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Convention On Genocide

Volume 641: debated on Friday 5 May 1961

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[ Mr. Hughes-Young.]

12.50 a.m.

Shortly after infamous Hitler and his like-minded sub-human followers had taken power, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) and other hon. Members, including myself, endeavoured to move this House to action against the atrocities being committed already at that time. An hon. Member intervened while I was speaking about the vicious practices of these monsters against Jewish men, women and children and was so shocked that he asked me to give my authority for the facts which I was quoting. Even the information which was available at that time was too horrible to believe.

Last month, about twenty years afterwards, I remembered that incident while I was sitting in the solemn atmosphere of the court room at Jerusalem, overcome by the evidence to which we were listening from men who had witnessed such scenes as the crashing out of the brains of men and women, and even children, by so-called human beings who were worse than the most brutal beasts of the field. Tears came to the eyes of all who were in that court, including the Foreign Secretary of Israel. It was impossible to suppress the emotional reaction which the recounting of these horrific incidents aroused.

How was it possible that 6 million men, women and children could have been tortured and done to death in this age by such diabolical methods? Clearly, the civilised world has to ask itself how was this possible and what can be done to prevent any recurrence.

More than twelve years have passed since the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously adopted the Convention on Genocide by 56 votes to none. It is more than ten years since the Convention came into force with the ratification of accession of the requisite number of 20 States; and more than eight years have elapsed since the then Foreign Secretary in this House said in January, 1952, in reply to a Question of mine as to whether he was in a position to ratify this Convention, that the Government hoped shortly to reach a decision on this matter.

A further 43 States have now ratified or acceded to the Convention, bringing the grand total to 63 States; but still there has been no decision by Her Majesty's Government. I consider it, therefore, to be my solemn duty to remind the House again of the great importance of the Convention, and in particular today, and of its basic principles. According to Article II of the Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, wholly or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group; (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Unfortunately, these crimes are not new. Genocide is a new name for old crimes so terrible that they have been nameless. Throughout the ages, as the late Dr. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the name, said, "This crime of crimes has repeated itself with the regularity of a biological law". The vastness of the number of victims involved, and the unspeakable measures taken against these victims, have frequently been of such a nature that the human mind of the common man in other countries has been incapable of believing that such atrocities were actually taking place.

Thus, honest accounts of those horrors have often been dismissed as exaggerated rumours, and often, too, when the true nature and extent of the crimes have been revealed, it has been too late for any intervention to be made at all, even if it were desired by other peoples to make that intervention.

Today, with the terrifying destructive powers of modern science and of totalitarian Governments, the dangers are greater than ever. The twentieth century has witnessed the perpetration of this crime on the largest scale by Nazi Germany. This possibility—though not the full magnitude thereof, because no normal human being could have imagined the evil that would ensue—was foreseen by the late Dr. Lemkin, to whom I have referred. As early in 1933, he submitted a draft law to the League of Nations in Madrid to prohibit the destruction of national, racial and religious groups. It is very important to reflect how many millions of lives might have been saved had international powers been taken as early as that, before the foul machinery of the Nazis had had time to develop.

We are all of us only too apt to close our minds to terrible events and to forget the indescribable horrors and massacres which took place in Europe as recently as sixteen years ago, but we dare not turn away from horrible realities if we wish to do our best to ensure that they will not occur again. These realities, as I have explained, were brought most vividly to my attention when I attended recently part of the proceedings of the Eichmann trial, in Israel.

I think that I can claim to be reasonably well informed on these matters, but, sitting there in the court, I was shocked beyond belief to hear one account after another of the cold, calculated, merciless and systematic destruction of human beings, from whom every vestige of human right had been dragged. The numbers destroyed were so many as to become almost meaningless. But we must endeavour to appreciate something of the suffering entailed—children too young to understand what was happening to them, torn from their parents and sent to extermination camps, babes in arms dashed to pieces in front of their mothers, and parents killed in front of their children. We must not forget the cultural loss to mankind in the massacre of so many great scholars, artists and poets, including most of the flower of European Jewry.

