#94 The G|O Briefing, April 21, 2022

China ratifies conventions against forced labor – The war continues to disrupt the WTO’s deliberations

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, we report on China’s decision to ratify two major ILO conventions on forced labor. The move is being saluted in Geneva and elsewhere as a positive step, as it will offer more opportunities to investigate China’s track record on labor rights.

We also go once more behind the scenes at the WTO, already deadlocked prior to the war in Ukraine. With Russia now a pariah state in international organizations, deliberations are more fraught and contentious than ever. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia are “illegal” and violate the World Trade Organization rules, Vladimir Putin said yesterday (April 20). But our report clearly shows that the Europeans, the US, and their allies have no intention of reducing the pressure on Moscow unless it puts an end to its war on Ukraine.




By Philippe Mottaz

In a move intended to ease tensions over accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang, and ahead of a planned visit to China by UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, on Wednesday (April 20), China finally ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions nos. 29 and 105
on forced labor.

Approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the decision is undoubtedly significant. ILO watchers say, however, that the ratification may not translate into a swift and concrete implementation on the ground – particularly in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of resorting to forced labor practices and conducting massive human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslim minority. Beijing has consistently rejected these claims.

In a statement published on the organization’s website, the ILO’s outgoing D-G Guy Ryder welcomed the Chinese legislature’s decision: “By approving these ratifications, China reinforces its commitment to eliminate all forms of forced labor within its jurisdiction, realize work in freedom for its 1.4 billion people, and respect the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work.” The move, he said, “demonstrates China’s strong support for ILO values and reflects its commitment to protect any female or male workers from being trapped into forced labor practices, which have no place nor justification in today’s world.”


The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) also acknowledged Beijing’s decision: “Ratifying the critical ILO conventions against forced labor won’t eradicate slavery overnight in China, but it’s a step forward that will make it easier to hold the government to account. Ahead of a crucial review of China’s policy on the treatment of the Uyghurs at this June’s International Labour Conference we need to see practical measures to respect these rights. Unions, employers, and other governments have the power to influence China on the fundamental freedom from forced labor if we act together. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghur people are affected by this,” ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow told The G|O in a written statement.

In late 2020, ITUC brought allegations of the systematic use of forced labor in agriculture and industry targeting Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. The ILO’s independent Committee of Experts concluded that multiple areas of concern existed regarding Beijing’s policies.

In ratifying the two conventions, China pledges to eliminate all forms of forced or compulsory labor—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.”

Ratified ILO conventions are legally binding treaties. However, the organization cannot take any coercive measures to ensure compliance, prompting some experts to question their effectiveness. “Effective protection of labor 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,” Surya Deva, professor of law at Macquarie University in Australia, told the South China Morning Post.

There is broad agreement among China experts that the move was prompted in part by Beijing’s desire to reduce tensions with Europe and revive the discussions around the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The forced labor issue has been a major point of contention between China and the EU. Last year, the EU suspended seven-year-long talks toward a trade deal with Beijing, and in the short term, yesterday’s (April 20) ratifications will likely do little to reverse this in light of Xi Jinping’s unwillingness to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: Earlier this month, Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said that it was not “feasible” to “compartmentalize” trade from the war.




By Jamil Chade

The war in Ukraine continues to disrupt the work of an already deadlocked World Trade Organisation (WTO). Across different committees, negotiations, and working groups, the mutual accusations between Kiev and Moscow are overshadowing all other issues.

A case in point was the March 24–25 meeting of the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS). In the end, members did manage to raise 48 specific trade concerns on topics including restrictions and approval procedures for imports of animal and plant products, pesticide policies, and maximum residue levels. However, the meeting offered an opportunity for Ukraine to underline the impact of Russia’s invasion on its economy.

Ukraine warned that its participation on the Committee had been jeopardized by the Russian military invasion. “Military aggression of one member towards another WTO member puts the multilateral trading system and the institution in an unprecedented situation, one that does not allow us to conduct business as usual,” Ukraine’s delegate said. According to the country’s own estimates, as of last week, direct economic losses caused by Russia’s military aggression had already reached $565 billion.

