Thursday 11 October 2007
[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 269 and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 7127.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman .]
As we have lost 10 minutes because of the Division in the House, we will be able to continue the debate until 5.40 pm.
In introducing the report, I pay tribute to all those involved in the work of our Committee in producing our comprehensive human rights annual report for 2006, which was published on 18 April, and to those involved in producing the detailed response that we received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was published in June.
Inevitably, I cannot cover all the areas that we highlighted in our comprehensive report—I hope that my colleagues will pick up on some of those that I will not be able to touch on—but I want to begin by considering the way in which the Department deals with human rights issues. For some years, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has expressed concern about the double-hatting of the Minister with responsibility for trade and for human rights. We strongly welcome the fact that that arrangement is no longer in place. We now have a Minister who is responsible for human rights as well as other responsibilities, including the United Nations, and that is Lord Malloch-Brown, and his colleague the Under-Secretary, who is here today, also deals with human rights issues. The Trade Minister no longer wears that hat. That does not in any way cast aspersions on the efforts of the former Minister for Trade, who was also responsible for human rights, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who did an excellent job, but perception is sometimes important in politics and the perception of a separate Trade Minister and Human Rights Minister makes the distinction clear.
As a Committee, we have called over the years for modifications and changes in the way in which the report is presented by the Government when they publish their human rights report. We understand from the FCO’s response to our report this year that the next report will not be published until March 2008, will be “more tightly focused” and will emphasise human rights in relation to the Government’s strategic priorities, the international system and countries of key concern. Will the Minister reassure us that that will not mean that some of the more controversial issues will receive less attention in the round as it tries to concentrate on the generalities and that it will still have a clear, sharp focus on some of the most difficult issues of concern?
One major area of concern to our Committee is the way in which the United Nations human rights system works. Members will be aware that the Human Rights Council was recently established and that there was considerable hope that it might improve the way in which the international system dealt with human rights. Unfortunately, I do not believe that that is the case yet. Results are mixed and some countries are still using the council to pursue their own agendas rather than the cause of human rights internationally and in general. Unfortunately, countries that have a record of human rights abuse still serve on the Human Rights Council. The United Kingdom has a good record of pursuing human rights issues in the United Nations system, and that is still the case. Will the Minister update us on the Government’s priorities in such matters and on how we can try to make the UN Human Rights Council more effective in the future?
Another issue for international concern highlighted not only in the report but in our more recent report on global security in the middle east is the use of cluster munitions. We welcome the fact that the British Government attended the meeting in Oslo to try to produce a treaty to ban all cluster munitions. The Government say that they are committed to that aspiration and aim. However, there are clearly difficulties, because some major countries that have and use cluster munitions did not attend the Oslo meeting. We have seen the indiscriminate use of large numbers of such weapons, as happened in Lebanon where the Israelis used large numbers of cluster munitions, particularly in the last 72 hours of the conflict in 2006.
We have discussed, debated and corresponded with the FCO about definitions of “dumb” or “smart” cluster munitions. Some of that is reflected in the reply to our report. More recently, in our middle east report, we produced further evidence about the issue. One of our main concerns is the high failure rate of many of the so-called smart cluster munitions. We believe on the evidence given to us during our middle east inquiry that failure rates could be as high as 10 per cent. In their response to that report, the Government said that they
“do not accept that failure rates of the UK variant of the M85 could be as high as 10 per cent.”
They should tell us more about their failure rates and about what steps are being taken to reduce and ultimately to eliminate cluster munitions. Even if the failure rate is only 2.3 per cent., as they claim, that still means that people will be maimed, that children could lose their limbs and that agricultural areas will not be able to be developed because of the dispersal of such weapons. That is a matter of continuing concern to us.
There are other wide issues that I will not have time to touch on today, but I feel that I should at least mention them. A considerable part of the report talks about the US practice of rendition of prisoners, as well as about aspects of what was called at that time “the war on terrorism”, and their implications for human rights in general. Another aspect touched on in another Select Committee report that was published over the summer was the controversy concerning the inquiry about Saudi Arabia and the al-Yamamah BAE Systems contract. I will not go into that in detail now, but I note that although the inquiry was stopped in this country, the work of the US Department of Justice is continuing. I understand that that department has requested co-operation on that from the British Government. Our conclusion was that the UK’s reputation had been damaged internationally because of those events and, as a Committee, we stand by that.
Another area that I want to mention is now more topical. When we published our report in April we pointed out the deteriorating human rights situation in Burma. We pointed to the repression of the opposition by the illegitimate military regime, the continued imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the way in which the Burmese regime was assisted by some countries in preventing the issue from getting up the international human rights agenda.
The British Government, our former ambassador to the United Nations, and others, have tried hard to put Burma on the international agenda, but China and other countries have consistently blocked it in the Security Council. Clearly, some countries, of which the UK is not one, have significant economic interests in Burma, including some European countries—Total, the French oil company, has been mentioned.
These issues are of great importance. Owing to the fact that progress has not been made through the UN, there is now discussion about a European Union strengthened sanction regime. Although that is welcome, it is also regrettable, because the UN and the international community as a whole should grasp the nettle of the appalling behaviour of the military regime in Burma, which includes the repression that we have seen all too vividly on our television screens in recent days.
I returned recently from a visit to the India-Burma border, and for as long as I live, I shall remember meeting a seven-year-old boy, who, at the age of three, was abducted by Government troops of the State Peace and Development Council, taken to a small, stone, cold room in the middle of an army camp and kept there in confinement for eight hours, without being offered food or water. That is just one example of the depths to which this despicable regime will sink in a bid to cling on to its ill-gotten gains. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is particularly important that international and multilateral action continues and accelerates, because what is taking place now, as we have seen in The Independent today, is an invisible savagery? The cameras have gone, but the monks and others are being brutally and savagely beaten, incarcerated and prevented from expressing the views of the masses of that beautiful but benighted country.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to the work that he has done in this House over many years in order to highlight the situation in Burma. Clearly that regime is trying to cut off communication with the outside world in order to make it impossible for us to know what is really going on. We know that 10 people have died, but suspect that many more have done so of which we do not know. Certainly, hundreds, if not thousands have been brutally incarcerated.
Some countries have leverage, and I hope that the Government of China will use all of their endeavours, in every way that they can, to moderate and change the behaviour of the Burmese Government, to make them engage seriously with the United Nations envoy, Mr. Gambari, and to recognise that it is unacceptable, in the 21st century, for regimes to behave in this way. Those things happened quite often in the 20th century, but in the 21st century, and in a world of globalisation, economic relations and human contacts, it is not acceptable, even for countries that find it uncomfortable, because the rest of the world is watching.
During the run-up to the Olympic games in China next year, the rest of the world will be watching not just what happens in China but what happens in other countries, because the world will start to look at all of the flags and countries and say, “Well, where do those people come from? How do they live their normal existence?” I hope that China, which is a very important country and will be a major one this century, can use its influence positively.
I shall turn to some sad and difficult places in Africa, where, again, China has an important role, because of its economic power. It is the major purchaser of oil and raw materials from many African countries, from Zimbabwe to Sudan, Angola and many others. The situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. Members of my Committee strongly endorse the Prime Minister when he said that he will not attend the EU-Africa summit if Robert Mugabe is there. Indeed, that view was expressed by some of us yesterday when the Foreign Secretary gave evidence to us. Clearly there is a view among some people in other parts of the EU—I had an exchange with the Commission President, Mr. Barroso, over this matter in Lisbon on Monday at the Conference of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairmen—that those issues are not as important as others, and that they have to be put to one side. In reality, if Mugabe attends the EU-Africa summit, it will devalue the presence of others and send out the signal that we are setting aside important issues. That will undermine the case for human rights, for which we are campaigning.
I remind hon. Members that, in Zimbabwe, there is 7,000 per cent. inflation, and there are daily beatings and the repression of independent free trade unionists and opposition political figures. There was a rigged election, and the President is 82 years old and seems to wish to be President for life. That has to change. Many hon. Members will have had people come to their advice surgeries who have fled from the violence and repression in Zimbabwe, and we know that, because of our historical links, the regime in Zimbabwe tries to caricature our criticisms as being part of a neo-colonialist agenda. Far from it. We raise criticisms because the people in the Movement for Democratic Change, trade unions and human rights organisations, and brave figures in the Churches in Zimbabwe, ask us to do so, because their voices cannot be heard in their own country. They need the international community to speak for them. The European Union, too, has a responsibility to do that.
I shall touch also on the situation in Sudan. Hopefully, the negotiations due to take place in Tripoli in Libya in a few weeks’ time will lead to a comprehensive breakthrough. Hopefully, before long, the African Union and United Nations hybrid force will be deployed. That has been authorised under Security Council resolution 1769. However, it is important that that force can do its job and that it gets real support. I would like the Minister to tell us what concrete, tangible support the United Kingdom will give to that force in order to ensure that it can do the job of protecting the millions of people in Darfur who have been displaced, have fled, and suffered as a result of the violent behaviour of the Sudanese regime, the militias, the Janjaweed and others.
I know that I am trespassing on the hon. Gentleman’s generosity, but does he agree—this is consistent with what he has just said—that the role of the force needs to be, to coin a phrase, proactive rather than reactive, and that essentially the international community should be seeking not a peacekeeping role, but a peace-enforcement mandate? That is very long-delayed.
I agree. The Committee’s report does not go into the details of the concept of a responsibility to protect, of the UN high-level panel, and other matters. We dealt with those in other reports. However, the essence of the problem is that there are still some countries in the world that believe that we have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. That is a traditionalist agenda that, hopefully, is changing. The dilemma that we have had over Sudan, again, is that some countries in the UN and the African Union are not prepared to enable the development of an intervention that could make a real difference.
I hope that the politics are changing, that there will be agreement in Tripoli and that, therefore, there will be a political solution to the conflict, such as the agreement between the southern Sudanese and the north after many years of conflict. However, we cannot rely on that and we must recognise that it will take time to stabilise the situation. Some 200,000 people have died already, and 2 million have been left homeless. The situation requires serious and concerted action by the international community.
Finally, I shall touch on one other area, which the report does not highlight, but about which we should do more in the coming years. It is a conflict that is barely reported in this country. There are regular demonstrations outside Parliament by Sri Lankans protesting about the conflict and civil war in Sri Lanka, but there is almost nothing in our media about it. That may be caused in part by the appalling behaviour of one organisation in the conflict, blowing up buses and carrying out terrorist actions, which does not help to win international support or sympathy. However, it is not just the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the Tamil Tigers—who are responsible for the conflict; the official Government forces have carried out some dreadful actions, too.
In Sri Lanka over the past year and a half, the situation has steadily deteriorated, and many tens of thousands of people have suffered. It is estimated that more than 300,000 people have had to leave their homes since August 2006, and that 100,000 have been displaced since March. The situation is very serious, and the international community should do far more. Sri Lanka’s neighbours—India, in particular—could use their influence, but the issue must be pushed up the international agenda.
We know from many other conflicts that one cannot solve them purely by military means; one must engage in political processes. In Sri Lanka, there was a political process that came to a kind of agreement, but then it broke down. We need the international community to re-engage with the situation, and given that our country has had a relationship with Sri Lanka, both as a colony and subsequently, we have some influence there. I hope that the Government will do far more to end the conflict.
I have spoken for about 20 minutes, with some interventions, and I know that several Members wish to speak. Human rights are not an add-on; they are an essential part of our country’s policies—not just of our foreign policy. When an individual in this country makes a decision to go on a package holiday, and they choose a country where a repressive regime uses the foreign currency that is spent, there are consequences. I was recently involved in an altercation about Burma with a figure from the travel industry. His claim that people who went on holiday to Burma might be able to report on what was going on there struck me as one of the most bizarre arguments that I had heard for a long time. I can hardly imagine the Burmese military regime allowing people to go up to the north of the country where the monks have been taken in chains and locked up.
