Thursday 22 November 2007
[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]
It is an absolute delight to serve with you as our Chairman, Sir Nicholas. I look forward to an informed and enjoyable debate on the important work of the IPU. I am delighted to open the fourth debate on the subject.
As we all know, the IPU contributes much to the promotion and support of democracy and human rights around the world. I welcome the opportunity to debate its work. The responsibility would normally fall to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who is travelling in Singapore. No doubt she would enjoy being here much more, and I know how important she considers the IPU in her ministerial role.
The IPU was co-founded by William Randal Cremer, a Liberal Member of Parliament, more than 100 years ago. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength. Cremer was the first British recipient of the Nobel peace prize and the first person to be the sole winner. His main interest in life was the quest for world peace, and co-founding the IPU was a visible demonstration of his beliefs. Since that time, the British group has played a major role in the development of the IPU, and Members of the House have participated at all levels.
The IPU is an indispensable part of this country’s foreign policy. Parliaments and parliamentarians can often carry on talking to each other even when their Governments disagree and even when, on occasion, those Governments do not have any conversation or contact. That can be of real value both to us at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, importantly, to the UK more generally. Parliamentarians respect and trust each other in the forum, sometimes more than they do a foreign Government. IPU delegations can also be incredibly effective through the informal links that they build up with parliamentarians in other countries. They can have a quick chat, a cup of coffee or e-mail correspondence with one of their colleagues from abroad, which is harder for Governments to do as their relations are often, perhaps unavoidably, much more formal. The IPU is an important part of UK diplomacy and plays a significant role by keeping links strong and reminding countries of the UK’s good will towards them.
I wish to place on the record my congratulations to the British group of the IPU on its excellent work. I know that it is well respected in the IPU because of its active role in debates. In addition, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), our chairman. She is not only a right hon. Friend but a friend, which is sometimes more difficult. She is rightly regarded in all parts of the House as a woman of great principle, phenomenal dedication and dogged determination, even when her views are not in the majority, which says more about her than about others. She has done a phenomenal job in her role.
Apart from founding the organisation, members of the British group have led the IPU or sat on its executive committee over the years. The group also arranges a busy programme of bilateral inward and outward visits, and I look forward to hearing more about the activities that have been undertaken. The IPU does not shy away from commenting on important issues, and nor should it. Parliamentary democracy and gender issues have been continuing focuses, and topics such as climate change, the situation in the middle east and recent events in Burma are just a small sample of the range of matters recently addressed. I am grateful for the opportunity that the IPU offers Foreign Office officials to contribute to its briefings and for the feedback that we receive.
I know that the House will want to join me in paying great tribute not just to the work of the group’s chairman, as I have said, but to its staff and those who help to make possible the crucial work that the IPU carries out. In general in public life we do not pay tribute to many of the people whom we rarely read about or see in the headlines, but the staff make the IPU work effectively.
I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate in the debate, and I look forward to hearing their contributions. With your permission, Sir Nicholas, and the leave of the House, I look forward to having the opportunity to respond to the debate later.
It is a particular pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. You are one of the more active members of the IPU executive, and you have had an interest in the work of the IPU throughout your parliamentary career. It is also a pleasure to have my hon. Friend the Minister, who is also a friend, here for the debate.
I shall be stepping down as chair of the British group of the IPU at the end of this year, after three years. I should like to thank all my fellow officers—my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and the hon. Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)—and my colleagues on the executive committee for their interest in and support for the group. In addition, I thank all parliamentarians who have participated on inward and outward delegations and in any IPU-related activities. On behalf of the British group, I particularly wish to thank the secretariat, members of which are watching the debate this afternoon with a watchful eye, as always, to see that we do not stray too far and to offer their support. They have been particularly helpful in the three years for which I have been chair.
I wish to mention Saudi Arabia, which is a member of the IPU. Hon. Members will have heard the news this morning that most of those in the race for the US Democratic presidential nomination have called on King Abdullah to reconsider and cancel the ruling on punishing a woman who was a gang rape victim. She was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail because she was in an unrelated man’s car. The car was attacked by a gang, who raped her. Hillary Clinton has said that King Abdullah should cancel the ruling, Barack Obama said that the sentence was “beyond unjust” and similar criticism has come from the other Democratic candidates. The 19-year-old victim has not been named, but she is known as “the Qatif girl”. She was originally given a lighter sentence but it was increased on appeal last week, as were those of the seven men involved in the attacks.
The case has attracted much attention and criticism throughout the world. The US State Department has expressed astonishment at the sentence. I would be interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister what the Foreign Office has said about that case. It is completely unacceptable for the rape victim to be punished for reporting the rape and for her lawyer to be suspended. The lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahem, has handled the country’s most controversial cases. His licence was revoked last week by the judiciary in that town, Qatif, and he says that he has been banned from the courtroom for refusing to allow his client to attend a hearing in which she would have had to come face to face with her rapist. If the IPU were meeting now, the case would certainly be viewed as a matter of urgency for its conference. I would be very pleased to hear that we had given a similar condemnation and called for King Abdullah to take action.
During my time in office, British MPs and peers have met their counterparts from all four corners of the globe. They have either acted as hosts or been guests in countries from Albania to Azerbaijan, from Brazil to Burundi, from Korea to Kyrgyzstan, and from Madagascar to Mexico. Since last year’s debate on the IPU, in July 2006, the British group has received delegations from Venezuela, Macedonia, the Republic of Korea, Brazil, Kyrgyzstan, Cuba and Gabon. Our members were able to visit their counterparts in Algeria, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Madagascar, Mexico, Panama, Burundi, Cambodia, Vietnam and Albania.
At recent IPU assemblies, we have had bilateral meetings with parliamentarians from Japan, Libya, Pakistan, Venezuela, Malta, South Africa, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Nepal, Somalia, Uruguay, India, Namibia, Pakistan, China and Syria. Anyone who thinks that an IPU conference is a romp has another think coming. We have to work very hard to ensure that bilateral meetings are of value to both sides. Strengthening our ties with fellow parliamentarians is what the British IPU group is all about.
In order to have a meaningful dialogue with our colleagues, we need to ensure that we are discussing a wide range of subjects. During my time as chair, I have tried to push the boundaries a bit. I have encouraged the British IPU group to focus more on interaction with other parliamentarians on specific concerns regarding human rights violations, continuing conflict and humanitarian crises. I do not believe in confrontation for its own sake, but parliamentarians in the UK tend to take things for granted. We can express our views on the Floor of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in the media and to our colleagues without the fear of persecution, harassment, torture or death. Tragically, it is not the same for too many of our colleagues all over the world.
Therefore, as people who have those freedoms, we have a duty to stand up and speak for colleagues who are in trouble all over the world. We need to take every opportunity to raise the cases of parliamentarians whose rights have been abused and whose mandates are not respected. When we meet parliamentarians from other countries, we must therefore make them aware of our concerns about parliamentarians whose lives or livelihoods are at risk, our desire to help to get the matter resolved and our belief that fellow parliamentarians should do the same.
The IPU committee on human rights of parliamentarians, which I chaired for three years until last year, investigates cases of injustices against parliamentarians the world over. Parliamentarians depend on their committee members and all IPU members to raise awareness of cases and to lobby for progress. At the last IPU assembly, which was held this year in Geneva, my former fellow committee member, who is now chair, Senator Sharon Carstairs from Canada, strongly appealed to IPU member Parliaments to provide more active follow-up to help to address concerns in 34 public cases, some of which illustrate a total disregard for the most basic human rights of parliamentarians.
I want to highlight cases in four countries in particular, starting with Eritrea, which faces a truly appalling situation. Eleven former MPs have been held incommunicado since 18 September 2001 after publicly calling for democratic reforms. No one knows where they are being held or even whether they are all still alive. They have never been brought before a judge, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has concluded that the most basic rights of those parliamentarians have been violated. The Eritrean authorities, I am sorry to say, have shown a total lack of interest in addressing those cases.
There is another batch of cases in Palestine. Everyone in the IPU internationally is engaged in some of those cases. The case of Marwan Barghouti has been long-running. He was re-elected as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in the January 2006 elections, but he is serving five life sentences and two 20-year prison terms, which the Tel Aviv district court handed down in June 2004. The expert legal report commissioned by the IPU, by someone we sent to follow the trial, stated that the trial did not meet the fair trial standards that Israel, as a state party to the international covenant on civil and political rights, is bound to respect. Mr. Barghouti was transferred to Israel in breach of the fourth Geneva convention and the Oslo accords. I am disappointed to note that when the IPU raised this case and related concerns with the Israeli parliamentary authorities it received no co-operation.
The second case involves Mr. Hussam Khader, a former member of the PLC. He is serving a prison sentence, which was handed down in November 2005, after a plea bargain was reached regarding the charges and the sentence. None of the charges involved any violent acts on his part. Again, in view of the report of the lawyer who observed Mr. Khader’s trial on behalf of the IPU, the committee considered that the trial fell far short of being fair. That is one of the reasons that the IPU urges the authorities to release him. When the Israeli Government announced in July that it intended to release Palestinian prisoners who had “no blood on their hands”, the committee asked the secretary-general to send a special appeal to the speaker of the Knesset, requesting her to ensure that Mr. Khader would be on the list of those to be freed as he fell into the category of those eligible for release. However, that was to no avail. Mr. Khader was not among the 225 Fatah prisoners released by the Israeli authorities. The IPU committee deeply regrets that its constant appeals have again gone unheard.
The third case involves Mr. Ahmad Sadat who was elected as a member of Parliament in January 2006. In March 2006, he was abducted from a prison in Jericho and taken to Israel. The Israeli authorities wanted him for the murder in January 2002 of the Israeli Minister of Tourism. A month after his abduction, however, the charge was dropped for want of evidence. The committee believes that that clearly shows that his abduction and transfer to Israel were not related to the murder charge but rather to his political activities. According to some media reports, other security-related charges were brought against him, but at present it is unclear whether any charge at all is pending. Again, despite many requests, the Israeli authorities have provided no official information on his situation. The IPU committee is urging the Israeli authorities either to release him immediately or to charge him with a recognisable criminal offence and try him without delay.
The last batch of cases involves members of Parliament elected in January 2006 on the Hamas list. Forty-one MPs were seized by the Israeli security forces last year, in the context of military operations in the Gaza strip to obtain the release of an Israeli soldier kidnapped on 25 June 2006 in a cross-border attack on military installations. An Israeli court ordered their release on bail on 12 September 2006, but the decision was overturned on appeal. They, too, remain in detention.
The MPs are accused of membership and leadership of a terrorist organisation, which in fact means that they are accused of having participated—and having been elected—in elections that were internationally recognised as free and fair. Since that cannot possibly be a crime, the IPU human rights committee is urging the Israeli authorities to release them immediately or to bring valid charges against them as soon as possible. The IPU is also concerned about the conditions of their detention.
The last case concerns the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Dr. Aziz Dweik, who was detained in the same circumstances in early August 2006. The same considerations apply in his case. The IPU continues to be concerned about the conditions of his detention and fear that they may result in a serious decline in his health.
All over the world, when the IPU human rights committee makes representations to member countries, they respond. Sometimes they need prodding, but they do eventually respond. It does not matter in what part of the world cases occur. I find it unacceptable that the Israeli authorities continue to ignore the IPU and the committee and will not address their concerns or requests for further information. I call on them now to engage with the IPU, and to respect the Palestinian parliamentarians’ mandate and international human rights norms and due process.
