Genocide: Bringing Perpetrators to Justice – Debated in the House of Lords on Thursday 27 May 2021

May 27, 2021 | News

Question for Short Debate 5.45pm

Asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool 

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, in opening this short debate I must declare that I am a patron of the Coalition for Genocide Response, and thank its founders, Luke de Pulford and Dr Ewelina Ochab, for their briefing note. I also thank the Library for its briefing note, and all participants, who will bring great expertise and knowledge to our proceedings. I also serve as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Burma, Uyghurs, Rohingya, and Hong Kong, and as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea.

Dag Hammarskjöld, a truly inspirational Sectary-General of the United Nations, once said that the United Nations 

“was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” 

But as we will hear this evening, from Xinjiang to Burma, from Tigray to Nigeria, from Iraq to Sudan, and in many other parts of the world, the international community has fallen a long way short in saving millions of people from the hell of genocide and from atrocity crimes. While the victims suffer appalling violations, the perpetrators strut the world stage, confident of their impunity and the triumph of mercantile and other interests over our convention duties to prevent, to protect and to prosecute those responsible for these heinous crimes. 

In the post-war years, men such as Raphael Lemkin, and women such as Eleanor Roosevelt, bequeathed the institutions that emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz—notably the International Court of Justice and, later, the International Criminal Court. It is to those bodies that the United Kingdom Government defer, stating as recently as this week, in reply to a Parliamentary Question, that

“The UK is fully committed to honouring its legal obligations under the Genocide Convention. The Government’s longstanding policy is that any judgment on whether genocide has occurred is a matter for competent courts. These include international courts, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, and national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process.” 

But as became clear during our proceedings on the genocide amendment to the Trade Bill, this is simply a convenient sleight of hand, disguising the shameful inability—or perhaps unwillingness—to bring perpetrators of genocide to justice. The Government cannot plausibly offer that response, simultaneously telling us that Russia and China will invariably use their Security Council veto to close routes to the international courts, while the Government themselves close routes to domestic courts.

The all-party genocide amendment to the Trade Bill offered a way out of the cul-de-sac and a route to our national courts, and it was given three-figure majorities in the House but opposed by the Government. My noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead, a former Supreme Court judge, and others, told the House that the current arrangements simply do not work and that our High Court was perfectly capable of adjudicating on whether a genocide is under way. When the proposal came within a whisker of defeat in the Commons, the Government offered the compromise of a committee to examine allegations of genocide. I have given the Minister notice that I would like to know when such a committee will be established to examine whether the Uighurs, for instance, are subject to a genocide. Can he also confirm that, even if a parliamentary committee determines that a genocide is under way, the Government will still not accept such a determination and intend to continue to say that it is just a matter that the courts can determine?

The Committee should note that a legal opinion from Alison Macdonald QC and Essex Court Chambers concluded that there is credible evidence of genocide in Xinjiang. We should also note that, on 22 April, the House of Commons voted to declare the crimes against the Uighurs in Xinjiang to be a genocide. The United States, Canada and European countries such as the Netherlands and Lithuania have all done the same, but not the United Kingdom Government. 

On 27 April, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, appeared before the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence. I asked him whether it was his intention to accept the Commons declaration. In reply, he said that

“Parliament should hold the executive to account on all these matters. That has been our position all along. Our long-standing position is that a court should make judgments on genocide. Fundamentally, genocide creates obligation at the state level”.

Yes, he is right—we have treaty obligations at the state level—but we and others repeatedly fail to meet them, and refuse to reform our domestic and international mechanisms to address this lamentable failure.

When Mr Raab told the committee that he is an “ardent … reformer”, I asked him what we are doing to increase the efficacy of international institutions, to gather support for the proposed code of conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and in combatting genocide. On the code of conduct he said:

“We are a signatory to the accountability, coherence and transparency code of conduct … That allows all members of the Security Council, permanent and non-permanent, to make public commitments not to vote against credible resolutions intended to prevent mass human rights abuses.”

Perhaps the Minister can tell us this evening what progress this proposal is making and whether, realistically, in the absence of support by China or Russia, he honestly believes it will save a single life.

Mr Raab rightly warned the committee about the potential misuse of the word genocide. It is precisely because the definition is exacting that I agree with the Government that a court should evaluate the evidence and make the determination. But there is no point identifying the problem without willing the solution. This has become a circular argument, and it was to break this vicious circle that noble Lords tabled the genocide amendment—and why we are here again today. Voluntary codes of conduct are all very well, but at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Dominic Raab rightly said that what is happening in Xinjiang is “on an industrial scale”. That needs much more than a voluntary code of conduct. The Foreign Secretary told us legislative attempts in both Houses had “shifted the dial.” Perhaps, with the Biden Administration, we can push the dial further. 

