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Judgment handed down in case against UK government on failure to halt imports of Uyghur cotton

On 20 January 2023, judgment was handed down in the GLAN and World Uyghur Congress' (WUC) case against the UK government. The case challenged the failure of crime and customs authorities to stop the importation of cotton produced by enslaved Uyghurs in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). Sadly, the court ruled in favour of the authorities, who have the power to investigate these imports but refuse to exercise it.

We are particularly disappointed that the Court accepted the UK government’s position on so-called ‘adequate consideration’. This creates a remarkable situation where so long as importers pay market price for forced labour goods, they cannot be prosecuted for acquiring them, even if they know those goods are the product of atrocity crimes. The government’s position makes the UK an international outlier and a safe haven for importers of goods produced as a result of crimes against humanity, and genocide.

The two day hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in October 2022 was a landmark event for many reasons. It was the first time the Uyghur repression had been raised in a foreign court. In his judgment, Dove J highlighted at the outset that the extensive evidence underlying our case in relation to the mistreatment of the Uyghur people and the involvement of abuses in the production of cotton in [Xinjiang] is not the subject of dispute by the Defendants. He concluded his judgment by emphasising that “[t]he outcome of the case does 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.”

The case was also the first time the Foreign Prison Made Goods Act 1897 was argued, and the first case concerning the proceeds of human rights abuses as criminal property under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. The government’s lawyers accepted in open court that cotton produced by enslaved Uyghurs could be the proceeds of crime - the dispute only concerned whether there was enough evidence to investigate. Despite his findings on this particular challenge, Dove J reiterated that there may be other tools or measures available to the government which they could use to tackle the concerns about the exploitation and abuse of the Uyghur people in cotton production in Xinjiang.

Although the result is deeply disappointing, the case provided important vindication for the Uyghur people that the government, and courts, of the UK do not dispute that they are the victims of an ongoing criminal enterprise perpetrated by Chinese authorities.

We will consider whether to appeal the judgment. Both Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) & World Uyghur Congress (WUC) will continue to push for international accountability for the atrocity crimes being perpetrated against Turkic people by the Chinese authorities.

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 judgment is that the UK government faces no accountability for its refusal to effectively deal with imports of atrocity crime goods.”

Dearbhla Minogue, Senior Lawyer with GLAN said: “The Judge made it clear that there is no dispute around the abuses taking place in Xinjiang, but that the government's decision on whether there was enough evidence to investigate cotton imports was lawful. The judgment is clear that the Proceeds of Crime Act applies in this scenario, and that if more evidence comes to light of specific consignments, there could be prosecutions under the provisions of POCA. The judge even emphasized that the authorities may have other means of tackling the situation.

However, one concerning aspect of this judgment is the Court's endorsement of the view that as long as UK companies pay market value for slave-labour cotton, they could not be prosecuted for acquiring it under s.329 of the Proceeds of Crime Act. Given its clear implications for the trade in the products of atrocity crimes, we are considering whether that is legally correct or whether an appeal might be appropriate.”

Gearóid Ó Cuinn, Director of GLAN, said: “The whole purpose of the Proceeds of Crime Act is to ensure that crime doesn’t pay. This judgment sends a message to the Uyghur victims that as long as UK companies pay market value for slave labour cotton, the UK government and courts will not intervene.”

WUC was represented by Siobhan Allen and Dearbhla Minogue of GLAN and Bindmans LLP and Salima Budhani of Bindmans LLP in this matter.


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