U.K.’s Johnson Fights Off Revolt Over China Genocide Ruling

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson defeated a rebellion by his own lawmakers on Tuesday after they pressed for British judges to be able to rule if China’s Muslim Uighur minority is suffering genocide.

The House of Commons narrowly voted down an amendment to a proposed law on international trade agreements which would have allowed victims to ask the High Court in London to rule on claims of genocide against potential trading partners, including China. The government would have had to consider pulling out of trade deals with the states involved.

Lawmakers voted by 319 to 308 to reject the amendment, cutting into Johnson’s working majority of 87 and reflecting the strength of feeling in his Conservative Party about the U.K.’s ties to China.

“Uighurs are victims of alleged genocide and have been denied justice for many years,” Tory rebel Iain Duncan Smith told Parliament. “We all agree that the courts have to make the decision, it’s not for individual politicians to do so,” he said. And if the courts find against Beijing, “why would we be doing a trade deal with a country that is guilty of genocide?” he asked.

Even as the debate simmered in London, outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo designated the crackdown on the Uighurs and other minorities as genocide and called on “relevant judicial bodies” to hold those responsible to account. The move was subsequently endorsed by President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to succeed Pompeo, Antony Blinken.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington denounced the U.S. move as a “gross interference in China’s internal affairs and a serious violation of international law and basic norms” of international relations. “The Chinese side expresses its strong concern and firm opposition to it,” the embassy said, repeating Beijing’s denial of the genocide claims.

The supporters of the U.K. amendment said it was a chance for the nation to lead the world on human rights in post-Brexit trade deals. But ministers said the measure would lead to vexatious court claims and would be counterproductive since the threshold to prove genocide is so high.

There has been growing unrest among rank-and-file Tory members of Parliament over Chinese involvement in the U.K. economy. They have pressured the government to limit the role of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd in the roll-out of mobile phone networks and questioned Chinese involvement in the development of British nuclear power plants.

“To accept this specific amendment would allow the High Court to frustrate, even revoke trade agreements entered into by the government and approved after parliamentary scrutiny,” Trade Minister Greg Hands told MPs before the vote.

Genocide is defined as a deliberate attempt to destroy a race on the basis of their ethnicity or religion. The Board of Deputies of British Jews and other religious groups urged MPs to back the amendment.

Last week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sought to appease the rebels by announcing the U.K. will fine companies if they cover up imports from the Xinjiang region of China, where international observers have accused Beijing of overseeing forced labor by Uighur Muslims and human rights abuses such as forced sterilization.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.