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What does the UN human rights report in Xinjiang mean for retail?

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The Chinese regime’s treatment of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups in Xinjiang province may amount to crimes against humanity, according to a long-awaited report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights . It calls “credible” allegations of torture, including rape and sexual violence, discrimination, mass detention, forced labor and widespread surveillance. Multiple reports over the past five years have documented human rights abuses in the Far West Province. These include the arbitrary detention of at least 800,000 people, and maybe millions. Meanwhile, former detainees testified to being forced to work in textile factories, producing goods that were eventually supplied to foreign companies.

In January 2021, then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he believed the Chinese government was committing genocide in a “systematic attempt to destroy the Uyghurs”. But this latest report, released minutes before midnight on High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s last day in office, comes with the imprimatur of the United Nations. It is no longer possible for anyone – including the many companies that continue to source products from Xinjiang – to claim plausible deniability.

Companies involved in work in Xinjiang

Xinjiang is the largest region in China. Besides mining resources such as coal, gas, lithium, zinc and lead, it produces about 45 percent of the world’s polysilicon, a key component of photovoltaic solar panels. It also produces the vast majority of cotton (85% is a commonly quoted figure) for China’s textile and garment industry.

A September 2018 report from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, published estimates of the number of people detained in Xinjiang – between tens of thousands and a million. The following month, the Chinese government finally acknowledged the existence of what it called “vocational training centers.” But he justified them as necessary to counter “terrorism” and “extremism”. The latest UN report leaves no doubt about widespread arbitrary detention. Attempts to pass off the camps as vocational or training centers are simply not credible. In addition to the possibility of goods coming directly from Xinjing being made with slave labor, this new UN report also notes “labour transfer programs” that force residents of the Xinjiang to work elsewhere in China. These transfers mean that goods produced in factories across China may be tainted with modern slavery.

A 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified 83 Chinese and foreign companies that would benefit from using Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang. The list included adidas, Amazon, Apple, BMW, Calvin Klein, Dell, Google, H&M, Hisense, Hitachi, Huawei, Lacoste, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Nike, Nintendo, Sony, Victoria’s Secret, Volkswagen and Zara.

What is the next step ?

The UN report calls on the Chinese government to release those arbitrarily detained and to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. It’s like asking a fox to guard the chicken coop. What is needed is international action and pressure to force change. The UN Human Rights Council, made up of representatives of 47 Member States, should be prompted by this report to open a thorough investigation, in accordance with the obligations of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It should also be a catalyst for individual nations to do more to eradicate modern slavery from supply chains, ensuring that goods produced with forced labor – in China or elsewhere – cannot be imported.

It also provides a clear signal to anyone doing business with China (not just in Xinjiang) on ​​the need to exercise adequate due diligence to ensure they do not indirectly benefit from human rights abuses. , including technology companies that sell surveillance and security products to China. Until there is wider access and independent verification of working conditions in Xinjiang, companies should now assume that goods linked to this region are tainted with modern slavery.

Justine Nolan is Professor of Law and Justice and Director of the Australian Institute of Human Rights at UNSW Sydney. (This article was originally published by The Conversation.)