Thursday 15 June 2006
[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]
Human Rights Annual Report 2005
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 574, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6774.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]
I wish to introduce this debate on the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on human rights, which was published in February this year and is our response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual report on human rights, which was published in the autumn last year.
Every year since 1998, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has published a report on human rights around the world. The Committee then takes evidence, either in writing or orally, including evidence from Ministers, on various aspects of the report. We are particularly interested in the response of human rights organisations, two of which—Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—gave evidence to us. We also received many other submissions for consideration before adopting our report.
The report that we published in February was the first from the new Select Committee that was established following the general election. I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Committee. It has 14 members so it is more difficult to reach a consensus than in the previous Committee, which had 11 members. This report was agreed by consensus—not all are—which is a tribute to all its members and the responsible way in which the issues were approached.
We touched on a range of areas and I have not got time to deal with all of them now, but I am happy to take interventions and hope that my colleagues will highlight areas that I do not mention. We looked at some topical and controversial issues, such as rendition, torture and the situations in Iraq and in the middle east. We also looked at a number of other aspects of the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I welcome the new Minister for Human Rights, my long-standing and right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), to his post and I hope that he will respond as far as possible to the issues that I raise.
I want to place one issue on the record at the beginning: the concern, which is reflected in our report, that the Minister for Human Rights is again also the Minister for Trade. The Committee was concerned that there might be a conflict of interests between those two aspects of one ministerial role. In its response to us, which we received a few weeks ago and which was published on 2 May, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said:
“There is no tradeoff between a robust policy on human rights and promotion of trade.”
I want to press the Minister on that. For example, on a Government trade promotion visit to a country where human rights are a matter of concern, how easy is it to put on a human rights hat while trying to win hundreds of millions of pounds of contracts for British companies, British jobs and British investment? Can the Minister give a commitment that he will not moderate his criticism of a country’s human rights policies—as a new Minister, I am sure that he can give new commitments—and that he will be robust in his criticism on human rights matters rather than bowing to what will inevitably be a tendency in some quarters to say, “Go soft on that because it might damage our commercial interests.”?
I commend the Committee for its work. I put a counter-argument: while my right hon. Friend the Minister is robust and has a reputation for being a straight talker, is there not strength in not allowing trade issues to be totally divorced from human rights so that where there are contacts—there are many because of the commercial importance of trade—human rights are to the fore?
That is another argument and clearly that is the Government’s view, but the Committee’s concerns are real and I hope that when the Minister responds he will deal with them.
Another issue that we touched on was the changes in the internal mechanics of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, linking its work on sustainable development with its work on human rights. The human rights democracy and government group used to be more free standing within the FCO structure, but that is no longer the case. In its response, the FCO said that that does not represent any downgrading of its human rights work. We hope that that will be so and during the coming year we will look closely to ensure that it is so.
In our report we highlighted a number of important international issues. One is about what is happening in the United Nations. The past few months have seen an important change eventually agreed within the UN: the disbanding of the old, discredited United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its replacement by a new UN Human Rights Council. The Committee was concerned about the way in which some countries were clearly trying to sabotage the effectiveness of the new body, even before it was established. We hope that the new organisation, the Human Rights Council, will be able to do its job properly and effectively. We know that the Government have been supportive of that. In its response, the FCO made many positive statements about how the new council may be different in both form and effect from its predecessor and we hope that that will be the case.
Will my hon. Friend say a little more about that? Did his Committee consider the role of civil society and non-governmental organisations, which were an important factor in the UN Commission on Human Rights? I recognise that there were criticisms of the commission, but as yet the Human Rights Council has not indicated what form of operation it will have and how it will be involved. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it is important to represent civil society, particularly in countries with repressive regimes.
An example of the weakness of the UN Commission on Human Rights is Libya. How confident is my hon. Friend that the new Human Rights Council will be able to tackle abuses of the sort that the Committee clearly felt were taking place there?
We cannot know. In practice, we must see how the new council develops. It is hoped that with a more streamlined and effective structure we will not have the difficulties of the past, but some countries in the United Nations that will be elected to represent regional groupings will not have good human rights records. That has always been a problem, although the new Human Rights Council seems to have fewer of those countries involved than the previous commission did. We must see how it works out in practice.
This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the whole report. There were a number of weaknesses with the old commission. One was that positions had to be met largely by consensus—the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned some of the members with poor human rights who were on that body—but perhaps one of the most difficult paradoxes with the old system was the conflict between naming and shaming on the one hand and not interfering with a country’s sovereign rights on the other. Did the Committee look into that and did it come to any conclusion?
That issue was touched on in the evidence that the Committee received, particularly from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but I have to say that we need to do more work on the subject. I am sure that we will look into it in coming months.
We also considered the International Criminal Court, which is now dealing with its first few cases. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us how many countries have now ratified the treaty establishing the court, and whether he anticipates any further cases being referred to it in the near future. Our Committee strongly supported establishing such a court but, clearly, it has to be effective and to deal with cases in a timely way. I should be grateful for an update.
I shall now touch on a few subjects in greater detail. I have already mentioned rendition and torture, but associated with them is, of course, the United States’ facility in Guantanamo Bay. Our Committee has consistently pressed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for greater clarity on its policy on Guantanamo. We have pressed Ministers to be more outspoken in their condemnation of the very lengthy detention—now running into several years—of a number of suspects there, who have no legal status and for whom there is no legal process.
British detainees were released, but people who were resident in this country are still detained there. The fact that no British citizens are detained there does not alter the fact that many hundreds of people from all over the world are detained there. There are strong, principled objections to the existence of that facility and to the way in which it operates.
In February our report called on the Government to “make loud and public” objections. Since then, I have been greatly encouraged by the fact that the Attorney-General, in an official speech, gave what he called a “personal view” about the camp, calling it unacceptable. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office response to our report uses the same word—“unacceptable”—to describe the circumstances under which detainees continue to be held. I note that last week even President Bush said that he would like to empty the camp, although he does not feel able to do so quite yet.
Clearly, there is a dilemma for the United States: how will it deal with the several hundred people in Guantanamo? Will it release them, transfer them back to the countries from which they came, or shift them to the territorial United States and detain them there? Many people there may well represent a continuing serious threat, but that does not mean that Guantanamo can be a long-term solution to the problem arising from events in 2001 and 2002, which is when most of the people there were taken into detention in Pakistan, Afghanistan or areas related to them.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to state clearly the Government’s position on Guantanamo Bay? I am asking him to speak not personally, but officially. Will he say that the existence of Guantanamo is unacceptable and will he today call for it to be closed down? If he is not prepared to go that far, will he at least tell us what changes in the circumstances in which detainees are held would make it possible for the British Government to call for it to be closed or, alternatively, would make continued detention of those men acceptable to our Government? There is still a lack of clarity on the Government’s position as a whole, and greater clarity would be helpful.
I now come to rendition, an issue that our Committee has been pursuing for more than 16 months. We know that there have been flights associated with the US Central Intelligence Agency into, out of or through the UK in recent years, but it is far from clear which of those movements, if any, were connected with the concept of rendition. In February this year, when our Committee was in Washington, we had discussions with a number of officials, including people in the State Department, and it was suggested to us that the flights might simply have carried cargo of various kinds—individual American agents, forensic evidence, computer discs, documentation—and not necessarily detainees.
There have been a number of ministerial statements on the subject, and we were recently at last given clear statements that, since 1998, Ministers have agreed to only two requests by US authorities to render a suspect through the UK or our overseas territories. It is regrettable that it has taken so many questions, so much effort and so many repeated requests to get the Government to make those statements. Much of the controversy around the issue would have been avoided if earlier statements had been made, if there had been earlier clarity on the facts of the situation, and if the Government had been more forthcoming earlier.
In particular, the Government could have avoided a lot of bother with our Committee if they had responded fully and frankly to our Select Committee when we first raised the issue in early 2005. Instead, we got what seemed to us a reluctant drip-feed of information. Eventually, answers were given—not, in the first instance, in response to our inquiries, but in answer to questions asked by Opposition spokespersons in the House. There is a lesson here for Departments, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: if they want to avoid ongoing controversy about an issue, it is better to come up with the facts early rather than in a drip, drip, drip fashion, while there are ever more headlines on the subject and ever more issues raised about it—and eventually the information comes out anyway.
I am not saying that we have all the facts now, but we certainly know more than we did when we started asking questions. It would have been helpful if, over the past 18 months, our Committee had been given more information in response to our questions, rather than our finding it out from other sources.
The Council of Europe recently published a report by a Swiss member, Dick Marty, but as far as I can see—and I have read it—it contains very little that is new and little hard evidence. I understand that a report of the European Parliament temporary committee is due. It, too, is investigating the issue, but I am not aware that the report contains any new information. The European Parliament adopted a resolution, almost unanimously, just a few days ago. It was supported by all the political groupings. I do not want to raise controversy within the Conservative party, but the European People’s party supported it, as well as the Socialist group, the Liberal group and others. That resolution called overwhelmingly for the closure of Guantanamo Bay.
There is other related information. A recent report by Amnesty International alleges that our Government provided the United States with information that led to two individuals being rendered from Gambia. Can the Minister comment on that report and give us any information about that accusation? It would be helpful to know whether there is any basis for that allegation or whether it is false. Ministers are aware that public concern on the matters is genuine. We need clear, full explanations, otherwise the speculation will continue, and there will be endless, almost frenzied, media interest, which is not helpful either for governance or for human rights in general.
Finally, before I make some rapid progress in order to conclude, I refer to the Government’s response to questions about the use of intelligence gained through torture. They did not respond fully to our recommendation that they should clearly set out their policy on the use of information derived by other states through torture, and encourage a public debate on the ethical dilemmas they face. The response we got restates the opposition to torture, which is welcome, and deals with practical considerations, such as the unreliability of evidence and so on. However, it does not engage with the ethical dilemma. It would be helpful to have a clear statement of the Government’s attitude as to whether we are prepared to take information or intelligence from dubious sources. Are the Government content with that or do they believe that it raises difficult ethical questions?
In the time left to me, I would like to touch on the situation in a few specific countries. Other countries will come up during the debate, no doubt. The first of these is topical: there is a good article by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian today, which refers to the situation in Burma. Our report highlights the position in Burma, where there is political and ethnic oppression by the military Government. We recommended that the UK Government maintain pressure on the Burmese military regime and work with the United Nations and other bodies to create such pressure.
The Government’s response said that they had done so, that council members agreed that Burma faced a number of problems and that the international community should do more to address them. They also said that they were open to further discussion on the issue. In the spirit of further discussion, perhaps it is time for more rigorous statements to be made to other security council members—particularly the Government of the People’s Republic of China—about the importance of securing the freedom of the important political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won an election about 15 years ago, but has been restricted, detained and imprisoned ever since. It would be a symbol of the importance of human rights in Asia and the world if she were given her freedom and were able to campaign and organise politically in the way wanted by the vast majority of people in Burma.
I turn briefly to the middle east. I am not going to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian issue or others that we touched on during the debate we had the last time I introduced a human rights report. I would rather talk about two other countries in the region. The Committee’s report was critical of the lack of coverage in the Foreign Office report on the human rights situation in Syria. We are pleased that in their response the Government promised to include more on Syria in the report they will produce this year. I hope that they will and that the report will focus on Lebanon, where Syria is implicated seriously in the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, and a number of other violent incidents and human rights abuses.
I would like to raise another issue that is not in our report, but is in that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—I can be self-critical of our Committee. Today, we have seen terrible events in Sri Lanka. The situation there is deteriorating fast. Bombings, killings and the upsurge in violence raise serious issues of human rights abuse, and I hope that the Government will do far more to get the Sri Lankan negotiations back on track in order to stop the upsurge in violence and stop the human rights abuses.
My hon. Friend moved on from the middle east before I had the chance to haul him back to Turkey. One of the recommendations in the report related to the importance of human rights improvements to Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Neither the Committee’s report nor the Government’s report drew any conclusions on northern Cyprus, which has now acceded to the EU under the assumption that more effort would be devoted to removing the de facto borderline there. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on why there is no reference to the lack of human rights of some of those in southern Cyprus due to the Turkish-backed regime in the north?
I can tell my hon. Friend honestly that our Committee does not have the resources to concentrate on every issue in the world. We hope to consider the situation in Cyprus and other parts of the EU as part of different inquiries when we visit different EU states. I am sure that the Committee will be able to comment on that at some point. I shall bear in mind his remarks for next year and the Minister has no doubt heard what he said and may want to comment on it.
