The World Uyghur Congress has said it is disappointed to have lost a legal challenge against UK authorities for not launching a criminal investigation into the importation of cotton products manufactured by forced labour in China’s Xinjiang province but would continue to fight for accountability.
The WUC took the home secretary, HM Revenue and Customs and the National Crime Agency (NCA), to the high court, claiming an unlawful failure or refusal to investigate imports from Xinjiang, allegedly home to 380 internment camps used to detain Uyghurs and people from other Muslim minorities.
It said 85% of Chinese cotton was grown in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and the “vast majority” was manufactured in facilities under “conditions of detention and forced labour”, implicating UK companies that imported from certain Chinese firms.
However, on Friday, Mr Justice Dove ruled against the WUC. He accepted the government’s argument that the WUC had not proved that a specific consignment of cotton imported into the UK was the product of unlawful conduct. In his written judgment, the judge further said that for UK companies to be prosecuted under the Proceeds of Crime Act, it would have to be shown that “the consignment had been purchased for significantly less than its value”.
Dolkun Isa, of the WUC, said: “This is a greatly disappointing outcome for the Uyghur community that has been seeking accountability for years. However, this is only the beginning of such a process, with this case being the first [brought by Uyghurs concerning repression] in a foreign court. Our legal team has worked hard on this, and together we will continue to hold the Chinese government accountable.’’
Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which supported the WUC in its claim, said it was considering appealing against the judgment. It said the government’s position made the UK an international outlier and a safe haven for importers of goods produced as a result of crimes against humanity, and genocide.
In the US, legislation came into effect last year assuming that any product partly or wholly made in Xinjiang, north-west China, is linked to the region’s labour camps.
Gearóid Ó Cuinn, the director of GLAN, said: “The whole purpose of the Proceeds of Crime Act is to ensure that crime doesn’t pay. This judgment sends a message to the Uyghur victims that as long as UK companies pay market value for slave labour cotton, the UK government and courts will not intervene.”
Defending the case, the government argued that the claimant had only provided evidence “of a chance that a crime had been committed”, without any of the necessary details to warrant a criminal investigation.
It stressed that it considered China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang to be “appalling”, a point reinforced by Dove in his written judgment.
He said: “The outcome of the case does not in any way undermine the striking consensus in the evidence that there are clear and widespread abuses in the cotton industry in the XUAR, involving human rights violations and the exploitation of forced labour.”
He added that there may be other tools or resources available to the government and law enforcement agencies or evidence that could be provided to them “which could provide an effective basis for tackling the concerns in respect of cotton production in the XUAR and the exploitation and abuse of the Uyghur people with which it has been associated”.