Friday , June 21 2024

A modern day Calvary

The Below is a speech delivered by the author in the House of Lords on 29 March 2018

My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who has been a friend for more than 40 years, for securing this timely and important debate today and for the compassionate and consistent way in which he has championed the cause of the Syrian people. It is a privilege to follow so many moving and powerful speeches.

In September 1980, during my first visit to Syria, I met Hafiz al-Assad, the Syrian President from 1971 to 2000, and father of Bashar al-Assad. The meeting took place on the day on which the eight-year Iran-Iraq war began—a forgotten conflict that claimed the lives of more than 1 million people.

Since then, through wars and proxy wars from Iraq to Yemen and through the emergence of barbaric militias and violent ideologies, the region has been convulsed and disfigured by an orgy of unspeakable violence, and those responsible have believed that they will never be held to account.

For eight long years now, as we have heard, Syria has been ravaged, with an estimated 500,000 fatalities, of whom 200,000 are thought to be children. In his moving remarks, the right reverend Prelate told us that we should never give up on hope. He is, of course, right. The one thing left in Pandora’s box was hope.

The practical situation on the ground is this. Since 2011, this war has left more than 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, 6.5 million internally displaced and another 5 million clinging to life as refugees in camps and countries far away from their homeland, mostly in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. From Aleppo to Damascus, from Eastern Ghouta and Homs to Palmyra, and now in Afrin, we have watched as internal and external forces have reduced homes, hospitals, schools and communities to rubble. In particular, we have seen appalling depredations committed by ISIS and, subsequently, hundreds of Islamic State fighters fleeing Raqqa, once the group’s de facto capital, but their dispersal does not represent defeat for an ideology that continues to preach hatred and to practise genocide.

As Ministers have conceded, in 2013 the United Kingdom lost its ability to shape events, with Iran rapidly filling that void, followed by Russia in 2015. With Turkey’s intervention in 2018 in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, as we heard, a further 98,000 people have been displaced. Last week, Christian Aid, in a report issued to Members of your Lordships’ House said that there have been widespread reports of arbitrary arrests, threats of violence and looting of civilian property by the Free Syrian Army—a group the United Kingdom Government have previously told us that they support.

The consequences for Syria have been lethal for millions of people, not least in the slaughter of the region’s minorities. On Monday, I attended the opening of a poignant exhibition being staged here in Parliament highlighting the genocide against the Yazidis, who have been subjected to nauseating obscenity and barbarism, rape, enslavement and murder. Nearly 10,000 Yazidis are believed to have been killed or captured by ISIS, with more than 3,000 Yazidi girls and women believed to be currently enslaved in Syria. Christians have also experienced a genocide that began with the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century and continues to this day.

The predators change but the existential threat to the minorities has not.

The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo says that two-thirds of Syrian Christians have either been killed or driven away from his country.

I serve as a pro bono member of the board of the charity Aid to the Church in Need, and have been deeply moved by the accounts of many who have given evidence to the charity. The suffering that they have experienced was described last night at a Passiontide Wednesday service at St Patrick’s, Soho. One of those who has given evidence told me the story of a Christian family: a mother and 12 year-old daughter which were raped by ISIS militants, leading the father, who was forced to watch, to commit suicide. One refugee described how she witnessed ISIS crucify her husband on the door to their home.

On 23 July 2014, I wrote in an opinion piece in the Times that,

“the world must wake up urgently to the plight of the ancient churches throughout the region who are faced with the threat of mass murder and mass displacement”.

But as Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar and Christians fled for their lives, the world chose not to wake up and the genocide continued. A 16 year-old Yazidi girl, Ekhlas, subsequently met parliamentarians, including myself, and described crucifixions, beheadings, systematic rape and mass graves.

Following the failure of your Lordships to pass an amendment laid before the House on 20 April 2016 by myself, my noble friend Lady Cox and the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws and Lady Nicholson, the House of Commons subsequently unanimously approved a Motion tabled by Fiona Bruce MP describing the existential slaughter of these minorities as a genocide and calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. It is on this question of justice—about which I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, and copied the letter to the noble Lord, Lord Bates, on Tuesday of this week—that I want to concentrate the remainder of my remarks.

In 2016, David Cameron said,

“there is a very strong case here for saying that it is genocide, and I hope that it will be portrayed and spoken of as such”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/6/16; col. 168.]

However, the Foreign Office has declined to do so and refused to act on that vote. This has made us derelict in our obligations under the 1948 convention on genocide, which places on us as a signatory a duty to prevent, to protect and to punish. It is the word genocide that could have changed the fate of the nameless thousands of victims and survivors of mass atrocities in Syria and Iraq.

Gregory Stanton, research professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University, conducted a study on the perception and effects of determining genocidal atrocities using the words of “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide”. The results of the study revealed that:

“It was not until the term ‘genocide’ was applied to the crimes, that force was used to stop them … When the term ‘genocide’ is used to describe crimes against humanity, use of force is possible. When the crimes are only called ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘crimes against humanity’, it is a sure indicator of lack of political will to take forceful action to stop them”.

“Genocide” is a word that makes so much difference.