Then there is Burma. In 1990, following their electoral success, newly elected representatives from the National League for Democracy should have taken their seats in Parliament and formed a Government. Instead, they disappeared or were killed, imprisoned or hounded out of the country. Since that time, the IPU and UK parliamentarians have lobbied on their behalf and met exiles on many occasions to discuss their plight and that of their fellow countrymen.
Unfortunately, however, as we all know, far from improving, the situation in Burma has worsened. The recent massive crackdown by the military on the peaceful demonstrations by monks and civilians bears testimony yet again to the fact that the military junta does not want to engage in any credible process of transition to democracy. Scores of protesters—we do not know how many; we can only guess at the number—have been arbitrarily arrested, as have 13 parliamentarians-elect. In several cases, the whereabouts of prisoners remain unknown.
I am sure that all members of the British group and Members of this House will join me in endorsing the IPU’s call to the Burmese authorities to release the prisoners immediately and unconditionally, along with the 13 MPs-elect who were already languishing in prison before the demonstrations took place, and to refrain from further repressing dissent, lift all restrictions on human rights and end the harassment of political activists.
It is important that member Parliaments of the IPU, particularly those from countries such as China, India and the Association of South East Asian Nations countries, pursue and strengthen action in support of the parliamentarians-elect, and in support of respect for democratic principles in Burma. I and others on the IPU executive have been in regular contact with members of the ASEAN inter-parliamentary Myanmar caucus to discuss joint action. Indeed, at the recent conference in Geneva, the UK withdrew its urgent resolution on climate change in favour of a resolution that criticised events in Burma. Since then, we have continued to be in regular contact with the caucus, and I commend the delegates’ continued efforts to lobby their Governments for specific measures to be taken against the Burmese military regime.
I was encouraged by a robust emergency resolution last October that we all agreed to, with some exceptions. There were some very interesting votes, as hon. Members will know, by some of the delegations that we did not quite expect to come on board with us. At that IPU assembly, the British delegation had formal meetings with the Chinese, Indian and Singaporean delegations and asked them to consider travel bans and targeted sanctions if the junta did not take concrete steps to restore democracy in Burma.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that one of the ideal opportunities afforded by the assemblies is less formal dialogues between parliamentarians? Conversations are held not between Members of Parliament and Governments but between MPs and MPs from other countries. The last assembly in Geneva gave us such an opportunity. In particular, we had lengthy discussions with a Chinese member of Parliament with whom we were able to raise directly the issue of Burma. MPs may not be able to do anything about a situation, but they can certainly take back to their own Parliaments the intensity of feeling that exists in countries such as the United Kingdom about the atrocities in countries such as Burma.
The hon. Gentleman was a member of the delegation and took part in some of the bilateral meetings. I absolutely agree that they are useful, informative and vital to both groups. Delegations have not agreed on some issues, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but on others there has been surprising consensus, even among countries from which we did not expect consensus to be forthcoming. The parliamentary authorities—I am particularly addressing the Whips of all parties—should not underestimate the importance of IPU delegations.
My hon. Friend points out that the Minister was once a Whip, but, if I remember rightly, he was a benign Whip. Perhaps he would like to share some of his experiences with us later.
Many hon. Members are interested in pursuing the case of Zimbabwe. Although the Zimbabwean Parliament debated the beating of two Opposition MPs, Mr. Biti and Mr. Chamisa, by law enforcement officers at a prayer meeting on 11 March, and a subsequent brutal attack on Mr. Chamisa at Harare international airport, it does not seem to have taken any action to ensure that those criminal acts were duly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.
Opposition parliamentarians have allegedly been tortured. Mr. Madzore was arrested on 28 March, and allegedly tortured before being released when charges were withdrawn in August, and Mr. Job Sikhala was allegedly tortured in January 2003. The IPU committee has noted on several occasions that in those cases the Zimbabwean authorities did nothing to comply with their constitutional duties, and the Parliament failed to exercise its oversight functions effectively. On the contrary, law enforcement agencies were allowed to continue torturing and ill-treating even Members of Parliament with impunity. That is unsatisfactory.
When I chaired the committee for three years—it was made up of five members of Parliament from various countries—we had representatives of Zimbabwe appear before it, and the leader of the Zimbabwean delegation, instead of addressing the cases that we brought before him, always said that it was the fault of the British. We never got beyond that, so on one occasion I asked one of my committee colleagues, who was the Speaker of the Niger Parliament, to take the chair to see if he would be treated differently, but he was also blamed for the British, and the delegation refused to address the cases that we brought before it.
I have said before, and I say again, that ill treatment of parliamentarians is often just the tip of the iceberg in countries where human rights abuse is common. If members of Parliament are subject to abuse, it is more than likely that the people whom they are supposed to represent suffer even more. When lobbying for them, we are often able to address the plight of the wider community, such as activists, journalists, human rights defenders, anti-corruption campaigners, and the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed ethnic communities. To that end, while I have been chair, I have initiated a link with the all-party parliamentary human rights group, which now provides briefings for our members on the human rights situation in the country in question, and they supplement information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I thank all my colleagues who have raised specific human rights issues when on delegations and in bilateral meetings. Some recent discussions with parliamentary counterparts in which I have been involved have been free and frank, but to address the issues that really matter, one inevitably touches a raw nerve sometimes. On 13 November, The Times reported a private meeting of the British group with the Iranian delegation at the IPU assembly in April this year. Details of that meeting were provided following a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to the FCO.
Minutes taken at that meeting by an FCO official describe a member of our delegation referring to the hangings in Iran of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni in 2005 in Iran. They were killed for alleged homosexual activities, although they were juveniles at the time of their arrest. The leader of the Iranian delegation was unflinching. The record states that he explained that according to Islam, homosexuality and lesbianism are not permitted. He also said that if homosexual activity was in private, there was no problem, but that those taking part in overt activity should be executed. He argued that homosexuality was against human nature, because humans were here to reproduce and homosexuals did not reproduce. The sort of discussion that our delegation had with the Iranians following those statements can be imagined. That is concrete evidence of the sort of challenging discussions that we have, and shows that we do not flinch from raising such issues with our counterparts from other countries.
I want to mention the work of two British IPU members. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and Lord Morris of Aberavon were appointed rapporteurs for their respective committees. They are helping to ensure that the IPU addresses timely and important topics.
Lord Morris is co-rapporteur of the committee on peace and international security, which is tasked with producing and presenting a report on “The role of parliaments in striking a balance between national security, human security and individual freedoms and in averting the threat to democracy.” He will have to incorporate feedback received from the last IPU assembly before producing a final joint report and draft resolution with his co-rapporteurs from South Africa and India at the next IPU assembly in April 2008 in Cape Town, South Africa.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon is co-rapporteur of the committee that is looking at democracy and human rights, and working on the topic, “Migrant workers, people trafficking, xenophobia and human rights” with his co-rapporteur from Mexico. Some of the position papers produced for some of the specialist committees are excellent, and I only wish that there was a system by which every member country of the IPU could debate some of those reports. I am thinking particularly of a paper on missing people, and it can be imagined how many countries provided information and took part in that debate. Perhaps an hon. Member here might want to raise that topic at some time.
The IPU internationally is undergoing reform. To date, it has been relatively little known on the international stage, except among those who are closely involved with its work. It has been viewed at best as a worthy talking shop, and at worst as a costly irrelevance. Of course, I believe that it is a useful forum for parliamentarians to engage with one another, and to work together for the common good. However, it is right to review its procedures and effectiveness, because there is definitely room for improvement.
We need greater opportunity for meaningful dialogue and interaction, instead of what tends to happen, which, as colleagues who have attended IPU conferences know, is that representatives make token set-piece speeches. Sometimes that may continue all day. If representatives of 146 countries all want their few minutes on the platform, yet their remarks do not relate to any previous speeches in the debate, it is frustrating for all those who believe in proper debate. AIDS, poverty, corruption, gender discrimination and ethnic persecution have all been the subject of major debates.
The Geneva headquarters of the IPU should consolidate its mechanisms and revise its working methods. The committee that I chaired for three years, and of which I was a member for five years, works on a shoestring budget with limited support from the wider organisation, yet the members of the secretariat who work on that committee are dedicated to their work. It is generally not known that the IPU secretariat and the secretary-general deal with a lot of cases in private. We get people out of jail, we ensure that parliamentarians can exercise their mandates and we get people out of detention. However, that takes a lot of effort by individuals, and a great number of people have come to the House of Commons—all my hon. Friends will know of such occasions—to thank members of the IPU for their efforts in getting people out of jail. The former deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia is a case in point, but we could name several others.
Hearing the right hon. Lady talk about getting people out of jail and detention, it occurs to me that Amnesty International does similar work and lobbies in similar ways. Has the IPU ever considered working with Amnesty International on individual cases?
Much of our information about individual cases comes from Amnesty International and other human rights organisations. What the hon. Gentleman suggests is a good idea, but it happens already. The IPU secretariat in Geneva has close links with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other similar organisations. Much of our information comes from people in the relevant country or from organisations observing what is happening there. Without such information, the IPU would find it difficult to make its cases stand up, although I can say with great confidence that they do stand up. I have with me the kind of file that the IPU human rights committee puts together on individual MPs, including many from Colombia and Eritrea, for instance. It lists all the circumstances and details of people’s cases, which are subsequently made public. If anybody wants to see these files, the IPU secretariat has copies, which give a lot of interesting detail. Unfortunately, Parliament does not have an opportunity to discuss individual cases, except on occasions such as this.
I know that this is slightly wide of the subject and that you, Sir Nicholas, will stop me if I am too far off the mark, but does my right hon. Friend not think that it would be useful to have Select Committee scrutiny of UN and international human rights matters—separate from the very good work done by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs—to give greater emphasis to these issues worldwide?
Yes, I do agree that it would be useful to have Select Committees in Parliament monitoring UN organisations. In the past, the Select Committee on International Development has looked at various parts of the UN, particularly when there was a debate about whether we should continue funding UNESCO, and we have looked at many other UN organisations. The UK is a large contributor to such organisations, so greater scrutiny is needed across the board, and we should consider the UN Commission on Human Rights in particular.
At the 116th IPU assembly in Bali in April, the human rights committee submitted 35 cases of 126 Members of Parliament in 18 countries around the world, all of which were adopted by the conference as a whole, and I have just discussed some of those cases. Of course, it is important that the whole conference adopts the committee’s decisions at the end, but the committee could do a lot more with more funding, which would enable the IPU to undertake more missions, with more concrete follow-up by member Parliaments.
The committee on middle east questions should also be strengthened. I was recently put on that committee; the chairman is a Mongolian Member of Parliament, and about five other Members of Parliament from all over the world are members. Palestinian and Israeli delegations have invited the committee to the region to see what is happening on the ground. Until recently, the executive committee had not provided the necessary funding for the visit to go ahead, but at the latest assembly, in Geneva, I secured a commitment to send and fund a mission. I hope that that will enable parliamentarians to engage constructively on one of the most important and divisive matters facing the world today.
We also need to keep pressing the international IPU secretariat on the need for greater accountability and transparency. The organisation is meant to promote good governance and democracy, but I am unhappy about the extent to which top-down decisions are imposed without adequate and informed discussion, and those hon. Members who are members of the executive committee will know how frustrating that is.
As for the budget, the appointment of vice-presidents to the international executive committee is supposed partly to address the need for an international IPU treasurer, as one of the vice-presidents would be in charge of overseeing the IPU’s finances and accounts. The British group has been calling for that for a long time.