We have already worked together on Magnitsky sanctions, announced on 6 July 2020, and for which the Foreign Secretary, and indeed the noble Lord the Minister, deserve credit, but those sanctions are not a response to genocide. I have sent the Minister a recent Financial Times review of Geoffrey Robertson QC’s new book, Bad People. In summary, he argues that the sanctions regime is too opaque and liable to be used against soft targets rather than the worst villains. It does seem passing strange that a functionary such as Chen Quanguo, the CCP party secretary in Tibet and then Xinjiang, remains unsanctioned, as does Carrie Lam, in Hong Kong. Oversight of the Magnitsky sanctions by a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House is urgently needed.

I note, incidentally, as someone who has himself been sanctioned by the CCP for drawing attention to genocide against the Uighurs, that the European Parliament has frozen the EU-China infrastructure deal until sanctions against their parliamentarians are lifted. By contrast, in the UK, our Trade Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, tells us it his ambition to deepen trading links with a state credibly accused of genocide. Let me ask the Minister quite directly: does he think that it is ever licit to seek to deepen trade with a country credibly accused of genocide, or, for that matter, one which uses slave labour? 

Will the Minister also provide a response to the recommendations in the Coalition for Genocide Response briefing? I would especially like a response on what it says about universal jurisdiction; prosecution in UK courts of Daesh fighters for their involvement in the genocide against Yazidis, Christians, gay people and others; and the importance of establishing a mechanism for evidence collection and preservation, about which I have written to the Minister, and which is urgently needed in Tigray, where there are reports of mass graves, rape as a weapon of war, summary executions and the targeting of religious figures—these are all detailed in the briefing provided by CSW to noble Lords. 

It tells us all we need to know that China and Russia blocked attempts to discuss the allegations about what is under way in Tigray at the United Nations Security Council, while the 2016 recommendations of the UN commission of inquiry on Eritrea, which is now embroiled in Tigray, have never been implemented.

Can the Minister also say what we are doing to bring Burma’s illegal junta to justice and, in the light of the atrocities against Rohingya and Kachin, what we are going to do to take forward the Gambia’s admirable decision to pursue the Burmese military at the ICJ?

The dial may be shifting, but it is not fast enough for beleaguered and suffering people in Burma, Tigray, northern Nigeria, Xinjiang and elsewhere. Dag Hammarskjöld’s ambition to create effective mechanisms

“to save humanity from hell”

remains unfulfilled, but we must not throw in the towel. We have clear duties to hold to account those responsible for atrocity crimes and genocide, and in meeting those obligations we must redouble our efforts. Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have entered the list to speak tonight.

5.56pm Baroness Nye (Lab) [V]

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and as a trustee of Burma Campaign UK, I will focus on Burma.

For decades the Tatmadaw has been committing human rights violations that break international law. The impunity it has enjoyed only encouraged further crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The genocidal campaign against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017 caused thousands of deaths, and over 800,000 fled to Bangladesh.

Last year more than 100 parliamentarians of all parties and none, including many in this House, wrote to the Foreign Secretary urging him to formally support the Gambia’s case against Myanmar at the ICJ to protect the Rohingya. Regrettably, the British Government have not fully implemented the recommendations of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, set up in response to the Rohingya genocide as well as the unlawful violations against other ethnic groups in Kachin and Shan states. The letter warned that it was essential to uphold the genocide convention to deter further crimes by the Tatmadaw. Sadly, since then the military has removed the democratically elected NLD Government from office, has imposed military control and is indiscriminately killing Burmese of all ethnicities.

The Minister may reply that the UK has welcomed the Gambia’s case at the ICJ, but he needs to explain why a formal UK intervention may not add value. Furthermore, as a member of the UN Security Council the UK should use its diplomatic standing—especially with our history in Burma, as well as our expertise with the PSVI initiative—to join this action with Canada and the Netherlands. Failure by the UK to show leadership and uphold human rights by formally joining the ICJ case sends a dangerous message that ethnic cleansing and genocide are acceptable tools for repressive Governments around the world. The UK has an historic opportunity to make this a watershed moment in international law, and I hope we take it.

5.58pm Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD) [V]

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for all the work he does in this area and for the passionate way in which he introduced this debate.

I will start with a quote:

“The United States will provide no support or recognition to the International Criminal Court. As far as America is concerned the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.”

