Genocide Debate – House of Lords November 2021

Nov 25, 2021 | Featured, News, Parliament

Opening of Debate: Reported remarks of the Foreign Secretary that a genocide is underway against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, China.

House of Lords
Thursday 25 November 2021

Lord Alton of Liverpool:

My Lords, in moving the Motion that the House takes note of the reported remarks of the right honourable Liz Truss MP, the Foreign Secretary, that a genocide is under way against the Uighur people in Xinjiang, I need to thank all noble Lords who will speak today. I declare that I am a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uyghurs and a patron of the Coalition for Genocide Response, whose founders I thank—along with the Library of the House—for the briefing material which has been made available to your Lordships. Similarly, thanks are due to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, of which I am also a member.

Today’s debate on genocide has deep roots, stretching back to the still unrecognised genocide of 1915 against the Armenians. It was carefully studied by the Jewish-Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin. More than 40 members of his own family were subsequently murdered in the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million European Jews. Lemkin both created the word “genocide” and campaigned for the 1948 genocide convention, to which we acceded in 1970, and which ultimately led to the creation of the International Criminal Court.

Article II of the convention sets out what constitutes a genocide. This is not dependent on numbers killed—indeed, no killings at all are necessarily “required” if at least one or more of the five prohibited genocidal acts are proven—but it evaluates

“intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

As we debate what is afoot today in Xinjiang, recall how, in Europe, bureaucrats identified who was a Jew, confiscated property, used their victims as slave labour, scheduled trains to uproot them from their homes and communities, and deprived them of livelihoods and positions in society; and how German pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners, confiscated personal property, shaved heads, sent hair, jewellery, and other artefacts as trophies, and then made prisoners build their crematoria.

Since 1948, we have witnessed genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, northern Iraq and Burma, and now in China. Repeatedly, we have failed to honour our convention duties to predict, prevent, protect and punish.

As a new member of the House of Commons, as long ago as November and December 1979, I criticised the failure to utilise the visit of the Chinese Communist Party’s chairman, Hua Guofeng, to raise with him the Cambodian genocide being perpetrated by the CCP’s allies, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The Government declined at the time to name it as a genocide.

In Darfur, Rwanda, northern Iraq and Burma, I have seen first-hand how the promise to break the relentless and devastating cycles of genocide has never materialised. Will it be any different in Tigray, where the warning signs for mass, ethnically targeted violence are flashing red?

A former Yazidi MP asked me why we had not recognised the attempts to liquidate her community as a genocide. She was not alone in her incomprehension. Boris Johnson, then the Foreign Secretary, said Isis was

“engaged in what can only be called genocide … though for some baffling reason the Foreign Office still hesitates to use the term genocide”.

Following the attempts to eradicate the Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq, the world watched aghast as the same fate befell the Rohingya and others in Burma. Then came reports of mass incarceration and “re-education” of more than 1 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, with evidence of displacements, sterilisations of women, torture, rape and the use of slave labour in what has become a surveillance state. Speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Dominic Raab rightly described the persecution of the Uighurs as being “on an industrial scale”.

During consideration of what is now the Trade Act 2021, by a majority of 129, the House passed an all-party amendment prohibiting trade with genocidal regimes. The House will remember that the so-called “genocide amendment” sought to provide an answer to the problem of the United Kingdom’s inoperable policy on genocide, a policy which refuses to engage with our convention obligations without the prior decision of an international court. However, as the House knows, no such court will ever hear a case against the People’s Republic of China.

Agreeing with this point, the House provided a judicial route to make a preliminary determination on the question of genocide via the High Court, a proposal devised on the advice of my noble and learned friend, Lord Hope of Craighead. A compromise amendment designated committees in each House to consider whether there was credible evidence of genocide committed by a potential trading partner. But this new mechanism is triggered only when there are formal negotiations for a free trade agreement with China, so it does nothing to help Uighurs now.

In any event, even if it did, the Foreign Office has said the committees’ decision would not be binding, any more than the historic decision of the House of Commons in April to declare a genocide in Xinjiang. The Foreign Office also rejected the findings of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report Never Again: The UK’s Responsibility to Act on Atrocities in Xinjiang and Beyond. It said it would not accept the Select Committee’s conclusion that the Government should

“respect the view of the House of Commons that crimes against humanity and genocide are taking place, and take a much stronger response.”

