Tomorrow (30 March) MPs will consider whether to ban the NHS from procuring goods from countries suspected of committing genocide. The backbench amendment to the Health and Care Bill passed the House of Lords this month with cross-party support, but has met resistance from the government.
Between March and June 2020 the Department for Health awarded contracts worth £245m to three companies linked to human rights abuses in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has been accused of orchestrating a campaign of genocide and forced labour against Muslim minorities, including the Uyghurs.
“Huge amounts of health equipment are bought in China now,” says the former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who has been involved in pushing for the amendment. “The government says they don’t believe it to be linked to slavery, but they don’t dig deeper than the supplier. The supplier declares that there’s no slave labour involved and the government just accepts it. It’s all bollocks.”
As it stands, the amendment would ban the use of NHS funds to purchase goods from regions in which there is assessed to be a “serious risk of genocide”. If the government manages to defeat it, peers are expected to consider modifying it in such a way that it targets states facilitating slave labour rather than genocide.
“If they then whip against that, I think you’ll see a very significant rebellion,” says Duncan Smith. “It would be in effect saying the government turns a blind eye to slavery. I’d say very clearly to everybody: your vote today will decide whether you voted in favour of slavery or against.”
Raghad Altikriti, chair of the Muslim Association of Britain, said that her organisation was sending “a clear message to MPs that we will not allow one penny of NHS money to contribute to the oppression and enslavement of the Uyghur Muslims”.
In December an independent London-based tribunal concluded that the Chinese had committed genocide against the Uyghurs. Led by the barrister Geoffrey Nice, the unofficial 15-month inquiry found that China’s birth prevention policies in Xinjiang, including forced sterilisation, were “intended to destroy a significant part of the Uyghurs”.
Responding to the tribunal’s conclusions in January, the Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling reiterated the UK’s “long-standing policy” that “any determination of genocide is a matter for a competent court”. This policy was challenged last year when peers sought to amend the Trade Bill in such a way as to allow UK courts to accuse foreign governments of committing genocide. The proposal was defeated by just 18 votes in the Commons, with 29 Conservatives rebelling to vote in favour.
“The government has been so determined not to be forced to do anything that they’ve landed up saying that genocide can only be decided by a judge,” Nice told the New Statesman. “But there is no judge whose jurisdiction can be activated, so there can never be a determination of genocide, therefore we don’t have to act. It’s an absurd Alice in Wonderland circle which means you don’t have to do anything.”
Rather than granting UK courts the power to make determinations of genocide, the Health and Care Bill amendment would merely require government ministers to produce and publish risk assessments. Failing to conduct such risk assessments, and instead relying on court rulings years or decades after the genocide has been committed, could be putting the UK at odds with its duty of genocide prevention under the 1948 Genocide Convention.
Asked to clarify whether it believes that such risk assessments ought to be left to international courts, the Foreign Office declined to comment. The government says its policy is fully consistent with the Genocide Convention.
Campaigners had previously called on the Treasury to invoke a long-forgotten 1897 law banning the import of goods produced in foreign prisons. With the exception of an 1898 seizure of “five consignments of Belgian mats”, the law has never been enforced.
In January, the US passed legislation banning all imports from Xinjiang unless they could be proven to be free of slave labour. Unlike their British counterparts, American customs officials enjoy broad discretion in carrying out and publishing risk assessments for forced labour and restricting imports based on their findings. Such restrictions are common, albeit rarely used against the US’s allies.
Chinese companies are not the only companies facing scrutiny over forced labour in personal protective equipment supply chains. The US Department of Labor has warned that forced labour is rife within the Malaysian rubber glove industry. UN figures show that one in every three pairs of surgical gloves imported by the UK since 2020 has come from Malaysia.
“We’re starting with the health service, but if we get that right then it’s sure as God made green apples that the rest of the government, and other governments, will have to follow suit,” says Duncan Smith. “That would completely change how we trade globally. It would take out of the hands of these despotic states the ability to undercut everybody else by using forced labour. It would mean that slave labour is no longer economically viable.”