Not surprisingly, those are the words of Donald Trump, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. In 2020 President Trump issued a sweeping executive order authorising asset freezing and family bans against Fatou Bensouda, the ICC chief prosecutor, and took away her visa. Trump said that anybody who assists ICC investigations risks the same sanctions. Of course, this has had a broad, chilling effect on co-operation with the ICC.

Trump indicated that his policy of sanctions might extend to allies—specifically Israel—and demanded that the ICC change its course. The ICC prosecutor concluded in December 2019, after examination, that all the statutory criteria to proceed with a formal investigation in Palestine had been met, but the court is currently seeking a ruling on jurisdiction.

Not surprisingly, neither China nor Myanmar submits to the jurisdiction of the ICC, although 123 countries have ratified the Rome statute. The threat of investigation by the ICC prosecutor resulted in a significant change of government policy under the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which was recently before us, when genocide, torture and war crimes were at the last gasp omitted from the presumption against prosecution. That they had ever found their way into that Bill is a disgrace.

The most effective thing that can be done just at the moment to tackle genocide is for this country actively to persuade the Biden Administration to take up the responsibility and to ratify the Rome treaty. Is this happening?

6.00pm Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con) [V]

My Lords, I have joined this debate to show my support for the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who attack the problem of genocide with fantastic energy, and also to urge the Minister to take more notice of what is being said. I urge him to look at the report of yesterday morning’s sitting of the International Relations and Defence Committee, when the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, gave evidence in respect of China.

I find it embarrassing that, as a Government, we say that we want to be global leaders, but we leave it to Lithuania, Canada, the United States and Holland to call out the genocide that is occurring in China. I say to my noble friend that I have a suspicion that the Government would be prepared to do a bilateral trade deal with China even if it were guilty of genocide—so perhaps he will make it absolutely clear that we will never do a bilateral trade deal with any country accused of genocide.

During the passage of the Trade Bill the Government gave a commitment to set up a committee of both Houses. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to that. Why has it not happened, and when will it happen? Last week we were able to put in place 33 committees on the nod—so why have we not been able to set up either a committee of this House or the joint committee proposed by the Government? 

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I agree with every word he said. I hope that the Minister will not come back in this debate and repeat the same arguments about genocide being a matter for the courts, when he knows perfectly well that the perpetrators and those who support them will prevent that being achieved internationally.

6.03pm Baroness Cox (CB) [V]

My Lords, I strongly support the argument made by my noble friend Lord Alton: the failure to hold perpetrators of genocide to account gives them a green light to continue. The failure of the international community to respond to the Armenian genocide emboldened Hitler to embark on the Holocaust, with his infamous remark,

“Who … speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Yet Her Majesty’s Government still refuse to recognise the Armenian genocide and have done nothing to end the impunity with which Turkey and Azerbaijan commit genocide against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, as argued by Genocide Watch. We hope there will be a much more appropriate response to Azerbaijan’s recent incursion into the sovereign state of Amenia, with the killing and capture of Armenian soldiers.

In Myanmar the military regime continues its aggression. Since February, more than 785 civilians have been murdered, including at least 52 children, 5,000 are detained and tens of thousands displaced, in addition to the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees. Time only allows one example of military aggression. In the town of Mindat, in Chin State, as reported by Dr Sasa, speaking on behalf of the National Unity Government, homes were destroyed by tanks and helicopters, anyone trying to help the wounded was arrested, screams of pain were heard as captured civilians were tortured, and many were used as human shields. Dr Sasa pleaded: 

“When will the world stop the military generals before they commit another genocide?”

A similar question applies to Nigeria’s Middle Belt, with escalating attacks by Islamist groups, thousands of Christians killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Many Muslims who refuse to adopt an Islamist ideology have also been killed. Will Her Majesty’s Government therefore fulfil their obligations under the genocide convention to prevent, protect and punish? The longer we tolerate these massacres and atrocities, the more we embolden the perpetrators, giving them a green light to continue their genocidal policies with impunity.

6.05pm The Lord Bishop of Blackburn 

My Lords, I want to say something about timing, referred to in the moving introductory speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for which we are very grateful.

We face two problems in bringing perpetrators of genocide to justice. One is the length of time it takes for such atrocities to cease, as it is extremely difficult to stop acts while they are happening; it is only after the genocide has ended that moves to accountability seem to kick in, and then it takes years to gather evidence while the perpetrators run free. What is needed is a far more effective early warning system that triggers action much sooner to stop the genocide in its tracks before it does more damage. With modern communication, surely it is not hard to learn of and know of these atrocities; the problem comes in preventing them continuing when access is likely to be denied, lies are told to cover the evil and attempts at intervention are resisted by claims about the sovereignty of the nation state.