We must push these issues up the agenda. All of us must think about what we can do to help to improve human rights not only in our own country, but throughout the world.
I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and I congratulate him on his successful leadership of the Committee through to a unanimously agreed and important report. Like him, I shall cover a number of topics, and although throughout the debate our treatment of the issue might appear to be spasmodic, it has as its underlying theme human rights and their universality. That universality must be constantly stressed, particularly against regimes throughout the world who think that, as far as the involvement of other countries is concerned, human rights can be dismissed on the ground that they are internal matters from which the external community should be excluded. That, of course, is totally contrary to the United Nations Vienna declaration on human rights. The ringing opening sentence of article 5 must be constantly restated to such countries. It reads:
“All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.”
I shall start with the occupied territories, and particularly Gaza, although what I have to say about Gaza applies, to a lesser extent but with considerable force, to the west bank and east Jerusalem, too. Sadly, Gaza is now one of the great human rights scandals in the world. Approximately 1.25 million people are effectively imprisoned there, with little, and in some cases no, ability to get out. In some respects, the situation is worse than being in prison, because some key elements of life—access to power, and certainty of water and food supplies—have been severely and dangerously reduced. Sadly, that is a result of Israeli Government policy, which has in part been based on carrying out serious attacks on the basic infrastructure of Gaza. That policy is most certainly morally wrong. It is not right to deprive innocent women and children, and the overwhelming majority of peaceful and law-abiding civilian males, of the basic necessities of life in the pursuit of terrorists. It is not merely morally indefensible but politically crass.
The key element in dealing successfully with terrorism, as we learned over many decades in Northern Ireland, and as we still learn today inside the United Kingdom in trying to deal with the al-Qaeda terrorist threat, is to deal with the small minority of terrorists separately from the rest of the civilian population. That is the key policy requirement. If in Northern Ireland the Government had launched attacks on the basic infrastructure of the Catholic areas in Belfast or Londonderry, the political consequences would have been absolutely catastrophic. They would have left us light years away from the political settlement that we have finally achieved.
The Government recognise the immense dangers of such a policy. At the opening of their response to our report, they say, at paragraph 78:
“The Government, together with our European partners, has worked tirelessly and creatively to ensure that the Palestinian people do not pay the price of Hamas’ failure.”
Although the Government make that statement and believe it, I am sure, sincerely, it is not good enough to do a sticking-plaster job through our aid programme in order to meet the basic needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza. The only way in which that intention will be delivered is by securing a fundamental change in Israeli Government policy. That requires the Israeli Government to recognise that although they are perfectly entitled to deal with Hamas terrorists and Hezbollah terrorists to the north—indeed, they would have the law-abiding world, including our own Government, behind them—that must not affect the needs of the overwhelming, law-abiding majority of the civilian population. The Israeli Government’s policy towards those people should be absolutely the reverse and should concentrate on winning hearts and minds.
That same policy—the correct policy—is the one that we have been following in Afghanistan with a fair degree of success, even in Helmand province, which is the area of greatest security difficulty. Although the Committee’s report rightly acknowledges that we have a huge way to go in establishing basic human rights in Afghanistan, the Government could and should do far more to emphasise the success that we have had and continue to have in promoting human rights in Afghanistan.
Several members of the Committee, including myself, were able to go to Afghanistan just over a year ago. We were all struck, yet again, by the number of women who were going out and doing professional jobs, which would have been impossible and unacceptable when the Taliban were in power. We were also struck by the significant number of women MPs in the Afghan Parliament, and we had a meeting with them. We were struck, too, by the number of girls who are now, mercifully, being allowed the education that they were denied by the Taliban. When we saw Education Minister Atmar, we were delighted to hear him refer to the way in which the British forces in Helmand province had re-established schools that the Taliban had burned down simply for allowing girls to have an education.
Such developments are very encouraging, and the Government could and should do more to bring home to the British people the fact that we are fighting in Afghanistan not only because we want to prevent the Taliban from coming back, as they most certainly would if we were not there—all the severe security perils that that would involve would take us back to before 9/11—but because Afghanistan is the front line for human rights and particularly for women’s and girls’ rights. Let us keep saying that.
I also want to refer to Zimbabwe. I have been fortunate enough to go to Zimbabwe over a number of years, both before Mr. Mugabe came to power and since. Sadly, Zimbabwe is a mass human tragedy. It is one of the most well-endowed countries in Africa, with tremendous agricultural wealth, mineral wealth and unrivalled tourist opportunities, but it has now been reduced to a wreck, other than for Mr. Mugabe and his cronies. Hundreds of thousands of people have been turned into refugees and millions have been reduced to destitution.
I looked again at the Committee’s report and the Government response, and I have to say that I am not particularly proud of either. Year by year, we have been going through similar motions, uttering words of condemnation and asking the Government to do more at the UN and other international bodies. The Government have replied with similar words of condemnation, saying that they have been having meetings and talks and that they have been doing their best. In the meantime, everything has been getting worse.
We have, however, had one new breakthrough. As I told the Foreign Secretary at the Committee’s meeting yesterday, I warmly applaud the Prime Minister on making it clear that he will not go to the EU-Africa summit to rub shoulders with Mr. Mugabe. However, I was saddened, although not at all surprised, when I asked the Foreign Secretary how many other EU Prime Ministers will be taking the same stand. He had to reply that he was not, sadly, aware of any other Prime Minister who was going to take the same position.
I have a policy point—indeed, a recommendation—for the Minister and the Government. I have been looking back through my files. Two years ago, I had a correspondence with the then Minister for Europe, who is now the Secretary of State for International Development, about the ambit of international criminal law. He noted that, as things stand, unless somebody is guilty of something that falls within the definition of a war crime or crimes against humanity, they are outside the ambit of international criminal law. Should this country and the Government therefore consider whether the ambit of international criminal law ought to be widened somewhat to bring within it those who carry out outrageous, appalling mass human rights violations that, under the present definitions, fall just below the level of crimes against humanity? That is a serious and significant question of policy, which needs to be addressed.
If an individual in this country treated another individual in the way that Mr. Mugabe treats millions of his subjects, it would be a matter for a criminal prosecution, as it would under the criminal law of most other countries. If that is the situation for individuals, we must ask whether it does not represent reasonable and necessary grounds for extending the ambit of international criminal law to deal with political leaders who behave in a way that utterly defies and denies human rights and imposes huge suffering on their peoples.
I ask the same question in relation to the military junta in Burma, and the same issue of policy arises in relation to its members. The military junta’s stock in trade is to smash up, jail and torture—even to death—people who have simply indulged in wholly peaceful demonstrations. Such unacceptable conduct makes the case for giving serious consideration to widening the ambit of international criminal law.
The hon. Member for Ilford, South referred to cluster bombs, and I very much applaud the Government for the Defence Secretary’s announcement on 20 March that this country will be the first to announce an immediate ban on the use of dumb cluster bombs by its own armed forces. It would be reasonable to say that that announcement came after a fair degree of vigorous prodding by this Committee and the Quadripartite Committee, but it was none the less a significant step forward on the part of the Government, and I congratulate them on it.
However, the Government’s response to the Committee’s present report and to its report on global security and the middle east raises another point. The Government have acknowledged that, even with our own UK version of the M85, there is a 2.3 per cent. failure rate. We were told—I was there to hear it—by the UN experts engaged in the fantastic cluster bomblet clearance operation in southern Lebanon, when we were there in March, that they were experiencing a failure rate of 10 per cent. I have every reason to think that the failure rate of other countries’ cluster bombs—so-called smart cluster bombs, which in this case were the Israelis’ cluster bombs—may be significantly higher than that of the ones used by the UK’s armed forces.
I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford, South: if cluster bombs are used in any great volume, given the large number of bomblets per bomb, even a 2.3 per cent. failure rate means a significant amount of live, undetonated munitions lying around in fields, grass and hedgerows, often with coloured markers on them, so that they are attractive to children, whom they will maim or possibly kill if they come into contact with them. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to the Committee’s view that we should see whether we can bring about a total ban, including a ban on smart cluster bombs, unless we can produce technology that makes them not less than 100 per cent. safe—in other words with self-detonation that is guaranteed to work every time.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about cluster bombs. Did the Committee consider at all the similar residue effect of depleted uranium weapons, with fallout from localised burning that takes place if such a weapon is used, and the consequent health problems, which have certainly occurred in southern Iraq in relation to the war in 1991?
I do not recall that we considered depleted uranium in the context of the report before us today, but if my memory serves me well we considered it in our reports following the war in Kosovo, when there was acknowledged use of DU munitions, including by the RAF and the United States Air Force.
May I finally turn to one small but not insignificant matter? It is not referred to in our report, so I shall quite understand if the Minister gives a written answer. It is the failure, still, of the EU to ratify the 1996 Hague convention on the international protection of children. That is a child protection convention of enormous importance, with the potential to be of real benefit to children around the world. Although it entered into force in January 2002, it is, well over five years later, still unratified. As the Minister may know, the only reason why it is not ratified—it is appalling to relate it—is that it is tangled up in the spat between Britain and the Spanish Government over how it should be implemented in Gibraltar. It is scandalous that a worldwide convention of prime international importance to children should be held up in ratification as a result of the British and Spanish Governments’ inability to agree its operation in Gibraltar.
Nearly a year ago, on 17 October, I received an answer on that point from the then Minister for Europe, the Secretary to the Treasury. He ended his answer with this sentence:
“Negotiations are consequently at an advanced stage and we hope that a final agreement will be reached over the next month.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1183W.]
Almost a year has elapsed and unless the convention has been ratified in the past few days—I am not aware that it has—it scandalously remains unratified. I ask the Minister to give that matter her urgent attention.
In conclusion I want to mention the late Robin Cook, who spoke of his intention to conduct an ethical foreign policy—a phrase that came in for a certain amount of derision, whether fairly or not. As a result of his initiative, the British Government’s Foreign Office began, for the first time, to produce an annual report on human rights. That is a profoundly important initiative. I am delighted that the Foreign Office continues to take it very seriously, as 356 pages of the 2006 report—I think that I counted right—bear witness. We on the Foreign Affairs Committee take it seriously. I hope that it will continue to be the policy of the Government, and I am sure that it will continue to be the policy of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that human rights should continue to be a key focus of our attention.
I am very pleased to speak for the first time in more than nine years as a Back Bencher under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on their excellent report and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on his presentation of it. I do not intend to detain the House for long, partly because other hon. Members will be anxious to speak and partly because I want to raise an aspect of human rights in China. China is referred to in the report, but I am well aware that it was only six months ago that the House debated the FAC’s report on east Asia in this Chamber and that China was the main focus of that debate.
The issue that I want to raise is the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China and, in particular, the horrendous allegations of the systematic and organised harvesting of their bodily organs. I raise those shocking matters at the instigation of my constituent, Ms Youyan Li, and especially after my meetings with her elderly parents. I may mention their names because they are now safely settled in Australia: Mr. Baoging Li and Mrs. Jinghang Liu. They are both Falun Gong practitioners. Both were arrested several times in China. Mrs. Liu was forcibly subjected to blood tests and other forms of medical examination, which we believe were the preliminary stages of organ harvesting.
The persecution of Falun Gong practitioners is well attested. Amnesty International reported in 2001 that the Chinese Government had adopted three strategies to crush Falun Gong: violence against practitioners who refuse to renounce their beliefs; brainwashing to force all known practitioners to abandon and denounce Falun Gong; and a media campaign to turn public opinion against Falun Gong. Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture, reported in 2005 on the alleged ill treatment and torture of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners. The US State Department’s country report on China, for the same year, indicated that the number of Falun Gong practitioners dying in custody was estimated to be between a few hundred and a few thousand.
