The UK’s High Court has ruled against human rights campaigners that brought forward a case claiming British crime and customs authorities had failed to stop the importation of cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, which has been at the centre of allegations of forced labour.
In the filing, the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and World Uyghur Congress (WUC) stated that the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) office had not stopped the importation of cotton “produced by enslaved Uyghurs in East Turkestan”.
The court ruled against the case, in favour of authorities, who GLAN said had “the power to investigate these imports but refuse to exercise it”.
The case was initially brought to the court in October 2022, raising arguments that the cotton in question was “criminal property” because it was obtained as a result of forced labour.
UN found evidence of forced labour and involuntary ‘placements’
It came just one month after the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a detailed report following its assessment of the region in question.
Prior to the investigation, Xinjiang, which produces a fifth of the world’s cotton, had been subject of an increasing number of allegations that claimed around 1.6 million Ugyhur Muslims were being held in incarceration camps and undergoing forced labour.
The UN stated that it had found evidence of “serious human rights violations” that had been committed, as well as concerning issues linked to China’s legal and policy framework on countering terrorism.
Among its findings, the UN reported signs of “a deprivation of liberty” among “placement” camps and links of poverty alleviation schemes to that of the country’s methods to counter religious “extremism”, raising concerns about the voluntary aspect of the schemes.
Prior to the release of the report, rumours of such measures had seen the likes of H&M, Nike, Burberry and Adidas either cut ties with suppliers located in the region or publicly denounce the alleged methods.
In the final verdict for GLAN’s case, the court did note that the judgement did not in any way “undermine the striking consensus in the evidence that there are clear and widespread abuses in the cotton industry in [Xinjiang], involving human rights violations and the exploitation of forced labour”.
Commenting on the verdict, Siobhán Allen, senior lawyer with GLAN, said: “It’s deeply frustrating that, despite the defendants and the court accepting the overwhelming evidence of the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang and within the cotton industry connected to the UK, the result of this judgement is that the UK government faces no accountability for its refusal to effectively deal with imports of atrocity crime goods.”
In a release, GLAN said it would be considering whether to appeal the verdict while continuing to push for international accountability for “the atrocity crimes being perpetrated against Turkic people by the Chinese authorities”.