I learned recently of an attempt in World War II to intervene in a totally unconventional way. Some may know the extraordinary story in a book entitled The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather. It tells of a Polish man, Witold Pilecki, a farmer, husband and father of two who allowed himself to be arrested in order to be sent to Auschwitz. Despite much personal suffering, he tried to persuade the outside world of the atrocities he was witnessing through sending a series of smuggled messages, but the horror was so great that many people did not believe what he was saying—even here in the UK. So nothing was done to begin with, and the genocide continued.

A similar story surrounds Emily Hobhouse, who came from the UK. She visited South Africa but, when she returned here, she was not believed when she reported on the concentration camps and tactics employed by the British Empire against the Boers. She found herself ostracised here and returned to South Africa, where she is feted and memorialised.

An atrocity can sound so extreme or even unlikely when it is reported that it is not believed and is allowed to run on for too long while nothing is done about it; or, having learned of an evil, it seems that there is nothing anyone can do but pray and wait. While we ask the Minister to speed up the route to justice for perpetrators of genocide, may I seek an assurance that effort will also be given to finding ways to intervene and stop genocide while it is actually taking place, and so save and protect precious lives?

6.07pm Lord Polak (Con)

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this important debate and thank him for all that he does.

I commend the Government on its proactive work on UN Resolution 2379, establishing an investigative body on Daesh’s atrocities in Iraq, and for the good work that has been done collecting and preserving evidence for future prosecutions. However, similar steps need to be taken in the case of the atrocities in Xinjiang; I urge Her Majesty’s Government to create a mechanism that will collect and preserve the evidence of the atrocities against the Uighurs for future prosecutions. I acknowledge that while China has the P5 veto, the Security Council may not be the right vehicle for such a mechanism, but I urge my noble friend the Minister to examine the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

If we want to ensure that justice is done in future, we must ensure that evidence is not destroyed and witnesses are not pressurised into silence. However, we must be consistent. After the atrocities of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, the perpetrators, including high-level government officials and other key figures, fled to Europe and North America. Some returned home to Rwanda to be tried. Others were extradited back to Rwanda or persecuted in domestic courts of the country of their residence under the principle of universal jurisdiction—but, sadly and embarrassingly, not here in the UK.

Since 2006, efforts to extradite the five known Rwandan suspects alleged to have been involved in the genocide against the Tutsi have failed, as have efforts to try them here in the UK. The newly constituted All-Party Parliamentary Group on War Crimes is campaigning hard to urge Her Majesty’s Government to do the right thing. Five suspects accused of heinous crimes against humanity are living peacefully on our shores. I ask my noble friend the Minister: what is the point of campaigning for justice abroad if we fail to deliver justice at home?

6.09pm Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab) [V]

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate and for his tireless work on genocide and other egregious human rights violations. We are legally bound by the 1948 convention to take all reasonable steps to punish and to prevent genocide. How many times have we said “never again”, despite inadequate action to break the cycle of it? Nothing will change unless we find a route to legal accountability and justice. 

Regrettably, the Government’s actions fall short of their own rhetoric; they are slow to bring forward Magnitsky sanctions and are avoiding reform of supply chain legislation. They are in defiance of the House of Commons recognition of genocides and your Lordships’ overwhelming support for a judicial route to determination. They have prioritised their ability to enter trade negotiations with China over a process to assess the Uighur case. The Government hold an untenable position on the determination of genocide. You cannot say “genocide determination is for a court” when, with Chinese and Russian vetoes, no court will ever hear the case. Their policy is inoperable and now they must come forward with credible alternatives. They must continue to explore all legal routes to justice.

There are options. My honourable friend Stephen Kinnock urged the Foreign Secretary to introduce a UNGA resolution requesting an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the question of Uighur genocide and to explore legal avenues through other treaties and conventions, like the Convention against Torture, to which China is a signatory. If there was sufficient evidence against individuals, and they were to travel internationally, countries could assume jurisdiction to try those responsible for Uighur policies. France created a genocide unit to investigate and prosecute such offences and in May 2020 arrested a suspect in connection with the genocide in Rwanda.

Another option is bringing cases against Chinese officials at the ICC. China does not accept that jurisdiction, but, as a basis for jurisdiction, lawyers for exiled Uighurs claim some victims were kidnapped from Cambodia and Tajikistan, which do recognise the court. If not these, what credible alternatives do the Government have?

