Interview with Dominic Raab: The EU’s approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol is “pretty analogue in a digital age”

18 Jun

Brexit has resulted in “a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy”. So says Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary since July 2019.

There has not, he suggests, been any comparable change in the attitude of the European Commission, particularly with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol, where “the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age”.

Raab questions the idea that the conflicts in Kashmir, and in Israel/Palestine, risk spilling over into British politics.

He denies he is better at chairing meetings than Boris Johnson, admits he is “still not wild” about taking the knee, and contends that the Conservative Party’s new appeal to voters in the North need not be gained at the expense of support in seats such as his own, in the home counties:

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.”

The interview was carried out on Wednesday evening, and ConHome began by asking about the material released that morning by Dominic Cummings, and the period when Johnson was at death’s door and Raab was “covering for the boss”.

ConHome: “Do you agree with today’s report that you are better than the Prime Minister at chairing meetings?”

Raab: “No [laughter].”

ConHome: “Here’s the full quote: ‘Unlike the Prime Minister Raab can chair meetings properly instead of telling rambling stories and jokes. He lets good officials actually question people, so we started to get to the truth.'”

Raab: “What is the question?”

ConHome: “Is this an accurate account?”

Raab: “No, no. I try to do things professionally, and I think the Prime Minister deploys me for that. But actually I think to the extent we’re talking about the period when I was covering for the boss, we were all focussed on doing what he wanted.

“There was a good team effort, in order to get ourselves into good shape for when we hoped he would be back at the helm.”

ConHome: “And what do you think of Cummings himself?”

Raab: “I can’t see any value added from me commenting on the commentary.”

ConHome: “Was there ever actually a moment when the Prime Minister was ill when you thought, ‘I’m going to have to take over’?”

Raab: “When you say ‘take over’, you mean beyond…”

ConHome: “Beyond what you were doing anyway.”

Raab: “I was conscious that he was not well, but also I think I had the pretty firm conviction he’d pull through. But I didn’t know.

“The truth is I thought he was in good hands with the doctors, which he was, exceptional care, and what I knew he’d want, when he came to, and was able to engage, was to know we hadn’t been sitting there, fretting so much over him, but that we’d been getting on doing what needed to be done for the country.

“That was the rationale. And the truth is the Cabinet were brilliant, because it’s a team effort, very disciplined, very professional, and I suppose that sense of worry and concern for someone who’s a colleague, not just our boss, kicked in.”

ConHome: “You never felt a moment of absolute terror, thinking ‘I’m going to have to be a kind of interim figure who…'”

Raab: “Well not really. There was never any news that gave me credible cause for concern. The truth is, people ask me this a lot, I didn’t have a lot of time for my mind to wander. It was pretty hectic.

“The Foreign Office was very busy at the time, and then there was obviously trying to make sure that we steered things through.

“I think I’m right in saying it was around the point at which we were edging towards the five tests of how we would come through lockdown.

“So there was a huge amount of substantive work, the Prime Minister had given us our steer, so there was a load to get on with, and I was just focussed on that really.”

ConHome: “Only a few weeks ago, a convoy went down the Finchley Road with someone shouting ‘F*** the Jews, rape their daughters’.

“Do you think the effect of foreign affairs, and of Israel/Palestine, is intensifying in a malign way here in the UK?”

Raab: “That was a deeply worrying incident and we jumped on it very quick, both in terms of condemning it, but also making sure the Met were aware, and satisfying ourselves that they were on the case, to give the Jewish community the reassurance they needed.

“But this cross-fertilisation of the international realm into domestic policy actually is much more prevalent than that. You can see it on a whole range of issues.

“Because we’ve got such a wonderful international mix in the UK. I am very, very sensitive to the impact on the British Chinese community of what we’re doing.

“When you think about that community, one of the most entrepreneurial, I sat on the Education Select Committee for two years, the British Chinese standards, the parenting, the engagement, from every class level, was exceptional. The contribution they make to cultural life, in lots of different ways.