I remain sceptical about hitching the IPU wagon to the UN, particularly at the moment, because the UN has problems of its own, which it must address first. Those hon. Members who are on the IPU executive will know that such a move was proposed by the international IPU in Geneva, which is currently working to that end. However, parliamentarians may be better off making their views about the reforms that need to be undertaken at the UN known to their own Governments first. The suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) may be one way forward. There is further debate to be had about reform of the IPU and the way forward for the British group, and I am sure that my successor and my colleagues will keep those and related issues under scrutiny.
I should thank the Foreign Office for its assistance during our many conferences and for its useful advice at specific times during our week-long debates in other countries. Annual Adjournment debates such as this have proved a useful tool in making colleagues, the Government and the wider world aware of what we do and what support is needed. I trust that they will remain a welcome fixture in the parliamentary calendar, although preferably not on a Thursday afternoon.
Although I am standing down as chair of the British group, I intend to remain fully active in the IPU and to support my colleagues as they continue to strengthen inter-parliamentary dialogue and to further what is perhaps the most important work that the IPU can do—protecting the rights of fellow parliamentarians around the world.
I thank you, Sir Nicholas, for chairing this debate, and it is a great pleasure to serve under you, particularly as you are a member of the IPU’s executive. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) referred to your excellent work, and it would be quite wrong of me not to refer to all her excellent work during her three years as chairman. In that respect, I was delighted to hear her concluding remarks, although I had assumed as a matter of course that she would remain active in the IPU—if she did not, it would be a sad loss. Knowing her very sincere commitment to human rights, I know that that issue is dear to her heart, and that she will continue to fight for all those whose human rights are less well protected than our own.
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.—[Official Report, 11 November 1947; Vol. 444, c. 206-7.]
That was, of course, said by the famous former Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, in a speech in this House. We tend to take for granted, in this font of democracy in the United Kingdom, that parliamentarians can say what they like without fear or favour—without fear of being arrested when they leave the Chamber. The Government have made a pig’s ear of Northern Rock and losing child benefit records, but I shall not be arrested when I leave the Chamber for having said so. We are free and able to say what we like without fear of persecution. That is a huge privilege that our people have fought for over centuries and that the right hon. Lady referred to time and again. It is up to us, who have a strong democratic tradition and democratic rights, to fight on behalf of people throughout the world who do not have that privilege.
Freedom under the rule of law, and freedom to have a Parliament and a fair press and fair media, are things that we all take for granted, but the right hon. Lady quoted many dreadful cases. I was delighted that she got a very strong resolution on Burma passed at the last IPU conference, particularly as she had generously let our motion on environmental changes drop, so as to obtain that topical and timely debate. It is shocking that Members of Parliament in that country have been arrested, tortured and beaten, that some have disappeared and that some have had to seek exile. There are other countries, such as Zimbabwe, where Members of Parliament suffer the same fate. It is unacceptable. As she said, where Members of Parliament are treated in an undemocratic and unfree way, that often transfers to how the country is governed throughout, and particularly to the operation of the media.
I apologise for my tardy arrival. I was in an evidence session of the Select Committee on International Development, to which I shall have to return in due course.
My hon. Friend has rightly focused on the bestial atrocities committed in Burma. Does he agree—I know that the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has been extremely robust on this point—that the situation in Burma, which affects citizens as much as parliamentarians who are denied their rightful legislative slot, underlines the importance of having such matters raised consistently and multilaterally in every conceivable forum by Ministers of the highest level in our Government? That sends a signal. Equally and conversely—although I intend no disrespect to the Minister for Europe—if those issues are raised only by more junior Ministers, that sends a negative signal.
Of course those issues need to be raised at the most senior level, when the most senior Ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, visit the relevant countries, or neighbouring countries, such as, in Burma’s case, China. That matter should be raised whenever a high-level visit is made to China. That would be helpful.
The right hon. Lady made a good point, which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), about the fact that the IPU provides a useful forum for meetings between members of different Parliaments. That does not apply in Burma’s case—it is impossible—but IPU members have met Chinese parliamentary members informally. If it can be stressed to them how appalling and unacceptable the situation is in their neighbouring country of Burma, the message does, over a period, reach those in charge of China. It is to be hoped that, after a time, it will bring about a change in China’s attitude towards Burma. That has probably happened in relation to North Korea, as there has undoubtedly been a change in the Chinese Government’s attitude towards the way the North Koreans are governed—or perhaps I should say misgoverned. I think that the relationship between North Korea and South Korea is beginning to thaw very slightly. Let us hope for the people of North Korea, who live under one of the most autocratic Governments on the planet, that that thaw will continue.
In paying tribute to the right hon. Lady, I want to include the staff and secretariat of the IPU. I was privileged to go on the outward visit to Mexico. The preparations for the visit were immaculate, the staff were extremely courteous and the whole visit ran very smoothly. I regret to say that it was not until I had been a Member of Parliament for 15 years that I went on that visit. Perhaps the right hon. Lady and other IPU executive committee members would reflect on how to raise awareness among all Members of Parliament—in particular, among those of my party, who, I am sorry to say, tend to be under-represented, perhaps because we are fewer in number than those in the Government party—of the importance of IPU visits and of its very good work.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that delegations should not only give a full report back after visits, as they are required to by IPU rules—I do not complain about that—but, where possible, link up with the appropriate all-party parliamentary groups, so that the great volume of information and knowledge that they collect, and demands for human rights action, can be given effect in Parliament? It does not help anyone when Members go on a visit and do little about it afterwards.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, which the right hon. Lady will no doubt have heard. As he knows, because I am sure he has been on such a visit, there is always a preparatory meeting. It would probably be appropriate to consider inviting the secretary of the relevant all-party group to the meeting so that he or she could contribute to the knowledge of colleagues going on the visit. That would be very beneficial. We received a full briefing from the Foreign Office, and our ambassador in Mexico was incredibly helpful during our visit. I am sure that that is true for many other visits.
As to the workings of the IPU, the right hon. Lady did not mention it, but it is a pity that the United States has become a non-paying member. As one of the world’s most powerful democracies, it would be useful if it returned to the fold. Her annual report says that she is fed up with having to defend its interests, and wishes that it would do so for itself.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that matter, because I was in Washington last week, where I raised it with people at the White House and in the State Department, and with our ambassador. I have done that on previous occasions, but I hope that it may bear fruit this time around. A vote on the matter was lost by, I think, one vote, last year, but it is essential that the United States rejoins the IPU. It withdrew rather a long time ago, and it is true that we have had to defend its interests from time to time. It should come and do that itself.
I am sure that the right hon. Lady’s wise words and quiet counsels behind the scenes will have had an effect if anyone’s could, and that, even if there is not a change of heart immediately, perhaps there will be one after next year’s presidential elections. Let us hope so.
Far be it from me to wish to stoke up a controversy, but sometimes there is an important difference between having interests and having an interest. Whatever the norms and niceties of diplomatic protocol, if the IPU is to be as robust in the future as it has been under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, we must never neglect—perhaps in the misguided name of courtesy and a quiet life—to raise human rights issues on our visits, or when receiving incoming delegations.
I agree. My hon. Friend puts the point from his customary robust stance. We can all be robust. The trick is to be robust at times and quietly diplomatic at others. On this issue, the right hon. Lady’s approach on the United States was probably the right one, because if we took up megaphone diplomacy, it would probably back off. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in the case of human rights: there is no point whatever in shirking from saying that human rights in countries such as Zimbabwe, Burma, Haiti—
Yes, in some instances. If the facts about the Saudi Arabian case are as the right hon. Lady described—I do not doubt that they are—it is unacceptable for two reasons. First, the individual involved was the innocent party. Secondly, as I understand it from what she said, that individual’s lawyer has also been arrested, which means that she will not get a fair trial. She has been judged guilty before the trial has begun. I hope that the Minister will say something about that in his winding-up speech, and about what representations the Government are making.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia are our great friends, but as my hon. Friend said, it is to our great friends that we should be able to say, from time to time, “What you are doing is unacceptable,” just as I would tell the United States that what it is doing in Guantanamo Bay is unacceptable—at the risk of bringing controversy to the debate. I hope that for its own sake, and for the image of the United States, which has taken a huge battering, I hope that it dismantles Guantanamo Bay as soon as possible, because the rule of law should take a proper, open and accountable course, particularly in such a great democracy.
However, I was not briefed to say that today and I should like to get back to my script.
Perhaps I should go on an IPU outward visit. I should like to get back to my script before I get into further trouble.
My visit to Mexico was immaculately organised and such visits do much good. Mexico is a big country—one of 11 with a population of more than 100 million. It is therefore important, but it is not too widely known among the British people. It has a GDP per head of twice that of Brazil, which gets far more publicity. Mexico is an important emerging country. Some 18 cents in every $1 that the US spends abroad is spent in Mexico. It is a very fast-emerging country.
Of course, Mexico is heavily reliant on the United States, which is itself heavily reliant on Mexico. Some 7 million Mexicans live in the US, and I do not doubt that many of those will have a vote in next year’s presidential elections. In states such as Florida, they will have a decisive effect on the result. The relationship between Mexico and America, particularly following the election of the conservative President Calderon, has become closer and warmer over the years. It is therefore important that we know what precisely is going on there and that we build contacts with Mexico’s Parliament, which we did.
Equally, we found that Mexico had a great deal of good will towards Britain, and that it wanted to extend its relationships in Europe, and for Britain to be the spearhead of those. We live in a fast-changing world, and we do not always catch up with what is going on, but trading relationships with south-east Asia are moving quickly. It is a historical fact that Europe, and particularly this country because of its historical links, tends to look to the east to see south-east Asia. Increasingly, I believe that we will see those countries as being to our west, through the Panama canal. Countries such as Mexico and Colombia could well become stopping-off points for those trading activities.
Mexico is an important country, but it needs to emerge from a dirigiste economy, much of which is founded on public monopolies and private oligopolies. However, when it brings about some constitutional changes—for example, to liberalise its oil regime so that it can begin to explore deeper water in the gulf of Mexico and the Pacific—it will change quickly. We found great friendship among the Mexican people, and great expertise among their parliamentarians. That is a typical example of how the IPU’s work benefits the country. The Minister made an excellent point when he said that the IPU is an added arm to Foreign Office diplomacy, and an additional level of contact. It is good to make contact with parliamentarians, particularly those who may become senior members of the Mexican Government.
During the Mexico visit, did the delegation have any opportunity for either formal or informal discussions with representatives of the non-Spanish speaking indigenous peoples, of which there are many in the country, and/or representatives of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate who was declared not elected in the presidential elections last year? Whatever the hon. Gentleman’s views on those people, both groups have important contributions to make and an important message to send.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. On a slightly jocular, if mainly serious note, there was a nude demonstration right outside Parliament the whole time we were there of indigenous peoples who had lost their land rights. I cannot believe that it failed to make an impression on Mexican parliamentarians and it struck a chord with us. We asked those parliamentarians what the demonstration was about, which will no doubt happen when other foreign people visit the Parliament. I would assume that the Government will eventually do something about it, but indigenous peoples have issues, not only in Mexico but in other countries, and I am hopeful that just solutions can be found. We were not, however, given any indication that that would happen when we were in Mexico.
A number of papers have been published and a number of issues raised on the broader aspects of the IPU’s work, particularly in my field of international development. I am grateful that the IPU concentrated on peace, stability and good governance. Unfortunately, 1.2 billion people—around one fifth of the world population—live on less than $1 a day, as measured by equivalent purchasing power. One fifth of our fellow citizens live in abject poverty, in one way or another. It is incumbent on all of us to do something about that.
