At the start of February, the BBC released an investigative bombshell exposing sexual violence against Uighur women in Chinese concentration camps. The accounts detailing systematic rape and torture highlight part of a campaign of oppression against the 12 million Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang province, which the US has officially called a genocide.

The BBC expose has sent shockwaves across the planet, prompting outrage from the UK in the face of Chinese denials that reveal blatant disregard for international law – and touching off an exchange of duelling sanctions between London and Beijing. Coordinating with allies in the EU, US, and Canada, the British government has slapped coordinated sanctions on state-connected Chinese companies as well as senior Chinese officials. China, in turn, has implemented retaliatory sanctions on UK politicians including MPs Iain Duncan Smith and Tom Tugendhat, as well as David Alton and Helena Kennedy in the House of Lords.

While Duncan Smith said the Chinese sanctions were a “badge of honour,” the tit-for-tat over China’s treatment of ethnic minorities has also exposed inconsistencies in the UK’s approach to tackling sexual violence worldwide. Could attention to the plight of the Uighurs present an opportunity to address the enduring impact of other episodes of sexual violence as well?


The UK takes a stand against Chinese state violence

Although ongoing issues over Brexit and the country’s track record on Covid-19 have tarnished global perceptions of the UK, the willingness of British leaders to take a stand against Chinese violations of international law, both on China’s own soil and overseas, offers an opportunity for Britain to claim a new mantle of global leadership – if it is willing to dedicate the energy and resources needed to turn statements of principle into concrete policy.

The UK already announced new rules back in January banning Chinese imports suspected of using forced labour in Uighur camps. While the government ramps up sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes on key Chinese officials, London will also host an unofficial “people’s tribunal” later this year focused on China’s anti-Uighur policies.

In a similar vein, the British government has ramped up its opposition to China’s brutal authoritarian push in Hong Kong. The UK placed an arms embargo and banned extraditions to the territory after Chinese authorities cracked down on protests and imposed harsh new security laws last summer. A new visa scheme allows Hong Kong residents eligible for British National (Overseas) passports to come to the UK and apply for fast-tracked UK citizenship, angering Beijing but drawing plaudits from human rights advocates.

Britain speaking out against overseas state violence – especially sexual violence of the sort deployed by the Chinese state against the Uighurs – is vitally important now, as Covid-19 distracts attention from humanitarian issues. As Nobel Prize winner and sexual slavery survivor Nadia Murad warns, the pandemic has in some cases even exacerbated problems such as sexual violence, sexual slavery, and global sex trafficking.


Historic crimes in Vietnam – a forgotten concern?

That context makes the global outcry over the plight of China’s Uighur population all the more important, but the BBC’s role in uncovering sexual violence in Xinjiang also echoes another exhaustive investigation the broadcaster conducted into systematic rapes and sexual abuse perpetrated by an East Asian government. Like the report on Uighur women, the BBC’s story gave voice to harrowing first-person accounts – only this time, the witnesses were survivors of crimes that occurred over 50 years ago in Vietnam.

As the BBC uncovered, soldiers deployed by South Korea during the Vietnam War were responsible for committing widespread sexual violence targeting Vietnamese women and girls. Over 300,000 Korean troops supported US soldiers in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s; according to campaigners, up to 9,000 South Vietnamese civilians were killed and many thousands more were raped by the South Korean military. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese children, known in Vietnamese as “Lai Dai Han”, are believed to have been born as a result of the mass rapes. The Guardian found around 800 survivors were still alive as of 2019.

Despite moves to acknowledge war crimes committed in Vietnam by US troops, both South Korea and Vietnam have swept Seoul’s wartime actions under the rug. Vietnamese survivors and South Korean activists are battling to shed light on this forgotten history and secure justice for survivors, with groups such as Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH) campaigning to draw international attention to this brutal legacy.

A number of UK politicians, such as former foreign secretary Jack Straw, have spoken out on behalf of the JLDH, but the issue has not received the concerted involvement the British government has undertaken in regards to other episodes of sexual violence. Given the UK’s close relations with South Korea and its global engagement on the issue, more concrete involvement would boost South Korean and Vietnamese civil society organisations that continue to advocate for accountability to this day.


Allegations against Britain’s own troops

Of course, to truly lead, the UK must also take a clear-eyed view of its own past, and not shirk from investigating allegations levied against British troops. Sadly, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been accused of covering up war crimes allegedly committed by British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the government closed official inquiries into abuse allegations in 2017, a year-long investigation by BBC Panorama and the Sunday Times has since uncovered fresh evidence from witnesses.

Though the new evidence covers not just the killing of dozens of civilians but also of violence, torture, and sexual abuse of detainees allegedly carried out by British troops, the MoD never re-opened the inquiry. Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found evidence British troops did commit war crimes in Iraq – including murder and sexual abuse – but decided not to pursue a case against the UK government. The inconclusive outcome does a disservice to victims who expect a democracy to hold alleged perpetrators accountable.

While the UK has been admirable in speaking out and taking action against sexual violence against the Uighurs in Xinjiang, more clearly needs to be done. As a starting point, the government should be acting on recommendations from the ICAI on its landmark Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, ensuring the Foreign Office carries on the gender equality work of the Department for International Development (DFID) after last year’s merger between the two.

If the UK can maintain its commitment to put survivors first, it can make a real impact in tackling worldwide sexual violence.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of