I would like to touch on the position in several African countries. I have already mentioned China, which has an important role in the world now: its global reach is very great. One of the countries in which China is playing an important role is Sudan, from which it imports a considerable amount of oil and where it is providing assistance in infrastructure programmes. As we know, the civil war in Sudan between the north and the south ended. However, a major conflict in the Darfur region continues to cause grave concern and has led to the deployment of an African Union peacekeeping mission, which seems to have little impact on the situation there.
In the Government’s response to our report, they described the AU mission as having
“done a good job in very difficult circumstances.”
I do not doubt that the circumstances are difficult, but I would question whether what has happened in Darfur could be described at this moment as a “very good job”. I do not believe that the African Union mission there is strong enough and the impression we get from media reports is that the situation there is still extremely bad. The AU mission is underfunded, overstretched and probably not able to cope, at this stage, with the tasks that it has to confront.
Is there not a great paradox here? The Chinese invest £3 billion in Sudan’s oil industry, which gives the Sudan economy the oxygen it needs to carry out human rights abuses and genocide against some of its own people, while the west puts in hundreds of millions of pounds worth of aid and peacekeeping assistance. Is it not about time that the five permanent member nations of the Security Council got together and dealt more satisfactorily with big problems like Sudan?
I agree, and that is why I was just about to call for the United Nations to focus more on assisting the African Union in Sudan, by sending a blue-helmeted UN force to assist AU forces in protecting the human rights of the people in Darfur and elsewhere. Probably the only way forward is to strengthen that mission, and the Chinese clearly have an important role to play in making that possible. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China can block such an initiative or support it.
On the issue of the African Union and its effectiveness or otherwise in dealing with problems in Africa, is my hon. Friend in a position to say anything about attitudes towards Somalia with regard to the serious issue of human rights abuses that have been routinely happening in the southern sector around Mogadishu, or the possibility of the AU promoting a transitional Government to cover the whole country?
Somalia has not had a central Government with any authority for 15 years or so. The situation there is that of a classic failed state. The African Union should have a role, but other countries in the region will be interested because Somalia is a littoral state, and terrorist camps and other bases could be established there, which would be a threat to many neighbours. The whole international community should take serious action in Somalia to try to ensure that we get a stable Government there. If the US’s renewed interest in Somalia, after many years of absence, can be translated into a positive engagement of the international community, that would be a good thing.
Before I finish, I would like to touch briefly on a few other African countries. The situation in Zimbabwe causes considerable concern to our Committee.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he share my concern about the somewhat incredible news that Britain is building a huge new embassy in Harare that will greatly expand our capacity in Zimbabwe and the number of people on the ground there? Apparently, it is one of the largest construction projects in the country. I am reliably told that Robert Mugabe is boasting about Britain’s so-called inward investment into Zimbabwe and support for his regime. I find that surprising.
I am not sure whether Mr. Mugabe’s boasts can always be given credibility. I suspect that most of the inward investment that the Zimbabwean Government are currently getting is probably linked to the Chinese, who recently agreed a contract whereby Zimbabwe supplies chrome to China in return for the construction of new power stations. That will probably far outweigh any other construction work done by anybody. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point needs to be looked at, and my Committee can no doubt consider that when it next meets. China is again engaged with a country in Africa with serious human rights abuses. Will the Minister comment on China’s policy on Africa? Is he prepared to raise, in his human rights dialogue with China, questions about Chinese foreign policy and its attitude to autocratic, undemocratic and repressive regimes in Africa?
I would also be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on the conflict in the horn of Africa, which we touched on in our report. The situation there has the potential to lead to terrible problems. There has been famine and great displacement of people over many years. After all, Live Aid came about as a result of the programmes about that region that were broadcast over 20 years ago. We need to look closely at the fact that although there are now elected Governments in Eritrea and Ethiopia, there is nevertheless serious potential for renewed military and border conflict in that region.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, will he comment on whether he finds the UK Government’s position on Zimbabwe inconsistent? The annual report rightly condemns torture in Zimbabwe and the repression of the Movement for Democratic Change, yet the British Government also seem to have a policy whereby failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe who face the threat of reprisal for coming to Britain to seek asylum, among other things, are in some way removable. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a credibility problem with condemning Zimbabwe for human rights repression on the one hand, but saying that it is in some way okay for people who are at risk to be sent back there?
The Committee has not considered asylum policy as it is not within our remit. As a Member of Parliament with constituents in exactly the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes, I would be concerned if they were removed to a situation in which their lives could be threatened and repressed. I know that there have been some legal judgments and court appeals, but I am not quite sure, off the top of my head, what the current situation is. The Government should consider this matter closely, not just in relation to Zimbabwe, but for other countries for which they usually make annual assessments, in which circumstances change—Sri Lanka is another case on which we might comment—as a result of which, people could be sent back to difficult circumstances.
I conclude—I shall not take any more interventions—by commending the FCO for the quality of its report. Over the years, our Committee has made several suggestions and we are pleased that the report’s quality has improved and that many of our suggestions about its content and style have actually been taken on board. This report is, again, an improvement on previous reports. I am also pleased that the universal declaration of human rights is boldly printed at the beginning of the report. I hope that we will continue to argue internationally that human rights are universal, particularly with fast-growing countries that have different political traditions and have not yet embraced the virtues of democracy. As the General Assembly said in 1948, there should be
“a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”.
I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and I congratulate him on steering his 14-member Committee to a unanimous report in response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report, which is about 300 pages. It is therefore necessary to be selective, and I shall confine my remarks to just four areas of serious human rights concern.
I start more or less where the hon. Gentleman finished: with Zimbabwe. I am glad to see, from the interventions so far, that this matter is of considerable concern to Members on both sides of the Chamber. I am sure that that is also true of Members in the House generally. To appreciate the sheer magnitude of the violation of fundamental human rights in Zimbabwe, one need go no further than the opening page of the section on Zimbabwe in the Human Rights Watch “World Report 2006” covering the calendar year 2005. It commences:
“The continuing erosion of human rights in Zimbabwe was highlighted in 2005 by Operation Murambatsvina, the government’s program of mass evictions and demolitions which began in May, and, which, according to the United Nations, deprived 700,000 men, women and children of their homes, their livelihoods, or both throughout the country.”
The report goes on:
“The evictions and demolitions led to widespread homelessness, lack of freedom of movement, loss of livelihood and minimal access to food, water, health care, education, and justice for hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans…The scale of destruction was unprecedented, and the victims were mainly the poor and vulnerable in Zimbabwe’s cities and towns including widows, children, elderly and chronically ill persons.”
If one wants to appreciate visually what the so-called operation constituted physically on the ground, one need look no further than the remarkable satellite pictures that were published in The Independent on 31 May showing the 30,000-strong community at Porta Farm outside Harare—30,000 is approximately the size of Tonbridge in my constituency—before and after the destruction of that community, by it being razed to the ground. Those satellite images show graphically and with visual clarity just how appalling the destruction there was.
I am glad that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—it refers to this in its report—managed to bring the issue of Zimbabwe before the Security Council in July 2005. However, simply bringing the issue before the Security Council is not good enough when 700,000 people have been driven from their homes and the economy has been so wrecked by the Government’s policies that 4 million people are estimated to be in need of food aid. We now finally have the first ever Security Council resolution to refer the issue of Darfur to the International Criminal Court, and now that we have achieved that precedent, it should surely be the clearly stated objective of the British Government and many others around the world to refer the situation in Zimbabwe to the court.
The second issue that I shall raise concerns a serious human rights abuse involving more than 100,000 people. I have scoured the FCO’s annual report and the index, but, regrettably, the issue does not appear to warrant a single mention. For more than 10 years, more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have been in refugee camps in southern Nepal, but, sadly, they have been more or less forgotten. In March, I had the opportunity to visit the Sanischare camp in southern Nepal with, I am glad to say, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and a parliamentary delegation. We found charming, disciplined and industrious people who had maintained their refugee camp to a commendably high standard. It was immaculately clean and, for a refugee camp, remarkably socially progressive; indeed, there was a facility for women who had been subjected to abuse, as well as special recognition of the needs of the disabled and the handicapped. The camp was a tremendous tribute to the progressiveness and spirit of the Bhutanese refugee community in Nepal.
Those people have suffered quite outrageous treatment from three separate Governments. They were outrageously treated by the Bhutanese Government, who ethnically cleansed them from their part of India, or their country, more than 10 years ago. They have been, and continue to be, outrageously treated by the Indian Government, who refuse them passage across India and back into Bhutan. They have also been outrageously treated by the Nepalese Government, who refuse to allow them to work or to trade outside their camps and who, perhaps most reprehensibly, refuse to allow them to go to third countries, even when such countries are willing to take them.
On returning from Nepal, I pursued the issue with the former Foreign Secretary—the current Leader of the House—and I received a reply on 6 June from the Minister for the Middle East, who concluded:
“The Deputy High Commissioner from New Delhi visited Thimpu in April and raised the refugee issue with the Bhutanese Foreign Minister and the Indian Embassy. We have urged the Bhutanese and the Nepalese Governments to resolve this issue.”
I must tell the Minister that raising the issue and urging its resolution is unlikely to achieve any more success in the next 10 years than it has in the past 10 years.
The Bhutanese will remain trapped where they are unless and until there is a significant change of policy, and if I may, I should like to propose such a policy change. In many ways, the long-standing refugee problem that we faced in Europe in the 1950s was similar. We had to solve the residual problem of the world war two refugees who were still in refugee camps in Europe at the end of the 1950s. The issue was resolved by the UN taking the initiative and declaring 1959 world refugee year, with a particular focus on refugees in Europe. Third countries took in most of the refugees, and houses were built at public expense for those who remained.
I speak with just a little personal knowledge of these matters because I was a United Nations Association volunteer labourer in a refugee camp in Austria. Hon. Members might be amazed and shocked to know that I was eventually promoted to work leader, although I was almost certainly the least technically proficient on any building site that there has ever been. Despite my limited involvement, however, world refugee year was a success, and the refugee problem in Europe was solved.
I put it to the Minister in all seriousness that that is the route to solving the present problem. If the United Nations takes the initiative and declares that 2007 will be the year in which we solve the Bhutanese refugee problem, I am certain, given the discussions that we had in Kathmandu, that a sufficient number of third countries would be willing to take what is, when shared around, a quite small number of refugees and that the small number who remain could be looked after in Nepal. I put that to the Minister as an alternative that would bring about a solution to this neglected, but still serious refugee and human rights problem.
I thought that my right hon. Friend was going to mention that people in the camps are not allowed to go out and work in the locality in Nepal, while local people are allowed to come into the camps to use their very good health care facilities. That means that the numbers in the camps will continue to grow as the years go by, which will make the problem all the worse.
I am sure that my hon. Friend was paying close attention to what I said, but he will see from the record that I said that the Nepalese Government prevented those in the camps from working outside. However, I agree that that is a serious human rights abuse, and people in the camps should be allowed to work and trade outside.
I turn now to the final two issues, which I shall treat from a human rights standpoint. First, there is Iraq. I appreciate that any Minister must be in the business of putting the best face on Government policy, however dismal the apparent consequences prove to be. However, I nearly despair when, in response to the unending stream of murderous activities in Iraq, Ministers, from the Prime Minister down, repeat, almost parrot-like, “We have established democracy in Iraq.” It is still to be proved whether that will be the case in the longer term, but I put it to the Minister that democracy is not the only human right. Other fundamental human rights need to be put into the equation for Iraq. I want to highlight a few of those in the context of Iraq.
What about the rights of children in Iraq? A new food security survey of Iraq has recently been carried out by the UN World Food Programme and UNICEF. That survey has shown that acute malnutrition among children in Iraq is now significantly worse than it was before our invasion of the country. I refer to the Reuters report about the survey on 15 May:
“David Singh, a spokesman for UNICEF's Iraq Support Centre in neighbouring Jordan, said the number of acutely malnourished children had more than doubled, to 9 per cent. in 2005 from 4 per cent. in 2002, the last year of Saddam’s rule.”
