Kate Ferguson is Co-Executive Director at Protection Approaches and Chair of Policy at the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Protection Approaches has convened The UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group since 2017.
At the heart of the fight is China. The Government wants to avoid any process that could curtail UK-China trade, and so is trying to force through its own amendment that limits focus only to future trade deals.
The Genocide Amendment would trigger immediate scrutiny of existing deals with China – which the campaign for it says could help Uyghurs now. MPs will today need to vote against the Government’s amendment and then vote for the reimagined Genocide Amendment (assuming procedure so allows). It will be a tight fight and an important one.
Like others, I had reservations about the previous attempts of the Genocide Amendment, but this new formulation offers practical and needed augmentation to how the UK approaches and responds to modern mass atrocities.
The essence of Lord Alton’s original amendment remains – namely, seeking a method for determining cases of genocide, but supporters are now proposing a parliamentary rather than legal process.
This makes sense, and builds on the Government’s own idea of going through the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The proposal is something of a parliamentary judicial committee that would bring together five former High Court justices in the Lords to respond to conclusions made by the select committee; if both committees determine genocide is ongoing, the Government must then set out their response, which would then be subject to parliamentary votes.
Because the amendment is attached to the Trade Bill, the actual legislative impact would still be very limited, impacting existing or potential trade agreements with perpetrating states. Yet in promising to invest greater responsibility upon Parliament, this new mechanism will both raise expectations regarding the implementation of the Government’s stated commitments to confront genocide, and create potential for British parliamentary leadership on the international stage in times of grave concern.
The reimagined Genocide Amendment is more flexible than earlier versions. It will be a speedier process than a court could ever deliver. The new amendment also offers much-needed bolstering to how parliament engages with modern atrocities, forcing the issue on to the agendas and into the inboxes of MPs, Peers, committee clerks, and journalists.
It should go without saying that our collective responsibilities to confront genocide and crimes against humanity should be an issue that supersedes party political lines. Just as the UK quite rightly supports efforts at the UN Security Council for permanent members to withhold their veto in matters relating to mass atrocity crimes, I’d like to see political parties lifting the whip for votes that fall within that remit. If modern atrocities are not matters of conscience, I don’t know what is. The impact and potential of this amendment will fail if UK atrocity prevention policy becomes partisan.
To be successful, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the proposed panel of former judges will need to apply a common sense approach to the conceptual scope of the process. Taking too narrow a remit risks opening a pathway to exclusionary justice and would contradict the principle behind the prevailing national approach mass atrocities, which rightly confronts crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes as well as genocide.
The painful debates over various iterations of the genocide amendments have shown how badly the UK needs a national strategy on modern atrocities, or else comprehensive legislation via a Modern Atrocities Act. Without it, the government have been forced into a corner, appearing to defend trade with genocidal states and reluctant to make their own determination of what is so blatantly happening in Xinjiang.
Without a strategy on China and without a strategy on mass atrocities, debates over the different formulations of the Genocide Amendment have seen the Government contradicting themselves at every turn, one week saying “it would frankly be absurd for any Government to wait for the human rights situation in a country to reach the level of genocide, which is the most egregious international crime, before halting free trade agreement negotiations. Any responsible Government would have acted well before then” and the next week inviting China to Downing Street for free trade negotiations.
Publication last week of the Prime Minister’s long awaited Integrated Review set out a new and welcome commitment to prioritising atrocity prevention, but until this is built out in policy the unresolved tension between rights and trade will stymie the pursuit of both. The paragraphs on China are some of the weakest of the whole document: How can the UK “continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China, while ensuring our national security and values are protected”?
If the Government’s China policy is confused, so too is the UK’s current approach to mass atrocities. It relies on political leadership, attention and will. This doesn’t work. It never has. As the incidence of mass atrocities have continued only to rise – most of the world’s refugees have fled atrocity-afflicted states – the issue has fallen between the cracks of UK development, diplomacy, trade, justice and the MOD.
By contrast, allies such as the US and Germany have done more to prioritise prevention. Even when trade was part of the Foreign Office, the two never coordinated in responding to mass atrocities. Until the government has a cohesive strategy for action and has demonstrated a willingness to use it, it is only right that Parliament steps in.
This reimagined Genocide Amendment is no panacea. Centring parliament in the process might well help invigorate political engagement with “Never Again”, but it does not guarantee it. The amendment will not “stop genocide”. To pretend anything else is more than disingenuous – it’s downright dangerous to the communities at risk now and in the future. Determinations alone have never saved lives: that requires action which too often has failed to follow.
Lord Alton’s newest proposal is not a substitute for the justice that victims deserve, nor will it absolve Government of its responsibility to enact comprehensive policy on modern atrocities, but it would be a welcome addition to how the UK confronts, understands, and responds to the most serious violations.