In September, our own International Relations and Defence Committee, on which I serve, published a report on China, trade and security. In evidence, Charles Parton, a leading authority, told the inquiry:

“Xinjiang and the genocide—and it is genocide under the UN convention’s description—have to be taken into account. This is not just about the sheer goodness and badness aspect but the reputation of companies of ours that are trading with those that are producing materials through forced labour and benefiting from what is going on in Xinjiang.”

The United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is quite clear. He says:

“the forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”

Genocide is not part of the great game of diplomacy; it is the ultimate atrocity crime.

Very unusually, and to her enormous credit, Liz Truss has refused to follow the Foreign Office line and is reported as stating that the treatment of Xinjiang’s Uighurs must be regarded as genocide. With the British Foreign Office saying the opposite of what the Foreign Secretary is saying, the Prime Minister has the right to be even more baffled.

Major independent analysis and leaked documents all reach the same conclusion as the Foreign Secretary. Essex Court Chambers found that there is a “very credible case” that the Chinese Government are carrying out the crime of genocide against the Uighur people. A 25,000-word report from the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, involving over 30 independent global experts, found that the Chinese state is in breach of every act prohibited in Article II of the genocide convention.

One could also read: the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s compelling report The Architecture of Repression; Laundering Cotton, the joint report of Sheffield Hallam University and the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice; the joint contribution of Dr Joanne Smith Finley and Dilmurat Mahmut on cultural genocide, which will appear in the forthcoming volume The Xinjiang Emergency, edited by Michael Clarke; Dr Adrian Zenz’s recent work on the use of population control, separation of families, sterilisations and abortion to target the Uighurs; and Darren Byler’s book In the Camps: Life in China’s High-Tech Penal Colony. I have sent links to these reports to the Minister.

The published research suggests that, since 2016, at least 1 million people have been detained in Xinjiang without trial. The purpose is to “re-educate” them and replace their Muslim faith and culture with adherence to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.

Last month, CNN broadcast an interview with a former Chinese police detective who described how Uighurs had been pulled from their homes, with police officers

“handcuffing and hooding them, and threatening to shoot them if they resisted”.

The BBC bravely broadcast the testimonies of courageous Uighur women who described conditions in the concentration camps, including their re-education, rape and public humiliation by camp guards.

No one can say we did not see this red light flashing. No one can say we did not know. I have been to western China and Tibet. Since 2008, I have raised the plight of the Muslim Uighurs on over 70 occasions, in questions, speeches, endless emails to the ever-patient noble Lord the Minister and a take-note Motion in 2013.

The fate of these 1 million incarcerated Uighurs should be seen in the context of the enormities committed by the Chinese Communist Party, with one estimate holding the CCP responsible for the deaths of 50 million Chinese people over the decades. See it against the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the outrages in Tibet, forced organ harvesting, the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedoms, the daily intimidation of Taiwan and attempts to silence the parliamentarians who call them out. See it in the context of the £2 billion Evergrande South Sea bubble, the disappearances, torture, persecution and the imprisonment of lawyers and brave Chinese journalists asking the difficult questions about, for instance, the emergence of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Lamentably, UK institutions care far too little about the origins of dirty money, about the use of slave labour in Xinjiang or the nature of the CCP. Note that the Commons report says that

“there are substantial research connections between the Chinese organisations responsible for these crimes and UK universities”.

While the Commons committee tells us that

“the issue of forced labour in Xinjiang is pervasive, widespread”.

Yet in your Lordships’ House, the Trade Minister told us that his ambition is to further deepen our trading relations.

Meanwhile, companies like Hikvision, banned in the United States but not here, are, according to the Commons inquiry, responsible for the cameras

“deployed throughout Xinjiang and provide the primary camera technology used in the internment camps”.

The same facial recognition cameras are even collecting facial recognition data in the United Kingdom. The Government were asked to prohibit UK organisations and individuals from doing business with companies known to be associated with the Xinjiang atrocities through the sanctions regime. Can the Minister tell us whether we are doing this and why the Government have declined to carry out an audit of the UK assets of CCP officials? Will he explain why we sanctioned four lower-level Chinese officials for their repression in the Uyghur Region, but left out Chen Quanguo—the architect of the whole thing, whom the US has sanctioned and who is also responsible for mass human rights abuses in Tibet?

