H&M joins global clamour to end human rights abuses in Xinjiang

The fashion house said on Tuesday that it would no longer source cotton from Xinjiang -- China's largest growing area of the cash crop

Stockholm: Days after the US imposed a ban on import of five specific manufacturers in Xinjiang, Swedish clothing icon H&M has decided not to buy raw materials from the region’s farms and factories suspected of using “forced labour“.

The fashion house said on Tuesday that it would no longer source cotton from Xinjiang — China’s largest growing area of the cash crop. It also clarified that it did not work with any garment factory in the region.

H&M said it had conducted “an inquiry at all the garment manufacturing factories we work with in China aiming to ensure that they are not employing workers … through what is reported on as labour transfer programmes or employment schemes where forced labour is an increased risk.

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By de-linking from restive Xinjiang, where reports of the incarceration of Uyghur and Kazakh Muslim community have been rampant, H&M has joined the United States, which announced that it was severing commercial ties with companies suspected of using “forced labour” in this sensitive border region.

The US administration recently targeted five specific manufacturers in Xinjiang as well as next-door Anhui province, involved in producing a range of products including cotton, garments, hair products and electronics.

Besides, the Americans have aimed at the Lop County No 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Centre in Xinjiang. The Rights groups have long alleged that instead of imparting skills, these so-called vocational training camps functioned as “concentration camps”.

“This is not a vocational centre, it is a concentration camp, a place where religious and ethnic minorities are subject to abuse and forced to work in heinous conditions with no recourse and no freedom,” US Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli was quoted as saying.

By serving notice to the Chinese government’s human rights record in Xinjiang, H&M has joined other European corporate heavyweights, which have already told Beijing bluntly that they no longer can look the other way from the suspected ethnic war that is raging in the region.

Jow Kaeser, CEO of Germany’s corporate bellwether Siemens, told newspaper Die Zeit, that his company is “watching the current developments in Hong Kong, but also in the province of Xinjiang carefully and with concern.”

The snowballing outrage against China in Europe, which now appears to be acquiring critical popularity, was visible in plain sight on September 14 when the European Union (EU) asked China to permit entry of a team of independent observers to Xinjiang, amid fears that around 1.8 million Uyghurs–a jaw-dropping number–may have been locked up in internment camps.

EU’s Council President Charles Michel said in a statement that he had raised concerns about Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as China’s imposition of national security laws on Hong Kong during a video conference summit with China’s President Xi Jinping on September 14.

“We reiterated our concerns over China’s treatment of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the treatment of human rights defenders and journalists,” Michel said.

“We asked for access for independent observers to Xinjiang and we called for the release of the arbitrarily-detained Swedish citizen Gui Minhai and two Canadian citizens,” he said following the meeting.

Gui Minhai, a naturalised citizen of Sweden, was in February sentenced for 10 years for “illegally providing intelligence overseas“.

Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron, another European heavyweight, went ballistic in calling the Uyghur repression as “unacceptable,” after 30 French lawmakers had written him a letter expressing concerns over abuses in Xinjiang, the news outlet EURACTIV reported.

“All these practices are unacceptable because they run counter to the universal principles enshrined in international human rights conventions, and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms,” Macron said. He added that Paris will “remain fully mobilised on the situation of the Uyghurs.”

Human rights situation in Xinjiang has also filtered into the geopolitical orbit. Europe has remarkably pivoted towards the Indo-Pacific region, where the Quad of India, United States, Japan and Australia, appears set to counter China’s expansionism in the region. On September 2, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas announced his country’s rotation in the direction of Indo-Pacific, which comprises countries on either side of the Malacca Straits.

The European powerhouse spotlighted that it “wants to work more intensively with the countries of the (Indo-Pacific) region, be it to strengthen the rule of law and human rights” and that the “security-policy sector plays a special role in this context.”

The emphasis on human rights is significant, as Germany has factored China’s suppression of the ethnic Uyghur community in its policy shift.

In bolstering the European leg of the Indo-Pacific strategy, a Franco-German partnership will likely play a key role. The Franco-German alliance, where France takes the lead in security and Germany does the economic heavy lifting, avoiding a security high profile for historical reasons, has been a prominent feature of the Paris-Bonn relationship after World War II.

By working lock-step with France, Germany would be in a good position to benefit from the French presence in its overseas territories of La Reunion and Mayotte in the South-west Indian Ocean. France also maintains two inter-services bases located in Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates.

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