Uighurs and other Muslim minorities would be given the right to petition a UK high court judge to declare that genocide is taking place in China, requiring the UK government to curtail trade ties with Beijing, under proposals brought by MPs and peers.
The cross-party parliamentary revolt is causing deep concern in government, where there are fears that judges and human rights campaigners could be empowered to throw UK-China trade relations into turmoil.
The moves are being led by the former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith but have broad cross-party support.
Under the proposals, human rights campaigners would for the first time be able to seek redress in the UK courts for cases of alleged genocide, instead of the issue being determined at the UN, where deep political divisions mean those committing war crimes can in effect act with impunity.
The breadth of the revolt also reflects the pressure on the government to use its economic levers to take a tougher line towards China in the wake of the national security law in Hong Kong introduced in the summer.
Duncan Smith said: “The government has still not got it on human rights in China. If an African country was doing what China is doing, ministers would be all over it, but because of China’s size and influence at the UN, it runs away. It is time we stood up against the abuses under way within China.”
The UK parliamentary pro-Uighur alliance is proposing that no trade bill regulations be allowed to come into effect if a high court judge makes a preliminary determination that a party to the relevant trade agreement is committing genocide. An amendment to the trade bill is expected to be passed in the Lords, and Duncan Smith said he would pick up the issue in the Commons, where he expects the support of more than 40 Tory rebels, enough to defeat the government.
The measure has the backing of an array of peers including two former Conservative cabinet ministers, Sayeeda Warsi and Michael Forsyth, the cross-bench human rights campaigner David Alton, the Liberal Democrats and the former head of the No 10 policy unit under Tony Blair, Andrew Adonis.
Legal figures in the Lords are also backing the move. Some senior judges feel their credibility was damaged when they assured peers last year that the presence of British judges on the Hong Kong courts would act as a restraint on China. Overseas judges have now been debarred from national security cases in Hong Kong.
The government’s trade bill is largely a measure to ensure the UK government can sign continuity trade agreements after Brexit with countries that the EU already has agreements with. The EU already has a trade agreement with China dating back 10 years, but a request for the UK high court to determine that China is committing genocide could force ministers to tear up the agreement.
The new clause adding the role for a high court judge to make a pre-determination on genocide was tabled at the weekend, and is expected to be voted on by peers this month.
Ministers are already on the back foot over the issue since the same cross-party human rights alliance tabled parallel amendments to the telecommunications leasehold property bill. These amendments would have prevented firms linked to human rights abuses having access to the UK telecommunications network. The amendment is primarily targeted at the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei.
UK ministerial rhetoric at the UN Human Rights Council has been increasingly critical about Chinese repression against people in the western Xinjiang region. There is increasing evidence that China is imprisoning enormous numbers of people from the primarily Muslim Uighur population. A report from last week found that China has now built nearly 400 camps. Some people who have fled the region have told of programmes of forced sterilisation for Uighur women.
The human rights minister Lord Ahmad last Friday called for international observers to be given unfettered access to Xinjiang. Ahmad added there was “compelling evidence including from the Chinese government’s own documents of gross human rights abuses”.
The Foreign Office says it is for international bodies such as the international criminal court to determine if genocide is under way. Critics say the use of the veto by the major powers at the UN security council means references to the court are impossible.