A government attempt to prevent MPs from declaring that Islamic State’s treatment of Yazidis and Christians amounted to genocide was crushed on Wednesday, when the Commons voted unanimously to condemn their treatment and refer the issue to the UN Security Council.
It is almost unprecedented for MPs collectively to declare actions in a war as genocide.
Islamic State (Isis) has carried out a campaign of murder, violence and repression against Christians and the Yazidi ethnic and religious minority since seizing large swaths of northern Iraq and Syria.
However, the Foreign Office directed ministers and parliamentary aides to abstain, saying it was wrong for the government to prejudge the issue or act as a jury on a case that may yet be referred to the international criminal court.
The United States Congress, the US administration, the European parliament and the Council of Europe have all declared the terror group’s treatment of the Yazidi community as genocide, but the Foreign Office legal department has a long-standing policy dating back to the passage of the genocide convention in 1948 of refusing to give a legal description to potential war crimes.
The government abstention policy was also designed to minimise the significance and size of the Commons majority, as well as to disassociate the executive from the MPs’ vote.
Tobias Ellwood, the Foreign Office minister, facing jeers and interruptions, said the immediate task was to compile evidence of the harrowing and unspeakable crimes, but it was wrong to declare now the nature of the crimes being committed against the Yazidis.
He said he personally believed genocide had taken place, but said this was a matter for the courts and not politicians. He added that any referral to the international criminal court required the support of the UN security council and that such a reference was blocked by Russia and China in 2014.
“This ultimately is a matter for courts to decide. It is not for governments to be the prosecutor, the judge or indeed jury,” he said.
He insisted that regardless of the precise legal description of the crimes, justice would be brought to bear on those responsible, no matter how long it takes, insisting the government was not washing its hands of the issue.
However, he gave no undertaking that the government would act on the motion, and in the past ministers have chosen to ignore such backbench moves.
The shadow foreign office minister Diana Johnson responded to the vote by urging ministers to recognise the legitimacy of parliament and refer the issue to the UN immediately.
Philippe Sands QC, the prominent human rights lawyer, insisted that the government was “free to characterise atrocities of this kind as it sees fit... Its view will not bind a court.”
“This will be taken as a further sign that the Conservative government of the UK has abandoned this country’s long-standing commitment to the protection of human rights under the international rule of law,” he said.
Conservative MP Fiona Bruce said: “The proposers of this motion are here to insist that the overwhelming evidence of the atrocities of Daesh [Islamic State] in Syria and Iraq is recognised for the genocide it is and is considered as such by the UN security council and the international criminal court. This will support similar resolutions of other leading international and legislative bodies.”
She told how MPs had heard the “truly harrowing” personal testimony of a 16-year-old Yazidi girl, who was seized along with others from her community by Isis fighters and witnessed her father and brother killed in front of her.
The teenager had spoken of how every girl in her community over eight including herself was imprisoned and raped.
“She spoke of witnessing her friends being raped and hearing their screams, of seeing a girl aged nine being raped by so many men that she died,” said Bruce.
She said MPs heard from another woman who had come directly from Syria and spoke of Christians being killed and tortured, of children being beheaded in front of their parents and of mothers who had seen their own children crucified.
Yazidis and Christians she said had been targeted explicitly because of their religion and ethnicity.
Bruce said recognition of genocide brought obligations on the part of the international community to prevent, punish and protect.
Conservative MP Derek Thomas said: “The British people are horrified by what they hear and see regarding the treatment of these minority groups in Syria and in Iraq, and they rightly expect that this House will use whatever tools are available to us to work to bring this to an end and achieve peace in this troubled part of the world.
“A tool available to us today is to recognise these evil acts as genocide and to use our position as a permanent member of the UN security council so that this situation can be investigated by the international criminal court.”
Labour MP Stephen Pound said it would be a “double discrimination” and a “double death in many ways” to fail to recognise as genocide the suffering of people targeted by IS.
Edward Leigh, the senior Conservative backbencher, said: “The attitude of the government up to now has been based on legal precedent. But I don’t believe that precedent in this case is enough, given the horrors that are going on in the world.
“There’s no point in the minister using his time in the House to condemn Daesh [Isis], to mention all the appalling acts that they’re doing and then saying at the end of the speech: ‘Well, I’m sorry, but because of all the legal precedent… because we the government think that it’s for the court to take the legal initiative, that we don’t think it is appropriate for the British government to take action. Enough is enough. I call on the government to act.”
Conservative MP Nus Ghani suggested the world must act now to stop history repeating itself. She said: “We failed to prevent genocide in Bosnia. In Germany, the Nazis were appeased while they targeted Jews. The death cult of misfits that we face now cannot be allowed to get away with this for any longer.”
SNP MP Ian Blackford suggested that the UK should follow the example set by the Allied governments in 1942 when they made a joint statement condemning genocide.
“Just as we stood against genocide then and made sure that those responsible would face justice, we must now show the required level of leadership today when we are faced with genocide in Syria and Iraq,” he said.
“The British government must now urgently push the UN security council to immediately refer these crimes to the international criminal court.”