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Forced Labor in Xinjiang, UN Rapporteur Confirms: “It’s Enslavement, a Crime Against Humanity.”

A damming report by the UN Special Rapporteur for contemporary forms of slavery brings fresh hope to the Uyghur community.

By Ruth Ingram

August 29, 2022

Special Rapporteur Tomoya Obokata. From Twitter.

A top UN official has confirmed Uyghurs are being forced to work against their will in Xinjiang, provoking fury and fresh denials from Beijing.

The independent UN expert, Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur for contemporary forms of slavery, released the damning verdict that forced labour in Xinjiang, amounted to “enslavement, as a crime against humanity.”

While investigating human rights abuses around the world involving ethnic, religious and linguistic minority communities, Obokata was persuaded by a wealth of independent evidence that it was “reasonable to conclude that forced labor among Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.”

Wang Wenbin, Foreign Ministry spokesman, at his regular press conference on August 17, retaliated, accusing the UN rapporteur of abusing his authority, blatantly “violating the code of conduct of the special procedure,” to “malignly smear and denigrate China and serve as a political tool for anti-China forces.”

Wang Wenbin. From Facebook.

He repeated the CCP position, which denies all forms of forced labour. He accused those who suggest otherwise of buying into malign forces that wish to “contain China’s development and revitalization.” International criticism was due to misunderstandings over Beijing’s poverty alleviation measures, he claimed.

Drawing on reports from Adrian Zenz, Laura Murphy and Nyrola Elimä, and Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, and testimonies given at the Uyghur Tribunal 2021, Obokata urged further independent analysis of the “excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restriction of movement through internment, threats, physical and/or sexual violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment,” prevalent in the work units.

Following Adrian Zenz’s framing of the issues, he identified Beijing’s two-pronged approach whereby Uyghurs are corralled into forced labour, either transferred from so-called “vocational training camps” into work placements or as part of the euphemistically named “surplus rural laborers” who are “transferred into secondary or tertiary sector work,” under the guise of poverty alleviation.

Obokata’s report came four short days after China ratified two ILO conventions (29 and 105) against forced labor, one of which (105) specifically forbids its use for political aims and economic development. This is “especially delicate” for Beijing, noted Adrian Zenz, whose seminal research has highlighted the programs to sweep up hundreds of thousands of so-called “surplus labour” in rural areas and transport them often against their will to other parts of Xinjiang or further afield to inner China.

Uyghur activist groups have been unanimous in their praise for the courage of Obokata in singling out the Uyghur cause at the UN, which to date has been reluctant to rouse the wrath of Beijing over its human rights record. Rebiya Kadeer, former president of the World Uyghur Congress acknowledged the risks to Obokata’s career and his bravery in standing up to the might of Beijing, citing others who have fallen foul of sanctions and punishments meted out to those who demur. “This is not only the fruit of his academic work and professional effort but also the result of his unwavering virtue in the face of difficulties and threats,” she said.

Rebiya Kadeer. From Facebook.

“The case against the Chinese government at the UN level continues to build,” said Omer Kanat, the director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “It should now be impossible for UN agencies and member states to ignore atrocities of this magnitude,” he said adding his hopes that Obokata’s report will increase pressure on UN special envoy Michelle Bachelet (or her successor) to release her office’s own report on the Uyghur homeland.

“We reiterate our joint call for Ms. Bachelet to uphold a principled and coherent response to China’s human rights crisis,” he said, referring to a joint statement, signed by the Uyghur Human Rights Project along with 63 human rights organizations and Uyghur groups, expressing dissatisfaction over the approach of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, towards Uyghurs.

Executive Director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, Rushan Abbas was relieved to hear confirmation of what she and her compatriots had been “telling the world for years.” Citing her suspicions that China’s wealth has been created significantly off the back of “Uyghur slavery” and the “Uyghur genocide,” she said that, “It’s a relief to see the United Nations finally recognizes the extent to which these atrocities are taking place. Now tangible actions are needed to hold the CCP accountable for these crimes based on these recent findings.”


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