Inquiry into Xinjiang detention camps can help stop such horrors from happening again

Foreign affairs committe will be asking key questions about what the UK can do to exert its influence as a problem-solving nation

A facility believed to be a 're-education camp' on the outskirts of Hotan in the Xinjiang region
A facility believed to be a 're-education camp' on the outskirts of Hotan in the Xinjiang region Credit: Greg Baker/AFP

The mass detention of Uighurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang has horrifying echoes of what we witnessed in the 1930s. 

There have been similar atrocities since, and each time the world has promised to never allow such violations to happen again. 

Yet we now have clear, undeniable evidence of the persecution of more than one million people in so-called re-education camps, with credible reports of physical abuse, forced sterilisation, filthy living conditions and a state-led programme of indoctrination.

There are protesters, but also facilitators. A range of private sector companies continue to profit from forced labour in these camps, as evidenced this week by the US blocking some exports from the region, including garments, cotton, computer parts and hair products from five entities in Xinjiang and Anhui province. 

"These extraordinary human rights violations demand an extraordinary response," the Department of Homeland Security's acting secretary said as the reasoning behind the decision.

This week, the foreign affairs committee launches an inquiry into the Xinjiang detention camps. We will be asking key questions about what the UK can do to exert its influence and the steps the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will take to fulfil its goal of making our country an "active, internationalist, problem-solving and burden-sharing nation". 

The current situation in Xinjiang provides the perfect opportunity for the department to test this ambition. 

This inquiry will also examine what mechanisms the Government can use to discourage private sector companies from contributing to human rights abuses. There is legislation on modern slavery – are UK firms actively complying with it and, if so, does this law need revisiting?

The reputation of British business is at stake here. As we carve out a new place on the world stage, do we really want to be inviting a Chinese surveillance giant like Hikvision, a tech company blacklisted in the US over alleged links to internment camps in Xinjiang, to a Government-backed security fair?

British consumers also deserve to know where the products they purchase originate from. If we continue to import from companies that produce cotton in the region, it is only right that those wearing these products know how they were made and who by. 

If we're not careful, we may find ourselves funnelling money into the pockets of companies who are actively engaging with one of the most egregious human rights abuses in the contemporary world.

We also hope to hear from those directly affected by the atrocities and will use this inquiry to support members of the Uighur diaspora community. 

Ultimately it is they who matter most, and I hope the work of my committee over the coming months will highlight and find ways in which the UK Government, and particularly the FCDO, can prevent similar atrocities from happening again.