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Peers vote for 'judicial committee' to assess genocide claims

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The government’s marathon resistance to giving the UK judiciary any role in determining if a country is committing genocide has suffered a fresh blow after peers voted to set up an ad hoc five-strong parliamentary judicial committee to assess evidence of genocide crimes. The peers voted in favour by a majority of 367 to 214, a majority of 153.

It is the third time peers have voted for the measure in various forms and Tory whips will have to face down a third rebellion on the issue when the trade bill returns to the Commons. The judicial but parliamentary genocide assessment would be made if the government was planning to sign a new trade or economic agreement and would be most relevant to claims that China is committing genocide against the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.

Related: UK ministers accused of cynically blocking clear vote on genocide

In attempt to find a compromise, after two rebuffs in the Commons, supporters of a genocide amendment altered their position by proposing that a five-strong body of peers with judicial backgrounds should advise a parliamentary select committee on whether a genocide was under way after sifting the evidence. Previously campaigners had proposed that the high court should give an advisory opinion. The compromise in private talks last week appeared to have won the support of cabinet ministers, but was then rejected by No 10.

Explaining the compromise in the Lords, the crossbencher Lord Alton told peers the new committee “is emphatically not a court but could provide a credible analysis that no select committee is empowered to achieve”. He also reported that Iain Duncan Smith, the leading Tory Commons rebel on China, had personally told him that he had held a “week of discussion with various ministers that were amenable and positive at this approach. At no stage were any objections raised.”

Alton said the objections ultimately “come from higher up the food chain”, adding it was “bound up with high politics and vested interests”. Parliament, he said, “should not become part of an alibi for inaction”, arguing there was no practical route to taking the issue to an international court because of China’s veto.

But Lord Grimstone, the trade minister and long-term advocate of UK-China trade links, said: “It is for competent courts to make determinations of genocide and not parliamentary committees even when they are composed of eminent and learned former judges. The establishment of an ad hoc judicial parliamentary committee would represent a fundamental constitutional reform. It would blur the distinction between courts and parliament, and upset the constitutional separation of powers.” By “competent courts”, Grimstone was referring to an international court.

The willingness of peers to press the issue for a third time is highly unusual. They were angry that government whips earlier this month manipulated the Commons order paper so that MPs were denied a separate vote on the genocide amendment passed by peers by a majority of 171.

Lord Blencathra, a former Tory chief whip, accused ministers of robbing MPs of a chance to exercise their conscience by playing “a clever, dirty, underhand trick”. Other peers said it was unworthy of the government to use such low methods to prevent a vote on an issue of such high moral and political weight.

The government has proposed that the foreign affairs select committee, and not any quasi-judicial body, should examine whether there is any evidence of genocide and then demand a Commons debate.

Alton pointed out that the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, had told the UN human rights committee in Geneva on Monday that humanitarian crimes against Uighur Muslims were going on in China on an industrial scale.

Raab had called for the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, to be given the right to conduct a fact-finding mission in Xinjiang. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, told the same council he would welcome such a visit. But China has made this offer for more than a year, and there is conflict between Beijing and Bachelet’s office over the terms of the visit.

Raab told the council: “We see almost daily reports now that shine a new light on China’s systematic human rights violations perpetrated against Uighur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang.”

He added: “The situation in Xinjiang is beyond the pale. The reported abuses – which include torture, forced labour and forced sterilisation of women – are extreme and they are extensive. They are taking place on an industrial scale. It must be our collective duty to ensure this does not go unanswered. UN mechanisms must respond.

“The UN high commissioner for human rights, or another independent fact-finding expert, must – and I repeat must – be given urgent and unfettered access to Xinjiang.”