January 5, 2018

As the 70th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is approaching, it is crucial to scrutinise whether the document is fit for its purpose, namely, to prevent such mass atrocities and to prosecute the perpetrators. Most importantly, it is also necessary to consider how the UK is fulfilling its obligations under the convention.

In compliance with the convention, the UK has laws criminalising genocide. However, as it stands, the UK does not have any mechanism to recognise mass atrocities, which meet the threshold, as genocide. This ultimately means that, by default, the UK is not able to fulfil its obligations under the convention. In fact, over the years, the UK Government’s position has been that ‘any judgements on whether genocide has occurred should be a matter for the international judicial system rather than legislatures, governments or other non-judicial bodies.’

The UK does not have any mechanism to recognise mass atrocities, which meet the threshold, as genocide.
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However, in this blind reliance on the ‘international judicial system’, be it the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court or other, the UK fails to consider one fundamental challenge: time. The time that is at essence when the annihilation of a protected group is being perpetrated. Put it differently; if the UK does not have a mechanism to recognise genocide (or attempted genocide), the UK is not able to take necessary steps to prevent or stop the atrocities under the convention obligations. Furthermore, if the UK does not have a mechanism to recognise genocide, the UK is not able to prosecute the perpetrators of the crime under the convention obligations. Awaiting the decision from an ‘international judicial system’ deems the UK’s convention obligations unfulfilled until it is too late.

This means, that over the last 70 years, the UK has been in breach of the convention obligations. To address the UK’s long-standing failures under the convention, Lord Alton introduced the Genocide Determination Bill, a private members’ bill. The bill aims to ‘provide for the High Court of England and Wales to make a preliminary finding on cases of alleged genocide; and for the subsequent referral of such findings to the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal.’ The bill that has a potential of ensuring that the UK can fulfil its convention obligations will be considered at the House of Lords in 2018.

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Introduction to this Under-reported series.

Summary guide to all under-reported articles in this series.