Foreign Affairs Committee
Oral evidence: Xinjiang detention camps - 12 01 21, HC 800
Tuesday, 12 January 2021
Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 12 January 2021.
Members present: Tom Tugendhat (Chair); Chris Bryant; Alicia Kearns; Stewart Malcolm McDonald; Henry Smith; Royston Smith; Graham Stringer.
I: Dr. Kate Ferguson, Co-Executive Director at Protection Approaches and Chair of Policy at European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and Nicola Reindorp.
II: Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director at Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Dr. Gregory Stanton, Founding President and Chairman at Genocide Watch, and Ambassador Stephen Rapp, Former United States Ambassador-at-large at Office of Global Criminal Justice.
Examination of witnesses
Witnesses: Dr. Kate Ferguson and Nicola Reindorp.
Q52 Chair: Welcome to this afternoon’s session of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We are going to be
talking about the abuses in Xinjiang, in western China. I will ask our two witnesses to introduce
themselves very briefly. For no other reason than it is how you appear on my screen, would you like
to go first, Dr. Ferguson?
Dr. Ferguson: Thank you very much for having me. I am Dr. Kate Ferguson. I am co-executive
director at Protection Approaches and I am also chair of policy at the European Centre for the
Responsibility to Protect at Leeds.
Nicola Reindorp: Good afternoon. I am the deputy executive director and incoming CEO of Crisis
Action1, which builds coalitions to protect people from war and mass atrocities.
Q53 Chair: May I ask a relatively open question? Please do not feel the need to repeat each other’s
answers on it. Is the UK’s approach to atrocity prevention appropriate to the challenges that we
face? What should change?
Dr. Ferguson: As you know, I have been analyzing the UK’s responses to atrocities for well over 10
years, and I am afraid that the answer has always been no. I would like to answer that as fully as I
can in the time available.
It is really important to start by saying that there have always been excellent people in the UK civil
service, in embassies, in Whitehall, and in New York, so none of my remarks now or this afternoon
should be interpreted as undermining that fact. Likewise, the UK does many things related to
atrocity prevention very well. It has strengthened its conflict prevention work and its overseas
development contributions. It is developing what I think is a very robust approach to organized
crime. Many, myself included, would in fact consider modern atrocities as a form of organized crime.
So there are many intersections that are done really well.
To my mind, however, the UK has never really taken a good look at its atrocity prevention efforts in
anything close to a holistic way. That is in contrast to states such as the US, so either the UK has
never thought about it or, in more recent years, there has been a sense that it has just hoped that its
existing work on conflict prevention and development would suffice. What that means is that over the
last few years, the specific skills, expertise, and approaches that we know can work in reducing the
risk of atrocities have fallen through the cracks between conflict prevention, international
development and other areas.
I suppose that is something that has always been a problem in UK Governments, so that is a
criticism not just of this Government, but of past Governments. In some ways, perhaps, this
Government have done more to acknowledge atrocity prevention explicitly than any other in this
country for a very long time.
What is really important to underline is that the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity
can be seen to be absent in UK policy at almost every stage of the cycle of prevention. When I say
that, I mean when we are talking about upstream prevention when those risks are rising but they are
still reversible; the moment when violence is imminent but still avoidable; the moment when violence
is ongoing; and then after the fact, when atrocities have already occurred.
At every single stage, I am afraid, to my mind, atrocity prevention thinking and atrocity prevention
strategy has been absent. While there are exceptions—I think the UK and South Sudan is an
example for us to point to where things are done well, and I think the UK team in Myanmar is making
some strides in increasingly learning the lessons of the mistakes that were made leading up to the
terrible atrocities in Rakhine in 2017— there is no co-ordinating strategy.
So while there are related efforts that make a positive contribution, and there are exceptional
individuals who help plug those gaps, there is simply no co-ordinating policy and no
institutionalization. That means that when you have good individuals in places where atrocities are a
risk, there is no means of collecting that muscle-memory—that institutional memory— when they
move on. I am afraid that none of that co-ordinating work is being done.
