In the wake of Holocaust Memorial Day, many of our social media timelines were swept up in a wave of ‘Never Again’ remembrance posts. Originally used after the liberation of prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp following World War Two, it expressed our dedication to prevent future atrocities from happening againーto prevent future genocide. However, is the meaning of this sentiment truly reflected today? Or has this true meaning simply been lost and covered up by a trail of empty sentiments? The disregard exhibited recently by our Government towards the modern-day genocide committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Xinjiang confirms this abandonment of sincerity in their sentiments. Their treatment of the “Genocide Amendment” to the UK Trade Bill shows a clear lack of responsibility toward protecting such integral human rights. With the last chance for this amendment to be passed looming on the horizon, we—now more than ever— need to hold our Government accountable. We need to make them acknowledge the true responsibility behind ‘Never Again’.
The “Genocide Amendment”—initially proposed in January this year—would have given the UK High Courts the power to block trade deals with countries judged to be committing genocide. The key element of this Amendment allows the Courts to decide if conduct amounts to genocide, forcing the Government to act accordingly. Defeated by 319 votes to 308, the House of Lords reformed the amendment and again presented it before the Commons. This reform would not give the Courts power to block such trade deals but would give them unprecedented powers to independently judge whether countries have committed genocide. Supported by a large movement to demand tougher action to protect Uyghur Muslims in China, the ‘Yet Again’ campaign saw alliance span across religious groups, victims of genocide, human rights campaigners and international lawyers.
Some suggest ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ as a more appropriate term for the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghurs. It has been suggested that as there is no evidence of mass killings, the ideas of ‘Never Again’ and the “Genocide Amendment” are not directly relevant here. However, the idea that only mass killings amount to genocide is a common misconception. The current UN definition of genocide includes causing serious bodily harm, imposing measures intended to prevent births and forcibly transferring children out of the group and into another, with intent to destroy an ethnic group. Hence, wiping out an entire ethnic group, via means such as sterilisation, torture induced death, and re-education, as is evidenced by the CCP toward Uyghurs, is encapsulated by these requirements.
Government ministers used their control of the Commons Order Paper to couple a separate issue onto this amendment debate, instead of allowing a clear vote. By attaching the Labour Proposal imposing the requirement for a human rights audit before any trade deal is signed, Ministers would be able only to back both amendments or neither. Due to the importance of rebel Tory Backbench MPs in supporting the “Genocide Amendment” and allowing it to pass, this coupling had a deliberate negative impact. Many Tory MPs were prepared to rebel to give the Courts a role, but not if this meant they would also be backing the Labour sponsored plan. This prevented Parliament from having a clear vote on the Amendment.
Whilst Downing Street argued that it is common practice to package certain amendments together, this welding of two separate issues was heavily criticised. Lord Alton described this “mockery of democracy” as a fundamental issue that ultimately prevented a fair vote.
The Government instead sponsored a replacement amendment by Conservative chair of the justice select committee, Sir Robert Neill. This would give the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, instead of the Courts, the power to investigate genocide and make recommendations in a Commons debate. This compromise was passed by 318 to 303. Trade minister Greg Hands supported this replacement, suggesting that the original raised “serious constitutional issues” in blurring the separation of powers between the judiciary and parliament.
This was quickly rebutted by former conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who held that these arguments were baseless. Matters of immense public importance must be overseen by the judiciary, as opposed to Parliament, as the former is assumed to be impartial and trained to take and deal with evidence to result in a judgement. The UK government have also regularly supported the idea that any judgement on whether genocide has occurred is a matter for “competent courts”, rather than governments. This can be seen by the International Court of Justice and the recognition of the Genocide of the Rohingya around 5 years ago.
However, this power of the ICJ is not enough: UK courts must also have this power of recognition. As the ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the UN, it is not sufficient for identifying genocide in the case at hand. Currently, only the UN Security Council have the power to recognise genocide. However, as one of the five permanent members of the council, China has unilateral veto power on the Council’s Resolution. In essence: the genocide of the Uyghur Muslims cannot be recognised without the approval of China, an event that is clearly unimaginable.
This bill has now returned to the House of Lords to be retabled, to enable the elected house to have the opportunity to vote clearly on this fundamental issue. Set for February 23rd, the significant majority in the Lords are likely to pass this new amendment on to the Commons. This retabling will be the last chance for the UK Government to vote upon the “Genocide Amendment” before it is thrown out completely. The previous Chief Whip claimed that the scale of whipping for the last clear amendment vote led many to consider their jobs to be on the line with the vote. However, encouragingly, there is already a strong chance of Conservative rebel support, as previous votes on the amendment have demonstrated the largest rebellion of Conservative MPs in recent years. With a difference of only 15 in the prior vote, only 8 new MPs are needed to back this amendment: with the most likely candidates to rebel being Tory backbench MPs. A student movement to lobby local MPs, holding the Tory backbench MPs accountable by email or over the phone, is essential for this human rights plight to be realised.
The “Genocide Amendment” will support the persecuted Uyghurs in allowing their situation to be considered by a court of law. If genocide is identified the Government, whilst not forced, are morally obligated to act. They can be held accountable to the people of the UK if they have recognised a genocide but are failing to act on it.
The idea of ‘Never Again’ was promulgated after World War Two to ensure genocide and mass human rights violations would not happen again. However, the lack of sincerity hidden behind our Government’s declaration of ‘Never Again’ is revealed in the clear avoidance tactics surrounding this bill. Right now, we are witnessing the last chance for the amendment to pass, the last chance for the lives of the Uyghurs to be protected in UK law, and the last chance to acknowledge the true meaning behind ‘Never Again’.