The House of Lords has rejected an amendment which would have obliged a High Court judge to decide whether ISIS is committing genocide.
The amendment to the Immigration Bill, put forward by a cross-party group of peers, was voted down by 148 votes to 111. Lord Alton, who moved the amendment, said it was a “lamentable failure” on the part of parliament, and of the Government, who opposed the amendment.
Lord Alton said in the Lords debate that the amendment was an “opportunity to break the cycle of inertia” over ISIS’s attacks on Christians, Yazidis, and others, which have claimed thousands of lives and led to the breakup of long-established communities.
As a signatory to the 1948 Genocide Convention, Britain must protect the victims of genocide and seek to punish those who carry it out.
But the Government has said that a declaration of genocide should be made by the judicial system, rather than parliament. The Lords amendment was an attempt to bring the matter before the High Court, who would examine the facts and then issue a decision.
The US House of Representatives, the US Secretary of State John Kerry, and the European Parliament have all said that genocide is taking place.
Lord Alton said in the debate that the situation was comparable to that in Rwanda in the 1990s. “I am always struck that President Clinton and British ministers of the day say that their failure to identify and take action to prevent that genocide, which led to the loss of one million Tutsi lives, was their worst foreign affairs mistake.”
A High Court ruling that genocide is taking place would mean that asylum claims would be prioritised if they came from those who are victims of genocide. It could also lead to Britain tabling a UN Security Council resolution to bring ISIS leaders to justice at the International Criminal Court.
Lord Forsyth, another signatory to the amendment, said: “It is essential that we find a way in which we can offer sanctuary to people who are victims. This amendment suggests a way in which that could be done, not just in terms of offering sanctuary but in bringing to justice those who have been responsible for these barbarous crimes.”
Opposing the amendment, Viscount Hailsham said he agreed with the designation of genocide, but thought the amendment might not “make legal sense”.
He argued that it might lead to a mass of legal disputes in determining who qualified for asylum as a victim of genocide: “It is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between a Tajik and an Uzbek or, for that matter, between an Alawite, a Sunni and a Shia. They may all have reason for misrepresenting their status.”
The Conservatives opposed the amendment, with Baroness Berridge saying: “The amendment runs the risk of taking too long to help these people”.
Labour refused to support the amendment – a position which Lord Carlile, a QC, described as “supine” and “chickening out”. He said that the legal objections were not insurmountable, saying: “Surely Parliaments such as this should recognise the suffering of victims of genocide, and not merely by wringing our hands with rhetoric about those victims. Where else have they to turn to if not to Parliaments and to Governments in countries such as ours?”
After the vote, Lord Alton said that parliament had overlooked the suffering of ISIS’s victims.
“It was disappointing that both the Government and Opposition declined to respond to the powerful calls made from around the Chamber,” he said in a statement. “This was a day when Britain neither salved its conscience or offered practical help but chose to look the other way.”
His statement concluded: “When historians come to consider the lamentable failure of both parliament and government to speak and act they will surely conclude that we failed to recognise the crime above all crimes.”
Lord Alton said the campaign would continue. He is tabling a motion in the Lords today.