Ukraine thanked those governments that have adopted strong economic sanctions and trade measures against Russia, and pressed for the “comprehensive support of all WTO members to end the Russian aggression against Ukraine with all available WTO tools.” Countries such as Japan, Canada, Norway, Australia, the United States, Korea, the United Kingdom and New Zealand took the floor to condemn the Russian invasion, reaffirming their commitment to ensure the Russian government pays a severe economic and diplomatic price for their aggression against Ukraine.

Russia responded that the WTO is a rule-based trade organization and should remain as such. The Russian delegation denounced what it considers a politicization of the WTO which leads to the fragmentation of the multilateral trading system. The Russian representative stressed that members should refrain from discussing political issues at the WTO.

On March 30, the conflict dominated the agenda again during the meetings of the Committee on Market Access. The war was not on the initial agenda, but Ukraine used a procedural clause to bring the issue to the fore. The delegation shared, “as a matter of urgency and for the sake of transparency,” a notification dated March 25, which indicates that “due to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Government of Ukraine was forced to introduce export restriction measures on certain products in order to ensure national food security.”

The restrictions apply to multiple food products, including: Live bovine animals, meat of bovine animals, frozen meat and edible meat by-products, poultry and eggs, wheat, corn, rye, oats, buckwheat, millet, sugar, salt and sunflower oil.


The Ukrainian delegate said that active military actions have already halted trade and destroyed many sown areas and farms, adding that “even under these circumstances, our farmers are risking their lives as they have already started the sowing season in some regions of Ukraine.”

The Russian delegate claimed that consideration of global or regional security matters and UN Charter compliance does not fall under the mandate of the Committee on Market Access, and asked the chair to moderate the discussion accordingly. Delegates should be reminded that they are violating rules that they have themselves developed and adopted, Russia insisted, “Otherwise, we’re running the risk [of becoming] a medieval bazaar rather than a WTO committee meeting. I urge delegates to exercise self-restraint.”

Predictably, however, the meeting quickly became another platform for countries to reiterate their condemnation of the Russian invasion, and to point out the pertinence of the issue. The United Kingdom was first to take the floor, sharing its own notification on the decision to implement an additional 35% tariff for a number of goods originating in Russia and Belarus. The UK said it will continue to work with its allies and partners across the multilateral system to condemn Russia’s appalling actions and to isolate it on the international stage.

This discussion is absolutely relevant to the committee, the EU delegation said: “We could try and ignore the international context in which our meeting is taking place, but that would not [negate] the important impact the war has had on market access related issues, which have been felt all over the world”.

The United States also spoke of unity and reiterated its commitment to ensure the Russian government will pay a severe economic and diplomatic price for their actions, which, it noted, are incompatible with the rules-based system.

Russia responded by claiming that unilateral measures are the reason for a drastic increase in the cost of freight and insurance for Russian products, including agricultural ones. “Additional costs […] are passed on to consumers, resulting in growing global food prices,” the Russian delegate said. Moreover, disrupted plans of international commodity traders and international banks have resulted in reduced shipments of agricultural products to the global market.

The Russians also pointed to a number of measures which it saw as inconsistent with WTO provisions: implementation of import tariffs above MFN rates; import bans on Russian oil and refined oil products, as well as natural gas and coal; restrictions on exports to Russia of various goods, including oil refining equipment and technologies, foodstuff, and other goods; impeding Russian financial institutions, transportation companies and export support agencies; banning Russia’s use of EU seaports; and the freezing of a substantial part of the country’s currency reserves. For Moscow, “this is a robbery, if we call a spade a spade.”

The discussions on COVID-19 vaccines have not been spared. In the first half of March, during a meeting of the TRIPS Council, Ukraine simply asked members to refrain from engaging with the Russian delegation, claiming that “the Russian Federation has clearly abandoned the basic principles and values that the GATT and the WTO have promoted for almost 80 years since the end of World War II.”


Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Editing: Dan Wheeler