Written evidence from Ben Willis (XIN0040)


Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry: Xinjiang Detention Camps


Executive summary: This evidence submission focuses on the FCDO’s current approach to atrocity prevention, and how it can be restructured to maximise UK impact, as outlined in the inquiry’s terms of reference. It addresses the evidence of atrocity crimes in Xinjiang and the problems with existing UK policy on making a public determination of these crimes. The situation in Xinjiang also underscores wider concerns with formal UK atrocity prevention policy and the need for more substantial institutional and strategic reforms.


Credible evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide


The UK government’s approach to making atrocity crime determinations


Further necessary reforms to UK atrocity prevention policy




Ben Willis is a PhD researcher with the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Leeds and an Associate Lecturer in the School of Law, Criminology, and Government at the University of Plymouth. He has previously worked as a researcher with Protection Approaches and co-authored a number of policy papers on UK atrocity prevention issues. He has submitted related written evidence to recent Foreign Affairs Committee inquiries and the Cabinet Office ISDFPR consultation. The following is submitted in a personal capacity.



Credible evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide

  1.                A public determination by the UK government that human rights violations against the Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang are of such gravity, scale, and nature as to constitute atrocity crimes would serve multiple goals. It would be a welcome expression of solidarity with the victims of these crimes, and it would galvanise international efforts at exerting further diplomatic and economic pressure on the Chinese government. In particular, it would be a vital step in helping to build the necessary political momentum to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry through the UN Human Rights Council, which should be a central aim of the UK’s multilateral efforts in the period ahead.


  1.                Acknowledgement also matters because the UK itself has legal, political, and moral obligations to use all reasonably available means to prevent the commission of genocide and crimes against humanity. This includes commitments under the 1948 Genocide Convention and customary international law. The UK has also long been a vocal advocate of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P), a political commitment by which the international community has a responsibility to use diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means to help to protect populations at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.[1]


  1.                The situation in Xinjiang is therefore a further test for UK atrocity prevention policy as it currently stands, and a public determination would also help to clarify how this policy is being operationalised to advance efforts at protecting the Uyghurs. The UK’s approach to the prevention of mass atrocities is formally laid out in the FCO’s July 2019 FCO policy paper, which identifies clear lines of ministerial and departmental responsibility – respectively, Lord Ahmad, Minster of State, and the FCDO Director of Multilateral Policy – and outlines the various early warning, development, diplomatic, and defence tools that the government considers to be part of the UK’s atrocity prevention ‘toolkit’.[2]


  1.                The FCO policy paper does not define ‘mass atrocities’. However, the term is generally accepted as a non-legal catch-all referring to genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. It is worth noting here that while the term ‘atrocity crimes’ is often used interchangeably by others, the UK government uses the latter to refer only to the three defined crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – thereby excluding ethnic cleansing, which is a political term that is not defined as a separate crime in international law.


  1.                Genocide is defined under Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention as the commission of one or more of five enumerated acts undertaken with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group:


(a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group


  1.                Crimes against humanity are defined under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as one or more enumerated acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population:


(a) murder; (b) extermination; (c) enslavement; (d) deportation or forcible transfer of population; (e) imprisonment; (f) torture; (g) rape or other forms of sexual violence; (h) persecution against any identifiable group; (i) enforced disappearance of persons; (j) apartheid; (k) other inhumane acts


  1.                The drafters of the 1948 Genocide Convention deliberately limited the definition of genocide to the physical and biological, but not cultural, destruction of the four protected groups. It is also the specific intent (dolus specialis) to commit such acts with the aim of destroying a group – which is notoriously difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt – that sets genocide apart from ordinary crimes and other international crimes. The criminal intent underpinning crimes against humanity differs from genocide in requiring only that perpetrators must have knowledge that there is a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population, and knowledge that the acts which they commit form part of this attack.[3]


  1.                While the egregious rights violations in Xinjiang have been extremely well documented since mid/late 2018, it is important to acknowledge that there has been no detailed legal analysis to date using an international criminal law framework that would qualify these as crimes against humanity and/or genocide. This should be a principal motivation for establishing a UN Commission of Inquiry – which would be mandated to investigate alleged violations of international human rights law in Xinjiang, establish the facts and circumstances around such violations, consider where these may amount to crimes against humanity or genocide, and provide recommendations to the Chinese government and the international community.


