Never Again: The UK’s Responsibility to Act on Atrocities in Xinjiang and Beyond Contents

2The multilateral system

Box 2: Submission from a Uyghur relative

Both of my parents are University graduates, they don’t need any ‘education’. Both of them have been working in their respective workplace for over 25 years … they don’t need ‘vocational training’. My parents speak fluent Mandarin … they don’t need to ‘learn Mandarin’.

Source: Confidential


12.China’s influence is global, and it commands a great deal of support through formal international institutions and informal coalitions. The voice of the Chinese people is essential in a connected world and the role of Chinese diplomats and civil actors is essential in charting a shared future. This should not allow the Communist Party of China to reject the rights that were crafted by previous representatives from Beijing. Nor should it mean that multilateral organisations, including the UN, are unable to act on Xinjiang. The evidence we heard indicates that, while many options are limited, there are viable avenues for holding the Chinese government to account. In many cases, the influence of China and the nature of its relationship with multilateral institutions will require a more creative and innovative approach from the UK Government.

13.China’s refusal to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, its right to veto in the United Nations Security Council (see Box 3), and its reservation against Article IX of the Genocide Convention5 mean that the Government’s longstanding policy that international courts have sole responsibility to determine genocide is ineffective in addressing the most serious crimes. Frustration with the paralysis of the international legal system has led legislators in the US, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK,6 Lithuania, and the Czech Republic to make declarations of genocide of their own. The Government should accept Parliament’s view that Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang are suffering genocide and crimes against humanity, and take action to bring these crimes to an end.

Box 3: Explainer: United Nations Security Council Right to Veto

The most powerful branch of the United Nations, the Security Council, has five ‘Permanent Members’: the UK, United States, France, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China. All five Permanent Members have the right to veto, meaning that they can automatically vote down any Security Council resolution or decision. This leaves the prospect of action through the Security Council highly unlikely. However, there are other UN mechanisms which may be used.

Source: United Nations Security Council, Voting System, accessed 10 June 2021

14.Whether genocide, crimes against humanity, or crimes of any other name, the atrocities in Xinjiang represent an international crisis of profound urgency, making it unconscionable for any civilised government to look the other way. Minister for Asia, Nigel Adams MP, has expressly stated this view.7 In January 2021, the Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons:

It would frankly be absurd for any Government to wait for the human rights situation in a country to reach the level of genocide, which is the most egregious international crime, before halting free trade agreement negotiations. Any responsible Government would have acted well before then.8

15.In the Government’s own words, there is a serious need to act even in the absence of a genocide determination. Both the UK and the wider international community have a responsibility to hold the Chinese government to account for its inhumane and abhorrent actions against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups. Doing so will require action through the UN system, through public and private diplomatic pressure, and by building coalitions to support the Uyghurs and other groups facing repression in Xinjiang.

The United Nations

Box 4: UK Statement at the UN Human Rights Council, 30 June 2020

A number of the signatories to this statement submitted a letter last year to express concern about arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. These deep concerns have been reinforced by additional information now in the public domain. We urge China to allow the High Commissioner [for Human Rights] meaningful access to Xinjiang at the earliest opportunity.

Source:, UN Human Rights Council 44: Cross-regional statement on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, 30 June 2020

16.Representatives of the UK and other countries have made a number of statements at the UN condemning the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang. We welcome the fact that international support for such statements is growing (see Table 1).

Table 1: Growing support for statements condemning policies in Xinjiang at the UN

Venue and date

United Nations Third Committee, October 2019 (UK)

United Nations Human Rights Council, June 2020 (UK)

United Nations Third Committee, October 2020 (Germany)

United Nations Human Rights Council, June 2021 (Canada)

Number of countries supporting





Source: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (XIN0059) para 5;, UN Human Rights Council 47: Joint statement on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, 22 June 2021

17.The UK’s use of the UN as a platform to call out these actions is commendable but has proved ineffective so far. More frequent, more sustained, and more targeted pressure is needed to deliver greater impact, both in terms of maintaining pressure on the Chinese government and keeping public attention on the issue. The only acceptable outcome of these efforts is the complete dissolution of the re-education camps, the dismantling of the ethnically targeted surveillance state in Xinjiang (explored further in Chapter 6), and an end to the forced labour programmes. The UK should call directly for the immediate disbandment of the internment camp system in Xinjiang, the cessation of forced sterilisation of women and separation of children, and an end to mass forced labour programmes such as Xinjiang Aid.

18.While we have no doubt that mass atrocities are occurring in Xinjiang, some states unfortunately say that they require further proof. We believe that calling on the Chinese government to accept international observers and investigations remains an effective way of applying pressure. Public criticism of the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy has led to a changing narrative—while at first the government denied the existence of the camps, it later changed its story to describe them as ‘re-education centres’.9 It is an unreliable witness to its own abuses. The UK Government should increase pressure on the Chinese government to allow international observers access to Xinjiang, especially the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Government should use every opportunity it has at UN organs, summits, and treaty bodies to raise the issue. To do this, the UK should engage more closely with partners and those nations not currently taking action to ensure support on UN votes and statements.

