[Warning: Some of the articles linked to below contain material that readers may find disturbing.]
Whatever one’s opinion of Brexit, leaving the EU provides the UK with the opportunity to re-define what kind of country we want to be in the world.
Ministers have spoken of Global Britain, but the notion is worth interrogating – what kind of global Britain are we aiming to become?
An economic power that prioritises openness to trade and capital? A geopolitical power that, as Lisa Nandy has said, punches above its weight without asking why it should be punching at all? A cultural power, wowing the world with Premiership football, drill music and Downton Abbey? Or a normative power that uses its leverage in the world to achieve progress on human rights, climate change and other issues facing the planet?
Considerations of economic, geopolitical and cultural power will all have their place. However, as Keir Starmer has argued, given the growth of authoritarianism and populism across the world, as well as pressing international issues such as the Covid pandemic, refugee crises and the climate emergency, there is, an urgent need for the UK to take a strong, internationalist moral lead.
The need for British citizens and policymakers to engage in deep moral reflection about our country’s role in the world has been underscored by the Black Live Matter Movement, which has shone a spotlight on the aspects of Britain’s history that many of us would prefer to forget.
Too often Britain has, through empire and conquest, been actively engaged in mass violations of human rights – whether in Ireland, India, China or the former African colonies; or else offered friendship and support to the Suhartos and Pinochets of the world (at least, until the latter’s arrest under a Labour government); or else stood idly by as people were singled out for slaughter on account of their race, religion, or ethnicity in Bosnia, Rwanda and beyond.
To the oppressed and the ignored, the British values of fairness and decency have rung hollow. We must do better.
The Trade Bill
An early test of the Britain’s commitment to being a force for good in the world is the Trade Bill 2019-21 due to be debated in the House of Commons tomorrow.
An Amendment (3B) proposed by Lord Alton and supported by a cross-party coalition of peers, MPs and activist groups, including the Labour Foreign Policy Group, would require the High Court to make a preliminary determination of whether a country with whom the UK has, or intends to have a bilateral trade agreement, has committed genocide. If the High Court determines that the signatory state has indeed committed genocide, it would trigger a debate Parliament as to the government’s proposed course of action.
Genocide is defined here as per Article II and III of the UN Convention on Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and includes killing, the infliction of serious physical or mental harm, the prevention of births, and the forced transfer of children ‘with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’
The Amendment was proposed in the light of growing concerns over the Chinese party-state’s actions in China’s Xinjiang region, where members of the Uyghur ethnic minority and other groups have suffered mass incarceration, assimilation, forced sterilisation and even torture at the hands of the authorities. Last week, reports emerged of horrific sexual abuse allegedly taking place at Xinjiang’s detention centres.
Government ministers have expressed a desire to increase bilateral trade with China; indeed, the EU has recently signed an investment deal with China, in the face of accusations from MEPs that concerns over human rights have been brushed aside. However, the remit of the Amendment would cover prospective deals not just with China, but with other repressive regimes such as Myanmar or Ethiopia.
The British government has opposed the Amendment, which was narrowly defeated by 11 votes in the House of Commons Reading on the 19th January, before being passed in the Lords last Tuesday by 359 to 188 votes. All but one Labour peer supported the Amendment, as did 40 Conservative peers who voted in defiance of the government whip.
Opponents of the Amendment argued that firstly, it violates parliamentary sovereignty, and that giving the High Court the right to override trade deals would be allowing it to overstep the boundaries of judicial activism. Secondly, genocide is difficult to prove, and were the High Court to determine that it could not definitively conclude that a state was committing genocide, it would constitute a propaganda victory for the regime in question. Thirdly, stopping negotiations only upon finding the partner state guilty of genocide would be too little, too late.
Concerns around parliamentary sovereignty have been largely mollified by the Lords’ revision of the Amendment from giving the High Court the power to revoke a trade deal with a genocidal state to triggering a debate should the Court deem that genocide has taken place.
On the question of the difficulty of proof, proponents of the Amendment argued that, if any body has the necessary expertise to weigh up evidence of genocide, it is the judiciary – much more so than, say, select committees or the House of Commons. Even if the High Court was unable to conclude that a state had committed genocide, the public airing of its dirty laundry in an impartial court of law would be unlikely to constitute a public relations triumph for the regime.
On the final question, whilst Lord Grimstone claimed that any responsible government would end negotiations with a state well before its actions reached the definition of genocide, the Amendment’s proponents argued that this has not been borne out in practice: the current government has permitted arms sales to Saudi Arabia, whose military is engaged in the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Yemen, and signed a trade agreement with the government of Cameroon, whose forces have also massacred civilians.
Furthermore, in the case of repressive state actions that do not meet the threshold definition of genocide, a further Amendment (2B) requires ministers to determine whether a signatory state to a proposed trade agreement has committed crimes against humanity, and to publish its findings before Parliament prior to the agreement being debated. Whilst a weaker measure that that contained in Amendment 3B, it provides Parliament with the chance to push back against trade deals with regimes who have perpetrated atrocities that fall short of genocide.
Perhaps the most impassioned defence of the Amendment was that put forward by Baroness Kennedy:
The votes in this House and those that will eventually follow in the Commons are being watched by the world. […] Many nations that respect the rule of law will follow our visionary lead in creating a domestic legal mechanism for addressing our duties to prevent genocide. China is also watching us, and those votes may actually affect its conduct, too. Watching, too, are the generals in Myanmar and other tyrants.
Genocide is the crime above all crimes. I urge our Parliament to vote for this amendment to change the ecology of law by bringing into our own institutions of law and Parliament a way in which to make genocide have serious meaning in our contemporary world.
The Amendment presents the UK with the opportunity to take a pioneering role in setting a new international norm: that trade agreements cannot be signed without ethical regard for the actions of the other state.
The Trade Bill returns to the House of Commons tomorrow with full Labour support for Amendment 3B. The Amendment was defeated by the thinnest of margins at the last Commons reading in January; there is a real chance of getting it passed this time around. As argued then by Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry, MPs of all parties must vote with their consciences and support the Amendment.
The measures contained in the Amendment taken alone will not right the UK’s past moral failures. There is a much wider conversation to be had about what can be done to address these. But they will be an important signal that Britain will no longer be complicit in mass atrocities by making trade deals with genocidal regimes, and an important step towards making Britain a force for good in the world.
Phil Entwistle is an academic headhunter and freelance writer. He previously held the roles of Lecturer in Chinese Studies at University College Dublin and Academic Visiting Fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), having completed his DPhil in Politics at the University of Oxford. His research and writing have focused on the politics of China, particularly the intersection of religion and political engagement. He tweets @82hou.