“You can think of it from both sides in relations to Kashmir.

“If global Britain is going to mean what it says, which we do, of course we’re going to have to be sensitive to and take into account the feelings of those who have immigrated or settled here, or second, third, fourth generation communities.

“The same is true the other way as well. One of the big things that happened, which didn’t get a huge amount of attention, is the Prime Minister’s meeting – it had to be virtual in the end – with Prime Minister Modi, where we set out a road map for ten years, the 2030 road map, including the road map to an FTA.

“Some great stuff on migration and mobility, and young people, young professionals from here and from India being able to come and take advantage of everything the UK and India has to offer.

“Some stuff on cyber and other things, climate change.

“India deemed the UK a Comprehensive Strategic Partner. We’re only the fourth country India’s done that with. Now Prime Minister Modi himself has talked about the living bridge between the UK and India.

“He’s quite a lyrical leader, but actually it’s quite a good way of looking at it.

“And we have quite a few countries, because of our Commonwealth links, because of the travelling nature of Brits, where that’s true.

“But the truth is, if your foreign policy is a combination of pursuing a principled approach, but also delivering the national interest for the people of your country, you ought to be able to navigate that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel, in relation to Israel/Palestine and Kashmir, that the skies are darkening?”

Raab: “Well I don’t think you can combine them together.

“But let me take Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve been out there twice. I was out there recently. I met Yair Lapid as well as Prime Minister, as then was, Netanyahu, and a range of other leading figures.

“There is still going to be a measure of instability. I think the coalition may be fragile, it may be ground-breaking, we don’t know.

“But I think there seems to be a consensus that they need to firm up the ceasefire, and we need to try to avoid a vacuum taking hold, and there’s all sorts of ways we can do that.

“On the Palestinian side, there is an urgent need to shore up and support the moderate Palestinian leadership, and isolate and marginalise Hamas.

“I’m not expecting final status peace talks round the corner by Christmas. On the other hand, if you allow a vacuum to take hold then Hamas will take advantage.

“It’s in the moral and strategic interests of both sides to avoid that.”

ConHome: “In relation to antisemitism here, the effect of Israel/Palestine here, you don’t feel it’s getting worse?”

Raab: “Well I talked to the Chief Rabbi recently, I talked to the Board of Deputies, obviously I’ve got some history of my own.

“I think off the back of Corbyn, and with some of the radicalised elements of the Left articulating themselves, I think there has been a heightened sense of nervousness.

“But I also feel that we can provide the reassurance and that there is enough community cohesion here, not just among the Jewish community, but among British society as a whole, to stand up very vigorously and robustly against that.

“You look back in the Seventies, and you had radicalised groups seeking to take advantage of what was going on in the Middle East, and making their point here at home.

“I think we need to watch it very carefully, but I don’t think there’s a ground shift or a gear change in that happening.”

ConHome: “On India, Labour have put out a leaflet in the Batley and Spen byelection that is almost entirely about foreign affairs. There’s a section about Israel/Palestine, there’s a section about Kashmir where it says, ‘The Conservatives’ links to the BJP must not stand in the way of justice for Kashmir.’

“Are you worried at all that the Kashmir issue is dividing up on party political lines?

“Labour look at the Conservative Party and they say, ‘There are three ministers of Indian heritage in the Cabinet – the Conservatives are taking up a pro-Indian position,’ and you end up with that kind of division, which would be a very bad thing.”

Raab: “Well I don’t think the Labour Party could credibly do that, a) because of the British Indian communities in their constituencies, so from a pure or political interest, or b) given their historic approach to Kashmir, which is that it is for the two sides to resolve this long-standing dispute.

“I’ve never ducked raising the issue of Kashmir and human rights with the Indian government. I did it when I was in Delhi.

“The Labour Party would look incredibly hypocritical, and they would get a backlash from the other community, if they were to try to create this as a wedge issue.”