  1.                This is not to suggest, however, that there is not already a weight of opinion among atrocity prevention experts as to the likely nature of the crimes being committed in Xinjiang. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect were among the first to warn of potential crimes against humanity in April 2019. A joint briefing paper by the two Centres argued that the large-scale detention programme in Xinjiang, systematic abuse of detainees, lack of information regarding the fate of persons in custody, severe restrictions on religious practices, and abuses resulting from government surveillance activities may constitute the respective crimes against humanity of imprisonment, torture, enforced disappearance, persecution, and other inhumane acts.[4]


  1.            In March 2020, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) similarly asserted that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the Chinese government are committing the crimes against humanity of persecution and imprisonment – although it should be noted that USHMM have not offered a more expansive determination of potential crimes against humanity to date, and have been cautious in offering no formal opinion on the more recent allegations of genocide.[5]


  1.            However, credible evidence has emerged since mid-2020 to suggest that a number of the violations in Xinjiang may constitute genocide as defined under international law. The June 2020 Jamestown Foundation report by scholar Adrian Zenz outlines how the Chinese government’s campaign to suppress Uyghur population growththrough the use of internment as a punishment for birth control violations, the forcible implantation of intrauterine contraceptive devices prior to internment, and the coercing of women to accept surgical sterilizationmay constitute the intentional destructive act of imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. [6] It should be added that, in the absence of provable genocidal intent, ‘enforced sterilisation’ and ‘other forms of sexual violence’ may also nonetheless qualify as further crimes against humanity as per Article 7(1)(g) of the Rome Statute.


  1.            The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect has endorsed the Zenz report in a brief statement declaring that Chinese government policy towards the Uyghurs “appears to constitute a prima facie case of genocide”. The Global Centre further suggests that government policy may entail the perpetration of three additional genocidal acts – those of causing serious bodily or mental harm, the infliction of destructive conditions of life, and the forcible transfer of children, although it offers no detail on these claims.[7]


  1.            This position has been endorsed by a wider coalition of human rights and genocide prevention organisations, in a September 2020 joint letter calling for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate credible allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide. The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales has also taken a similarly expansive view of the potential acts of genocide being committed in Xinjiang.[8]


  1.            Allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide also form the basis of an Article 15 communication recently submitted to the ICC Office of the Prosecutor by Rodney Dixon QC of Temple Garden Chambers, on behalf of the East Turkestan Government in Exile (ETGE) and the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM). The detailed 80-page submission has not been made public, although the press release refers to a range of violations by the Chinese government dating back to the 2009 Urumqi riots and beyond.[9]


  1.            The question of whether the UK government will issue a clear public acknowledgement that the crime of genocide is being perpetrated in Xinjiang has been raised in Parliament on a number of occasions in recent months. It was also a point of discussion in the Committee’s oral evidence session with the Foreign Secretary on 6 October.[10] On each occasion, however, the focus of questioning has solely been on the matter of genocide, and the response offered has relied (in part) on the difficulty of proving the ‘specific intent to destroy’ that characterises the crime of genocide. There have been no accompanying questions put to the government on whether violations may also nonetheless amount to crimes against humanity.


  1.            It is vital to stress here that crimes against humanity are no less serious than genocide. There may be individual cases where the commission of one crime is graver than that of the other, but as a general principle there is no hierarchy of gravity. The notion of genocide as the ‘crime of crimes is well established within the popular imagination, and it is arguably a more powerful motivational tool for generating the political will to act, but there is no such ranking of crimes in international law. The jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia has been clear on this point, as have recent UN commissions of inquiry (the 2005 Darfur commission notably stressed this point). A determination of crimes against humanity – regardless of whether or not genocide has also occurred – should be considered no less meaningful.


Recommendation: The Committee may wish to ensure that there is a sufficient focus on eliciting recognition of crimes against humanity from the UK government, rather than focusing narrowly on the question of genocide, given the equally grave nature of both offences, the relative absence of detailed legal analysis of violations in Xinjiang to date, and the difficulty of ascertaining the required genocidal intent to destroy.