What about the very important human rights of women? That is another group of key human rights in which things have gone backwards since the invasion. It is not just a matter of women’s clothes, although I was certainly struck by a piece in The Sunday Times of 4 June. The heading of the article was “Men in black terrorise Iraq’s women”. In that long section was a further piece headed: “Western clothes are death sentence”. Besides those issues, the right and ability of women in Iraq today to continue to come out of their homes and do a job is in question. I was, again, struck by a long section in The Independent on 8 June, under the headline “For the women of Iraq, the war is just beginning”. That piece, by Terri Judd, included this passage:
“One Basra woman, known only as Dr Kefaya, was working in the women and children’s hospital unit at the city university when she started receiving threats from extremists. She defied them. Then, one day a man walked into the building and murdered her.”
The article continues:
“Dr. Kefaya was only one of many professional women murdered in recent months. Speaking to The Independent near Saddam’s old palace in the middle of Basra, Mrs Aziz reeled off the names of other dead friends. Three of her university class have been killed since the invasion.
‘My friend Sheda and her sister. They were threatened. One day they returned to their house with two other women. They were all shot,’ she said. Her language is chillingly perfunctory.
‘And my friend Lubna, she was with her fiancé. They shot him in the arm and then killed her in front of him’ ”.
Women’s rights in Iraq are going catastrophically, disastrously backwards.
What about the right to live in the country of one’s birth, another fundamental human right? Again, a drastic deterioration is going on there. As Islamic militancy has risen, more and more non-Muslims, some of whose families have been in the country for generations or even centuries, have felt it necessary to uproot themselves and leave the country. Tens of thousands of Christians have now left Iraq. As kidnapping and murder have become ever more rife, more and more people with money have been forced to abandon their homes and leave the country.
I was struck by an article in The New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, under the heading, “As Death Casts Its Shadow, The Middle Class Flees Iraq”. I have two quotations, which I think are incredibly powerful, from individuals in that dilemma:
“‘We’re like sheep at a slaughter farm,’ said a businessman, who is arranging a move to Jordan. ‘We are just waiting for our time’.”
The second reads:
“‘Now I am isolated,’ said Monkath Abdul Razzaq, a middle-class Sunni Arab, who decided to leave after the bombing. ‘I have no government. I have no protection from the government. Anyone can come to my house, take me, kill me and throw me in the trash.’ ”
That is why huge numbers of people are abandoning the country of their birth, Iraq.
Lastly, and possibly most fundamentally, what about the right to stay alive—the right to life—in Iraq? No one knows how many people are being murdered in Iraq each day, but we have a fair idea of the order of magnitude from what is being, reasonably consistently, reported. The “Today” programme yesterday said that 25 to 30 people a day are being murdered in Baghdad—about one an hour. How many people, we may wonder, will be murdered in Iraq during this debate? An adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence reported last month that it was also about one an hour in Basra. The former Prime Minister, Mr. Allawi, said in March:
“We are losing each day an average 50 to 60…if not more.”
That is probably the order of magnitude. It adds up to thousands of murders a year.
This week, the Foreign Affairs Committee had a private, informal meeting with one of the leading British journalists in Iraq. As it was private, the Chamber will understand that I shall not give his name. He made a telling comment, which perhaps sums up the situation. He said, “Iraq is in a civil war fought by assassins and death squads.” What I want to put to the Minister is, first, whether the Government will look at Iraq in the context of the totality of its human rights—not simply whether elections have been held, but in the context of the rights of children and women, people’s right to remain in their homes, and their right to life.
When the Government have looked at the human rights dimension in its totality, will they answer some key questions? First, is the presence of the United States, together with our presence, hindering or helping human rights in Iraq? Secondly, if we withdrew, would that result in a deterioration of the human rights situation? Would it perhaps improve it? A third and equally important question is whether, given the huge commitment of armed forces that we are making in Iraq, we could get a better human rights benefit if they were deployed elsewhere.
That brings me, lastly, to the subject of Afghanistan. At the outset I want to say that I am wholly persuaded, as I am not in the matter of Iraq, that our forces in Afghanistan can make a human rights difference. Yes, I acknowledge that suicide bombing has started there. I recognise that the Taliban are trying to build themselves back, and that, monstrously, they have destroyed schools just because girls go to them, and murdered schoolteachers because they teach girls and not just boys. However, I am in no doubt that the human rights position in Afghanistan is vastly better now than it was when the Taliban were in Kabul. They are nowhere near Kabul at the moment, and I hope to goodness that they go nowhere near it in future. But, and this is the key policy issue for the Government, are we too heavily committed to Iraq, when compared with what we are receiving in return, and are we too thinly committed to Afghanistan, when compared with the human rights that we must hang on to there? That is the key human rights judgment that the Government must make, and I hope that they address it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and his Committee on their report. It is such an extensive body of work that there is no time to give attention to anything but a small fraction of it, so I shall address two areas that are different from those raised by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley).
I want to touch on the sections about Indonesia, and particularly China. I welcome the Committee’s conclusion, which refers to progress on human rights in Indonesia. It calls on the Government to engage with Indonesian partners to move further towards reform, particularly in light of the USA’s decision to reinstate military-to-military ties with Indonesia; and it recommends that the Government expand their annual report to cover the West Papua conflict.
Such coverage would be most welcome, because there is a serious situation in West Papua, and little news gets out of there because few journalists get in. When discussing West Papua, we should always remember that in a shameful episode in the history of the United Nations, its people never had the right that they should have had to exercise self-determination. Although I welcome what the Committee and the Government have said about encouraging the Indonesian Government to engage in dialogue with the West Papuan representatives and to proceed with full implementation of the autonomy legislation, I point out that there is an unresolved issue in West Papua about the status of the so-called, and indeed perversely named, Act of Free Choice. No such free choice took place in West Papua, and the issue of self-determination must be faced. It would be better if the British Government, along with others in the international community, made the United Nations face up to it.
I want also to touch on the report’s sections about China. Like Amnesty International, other human rights organisations and many constituents who contact me about this issue, I am concerned about the continuing and serious violations of human rights in China. As set out in the reports under debate, those violations include torture, execution, excessive force in policing labour and rural unrest, repression of dissent and the free exchange of information, especially through the internet, and forced repatriation of North Korean asylum seekers without recourse to a refugee determination procedure.
Various political and religious dissidents are in prison, as a result either of unfair trials under so-called national security legislation or of administrative detention. For example, after trying legally to register a political party, the China Democracy party, Qin Yongmin is serving a 12-year prison sentence following an unfair trial on charges of
“plotting to subvert state power”.
There is a great proliferation of rules and regulations relating to the internet that put those using it to call for political and social reforms or to spread sensitive information, even about SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—for example, at risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment or even execution.
Does my right hon. Friend not find it extraordinary that the world’s internet service providers have colluded with that policy in China, and indeed assisted, through the systems that they have installed to make money out of the Chinese market, the persecution of individuals?
I find that approach not only extraordinary but shameful. It represents collusion with unacceptable and repressive practices.
Shi Tao is a journalist serving a 10-year prison sentence for sending an e-mail in 2004 to a United States-based pro-democracy website. His e-mail summarised the content of a Chinese central propaganda department document that had been orally transmitted to editorial staff instructing them on how to cover the approaching Tiananmen square anniversary. On the basis of that e-mail, Shi Tao was convicted of
“illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.”
There are countless other such cases.
Torture, as referred to in the reports, is systemic, and the Chinese authorities use it extensively. It is reported in many state institutions as well as in work places and homes. It is used by many different types of official, including police officers and prison guards, and worryingly, it is used increasingly by officials outside the criminal justice system, such as tax collectors and birth control officials. Allegations of torture are rarely investigated, and those who should be held accountable often escape prosecution or receive only light punishments. In many cases, prisoners have died as a result of torture.
Zhou Jianxiong is one of many victims of torture in China. He was an agricultural worker from Hunan province who was tortured to death by birth control officials in his hometown of Chunhua on 15 May 1998. He was tortured to make him reveal the whereabouts of his wife, who was suspected of being pregnant without permission. Zhou was hung upside down, repeatedly whipped and beaten with wooden clubs, burned with cigarettes, branded with soldering irons, and he had his genitals ripped off. We are talking about the most ugly and abhorrent practices, and they are taking place on a terrifying scale.
As to the death penalty, each year China judicially executes more people than do all other countries put together. Between 1990 and 2000 at least 19,520 executions took place. Recent research by a Chinese parliamentarian suggests that the execution rate in China might be as high as 10,000 per year. Murder, rape and other crimes of violence all attract the death penalty, but so too do many non-violent offences including bribery, embezzlement, forgery, tax fraud, car theft and cattle rustling. Official sources have indicated that the recent preoccupation with applying the death penalty to economic crimes might even have arisen to help China meet the challenges of World Trade Organisation membership.
I could cite many examples of people being executed for relatively minor crimes. Executions in China take place by shooting, or increasingly by lethal injection. The introduction of the lethal injection raises serious concerns about the increased involvement of the medical profession in the execution process. Amnesty International is increasingly concerned that the timing of executions might sometimes be orchestrated to meet the needs of the organ transplant industry. That is another horrific practice about which constituents have expressed to me their outrage.
China says that it has strengthened its regulations and guidance, and that taking organs from executed prisoners must be done with their consent. However, in truth it is a lucrative industry. Transplant tourism, recently condemned by the British Transplantation Society and leading transplant surgeons in this country, is utterly abhorrent to people. As China understandably gains more prominence through its growing economic might and its enormous historical, cultural and scientific contribution to the world, it is important that we speak out. Its people are held back and its standing is damaged by those utterly unacceptable practices.
Gross violations of human rights continue in the more remote parts of China. For example, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region there are arbitrary and summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention and unfair political trials. Such things have been aimed predominantly at the majority ethnic population, the Uighurs, who are Muslim. The political prisoners held in the region may number many thousands, although no one can be sure. As in Tibet, the Chinese Government’s fear of separatism is the principal cause. The authorities continue to discriminate against the Uighur population in favour of recently arrived Han Chinese in religious, cultural and employment issues. Since the escalation of the global war on terrorism, human rights violations appear to have intensified in the autonomous region and there is concern that the international community has perhaps become less keen to confront China about its behaviour towards the Uighurs.
On the question of Uighurstan, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the approach of the neighbouring central Asian republics, which contain ethnic kinsmen of the Uighurs, is reprehensible? To curry favour with China they have sold their cousins down the river and are refusing to have any contact with the Uighurs, which in my view is a great pity.
I was not aware of the detail that the hon. Gentleman has drawn to my attention. It is incumbent on everyone, whether they are ethnic kinsmen who are next door or, as we are, people who are some distance away, to highlight the abuses that are happening and the denial of what should be the basic rights of the people in that region. In respect of the other autonomous region, Tibet, it is more widely known that freedom of expression, religion and association continue to be severely restricted. There are persistent reports of deaths in custody, torture and ill treatment.
I endorse the comments in the conclusion of the Committee’s report. Not only are the abuses abhorrent, unacceptable and to be resisted, but, as the Committee concluded,
“the UK-China human rights dialogue appears to have made glacial progress. We recommend that the Government set out in its response to this Report what measures it uses to determine whether the dialogue is a success, what it sees as the achievements of the dialogue to date, and why it wishes it to continue.”
I can understand how the Government have to respond on this issue. I simply implore my right hon. Friend the Minister to adopt a robust attitude on these matters in the opportunities that will come his way, given his trade responsibilities. He is likely to be visiting China in the relatively near future. I urge him to raise these issues robustly whenever he does so.
As I said, China is a mighty economic and military power, and is becoming increasingly so. It is incumbent on all of us to say not only that its human rights record is utterly unacceptable, but that we need faster progress. One can see some of the difficulties, such as in terms of reforming its judicial procedures—an issue on which the Government are giving some assistance to China. Nevertheless, all of us, including Ministers, must be prepared to speak out on these issues and to use our influence to the maximum to ensure that there is much more rapid progress.
One other particular issue that must be pressed is the access of Amnesty International and other human rights organisations to the People’s Republic of China so that they can talk to people and report objectively on the situation and such progress, or lack of it, as is being made. It is scrutiny, advocacy and sending a clear signal that China’s economic progress must be matched by human rights reform that will help secure the changes that the Chinese people need if their rights as human beings are to be properly respected.
I welcome this debate and the opportunities it provides for us to have a serious discussion about human rights and the role of the UK Government in that issue. I want to make a number of points, but I shall be as quick as I can because I believe that we are trying to finish early—I heard a rumour to that effect.
I am sure that it was just a rumour, but I shall nevertheless bear it in mind.