I think I have given some indication of the importance to us of every possible step being taken to prevent such crimes in the future. The great problem in the past has been that, unless persuasion could prevail, no action short of war could be taken by any one State to prevent such happenings in another State. Those of us who, in the 1930s, pleaded for the rescue of the victims of Nazi Germany were faced with insurmountable obstacles. Of course, a pattern already existed for dealing with certain international crimes, for example, slave trading, illegal production and trade in narcotics, piracy, trade in women and children. International conventions had been signed on these crimes, and anyone guilty of them could be tried and punished not only in his own country, but in whatever country he escaped to, provided that that country had adhered to the convention in question. I state emphatically that the same procedure should apply to genocide.

The Convention was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations to provide a basis under international law for action against Governments without recourse to war. The Preamble and Article I of the Convention make this quite clear. The Preamble states:
"The Contracting Parties, having considered the declaration made by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution 96 (I) dated 11 December 1946 that genocide is a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilised world;
"Recognising that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity; and
"Being convinced that, in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge, international cooperation is required, Hereby agree as hereinafter provided…".
Under Article I
"The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish."
This Convention was not hurried through. It was adopted only after very careful consideration both prior to submission to the United Nations and for two years afterwards. Governments were given every opportunity of expressing their opinions. It was considered clause by clause, both by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations and by the General Assembly—proceedings in which our Government took a full part. Various compromises and amendments to the original draft text were approved to meet the requirements of various States. In particular, Articles IX and XII were reworded to meet the views of the United Kingdom representatives.

The final text, of course was a compromise. No international agreement could ever be reached if all parties insisted on all their individual requirements. Nevertheless, it was adopted unanimously on 9th December, 1948, by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Again, in December, 1949, a General Assembly Resolution was passed to the effect that the Assembly
"remains convinced of the necessity of inviting members of the United Nations which have not yet done so to sign or ratify the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as soon as possible."
In 1953, a further Resolution was passed appealing to all States to ratify the Convention as soon as possible.

There are more ratifications to this Convention than to any other United Nations Convention adopted under the United Nations Charter. Among the 63 States which have ratified or acceded are the following Commonwealth and Western countries: Australia, Canada, Ceylon, Ghana, India, France, the German Federal Republic, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Surely it is time that the name of the United Kingdom was also included.

In April, 1953, the then Foreign Secretary, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:
"Carrying this Convention out in the letter means that legislation will have to be introduced. That legislation is, of course, rather complicated; we are doing our best to see that it is prepared, and when it is prepared, it will be brought before the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th April, 1953; Vol. 514, c. 1742.]
I know that I am prevented from asking for legislation in this Adjournment debate, but I can ask for ratification of the Convention. Anything in the nature of legislation which would have to follow to amend it in any way can be taken up under a procedure different from that which I am now using. The so-called difficulty in the way, as far as I am concerned, is incapable of being conceded by those who are conscious of the immediate importance and the nature of what is required.

Article IX of the Convention provides that disputes between the contracting parties relating to the interpretation or application of the Convention shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice at the request of any of the parties to the dispute. Moreover, it would appear that no question of international law is raised if the Government were to reserve, in an Act amending the extradition Acts, such safeguards as they think fit; for example, that the Government should be satisfied of the likelihood of a fair trial before granting extradition for genocide.

I do not think that anyone who has read or seen what is happening at present in the court in Israel where a trial is actually taking place, based on this issue, can think that there can be any question at all about the just and fair manner in which that trial can be and is being carried out, even though so many of those who have been most closely affected are many times within the presence of the court itself.

In addition, accession to the Convention subject to reservations which are not contrary to the basic principles of the Convention is also authorised. In fact, several ratifyng or acceding States have made such reservations with regard to individual articles. At the request of the United Nations the International Court of Justice gave an opinion on the problem of reservations to multilateral conventions which was recommended by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of January, 1952.

