The United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a detailed report following its assessment of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in which it said that “serious human rights violations have been committed”. The region, which produces around a fifth of the world’s cotton, has been the subject of an increasing number of reports over recent years that have claimed around 1.6 million Uyghur Muslims are being held in incarceration camps and are undergoing forced labour.
In response, an array of Western clothing retailers, particularly ones that source their cotton from the area, expressed their concern last year over the allegations, with some denouncing the country’s reputed methods and others cutting ties with their Xinjiang-based suppliers entirely. As a result, China took to sanctioning, calling for boycotts and sometimes completely erasing brands and retailers that had spoken out, with the likes of H&M, Nike, Burberry, Adidas and Converse, among others, all facing various levels of repercussions.
Now, the UN’s new report has outlined its official assessment in relation to the allegations made against Xinjiang, which the organisation said is backed by an “extensive body of documentation” and in-depth interviews with 40 people with direct or first-hand knowledge of the situation. The publication itself detailed various subject matters surrounding the issue, including China’s legal and policy framework on countering terrorism and “extremism”, for which the UN said the laws and regulations were vague and ill-defined.
Evidence suggesting arbitrary detention and forced labour
Additionally, the assessment found that it was “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention occurred in VETCS (vocational education and training centres) facilities, at least during 2017 to 2019.” According to the UN, the “placements” could be seen as a way to form “a deprivation of liberty” against those located there.
In terms of labour, the UN noted that China had “undertaken a number of important labour law reforms, which should strengthen safeguards against forced labour”, as part of its poverty alleviation schemes. However, it also added that “the government closely links its poverty alleviation schemes to the prevention and countering of religious ‘extremism’”, potentially backing reports of forced labour among Uyghur and other Muslim minorities, which the UN said “raises concerns in terms of the extent to which such programmes can be fully voluntary”.
The report went on to recommend suggested next steps for China to follow and international communities to support, such as clarifying the whereabouts of reportedly missing individuals, reviewing its framework surrounding counter-terrorism measures and investigating allegations of human rights violations in VETCS.
In its conclusion, the report said: “While the available information at this stage does not allow OHCHR to draw firm conclusions regarding the exact extent of such abuses, it is clear that the highly securitised and discriminatory nature of the VETCs, coupled with limited access to effective remedies or oversight by the authorities, provide fertile ground for such violations to take place on a broad scale.”