Next week, the United Nations Human Rights Council starts its proceedings in Geneva. In his introduction, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed its establishment and hoped that it would be an improvement on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As one who has attended many meetings of the Human Rights Commission, I shall not weary the Chamber with all the details of it. Some of its sessions were extraordinarily long and extraordinarily ill focused but there were some advantages to its system.
One such advantage was that the commission had standing reports on various world issues, such as the plight of the Palestinian people, the situation in respect of opposing apartheid, and Cyprus. Above all, there were significant opportunities for civil society and non-governmental organisations to be represented directly in its main plenary sessions. Although a huge number of NGOs and civil society organisations were represented there, it is reasonable to question the NGO status of some of the so-called NGOs. Some were frankly little more than fig leaves for another government organisation.
Nevertheless, there was an important principle that civil society should be represented at the highest level within the United Nations system. It is implicit in the charter, the declaration and the system that operated through the Human Rights Commission. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us assurances in that respect.
I notice that a Minister—I believe it will be the Minister who is present today, but I am not sure—is to be the 40th speaker to address the Human Rights Council. They will be speaking at 10.30 am on 20 June in Geneva. I hope that their contribution will reflect the view from this country that we strongly support the inclusion of civil society organisations within the Human Rights Council system.
I say that for an obvious reason. Where a Government represent a country that has a serious systematic abuse of human rights—for example Burma or, in part, Colombia, or many such places—it is essential that an independent voice is heard and that such Governments are made to answer the allegations that are made against them.
I hope that there will not be endless delays and that the British Government will support a regular review of the human rights position in each country of the world. The idea is that every two or three years—I cannot remember the exact details—
I thank the Minister for that. Every three years there will be a half-day review on each country’s human rights situation. That is important, because it means that everybody is then under the microscope. Some countries used to claim that they were regularly under the microscope and that others were never put under it.
The Chairman of the Committee made a point about the horse-trading that went on around resolutions. I do not think that it will be avoided in the Human Rights Council any more than it was in the Human Rights Commission. However, such a review process would mean that the whole thing was more open and, I hope, that there was more focus on what went on there. I hope that the Minister will give me some good news in that regard.
My next point concerns extraordinary rendition flights, the Council of Europe report and Guantanamo Bay. I am pleased that that human rights report and the Foreign Affairs Committee report specifically mention Guantanamo Bay. There can be no defence for its existence as a centre of detention. Anyone who is held there cannot get a fair trial any more, anywhere in the world, because they have been held incommunicado, because of the treatment that they have suffered and because of the way they were taken there in the first place.
One must think about the way in which suspects—as far as the United States was concerned—were picked up in Pakistan. In some cases, the prison authorities and others were bribed to hand over individuals, who were then flown by a circuitous route before somehow ending up in Guantanamo Bay. The British nationals were finally released and were interviewed by police at Paddington Green, but it is interesting that they were interviewed for quite a short time and released without charge, with no further action being taken against them. It is highly significant that, even under British terrorist law, they were released very quickly indeed.
I ask the Minister to consider the situation of those who have a different nationality, but who were ordinarily resident in Britain, who had indefinite leave to remain and who were therefore eligible to apply for British nationality, but who are still in Guantanamo Bay. What action is he prepared to take to pressurise the US to release them, and everyone else from Guantanamo Bay?
There is a further aspect that needs to be cleared up. The US base on Diego Garcia is in the British Indian Ocean Territory. It is a UK possession, but there is a renewable lease to the US for the base to be sited there. I would like to know whether the base on Diego Garcia has ever been used as a staging post for flights from Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else, through which prisoners on rendition flights have eventually ended up in Guantanamo Bay. If that were the case and there had been human rights abuses as a result, the British Government—just like any other Government who have condoned human rights abuses through inaction and allowing those flights to take place—would be liable for investigation. We need to know exactly what happened on Diego Garcia.
Like the Chairman of the Committee, I have read the Marty report on extraordinary rendition flights. Although the report does not add an awful lot to the information that is already available, what was interesting was the chorus of condemnation from every European Government as soon as it appeared. The Marty report is a serious document, about a serious investigation. Mr. Marty makes the point, as have others, that there is a legal obligation on countries that are signatories to the European convention on human rights to do something about human rights abuses that are brought to their attention.
If such flights are unrecorded and carry unknown persons, the Governments concerned ought to know about them or find out about them. We need to know what happened in Poland and Romania, what happened with the flights that went to Morocco and what the purpose was. We cannot accept the idea that another country—the USA—can take people from point A to points B and C, before they finally end up in Guantanamo Bay or somewhere else, but that that is somehow not our responsibility. I suspect that many member states have simply not been told what is going on with the CIA flights. The Marty report deserves serious consideration and Mr. Marty deserves recognition for his work in trying to bring the matter to our attention. It is now up to parliamentarians in every member state to ask legitimate questions of our Governments about what they are doing about rendition flights.
It is difficult in a human rights debate not to focus on individual countries, and most hon. Members who have spoken have done just that. I, too, want to raise one or two countries, but first I make a general point about migrants. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) spoke about the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe at the end of the second world war, and about the residual numbers who remained in this country, particularly Jewish Polish refugees and others who remained in places throughout Europe. It is true that there was an excellent and commendable effort to ensure that they were properly treated and housed, and where possible allowed to return home after the end of the second world war.
What needs to be drawn to the world’s attention, however, is the plight of migrants now. Every day, open boats carry people from west Africa to the Canary islands, which they try to reach because they are part of the European Union. If people can gain asylum in a European Union country, they have a place of safety and some possibility of a decent standard of living, but hundreds of people have died in those open boats in the sea. Hundreds have died in the Mediterranean and in other places around the world. It is not good enough to blame people traffickers for the trade, and just to say that it is all illegal and should not happen. Of course, it should not happen, but if people are driven by poverty and desperation, that is the result and those are the circumstances in which they die.
We rightly condemned everything that happened under the Nazis and others before the second world war, and the way in which Jewish people, fleeing to a place of safety, died in the most terrible circumstances. That is not a parallel—there are different times and different circumstances. Nevertheless, many thousands of people have lost their lives trying to get to a place of security and safety. We cannot solve all those problems, but we can uphold the principles of the 1951 Geneva convention in relation to political, religious or social reasons for seeking asylum. We can also consider the rights of migrant people fleeing from famine or environmental disaster and trying to reach a place of safety.
Attitudes are beginning to change slightly. The US economy has boomed, as has the British economy, on the backs of many people living a shadow existence and working without legal papers. The Mexican migrants in the United States have now started to demonstrate for their rights. It is interesting that they have received quite a lot of support there, because people recognise the huge contribution that they have made and the treatment that they suffered. We must consider the rights of migrant people and what happens on some of the borders, particularly the border between Mexico and the United States, where many people have died and where George Bush has now deployed the national guard, for purposes that I can only imagine. Migrants have rights as well. We prosper from the work of migrants in our society and we should recognise that.
I want quickly to raise some questions about specific countries, so that the Minister can reply and, if not, so that he can write to me. My constituency includes people from all over the world, but one community that concerns me a great deal is the Congolese community, which has been in north London for a long time. The original Congolese arrivals were the family of the murdered former Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, but many others have come since then, over the past 40-odd years.
Many of those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo have come from the most awful, violent situation to seek a place of safety in this country. I should like to be assured that there will be no removals to the DRC, because I do not believe it to be a safe place to which people may be removed. I recognise that the Government support the transitional Government in the DRC, and want the elections that are due at the end of July to be successful. However, there are serious concerns about the funding of irregular armies in the eastern Congo by neighbouring countries—principally Rwanda and Uganda at present—and about the export of the DRC’s mineral riches through those countries, neither of which has enormous mineral riches of its own.
I know that the Government take the issue seriously—indeed, much more so than many other European countries or the United States. However, the elections alone will not solve the DRC’s problems. They will be solved when a genuine peace is reached and there is real transparency on the exploitation and export of minerals from the DRC, which there certainly is not now. There is a ghastly war there, in which 3 million people have died. Those are first world war levels of casualties, which are far higher than the horrors that have been described in Iraq and other places, but there is no obvious end in sight. However, we know that many people are making a great deal of money out of the conflict, because of the DRC’s mineral riches.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling described well what is happening in Iraq. My view, which is on the record, is that the war was illegal. That issue has been the subject of huge debate, but we cannot ignore the fact that the massive death rate amounts to recorded deaths in Iraq—by assassination, murder or whatever else—of 20,000 people a year that we know of, and many others as a result of that. The experience of Iraq and its horrors will be with us all for a very long time to come. It would be far better if the occupying forces withdrew. That would be more likely to bring about a long-term political settlement that brought about a degree of hope.
I mentioned Somalia in an intervention on the Chairman of the Committee. Again, my constituency has a substantial number of people from Somalia and from Somaliland living in the community. Indeed, there has been a Somali community in Britain, principally in Sheffield and in Cardiff, for a long time. Obviously, Somalia is a place of enormous problems at present. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined the British Government’s political strategy in respect of the situation there. In Hargeisa in Somaliland, there is an elected Government who represent that part of the former colonies of Britain, Italy and France, and who attempt to administer, develop and run the country in a normal way.
In Mogadishu, in the southern part of Somalia, there is no normal functioning Government in the sense that we would understand it. There is a transitional Government, who are attempting to represent the entire country and, as I understand it, they are supported and recognised by the African Union. There have been enormous upsurges of activity between the warlords and what are loosely described as Islamic forces in the south.
I am obviously worried about the present situation, but I am also very worried about what the future will bring. Are we seeing the seeds of another huge war in that region in which there is foreign intervention, or are we prepared to be involved and negotiate to try to bring about some kind of Government covering the whole region, which would prevent further death and bloodshed? I am constantly shocked by the degree of violence that young people who have sought asylum in this country have seen and suffered in Somalia. Obviously, they have a right to asylum in this country.
My final point is also on a collective issue: caste-based discrimination around the world. That issue was raised at the Johannesburg summit some years ago, it has been raised at the Human Rights Commission and no doubt it will be raised at the Human Rights Council. It is discrimination based on caste and descent and it affects principally the Dalit peoples of India, although it exists in other countries, too. I know that the Foreign Office takes the issue seriously.
I should declare that I am a trustee of the Dalit Solidarity Network. We have had numerous meetings with Ministers on the issue, and I thank those Ministers for the meetings. I hope that their preparedness to push for the Ambedkar principles to be included in any foreign investment that takes place in India or other places will produce results, because the degree of discrimination that is practised against 200 million people around the world, who suffer higher infant mortality, lower life expectancy and violent discrimination in some parts, is very serious indeed. Although it is not up to us to run the affairs of every country around the world, that is not the point. It is up to us to do what we can to ensure that basic standards and the basic principles of the UN are understood and upheld. I hope that the Minister can give us some cause for hope in that respect.
I am pleased to speak in the debate, although I feel like something of an impostor, because this is the first time that I have spoken on foreign affairs matters. I guess that I was asked to do so because of my interest in human rights as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I want to put on record a reference to the great help that we have had from the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and the rest of the Foreign Affairs Committee on some of the overlapping areas relating to rendition and so on.
It is also appropriate to say how welcome it is that we are having this debate and to congratulate the Committee on its work. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South on the way in which he introduced the debate. He was previously unfairly accused of being a Government loyalist, which is a very career-damaging and often majority-damaging allegation to make. It was an outrageous allegation in his case. He has demonstrated that he took a balanced approach to the report and to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The hon. Gentleman initially spoke about the importance of the Minister’s role and of ensuring that no trade-off is seen to exist between trade and human rights. He then pointed out how robust the Minister is; it is a pleasure to see the Minister being so robust and looking so well. I trust that his health is as robust as it appears. He looks better than most of us, I fear.
Indeed, and coming from the right hon. Gentleman, that says a great deal. He is a strong supporter of the NHS, as I am. I suspect that if and when we reach his level of seniority—I shall use that term carefully—we would be pleased to be doing as well as him.
There is a problem with the Minister responsible for trade also being the Minister responsible for human rights. The question is not simply whether there is a trade-off. I have every confidence in the personal integrity of the Minister in not allowing that. It is also a question of perception. In foreign affairs and diplomacy, it is often the perception that may undermine some of the good work done. The Foreign Affairs Committee report has made a fair point in that respect. The Minister should not see it as a personal criticism, and the Government should not see it as a policy criticism in respect of the actual record. That is a moot point, but even in terms of the perception, there is something to be said.