I am mildly critical of Governments of all colours, and internationally, on such matters. Kurt Hoffman, whom I have quoted on this figure in the House, said that over the past 20 years, the developing community has had some $400 billion of aid, and yet in the same period their average standard of living has dropped. The way in which we have disbursed aid has not been as effective as it might. One reason for that is that the worst Governments tend to be in the same areas as the worst human rights and the worst poverty.
I was pleased to see no less a figure than the Secretary of State for International Development announce in a debate last Thursday an additional £20 million for the globalisation and poverty fund, which takes it to £120 million, to encourage better government. We must all find ways, at every level, by negotiation, and by bilateral and multilateral aid, to encourage bad Governments to get better. However much help one gives, it is no good if people such as Mugabe and Field Marshal Than Shwe in Burma keep their people in unacceptable conditions. We must find ways to change such regimes.
When the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley was speaking, I reflected on whether she feels—I would be interested to know hon. Members’ views on this—that democracy is on the march and increasing throughout the world, and whether, because the media have made events so much more immediate, dreadful cases such as Burma and Zimbabwe are brought much more to our attention than they used to be. I suspect that that probably is the case and that if people consider places where democracy is quietly on the increase, they will see that things are improving. I can think of examples such as Mozambique, which was a very war-torn country but now has democracy and is flourishing. Sierra Leone is another example. One tends to think of everything as doom and gloom, yet there are countries where things are getting better.
I was delighted to hear the right hon. Lady’s comments on her work on the IPU’s human rights committee. I was reflecting on the extent to which her work has been undertaken over a number of years and wondering what communication she has had with the new UN Human Rights Council based in Geneva. I am very concerned about that because I do not think that it has the teeth that it deserves. I wonder what we can all do to ensure that it has teeth. I am hopeful that the universal peer review mechanism will give it teeth, but I note that the countries that are being reviewed first are pretty benign countries such as ourselves, for which the review will not do much good. Perhaps the IPU, through its links with the UN, can prod the council into doing a little more.
The right hon. Lady raised a number of issues. The work of the IPU is of huge benefit. The way to encourage better human rights, better governance and relief of poverty is through trade. We need to encourage every possible aspect of trade. Negotiations are going on between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. I have talked to some of the most senior Ministers in the ACP countries, some of which are among the smallest on the planet. Of course the very poorest—the low-income countries—already have full access to the European market through the “Everything but Arms” negotiations. It is the level above that—the 76 countries currently in that negotiating mechanism—whose interests are not being considered by the British Government as much as they might be.
The negotiation is unequal. We are talking about the full might of the European Commission, with all its expertise, albeit that is negotiating with the six groups. Nevertheless, the capacity of some very small countries to negotiate such agreements is not great. More than any other country in the European Union, Britain, with its historical links, has a prime duty to ensure that the interests of those countries are protected, by which I do not mean that the trade preference system should be continued. This country does, however, have a duty to conduct proper impact assessments, or ensure that the EU has conducted proper impact assessments, so that the full impact of the damage to the economies of those countries—the loss of jobs—is known.
I shall use an example that I have used before. I met some Seychelles Members of Parliament the other day. The Seychelles have only 88,000 people, yet they reckon that if the economic partnership agreements go through in their current form, they will lose their entire tuna canning factory business to Thailand—a lower-cost producer—with the loss of several hundred jobs. That does not sound much, but if we translate from the size of their population up to the size of our population—60 million—we realise the very considerable impact that the negotiations will have on those economies.
We will have a debate on the subject in this Chamber next week, but the Minister’s Department and the Department for International Development are heavily involved in the issue. Before he agrees that the Commission should sign the agreements, which have to be signed by 31 December, please can we ensure that there are proper impact assessments? Once those assessments have been conducted and we can see what damage will be done, can we ensure that there is a guaranteed package of international help in place from the EU to cushion the transition for those countries?
This is an interesting debate. As the right hon. Lady said, it is a pity that it is taking place on a Thursday, but the work of the IPU, through all colleagues in the House and through the secretariat, is to be greatly commended. I shall finish where I started—with a quote from a famous politician:
“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Of course that is from “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents”.
I have had a certain amount of barracking, but it is all part of good parliamentary democracy that we can disagree with one another and yet at the same time remain fundamentally committed to our cause, which is the advancement of the human condition right across the planet and the elimination of all the negative things that we have talked about. I am grateful to have taken part in the debate.
Order. Before I call the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I remind hon. Members that we shall finish at 5.30 pm and, because there will be many points to reply to and it is important that the Minister gets a good innings, I would like to give him 20 minutes. Many others want to speak, so I ask hon. Members to exercise an element of self-discipline. I am not necessarily relating the last remark to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter).
That is very kind of you, Sir Nicholas. It is a particular pleasure for me to have the opportunity of participating in the debate, not just because you are a near constituency neighbour of mine, but because of your own long-standing and personal interest in the matters that we are discussing.
I also pay tribute to and congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who made a very comprehensive and detailed contribution to the debate. She went through a number of the highlights of the work of the British group, which she has chaired so diligently, of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Many other Members present are members of the IPU and I look forward to their contributions on that excellent organisation and the work that it has undertaken over the past 12 months in particular.
The role of the IPU is vital for three key reasons. First, we obviously live in an increasingly interdependent world where many issues can and probably should only be tackled supranationally or internationally. In that environment, connecting national Parliaments to allow them to co-ordinate their work and share ideas is particularly important. The IPU facilitates inter-parliamentary efforts in many policy areas, including international peace and security and sustainable development, about which we have heard much already.
The IPU is particularly well known, however, for its work on human rights. I shall give a couple of examples that I think are worth noting in the context of this debate. This year, the IPU reported on the justice system in Panama. It also teamed up with UNICEF to publish a report on violence against children. As an organisation, the IPU is uniquely placed to investigate and demand action on human rights abuses. It will often have at its disposal the support not only of representatives from the national Parliament of the country in question, but the experience and expertise of elected representatives from all over the world, some of whom will have dealt with similar problems in their own countries.
The IPU’s work is not confined to human rights, however. I especially congratulate the IPU on the work of its advisory group on HIV/AIDS and its efforts to co-ordinate the world’s legislatures in the fight against the AIDS pandemic. I understand that the group will be taking part in the first global parliamentary meeting on HIV/AIDS in the Philippines at the end of this month. I sincerely hope that the joint discussions taking place there will allow the representatives to share best practice and work together in this most vital of areas.
The second vital role of the IPU is to fill what many have termed the democratic deficit. The introduction of supranational organisations such as the UN, the EU, the World Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation means that the decisions most relevant to individuals are often taken at a level where there is little direct democratic accountability. National Parliaments’ involvement in international issues through the IPU allows the people’s directly elected representatives access and influence on crucial matters. I was extremely pleased that this year’s parliamentary hearing at the UN is the first to be organised as a joint event with the IPU, and that the IPU plans to set up a special committee on UN affairs, albeit on a trial basis. That shows how closely the two organisations can and should work together.
Parliaments must have a key role in the UN and must co-ordinate with it if international problems are to be resolved satisfactorily. One of the biggest challenges facing the world today is that many international issues such as development, human rights and climate change can be dealt with only by using co-ordinated strategies. Many Governments, agencies and organisations of all kinds are doing their best individually to tackle such problems, which is of course extremely laudable and should be encouraged, but every organisation must consider how it can interact with others in the same field and whether they can be stronger and have more influence by co-operating, while avoiding reinventing the wheel.
I am pleased to see developed co-operation between the IPU and the UN on a range of projects and issues, and would very much like to see the IPU working more formally with other organisations, such as the EU. The EU has a vital role to play in development, international peace and security and human rights, and it can only benefit from a closer working relationship with the IPU. Will the Minister tell us how often he or the Government meet with representatives of the IPU, and whether he is aware of any programme of interaction between the IPU and the EU?
The IPU also has a role to play in spreading and improving democracy throughout the world by sharing best practice between national Parliaments, encouraging burgeoning democracies and promoting human rights. By being a focal point of worldwide parliamentary dialogue, the IPU allows national Parliaments the opportunity to promote democracy throughout the world without imposing it. For example, the British group has taken part in 16 inward and outward delegations so far in 2007, as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley described. Through such visits, parliamentarians can spread their influence—in the form of best practice on scrutiny, procedures, good governance and election oversight—as well as engaging in discussions on how best to interact and work with citizens and civil society.
I know from my own experience of meeting fellow parliamentarians from emerging democracies that such contact is incredibly important. Not only do they appreciate advice and support from Members of this House, they are grateful for encouragement, especially as for many the road to democracy is fraught with trouble and, in some cases, great individual danger. As we know, Iraq is struggling to establish itself as a democracy. Will the Minister inform the Chamber whether he has met IPU representatives to discuss how we might seek to improve democracy and human rights in Iraq?
I am not saying that our own system is perfect; far from it. Britain has much to learn from our partners in the IPU, especially in matters of representation of women and ethnic minorities to make our voting system truly representative. It is a sad fact that fewer than 20 per cent. of the seats in the House of Commons are held by women. Frankly, it is a pretty dismal record that reflects badly on all of us. We could certainly learn a lot from Parliaments around the world about promoting gender equality. I notice from my research for today’s debate that the female composition of the lower chamber in Parliaments as far apart as Rwanda and Sweden is nearly 50 per cent. Has the Minister had any discussions with the IPU about the issue or used its vast stock of knowledge and experience to improve the representation of women in this place?
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) referred to the continued absence of the United States of America from the IPU. I am astonished that despite the fact that the IPU boasts 146 member Parliaments and seven associate member nations, the USA is not currently one of them. It is extremely disappointing. The US’s reason, if that is what it is, appears to be that it has simply allowed its subscription to lapse. I am afraid I am probably not the only person in this House to think that that tells us a lot about the Bush Administration’s views on foreign policy issues. Has the Minister discussed the matter with any representative of the US Government or had the chance to point out what a great help the US might be to newly established democracies around the world?
It is a little bit unfair of the hon. Gentleman to blame the Bush Administration’s foreign policy for American non-participation in the IPU. If there were enough of a push from Congressmen and Senators, I am certain that the US would become a member. Also, it is not a recent development. I understand that it has been the case for some years, so the current regime is not necessarily solely responsible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but it is incumbent on the current Government, if they believe that there is a wrong, to put it right. How to do so is fairly obvious. What I actually said was that it says a lot about the Bush Administration’s views on foreign policy; I did not use the words that the hon. Gentleman used.
One of the matters on which the IPU spends considerable time is safeguarding fellow parliamentarians’ human rights. Parliamentarians have a mandate to represent the people of their countries, but to do so effectively they need to be able to do their job without persecution or threat of imprisonment or violence. Without such freedom, democracy cannot function: representatives are unable to speak out, hold Governments accountable for their actions or raise many of the issues that their constituents might wish them to. Ensuring free speech for politicians is a vital first step in embedding democracy and human rights in a country. It is shocking how many cases of human rights abuses against elected representatives still occur. I congratulate the IPU on its continued and excellent work on that issue. I understand that during its July session alone, the IPU’s committee on the human rights of parliamentarians examined public cases concerning 198 legislators in 18 countries—a shocking figure.
This year the IPU has continued its excellent campaign in Burma, calling for the release of elected MPs jailed by the country’s ruling military junta. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have worked with the IPU on that issue during this difficult time for Burma, and whether there is any sign that the situation there is improving?
