Uyghur rights activists are suing the UK government over its failure to investigate imports of cotton products made using forced labour from Xinjiang, in a move that will increase pressure on companies sourcing from the Chinese region.
The hearing for the case, which was filed by the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), began in London’s High Court on Tuesday. It is the first of a wave of lawsuits across Europe aimed at blocking imports from Xinjiang, taking advantage of recently tightened laws on companies’ supply chain liability.
The US implemented a ban on imports from Xinjiang this year, while the UN said in September that China’s abuses against more than 1mn detained Uyghurs and other Muslims in the region “may constitute . . . crimes against humanity”.
Beijing denies such accusations, saying its policy in Xinjiang is aimed at countering terrorism and boosting economic development.
Dearbhla Minogue, a lawyer from the Global Legal Action Network involved in preparing the case, said “many UK companies know or suspect they are importing forced-labour cotton”.
She added that the hearing would have “given them cause to reconsider the risks involved, which could include . . . criminal prosecution, fines and even prison for company officials”.
WUC president Dolkun Isa said the hearing “could set an important precedent for other countries” and vowed to continue “challenging countries and companies invested in Xinjiang”.
The WUC, together with a broader coalition of charities and law firms, has filed a similar case against the Irish government. They plan to launch further cases across Europe after the passage of an EU directive on corporate due diligence, which has proposed a ban on goods made using forced labour.
In court on Tuesday, lawyers for the claimants argued there was already overwhelming evidence that Xinjiang prison-processed cotton was present in UK supply chains.
“There are 570,000 forced cotton-pickers in Xinjiang. 80 per cent of China’s cotton comes from Xinjiang. China provides one-quarter of the world’s cotton,” said one lawyer.
As a result, the claimants’ lawyers said, the UK government should have already confiscated cotton imports from Xinjiang and begun criminal investigations under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
The act holds companies liable for benefiting from any deeds that would constitute a crime in the UK.
“There is little dispute to the problem and the extent of the problem [in Xinjiang],” said Mr Justice Ian Dove. “The issue before the court is whether there are tools in the kit box . . . to be brought to bear on the problem.”
Lawyers for the British government agreed in principle that the Proceeds of Crime Act applied to companies importing goods from Xinjiang, but said there was insufficient evidence to start an investigation or to seize goods.
They said the National Crime Agency continued “to assess information and intelligence relating to . . . the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, including in relation to the cotton industry” and that “should circumstances change, it may commence an investigation”.