Skip to main content

Genocide Convention

Volume 648: debated on Wednesday 8 November 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. E. Wakefield.]

10.27 p.m.

I am raising the matter of the Convention on Genocide again because of the deep concern felt that a decision on this important problem should not continue to be deferred indefinitely.

The United Nations Association and a vast number of other organisations connected with the United Nations promoting the highest humanitarian ideals, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which is the representative body of British Jewry, are shocked that Her Majesty's Government have not yet acceded to the Convention. Well might they be, as the Convention is designed to crush the intentional destruction of national, racial or religious ethnic groups.

This crime of genocide was defined some years ago by Dr. Raphael Lemkin, the whole of whose family was exterminated by the Nazis in Nazi Germany, as one which was deliberately planned as a State policy and carried out with every resource of science and complete absence of humanity.
"Neither animals nor uneducated savages,"
said W. J. Dignaum, Australia's representative to the General Assembly in 1948,
"would deliberately plan with the fiendish and cold-blooded cruelty which accompanies modern examples of genocide. Hardened soldiers, accustomed to the callousness and brutalities of war, were overwhelmed when they witnessed for the first time the physical deterioration of some of those victims still living after this crime had been perpetrated against them."
"Genocide has been committed through the ages,"
said Begum Ikramullah of Pakistan at the Assembly session in 1948:
"While it has always shocked the conscience of mankind, nothing has been done to punish the crime. The discoveries of science have put such weapons in the hands of men that genocide today can be swift and terrible indeed. Therefore, such a convention became imperative and its acceptance should not be delayed."
And I underline, "should not be delayed". It is, however, eleven years since, in reply to a Question by me, the Under-Secretary of State at that time said:
"The question is still under examination. No decision has yet been reached since there are a great many legal difficulties still to be solved."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1950;Vol.472, c. 1545.]
When as recently as 23rd October, 1961, I asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he had yet decided to accede to the Convention he still could not give me an affirmative reply, and did not even indicate when a decision would be reached.

I am well aware that adherence to the Convention may require the introduction of legislation and that there are various problems involved, but these problems have not prevented 65 countries from ratifying or acceding to the Convention to date, as the Lord Privy Seal himself informed us on 23rd October last. More States have supported this Convention than any other United Nations convention. Among the States are several of our fellow members of the Commonwealth and many of our West European and Scandinavian friends with legal and democratic ideas similar to our own. If they have found it possible to come in, why are we holding back? Surely if the systems of law which prevail in those countries, particularly in the countries in our own Commonwealth, can be arranged in such a way as to enable the Convention to be accepted, there cannot be any reason at all why we should not do the same.

We have been told that the right of political system may be impinged upon. We have no wish to do such a thing. The intention is not to refuse asylum to genuine political or other refugees or to persons fleeing from genocide, but to take action against those responsible for genocide. It is not intended that our doors should be closed to victims of oppression, but to provide a means at last for international action to be taken against persons guilty of mass murder and oppression.

I know, of course, that the Lord Privy Seal and the hon. Gentleman who is to reply to this debate realise and understand the enormity of the crime with which we are dealing, but I point out to them that under existing laws a person against whom a prima faciecase of guilt for certain crimes, some of them comparatively minor, can be established may be extradited. A man accused of one murder may be hunted by Interpol and police forces all over the world, but a person guilty of mass murder and genocide can go free. Is this logical? Is this justice? Of course it is not. This is a serious anomaly in our law which must be put right.