What is this Falun Gong that attracts such violence from the Chinese authorities? It appears to be a spiritual technique based on traditional Chinese breathing exercises. It includes such exercises, plus meditation and certain moral principles derived from Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Among other things, its practitioners are guided by concepts that translate as truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance. Falun Gong is not an organised movement. It has no members, just adherents. It has no political platform. It seems to attract middle-aged, middle class people rather like my constituent’s parents, both retired and both former award-winning scientists.
Why, then, is the repression of Falun Gong so violent—so particularly virulent? The answer is perhaps twofold. First, there is the scale of the movement. By 1999, when President Jiang Zemin outlawed Falun Gong and set up the notorious “610 office” to lead the repressions, the number of practitioners ran into the millions. In Beijing alone, there were more than 2,000 practice stations. Secondly, its value system—truth, tolerance, forbearance—was presumably seen as a challenge to the corrupt and ideologically bankrupt Chinese Communist party.
Will Hutton, in “The Writing on the Wall”, his new and rather good book on China, writes:
“Although the Falun Gong is regarded in the west as a harmless creed that should not be persecuted, its attraction and threat must not be underestimated. It is seen by both the party and many of its adherents as offering an idealism that the party lacks.”
Nevertheless, the case remains that Falun Gong is just a value system and a way of living. Its persecution by the Chinese authorities is quite indefensible, as is the entire record of Chinese human rights abuse against Tibetans, Christians, Uighurs, democracy activists and human rights defenders. However, the charge against the Chinese Government of the mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners is more serious still. It is the charge of harvesting healthy organs to supply a transplant industry that has expanded greatly in China in recent years and been enormously lucrative for the hospitals and surgeons practising in it.
I wish to acknowledge the work of two Canadians, David Matas and David Kilgour, whose reports on allegations of the organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China, published in July 2006 and January 2007, will form the main source material of most of my subsequent remarks. In May 2006, David Kilgour interviewed a woman using the pseudonym Annie, who said that her surgeon husband had told her that he had personally removed the corneas of approximately 2,000 anaesthetised Falun Gong prisoners in Sujiatun hospital in Shenyang City, in north-east China, during the two years before October 2003, at which point he refused to continue. The surgeon made it clear to his wife that none of the cornea “donors” survived, because other surgeons removed other vital organs and all the bodies were then cremated.
Annie, it should be emphasised, is not a Falun Gong practitioner. Indeed, it has been put to me that for many, if not most, Falun Gong practitioners, the most direct evidence of the practice of organ harvesting comes from a non-Falun Gong source. For obvious reasons, there is a veil of silence over the practice: the dead cannot speak and neither can their families, because it appears that large numbers of Falun Gong prisoners decline to identify themselves in order to protect their families. Members of that population of unidentified prisoners can therefore simply disappear without anyone outside the prison system being any the wiser. And who, among the surgeons and medical staff, would admit participation in the transplants of organs from the living bodies of Falun Gong prisoners, particularly considering that many operations are carried out in military hospitals by surgeons wearing military uniforms, their silence reinforced by military discipline?
According to public reports, in the six years before the ban on Falun Gong in 1999, the number of transplants in China averaged 3,000 a year. In the six years from 2000 to 2005, they averaged 10,000 a year. Where did the increase come from? Not from family donors—there appears to be a deep cultural aversion in China to organ donation. It is estimated that at least 98 per cent. of organs for transplants come from non-family sources. Nor did the increase come from executed criminals. China, of course, executes more criminals than the rest of the world put together. There are still more than 90 capital offences, including political and economic crimes in which there has been no violence. The Chinese Government have themselves acknowledged the use of prisoners sentenced to death as a source of organs for transplants.
The use of capital punishment and the harvesting of the organs of executed criminals—obviously without their consent—are both to be condemned wholeheartedly, but they do not explain the increase in the number of transplant operations since 1999. According to tabulations based on Amnesty International reports, the average number of executed criminals in each of the six years to 1999 was 1,680; in the six years from 2000 to 2005 it was 1,616. There has to be another source. The increase cannot be explained by improvements in technology, because the Chinese were perfectly able to do transplants in the 1990s. It is true that there has been a big new investment in transplant centres. There were only 22 liver transplant centres operating in China before 1999, and there were 500 in mid-April 2006. That investment expanded capacity, but it did not expand the source, nor does it explain why the websites of Chinese hospitals have been able to advertise waiting times for kidney transplants of one, two or at most four weeks. By contrast, the average waiting time is 27 months in the UK and just over three years in the United States.
The Canadian investigators, Matas and Kilgour, were unable to visit China. However, they used Mandarin speakers to call hospitals and transplant doctors and ask about transplants. Sometimes the callers were referred to prisons or courts. I wish to quote a passage from the report. It states:
“In early June, 2006, an official at the Mishan city detention centre told a telephone caller that the centre then had at least five or six male Falun Gong prisoners under 40 years of age available as organ suppliers. A doctor at Shanghai’s Zhongshan hospital in mid March of 2006 said that all of his organs come from Falun Gong practitioners. A doctor at Qianfoshan hospital in Shandong in March implied that he then had organs from Falun Gong persons and added that in April there would be ‘more of these kinds of bodies...’ In May, Dr. Lu of the Minzu hospital in Nanning city said organs from Falun Gong practitioners were not available at his institution and suggested the caller call Guangzhou to get them. He also admitted that he earlier went to prisons to select healthy Falun Gong persons in their 30s to provide their organs.”
There are only two kinds of witnesses of organ harvesting, but the victims die and what remains of their bodies is burned, and the perpetrators are unlikely to confess. However, I am convinced that there is sufficient evidence to establish a strong case that organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners exists.
I conclude by referring to the experiences of my constituent’s mother, Mrs. Jinghang Liu. She is 66 years of age and was arrested six times and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. She is now an Australian citizen. In August this year, she wrote to Prime Minister Howard to ask him to raise the issue of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners when he met President Hu Jintao at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit. Mrs Liu wrote:
“In the end of 2000, I was taken to the prison hospital along with four other Falun Gong practitioners. We were forced to take medical examinations under the threats of electrical batons. The exams were comprehensive, including blood, X-ray, urine and optical tests. At that time, I wondered about the purpose of the exams because it obviously was not driven by concern about Falun Gong practitioners’ health. But I just couldn’t figure it out.
During my detention, I also witnessed a large number of Falun Gong practitioners who refused to give personal details”.
She wrote that they
“were numbered and transferred to unknown places. One day a young female practitioner who was in the same cell with me was called out. She never came back. She had a fair and pretty face with long braids. She was an artist.”
In July 2006, a law banning the sale of organs in China came into effect. Since the publication of the Matas and Kilgour reports last year and this, it appears that the number of transplants has come down significantly. However, we have reason to believe that the practice of organ harvesting continues; if it does not, it is for the Chinese authorities to prove that that is the case. They should allow independent, third-party investigations in China and I very much hope that the British Government will press for that in their discussions with the Chinese authorities. Let us be clear: harvesting the organs of unwilling donors is a crime against humanity and it is for the Chinese to take action to end this evil. The repression, imprisonment and mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners should also cease. I hope that, in their dialogue with the Chinese on human rights, Ministers will press for an end to that persecution.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on his return to the Back Benches. He made an important, telling and moving contribution and I am sure that the Minister will take that away.
I shall discuss human rights in China, but I should first like to associate myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said about Burma and the despicable, tyrannical regime there. I shall not repeat what he said, but I closely associate myself with his remarks.
I should also like to associate myself with the comments of my colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), and particularly with what he said about Israel and Palestine. He and I have visited that area several times in the past few years, and every time he has spoken in these debates, he has done so with great passion and intelligence, so I am very pleased to be associated with what he has to say. When I was in Gaza last year, the situation was absolutely shocking. When one moves around the west bank and sees what the road closures are doing to the Palestinian economy, it is hard to think that it is somehow justified by the terror threat. One can say that without for one second having any time or support for the suicide bombings, which, I am sure, every hon. Member would condemn out of hand. The behaviour of the Israeli authorities in the occupied west bank is making that situation worse, not better.
I welcome the Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual human rights report, which is now in its 10th year. It has improved hugely in those 10 years and is now a detailed, accurate and authoritative document that makes a big contribution to the debate on human rights and how to tackle human rights abuses around the world. I place on record my thanks to the FCO officials who work on the report. They clearly have a strong commitment to human rights, and that shines through in the document.
While I am being nice to people who work for the FCO, I also place on record my observation that, when I go abroad with the Foreign Affairs Committee and we visit our embassies and high commissions in other countries, it is clear that human rights are not being shoved into a separate compartment on their own, but are a thread that runs through the work of many of our diplomats. That is to be commended.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, but I want to make my comments brief and narrow. I shall address three issues, the first of which is human rights in China. I have raised this issue before and make no apology for raising it again, because the People’s Republic of China has the unenviable record of being the world’s No. 1 human rights abuser. In terms of judicial executions, as far as we can tell, it executes more people than the rest of the world put together, but it is difficult to come to a definitive figure on how many people have been executed. The last time I researched it, we came up with the figure that 10,000 people had been executed in a single year in China, but it is difficult to know because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham demonstrated, many of them take place in extraordinary situations and in great secrecy.
The lack of transparency in the judicial process is a main concern. Torture is widespread and an instrument of state policy. The judiciary is not independent. Re-education through labour is commonplace. Prisoners are treated badly and, as we have heard, the harvesting of prisoners’ organs is all too prevalent. Human rights violations are widespread in the People’s Republic of China.
Against that backdrop, we have our bilateral human rights dialogue with China and the EU-China dialogue. Last year, the Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that progress in those dialogues was “glacial”. The then Foreign Secretary disputed that in her response, saying that progress had been “incremental”. I shall not bore hon. Members with the semantics of the difference between glacial and incremental, but perhaps we can all agree that that progress on human rights in China has not been rapid or great. Human Rights Watch said that the dialogues were “not a success”, and Amnesty International, like the Committee, has called for specific benchmarks to be published in advance of the dialogues so that we can all see what progress is being made.
In their response to the Committee’s report, the Government and the FCO said that the Government are
“working to improve the transparency of our work on human rights in China and will shortly be inviting the Committee to a discussion on this.”
I might have missed it, but I would be grateful if the Minister updated us as to where we are with involving the Committee in improving the transparency of that work.
I have some other, specific questions for the Minister. The next round of the EU-China human rights dialogue is later this month: will she tell us what the EU’s objectives are? I accept that she might not have that information to hand, so perhaps she could write to us. In respect of our bilateral dialogue with China, will she tell us how many objectives the UK Government had in the last round and on how many of them progress has been made? Many hon. Members are concerned that we are not making sufficient progress.
While my hon. Friend is talking about China, will he say something about Tibet and what happened when that issue was raised in China, unless he was going on to do that anyway?
I am grateful for that intervention, but I am not the best-placed person to respond regarding Tibet. During the Committee’s visit last year, we split into two delegations, one of which went to Tibet and will be very well informed about what is, as far as I can see, a pretty appalling human rights situation there, but I was in the other leg, which visited Shanghai and Beijing, so I cannot comment in great detail. Perhaps others will.
On that trip, when I was watching BBC World, which was the only English-language TV programme in my hotel, there was about to be an item on the 40th anniversary of the cultural revolution when the transmission was simply cut off. Ten minutes later, when the item, which was obviously going to cause offence to the Chinese Government, concluded, the transmission came back on. Leaving aside that it might be tempting, if the British Government closed transmission of the BBC every time it was critical, it would certainly curtail the BBC’s coverage of British politics. The truth is that such actions underline the paranoid and secretive nature of the regime in Beijing. There are ways that we could counter them. Information is a great tool and open access to the internet and mobile telephony are important to people who are fighting for human rights. I hope that the Minister will agree that the behaviour of some of the providers of internet services in China has been nothing less than pusillanimous. They have caved in to pressure on restrictions to internet access. There are many internet cafés, certainly in the cities, where one can access the internet, but one cannot have free access to the internet in China, and that is a disgrace.
