Labor pushes Morrison government to clarify whether it views Xinjiang human rights abuses as genocide
Penny Wong calls for Australia to consider targeted sanctions on foreign entities directly profiting from forced Uyghur labour
The Morrison government must explain whether it sees human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region as a case of genocide, the federal opposition says.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, also called on the government to “consider targeted sanctions on foreign companies, officials and other entities known to be directly profiting from Uyghur forced labour and other human rights abuses”.
The calls, which come amid a rift in the relationship between China and Australia, reflect the growing bipartisan consensus in Canberra favouring a tougher line against Beijing on human rights concerns.
Wong told an audience in Hobart that Australia faced “a risker, more dangerous world” and needed to speak out clearly and consistently in support of human rights.
She called for a toughening of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act to impose penalties on businesses that failed to remove risks in their supply chains, arguing that the world had witnessed “a growing number of horrifying reports of forced labour and human rights violations in China and in many other countries”.
Labor’s Senate leader cited “a series of credible and distressing reports of forced labour in China, particularly in Xinjiang”.
Those accounts, Wong said, were “in addition to reports of mass detentions and other human rights violations of Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang and across China.”
“All Australians would condemn these reported actions,” she said in an address to the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
“These are not the actions of a responsible global power and we urge the Chinese government to uphold its international human rights obligations and allow unfettered access to the UN high commissioner for human rights.”
Wong said it appeared there were “clear violations of international law in Xinjiang” and noted that some other countries had described it as genocide. The US government and the Canadian and Dutch parliaments have made such declarations this year but Beijing has dismissed the claims as “misinformation”.
“We call on the Morrison government to provide its assessment of what is happening in Xinjiang – based on all the information available to its agencies – and what it is doing to address the situation,” Wong said.
She said Uyghur communities in Australia were “also frustrated and understandably worried about loved ones in China – and they really do need more support from the Morrison government”. Wong also said China had “eroded beyond recognition” the one country, two systems arrangement in Hong Kong.
The 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide defines genocide as any of a number of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
Those acts can include killing members of the group, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, or deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
Other acts can include imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring children to another group.
A US-based thinktank, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, published a report last month saying the Chinese government had breached every single article of the UN genocide convention in its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
But China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, has rejected what he described as “some distorted coverage” in western media. Cheng warned this month that Beijing would respond “in kind” if Canberra followed other countries in imposing sanctions against its officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. He said China would not “swallow the bitter pill” of meddling in its internal affairs.
During questioning by Australian journalists at an event organised by the Chinese embassy, Xinjiang-based officials said the estimate that at least 1 million Uyghurs and members of other minority groups were in concentration camps was a “fabrication” – but declined several requests to reveal a current figure.
The authorities in the region characterise the sites as “vocational education and training centres” and insist “there are no concentration camps”.
The Australian government welcomed sanctions announced by the UK, the EU, the US and Canada last month – but did not follow suit, partly because of the lack of Magnitsky-style laws that would allow swift targeted sanctions for human rights abuses.
Wong said Magnitsky-style sanctions laws would “not only put Australia on the same page as our key allies, but send a strong signal to perpetrators of abuses around the world.”
She said the Morrison government’s slowness to introduce such laws, as recommended by a parliamentary committee late last year, “sends a regrettable message that we are not committed [and] that we don’t take it seriously”.
Wong pointed to other negative developments on human rights, including the military coup in Myanmar.
“Even our principal ally [the US] had a close call in the past year, with the then-incumbent president [Donald Trump] refusing to accept a democratic election and inciting a deadly insurrection,” she said.
Wong’s forthright speech follows “robust” debate and negotiations about Labor’s foreign policy platform in the lead-up to the party’s national conference last month.
Speaking on a motion condemning China for its treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, the Labor senator Kimberley Kitching said “these atrocities” included “what various jurisdictions around the world have determined constitute genocide”.
Elly Lawson, a first assistant secretary at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told a Senate committee last month: “We would characterise it as credible human rights abuses; we would characterise it as systematic human rights abuses.”
Relations between China and Australia plunged last year amid a public disagreement about the Morrison government’s early calls for a global inquiry into the origins and handling of the pandemic.
Chinese authorities took a series of trade actions against Australian exports including barley, wine, coal and lobster. While Labor has previously accused the Morrison government of mismanaging the relationship with Australia’s largest trading partner, it has largely offered bipartisan support.