ConHome: “The Conservatives are now widely perceived as having shifted North both electorally and emotionally. Now you sit for a Surrey seat, Walton and Esher, a commuter seat, a traditionally Tory seat.

“Is there now a danger of your constituents believing the Conservatives are no longer quite so behind them?”

Raab: “The strategy, in political terms, is always to forge an alliance between the aspirational working and middle classes of this country.

“And that’s not new. Look at how successful Thatcher was, albeit in a different time and place, and a different context.

“What we’re doing as global Britain, as a force for good in the world, far from alienating Conservative voters, small-l liberal Conservative voters, I think goes down very well.

“The fact that we put Magnitsky sanctions on everyone from those persecuting the Rohingya to those persecuting the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

“The fact that Brexit is no longer a live issue for most of our constituents, they’re not being asked to vote on it.

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.

“There’s a ceiling on the Lib Dem vote if they only rely on the negative. Can anyone remember a single positive Lib Dem policy, now Brexit’s done?

“They’re campaigning in Chesham and Amersham on HS2, but they voted for it.”

ConHome: “Was Biden right in saying the G7 is in ‘a contest with autocracies’?”

Raab: “I think there’s definitely a sense that democracies are in retreat, if you just look at the numbers. And that the battle for the hearts and minds of the centre ground of the international community is there to be won but needs to be fought with a great vigour and energy.

“It’s great having the US return to the Paris Agreement on climate change. We cannot as a cluster of like-minded countries leave that vacuum in those multilateral institutions, because China and Russia or whoever else will fill it.”

ConHome: “Our ambassadors in say Paris or Berlin, who do they report to? Is it you, as Foreign Secretary? Or is it Lord Frost?”

Raab: “David [Frost] deals with the stuff that takes place under the EU formal mechanisms. He’s responsible for the EU business in relation to the Free Trade Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement.

“I’m responsible for the stuff in relation to the foreign affairs co-operation that we have, and I lead on the bilateral relationships, but obviously the two dovetail quite closely together.

“I don’t feel desperately proprietorial about it for two reasons. One, David’s a brilliant colleague.

“Secondly we are engaged it a process now where we look at our foreign policy in a much more integrated way.

“The truth is the Foreign Office is now much more central. We have a Prime Minister who really believes in the Foreign Office.

“With the merger [with the Department for International Development] I think we can all see that.”

ConHome: “So Brexit has actually worked out to the advantage of the Foreign Office? Because our foreign policy isn’t delegated in any way to Brussels any more. It’s our foreign policy.”

Raab: “I think there’s a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy. I’ve been out to the Nordics, I’m very keen on building up the N5 relationship, and the same with the Baltic Three, the Visegrad Four.

“Obviously with the Indo-Pacific stuff that we’re doing, I’m going out to Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore next week, there is just a real chance for us to be more energetic, more activist.”

ConHome: “Do you still think that taking the knee is ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’?”

Raab: “I think we all ought to be united in the fight against racism, and we also, if tolerance is to mean anything, should be able to find our own way to express it.

“I’m personally not wild about taking the knee, but if the England team want to do it, it shouldn’t just be respected, it should be supported.”

ConHome: “And should not be booed?”

Raab: “I’m one of those people who don’t believe in booing your own team. Certainly not the England team as they’re embarking on the European championships.”

ConHome: “On the Northern Ireland Protocol, is there any intrinsic greater difficulty in dealing with a Democrat administration, because of the pressure that comes on an American President from an Irish diaspora who are not necessarily familiar with all the intricacies and nuances of policy in Northern Ireland?”

Raab: “So first of all there’s always a slightly different constellation of opportunities and risks depending on who’s in the White House.

“Also, the make-up of Congress. And that’s true regardless of who’s in the White House. I was going and talking to the likes of Richie Neal and the Irish caucus when I was Foreign Secretary before and after the recent US election.

“The Irish lobby on the Hill, which is not just Democrats, it also includes Republicans, feels like it’s got a stake, and does have a stake, in the Good Friday Agreement, I think we respect that, I remember the work that George Mitchell and other Americans did.