I would like to say a few words about Guantanamo Bay. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and I had the dubious distinction of being some of the very few British citizens who have seen the inside of Guantanamo Bay when we visited it a year ago. It must now be clear to everyone—even to President Bush—that the very existence of Guantanamo Bay and the fact that detainees are held there without due process fatally undermine the moral authority of the United States in particular. To be honest, they also tarnish the reputations of US allies in the long-running conflict with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I am pleased that the Government have said that Guantanamo should close, and that it should close soon. They should reiterate that today.
We discovered a couple of interesting things about Guantanamo Bay when we visited it. I was surprised by the appearance of the built environment. My mental image was of razor-wire cages out in the open, whereas in fact it looks much more like a modern maximum security prison. Indeed, the Select Committee visited the maximum security wing at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh for a comparator to see how similar or dissimilar the facilities were. We were struck by the fact that the cells and buildings look remarkably similar, certainly those in the more modern parts of Guantanamo.
The important thing to come away with was not the similarities but the differences. In Belmarsh, terrorist suspects and convicted terrorists have access to visitors, newspapers, television, radio, lawyers and due process, and they have a release date. In Guantanamo, none of those things applies. People are held in a kind of limbo, often even without any real access to exercise. One can only speculate on the psychological trauma that must be caused when one is held somewhere without any access to family or friends, without any thought that there could be some kind of judicial appeal mechanism and without a possible release date in sight. It must be incredibly damaging.
I agree with people who only ever say about Guantanamo, “It must close, it must close”, but we must face up to the fact that it is actually quite difficult to close it. I am sure that some of the people inside Guantanamo are innocent—that is an even more appalling prospect—but some are not. Some are hardened terrorists who were rounded up trying to kill coalition forces on battlefields in Afghanistan. Deciding where they can be released is not straightforward. They cannot be released to Afghanistan, where presumably they would go back to trying to kill coalition forces. In many cases, they cannot be released to their country of nationality, where they would face torture and possibly execution. There is a responsibility on those of us who have been critical of the US for the existence of Guantanamo to face up to that practical difficulty and to work with the international community to find a way through it, thereby enabling Guantanamo to close down.
My last point is about a country that I am fairly confident nobody else will mention. These days, not many people would think that it has a human rights problem. In truth, Nicaragua has friendly relations with the UK and it holds free elections. The last elections were held in November last year, when Daniel Ortega was elected president again.
I visited Nicaragua just a couple of weeks ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). We were impressed by the friendliness of the Government and the people, but, at the request of the British embassy in Costa Rica, from where the UK conducts diplomatic relations with Nicaragua, I visited the police holding cells in Bluefields, which is on Nicaragua’s eastern seaboard.
The cells form part of a prison compound and there I found a cell of remand prisoners. The cell was designed for a maximum of 10 prisoners. At the time I visited, there were in excess of 30 men in it. They told me that recently there had been as many as 50 men in the cell. There was little or no sanitation and the heat was extreme. The day I was there the temperature was well in excess of 40°. The prisoners told me that they had only one hour of exercise away from the cell—not each day but each week.
The conditions were intolerable. I do not blame the police guards. To be honest, they were doing their best in intolerable circumstances. They were quite open about showing us around, because they wanted the situation to be raised. They were no happier guarding prisoners in such circumstances—perhaps they were slightly happier—than the prisoners were themselves.
Will the Minister raise the issue with our friends in the Nicaraguan Government? There are problems with their judicial system, but the holding cells were an absolute disgrace. They are a stain on the otherwise good reputation of the nation. There were people in the cells as young as my 16-year-old son, and the situation does not bear thinking about.
I hope the Minister will agree that one of the benchmarks of a civilised society is not how we treat citizens who are able to go about their normal lives but how we treat people who are in captivity. They deserve to be treated with some dignity, but those people were not receiving such treatment.
I welcome this debate, the Select Committee’s report and the response from the Foreign Office. It is a tribute to the late Robin Cook that annual reporting was set up in 1997 and has continued since. It is important that we continue having such reports, and I pay tribute to those who worked so hard on this one.
In a debate like this, it is not difficult to find something to talk about. It is quite difficult to find subjects not to talk about, because there are so many that one could raise. I wish first to discuss what I hope Members will agree is an important issue: the modality of dealing with human rights issues in a global sense.
There is a western view of human rights which is that, in essence, they centre around individual rights of association, assembly, free speech, religious persuasion and so on. It is sometimes uncharacteristically and rather unfairly put against what is termed an eastern view of human rights, which is all about the collective good of society as a whole. I do not think that that is necessarily a valid or particularly important debate, but it comes up quite often.
It is important that individual national Governments and Parliaments such as our own take up human rights issues and promote them. Indeed, I have spent a great deal of time during all my years in the House doing that as vice-chairman of the all-party group on human rights. Nevertheless, it is the international institutions that are important. I note the comments by the Select Committee, the Foreign Office and, indeed, Amnesty International and others on the operation of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and on whether we are happy with its operation or whether it could be improved to some extent.
In the past, I have attended meetings of the council. Some of them have been incredibly long-winded, detailed and ineffective in dealing with anything. Debates go on for several days and appear to have no beginning, end or resolution. However, other parts of the council’s work are very important. For example, the appointment of special rapporteurs for particular places and issues around the world enables the issues to be raised and a debate to take place.
I would like a response from the Minister—she may prefer to write to me—about the role of civil society and non-governmental organisations within the UN system. That system was set up after the second world war and specifically recognises that civil society as a whole has a right of representation on UN bodies and institutions. That is accepted through the Economic and Social Council and other forums, and certain non-governmental organisations enjoy special status within the UN. I am not complaining about that, but when it comes to the Human Rights Council, it is particularly important. For people who live in countries with an oppressive regime or where the nature of society is oppressive—the Government in question may not be repressive, but the nature of society may be oppressive against individual rights—the role of a non-governmental organisation in its international representations, and its ability to speak internationally and to question what its national representatives are doing internationally, is important and powerful.
When Louise Arbour came here to discuss the establishment of the Human Rights Council and what went with it, I raised with her the specific question of the role of non-governmental organisations. To be fair to her, I received the positive reply that she recognised their value, the facilities that they need and so on, and that they would be protected within the new Human Rights Council system.
I now find that the amount of time that NGOs have to speak in Geneva is often curtailed. Frequent changes to the agenda mean that it is difficult for NGOs from distant places even to know when their item is likely to come up. It might not be too difficult for a British-based NGO to get a flight to Geneva and back because the trip can be done in a day, so if something is coming up, the NGO can go there, but a human rights group from Colombia or Asia cannot do that. It may have to be there for several weeks at a time, which is expensive, and it might not have an opportunity to say what it wants to say. My plea is that in our participation in the Human Rights Council, we ensure that civil society and non-governmental organisations are represented and given opportunities to speak there.
I recognise, as Kofi Annan said in his response to one of the investigations into the UN’s operation, that some NGOs should not bear that title and masquerade as something that they are not. They may be representatives of Government, and the number of commercial organisations masquerading as NGOs seems to be increasing. The issue must be addressed and resolved, but I hope that we do not destroy the possibility and importance of that representation just because some people abuse the system.
I welcome self-reporting by each member state of the Human Rights Council. I believe that they have half a day every three years to say what their record is and how that reporting takes place, and to be questioned. That is welcome and I would like the Minister to give a commitment that we support that process and that it will continue in any review.
I see the merit in the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but given that some of the self-reporting regimes would be engaged in the most disgusting, self-serving hypocrisy in the process because of the nature of their regimes, does he agree that alongside his point about NGOs, there might be something to be said for constructing formal machinery to allow organised opposition groups in tyrannical states to present their findings for formal consideration?
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, and we are not far apart on that. My point about NGO representatives covers that point. An NGO from a country that is oppressing a particular minority would have difficulty expressing that view in its own country, but it might be represented in Geneva and make its point through another NGO group, such as the World Council of Churches. If countries self-report on their situation they should be open to questions and criticism by other countries, NGOs or civil society representatives. That is important.
Governments are not always keen to discuss some issues, and that applies to all Governments. A lot of people had to make a massive effort to ensure, for example, that the millennium summit in Durban in 2000 even discussed discrimination by caste and descent, such as that against the Dalit people. No one, but no one, wanted the matter to be discussed because it was too big, too embarrassing and too complicated. That is why there must be an opportunity for civil society to be represented at UN forums.
The Select Committee’s report rightly draws attention to the embarrassment of the UK’s suspension of the investigation into the al-Yamamah arms deal and the problems of our then proselytising around the world about anti-corruption. Everyone is against corruption and the vote on that is always unanimous, but sometimes something needs to be done about it. I compliment the Select Committee on the deft words and choice of language in its conclusion, and I hope that the Minister understands that it is embarrassing to talk about corruption elsewhere in the world when it is well known that a corruption inquiry in this country was suspended without its final conclusion being known. We should draw attention to that.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), I find it difficult to restrict myself to a small number of subjects, and I want to mention a couple more. I was part of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation three weeks ago to Burundi which, like Rwanda, is coming out of conflict and is very much a post-conflict society. Next door is the Congo, which is very much not a post-conflict society, but is tragically a current conflict society with all the horrors that go with that.
There was much to commend in Burundi such as the efforts for reconciliation, political development, capacity building and all that goes with that, but there are still serious problems that must be addressed. The country has only 6 million people and lost 300,000 in the recent Hutu-Tutsi conflict, which mirrored what was happening in Rwanda. Over the past couple of decades, it has lost more than 1 million people in such conflicts, and has a great number of orphans and displaced people.
If we are to remove the causes of the human rights abuses that led to those conflicts, it is important that we put as much effort as possible into post-conflict resolution and building a good society after that. I am pleased that there is a substantial aid programme for Burundi, and I hope that it continues. I also hope that when the large number of refugees living in neighbouring countries, principally Tanzania but to some extent in Congo and Uganda, return—they are returning because Tanzania wants them to return—the international community will provide sufficient support so that they can settle, and that they are not seen as an immediate burden on the people with whom they were in conflict before they left. The amounts of money are not vast, but it is important to end human rights abuse through a process of reconciliation with truth and reconciliation commissions, and to ensure sufficient support so that one group is not fairly or unfairly labelled a burden on the others. The rest of the world’s lack of activity during the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi should be a salutary lesson for all of us. The figures are mind-blowing, and I shall quote them again. In Burundi with a population of 6 million, 300,000 died in the recent past, and an even greater number died in Rwanda. The figures are horrendous, and we must be prepared to give whatever support we can.
I have mentioned the issue of discrimination by caste and descent, which applies particularly to India, although other countries are affected as well. I should declare an interest in relation to that issue, because together with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), I am a trustee of the Dalit solidarity network in this country. The network seeks to promote the interests of Dalit people and to end the discrimination against them in India. We have often pressurised the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Trade and Industry—to be fair, we have had quite good responses from them—on the use of the Ambedkar principles in British or overseas investment in India. Those principles relate to non-discriminatory employment practices and are named after the late Dr. Ambedkar, who was the author of the Indian constitution.
Discrimination against people deemed of lower caste takes place on a massive scale and occurs worldwide. Death and infant mortality rates are higher, life expectancy is less, employment chances are lower, and violence against the individual is much higher not because the Indian constitution fails to guarantee the protection of Dalits and their free access to the law. Those matters are guaranteed, and there is nothing wrong with the Indian constitution in that sense. However, the reality on the ground is very different, and the Dalits suffer very badly as a result.
