Skip to main content

Genocide Prevention

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United States’ Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, signed into law by the President of the United States on 14 January 2019; and what steps they are taking to help ensure the timely prevention of the genocide of religious minorities.

My Lords, the UK does not normally comment on the policy of close allies—however, we welcome all efforts to help prevent mass atrocities. As a majority of mass atrocities occur in and around conflict, the Government believe that a focus on conflict prevention is the best means to prevent most mass atrocities. Through our diplomatic development, defence and law enforcement engagement, the UK participates in a range of international initiatives aimed at preventing atrocities.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She will recall that it is 70 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Should the Government not consider the introduction of new legislation which would ensure that their response to genocide is as immediate and effective as possible, and which would also protect religious minority groups, including Christians?

I thank my noble friend for a pertinent question. The UK’s work in this area is long-standing, both in preventing atrocities and in securing accountability and justice for atrocities committed. My noble friend will be aware that UK activity has in-built flexibility, both in identifying situations and in swiftness of response—for example, we work across early warning mechanisms and diplomacy, and from development to programmatic support to help with prevention work, and defence tools. That offers an effective and a swift response, where necessary, to any unfolding situation.

My Lords, given what we have seen unfold against the Yazidis and the Christians in northern Iraq and northern Syria, and against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma and the Kachin, is it not clear that the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, is absolutely right that we need to look again at the ways in which we conform to our duties under the 1948 Genocide Convention—to prevent, protect and then to punish? Does the Minister not think it would be prudent to do as the noble Lord suggested, and to look at the American Elie Wiesel legislation which has just passed—especially the complex emergency fund and the mass atrocities taskforce that have been established—and to consider doing something similar in the United Kingdom?

I respect the noble Lord’s immense experience in relation to these matters. As I indicated to my noble friend, the UK has, over many years, developed a long-standing modus operandi to deal with mass atrocities. The benefit is obvious in terms of preventing situations unfolding where we deploy or in the humanitarian aid we offer where those situations have unfolded, particularly in relation to Christians who have found themselves persecuted. The noble Lord will be aware of the current review commissioned by the Foreign Secretary—that is a very important step forward. We are aware of the scale of the problem—for example, we are aware that about 215 million Christians experience extreme persecution. However, the UK, as I indicated, works closely across a range of areas and sectors, and it works well.

My Lords, I was pleased that in the coalition Government we managed to put in place measures in Syria and Iraq to gather evidence in these conflicts—an extremely difficult and novel approach—so that those who committed crimes against humanity, war crimes of genocide could be held to account. Will the noble Baroness fill us in on what progress has been made and say whether people will indeed be held to account?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising an important issue. It is fundamental that where such atrocities have been committed, people are investigated and held to account. The noble Baroness will be aware that the United Kingdom has been working closely in endeavouring to facilitate the gathering of evidence to ensure that if matters are appropriate for reference to the International Criminal Court, there is a proper evidence base on which they can proceed. I do not have detailed information on the specific point the noble Baroness raises, but I shall undertake to look into that and respond to her.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many countries turn a blind eye to genocide carried out by important trading partners or strategic allies? Will she further agree to ensure even-handedness with regard to those responsible for the mass killing of minorities? Responsibility for the pursuit of punitive action should be taken out of the hands of government and placed with an independent arbiter such as the High Court, as suggested in a debate in this House last September.

The noble Lord will be aware that the United Kingdom Government work closely with global partners in the consideration of such situations and in determining how best to address them. The system has demonstrated that trying to gather evidence is at the root of this, as evidence matters for whatever legal process we then choose to deploy. The United Kingdom Government take the view that the International Criminal Court is an important forum, and, as I indicated to the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Government have been working to try to facilitate getting hold of evidence and making sure that it is preserved; that will then facilitate prosecution.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said about conflict prevention and the excellent work the FCO has been doing on that. However, is the FCO training its staff, particularly its overseas representatives, to spot the early signs of atrocities and genocide? Often they are not simply about people being murdered—they start in a much more pernicious way.

The noble Lord makes an important point, with which I am sure the entire Chamber is in sympathy. Again, I do not have specific information about training, but I will undertake to get hold of that. The noble Lord will be aware that the FCO is proactive with regard to activity in other countries where we detect problems, and we try to facilitate training in these other countries where that is possible within the framework of the country.

My Lords, the training point is an important one; Section 4 of that Act specifically makes it routine to spot the early signs and not just to deal with the after-effects. I urge the Government to look seriously at co-operating with the United States and our other allies on this trend, because it is a very important point. Can the Minister also thank our noble friend the Leader of the House for her robust letter in support of the Holocaust memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens, immediately outside this House? I am most grateful for that positive act from the Government rather than just pious words.

I have noted my noble friend’s letter to the Leader of the House; I am sure she will welcome it. On his point about training, he is absolutely right. A lot of cross-government work is currently being done to tackle insecurity and instability, whether through the National Security Council, the Cabinet Office, the FCO, DfID, the Ministry of Defence or the Stabilisation Unit. They are all supported by the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. So there is a lot of very positive work going on.