Daesh: persecution of Christians – Westminster Hall debate

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered persecution of Christians and other religious minorities under Daesh.

May I clarify the subject of the debate? The wording I applied for was “Genocide under Daesh of Christians and other religious minorities”. It is regrettable that, without any discussion with me, the motion was changed, although I understand it was not changed by the Speaker’s office. I shall say no more about the motion, except to clarify that the violence of ISIL, or Daesh, as we now call it, rages against a number of minority religious groups in addition to Christians, including the Yazidis and minority Muslim groups. Space prohibited me from referring to them by name in the motion.

The 1948 UN convention on genocide makes it clear that genocide is the systematic killing or serious harming of people because they are part of a recognisable group. The specific legal meaning of genocide is

“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

The convention specifies certain actions that can contribute to genocide, such as killing, forcible transfer, preventing births and causing serious bodily or mental harm.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. It is a massive subject that warrants a 90-minute debate, and I am disappointed that it was not allocated one. Nevertheless, we have half an hour. I know that the hon. Lady, along with others present, shares my concern that Christians are given the ultimatum: “convert or die”. It is a choice between continuing to have religious beliefs and leaving the country or dying. Genocide is the only word we can use for that.

Fiona Bruce: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point and is quite right. As I stand here today, religious minorities are suffering horrendous atrocities at the hands of this murderous cult in Syria, Iraq and the other countries of the middle east where Daesh has a strong presence. The number of Christians in Iraq has reduced from 1.4 million to just over a quarter of a million in just a few years. The Bishop of Aleppo said this week that two thirds of Syrian Christians have been either killed or driven away from his country.

Acts committed by ISIS against Christians include the assassination of church leaders, mass murders, torture, kidnapping for ransom, sexual enslavement, systematic rape, forced conversions and the destruction of churches. We know about the mass graves of the Yazidis, and about crucifixions, forced marriages and the kidnapping of women and girls, some of them as young as eight, many of them raped mercilessly, month after month, until their bodies are in tatters. We know about children being beheaded in front of their families for refusing to convert.

Jim Shannon: The hon. Lady is being very gracious in giving way. Before the debate, I asked her if I could intervene to say that the Yazidis in particular have been reduced from 500,000 to 200,000 in Iraq. Nobody in the west put out their hand to help or assist, as they should have. The Yazidis have been in the Kurdish camps along the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. They are a small group who have been persecuted, pursued and discriminated against, and their ethnic and religious freedoms have been abused. Perhaps the Minister could respond to that point as well.

Fiona Bruce: Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a strong point.

We are sometimes at risk of being desensitised by the horrors under Daesh. They are so extreme that their evil seems almost fictional. But for those who are suffering—people who lived lives like us just a short time ago—they are very real.

Surely one thing is becoming increasingly clear. Bearing in mind the definition of genocide to which I referred a moment ago, can anyone now seriously doubt that Daesh’s actions are genocidal? Nor, surely, can anyone seriously doubt that Daesh is trying to destroy minorities such as the Yazidis, in the words of the convention,

“in whole or in part”.

As Bishop Angaelos, a general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has said:

“How can we not declare Genocide if Christians are suffering the same fate, at the same time, under the same conditions, at the hands of the same perpetrators?”

The entire population of Christians in the city of Mosul in Iraq, all 60,000 of them, have been effectively eradicated by Daesh—gone, fled or dead.

Daesh’s intentions in perpetrating its violence are a matter of record, as reports have made clear repeatedly. It regularly makes public statements of a genocidal nature, such as the following message, which was broadcast on its Al-Bayan radio station:

“We say to the defenders of the cross, that future attacks are going to be harsher and worse…The Islamic State soldiers will inflict harm on you with the grace of Allah. The future is just around the corner.”

As US Secretary of State said just last week, after a unanimous vote by the House of Representatives to declare a genocide by 393 votes to none:

“Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions—in what it says, what it believes, and what it does…The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians; Yezidis because they are Yezidis; Shia because they are Shia.”