6.11pm Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP) [V]

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on being the conscience of not only the House of Lords but the Government on this issue of genocide. I do not need to explain to all the wonderful legal minds in this Committee that, in English law, the accomplices who aid, abet, counsel or procure an offence are charged jointly with, and face the same maximum sentences as, the people who commit the criminal act.

This night, the UK Government and the arms industry are culpable for genocides and other atrocities committed across the world. There are very few such atrocities that are committed independently of the global arms trade, of which the Government of the UK are a major component. In your Lordships’ House earlier this week, I mentioned the case of the UK aid sent to Mozambique to create a fossil fuel plant. Not only is this a disaster for our planet, it has also created more unrest in a very unstable area. In 2020 the plans actually encouraged an increase in the number of violent incidents; there were 570 in 2020 alone, of which one was 50 people beheaded on a sports field over the course of one weekend. 

The conventional arms industry is bad enough for this, but then there is the nuclear weapons industry, the whole purpose of which is to facilitate global nuclear annihilation. Any high-flown promises about justice for genocide are empty while those same people who made the promises support the arms industry. It is time to rein in the military industrial complex and stop facilitating the killing of people across the world. That really would benefit the reputation of the UK Government.

6.13pm Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB) [V]

My Lords, I personally went through two traumatising experiences of genocide in the 1990s when I was Britain’s representative on the UN Security Council: Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995. That is why I strongly support and welcome my noble friend Lord Alton’s debate today. If proof was needed that the lack of any enforcement provisions in the 1948 convention against genocide left a wide-open door to that most reprehensible of crimes, that was it. 

Since then, attempts have been made to remedy that lacuna, with the establishment of regional courts and then the International Criminal Court, and with the endorsement by the 2005 UN summit of the emerging norm of the responsibility to protect. But, as the evidence before us of genocide committed against Iraq’s Yazidis and Myanmar’s Rohingya, and of the threats to the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Tigrayans of Ethiopia, demonstrates, these attempts have fallen short of what is needed. So, what should be done to bring perpetrators of genocide to justice and thus strengthen the deterrent effect which the 1948 convention was intended to have? 

Here are four suggestions. First, the UK, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should press for the council to extend the jurisdiction of the ICC to cover countries which have not signed up to the Rome statute, but in whose territory genocide may have been committed. That route was used successfully in the cases of crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region and in Libya; it should now be used in the cases of Iraq’s Yazidis and Burma’s Rohingyas. Secondly, the UK should also maintain its support for the French initiative to get the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to agree not to use the veto when the risk or actuality of genocide was involved. Thirdly, our Houses of Parliament should prepare the ground to make use of the opening in the Trade Act to consider allegations of genocide by any proposed trade partner. Fourthly, we should tighten up our own immigration and residence legislation and its enforcement so that never again, as was shamefully the case with some of those accused of genocide in Rwanda, could perpetrators find impunity in the UK. 

I hope that the Minister can say at the end of this debate whether the four points I have identified—others have mentioned most of them too—are part of the Government’s agenda.

6.16pm Lord Shinkwin (Con)

My Lords, who could fail to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and with the sentiment that the perpetrators of genocide should be brought to justice? After all, did we not sign up to that principle at Nuremberg, when the sentiment was translated into sentences?

Three images come to my mind when I think of bringing perpetrators to justice. The rows of senior Nazis at Nuremberg is the first; the other two feature Radovan Karadzic. One is of him smiling with Ratko Mladić—the butcher of Srebrenica, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, referred—both of them assuming that they would never be brought to justice. The third image is again of Karadzic, this time at The Hague as the judgment was delivered. There was no smile then. But Xi Jinping must be smiling today because, while we debate, the Uighurs die. While we agonise over their genocide, they suffer the agony of despair. Time is of the essence, but will we act before it is too late? 

Bringing perpetrators to justice is essential, but that inevitably means the crime has already been committed, as we have heard. It is far better, surely, to ensure that there are no perpetrators to bring to justice in the first place. Unless and until we translate sentiment to sentencing for the crime, there will be no deterrence, no prevention and no justice, and yet more genocide will be perpetrated again.

6.18pm Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for securing this debate. I am sure the Minister will have heard the frustration from every speaker who has yet spoken with the current impasse, where we are going nowhere on doing anything to properly prevent genocide. 