Reference has been made to the problem of Article VII of the Convention, which states:
"Genocide and the other acts enumerated in Article III shall not be considered as political crimes for the purpose of extradition."
But it further states that
"The Contracting Parties pledge themselves in such cases to grant extradition in accordance with their laws and treaties in force."
Therefore, the granting of extradition is to be "in accordance with their laws and treaties in force" so that, in accordance with existing practice, with regard to requests for extradition, British courts would have the power in any instance to ensure that a proper case for extradition had been presented. Moreover, according to the Convention, persons charged with genocide are not necessarily to be tried in the territory in which the act was committed. Article VI provides for trial by such
"international penal tribunal as may have jurisdiction with respect to those Contracting Parties which shall have accepted such jurisdiction."
Further, an additional safeguard was introduced, at the request of the British representatives themselves during the very lengthy and careful drafting procedure on the Convention, by the provision of Article IX, which states:
"Disputes between the Contracting Parties relating to the interpretation, application, or fulfilment for the present Convention, including those relating to the responsibility of a State for genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article III, shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice at the request of any of the parties to the dispute."
Action against acts punishable under the Convention might in certain circumstances not entail extradition or trial by an international court but could and should be dealt with by the courts of this country.

The purpose of the Convention is not merely the negative one of punishing persons guilty of genocide but the positive one of deterring persons from attempting to carry out or incite to the commission of genocide. Article III includes among the punishable acts
"conspiracy to commit genocide; direct and public incitement to commit genocide".
It is the prevention of such horrible activities which is the main objective of the Convention.

We have been told that such activities are inconceivable in this country. Who thought that they were conceivable in Germany before the Hitlerite movement became all-powerful? Many people are forgetful or unaware of the enormities practised by the Hitler regime. They were so terrible and the number of innocent men, women and children so great that many decent persons are psychologically unable to appreciate their horror and subsequently repress all knowledge of them in an attempt to ignore dreadful realities.

It is paradoxical that it is often the most humane among us who are unable to understand the hatreds that can arise in abnormal persons and the great danger that in certain circumstances, as we have seen, that ordinary human beings can be infected with these obsessive hatreds by vile and scurrilous propaganda. We are justly proud of the right of freedom of speech in this country, but freedom has its attendant dangers. Under the existing law, a false statement vilifying not identifiable individuals but groups or classes of persons distinguishable by race, colour or creed, cannot form the subject of civil proceedings for libel or slander. And even if such statements amount to the crime of seditious libel they can be prosecuted in our courts only in the most flagrant cases.

I have seen journals and other publications circulating freely in this country today which advocate in terms similar to those of the Nazi gutter Press hatred of Jews and coloured persons. Some of them are published by Hungarians resident in this country—people to whom we gave asylum and for whom I, among very many others, made an appeal to the House and the country that they should be admitted—and are spread both here and abroad, the most noxious poison propaganda against a law-abiding section of British citizens.

I maintain that such publications are public incitements to commit genocide, and as such, although not punishable under existing law, would be punishable under the Genocide Convention. One of these publications which I have seen goes as far as to advocate support for the blood libel which has been proved time after time to be false and a pernicious attack on Jewish people and utterly unjustified and scandalous. But under the law as it stands at present we are not in a position to do anything about it.

There is another point which I should like to make. Many of us are deeply offended by the granting of training facilities for German forces in this country. If it had been possible for me to be present at the time of the last debate on this I should certainly have stated my complete opposition to that, as the House is well aware. I later asked a Question in the House as to what could be done if one of the German officers happened to have been a Nazi and could be proved to have participated in crimes of this nature. I was told that we could not stop any of the German soldiers from being admitted.

At present we have no means of ensuring that among these forces there may not be individuals who were violent Nazis or members of the S.S. and who perpetrated the massacres of innocent human beings. Not having adhered to the Genocide Convention, we cannot take steps against such a member of the German forces in this country whose very presence here would be a danger and a defilement. That a very careful watch must be kept on possible dangers in Germany today is shown by the astonishing agreement just repotted— either today or yesterday—to have been reached by the two parts of the new German Government to improve the status of former Nazis and members of the S.S.

No one can say that the spirit which led to genocide is entirely dead in the country in which it took such a terrible form so recently when such a neo-Nazi policy can emerge. There are in various countries throughout the world, as the hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly know, people who are utilising moneys which have been taken from the victims in order to encourage the spreading of neo-Nazism and this racial hatred around the world.

