AS SNP foreign affairs lead at Westminster, I have to cover a wide range of places, and make calls that are often very difficult to balance. China is one. Everyone has by now surely noticed the remarkable change in tone in the engagement of the wider world with China.

Just a few short years ago, European politicians were engaged in a scramble for Chinese investment and partnership. These days criticism of Beijing’s policies in various parts of China and the wider world are more vocal. Not before time. China is an important economic partner, with various investments across Scotland and important partnerships with our universities. I’ve been back and forth to China a number of times and have always been fascinated by the scale of the place and the drive and creativity of the Chinese people, rooted in an ancient and rich series of cultures.

But we need a clear-eyed view of who our partners are and that our policies are rooted in values which we do not park when it is inconvenient. There are a number of things Beijing is up to that should concern us, from binding commitments on Hong Kong being ripped up before our eyes, to continued prickly relations with Taiwan, to a massive building programme across the South China Sea and, as we discussed in Westminster on Monday, the treatment of the Uighur population in north-west China, which is bad and getting worse.

Credible allegations have been made that the Chinese government is taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encourages some of the country’s Han majority to have more children. If true, these allegations amount to ethnic cleansing under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

It is already known that the population control measures are backed by mass detention both as a threat and as a punishment for failure to comply. Massive labour camps exist around the province, with a number of companies directly benefiting from forced labour.

It is slow, but effective. Birth rates in the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar plunged by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018, the latest years available in government statistics, but there is anecdotal evidence it has continued to fall. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the policies in a statement Monday, though China’s foreign minister derided the story as “fabricated” and “fake news”, saying the government treats all ethnicities equally and protects the legal rights of minorities. Maybe, in which case they should accede to calls made over the years to allow UN (or some other impartial organisation) inspectors access to see not just the camps but the state of women.

But Beijing cannot deny that for decades there have been deliberate attempts to alter the makeup of the region. For centuries, the majority was Muslim in the arid, landlocked region China now calls Xinjiang — meaning “new frontier” in Mandarin. In 1949, the new communist rulers ordered thousands of soldiers to settle in Xinjiang, pushing the Han population from 6.7% that year to more than 40% by 1980.

The UN, with China being one of the P5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, is blocked. Numerous countries and international organisations over the years have requested access to the areas involved but have had this denied or massively limited. This, of course, underlines the need for a reform of the UN, and that the international legal order remains a club of states more or less co-operating at times rather than a rules and values-based international order. But until reform comes – and there’s not much sign of it – we need to find other ways to intervene, or at least not be complicit.

The UK foreign minister on Monday expressed his concern, and as far as it went I agreed with him. We’re all concerned. The question is what do we do about it. I proposed, and have written to him to suggest it more formally, an audit of Chinese companies involved in government procurement. Let’s make sure none of our partners is benefiting from forced labour at home. Let’s at least be clear of the role of intelligence companies in the creation and maintenance of massive stopping infrastructures which have been instrumental in controlling the Uighur population.

There are, in the real world of realpolitik, limits on what we can do to intervene to protect the Uighur population, and I don’t see the UK, US or anyone else with an appetite for intervention for that very reason. But that is precisely why I want to see a reformed UN where states are held to account for their actions not just outwith but within their borders. The International Criminal Court is evolving, but slowly.

The only part of the world that has developed much of a structured permanent co-operation with extraterritorial enforcement of commitments is the European Union, where states work together but there is a strong central legal order under the European Court of Justice to ensure fair play between states, but also of states and their own citizens. The Council of Europe has a similar ethos on human rights. What a pity I’m trying to appeal to the UK minister of a government that has just rejected international co-operation like this, and what a shame for the Uighurs that the international community has failed them so badly.