Finally, as a Liberal politician I believe strongly in the need to talk to our neighbours and to establish dialogue with them, even when we disagree, as it is the best way for conflicts to be resolved. It is to the IPU’s great credit that it gives national Parliaments the opportunity to do so. By encouraging us to talk and work together on a variety of issues, by improving the democratic nature of international politics, and by encouraging democracy across the globe, the IPU plays a vital role in today’s changing world. I congratulate it, and I hope that it will be able to continue its good work long into the future.
I pray your indulgence, Sir Nicholas, but as I explained to you at an earlier meeting this week when we received a report from the IPU delegation to Albania, I am still suffering from “Groganitis”, a particularly virulent infection that one can catch from the leader of the IPU delegation, after whom the condition is named.
Since becoming a Member of the House in 2005, I have become ever more aware of the fact that while there is a general lack of understanding among constituents of the range of tasks and responsibilities that fall to a Member of Parliament, people are generally cynical about and have a limited knowledge of our involvement with other Parliaments and Governments. They tend to see such involvement and such visits as a jolly, as something that is undertaken lightly—a way of getting out of Westminster and of travelling the world.
At some point, we need to use debates such as this about the role, the depth and the importance of the Inter-Parliamentary Union to explain to our constituents how vital that work is, and to explain that the dialogues that have been mentioned this afternoon are crucial to raising the development of women, to promoting the role of civil society in many countries, and especially to supporting developing democracies and opening up and tackling many of the issues that they find difficult.
Today, I want to consider how my experience in Albania—a small and relatively unknown country—reflects the critical world role that the IPU is playing. I went there this year with five others; the delegation was cross-party, which is itself an important aspect of the work of the IPU as it provides more than just one representation of how democracy works or what it can encompass. It allows other countries to see that the different parties in this place can work together, share ideas and even conflict without things breaking down into animosity and civil war. It is a very important message that we take with us.
The IPU visit was the first official delegation from the United Kingdom to Albania. The aim was to create bilateral contact as part of the IPU’s cornerstone activity, the pursuit of worldwide parliamentary dialogue for the furtherance of peace and co-operation—and, I would add, education and understanding. I last visited Albania in 1996 as a representative of Aid in Action, an organisation set up in my constituency by Father Cashin. It aimed to reach out to two communities—Kruje and Rubic, one Muslim and one Catholic—to create a dialogue to improve their quality of life and to demonstrate that the west had an interest in that new democracy and in the people.
That involvement continued until my visit to Albania in October this year, and it ended with an Albanian Minister being handed a £40,000 study: a hydrological assessment of the river Fani. I hope that that study will bring Albania greater electricity supplies and greater economic development. I hope that it will give the communities around the river Fani greater capacity for a programme of economic development, which is currently impossible because of the lack of electricity in the country.
I would be most interested to know the hon. Lady’s impression of the situation in Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, it was one of the most closely controlled communist regimes in the world, and it contained some of the world’s poorest people. Is her overall impression of an improving regime, with better prospects for the people of that country, or is it too early to say?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. My visit in 1996 was a deeply distressing and depressing experience. The quality of the hospitals and schools that I visited was dire. I met people from the newly formed political parties there, and we discussed how to promote dialogue in a country that had never experienced it and that had never known the capacity to have a debate that allowed more than one opinion. That, for them, was unique, and they were struggling to come to terms with it.
Albania in 2007 shows greater prosperity, and certainly the concept of dialogue and of differences being tolerated has grown. However, there are still problems, as I hope to explain. Our trip came at an important time for Albania’s progress towards becoming a fully fledged, modern democratic country. Only recently, our Parliament ratified the European Union standardisation and association agreement with Albania. That was critical for Albania. Two of the goals on the path towards democracy are entering the EU and NATO.
Despite its poverty, and despite its many, many problems, Albania has sought to play a major part in the world. It has sent troops to Iraq and to Afghanistan. It has tried to demonstrate its desire for dialogue and engagement with world problems, and to move forward. In early 2008, at Bucharest, it hopes that its request for entry to NATO will be considered.
These discussions are important. They are essential in aiding Albania in its journey on the difficult road towards democratic accountability, good governance and transparency. If we do not have these discussions, if we do not raise these difficult questions, it makes that road so much more difficult to tread for countries such as Albania.
It is also important for countries such as Albania, which have no track record, no history of individual or media freedom and no capacity to have an opinion outside that of the state, to develop those processes. While we were there, we met a group called MJAFT, the principal civil rights organisation in Albania. It is characterised by a new generation of well-educated Albanians, who are determined to create open dialogue, in which criticism and accountability will be central. I was most impressed with what we saw there, and with the desire to move the country forward. As we know, it is never easy to be criticised or to be held to account, but it is one of the central tenets of democracy—and Albania is embracing it.
We visited a trafficked women’s rehabilitation centre outside Tirana. We were advised that although trafficking of Albanian women had virtually ceased, there was still both an historic problem and one of women in transit. As we know, Britain is a destination for transited women; 4,000 women are known to have been transited into the UK, and 150 have come to Wales.
We in Wales are sometimes content to think that the world’s wider issues pass us by, and to believe that we live in a very comfortable and closed world of villages and close-knit communities. However, when a brothel of whose existence many people in my constituency did not even know was raided by the police in Operation Pentameter, it emerged that there were women in the brothel who had been brought into the country for sexual exploitation. We cannot ignore such issues in our communities. They are an essential part of the IPU’s work. We should bring them to the attention of our constituents so that they understand that not only are we working on them at every level but that their importance is also being conveyed to our counterparts around the world at every level.
I was impressed by the Albanians’ national strategy for combating trafficking of human beings. Again, from a world of poverty, they are attempting to tackle issues that impact greatly on their country, in relation to organised crime. Criminality is a central problem that Albania must tackle.
The IPU is the focal point for worldwide parliamentary dialogue. It works for peace and co-operation among peoples and for the firm establishment of representative democracy. That work is critical to Albania. As has been mentioned, Albania emerged at the start of the 1990s from the destructive grip of one of the most authoritarian and undemocratic political regimes in Europe. That legacy made it difficult to establish political stability and respect for government and the rule of law. Albania remains the poorest country in Europe. At present, only 20 per cent. of the population live below the national poverty line of $2 a day. It is that sector of the population that suffers most from the lack of access to basic services such as education, water, and health and social assistance.
As I have said, Albania has made impressive progress. The pyramid savings scandal in 1997 wiped out 60 per cent. of the country’s private savings and plunged it further into poverty. The collapse of the scheme caused widespread destruction of infrastructure. Guns became widely available. The country is still struggling to recover and regain the lost ground.
Despite Albania being the most isolated country in Europe, its Parliament has not benefited from any structured programme of assistance since the beginning of democratic change. Nevertheless, it has sought to play an international and humanitarian role, in particular in relation to Kosovo, which is especially relevant at present as on 10 December we shall be considering the future role of that country. At a time of huge poverty, Albania opened its borders and took in refugees. Far from seeking to deny its responsibilities, it sought to act responsibly at a time when Europe was yet again plunging into holocaust. We should recognise that Albania has clearly attempted to fulfil its human rights obligations.
Albanian parliamentarians have faced difficulties in fulfilling their legislative oversight and representational functions. Without the necessary financial support for the relevant infrastructure, it is difficult for a Parliament to remain honest and transparent and to avoid corruption seeping into democracy. Visits from organisations such as the IPU will help achieve progress in that respect.
A legacy of the extended period of Stalinist oppression has been public suspicion of and lack of confidence in government as an ally or effective provider of services. Successive Governments have had only a decade to adapt both to democratic norms and market economics and to gain the trust of the people. It is right that there is wide acceptance within the country that Albania’s future is as part of a democratic Europe. Albania joining Europe is about changing attitudes, about the ordinary Albanian’s belief and trust in democracy, and about a wider European peace. Past European history has demonstrated how instability in the Balkans can have a huge effect on peace in Europe.
In my short time in this House, one of the things that has frightened me most has been how little many of our young people know of the long road that brought this country to democracy, of how the House works, and of why we conduct our business as we do. If people do not understand democracy, it is so much easier for them to lose it. So many people take this country’s human and civil rights for granted—rights towards which Albania is still working. Let me list some issues: religious and sexual freedom; promotion of children’s rights; disabled people’s rights; the status of women; press freedom; the rule of law; an independent judiciary; freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment; parliamentary processes of accountability; good governance and transparency; the development of civil society; economic development; and access to health and education. Dialogue on those matters is central to the work of the IPU, and that is why our work with the IPU is among the most important that we undertake. It is sad that that work remains hidden from the general public.
Let me begin with my own tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has shown excellent leadership of the British branch of the IPU during the past three years. For a long time—ever since she was a Member of the European Parliament—I have admired the way in which she has championed human rights around the world.
Let me also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of Ken Courtenay—he is not here today—and of his hard-working staff. In the past 12 months I have been able to take part in an outward delegation and also in a number of inward delegations. The energy and commitment shown by the London IPU staff is tremendous. They work some very antisocial hours, and we should record our thanks to them.
The IPU is the parliament of Parliaments, and it is as relevant today as when it was first founded 118 or so years ago. Whether we live in the developed or the developing world, 21st century issues such as globalisation, climate change, energy security, mass migration, conflict, and the fact that well over 1 billion people in the world still live in dire poverty affect us all. A great strength of the IPU is that it gives us an opportunity for dialogue on those important issues with our fellow parliamentarians from around the world.
I have been crossing out in my notes several of the comments that I intended to make, because other hon. Members have covered them and I am aware of the time and that other hon. Members who are present may wish to contribute. Another great strength of the IPU is its role in improving parliamentary democracies and promoting good governance and the rule of law around the world.
My first involvement in an IPU activity was back in 1998, I think, when, as a new girl, I took part in a delegation to Guatemala, which was only just emerging from many years of civil war. The delegation was concerned that it would have to ask probing questions—sensitively—about continuing human rights abuses, which it did. We met some very brave politicians, not in formal meetings but by allowing them entry through the back door of our hotel at 6 am so that we could hear first-hand about the abuses still being perpetrated on parliamentarians. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a very important point: when we return from such outward delegations, we have a responsibility to stay in touch and follow them up. In fact, I am still in touch with one of those brave female politicians whom I met 10 years ago. I recently sent her a dossier on the improvements to our legislation on domestic violence.
I recall another significant IPU event—the 2001 assembly in Marrakesh—when I think that our chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, had just been appointed to the IPU human rights committee. We were without her during the very long hours of our plenary sessions, because she was attending hearings of the human rights committee. That assembly was significant because it sat in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. As hon. Members will know, the United States and the United Kingdom follow each other alphabetically. I was really impressed by the number of members of delegations from all around the world who expressed their condolences to us, because they thought that we were members of the US delegation—we happened to be sitting next to where they should have been sitting. I was appalled: I thought that if the Americans were serious about making friends and influencing people, they should have attended that assembly.
I think that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) may agree that, increasingly, football is becoming the international language of diplomacy. That is probably an inappropriate thing to say after last night. Nevertheless, I recall arriving in Marrakesh and, as other members of the delegation checked in, looking at the big screen and seeing that Manchester United was playing West Ham. I rested for a few minutes to watch the match and was joined by a group of fans, who turned out to be members of the Libyan delegation.
Our initial conversation about the achievements of Beckham and Giggs developed into a broader conversation, and the next day we met again. That was significant because it was, I think, one of the first contacts between UK and Libyan representatives, at a time when the Libyans were still subject to UN sanctions; Libya was a pariah state. It was quite clear to us that there was a serious wish on the part of the Libyans to restore diplomatic relations with the UK in particular; of course, we dutifully got that message through loud and clear to the Foreign Office on our return to Britain. When such delegations return home, or following really good dialogue with parliamentarians on inward delegations, it is important that we convey such messages, whether to the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development or individual Ministers, to the British Council or to other relevant bodies.
