The word genocide should never be invoked too readily. For most the term will be forever associated with the atrocities of Nazi concentration camps and the deliberate effort to exterminate Jews. The horrors were so unspeakable that the language to describe that carefully orchestrated attempt at annihilation has to remain undiluted.
Genocide has the specific legal meaning of “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. The alarming truth is that while genocidal violence has been perpetrated around the world since the word entered the legal lexicon in 1948, powerful states have resisted the use of this terminology, refusing to acknowledge genocide as genocide.
Last Thursday the US secretary of state John Kerry said that Islamic State had been committing genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims. This is only the second time the US has used the term during an ongoing conflict. The last time was Darfur. The Council of Europe and the EU parliament have also passed resolutions recognising that the actions against the Yazidi amount to genocide.
The UK government’s official policy is that it is “not the role of governments to recognise a genocide while it is happening”. They claim it is for international judicial systems, not individual states, to declare whether there is a genocide taking place, and will not pressurise the UN to act until a court takes this step. This is morally indefensible.
Last week I met the Yazidi MP Vian Dakhil. She has been trying to draw the attention of the international community to the plight of her people. Her testimony is like a knife in the heart as she describes the slaughter of hundreds of men and boys by Isis. Dakhil’s voice shakes as she speaks of the kidnapping of women and girls who are then raped continuously over months, their bodies torn and shredded by men who treat them like animals. Some of the girls are as young as eight. A few who have escaped are suffering such severe trauma that doctors visiting the refugee camps are in despair.
Dakhil describes the mass graves, the beheadings of children, the crucifixions. She cannot understand why western governments are doing nothing to help them when barely a day passes without news of further genocidal atrocities. Kerry has pointed out that Isis is genocidal “by self-proclamation, by ideology and actions”. Its message is convert or be wiped out.
Although genocide requires a high evidential burden, no one really doubts that these acts satisfy the tough legal threshold. The constitutive acts of killing, causing bodily or mental harm, raping and preventing births, as well as the forced transfer of people from their land, all meet the legal requirements to be classified as genocide.
These people deserve our help, and we have to break this cycle of inertia now. With a group of peers from across the parties, I have brought an amendment to the immigration bill which will be debated in the House of Lords today. The amendment presumes that the victims of genocide will meet the conditions for asylum in the UK and refers the matter of whether there is a genocide to a high court judge. On the facts available, the judge has to apply the necessary legal tests to determine whether or not the applicant is fleeing genocide.
Making such a determination is well within the competence of our senior judiciary, which is already required to make extraterritorial determinations with regard to torture, as it did in the Pinochet case. Moreover, allowing refugees of genocide to apply directly enables these victims to be transported safely to a place of asylum, while fulfilling the prime minister’s commitment to accept 20,000 of the most vulnerable.
This is a simple and humane amendment, giving the UK a solid legal basis to push for the recognition of genocide and bettering our chance of acting for those who are being persecuted.
Helena Kennedy QC is a Labour peer and was chair of the Power Inquiry into the reform of democracy.