UK’s Genocide Amendment to Trade Bill to Return to Commons

February 3, 2021 Updated: March 4, 2021

An amendment aiming to stop and prevent the UK from doing bilateral trade with genocidal countries passed in the House of Lords on Tuesday by a two-thirds majority despite the Conservative government’s objection.

A previous version of the amendment was passed on Dec. 7 by 287 votes to 161, before it was narrowly defeated in the Commons.

The modified amendment (pdf), tabled by Lord Alton of Liverpool, enjoyed cross-party support and was passed by 359 votes to 188.

Of the peers who voted, all Bishops, Liberal Democrat peers, and all but one Labour peer supported the amendment. Most crossbenchers, non-affiliated peers, and 40 Conservative rebels also supported the amendment.

The amendment will now be returned to the House of Commons, which will debate and vote on the modified version on Feb. 9.

If passed in the Commons, the amendment to the UK’s post-Brexit international trade bill will give UK courts the power to preliminarily determine whether a current or potential trade partner of the UK has committed genocide based on the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

If such a determination is made, it must be presented to both Houses of Parliament, and a motion must be arranged for debate in each House of Parliament requiring the government to set out its course of action, “which may include (but is not limited to), discontinuation of negotiations towards, or withdrawal or termination of, that relevant agreement.”

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Buildings at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center, believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Kashgar, in northwestern Xinjiang, China, on June 2, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

The government had said it rejected the previous version of the amendment, which automatically revokes trade deals once a determination of genocide is made, because it would be a judicial overreach into powers belonging to Parliament.

The modified amendment, however, is unnecessary, the government argued.

“Genocide, the greatest of all international crimes, is notoriously hard to prove,” the Minister for Investment Lord Grimstone told peers.

Therefore, “there is a substantial likelihood that any judge could find him or herself unable to make a preliminary determination on the facts before the court,” he said.

“Such a result would be a substantial propaganda boon for any foreign government accused, which could portray the outcome as vindication for their policies and undermine broader diplomatic efforts to bring them to account.”

He then said that the government would have acted “well before” a country commits genocide.

“It will frankly be absurd for any government to wait for the human rights situation in a country to reach the level of genocide, the most egregious international crime before halting free trade agreement negotiations,” he said. “Any responsible government, and certainly this government, would have acted well before then.”

Lord Alton said he proposed the amendment precisely because the government wouldn’t act without a court’s determination.

“This genocide amendment … has its origins in 2016, when despite Parliament passing a motion on genocidal crimes against Yazidis and other minorities, the government refused to accept it, because a court had not made the declaration,” he said. “The all-party genocide amendment remedies a circular argument.”

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Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community settle at a camp in Derike, Syria, on Aug. 10, 2014. (Khalid Mohammed/AP Photo)

Lord Alton said the government opposed the amendment because of political reasons.

“At yesterday’s meeting, [the] Minister said the amendment ‘may frustrate foreign policy and create diplomatic difficulties,'” Lord Alton told peers.

“We’re talking about genocide, not diplomacy. It’s designed to frustrate business as usual of a narrow and specific issue of genocide, and to honor our obligations spelled out in international law in the Genocide Convention,” he said. “Senior figures from the world of foreign affairs are appalled by that extraordinary argument from the government.”

The debates around the genocide amendment have been largely focused on the Chinese regime’s treatment to Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The government repeatedly said that the amendment wouldn’t help Uyghurs because the UK and China does not have a free trade agreement.

“The UK does not have a free trade agreement with China and is not currently negotiating one,” Lord Grimstone reiterated on Tuesday.

However, Lord Alton said, Lord Grimstone had said the contrary on the previous day.

“China is an important trading partner for the UK, and we are pursuing increased bilateral trade,” he had said in a written reply to Baroness Cox.

During the debate in the House of Commons on the previous version of the bill, cross-party MPs supporting the amendment argued that not passing the amendment would be “outsourcing all future decisions on genocide to Russia and China,” because they have veto powers in the U.N.