Canada and U.K. unveil measures to ensure domestic firms are not complicit in China’s forced labour camps

In this 2018 file photo, people line up at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center at the Kunshan Industrial Park in China's Xinjiang region.  Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

In this 2018 file photo, people line up at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center at the Kunshan Industrial Park in China’s Xinjiang region.

Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

Canada and the United Kingdom announced measures to ensure their companies are not complicit in human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region, the focus of growing international attention over mass detentions, forced labour and alleged genocide carried out against people who are not part of the dominant Han Chinese ethnic group.

The centerpiece of what Canada is calling a “comprehensive approach to defending the rights of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities” in China is a commitment to bar the import of products made with forced labour from prison camps in the Asian country.

Trade analysts and Uyghur advocates said the Canadian measures lack real teeth and fall short of sanctions but the announcement nevertheless represents one of the highest profile attempts by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to censure China since taking power in 2015.

The United Nations estimates that more than one million Muslims have been incarcerated in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China, and activists say crimes against humanity and genocide are taking place there. China has denied any abuses and says its camps in the region are intended to fight extremism and provide vocational training.

In his last act as foreign affairs minister, before being shuffled to the department of Innovation on Tuesday, François Philippe Champagne, together with International Trade Minister Mary Ng, explained in a statement that Canada felt it necessary to act because China’s conduct, including “repressive surveillance, mass arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment, forced labour and mass transfers of forced labourers” to other regions represent a strong breach of China’s international obligations to respect human rights.

“Canada is deeply concerned regarding the mass arbitrary detention and mistreatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities by Chinese authorities. Nobody should face mistreatment on the basis of their religion or ethnicity,” Mr. Champagne said in a statement.

The measures outlined by the Canadian government include: prohibiting the import of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labour; requiring Canadian companies doing business in the region to certify they are not knowingly sourcing products or services from a supplier implicated in forced labour or other human rights violations; commissioning a study to determine the extent that Canada’s supply chains are tied to forced labour.

The U.K. measures are similar but they include tougher penalties for companies breaking the rules. Canada will deny trade promotion support and access to export loans for companies that run afoul of these measures; the U.K. said British companies that fail to comply could face fines.

Some of what Canada is announcing is not new. The prohibition against importing goods produced with forced labour was already passed into law in July to confirm with the terms of the new United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, the successor to the North American free-trade agreement. The government also said it would carefully scrutinize proposed export permits for China including planned sales of Canadian technology and services that could be used to abet surveillance, repression, arbitrary detention or forced labour. Again, however this reflects existing rules.

International lawyer John Boscariol said the Xinjiang announcement is less than it appears.

“If the government really wanted some bite here you’d see economic sanctions,” Mr. Boscariol, head of McCarthy Tetrault’s trade and investment group.

He noted the requirement by businesses to certify they are not importing goods made with forced labour is only if these companies are seeking federal trade promotion assistance.

“In the public eye it looks like a big package … but the measures that are actually legally binding have already been in place for some time and the ones that are being proposed are more in the context of getting support from [the Trade Commissioner Service] and paying attention to this [concern over forced labour] the way you might pay attention to other policies,” he said.

Canada’s merchandise export with China totalled $23-billion 2019 while Canada’s merchandise imports with China totalled $75-billion in 2019.

More than 80 per cent of China’s cotton originates in Xinjiang. It’s been estimated that 20 to 25 per cent of the world’s tomatoes come from Xinjiang. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, one of the main government entities that runs detention camps for Uyghurs, also produces tomatoes for export that end up in ketchup and tomato sauce around the world.

Last fall, MPs on a parliamentary committee dominated by the governing Liberal Party said China had committed “genocide” against its Muslim Uyghur minority and called for Magnitsky-style sanctions against Chinese officials.

The statement from the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights came shortly after China’s envoy to Canada warned parliamentarians against recognizing the mass detention and abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province as genocide. The United Nations calls genocide a crime under international law.

The all-party committee’s three-page statement called the Chinese detention facilities concentration camps and urged the government to not only condemn China’s actions in Xinjiang, but recognize that they constitute genocide, and work with allies to help international observers gain access.

Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Rights Project, said the Canadian measures are positive signal but stressed they fall short of the tougher actions taken by the U.S. Congress.

U.S. legislation bans imported goods made with forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region and requires companies sending goods to the United States to scrutinzie those supply changes.

“There is an important feature missing,” he said of the government’s announcement. “So you have to ban it as the United States did unless it is proven otherwise and shifting the onus on the companies.”

Mr. Tohti said up to 90 per cent of China’s cotton and 80 per cent of tomato products are made from forced Muslim labour in Xinjiang region.

“The Canadian market and shopping malls are full of [cotton] products made by Uyhgur forced labour and in Canada we are still subsidizing with our money by purchasing those products so there needs to be concreted measures taken,” he said. “We have to list the Canadian companies associated with the forced labour. It should not be general measures. It should be concrete measures.”

Mr. Tohti said the onus should be put on companies because China can’t be trusted. The Chinese will issue fake documents that will claim the products are being produced in Vietnam, he said.

“This is a morality issue. Unless we taken concrete measures and identify the Canadian companies, it is not going to be effective,” he added.