Layla Moran writes… Liberal Democrats stand with others today to oppose trade deals with countries committing genocide

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The UK should not sign trade deals with countries committing genocide.

A statement I hope we can all agree on. Unfortunately, the Government seems to disagree. They’re refusing to accept cross-party amendments to the Trade Bill that would put human rights at the heart of our trade policy.

This is particularly important because of what is happening to the Uyghur people in Xinjiang and across China. The Foreign Secretary last week described the mounting evidence to the Commons:

Internment camps, arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labour, torture and forced sterilisation—all on an industrial scale.

And yet he refused to call it genocide. As I told Autumn Conference in September, and following Alistair Carmichael as the first MP to raise the plight of the Uyghurs, it is increasingly clear that that is exactly what this is.

The UK and the world can’t just stand by and do nothing. The products of Uyghur slave labour can be found across our supply chains and yet instead of firm, bold action this government seems content to tweak around the edges.

As Liberal Democrats we won’t stand by and let this happen. We are working with MPs from across the political spectrum to do the right thing and allow the UK to withdraw or revoke bilateral trade agreements if the High Court makes a preliminary determination finding that the other country has committed or is committing genocide (it only occurs to genocides that are ongoing or may occur in the future, not past atrocities).

We vote on this today, and there is a sizeable rebellion on the Tory benches. We will run the Government close, and we may even win.

We need to do this not because we don’t believe in the international rules-based order (we do, passionately, more than ever) but because it isn’t working as intended at the moment when it comes to genocide and China. The Chinese government, by virtue of its position, regularly blocks routes to such a determination through the international courts, so this is a necessary step if the UK is going to lead by example and give effect to its international law obligations relating to genocide, rather than become complicit. Never again can we wring our hands in horror after the fact, saying we should have done more.

Never again. Words we say every Holocaust Remembrance Day. Words we must now live by.

We simply can’t allow our country to end up on the wrong side of history. By working together, even with those who may not agree with us on other matters, we can stand together and make a difference.

I urge my colleagues in all parties to vote with their conscience, with British values and to support these amendments today.

We are backed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Muslim Council of Britain and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.

There are other steps we can take – such as Magnitsky sanctions, a publicly-available watchlist of companies that refuse to clean up their supply chains, a total ban on these products full stop, or human rights labelling on products in our shops – but amending this legislation would have a really significant impact. In fact it would be world-leading. I’m proud we are there fighting for it on the front line.

Our party has always led the way on upholding human rights. From opposing South African apartheid, to Bosnia-Herzegovina, to enshrining 0.7% aid spending in law, we have a proud history and today is no different.

So today Lib Dem MPs will stand together with colleagues from across the Commons in sending a clear message. We won’t tolerate genocide and nor should the Government.

So write to your MP and ask for them to support our cross-party efforts.

Let’s not just say ‘never again’. To quote Burke:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

* Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon

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  • Helen Dudden 19th Jan '21 - 11:42am

    I agree totally. It is wrong to look the other way.

  • It is for elected members of pariament to decide on trade deals according to ethics, merits and all the relevant circumstances. We must not allow the judiciary to encroach on areas of governance which are not the business of judges.

  • This raises important, but to me, very complicated issues. Layla may well be right that not signing a trade deal would to some extent make places like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many other countries sit up and take notice, but we are in a bit of a bind if we want to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. We deal with the Saudis because a lot of jobs in the defence industry depend on it, and China is the go-to place for manufactured products because labour is so cheap there. Modern life would hardly function without Chinese goods, and it is a bit difficult to imagine how we could put much pressure on China if they remind themselves how dependent we are on them.
    Robin Cook’s Ethical Foreign Policy was more honoured in the breach than the observance, and we need to be sure a new attempt wouldn’t go the same way.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jan '21 - 6:51pm

    Really excellent stuff.

    Layla is at her best when on this reasonable and moral plain, she has a way of being feisty and convinces too.

    There are few who are able to do it on international policies.

    She is one who can.

    I have written about this atrocity and was involved in promoting this issue a while ago. Similarly on the role of China in this pandemic. Questions need answers, the WHO are trying to deal with that. We ought, especially in countries who have been hit by this, virus, to do more too.

  • Leekliberal 19th Jan '21 - 7:03pm

    How can any liberal dissent from Layla’s conclusions about China’s appalling ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people. My one small concern is that those English Nationalist small state Tories like Dominic Raab and Duncan Smith, whose motives are to me always suspect, are making the the same case as us. The long spoon comes to mind!

  • No-one would dissent from Layla’s call for international condemnation of China. The question is what difference refusing or revoking trade deals would make to those suffering persecution in Xinjiang. Trade deals are problematic not only in the case of China. Cutting off all trade with Saudi Arabia would send a message to its despotic leaders, and would have an immediate impact in Yemen (at least until alternative suppliers of military equipment stepped forward), but it would also costs jobs in Britain, in the euphemistically named ‘defence’ industry.
    It is, of course, right and proper that we are debating ways to exert influence on the troublingly powerful Chinese superpower, but I’m not convinced tinkering with trade deals is the answer. It’s uncomfortably close to the Trump weapon of choice, and risks confusing a fundamental ethical issue with pragmatic decisions about promoting national interests in the world of commerce, and we are very vulnerable on that score today. If the Chinese know anything about history, they will also be aware of our supremely ignoble track record when we were imposing trade terms as a 19th Century superpower.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Jan '21 - 2:37pm

    Intended trade deals need to go through a series of hoops before being agreed by parliament. One is the treatment of its country’s citizens. An independent body could say annually compile a list of countries that are acting against international standards. Then politicians could decide by voting on whether or not to allow the UK to have a trade deal or put in provisions such as reviews and inspections.

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