The appeasement of genocide in Xinjiang shames our country – and all for the sake of a trade deal

The government wants to pretend that whatever may be happening to the Uighurs, it is not serious enough to get in the way of business. We must make a stand, write Caroline Lucas and John Ashton

Monday 22 March 2021 11:53 GMT
Members of the Muslim Uighur minority hold placards as they demonstrate in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul
Members of the Muslim Uighur minority hold placards as they demonstrate in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul (AFP via Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


MPs are due to vote today on a proposal that would force the government to take account of the opinion of senior judges in the House of Lords on whether regimes with which they seek trade deals might be guilty of genocide.

This is one of those rare moments when, as a country, we must stand either in the light or in the dark. There is no balance to be struck. If you put one foot into darkness while trying to keep the other in the light, you choose the dark.

It is now beyond doubt that there is a case to answer on genocide in Xinjiang in China’s far west. What is being done there to the Uighurs and related minorities is the most ruthless, heartless and audacious attempt to destroy a people, a culture and a way of life since the horrors that unfolded on our own continent in the 1930s and 40s.

Our parents and grandparents would have seen that instantly. Eminent Jewish leaders can see it, and rightly ask us to open our eyes. The Biden administration in the US, the Canadian and Dutch parliaments, and a growing number of legal authorities and investigators have all declared already that genocide is taking place, as clearly defined under the “never again” Genocide Convention in 1948. To the extent that the Uighurs themselves have a voice, they say the same and implore us to hear their cry.

Our government does not want to speak of genocide nor hear it spoken of. It has gone to grotesque procedural lengths in parliament to thwart all attempts to build into its policy any acknowledgement that genocide may be taking place, let alone to accommodate the idea that its hands should be tied in any way by that possibility.

The foreign secretary, to his credit, has told the UN that the abuses in Xinjiang are “on an industrial scale” and “beyond the pale”. But he represents a government that conducts itself as if nothing untoward were happening; or worse, as if, when it comes to the prospect of profitable deals, it does not matter what might be happening as long as UK firms keep their supply chains away from the Uighur slave economy.

He refuses to apply the targeted “Magnitsky” sanctions he recently introduced with a fanfare to punish those who abuse human rights. He insists that only the Courts can declare on genocide, knowing that the Chinese regime will block any recourse to international Courts, while rejecting any role for our own. He calls for UN officials to go to Xinjiang to gather evidence, knowing that any visit would either be refused or so stage-managed as to be meaningless.

There is nowhere left to hide. The arguments with which the government now seeks to deter a successful backbench rebellion are constitutional humbug.

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The revised proposal that will be voted on today meets every serious objection it has raised against earlier efforts to insert a “genocide clause” into our legislation on trade. It would not expand the role of our Courts, nor trouble them in any way. It would not compromise the principle that any formal determination must be made through an appropriate judicial process. Nor would it blur the separation of powers nor tie the hands of parliament or the executive.

The only possible explanation for the government’s opposition is that it wants a free hand to trade and invest with a regime that is prima facie genocidal. It wants to pretend to the British people that whatever may be happening to the Uighurs, it is not serious enough as to let values get in the way of business, without being held to account for that cynical deception.

But it is the job of MPs to hold the government to account. What they decide today will be seen around the world as a statement of what our country now stands for, having, as we are told, taken back control.

We have no problem if our government wants to make itself look bad. It does that all the time. But the appeasement of genocide shames our country. That is what this is about, and that is the ground on which our government wants to build its policy.

Today, the House of Commons, where this has all been seen before, must stand in its way.

Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion

John Ashton was a senior UK diplomat. He served in Beijing and Hong Kong

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