Critically, given that, as per ICJ case law, the trigger for state responsibility is not whether a state has concluded that the criminal threshold for genocide has been reached but rather, that it believes there to be a serious risk of genocide, can the Minister tell the House if his department has undertaken an analysis of whether or not there is a serious risk of genocide in the Uyghur Region, and if not, why not?

Today, following the remarks of the Foreign Secretary, we need to provide a feasible judicial route to justice for victims of genocide and strengthen our capacity to identify and prevent emerging genocides. We should be ensuring evidence collection and preservation for future trials, insisting on criminal accountability and taking long overdue action on forced labour supply chains and trade linked to Uighur slave labour. Are we on the side of the slaves or the slave drivers?

Last week I met a Uighur woman who told me that more than 20 members of her family have disappeared. What we are doing to protect witnesses, including those who have given evidence to the Uyghur Tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC? What are we doing to stop Uighur refugees being repatriated to China? What of the Winter Olympics? Not only should there be a diplomatic and ministerial boycott, but the public should protest to the big-name IOC sponsors—Intel, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung, Toyota, Coca Cola, Allianz, Alibaba, and others—that their sponsorship brings them discredit and that their money is blood money.

The word “genocide” should not be used inaccurately. But we should not hesitate to use it when and where all elements of the crime are present. That is what Liz Truss has done and I admire her for doing so. It is unacceptable for the Foreign Office to dismiss the view of this House, of the House of Commons, of its Foreign Affairs Committee, and of the Foreign Secretary. It is simply not tenable to go on with the same unresolved circularity—a vicious circle which debases the duties of the genocide convention. We cannot continue gesturing in the direction of courts, which we all know are incapable of holding China to account; that is immoral. We also owe it to the memory of Raphael Lemkin and to all of those who have been victims of genocide to do far more to confront this evil and those who have been getting away with genocide. I beg to move.

Reply to the debate


Lord Alton of Liverpool


My Lords, sometimes the word “remarkable” is overused in the context of our debates in your Lordships’ House, but I do not think it would be overstating it to say that this has been a remarkable debate and I am truly grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to it. My noble friend Lord Purvis talked about the importance of open parliamentary democracy. He said that it was the greatest rebuke that we could give to those who would silence other opinions.

A number of us have referred to one another as “noble friends” today even though we are from different places in the House. That is because many of us are friends. It has struck me that this has been a united response and the Minister is right to say that we have stood in solidarity on the fundamental freedoms. I cannot think of any better Minister to have answered the debate in your Lordships’ House today.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, and I go back a long way. I have never ceased to be impressed by his diligent approach to his portfolio and the commitment he has made to human rights and fundamental freedoms. I was very struck by his saying that he will be seeing a number of people in the future, including the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China. I hope that whenever he has the opportunity, he will share the Hansard from today’s remarkable debate so that people will know the opinions that have been so freely expressed in your Lordships’ House today.

The noble Lord, Lord Desai—who again is a noble friend—expressed an opinion that was different from those expressed in the mainstream of the debate, but that is the whole point of your Lordships’ House. He remarked that often, silence was the reason why some of the terrible atrocities of the past occurred. There is some truth in what he said, and I was struck by how Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian, and Edith Stein, a Catholic nun, both said no to the Nazis and both were executed. Indeed, Bonhoeffer said:

“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

I think all of us have to bear in mind the privileges we enjoy in your Lordships’ House—the truth-telling that my noble friend Lord Hastings enjoined upon us—and that we have a duty to use those privileges, liberties and freedoms whenever we have the chance.

The Minister gave some clarity to the questions that my noble friend asked, but the specific question of competent courts that are able to determine these matters—the point that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, made so effectively from the Opposition Front Bench—is still unresolved and lies at the heart of this debate. A voice that has not been heard today—but all the arguments have been listened to by him throughout—is that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. If anyone can convince people of the merits of the amendments that he voted for during the passage of the Trade Bill, I know it is him.

Now that Mr Dominic Raab is the Lord Chancellor, he is in a very good position to do something about the circular argument whereby this issue is only for a competent court to address. Given his background, I know that this will be something close to his own heart. I have written to him about this essential issue and I hope that the Minister, whom I copied in, will ask him to share the reply with all who have participated during the debate today.