I want to pick up the theme of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn on the tricky issue of what the international community can and should do, particularly where genocide is a slow burn. It does not happen all of a sudden. It starts with removing human rights protections from certain groups, mainly ethnic groups; then by imposing new laws that impinge on their ability to live and work freely in society; then by using new laws to deny these peoples and groups the right to inhabit a society in security and freedom. Usually, the culmination is violence to drive them out and/or bring about their extinction. That is the course we have seen throughout the 70 years of the convention and before it, under the Nazis and the genocide of the Jewish people. So also in Darfur, in Rwanda, with the Yazidis and now with the Uighurs in China, it follows the same course. China is of course more egregious in many ways, as those people have nowhere to flee. 

My question to the Government, borne out of the frustration of the ineffectiveness of the UN in this regard, is that, since the Security Council is incapable of consensus on these matters, will they work with like-minded countries such as those in the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group, to establish a risk register to monitor the slow burn of genocide so that human rights violations in a given country that point in the direction of genocide can be monitored? The international community can then use responsibility to protect and other measures in coalitions of the willing to take the necessary actions that they may need to before the act occurs.

6.20pm Baroness Goudie (Lab) [V]

My Lords, I thank my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for arranging for this debate today and for the leadership he has given across party in the House of Lords on all these issues and on others.

Her Majesty’s Government are second to none in paying eloquent lip service to bringing the perpetrators of genocide to justice. The value of this question is that it focuses attention on accenting this in practice. The Government’s record is lamentable. The rights of victims are valueless without effective remedies. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and his four points, which the Government must look at clearly. There has to be effective machinery both to identify the perpetrators of genocide and to bring them before the courts, but this is not happening. We should ensure that we set up the Joint Committee, as promised by the Government recently, as soon as possible. Further, we should look at all trade deals so that we do not trade with countries that are committing genocide or about to do so. We know from various indexes when genocide is starting to be perpetrated. The killing of women and children by the perpetrators is always the first sign that something is wrong, because they are such cowards. I ask the Government to look again at the trade deals and to look at the four points of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. We cannot be a world leader and continue to let this go by.

6.22pm Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)

My Lords, the Minister can be in no doubt of the feeling of Members of your Lordships’ House about the question of genocide. My noble friend—I do call him a friend—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has on so many occasions raised the issue of genocide. Many of these issues that we have talked about this evening have been rehearsed again and again. The Government in the integrated review and in the gracious Speech stressed that they want to play an important role in the world and be a beacon of democracy and human rights. To do that, we need also to be able to take a stand on genocide, upholding our own commitments under the genocide convention of 1948, and finding a way to hold regimes to account when there are cases of genocide.

On so many occasions, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and others pointed out, the Government have claimed that decisions need to be made by a court, and yet the nature of the UN Security Council and the vetoes of the P5 countries, when we know that China and Russia and the US under Donald Trump would not accept any moves on genocide, mean that we need to look again. Can the Minister tell us whether there has been any thought in the Government about taking up the French idea of the veto not being used in cases of genocide? Can the Minister tell us when we are likely to see the joint parliamentary committee, so that Parliament can begin to take a stand on genocide and hold the Government to account in their decisions and actions in this area as well?

6.24pm Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)

My Lords, I very much welcome the continued focus on issues of genocide from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Sadly, however, there is too often a gap between what Ministers say and what they do. Despite the Gambia putting forward a case to the International Court of Justice, as my noble friend Lady Nye highlighted, in which Myanmar stands accused of genocide, the UK has so far been unprepared to support the case. Why?

The Government have not gone far enough, considering the evidence of genocide in Xinjiang. Despite the sanctions, many perpetrators will be untouched. Much more must be done to ensure that UK business supply chains do not involve forced labour in Xinjiang. What steps are the Government taking to strengthen Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act?

In my amendment to the Trade Bill I sought guarantees that we would never sign agreements with the worst abusers of human rights. In response to my amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, said that the FCDO’s annual human rights and democracy report was the right place to report on human rights and trade. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, agreed that the report would be strengthened to include a greater focus on trade. I hope that the Minister will repeat those assurances and confirm that the forthcoming report in the summer will include trade negotiations. As we leave the EU, this will be an important part of our negotiations and of how we determine to fight these human rights abusers. Human rights abuse is the start of where genocide is the end. We must stick to our word and hold these people to account.

6.26pm The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office(Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for tabling this debate. He can be assured that, as the Minister responsible for, among other things, human rights, I not only have listened to the sentiments expressed by noble Lords in this excellent debate but will reflect on them and take them back to ensure that they get due consideration.