Several of my hon. Friends have rightly mentioned the question of the death penalty in China and around the world, and I agree with what they have said. However, when dealing with countries such as India, with which we have very good relations, we should recognise that they, too, have the death penalty. There is an early-day motion, 130, before the House concerning the plight—that is the only way of describing it—of those who are being held as a result of the attack on the Indian Parliament. The motion relates to Afzal Guru and the potential use of the death penalty, it stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and it has received a substantial number of signatures. I should be grateful if the Minister at least acknowledged that she is aware of it and of the all-party support that it has received, and if she considered whether she can make any comments to the Indian Government on its subject matter.
Finally, let me mention the human rights of people in the middle eastern region, and of people in Iraq in particular. I have raised that issue twice this week—once during the Prime Minister’s statement and once during Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions. My specific concern was the number of refugees from Iraq who have had to seek internal exile because of the continuing conflict, or to flee to neighbouring countries. Substantially more than 2 million people have fled, and the burden being placed on society in Syria, Jordan and other countries in the region is huge.
One thinks of the screaming headlines in this country’s media about the relatively small number of asylum seekers who come here, while well over a million people have entered Syria in the recent past. One obviously hopes that there is some kind of long-term peace and settlement in Iraq, so that those affected can return home. The burden on neighbouring societies is enormous, and I hope that we will be prepared to offer the necessary support and help—both in the interests of the human rights of those who have sought a place of safety, and of the security of those societies.
Human rights debates carry a danger of assuming that everything that we do is okay, and that everything that everybody else does around the world is not, or might not be, or may be subject to criticism. We must be quite careful about that, and be prepared when necessary to be self-critical.
I support the UN system and the universal declaration, as do all of us here, I am sure. Likewise, I support the convention on the rights of the child, to which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) referred, and the convention against torture. I therefore believe it highly inappropriate for the British Government to come to an arrangement with any country that is not a signatory to the convention on torture, or to countenance the removal of people from this country to such a country on the basis of an exchange of letters between Governments. If we believe in international law, international conventions and international justice, we should do our best to encourage all those countries that have not signed the relevant conventions to sign them. Making one-off agreements that undermine the convention on torture undermines not just that convention but all the other conventions.
I hope that there will be a strong response on that and that we shall get involved in no more such agreements, but instead encourage people to join in an international legal system. That system might provide limited protection, but it is important for people who stand up for human rights and justice in their own societies.
My first political memory is from the age of nine, when my family was living in Franco’s Spain in 1971. We lived not far from Carabanchel, of which most British people will never have heard, but which was the main political prison where Franco kept all those who disagreed with him. I remember my parents, myself and my younger brother going past it in the car on a very misty afternoon when Franco was visiting for some reason, so that every 100 m there was a guardia civil officer with one of those tricorn hats and a very long cape. I felt very intensely the sense of repression that can be the first or perhaps the last step of human rights abuses.
In 1986, I spent three months working in a shanty town in Lima, in Peru, and then six months working for a human rights organisation in Buenos Aires, where I was also studying part-time at the protestant theological college. One night, I went for a drink with one of my friends who I knew had had a difficult time during the dictatorship in Argentina, although I did not know much more about his experiences. There were not many people in the bar, and at one point somebody came over and stood at the bar. My friend sort of froze and went off to the toilet. Some 40 minutes later he had not returned and I was worried, so I went to find him in the toilet, where he was essentially a shivering wreck. He said that all the experiences of his torture had returned, because the person who had tortured him was standing at the bar.
I asked him how he could possibly know that it was the same person, because all the stories that I had heard had suggested that the identity of the torturers was kept from their victims. He said, “I know that my eyes were covered for every torture session. But when you have had electrodes applied to every single part of your body and large currents passed through them, when you have had the backs of your eyes exposed for hours on end, when someone has barked orders at you and poured water into your mouth so that you think you are drowning, and when somebody has pushed you day after day into filthy, freezing-cold water until you nearly drown, you get to know the person who is doing it, even if you do not know what they look like.” It was at that moment, I suppose, that I decided that politics was probably more important than theology.
I believe that our intervention in human rights issues around the world is absolutely vital, because Britain was remarkably quiescent at the time of many of the human rights abuses that happened in Latin America in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We should be absolutely unambiguous in our support of the human rights of others around the world, however much that may on occasion be inconvenient for us commercially or politically. Contrary to the dichotomy that some see between the western and eastern ideas of human rights, I believe that human rights are a seamless robe, and that there is continuity also between the collective good and the individual freedoms of religious expression, personal expression, the right to peaceful assembly and so on.
Of course, in any one country all of that depends on solid institutions such as the rule of law, trustworthy police and security services, open and free media and trade unions and other parts of civil society such as free political parties. It depends also on respect for life and on the right to life. Many hon. Members have referred to China’s use of the death penalty—more people have been executed by China than all other countries put together, but probably the most intense use of the death penalty is in one particular state of the United States of America, namely Texas.
We should be equally critical of the death penalty when it is used by an ally of ours. When somebody tries to tell me that, as MP for the Rhondda, I should somehow be interested in more parochial issues than the human rights of others around the world, the words of John Donne always spring to mind:
“any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
I shall refer to two specific countries: the Russian Federation and Iran. Hon. Members will know some of the issues to which I refer and perhaps they will have heard me speak about them before, but these comments bear repetition. I am glad to say that the Foreign Office, in its annual reports, keeps on referring to those two countries and, I suspect, brings more effectively to the attention of the world than any other country chooses to do through its equivalent body some of these human rights issues.
The repression of non-governmental organisations in the Russian Federation is quite intense now. Ever since January 2006, when the Russian Government insisted on a new law saying that every single NGO should be re-registered and go through a very complex system of registration, there has been systematic harassment of nearly every NGO that has not been initiated or prompted by the Government themselves.
Despite President Putin saying in November 2005 that media freedom is a basic condition for advancing democracy and defeating corruption, the Russian Federation does not have free media. There is not a single national television channel that is not owned or ordered by the national Government. Several TV channels have been closed down: their licences have been removed or their journalists personally harassed.
There has also been the murder of a large number of journalists in the Russian Federation. The most notable or perhaps the most publicised murder was that of Anna Politkovskaya just a year and a few days ago. People have now been charged with her murder, but a countless number of journalists—I say “countless” with deliberate intent because it is uncounted—have been murdered in the Russian Federation since President Putin came to power. If a single journalist were murdered in this country, the whole of British society would be up in arms and every other country in Europe and in the Council of Europe would condemn us if charges were not brought against somebody. In every single case other than that last one, there has been complete impunity for the murderer, because no charges have been brought.
It is all too easy, perhaps, to believe that there is a conspiracy whereby the Government want to ensure that those who oppose the Government through the media are disappeared—are murdered—and their murderers are not pursued in the courts. That creates an air of self-censorship in the Russian media. Vladimir Pozner, a news presenter on the state TV station Channel One, said in a radio interview in April 2006—I am quoting from the Foreign Office’s annual report for 2006—
“I know that I cannot touch upon some problems…Everybody knows what he can do and what he cannot do, this understanding is deep inside us. I realise that my freedom is not absolute, it is limited and I have to choose topics”.
In other words, the level of self-censorship in the Russian media is so intense that there is virtually no criticism of the Russian Government.
It is also true that in the armed forces there is a large amount of bullying, not just the kind of bullying that perhaps every country has at some point in its armed forces—we have had our own cases in the UK—but quite extreme cases of human rights abuses. The same Foreign Office report states:
“Russia was shocked in January 2006”—
although the rest of the world was not, because this was hardly reported—
“by the case of Private Andrei Sychev, a conscript who was beaten so severely by other servicemen that doctors were forced to amputate his legs and genitals.”
The systematic use of torture in the Russian Federation has been attested by many organisations, most notably Amnesty International, but Amnesty has made the point that it is not just in the northern Caucasus, in Chechnya, where torture is being used; it is in every single part of the Russian Federation. All the safeguards against torture—such as the right of independent organisations to visit police cells and the opportunity for examination by legal counsel and for medical examination by doctors or nurses—are forbidden in the Russian system. It is very common for people to assert that the Russian police are far more interested in securing a confession than in the pursuit of justice. It is attested by the vast majority of people in Russia that they have no confidence in the police force or the judicial system.
Against that background, when the Russian Federation says to Britain that it demands the extradition of various people because it believes that they should face trial in the Russian Federation, the courts in this country are right to point out that, all too often, the cases are being brought not for reasons of justice, but for reasons of politics and political interference. I merely note that in one of the cases in which the Russian Federation was seeking the extradition of a Russian national back to Russia from the UK, the person concerned was accused of having murdered an Orthodox priest, but that Orthodox priest gave evidence in the case, thereby proving, obviously, that he had not been murdered by the person concerned.
The quality of the extradition requests that the Russian Federation often presents should make us all think twice about the quality of criminal justice in Russia. I also suggest that the UK Government are right to query whether people such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev have really had a fair trial. Those cases are still going through the process in the European Court of Justice, so we should not interfere too much, but I think that the Government are right at least to question that.
I shall raise a few issues about Iran. The first is the use of stoning. In December 2002, Ayatollah Shahroudi said that there should be a moratorium on stoning, which was welcomed by many around the world, but from May 2006 the use of stoning as a means of execution began again. Two people, Abbas and Mahboubeh, were executed in a cemetery in Mashhad, having been convicted of murder and adultery. One hundred Revolutionary Guards and Bassij forces took part. I do not know whether hon. Members have ever had an opportunity to see photographs or images of the process of stoning, but a pit is dug first. It is of a different depth, depending on whether it is for a man or a woman. The person is installed in the pit and then some of the earth is put back in so that they are unable to move their arms. Then, large numbers of people literally stone the person to death. It is a slow and extremely painful way of dying.
Another couple were convicted of adultery more than 10 years ago. Mokarrameh Ebrahimi was imprisoned with her two children in Choubin prison in Qazvin province in the north-west of Iran more than 10 years ago. Many people thought that, although she and her partner would potentially be subject to execution, that would not come to pass. In fact, only in July this year, her partner, Jafar Kiani, was executed. A pit was dug for Mokarrameh and, so far as we know, is still waiting for her. Amnesty knows of at least eight other people in Iran who have been given sentences of execution by stoning and is very concerned that those might go forward.
It is also true that Iran still executes minors. So far as we know, apart from the United States of America, which stopped in 2004, Iran is the only country that still executes minors. Since 1990, 24 child offenders have been executed. Eleven were still under 18 when they were executed. With some of them, although they were convicted when they were under 18, the courts waited until they were 18 for them to be executed. I hope that everybody in this Chamber would be opposed to the death penalty, but even if some people in the House support the death penalty, I hope that the idea of using the death penalty for minors, in complete contravention of every treaty to which Iran itself has signed up, would shame people.
Some 71 other people under the age of 18 are under sentence of death in Iran. Two were executed earlier this year, one in April and one in May. Two people were hanged in Khorramabad in Lorestan province on 13 May 2006, one aged 17 and one aged 20. One must question what kind of justice can be secured by executing two people less than a month after the crime that they allegedly committed. How due process can possibly have occurred in such a short period beggars belief.
One of the other problems in Iran, as the Government point out in the Foreign Office report, is the rapid deterioration during the past year of freedom of expression:
“Freedom of expression in Iran has deteriorated significantly in the last 12 months.”
Such issues were raised in regard to China—for instance, the closing of the internet so that people cannot have proper access to information. Exactly the same is true in Iran. The BBC has had enormous difficulties in reporting in or about Iran. I believe strongly that the BBC’s work is important not only in Iran but historically and today in China.