The second part of the problem, to my mind, is that an effective approach to atrocity prevention
requires almost all Departments in Government. In order for the UK to be upholding its obligations to
help prevent genocide and crimes against humanity, you need all sorts of Departments involved, not
just the internationally facing ones—the Treasury needs to be involved because of sanctions; the
Home Office needs to be involved because of asylum applications; the Department for Education
needs to be involved to ensure that the kids know how to approach material that denies genocide
and spreads division. As you said in the Chamber this afternoon, Chair, that involves being able to
confront efforts to undermine both research and the very substance of culture and freedom in the
UK. The Ministry of Justice also needs to be involved so that the UK can prosecute suspects that
are present within this country. At the moment, none of that is being done intentionally. Some of it is
being done indirectly. The UK does make important contributions to atrocity prevention, but not in a j
The last thing I will say is that I think it is important for me to acknowledge the step forward that was
made in 2019 by this Government in publishing, for the first time, their national approach to mass
atrocity prevention. While this fell a great deal short of a national strategy—which this Committee,
the UK Civil Society Atrocity Prevention Working Group and my organization, Protection
Approaches have long called for—it did set out that atrocity prevention was a matter for the MOD,
FCO and for DFID. It set out tools and related agendas that showed how Whitehall thinks about
This is an important step, which I would like to welcome and acknowledge, but without any co-
ordinating mechanism, without any resources, and without it being anyone’s job, it is very hard to
see how this approach has any legs. While we are in a better place today than we were in 2018—
and perhaps the last time that I was with the Committee to give oral evidence—there is still a long
way to go.
I will end by saying that perhaps the FCO-DFID merger, however it came to pass, certainly brings an
opportunity to reimagine what the architectures tasked with upholding that approach to atrocity
prevention could look like. However, that requires a lot of work.
Q54 Chair: Ms. Reindorp, what is your take on this? You have done a lot of work in conflict prevention in
the past. Do you think this is too conflated with atrocity prevention? Do you think we should look at
both together or separately?
Nicola Reindorp: If I may—I hope this will not necessarily be the format of this—I will say a couple of
things more simply than Kate but echoing them. To go back to why this matters, let us just remember
the ingredients. For anything to happen in Government or in the world requires political will—to see
that something matters as a priority. If you want to prevent anything, first and foremost, you need
political leadership and you need the bureaucratic requirement that it is a priority. I will come back to
understanding why, politically, I think that matters.
Kate, as ever, cogently talked through those other pieces. This is a priority, so let us have an
effective early warning system that knows what we are looking for. We have an interdepartmental
process that brings the relevant players to the table. Remember, it is the same thing as for diversity:
you need different people with different lenses thinking through and analysing the problem, then
thinking about what tools we are going to use. You need good tools and capabilities to be able to
prevent atrocity or conflict, and you want to be able to do that effectively with others in a multilateral
system and in a consistent way. Consistency is core to effectiveness.
If we go back to the political piece, what do I think, and what does Crisis Action see—this is a personal view and one of our partners—is the core to why Britain is being inconsistent, piecemeal and inadequate in the prevention of both atrocities and conflict? It is in the sense that it needs to be a political priority and for there to be political leadership at the highest levels through Departments that recognises that it is core to Britain’s interest, and that the occurrence of atrocities outside of conflict can be an indicator of instability that threatens trade and prosperity. It is a threat to our interest because we need to be, and have been—the best of Britain has been—at the forefront of upholding and creating an international system of laws and rules.
We were at the forefront, and I led the campaign in the United Nations for Oxfam, of getting agreement about the responsibility to protect. Remember that core notion: sovereignty brings responsibility. You are not entitled, in the 21st century, to do whatever you want to your domestic population. All Governments—the largest gathering ever of world leaders— came together to say that we have a national responsibility to protect our own populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes, and that we have an obligation first and foremost to our own populations.
There is that sense that it is in Britain’s interest to prevent atrocities. It is also core to our values and is part of our history, as with tackling the genocidal regime in the second world war. Let us remember that the worst of the atrocities, Kristallnacht, was outside of the context of an armed conflict at the time. The Rwandan genocide was kicked off not in the context of an armed conflict. So again, it is core to Britain’s values.
Finally, it is who we are as Brits. Children anywhere matter. If we can seek to help someone, we do. If we can protect the most vulnerable, at risk of the worst crimes, as my friend Jo Cox wrote, “It is how history judges us.” So I would recap the sense that, as Kate has laid out, there are bureaucratic changes that we need to happen, but at its core is the recognition of how fundamental the obligation is to protect and prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes—the gravest crimes that can occur outside of conflict situations. The beginnings of the Holocaust showed us that. Rwanda, Myanmar—there are distinct situations where identity-based violence, the insurgence of hate speech and the incitement of crimes against individuals take place outside of a situation of armed conflict.
