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U.N. labor group makes low-profile visit to Xinjiang

Uyghur activists say trip serves Communist Party's interests

By Pak Yiu, Nikkei staff writer

September 4, 2023

Seed cotton is moved at a processing plant in Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang region, in April 2021. (cnsphoto via Reuters)

HONG KONG -- The United Nations International Labour Organization last week quietly paid a visit to Xinjiang, where millions of Muslim Uyghurs allegedly have been subjected to arbitrary detention and forced labor.

A group of ILO delegates led by Corinne Vargha, head of the ILO's international labor standards department, met with the Communist Party chief for the region, Ma Xingrui.

This is the body's first known visit since allegations surfaced over widespread labor rights abuses in the northwestern Chinese region, prompting global criticism of Beijing's repressive policies toward the Uyghur minority. Ma, the party chief, took the opportunity to push back against "reckless accusations" of rights violations, according to the Xinjiang Daily, expressing hope that the ILO delegation would "uphold a fair and objective attitude."

"Some anti-China forces in the United States and other Western countries have ignored Xinjiang's great efforts to protect human rights and the legitimate rights and interests of workers," Ma was quoted as saying. "[They] spread rumors about so-called 'forced labor' in Xinjiang, smearing labor and employment security work and using this as an excuse to impose sanctions on Xinjiang."

The ILO confirmed the mission, with a spokesperson explaining that the visit was for holding "technical discussions about the implementation in China's laws and practice of ratified international labor conventions concerning discrimination in employment and occupation, as well as forced labor."

The organization declined to share further details when asked about the agenda, who attended and exact dates. The spokesperson said that after ratifying the convention on employment discrimination in 2006 and another convention on forced labor last year, the two came into effect in China on Aug. 12.

The ILO should be able to evaluate China's compliance based on documents Beijing submits in order to implement the conventions.

Uyghur rights activists said they were unaware of the meeting despite being in touch with the United Nations on a regular basis.

Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, said he was caught off guard by the mission, which he described as an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to advance its interests.

"Although well-intended, such visits do not help improve the situation. It gives the CCP the chance to whitewash their crimes and promote their propaganda messaging," Isa told Nikkei Asia. "The forced labor schemes will not be lifted with such visits, it will take creative and tangible steps from the international community, including from ILO to put an end to this oppressive and exploitative system."

The meeting happened on the one-year publication anniversary of the U.N. Human Rights report on China's repressive policies against Uyghurs. China's critics estimate that millions have been arbitrarily detained, with some subject to forced sterilization, along with pervasive state surveillance and forced labor transfer programs. The U.N. watchdog found that China "may be committing crimes against humanity" and said there was credible evidence of torture and other abuses against Uyghurs.

However, following the publication of the report, Volker Turk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has not taken any follow-up action since assuming his position in October.

China has repeatedly denied the allegations and said its policies are designed simply to combat religious extremism and terrorism.

Last year, Gilbert Houngbo, the new director-general of the ILO, called for a renewed inquiry into allegations of forced labor in global supply chains -- particularly in China. This came after the 103-year-old global labor rights organization published its own report calling on the Chinese government to review, repeal and revise its laws and practices of employment discrimination against racial and religious minorities in Xinjiang.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unexpected stop in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, after last month's BRICS meeting in South Africa and ahead of U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo's visit to Beijing. He doubled down on the need to control "illegal religious activities" and stressed the importance of social stability.

Xinjiang has become another contentious matter in the U.S.-China relationship. Washington's Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), passed with bipartisan support, took effect in June 2022 to counter what the government, researchers and human rights groups have described as genocide.

The law is aimed at ending the flow of goods from Xinjiang to the U.S. More than $13 million worth of apparel, footwear and textile shipments have been detained by U.S. Customs under the UFLPA.


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