If Her Majesty's Government still consider a revision of the Convention necessary, there is a remedy under Article XVI which provides that a request for a revision of the Convention may be made at any time by any contracting party. However, as long as we stand outside and refuse to become a contracting party we have no power to propose revision.

It is correct that no convention can prevent a Government from committing genocide if they are so determined, but the same argument could be brought against any convention, whether against trade in women or children, or in narcotics. The possibility of punishment under international law may deter a criminal from committing crimes, though no convention, or criminal law for that matter, will prevent crime. The effectiveness of any law depends not upon the law itself, but upon the people who apply it.

An appeal was made by a famous Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. He wrote:
"With amazing regularity genocide has repeated itself throughout history. Despite all advances in our civilisation the twentieth century must, unfortunately, be considered as one of those most guilty of the crime of genocide. Losses in life and culture have been staggering. But deep in his heart man cherishes a fervent yearning for justice and love; among small nations and minorities the craving for security is particularly alive. The success of the Genocide Convention today and its greater success tomorrow can be traced to the fact that it responds to necessities and desires of a universal nature. The word genocide carries in itself a moral judgment over an evil in which every feeling man and woman concurs."
In spite of the limitations on the effectiveness of the Convention and the possible need for improving or strengthening some of its articles, it is undoubtedly a great step forward in the struggle of the United Nations to secure universal respect for human rights. This is a struggle in which this country should not drag behind, but should give that leadership for which particularly the free and newly independent States of the world look to us in all matters of progress, humanity and international co-operation.

I very strongly appeal to the Joint Under-Secretary to take this into consideration and realise that we ought not to stand out. I know that all sorts of arguments are used from time to time, such as that we ourselves would not commit the crime of genocide, and that we already have certain legislation which deals with that type of crime. But we cannot stand aside from the rest of the world. We ought to be leading the rest of the world on a matter of this description. I strongly urge that we should without further delay remedy the position and accede to the Convention so that our attitude may not be misunderstood anywhere in the world.

1.8 a.m.

I am sure that no one who has listened to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner), most carefully, as I have done, could fail to have been touched by the very real emotion and sincerity with which he brought forward this tragic subject to the attention of the House.

I am sure that we all share the abhorrence that he feels and has so rightly expressed at this revolting crime. I want to make it absolutely clear that Her Majesty's Government and their predecessors have always regarded it with disgust and horror. I need hardly add, I am sure, that this country's record in this respect is absolutely clean and our conscience is clear. I do not think that anybody would question that for a moment.

The hon. Member reminded us of the conditions in which the Convention on Genocide was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, as long ago as 1948. It came into force in 1951, over ten years ago.

It is true, and I accept, that the United Kingdom voted for the Convention in the General Assembly in 1948, and that was because we were and we are in complete agreement with the purpose of the Convention, the very purpose which the hon. Member so rightly stressed. But during the discussions prior to its adoption the United Kingdom representative repeatedly expressed grave doubts about the effectiveness of such an instrument.

I must remind the House that in voting for the Convention we made an express reservation that we could not be taken as committing ourselves to changes in our domestic law, and we made it quite clear that a further examination of the draft would be necessary by legal experts before we could take any decision. At the same time, the United Kingdom delegation made it quite clear that its vote should be considered as being without prejudice to the traditional and inalienable right to grant asylum, to which we attached tremendous importance, in this country.

When the question of the United Kingdom's becoming a party to the Convention came to be examined, it became clear that the legal difficulties were very real and that it would require fresh legislation—to which the hon. Member referred in passing—to give effect to the broad provisions of the Convention as part of the criminal law of this country. But this is essential before Her Majesty's Government can become a party to the Convention because, as hon. Members are aware, we cannot undertake international obligations unless our law enables them to be honoured.