Dr Ferguson: May I add something on the problem of conflating conflict prevention with atrocity prevention, to build on everything that Nicola has said? Although most incidents of modern mass atrocity occur in the context of armed conflict, a very significant minority do not. Although we can debate the numbers, roughly a third of modern atrocities, modern genocides and crimes against humanity take place in so-called peacetime. It is probably better to say that they occur outside of situations of hot armed conflict. The reason that we are here today, of course, is because of this important inquiry looking at the terrible crimes that are happening in Xinjiang. That is explicitly and very clearly an example of modern mass atrocities that are occurring outside a situation of armed conflict, ergo the approaches of conflict prevention can easily be seen to be inappropriate or ineffective in that context. It is very explicit for all to see that conflict prevention will not work in this context. Unfortunately, for far too long in the United Kingdom there has been this assumption that atrocity prevention is being done through conflict prevention.
To really underline that point, there is another false premise here. Unfortunately, for many, many people in the UK Government who I come into contact with, there is this sense that armed conflict leads to genocide and crimes against humanity, and there is therefore the idea that atrocity prevention is something that follows on from conflict prevention. That simply is not true. Certainly, we know that the instability and impact of war can have a radicalising effect, and we know that it can be a useful smokescreen for other manifestations of violence, but genocide and crimes against humanity do not just happen. They are not the unfortunate consequences or by-products of instability or war. Genocide and crimes against humanity have a political logic; they serve a purpose for those who perpetrate them. They are intentionally committed. The Holocaust and the second world war were related but distinct processes of violence.
That is such an important thing to remember, yet to me it seems quite absent from the way the UK understands atrocities. Actually, perhaps even more importantly, mass atrocities themselves are often a driver of modern conflict in our world today. Look at what is happening in Syria. The catastrophe in Syria over the past decade is not the product of a war in which atrocities have been committed. Instead, it is the result of a campaign of atrocities that then provoked war and other forms of violence. Despite this sense that war and identity-based violence might sometimes overlap, they are distinct violent phenomena, so they necessarily require sometimes related but necessarily distinct strategies of prevention and punishment.
The reason for that is that it is very, very hard. Genocide and crimes against humanity are crimes about prejudice, exclusion, discrimination, injustice and grievance. They are very often about the deliberate targeting of civilian populations or groups because of how perpetrators see or manipulate an aspect of their identity. We know that they are predictable and can sometimes be preventable, but we have to acknowledge the root of where those different forms of violence come from, and the roots of genocide and crimes against humanity are different from the roots of war. The warning signs of genocide and crimes against humanity are different from the warning signs of armed conflict. Yet at the moment, the UK’s approach to atrocity prevention, such as it is, has been merged to such an extent that it is indistinguishable from conflict prevention. That is why the UK has been too late to come to the table when it comes to the detention of populations in Xinjiang: because it does not have the answers.
Chair: Thank you very much. Chris, do you want to come in on this?
Chris Bryant: To be honest, the question I was going to ask has been covered, thanks.
Q55 Graham Stringer: What is the best example of success in atrocity prevention that this country has been part of?
Dr. Ferguson: The long pause there may be illustrative of something. I can take a stab, but I am sure Nicola is really well placed to come at this. One of the problems, when you talk about prevention, is that you do not necessarily notice what has been prevented—that is sometimes a difficulty. Unfortunately, no enormous cases leap to the mind of situations where the UK has taken a lead unless perhaps you look at peace in Northern Ireland, say. I would consider that an example of a situation in which atrocity risks were high and atrocities had been ongoing and that peace process has led to an absence of atrocities and to constrictive peace building.
I think there was a collective response from the international community following election violence in Kenya some years ago, and the UK, while not leading, was certainly prominent and present in those discussions.
There are certainly more well-documented instances where other states have had a conscious strategy and understanding of the principles of atrocity prevention where their efforts have been effectively implemented, to the extent that they have been credited with reducing atrocity risks. The US’s Atrocities Prevention Board and its actions in the Central African Republic in 2014-15 are a good example. In a slightly different way, the national mechanism of genocide and atrocity prevention in Tanzania is credited with having a very effective impact in reducing group tensions and the likelihood of violence in its own country.
Q56 Graham Stringer: Those are all relatively small or not very economically powerful countries. Do we have to take a completely different approach to an economically powerful and large country like China—well, China specifically, not “like China”?
Nicola Reindorp: Without wanting to be glib, I would suggest the short answer is “Don’t take a different approach”, because consistency here is really important. As with any Government, if Britain is not consistent in how we demonst