I cannot go point by point on everything that has been said—your Lordships would not want me to—but I particularly endorse what the Minister said about the roles of AUKUS and the United Nations. Here, again, I rather dissent from the slight pessimism of my noble friend Lord Desai. We were very blessed today to hear from my noble friend Lord Hannay, with his huge experience of the United Nations—in what was described rightly as a moving and powerful speech—when he talked about his own experiences at the United Nations with Rwanda and Bosnia. We must remind ourselves of what he did when he was our ambassador at the United Nations, what the noble Lord does as our Minister responsible for the United Nations, and what most of us in your Lordships’ House believe in, which is internationalism and the importance of nations standing together.

Dag Hammarskjöld, perhaps the greatest of the Secretaries-General, said that:

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

If anything, today, I think we have a glimpse of what hell may look like. My noble friend Lady Kennedy gave an analysis of the use of slave labour in Xinjiang and said that a genocide was in progress. My noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham said that following the Bosnia judgment, we have a duty to prevent at the instant—from that moment onwards—we come to know what is under way. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, with his enormous experience of the law, gave us a forensic examination of atrocity crimes but he also referred to Nineteen Eighty-Four and the hollowing out of humanity. That phrase will stay with me.

My noble friend Lord Polak reminded us of the contribution of the late Lord Sacks to your Lordships’ House. His books, The Dignity of Difference and The Home We Build Together, sit on my bookshelves and I look at them again and again, because that is what we have to crack: we have to find ways of learning to live together. He reminded us of the hope that Hanukkah holds out and, like the Minister, I wish him a great festival and celebration. I thank him for reminding us what hope looks like—as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who has done so much on this issue over such a long period. He asked us, “Are we going to be a force for good? Are we going to balance this with trade?”

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to the way that William Wilberforce persisted over 40 years when ending the slave trade. But I am struck that people such as Richard Cobden, that great proponent of free trade, stood with Wilberforce as he did on the Opium Wars, which have been referred to. Not everyone went with these things and it is to the credit of parliamentarians that some said no and, in the end, the public changed their minds. The noble Lord reminded us that even when Wilberforce was on his deathbed—his book on the subject is well worth reading—the message was brought from Parliament to say that the law was being changed.

My noble friend Lady Finlay gave us horrific evidence of forced organ harvesting. She reminded us in her peroration about the dangers of unacceptable silence. I hope that when the Minister goes to Geneva, to talk again to the World Health Organization, he will take my noble friend with him.

We have heard speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and my noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson about politics and sport. The very first speech I made in my student union in 1970—I remember trembling at the time—was on the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign. Why? It was because I opposed apartheid. Again, that was a remarkable example of cross-party co-operation, of people standing together and ultimately changing the laws in South Africa, and people’s attitudes as well.

My noble friend Lady D’Souza talked about the insatiable need for cotton. She is right that we have to look, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, even at the ties we wear and ask ourselves where these things come from. During the campaign against slavery, there was a rising up of people through the sugar boycotts and suchlike which made parliamentarians say, “The public are behind us—let’s do something about it”. She also talked to us, as did my noble friend Lady O’Loan, about the wider consequences. The fearful harbinger of Hong Kong, as my noble friend reminded us, is held out in the context of Taiwan. The Minister was right to talk about the dangers that lurk in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and how we have to stand with our natural allies—in Five Eyes, but specifically in AUKUS as well—in confronting these dangers.

My noble friend Lord Shinkwin reminded us of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and its admirable report, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger. That report deserves to be read by every Member of your Lordships’ House. He told us about the importance of dealing with supply chains; the recommendations in that report looked at ways of trying to sort out where commodities come from.

My noble friend Lady O’Loan told us about the things that have been happening to other groups of people. Yesterday was Red Wednesday, and the Minister reminded us all of the importance of freedom of religion or belief. Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically says that everyone has the right to believe, not to believe or to change their belief; it is violated every day. One of your Lordships’ parliamentary committees said that it is an orphaned right. We should take it out of the orphanage, and no one does more to do that than the Minister.

In the context of China, what is happening to the underground churches and Falun Gong, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Finlay? What is happening to Mongolians and people of many different extracts, religions and politics? We must deal with that.

My noble friend Lord Sandwich and others have made great contributions to your Lordships’ House during this debate. I am conscious that there is another debate to follow. I think I was told that we have until 2.45 pm but I do not think I should trespass any longer on your Lordships’ time, other than to say thank you to everyone who has taken part. We will not be silenced on this issue. All of us who have spoken today will return to it again and again, until this injustice is properly recognised and put right.

Motion agreed.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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