“But there’s certainly a job for us to do to make sure first of all that a full, comprehensive picture of what’s going on on the ground is understood, and the impact the Northern Ireland Protocol has for communities on all sides in Northern Ireland.

“And frankly just the bare facts of what’s been going on in terms of the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“If you look at the perimeter of the EU, and you think about the challenges they’ve got from the Central and Eastern European border, right down to the Mediterranean border, and you think of the sliver of the border in Northern Ireland, it is rather striking that one in five of controls and checks for the whole of the EU to police the single market takes place in Northern Ireland.

“I think talking in reasonable terms about the lack of proportionality in that is important. And having a sensible conversation with our US partners is really important. We can’t shrink from that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel you made any progress on that issue at the G7, given what happened before it with the demarche?”

Raab: “I think we’ve made steady progress right the way through, I didn’t read too much into the leaking of what happened, I think we make steady progress when we explain our position in sober terms.”

ConHome: “On the Protocol, you can’t rule out having to implement Article 16. If we do, we would need presumably to protect ourselves from the effects of Article 16 in domestic law and pass a Bill to that effect, would we not?”

Raab: “Look I’m not going to speculate on the decision or the things that would need to accompany the decision. The over-riding message we get across is we want a pragmatic, flexible approach from the EU, and if we don’t get it we’ll do whatever it takes to protect the economic and the constitutional integrity of the Union.

“Ideally, the ball is in the EU’s court, David Frost has sent a range of proposals over.

“What we just cannot have is a situation where Northern Ireland is receiving three times the volume of checks that you see in Rotterdam, double the number of checks that you see in France, to police the EU single market. That cannot be right.”

ConHome: “Did Martin Selmayr say that “losing Northern Ireland was the price the UK would pay for Brexit?”

Raab: “So as I said at the time, when I was asked about this, when I was Brexit Secretary I would get, not from political hacks or spin doctors, I would get constantly fed back to me that there was a political dimension to this.

“And so from officials I had fed back to me that Selmayr had made this point.

“All the officials fed back that for the EU this is existential, and therefore they’re going to want to deter leaving the EU.

“My relationship with Michel Barnier was perfectly cordial and constructive, I respect the guy, but I remember him losing his temper with me when I said we ought to be trying to forge something that is win-win.

“And I think there is a mindset in the Commission, and probably in some other parts of the EU, but I still think it was a fairly narrow mindset, but it was a controlling one, that there was no win-win to be found.

“I look at the thing, my father was Czech, I feel a very strong sense of European identity, we’re not leaving Europe, we’re leaving the EU, let’s try and forge win-win.

“As people might say after the divorce, you can understand why one side of it or the other don’t feel that way. But I still think that’s what we should be aiming for. And that’s our foreign policy. That’s what the Prime Minister believes.”

ConHome: “Do you believe this ethos of punishment is still there in relation to the Protocol?”

Raab: “I don’t want to impute bad intentions, but put it this way, what I do deal with are the facts, and the facts do not justify the fact that one in five controls or checks for the whole of the EU’s external border are now taking place in Northern Ireland.

“That just cannot be right. And that’s not born of protecting the equities of the single market, so there must be some more to it.

“I go and look at borders all around the world. Frankly the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age.”

Alan Duncan: The Conservative Party has a moral blind spot about the rights of Palestinians

13 May

Sir Alan Duncan is a former Minister of State at both the Foreign Office and the International Development department.

The beginning and end of any argument about Israel and Palestine is that it is all to do with land. The Israelis want to take territory which does not belong to them – and all of the claims and counterclaims about the rights and wrongs on either side stem from this single fundamental fact.

Israel has been recognised as a state since 1948 following a vicious conflict between June and September that year, during which 600,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes. Today, contrary to the expressed guarantee contained in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the rights of the non-Jews (the Palestinians) have not been protected.

