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24.10.22
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Dangerous liaisons: the United Kingdom's policing partnerships with China and Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan police officers in action during a protest in Colombo City, 29th January 2021 © Shutterstock

End of August, outgoing UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet confirmed what human rights groups, Uyghur activists and survivors themselves have been saying for years: the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang “may amount to crimes against humanity.”

China’s attempts to obscure the reality of the persecution of mostly Muslim populations in Xinjiang and pass off repression as ‘counter-terrorism’, have failed, inspiring outspoken condemnation from the international community, not least the UK. The former UK Foreign secretary has described torture on “an industrial scale”, while outgoing Prime Minister Liz Truss has promised a tougher stance on China’s human rights violations under her leadership.

However, these bold words have not been matched by actions. Despite some apparently laudable moves, including issuing guidance for UK businesses at risk of complicity in human rights violations through their dealings with China, a recent investigation by Freedom from Torture revealed that the UK government was simultaneously using UK aid money to fund a partnership between a private UK policing college and Chinese police trainers.

Despite major red flags, formal processes designed to ensure scrutiny and oversight of potential human rights risks in the UK’s overseas security assistance were not implemented.

Freedom from Torture’s investigation uncovered evidence that at least one of the Chinese partners in the UK project was directly cooperating with Xinjiang Police College, an entity sanctioned by the USA for its role in human rights violations in the region. Despite major red flags raised by policing partnerships with China at a time of mass repression, formal processes designed to ensure scrutiny and oversight of potential human rights risks in the UK’s overseas security assistance were not implemented.

This partnership is particularly concerning in light of the Chinese government’s euphemistically titled “Xinjiang Aid” programme, which enables the State to deploy police from across the country to the region, meaning that UK-trained police from any part of China could bolster China’s repressive apparatus in Xinjiang.

In April 2022, following notification of Freedom from Torture’s investigation and intention to publish, the UK policing college leading the project announced the suspension of its policing partnerships with China. But these partnerships should never have gone ahead in the first place.

The failure to follow required checks for human rights risks might suggest that this is a one-off - that this project slipped through a net that is effective when utilised. However, a separate example of UK police training for Sri Lanka indicates that even when the required processes for human rights oversight are followed, they may be inadequate.

For the Sri Lankan government, its relationship with Police Scotland seemed to provide more of a smokescreen for abuses than an opportunity to improve standards.

At the end of 2021 following a fifteen-year engagement, Police Scotland announced they were suspending their training partnership with Sri Lanka’s Police Force. This followed a campaign by several concerned NGOs, including Freedom from Torture, calling for an end to the training. Sri Lankan survivors of torture in the UK were at the forefront of the campaign.

Sri Lanka’s police force has long been associated with deaths in custody, torture, and killings. When the security forces’ record was called into question by the UN Committee Against Torture, Sri Lankan representatives referred to training police Scotland in its defence. No significant security sector reform had taken place in Sri Lanka during 15 years of Police Scotland training. For the Sri Lankan government, its relationship with Police Scotland seemed to provide more of a smokescreen for abuses than an opportunity to improve standards.

However, unlike the China policing partnerships, there were no obvious errors in the process. The UK government’s required “Overseas Security and Justice Assistance” (OSJA) assessment, apparently designed to identify potential risks to human rights in overseas security assistance, was undertaken. Though the guidance purports to ensure that the UK’s overseas security and justice work is based on so-called “British values, including human rights and democracy”, the Sri Lanka partnership raises questions about whether other considerations may prevail in decision-making on these matters. Allowing the bolstering of political ties to take precedence over human rights concerns could also be one reason why the content of OSJAs remains such a closely guarded secret.

Freedom from Torture has called on the UK government to declare an end to all Chinese policing partnerships

Under significant public pressure, Police Scotland eventually did the right thing and halted their Sri Lanka partnership. But the Westminster Government which funded and instigated it has not yet confirmed that the training won’t be transferred to another police force. Sri Lanka is currently in the midst of enormous political and economic upheaval and citizens exercising their right to peacefully protest policies that have resulted in economic collapse have been brutally assaulted.

Britain’s shadowy partnerships with police in torturing states are a serious human rights concern. In partnership with Uyghur activist groups, Freedom from Torture has called on the UK government to declare an end to all Chinese policing partnerships and for greater transparency in the management of human rights risks linked to overseas security assistance. Concerned parliamentarians have added their voice to the campaign.

UK training for overseas police may be beneficial in raising human rights standards - when the political will exists to do so.

Actions speak louder than words. If the UK government’s claims that respect for human rights is a central consideration of its overseas security relationships are sincere, collaborations with the security apparatus of torturing States must stop.

Furthermore, the UK government should take a broad, pro-active anti-torture stance in its international engagement. By emphasising that human rights standards have a direct impact on its participation in international trade agreements and other partnerships, the UK can positively develop environments conducive to enabling human rights. UK training for overseas police may be beneficial in raising human rights standards - when the political will exists to do so. However, in environments where torture is systematically used to silence dissent, initiatives ostensibly designed to raise standards are likely to, at best, fail and, at worst, be used for political propaganda. The message from the UK must be loud and clear. Torture will never be tolerated.

Roslyn Rennie is the Accountability Campaign Manager at Freedom from Torture, a UK-based human rights organisation member of the OMCT's SOS-Torture Network.

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