I have enjoyed listening to the debate; indeed, it has been a privilege to hear it. We heard a highly informed and detailed contribution from the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who spoke first on Zimbabwe. I think he accepted the point that I raised in an intervention. Given the appalling human rights situation in that country, the treatment of returning asylum seekers by the Mugabe regime and the unpredictability of that regime, it is hard to see how our Government can see people as potentially removable to that location even if they fail in their asylum application here. There may not be any or many returns at the moment, but the fact that the Government have fought so hard to deprive people in that situation of a meaningful existence in this country in the interim suggests that they are of the view that the situation in Zimbabwe may change at any minute. I do not believe that there is enough evidence of progress on the ground to suggest that. It is unreasonable—indeed, outrageous—that people are left with no means in this country when they are clearly not removable and that the Government have exerted every legal muscle that they can to defend their position.
Hon. Members should be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he put that case and for the way in which he set out the situation on Iraq. I do not have time now to go into the human rights situation in Iraq, but I endorse everything that he said about how bleak the situation is and how we must look at the human rights situation and, indeed, life expectancy when judging not only what damage has been done by our policy, but how best to move on from that. That will not be an easy judgment call, whatever our views on the way forward.
I also share the right hon. Gentleman’s view on Afghanistan, which is a separate case from Iraq. Just because we are working with the United States in Afghanistan, that does not mean that the criticisms that are often made of US Administration policy in Iraq automatically flow to Afghanistan. They do not, although there are some concerns.
It was enjoyable to hear the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), my neighbour from Oxford, give a learned discourse on the human rights problems in China in particular. He referred to letters from his constituents. The people of Oxford are pretty liberal in writing to people, and I am sure that I have seen some of the letters to which he has responded so expertly today. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) gave a typically passionate speech on the plight of migrants worldwide. We also see that passion in his views on UK policy in that regard. We are not debating that subject today, but it is a real problem. We must have, as the UN must, metrics and measurements for the welfare of people that include the huge problems faced by migrants in the world, whether they are voluntary migrants or forced migrants, as they are in many cases owing not just to famine but to war and repression. There is a major problem in that regard.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about Guantanamo Bay. Again, now is not the time to go into detail, but as a medical doctor I want to take the opportunity, in advance of a discussion at the British Medical Association’s annual representative meeting in a couple of weeks, to point out the concerns raised by UN special rapporteurs about the role of physicians in Guantanamo Bay. The situation is quite clear, and I quote from their report:
“The Declarations of Tokyo and Malta prohibit doctors from participating in force-feeding a detainee, provided the detainee is capable of understanding the consequences of refusing food”—
and, indeed, so long as the hunger strike is voluntary rather than under coercion from other people. The report goes on to state:
“This position is informed by the fundamental principle, which recurs throughout human rights law, of individual autonomy.”
Paragraph 81 continues:
“According to the United States Government, Department of Defence policy allows health professionals to force feed a detainee in Guantanamo Bay when the hunger strike threatens his life or health.”
The rapporteurs say—and I agree—that that policy
“is inconsistent with the principle of individual autonomy, the policy of the World Medical Association and the American Medical Association, as well as the position of”—
this also applies to the International Committee of the Red Cross—
“doctors…some domestic courts, and many others.”
There is a fundamental difference. On the one hand, most of the world—the US is on the other hand, as it were—has a fundamental human rights provision about the autonomy of patients. It is bad enough for that right to be ignored in a prison, but for doctors to be actively involved gives an air of legitimacy—the torturer with the white coat. I hope that the Minister will tell us what representations are being made about that particularly nasty aspect of what has gone on in Guantanamo Bay.
It is timely that this debate comes after the suicides in Guantanamo Bay. When one reads the UN report and other first-hand reports of what happens, the only surprise one has is that there have not been more acts of self-harm and suicide. For the US to act in the way that it has and to call those suicides an act of war, purely politically inspired, is extremely depressing.
It is important for the UK Government to set an example, considering the human rights work they do. It is worth putting on the record once again the fact that the debate is a consequence of the Government’s decision in 1998 to issue a human rights report. That had not happened before and it gives us something to debate—the Government might see it as ammunition. I have raised the question of potential returnees to Zimbabwe. It is difficult to see how we can maintain as much credibility as we do if we are not consistent.
Another such example relates to our position on certain matters criticised in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to comments made about Pakistan in particular—I am afraid that I am going to talk about religion and follow it up by talking about sex—and the cases that we read about in which the Pakistani Government prosecute, on pain of death, people who blaspheme. That is outrageous, and I think the UK Government have made representations about it. At the same time, the law of blasphemy in this land has not been repealed; the fact that it is not used but is simply a threat is a problem. The Government would have greater credibility on the fundamental issues of free speech if they took the opportunity to deal with the matter. Foreign Office Ministers should make the point to Home Office Ministers that we should not have laws on the statute book that we seek to have removed in other places.
We have heard some mention of human rights in respect of gender. Page 214 of the FCO’s report shows well how the UK can set an example, through the issue of sexual orientation. It states how this Government, before preaching to other countries, have set out a series of protections in UK law and human rights law to provide employment protection for lesbian and gay people. Indeed, mention is made of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and so on. That emphasises the question why the Government have not done something similar for freedom of speech provisions, given the reference to blasphemy in Pakistan on page 216.
I want to draw attention to one more example: the attack made in this country on the Human Rights Act 1998. The FCO’s report draws attention to the Human Rights Act in at least two places: on page 194 in respect of torture, which is crucial given the recent debates, and in the annexe on the Council of Europe and other bodies on page 280, where we rightly boast of the fact that we have introduced international human rights law into domestic law through the European convention on human rights. However, the arrangements are under sustained attack by other parts of the Government at the same time as the Foreign Office draws attention to our satisfactory position on human rights law.
I do not have time to go into the subject and neither is this the place to do so, but I may say that it is not clear in any of the cases mentioned by the Government, whether they relate to the Afghani hijackers or the deportation of foreign prisoners, that there is any evidence that the Human Rights Act or the ECHR has had any impact on the UK Government’s ability to give the safety of UK citizens the priority it requires. We have not seen that at all. At a time when the Government rightly talk about their record on human rights through the Human Rights Act, it is depressing to see the same Government attack human rights.
I welcome the Committee’s report almost in its entirety, but although I appreciate that the Committee cannot go through every topic and every country, it was disappointing to see little mention made of the crucial issue of trafficking of humans for sexual exploitation and labour in this country. The Government’s report appropriately mentions that at the time it was written in July 2005, the Council of Europe—a body in which you, Mr. Hancock, have played a fine role in the Parliamentary Assembly—had negotiated the drafting of a convention. We still have not signed, far less ratified, that convention, and as I understand it, that is a matter for the Foreign Office in consultation with other parts of Government. Can the Minister update us on whether we are in a position to sign and ratify that convention? As we know from recent news stories, the problem is serious and could be getting worse.
On the subject of the Human Rights Council of the UN, it is vital that the UN machinery on human rights works and is made to work. I wish it full steam ahead and hope that the Government will do all they can to strengthen its role.
Yes. That point was made in the report and it is critical that we do that. One can pick and choose one’s NGOs as one likes, but the principle is that in many cases they lead the way and human rights law and human rights norms follow.
I want to raise some questions on Turkey. There is an excellent section on Turkey and the European Union in the Committee’s report. There is no doubt that Turkey’s human rights record is improving, but does the Minister understand the alarm with which news of further trials and arraignments on freedom of speech issues—for criticism of the Turkish state or of Turkish history in relation to the Armenians—is greeted? The issue is contentious, but the mark of a democracy that is mature and liberal enough to join the European Union is that such debate is tolerated and that the courts eventually, at the end of a long and painful process—sometimes it is literally painful for the accused—either come to the right decision or provide recourse to the ECHR. It is not acceptable that an applicant state to the European Union should have such repressive laws, still not fully repealed, on freedom of speech.
That is mentioned in some detail in the report, but it is not clear—I would like reassurance on this—whether Ministers recognise that we cannot be partially right on human rights. We either comply in our domestic law with the basic norms or we do not. Leaving one area to be dealt with by the courts is not acceptable.
Two points are of particular interest to me because of my membership of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The question of rendition was introduced well and in a balanced way by the hon. Member for Ilford, South. The Government’s role in that, and their willingness to be proactive, is a real problem, and I want to refer briefly to the Joint Committee’s report on rendition. It made two points on the matter, which echo the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Joint Committee report states that
“we do not accept the Government’s view that, by the means described in its response to the Foreign Affairs Committee”—
the report that we are debating today—
“it has adequately demonstrated that it has satisfied the obligation under domestic and international human rights law to investigate credible allegations of renditions of suspects through the UK to face torture abroad.”
The report sets out what more the UK has to do in respect of its human rights obligations. It stated that
“the Government should establish a clear policy as to the action to be taken in cases where aircraft alleged to have previously been involved in renditions transit the UK.”
Clearly, the Government have not yet responded on their compliance with the UN convention against torture, but I hope that the Minister is aware of that, because it is also a matter for the Foreign Office.
There is an excellent section in the Foreign Affairs Committee report on the thorny question of memorandums of understanding, although the hon. Member for Ilford, South did not have time to speak about it in detail. Again, important points were raised on that matter by the Joint Committee. One was the inadequacy of the current memorandum of understanding. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman stated that memorandums of understanding could not always be relied upon. That is not my personal view; I think that there is a real problem in relying on them at all if they are to be robust on monitoring.
The view of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, when considering in detail the memorandums that have been negotiated so far, is that they do not provide the required rigour. I question whether it is worth the Government going down that path, because it undermines their position on the complete blanket ban that there must be on torture. In the words of the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, such memorandums undermine the multilateral nature of agreements against torture by seeking bilateral deals with Governments who have a clear record of torture.
Ad personam or ad hominem agreements suggest that a country is not complying, and it is wrong that we should move outside multilateral monitoring arrangements and multilateral norms. I know that the Government, from the Prime Minister down, do not accept that, but such a position undermines our ability to persuade people of the importance of human rights measures while seeking one-to-one agreements.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. Once again, I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on making a thorough report.
It is good to see the Minister in his place, particularly after his recent difficulties. I wish him every success in his new job.
We heard two excellent speeches from members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, namely the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Committee Chairman, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). Indeed, everyone who has taken part in the debate has made an excellent speech, including the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn).
I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was a big subject to be tackled by a Select Committee, but it showed the highest quality in its debates, its taking of evidence and its reporting. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Committee is now bigger and to get a unanimous agreement among 13 members takes some doing.
Among other things, the hon. Member for Ilford, South mentioned Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, as did other hon. Members. We all want to see those held at Guantanamo Bay brought to trial and acquitted or sentenced as soon as possible. Justice delayed is justice denied, and that applies particularly there.
The Government have made it clear on a number of occasions that they abide by all the conventions on torture and that they will not use torture in any theatre. However, the question of intelligence gained from torture is slightly difficult. One often does not know where intelligence comes from, and even if one does know, it may be obscured. Even if one suspects that information has come from torture, if it could save British lives or the lives of our allies, I would have thought that the Government had a duty to use it. I therefore slightly take issue with the hon. Gentleman in that respect.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the worst human rights abuses—namely those in Burma and Syria—but he also mentioned the newly arising human rights problem in Sri Lanka. That is a wonderful and civilised country, with the assets of beauty, historical artefacts and a wonderful, gentle people. It is sad to see it disintegrating into chaos. The international community needs to think carefully about what it can do, because the problem should be capable of being solved.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling rightly drew attention to the appalling situation in Zimbabwe perpetrated by its President, Robert Mugabe. My right hon. Friend mentioned Operation Murambatsvina, the so-called “clear the filth” operation—that is what Murambatsvina means—and he alluded to the aerial photographs being taken before and after that operation. It was an appalling act of atrocity.
Not only did Mugabe’s Government perpetrate that atrocity, but when some of the international community tried to provide tents, the tents too were seized by the armed forces. That shows how little regard for human life President Mugabe has. What limited food supplies that country has have been manipulated and given to his supporters, and he has ensured that those who do not support him have gone hungry. That is appalling, given that that country used to be the bread basket of Africa and that it exported its food all over the world.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the visit that he led so ably to Nepal. I am delighted, as I am sure he is, that the political situation there seems to have stabilised, at least for the moment. That is a great relief to everyone. I hope that the interim Government hold elections in the near future and become properly elected, and that they manage to take over all the institutions of state and run a proper, democratic regime—including taking over the army, so that it will be possible to equip it in a way that will allow the Maoist threats to be defeated. We discovered while we were there that the army has great difficult in moving about the country. It does not have enough helicopters or the wherewithal to control acts of terrorism, especially in the more remote parts in the west of the country. I hope that the situation continues to stabilise.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned the Sanischere camps in Nepal, of which there are seven. It was good to see that the international NGO community is running those camps to the highest possible standards. As he said, it ought to be possible to come to a conclusion and ensure that those people are properly settled, wherever it may be. They could be returned to Bhutan—I have been there and discussed the situation with the Bhutanese Foreign Minister. The Nepalese could be resettled in their own country, and offers of help have been made to resettle them in third countries. It seems that that situation has a possible solution.
