Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 24 May.
“Today’s reports provide further shocking details of China’s gross human rights violations in Xinjiang. They add to an already extensive body of evidence from Chinese government documents, first-hand testimony, satellite imagery and visits by our own diplomats to the region. The reports suggest a shoot-to-kill policy was in place at re-education camps for detainees seeking to escape. This is just one of many details that fatally undermine China’s repeated assertions that these brutal places of detention were in fact vocational training centres, or a legitimate response to concerns about extremism. On the contrary, the compelling evidence we see before us reveals the extraordinary scale of China’s targeting of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities, including forced labour, severe restrictions on freedom of religion, the separation of parents from their children, forced birth control and mass incarceration.
We have already taken robust action in response. We have imposed sanctions, led joint statements at the UN, taken measures to tackle forced labour in supply chains, funded research to expose China’s actions and consistently raised our concerns with Beijing at the highest levels. The Prime Minister did so most recently in a phone call with President Xi on 25 March. In 2019, we were the first country to lead a joint statement on China’s human rights record in Xinjiang at the UN. Our leadership has sustained pressure on China to change its behaviour. We work tirelessly to increase the number of countries speaking out. By October 2021, our efforts had helped to secure the support of 43 countries for a joint statement on Xinjiang at the UN Third Committee, including Muslim-majority Turkey and Albania. In response to today’s revelations, we will continue to work with our partners to raise the cost to China of its actions. We will continue to develop our domestic policy response, including introducing further measures to tackle forced labour in UK supply chains.
The UK stands with our international partners in calling out China’s appalling persecution of Uighur Muslims and other minorities. We remain committed to holding China to account.”
My Lords, for some time this House has called on the United Kingdom Government to back a UN visit to Xinjiang to assess the scale of human rights abuses, which we have now seen so shockingly illustrated by the BBC report. Michelle Bachelet has finally arrived. However, it is reported that her access is being restricted, with the UN stressing that the visit cannot be considered an investigation. While Amanda Milling reiterated yesterday the call for unfettered access, can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking, with our allies, to secure proper access for the UN?
On future policy, Amanda Milling said the Government
“will continue to develop our domestic policy response, including introducing further measures to tackle forced labour in UK supply chains.”—[Official Report, Commons, 24/5/22; col. 159.]
An opportunity starts with the Procurement Bill, which has its Second Reading this afternoon, to protect British customers and consumers from complicity in the Uighur genocide. Will the Minister support amendments to back British businesses which generally want to do the right thing?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I have been working together, and I am conscious of and grateful for the strong support on the issue of Xinjiang. The continuing trials, tribulations and persecution of, and indeed violations against, the Uighur community in Xinjiang are appalling and abhorrent, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has put out a statement to that effect.
On the noble Lord’s first point on Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner is well known to me. Indeed, the United Kingdom was the first country to call, both directly in a bilateral meeting with her and at the Human Rights Council, for a visit to Xinjiang, which, as the noble Lord acknowledged, is under way. However, he is quite right that it is, to use quite diplomatic terms, a managed visit. Clearly, access will be quite limited. We are certainly working with our friends and partners. We also press the High Commissioner for a specific report on the situation in Xinjiang. Earlier today I was scoping as to either a direct call or a visit to Geneva to pursue that very issue. I will update your Lordships’ House on that specifically.
The Government are committed to tackling the issue of Uighur forced labour in supply chains. In September 2020, there was an ambitious package of changes to the Modern Slavery Act. I am sure the noble Lord noted that these measures will be included in the modern slavery Bill, which was announced as part of the Queen’s Speech in May this year. On the other point he raised on procurement, I do not know and cannot predict what amendments will come forward, but the Procurement Bill is also looking quite specifically at supply chain issues. From experience, I am sure that many a noble Lord will look at that Bill quite specifically.
My Lords, the fact that we have been able to witness this dreadful information is testimony to there being a free and open media, in stark contrast to what the people of China themselves will be denied seeing by their Government. I have asked this on three occasions now. Given that we are trade dependent on China for goods, with a trade deficit now of more than £40 billion—the biggest trade deficit with a single country in our country’s history—our leverage is limited, but what are the areas in which preferential access to UK markets will be restricted by state-owned enterprises, especially in the financial services sector? The Government have signed a number of agreements with the People’s Republic of China, but the Government have not been able to say whether any triggering mechanisms on human rights abuses exist. Are there any areas in which the Government will restrict access to China on the basis of these grotesque human rights abuses?
