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Baerbock demands forced-labor ban, won’t attend Olympics

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called for an EU-wide import ban on goods made with forced labor — a demand that would particularly hit China.

In comments published by German press agency dpa on Wednesday, Baerbock also said she won’t attend the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Yet she made clear that her decision was personal and not the official line of the German government, and that German foreign ministers usually don’t attend Olympic games.

Baerbock and her Green Party, which earlier this month joined the new German government in a coalition with the Social Democrats of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the liberal Free Democrats, have taken a critical position toward China when it comes to human rights and democratic standards. It is, however, uncertain whether Scholz backs this critical stance toward Beijing, as the chancellor last week told Chinese President Xi Jinping he wants to deepen economic ties with the People’s Republic.

Baerbock said she backed the European Parliament’s push to ban all products related to forced labor from the EU market: “The European Parliament’s proposal to ban the import of goods produced with forced labor is, in my view, exactly right.”

Such a ban on imports derived from forced labor would affect China, which stands accused by a broad community of countries of persecuting Uyghur Muslims in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang and forcing them to work in factories. China, which is the EU’s biggest overall trading partner and the main source for imports, according to data from 2020, rejects these accusations.

U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bill last week that bans imports of forced-labor products from the Xinjiang region. The U.S. government has concluded China’s practices against Uyghurs constitute genocide.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in September that she wants to introduce an EU import ban on forced-labor products, but how to establish such a measure is still under discussion.

While EU lawmakers and human rights campaigners are calling for a full-blown trade ban, EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis argued last week it would be more “effective” to include such a ban in the upcoming EU due diligence rules, which would put the responsibility for stopping forced-labor produced imports largely on business and national corporate regulators, exposing the European Commission and EU countries to less political backlash from China.

Beijing agreed as part of the EU-China investment deal to “make continued and sustained efforts” to ratify international conventions on banning forced labor, but those promises have been criticized as too vague. Moreover, the ratification of the investment deal has been put on hold amid human rights concerns and China’s response to them.

Asked about the Beijing Winter Olympics, which are facing a diplomatic boycott by the U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K. and New Zealand due to human rights concerns — meaning those countries won’t send any diplomatic or political representatives to the games but will still participate with athletes — Baerbock said she had decided not to travel to Beijing.

“I’m a big sports fan, but I definitely won’t be going to the Olympics at this time — that hasn’t been common for foreign ministers in the past, either,” she said. She added that the EU was still discussing internally whether the bloc should jointly participate in the diplomatic boycott.

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