How will the government respond to genocide vote?

Syria and Iraq: Genocide, House of Lords, 21 April 2016

Private Notice Question asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to respond to yesterday’s unanimous vote in the House of Commons declaring a genocide against minorities in Syria and Iraq and instructing the Government to refer this to the Security Council.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con)

My Lords, this Government share the House of Commons condemnation of Daesh atrocities against minorities, and the majority Muslim population of Iraq and Syria. That is why we mandated the UN Human Rights Council to investigate Daesh’s crimes in 2014, why we will do everything we can to gather evidence for use by judicial bodies, and why this Government have a comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh and free people from its barbaric rule.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Has she had a chance to read the Hansard of yesterday’s debate, in particular the reference made by many Members to the disturbing evidence given here to Members of your Lordships’ House and another place by a 16 year-old Yazidi girl, Ekhlas, and accounts of crucifixions, beheadings, systematic rape and mass graves? Has she seen the admission of her ministerial colleague, Tobias Ellwood, that a genocide is under way? Given the unanimous vote of 278 votes to zero, following similar declarations in the United States House of Representatives, the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, would it not almost be contempt of Parliament for the Government simply to say that this is non-binding and that they have no intention of following the will of Parliament in taking this matter to the Security Council, so that those responsible for these horrendous crimes will one day meet their Nuremberg moment and be held accountable for them?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I bear in mind victims of Daesh whom I have personally met, both here and in Iraq. I am not therefore going to get involved in what may or may not be procedural niceties. It is clearly a matter for judicial authorities to determine whether a genocide has taken place. The noble Lord referred to a comment by my honourable friend in another place yesterday, when he expressed his personal view, which he has expressed before, when he said:

“I believe that genocide has taken place”.

He added that,

“as the Prime Minister has said”—

and I am aware that the Prime Minister has written to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on this—

“genocide is a matter of legal rather than political opinion. We as the Government are not the prosecutor, the judge or the jury”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/4/16; col. 995.]

We may not be all those things, but I say to Daesh and to the perpetrators that we have a long memory; we have allies, and we are working with the Government of Iraq. We will not forget the perpetrators, and they will pay the price.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)

My Lords, the government Ministers abstained yesterday. Of course, the House of Commons spoke with a clear and unanimous voice yesterday, and there is no doubt that Daesh is killing people because they belong to ethnic, racial or religious groups. What it is doing has all the hallmarks of genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Government have moved on since the Minister spoke to this House in December, and Tobias Ellwood yesterday repeated what he said earlier in the month that we are helping to gather evidence that could be used to hold Daesh to account appropriately. He said, ultimately—and I repeat what the Minister said—that,

“it is not for Governments to be the prosecutor, judge or jury”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/4/16; col. 996.]

However, can the Minister tell us what progress the Government are making in gathering evidence, and when they intend to take that evidence to the Security Council so that the matter can be referred to the courts?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I shall address the last part of the noble Lord’s question first, because it covers something that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, properly raised—the Security Council, which was the nub of the resolution passed yesterday in another place. As I said earlier, we have tried to take this matter forward. We were very successful in achieving a resolution about investigations, but not further than that. Further discussions are taking place across the board. Clearly, all right-minded people are trying to find a resolution to this. The collection of information and evidence has to be robustly done. We are making some progress with that simply because of the bravery of organisations which we, alongside other members of the United Nations, help to fund. Yesterday in this House, I launched the Kurdish-language version of the international protocol on the collection and documentation of evidence, which already exists in Arabic. We are making progress, but only because of great risks taken by people who, having collected robust evidence, have to smuggle it out. They are brave indeed.

Lord Howell of Guildford (Con)

My Lords, we all appreciate that, technically, the final decision on the genocide label will be taken at the United Nations, but we all surely also recognise that, regardless of various investigations, Daesh is a movement of undiluted evil that has complete contempt for human life and justice and has committed the most appalling atrocities. On the basis of that and of the unanimous view of the other place yesterday, can we be assured that Her Majesty’s Government will at least take the case for the label of genocide to the United Nations, even though we will not be the final body deciding and others will have to join us in doing that?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, as I have made clear, it is not for politicians to determine whether something is genocide; it is a legal decision. In January, I visited the ICC to discuss these matters, and I have discussed them with the International Criminal Court on previous occasions. I also held round-table discussions with academics and lawyers—they are not mutually exclusive, I know—on these matters. It is important that we make progress on reaching a position where it is possible for the ICC to determine whether it will proceed. In the mean time, there are further discussions going ahead around the international community, and all right-minded people want to be sure that we defeat Daesh.

Lord Pannick (CB)

My Lords, the Minister said this is not a matter for politicians. Is she aware of Article VIII of the convention on genocide, which says:

“Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide”?

Why will the Government not do that?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

Because, my Lords, it is the Government’s view that, in order to hold out hope to people who have suffered from the violence of Daesh, one has to be reasonably sure of achieving agreement within the United Nations. We are not confident that that agreement currently exists. That is why we want to make progress with discussions. A lot of work is going on with regard to this. The noble Lord will be more aware than others that genocide, which has a very high threshold, is not the only determination available. There is also crimes against humanity. Let us consider how we get the perpetrators and work together on that.

Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)

My Lords, the Minister suggested that it is not for politicians to make a decision on genocide. As we have heard, there are cases under the treaty where it could be brought. We are not to be judge and jury, but surely political leadership means that we should raise it. It is not good enough simply to say that this should be left to the judge and jury. Does the Minister agree that Her Majesty’s Government should raise this at the UN, reflecting the views of your Lordships’ House during the Immigration Bill and those of the other place?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, as I have made clear, if one wants to persuade the United Nations to pass a resolution on something such as this that means so much to every victim, one should be assured in advance of being able to secure the result that one needs, and that would be for the prevention of genocide. Ultimately, whatever the United Nations determined, it would be for a court to decide whether a genocide had taken place. What has taken place is barbaric action by Daesh, and we need to work together to stop it.

This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.