The UK government’s approach to making atrocity crime determinations

  1.            The government’s response to ongoing questions about whether it will acknowledge that violations in Xinjiang amount to genocide has been marked by a refusal to be drawn on the matter, and it has instead continued to insist on what it claims to be a long-standing policy” that the determination of genocide (or crimes against humanity) “should be made only by a competent court rather than by Governments or non-judicial bodies.”[11]


  1.            The issue of how the government approaches the determination of atrocity crimes was previously considered in some detail by the predecessor Committee as part of its inquiry into the violence in Rakhine State. The Committee’s December 2017 report noted the government’s “hesitation and equivocation” in defining the violence against the Rohingya – offering unclear statements on whether ethnic cleansing had occurred, and (as with the current situation in Xinjiang) refusing to commit to any statement on whether crimes against humanity or genocide had been perpetrated.[12]


  1.            The Committee was “seriously concerned” to hear in the oral evidence given by the Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field MP, in late October 2017 that the FCO had apparently not undertaken its own internal legal analysis of the situation in Myanmar at that point, and it recommended that the FCO’s political and diplomatic response “should be informed by a legal opinion on what is happening”.


  1.            In its response to the Committee in March 2018, the government later argued that:


“We have stated, clearly and without equivocation, that we recognise that there has been ethnic cleansing. Any determination that atrocity crimes have been committed would be a matter for judicial authorities having considered all of the evidence available in the context of a credible judicial process. The FCO is not a judicial authority and is not qualified to make this determination [13] (emphasis added)


  1.            Notably, however, the government also went on to claim that:


…our response throughout the crisis has been informed by legal advice and by our analysis of the situation on the ground… The Government has considered the serious allegations of elements of other atrocity crimes reported by NGOs and International Organisations. The Government assesses that there is credible evidence of widespread abuses… [and] the acts of ethnic cleansing taking place in Burma may amount to crimes against humanity” (emphasis added).


  1.            The Rakhine inquiry therefore elicited confirmation that government policy towards recent or ongoing atrocity crimes is apparently informed by contemporaneous legal advice - and, while claiming that the FCO is not qualified to make a determination, presumably used this legal advice to then support a cautious public determination that went beyond using the non-legal terminology of ethnic cleansing and stated clearly that abuses “may amount” to crimes against humanity.[14]


  1.            This would seem to demonstrate more flexibility within UK government policy than has been suggested in relation to Xinjiang in recent months. The official line nonetheless remains at present that only a ‘competent court should make determinations – either an international court such as the ICC, or a national criminal court that meets international standards of due process. The government defends this on the grounds that:


“…this position provides a clear, impartial and, perhaps very importantly, independent measure for the determination of whether genocide has occurred […] Not only are the courts best placed to judge criminal matters but their impartiality also ensures the protection of the UK Government from the politicisation and controversies that often attach themselves to the question of genocide”.[15]


  1.            There are two concerns here with regard to UK policy – one is a matter of law, and the other is a matter of politics. The former relates to the question of whether the government believes it is permissible to make a public determination of atrocity crimes. The latter relates to whether the government believes it is appropriate to do so in any given case.


  1.            On the matter of law, it is worth noting at this point how the Dutch Parliament wrestled with the issue of politicians’ use of the terms genocide and crimes against humanity in late 2016. Stemming from a concern with the abuses committed by Islamic State, the Dutch Parliament sought to address the broader issue of political determination by commissioning a report on the matter from the independent Advisory Committee on Issues of Public International Law (CAVV) and the External Advisor on Public International Law (EVA).


  1.            The resulting CAVV/EVA report, subsequently endorsed by the Dutch Cabinet, stated that there is nothing in international law to prevent governments from using the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ – and that, given the seriousness of the matter, they hold a degree of responsibility for actively speaking out where appropriate. The report offered two consideration of particular relevance. First, that any public determination should be made on the basis of a thorough investigation of the facts, and second, that while the “preferred course of action is to support international determinations […] this need not be a reason to delay making national determinations” (emphasis added).[16]


  1.            It is notable that the US government similarly does not rule out the issuing of political determinations, and has done so on occasion in the past.[17] The State Department is reported to be in the ‘early stages’ of discussing whether a genocide designation would be appropriate to the situation in Xinjiang.[18] The draft ‘Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act’ currently before Congress would also require the Secretary of State – under a Trump or Biden administration – to offer a public determination of genocide or crimes against humanity.[19]


  1.            On the matter of politics, it is entirely understandable that the UK government will always exercise a considerable degree of restraint on such matters. However, it should also give due consideration to whether it is an appropriate political choice to remain entirely non-committal on the issuing of a public determination in the face of mounting evidence of crimes against humanity or genocide. Deferral to the ruling of a competent court is inherently problematic given that this occurs so rarely, and, even when it does, often takes years to obtain. The government’s continuing reliance on this policy position risks becoming an exercise in equivocation and evasion – one that results in a form of impartiality’ and ‘non-politicisation’ that is entirely inappropriate to a context where victims require protection from perpetrators.


