A motion to allow the High Court to rule on genocide was defeated in the Commons again, this time by 15 votes.
The proposals, which could have allowed trade to be blocked with countries guilty of genocide, had the backing of MPs of all parties and campaigners fighting for the Uighur people in northwest China.
Uighurs, who are mostly of Muslim Turkic ethnicity, have been killed, forced into slave labour, raped, separated from their children and herded into detention camps.
Families, reporters and people who have escaped have told their stories, but China has repeatedly denied their truth.
The UN security council has the power to investigate genocide, but its members — including China — would never vote in favour. Campaigners believe that allowing British courts to rule would enable action to be taken, principally blocking current trade deals and preventing future deals.
Their proposal had been passed by the Lords with huge majorities, but narrowly rejected twice in the Commons.
Greg Hands, the trade minister, told the Commons that the courts should not be involved in the trade process. “Genocide is notoriously hard to prove with a high legal threshold,” he said. “If a judge was unable to make a preliminary determination on genocide, which is highly probable, it would be a huge propaganda win for the country in question — effectively allowing that state to claim it had been cleared by the UK courts.”
This was rejected as nonsense by Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani, who found it hard to believe that any country investigated for genocide would consider it a propaganda event. She said it was for the courts to judge on the basis of evidence.
The measure’s prime mover, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, condemned the government’s tactics to prevent it going through. They had bundled various amendments together so that it was impossible to vote on this amendment alone. The tactic was “beneath them” and “should never happen again”. He added: “When we need impartial evidence and judgment — Savile, Grenfell, Hillsborough — we turn to a judge because they are impartial and paid to deal with evidence. Politicians are partial.”
Instead, the Commons accepted a compromise to give parliament a vote on whether to pursue agreements with such countries.
In a Religion Media Centre online briefing, it became clear that campaigners knew it would be difficult to get the votes and were prepared for a long campaign, despite the setback yesterday. Rahima Mahmut from the World Uyghur Congress said it was a global campaign and hearings would be held in the United States this year. She said the campaigners’ role was to keep highlighting the stories and bring the abuses to world attention.
William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University, explained the difficulties in the “unprecedented” proposal before the Commons.
He said courts have found countries and individuals guilty of genocide, but their jurisdiction is an issue. He cited the case of the international criminal tribunal, set up by the United Nations, convicting people of genocide in Rwanda; and the finding of genocide in the massacre of 8,000 people at Srebrenica.
He explained that international court action could take years, and even then it would not directly affect trade. More deliberations would be needed.
But the current proposal in Britain was being pursued to take urgent action to help people suffering now. He believed this particular solution was probably not practical and “destined for all kinds of challenges and difficulties”.
Dave Landrum, director of advocacy and public affairs at the human rights charity Open Doors, told the briefing that he believed we were heading for boycotts of Chinese goods in the near future.
He said it would be good to have clarity in the UK about trade deals. His organisation wants the government to champion human rights, particularly religious liberty, in trade negotiations. Yet there seemed to be “extraordinary opposition and wriggling in parliament at the moment”.
The wrecking tactics to prevent the measure being passed on its own proved the campaign was having an effect, he said.