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What do you think when you hear the words genocide denial? For most, odious Holocaust denier and pseudo historian David Irving springs to mind. Either that or lizard loon David Icke.

I think of the UK Government. The UK has a truly terrible record on genocide. Indefensibly terrible, and, unlike messrs Irving and Icke, the opinion of the UK Government actually matters. 

The Genocide Convention was signed in 1948. We didn’t accede to it until 1970. When we did finally accede, we built a policy which would ensure that the UK wouldn’t have to do anything to stop developing genocides, or anything at all. 

Governments of all hues have stuck to the same policy for 40 years, that: ‘genocide determination is for competent courts, not politicians’. The logical consequence of this policy is that the UK Government has not, and will not, use the term genocide unless a court has convicted someone of it.

This is a disastrous, immoral, and arguably unlawful policy. On the face of it, it might seem reasonable to defer to a court. The problem is that convictions for genocide are exceptionally rare and normally come decades after atrocities have ended, if at all. 

In the Armenian Genocide, 600,000 people died. It is probably the reason Raphael Lemkin first coined the term ‘genocide’, but the UK refuses to recognise it. Here’s former Minister Baroness Ramsay, in a typically obstinate rebuttal: “We do not believe it is the business of governments today to review events of over 80 years ago with a view to pronouncing on them.”

How about Cambodia? Khmer Rouge’s massacre of millions surely qualifies, but not according to then Foreign Office Minister Ted Row-lands: “While I, too, have read with great concern the recent reports of events in Cambodia, I do not think they constitute a threat to world peace. Nor, I should add, have I any means of verifying the truth of the allegations that have been made.” Rwanda? Here’s one of Blair’s early junior foreign ministers, Tony Lloyd: “Since I May 1997, we have not had cause to seek legal advice on whether the massacre in Rwanda in 1994 constituted genocide under the terms of the Genocide Convention.”

Was 800,000 thousand people getting hacked to pieces by machetes not sufficient cause to seek some legal advice? The Rwandan Genocide is one of the least contested in history, but the UK was nowhere to be seen, and refused to call it genocide until at least a decade after everyone had been killed.  

The Genocide Convention is a much misunderstood document. It isn’t just about punishment. The Convention binds signatory states to “prevent and punish” genocide. The UK can’t be expected to prevent a developing genocide if all of the UK’s action on genocide is contingent upon a conviction.

So it’s no surprise that we find ourselves in 2021 with a Government absolutely insistent that nothing should be done about the atrocities endured by Uyghurs and other minorities at the hands of the Chinese Government. 

There is no hint that our solemn duties under the Genocide Convention will be invoked and honoured.  We don’t have much evidence of mass killing, but the crime of genocide does not require mass killing. We have overwhelming evidence of birth prevention, family separation, torture, mass extrajudicial detention, and more. We also have a rapidly expanding body of evidence appearing to show genocidal intent, which is always the most difficult aspect of proving ‘state genocide’. 

Any state requiring genocide to be proven to a criminal standard before acting is shirking their duties to victims. Making action contingent on court determination is not what the fathers of the Genocide Convention intended. 

Aside from precluding the possibility of prevention, it sends a message to those suffering that their atrocities are only worthy of recognition when such recognition costs us nothing. 

There isn’t even a court to hear a genocide case about China. A genocide conviction would require either a referral from the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court, which China would veto, or action at the International Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction in such matters China does not recognise. 

This is what the Genocide Amendment, which I was responsible for, was all about: creating the possibility for genocide determination in domestic courts so this circular policy can be made operable. Sadly, the Government whipped MPs within an inch of their lives to oppose it.

It would take a courageous government to do it, but this embarrassment of a policy needs to be overturned and replaced with something worthy of a truly Global Britain; one ready to stand by the commitments we made in the aftermath of the Holocaust and actually mean them. 

Luke de Pulford is the co-founder and Director of Arise, an anti-slavery charity, and co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Target secured?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Yá shēng]