Baroness Cox speaks in the House of Lords supporting amendments to Immigration Bill Committee Stage (4th Day)

4 February 2016

Amendment 234A

Moved by Lord Alton of Liverpool

234A: After Clause 38, insert the following new Clause—

Conditions for grant of asylum: cases of genocide

(1) A person seeking asylum in the United Kingdom who belongs to a national, ethnical, racial or religious group which is, in the place from which that person originates, subject to the conditions detailed in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, shall be presumed to meet the conditions for asylum in the United Kingdom.

(2) The adjudication of whether the group to which the person seeking asylum belongs meets the description specified in subsection (1) shall be determined by a Justice of the Supreme Court after consideration of the available facts.

(3) Applicants for asylum in the United Kingdom from groups designated under this section may submit their applications and have them assessed at British missions overseas.”


Baroness Cox (CB): My Lords, I support the amendment, to which I am a signatory. Last week, my noble friend Lord Alton and I presided over a hearing here in Parliament, where we heard graphic accounts of genocide and crimes against humanity from Yazidis and Christians from Syria and Iraq. Their first-hand testimonies were accompanied by supporting statements from relief organisations and charities working with these beleaguered communities, including Canon Andrew White, the courageous Anglican vicar of Baghdad.

Some 100 years after the Armenian genocide, these contemporary events are a continuation of a systematic campaign of annihilation which was planned by one caliphate, abolished in 1924 by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey but continued by another caliphate under the guise of the Islamic State—Daesh—today. Mass graves, beheadings, rapes, forced conversions, lootings and confiscation of property, are, sadly, nothing new. Nor is our failure to respond adequately to acutely vulnerable minorities.

This amendment is not about the misplaced free-for-all mistakenly promoted by Germany and now being urgently reassessed: nor is it about quotas or the unseemly bidding war about how many people any particular country has taken. Instead, the amendment focuses on a particularly vulnerable group of people now being subjected to genocide and argues that their asylum claims should be prioritised. Our first priority should always be those who have been singled out because of their religion, ethnicity or race. Although many people have been caught up in this suffering, we have particular obligations, as my noble friend highlighted, under the provisions of the Genocide Convention, to these minority groups. We also know that those who have been targeted do not represent a security threat to the United Kingdom and that, unlike for other categories of people, there are no countries in the region where they will be secure in the long term. They have nowhere to go.

In November I and my noble friend wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to give priority to the most vulnerable—these minorities and children. We welcomed his decision to take vulnerable groups from holding countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, but we also pointed out that many of those fleeing from genocide have been too frightened to enter the camps and were living in informal settings, often without any help being given by UN agencies. In December, I was also a signatory to the letter sent to the Prime Minister—which my noble friend referred to—signed by 75 parliamentarians from both Houses and all sides, urging Her Majesty’s Government to name this genocide for what it is. So far, HMG have failed to do so—but, last week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe declared that the treatment of Christians and Yazidis is indeed genocide.

Our colleagues in the House of Commons have been equally clear. I share with the House the wording of the all-party Motion tabled last week by a group of MPs in another place, which stated that,

“this House is appalled by the beheadings, crucifixions, shootings, burnings, other murders, torture, rape and extensive violence being perpetrated by Daesh or IS against Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq on the basis of religion and ethnicity; observes that this disgusting behaviour clearly falls within the definition of genocide as determined by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide; notes the recent report from the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, ‘Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq’, which concludes that Daesh is holding approximately 3,500 slaves, mostly women and children in Iraq, primarily from the Yazidi community, and describes Daesh’s systematic and widespread violence as staggering, concluding that these acts amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide; and calls on the Government to use all its influence at the UN to create a stated consensus that genocide is indeed being perpetrated so that the provisions of the Convention can urgently, legitimately and effectively be invoked and implemented”.

We should commend our colleagues, such as Mrs Fiona Bruce MP, the chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, who tabled that Motion, and we should give legislative force to an appropriate response to those who are suffering so grievously. This is urgent, as Christianity and ancient religions such as Yazidism are being wiped out in the Middle East.

Last week’s hearing took place on Holocaust Memorial Day. Among those who participated was Major General Tim Cross. He has said:

Crucially, the various minorities in the region are suffering terribly. There can be no doubt that genocide is being carried out on Yazidi and Christian communities—and the West/international community’s failure to recognise what is happening will be to our collective shame in years to come”.

