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Opinion: Signs of genocide — in Xinjiang and Ukraine

by
03 November 2023

When does an atrocity qualify? In a lecture given before the latest bloodbath in the Middle East, David Alton reflected

WHAT word comes to your mind when you hear evidence of a state involved in the destruction of a people’s identity — involved in mass surveillance; involved in forced labour and enforced slavery; involved in the uprooting of people, the destruction of communities and families, the prevention of births, and the ruination of cemeteries where generations of loved ones had been buried?

What word comes to mind when you hear of people being forcibly indoctrinated to believe that you, your people, your religion, your culture, never existed — and the certainty that, through ethno-religious cleansing, you will cease to exist?

Those whose signature is written across these monstrous crimes know that name well, but smugly sleep content, believing that corrupted and compliant self-serving institutions and commercial considerations will keep them safe in their beds.

Through amendments to the Trade Act and other legislation, I have sought to demonstrate how “business as usual” has been the priority, even when the House of Commons, the US Administration, numerous parliaments, and the Independent Tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice KC have declared a genocide in Xinjiang.

Genocide should be bad for business, but it has not been in the past, and it is not now. Think of Nazi slave labour and beneficiaries such as IBM and Volkswagen, which even built a labour camp next to one of its factories to ensure a supply of labour.

What is happening to the Uyghurs is comparable. Last month, Dr Adrian Zenz produced a new paper on the labour camps. Uyghurs have been forced to work in factories that form part of the supply chains of at least 83 global brands. We should not accept the counter-argument that trade brings liberal democracy. It hasn’t in China, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.

This is not a new debate. Two centuries ago, Richard Cobden, that foremost champion of free trade, said that free trade was not more important than our duty to oppose both the trade in human beings and the trade in opium.

My all-party amendments to determine whether atrocities amount to genocide — which would have created a British judicial mechanism independent of government and the vested interests that influence it — were passed with three-figure majorities in the House of Lords, but were narrowly defeated in the House of Commons.


ONE of the indicators of genocide drawn up by Raphael Lemkin — a Polish Jewish lawyer who had seen 49 of his own relatives murdered in the Holocaust — and listed in the Genocide Convention that he campaigned to establish is the forcible transfer of children. It has happened to Uyghur children, and it is also happening to an estimated 20,000 Ukrainian children.

Russian citizenship is imposed; they are forbidden to speak and learn the Ukrainian language, or to preserve their Ukrainian identity. They are also adopted illegally by Russian families — with new laws that were specifically designed to speed up the process without any due attention to the best interests of the child.

Last month, at the UN General Assembly, President Zelensky referred to the plight of the kidnapped Ukrainian children: “What will happen to them? . . .Those children in Russia are taught to hate Ukraine, and all ties with their families are broken. . . This is clearly a genocide. When hatred is weaponised against one nation, it never stops there.”

On 17 March, a pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court issued warrants for the arrest of President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, who has orchestrated the abductions, for war crimes.

One practical thing that the UK could do would be to amend our law, especially the International Criminal Court Act 2001, to ensure that those who are not UK citizens or residents and who, evidence suggests, are responsible for international crimes can be prosecuted by British courts.


OPPOSITE the Palace of Nations in Geneva stands the broken chair, erected in 1997. Daniel Berset intended the missing leg to symbolise the breaking of so many lives by landmines.

But, for me, it is also a symbol of the breaking of humanity every time a genocide occurs. Think of the Yazidis, Tigrayans, Uyghurs, Ukrainians, and Armenians, among others. Those examples provide little cheer, but, on this 75th anniversary, they should be a spur to complete the work of Lemkin, who asked, in 1939: “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?”

In asserting the importance of confronting the crime above all crimes and the place of international law, let me give the final word to Bishop Bell, who, in 1944, speaking in the Lords, said: “The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is ‘Law’.” Humanity would certainly be in a better place if, 75 years later, we finally made a reality of Lemkin’s law on genocide.


Lord Alton of Liverpool is an independent cross-bench life peer. This is an edited extract from the George Bell Lecture that he gave on 17 October at Lambeth Palace, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Genocide Convention. Read the full text of the lecture at: davidalton.net

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