  1.            Contrary to its previous claims that the FCDO is “not qualified” to make a determination of atrocity crimes, there is no principle of international law which prevents the government from issuing a political determination stating that the violations being committed in Xinjiang may amount to crimes against humanity and/or genocide. Any such determination need not meet a criminal law standard of proofalthough it may benefit from following the practice of UN commissions of inquiry by employing the same “reasonable grounds” standard against which to assess evidence and make findings.


  1.            The government could opt to do this based on a rigorous assessment of the available evidence by the FCDO legal directorate, country desk officers, senior responsible officer for atrocity prevention, and other relevant bodies. It remains unclear as to whether its other current risk assessment and early warning mechanisms – such as the annual Countries at Risk of Instability (CRI) report, quarterly CRI tracker and Top Risks Register, and weekly Stability Monitor horizon-scanner – are fit for purpose here with regard to the related process of confidential determination for internal policy-making purposes.


Recommendation: The Committee may wish to seek clarification from the government about whether it has conducted an internal legal analysis of atrocity crimes in Xinjiang, and whether it will consider using this to inform a public determination on the matter.


Recommendation: The Committee may also wish to seek clarification on the broader issue of how any such process of internal legal analysis, in tandem with other risk assessment and early warning tools, is used to inform UK atrocity prevention policy in cases of concern.



Further necessary reforms to UK atrocity prevention policy[20]

  1.            The FCO’s July 2019 policy paper on the UK’s approach to the prevention of mass atrocities offered welcome clarification on how the government views its work in this area. However, it was largely a bundling together of the disparate threads of existing de facto policy, as sketched out across various government statements over the years, rather than being any substantive refinement of how this work is understood and implemented.


  1.            In its current form, there are two fundamental problems with the UK’s approach. The first is of particular relevance to the situation in Xinjiang. Existing UK policy relies on an outdated understanding of what mass atrocity prevention entails – conflating the prevention of atrocities with the prevention of armed conflict, and uncritically subsuming the former within the latter. This has two knock-on effects. It means that the UK appears to believe that it can work to prevent atrocities simply by working to preventing conflict, and that atrocities which do occur outside of the context of armed conflict are sufficiently uncommon so as not to require substantive consideration in UK policy.


  1.            The apparent justification for this approach is set out in the FCO policy paper, which claims that as the “majority of atrocities occur in and around conflict, the UK has dedicated significant resources to addressing crises and conflict by means of a comprehensive cross-government response”.[21] The government’s underlying position was also evident in its response to the Committee’s inquiry on R2P in late 2018, in which it claimed that “[a]trocity prevention is an important strand of our conflict prevention agenda” and that “[a]trocities do not always occur in the context of armed conflict. But the tools to prevent and respond to both atrocity situations and armed conflict are substantively alike, and often the best way to prevent atrocities can be to prevent conflict”.[22]


  1.            It is true that there is a general assumption that the majority of atrocities occur in conflict situations. However, the exact proportion is an under examined assumption within the academic and policy literatures, and the frequently stated belief that conflict-related atrocities comprise two-thirds of all contemporary cases should certainly be treated with a fair degree of caution.[23] Furthermore, the government appears to suggest that, as a result of this assumption, it effectively follows a ‘triage’ approach to prediction, prevention, and response in which it is only concerned with addressing the risk of conflict-related atrocities.


  1.            This suggests that the UK is not integrating atrocity prevention into its human rights work, and does not have a coherent and coordinated approach to the substantial proportion of atrocities that occur in peacetime.[24] The situation in Xinjiang brings this into particularly sharp relief – but there are any number of examples from recent years. An exclusive focus on conflict-related atrocities excludes not only systematic repression in Venezuela, North Korea, Eritrea, and Burundi, for example, but also the early stages of regime violence against civilians in Libya and Syria in 2011, prior to the onset of internal armed conflict, and the gradual unfolding of the genocidal persecution of the Rohingya since 2012.[25]