The Foreign Office recognised in its report the situation for many minorities—particularly Baha’is, whose property has been confiscated and who have been systematically harassed and prevented from holding office. That must end, but the one issue on which the Foreign Office report is silent is that of the Ahwazi Arabs. I hope that the Minister will look into it; I have raised the issue several times on the Floor of the House. Many Ahwazi Arabs have been executed after very uncertain legal process, and I hope that the Foreign Office will concentrate on that aspect of the repression of minorities as well.
A year ago, two young men were executed in Mashhad. They were both under 18 at the time of their alleged crime; one of them was 18 when he was executed. It is uncertain precisely what they were executed for. Some people say that they were executed purely for consensual sex together; others believe, and the Iranian state says, that other crimes were involved as well. I refer again to the Foreign Office report. The Government say:
“we are not aware of any individual in Iran being executed solely for engaging in consenting same-sex relations in recent years.”
I think that the Government are wrong, and I hope that the Foreign Office will look again. It has said the same thing on three separate occasions, but in a number of reports, Amnesty International and other organisations watching the situation in Iran state that they believe that some cases are trumped up merely as a means for the Iranian regime to hide the fact that it is executing people because of their sexuality, just as it executes people for committing adultery. The Government should examine the issue again.
I also believe that it is wrong for the Government to refuse asylum to people from Iran, Iraq or other countries where they face repression, and violent repression at that, because of their sexuality. We should say to such people that if they face repression or violence, they have the opportunity to seek asylum in this country.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I applaud the Select Committee for producing this robust and detailed annual report and its Chairman for his succinct presentation of its contents today. The Select Committee ought to be congratulated on what is self-evidently a thorough job of work.
I start with an issue close to my heart and, from what I have heard, to the hearts of many of us: cluster munitions. A total ban on cluster munitions has been a campaign issue for many of us for a long time, and although we are pleased that the Government have signed up to the Oslo declaration to ban indiscriminate or dumb cluster bombs, it is still, in the opinion of many, not good enough.
The problem with banning only dumb cluster bombs is that the definitions of “smart” and “dumb” are not set in stone. All cluster munitions are indiscriminate, ineffective and devastating to civilians. They are militarily unnecessary and totally immoral. Few of them go off when and where they are supposed to, and even smart munitions have a significant failure rate, as we have heard. If the Government are to fulfil the commitment they made in Oslo, all cluster munitions should be banned, not just the ones that they term dumb. Britain should be taking a lead on the issue. We should be at the forefront, helping to ban the use, manufacture and sale of all cluster munitions, but how can we do so unless we set an example ourselves?
I can at least thank the Government for their clarification, in their response to the annual report, of what cluster munitions are still retained by the UK—namely, the 155 mm L20A1 artillery round—but surely I am not the only person present who finds that admission deeply depressing. The Government stand accused by Oxfam, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Landmine Action and many others of simply renaming one of their two remaining cluster munitions to get around the worldwide ban expected next year. Is it not damning that despite all the evidence of the horrific and indiscriminate damage caused by such weapons, the British Government say that they will continue to retain them in service until the middle of the next decade? Is that not the most damning indictment of Government policy, and should we not be ashamed of it?
The annual report into human rights abuses around the world raises many issues that remain deeply troubling. As hon. Members have said, it is impossible to comment on all regions and all issues in the time available. Like others, I shall highlight some of what I consider to be the very worst situations, beginning with Iraq.
The increasing number of executions, the use of questionable trial procedures and the alleged use of torture to extract confessions are deeply worrying developments. Sectarian and political violence have escalated throughout the year, with allegations that Iraqi security forces themselves are linked to some of the armed groups accused of involvement in civilian killings and torture. In particular, the situation of women in Iraq has deteriorated greatly. Violence has increased, including so-called honour killings by male relatives. In addition, the UN estimates that more than 34,000 civilians were killed in Iraq during the past year alone. Although the true number of civilian casualties can never be known, 2 million are internally displaced and a further 2 million are refugees in neighbouring countries.
The aftermath of the conflict has been truly dreadful. Not only must the Government do as much as possible to encourage the Iraqi Government to promote the rule of law and protect human rights, but questions must still be asked about why a full exit and post-fighting strategy was not developed before we entered the arena in the first place. In their response to the report, the Government say that they continue to work with the Iraqi Government on human rights issues. I ask the Minister what progress has been achieved and how often liaison has occurred on the subject.
Another topic in which many other Members have an active interest is the current situation in Burma. The whole world has watched in horror as events in Burma have unfolded during the past months—events that come in the context of Burma’s deteriorating human rights record of pre-trial detention and keeping political and ethnic prisoners in jails and labour camps, as well as credible reports of torture. The news has been filled with stories of mass arrests, of police breaking up peaceful protests using live bullets as well as teargas, and of police and paramilitary forces beating protesters—all of which has resulted in many being injured or killed. Only 10 deaths have been officially acknowledged by the Burmese Government, but it is feared that the death toll is considerably higher.
We are all acutely concerned about the stories coming from foreign journalists under cover in Burma. In one case, a BBC reporter heard reports of bodies of monks being hidden and burned in a local crematorium. As a first course of action, all detained prisoners should be accounted for and released. Although I am pleased to see that the junta has appointed a go-between to liaise with Aung San Suu Kyi, I am concerned that no timeline has been accepted for the negotiation process. Will the Minister tell us whether any progress has been made, whether the meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi has taken place, and whether the Burmese Government have been pressed by the British Government to create a timeline for those meetings?
The role of China and India is crucial in bringing pressure to bear on the junta. Has the Minister recently discussed Burma with representatives of China or India and, if so, what was the nature of those discussions? In the past, United Nations resolutions on Burma have been blocked by Russia and China; although I am pleased to see that investigations by the special rapporteur on human rights will take place, the UN Security Council also needs to take decisive and tough action and to tighten up international sanctions.
I have spoken on human rights abuses in China before in this Chamber. Once again, I place on record that I share the Committee’s concerns that changes to the legal system and commitments to other countries are not being followed up. The number of capital offences is still unacceptably high—although for most of us, any capital offence would be one too many.
One of the many issues that need urgently to be addressed is that of the re-education through labour programme. These camps are still being used to detain political and religious dissidents in an attempt to silence them. I understand that new legislation is being pushed through to change the modus operandi of the camps; but it is their nature and not the practical details that are the real problem. The detention of those convicted of crimes must be within the scope of criminal law, subject to appeal and in line with international law and precedents on human rights.
Hopes have been raised that, with the coming Olympics, the Chinese Government will see the necessity of cleaning up their human rights act before it comes under the scrutiny of the world’s foreign press and other Governments. However, as we see from the report, the pace of change is glacial. I agree with the Committee’s conclusion that unless benchmarks and a timetable are developed, progress will continue to be agonisingly slow. Pressure needs to be applied, and there is no better time than now; with China relying on the publicity that the Olympics games can bring, we will never have a better lever on which to insist on improvements to human rights in that country.
I am pleased that foreign press restrictions during the Olympics are to be lifted, but does not the Minister think that the issue of permanent and free access to foreign journalists should be pressed at this time? How can we properly assess the human rights situation in China if foreign press, including local journalists, and human rights groups are to be restricted and censored? The complete media freedom promised by the Chinese during the Olympics needs to become a reality, and pressure needs to be applied for it to remain so.
I join the Foreign Affairs Committee in concluding that halting the inquiry into the al-Yamamah arms deal may have caused severe damage to the reputation of the Government and UK plc in the fight against corruption. Indeed, I would go further and say that I believe it has already done so. I also join Human Rights Watch in its statement on page 18 of the report that the decision to drop the investigation sends a very negative message to those countries that we are encouraging to become more accountable and transparent. As a country, we rightly promote the message that no one is above the law, but the Government are apparently not willing to let an independent investigation take place. On behalf of my party, I again urge the Government to reconsider their decision to abandon the Serious Fraud Office investigation.
I wish to touch on one other issue before I conclude and it is that of Zimbabwe. So often, political action seems to depend on the fluctuations of the news. After the actions earlier this year that gripped the public’s attention, there is again a danger that Zimbabwe will become a forgotten conflict. As the report said, the Government need to maintain the pressure on South Africa and other members of the Southern African Development Community, especially as the Mugabe regime is now beginning to crack. Does the Minister remain optimistic that the planned 2008 election will be fair, free and democratic? Will she also update us on the forthcoming EU-African summit and, given the absence of the Prime Minister, confirm who will be representing the Government?
Finally, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister and her Department on their work on the special court for Sierra Leone. I have spoken before on that issue in this Chamber, so I shall keep my remarks short. However, I believe that Britain’s role in agreeing to imprison Charles Taylor, should he be convicted, will be an important step in publicising the enforcement of human rights. We will be sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that those who violate human rights will be tried and, if found guilty, punished. I can only hope that this message is heard in many of the countries of which we have spoken today.
Once again, I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for such a thorough, detailed and thought-provoking report.
I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on its comprehensive report. Its comprehensive nature means that I shall be able to allude to only a few of the topics that the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and his colleagues have drawn to the attention of the House.
I say clearly, for myself as well as for my party, that respect and support for human rights are principles that should be integral to the United Kingdom’s foreign and domestic policies. That is partly because it is morally right to do and say such things. Democratic Governments have a duty to speak up for people who have been silenced, jailed and tortured by their own Governments. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) told us of his earliest political memory in Franco’s Spain. I shall never forget my first visit to East Berlin as a schoolboy, seeing the armed guards patrolling the walkway above Friedrichstrasse station when we changed trains and then going out through the Berlin Wall, and seeing the minefields that had been laid to stop the citizens of East Germany escaping from their own Government.
It is not only a matter of what is morally right, however. It is also important to recognise that supporting human rights is very much in our practical national interest. I say that because, for the most part, dictators tend not to make the most reliable or stable of British allies. The record shows that individual freedom and prosperity feed into each other and that a community of plural democratic societies is more likely to make for a peaceful and stable world than a group of autocratic tyrannical regimes. The question is how to develop those policies of respect for human rights through our pursuit of British interests overseas.
I shall start by considering the United Nations, which is something that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) highlighted. When I read the Government’s “Human Rights Annual Report”—a document that is even more comprehensive than the Committee’s report—I realised that the Government had placed high hopes on the creation of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The former Foreign Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, told the United Nations General Assembly that the creation of the Human Rights Council
“provides a unique opportunity to strengthen the way in which the UN addresses human rights and to restore human rights to a central role in the UN’s work.”
The Government, on page 162 of their “Human Rights Annual Report”, declare that
“the HRC has the potential to make a real difference to the UN’s treatment of human rights.”
They go on to say:
“We will continue to work hard in partnership with others to ensure that it”—
the Human Rights Council—“fulfils that promise.” When the Foreign Office presented its written evidence to the Committee, it stated:
“the Human Rights Council has made some promising progress”.
I have to say that that phrase reads to me as if there is now some hesitation on the part of Ministers about whether the initial promise has actually been realised. I want to press the Minister to say more about the Government’s verdict on the performance of the Human Rights Council so far. If one considers what the council has said, what it has done and what it has omitted to do, one discovers that there are still some serious flaws in that particular multilateral institution.
At the end of the Human Rights Council’s first year, its members pushed through a set of rules to agree that Israel should be the only country subject to a permanent agenda item at the council. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) that we should not hesitate to draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place in the Palestinian territories, particularly in Gaza. However, I must challenge the idea that Israel should be uniquely singled out in such a way. At that same meeting, the proposal to have special rapporteurs to the Human Rights Council on Belarus and Cuba—two countries with reprehensible records on human rights—was eliminated. Did our Government resist those measures? My understanding is that the British Government, along with the rest of the EU, did not resist those steps and that it was left to Canada alone among the established western democracies to hold out unsuccessfully against what seems to have been a shabby compromise.