Palestinians are stateless, their land is occupied by the Israelis, and Palestine itself is perhaps the only populous territory in the world which rests unattached to any named state and is not permitted to call itself one.

International law is absolutely clear that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (between the River Jordan and the sea) and also Gaza, do not belong to Israel. Indeed, they comprise the components of a viable state of Palestine. If Israel can be a state, then why can’t Palestine?

For many decades, the imbalance of power – i.e. U.S support – has emboldened successive Israeli governments to pursue a deliberate policy of expansion of illegal settlements with impunity. This is brazenly contrary to international law, and has contributed to the further subjugation of Palestinians.

The main manifestation of this creeping annexation is settlements. The word sounds benign, as if it is no more than experimental camping, but the truth is far worse. Settlements may start out as little more than the planting of a caravan but, over the decades, the process has become the full-scale annexation of their neighbours’ land. Over half a million Israelis now live in modern-looking towns which are built on stolen land dotted all over the West Bank, thus making a would-be Palestinian state increasingly impractical.

The phenomenon is far worse than the mere construction of houses in the wrong place. Settlers are often armed and violent. They displace Palestinians from their own homes, cut down the olive trees on which their livelihood depends, take their scarce water, and frequently subject them to abusive attacks.

In turn, the Israeli Defence Forces defend the illegal settlers instead of the indigenous Palestinians they attack. The settlements are served by bespoke roads and utilities, which are either denied to the Palestinians or do not serve their communities.

Hand in hand with the settlement movement is the regular forced evictions and demolitions, which see so many Palestinians violently removed from their homes in their own country, all enforced and overseen by the apparatus of the Israeli state. In East Jerusalem, according to the UN, one third of all Palestinian homes are liable for demolition. This is why the forced evictions of Sheikh Jarrah is not a real estate issue, but part of a programme of getting rid of Palestinians from large areas of East Jerusalem.

The claim that Israel is a respectable democracy rings hollow when they behave in such an undemocratic way. Israel prevented Palestinians from campaigning and voting in Palestinian elections, even arresting those involved.

Whereas international law is clear that the West Bank is not theirs, Israelis justify their actions by claiming that the territory is ‘disputed’, as if to say that, because they want it, their opinion is equal to that of the people whose land they wish to take. It is not. Palestinians point out that the whole area of historic Palestine is disputed but, in past negotiations, they accepted the compromise of a Palestinian state on just 22 per cent of what was their country.

It is this same attitude that has created the serious unrest that has recently erupted. East Jerusalem does not belong to Israel. Because of the density of the city, and the incendiary overlap of its religious sites serving three main faiths, it has been widely regarded as an international city outside politics, with Israeli West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem existing in a delicate yet workable balance.

It is that balance that has just been destroyed by Israeli extremists. The proposed enforced eviction of over 70 Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah has ignited the flames of disorder. This has been simmering for weeks, during which extreme right-wing Israelis have been effectively supported by their police and soldiers in scenes which should bring the utmost shame to any Israeli. Blocking access to, and throwing stun grenades into the Al Aqsa Mosque is one thing; beating people up and arresting children is quite another. Last autumn’s scenes of a soldier’s knee on a Palestinian’s neck should make everyone realise that Palestinian lives matter too.

It is only the crass stupidity of Hamas in Gaza deciding to fire rockets at civilians in Israel and Jerusalem that has diverted attention away from the unimpeachable moral cause of the Palestinians. But neither Hamas in Gaza nor the nasty Israeli extremists in East Jerusalem are representative of their own people.

The narrative that all Palestinians are terrorists is a vile distortion, and such accusations fail to resonate when set against the chanting and graffiti which state that all Palestinians should be gassed, and that there is no such place as Palestine.

I feel an affinity with Israeli politicians such as the late Shimon Peres, and with Palestinians who strive for peace such as the late Sa’eb Erekat. Their decency is not confined to a few. Israel is not just Likud and Netanyahu.  Here is a link to a lecture I delivered a few years ago which develops these themes in detail.