  1.            The government also uses its policy position of focusing on conflict-related atrocities to suggest that “the tools to prevent and respond to both atrocity situations and armed conflict are substantively alike”. The concern here is that while many of the tools are often alike, they are not identical – and the manner in which they should be used differs considerably, depending on whether the goal is to prevent conflict or to prevent atrocities. Their use to achieve the former can often be counterproductive to achieving the latter. The policy paper also offers no consideration of whether such a limited toolkit is fit for purpose with regard to situations like Xinjiang that require no conflict prevention, and where it is peacetime human rights abuses – rather than conflict risks – that metastasise into atrocity crimes. These are vital distinctions that the FCO policy paper and other previous government statements have failed to acknowledge.[26]


  1.            The UK is certainly not alone in operating under the misplaced assumption that atrocity prevention is synonymous with conflict prevention, and that it can be unproblematically addressed within the latter – rather than asking deeper questions about how the two agendas should co-exist. This is reflective of an entrenched flaw in much early thinking on R2P. Since 2009, however, the academic and policy literatures have repeatedly stressed the need to differentiate the two agendas. UN reports have repeatedly emphasised that they are “closely related [but] not synonymous”, that prevention measures “should be developed with that in mind”[27] and that “despite the obvious interlinkages between the conflict and atrocity prevention agendas, the latter should not be subsumed by the former” (emphasis added).[28]


  1.            The situation in Xinjiang should be as clear an example as any of the UK’s atrocity prevention policy in action. However, it is entirely unclear how it fits within the scope of this policy – given that the UK’s atrocity prevention work cannot usefully be distinguished from its conflict prevention work, does not appear to be linked with its human rights work, and is not directed towards addressing the risk or commission of peacetime atrocity crimes.


  1.            The second fundamental problem with existing UK atrocity prevention policy is the general absence of evidence that it has been integrated anywhere within the thematic or geographical workstreams of the FCDO and partner departments. This is apparent even from a brief survey of the relevant early warning, development, diplomatic, and defence tools which the FCO policy paper outlines as comprising the UK’s atrocity prevention toolkit. None of these – with the single exception of the funding provided to the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and R2P via the multilateral programme of the Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund –  appear to feature any explicit embedding of atrocity-specific concerns.[29]


  1.            These fundamental problems suggest the need for more substantial institutional and strategic reforms in order to maximise UK impact. A necessary top-down reform would be acknowledgement of mass atrocity prevention as a distinct UK national security interest, ideally in the next iteration of the National Security Strategy (NSS) or equivalent output of the Integrated Review. The 2019 FCO policy paper was useful in providing further evidence that atrocity prevention is already implicitly considered to be a part of the UK’s longstanding national security objective of tackling conflict and building stability overseas – an issue that was upgraded to a Tier 1 highest priority threat to UK interests in the 2015 NSS. Embedding mass atrocity prevention as a more explicit UK national security concern would elevate it as a policy priority for achieving this objective, which remained a core concern of the recent Cabinet Office public consultation on the Integrated Review. Recognition of atrocity prevention as an clearly defined element of UK national security work would provide top-level strategic direction for the FCDO and partner departments to develop, integrate, and prioritise a more coherent whole-of-government approach to the issue.[30]


  1.            It is worth noting here that the 2015 NSS did include a commitment to continuing UK support for R2P, although it did so only very briefly and with regard to upholding international humanitarian law – i.e. the law of armed conflict – rather than identifying atrocity prevention as a more substantive cross-cutting issue in the same manner as its treatment of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. The UK can draw comparative lessons here from the United States, where the Obama administration demonstrated an early commitment to integrating atrocity prevention into its national security architecture through embedding it in the 2010 National Security Strategy, Quadrennial Defense Review, and Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. This predated Presidential Study Directive 10 declaring the prevention of mass atrocities to be a “core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States”, ordering the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), and committing to a whole-of-government review of US atrocity prevention capabilities.[31]


  1.            Further UK reform should include revisiting the need for a dedicated atrocity prevention strategy and implementation plan, as recommended by the predecessor Committee in September 2018. The government’s response to the Committee in November 2018 was to reject this recommendation on three groundsa concern that developing such a strategy “risks considerable duplication and diverting resources away from delivering existing atrocity prevention work”, disagreement that “the simple existence of a ‘strategy’ necessarily improves delivery”, and a need to “be realistic [that] the UK alone will rarely have the ability to prevent atrocities”.[32] However, the first two grounds offered by the government rely on the misconception that atrocity prevention is not and should not be conceptually or operationally distinct from conflict prevention. As noted, this is a problem that is in need of immediate correction. All three grounds also speak of the importance of political prioritisation. This hinges in part on how the government chooses to answer the cost-benefit question of whether investing in long term prevention is ultimately a net positiveas opposed to maintaining a more reactive ad hoc policyas well as the less tangible question of whether it wants to do more, within the constraints of limited resources and other policy priorities.[33]


