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What Can the UK do to Help Protect the Uyghurs? Adopt a National Strategy of Atrocity Prevention


ECR2P’s Chair of Policy and Co-Executive Director of Protection Approaches, Dr Kate Ferguson, brings you this blog on the UK, atrocity prevention and the Uyghur crisis.


It is heartening to see condemnation build in the United Kingdom over the appalling atrocities in China against Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims. Allegations of systematic and widespread atrocities in Xinjiang province include ‘the mass surveillance and arbitrary detention of over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, torture and inhuman treatment of detainees, the forced separation of children from their parents, the denial of the right to practice their religion or speak their language, forced sterilisation, forced labour, forced organ harvesting, enforced disappearances and killings in detention.’ The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect believe there is sufficient evidence that the violations could constitute crimes against humanity and genocide.

All states must shoulder the burdens of preventing such atrocities and of protecting people from violent discrimination but the collective nature of these responsibilities does not dilute the function of the state as means of fulfilling shared obligations; it underscores it. Thus, United Nations (UN) Secretary General Guterres called in 2017 for member states to integrate atrocity prevention into national policy processes in order to, among other activities, ‘conduct their own atrocity crimes risk assessment, identifying any protection gaps and recommending steps to close them.’

Despite growing support from ministers, parliament, and atrocity prevention experts, the UK still lacks any kind of coordinating mechanism or national strategy of atrocity prevention.


The Need for a UK Atrocity Prevention Strategy

Following the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine province in late summer 2017, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee asked the Foreign Office to ‘set out what lessons it ha[d] learned regarding atrocity prevention from these events and how these lessons will be applied in Burma and elsewhere in future.’ A year later, reflecting upon the UK’s failures in Syria as well as Myanmar, the Committee called upon the government to ‘act urgently to produce a comprehensive atrocity prevention strategy and implementation plan to ensure it moves beyond words and towards concrete actions.’ The Committee recommended that a draft of this strategy should be available for consultation by April 2019. Notwithstanding some important if modest steps in the right direction, no such strategy has yet emerged.

Recent attention upon the atrocities in Xinjiang and growing debate of what more the UK can do – or should have already done – has once again exposed that the absence of such a strategy contributed to delayed, inconsistent, and ad hoc policy responses to another well-documented and ongoing pattern of widespread systemic discrimination and violence that likely meets the threshold of genocide.

Without such a strategy – without applying a framework of how best to help prevent future atrocities to the human rights crisis in Xinjiang – it is easy to miss opportunities to influence and mitigate. Even in the face of considerable power asymmetry and wider contestation of values at the UN, any analysis of UK strategy through a framework of atrocity prevention would help set out options for what Britain could do.

There are many technical avenues to pursue via the UN towards the commission of special investigations, referrals to the Human Rights Council, and raising the atrocities at the Security Council and otherwise utilising existing mechanisms and diplomatic means to raise grievances against China and in solidarity with at risk populations.

Her Majesty’s Government will need to test the efficacy of the UK’s new, post-EU sanctions policy, which promise to target ‘those involved in the very worst of human rights abuses around the world’ as well as ‘the wider network of perpetrators, including those who facilitate, incite, promote, or support these crimes.’ They are powers that should also ensure that nowhere within UK borders harbour the profits of atrocities.

If the UK is serious about seeking an end to the atrocities in Xinjiang it must work to build a coalition of support with other state partners –and not just from the United States, Five Eyes or Europe. The UK needs to work with partners in Asia and member states - from all regions - in the General Assembly to build a coalition of conscience and condemnation. Given China’s power and influence this is no easy task and will require careful coordination and analysis of points of leverage, convergence and opportunities to influence; precisely the type of scenario planning and stakeholder mapping exercises any mechanism tasked with viewing UK-China relations from an atrocity prevention perspective would be expected to undertake.

Effective atrocity prevention is about consistency. The UK government, like all those rightly joining the condemnation of the Chinese state for its failure to protect its populations, must themselves be responsible in the language and means of criticism they deploy. Efforts to halt the atrocities must not be accompanied by a slide towards the populist anti-China rhetoric coming from the US and elsewhere. Since Covid-19 hit the UK, anti-Chinese hate crime has soared by 20 percent and left unchecked divisive narratives regarding the origins of the virus, anxiety surrounding Huawei and irresponsible conflation between criticism of the Chinese state and Chinese populations will increase risks of identity-based violence and discrimination here at home.

But without a clear public policy, coordinating mechanism such as a cross-cutting unit, or national strategy for atrocity prevention, identifying the spectrum of options for HMG becomes much more difficult – not only with regard to Xinjiang or Myanmar but situations of concern that are worsening yet where widespread or systematic violence can, whether through shining a light or providing development assistance, still be averted. Any such strategy should seek to do three things:


Improve communication, establishing a clear internal communications protocol setting out how to monitor imminent warning signs, triggering moments, indicators and risk factors; when and how to raise the alarm – both across government and externally – and guidance on escalation.

Integrate a means of prevention analysis across government that would facilitate intelligence collection and collation, conduct risk assessments of UK exposure to the possibility of complicity, undertake scenario planning, engage allies and partners, and develop the capacity to deploy civilian advisors to situations of concern.

Institutionalise the UK’s commitment to prevent atrocities  establishing a coordinating function of prediction and prevention across Government. This could take the form of a cross-cutting prevention analysis unit or a resourced office of the focal point for Responsibility to Protect.


The Time for Change is Now

There are no silver bullets and successful implementation of atrocity prevention rarely wins plaudits. It requires consistent and contest effort but it works. A recent study projects that ‘a 25% increase in effectiveness of conflict prevention would result in 10 more countries at peace by 2030, 109,000 fewer fatalities over the next decade and savings of over $3.1 trillion.’  A 75% improvement in prevention ‘would result in 23 more countries at peace by 2030, resulting in 291,000 lives saved over the next decade and $9.8 trillion in savings.’

Doing more to help prevent mass atrocities should not be a contentious agenda. Successive UK governments have reiterated their commitment to help prevent mass atrocities. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a state which aspires to global leadership, Britain can and must do more to narrow the gaps between the commitments it has made on the world stage on this agenda and their practical implementation. For those concerned with Britain’s declining global influence, “doing more” on atrocity prevention has been identified as a specific contribution capable of ‘demonstrating the value of the United Kingdom in international forums.’

As Whitehall prepares to merge DfID with the FCO, the UK has a rare moment to learn from mistakes it made in Myanmar –and before it in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bosnia, and Rwanda – and embed a national strategy of atrocity prevention in the heart of British policy. In addition to their appalling human costs, mass atrocities generate cross-border refugee movements, increase the risk of terrorism, carry economic consequences beyond those of 'regular' civil wars, and perpetuate global instability. Such crimes therefore directly affect Britain’s own security and prosperity. The incidence of mass atrocities is rising - yet these crimes can often be prevented, and their root causes interrupted. It is high time that UK does much more to help do so, in China, in Myanmar and as a core principle of its new international policy.


Dr Kate Ferguson is Co-Executive Director at Protection Approaches and Chair of Policy at the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. To find out more about efforts to enhance UK contributions to the prevention of mass atrocities and other forms of identity-based violence explore here. Kate tweets at @WordsAreDeeds.


If you are interested in submitting a blog post for the ECR2P’s Fresh Perspectives series, then please contact Richard Illingworth by Email ( or Twitter (@RJI95).