the UK Uyghur tribunal, what discussions took place at the G7 summit, and what discussions is the Minister having with other global leaders, to establish a special session of the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution to provide for an independent international mechanism to investigate crimes under international law and other human rights violations in Xinjiang currently being blocked by China?

The hon. Lady will have seen the G7 leaders coming together yesterday. Having the presidency is a great opportunity for us to be able to put this issue forward. As I have said previously, we have led international efforts to hold China to account and yesterday’s G7 communiqué specifically called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang.

It has been reported in the past 24 hours that the EU was reluctant to specifically cite the camps in Xinjiang as part of the forced labour statement. Whether or not that is true, does my hon. Friend think that our closest allies will be united both in being disturbed by the testimony that we are seeing, and in condemning the coercion of the witnesses’ families?

My hon. Friend is right to bring that up. Of course, we condemn any intimidation of witnesses to this tribunal or to any other forums where people are giving similar such evidence. As he will have seen, yesterday’s communiqué called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, specifically in relation to Xinjiang. Additionally, in the recent communiqué of the Foreign and Development Ministers of the G7, the G7 expressed deep concern about human rights violations in Xinjiang and reiterated our call for independent experts to be given unfettered access to Xinjiang. We will continue to work with our partners to build a caucus of those willing to speak out against China’s human rights violations.

Arriving at the NATO summit in Brussels today, the Prime Minister said that nobody wants to

“descend into a…cold war with China”

and that, when people see challenges, they are things that we have to manage together with China. Can the Minister assure us that the Prime Minister will highlight the grotesque human rights abuses committed against the Uyghurs and that he recognises the importance of this matter in any dialogue with China?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Of course, the Prime Minister is raising those issues. Let us be clear: our relationship with China remains clear-eyed. It is rooted in our values and is driven by our national interest. China is the world’s second largest economy. It is a member of the G20 and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We have a policy of engagement with China and our approach towards China will remain consistent.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this urgent question and on his continued work in highlighting the appalling treatment of the Uyghur people by the Beijing regime. With that in mind, can the Minister outline to the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that no UK businesses are complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very good question. We have been engaging with businesses on these issues for some time. On 12 January, we launched a Minister-led campaign to reinforce the need for business to take action in line with our advice and also to encourage them to act to address the risk. We are also providing support and advice to public bodies, and these build on the existing measures that we have taken to respond to Xinjiang, including research funded by the UK to help build the evidence base. There are a number of additional reports that have recently been published that the United Kingdom Government have helped to finance.

I am now suspending the House for a few minutes in order for the necessary arrangements to be made.

Sitting suspended.