Let us consider some of the ways in which the Human Rights Council has gone about its business. The hon. Member for Islington, North referred to the universal periodic review. I have no quarrel with the idea that every member state of the United Nations should submit itself to that type of regular scrutiny. I applaud the fact that the British Government have volunteered that we as a nation should come forward and take part in such a review at the earliest possible stage. But how adequate will it be to have a universal periodic review that takes place on what amounts to an immutable four-year cycle and that allows for the scrutiny of any member states’ record for a very short time? According to Freedom House, which has a good track record on scrutinising global human rights issues, the reviews will be conducted by three representatives of member states and not by independent human rights experts or non-governmental organisations. In the documents used as a basis for the review, there will be 20 pages of text submitted by the country in question, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights can submit 10 pages, and what are termed “other relevant stakeholders” can provide a further 10 pages. The time allowed for the scrutiny of each country will be very short; I understand that it will be limited to only three hours. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? Even the most half-trained diplomat of a tyranny should be able to fend off an interrogation of his human rights record conducted on such a basis and subject to such limitations.
The same problems arise when we consider the terms of reference that will be applied to the independent experts whom the council will ask to look into both thematic human rights issues and the records of individual countries. Those experts will all be subject to a code of conduct that requires them to show restraint, moderation and discretion. I have no quarrel with that but the code of conduct also says that they must avoid using unfounded or politically motivated communications or abusive language and that they must not rely on reports disseminated by mass media, non-governmental organisations or persons, unless those individuals or organisations are the victims of violations and claim to have direct or reliable knowledge of those violations substantiated by clear information. Once again, it seems that the limitations that the Human Rights Council has written into its rules risk giving abusers of human rights the opportunity to side-step the scrutiny and judgment that I think all hon. Members would agree such individuals merit.
During the first two years of the HRC’s existence, there have been 11 country-specific resolutions criticising Israel. The question of Darfur has been delayed again and again from coming before the council until a resolution was eventually agreed at the end of 2006. There was a country-specific resolution on Burma––not when the crisis was building up, but when visible evidence on the internet and television screens made it impossible for people further to ignore it. On Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan and other offenders, nothing at all has so far been done by the council.
The high hopes that the former Foreign Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, and others expressed at the time of the council’s creation have sadly not been realised. I hope that the Minister will let us know what action the Government will take to try to secure a more robust and less partial scrutiny of human rights abuses in future sessions.
Will the hon. Gentleman concede that one of the problems is that, although it is true that the Human Rights Council does not want to take action on certain issues, many member states and Governments simply do not want to refer matters to the council? If member states think that they should be doing something about a particular human rights abuse somewhere around the world, it is up to them to draw attention to it. It is also up to the council to make itself much more open, as I said in my speech, to civil society and non-governmental organisations. For example, there are plenty of human rights groups inside and outside Burma that I am sure would love to be heard at the Human Rights Council.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We are forming an unlikely alliance on this subject, which I hope does not embarrass him too much. He makes some valid points.
There are some things that the Government are doing and should continue to do in terms of multilateral action, and I welcome the fact that Britain is one of the largest funders of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. That office has a good track record of practical action in the field and in arranging monitoring and practical logistical support for elections in different countries throughout the world. The Government could do more to try to build the Community of Democracies, which is very much an institution in embryo, into a more vigorous organisation as a caucus in the UN and outside.
We must also accept that our efforts to secure greater respect for human rights should not only be through multilateral action. We have to look to the UK’s place as a permanent member of the Security Council—this reinforces the importance of keeping our permanent membership of the UN Security Council and not allowing it to be hived off to the European Union in the way that the Government are on the brink of endorsing—and to our membership of the EU to try to get not only ourselves but other member states to adopt measures that will encourage respect for human rights in different parts of the world.
I want to talk briefly about three specific countries. China has been mentioned a lot, and it would be wrong of me to omit it because I had the opportunity to go to Beijing and Lhasa last month as part of a cross-party delegation led by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman). We had some frank conversations in both cities about human rights and what struck me was that although the Chinese officials to whom we spoke firmly defended the policy of the Chinese state, they were prepared to engage in discussion and argument. We saw some evidence that life had improved considerably—particularly in terms of freedom to pray in Tibet and in Xining, where we visited a mosque—from what used to be the case, especially during the cultural revolution. As other hon. Members have said, there are still massive problems such as the denial of routine internet access, the blocking of sites such as the BBC’s, the difficulties and persecution faced by unlicensed religious groups and the re-education through labour campaign that, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) pointed out, amounts to full detention without trial.
The prospect of the Olympics in 2008 provides an opportunity for Britain and the EU to accelerate the human rights dialogue with China. Clearly, we are dealing with a country that represents a quarter of the world’s population, is a permanent member of the Security Council and without which it will be impossible to tackle many serious global challenges, such as climate change or international terrorism. There are important reasons for Britain to have a constructive relationship with China, but I hope that the Minister will agree that we do not serve our own interests if we ignore the question of human rights. Frankly, I think that the Chinese would be astonished if we were to do so. I hope that we will see that dialogue pressed forward with greater urgency.
My impression is that the Chinese Government want, at the time of the Olympics, to showcase the history, culture and tremendous modern economic achievements of the Chinese people. They know that they will be subjected to unprecedented international scrutiny and that a lot of that scrutiny will be critical. It is opportune to keep reminding the Chinese Government of the commitment to ratify the international convention on civil and political rights and to bring forward the changes to the criminal justice code that have often been promised but have not been fully delivered.
Let me turn now to Burma. The Independent newspaper today has starkly reminded us of the atrocities that are taking place in Rangoon and elsewhere. Other hon. Members criticised internet providers for their willingness to accept restrictions on access in China in particular. I want to voice a word of congratulation to the BBC for the performance of the Burmese service in recent weeks. It provided a lifeline to the people of Burma by telling them what was going on inside their own country. I know that people have worked for and spoken to the BBC from inside Burma at enormous risk to themselves, because they regarded it as vital that the truth got out. That is just one reminder of the fact that we have something of real value in the BBC World Service.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s words at the time of the demonstrations in Burma. It is a pity that the issue was not taken to the Security Council a long time ago. In view of the EU Council next week, I hope that the Minister can be specific about the measures that our Government will propose that the EU should collectively adopt. I hope that there will be an intensification of sanctions directed at the members of the junta and their families, such as action against overseas bank accounts, and I hope too that the Government will keep up the pressure not only on China but on India, Thailand and Japan, which all have significant investments inside Burma and are in a position to exercise some leverage on the regime.
Turning to Zimbabwe, I welcome the Prime Minister’s declaration that he will not attend the summit in Lisbon in December if President Mugabe is going to be there. What I am not yet clear about is who would attend on behalf of the United Kingdom if the Prime Minister chose to boycott that summit because of Mugabe’s presence. Would it be a Cabinet Minister? Will the Minister be lumbered with that task herself? Would the British delegation be at only an official, rather than ministerial, level?
Secondly, what do the Government propose to do if Mugabe bottles out but is replaced by a senior member of his regime—perhaps by somebody who is known to be complicit in the atrocities that have been carried out in that country? In those circumstances, will Ministers stay away? Will they regard it as an important principle to sustain the boycott under such circumstances?
Thirdly—this came up at Foreign Office questions the other day—when will we see some action on President Mugabe’s honorary knighthood? I really cannot believe that it has taken so long for action to be taken. It is hardly as if he needs to drive down the Mall in order for it to be ceremonially stripped from him. I hope that the Minister can announce some decisive action in that respect.
At the beginning of my remarks, I said that respect for human rights should be integral to both foreign and domestic policy. That point was made very firmly by the Committee’s Chairman when he opened the debate. The Government need to explain how they can justify the combination of a foreign policy that rightly gives a high priority to human rights, and one at home under which Ministers are still trying to deport people to Burma. We know of the case of Lay Naing, who is active in the Burmese underground opposition movement and who has been imprisoned in Burma already for criticising the junta, and who faces the prospect of enforced removal from Britain.
We know that the Government are still fighting through the courts to try to deport people to Zimbabwe. Some estimates say that about 1,000 asylum seekers lost their cases last year and now face deportation. I do not know whether the estimate is accurate, but I can say to the Minister that in my constituency surgery, practically every fortnight at least one Zimbabwean asylum seeker resisting removal from Britain comes to see me. The Government have even been trying to deport Darfuris to Sudan. If human rights are indivisible, we need some joined-up thinking and government. On that point, again, I hope that she can give us some reassurance.
It is an honour to take part in this debate. In my last ministerial role, I took through Parliament the Equality Act 2006, which set up the first institutional body of its kind in this country—the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which opened its doors this month to provide such support in this country. As has been said very clearly by many Members, human rights are basic rights and freedoms and belong to everyone in the world. That is what we are here to discuss today.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has demonstrated its positive and constructive engagement with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on our work to promote human rights. I am grateful for the many positive comments made about this report, which, as Members have said, has been put together in great detail by dedicated staff within the FCO, and which owes its inception to the late Robin Cook, who would be proud to hear today’s debate and the range of issues raised.
We value the work of the Select Committee and its comments on our work. Its report is very important. There are many ways in which we can improve what we do and better demonstrate our strong commitment to promoting human rights internationally. The promotion of human rights throughout the world will remain at the heart of our foreign policy. In his recent speech in Bournemouth, the Prime Minister emphasised the role of human rights and our shared humanity when he declared unambiguously that human rights are universal. The Foreign Secretary said recently that
“every citizen of every nation deserves the freedom and equal rights of a true democracy.”
He made it clear that countries from Burma to Zimbabwe should play by the rules, rather than ignore them. Those rules must be the shared values and obligations to which we have all signed up—most fundamentally on human rights. He underlined the importance of our building strong and democratic societies in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In its report, the Committee noted the strong personal commitment of the then Minister with responsibility for this matter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who had hoped to join us this afternoon but was unable to do so because of other parliamentary business. The Committee recommended that it should be made more explicit for all Ministers that work on human rights is fully integrated into our work across the UK’s 10 international strategic priorities.
Since the Committee reported, we have adjusted ministerial portfolios, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). The overall responsibility for human rights issues falls to Lord Malloch-Brown, but my presence here today is evidence of the extent to which other Ministers and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary himself, are active in promoting human rights issues in our areas of responsibility. We take every appropriate opportunity to raise human rights concerns in our meetings and contacts, and I can testify to that in my personal experience as a new Minister in the FCO. That thread runs through all our work.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) mentioned the importance of our contacts in dealing with such matters—not just international bodies, but our bilateral relationships. Let me give him a specific example. In September, I visited Mexico and while I was there, I discussed the major human rights issues that it faces with a range of contacts, specifically civil society and Mexican non-governmental organisations. We discussed the need to modernise the judicial system in order to end impunity and to tackle corruption. I heard also about the excellent work on justice reform that we have been able to carry out with the Mexican authorities through the Foreign Office’s global opportunities fund. Such support is being given to a range of countries around the world.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Mexico. During her visit, was she able to raise the issue of migrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras who are harassed routinely while trying to travel through Mexico, the problems of the appalling treatment of some women in the states bordering the United States, and the disappearances that occur because of that? I know that human rights groups in Mexico often take up that matter.
I met a Mexican foreign affairs Minister and discussed a range of issues, including ones such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend.
The Minister mentioned the global opportunities fund. In the light of the statement on the comprehensive spending review, can she assure us that the FCO will maintain its support for the fund, and particularly for human rights work?
