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UN Expert Says Xinjiang Forced Labour Claims ‘Reasonable’

Workers in a factory in Hotan county, Xinjiang, China.
Workers in a factory in Hotan county, Xinjiang, China. (Shutterstock)

A United Nations slavery expert has found claims of forced labour in Xinjiang to be “reasonable,” in one of the clearest critiques of China’s human rights practices from within the world body.

Tomoya Obokata, the UN’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, said in a report that the involuntary nature of China’s employment programmes in Xinjiang indicated forced labour, even if they did improve job opportunities for some minorities. The findings were based on an “independent assessment of available information,” including stakeholder submissions, victim testimony and government accounts.

“The special rapporteur regards it as reasonable to conclude that forced labour among Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China,” Obokata’s report said. Similar policies were in place in Tibet, according to the report, which was dated July 19 and posted on Obokata’s Twitter feed Tuesday.

The report on global slavery concerns was addressed to the Human Rights Council and is separate from an assessment on Xinjiang expected to be soon published by UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. Xinjiang scholars have urged Bachelet to release her report after a widely criticised trip to China in May that the rights chief has since acknowledged faced “limitations.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed the report Wednesday, saying the special rapporteur had abused his power to “patently smear China and act as a political tool of anti-China forces.”

“There has never been forced labour in Xinjiang,” Wang said at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “The Chinese government follows a people-centred approach. We pay great attention to protecting the rights and interests of workers.”

China has denied forced labour allegations from the US and other governments, calling them the “lie of the century,” and last week submitted two ratified International Labour Organisation treaties on the practice. “The government of China has once again made clear its resolute position on opposing and fighting against forced labour,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular news briefing Monday.

The US has been developing measures to punish China over its human rights practices in Xinjiang, including the Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act. The legislation, which took effect in June, bans the import of anything produced in Xinjiang unless companies can provide “clear and compelling evidence” it wasn’t made with forced labour.

James Cockayne, anti-slavery commissioner for the state of New South Wales, in Australia, said he wasn’t aware of a UN special rapporteur making such a clear statement on Xinjiang before.

“This is an important conclusion by the top UN expert on this issue in the world,” said Cockayne, a former professor at the University of Nottingham. “The question of where the commissioner’s report is, when we will get to see that, is a critical one.”

Obokata is a professor of international law and human rights at Keele University and specialises in transnational organised crime, human-trafficking and modern slavery. He was appointed as the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery in March 2020.

Obokata’s report outlined two labour systems in Xinjiang, including one in which minorities were detained and subjected to work placements to give them vocational skills, education and training. Separately, surplus rural labourers are transferred into secondary- or tertiary-sector work as part of a poverty-alleviation programme.

“Given the nature and extent of powers exercised over affected workers during forced labour, including excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restriction of movement through internment, threats, physical and/or sexual violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment, some instances may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis,” Obokata’s report said.

Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a leading critic of China’s Xinjiang policies, said that the rapporteur’s report set a “very important” precedent. “It would be awkward if Bachelet’s report says something to the contrary,” Zenz said.

Learn more:

Where Does Your T-Shirt Really Come From?

A stringent US ban on imports from China’s Xinjiang region that came into effect this week ratchets up the pressure on companies to prove their supply chains are free of forced labour.

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