More and more Israelis are appalled at their country’s occupation of Palestine. The campaign groups, NGOs and websites are beginning to multiply in support of human rights, justice, and a fair future for Palestinians. The UK risks being seriously out of tune with the Israeli people.

The last few weeks have starkly illustrated that the UK Government has been living a lie for years. Its policy, such as it is, exists in a moral vacuum. While stating that the annexation of Palestinian land is in breach of international law and goes against countless UN resolutions, it only ever utters the language of de-escalation and intones its belief in the importance of striving for a two-state solution, supposedly a viable Palestine living alongside Israel. They no longer look as though they really believe it. Where is this second state?

While the scenes in Jerusalem have been clear for all to see there hasn’t been a single word of serious condemnation from the Conservative Friends of Israel, the Labour Friends of Israel, the Board of Deputies or the government. All have found a way of not doing so. It seems the rules-based order only counts outside Israel. The Government has a hole in its policy: if it fails to stand for justice, the Conservative Party will forever have a hole in its heart.

The China genocide amendment. Our politicians should decide our trade policy – not our judges.

18 Jan

There is no trade deal negotiation between the UK and China.  And the way the world is changing, there isn’t going to be one.

That being so, why has an amendment been tabled to the Trade Bill, which will be considered in the Commons tomorrow, that would empower our courts to consider claims of genocide and revoke trade deals with countries found guilty of it?  The amendment is aimed fairly and squarely at China over its treatment of the Uighurs.

The answer is that campaigners against genocide, or the Chinese Communist regime (or both) are frustrated twice over.

First, there is no way that a case against China would be heard by an international court.  It can block hearings both by the International Court of Justice, since these need the consent of the parties concerned, and to the International Criminal Court, as a member of the UN Security Council.  And it would smother any special tribunal plan at birth.

The second is that, when campaigners seek to evade that obstacle by finding ways of taking cases to domestic courts, the Government replies that these shouldn’t rule on them…adding that they must therefore be considered by international courts, such as the International Criminal Court of the International Court of Justice.

This circular logic infuriates campaigners, and their anger, as expressed by David Alton recently during the Lords’ consideration of the Bill, is understandable.  However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Government’s position is wrong.  What are its main arguments?  Essentially, there are three.

First, that our own courts are unwilling to hear genocide cases, being nervous of rushing in where international ones are wary of treading.  (Only some of the Rwandan and Bosnian killings during the 1990s have been so designated.)  But it may well be that our judges have a duty to consider such cases whether they want to or not.

Second, that UK courts are not in a position to act as international ones would: in other words, gather and consider evidence. Perhaps – though there is video evidence; there are witness statements.  Furthermore, if the co-operation of China’s regime with genocide claims against it is considered indispensable, there will never be any trials at all.

Third, that it is for the Executive and the Legislature, not the Judiciary, to determine the conditions for trade deals: that these are a matter for politics – not the courts. This is a more powerful point.  Furthermore, as Ministers point out, if judges were to be empowered to rule on such deals, why set a bar for investigation as high as genocide?

Why not also allow our courts to rule on claims involving war crimes, torture, slavery, imprisonment without trial – and other offences that, while heinous, nonetheless fall short of attempts to elimate a national, ethnic, racial or religious group?  And what of positive as well as negative rights?

What about countries that allow the segregation of students based on disability, or discrimination against gay people at work, or suppress information about abortion?  Ministers worry that this amendment suggests a further extension of judical power, as dramatically highlighted last year by the Supreme Court’s ruling on prorogation.

When the Trade Bill was considered in the Lords, anti-genocide campaigners made it clear that they aren’t opposed to our courts ruling, if necessary, on those other major human rights abuses: as good and humane people, why would they be?  And amendments had indeed been tabled which sought to allow our judges to hear such cases.

