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Lords Diary: Lord Alton

November 1949: Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights | Image by: CBW / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Marking the 75th anniversary of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lord Alton reflects on how genocide begins and how freedom and democracy can triumph

Hot on the heels of Richard (Lord) Risby’s timely debate on declaring the Ukrainian Holodomor a genocide, I was asked to open a conference of government ministers in Prague looking towards next week’s 75th anniversary of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The Czechs, like their near neighbours in Ukraine, have directly experienced the deadly horror of occupation and atrocities at the hands of dictators. 

I once went with Václav Havel, the then-president of Czechoslovakia, to the village of Lidice. In reprisal for the assassination of the Gestapo’s Reinhard Heydrich – a principal architect of the Holocaust – the Nazis shot 172 boys and men aged between 14 and 84. Most of the women and children were sent to concentration camps. Lidice was destroyed. 

But such tragedy doesn’t have to have the last word. 

In 1947, thanks to the efforts of a Staffordshire MP, Sir Barnett Stross, money was raised to build a new village.

I had that rebuilding of lives in mind at a meeting in Westminster’s Inter-Parliamentary Union room marking Red Wednesday – the day to remember victims persecuted for their beliefs and to “see red” for the lamentable silence and indifference shown to serial abuses of Article 18 of the UDHR. 

Two Nigerian victims – Margaret and Dominic – came to Westminster. Eighteen months ago, their church in Ondo State was attacked by Jihadists. Forty congregants were murdered. Margaret’s shattered legs were amputated. No one has been brought to justice. 

Last year, their bishop, Jude, came to Parliament and said at a meeting I chaired, that it is “insulting and illiterate to attribute ideologically motivated genocidal atrocities to things like climate change”.

Timothy told how, after torture and imprisonment in North Korea, he escaped

Differing ideologies and the genocides they spawn against groups like Iraq’s Yazidis – about which we have been taking evidence in a Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry – generate social and economic consequences, including mass displacements.

Genocide usually begins with UDHR abuses. 

In North Korea, virtually every one of the 30 Articles in the UDHR are violated. 

I raised that in a letter which I handed South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol during his welcome state visit last month. 

It referenced the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea that “crimes against humanity” are committed in “a state without parallel”;  300,000 North Koreans are in concentration camps. 

The letter urged the Republic of Korea and United Kingdom governments to jointly raise the plight of North Korean escapees being forcibly repatriated by China – in breach of the Refugee Convention.

China – responsible for the genocide of Uyghurs – is a member of the UN’s committee charged with overseeing human rights. That is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen coup.

By contrast, and to its credit, the UK has provided sanctuary for around 1,000 North Korean escapees. 

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) and, like President Yoon and King Charles, we met some of the escapees. 

Timothy told how, after torture and imprisonment in North Korea, he escaped. 

In Liverpool he gained his master’s degree, then spent a year working in the office of Fiona Bruce MP. Now, he is the pro bono APPG secretariat. 

Timothy’s story is like the message of hope sent from Lidice by Sir Barnett Stross: horrific atrocity crimes don’t have to be the end of the story. We must always patiently invest in a different and better future.

Last week , before leaving Prague, I recalled that, as a schoolboy, I collected a public petition against the 1968 crushing of the Dubček Spring. It took two decades, until 1989, for that spring to turn to summer.

Havel was right that freedom will only triumph if, in every generation, such stories of tyranny, holocaust and genocide, and the defence of democracy and human rights against dictatorship, are “inscribed on the Moses baskets of every nation’s babies”. 

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Crossbench peer

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