Could the UK Lead the Efforts to Prevent and Prosecute Acts of Genocide?

by | Aug 3, 2017

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About Ewelina U. Ochab

Ewelina U. Ochab is a legal researcher, human rights advocate and author. Ochab works on the topic of the persecution of minorities around the world, with main projects including Daesh genocide in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram atrocities in West Africa, and the situation of religious minorities in South Asia. Ochab has written over 30 UN reports (including Universal Periodic Review reports) and has made oral and written submissions at the Human Rights Council sessions and the UN Forum on Minority Issues. Ochab is currently working on her PhD in international law, human rights and medical ethics. Ochab is a Contributor to Forbes. She has also published in HuffPost, the Providence Magazine, Oxford Human Rights Hub, UnHerd, and Washington Examiner.

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Ewelina U. Ochab, “Could the UK Lead the Efforts to Prevent and Prosecute the Acts of Genocide?” (OxHRH Blog, 3 August 2017) <https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/could-the-uk-lead-the-efforts-to-prevent-and-prosecute-the-acts-of-genocide> [Date of Access]

In early July, leading researchers and scholars in the field of genocide met at the University of Queensland to ‘examine the growing crisis and revisit the two core components of the Convention: justice for acts of genocide, and prevention of future genocides.’

Almost seven decades later, the two core promises of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (‘the Convention’), namely, prevention and prosecution, have gone unfulfilled. States are reluctant to recognise atrocities as genocide even if the particulars of genocide are present. Similarly, states are unwilling to prosecute the acts as genocide, and instead prosecute for lesser offences.

The UK is no different and does not have a good record in keeping the promises under the Convention. The underlying problem is that the UK has a history of failing to recognise mass atrocities as genocide, whether the historical Armenian genocide or current and ongoing Daesh genocide against Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities.

While such a failure to recognise genocide is glaring in every case, the denial of making such recognition in the event of an ongoing genocide is unacceptable. The Convention obliges the UK Government to make such a determination in every case of genocide, to prevent (or to stop) genocides and to prosecute the perpetrators.

The UK Government has refused to acknowledge that genocide is occurring in Syria and Iraq, despite growing political support in the UK (and all over the world).

The UK Government’s response is that the decision whether the acts constitute genocide or not is a matter for the ‘international judicial system’ and not Governments or other non-judicial bodies. This is a long-standing government policy, but it is contrary to the UK Government’s obligations under the Convention. To take decisive action to prevent genocide, the very first step must be to recognise when genocide is taking place or is attempted.

In the case of Daesh atrocities in Iraq, the UK has taken steps, but they fall short of meeting the Convention obligations. On 19 November 2016, the UK launched a global campaign to bring Daesh to justice for its crimes committed in Iraq. The Daesh atrocities committed in Iraq against religious minorities constitute genocide, and hence the global campaign may seem like the UK fulfilling its obligation to prosecute the acts of genocide under the Convention. However, the UK has not formally recognised the Daesh genocide yet. Furthermore, the coalition has not progressed with any concrete proposals. The step to bring Daesh to justice is a one-off act and does not change the UK’s poor record under the Convention.

To combat the UK Government’s long-standing poor record, Lord David Alton of Liverpool introduced the Genocide Determination Bill, a private members’ bill, with the aim to ‘provide for the High Court of England and Wales to make a preliminary finding on cases of alleged genocide; and for the subsequent referral of such findings to the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal.’ The bill had its first reading on 13 June 2016, namely, 68 years after the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention. Because of the snap election, the bill did not progress any further. Now the new Parliament is up and running, Lord Alton has brought the bill back before the House of Lords. The bill was re-introduced on 13 July 2017. However, as the bill is 58th in line, the chances are very weak for the bill to be debated anytime soon, even though it has now been 69 years since the Convention was adopted. The UK simply needs to do more to prevent and prosecute acts of genocide: Lord Alton’s bill would be a good start.

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