Now the UK has left the European Union, for the first time in 50 years we have an opportunity to dictate our own trade policy and make a stand on values that matter to us as a nation.
LONDON: It is not often a government with a majority of 80 is brought as close to defeat as it was last week on an amendment to the Trade Bill to prevent free trade deals with genocidal states. The amendment, that had already been passed in the second chamber of the UK Parliament—the House of Lords—and was defeated in the House of Commons by only 11 votes, would have enabled the courts in the UK to make an advisory genocide judgement for the government to consider when signing trade deals with states accused of committing genocide.
Action is necessary because existing international mechanisms have failed. The United Nations has consistently not recognised genocide until it is too late to act and the UK risks defaulting on its commitments under the Genocide Convention. The UN and the Security Council are in paralysis as any referral to the International Criminal Court that is not agreed to by particularly intolerant states is immediately vetoed. If we outsource our decisions on genocide to the international courts, we must accept that foreign states will always hold a veto over our determinations.
Now the UK has left the European Union, for the first time in 50 years we have an opportunity to dictate our own trade policy and make a stand on values that matter to us as a nation. Encouraging states to uphold their international human rights obligations should be the keystone on which we build global Britain. As a Former Supreme Court Justice pointed out, the amendment would have filled the gaps which the UN conventions left open. The amendment would bring authority back into the UK courts and give the victims of alleged genocide an opportunity to seek justice.
This is important because genocide is unique, a crime above all crimes, and therefore demands an exceptional response. Genocide is the systematic and intentional destruction of an entire people, culture, heritage and identity: an attempt to re-write history as if these people had never existed. A determination of genocide has a rightly high threshold because it is the most heinous of all crimes.
A charge like this may include the current treatment of ethnic and religious minorities such as the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China. There are verified reports of mass internment in “re-education camps”, forced sterilisation, an 85% decline in population size and a state sponsored programme for the export of goods produced by slave labour. Although it seems these actions have the hallmarks of genocide, it is not for politicians to make this decision—but one only for the courts.
The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Asia have all stated that the attribution of genocide is a judicial matter and that the government would hesitate to deploy the term without a proper legal decision. And yet they are reluctant to trust our courts—renowned around the world for their diligence and pursuit of justice—with this decision.
This amendment would provide clarity on which courts in the UK are responsible without undermining the sovereignty of Parliament. The government spokesperson in the Lords himself confirmed—after the amendment had passed in the Lords—that Parliament would remain sovereign. Concerns that it would allow courts to strike down trade deals or provide them with too much power are also unfounded. The court’s preliminary determination of genocide would be advisory and would not tie the hands of the government or Parliament. The government could, if it wished, choose to ignore it.
A high standard of evidence would be required for the courts even to consider an accusation of genocide, preventing the courts from being besieged by vexatious claims. The mechanism created by the amendment would also allow for both the accused party and the UK government to deploy a contradictor in the court.
There is no stronger statement that the UK places its values above trade than making clear that we are not content to strike deals with genocidal states. We left the European Union so that we would stand tall and have a global vision for morality and freedom. The amendment was a chance to shine a light in the darkness to those who live under the yoke of oppression. To those who have failed to get their day in court—you have not been forgotten.
There are tweaks to be made as the amendment goes back to the Lords and I hope the Lords will ensure an improved amendment returns to the House of Commons where I believe we will gather further support. We have sent a clear signal that the government can no longer remain passive on accusations of genocide. If the UK does not stand up for victims of genocide, then I want to know what it will ever stand up for again.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith is a UK Member of Parliament and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. He formerly served as the leader of the UK Conservative Party.