The hon. Member referred to one or two Articles and I would like to touch for a moment, in particular, on Article VII of the Convention, because that presents us with a very real problem in this matter. It says:
"Genocide and the other acts incorporated in Article III, that is to say attempts, complicity, and conspiracies to commit genocide shall not be considered as political crimes for the purpose of extradition. The Contracting Parties pledge themselves in such cases to grant extradition in accordance with their laws and treaties in force."
I remind the House that Section 3 of the Extradition Act, 1870, provides that a fugitive criminal shall not be surrendered if the offence in respect of which his surrender is demanded is one of a political character, or if he proves to the satisfaction of the magistrates' court before which he is brought in the first instance, or the court before which he is brought on habeas corpus, or to the Secretary of State, that the requisition for his surrender has, in fact, been made with a view to try or punish him for an offence of a political character.

That provision reminds us of the importance traditionally attached to this country's right to grant asylum to political refugees who seek asylum here, and the Government, and I am sure any other British Government, would be very reluctant to derogate from that right without the most careful consideration of all the implications of such a step. I am sure that all hon. Members will recall many cases in the House when urgent claims have been made that we should exercise that right of asylum, and we must, therefore, watch anything which can take away that right.

I think that one could easily imagine cases where the surrender of a person on the ground of having committed genocide was demanded and where, under our Extradition Act, a court, or the Secretary of State, might well decide that this was an offence of a political character. A situation could arise, for example in a civil war, in which Her Majesty's Government might be required, under the very wide terms of the Convention, to surrender an individual who had taken refuge in this country and who was accused of genocide by the opposing faction.

Her Majesty's Government might then be obliged to comply with the request for extradition even though the case was purely a domestic political matter and those demanding extradition were acting from purely political motives. I am sure that everybody will agree that the disadvantages and dangers of tying our hands in such cases must be weighed very carefully indeed.

May I refer the hon. Member to Article VI, by which an international court would have jurisdiction and there would be no need to send that person back to a country in respect of which there may be any question of political rights?

Of course, there is a safeguard there, but I think that the House is very jealous of its rights to grant political asylum. That is something of which we must take account.

I hope that I have made clear some of the difficulties which we see in the way of accession to the Convention. The House is entitled to ask why these difficulties have gone so long unresolved, as the hon. Gentleman rightly did. In answering this question, I should, first, say that it is hard to conceive that any of the offences cited by the Convention could be committed in this country. Even supposing they could be, I would remind the House that although genocide as such may not be punishable under our law many actions which might be involved are already criminal offences under our ordinary criminal law.

Perhaps I could reinforce that by two sentences from Mr. Younger, answering a previous debate initiated by the hon. Gentleman:
"Genocide, as such, has not previously been known to the British criminal law, but it is, of course, in most of its aspects, already covered by existing law. The great part of the crime of genocide would be covered, either by the law relating to murder or by the law relating to grievous bodily harm…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th May, 1950; Vol. 475, c. 1503.]
Accession to the Convention would, therefore, make no material difference in the power of the courts in this country to try and to punish any persons who may commit offences of the kind dealt with in the Convention. I would further add that one can hardly conceive any circumstances in which the provisions of our present law would constitute an obstacle to the surrender of anyone who committed genocide in the sense that we have come to know that crime as a result of the appalling deeds which were perpetrated during the last war, to which the hon. Gentleman graphically drew our attention.

Because accession to the Convention would not materially change the situation in this country, and because there has been little prospect of finding time for a Bill on this subject in our usually crowded legislative programme, we have felt justified in postponing, in favour of more urgent matters, consideration of the detailed and technical matters which would have to be decided before legislation could be prepared.

The Government realise, however, that a decision on the question of whether or not to become a party to the Convention has been long delayed and that that is liable to misinterpretation, although I would emphasise once more that the United Kingdom's becoming a party will not change the situation in fact as far as this country is concerned. I can, therefore, assure the hon. Member that the whole question of whether or not the Government are able to become a party to the Convention is being examined afresh and that the House will be informed when a decision is reached. If that decision is that we should become a party, the necessary legislation will be put in train when the legislative programme permits.

I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, and I will seek to press ahead on this matter. I am sure that the way in which he has brought this matter forward tonight has been of real help, and I can assure the House I shall keep it very much in mind.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen Minutes past One o'clock.