It is trite, but true, that the vast majority of politicians from across the spectrum go into politics to try to make the world a better place. Their vision may be inspired by a personal struggle, or the experiences of their family members, or indeed the injustices they see in their communities and across the globe. For many, that early sense of the importance of politics, democracy and values is furthered by lessons taught at school about our past.
School classes focusing on the horrors of war, the easy unravelling of protective constitutional rules leading to unimaginable violence and acts of persecution and genocide often develop a burning desire in children to ensure that it never happens again. The reality, as one grows older and reads beyond the rather narrow school curriculum, is that the horrors of genocide are happening today in front of our very eyes, although not often covered sufficiently by our parochial media.
It is, then, always deeply disappointing when politicians do not grasp at the opportunity to confront regimes committing genocide. This week the government had an opportunity to adopt a simple measure that would have been a significant step forward in ensuring we never turn a blind eye. On Tuesday, the House of Lords inflicted a crushing defeat on the government by voting for a second time to amend a trade bill giving British courts a role in determining whether a country is committing genocide. The catalyst is the growing demand for the government to take a tougher stance on China and the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Government ministers continue to oppose.
The amendment, proposed by Lord Alton, actually has its origins in the genocidal crimes committed against the Yazidis by the Islamic state in Northern Iraq in around 2015. Thousands of Yazidi women were forced into sexual slavery and thousands of men were slaughtered. Overall, IS actions led to half a million Yazidi refugees. Despite the evidence of genocidal behaviour being clear for all to see, the government refused to formally declare the actions a genocide.
The position David Cameron took was that it is a matter for the courts to decide, not politicians, because ‘genocide’ is a term with weight in international law under Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (aka the ‘Geneva Convention’). Cameron said:
“It is not for the government to be to be prosecutor, judge and jury… Not only are the courts the best place to judge criminal matters but their impartiality also ensures the protection of the UK government from the politicisation and controversies that attach themselves to the question of ‘Genocide’.”
This is undeniably true: the best arena for the assessment of evidence as to the committing of genocide (defined within the Geneva Convention) is not in a political interview, or the House of Commons, but a court of law. Lord Alton’s amendment attempts to give this effect. The amendment to the trade bill provides for a British court to rule on whether a country has broken its obligations under the Genocide Convention and, importantly, whether we might break our obligations by concluding a trade agreement with the relevant country. Essentially, the amendment ensures the UK government complies with its obligations under international law on genocide before entering into trade deals.
The government’s opposition has been characteristically limp. Their defence has two key strands. The first is that it may cause diplomatic difficulties and frustrate foreign policy. It is not always unreasonable to consider the effect of an amendment that constrains executive action on foreign affairs (notoriously an area that many feel should be beyond the reaches of court review). But it is a pathetic response in the context of genocide.
As Lord Alton said, with evidence of the Chinese state being complicit in the destruction of a people’s identity, in mass surveillance, in forced labour and enforced slavery, in the uprooting of people, in the destruction of communities and families, in the prevention of births, in the ruination of cemeteries, in the ‘re-education’ of people to believe that their religion and culture never existed, with mass incarceration and killings, and broad ethno-religious cleansing, what diplomatic difficulty is not worth the trouble for standing up against these horrors?
The second plank of the government’s argument is that a domestic court is unable to hear a case on such an issue. This is palpable nonsense. Unfortunately for the government, the House of Lords is full of members with impressive legal acumen to counteract this proposition. The amendment was supported by former Labour and Conservative Lord Chancellors and QCs. A former Supreme Court Judge, Lord Hope, told the House that “any idea that this is not a matter for the courts really is misplaced”, before going on to comment that the current enforcement mechanisms for the Geneva Convention currently lack sufficient bite.
The reality is this government worries that the amendment would constrain its ability to complete trade deals. It comes down to money. In a written answer, the government minister noted that “China is an important trading partner for the UK and we are pursuing increased bilateral trade”. Is this the vision our government has for ‘Global Britain’, cutting deals whilst turning a blind eye to our moral obligations? Is this what ministers went into politics to achieve?
It is important to add that this is not a wholly party-political issue. Many Conservatives, including two former foreign secretaries and their former leader Iain Duncan Smith, support the amendment and have spoken out against their party’s formal position. Preventing genocide is surely one area of policy that should sit above the fray of day-to-day battle. It remains to be seen whether Tory MPs will follow their conscience and force the government to ultimately change its position.
Lord Alton’s speech in parliament finished on this sombre note, quoting Judge Buergenthal who was incarcerated as a young boy in Auschwitz:
“The human mind is simply not able to grasp this terrible truth: a nation transformed into a killing machine programmed to destroy millions of innocent beings for no reason other than that they were different… One cannot hope to protect mankind from crimes such as those that were visited upon us unless one struggles to break the cycle of hatred and violence that invariably leads to ever more suffering by innocent human beings.”
It is difficult to imagine listening to these words, studying the proposed amendment, and deciding to vote against.