My right hon. Friend mentioned in vivid terms the human rights abuses going on in Iraq, and he questioned the future of our troops there. He was right to do so. We must all think of what we are achieving in Iraq and whether by being there we are helping the formation of democracy or acting as a magnet for further terrorism by making the various groups united in their opposition to what they see as western occupiers.
The right hon. Member for Oxford, East rightly drew attention to the Papua New Guinea problem. It is not often aired on the world stage, but human rights abuses are going on there. The Indonesians are our friends and we ought to be able to impress on them that inflicting killings and other extra-judicial abuses on the people there is not acceptable; we should be able to find a solution to that conflict. He also mentioned in vivid terms human rights abuses in China. These days, we have huge trade contacts with China and it ought to be possible for trade Ministers, when dealing with trade issues, also to emphasise that such human rights abuses are not acceptable.
The hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is the point at which I want to come to what I had prepared to say today. I want to say one or two things about the council and one or two of the other things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Our parents and grandparents witnessed the full horrors of the second world war and with that experience came their determination to set up, through their leaders, organisations to ensure that such atrocities never occurred again. The United Nations and its agencies created legally binding conventions, such as the Vienna convention on torture, for that purpose, but for some reason those are rarely implemented nowadays.
The advance of the modern media is leading to greater news gathering capacity, and one might perceive that human rights abuses are worse nowadays than historically. I am not sure that that is the case, given some of the dreadful atrocities of the 20th century—Stalin’s gulags, Pol Pot’s killing fields and Germany’s concentration camps. Nevertheless, any single human rights abuse is one too many.
More effective action could be taken through the United Nations, although it is clear that all nations must co-operate better to prevent human rights abuses. As I mentioned in my intervention, it is no good if, under the current United Nations structure, any one of the permanent five members of the Security Council can, because of their own economic interests, veto action that could prevent human rights abuses. There have been many obvious examples. Purely because of their oil interests, Russia and France vetoed strong action against the Government of Saddam Hussein.
We need not only stronger co-operation within the United Nations, but stronger co-operation between the member nations and other organisations that could help in the human rights field—for example, the European Union, NATO, the African Union, the Commonwealth and the Organisation of American States.
Late last year, during a visit to the United Nations with a number of colleagues from all parties, I was particularly pleased to hear about the creation of the UN Human Rights Council, which replaces the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. However, as the hon. Member for Islington, North said, it has shortcomings. The resolution at the summit that set it up requires that when member states vote for HRC members, they should merely take into account a candidate’s human rights record. Worse, the resolution set a higher bar—two thirds of the General Assembly—for suspending an elected member of the HRC. As we heard when we were there, trying to get a resolution from two thirds of all 190 nations of the General Assembly takes some doing.
There are further shortcomings in the Human Rights Council: there are no criteria for membership of it; the peer review mechanism would not automatically affect eligibility for membership; there is only minimal reduction in membership from that of the old UNCHR; the resolution significantly shifts the balance of power away from the western regional group; and finally, the special sessions can be called by only one third of the council’s membership.
As has been indicated, the report was wide-ranging. I should like to touch on one or two of the general mechanisms, but I am not going to dwell too much on any individual country’s human rights problems. In paragraphs 90 and 96, the report mentions the problems of military exports and international arms trade treaties in respect of human rights.
I supported the Export Control Act 2002. In recent years, legislation has also introduced controls on the transfer of technology and the provision of technical assistance that may be used in connection with weapons of mass destruction. I also support the proposed international arms trade treaty. We do not always follow up on what human rights abuses are perpetrated by arms that have been exported under arms licences. We have sold Hawk jets to Indonesia, but did not see what the Indonesians were using them for. Sometimes, when we suspect that human rights abuses are being perpetrated, we need to ensure that the military export licence is being adhered to properly.
In paragraph 100, the report also makes it clear that we have a duty of corporate social responsibility, and I share the Committee’s concerns on the subject. We do business with many countries that have appalling human rights records and we need, by our own example—in this country, we have some of the highest corporate standards—to say to such countries that they need to do better.
As I said in an intervention, we particularly need to remind countries, such as China, which does business with countries with some of the worst human rights records—for example, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Venezuela and Iran—that it too should encourage higher standards of corporate social responsibility. If China, and Russia, wish to exercise their positions as world states, they should uphold such corporate social responsibilities.
Paragraph 82 and those that follow make it clear that one of the ways to prevent human rights abuses is through democracy, and I totally agree with that. In 1975, Freedom House found that only 40 nations of the world were democracies; today, it cites more than 89—twice the number in 30 years. If a country is a democracy, it does not exercise some of the arbitrary abuses of human rights that non-democracies do. We need to work much more closely to encourage democracy.
There are some democratic and human rights successes in the world. The report might imply that the world is all doom and gloom in respect of human rights abuses, but there have been successes. For example, millions of people in Afghanistan defied the threats of Taliban supporters and turned out en masse to elect a President in 2004 and their new representatives to a new Parliament last September. In Iraq, people defied insurgents’ fearmongering and voted to adopt a permanent constitution last October, and in December more than 75 per cent. of those eligible voted for their National Assembly, despite all the threats to their lives and well-being.
As has been mentioned, one year ago this month, Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon after massive demonstrations and after the cedar revolution that had followed tainted elections and the killing of a popular leader. As the report makes clear, the people spoke in Ukraine’s orange revolution, in Georgia’s rose revolution of 2003 and in the bulldozer revolution in Serbia, which brought Milosevic down in 2000. So it is not all doom and gloom in the world; there are some successes.
Before I conclude, I should like to dwell on one or two other aspects. The relationship between aid and human rights abuses needs to be examined carefully. Under Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank has shown what can be achieved by taking that approach into account. Like Wolfowitz, I worry about the growth of corruption in Kenya, and the World Bank has suspended five loans to that country. In January, Mr. Wolfowitz suspended all loans to Chad when its President decided to disregard an agreement with the World Bank designed to ensure that oil revenues would not be misused.
The Department for International Development needs to examine carefully how it allocates aid towards democracy building. It should set clear targets and make it clear that if countries do not meet them, the aid will be cut, but that if they do meet them, the aid will be increased. I also feel that we made a mistake with the Hamas-led Palestine Government following the recent election in that country. Cutting off all aid leaves us little or no negotiating power with that Government; one always needs a few levers of power to carry on negotiations with one’s adversary.
Finally, I turn to the International Criminal Court, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling and in paragraph 28 of the report. The court is important and we need to consider it. My right hon. Friend is right to say that if tyrants and dictators like Robert Mugabe feel that there is an effective international court mechanism, that if they are convicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, there is a high likelihood that they will be brought before a successfully operating international court, and that that court has the teeth to give out a severe sentence—a life sentence that means life—there might just be some deterrent effect on them. It is a scandal that Charles Taylor is still free because of arguments about the jurisdictions in which he should be tried and, if he is found guilty and sentenced—as he undoubtedly will be—imprisoned. We need to concentrate carefully on that.
It is worth mentioning Foreign and Commonwealth Office policy. We often underestimate the effect of the contacts that our officials have all over the world. They meet officials right up to heads of state of all sorts of regimes. We should be and could be at least as effective as we are now, and it is regrettable that due to budgetary considerations some of our embassies have been closed in recent years. For example, four out of five of the central American diplomatic missions have been closed. There have been cuts in staff and facilities in other embassies around the world. That is a false economy for the small amount of money that it saves. In the case of the central American embassies, it was probably less than £1 million.
I wish to close by quoting article 1 of the universal declaration of human rights, which probably sums up this entire debate and our approach to human rights abuses. It states:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
That absolutely sums up what we are all about. I again applaud the Chairman of the Select Committee for his excellent report. I hope that he will go on doing this work and holding the Government to account in the way that he did with the report.
Before I call you, Minister, may I on behalf of all Members welcome you to your position? This is the first opportunity that you have had in your new role to speak on this subject. I echo the sentiments about seeing you in good health and spirits and wish you all the very best.
I would like to thank all the Members for conducting this debate in a way that I hope will enable us to finish in time to see at least a sizable chunk of the match. I know that the Minister is supporting England because he told me so earlier.
Thank you, Mr. Hancock.
First, I offer to do an audit of today’s debate and to send a detailed note, for distribution to all concerned, including the Select Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), on any points to which I do not respond. Seven or eight different issues have been raised in respect of Africa, all of which are important in two respects: first, the difficulties in each of the specific areas and, secondly, the fact that things are moving in some of those areas as we speak: for example, in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Perhaps it would be more helpful if instead of responding piecemeal I sent a memorandum to the Select Committee to give a general update of the work in and around my portfolio on Africa. Obviously, I shall also send a copy to you, Mr. Hancock.
My speech will have two parts. First, I shall respond to the report and, in doing so, pick up on some of the issues that have been raised today. Then I will answer some of the specific questions that hon. Members asked in their contributions.
I thank you, Mr. Hancock, and the Liaison Committee for organising today’s debate, and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the dialogue—and it was a dialogue—with ministerial colleagues and staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The annual report on human rights will continue to improve and to demonstrate our continuing commitment to promoting human rights overseas.
I have not taken personally the comments about my role as Minister with responsibility for trade and investment in the FCO, because in the end managing a portfolio involves a judgment. Today’s debate has been a humbling experience because across the party divide there is not only a common interest in human rights but a commonality of knowledge about individual countries and specific issues, which are complex and difficult for the international community. Individual countries and groups of countries do not always take the same view as we do on issues. None the less, we must have a constructive relationship and dialogue with them to influence policy, sometimes in the short term but sometimes over a longer period. The corporate knowledge that I have heard today has been humbling to me as a new Minister, and I mean that genuinely.
I give a commitment to the House that what I heard today will in fact strengthen my role and the way in which it has been constructed. Frankly, one cannot have a dialogue on human rights unless there are other aspects about which a country is prepared to talk, whether they be joint interests or their own interests. Nor can one have a discussion or debate that is limited to sustainable development, trade agreements such as the Doha round or global warming, because if they go wrong or do not operate effectively, there is an impact on human rights, whether in the region or in the individual country. As a Minister, having the capacity to operate across those disciplines is more helpful than the Select Committee seemed to think.
It is also true, if hon. Members do not mind my saying so, that it is the role of all Ministers, whichever Department they work in, to raise the issue of human rights when they visit other countries. It should not simply be an issue for a foreign affairs or trade Minister. Every Minister should be aware of and responsible for human rights, as should parliamentary Back-Bench groups. We all have a responsibility, but particularly those of us in Government. I give a commitment that as part of my role I will ensure that all my ministerial colleagues receive a briefing about the issues in the country or countries that they visit. I shall ask them to raise those issues and report back.
It is clear to me that Parliament, non-governmental organisations and civil society in general play an essential role in alerting the Government to human rights concerns and in advising us on how to respond. Having only recently taken on this portfolio, I am particularly keen to build on my knowledge of the organisations that operate in these sectors.
As hon. Members may know, the FCO has six advisory panels on anti-torture, the death penalty, child rights, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the rule of law. I would like to tap into their knowledge and expertise to greater effect. For example, I would like to have an expert briefing session with some of the panel members before making official visits to countries where human rights is a concern. That means that, before I go in a few weeks’ time to China, for example, I will meet with NGOs about concerns. Our discussion will influence the structure and nature of the discussions that I will have with colleagues in China, or whatever country I visit. It is important that I involve people in advance of visits and utilise their knowledge and experience to help me to raise human rights issues during the visits that I make.
I also want to upgrade some of those groups, for example, the advisory panel on child rights, which are very important. Like the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), I worked many years ago on child abuse issues. He chaired the all-party group on child abduction very effectively, and it influenced and changed the culture and policy of the FCO at the time. That is why child abduction from the United Kingdom has fallen to almost nil. We can have an influence on policy and on the culture by engaging and involving NGOs and Members of Parliament, whether individually or collectively in groups, and I want to ensure that that is a regular feature of my work and activity in this role.