I submit that the legal criteria for genocide have been amply satisfied. Not only have the US Government now said so, but so have the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Pope, the US Congress, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and 75 Members of both Houses of Parliament when we wrote to the Prime Minister, including the former chief of staff and former head of MI5. A group of leading QC peers also recently wrote to the Prime Minister on this issue. All agree that the crimes of Daesh are genocide.

Why is it so important that we, as Members of Parliament, also collectively define these crimes as genocide? Because doing so would be more than mere verbiage—more than mere words. It would bring into play a whole series of mechanisms that can strengthen the response of the international community to challenge this evil force. The convention on genocide is clear that such a declaration brings with it obligations to prevent, protect and punish. I suggest that our making such a declaration would challenge the 147 countries that are party to the convention to step up and act on their obligations to help to prevent further atrocities, to protect those who are suffering, and to work towards punishing the perpetrators.

Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. She has outlined clearly the need for us to have this debate. It is an opportunity for us to speak out on behalf of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the whole world who have been persecuted because of their beliefs. We have the chance to be a voice for the voiceless. I congratulate the hon. Lady again on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall for our consideration.

Fiona Bruce: It is right that we should be a voice for the voiceless.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Before I heard the start of her speech, I did not know the original wording of her motion. May I press her to submit the motion again and, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, request more time for the debate and possibly a vote in the Chamber? I, too, was a signatory to a letter to the Prime Minister on this subject, and I think there are many more parliamentarians who would welcome the opportunity to debate it at length and to vote on it.

Fiona Bruce: My hon. Friend pre-empts me. He is absolutely right. I suggest that such a motion should be worded in the following way: “That this House believe that religious minorities in the middle east are suffering genocide.” Crucially, that would mean that those who have participated in such vile crimes would know that they face justice and the full weight of genocide law when they are tried before the International Criminal Court. Must the relevant conflicts end before we work to bring to justice those who are responsible for these terrible atrocities? How long will that be? How much of the evidence will have disappeared? How many of the witnesses will have gone?

The international community’s record is not strong on this issue. Our incumbent Foreign Secretary and the previous Foreign Secretary have both lamented on the record the international community’s response to previous genocidal suffering. In 2015, the Foreign Secretary said that

“the memory of what happened in Srebrenica leaves the international community with obligations that extend well beyond the region…It demands that we all try to understand why those who placed their hope in the international community on the eve of genocide found it dashed.”

On the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, William Hague, then Foreign Secretary, said:

“The truth is that our ability to prevent conflict is still hampered by a gap between the commitments states have made and the reality of their actions.”

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She talked about waiting until the end of the conflict. On 17 December 1942, the then Foreign Secretary made clear in the House what Britain’s attitude would be at the end of hostilities to those who had committed the massacre of the Jews in Europe. Does my hon. Friend think that a similar statement today of what the international community’s attitude will be at the conclusion of hostilities to those who are committing genocide in the middle east would be welcome?

Fiona Bruce: Indeed I do.

We must learn the lessons of the past. It is right that the international community should shoulder a burden of guilt for failing the victims in Rwanda. Those of us who have been to Rwanda a number of times know how many people still suffer as a result of our failure to act promptly then. Let us act now and be bold enough to call this genocide what it is. Let us avoid the regret that so many now feel about that past failure and not acting more promptly to go to the aid of those who suffered so severely in Rwanda in the early 1990s.

What has been our response to the middle eastern genocide perpetrated by Daesh to date? In the time I have left, I want to talk about the Government’s response, as I understand it—the Minister may correct me. I believe that the Government say that they have a long-standing policy that any judgments on whether genocide has occurred are a matter for the international judicial system. Their approach appears to be to refrain from expressing an opinion on whether genocide has occurred until the international judicial system makes such a declaration. However, why can Parliament not make a declaration?

I respectfully suggest to the Minister that there are perhaps four reasons—probably more—why the Government should reconsider their approach. First, I find it remarkable that the UK is willing to declare itself not competent to judge whether the conditions for genocide, which I have described, have been met, particularly in a case as clear as this. If the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the US Government and the European Parliament, none of which are judicial bodies, can declare a genocide, why cannot we?

