British parliament declares Uygurs are suffering ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang

Finbarr Bermingham
·6-min read

The British parliament has passed a non-binding motion declaring that Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang region “are suffering crimes against humanity and genocide”, even as the government made clear it did not back the resolution.

The motion called on the British government “fulfil its obligations” under relevant United Nations conventions “to bring it to an end” and follows similar votes taken in the parliaments of the Netherlands and Canada.

While it ratchets up pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the motion does not represent a change in the government’s definition of the situation. Minister for Asia Nigel Adams told parliament that declaring genocide is “a matter for the courts”, such as the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice.

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The non-binding parliamentary motion may raise pressure on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson but the government is not changing its position on the matter, a government minister said. Photo: PA Wire via dpa
The non-binding parliamentary motion may raise pressure on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson but the government is not changing its position on the matter, a government minister said. Photo: PA Wire via dpa

“A finding of genocide requires proof that relevant acts were carried out with the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Proving such intent to the required legal standard can be incredibly difficult to achieve in practice,” Adams said.

“For these reasons, we do not believe it’s right for the government to make a determination in this or any other case where genocide or crimes against humanity are alleged,” he added.

Adams reiterated the Johnson government’s “grave concern of the serious and widespread human rights violations occurring in the region”, calling for China to admit independent United Nations inspectors into Xinjiang.

Last year the US under the Trump administration became the first government to declare the situation in Xinjiang “genocide” – a stance backed by the new Biden administration after it assumed control in January.

Motions have been introduced in a host of legislative chambers around the world hoping to force their respective governments to do the same, including Belgium, Japan and Italy. In the instances of Canada and the Netherlands, where it was put to a vote, the sitting governments either abstained or voted against it.

It is alleged that one million Turkic-speaking Muslim Uygurs have been interned in re-education centres and subjected to indoctrination, torture and forced labour – charges denied by Beijing.

The Chinese Embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.

A group of Uygur activists gathered outside parliament on Thursday urging members to back the motion, which could lead to a further ratcheting up in Sino-British tensions.

In March, the situation spiralled when Britain joined Canada, the European Union and the United States’ sanctions of four individuals and an organisation for their involvement in alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

US secretary of state condemns China’s ‘baseless sanctions’

China responded with sanctions on nine individuals and four entities in Britain, accusing them of “maliciously spread lies and disinformation” about Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang.

Among those sanctioned were seven British MPs, one of whom – Nusrat Ghani of the Conservative Party – introduced the motion on genocide and called for the British government to do more to hold China to account.

British Conservative Party MPs Nusrat Ghani and Iain Duncan Smith with members of the Uygur community in London on Thursday ahead of the British parliament voted to recognise alleged persecution in Xinjiang as genocide and crimes against humanity. Photo: AFP
British Conservative Party MPs Nusrat Ghani and Iain Duncan Smith with members of the Uygur community in London on Thursday ahead of the British parliament voted to recognise alleged persecution in Xinjiang as genocide and crimes against humanity. Photo: AFP

“The UK parliament has assessed the evidence and spoken of the industrial scale human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Chinese government in what is the largest mass incarceration of a minority since the Second World War. This now must be brought before an international court. Sadly, all routes to a court are blocked by China,” Ghani said.

A procession of MPs accused the British government of prioritising commercial ties with China over human rights. While the government laid out plans to try to exclude goods suspected of being made using forced labour in Xinjiang from British supply chains, it has yet to materialise into concrete policy.

“Why hasn’t the Modern Slavery Act been strengthened to ensure that the UK consumer supply chains do not include workers subject to forced labour in Xinjiang? And why are we not calling this what it is: genocide?” said Siobhain McDonagh, a Labour MP.

Others called for Boris Johnson’s government to expand sanctions on Chinese officials to include the Communist Party’s top official in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo.

This sentiment was reflected in a letter signed by more than 100 British lawmakers calling for an expansion of the sanctions earlier this month.

Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo at the National People’s Congress in 2019. A member of the British parliament sought sanctions for Chen’s alleged involvement in Xinjiang abuses. Photo: AFP
Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo at the National People’s Congress in 2019. A member of the British parliament sought sanctions for Chen’s alleged involvement in Xinjiang abuses. Photo: AFP

“Once the government finally announced the Magnitsky sanctions, why did they leave out ‘the organ grinder’, Chen Quanguo, who is believed to be the architect of the Xinjiang atrocities, and indeed before those in Tibet,” said Yasmin Qureshi, another Labour member, referring to Chen’s former role as party secretary for Tibet.

“Once the government finally announced the Magnitsky sanctions, why did they leave out ‘the organ grinder’, Chen Quanguo, who is believed to be the architect of the Xinjiang atrocities, and indeed before those in Tibet,” said Yasmin Qureshi, another Labour member, referring to Chen’s former role as party secretary for Tibet.

Earlier this year, lawmakers failed in efforts to reform Britain’s trade law in a way that would prevent it from cutting deals with countries deemed to have committed genocide. Having cleared the House of Lords in February, the genocide amendment bill did not pass parliament.

‘Genocide’ clause clears British legislative hurdle, may affect China trade deals

Anna Rosenberg, head of Europe and the UK at the political advisory group Signum Global, said that the British-China relationship had “taken a turn for the worse” as London “tries to find a new role for itself within the world post-Brexit, it is circling in on the threat posed by China”.

“Britain under Johnson has been far more hostile towards Chinese investment than ever before, and that is mainly because it is a thorny issue for many Conservatives. I am not sure it will necessarily deteriorate significantly, after all, the British government is pragmatic, but it certainly won’t improve,” she said.

Rahima Mahmut of the World Uygur Congress at a demonstration in London ahead of the parliamentary debate on the motion. Photo: PA Wire vvia dpa
Rahima Mahmut of the World Uygur Congress at a demonstration in London ahead of the parliamentary debate on the motion. Photo: PA Wire vvia dpa

Behind many parliamentary motions has been the cross-party Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an increasingly influential international pressure group that has been adding members rapidly.

Rahima Mahmut, director of the World Uygur Congress and an adviser to IPAC, said that “statements of solidarity mean a lot, but Uygurs need them to be followed up with meaningful action”.

“Only when the Chinese government faces the consequences of its actions will it be deterred from further abuses. The Chinese government cannot be allowed to continue to carry out crimes against humanity and genocide with impunity,” she said.

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