Brexit has had many effects – party disunity, family tensions, uncertainty, reputational damage, a weakened Prime Minister and a potential constitutional crisis. But one of its most significant casualties has been the attention of parliament, government and the media to the wider world and the challenges it faces.
Last week, however, there was an exception to that. After hours of Brexit debates and votes, MPs found time to discuss one the most egregious and shocking, yet underreported crimes against humanity of our time: forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China. In her speech, the chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, Fiona Bruce, described the practice as 'potentially nothing less than a 21st century genocide.'
For years a handful of researchers have been knocking on the doors of parliamentarians and policy-makers accusing the Chinese regime of the widespread forcible removal of human organs from prisoners of conscience. China is home to a huge and lucrative market in the trade of organs, with transplant tourists travelling to the country from around the world. These researchers have alleged that the Chinese government has been forcibly taking organs from political prisoners both as a means of punishment, and to raise revenue for the state from their sale. Their reports were sometimes taken seriously, but many others dismissed them as unsubstantiated, unproven or far-fetched.
The researchers’ task was made even more difficult by the fact that the atrocity has left no mass graves, few eye-witnesses, few survivors, and evidence that is swept off the floor of the execution ground or operating theatre before anyone has seen it. By definition, the victims of forced organ harvesting are dead, and the witnesses – the doctors, nurses, prison guards and other officials involved – are all complicit and generally unwilling to tell the truth. As Bruce put it, it is 'almost a perfect crime,' because 'no one survives.'
Therefore, to prove its existence several of these researchers – notably David Kilgour, who served in Canada’s Parliament for 27 years, human rights lawyer David Matas and journalist Ethan Gutmann – have worked hard to gather as much data and evidence as possible.
Their case was built primarily on official statistics on the numbers of transplant operations conducted in China, the timeframe in which an operation can be made, and the duration a patient has to wait for an organ. They concluded that the number of organs the Chinese government claims to have been legitimately supplied (from judicially sentenced executed prisoners and alleged volunteers) didn’t add up. So where were these organs coming from? The trail led to prisoners of conscience, and in particular practitioners of the Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong spiritual movement, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and possibly even Christians.
And now it appears that the researchers' work has been vindicated. This weekend a UK-based ‘China Tribunal' is preparing to hold hearings on the subject. Chaired by the barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who worked on the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, the China Tribunal consists of a panel of seven eminent experts: four lawyers, an academic, a businessman and a surgeon. Among their criteria for selection was a requirement that they did not have any prior expertise, interest or position on the question at hand, in order to ensure as high a degree of independence as possible.
Ideally, the United Nations would have set up an inquiry into the practice of organ harvesting, as it did when mass atrocities took place in North Korea, Syria, Burma, and Burundi. But with China as the subject of the complaint, it seemed unlikely that the UN would never act.
And so it was decided that an independent 'People’s Tribunal' was the way forward. First pioneered by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Satre with their inquiry into the Vietnam War, these tribunals are a way of drawing attention to serious crimes under international law which formal mechanisms have chosen to ignore.
The China Tribunal has not yet concluded, but after interviewing 30 witnesses and experts over three days in December, it has issued a draft interim judgement which says:
“'We, the tribunal members, are all certain, unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt, that in China, forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time, involving a very substantial number of victims.
We will deal in our final judgement with our finding as to whether any international crimes have been committed by this practice. If so, by whom, and with detail as to the time periods concerned, and the number of victims, which will all be derived from further analysis of present evidence, and other material yet to be provided and to the legal advice yet to be received, but, to repeat, it is beyond doubt, that forced harvesting of organs happened on a substantial scale, and by state organised or approved organisations and individuals.'
This interim conclusion is highly significant, and perhaps historic. While there is further evidence to be considered, more hearings to be held and the final conclusions to be reached, the fact that a panel of seven eminent figures have reached this judgment, based on comprehensive evidence is remarkable and damning.
The question the world must now ask is: What is China’s response? And if China is unable to answer adequately the questions and conclusions of the tribunal, the international community must as a whole determine what should happen next. Governments cannot ignore such a clear conclusion about such grave crimes. As Bruce said, 'It cries out to be addressed. Those who fail to do so will one day be held to account.'
So what will they do? Surely in our modern world we are capable of identifying means by which the perpetrators of these horrific crimes might be brought to justice. At least efforts should be made to stop organ tourism and deny visas to Chinese officials associated with this barbaric practice. For if the seven-member panel of the China Tribunal, led by the man who prosecuted Milosevic, are right, this is a crime that the world can no longer ignore.
David Alton is an independent crossbench member of the House of Lords.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.