UK Politics

UK to step up pressure over IS 'genocide' after MPs' vote

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town - August 11, 2014 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Yazidis came under attack in the Sinjar area of Iraq last summer

The UK government has promised to step up pressure for official recognition of atrocities committed by so-called Islamic State as acts of genocide.

It follows a unanimous Commons vote condemning the persecution of Christians and Yazidis.

Tory MPs defied orders to abstain in the vote, which is one of the few times actions have been declared genocide in a war that is still going on.

The Foreign Office said the debate had "clarified" its position.

The MPs want the UK government to make an immediate referral to the UN Security Council with a view to giving the International Criminal Court jurisdiction. They say this will enable the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood told MPs he personally believed what was happening in Iraq and Syria was genocide but added: "This ultimately is a matter for courts to decide. It is not for governments to be the prosecutor, the judge or indeed jury."

'Different place'

He said so-called Islamic State - also known as Daesh - would be "held to account for its barbaric crimes against the majorities and minorities involved - Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and other groups" by being defeated and exposed as a "failing organisation"​.

He said efforts to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, in 2014, had been vetoed by Russia and China and any fresh resolution "could very well be blocked again".

But he said "further discussions are taking place", adding: "We are now in a different place from where we were in 2014."

Foreign Office sources said the Commons debate had helped "clarify" the government's position and it would raise the issue of genocide with its partners on the UN Security Council, but it did not want to act unilaterally as this would not have the desired effect.

Crossbench peer Lord Alton sought to keep pressure on the government following Wednesday's debate, telling peers the government risked being in contempt of Parliament if it ignored the vote as "non-binding".

Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay of St Johns replied that the government would do "everything it can to gather evidence for judicial bodies" but it wanted to be "sure of getting a result" in the Security Council.

'Truly harrowing'

Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, who tabled Wednesday's Commons motion, told MPs: "Genocide is a word of such gravity that it should never be used readily. It is rightly known as the crime above all crimes.

"For this reason it is incumbent upon us to prevent the term from devaluation or overuse. But such caution must not stop us from naming a genocide when one is taking place."

She told how MPs had heard the "truly harrowing" personal testimony of a brave 16-year-old Yazidi girl, who was seized along with others from her community by Islamic State fighters, witnessing her father and brother killed in front of her.

She said Yazidis and Christians had been targeted explicitly because of their religion and ethnicity.

"Recognising the actions of Daesh as genocide should therefore help inject further momentum into the international efforts to stop the killings," she added.

"It would hopefully lead to more active safeguarding of those members of religious minorities on the ground whose lives and very communities currently hang in the balance.

"It may also make new recruits including those from the UK think twice about joining given the ramifications of being caught."

Conservative MP David Burrowes said MPs would not stop until the government was held to account over its response to the atrocities.

"We will return, again and again until the government properly make that justifiable referral to the Security Council."

Fellow Conservative Sir Edward Leigh said the government should not hide behind legal precedent as a reason not to act.

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