Mull the implications for a moment.  No country in the world is incapable of being dragged before the bar of a human rights claim – including, by the way, the UK itself: for example, Human Rights Watch says that “the government refused in 2019 to order a fresh public inquiry into alleged UK complicity in rendition and torture”.

If you think that example is what a lawyer would call argumentative, return to the matter at hand: trade deals.  Liz Truss has rolled over more than 60 of these (it is hard to keep up).  More or less off the top of our heads, we zoom in on three of the trading partners involved: Egypt, Peru and Vietnam.

“Security officers routinely commit serious human rights violations, including torture, disappearances and extra-judicial executions, in near-absolute impunity,” Human Rights Watch says of Egypt.  “Under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government…it has been experiencing its worst human rights crisis in many decades”.

Of Peru, it writes that “threats to freedom of expression, violence against women, and abuses by security forces are …major concerns”.  “Vietnam’s human rights record remains dire in all areas,” it says. “The Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership.”

It isn’t hard to see grounds on which a British court might wish to strike down all three of these deals, were it empowered to do so.  Would the UK be a hero or a mug to put itself in such a position?  A hero, blazing a trail for justice worldwide?  Or a mug, handing over jobs to less sentimental competitors at the bang of a judge’s gavel?

The more one thinks about it, the more one sees that anti-genocide campaigners, in search of a vehicle to take them to their destination, have boarded the only one available, suitable or not – the Trade Bill.  But empowering our courts to make a determination of genocide is one thing; giving them the right to rule on trade deals in so doing is another.

For once that say is granted in principle, why deny it in practice? If China really is inflicting genocide on the Uighars – and so it seems to be – why not let our courts rule on whether UK firms should be trading with it at all?  Do our present exports to China really come with cleaner hands than the future ones that would follow a putative trade deal?

MPs’ assessments of how to vote on China, genocide and the courts will be influenced as much by Parliamentary tactics as by political principle.  Would opposing the amendment send a signal of weakness to China?  Maybe.  But what will happen next if enough MPs make that calculation, back the amendment, and it passes?

A Government concession could be on the cards.  In the Lords debates on the Bill, Ministers argued that they agree with action on trade deals over human rights, and that they are already acting anyway – “we seek to ensure that human rights are recognised and protected in all our free trade agreements,” as Lord Grimstone, the Minister, put it.

With the China Research Group on the case – plus the Board of Deputies of British Jews, ever-active when genocide claims are concerned – the scene may be set for Ministers tightening up their human rights’ tests for trade deals.

If so, they will try to balance justice concerns, British business interests and Parliamentary accountability in such a way as to persuade Tory supporters of the amendment to abstain, and those MPs who are preparing to abstain to go through the Government lobby instead.

Looking wider than the context of a trade deal that won’t happen anyway, Dominic Raab says that China’s treatment of the Uighars amounts to torture, and that companies profiting from it should be barred from business in the UK.

Ministers also have the option of discouraging investment in China, cracking down on its subversion, influence-peddling and espionage here – and even imposing sanctions, if that’s a route voters and MPs are willing to pursue. Unlikely?  Perhaps.  But less problematic than extending judicial power to trade policy.

Benedict Rogers: Amendments to the Government’s Trade Bill can help Britain stand up to genocidal regimes

7 Dec

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

Sixteen year-old Khalida lay prostrate on the floor of her bamboo hut in a refugee camp. She could barely even lift her head when I entered. She had been shot multiple times and left for dead, hidden among hundreds of corpses. At least 300 had been killed in her village alone, she told me, including her father, two sisters and a brother. Her 18-year-old brother Mohammed had escaped before the attack and returned only when it was safe to do so. Amidst the carnage and corpses, he found his sister, still alive, and carried her to Bangladesh.

Khalida was a victim of a genocidal campaign against the Rohingyas that forced over 700,000 people to flee across the border to Bangladesh, left thousands were killed, unknown numbers of women and girls raped, babies and children thrown into fires and villagers lined up and shot.

