Campaigners have welcomed a bill designed to facilitate the prosecution of Islamic State jihadists for genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.
Complaining that efforts to encourage the British government to accuse IS of genocide had received “nothing but rebuttals and refusals”, Lord Alton, a Catholic, told a meeting in the House of Lords yesterday, 20 March, that a Private Members’ Bill he is working on would enable the High Court to make a preliminary finding on cases of alleged genocide, which could then be taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or a special tribunal.
He explained that the legislation, which had its first reading last July, would also oblige the Secretary of State to refer the finding to the ICC, or to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), with a view to it setting up a special tribunal.
Fiona Bruce, a Christian MP who introduced a version of the bill in the Commons last September, said it aimed to “put on record a mechanism for bringing the perpetrators of genocide to justice”.
Lord Alton expressed frustration at a 2016 vote in the House of Commons, led by Ms Bruce and won 278-0 in favour of declaring the actions of IS in Iraq and Syria against minorities as genocide. He said the vote had not led to any changes to “the UK’s refugee policy, its asylum policy and the way in which we seek to hold people to account”. He said a “high-ranking British official” told him last week that the Commons vote was “not binding on us in terms of our policy”.
Ministers at the time of the vote, which did not have the backing of the government of then-Prime Minister David Cameron, said that determining whether genocide had occurred was a question for a judicial authority, not politicians.
Dr. Adrian Gallagher, professor in international security at the University of Leeds, welcomed the bill as a “fantastic initiative”. Quoting a 2016 report by the Policy Exchange think-tank, he said: “To allow genocide or ethnic cleansing to take place … is to preside over a steady deterioration of ethical norms.” He added that while it is easy to view genocide as “someone else’s problem”, a failure to have an appropriate political response to it “undermines the moral and legal codes of conduct that underpin international order” and “erodes the authority of institutions such as the United Nations”. However, he questioned whether politicians were best placed to judge whether a genocide had taken place.
Mariana Goetz, Head of Programmes and Learning at the genocide-focused Aegis Trust, said prosecuting for genocide came down to the “moral courage” of leaders. She said: “We have mechanisms we’re not using. This [bill] would be a fantastic measure.”
Lars Adaktusson, a Swedish Member of the European Parliament, sent a message that was read out to the meeting calling for an international tribunal for the prosecution of IS jihadists set up through a proposal to the UN Security Council.
Dutch MP Pieter Omtzigt said there needed to be a regional as well as national mechanism by which to prosecute IS fighters returning to Europe. He said that no member of the Council of Europe seemed to be prosecuting all of its citizens who had returned from fighting for IS. Of the 900 or so British extremists who joined IS in Syria and Iraq, around 400 have returned and about 100 have been prosecuted under terrorism legislation, added Omtzigt, who represents the Netherlands at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and became a rapporteur on bringing IS to justice in late 2016.
“A few [countries] were talking about the reintegration of these fighters within society, [rather] than punishing them for what they have done elsewhere. I think that’s a dangerous strategy, not only for the citizens; that’s a counter-productive strategy in maintaining the rule of law,” he said.
“It’s important that nations work together on this tribunal,” he added, including people from all continents and religions. He said he was working on a measure to convince Dutch MPs to tell their government to go to the UNSC with a proposal for an international tribunal. The Netherlands is a temporary member of the UNSC this year. Omtzigt also suggested the proposal could be co-sponsored by nations such as the UK, Sweden, Poland, France and Kuwait.
A number of others expressed doubts in the ability of the ICC to handle such a case because the US had not signed up to it, a number of African nations had accused it of bias and Russia recently pulled out.