The UK Government narrowly avoided defeat in the House of Commons yesterday (19 January 2020) after 34 members of the ruling Conservative party defied the whip to vote in favour of an amendment to the Trade Bill.
The amendment – which was defeated 319 to 308 – would have, for the first time, given UK courts the power to determine acts of genocide abroad and, in the context of the Trade Bill, would have placed restrictions on the UK governments’ ability to make trade deals with countries found guilty of genocide.
The genocide amendment was put forward in the House of Lords by independent peer, Lord Alton, and received large cross-party support in the other house.
The government argued that trade policy should not become the prerogative of the courts and eventually avoided defeat after days of intense lobbying from UK ministers. Trade minister Greg Hands opposed the amendment arguing that it was a denial of parliamentary supremacy. On the floor of the Commons yesterday, the trade minister said:
“The Lord Alton amendment, which allows automatic revocation by the High Court of an international trade agreement that was negotiated between Governments and approved by Parliament, would not be the right way forward.”
To win over potential rebels, the minister committed to holding further discussions on the issue of genocide but offered no firm commitments in terms of policy.
Somewhat undermining the government’s line about keeping power within parliament was their opposition to a separate amendment, requiring ministers to make a formal assessment of a country’s human rights record before confirmation of a trade deal. That assessment would have been presented to parliament, giving MPs and Lords additional powers of scrutiny over trade deals. However, this amendment was heavily defeated 364 to 267.
Despite the lobbying efforts of the government ultimately succeeding, the genocide amendment still saw prominent party figures deviate from the whip.
Among those rebelling was former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Defence Committee and former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davies.
Speaking in support of the amendment yesterday, former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith pointed out that the pre-existing mechanisms around genocide are failing, saying:
“The amendment is necessary because, as we have all seen, existing international mechanisms have, frankly, failed: in the UN, any reference to the ICC (International Criminal Court) that is not agreed to by particularly intolerant states is immediately vetoed. The amendment would open perhaps the most important thing that has gone missing: the ability for victims of alleged genocide to see justice.”
Going on to add that:
“The amendment is needed because Uyghurs and victims of alleged genocide have been denied justice for many years….these are people at the moment—there are others as well—who have been pushed into slave labour, have had sterilisation forced on them and whose population has shrunk by some 85%, and that country is exporting trade goods produced by slave labour. It is quite clear to me, but I am not able to say so, that this has all the hallmarks of genocide. I am not able to say so, because at the end of the day we all agree that the courts have to make that decision. It is not for individual politicians to do so.”
The genocide amendment was specifically devised with China, and its horrific treatment of the country’s Uighur minority, in mind. The wider implications of the bill would have given the courts powers to act and hear grievances wherever accusations of genocide occur, such as in the case of Myanmar and the Rohingya.
In an impassioned speech, Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and co-leader of the Chinese Research Group, said:
“We recently voted to take back control of our laws, our borders and our money. This is about taking back control of our laws and, indeed, our conscience. It is about reminding ourselves that when a people is under oppression so that their very existence is threatened, we have a duty and a responsibility to stand up. So I will be standing with the Muslim community around the world—Ummah Islamiyyah—and the Jewish community around the world, as well as with many, many people across the United Kingdom and across the world who are seeing the abuses that we are seeing, sadly, in western China and reminding ourselves that that crime does not just fall on the heads of the victims, but threatens us all.”
The amendment had the backing of a wide range of influential groups, including the Conservative Muslim Forum, the British Board of Jewish Deputies, the International Bar Association and a large array of Christian groups.
Those leading the charge within the Conservative party were buoyed at news that Mike Pompeo, the outgoing US Secretary of State, in one of his final acts in the role declared that China’s treatment of the Uighurs amounted to ‘genocide’.
In a statement, Mr. Pompeo said:
“I have determined that the PRC [People’s Republic of China], under the direction and control of the CCP [Chinese Communist party], has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang…These crimes are ongoing and include: the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians, forced sterilization, torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained, forced labor and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and freedom of movement”
In response to his amendment being defeated, Lord Alton said:
“The fight does not end here. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that Uighurs and other victims of alleged genocide have a route to justice through UK courts.”
The Trade Bill will now return to the House of Lords and Lord Alton has signalled he will be submitting a revised amendment, which would stand up to:
“the perfectly reasonable argument that, once the court has reached a determination of genocide, parliament should then be able to vote on the revocation of a trade deal with the country concerned”
This post was originally published on International Observatory of Human Rights.