Today, another genocide is unfolding. It doesn’t involve guns and burning villages, but instead forced sterilisations, forced abortions, forced organ harvesting, slave labour, mass surveillance, separation of millions of children from their families and the internment of at least a million people. It entails the suppression of language, religion and cultural identity. It is the genocide of the Uyghurs in China.

Earlier this year the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held an inquiry on human rights in China. Our report will be released in the new year. One Uyghur witness told us in our first hearing that the Chinese Communist Party regime aims to “wipe out” three categories of Uyghur: “intellectual Uyghurs, rich Uyghurs and religious Uyghurs”. Fifteen members of her entire family were in the concentration camps in Xinjiang – or East Turkestan as Uyghurs prefer to call it.

China’s state media has said that the goal in regard to the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” As the The Washington Post put it, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.” Leaked high-level Chinese government documents speak of “absolutely no mercy”.

For the Jewish community in particular, comparisons with the Holocaust are rare and sensitive. So it is significant that Marie van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to the Chinese ambassador in London Liu Xiaoming saying: “Nobody could … fail to notice the similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded onto trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps.” The late Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, Tweeted in a similar vain, and The Jewish News has twice run the Uyghur story on its frontpage – the only British newspaper to do so.

And yet the international community has so far proven impotent in the face of these atrocities. No one has been brought to justice for these crimes, which continue with impunity. The words “never again” have been uttered after every genocide in recent decades, but have proven all too hollow.

Today, the House of Lords has a chance to take a step towards rectifying that. An amendment to the Government’s Trade Bill by a cross-party group of peers offers a simple proposition: Britain should not trade with genocidal regimes.

But who determines a genocide? The British government’s response has always been that the recognition of genocide is a matter for “judicial decision”, not for politicians. Fine. The problem, however, is that the international judicial system does not work – particularly where China is concerned. Despite the mounting evidence of atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs, and a growing number of international experts acknowledging that it points to genocide, China would never allow a referral to the International Criminal Court at the UN Security Council. The system is hamstrung.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, Lord Hope of Craighead, former Supreme Court Justice, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Baroness Falkner of Margavine, both crossbenchers, and others have come up with a solution. The amendment before the House of Lords would allow for the High Court of England and Wales to make a “preliminary determination” on genocide. This ingenious solution breaks the logjam while remaining consistent with the government’s view that it is for judges to decide.

The consequence of a preliminary determination of genocide by Britain’s courts, under this amendment, would be that bilateral trade deals with genocidal states would be revoked or prohibited. As Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, argues, “this is manifestly proportionate. No well-ordered state would want to be trading with a genocidal state.”

How does this affect past genocides? It doesn’t. The amendment applies only to genocides occurring after this bill comes into force, and only to those considered by the High Court to be “ongoing at the time of its coming into force”.

Does it violate our multilateral trade commitments? No, because it only applies to bilateral agreements.

Does it prevent further action by the United Nations? Not at all – indeed, precisely because it requires a “preliminary determination” by our courts, it strengthens the case for a full determination through the international system – potentially resulting in a prosecution.

As Nice says, “it would also discourage, and probably significantly reduce, casual and often instrumental assertions that genocide is being committed.”

The amendment now has the support of the Labour Party frontbench, the Liberal Democrats’ defence spokesperson Baroness Smith of Newnham and many Conservative peers. The Bishop of St Albans officially supports it too, and the rest of the bishops’ bench is expected to pile in on it.

The Government now has a choice. It can resist it but face defeat in the House of Lords, and a significant rebellion when it goes to the House of Commons. Or it can show moral courage and leadership and back – or at least accept – the amendment now, and send the world a clear message that Britain won’t be complicit with the “crime of crimes”.

If Britain leads on this, others will follow and we have a chance at long last to make the 1948 Genocide Convention mean something more than words. For as Labour’s spokesman Lord Stevenson of Balmacara put it, “if we care about our moral values as a nation, we should have no grounds not to support the amendment.” I hope every Conservative Peer – and every MP when it reaches the House of Commons – will back it.