A compromise in the long-running battle to secure UK judicial input into whether foreign powers are committing genocide appears to have collapsed after protests from Number 10.
An amendment to the trade bill due to be debated in the Lords on Tuesday proposes that a committee of five senior judicial peers sitting in parliament could examine the genocide allegations rather than the high court, as originally proposed.
Iain Duncan Smith, the leading Tory advocate of high court involvement, thought last week senior ministers were prepared to back the plan that downgraded the judicial involvement to a committee of judicial peers capable of sifting the evidence, instead of the high court as originally proposed.
But peers have now been told the proposal is not seen as workable by Number 10, and will be resisted by the government.
Peers had voted twice by large majorities to insert high court involvement in the determination of genocide in an amendment to the trade bill, but the proposal has been twice been rejected in the Commons by small majorities following sizeable Tory backbench rebellions.
Ministers oppose any judicial involvement for a mixture of legal, constitutional and diplomatic reasons, but primarily argue determination of genocide is a matter for the international courts.
Ministers instead won Commons backing for the issue to be referred to the Commons foreign affairs select committee, but critics say the foreign affairs committee already has powers to undertake such inquiries, contains little relevant expertise and would only be empowered to ask the government to arrange a Commons debate if it found genocide was occurring. It would be expected ministers would not sign any trade deal with a country found to be committing genocide.
In the face of government objections and two defeats in the Commons, the advocates of the genocide amendment offered the new compromise whereby allegations of genocide are referred by the cross-party foreign affairs committee to an ad hoc judicial committee of peers for preliminary determination.
The judicial committee would be composed of parliamentarians with senior judicial records, taking the issue out of the hands of the official UK courts.
Lord Alton, the cross-bench peer and driving force behind the amendment in the Lords, is now expected to press the proposal of a judicial committee to a vote in the Lords. At some point peers will have to decide how far they can push the issue before they are breaching their constitutional right to challenge the Commons.
Canada’s parliament, with ministers abstaining last week, declared that genocide is under way against the Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
On Monday at the UN human rights council, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, called for the council to pass a resolution demanding the UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, be given unfettered access to examine what is happening in Xinjiang.
Senior Chinese diplomats said more than a year ago negotiations were under way to grant her a visit in 2020. The offer was repeated on Monday to the human rights council by the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi.
Raab said: “We see almost daily reports now that shine a new light on China’s systematic human rights violations perpetrated against Uighur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang.
“The situation in Xinjiang is beyond the pale. The reported abuses – which include torture, forced labour and forced sterilisation of women – are extreme and they are extensive. “They are taking place on an industrial scale.”
He added: “UN mechanisms must respond. The UN high commissioner for human rights, or another independent fact-finding expert, must – and I repeat must – be given urgent and unfettered access to Xinjiang. If members of this human rights council are to live up to our responsibilities, there must be a resolution which secures this access.”