I appeal once again that all steps be taken without further delay for the accession of Her Majesty's Government to this all-important Convention. It is not the difficulties of adherence but the advantages thereof which should be the deciding factor. As I have already indicated, these difficulties have been overcome by many of our Commonwealth, West European and Scandinavian friends. Almost eleven years have elapsed since the Convention came into force. A further year must not be allowed to pass by.

Our continued absence from among the supporters of the Convention is a cause of serious misinterpretation and disillusionment among those who look to this country to give moral leadership to the world. This year we are commemorating the centenary of that great Norwegian, Nansen, who achieved the impossible as an explorer and in the international succour of refugees. May I make this appeal to the Joint Under-Secretary of State? It would be a fitting gesture on the part of Her Majesty's Government to mark this centenary by action to prevent the human misery which Nansen abhorred through a measure which has been proved possible—accession to the Genocide Convention.

10.45 p.m.

The hon. Member has raised this subject in the House, both in Questions and in debate, on many occasions. The depth of his feelings in this matter is not only wholly understandable to us but also appreciated by us. We certainly admire his persistence. Of course, we all view genocide with the greatest repugnance and horror. We accept the view that it constitutes an international crime of the most evil and odious character, and we are anxious to play our full part in its suppression.

The purpose of the Convention on Genocide is to outlaw genocide internationally. With that purpose we are in complete agreement. That is why we voted for the Convention in 1948. But when we did so, we had no illusions about the complicated problems that might face us if we acceded in full to the Convention—problems such as the difficulties which might arise regarding changes in our domestic law and our position on the long established and traditional right exercised by this country to grant political asylum to persons charged with political offences. We made our position clear on these things at the United Nations before we voted for the Convention.

All this is past history, but the difficulties we anticipated then were found to be real. When the hon. Member raised this subject on the Motion for the Adjournment as recently as 5th June, my predecessor, now the Minister of State, gave him an assurance that the whole question of whether or not the Government were able to resolve these difficulties and become a party to the Convention was being examined afresh. I would like to repeat that assurance, and to tell him that this is being done and that, although the difficulties are not easy to resolve, progress has been made.

I do not quarrel with the hon. Member when he says that it is a long time since the Convention was signed, but I am sure that he will agree that the important thing in the long run is to do what is right in this matter. We have every hope that a decision will soon be reached.

The hon. Member is a lawyer. He appreciates that these difficulties exist. He naturally feels that they should be overcome, and thinks that they can be overcome. I hope he is right. This is That we are examining.

During the debate on 5th June, he made the point that no question of international law should be raised if, in acceding to the Convention, we were to make a reservation which would safeguard the United Kingdom's position on the question of political asylum. With respect to him, this is not how we see the problem. I agree that the International Court of Justice, by a vote of seven to five, in 1951, advised that reservations can be made to the Convention provided they are compatible with its purpose. This, in theory, leaves it open to the Government to accede to the Convention with the type of reservation which I think he had in mind at the time. But making a reservation is not necessarily the last step in the story. An objection by another State to the reservation might result in the Convention not being in force between the United Kingdom and the objecting State.

We come back, therefore, to the kernel of the difficulty confronting us. How can we accede to the Convention without reservations and at the same time give effect to its broad provisions as part of the criminal law of this country without derogating from the traditional right to give asylum to political refugees seeking it here? This latter point is particularly important in connection with Article VII of the Convention, referred to by the hon. Member. The dilemma must be resolved before we can take a decision to become party to the Convention, because, as we have frequently said, the Government cannot undertake international obligations unless our law enables them to be honoured.

It may help to illustrate some of the difficulties which face us in framing the necessary legislation if I read out in full, as the hon. Gentleman did not, the definition of genocide in Article II of the Convention. It is defined as
"… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:
  • (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;
  • (e)Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
  • The hon. Member will appreciate that some at least of these crimes are defined with considerably less precision than is the practice in the definition of criminal offences in Acts of Parliament.

