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Assessing Australia’s response to human rights abuses in China

Has Australia’s response to reported human rights abuses perpetrated by the CCP, particularly against Uyghur minorities, been adequate?

Has Australia’s response to reported human rights abuses perpetrated by the CCP, particularly against Uyghur minorities, been adequate?

Before leaving office on 20 January, former president of the US Donald Trump dealt a final blow in his stand-off with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with his administration formally condemning Beijing’s human rights abuses against local minorities.

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According to a statement released by then secretary of state Mike Pompeo, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has “dramatically escalated” a long-standing “campaign of repression” against China’s Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, including ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz.

The State Department’s “exhaustive documentation” of Beijing’s treatment of minorities in Xinjiang since March 2017 identified what has been described as “morally repugnant, wholesale policies, practices, and abuses”, designed to discriminate against and surveil ethnic minorities; restrict travel, emigration, and school attendance; and deny other basic human rights of assembly, speech, and worship.

The Trump administration went further, accusing the CCP of committing crimes against humanity, long suspected by the international community, which include:

  • forced abortions and sterilisations;
  • torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained;
  • the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than 1 million civilians;
  • forced labour; and
  • the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.

As such, the US Department of State concluded that upon careful examination of the available evidence, it has determined that Beijing, under the direction and control of the CCP, has “committed genocide” against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.

The State Department condemned the CCP’s refusal to provide international observers with unhindered access to Xinjiang, and the party’s perpetuation of “fanciful tales” of Uyghurs participating in “educational, counter-terrorism, women’s empowerment, and poverty alleviation” projects.

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Pompeo went on to demand that Beijing cease its internment, detention and population control program, and called on “all appropriate multilateral and relevant juridical bodies” to join US efforts to “promote accountability for those responsible for these atrocities”.

Pompeo directed the US Department of State to continue its investigation and collect evidence relating to the identified abuses in Xinjiang.

The State Department was also instructed to make evidence available to appropriate authorities and the international community.  

President Joe Biden has backed his predecessor’s call, with his team advancing the investigation.

The international community, including Australia, has also joined in condemning the reported human rights abuses.

But James Leibold and Kelsey Munro, co-leads on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) Xinjiang Data Project, question the adequacy of Australia’s response.  

The ASPI analysts note the government’s expression of “grave concern” back in October, along with 38 other countries, and acknowledge the Parliament’s consideration of a law to ban the import of goods produced in China with Uyghur forced labour — introduced by independent senator Rex Patrick.

“While the proposed ban appears a reasonable response, there might be more effective ways of dealing with this urgent problem,” the analysts write.

The ASPI observers concede there is “no single action” available to solve the problem, but state that a blanket ban on imports of goods produced by Uyghur forced labour is “likely to be difficult and costly to enforce”, and might “ultimately prove ineffective”, noting that the problem extends beyond Xinjiang.

“Human rights and other core democratic values are of central importance here, and clear signalling is too. But these messages must be communicated consistently and not used episodically as a stick to bash the Chinese government at politically opportune moments,” they continue.

“Any ban on importing goods made with forced labour to Australia should apply to all countries, not just to goods from Xinjiang or elsewhere in China.”

They go on to urge Canberra to ratify the International Labour Organization’s 2014 Forced Labour Protocol.

“If Australia wants to speak with global credibility on ending forced labour, it must join the 45 other countries that have ratified the protocol and fully abide by the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention,” they state.

The ASPI analysts also call for an amendment to the Modern Slavery Act 2018, which would lower the financial threshold for reporting, create stronger penalties for non-compliance, and require mandatory reporting on exposure to specified issues of pressing concern, including Uyghur forced labour.

“The government should take a targeted approach to the Xinjiang problem. China poses a unique set of challenges in confronting forced labour abuses,” they add.

“Unlike other countries, the Chinese government both runs a nationwide system of coerced labour and ensures information about what it is doing is tightly controlled, making it extremely difficult for any company to conduct an independent and creditable audit.

“Australia should focus on punishing the most egregious actors while sending a warning signal to other bad actors.”

Leibold and Munro also propose banning imports of specific goods produced or manufactured in Xinjiang “where evidence of forced labour links are strongest”, and imposing targeted sanctions on Chinese companies, officials and other entities found to be directly profiting from Uyghur forced labour and other human rights abuses.

“This could involve the regulatory strengthening of the newly created Australian Sanctions Office and the expansion of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s consolidated list to include companies and individuals who are known to be complicit in Uyghur and other forced labour abuses,” they write.

“Human Rights Watch has called for Australia to publish an annual list of countries and products considered a forced labour risk. Companies importing from these places would have the onus placed on them to prove goods are not made with forced labour.

“The Australian government should incentivise corporations to be transparent with their supply chains and to employ new tracing technologies to ensure their integrity and compliance with sanctions and existing legislation.”

The ASPI analysts note that consumers also have a role to play in boycotting companies, which have failed to adopt such measures.  

They conclude by stating that governments “must act collectively”, adding that a multilateral approach would provide companies with clarity and stability regarding prospective legislation, sanctions or reporting requirements.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

Assessing Australia’s response to human rights abuses in China
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