Sixteen year-old Khalida lay prostrate on the floor of her bamboo hut in a refugee camp. She could barely even lift her head when I entered. She had been shot multiple times and left for dead, hidden among hundreds of corpses. At least 300 had been killed in her village alone, she told me, including her father, two sisters and a brother. Her 18-year-old brother Mohammed had escaped before the attack and returned only when it was safe to do so. Amidst the carnage and corpses, he found his sister, still alive, and carried her to Bangladesh.
Khalida was a victim of a genocidal campaign against the Rohingyas that forced over 700,000 people to flee across the border to Bangladesh, left thousands were killed, unknown numbers of women and girls raped, babies and children thrown into fires and villagers lined up and shot.
Today, another genocide is unfolding. It doesn’t involve guns and burning villages, but instead forced sterilisations, forced abortions, forced organ harvesting, slave labour, mass surveillance, separation of millions of children from their families and the internment of at least a million people. It entails the suppression of language, religion and cultural identity. It is the genocide of the Uyghurs in China.
Earlier this year the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held an inquiry on human rights in China. Our report will be released in the new year. One Uyghur witness told us in our first hearing that the Chinese Communist Party regime aims to “wipe out” three categories of Uyghur: “intellectual Uyghurs, rich Uyghurs and religious Uyghurs”. Fifteen members of her entire family were in the concentration camps in Xinjiang – or East Turkestan as Uyghurs prefer to call it.
China’s state media has said that the goal in regard to the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” As the The Washington Post put it, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.” Leaked high-level Chinese government documents speak of “absolutely no mercy”.
For the Jewish community in particular, comparisons with the Holocaust are rare and sensitive. So it is significant that Marie van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to the Chinese ambassador in London Liu Xiaoming saying: “Nobody could … fail to notice the similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded onto trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps.” The late Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, Tweeted in a similar vain, and The Jewish News has twice run the Uyghur story on its frontpage – the only British newspaper to do so.
And yet the international community has so far proven impotent in the face of these atrocities. No one has been brought to justice for these crimes, which continue with impunity. The words “never again” have been uttered after every genocide in recent decades, but have proven all too hollow.
Today, the House of Lords has a chance to take a step towards rectifying that. An amendment to the Government’s Trade Bill by a cross-party group of peers offers a simple proposition: Britain should not trade with genocidal regimes.
But who determines a genocide? The British government’s response has always been that the recognition of genocide is a matter for “judicial decision”, not for politicians. Fine. The problem, however, is that the international judicial system does not work – particularly where China is concerned. Despite the mounting evidence of atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs, and a growing number of international experts acknowledging that it points to genocide, China would never allow a referral to the International Criminal Court at the UN Security Council. The system is hamstrung.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, Lord Hope of Craighead, former Supreme Court Justice, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Baroness Falkner of Margavine, both crossbenchers, and others have come up with a solution. The amendment before the House of Lords would allow for the High Court of England and Wales to make a “preliminary determination” on genocide. This ingenious solution breaks the logjam while remaining consistent with the government’s view that it is for judges to decide.
The consequence of a preliminary determination of genocide by Britain’s courts, under this amendment, would be that bilateral trade deals with genocidal states would be revoked or prohibited. As Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, argues, “this is manifestly proportionate. No well-ordered state would want to be trading with a genocidal state.”
How does this affect past genocides? It doesn’t. The amendment applies only to genocides occurring after this bill comes into force, and only to those considered by the High Court to be “ongoing at the time of its coming into force”.
Does it violate our multilateral trade commitments? No, because it only applies to bilateral agreements.
Does it prevent further action by the United Nations? Not at all – indeed, precisely because it requires a “preliminary determination” by our courts, it strengthens the case for a full determination through the international system – potentially resulting in a prosecution.
As Nice says, “it would also discourage, and probably significantly reduce, casual and often instrumental assertions that genocide is being committed.”
The amendment now has the support of the Labour Party frontbench, the Liberal Democrats’ defence spokesperson Baroness Smith of Newnham and many Conservative peers. The Bishop of St Albans officially supports it too, and the rest of the bishops’ bench is expected to pile in on it.
The Government now has a choice. It can resist it but face defeat in the House of Lords, and a significant rebellion when it goes to the House of Commons. Or it can show moral courage and leadership and back – or at least accept – the amendment now, and send the world a clear message that Britain won’t be complicit with the “crime of crimes”.
If Britain leads on this, others will follow and we have a chance at long last to make the 1948 Genocide Convention mean something more than words. For as Labour’s spokesman Lord Stevenson of Balmacara put it, “if we care about our moral values as a nation, we should have no grounds not to support the amendment.” I hope every Conservative Peer – and every MP when it reaches the House of Commons – will back it.