    A further requirement in the Convention, which the hon. Member mentioned, is that its signatories are required by Article III to make punishable, not only genocide itself, but also conspiracy to commit genocide and complicity in genocide; and "complicity" is, of course, a very vague term in law. The difficulties in giving effect to such requirements as these in our criminal law are very real, and will be all too apparent to the House.

    Again, with specific reference to Article VII, to which the hon. Member referred, this presents a more serious question of principle in so far as it affects this country's right to grant asylum. Examples were given to the House by my hon. Friend in the previous debate on the subject on 5th June. A number of possible situations were postulated where the surrender of a fugitive on the ground of having committed genocide was demanded under the terms of the Convention, and where we might well take the view that the offence in question was political. We might, however, be obliged to comply with the request for extradition if a prima faciecase of crime within the very wide terms of the Convention were made out.

    It might, on one view of Article VII, be held that it would not be open to the courts, or the Home Secretary, to refuse extradition on the grounds that the offence was one of a political character, even if those demanding extradition did so for obvious political reasons. If this is the correct interpretation of the requirements of the Convention—and it is this aspect to which we are now giving careful study—the House will, I am sure, agree that we should exercise great care.

    We should be chary of taking any step which might deprive an accused person of the right in any circumstances to claim the protection of the Extradition Acts against surrender for a political crime where he was charged with an offence coming within the very wide definition of genocide in the Convention. I need hardly add that there would, of course, be no question of granting asylum to anyone who committed genocide in the sense that we have come to know that crime as a result of the appalling deeds of the last war.

    These are an indication of the complex issues to be resolved. Again, I will not join issue with the hon. Gentleman when he says that we seem to be taking a very long time to make up our minds. But this should not be construed as a mere process of procrastination. I can assure him, on the contrary, that we are doing our very best to reach a speedy conclusion.

    Perhaps I may comment on one or two of the hon. Member's remarks about the effect of our acceding to the Convention. It has been urged that by our becoming a party we would change the situation in this country. I assure the House that, although genocide as such may not be punishable under our law, most of the offences dealt with in the Convention are already criminal offences under our criminal law and that it is in the power of the courts in this country to bring to trial and punish persons who may commit such offences.

    I am sure that the hon. Member will accept that the difficulties which I have mentioned are not just mere quibbling. They are matters which cause deep concern and, for the reasons I have outlined, they compel us to take every care before coming to a decision. The hon. Member mentioned the many countries —some 65—who have become party to the Convention. We are urged that because of this it is time that the name of the United Kingdom was included. But I must emphasise that it is United Kingdom practice to ensure that, when becoming party to a convention, British law is brought into line with the provisions of the convention. I accept that the hon. Member has been very patient in this matter, but I ask him to be patient for a little longer.

    I repeat that we are doing our best to press ahead on this matter. I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Member has presented his case this evening and I can assure him, as did my hon. Friend some weeks ago, that we have all the points he has so eloquently urged very much in mind. The House will be informed as soon as we reach a decision and, if that decision is that we should accede to the Convention, the necessary legislation will be brought in as soon as the legislative programme permits.

    Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to say that the Government will consult members of the Commonwealth who have acceded to the Convention and whose laws and outlooks are similar to our own? As a lawyer, I understand the position as he has presented it and I accept the difficulties, but I should have thought that they could have been resolved after eleven years.

    On the question of extradition, there is an international court referred to which can try these matters without having to send a person back to his country after he has sought asylum here because of his political convictions.

    I am sorry, but there is no such international court. The hon. Gentleman will realise that setting up an international penal court is an extremely difficult exercise. Extreme difficulty has been found by those who have been attempting to do so. Until there is an international court, the ques- tion of asylum is extremely important. That is the situation at the moment. On the subject of consultation, I can assure the hon. Member that those who advise us at the Foreign Office will go into every possible matter in assessing the legal difficulties with which we are faced.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.