Resisting pressures, the Lords confirmed the amendment aimed at punishing Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang. Now, it goes back to the Commons.
by Ruth Ingram
A last-ditch attempt by the ruling UK Conservative Party to persuade the Lords to rethink their stance on trade with genocidal states, failed dramatically this week. Peers defied pressure from the government to jettison an amendment to the Trade Bill, which would ban bilateral deals with states that commit genocide, by voting overwhelmingly in favor of the move for the second time, by 171 votes.
Their earlier decisive ballot in favor of the amendment brought by Lord David Alton, was subsequently thwarted by the narrowest of margins in the Commons despite the rebellion of 33 Conservative MPs. Returning to the Lords again, despite an unprecedented eleventh-hour delegation of government ministers sent to sway them, peers were even firmer in their resolve to support the move.
The government of Boris Johnson claims the amendment, which would allow UK judges to determine genocide rather than international courts, would complicate international trade and undermine parliament.
Speaking on January 28th, following the knife-edge victory for his government, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made its position crystal clear when he said, “The attribution of genocide is a judicial matter.” “Genocide is a strict legal term, and we hesitate to deploy it without a proper judicial decision,” he stressed, meaning in the international rather than domestic courts.
But advocates of the tweaked amendment insist that UK High Court judges are competent to determine genocide rather than the UN bodies, whose hands are ultimately tied by the power of veto of China and Russia. The revised document stresses that the ultimate say over trade deal go-aheads would be returned to MPs, once a High Court judge had made a determination of genocide.
Barrister Michael Polak of Lawyers for Uyghur Rights, one of several legal groups and associations supporting the amendment, pointed out that UK courts “are amongst the finest in the world, and are already empowered to determine genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture in criminal cases. This they have done on a number of occasions.”
Addressing the peers, Lord Gerry Grimstone, former chairman of Standard Life, Aberdeen, and businessman, opposing the amendment, warned it would: “Frustrate foreign policy and create diplomatic difficulties.”
Speaking at a previous BOAO forum for Asia, he is famously quoted as saying, “China is wonderful for us of course in the UK. China has become a beacon of stability in a very troubled world at the moment,” adding, “that is great for companies such as mine.”
But Luke de Pulford, of the Coalition for Genocide Response, leading the charge to see the amendment become law, was suspicious of Grimstone’s agenda. “Almost as if he’d do anything to avoid upsetting China,” he said in his Twitter feed following the meeting.
In an attempt to head off a defeat over the amendment, the government has voiced its determination to tackle human rights atrocities; promising on behalf of the government, to “work with parliament on the heinous crime of genocide,” Lord Grimstone gave assurances that “our minds are not closed on this matter.”
This rang hollow for David Alton, who had been frustrated by the UK government in 2016 when trying to obtain a genocide determination following the slaughter of Yazidis in northern Iraq. “The government refused to accept there had been a genocide against the Yazidis because it hadn’t been determined in the courts,” he said, which in his view underlined the importance of his amendment.
Minds fresh from the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, peer after peer gave impassioned pleas to take the warnings from the Jewish holocaust seriously and to refuse trade tainted with the stain of genocide.
Lord Cormack urged the government, which he considered was teetering on “barren moral ground,” to “move to more stable moral ground.” He warned that the greatest danger of all was “the collapse of moral values.” “There is no more heinous crime than genocide,” he added. “What is going on in China is appalling. A regime as objectionable as this we have not seen since the beginning of last century.”
Referring to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission report on China, “The Darkness Deepens,” he said that no one could read it “without feeling revulsion to the pit of their stomach.”
Baroness Kennedy urged the British government to proclaim its values to the world, including China, which she hoped might change as a result. She added, “This amendment will save lives.”
Baroness Altmann urged the government to consider the long-term implications of turning a blind eye to genocide. “In the long run it will damage us all,” she said. “Trade cannot take preference over Genocide.” Quoting Edmund Burke, she urged, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Lord Blencathra pleaded, “the evil of genocide must take preference over free trade.”
David Alton concluded with the present-day catalogue of abuses being meted out on Uyghurs and Turkic races in North West China at the hands of the CCP. By its own admission, the CCP has spent the past four years interning millions. It has illegally detained and disappeared hundreds of thousands, removed children from families, sterilized countless women, raped, tortured, crushed the culture, religion, and language of an entire people group, and caroled them into forced labor.
He was shocked to hear before the debate that Conservative ministers were arguing in letters to the Lords that his amendment might be “economically disadvantageous.”
“Economically Disadvantageous?!?!” He retorted on his Twitter feed after the debate. “We’re talking about genocide here!”
The final vote on the amendment will take place in the House of Commons next week. Luke de Pulford speaking on LBC radio before the Lords debate urged the public to put pressure on their MPs to vote in the Commons. “Let Uyghurs have their day in court,” he said. “It is the moral thing to do.”