The UK government’s slight of hand, won the day by 318 votes to 303, but the ping pong continues as the amendment returns to the Lords in its pure form.
by Ruth Ingram
A major row erupted in the UK parliament this week during a re-run of the debate over trading with genocidal states.
“Shameful, shabby and shifty” parliamentary “games” were behind a “wrecking amendment” according to MP Emily Thornberry, deliberately tabled to hijack democracy and render the parliamentary process impotent.
A rebellion has been gaining ground since January against the government and its opposition to allowing UK courts to determine genocide in potential trading partner states. Twice passed resoundingly in the House of Lords, MPs in the Commons were poised for victory on Tuesday but thwarted at the eleventh hour by ministers twinning the genocide amendment with a lesser one, thus rendering it null and void.
Ruling Conservative Whips replaced Sir David Alton’s amendment, which had already been revised to reassure MP’s who had been concerned about handing parliamentary powers to judges, with a proposal in its place to set up bespoke committees to examine allegations of genocide.
According to Emily Thornberry, select committees have no desire or capacity to make judgements. “This idea is weak, flawed and entirely forgettable,” she complained. “This is a shameful, wrecking effort,” she said, adding that the vote this week could have been a “day of pride” for UK democracy, and the Uyghur people.
She described how 52 years this week, a bipartisan parliament debated the introduction of Britain’s very first Genocide Act, making the crime a distinct offence and giving UK courts the power to determine when it had been committed. The pride taken by every member that this decision would reverberate around the world, she said, was in marked contrast to the combative mood this week. “Future generations will ask themselves why on earth the government of the day was playing procedural parliamentary games on an issue as serious and momentous as the genocidal crimes being committed against the Uyghur people in China,” she said.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith pointed out the cynical circular argument pushed by Ministers over the appropriate arena for genocide determination. On one hand, Conservative leaders have repeatedly stressed that only courts can decide genocide, he said, but now they claimed to be about to allow a committee to make that call. “The government is deliberately blocking this amendment,” he said. “This is beneath the government and I hope it won’t try it again,” he concluded. “When we want an impartial judgement we turn to a judge,” he said. “Judges are trained to take and deal with evidence. MP’s are partial.”
“Today was our chance to stand tall,” he had hoped, to send a signal of hope to all those all over the world, whether it is the Uyghurs, or the Rohingya. “But instead of being a beacon of light and hope, today what we have done is to go into the dark corridors of procedural purdah.”
Opposition MPs were without exception disappointed, and called out government tactics as “disgraceful” “beyond reproach,” “an abdication of moral authority” and “appalling.”
Ministers against the amendment described it as unpractical, and ignoring the section requiring any judicial decision on genocide or otherwise, to be then referred back to the Commons for a final say on trade, said it was constitutionally “unworkable.”
Minister of State, Greg Hands, objected to the idea of “sub-contracting” trade deals to the courts. “It is the role of government to formulate trade policies,” he emphasised.
But supporters of the amendment were unanimous that its wording had covered every objection. Benedict Rogers, well-known to readers of Bitter Winter, accused the government of lying, threatening supporters of the amendment, and “playing parliamentary skullduggery.”
Rahima Mahmut, spokeswoman for the World Uyghur Congress in London, expressed disappointment in her twitter feed after the debate, at the “terrible tactics employed by the Government” in denying the House of Commons a vote.
Six select committee chairs and 12 ex ministers rebelled in the vote causing Sir David Alton, author of the amendment, to be undeterred by the result. “Despite throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, into persuading MPs to support their wrecking amendment, the Government majority was just 15,” he said optimistically.
He added that the Lords could now give the Commons the chance to vote on the Genocide amendment “and should do so”.
The Coalition for Genocide Response, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, former prosecutor in the Milosevic trial in the Hague, was disappointed but heartened that the amendment would return to the Lords. Their work would continue in “uniting many fronts to send a clear message that we cannot trade with states committing genocide,” commented their spokesman.
“We need to put victims of genocide first, not states trading genocide. We need to care for the victims of genocide, not the diplomatic relationship with states perpetrating genocide. The choice is not between what is right and ‘righter’; the choice is between what is right and what is wrong. Trading with states perpetrating genocide and doing business as usual is pure wrong.”