The speech made by Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, in the House of Commons on 27 January 2022.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who shared with the House such powerful and important emotional experiences. We respect him greatly for having had the courage to do that today.
I draw the House’s attention to my interests, as set out in the register, and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on launching this important debate for the House of Commons and the country so eloquently today. I echo the comments he made about our very good friend, the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who sadly cannot be with us today but with whom I have worked extremely closely for many years on issues of economic crime and dirty money. Any cause that she supports and to which she brings her formidable powers is one worthy of the House’s greatest attention.
Every year, we convene in this Chamber and in venues around the country to proclaim, “Never again”—never again will we stay silent in the face of hatred, never again will we stand by as people are murdered because of who they are, never again will a holocaust be allowed to happen. Yet, around the world, these things are happening again and again. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), with very direct experience, once again impressed the House hugely with his knowledge and understanding of these things, but the words of his mother—that we have a duty in our generation, a duty that cannot be shirked—were particularly powerful.
We have shamefully borne witness to genocides in Bosnia. I have stood among the gravestones at Srebrenica, not many hundreds of miles from here, in Europe, marvelling at what took place there. I have stood in Darfur and heard testimony and witness, particularly from women, about the brutality of what George Bush, the President of the United States, described as a genocide. We have seen these things in Burma too, and in Rwanda, where in 1994 nearly 1 million people, predominantly Tutsis, were murdered by their Hutu neighbours over 90 days.
I would like to focus my comments on Rwanda and the genocide there because the UK now has a connection to it, although it is not widely known. Once the killing stopped, those allegedly responsible for these appalling events fled far and wide, some to neighbouring countries, others to Europe, North America and Canada. I regret to say that, in the UK today, five people suspected of taking part in the genocide are living freely among us.
Over the years, many countries, such as Sweden and Canada, which initially harboured the suspects, went on to extradite them to Rwanda to face trial in the gacaca courts. Other countries, notably Germany, prosecuted the suspects in their own domestic courts. Britain has done neither, even though, extraordinarily, the arrest warrants were issued as long ago as 2006. In 2015 and 2017, a British district judge and our own High Court ruled that, even though the evidence was compelling, none of the suspects could be sent back to Rwanda, because such action could breach their human rights. While I did not agree with that assessment, given that Rwanda had long abolished the death penalty and constructed a justice system that was considered progressive, I had faith that Britain would none the less deliver justice by placing the suspects on trial here. This country has comprehensive legislation that allows for the prosecution of suspects accused of war crimes, irrespective of their nationality or the countries in which the crimes took place. With no statute of limitations, there is no legitimate reason why justice should not be expedited. I was a Member of this House when that legislation was passed.
I thank my right hon. and very good Friend for making that point. I have given evidence in four war crimes trials in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I also formed an organisation in 2000 to chase war criminals—it did not last long, but we tried. May I entirely endorse the last comments my right hon. Friend made, about us in this country chasing war criminals until they die?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said.
As to the circumstances I described, we are, alas, still waiting. Last March, a group of senior Members of Parliament and peers, including no fewer than three former distinguished Law Officers, decided it was time to act. Firm in the belief that the UK should be no safe haven for war criminals, we set up the all-party parliamentary group on war crimes, with the sole purpose of seeing what could be done to accelerate the investigations and legal proceedings. I have the honour of co-chairing this group with Lord Jon Mendelsohn, former secretary of the original war crimes group, which was instrumental in passing the legislation to which I referred. That legislation is available, and is relevant to the Rwanda case I mentioned. In the last 10 days, we have sent a letter to the Home Secretary, and copied it to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Mayor of London, the Attorney General and the Lord Chancellor, because we want a specific, proper response, with dates and details of the legal process that must now take place in respect of the people concerned.
The job of the new war crimes group is not to presuppose the guilt or innocence of the suspects. We simply want to ensure that due process is followed, and that justice, already excessively long delayed, is not denied. After all, it would be wrong to have these serious allegations hanging over the five suspects for 16 years if they turn out to be untrue. The apparent inertia—the lack of grip, concern or urgency—shames us all.
I would like to say that the APPG has made progress in getting answers to the questions that we have posed to the investigating authorities, but alas, the answer is a flat no. One of the problems that we have identified is that the UK’s former dedicated war crimes unit, set up in the 1990s to investigate suspected Nazi criminals, no longer exists. In its absence, there is a sub-group operating under the auspices of SO15, the Met police’s counter-terrorism command. That group has neither the budget nor the manpower to bring the matter to a conclusion; and aside from that, terrorism and war crimes are two quite separate things, each requiring its own specialised skillset.
Germany’s war crimes unit is able to draw on the full panoply of state support. Only a few weeks ago, we heard that a Syrian war criminal was tried and convicted in a German court under the principle of universal jurisdiction. That arrest took place only in 2019, yet Britain is struggling to complete a process that started 16 years ago. The main problem is that we simply do not have the resolve or the political will demonstrated by other countries to ensure the availability of necessary resources. Denmark does; the Netherlands do; and clearly Germany does. Why are we so far behind?
Britain has the rule of law and accountability—values that we should cherish, uphold and promote at all times. The situation is inexcusable. We must demonstrate the same sense of resolve and urgency when it comes to Rwanda as we rightly did with regard to suspected Nazi war criminals. Failure to do so would send the very dangerous and damaging message that the UK could become a refuge for war criminals. We may not always have the power to prevent atrocities, but if we truly care about the victims of genocide, the least we can do is offer the survivors justice. The souls of those murdered in the Rwandan genocide cry out for justice, but from Britain they hear only a deafening silence.