China Ratifies ILO Treaties Ahead of UN Visit to Xinjiang

On Wednesday, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) voted to ratify two conventions on forced labor. The conventions were established by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which in February published a report expressing “deep concerns” about China’s discriminatory labor policies and “coercive measures” in Xinjiang. While the Chinese government has long discussed plans to ratify the conventions, the timing may purposely coincide with the government’s efforts to repair deteriorating EU-China relations and prepare for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ visit to Xinjiang in May. AFP reported on the NPC’s vote:

On Wednesday, China’s top legislature approved the ratification of the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention, as well as the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, according to official announcements on the National People’s Congress website.

[…] Members who ratify the two conventions are obliged to suppress and not use any form of forced or compulsory labour, according information on the ILO’s website.

They should also take measures to secure the “immediate and complete abolition” of such labour. [Source]

In ratifying these conventions, China must agree to suppress any form of forced labor used in a variety of specific circumstances, including “as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social or economic system,” and “as a means of racial, social, national or religious discrimination.” A press release from the ILO described the director-general’s satisfaction with China’s progress:

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, said “I welcome the ratification by China of these two ILO Fundamental Conventions on forced labour. The move demonstrates China’s strong support for ILO values and reflects its commitment to protect any female or male workers from being trapped into forced labour practices, which have no place nor justification in today’s world. This is a milestone on the road towards universal ratification of the forced labour Conventions and the realization of Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 7 .”

“I expect [these] ratifications to create renewed momentum and further efforts by the government and the social partners in China to support human-centred development and decent work in the second largest economy in the world, in line with the ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work .” [Source]

There are eight fundamental ILO conventions. China had previously ratified four: those on equal pay, discrimination, minimum age, and child labor. Thus far, it has not yet ratified those on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The two conventions on forced labor will enter into force for China one year after their ratification is formally submitted to the ILO.

EU-China relations may have played a role in China’s ratification of these conventions on forced labor. In the draft Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), a massive investment treaty that was under negotiation between Brussels and Beijing, China would have been required to make “continued and sustained efforts on its own initiative” to pursue ratification of the ILO’s conventions on forced labor. Many EU lawmakers felt that this wording was too vague and that it provided Beijing with too much wiggle room to delay ratification indefinitely. Amid the negotiations, the EU sanctioned several Chinese officials involved in Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps in March of last year, and China immediately retaliated with sanctions against a host of EU officials, agencies, researchers, and one think tank, leading Brussels to officially suspend negotiations on the CAI in May. Since then, China’s support for Russia in its war against Ukraine has further hardened the EU’s stance on China and, as some have argued, effectively killed the CAI. China’s move to ratify the ILO conventions may signal its desire for rapprochement.

However, many observers took a cynical view of the ratification. MERICS analyst Francesca Ghiretti said the ratification would “not be enough” to revive the CAI: “It is an attempt to build the conditions for a more positive relationship with the EU during these tense times,” but “we should not expect much more than that.” Channeling the reaction from Washington, researcher Adrien Zenz stated, “In D.C., I think the trust in what China does is so low, especially in Xinjiang, that people are going to see this as little more than a cynical gesture,” adding, “People there are going to consider it to be window dressing—a ratification of something the Chinese won’t enforce.” Mimi Lau from the South China Morning Post described the mostly lukewarm reactions from other China-watchers

“[The move] is also to warm its relations with the EU in view of the increasing cleavage with the US over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and to try reviving the CAI which has been on ventilator because of the EU-China spat over sanctions,” said [Surya Deva, professor of law at Macquarie University in Australia].

He said the ratification would give more opportunities to scrutinise China’s track record on labour rights at the ILO level but was unlikely to have much impact on the ground in eliminating forced labour.

“Effective protection of labour rights requires a supportive ecosystem with multiple elements, but most of these are missing within the current Chinese politico-legal system. The lack of independent trade unions and free media are a case in point,” Deva said.

[…] Aidan Chau, a researcher with the China Labour Bulletin, said the move was a “diplomatic decision” that would not lead to any meaningful domestic changes. [Source]

Responding to these critical reactions, the Global Times tried to reframe the ratification as a purely domestic issue of protecting workers’ rights, with the headline: “China’s ratification of intl forced labor conventions has little to do with Western pressure: expert.” However, in the penultimate line paraphrasing the expert, the author of the article admitted: “Joining the two international conventions will help to counter the US’ wanton long-arm jurisdiction of imposing sanctions, citing untenable accusations.” In December, President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would ban imports from Xinjiang unless they can be proven to be made without forced labor, and announced new sanctions on Chinese companies and entities operating in Xinjiang. Acts such as these have shifted the burden of proof and made it harder for companies, as well as the Chinese government, to rely on stated commitments (as opposed to on-the-ground evidence) when proclaiming the nonexistence of forced labor. 

China’s ratification of the ILO’s forced labor conventions also occurred one month before UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is scheduled to visit Xinjiang. Her visit and report on human rights violations in the region are long overdue. The visit was originally announced in September 2018, and the Chinese government has stalled ever since. In September 2021, Bachelet stated that her office was finalizing the report, which was to be ready in a matter of weeks, but it has still not been published. 

Human rights groups have ramped up pressure on Bachelet over her report and upcoming visit. Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director Joanne Mariner stated that it is “vital that any visit by High Commissioner Bachelet be independent and unhindered,” adding, “A fact-finding mission hampered by state control could end up whitewashing human rights violations – potentially making the UN complicit in promoting Chinese government propaganda.” The message was reiterated by American ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield: “And let’s be clear: any visit by the High Commissioner to China must have unhindered and unfettered access.” In January, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated that China would welcome Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang only “to promote exchange and cooperation, not for an investigation.” Given that the conditions of the visit have not been publicly disclosed, some human rights researchers have even called on Bachelet to simply not go in order to avoid whitewashing the violations. Human Rights Watch, along with 59 other groups, has argued that the credibility of Bachelet’s visit is at risk:

“The Chinese government has given no indication that the UN high commissioner will be allowed to see anything they don’t want her to see,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “She should not fail the victims of crimes against humanity and other grave abuses by enabling the Chinese authorities to manipulate her visit.”

[…] “Without an ambitious and robust agenda to advance human rights in China, Bachelet’s visit risks empowering the abusers, not their victims,” Richardson said. “High Commissioner Bachelet should leave a legacy as someone who stood up to Beijing, not someone who let down those who suffer under it.” [Source]

In a recent profile of Gene Bunin, creator of the Xinjiang Victims Database, Rob Hastings of iNews described how, despite stalled accountability efforts at the UN level, small acts of documentation by average citizens can coalesce into a powerful testament to those subject to forced labor and other abuses in Xinjiang:

While the international media was by now uncovering and publishing Uyghur victims’ testimonies, Bunin was frustrated at how the news cycle meant their accounts were quickly forgotten a few days after publication.

Wanting to collect them in one place, which might eventually become a “powerful tool” to challenge China, he set up his database in September 2018.

[…] [The website] explains: “Most of those victims still detained are serving long terms in one of Xinjiang’s 50-60 prisons… Anything that could help bring attention to their cases, to remind the Chinese authorities that we’re still monitoring them, and to remind the victims themselves that they’re not forgotten is of value.”

Bunin admits he is sceptical about whether this will provide any new information or lead to people being released, but it’s worth a try – he also likes the idea of prison officials suddenly wondering where all the mail is coming from and feeling under pressure. 

[…] As for old friends, he says: “It’s kind of painful to hear how people are moving forward with their lives, while I’m stuck doing this.” It is the pain of the unknown Uyghurs whose lives he is documenting every day, however, that keeps him going. [Source]

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