19.Even if the Chinese government continues to deny international observers access to Xinjiang, there is a great deal of evidence that can be used to verify the extent of the crimes being committed there, as shown by the volume of evidence we received from Uyghurs as well as the recent hearings of the Uyghur Tribunal.1011 Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, suggested the possibility of an investigation continuing outside of China.12 The UK can also use its Human Rights Council seat to push for other types of investigations, such as a Commission of Inquiry.131415 If the Chinese government continues to stall and prevent in-country investigations, the UK should propose a Human Rights Council motion that the High Commissioner for Human Rights conduct an investigation into the atrocities in Xinjiang from outside of China. The Government should also explore the prospect of a Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry.

Box 5: Explainer: UN Treaty Bodies

The United Nations human rights treaty bodies monitor countries’ work to protect the human rights of certain groups (e.g. children) and on certain themes (e.g. protection from torture). Many have the ability to hear and assess complaints against the states which are committing human rights violations.

Source: United Nations Human Rights, Human Rights Treaty Bodies, accessed 2 June 2021

20.Besides the primary UN organs, the Government should consider using UN treaty bodies as avenues of accountability. While the Chinese government does not accept the authority of the dispute resolution procedures of most UN treaty bodies,16 Beijing has not entered a reservation against the dispute resolution mechanism (Article 11) of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.17 The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination provides a viable avenue through which the UK Government, with others, may hold the Chinese government accountable, and another forum through which likeminded countries can draw attention to and pursue accountability for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. We recommend that the Government urgently raise a complaint against China to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

21.There are further measures that can be taken through the multilateral system. Special sessions of the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have provided fora for the discussion of the most pressing issues of our times, including Apartheid in 1989, HIV/AIDS in 2001, and Covid-19 in 2020.1819 While Beijing can veto resolutions and votes at the Security Council, it has no such power at the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council, where resolutions are agreed by simple majority. The Government has not ruled out the possibility of a special session, and should translate the growing support for its UN statements into action.2021 We recommend that the UK moves for special sessions of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Council to find solutions to the crisis in Xinjiang.


22.The Government should explore the viability of holding the Chinese government accountable through the international legal system, through institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). We have heard that, although accountability options through the ICC are limited due to China not being a state party to the Rome Statute, the Prosecutor22 may initiate an investigation on their own volition (called a proprio motu investigation), if the Court finds it has the territorial jurisdiction to do so.23 We recommend that the Government engages in dialogue with the International Criminal Court about the feasibility of a proprio motu investigation into crimes committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and beyond.

23.The collection and preservation of evidence will be essential for future accountability for these crimes. We recommend that the Government allocate funding for the creation of an international mechanism for collecting evidence on the crimes in Xinjiang, and provides further resources to help locate and record the details of those who have gone missing under the Chinese Communist Party’s internment system so that they do not remain nameless victims.

Building coalitions

24.Any action taken through multilateral institutions and agreements should be done in concert with likeminded countries. We welcome the 2021 Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communiqué in which member states committed to calling on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Xinjiang.24 The UK should continue to undertake such work through the G7 and other multilateral networks such as the Commonwealth. This will improve the chances of having an impact on a country as large and influential as China and avoid running a “one-country crusade”.252627 The ‘D10’ model of democratic countries is a good starting point for coalition-building but cannot be the limit—significant diplomatic efforts should also be focused on states in Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. The Government should lead efforts to create a more consistent coalition of democratic countries to coordinate action on Xinjiang through the UN and other institutions.

25.Many countries, including a significant number from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, do not speak out against the atrocities in Xinjiang due to their economic relationships with the Chinese government.28 We welcome the G7 announcement of the Build Back Better World (B3W) Initiative, a global infrastructure development project based on values and good governance. This alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative offers an excellent opportunity to counter the Chinese government’s illiberal influence and to uphold decent working conditions for all. We recommend that the Government commits financial and bureaucratic resources to ensuring future Build Back Better World projects meet all internationally recognised standards, including on labour rights, environmental measures, and transparency.

2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

26.As part of its efforts to accumulate global power and influence, the Chinese government seeks international recognition.29 Condemnation of the atrocities in Xinjiang poses a credible threat to China’s prestige and soft power, evidenced by the Chinese government’s changing narrative on the camps. Public condemnation, not closed-door diplomacy, will have the greatest impact.30 The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics offer another opportunity to question the Chinese government’s ability to act as a global leader and to ‘name and shame’ for its crimes in Xinjiang.3132 In oral evidence, the Minister for Asia, Nigel Adams MP, declined to give a view, suggesting that this was the competency of the British Olympic Association.33 Charles Parton, Associate Fellow at RUSI, suggested that an alternative to a boycott of the Winter Olympics would be to “make them cost” in terms of sponsorships, reputation, and prestige.34

27.If the British Olympic Association and competing teams decide not to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the Government should not attend and should urge others not to do so. The Government should suggest the British Olympic Association does not participate in the opening or closing ceremonies, beyond one representative carrying the Union Flag. It should abstain from sending government officials to any ceremonies or functions, strongly discourage UK businesses from sponsoring or advertising at the Olympics, encourage fans and tourists to stay away, and discourage athletes from supporting or accepting the Chinese government’s propaganda efforts while in-country.