Secondly, as I understand it, the Government have previously been willing to express their view on genocides that neither the UN nor the International Criminal Court have ruled upon, such as the case of Cambodia. Thirdly, the Government’s approach is frustratingly circular. We are told that nothing can be done until the ICC or the UN declares genocide, but historically neither have been willing to do so without international pressure. This is potentially a recipe for doing nothing. I know that the Minister is an extremely genuine person and is deeply concerned about matters of justice of this nature, but is it acceptable for this country to effectively risk doing nothing on this particular issue of declaring genocide—I am sure that is not true elsewhere—when we sincerely wish to pursue an ethical foreign policy?

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, we have a moral duty to speak out and do what we can for the religious minorities that, even now, are being horribly persecuted at the brutal hands of Daesh. Staying silent in the face of such evil is not an option.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. What she says about silence is important. The way that Christians, Yazidis and other minorities are being targeted in the areas controlled by Daesh is appalling. I hear a lot about it from my constituents, but I do not hear about it more widely than that. Encouraging further discussions in this House would help to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians and other minorities.

Fiona Bruce: I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. The issue certainly needs much closer attention in this place and more broadly in our country. The dignity of the people who are suffering so horribly cries out for it.

I want to digress for a moment, to refer to an announcement that was made in the House last Wednesday. The Minister may be able to assist us by clarifying it. Many Members were left with the impression that only states can commit genocide. I have the greatest respect for the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), and I have no doubt that he gave that response with total sincerity, but will the Minister responding to today’s debate clarify the advice that he was given? As I understand it—I stand to be corrected—all that is needed for a non-state party to be found guilty of genocide is for the UN Security Council to confer jurisdiction on the ICC, and for the ICC to agree that a genocide is taking place. That cannot happen without lobbying from our Government, so we should press the UN Security Council to take action accordingly.

An amendment to the Immigration Bill was introduced yesterday in another place. If passed, it would have presumed that victims of genocide meet certain conditions for asylum in the UK, and it would have put that determination in the hands of a High Court judge. I watched that debate, after which the amendment was narrowly defeated late last night. Although some of the contributors had reservations about its wording, which I believe is why they felt they could not support it, the support for it was much wider than the vote reflected on the principle that we need to call these atrocities what they are: genocide.

I am focusing on that narrow point today. I seek support for a motion to be introduced in the terms that I referred to—“That this House believe that religious minorities in the middle east are suffering genocide.” That would enable us to refer the matter to the UN, so that the International Criminal Court could proceed with examining what is happening in the middle east.

In the debate in the other place last night, the Minister responding to the debate proposed that

“the appropriate way forward would be to consider a Motion of this House, directed to Her Majesty’s Government as to how they should address or not address the issues that pertain here with regard to whether there has been genocide.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 2177.]

If my understanding that such a motion could be brought before the House is correct, will the Minister consider whether it would be appropriate for the Government to bring it forward? As he knows, such a motion introduced by a Back Bencher would have little chance of being considered by the House in the immediate future. Will the Minister consider whether the Government should introduce such a motion and arrange for a vote on this issue? If I understood the Minister in the other place correctly, the Government proposed that amicable solution. May I now press for it to be made possible? Will the Minister confirm that we should be pushing for international recognition of, and action against, these unspeakable crimes, and for them to be declared as genocide? We can and should express an opinion, so that we can lead the charge at the international level and bring those who are committing such atrocious evils to justice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood):

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. I am sorry to hear that the wording of her motion was altered. I am not aware that it had anything to do with us—I do not think we have that privilege, or I am sure that I would change many motions, although not in this case. I congratulate her on securing this important debate. No one can fail to be moved by the harrowing stories of Daesh’s brutality and the way in which Christians, Yazidis and others have been singled out for persecution, and I pay tribute to both Government and Opposition Members who have campaigned so hard to ensure that minority voices are heard in the fight against Daesh.

In the middle east, we are now witnessing systematic and horrific attacks against Christians and others on the basis of their religion, beliefs or ethnicity. Tragically, the very survival of communities that have existed peacefully in the region for centuries is now at risk. Members on both sides of the House are united in our condemnation of Daesh’s inhumane treatment of minorities. It is also right that we condemn Daesh’s equally brutal treatment of the majority Muslim population in Iraq and Syria.

