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Human Rights

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 5 June 2007

10. What recent representations she has received on human rights; and if she will make a statement. (140318)

We receive letters regularly from members of the public, Members of Parliament and Tibetan support groups on the human rights situation in Tibet. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade met the Foreign Affairs Committee in May to discuss its concerns about Tibet in more detail. We continue to raise Tibet-related issues with the Chinese Government, and we did so most recently in the UK-China human rights dialogue in February.

Recently, a world Tibet support conference took place in Brussels, and his holiness the Dalai Lama had planned to attend. I understand that the Chinese Government put pressure on the Belgian Government, and so the Dalai Lama was effectively blocked from attending that conference. Given the pivotal role that he plays in protecting human rights and seeking a negotiated settlement for Tibet, will the Government show his holiness a better welcome when he visits the UK in May next year?

The Government have been informed that the Dalai Lama wishes to visit the United Kingdom in May 2008. When specific requests are received for meetings with Government Ministers, we will consider them carefully and sympathetically. I will respond to the Dalai Lama’s international office in the usual way and he will be received as a distinguished religious leader.

What representations has the Minister received recently on the human rights situation in Syria? Last week, its President, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was elected unopposed, with the support of a ruthless political machine. Will the Minister review his policy on engagement with Syria?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, we have to deal with all manner of difficult regimes, and sometimes with regimes that do not have a trace of democracy about them. We take seriously Syria’s role as a major player in the middle east, especially as regards Iraq and Lebanon.

On the 40th anniversary of the six-day war and the consequent occupation of Palestinian territory, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he has had any recent discussions with the Israeli Government about them holding so many Palestinian prisoners without charge, including those who were elected, and children?

Yes, we have, and we will continue to do so. We have, on a number of occasions, both through our ambassador and through ministerial contact, pressed the Israelis either to charge those individuals or to release them.

One of the most important human rights is the right to a fair trial. I have been in correspondence with the Minister for Europe about my constituent, Nick Morley, who faces trial in Macedonia in relation to a possible driving offence. The judge has made it clear that evidence put forward by expert witnesses on behalf of the defence will not be admitted; evidence will be accepted only from the prosecution. May I urge Ministers to make representations to the Macedonian Government to make sure that a fair trial is secured?

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has encouraged the hon. Gentleman to write at the end of the trial, because we cannot interfere during the course of it, but we will certainly be prepared to review the situation when he contacts my right hon. Friend.

On the issue of human rights, will the Minister join me in condemning the decision taken by the University and College Union last week to call for a boycott of academic institutions in Israel?

We are aware of the proposed boycott, and I have to say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that it would be at all helpful. What we need is more discussion, more reconciliation and fewer threats, wherever they happen to come from.

Given that the brutal military dictatorship in Burma commits some of the most egregious human rights abuses to be found anywhere in the world, and that only last month the tyrannical Government of that country, in defiance of international opinion, renewed the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, does the Minister share my horror, and more particularly that of Human Rights Watch, at the fact that the Government of Burma were invited to the Asia-Europe meeting in Hamburg on 28 and 29 May? Ought not the international community be prepared to exert pressure on India, China and Russia to force the Government of Burma to stop killing their people, and to start respecting and liberating them?

Yes, I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman said. It is a great shame that commercial considerations are often put far above humanitarian ones when it comes to dealing with the Burmese Government.

With regard to human rights, is my hon. Friend aware that when I visited Israel as the emissary of the then Prime Minister a few days after the end of the six-day war 40 years ago, I begged the then Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, to have regard for the human rights of the Palestinians who, even at that early stage, were being oppressed. After 40 years, is it not time that that terrible cancer, which has afflicted Israelis, Lebanese, Palestinians and everyone else in the region, should be brought to an end? The only way to do so is to secure a settlement that brings human rights to the Palestinians and ends those terrible encroachments on Palestinian territories.

My right hon. Friend will know that the Government’s policy is to construct a two-state solution. That means that on Israel’s border there must be a viable Palestinian state with an economy that works and is capable of sustaining employment and wealth in that country. It ought to happen, as that is a very, very small part of the world. Geographically, it is something that the international community ought to be able to handle. I quite agree with my right hon. Friend: we draw back from making difficult decisions at our peril, because this will remain the most difficult and intractable problem for a very long time to come. Wherever I go, it is the problem that is always quoted as the chief symbol of injustice. We need an Israel and a Palestine living alongside each other in peace and harmony, and that is what we must aim for.

May I congratulate the Minister on his foresight in being able to answer the question from the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) before she had even put it to the House? Does he agree that the work of the new Human Rights Council is critical to improving human rights in the world, so it is important that individual council members examine critically their own human rights record? For example, countries such as Cuba should do so. Does he therefore agree that the universal peer review mechanism should be implemented as soon as possible, and that it is important that the British Government make representations to Mexico, which chairs the committee of the council and, indeed, any other committee members that have influence, to ensure that that review mechanism is put in place?

Yes, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we worked hard to ensure that those who were elected to the council have a good human rights record in their home territory. That was not always the case, and it was a great disappointment to us that some countries with repressive regimes were elected. It is therefore extremely important that the review take place and that the Mexican Government are proactive on this. I am afraid that for far too many years the way in which human rights were handled in the United Nations meant that very little was done and that there was great reluctance to become involved, even in the worst human rights situations in individual states. This is an opportunity for the world to move on and for the United Nations to play a much more proactive and useful role than it has previously done.

We saw an egregious assault on human rights on television the other weekend, with the beating-up of Mr. Peter Tatchell in Moscow in a Gay Pride demonstration. Added to the denial of human rights to Mr. Litvenenko’s widow by the contemptuous refusal to co-operate with judicial and legal authorities in the UK on the extradition of a suspect, and the contempt shown by Russians for the murder of Anna Politkovskya, the investigative journalist whose death has still not been explained, as well as Mr. Putin’s threat two days ago to aim his missiles at our cities, is it not time to say to Russia, “If you want to be friends with Britain and Europe, get your human rights in order and drop this aggressive, hate-filled language against the values of Europe and of western democracies”?

We try on every occasion to stress to the Russians the importance of improving and maintaining human rights. It is a key value, and if the Russians are to extend their undoubted economic influence, they must understand that. The world is looking for improvements in human rights in Russia, and the Government certainly are.