• Michalis Papachristodoulou

'Genocide Amendment': Putting a Stop to Genocides Through Trade

In January 2021, the UK’s Parliament was involved in a debate over a significant amendment to a Trade Bill. The purpose of the proposed amendment was to help alleviate the suffering of millions of people around the world who are under the threat of genocides, the most prominent of which are the Uyghur Muslims. In the end, the ‘genocide amendment’ was rejected by a narrow majority at the House of Commons, but it retains significant support across all parties, and it will be making its return to Parliament this week.

The legislative process in the UK

The legislative procedure in the UK can be very complex, with multiple votes, readings in two different houses, and the requirement for royal assent. This process is designed to maximise the scrutiny that a bill faces before being enacted into law. Bills can be proposed by any Member of Parliament (MPs) and are presented first to the House of Commons, which will usually have the opportunity to examine the draft bill for two weeks. The House of Commons will debate the main principles and the Bill’s purpose, marking the areas that it determines as requiring amendment.

Subsequently, the Bill will move to the relevant parliamentary committee, comprised of MPs from various parties. They will consider the clauses that need amendments and propose the form that such amendments should take. Once the relevant committee makes the necessary changes, the Bill will return to the House of Commons, which will usually rubber-stamp the committee's amendments.

The peculiar nature of the UK’s Parliament means that the Bill will then be passed to another house, the House of Lords, which will follow the same process as the House of Commons and may make its own amendments. If no amendments are proposed and the Bill is agreed to by both Houses, it will be submitted to the Queen for Royal Assent, which is the last formality before it is enacted into law. Where the House of Lords proposes its own amendments, the Bill is sent back to the House of Commons, which will consider those amendments and hold a vote on them. If those are rejected, the Bill goes back to the House of Lords, where further proposals may be made for a second and then a third final time.

House of Lords' proposal

The Trade Bill garnered the attention of the media when the House of Lords proposed its first amendments. The Bill’s purpose is to provide the framework for the implementation of international trade agreements. With Brexit having been finalised, the UK is expected to seek trade agreements with various countries, generating the need for such a Bill. One of the key terms of the draft Bill is the requirement for Parliament’s approval before the UK can sign any free trade agreements.

The House of Lords considered the draft bill and argued for the inclusion of a new clause into it. The proposed clause provided that any bilateral trade agreement would be revoked if the Hight Court of England and Wales determined that the other signatory to the trade agreement is currently committing a genocide.

It is not hard to decipher who the proponents of this amendment had in mind when proposing it. The stream of news coming from Xinjiang about the treatment of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese government make it very likely that this amendment is designed to be used against China. More than a million Muslims in China are being held in secretive detention camps, which the Chinese government has labelled as ‘state-sponsored re-education camps’. Reports of forced sterilisations are backed by data, indicating a dramatic drop of birth rates in the areas affected, while former detainees of the ‘re-education centres’ have shared excruciating accounts of the torture, forced labour, and brainwashing that the Uyghur Muslims are being subjected to.

Despite the growing evidence of China’s blatant breaches of human rights, the international community has not taken any decisive action. The UK signed a joint letter, alongside various other countries, which condemned China’s policies, yet this did not have any result. The attempts to get the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate have similarly proven fruitless. China has not signed up to the jurisdiction of the ICC, thus the ICC lacks the means to carry out an effective investigation without China’s collaboration.

In light of the failure of the international community to hold China accountable for its actions, the Genocide Amendment represents the House of Lord’s attempt to put some pressure on China to change its policies. The amendment would give the right to members of the community being targeted by a genocide to apply to the High Court for the revocation of a trade deal with the state committing this genocide. The amendment's supporters hope that this would serve as a tangible condemnation of the countries found to have committed genocide, pushing such countries to abandon their abhorring policies.

House of Commons Rejection

When the amended bill came back to the House of Commons, the Conservative government had to weather a significant rebellion amongst its MPs. 33 Conservative MPs voted in favour of the genocide amendment, yet this was not enough to secure its approval, as the amendment was rejected by a narrow majority of 319 MPs voting against to 308 voting in its favour.

Those voting against the amendment did so for various reasons. The most important reasons given were the concern that this would erode the key constitutional principle of separation of powers, and that the amendment would fail to prevent or halt any genocides.

The government’s main argument against the amendment centred around the potential curtailment of the government’s power to conduct the UK’s foreign relations. It has long been established that the conduct of the country’s international relations, even in the context of trade, rests in the government’s hands. The government argued that this amendment would allow the judiciary to meddle with matters which it should not have any jurisdiction over, and pushed its MPs to vote against it. The separation of powers between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary is fundamental to the UK’s constitution and, for many, this was enough of a reason to vote against the amendment.

It was aptly pointed out by some MPs that this argument does not stand up to closer scrutiny. The determination of whether genocide has been committed has always been reserved for the courts, whether it be national or international courts, and their judgement would not be of a political nature, but a matter of justice.

More persuasive is the potential ineffectiveness of the amendment. The UK does not currently have any trade agreements with China, nor is such an agreement being contemplated. Hence, even if the amendment was to pass, there would be no trade agreement for the courts to revoke. The persecution of the Uyghur Muslims would continue undeterred and the amendment would remain unused, at least for the foreseeable future.

Crucially, there is no indication that China would alter its policies even if such a trade agreement was in place or in contemplation. The importance of the UK’s trade for the Chinese economy is very minimal, accounting for just 1.3% of China’s total imports and 2.3% of its total exports. It is unlikely that the prospect of a trade deal with a nation in the other side of the world, and which accounts for only a small portion of its international trade, would be enough to convince China to stop its actions in Xinjiang. To achieve such a feat, coordinated international action is mandated. In the absence of a united global response, the ‘genocide amendment’ is unlikely to achieve much.

Looking Forward

The cross-party support for the ‘genocide amendment’ means that more activity is expected to follow. The House of Lords has already decided to bring the amendment back to the House of Commons, with only marginal differences being made to the original proposal. It is hoped that the media attention it has accumulated will lead to more defections from the Conservative party. Even if passed by the House of Commons, its effect in preventing genocides is debatable, especially if not accompanied by more decisive actions by the whole of the international community. Yet, it might just represent the first step towards condemning events such as those in Xinjiang and bringing hope to millions of persecuted people.