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Parliamentary committee calls for stronger laws to curb ‘grave human rights violation’ of forced labour in Xinjiang

A parliamentary committee has called out China’s state-sponsored forced labour as a “grave human rights violation”, recommending Australia strengthen laws to ban goods made under such conditions. 

The bipartisan recommendation was made in a report released Thursday in response to concerns over the Chinese government’s treatment of ethnic minority Uighurs in Xinjiang.

It comes after the committee was tasked with examining a bill introduced by Independent Senator Rex Patrick calling for a ban on the import of goods from the north-western Chinese province.

The report says the committee endorsed the objectives of Senator Patrick’s bill, but has instead called for Australia to strengthen laws to create a global ban on the import of goods produced using forced labour.

It adds that the Australian government must also take steps to ensure businesses and consumers are not complicit in what it describes as “egregious abuses” in Xinjiang.  

Senator Patrick said the report’s recommendations required immediate attention from the Australian government.

“This is not a matter that can be delayed,” he said. 

“The Chinese Communist Party’s oppression of the Uighur people is an immediate and continuing affront to human decency.” 

The bipartisan committee, chaired by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and Deputy Chair Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching, heard evidence from Uighur community members in Australia, human rights experts and government departments before considering its response.  

The opening recommendation calls for the Customs Act 1901 to be amended to prohibit the import of any goods made wholly or in part with forced labour, regardless of geographic origin.

The report calls for the federal government to create a legislative framework that enables relevant authorities to enforce targeted action against these kinds of abuses, including with respect to Xinjiang. 

It also calls into question the Chinese government’s denial of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, describing its position as not credible. 

Human Rights Law Centre Senior Lawyer Freya Dinshaw welcomed the report’s recommendations, citing the need to act against the “grave situation” in Xinjiang. 

“The grave situation in Xinjiang has been a wake-up call for Australia to ensure companies are not profiting from or complicit in abuse,” she told SBS News.

“Australians should have confidence that the goods they purchase are not made at the expense of other people’s freedom.” 

Other recommendations of the report call on the government to empower the Australian Border Force to specifically identify goods, companies or regions considered as high-risk sources of forced labour. 

This would be done through allowing the issuing of so-called “rebuttable presumptions”, which the report says should immediately be considered at a minimum for cotton sourced from Xinjiang. 

A report from the Centre for Global Policy in December last year identified at least 570,000 people across Xinjiang who were cotton-picking through the government’s labour training scheme.  

The report also calls for the Australian government to maintain a list of high-risk products or companies to increase the awareness of businesses.

Australia must coordinate response with global allies 

The report’s recommendations follow the global community raising persistent concerns over the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

In March this year, the European Union, Britain, Canada and the United States launched coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. 

Australia issued a joint statement with New Zealand welcoming the measures, and has consistently raised “grave concerns” about human rights abuses against Muslim minorities. 

But unlike other global partners, Australia has not committed to targeted sanctions or specific measures to combat the use of forced labour in Xinjiang.  

In the United States, a bill known as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would ban all goods from Xinjiang, has been referred to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  

In January this year, Canada and the United Kingdom also announced action to address the situation in Xinjiang, including the risk of goods produced from forced labour entering supply chains.

The committee recommends Australia coordinate closely with counterparts in Canada, the United Kingdom and United States to ensure policy consistency. 

It adds that the Australian government should also introduce laws enabling Magnitsky-style sanctions to target human rights abusers in line with the approaches of global allies.

The report also says the Australian government should consider exploring with like-minded countries the possibility of condemning the situation in Xinjiang at the UN General Assembly. 

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