From the outset, I express what I am sure are the sentiments of all: accountability for genocide and, indeed, all atrocities, is an important and impassioned issue. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, knows my great and deep respect for him personally and for his strong advocacy for human rights across the world over many years. So it is absolutely right that the Government continue to respond to debates such as these and to calls to lead the charge for accountability for perpetrators of serious international crimes. I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that we are focused on the important issue of atrocity prevention. I will come to that in a moment or two. 

The pursuit of international criminal justice and accountability remains at the heart of our foreign policy. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the human rights report; that was a timely reminder, as it is currently coming across my desk. I hope that the noble Lord appreciates my personal commitment to ensuring that human rights remain very much at the heart of the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and of the Government. The Government remain committed to the principle that there should be no impunity for those who perpetrate the most serious crimes of international concern, and we remain at the forefront of efforts to hold perpetrators of such crimes to account. 

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, put forward four important points. I will pick up on just one: the veto. I have heard the sentiments of others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on this. We should certainly lead by action. The United Kingdom has not exercised its veto and it is right that, through our actions, we now have a determination to influence others in this respect. However, as I have directly experienced as Minister for the UN, the ability of the five member nations to exercise the veto remains a real challenge, particularly on some of the issues discussed previously, including the situation in Myanmar. 

The UK policy remains, as has been said by a number of noble Lords, that the determination of genocide should be made by competent courts, not non-judicial bodies. This includes international courts, such as the ICC, and, indeed, national criminal courts that meet international standards. I hope that noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Forsyth, while not perhaps being fully content with my response, will appreciate that while the determination of genocide remains for the courts, and it is important they consider all the available evidence, we do not stand and wait for that determination. We act, as our approach to global human rights has shown, with the introduction of our own independent sanctions regime.

It is important to stress, however, that our approach in no way undermines the UK’s commitment to the principle that there should be no impunity for perpetrators of the most serious crimes, as illustrated by the various situations in countries highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Let me assure her and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we remain true and will uphold our obligations under the genocide convention. When atrocities occur, our approach is to seek an end to them and prevent further escalations, irrespective of whether they fit the definition of a specific international crime. 

The noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Goudie, my noble friend Lord Forsyth, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly raised the progress being made to create the promised mechanism of a parliamentary committee to examine allegations of genocide. The provisions relating to trade agreements and genocide within the Trade Act will commence from 30 June 2021. The relevant commencement order has now been made. I will write to noble Lords, in the interest of time, on what the processes will be thereafter.

We do not agree with one central premise—and I am sure that other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Browne, will share this view—that we should act only when there has been a determination of genocide. Today’s debate has demonstrated the importance of early intervention. The United Kingdom, notwithstanding the challenges I have heard today, has been at the forefront of calling out crimes and, indeed, strengthening international action. We have demonstrated this, as my noble friend Lord Polak acknowledged, against the unspeakable actions of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and also in calling out the appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang, among other areas.

Turning to the situation in Xinjiang, we led the first two UN statements on this issue. I know from personal experience because I led on one them. An increased number of countries now support us, but I will be clear that the challenge remains very real. Sadly and tragically, when it comes to the biggest internment of the Muslim community anywhere in the world, there are many across the world, including a large part of the Muslim world, who remain silent. We must therefore persevere in our actions to ensure broader support. In answering the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, let me assure her that we work directly with our partners to strengthen an international alliance of the willing to speak out against human rights abuses and in the case of China’s human right violations, to increase pressure on China to change its behaviour.

As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have, as I have already said, put in place national sanctions to back our actions and words. The sanctions regime calls out serious violations and human rights abuses. On 22 March, under our global human rights sanctions regime, the UK imposed asset freezes and travel bans for the first time on four senior Chinese government officials and an asset freeze on one further entity. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly asked about the Modern Slavery Act and tightening supply chains. That is under way, and I have previously given a commitment that colleagues from the Home Office and the Home Secretary will be leading in that respect. On 12 January—which was the preamble to that action—the Foreign Secretary announced measures to help ensure that British businesses are not complicit in human rights violations or abuses in Xinjiang. 

Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned various live situations of concern about human rights abuses around the world. I know that recently there has been much correspondence about Ethiopia’s Tigray region and what is happening there. As I assured the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in the Queen’s Speech debate, I am taking forward specific responsibilities in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence by sending a team now, not after, to ensure that evidence can start being collected according to international standards. I can also share that I have had a summary report. Nick Dyer, who is our special envoy on humanitarian issues and famine relief, has just returned from the Tigray region.

The UK continues to support the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on her efforts in Tigray and, as noble Lords will be aware, particularly in ensuring access to areas such as Xinjiang. We continue to lobby further support in that respect. 

