China could be designated as perpetrator of Genocide in Xinjiang
France has become the first country to oppose the proposed Comprehensive Agreement on Investment deal to be signed between the European Union and China. In an interview to Le Monde, Franck Riester, Minister delegate for foreign trade said his country would oppose the deal with China over the use of forced Uyghur labour by China. While acknowledging that the proposed investment pact would be significant in re-balancing investment with China, he said France continued to have concerns that China had not fulfilled “sufficient commitments” to international treaties. The CAI received an “in principle nod” in December 2020 following negotiations that spanned seven years and is on the verge of being finalized in Brussels by the end of year.
While there are doubts if the new US administration under president-elect Joe Biden will continue the hardline taken by the Trump administration against China, France has taken the position that economic ties with China should not be at the cost of human rights of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, who have faced consistent persecution by the Chinese state. Even Jake Sullivan, the president-elect’s national security adviser nominee, has asked the EU not to go ahead with a planned EU-China agreement without first consulting the US. Sullivan urged in a tweet that “early consultation with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices” was imperative.
France has pointed out that to support the proposed CAI, there needs to be a clear commitment by China to sustainable environmental development based on the Paris Agreement on climate change. In addition, China is yet to ratify the International Labour Organization convention which prohibits forced labour. Minister Riester observed that this was a red line for France. The French opposition to the proposed CAI with China rests on the persecution in myriad forms, of the Uyghurs. The Labour Minister said “We cannot facilitate investment in China if we do not commit to abolishing forced labour,” adding that other countries like Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany shared the position taken by France. “Trade agreements also serve as a lever to advance social issues, to fight against forced labour, in particular of Uyghurs.”
Notably, across the English Channel, UK Trade Secretary Liz Truss has supported a role for the courts in her country to determine whether genocide is happening in Xinjiang with the Uyghurs who have been interned in the re-education camps. This comes at a time when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ordered an internal review to determine whether the persecution of the Uyghur by China can be termed as genocide. In the UK, the struggle within the Johnson government as it heads towards Brexit on China is understandable. Members of Parliament are due to vote in 2021 on the Lords’ All-Party amendment to the Trade Bill, which would give the courts a preliminary role in determining whether genocide has been committed by a country with whom the UK might sign a trade deal. The UK Foreign Office has argued that the right to determine whether genocide is occurring in Xinjiang can only take place in an international court and not by a national government.
Several Parliamentary committees in the UK including the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and the Business Select Committee, are investigating allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law in Xinjiang. Consequently, UK fashion chains are clearing up their supply chains with China. Nigel Adams, the Minister of State for Asia has told MPs that he feared an “asset flight” could occur if the UK imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their role in the detention of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Obviously, the UK realises the risk to its economy if it moved towards the imposition of individual sanctions against Chinese officials.
However, it is the US under the outgoing Trump administration that has continued to focus its attention wholeheartedly on the Uyghur. Recently, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had ordered a review to determine whether China’s repression of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang amounted to genocide. This raises the possibility that the US may charge China with committing genocide before the Trump administration leaves office. Morse Tan, the US ambassador-at-large, for the Office of Global Criminal Justice is leading this internal review.
Similarly, the UK Foreign Office is due to present a new approach towards China focused on setting stricter obligations on firms trading in Xinjiang to ensure their supply chains do not involve slavery. According to revelations of the Center for Global Policy, a US-based think tank, in December 2020, China has forced thousands of ethnic labourers in Xinjiang to pick cotton by hand under a “poverty alleviation” scheme. In early December 2020, the US placed a ‘Withhold Release Order’ on cotton produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an entity that produces 33 per cent of Xinjiang’s cotton.
Lawmakers in the US from both parties have in the last several months increasingly called on President Trump to act on human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Biden’s campaign used the term “genocide” to describe Beijing’s policies beginning in August 2020, laying down its marker on human rights issues in China. This in a way sets the stage for a tense relationship between the two global powers once he takes office in late January. However, the scope and intensity of Biden’s actions against China remain to be tested. Traditionally, the US State Department has based such decisions on a rather narrow interpretation of genocide mentioned in the Genocide Convention. Previous deliberations have been cautious. For instance, during the Obama administration, the State Department determined that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government had not committed genocide in the crackdown on civilians living in the opposition-controlled territory after an internal review. There is no doubt that such a symbolic determination by the US would carry some diplomatic weight. However, in the absence of a clear-cut blueprint, the results may well be diluted.
France has shown the way to countries seeking to counter China in its efforts to build economic linkages with a view to promoting its own failing economy. At the same time, pressure on China for its horrific persecution of the Uyghurs must become a consistent global phenomenon. For this purpose, it is necessary for the US under Joe Biden to take the lead and lend its fullest support to the outcomes of the internal review ordered by Pompeo and take it to its logical conclusion. That would be a fitting tribute to President Trump’s determination to teach China a lesson.