Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300146 relating to China’s policy on its Uyghur population.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This e-petition was started by Zayd Amjad. It asks that the Government impose sanctions on China over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims. Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group native to Xinjiang, China. They are reported to be subject to mass detention, surveillance, restriction of religious and cultural identities, as well as other gross human rights abuses. Over 1 million Uyghurs have been forced into re-education camps.
In the international community, awareness has been growing of the treatment of Uyghur people, and I know that it is a cause of concern for many on both sides of the House. We have already had debates in this House on the UK’s response to China’s treatment of its Uyghur population, notably an Adjournment debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and a Westminster Hall debate led by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). I also understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) has written this weekend to the Foreign Secretary expressing her views. I thank all of them for bringing this important subject to the House’s attention.
The strength of feeling in favour of upholding of human rights across the world has been shown by the nearly 150,000 signatures on the petition. At the most recent UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UK led on a formal joint statement setting out concern about the situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, with the support of 27 international partners. The petitioners argue that despite public pressure from the UN and growing public awareness, nothing substantial or concrete has been done to resolve the crisis and help the Uyghur people. The petition therefore argues that the use of Magnitsky sanctions is the most appropriate course of action.
Reports suggest that the Chinese Government are deliberately creating living conditions calculated to bring an end to the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. They include imposing measures intended to prevent births, and causing serious bodily and mental harm to members of the group. The suffering that the Uyghur Muslims have undergone, and sadly continue to undergo, is nothing short of horrifying. The Uyghur people who have escaped to Turkey have given interviews detailing the fear that they lived in in China; they tell of families torn apart, torture in camps, invasive surveillance, and forced and sometimes unknown sterilisation. Detainees in Xinjiang re-education camps have reported beatings, electric shocks and sleep and food deprivation. Reports of women who have faced forced sterilisation and abortions are alarmingly widespread.
The campaign against the Uyghurs is total. Many are forced into factory labour and transported to factories for up to a year before being allowed to return to their families. According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Uyghurs are working in factories,
“Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour”.
Conservative estimates suggest that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories from 2017 to 2019. One factory is given as a case study in the report. It is
“equipped with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences and police guard boxes.”
The image is dystopian, yet all too familiar for students of modern history. Reports of the sites, discipline and workers’ days read more like a prison than a place of work. They are constantly monitored and threatened with longer stints in factories if they do not comply.
The surveillance is total. China already takes its infamous mass surveillance to another level when policing its Uyghur population. Movement is restricted and phones and behaviours monitored in minute detail. Uyghurs living in China have no privacy. They are even required to submit biometric data to the police. Social media activity, travel and even which door they use to enter their house are all tracked by the police. Identification cards must be swiped in schools, banks and parks. No movement goes untracked.
The Chinese Government have justified the existence of camps and surveillance as a part of measures designed to prevent religious extremism, but it is not just religious extremism that the Chinese Government target; it is any practising of Islam at all. The events in Xinjiang are a threat to religious freedom throughout the world. Mosques have been destroyed, and halal and Ramadan banned. The signs of religious radicalism laid out include common behaviour among devout Uyghur such as the wearing of long beards, the study of Arabic and praying outside mosques. Even those who give up alcohol or cigarettes have been branded extremists and are noted by the authorities. Uyghur Muslims do not have the right to their religion, to their bodies, or to freedom of expression. The system is policed through directives given to officials in Xinjiang. The directives do not mention judicial procedures, but call for the detention of anyone who displays so-called “symptoms” of radicalism or anti-Government views. The international community should be gravely concerned.
The petition calls for action and asks the Government to take any necessary steps to stop such breaches of human rights. It specifically calls for the use of Magnitsky sanctions, named after the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and charged after uncovering Russian tax officials had defrauded Hermitage Capital, a company he was advising. In jail, Mr Magnitsky was refused medical treatment, and there is evidence he was beaten. Sadly, he sadly died in police custody in 2009. Since that time, his former employer, Bill Browder, has campaigned for the implementation of Magnitsky sanctions across the world. He argues that individual sanctions act as a more effective deterrent than broad-based sanctions, which often have the most impact on the poorest in society, not on privileged Government officials.
Notably, the first Magnitsky sanctions were enacted by the United States in 2012. Congress passed the world’s first Magnitsky Act after efforts by the late Senator John McCain. The Act imposed sanctions on a list of Russian officials who were believed to be responsible for serious human rights violations, freezing any US assets that they held and banning them from entry into the United States. The UK implemented its version just this year. It applies to human rights violators around the world. Our laws allow sanctions such as banning travel to the UK and the freezing of assets of listed individuals.
The Magnitsky sanctions are effective because sterling is a valuable global currency to hold. By having their assets frozen in Britain, sanctioned individuals are unable to have assets or continue to do their business. The sanctions also come with the stigma of no longer being allowed to enter the country or to own residences. The addition of names to the list of sanctioned individuals is in the power of the Foreign Secretary. Those who can be sanctioned include people who act on behalf of a state to violate other human rights, such as the right not to be subject to torture, the right to be free from slavery or forced labour and, above all, the right to life. The Government have already used such powers to sanction the killers of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Also sanctioned were Russian officials who were allegedly involved in the mistreatment of Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail.
Crucially, we have sanctioned organisations that are involved in forced labour in North Korea. Given the evidence that the Uyghur population are being used for forced labour in Xinjiang, I see no reason why similar sanctions should not be taken out on organisations that benefit from this labour. In fact, our American allies have already implemented sanctions on Chinese Government agencies and senior officials who run companies and farms in Xinjiang province. The suffering of the Uyghur Muslims is rightly receiving international attention.
As the petition mentions, the UN has already made statements regarding the treatment of the Uyghur people. The UN statement demanded that the Chinese Government comply with international obligations to respect human rights and freedom of religion. It also called for China to allow UN human rights monitors access to detention centres in order to ensure that human rights standards are being met. Outside Europe, countries also publicly opposed China’s policy in Xinjiang. Malaysia declined to deport Uyghur asylum seekers back to China in 2019, and Turkey’s Foreign Minister condemned China for its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.
Despite the announcements by the UN and the British Government’s expressed outrage at China’s policies in Xinjiang, nothing is changing. The British Government therefore need to realise that more must be done. In response to the petition, they have said:
“We have grave concerns about the gross human rights abuses being perpetrated in Xinjiang.”
Although I am pleased to see the Foreign Secretary speak out against human rights abuses, now is the time for action. Although I understand that imposing sanctions on individuals is a difficult process, the petitioners and I ask that it is expediated as a matter of urgency.
Along with other countries at the UN, the UK has condemned China’s actions, yet Uyghur Muslims in China continue to face persecution. The next steps therefore must be taken to oppose China’s treatment of Uyghurs. The Government have said that they
“will continue to urge the Chinese authorities to change their approach in Xinjiang and respect international human rights norms,”
but they are not speculating about future sanction designations. Their argument for this is that it
“may reduce the impact of those future designations.”
Concern over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims is widespread in Britain. The Muslim Council of Britain has urged the Government to take strong action. In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, it voices its fears that, without tangible actions, the abuses will not stop and more lives will be lost.
Our country takes pride in its commitment to uphold human rights and to fight for equality. To that end, the Government should aim not only to confront China over its treatment of the Uyghurs, but to encourage others to do the same. To do nothing in the face of such human rights abuses is to allow the continuing suffering of many. We have an abundance of evidence in the form of leaked documents, satellite imagery and the harrowing testimony of victims. We cannot continue to listen to the mounting evidence and do nothing substantial with it.
The petition urges the Government not just to speculate on the sanctions, but to act. As I mentioned, America has already taken that step, and we should be looking to do the same. Sanctions are stronger when more people enforce them. It is our duty to protect those whose human rights are being violated. China is undeniably an economic powerhouse, but we cannot let its strength in world economics shield it so as to allow atrocities and human rights violations.