This year I joined an IPU delegation to Jordan, which as hon. Members will know is in a very precarious location in the middle east, surrounded as it is by Iraq, the west bank, Syria and Lebanon. The former king, His Majesty King Hussein, played a key role in brokering the peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the 1990s. There are, of course, many similarities and close ties between Jordan and the UK: both are constitutional monarchies and, as a number of Jordanian parliamentarians pointed out, our upper Houses are both appointed, not elected.
The visit was immensely worth while. I was so impressed by the amount of time that the Prime Minister, Dr. Marouf al-Bakhit, the Foreign Minister, and other politicians gave to meeting the delegation. He hot-footed it back from an Arab League conference in Cairo for a few hours and then returned to Cairo. I am sure that the Minister will have heard the key message that in the view of the Jordanians and, I suspect, most other countries in the middle east, there will be no peace in the region, nor security in the world, until there is a lasting peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. Interestingly, we also heard an extolment of the European Union, which I had not expected. The Foreign Minister pointed out to us that it was easier for Jordan to trade with Britain than with its neighbours and that Jordan views the EU as an ideal model for economic development throughout the middle east, which I thought was an interesting observation.
In recent years, the IPU has become increasingly concerned and interested in environmental issues and refugee problems. In Jordan, we were given a good insight into how those issues are impacting on a relatively small country with few natural resources. Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), I hasten to add that on my return everyone asked, “How was Petra?”, and I said, “We did not go to Petra.” This was not a tourist trip, but five days of jolly hard work and wall-to-wall meetings. However, we went on two excursions out of Amman, one of which was to the Dead sea. Sometimes, one must see with one’s own eyes the environmental impact of what is happening. To see the Dead sea, which has shrunk by more than 30 per cent. probably in no more than 30 years, was a real revelation. We also heard about the immensely ambitious and costly plans to pipe water, which is desperately needed, not only for agricultural use but for drinking water for the Jordanians, from the Red sea all the way up to the Dead sea. I am sure that our Government will be called on to support that plan in a forum such as the World Bank.
We also heard about refugees. Jordan has accepted thousands of refugees from Iraq. I think that it may be more than a million; we could not get a definite answer as to whether it was 500,000, 1 million or 1.5 million. It was interesting to know that those refugees have tended to be quite wealthy or desperately poor. The wealthy ones are getting blamed for pushing up house prices in Amman, so Jordanians cannot afford to buy houses in their capital city, but all those who are living in dire poverty are a real drain on the public services in Jordan.
Although initially it was not going to be included in our programme, we insisted—we were right to do so—on visiting Hiteen refugee camp, where there are 45,000 Palestinians. The older ones have been in that refugee camp since 1967 and at the moment they have very little hope of ever leaving it. I have visited refugee camps in Gaza and the west bank and the conditions at Hiteen are probably better than those in Gaza. Even so, those 45,000 refugees have a life of dire poverty and misery.
As the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) said, we must recognise when we meet delegations or go on delegations, that our mature democracy has evolved over centuries. We should never be judgmental. I always apologise for the poor representation of women in our Parliament, but then I say that, actually, when my mother was born, women in Britain did not have the right to vote. It is only in the past 80 years that women have achieved equal rights. It is important that we try to include in our programmes the opportunity to meet women parliamentarians. If, as is so often the case in the Arab world, such women do not exist, I always make the point of saying, “Well, could we please meet women from civil society and opinion formers?” Nowadays, in most countries, as we found in Jordan, women are holding key jobs in education, health and banking, although they may not have a high profile in politics.
There are a couple of other messages that I would like to pass on. It is important for us to appear at least to be a bit more representative than we are and for our delegations to have a good gender balance. Certainly, the delegation to Jordan that I went on has a good 50:50 gender balance, but a number of delegations are all male. That does not convey a good message. There are 880 members of the IPU in our two Houses of Parliament. I am not sure what the gender breakdown is, but perhaps we should do a little bit more to get a few more women parliamentarians to come forward and go on visits.
Finally, I want to plug three great British institutions, starting first with the British Council. I have to declare an interest because my first paid job was with the British Council so I have retained an interest in its work. In the days when I worked for the British Council, we spent most of our time promoting high British—actually, English—culture. I never cease to be amazed and impressed by the quality of the work that our British Council offices do around the world: it is tremendous and is focused on key priorities, such as good governance and equality. That is superb work.
Secondly, I have yet to meet a fellow parliamentarian, whether from Africa, Asia or South America, who does not make a point of saying how much they appreciate and value the BBC World Service. Long may that continue.
Thirdly, I should like to mention the Chevening programme of scholarships. I hope that the Minister is listening, because if we can find the means, we need to expand and extend that programme. A number of countries feel slightly aggrieved because they value those scholarships so much, and over recent years fewer of their students have been able to come here and benefit from the advantages offered by higher education in Britain.
If Britain wants to retain a leading role and influence in the world, we have not only to sustain those three great institutions but to promote even more to our fellow parliamentarians the great role that the IPU can play in the world today.
It is a pleasure to say a few words in this important debate on the IPU. I, too, pay tribute to Ken Courtenay and the staff of the IPU for their dedication and commitment. To follow a theme set by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell), if it were not for the women working in the United Kingdom branch of the IPU, the IPU would grind to a halt. We pay tribute to the IPU’s work.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has had praise poured and heaped on her, and rightly so. She has shown her usual dextrous skills in leading the IPU for the past three years. Her expertise on human rights and the middle east has held the United Kingdom delegation in good stead in many assemblies, meetings and sub-committee meetings of the IPU internationally. We are grateful for her expertise and for the work that she has done on our behalf, so I thank her for that.
I shall pick up on the three issues mentioned by the hon. Member for City of Chester at the end of her speech, because I was going to say something about them. The British Council is superb. Going on outward delegations normally gives us an opportunity to visit the British Council, wherever it happens to be. In some cases, that may be the only visit from parliamentarians that it gets and at which it can display the organisation’s worth.
I was once in Greece and could not work out what a huge queue of young people was doing outside a hotel. I thought that perhaps they were queuing for some form of Greek “X Factor”, but they were doing British Council exams. We should not forget the worth and popularity of the British Council throughout the world. I have been privileged to see its work in a number of countries and think it does a fantastic job, not just in underdeveloped parts of the world, but in fairly well-developed areas. Its encouragement for people learning English is important.
We are in a competitive world. The United States has come in for a bit of a kicking, but it does a lot to get its message across throughout the world. My goodness, the British Council sells our universities well! We are a competing with Australia and the United States, and it does a superb job.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Chevening scholarships, and in a small way, I shall show their worth. We took a delegation to Colombia, where we met President Uribe. We do not always meet Presidents when we go on delegation visits, because the most important thing is parliamentarian-to-parliamentarian communication, but on that occasion we worked out that President Uribe is a Chevening scholar. He spent more than an hour with our delegation, and one could still see and hear his enthusiasm for, and memories of, the time that he spent on his Chevening scholarship. I am therefore a doughty fighter for that organisation; it has great worth, particularly when we can meet future leaders of countries and get them into the United Kingdom, so that they gain a better understanding of us, and on returning to their country think more friendly thoughts about us. It is as simple as that, but it works, so three cheers for the Chevening scholarships.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the BBC World Service. People throughout the world listen to the BBC on the radio, and increasingly, where they have access to television, they can watch the BBC World Service, too. It is superb, and I hope that we can continue to support that aspect of the BBC in its excellent work.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the frightening things that one hears on delegations is how many people throughout the world have risked their lives listening to the BBC, because they see it as the only source of truth and honesty from which they can find out what is going on in the wider world? It has been banned for opening up people’s minds to ideas and to the desperate need for change in their countries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned Burma, and the hon. Lady is right. When people seek the truth, they will go to almost any extent, including risking their lives, to access it. When I tried to access the BBC’s website from China earlier this year, many pages had been blocked. That was a great shame, and I hope that the Chinese authorities reconsider that policy, particularly in the run-up to the Olympics next year. Do they really expect to keep one aspect of the press hidden from the people of China when they open their arms to people from throughout the world? I hope that the authorities think long and hard about that aspect of Chinese life, and I hope also that the Minister will be able to use his good offices to influence the Chinese Government.
The United States has come in for a kicking, and when we turn up to meetings, some delegates—in particular, those from Venezuela at our previous meeting—waste no opportunity to kick the United States, and sometimes it is left to the United Kingdom to say, “Hold on, you’re being a bit unfair.” However, it would be useful if the USA played a full role in the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I do not blame George W. Bush, but he has not made the situation any better during the period that he has been President of the United States. However, as my hon. Friend said, Congressmen should use their influence to ensure that they become full members of the IPU. They do not have to wait another 12 months, but I hope that whoever occupies the White House after the presidential elections ensures that the US is properly represented at the IPU. It would do their Congressmen the power of good to welcome the delegations that we receive through the IPU, and to attend the outward delegations that we have experienced, and about which we have heard. It is vital to go to countries—developing countries in particular—that one would not otherwise visit to talk informally and sometimes formally with members of Parliament. Congressmen would get an eye-opener.
We went to Gabon one year and, after talking to its politicians and looking around the country, the one thing I came away with was an idea of what the Chinese are up to there. They are active in Gabon, by providing international aid and constructing its parliamentary building, and it opens many doors for them. Gabon’s resources are valuable to a growing economy like China’s, and it is not the only example. If Congressmen were full members of the IPU, they would see more fully what is going on there.
The other important factor is inward delegations. We received one from Burundi last year. I shall leave it to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) to discuss his recent outward delegation, but I hope that he will refer to football, as it was mentioned earlier, and to the good aspects of the visit, such as the footballs that he gave to the young, poor people of Burundi. Football is a diplomatic tool: we have very good relations with Croatia, for instance, after last night.
No. We have had good relations with Croatia, but I suspect that they love us at the moment. I am not too sure how huge a diplomatic tool football can be, but the hon. Member for City of Chester is right: when we talk to people from abroad, whatever their favourite football team, Manchester United tend to be high on their list.
Last week, Sir Nicholas, you will remember that we received an inward delegation from Cuba, and again, many Members do not have the opportunity to talk to MPs from that country. Members’ visits to Cuba are perhaps not as good as they could be, although there is a very strong all-party Cuba group. I hope that we can facilitate more dialogue between Cuban parliamentarians and ourselves. We have already made many inroads on health, so there are good bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Cuba. I hope also that we can use our influence over the United States to question why the Cuban embargo still exists. The logic really does defy me; it went out of the window a long time ago, and proper relations would benefit not only the United States and Cuba, but the world.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley mentioned Iran. One bilateral meeting that we had at the previous full IPU assembly was with some Iranian MPs, and she mentioned one case that we raised with them about two young lads who were hanged after they were accused of being gay. The conversation was surreal to say the least, because there was an attempt to defend the action. Much has been said about the educative aspects of the IPU, but goodness me, didn’t I get an education that day? I am not too sure, however, whether there was any education the other way around. I find it hard even to begin to think that parliamentarians could defend the public execution off the back of a lorry of two young lads because they were accused of being gay. At one point, an Iranian MP said, “What they do in private is up to them, but if it is done publicly, they will be tortured.” I said, “Tortured? They were executed,” although I suspect they were tortured first. It is unacceptable for such things to take place in this day and age. A public execution in any event is fairly barbaric, but to do so because those men were accused of being gay is numbing.
