Supply chain slavery court case against UK government fails

posted by Juliette Rowsell and Will Green
3 February 2023

An organisation championing the rights of the Uyghur population has lost a court case that claimed the UK government had failed to investigate forced labour in cotton supply chains. 

In a High Court claim the World Uyghur Council (WUC) said the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs and the National Crime Agency (NCA) had failed or refused to investigate cotton imports from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China, despite being presented with evidence of the Uyghur minority being subjected to forced labour.

The WUC claimed the government was in breach of Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act and the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA).

But in a ruling the judge, Mr Justice Dove, said there had been “no error” in the government’s response to the WUC, which said there was an “absence of specificity” in the evidence provided by the organisation and “there would be little if any purpose to be served by pursuing an investigation which would not bear fruit in the form of prosecutions or seizures”.

However, the judge said: “That is not to say that there may be other tools or measures available to the executive and law enforcement agencies, or other evidence which they could receive meeting the requirements upon which the [government] has correctly relied in this challenge, 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.”

And he added: “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.”

China produces a quarter of the world's cotton supplies, and 85% of its products come from the Xinjiang region.

The WUC said the ruling meant “the UK [is] an international outlier and a safe haven for importers of goods produced as a result of crimes against humanity, and genocide”. It is considering an appeal.  

Dolkun Isa, president 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 in a foreign court. Our legal team has worked hard on this, and together we will continue to hold the Chinese government accountable.”

Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which represented the WUC, said: “The whole purpose of the POCA 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.

“Although the result is deeply disappointing, the case provided important vindication for the Uyghur people that the government, and courts, of the UK do not dispute that they are the victims of an ongoing criminal enterprise perpetrated by Chinese authorities.” 

Siobhán Allen, senior lawyer with GLAN, said the government was facing “no accountability for its refusal to effectively deal with imports of atrocity crime goods” despite “overwhelming evidence of the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang and within the cotton industry”.

An NCA spokesperson said: “The NCA considered information provided by the World Uyghur Congress. Following this, the NCA assessed that there is insufficient material from which to commence a criminal investigation at this time.

“The NCA will assess any new information received and will review accordingly.”

The government said it was committed to tackling the issue of Uyghur forced labour in supply chains and was taking “robust” action. 

A spokesperson said: “Over the last year we have introduced new guidance on the risks of doing business in Xinjiang and enhanced export controls. We keep our policy response under constant review and welcome the judgment.”

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