The Genocide Determination Bill: Changing the way that Britain deals with the crime

With all the headlines being dominated by Brexit it would have been easy to miss something else important that has been going on in Parliament recently. In the House of Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool has introduced a proposal for a new law called the Genocide Determination Bill. If the Bill becomes a law it would give a judge the power to decide whether genocide (and other atrocities such as crimes against humanity) is being committed…and would also give the judge the power to tell the government to act. We were fortunate to ask Ewelina Ochab, an international law expert who is assisting Lord Alton, a few questions about the Bill.

Why do you think that the Bill is needed?
So why is a new law needed? Ewelina argues that the way that the government responds to atrocities that may amount to genocide (as per Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, later cited as Genocide Convention) is ‘flawed’. She told us that the government was reluctant to make a formal determination of cases that met the legal definition in Article II as genocide, with ministers stating that is it not for politicians but for the international judicial systems to do so. Ewelina said that the government’s position ‘has no justification for it, apart from it being a long-standing practice’. Indeed, Ewelina points out that the Genocide Convention puts the duties for preventing and prosecuting genocide on states, parties to the Genocide Convention, rather than international judicial systems. The proposals contained within the Genocide Determination Bill would ask a competent UK court to make such an interim determination of genocide after considering all available evidence. The bill removes the question of genocide determination from politicians.

What impact do you think the proposed legislation will have if it becomes a law?
Ms Ochab told us that the Genocide Determination Bill will trigger a better response to genocide. She commented ‘The bill does not stop at ensuring that the determination of genocide is made but guides the Secretary of State through actions that should follow such a determination’. Under Lord Alton’s proposed law once a judge determines that a genocide is taking place the Secretary of State would be ordered to take further steps, such as taking the case to the UN Security Council to act upon.

How has the Bill been received in Parliament – has it got a good chance of becoming law?
As the Parliament is dissolved as of 4th November 2019, for the purposes of general elections, the bill automatically failed. The process has to start again after the General Election; the bill will need to be re-tabled once the new Parliament takes its place.

There is some support for the bill and once the issue of Brexit is clarified, Ewelina hopes that other topics, including the bill, will get more attention and time in Parliament.

What can young people do to engage in the issues and support the Bill?
Ewelina told us that young people can make an impact. She suggests that students could use the General Election as an opportunity to ‘put questions to your constituency candidates on how they propose to respond to the issue of genocide and whether they would support the bill if they are elected’. In addition young people could also write to the government to raise the issue and to ask the next Prime Minister to take a more comprehensive response to genocide, including to consider adopting Lord Alton’s Bill as a government bill.

‘However, above all,’ Ewelina concludes, ‘you need to show that the topic of genocide is something that you care about deeply’. We do and we shall be working hard to make sure that whoever is elected in December 2019 will take the issue of genocide seriously.

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