In fact, I had such a meeting in advance of the first council meeting this Monday. We will also have a wash-up meeting following the council to discuss the next two sessions that will take place before December. I do not want to be a hostage to fortune, but I am hoping that the first council meeting will go smoothly. There is no guarantee of that, of course, but the next two councils may be more difficult, as that is when we will put the meat on the bones and discuss how the council will operate, the roles of the commissioner to the council and the members, and all the issues around that and around greater involvement of NGOs.
I want to be absolutely clear about this. From my perspective, NGOs are a critical factor in the success of the political outcomes that we want the new council to achieve, but at the same time I want to ensure that the NGOs that operate in the United Kingdom are clear about my role and that there is open dialogue not just with the Minister but with the skilled negotiators who operate regularly with the council. The meeting that I had was an excellent opportunity for constructive input in advance of the first session, which will be held on Monday and Tuesday next week. That is why it is a two-way process.
I greatly value NGOs’ input into this policy area. In return, it is important to ensure that civil society, including trade unions, for example, is regularly briefed on our objectives. We may not always see eye to eye, but a frank and honest exchange on what we each seek to achieve should promote greater understanding in both directions. There is not time to cover all the issues, but I made two offers at the beginning of the debate and I hope that they are acceptable to the Committee.
In its report, the Committee suggested that the Government risk downgrading their human rights work by including human rights responsibilities in my portfolio. I hope that I have dealt with that. I have no problem with raising human rights issues in any of my meetings. In the past two days, I have met representatives from four countries: China, Egypt, Singapore and Panama. I will refer to another country later in my speech and explain why. Those occasions involved different issues, but for different reasons I raised human rights issues with all of them. We discussed the role and engagement of NGOs in the region and how they can assist us in the process. Some have thanked them for the role that they are playing quietly and effectively behind the scenes in diplomatic terms. Others have asked them to up their game in respect of what they need to do to influence Governments on human rights.
I intend to be very proactive in my approach to human rights. The first meeting of the Human Rights Council is next week. I intend to be proactive in the council’s work, both at meetings and between them, to ensure that discussion with NGOs and other countries is effective in trying to influence outputs at the council and more effective than in the past. We have a moral and political responsibility to tackle all the issues seriously. I will also ensure that our key partners regularly discuss issues of mutual interest.
I believe that the Human Rights Council has the potential to be better than its predecessor: the UN Commission on Human Rights. It has a broader mandate, including addressing violations of human rights; it will meet more frequently, allowing for a more systematic approach; and it retains the best of the old commission—a system of special procedures, an individual complaint process and an expert advice body. The NGOs will continue to make their vital contribution to the council's work, as I outlined.
In addition, the Human Rights Council will have a new universal periodic review system. If agreement cannot be reached, with a balanced, transparent and effective mechanism, the review function has the potential to improve the council's consideration of every country's record. The Government's view is that the universal periodic review mechanism must be fair, impartial and efficient, as well as positive and practical, and allow for all parties to have their say. That will help to counter the charges of politicisation and double standards that dogged the commission. Yesterday, I spoke with NGOs to try to reach agreement with them on the practicalities of discussions with other countries to make that mechanism more effective. I have asked the NGOs for their views on how to do that.
Success is not guaranteed, but as a founder member the UK will do its utmost to ensure that the Human Rights Council is effective. Country resolutions will remain necessary for the worst offenders, but we would like the council to develop a broader range of tools to support states that are trying to improve their human rights performance. We would also like to preserve the role of the special procedures and to integrate that work more closely with that of the council. There will not be time to secure progress on all those issues in June, but we hope that the council's first session will conduct its business in a spirit of constructive dialogue and pave the way for effective action on specific issues in the months to come.
In its report, the Committee devoted a lot of attention to issues connected with the fight against terrorism and I would like to address some of those issues now. The Government are committed to defending and promoting human rights at home and abroad without reservation, but effective counter-terrorism measures are part of that and essential to help us to preserve a democratic and free society. They support the most basic human right of all—the right to life, which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling mentioned—and protect people's ability to enjoy fully their other rights.
Equally, it is vital that the fight against terrorism is conducted in a way that respects and promotes human rights, because not only is that the correct thing to do but it is one of the most effective ways of undermining terrorists. Human rights have also been an integral part of our approach.
Some hon. Members raised rendition and allegations that terrorist suspects may have been transferred through airports in the UK. The Government have taken those allegations very seriously. At the beginning of this year, relevant Departments carried out an extensive review of files and found no evidence of detainees being transferred through the UK when there were grounds for believing that there was a real risk of torture. The review found only four occasions, all in 1998, when the United States requested permission to transfer detainees through the UK. Two of those requests were granted. Both were for terrorist suspects to be transferred to the US to stand trial by due legal process on charges on which they were subsequently convicted. Two were refused. As that small number of cases shows, when the UK is requested to assist another state, we would not do so if it would put us in breach of UK law or our international obligations. In particular, we would not facilitate the transfer of an individual from or through the UK to another state where there were grounds to believe that the person would face a real risk of torture.
In recent months, we have also co-operated in full with the secretary-general of the Council of Europe and the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. As part of the Government's commitment to transparency, the Secretary of State for Transport has also published flight information received from Eurocontrol on transits through the UK by aircraft alleged to have been involved in rendition. We have always been clear that US aircraft regularly transit the UK, as do aircraft from many other countries. That is perfectly normal and despite the allegations in the Council of Europe’s latest report, there remains no evidence that any of the flights were involved in rendition. We will study the Council of Europe’s report, but we see little that is new. If there are new facts, we will be happy to look into them, but investigation has not thrown up any new evidence.
As the Foreign Secretary told Parliament, the Government have made it clear to the United States authorities, including in recent months, that we expect it, as well as all other countries, to seek permission to render detainees via UK territory and airspace, including overseas territories. We will grant permission only if we are satisfied that the rendition would accord with UK law, our international obligations and our obligations under the UN convention against torture and the European convention on human rights. We are also clear that the US would not render a detainee through UK territory or airspace, including overseas territories, without our permission. As I have just noted, the US has sought such permission in the past.
The Intelligence and Security Committee takes the lead on intelligence matters. Some information cannot be made public and under the Intelligence Services Act 1994 Parliament decided that it is a matter for the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is a committee of parliamentarians and does an effective job of holding agencies and Ministers to account.
I am not sure whether the Minister is aware that I have entered correspondence with the new Foreign Secretary on that point. The Select Committee has yet to receive a response, but there is a letter from the Committee to the Foreign Secretary on the respective roles of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is not a Committee of the House, but is appointed by the Prime Minister, and the role of Select Committees, which are Committees of the House and chosen by the House. I hope that we will soon have a response from the Government to that letter.
I am sure that there will be because, as in all issues relating to such matters, we want to keep Parliament, including the Select Committee, properly informed at each stage. The former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), kept Parliament fully informed as and when additional information became available as a result of research into records going back to May 1997.
I noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South said about drip-feeding, but we could argue about whether it is drip-feeding or a continuous flow of information. I have no doubt whatever that the Secretaries of State involved—the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Transport—operated effectively, and did so as soon as they possibly could, on all occasions when they had information that would be helpful to people’s inquiries, whether made through parliamentary questions or reports. That is important.
I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, asked about rendition cases. I will comment on some cases, and if they are the wrong ones, I am sure that he will tell me about it, and then I will write to him. In the cases of el-Banna and el-Rawi, we did not request the detention, and we played no role in their transfer to Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Benyam Mohammed Al Habashi was interviewed once by a member of the security services in Karachi in 2002, but the security services had no role in his capture or transfer from Pakistan. I hope that that is helpful to my hon. Friend.
While the Minister is on the subject, will he respond to the important question asked by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)? The Minister gave the Chamber the clear assurance that the agreements between the American and British Governments required the American Government and their agencies to obtain the prior permission of the British Government to fly detainees through British airspace. Does that same undertaking apply when the American Government and their agencies fly detainees through British overseas territories, including the British Indian Ocean Territory known as Diego Garcia?
I thank the Minister for making that point, which is well taken. In my contribution, I made a point about people who were resident in Britain who had ended up in Guantanamo Bay, but who were nevertheless eligible to continue their residence in Britain through indefinite leave to remain. I recognise that they are not British nationals, but they could become British nationals. Are the Government prepared to make representations on their behalf?
I shall come to Guantanamo Bay and to my hon. Friend’s point in a moment. I hope that everyone is satisfied with the response that I have given so far. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South if the three cases mentioned are not those that he asked about; I shall write to him.
I want to reiterate the Government’s position on Guantanamo Bay. We have long made it clear that we regard the circumstances under which detainees continue to be held at Guantanamo Bay as unacceptable. The US Government know our views, which we have reiterated to them. As the Prime Minister has said, it would be better if Guantanamo were closed. We have also heard the public remarks of the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor. We raise those concerns in our regular discussions on detainee-related issues with the US Government. I give my hon. Friends the commitment that we will continue to do so.
We seek to ensure that the handling of detainees is consistent with the British Government’s other objectives, including preventing further terrorist attacks, undermining the work of those who recruit terrorists, and upholding respect for human rights and the rule of law. We have been accused of using intelligence derived from torture. The British Government’s position on torture is clear and has not changed: we condemn unreservedly the use of torture as a matter of fundamental principle, and we condemn it not just in principle but in practice. We not only condemn it, but continue to implement a global campaign to eradicate it.
The Government, including the intelligence and security agencies, never use torture for any purpose, including to obtain information; nor would we encourage others to do so. We are helping other countries to develop their own counter-terrorism capability, and we ensure that our training or other assistance that we provide promotes human rights compliance. That is important. On the future of Guantanamo, as has been mentioned, President Bush has now also said that he would like to end the process, and would like to get people to court. That is in line with what our legal people have said, and with what was outlined by our Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General.
It is important to recognise the dilemma faced by the US Government in considering the future. They must meet the demands of collective security while respecting individual humans rights. As I said earlier, we have discussions on those subjects with the United States Government and will continue to do so. I shall come back on the specific issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North because I have not been involved in any of those discussions and I would not want to give him the wrong impression. For my part, I will try to evaluate what discussions have taken place on the issue and I promise that I will come back to him on that.
Yes, that is what has been said. Furthermore, that is what I believe.
The issue of judicial review was raised and I shall write to colleagues about that because of the time constraints. The UK will continue to adhere to its long-standing policy not to deport anyone whom it believes is at real risk of torture or the death penalty. The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded the memorandum of understanding on deportation with assurances that the memorandum must not be used as a fig leaf to disguise a real risk of torture for deported terrorist suspects. I wholeheartedly agree. However, it is precisely because the Government take their human rights obligations seriously that they set out to negotiate those memorandums. Such agreements enable us to obtain assurances that will safeguard the rights of those individuals being returned, including the right to access to medical treatment, to adequate nourishment and to accommodation, as well as to treatment in a humane manner in accordance with internationally accepted standards.
By signing an MOU and agreeing to the appointment of a monitoring body—this is an important point that has been raised—Governments make a public commitment to safeguarding the well-being of individuals deported under such memorandums. A memorandum therefore provides an additional layer of protection over and above the provisions in international human rights instruments. Individuals will retain the right to challenge a decision to deport them in the UK courts. I believe that the memorandums provide adequate assurances to enable deportation of certain individuals to take place in a manner that is consistent with the UK’s human rights obligations.
I would like also to flag up some issues to which we are paying particular attention, and then I shall come to some specific questions asked.
I have listened carefully to the Minister’s helpful comments, but before he moves on, can he understand the concern about memorandums of understanding, given that our Government are siding with the Dutch Government in seeking to reverse the Chahal judgment in the Strasbourg court? That judgment stated clearly that there can be no balancing between the fundamental right of people not to be returned when there is a substantial risk of torture, and national security concerns that those people may be terrorists, or a threat to national security in other ways. Given that the Government are doing just that and are saying that that right is not absolute, people are concerned about whether the memorandums of understanding will provide as robust a safeguard—particularly in that case—as the Minister suggests the Government think it would.
We will have to disagree on that. The whole purpose of the memorandum, as I said, was to ensure that additional layer of protection. In the end, it is a judgment. Engaging with a country in that way takes them down a road that we may have been trying for years to get them to go down, for whatever reason. Certainly from my point of view, the memorandum is not a fig leaf but an important tool to protect people in respect of deportation. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is arguing that there are no circumstances in which anyone should ever be deported from the United Kingdom—not even on legitimate, legal grounds. If he is not arguing that, then I do not understand why he is so sceptical about the memorandums that we are trying to put in place.