  1.            A dedicated strategy would address the very issues that the government raises as justification for not having one – a strategy would reduce the duplication of effort and expenditure of resources that result from its current disjointed policy, and would deliver a more appropriately tailored approach that would enhance the UK’s ability to identify and respond to the risk of atrocities. A strategy would more precisely identify the ‘ways and means’ through which to achieve policy ‘ends’ and would give clearer guidance to government departments on integrating atrocity prevention policy into their work. It could provide measurable strategic objectives, ensure systematic internal evaluation, and would further benefit from external scrutiny through annual reporting to parliament and regular consultation with UK civil society.


  1.            Potential UK reform should also involve consideration of establishing an institutional home for atrocity prevention that would ensure strategic direction, oversight, and co-ordination across government departments. The 2019 FCO policy paper identified the FCDO’s Director of Multilateral Policy as the senior officer responsible for atrocity prevention issues, a post that has also operated as the UK’s ‘Focal Point’ for R2P since at least 2014. However, there is no available information on whether there is a supporting office for this element of the Director’s portfolio, and the only public comments to date appear to suggest that the Focal Point operates as more of an outward-facing role that “engages at international level with like-minded partners” - rather than an internally facing role that would operate as an ‘enabling’ hub with responsibility for monitoring, advising, convening, and coordinating inter and intra-departmental atrocity prevention work.[34]


  1.            An institutional home for atrocity prevention could be realised through the creation of an issue-focused cross-government Joint Unit. Any such ‘Atrocity Prevention Unit’ should be hosted by the FCDO and could bring together policy expertise from a range of government departments, including the MOD, National Security Secretariat, Joint Intelligence Office, Home Office, MOJ, Treasury and DIT. Alternatively, a directorate-level cross-Whitehall Steering Group and lower-level Working Group arrangement may be considered a more suitable arrangement. The overall purpose of any such institutional set-up, however, is that an appropriately resourced mechanism would ensure shared ownership of strategy and drive implementation, promoting a more joined-up whole-of-government approach to policy formulation, addressing duplication and co-ordination problems, developing and consolidating cross-departmental expertise, and adapting existing UK policy and institutional frameworks for risk assessment, early warning, prevention, and response.


Recommendation: The Committee may wish to seek further information on how formal FCDO-led atrocity prevention policy is being operationalised to address the situation in Xinjiang, including which internal mechanisms and policy tools are being engaged, and how ministerial and departmental oversight for atrocity prevention policy is being exercised.


Recommendation: The Committee may also wish to seek clarification on the broader issue of how UK atrocity prevention work can be usefully distinguished from its conflict prevention work, and how atrocity prevention has been incorporated into its human rights work in order to address the risk of peacetime atrocities.


Recommendation: Consideration should also be given to more substantial reform of UK policy through recognising atrocity prevention as an explicit national security interest, developing a whole-of-government atrocity prevention strategy, and establishing an institutional home for atrocity prevention within the FCDO.









October 2020


[1] Much recent commentary has focused on the UK’s legal obligations under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However, it is arguable that the prohibition of genocide and the prohibition of crimes against humanity are both peremptory norms of general international law (jus cogens) which give rise to the same obligations owed to the international community as a whole (obligations erga omnes). For discussion, see Glanville, L. 2012. The Responsibility to Protect Beyond Borders. Human Rights Law Review. 12(1), pp.1-32, https://academic.oup.com/hrlr/article-abstract/12/1/1/562103

[2] Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Policy Paper: UK approach to preventing mass atrocities, 16 July 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-approach-to-preventing-mass-atrocities.

[3] In the absence of a dedicated international convention on crimes against humanity, the Rome Statute definition is largely considered reflective of customary international law. For general discussion of genocide and crimes against humanity, see Cassese, A. and Gaeta, P. 2013. Cassese’s International Criminal Law. OUP: Oxford.