As I have just outlined, the global opportunities fund is extremely important in supporting such work. My hon. Friend was doubtless present for the statement earlier this week, as I was. We have just had that settlement, but how it will impact on the various areas of the Foreign Office has yet to be determined. However, I am sure that we will be in touch with his Committee with those details, and that he will want to return to that issue. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me. I have a lot of points to make and I would like to cover as many of the issues raised by hon. Members as possible.
Human rights are being addressed across Departments. Last Friday, a joint statement was issued in which Lord Malloch-Brown and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), expressed deep disappointment following the announcement that elections in Nepal had been postponed. Human rights work is important and is a priority in its own right. We believe also that the realisation of human rights throughout the world is a basis for our own security and prosperity, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury said. Human rights, therefore, are integral to our foreign policy and dealings with other countries.
We have continued to embed human rights more explicitly in our approach to all our international priorities, including counter-terrorism and conflict prevention and resolution. The content and format of the next annual report on human rights should help to make that clear. I refer Members to our response. In paragraph 4, we set out how the next report will appear. I know that Members had some concerns about the way in which the report appears, and I hope that as we develop the report in the years to come, we will continue to make improvements that respond to concerns.
I shall move on to specific issues, and I, too, start with the UN Human Rights Council. It is just over one year old, and much of its first year has been spent completing its own establishment in order to get fully up and running. Securing UK objectives in an environment in which we and our like-minded partners are in a voting minority continues to be a challenge. I understand the reasons for the criticism from the hon. Member for Aylesbury about some of those issues, but in multilateral bodies, it is important that we try to secure the outcomes that we want. However, we are not always able to do so, and sometimes we must compromise our position. We will none the less continue to work to develop a Human Rights Council that meets the objectives of everybody in this Chamber.
The council has shown that it can be effective in the face of urgent situations involving human rights abuse. The 2 October session on Burma, which the European Union called for, sent a strong, clear and united signal from the international community to the Burmese regime. Countries throughout the world, including some Association of South East Asian Nations countries, which are very close to Burma, made strong statements—much stronger than previously. Members must recognise that as a positive development. The council has also taken other encouraging steps, including beginning to address the tragic situation in Darfur. On thematic human rights issues, the UK led a successful initiative at last month’s session to create a new UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, thereby improving the UN’s ability to address that abhorrent practice.
However, we have been disappointed by some of the council’s work, including, as Members have said, the disproportionate and unbalanced focus during its early months on the situation in the middle east, while other situations were comparatively neglected. It is clear that the council is not yet all that we would like it to be, but we continue to have ambitious goals, and it has the potential to develop much further. We are committed to supporting a strong, balanced and effective body.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned the involvement of civil society, and I shall certainly raise the issue with Lord Malloch-Brown in order to take it forward. We welcome the establishment of the universal periodic system to review every UN member’s human rights work. It should lead to greater fairness, balance and transparency in the consideration of individual countries. I note that Members have some reservations about how that process might operate, but what is important is that we move forward with it and improve it, while recognising that it is still a new body.
Does the Minister agree that if the Human Rights Council is to have credibility, it must be able to take the initiative and call for a special report on cases where there is a flagrant abuse of human rights, and not simply defer the matter until that country’s turn comes round next in the four-year cycle?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It should not be a mechanism by which situations are avoided, but one that seeks to recognise that all countries need such external scrutiny. The mechanism will enable the council to achieve a wider analysis and a greater balance.
I turn to the issue of cluster munitions, which several Members raised. The Government share the humanitarian concerns that cluster munitions raise. Our policy is to secure a legally binding instrument that prohibits the use, development, transfer and production of certain types of cluster munitions. We want to achieve the result that saves the most lives. Our objective is to ensure that we get the best possible humanitarian outcome from any international action on cluster munitions.
In my contribution, I referred to a statement by a number of bodies—including Landmine Action, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam—pointing out that the Government had involved themselves in an exercise to rename cluster munitions, simply to avoid the expected worldwide ban next year. Will the Minister respond to that serious charge? Does she refute it? I should like some kind of response from her on that central point.
I certainly do. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is referring to weapons systems involving valid and legitimate weapons that will be used only in strict compliance with international humanitarian law and the UK’s own rigorous targeting guidelines.
It is absolutely right that several Members should raise the appalling situation and ongoing brutality in Burma. There is probably no more vivid example of the trampling of a people’s basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the sight of monks and ordinary citizens being clubbed or shot on the streets is one that few of us will forget. The sense of revulsion is widely felt, and I, like many Members, am concerned that we do not know what is now happening in Burma. We are not receiving many pictures of the events there anymore, so we remain concerned. However, there has been a strong response from the international community. Burma’s neighbours, the ASEAN nations, issued an unprecedented and clear statement expressing their revulsion at the regime’s violence. China also played an active role in helping to get the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, into the country, and it joined in the international consensus at the Human Rights Council.
Meanwhile, the European Union is discussing how to toughen sanctions, an issue on which the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked for more detail. We should continue with the targeted measures that impact on the regime, not on the ordinary people. If he will bear with me, I should prefer not to go into the details, precisely because they are subject to upcoming negotiations. It is important that we seek to achieve the best position that we can, with the majority of the EU in support of such pressure.
I was asked about our roles and discussions with China and India. The Foreign Secretary has had discussions with his opposite numbers from China and India, and I have regular discussions with the ASEAN nations about these issues. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) asked whether there are specific timelines. There are not at this point. We are seeking to make the Burmese regime recognise that it must enter into political reconciliation, stop the violence and talk through what should and must be the future of Burma in the modern world. We are making progress. It is slow progress, but we must keep the confidence of all involved. There have been some positive steps, such as the appointment of a Liaison Minister, but we are not complacent about the situation and we do not at all say that everything is okay in Burma. Clearly, it is not, but we must work through the processes with the EU and the UN. It is also enormously important that people in the UK continue to raise the matter, keep it in the public’s mind and apply pressure internationally, in order to move to a situation that will relieve some of the long suffering of the Burmese people.
Members raised the issue of asylum cases. The Government’s policy is that individual cases are exactly that, and that each case should be considered on its individual merits. I have been assured by the Home Secretary that nobody has been deported to Burma in the past two months.
I shall move on to speak briefly about Zimbabwe. We remain deeply concerned by the rapid deterioration of human rights there. The Government of Zimbabwe continue their campaign of violence and intimidation against opposition figures, human rights activists and ordinary Zimbabweans. I am not optimistic about elections in 2008. There is a process taking place through the Southern African Development Community to seek free and fair elections in 2008, but the actions of President Mugabe to date do not give us confidence for that.
Hon. Members mentioned the EU-African summit. The Prime Minister made it clear that neither he nor any senior Government Minister will be attending. As to other representation and who will attend from the Zimbabwean side if President Mugabe does not, we are not at that stage. We shall consider the appropriate representation as we get nearer to the summit.
As I said on Tuesday, we are keeping President Mugabe’s knighthood under review. We agree that it is not appropriate that he has a knighthood, but it is not the most important or pressing issue on Zimbabwe.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I shall continue. It is not the most important or pressing issue, but the hon. Gentleman may have some news on it in the future.
The International Criminal Court was mentioned, and we believe that the matter is one for the court and for the Zimbabwean people. Zimbabwe has not ratified the Rome statute, so action by the International Criminal Court would require a UN Security Council resolution.
Sudan remains a top international priority for the UK. Respect for human rights in Sudan, and not just Darfur, is an integral part of our policy and we shall continue to work hard to improve the situation there. I was asked what support was being given in Darfur. The UK provides military and technical assistance in support of the north-south comprehensive peace agreement. We are focusing on the joint integrated units, which we want to create confidence between the armies of the north and south and secure the south, the transitional areas and Khartoum. Our training supports key peace-building activities including humanitarian work, de-mining, peacekeeping and English language training.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the situation in the Palestinian occupied territories. The Government’s view is that Israel should not respond to actions by violent extremists by causing suffering to innocent Palestinians. Israel has expressed its commitment to avoiding a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and we call on it to ensure that any response is in accordance with international law.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said that we are perhaps not saying enough about the humanitarian successes in Afghanistan. It remains a difficult environment. I have had the opportunity to meet one of its female MPs and noted that, while that is progress, those MPs face incredible danger at times and are incredibly brave. The right hon. Gentleman was right to identify the fact that more than 5.4 million children are in school, over a third of whom are girls, and that enrolment in higher education has increased from 4,000 in 2001 to more than 40,000 today, of whom 19 per cent. are women.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) raised the issue of Falun Gong. We are concerned about the harassment, detention and reported torture of Falun Gong practitioners, and continue to raise the matter with the Chinese Government.
On China in general, we commit considerable time and resources to our work on human rights there. We take a multi-layered approach, including high-level messaging to encourage progress at the top and project work to deliver more immediate results on the ground. We use the regular UK-China human rights dialogue to discuss in detail issues that are often difficult, including individual cases. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown visited China in August and emphasised the positive effect that ratification of the international covenant on civil and political rights would have on China’s international relations. It would reassure the international community that China is serious about improving human rights, and we have made representations to the Chinese Government both bilaterally and through the EU on a number of issues of concern, including individual cases.
Hon. Members raised the issue of meeting the Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss our engagement on human rights, and we regret that that has not been possible before now. I understand that in May, when he was a Foreign Office Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield met my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling to discuss Tibet, and we shall invite the Committee to a meeting shortly. That will provide an opportunity to discuss specific objectives and the time frames for them.
We continue to value the EU-China human rights dialogue and are working closely with our EU partners to make it more effective. Hon. Members mentioned freedom of expression. We have made strong representations to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs about a number of incidents and we believe that China should lift its restrictions on freedom of expression both before and after the Olympics, to protect the rights of its domestic media.
Guantanamo Bay was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope). The British Government believe that the circumstances in which detainees are currently held indefinitely are unacceptable and that the detention facility should be closed.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling raised the important issue of The Hague convention. We are disappointed that that issue remains unresolved, but, unfortunately, negotiations proved to be more complex and lengthy than was originally anticipated. We are keen for the convention to come into force as quickly as possible, and we are working closely with the Spanish to find a solution that is acceptable to all parties. We will notify Parliament about that as soon as it is possible to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) talked about Russia. We have consistently voiced our concerns about restrictions on the legitimate work of NGOs in Russia, most recently raising our concerns at the EU-Russia human rights consultations on 23 May. Along with EU partners, we are actively monitoring implementation of the NGO law, and we repeatedly call on the Russian authorities to implement the NGO law in line with their international commitments.
My hon. Friend also raised the issue of Iran, whose poor human rights record is deteriorating. We are especially concerned about the increasing use of the death penalty, including its continued use against juvenile offenders, and about the growing restrictions that he outlined on freedom of expression and the rights of minorities. It is a long-standing policy of the UK and the EU to support reform in Iran and to stand up for the international human rights standards to which many Iranians aspire, and we have repeatedly called on Iran to abolish the death penalty. Most basic standards surrounding the use of capital punishment are absent, as my hon. Friend described graphically. Executions are often carried out in public and we have doubts as to whether all death sentences are the result of a fair trial.
My hon. Friend also discussed same-sex relationships. We are concerned about that issue and are monitoring it carefully. I note his concerns about the wording in the report and will look into that in more detail. I will also look into the issue of the Ahwazi Arabs.
I am quickly getting through a feast of paper here, which is probably just as well. Hon. Members also talked about India. The UK is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. On 7 November 2006, the EU made representations to the Indian Government against the death penalty. I note the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised about the Dalits and exploitation in work.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for its constructive and challenging engagement on human rights policy. We look forward to continuing and furthering that relationship as we move towards the next annual human rights report cycle. The universal declaration on human rights and the UN treaties to which we are party set out agreed standards and reflect our shared values. We will continue to promote and protect those values not only in pursuit of our international strategic priorities, but because it is the right thing to do.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Six o’clock.