Only by recognising the mass atrocities committed as genocide will victims be able to receive an adequate level of justice. Furthermore, the recognition of genocide matters for their humanitarian assistance, justice and much more besides.

The Minister will be aware of the impact that the current policies have had on issues such as, for example, asylum. Less than 1% of those allowed into the UK under the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme come from the groups that I have described as affected by genocide. Everyone affected by war suffers, but either genocide is a crime above all crimes or it is not. Labelling victims simply as “religious groups” is also, in terms of the implementation of things such as asylum policies, a form of reverse discrimination.

In addition to the failure to determine the ISIS atrocities perpetrated against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq as genocide, the atrocities perpetrated by other actors within the regime also have genocidal traits, such as the use of chemical weapons and the intentional starvation of the population. They are most certainly war crimes and crimes against humanity. But what links all these atrocities is a culture of impunity. Do we have the will or the capacity to hold those responsible to account and to bring them to justice? That is the central question. Genocide is the crime above all crimes, and it must be our starting point in upholding internationally agreed law and in determining our priorities in all areas of public policy.

The case of the ISIS genocide against these minorities is a simple one.

Daesh fighters have been systematically perpetrating mass atrocities, including killing members of religious groups such as Yazidis, Christians, Shia Muslims and others, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of these groups, deliberately imposing conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in whole or in part.

Intent does not have to be inferred from these atrocities. Daesh has been expressing this genocidal intent through social media and in its recruitment and propaganda newsletters and videos.

The crucifixion and death of one young man was boastfully posted on the internet. He was crucified for wearing a cross. From the same town local girls were taken as sex slaves. ISIS returned their body parts to the front door of their parents’ homes with a videotape of them being raped.

The UK Government cannot justify hiding behind the long-standing legacy of genocide denial. Ministers say, “It is clearly a matter for judicial authorities to determine whether a genocide has taken place”, and then fail to put in place a mechanism for doing that. They say, “Perpetrators will pay the price”. They have talked about “the long arm of justice” and give the example of Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian men and youths were massacred.

Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia between 1998 and 2006 and led the prosecution of Slobodan Milošević, spoke at a colloquium on genocide which I convened in your Lordships’ House last week. As Sir Geoffrey made clear, a trial of genocide is not easy, as is clear from the case of Ratko Mladić which, for reasons I shall give, was a surprising choice for the Government to cite.

What options do the Government have in seeking to justify their position for leaving genocidal determination to the international judicial system?

There is the International Criminal Court but vetoes and hostility by key members of the Security Council sadly make it unlikely that the ICC would be a realistic mechanism to deal with these events.

Another mechanism might be something like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, whose role the Government regularly now cite. But, to be clear, the ICTY was an ad hoc tribunal with a limited jurisdiction. The court was established after a commission of experts, established by the UN Security Council, determined in its interim report that “ethnic cleanings” were perpetrated. This was before it prepared a final report confirming that genocide and other mass atrocities had been perpetrated. This determination of genocide by the commission of experts was the key to establishing the ad hoc tribunal and ensuring that the perpetrators were brought to justice.

It was the interim determination by the commission of experts and not the ICTY’s final judgment that was the first and most important step towards justice.

This point needs to be fully understood. If there is no special ad hoc tribunal or no existing court capable of making an adjudication, there will be no consideration of the atrocities that would result in a final judgment acceptable to the UK Government.

Secondly, as Gladstone once observed, justice delayed can be justice denied.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, confirmed in a reply to me last week that Mladić was arrested 16 years after he was charged and convicted only in November 2017—two decades after his genocidal atrocities had taken place.

If a perpetrator is never charged with genocide, he will not be convicted of genocide, so the UK Government will not gain the final judgment necessary to make a genocidal determination.

I have never argued that the UK Government should undertake the role of being a court to make the final determination. But they can make a qualified determination, subject to evidence and final judgment.

It is the interim determination of genocide that can trigger further steps, as in case of the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and elsewhere.

This is precisely the approach taken by the Dutch Government, now temporary members of the Security Council, and it is in the provisions of my Private Member’s Bill before your Lordships’ House.

Under the genocide convention, the Government have a duty in law to act, and act they must.

Syria desperately needs an end to violations against the civilian population, including summary executions, hostage-taking, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence.

It needs the release of children, women, the elderly and the disabled from detention centres.

It needs an end to siege tactics, to ensure that there is immediate and timely access to, and provision of, humanitarian assistance. One day it will need both the right to return and protection.

If ever future genocides and crimes against humanity are contemplated, the world needs to see that perpetrators of such crimes will be held to account and that any final settlement will not include amnesties for gross violations of human rights, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

All those who have suffered in Syria’s bloodletting deserve nothing less.

About Lord David Alton of Liverpool

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer. He began his career as a teacher and, in 1972, while still a student, he was elected to Liverpool City Council as Britain’s youngest City Councillor. In 1979 he became the youngest member of the House of Commons and, in 1997, and when he stood down from the Commons, he was appointed a Life Peer. His motto on his Coat of Arms is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: Choose Life.

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One comment

  1. Isaac Anderson

    All too spot on, sadly.