[4] GCR2P/APR2P, The Persecution of the Uighurs and Potential Crimes Against Humanity in China, 8 April 2019, https://www.globalr2p.org/publications/the-persecution-of-the-uighurs-and-potential-crimes-against-humanity-in-china/

[5] USHMM, Simon-Skjodt Center Director Delivers Remarks on China’s Systematic Persecution of Uyghurs, 6 March 2020, https://www.ushmm.org/genocide-prevention/blog/simon-skjodt-center-director-delivers-remarks-on-chinas-systematic-persecut

[6] Zenz, A. 2020. Sterilizations, IUDs, and Coercive Birth Prevention: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birth Rates in Xinjiang, 28 June 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/sterilizations-iuds-and-mandatory-birth-control-the-ccps-campaign-to-suppress-uyghur-birth-rates-in-xinjiang/

[7]  GCR2P, Mounting Evidence that China is Perpetrating Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide Against the Uighurs, 21 July 2020, https://www.globalr2p.org/publications/mounting-evidence-that-china-is-perpetrating-crimes-against-humanity-and-genocide-against-the-uighurs/

[8] GCR2P, Joint NGO Open Letter of Concern to Governments on Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide Against Uyghurs in China, 15 September 2020, https://www.globalr2p.org/publications/joint-ngo-open-letter-of-concern-to-governments-on-crimes-against-humanity-and-genocide-against-uyghurs-in-china/; BHRC, Responsibility of States under International Law to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, China, 22 July 2020, https://www.barhumanrights.org.uk/bhrc-publishes-new-report-outlining-the-responsibility-of-states-under-international-law-to-uyghurs-and-other-turkic-muslims-in-xinjiang-china/

[9] ETGE/ETNAM, Uyghur Genocide and Crimes against Humanity: Credible evidence submitted to ICC for the first time asking for investigation of Chinese officials, 6 July 2020, https://east-turkistan.net/press-release-uyghur-genocide-and-crimes-against-humanity-credible-evidence-submitted-to-icc-for-the-first-time-asking-for-investigation-of-chinese-officials/ .The submission argues that the ICC has jurisdiction because a part of the criminal conduct – the recent arrest and deportation of Uyghurs by Chinese agents – has occurred in Tajikistan and Cambodia, both of which are parties to the Rome Statute, which therefore enables the Prosecutor to investigate the matter at their own initiative without the need for state party or Security Council referral.

[10] Foreign Affairs Committee, Formal meeting (oral evidence session): Work of the FCDO, 6 October 2020, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/1000/html/. See also the remarks by the Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons debate on 20 July (‘China’), available at https://bit.ly/3jvQD8X and by the Minister of State for Asia in the Commons debates of 29 June (‘Xinjiang: Uyghurs’) at https://bit.ly/2WCRk6U and 9 September 2020 (‘Detention of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang’) at https://bit.ly/2Rij8KD

[11] Remarks by the Minister of State for Asia, Nigel Adams MP, on 9 September 2020. See fn.11.

[12] Foreign Affairs Committee, Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response, HC435, 11 December 2017, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmfaff/435/435.pdf

[13] Foreign Affairs Committee, Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response: Government response, HC868, 6 March 2018, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmfaff/868/868.pdf

[14] There are further examples of this willingness to offer conditional statements on the perpetration of atrocity crimes. The UK’s remarks at the UN General Assembly debate on R2P in June 2019, for example, plainly declared that the violence against the Rohingya “may also constitute genocide”. See https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/general-assembly-debate-on-the-responsibility-to-protect-and-the-prevention-of-genocide-war-crimes-ethnic-cleansing-and-crimes-against-humanity

[15] Remarks by Government Whip Baroness Goldie in the House of Lords on 13 September 2018 (‘Genocide and Crimes against Humanity’), available at https://bit.ly/2Cx8GcP. As noted in the debate, the position would not recognise a preliminary ruling by the UK High Court, as proposed by the Genocide Determination Bill [HL] introduced by Lord Alton. See https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/genocidedeterminationbill.html

[16] The full text of the November 2016 motion of the Dutch House of Representatives and the March 2017 CAVV/EVA report are reproduced in Kamminga, M.T. 2019. ‘The Scope for and the Significance and Desirability of the Use of the Term ‘Genocide’ by Politicians: Joint Advisory Report by the Netherlands Advisory Committee on Issues of Public International Law and the External Advisor on Public International Law (March 2017)’, Netherlands International Law Review, Vol.65(1), pp83-101. Available open access at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40802-018-0106-9

