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Western Values

The houses of parliament under a gloomy, cloudy sky
 ‘A similar motion was recently passed unanimously in the US House of Representatives. Labour is supporting. So why is the government whipping its members to oppose it? Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Sawsan is a middle-aged Syrian woman from al-Hammidiya, which is just north of the Lebanese border. She describes how her nephew was crucified to death and a video of his crucifixion was put on the internet. He was crucified for wearing a cross. From the same town, Amin described how local girls were taken as sex slaves. Isis returned their body parts to the front door of their parents’ houses with a video tape of them being raped. Alice speaks of how hundreds of children were killed and their bodies ground down in the local baker’s shop in Doma.
These are some of the stories that are going to be told tonight at a meeting in Westminster, ahead of tomorrow’s vote in the House of Commons, when MPs will confirm or deny the recognition: “That this house believes that Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria are suffering genocide at the hands of Daesh; and calls upon Her Majesty’s government to make an immediate referral to the United Nations security council with a view to conferring jurisdiction upon the international criminal court so that perpetrators can be brought to justice.”
A similar motion was recently passed unanimously in the US House of Representatives. Labour is supporting. So why – as things currently stand – is the government intent on whipping its members to oppose this motion, even though it is being put forward by a Conservative MP, Fiona Bruce? The devil is in the detail.
It’s not that the government is denying that Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities are suffering genocide in Iraq and Syria. Its official line is that it’s not for parliament to claim something counts as genocide but for the judiciary. And yes, genocide is a legal term, invented to describe the particular sort of horror that the Nazis perpetrated on the Jewish people – “a crime without a name” Churchill had previously called it. As Phillipe Sands observes in his forthcoming book about the origins of the term, it was first used by a Brit in court in Nuremburg in June 1946, almost exactly 70 years ago, by the Tory Sir David Maxwell Fyfe in his cross examination of Konstantin von Neurath, Hitler’s first foreign minister.
Bones, hair and traditional Yazidi garb at the site of a suspected mass grave near the town of Sinjar, Iraq.
 Bones, hair and traditional Yazidi garb at the site of a suspected mass grave near the town of Sinjar, Iraq. Photograph: Sam Tarling for the Guardian
But the problem with this being simply a matter for the judiciary is that there currently exists no process for concerns about genocide to pass from parliament to the judiciary. As cross-bench peer Lord Alton put it to me: “Having no formal mechanism to refer evidence of genocide to the high court simply leads to government buck-passing and hand-wringing. They repeatedly say that determining whether a genocide is under way is a matter for the courts but then refuse to provide a trigger for a referral. Parliament – as Congress and the European parliament have done – needs to force the government’s hand. Otherwise we might as well rip up the genocide convention as a worthless piece of paper. If what is happening to groups like the Yazidis and Assyrian Christians doesn’t meet the high technical standard of what constitutes a genocide, it’s hard to imagine what would.”
But there may be more to it than a technical problem of process. For it may not be any coincidence that Turkey is our new best friend, with whom we have struck a deal over returning refugees from Greece. And Turkey is profoundly allergic to the “g” word, reminding people, as it often does, of Turkey’s genocide of the Armenian people in 1915, the first genocide of the 20th century. Not only that, but many of the threatened Yazidis, for example, are supported by the Kurds and Kurdish pashmerga who are seen as terrorists by the Turkish government. The suspicion is that our Foreign Office doesn’t want to upset the Turks with tomorrow’s vote and are thus encouraging the government to whip against it on a technicality.
We really ought to be braver than this. OK, I don’t suppose that those who are prepared to blow themselves up in the name of their twisted values are going to be all that terrified by the prospect of the international criminal court. But when religious minorities are set upon with such systematic ferocity and brutality, it is right and proper that our parliament calls it what it is. The government should withdraw its whip. It owes it to Sawsan, Amin and Alice – and to hundreds of thousands like them.


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