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Human Rights

Volume 406: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2003

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What steps are taken to co-ordinate foreign policy with other member states of the European Union on human rights. [117943]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Bill Rammell)

By working with our EU partners, the UK is better able to promote human rights than we are by working alone. The EU this year has secured UN resolutions on Iraq, North Korea, Turkmenistan, the Congo and Burma, at the Commission on Human Rights. The EU holds regular dialogues with third countries, it promotes human rights globally and it has made respect for human rights a key condition for EU membership.

The Attorney-General and others have given robust assurances that UK law will not be undermined by the European constitution, but what use are those assurances when the charter of fundamental rights is to be interpreted by judges of the European Court? The former Minister for Europe, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), once said, memorably, that the charter had no more legal standing than the Beano. However, the opposite is true, and the result will be cataclysmic. In those circumstances, is it not right to put the European constitution to the British people for a vote? I suspect that they might prefer the British tradition exemplified by Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids to the Euro-imperialism of President Giscard.

We welcome the declaration, in the charter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, of the basic rights, freedoms and principles common to all European citizens. However, we have consistently made it clear that we cannot support a form of treaty incorporation that would enlarge EU competence. The hon. Gentleman makes a specific call for a referendum, but that would carry more credibility if the previous Conservative Government had called for a referendum over the far more fundamental changes to the workings of the European Union that flowed from the Single European Act and Maastricht.

My hon. Friend has given a number of examples of welcome developments on human rights in the EU, such as those in connection with Iran and China. But does he agree that the human rights profile should be higher? For example, none of the clauses in the relevant agreements with third countries in respect of human rights have been activated. Is there not also a need to have personnel with serious human rights experience—such as those from non-govermental organisations—in the EU's key foreign policy structures?

My right hon. Friend is right that we in the EU must constantly seek to do more, although I must point out that the articles to which he refers were activated in the specific case of Zimbabwe. We pushed for that strongly, and very much welcome it. However, there is no doubt that there are further matters that we need to push and press, and we shall do so.

When co-ordinating foreign policy on human rights, will the Minister take account of the human rights of the nine UK subjects held in Guantanamo Bay? Will he seek to achieve a common EU position that holds that those nine UK subjects should either be charged or released, and that their present detention is both illegal and intolerable?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that the Foreign Office has sought reassurances about the health and welfare of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay on a number of occasions. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear consistently, the situation is difficult and unusual and it cannot go on for ever. We are pressing on the matter.