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UK Parliament considers landmark Genocide Determination Bill 

The UK’s House of Lords currently considering a landmark piece of legislation which would see UK courts empowered to make a determination on if a genocide is occurring and compel the government to act.

The Bill has been described the first of its kind and has been accompanied by an open letter addressed to the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and Foreign Minister, Lord David Cameron, urging them to support the Bill. The letter notes the passage of the 75th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide and notes that Bill would fill a “gap in the international justice system, since international courts cannot guarantee consequential action in time to prevent further atrocities as mandated by the Genocide Convention”. 

“For non-governmental organisations, a court ruling on the existence of genocide, or of a situation where there is a serious risk of genocide being committed, would, in itself, enhance human rights advocacy and strike a meaningful blow against perpetrators” the letter notes.  The Bill has significant cross-party support and the letter itself has been supported by 50 prominent individuals, including other members of the House of Lords and peers.

The legislation would empower the UK senior courts to make a determination on genocide upon receiving an application from “person or group of belonging to a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, or an organisation representing such a person or group”. 

Writing in the TaiPei Times, Lord David Alton, the primary sponsor and lead advocate for the Bill, stressed that the UK’s current framework is “flawed”.

“The UK and other major countries have long adhered to a flawed policy of delegating responsibility for identifying crimes against humanity to international courts and tribunals rather than taking direct action […]

While international courts can assess wrongful actions only after they have occurred, political, economic and legal interventions by the global community are necessary well before any harm is inflicted. Consequently, governments must take the lead”, Lord Alton writes.

Alton further piece further adds:

“Regrettably, governments often attempt to shirk their international commitments by refusing to classify mass atrocities as “genocide.” While they argue that such determinations should be left to international courts, they decline to engage with tribunals that could help prevent, stop or punish such crimes. Worse, these governments frequently maintain full and normal relations with countries accused of committing these offenses”.

The statement follows the International Court of Justice’s ruling that Israel may plausibly” be committing genocide in Gaza. Despite this Lord Cameron has maintained that the UK’s position on arms exports has not shifted.

Section 3 (1) and 3 (3) of the Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State to either refer the case on to International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Court of Justice (ICJ), or another “any other competent organ of the United Nations”; or to issue a statement explaining “why no such referral is being made including whether and how the United Kingdom’s obligations to prevent genocide are being adequately fulfilled”.

Tamils in the UK have consistently called upon their government to support bringing Sri Lanka before the ICC to be held accountable for the genocide committed against Eelam Tamils. An estimated 169,000 Tamils were killed during the 2009 genocidal military campaign that saw a litany of war crimes including summary executions, mass rape and enforced disappearances. 

The UK government has pushed back on a referral to the ICC noting that such a move would likely be vetoed by other members and noting their support for the latest UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Sri Lanka. However, this response has been criticised by the Government’s opposition. In March 2021, then Shadow Minister for the Asia and the Pacific, Stephen Kinnock, slammed the government’s refusal by stressing that Britain’s position, “should not be determined simply by the veto-wielding intentions of two of its permanent members”. In May 2023, Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, maintained his support for referring Sri Lanka to the ICC.

The Bill is currently in its second reading in the House of Lords. Once it has had a second reading, and if the Government agrees to give it parliamentary time, then it will move to committee stage. Without that agreement of the Government’s Whips Office, the Bill will likely stall. The Bill previously mooted in 2022 but was given no further parliamentary time.


Read the full Bill here.

Read the open letter here.

Read more here.

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