28.We welcome the Government’s decision in March 2021 to impose sanctions on those who bear responsibility for the atrocities in Xinjiang in coordination with the United States, EU, and Canada.35 Other countries have gone further with their sanctions—for example, through placing sanctions on Communist Party Secretary of the XUAR Chen Quanguo, who is widely regarded as the ‘architect’ of the atrocities.36 For sanctions to be effective, they must be used in full coordination with allies and against those with whom ultimate responsibility for the Xinjiang atrocities lies. We recommend that the Government intensify efforts to coordinate sanctions with allies to consistently sanction senior individuals and entities with the most responsibility for or connection to abuses in Xinjiang.


29.There is a need to act on the widespread cultural destruction in Xinjiang. According to Dr Simon Adams of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the Chinese government is “systematically destroying the cultural underpinnings of the Uyghur people”, for example through bulldozing and modifying mosques.37 This claim is supported by research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which found that thousands of mosques have been destroyed by the Chinese government.38 The preservation and protection of culture is the responsibility of UNESCO, which says it works to promote “cultural heritage and equal dignity of all cultures”.39

30.From written correspondence, it became clear to us that UNESCO is failing to deliver on its mandate to safeguard cultural heritage in Xinjiang, where thousands of mosques have reportedly been demolished by the Chinese government.40 In a letter, the Committee Chair raised concerns about the widespread destruction of Uyghur and Islamic heritage and identity in Xinjiang. UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, said that UNESCO had “no reports of any damage to the inscribed World Heritage properties located in the Xinjiang Province [sic]”.41 In focusing only on World Heritage sites,42 this response deliberately sidesteps the widespread and credible reports of the destruction of thousands of mosques in Xinjiang and the active crackdown on Uyghur and Islamic cultural practices.

31.UNESCO’s response was wilfully disingenuous, showing complete disregard for the destruction of Uyghur culture and heritage. This casts serious doubt on the credibility of UNESCO. It also raises the question of how much influence illiberal states exert over UNESCO, its World Heritage Committee, and its coordinating Bureau, of which a senior Communist Party of China official is the Chairperson. Besides China, Bahrain, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are World Heritage Committee Members.43 These countries have all publicly supported the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policies at the United Nations.44 The UK Government should push for an urgent, independent review of UNESCO’s investigatory powers and processes, and formally request that the organisation pursue its mandate with determination and commitment. The UK should adopt a policy of coordinating with allies to block and reduce the influence of the worst human rights-abusing countries on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

5 Under Article IX of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention), any state accused of failing in its responsibility to prevent and punish genocide may be referred to the International Court of Justice by another state party to the Genocide Convention. China has made a reservation against Article IX, meaning it does not consider itself bound by this article.

6 HC Deb, 22 April 2021, col 1211 [Commons Chamber] “Resolved, That this House believes that Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are suffering crimes against humanity and genocide; and calls on the Government to act to fulfil its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide and all relevant instruments of international law to bring it to an end.”

7 Q258 [Nigel Adams MP]

8 HC Deb, 12 January 2021, col 164 [Commons Chamber]

9 Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (XIN0059) para 8

10 Uyghur Tribunal, About, accessed 7 June 2021: “an independent people’s tribunal to investigate ‘ongoing atrocities and possible Genocide’ against the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim Populations.”

12 Q171 [Sophie Richardson]

13 A Commission of Inquiry is a UN mechanism used to investigate serious violations of international humanitarian and international human rights law. Commissions of Inquiry have previously been established to investigate issues in Burundi and Syria.

15 Anonymous (XIN0079) para 1

16 Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (XIN0083) para 9

17 Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (XIN0083) para 10

18 General Assembly of the United Nations, Special Sessions, accessed 27 May 2021

20 Q260 [Nigel Adams]

22 The ICC officer responsible for investigating crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity.

23 Global Rights Compliance (XIN0065) p 2

24 G7 UK 2021, Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communique, para 49

25 Q43 [Fionnuala Ní Aoláin]

28 Q227 [Azeem Ibrahim]

29 The Rights Practice (XIN0064) para 6

30 Q47 [Nury Turkel]

31 Q220 [Charles Parton]

33 Q240 [Nigel Adams]

34 Q220 [Charles Parton]

35 Q239 [Nigel Adams]

37 Q68 [Simon Adams]

38 Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Cultural Erasure, accessed 9 June 2021

39 UNESCO, UNESCO in brief—Mission and Mandate, accessed 10 June 2021

40 Q214 [Peter Irwin]

41 Correspondence with UNESCO, 18 February 2021 and 5 March 2021.

42 To be considered for inclusion in the World Heritage list, sites must meet certain criteria. UNESCO’s response indicated that, as no sites meeting these criteria are in danger in Xinjiang, they are not required to act.

43 UNESCO, The World Heritage Committee, accessed 18 June 2021

Published: 8 July 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement