China’s Policy on its Uyghur Population

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Monday 12th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nigel Adams Portrait The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)
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I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for this debate, to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for introducing it and to all colleagues for their contributions. There is, rightly, deep public concern about the issue, so I am also grateful to the 146,000 members of the public who signed the petition and enabled this debate to take place. We have heard the strength of feeling in the House about Xinjiang, and I will respond to as many as possible of the points that have been made.

I assure the House that we closely and constantly monitor the situation in Xinjiang. As we have heard and read, and as we acknowledge, there have been harrowing reports and evidence of gross human rights violations. Analysis of satellite images suggests that the Chinese authorities continue to construct internment camps and demolish mosques and other religious sites. Those are systematic restrictions on Uyghur culture and religion. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) about the extensive and invasive surveillance operation that targets minorities. We have also seen credible evidence of forced labour —that was raised by most Members this afternoon—and the Chinese Government’s own figures show a dramatic decrease in population growth in Xinjiang over the past three years.

I will now set out the Government’s position on global human rights sanctions. On 6 July, as right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, we established the global human rights sanctions regime. In a statement to Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the full scope of the UK’s new global human rights sanctions regime. He was clear, and I reiterate this today, that it is not appropriate to speculate on future designations under that regime. As I have said before and as the Foreign Secretary made clear, to do so could reduce the impact of such designations. However, I make it absolutely clear that that is under constant review.

On 9 September, during an Adjournment debate on Xinjiang, I stated that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is carefully considering further designations under the sanctions regime. We will keep all the evidence and the potential listings under close review. Our position on that remains unchanged.

Let me be clear that we are committed to responding robustly to all human rights violations in Xinjiang. We have played a leading role within the international community to hold China to account. We have led two joint statements at the UN in the past year, including a statement at the UN Human Rights Council in June that was supported by 28 countries. Last week, on 6 October, 39 countries joined our statement at the UN third committee in New York, expressing deep concern at the situation not just in Xinjiang, but in Tibet and Hong Kong. We believe this growing caucus reflects our diplomatic leadership, including the personal involvement of our Foreign Secretary.

Outside the UN, we have lobbied around the world to raise awareness of the issue and underlined the critical need for an international response. We have supported that by funding third-party research to increase the evidence base and international awareness, and by sharing our analysis of the situation on the ground, although Members will appreciate that getting access to Xinjiang is incredibly difficult. On 25 September, the UK dedicated its entire national statement at the UN Human Rights Council to human rights violations in China. That is only the second time the UK has dedicated its national statement to a single country, the first being about Russia in 2018 following the poisonings in Salisbury.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised our serious concerns about Xinjiang directly with his Chinese counterpart on a number of occasions, most recently on 28 July, and I have raised them directly with the Chinese ambassador in recent months. We continue to raise awareness of the human rights violations in Xinjiang with UK businesses. We impress upon them the need to act in line with the expectations set out in the UK national action plan on business and human rights. That means conducting due diligence to make sure that they are not contributing to any human rights violations, including the use of forced labour in their supply chains.

Several right hon. and hon. Members have raised the question of genocide. The term genocide has a specific definition in international law, and it is the long-standing policy of the UK Government that any judgment as to whether war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide have occurred is a matter for judicial decision.

In the time I have left, I will turn to remarks and comments made by right hon. and hon. Members. The hon. Member for Islwyn introduced the debate in his typically eloquent style, raising many of the concerns that we all share about the plight of the Uyghur people. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on the work he does with IPAC and his persistent championing of this cause.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) was absolutely right to raise the points that she did, but I politely suggest that it is not correct to say that we are no further on. Our actions at the UN last week, alongside 38 other countries, are an example of that. She raised the issue of forced labour, as did most Members. The reports are credible. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute report, which the FCO part-funded, estimated that 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work.

We are committed to eradicating modern slavery and forced labour. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 made the UK the first country to require businesses to report how they identify and address modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains, as hon. Members have mentioned. Businesses with an annual turnover of more than £36 million are required to publish an annual modern slavery statement, and we are developing a registry of modern slavery statements.

Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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I will take my hon. Friend’s intervention, but there is a slight risk that I will not have time to cover all the contributions made by other hon. Members.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
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I thank the Minister for giving way. I have a very quick question. Are companies actually abiding by the law? We have this great law, but a lot of forced labour seems to be taking place.

Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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It is absolutely the case that companies need to abide by the law. More can be done in this area, and we are developing further measures. The Home Office announced on 22 September a series of new measures to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act. These measures require legislative change, which will be brought forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.

There were some excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat)—the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee—for Henley (John Howell), for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), for Isle of Wight and for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), and from the hon. Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). The hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) referred eloquently to genocide. Again, any judgment as to whether war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide have occurred has to be a judicial matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield referred to strategic cultural cleansing. The freedom to practise, change or share one’s faith or beliefs without discrimination or violent opposition is a human right that all people should be able to enjoy. He was also right to highlight the lack of condemnation from predominantly Muslim countries of the oppression of the Uyghurs. I am sure that his powerful voice will have been heard today.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali
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The Minister mentions genocide. A clear-cut International Court of Justice case is currently ongoing, but the UK Government refuse to back it. What test has to be passed before our Government—a penholder in the UN on Burma—are likely to act? That is the problem: constant excuses.

Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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I know how powerfully the hon. Lady feels about this issue, but, as I say, there is a specific definition in international law, and any decision has to be judicial. I am sure that this will come up in the future, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss it.

The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) asked whether we would publicly oppose China’s election to the United Nations Human Rights Council this week. He will be aware that we never comment on voting in UN elections, which are conducted by secret ballot. The UK has been absolutely clear with China about our grave concerns in relation to Xinjiang. As I said, on 6 October we joined 38 other countries to call on China to allow immediate and unfettered access for independent UN observers.

I know that I have to give the hon. Member for Islwyn a couple of minutes, so I will wrap up. I reiterate that we cannot speculate on future designations under our sanctions regime. China must immediately end extrajudicial detention in Xinjiang and uphold the principles of freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and freedom of association for every single one of its citizens. As the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made clear, we want a positive relationship with China, but we will always act to uphold our values, our interests and our national security. We are crystal clear with China when we disagree with its approach.