[17] For detailed consideration of US policy, see  Todd F. Buchwald and Adam Keith, By Any Other Name: How, When, and Why the US Government Has Made Genocide Determinations, USHMM, April 2019, https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/Todd_Buchwald_Report_031819.pdf

[18] Lippman and Toosi, ‘Trump administration weighs accusing China of ‘genocide’ over Uighurs, Politico, 25 August 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/25/trump-administration-china-genocide-uighurs-401581

[19] Section 6 of the Act is devoted to this requirement. The full text is at https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6210/text?r=1&s=1#H2F22426C41EE4E27AC92BF042AD1BDE6

[20] This section draws from a more detailed submission by the author to the ongoing inquiry into the Integrated Review. See Ben Willis, Written evidence (INR0020) submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on the FCDO and the Integrated Review, May 2020, https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/4373/html/

[21] Foreign and Commonwealth Office (see footnote 2)

[22] Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Britain: The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention: Government response to the Committee’s Twelfth Report, HC1719, 19 November 2018, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmfaff/1719/1719.pdf

[23] The most widely cited study is Bellamy, A.J. Mass Atrocities and Armed Conflict: Links, Distinctions, and Implications for the Responsibility to Prevent, Stanley Foundation, February 2011, https://stanleycenter.org/publications/mass-atrocities-and-armed-conflict-links-distinctions-and-implications-for-the-responsibility-to-prevent/. However, this only classifies episodes of mass killing in excess of 5,000 civilian deaths and omits all atrocity cases in which killings are below this threshold or are not a principal means of violence – thereby excluding those cases that may rely more on the use of e.g. forced population transfers, imprisonment, torture, and other egregious but ‘non-fatal’ acts. Bellamy’s study (which does not claim to be definitive) also only covers the period from 1945 to 2010. Recent trends may differ substantially.

[24] The 2019 FCO policy paper makes frequent reference to conflict prevention tools but almost no reference to human rights. Conversely, it is notable that the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Report 2019 has a brief section on mass atrocity prevention that makes no reference to the FCO policy paper having been released.

[25] See the various reports of the relevant UN fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry, all of which document the perpetration of atrocity crimes in the absence of armed conflict. Available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/ListHRCMandat.aspx

[26] On the importance of incorporating atrocity sensitivity into early warning, development, diplomacy, and defence work across conflict and human rights work, see also Bellamy, A.J. 2015. ‘Operationalising the “Atrocity Prevention Lens”: Making Prevention a Living Reality’. In S. Rosenberg, T. Galis, and A. Zucker (eds) Reconstructing Atrocity Prevention, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

[27] United Nations General Assembly, Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention: Report of the Secretary-General, A/67/929, 9 July 2013, https://undocs.org/A/67/929

[28] United Nations Human Rights Council, Prevention of Genocide: Report of the Secretary-General, A/HRC/41/24, 8 October 2019, https://undocs.org/A/HRC/41/24

[29] For more detailed consideration, see Ben Willis, Written evidence (INR0020), May 2020 (see footnote 20)

[30] HM Government, National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom, 23 November 2015, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-security-strategy-and-strategic-defence-and-security-review-2015

[31] For a detailed account of Obama era reforms, see Alleblas, T. et al. 2017. In the Shadow of Syria: Assessing the Obama Administration’s Efforts on Mass Atrocity Prevention, GPPI/Hague Institute, https://www.gppi.net/2017/05/03/in-the-shadow-of-syria. Bureaucratic institutionalisation has continued under the Trump administration, notably via passage of the ‘Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act’ in January 2019, which further codifies US policy on the prevention of atrocities as a matter of national interest.

[32] Foreign Affairs Committee, November 2018 (see footnote 23)

[33] In October 2018, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested in response to the Committee report on R2P that the government was “absolutely committed” to “do more within our budget on atrocity prevention”. See https://www.una.org.uk/news/una-uk-welcomes-foreign-secretarys-commitment-atrocity-prevention

[34] See the responses to Q103-Q105 on the Focal Point’s role in UK policy towards Syria, provided by Lord Ahmad, FCO Minister of State, and Corinne Kitsell, FCO UN Co-ordinator and Deputy Director UN and Multilateral, at the oral evidence session for the Committee’s inquiry on R2P, 11 July 2018, http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/foreign-affairs-committee/responsibility-to-protect-rtp-and-humanitarian-intervention/oral/86693.pdf