The legitimacy of trading with genocidal countries is the battle of our times, the UK’s Lord Alton of Liverpool has said, drawing parallels with the opium and slave trades in past centuries.
Lord Alton is the author of an amendment to the UK’s post-Brexit Trade Bill often dubbed the “genocide amendment,” which, if adopted, would give UK courts the power to determine whether a current or potential trade partner has committed genocide.
Some Parliamentarians have argued that the Trade Bill is not the right place to deal with genocide, but Lord Alton disagrees.
“It’s never the right bill, it’s never the right time; if you don’t want something to happen, you will always argue that,” he told The Epoch Times on Friday.
“But actually, the great free trader of the 19th century, Richard Cobden, he also led the campaign in Parliament against trade in the Opium Wars, against the slave trade, because he said there are limitations.”
Cobden considered both owning slaves and trade in opium “unacceptable,” Lord Alton said.
“The battle in our own day is about, is it legitimate to trade with nations who are themselves carrying out acts of genocide? … You have to ask the question, should we be trading on the backs of people who are enslaved? Should we be trading on the backs of people who may be subject to the crime above all crimes, genocide?”
Lord Alton’s Trade Bill amendment enjoyed a landslide victory in the House of Lords on Feb. 3, but MPs in the House of Commons did not have a chance to vote on it because the government bundled it with a different amendment and tabled an alternative proposal to replace them.
“The government knew that it was going to pass [in the House of Commons],” Lord Alton said.
“It wasn’t just [that] the former leader of the Conservative Party Sir Iain Duncan Smith was its primary supporter in the House of Commons, against his own party in government, but also that all the opposition parties were supporting it as well, and continue to do so.”
A previous version of the amendment, which contained an automatic revocation of trade deals upon a court’s determination of genocide, had been defeated in the Commons on Jan. 19 by only 11 votes, due to concerns over judicial overreach.
“The government was shocked to see that their majority in the House of Commons … of over 80 was reduced to just 11. And so it only took another half a dozen of those people to swap, and the resolution would have gone through,” Lord Alton said.
He said that although the government’s move was “not unprecedented,” it’s nevertheless “pretty disreputable,” given the overwhelming support for the amendment.
The government’s version—passed in the Commons on Tuesday by 15 votes—gives the power to determine genocide to parliamentary select committees. Lord Alton said that makes the amendment a “toothless tiger.”
Being a member of the International Relations and Defence Select Committee himself, Lord Alton said select committees have always had the power.
“The issue is, will the government then recognize that decision?” he said.
Lord Alton said he proposed the amendment precisely because the government wouldn’t act without a court’s determination.
“In 2016, when I challenged the government to declare what was happening to the Yazidis in northern Iraq to be a genocide, the government said the House of Lords wasn’t competent to do that, only a court could make that decision,” he said.
“The House of Commons then had a formal vote on the floor of the House of Commons, not just a select committee, and said this is a genocide. And the government said, no, only a court can decide; it’s not the government, not the House of Commons of Parliament, only a court.”
The Trade Bill is due back in the House of Lords on Feb. 23, when peers will have one last chance to “put some teeth into the tiger” by re-inserting Lord Alton’s amendment.
“I’m pretty confident that the House of Lords will send it back to the Commons again,” Lord Alton said. “And I hope this time that the government will have the guts, the courage, to allow a free and open democratic vote in the House of Commons, so that the elected house can make a decision on this.”
Although the genocide amendment doesn’t mention any particular country, the debates around it in Parliament have been centred around the Chinese regime since there has been growing evidence that its treatment of the Uyghur people amounts to crimes against humanity and genocide.
If the Uyghur people were able to put sufficient evidence before a court of law and demonstrate that they have been subjected to genocide, “then of course there ought to be implications, not just a trade, but for the way we deal with a country in those circumstances,” Lord Alton said.
“It can’t be business as usual,” he added.
“I have a love of China. I love Chinese people. I just don’t like the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said, citing what the regime had done during the Cultural Revolution and at Tiananmen Square in 1989; how it had treated Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hongkongers; Falun Gong adherents, Christians, dissenters, lawyers, and citizen journalists; and its threat to Taiwan.
Lord Alton said he was “increasingly optimistic” 10 years ago that China was moving to become a democratic country “where people would have basic freedoms and liberties,” only to see the country going in the opposite direction.
“I think that’s a tragedy for the Chinese people,” he said.
“I hope that we will see reform and change, and that there will be the opportunity then for people to live harmoniously alongside one another in the future.”