First of all, I agree with the noble Lord about the issue of human rights abuses. As the UK’s Human Rights Minister, it is something very specific to the agenda that I am following directly and with partners through all networks. We raise issues and concerns directly and bilaterally, and through various UN and multilateral fora.
On the specific issues of our trade with China, we must make sure that our trade with China is reliable, but that it avoids any kind of strategic dependency, and of course the important issues that the noble Lord draws to our focus about human rights abuses. One hopes also that, through some of the measures we are taking in the Bill that I announced on modern slavery, and also the discussions that we will have on whatever legislation comes forward, we will continue to focus on eradicating those human rights abuses, and that those companies which still seek to trade in that capacity will be held to account.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uyghurs. It was the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who said that a genocide is under way in Xinjiang: the ultimate human rights violation, the crime above all crimes. At a meeting with her and the Prime Minister, held with sanctioned parliamentarians, we were promised that government policy on genocide determination would be reformed. Will the noble Lord tell us how this can be expedited, and whether he will arrange a follow-up meeting with the Foreign Secretary? Will he urgently draw John Sudworth’s admirable BBC documentary to the attention of the UN’s Michelle Bachelet during her current visit to the region?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, that documentary—I have certainly seen part of it, not in full, but I have also seen many of the images associated with it—really makes your stomach churn, in every sense. It is abhorrent, in every sense. I was pleased that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and the Prime Minister, met with the noble Lord, amongst others. I am also aware that the PM at that meeting demonstrated how seriously we are taking this issue. I will follow up and of course update the noble Lord.
My Lords, 20 months ago I asked my noble friend whether he could confirm that we will not support China’s election to the Human Rights Council. It seems clear that China continues to abuse its position at that council. I ask my noble friend the Minister, following John Sudworth’s harrowing report, whether the UK Government will now do the right thing, and lead a campaign to suspend China from the Human Rights Council.
My Lords, first of all I pay tribute to my noble friend’s persistent focus on this particular issue. On the issue he raises about the Human Rights Council, every country that stands for election to the Human Rights Council, and is present in its 47 members, needs to demonstrate a strong human rights record domestically. There is now precedent established within the UN, but removing a particular country from a particular UN body is never easy. However, what I would say to my noble friend is that the fact that China persists and seeks to campaign for continued membership of the Human Rights Council also provides a huge opportunity—notwithstanding the fact that its human rights record is deplorable—for us to raise issues with it quite directly, and also demonstrate and showcase the consistent abuse that takes place, particularly against the Uighur community.
My Lords, these horrific matters have been raised many times in your Lordships’ House. There is clear evidence of genocide, forced organ harvesting and other human rights abuses, clearly recorded by Sir Geoffrey Nice. We did not act decisively enough when Putin seized Crimea eight years ago and went on to commit murder in Salisbury, and we saw the consequences. Could the Minister say what further action the UK will take, in conjunction with democratic partners, to call China to account, or will history simply repeat itself with the invasion of Taiwan?
My Lords, we are certainly working with our partners. As I am sure the noble Lord acknowledges, we have acted to hold to account senior officials and organisations who are responsible for egregious abuse of human rights within Xinjiang. That said, we keep policy constantly under review and it remains very much on the table. We will continue to work in co-ordination with our partners in that respect.
My Lords, the Answer given in the other place made no reference to an asylum response to these shocking reports. As it is very clear that the Uighurs are being persecuted because of their religion and ethnicity, and are in need of legal protection, will the Government issue visas for Uighurs fleeing persecution in China, including or perhaps particularly those who are in countries where they face the risk of deportation to China?
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very valid point, and I assure her that the United Kingdom has been and remains very much a place where people seek sanctuary. That applies to the Uighurs specifically and indeed to any other persecuted community around the world. This is a tradition and a right that continues to be alive—and long may it continue.
My Lords, can my noble friend share the Government’s assessment of British business’s supply chain activity in Xinjiang? What support is being provided to enhance transparency for British consumers who wish to know the origin of the products they are purchasing?
My noble friend raises a valid point. In terms of practical steps, the Department for International Trade is very much focused on the provisions we will bring forward in the modern slavery Bill. Within that, we will seek to provide advice to business on this specific issue. Alluding to the sourcing of particular products is a valid suggestion, and I will certainly share that with colleagues at the FCDO and DIT.