Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

Is Johnson's Rwanda plan a crime against humanity?

Possibly, yes.

Aidan McQuade
20 May 2022, 9.30am

Priti Patel after signing the partnership agreement in Rwanda in April

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Jean Bizimana/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The latest evolution of the UK government’s “hostile environment” for migrants is perhaps its most controversial yet. A deal signed last month by the UK home secretary, Priti Patel, and the Rwandan foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, aims to ‘offshore’ asylum seekers to central Africa for processing. If found to be genuine, they will not be brought back (as the term ‘processing’ implies). They will be offered a chance to settle in Rwanda – and Rwanda alone – instead.

The first 50 people, Boris Johnson has said, will leave in less than a fortnight.

Some commentators have said this plan is tantamount to human trafficking. I doubt that would stand up in court. Traffickers normally benefit materially from the movement of human beings, and under this plan the UK at least would incur a large material loss. The UK has so far committed to paying Rwanda £120 million for its participation, and some have estimated that it may cost as much as £2 million per person transferred. Another key element of trafficking is exploitation – sexually or of a person’s labour or organs. This could transpire given the dreadful human rights record of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan government, but we cannot yet be sure.

Of course, not all benefits are material. Johnson’s government appears to anticipate a political windfall from a project seemingly tailor-made to pander to the most racist and xenophobic tendencies of a portion of the British electorate. On that basis there is perhaps an argument that this policy represents state-sponsored trafficking. But it would be a novel interpretation that I’ve not seen before.

It is difficult to imagine a publicly stated UK policy of recent years more designed to conform to the definition of a crime against humanity.

Trafficking or not, there are plenty of other accusations that the opposition can level at the Johnson government. The scheme is certainly in breach the UK’s obligations under the Council of Europe Anti-Trafficking Convention, which requires ratifying states to investigate trafficking claims and protect victims. Right now this happens, albeit imperfectly. I have just finished assessing the trafficking claim of a person who entered the UK by boat, and part of my report detailed the protection responsibilities that the UK may have towards this individual given their experiences. Under the UK government’s Rwanda policy such a review would not take place. This person would be summarily deported to Kigali, and the defence of their interests would fall to those Rwandan human rights lawyers who have thus far survived Kagame’s dictatorship.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that this policy also breaches international refugee law. But perhaps most damning of all, the UK government’s Rwandan scheme is a stark threat of crimes against humanity.

Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Court defines a “crime against humanity” as a state policy to undertake an “attack directed against any civilian population” that includes deportation, forcible transfer of populations, persecution of identifiable groups, or “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury.”

It is difficult to imagine a publicly stated UK policy of recent years more designed to conform to the definition of a crime against humanity.

Don’t trust in hope

Some commentators have suggested that the government has no real intention of fulfilling this policy. That they are aware the courts will eviscerate it because of the egregious breaches of domestic and international law that it entails. So, they argue, this is all political theatre with no substance.

Perhaps, but that is only reassuring if one presumes this government intends to adhere to the basic principles of rule of law. There is already considerable evidence that this is not the case.

The entire Brexit project was predicated on ‘freeing’ the UK from an enormous tranche of international law, irrespective of the economic cost. Not satisfied with that, the UK government has spent a considerable portion of its time since the UK’s exit contemplating breaching further international law, specifically the portions of the withdrawal agreement designed to protect the peace in the North of Ireland.

The current UK government’s contempt for the rules – including the ones itself has made – can be seen in everything from Partygate to the recent comments by Suella Braverman, the Attorney General for England and Wales in the UK cabinet, with regard to the UK Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Johnson’s unlawful prorogation of parliament in 2019. Braverman said: “The authority of the judiciary must never again be pitched against the authority of the people.” This is an assertion not of an ideal of rule of law, but of unfettered majoritarianism. It envisions removing the protections of law against the whims of government or mob that are fundamental to liberal democracy.

In reporting the Braverman story, The Economist noted: “A good many legal academics are alarmed by what they see as the government weakening long-established checks and balances. But as far as Ms Braverman goes, best not to mistake [her professional] inexperience for [philosophical] incoherence.”

Indeed. Johnson’s UK government has been exceptionally coherent in relation to its contempt for human rights and rule of law. Given this, it is entirely possible that they plan on implementing their brutal plans for migrants and refugees regardless of what the courts have to say about it.

If so, once the fundamentals of democracy in the UK are finally restored, it may just be that those implementing this policy will have to go on a little trip of their own – to the International Criminal Court to face justice for the human misery they have caused.

Given this, so long as rule of law has some meaning in the UK, Ms Patel should really be hoping that some of the independent judges and human rights lawyers she so despises manage to put a stop to the operation of this policy before it begins.

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