The UK has also been a strong supporter of accountability mechanisms. We have contributed nearly £2 million so far to the team operating to investigate Daesh in Iraq. The Government have also been clear that there must be accountability for the actions of the Burmese military and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community that has taken place. On 1 April, we announced a funding boost of £500,000 to the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. Our autonomous Myanmar (Sanctions) Regulations prohibit the provision of military-related services, including the provision of technical assistance, that benefit the military regime. Support for international justice remains at the heart of our approach in this regard. 

The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others, raised the action of the Gambia at the ICJ. We are supportive of that. There are various dates, including the right of Myanmar to respond to the initial report. I assure noble Lords that we continue to consider where we would consider, at the appropriate time, the formal support of a UK intervention in this respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, talked about the International Criminal Court as a read-across to certain situations, including those of Israel. We have been clear that any international court must ensure that its mandate and its jurisdiction are upheld; it is our view that the ICC does not have jurisdiction in this case. However, we of course support the independence of the ICC and its officials. The noble Lord quoted the US position, and the UK position is clear: we provide political, financial, and practical support for the International Criminal Court. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords regarding the excellent Joanna Korner being elected as a judge recently, backed further by our success in ensuring the first ever election of a prosecutor who is also British, Karim Khan QC. 

Regarding situations elsewhere in the world and bringing perpetrators to account, my noble friend Lord Shinkwin rightly raised issues of justice and time. But we should be heartened that in 2016, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found Radovan Karadzic guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war, committed during the conflict in and around Bosnia and Herzegovina. This conviction brought accountability for some of the horrors of the Yugoslav wars and, following a request to the UK from the successor body to the tribunal, Radovan Karadzic will be transferred to a prison in the UK to serve his sentence. I hope that this underlines that no matter when such a crime takes place, we will continue to pursue international criminals, uphold the rule of law and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. 

I also accept the premise rightly raised by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Polak, on Rwanda and those who seek to be or are currently in the UK. While that case is under way, it would be remiss of me to comment too deeply, but I assure my noble friend that this was the direct purpose of a conversation that I had with President Kagame while I was in Rwanda, to give him the assurance that he needed of our commitment to ensuring that all perpetrators are held to account. 

The issue of preventing atrocities was raised by the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Shinkwin and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. I assure all noble Lords that we work quite systematically on this important agenda, from early warning mechanisms to diplomatic engagement and development programme support, as well as defence: we use all those to strengthen the international system. They are all part of our approach to ensure that it is not just waiting; it is about acting early and quickly. As set out in our integrated review, we are committed to a more integrated approach to our work on conflict and instability, placing greater emphasis on addressing the underlying causes and strengthening the resilience, particularly of fragile countries, to external influence. 

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that, both through our trade and, indeed, our arms export licences, we remain consistent to our obligations under international law. We remain consistent in terms of the regimes in which we operate, and certainly I, as Minister for Human Rights, remain very much committed to ensuring that the issue of human rights is at the centre of our thinking, both when it comes to issues of trade and issues of arms sales. That is a case we continue to make and I know my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is cognisant of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised various matters and asked specific questions. I will write to him. I have mentioned the Modern Slavery Act, but I will write to him, if I may, on specific dates and timelines. I noted the commitment and the passion, and I assure noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to ensuring accountability and justice; within that, we work with communities on the ground to support reconciliation on the ground as well. We will demonstrate this through our political, financial and practical support to international justice and accountability mechanisms, including those of prevention, to ensure not just that the suffering of those communities around the world can be lessened but that we can prevent future atrocities from occurring.

I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to work with our international partners to ensure that, where we can, we end atrocities and that, where we can, we prevent atrocities and ultimately alleviate the suffering of those being impacted. We will never wait for the determinations of specific international crimes before taking action. It is early days on our global human rights sanctions regime, but through the 70-odd sanctions that we have currently levelled and our partnerships—we are working with key partners such as the United States, Canada, and our partners in the European Union—we have demonstrated the importance of working together with the like-minded. I hope that that provides a degree of assurance to all noble Lords who have participated in this important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the importance of partnerships, of working and listening to your Lordships’ House and our colleagues in the other place, and I assure the noble Lord of my commitment in that respect.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, had the first word and, in my summing up, he should have the last word. He quoted, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt, and there is one particular quotation of hers that really stays with me: 

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” 

We must ensure that those who suffer at the hands of others never lose sight of their dreams. Let us help build those dreams.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lexden) (Con)

My Lords, that completes the business before the Grand Committee today. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.

Committee adjourned at 6.42 pm.

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