Parliament has declared China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide – when will our government?
In refusing to recognise historic genocides – such as that against the Armenians, or in the face of contemporary ones, such as the Yazidi Genocide – the Foreign Office has clung to the argument that only a court can determine what is and what is not a genocide.
They hide behind this convenient but slippery argument knowing that there is no domestic court empowered to evaluate evidence and able to make a preliminary judgement. And that the use of vetoes in the Security Council will block referrals to the International Criminal Court.
In 2019, collecting evidence of the Yazidi genocide, I visited Northern Iraq. A former Yazidi MP told me that she could not understand why we had not recognised the attempts to liquidate her community as a genocide and why we had failed to honour our duties under the 1948 Genocide Convention to predict, prevent, protect, and punish.
She wasn’t alone in her incomprehension.
Boris Johnson, the then Foreign Secretary, said “Isis are engaged in what can only be called genocide…though for some baffling reason the Foreign Office still hesitates to use the term genocide.”
Following 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 by reports of mass incarceration and “re-education” of more than one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang – with evidence of displacements, sterilisation of women, torture, rape, and the use of slave labour in what has become a surveillance state.
The long-held position of the Foreign Office that genocide determination is a matter for international courts does nothing to prevent emerging or ongoing genocides
Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council, Dominic Raab described the persecution of the Uyghurs as “on an industrial scale.” But he, too, clung to the fiction that a court could somehow be conjured up and make a judgement and until that happened it wasn’t a genocide.
By a majority of 119 the House of Lords tried to cut through the circularity of this argument by creating a route to the High Court of England and Wales. The Foreign Office opposed the all-party amendment and it was rejected in the Commons by a whisker.
But subsequently, in a historic vote, in April, the House of Commons declared the Uyghurs to be victims of genocide and so has the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken has no doubt: “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.”
But while the Foreign Office adamantly refuses to say the same, Liz Truss has refused to follow the Foreign Office line and is reported as stating that the treatment of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs must be regarded as genocide.
So now we have the unprecedented situation where the British Foreign Office is saying the opposite of what the Foreign Secretary is saying. The Prime Minister has the right to be even more baffled.
This will be the subject of a three-hour debate in the House of Lords today.
Major independent analysis has come to the same conclusion as the Foreign Secretary.
Essex Court Chambers found that there is a “very credible case” that the Chinese government is carrying out the crime of genocide against the Uyghur people and a report from the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy involving over 30 independent global experts found that that the Chinese State is in breach of every act prohibited in Article II of the Genocide Convention.
The UK’s failure to provide clarity or to uphold the Genocide Convention leaves us in grave danger of defaulting on our international Treaty obligations. Genocide is in a category of its own – it is the crime above all crimes.
Be clear, the long-held position of the Foreign Office that genocide determination is a matter for international courts does not offer a feasible route to justice for victims of genocide and does nothing to prevent emerging or ongoing genocides. We should be cutting through that vicious circle.
And we should be doing other things too – like imposing Magnitsky sanctions on the key CCP figures behind the genocide; 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 Uyghur slave labour.
It was Raphael Lemkin – who saw more than 40 of his family slaughtered in the genocide of European Jews – who coined the word Genocide and who campaigned for the Genocide Convention.
We owe it to his memory and all of those who have been victims of genocide to do far more to confront this evil wherever and whenever it emerges.
Lord Alton is crossbench peer, vice-chair of the Uyghurs APPG, Hong Kong APPG and Patron of the Coalition for Genocide Response.
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