top of page

UK Anti-Genocide Bill: Let’s Try Again

A new genocide bill is given a second reading by UK Lords and goes through to the next round. It can hit China, and other rogue states.

by Ruth Ingram

November 2, 2022

Lord Alton addressing the House of Lords with his new bill. Courtesy of Lord David Alton.

Genocide is firmly back on the U.K. government’s agenda following the famous three-round ping pong battle last year over an amendment to the post-Brexit Trade Bill addressing trade with genocidal states.

A new Genocide Determination Bill, introduced last week by Lord David Alton to compel the UK government to call out genocide where it exists was backed enthusiastically during an impassioned debate in the House of Lords where it was committed to a Committee of the Whole House for further consideration.

Uyghur demonstrations in support of the anti-genocide bill: mother and daughter Hadiqe and Dilnaz mourn relatives who “disappeared” in Xinjiang (all photos except #1 by Ruth Ingram).

Bitter Winter reported the “nail biting denouement” in March last year of several months of back-and-forth struggle to push through a proposed ban on trade with states deemed “genocidal” by a UK court set up for that purpose. The anti-climactic finale, a considerably watered-down version of campaigner Lord David Alton’s original proposal, was defeated by 318 votes to 300 on the back of an eleventh-hour UK government compromise to join forces with 29 states to sanction Chinese officials complicit in Uyghur atrocities. Wavering MPs came down on the side of their government.

Proponents were undeterred and resolved nevertheless to continue the struggle against genocidal states and compromised trade deals. Their campaign has borne fruit in a fifth Private Member’s Bill brought by Lord Alton’s on the issue, designed to provide once and for all a mechanism for genocide determination.

Veto powers of Russia and China have to date made a mockery of the UK government’s insistence that only international courts can determine genocide, creating a stalemate over genocide and causing parliamentarians’ dogged attempts so far to call out rogue states to fail.

Framing the debate in the context of next year’s 75th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Lord Alton pointed out the “solemn and binding” duty of the UK to use its voice and place among nations to prevent the constant recurrence of the “crime above all crimes.”

Another Uyghur woman whose relatives have disappeared in Xinjiang.

The “dismal failure” to make determinations of genocide have had harrowing repercussions for “the Uyghurs in China, the Yazidis in Iraq, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Tigrayans in Ethiopia, Christians in Nigeria and North Korea, the ‘reviled’ Hazara in Afghanistan and the suffering people of Ukraine,” he said.

Litanies of mass killings, rape, deportation of children, compulsory birth control, torture and the like were “pressing needs.” he said, that demanded investigation. Victims needed to know that those responsible for the atrocities might one day face justice.

In the light of a genocide on our doorstep in Ukraine, “If this has not concentrated our minds on the urgency of a new approach to genocide in this country,” he said, “most likely nothing ever will.” Instead of offering the same old platitudes, he said, “it is time to open our eyes to the evidence that is before us, recognize it for what it is, and act upon it.”

Lord Alton’s proposed Bill would empower individuals or communities to apply to a court for a preliminary determination where there was a serious risk of genocide or where a genocide was being or had been committed. The verdict would then be referred to the country standing accused of the crime, to other countries that are parties to the Genocide Convention and to the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council. Clause two of the Bill would ensure checks and balances, transparency and oversight over government responses to genocide globally by way of expanding the already existing mechanism for genocide responses in Section 3 of the Trade Act 2021.

Eziz Isa Elkun, left, exiled Uyghur poet and writer, expressing support for the Bill.

Inaction emboldens the perpetrators, said Baroness Sugg, “it sends the message that people can get away with it; a message that is the opposite of “Never again.” Genocide determination should not be left to international judicial systems, she insisted, adding that there were still many atrocities without a genocide determination from an international body.

Lord Browne of Ladyton pointed out that despite the issue of genocide having been raised 300 times by Lord Alton in the House, there had been an inadequate response from the government. “The UK has a duty to prevent and punish the crime of genocide,” he said.

Under the terms of the Genocide Convention, he said, “the instant that the State learns of, or should normally have learned of, the existence of a serious risk that genocide will be committed.”

Not having a mechanism or procedure to determine genocide, means that the UK risks a de facto breach of its international law obligations under the convention, he said.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter reminded peers, “in today’s interconnected age it is no longer possible to claim ignorance of these terrible events.” He quoted William Wilberforce who said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

Rahima Mahmut (left), Director of the UK branch of the World Uyghur Congress, shoulder to shoulder with a Uyghur mother and daughter whose relatives have “disappeared” in Xinjiang, and MP Nus Ghani, a stalwart supporter of the cause.

Lord Hannah of Chiswick bemoaned the fact that although the Rwanda, Cambodia and Srebrenica genocides had been punished, shameful omissions were the genocide against Iraqi Yazidis by IS and the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. He said the UK government was embroiled in a shameful and convoluted Catch 22 whereby nothing was being done to determine whether a genocide was taking place, “even when we know that it is.”

Baroness Smith of Newnham said it was time the government stopped picking holes in moves to address genocide brought before the house. “This is a Bill whose time has come, and we need His Majesty’s Government to step up to the plate and help us to ensure that the United Kingdom is abiding by our international obligations and that we lead on these international obligations,” she said.

In supporting the Bill, Lord Shinkwin urged the government to get off its “increasingly flimsy and uncomfortable fence.”

Lord Mann pointed out, “there is a pathway to genocide. It does not start with mass murder or gas chambers; it starts with abuse, disrespect and all kinds of actions that can accumulate. It is really important that we look at that sort of pathway.”


bottom of page