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.