I agree that there is a point of contention between us, and it may be a fundamental disagreement. My main argument—and it is an argument that is set out clearly in the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights—is that as soon as we start to have ad personam individual agreements through memorandums of understanding with countries that torture, it implies that we are willing to countenance them torturing people, as long as they are not the people that we are trying to deport.
The special rapporteur on torture for the UN, Manfred Nowak, has said clearly that the negotiation of such memorandums, even if they work—there is great scepticism among NGOs that they could, because of monitoring problems and the trustworthiness of the Governments involved—undermines multilateral agreements that protect everyone in those territories from torture, not just the individuals the Government are talking about.
As I said, individuals who are not British nationals and pose a threat to our national security should not have the right to remain here indefinitely. Is there any disagreement there? We can deport someone only if their removal is compatible with our international commitments, including obligations under the European convention on human rights. That is absolutely clear. We are also mindful of our international obligations and, therefore, in negotiating bilateral assurances with certain countries, we try to ensure that they and we comply with those obligations. These instruments will work and will be effective. I have no doubt that the Committee, given its position, will be looking to monitor that situation and we shall come back to it. I have to disagree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I understand where he is coming from and I do not disagree with the sentiment of what he is saying. He is absolutely right: we have to ensure that nothing untoward happens because we did not comply with our obligations. We must ensure that we comply with our legal and moral obligations.
I now come to the first of the two items that I wanted to bring to hon. Members’ attention before I answered those questions. I apologise, Mr. Hancock, if I am going back too far. I am just getting back into my swing. I have been out of the game for three years as chair of the Labour party. It was amazing not to be able to speak in this place for three years. I am going to get my money’s worth today.
The first of those items is slavery. Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. We are committed to work with others across Whitehall and beyond to ensure appropriate commemoration of this horrific period in history. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South that I would welcome the Select Committee having a think about what they would like to see in the commemoration. It would be helpful if the Committee gave us its thoughts on the matter, so that we could include them in the planning process.
Slavery is one of the most horrific periods in history, but it continues today in the forms of bonded and forced labour, trafficking and the worst forms of child labour. The US State Department last week released its annual report on trafficking in persons, which estimated that between 600,000 and 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked every year. The Government have prioritised combating trafficking in persons as part of the activities commemorating the 200th anniversary and will work to highlight and promote action on contemporary forms of slavery, including trafficking and the worst forms of child labour. The new Serious Organised Crime Agency will focus on the so-called “Mr. Bigs” who make fortunes from trafficking and, as the Prime Minister said at the launch of SOCA on 3 April, it will do so using a “sophisticated 21st century approach”.
My second point concerns democracy. I believe that the promotion of democratic practices and values is an essential part of any human rights strategy, as the best long-term foundation for human rights, the rule of law and good governance to flourish. While democracy cannot be imposed from outside and there is no definitive blueprint for a successful democracy, there are several essential core components that external actors can encourage and support. The work of civil society organisations—NGOs, trade unions and others—is key in providing an environment in which democracy can take root, in shaping and influencing policies and in holding Governments and others to account. To give a recent example, in Nepal we have seen the role that civil society organisations, trade unions and others can play in promoting increased public participation in government and in restoring human rights. That is a valuable step forward.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling raised the issue of the Bhutanese people. I noticed that he said that he had been a volunteer labourer—I thought he said that he had been a volunteer Labourite. I shall take back his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and ask my right hon. Friend to consider the wider comments about finding a solution to the issue.
Elsewhere, we have seen increasing repression of NGOs and civil society actors. The International Federation of Free Trade Unions has reported that 115 trade unionists were murdered for defending workers’ rights in 2005, while more than 1,600 were subjected to violent assaults and some 9,000 arrested. In Burma, 10 underground organisers of the outlawed Federation of Trade Unions of Burma—
I am pleased that the Minister mentioned trade unions and the role of the International Labour Organisation. He is obviously aware that the vast majority of those murders of trade unionists took place in Colombia last year. I hope that he will continue to make strong representations to the Colombian Government to protect people who are doing their best to defend those who are defending workers.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has that commitment.
The 10 underground organisers of the outlawed Federation of Trade Unions of Burma were arrested and sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years. There is a concern that new guidelines for the registration of NGOs in Burma may provide further restrictions in a climate where it is already difficult for them to operate.
I raised the Government’s concern about trade unions and a long list of other issues with the Burmese ambassador, whom I summoned to the Foreign Office this morning. I raised the recent attacks on Karen villages, the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, as well as the regime’s use of child soldiers and forced labour, and other civil and political rights abuses. Those issues are well known to hon. Members.
Several other Governments are using restrictive legislation or secondary administrative or executive measures to disrupt the work of NGOs in addition to “traditional” forms of harassment, surveillance and attacks by the police and security forces. I have therefore asked all our posts to monitor such examples and to suggest action that we can take to assist in those areas. I hope that hon. Members find that useful. I shall also write to the leader of the Burmese regime, setting out in great detail what I said to his ambassador today. I was not wholly convinced by the ambassador’s body language—never mind his actual language—that he was going to report back to his regime any of what I said whatever. I am taking further action in that respect.
A number of other points were raised. I said I would provide a memorandum on Africa, and I will, but there is one point I would like to make about our embassy in Harare. Our missions need to be fit for purpose. They need to have appropriate levels of security, particularly for our staff who work in the front line. We have a lot of interest in the country of Zimbabwe: a lot of our citizens are there. We must ensure that we have an effective organisation there, and we must also ensure that those who need to speak up and speak out can do so, and that they can get information out of the country. The Zimbabwean Government may not want people to be able to go to a fully effective and operational UK embassy. In that regard, I heard the political point that was made: I thought that it was a misguided and miscalculated point, and I hope that that view was shared.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling also referred to Mr. Mugabe. The point he raises is referred to in paragraph 90 of the response; there is a detailed note regarding it on page 22. To save time, I shall not read it out, but it gives a straight answer to the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised three issues in respect of Iraq, and it is important that I deal with them if I can. He asked whether we are helping or hindering human rights, whether leaving now would help or hinder the role of the armed forces in developing human rights there, and in Afghanistan, and about related issues. I shall not give him a mantra; I shall simply give him a direct response. He was involved—with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, I believe—in the early ’80s in campaigns in and around Iraq against the systematic torture and murder of the whole of the Iraqi trade union movement. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South was also involved. There was systematic murder and disappearances of Iraqi intellectuals on the left and in the centre, and of course the disappearance and destruction of any form of political party. We did not know at that time how many people died or were imprisoned or tortured—men, women, children and whole families. Latterly, we found some information about the gassing of families. We know of the murder of trade union leaders, and the destruction, disruption and dismantling of trade unions.
I understand that this issue is difficult for Members of the House who never agreed to enter Iraq, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, who consistently says that he believes that it was an illegal act. Everyone has an opinion on Iraq, but let us be clear that whatever people’s opinions were about the war, it is critical to understand what is happening now: there is a battle for democracy. Millions of Iraqis—some 75 per cent. of them—turned up in the polls of their own free will. My God, I wish that we had got a 75 per cent. turnout in our general elections. Iraqis turned up in their millions under fear of murder and attacks on their families, communities and villages to express the simple message that they want to have a democracy, and to run it. Difficult as democratic institutions are, they want to do what we take for granted, and we have a responsibility to assist them with that. That would help greatly human rights and development, not hinder them.
We now have thousands of free and independent NGOs operating in that civil society despite the serious difficulties, appalling murders and atrocities that happen there every day. I agree with the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling; we all have a heavy heart every time something terrible happens, but we need to know that despite what is happening, a brave and resourceful people are working with us individually and collectively to make a huge difference. We should leave when they ask us to do so—and they will—but hon. Members should consider what we have done with our support so far. Almost 4,000 schools have been rehabilitated, 1,200 primary health care centres are opening and functioning, and we have trained 180,000 teachers and health care workers.
I do not make those remarks as a litany to balance what the right hon. Gentleman said about what is happening. I took in all of what he said, but to balance it, I say this: it is right to stay in Iraq to support the Iraqis and help them with long-term stability. It is right to help them to establish a working, effective democracy and to include everyone in civil society, such as trade unions, community groups, women’s groups, children, adults, pensioners, academics and political parties. Difficult as it is, they will win. They will beat the terrorists. The terrorists will not beat democracy. No matter how long it takes, those brave people will see this through with our support and help and those of the international community. Difficult as the situation is, each day brings us a day nearer to their creation of a democratic society. We have a responsibility to help them to build a flourishing civil society.
I have not given the right hon. Gentleman a line, and I have not been given a note; I am simply telling him what I sincerely believe we need to achieve, working with the community and the new democratically elected Government in Iraq. Each day, men and women going about their business, such as my fellow Ministers, could be assassinated simply for doing their jobs. A worker going home tonight—a woman standing at a bus stop—could be shot. Why? Because she goes out to work. I am not talking about coalition people; I am talking about terrorists who do not want a democratic society. They are prepared to kill people on the basis of their religion or because they have an opinion, or to kill a fellow human being simply to strike fear into people’s hearts and cause communal violence and division. Goodness, if we give in to that, what kind of world can we expect to hand on to our children and grandchildren?
Does the Minister consider that the human rights case made for staying in Iraq applies with equal force to the human rights case for our being in Afghanistan? Does he consider also that we, the Americans and others have sufficient people on the ground to protect and defend the huge human rights gains that we have made in Afghanistan and to avoid seeing them gradually wither away?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are 42 countries operating in Afghanistan, and the world community is there to help it to build its democracy. The Afghans are another group of resourceful people, and they are coming out of 30 years of conflict prior to, during and since the Taliban. What is the Taliban’s message now? It is simple but dangerous. To try to regain their control of that state, they will use violence against not only the international community, but, as Members have said, against schoolteachers, communities and women.
The Taliban are trying to re-impose themselves on Afghanistan by using it as a huge headquarters from which they can spread their evilness. However, with the help and support of the 42 countries, Afghanistan is succeeding and it will continue to succeed. Some 80 per cent. of Afghans are illiterate. We must seize this wonderful opportunity to open and reopen schools and sustain them. With every day that goes by, we are interacting with the community on the infrastructure projects with which we are involved in south Afghanistan. That approach is absolutely right. Our role there is to help people build and sustain a democratic society in which everybody’s human rights are not only protected but enhanced in an open civil society. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, the Committee Chairman, asked me how many countries had ratified the Rome statute. I do not know; it is not in my brief, so I shall write to him. I apologise: I have answers to everything, but he got me middle wicket.
On Chinese policy in the horn of Africa, I am going to China soon, and if the Committee wants, I am happy to report back on my discussions. My hon. Friend can rest assured that one item on the programme will be extensive discussion with the Chinese and a dialogue on human rights. In the meantime and before my visit, I shall send the Committee a note about the issues as I understand them, what people are writing to me about and what is on file. If he thinks that anything is missing from that note about the types of discussions that I should have, he can respond in advance of my visit.
I offer my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) a meeting in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the issues that he raised. I have an extensive brief, and we could discuss all those issues for an hour or more. All of them are important and difficult. Organ transplants are not the only such issue; there are a range of others. I am happy to have a meeting about that issue and West Papua, and about the issue of Aceh, which I think he wanted to raise, too.
I hope that by answering as I have, I have shown hon. Members that I want to have a good working relationship with the Committee and its members. I have an open-door policy as the Minister with responsibility for these matters, and I shall make time and space for any Members who want to see me individually or collectively about a particular issue. When I undertake a strategic visit to a region, I shall try as often as I can to inform the Committee in advance about my visit and to discuss the issues that its members would like me, working in partnership with them, to raise when I am in the region. I hope that that is helpful, too.
I have tried to underscore my continued commitment to work with the Committee on human rights. The realisation of human rights throughout the world as a basis for our own security and prosperity is important, and their promotion throughout the world will remain at the heart of our foreign policy. While I am doing this job as a Minister, I shall personally put my heart and soul into that work. What an opportunity to advocate throughout the globe policies on which I campaigned when I joined the Labour party 15 years ago. As a Minister, I shall try to do something about them. I thank Members for listening, and I wish them good luck.
I thank the Minister for that contribution. He did very well; after three years away, he has not lost his touch. With that, I suggest that it is time for the sitting to adjourn.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Five o’clock.