Today, we have heard appalling examples of Daesh’s abuses. The Government want to see accountability for those abuses and have supported efforts to document them. The UK co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution mandating the investigation of Daesh abuses, which were also recorded and condemned in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2014 human rights and democracy report. We will do the same in the 2015 report, which is to be published in April. The Government are directly funding training for Syrian activists to document abuses to a standard suitable for criminal prosecution. I pay tribute to those involved in that work for their courage.

Turning to the core of what my hon. Friend has discussed today, I understand the urge for us to declare that there is genocide. As the Prime Minister said in the House yesterday, however, we maintain that genocide should be a matter of legal rather than political opinion, although there is clearly a growing body of evidence that terrible crimes have been committed. It is vital that all of us to continue to expose and condemn Daesh’s atrocities and, above all, do everything in our power to stop them, but we maintain that it is right for any assessment of matters of international law to remain in the hands of the appropriate judicial authorities. I assure the House that the Government are working hard with our international partners to ensure that Daesh is held to account for its crimes and that those who have suffered at its hands receive justice.

To be clear, I associate myself firmly with the comments made by Secretary of State John Kerry that no Government are judge, jury or prosecutor—we are not in a position to make such statements. It is for the international criminal courts to do so. However, we are participating in collecting the data, preserving the documents and providing the evidence that will be needed to take things forward. It is important and of symbolic value that international justice is seen to take place, with a commitment by the international community to see accountability for the most serious crimes of international concern.

The matter is complex, however, and an awful lot of due diligence needs to take place, not only on genocide but on the whole issue of crimes against humanity, as my hon. Friend is aware. She has done extremely well to bring the matter before the House today, and I absolutely encourage a further, wider debate with a vote in the House to continue the process.

Michael Tomlinson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—I am conscious of the time. Given his experience of military service in the Balkans and of Rwanda, does he see the importance of debating the subject further, as he has just said? Will he support a debate taking place in Government time, with a vote?

Mr Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes his point fully, but it is up to the usual channels to make any decision. I firmly believe that we are not doing justice to the subject; we are only skimming the surface of such an important matter. We have touched on Rwanda, the Balkans and so forth, and, indeed, following Rwanda, the world recognised the duty of care on leaders—again, a legal stipulation—to look after the people under their remit. That failed in Rwanda. I would very much welcome a further debate on the subject, so that the world can hear what this Parliament thinks and the Government’s reaction to that, and so that we can pursue and continue the process. I welcome that and hope that today is only a beginning.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): We are at one in this Chamber in our horror of the reports that we have heard. Will the Minister tell us precisely what he expects us to be voting on after a debate in the main Chamber, and what action would be recommended?

Mr Ellwood: That is not for the Government; it is for the Backbench Business Committee to make such a judgment. Any debate would be an indication of the mood or spirit of Parliament, of where we would like to go, and of what we would like the permanent members of the UN Security Council to discuss. It could lead to recommendations for action, perhaps through the international criminal courts or any number of other avenues.

Kevin Foster: In 1942, this House made a solemn resolution that those responsible for such crimes should not escape retribution. Would the Government be minded to support such a resolution in this instance?

Mr Ellwood: I will write to hon. Members with details on questions to which I have not replied, but I must conclude.

I have given as much indication as I can of the direction of travel that we would like to go in. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary has made his comments, and I repeat—I do not want to get myself into any trouble, so I am looking around carefully—that we are not judge or jury here. It is not for the Government to call this, which hon. Members will perhaps recognise as a frustration. It is important that voices are heard to make it clear what the expectations are and where we should be going on what is happening in Iraq and Syria.

To truly defeat Daesh, to eradicate its ideology, and to secure long-term peace and security in the region, we must demonstrate through our words and actions our support for all communities, whether majority or minority, Shi’a or Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Kurds or others. We will continue to do all we can to liberate the people of Iraq and Syria from the persecution and appalling violence that they face from Daesh. We must all continue to expose Daesh for its criminal and fraudulent betrayal of Islam. In the spirit in which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton introduced the debate, I also hope that we can take important steps towards bringing Daesh to justice on the international stage.