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02 November 2021

Legal challenge launched challenging importation of forced labour goods from China into UK

5 mins

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), with the support of the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), has filed its arguments in an unprecedented case at the High Court of England and Wales. The case is being taken against the UK authorities, challenging the importation of cotton goods produced with forced labour in China. Such goods freely enter the UK despite well documented and widespread use of forced labour involving Uyghur people in China’s cotton industry. If successful, the Court will declare the authorities’ decisions unlawful and will confirm that it is not permissible under criminal law for companies to purchase the proceeds of atrocity crimes. 

Beginning in around 2017, Chinese authorities systematically detained over one million Uyghur and other Turkic people in East Turkistan – which China calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – using a network of high-security ‘de-extremification’ and prison camps. Forced labour in the cotton industry is a core part of this persecution. WUC and GLAN argue that current imports violate a number of UK laws including 19th century legislation prohibiting the importation of prison-made goods and the Proceeds of Crime Act, and should be halted by the UK’s customs and criminal enforcement authorities. Both areas of law are untested.

According to GLAN and WUC, there is more than enough evidence that imports containing Xinjiang cotton have been produced in whole or in part by forced labourers, and that the UK authorities should thus suspend the importation of these products and consider prosecuting those who import them. China is the UK’s largest trade partner after Europe and the US, with trade between the two countries more than doubling over the last decade to reach £70bn in the last financial year.

The case is supported by wide-reaching evidence, including witness statements, leaked government documents, satellite imagery, a secret memorandum from within the textile industry and documents which the Chinese government have attempted to remove from the internet.

The systematic incarceration of Uyghurs is the latest instalment in Xinjiang’s history of forced prison labour – its ‘regular’ prisons, which contain up to 800,000 Han Chinese and ethnic minority inmates, have long been home to conglomerate prison enterprises. The evidence file details allegations that not only is prison and forced labour widespread and systematic in the Uyghur region, it is intimately linked with Xinjiang’s cotton industry, which accounts for 84% of the cotton produced by China.

China’s mass detention of an ethnic group appears to be on a scale not seen since WWII, and the claim also addresses the reality that this mass incarceration and exaction of forced labour could amount to crimes against humanity. The UK government has already publicly expressed its concern over what it terms ‘China’s systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang’ and has raised the issue of human rights violations in Xinjiang directly with the Chinese government. Earlier this year, a legal opinion commissioned by GLAN, WUC and the Uyghur Human Rights Project concluded that there was a credible case that China is committing crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang. Indeed, the UK parliament has unanimously voted to declare that both are taking place.

The legal case argues that the imports breach a number of important legal principles in the UK. The UK’s Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act 1897 prohibits the importation of goods produced in foreign prisons. Companies which knowingly import ‘criminal property’ – that is, cotton produced by forced labourers subject to enslavement – commit offences under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA) and should be investigated by the National Crime Agency. The National Crime Agency has argued that under POCA, the companies are permitted to import the cotton as long as they obtain it for ‘adequate consideration.’ WUC challenges this approach, arguing that companies can never be permitted to knowingly purchase the fruits of atrocity crimes. Any confirmation by the Court that forced labour in supply chains can give rise to criminal liability will resonate across all jurisdictions which have enacted proceeds of crime legislation.

WUC is represented by Jamie Potter of Bindmans LLP, and Siobhan Allen and Dearbhla Minogue, legal officers for GLAN.

Rahima Mahmut, the UK project director for the World Uyghur Congress and a UK resident, said:

Living in a free country which upholds respect for human rights, it hurts so much to know that the products that are used in this country are the fruit of the enslavement of my people. I have full confidence that the British government will make the right decision in line with its’ legal framework which champions the highest standards of human dignity.

Dearbhla Minogue, a legal officer with GLAN and a consultant solicitor with Bindmans LLP, said:

The UK customs authorities are applying far too high an evidential threshold in their assessment of whether goods are made in conditions of detention, and this must now be addressed by the Court. Additionally, the National Crime Agency has taken an astounding approach in arguing that, as long as they pay good money for it, companies can source as much forced labour cotton as they like. This is wrong in law. Their combined approach means that companies are freely profiting from the misery of forced labour.

Siobhan Allen, a legal officer with GLAN and a consultant solicitor with Bindmans LLP, said:

All evidence points to cotton made using forced labour coming into the UK from the Uyghur region, East Turkistan. By failing to enforce the laws that exist to address this, the UK government is allowing companies to benefit from such crimes.

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