That was not the only subject raised at the assembly, and I am delighted that the right hon. Lady raised several issues about the maltreatment of women in Iran, which takes place simply because they do not abide by the dress code that is imposed on them. We were grateful for the opportunity to discuss that. The IPU a year earlier sent a delegation to Iran to talk to its parliamentarians. I was not sure whether it was the right thing to do, but looking at the issue in the round, I think that parliamentarians talking to parliamentarians and trying to get our message across must be better than turning our backs on them. If we continue at least some form of dialogue with the Iranian parliamentarians, they might stand aside from the regime from time to time, and that is the important thing. When we go abroad and talk to parliamentarians, we are not there to defend or represent our Government; we talk to them about what we do and the issues that we deal with, and they respond to us in the same way. It is important to carry on with such dialogue.
Another important matter is the specialist work that we do on HIV and AIDS. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) is our specialist on that. He chairs the all-party group on AIDS, and as we speak we are being represented at an international seminar on the issue by the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). Those two Members have taken a keen interest in the subject. For goodness’ sake, we know that HIV and AIDS attack developing countries in particular in the most monstrous way, depleting their most economically active work force and robbing young children of their parents. Millions of orphans throughout the world have been denied their parents because of HIV and AIDS, and either their grandparents or the children themselves have to go to work simply to get their families through the day. It is important that we try to get the message across to parliamentarians about how they can better ensure that their Governments treat the issue seriously. Some Governments are clearly either in denial or not taking it as seriously as they might.
The No. 1 issue—climate change—was properly debated at our last assembly meeting. I can therefore understand why the right hon. Lady felt able to give way on the climate change debate at the Geneva conference so that we could put an emergency, urgent resolution on Burma at the top of the agenda. I am glad that she did so. As parliamentarians, we are all horrified to see what has happened in Burma—the degradation of relationships between the hideous regime and its people, the elected representatives and monks. A society cannot be allowed to turn weapons on monks who are peacefully protesting about the appalling economic conditions under which the people live or to lock away democratically elected politicians, in many cases under house arrest—Aung San Suu Kyi is a perfect, iconic example—or for a long duration in solitary confinement.
One of the more important aspects of our role is how MPs themselves—parliamentarians in this country—can stand up for the rights of other parliamentarians throughout the world who find themselves at the boot end of a regime of dictatorship operating in their country. Long may we continue to be able to stand up in this Parliament and negotiate with other parliamentarians to get their freedom, so that they can speak in their Parliaments with the same freedom that we enjoy in this one.
I have done a semaphore exchange with the Minister, and we have reached agreement. I always seek to reach agreement with my own Front Benchers, as he will be well aware. Sometimes, sadly, these things are beyond all of us, but we try.
I welcome the debate and thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for her introduction and her work as chairman. I add my thanks to all the staff of the IPU in London for their work. They are incredibly hard-working, efficient and good at arranging outward and inward delegations and taking up often complicated causes when we ask them to. Having recently spent three days at the IPU offices in Geneva on a seminar, I saw that the professionalism and the quality of work done there is superb. The preparations for a report were superb, and we should value that.
I agree with my right hon. Friend’s scepticism about the value of the IPU’s subsuming itself into the United Nations. I am not being anti-United Nations, quite the opposite, but there is an important role for parliamentarians to play, possibly separate from the UN, but working with it. To subsume the IPU within the UN system might mean that it simply gets lost as yet another UN agency and finds it difficult to get the hearing that it currently gets and the relative freedom to take action on behalf of parliamentarians around the world who are in difficulties because of their views.
The IPU was founded in the period of the 19th century when the idea of holding unaccountable executives to account was fairly new. The idea of a strong Parliament did not really develop anywhere in the world until well into the 19th century, and one must say that those who founded the IPU were visionaries in many ways. It was initially small, because most of the world was made up of colonies of European nations. It started in European nations and has been an important element in promoting democracy and accountable government in Europe. It has been a huge influence in the anti-colonial movement around the world and in a whole lot of things that were spawned from that. We would do well to record our thanks for what the people involved did.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley rightly drew attention to the plight of parliamentarians around the world. An ultra-cynic could say, “Here we go again—British Members of the House of Commons defending other parliamentarians around the world.” Yes, we do; not because we think that parliamentarians are exclusively good or special people but because if we cannot defend those who have been elected to represent others and to defend a point of view and other people, how can we defend anybody? That is why it is important that we make an enormous fuss about parliamentarians anywhere in the world, whether or not we agree with them. They have been elected and should be defended.
My right hon. Friend was right to mention the large number of Palestinian parliamentarians in prison in Israeli jails. How can we say to the people of Palestine, “We think you should have an elected democracy”? I was there as an NGO election observer for the presidential election, and there was nothing wrong with the electoral process. There was an awful lot wrong with the roadblocks, the checks and all the harassment that went on, but nothing wrong with the electoral process itself. A president was elected, and a few months later a Parliament was elected. If the message is, “You have elected a Parliament, we don’t like the result and we’re going to imprison those who were victorious”, that is hardly a good advertisement for democracy there or anywhere else in the world. I endorse the call that has been made for the release of Marwan Barghouti and the others, who will be part of a dialogue that will eventually bring about peace and justice for the Palestinian people. That in turn will bring about security for ordinary people in Israel—the two things are indivisible.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned Turkey. For a long time, she and I have taken up the case of the Kurdish parliamentarians who were imprisoned. I was in Turkey last month, and during my visit I saw problems such as the lack of recognition of Kurdish parties and the 10 per cent. voting threshold that Turkey imposes before a party can be represented nationally. There are serious problems with that, but a large number of independent parliamentarians essentially represent the interests of Kurdish people in the south and east of Turkey. My position is not to endorse or support any violent activity by the PKK or anybody else, but if political representation, cultural identity and the right to speak one’s own language are locked off, there ain’t much left as an alternative. That is what has fuelled so much anger and violence in southern and eastern Turkey for a long time. We must bear that in mind.
We were successful in the campaign for the release of the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, who suffered the most appalling abuse and had the most appalling nonsense spoken about him. The campaign brought about his release.
Next Wednesday I have secured an Adjournment debate—sadly only half an hour, but that’s the way it goes—on Bangladesh. There are serious concerns that the interim Government there have continually increased their own longevity. Elections have not been held, and they now say that they need a year to prepare for elections. I realise that the tragedy of the cyclone and the floods must take priority over absolutely everything in the immediate future; I am not saying anything different. But, as a Commonwealth country, a member of the IPU and a democratic country—its constitution is democratic—Bangladesh should hold elections and the democratic process should take over. The democratic process is not enhanced by suspending political activity, banning political parties or imprisoning political leaders. If that happens, people resort to other means of doing things.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) mentioned the situation in Colombia, which I once visited on a trade union delegation. I will never forget meeting Colombian members of congress and Senator Wilson Borja. Visiting his house was like going to an Army camp in South Armagh 20 years ago. It had barbed wire, watch towers and cameras, and that was for a radical, centre-left politician who has been shot at a number of times, very seriously injured on many occasions and survived. His idea of political activity is extremely limited because he cannot travel around and there are frequent threats to his life. There are also threats to many others—he is just one example. Many trade unionists have been killed in Colombia in the recent past. A democracy is not just about having a president and elections but about having the freedom to express oneself politically and engage in political debate. That is not necessarily available for all the people all the time in Colombia.
We are about developing accessible and accountable government. Most hon. Members have mentioned—certainly my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) did—post-conflict societies, how they have to emerge into a democratic model, and what support, recognition and help one can give them in doing that. She talked about Guatemala; sadly, the human rights abuses there, particularly of children and indigenous women, are far from over. While the rates of murder and disappearances are not as high as during the civil war, they are not far off in the poorest communities.
I was invited to lead an IPU delegation to Burundi in September, and it was a very interesting experience. I will not go into all the details because I gave a fairly full report yesterday at the report-back meeting. Burundi struck me as being rather like Rwanda and neighbouring states that have gone through the most incredible conflict, the like of which we can hardly understand. Some 300,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict in the past decade or so. Depending on whom one believes, that amounts to between 5 and 10 per cent. of the population. The median age of the population is 16. There are desperate attempts to develop free primary education, which I absolutely endorse, and free health care for under-fives and nursing mothers, which I also absolutely endorse. It is a very brave attempt by Burundi to achieve its millennium goals. Again, I thank the Department for International Development and others for giving the necessary support to go some way towards achieving those goals.
During that delegation, we spent a lot of time meeting representatives of the Senate and the National Assembly. We kept on emphasising the importance of having a parliamentary system that held the Government or the Executive to account. There is nothing wrong with a Parliament disagreeing with an Executive, and there is nothing wrong with MPs asking Governments and Executives awkward questions. That is why we exist. I emphasised that I have exercised that position fully here over many years, as have many others. That is what we are here for; we are not a rubber stamp or a technical process. We are part of the whole process.
The delegation met for a long period and had a very good meeting with the Burundi human rights group. We talked at length about its need for support, facilities and operations, because when a country comes out of that kind of conflict, human rights abuses continue and there is continual instability. There is also a large number of people with not much to do, who have knowledge of and access to weaponry and guns. If the whole thing goes wrong, the country could easily implode back into civil war. We have a responsibility to support the development process, and I see the development of accountable government as a part of that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that post-conflict states are very vulnerable in the five years after a conflict and are likely to go back to the previous conflict unless they can get the sort of institutional change that he is talking about? It is all very well to have a Parliament that can hold a Government to account, but one thing that DFID is working very hard on is to establish capacity within Governments in such weakened states. Typical examples are Iraq and Afghanistan. The capacity of the Government to deliver any public service is, in both cases, and in a lot of African states, very low. That is what DFID is very good at doing, and we need to concentrate on that aspect.
I do not disagree with any of that. Unless the Government of Burundi can develop and deliver the education, health and other services that are vital to the future of the country, all the institutions in the world will not be any good because people will say, “We have elected parliamentarians and politicians and we are still hungry, homeless and illiterate. We still cannot get a doctor or go to a hospital and we are still reliant on tiny remittances from abroad.” I once asked somebody in the Congo how the economy of Kinshasa worked. They said, “You buy something in small quantities and sell it in smaller quantities to someone who sells it in even smaller quantities”, and so it cascades down the line. There is no real economy there and that is the danger. That is why we have to give support now to countries such as Burundi that are coming out of conflict, otherwise they will descend back into conflict. There is never a shortage of guns in poor countries, but there is always a shortage of food, books and doctors, and we have to do what we can.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley pointed out that we had one or two nice moments during our visit. My local football team, Arsenal—everyone will have heard of Arsenal—very kindly donated a box of footballs for us to give to a school. We gave them to children who were orphans of the war or AIDS. Football is a universal language and, for the first time, we had real conversations with real people about matters of real importance. Sadly, it turned out that some of the children had, in a very misguided way, been supporting Manchester United. I was forced to stay behind and help them. However, it was a very nice occasion and I want to put on record my thanks to Arsenal for that gesture. It was a very nice gesture and I imagine that it is something we could repeat on other IPU visits. It certainly beat all the other gifts we gave out, and was very popular.