He also pointed to the irony that while we are neglecting our duty to protect these minorities we have been opening the door to others who may threaten the very fabric of our society.

Major General Cross quoted the Lebanese Prime Minister, who told David Cameron that he believed that for every 1,000 migrants entering Europe illegally there are at least two extremists—inner-core jihadis—which means that around 16,000 IS fighters have probably entered Europe over the last year or so. While we have been doing this, we have failed to protect those to whom we have a specific duty under international law. Major General Cross said: “Our dilemma is how we separate ‘values’ and ‘interests’”.

This amendment offers us the opportunity to uphold our values, especially our belief in the rule of law, while also protecting our interests.

If we are not prepared to respond to the victims of genocide, we must seriously ask whether we should remove our signature from the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide. What is the point of being a signatory if we are not prepared to accept the obligation—to see, to judge and to act? If we do not take such obligations seriously, as the amendment urges us to do, it fundamentally undermines that convention.

To remind noble Lords of what our obligations are, the convention makes it clear that genocide is not a random killing of individuals but a systematic killing or serious harming of people because they are part of a recognisable group. That group may be, “national, ethnical, racial or religious”.

The treaty identifies acts committed with intent to destroy that group, “in whole or in part”.

The convention also covers within the term “genocide” a range of other acts already highlighted by my noble friend.

In short, international law is clear and undeniably covers the many horrors unleashed by ISIL/Daesh in the Middle East—and, I may point out, by Islamist extremists in other countries, including several African states such as northern Nigeria and Sudan, both of which I have visited in the last two months and where I saw comparable horrors and atrocities perpetrated.

If an international law, defined by treaty, is being flouted, and if hundreds of thousands of innocent people who are entitled to rely on the protection of that law are being killed, and millions are being driven from their homes, it is absolutely incumbent on the signatories to that treaty to take action to ensure that it is enforced. Sadly, however, to date the issue has not been high on the agenda of the leaders of more than 100 nations that are signatories to that convention.

The convention is specific. The signatory nations may honour their commitments either by acting alone or by calling on the United Nations to prevent and punish genocide. That provision is hugely important in sending a clear message to the perpetrators of these dreadful acts: it warns them that they will be punished. So how can officials argue and give ambiguous replies that we can do nothing until others act? From the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders after the Second World War to the more recent trials for genocide perpetrated in Rwanda and Bosnia, a very clear message should go out to all those involved in these evil movements of genocide. The message should be: the international community will, sooner or later, come for you. You will be found, you will be captured, you will be tried in accordance with the convention and you will be punished proportionately to your offence. And, as this amendment insists most importantly, we will care for those whom you target in these unspeakable ways.

I urge our Prime Minister and our Foreign Secretary to utter that one word, “genocide”. By using it in relation to the carnage befalling the Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in the Middle East, Her Majesty’s Government would be sending a clear message to ISIS and other groups that there will be a reckoning for their despicable actions.

In conclusion, Britain punches far above its weight in world diplomacy and international relations. We must ask our Government to have the courage to speak the right word to the international community and to follow the word with appropriate deeds. This amendment is an opportunity for us to do just that. At the very minimum, I hope that the Minister will undertake to go back to the Home Secretary and other ministerial colleagues and weigh these arguments with great care between now and Report.

Baroness Cox also received much support from other members of the House. Read their comments below:

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con): “…I do not wish to detain the House by repeating examples that have been given by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Both of them are held in the highest regard in this House but, if I may say so, particularly the noble Baroness, who seems to put herself in harm’s way on behalf of people in trouble all over the world and to provide us with an authoritative account…”

Lord Judd (Lab): “My Lords, apart from all the powerful arguments of support that have been put forward, the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is one that we must all take particularly seriously. No one in this House has put their own life more on the line on issues of this kind than she has, and she has consistently done that with great courage. When she comes to us and says, “Please take this one step that would help, in terms of all that I have experienced”, we must take that seriously…”

Lord Bates: “… I am very happy to meet noble Lords who have an interest in this area, with officials, to ensure that our system is sufficiently sensitive to understand what is happening on the ground—and the accounts of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the experiences of the Bishop of Aleppo. We want that understanding so that it can inform our decision-making and ensure that our system is correct and appropriate. I reiterate that those Christians who are female, at risk of persecution, survivors of torture and/or violence are exactly the people that our systems of humanitarian aid in the region and our systems of relocation to this country are designed to help.”

The full debate can be read on the House of Lords Hansard here.

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