Luke de Pulford is Coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and sits on the Conservative party Human Rights Commission.
I like Dominic Raab – really, I do. In 18 months as Foreign Secretary he has delivered more legacy defining policies than most. A sanctions regime to punish human rights abusers. A generous immigration scheme for Hong Kongers. There’s a lot to admire, especially when you consider these policies had to be smashed through the famously resistant blob that is the Foreign Office.
Which is why I can’t understand what he seems to be doing now – especially given his background. According to Government insiders, Raab is blocking efforts to give UK courts the power to hear cases of genocide – something the Uyghur people desperately need and deserve.
Let me back up a bit. In December the House of Lords debated an all-party amendment which would stop the UK offering cushy trade deals to genocidal states. Though the amendment doesn’t mention any country, China’s anti-Uyghur atrocities were clearly the motivation. Truth be told, if this amendment were to become law, it won’t have much impact on trade at all. As the Government keeps saying, the UK has “no plans to commence free trade negotiations with China”. So a law saying we can’t offer Myanmar or China special tariffs isn’t much skin off the Government’s nose.
The big deal about this amendment is that it would allow UK courts to rule on whether or not a state had committed genocide. Until now this has been a privilege reserved to international courts, which take a ridiculously long time and which can’t act at all if someone brandishes their Security Council veto. Turkeys don’t tend to vote for Christmas, so the likelihood of China allowing themselves to be tried for their anti-Uyghur atrocities is…putting it generously…remote.
This obviously isn’t good enough. Aside from failing Uyghurs, it’s a far cry from the treaty we signed, forged in the shadow of the Holocaust: to “prevent and punish” a repeat of those horrors. Given that the UK refuses to use the word genocide, unless there has been a formal court ruling – and consequently refuses to engage with its duties under the Genocide Convention – this is a problem that needs solving. Actually, that’s too kind. It’s a completely inoperable, wrong-headed and immoral policy which cynics might speculate was designed to achieve precisely the inertia it has brought about.
The House of Lords agreed and passed the amendment with a whacking majority of 126, including a considerable Tory rebellion of former chief whips like David Maclean and former cabinet ministers like Lord Forsyth, Eric Pickles and others. “Lords say ‘No Deal’ to Genocide Countries” as a tabloid had it.
This clearly spooked the Government which is rallying hard in the Commons to kill off the proposal, deploying the usual excuses about how this isn’t the right bill, and isn’t the right time – the kind of parliamentary tactics which only work on those who haven’t been around long enough to have heard them many times before.
From Daniel Finkelstein’s piece yesterday in The Times you’d think nothing was wrong with the Government’s approach. Everything’s fine! Except our treaty promises to Hong Kong lie in tatters, no meaningful steps have been taken to help Uyghurs by engaging with our obligations under the Genocide Convention, no sanctions have been imposed on Xi Jinping’s enforcers after at least a year of asking (it took a week for Belarus), no economic sanctions have been imposed upon China, no commitment has been made to reduce Britain’s strategic dependency on China, no commitment to close Confucius Institutes, nothing about Tibet, no action on state-sponsored organ trafficking, nothing about Inner Mongolia, and so on and so on.
The weird thing is that the Government always knew it was going to be in for a rough time with this one. But ministers haven’t come to the table. Normally, when presented with trouble from the back benches, they negotiate. Sometimes they even take the proposal on themselves, which allows them to control and adapt it. In this case the government was having none of it. They whipped against heavily in the Lords, and are expected to do the same in the Lower House.
Why? Well, the obstruction is said to be Raab himself – apparently worried this will upset the UN, or something. Even weirder: Liz Truss is apparently in favour of the idea and it’s her bill. So here we have a Foreign Secretary – who really has been courageous on human rights – moving to block an amendment that would give Uyghurs their day in court on a bill that isn’t even his responsibility.
I hope you’re scratching your head, because those of us involved in the campaign can’t make sense of it. The most likely explanation is that the current Foreign Secretary used to be a Foreign Office lawyer – the standard bearers for the “computer says no” division of Whitehall. And, as I’ve hinted above and written about before, it is long-standing UK policy that “the question of whether or not genocide has occurred is a matter for the international judicial system”.
In policy terms, this is positively prehistoric – Douglas-Home was the first Foreign Secretary to deploy a version of the line in 1971. Perhaps old habits die hard, and overturning this deeply embedded piece of Foreign Office obfuscation is proving too much for a man whose fledgling career was weened on it.
Whatever the reason, it’s all a bit out of character. The UN genocide system is broken and needs a shot in the arm from a country willing to stand and be counted. It’s hard to imagine a foreign secretary better suited to doing it. If only he would.