I want to mention another point very quickly because I know that the Minister wants plenty of time to reply. Last month, in Geneva, I attended the IPU-International Labour Organisation-UN Commission on Human Rights seminars on migrant workers around the world, which lasted three days. There was a delegation from Britain and three other European countries, and that was it. There was a large delegation of African countries, and a good representation from Latin American and Asian countries. What is wrong with European Governments and parliamentarians that they find it so difficult to get to Geneva for three days in September? I know that it is a long journey from Paris to Geneva, and a horrendous journey from Berlin, but people made it from southern and central Africa to discuss the plight of the fourth world—the undocumented migrant workers and people who are dying in the ocean trying to get to the Canary Islands, to cross the Mediterranean to get into Spain or Italy, because they are desperately poor and they want to make something of their lives. They then lead a twilight existence in western countries, like the Mexicans in America and so on; there are plenty of parallels around the world. We have a responsibility to try to do something about it.
I was very pleased to be able to go on that delegation, and I was elected the rapporteur of the conference. We put forward a number of ideas, which will be fed through to the migrants conference next year and the IPU assembly. I am grateful to the IPU for sending me there. There are lots of other issues relating to human rights abuses that I would like to mention, but I will conclude with this thought. We all campaigned for an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa because it was morally wrong and evil. That was very unpopular in the 1960s, moderately unpopular in the 1970s and fairly popular by the 1980s, but it was never easy. It is very difficult sometimes to raise human rights issues, particularly if it is believed or perceived that we have a close economic interest in the country in question. That is why, yes, of course we should raise human rights violations in Burma, but we should do the same if China, India or Saudi Arabia are involved. I have tabled an early-day motion along the line of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley when she introduced the debate.
We have a great institution in the IPU, which is about bringing accountable elected government to the world, as far as possible. I hope and believe and wish that the United States will rejoin the IPU. I have friends in the US Congress—yes, I do, in the anti-war group within Congress. I have said to them, “Join the IPU. It is another forum in which to make better contacts with the rest of the world.” That would make the IPU a much stronger organisation.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas. With the leave of the House, I would like the opportunity to do just that. I hope that no one takes this the wrong way, particularly you, Sir Nicholas. Occasionally in the course of a parliamentary day but often in the course of a parliamentary week, one hears an interesting speech. What has been fascinating today—I hope that you will agree, Sir Nicholas—is that we have heard seven interesting speeches. I have learned something different from each and every one of them. I am not complaining about the amount of time that is available to me, because it was important that everyone had the opportunity to speak about their own experience, but I may not be able to respond to every point. However, I will ensure that the Secretary of State has an opportunity to pay close attention to many of the specific details that were discussed.
I would like to thank you, Sir Nicholas, for presiding over our sitting in the way that you did. I am reliably informed that you are one of the members of the executive who has attended every executive meeting. You have an unblemished attendance record. As a former Whip, I am proud of you.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made an interesting speech. He, too, is a former Whip. He spoke about his experiences during a visit to Mexico and many other matters to which I shall respond in a moment. He also gave an impromptu democracy audit, and I share his assessment.
We have heard about worrying and continuing problems in different parts of the world. We can even look on our near doorstep at the massive transformation in eastern Europe that has occurred in our own lifetime. Things are not perfect, and there are continuing worries about some countries. For example, there were recent announcements about a lack of election monitoring in Russia. There are still problems there, but the spread of democracy closer to home than some of the areas that have been discussed is a cause for celebration.
The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) made several points to which I will respond. He spoke about the importance of gender equality and other issues for this country: our interface with parliamentarians outside of Europe, and the parity and participation of black and minority ethnic citizens in our own Parliament and the signal that that sends to parliamentarians in the countries with which we seek a dialogue. I believe that it was the hon. Member for Cotswold who quoted Edmund Burke. I do not seek to quote him but to record the fact that he opposed extending the franchise to women. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Cheadle, perhaps the quote is not one that can be used in all cases.
I understand why the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) cannot be with us today. Quite rightly, with all cross-party support, he is celebrating the return of the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, which has done a phenomenal job in southern Afghanistan as part of the international effort. We all rightly pay tribute to their work.
I shall deal with some of the specific points and countries that have been mentioned. It was right that everyone paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I remember throughout the mid-1980s, when the matter was not headline news, trying to organise demonstrations in Scotland about Kurdish rights. Other Members were also involved in that. My right hon. Friend was the leading voice throughout that period.
My right hon. Friend raised specific points about Saudi Arabia and told us about the terrible case of the young lady there. We all share her concern about those horrible events, and we continue to raise with the Saudi authorities our specific and general concerns about human rights. We did so again recently during the two kingdoms conference.
On the wider points about parliamentarians in Eritrea and Palestine—my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) also raised the matter—and the specific points about Marwan Barghouti and others, the fact is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has expressed its continuing concerns about Palestinian prisoners who are being held in administrative detention, and we will continue to raise the matter with the Israeli authorities. We are and will continue to be in close contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors conditions in Israeli prisons. I shall bring the matter to the attention of the Minister for the Middle East, specifically the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell).
In order that something positive can come out of this debate, will the Minister make personal representations to his former colleague the right hon. Tony Blair about the Palestinian MPs who have been arrested by the Israelis? It seems to me that if we could get rid of that layer of anxiety, it would be the first step towards peace between those two countries.
I am certain that that would be part of the solution to the remarkably multi-layered and complicated dynamic that is peace in the middle east, which often is about process and staging posts towards what we know is the ultimate solution of two democratic states living side by side with one another, both of which are viable, both of which are friends, and both of which, in time, have normalised relationships of the kind that many adjoining countries around the world take for granted. Of course those are important issues. I am not certain whether I will have an opportunity to raise them with Tony Blair before the meeting in Annapolis next week, but they will be part of the conversation that will take place there.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House made the point that if a Government have confidence to abuse their elected politicians, there is a near certainty that they are dismissive of their own public’s rights. That is no more certain than in Zimbabwe, where grotesque violations of human rights and the disruption of the country are clear for all to see. That is why, among other things, the United Kingdom will not participate in the forthcoming EU-Africa summit. It would send the wrong signal and legitimise Mugabe at a time when he is so ill-deserving of that.
We have ensured that if Mugabe were to attend the gathering, there would be high-level representation by all European Union members in a plenary session. I believe that we all agree that we should not allow one individual to overshadow and make a mockery of a fundamentally important and historic gathering of two great groups of nations, which will try to find some solutions to long-term systemic and structural problems, not least getting the millennium development goals back on track.
On the points raised by almost everyone about Burma, it is clear that the IPU’s work on that country is of crucial importance. The decision to prioritise the resolution sent a clear and important message. The UK Government—supported on a cross-party basis, it is fair to say—continue to send that message. A Government who can abuse the many hundreds of peaceful, spiritual monks in public view in the way that they did, are a Government who, in private, behind closed doors and away from the TV cameras, are doing much worse to their general population. Perhaps that is the wrong way of looking at the situation, but it is one way of judging it.
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary therefore raised Burma with the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and senior leaders and Ministers in Europe, Asia and north America, and will continue to do so. We have discussed the matter at the EU. Indeed, I attended a meeting earlier this week at which it was discussed, and the Foreign Secretary attended a meeting last month at which specific, detailed agreements were put in place. Important sanctions have been put in place, but we do not rule anything out in terms of further European sanctions against Burma.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester referred to the British Council, and an interesting insight into its work is that its offices are one of the few places where the country’s citizens can still access the internet. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) referred to his experience of queues outside another British Council office, but that is also happening in Burma. There is anecdotal evidence that the children of the regime are also trying to find out what is happening in the world. That is not the British Council’s purpose, but it plays a crucial role there, as in many other places.
Earlier this week in Brussels, I had the opportunity with 26 other European Ministers to meet Iraq’s Foreign Minister. The UK and, importantly, France have tabled a joint paper with Sweden on human rights and developments in Iraq. The French Minister for Europe publicly and rightly raised the issue of the death penalty in Iraq, and we shall continue to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) spoke about her recovery from “Groganitis” while making her informed points about Albania. We all know that Albania is recovering from a remarkably dark period in its history, and it is the responsibility of all of us to support it in that. We are doing what we can. Albania’s leadership in respect of Kosovo is remarkable, in both support of refugees and its diplomatic posture. Despite the direct impact on Albania, it has argued eloquently that the issue must be resolved through the international process based on President Ahtisaari’s proposals. That is important.
I do not know whether this is the feedback that my hon. Friend received, but our embassy in Albania referred to an anecdote arising from the IPU’s visit. Albanian parliamentarians valued the fact that they met not the Government, but individual parliamentarians. One Albanian MP said that because a Member of Parliament made the comment that passing legislation and not implementing it brought Parliament into disrepute, it made an impact. I am not sure which Member of Parliament it was—it may have been my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, although I was not aware of that when I mentioned it—but the comment was one of many that hit home, not least in Albania. I am sure that such comments from IPU colleagues make a lasting impression on other politicians’ perception of the UK, and perhaps in some small but important way have an impact on their actions as politicians.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester rightly raised a number of points, as did other hon. Members, about the British Council, the BBC World Service and the Chevening scholarships. Time does not allow me to pay proper tribute to all three, but the British Council does inspirational work throughout the world. I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, and the World Service when I was a child was one of the few sources of objective information about what was happening in the world, as opposed to the version of events that I was invited to believe by the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC World Service is about to launch a remarkable Arabic service, which my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester may be aware of, and which parliamentarians may have an opportunity to visit. The investment and reach of that service will be of phenomenal importance.
Last night, I spoke at a reception for Chevening scholars from a variety of countries, not least Iran, China and Mexico. Our relationship with some of their Governments is good, and with others it is not so strong, but it was clear that even during the short time that those scholars have been in the UK we have managed to develop a bilateral understanding through scholarship on one another’s cultures.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester referred to Jordan, with which we have much in common. It is playing a progressive and important role in the middle east peace process, and I am sure that it will continue to do so at Annapolis and beyond in the months to come.
The hon. Member for Cheadle, among others, spoke about the importance of the European Union. I do not want to belittle today’s debate by referring to the to-ing and fro-ing on the European treaty issue because that is for another day, but the European Union has a phenomenally important role on almost every issue that we have discussed today. If it makes sense for parliamentarians to come together to share concerns and exercise influence on a wider stage, as it does, it obviously makes as much sense for Governments and nations to come together through the European Union to exert even greater influence, not just in the countries that we have spoken about, but in Pakistan and many other parts of the globe. An important part of the European Union’s soft power is that it has been able to persuade Albania, Kosovo, and in time perhaps Serbia and other nations, such as Turkey, to conform to democratic norms and to introduce important changes.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) spoke about the worry, which I occasionally share, that some people, but not those who have spoken today, seem to look at much of the debate about human rights and internationalism through the prism of anti-Americanism. That is unfortunate. It is a legitimate perspective, but it is wrong. The hon. Gentleman balanced that in his comments, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North also balanced that by talking about China and the important work on human rights that must be done there.
The importance of the IPU raising climate change and sustainable development is that it is not seen as coming from the UK Treasury or the Government. It is a legitimate cross-party concern of UK parliamentarians.
Time will not allow me to deal with all the points raised by hon. Members. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North spoke about what might be described as the poorest billion citizens on our planet. He referred to international migrant workers, and the Foreign Office would certainly be interested in his work as rapporteur. Other hon. Members referred to Burundi, and the hon. Member for Cotswold was correct when he referred to the importance of development post-conflict, as a way of preventing repetition of that conflict. In Burundi we are investing in a programme aimed at building Government capacity, and supporting health and education.
Unfortunately, I cannot respond to all the points raised today, but I shall finish with a lighted-hearted point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester. She said that football is the new international diplomacy, and the British Council has also referred to that, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, but he should have declared an interest, because his son works for Arsenal, and I met him when I visited Arsenal. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester declared an interest because of her previous employment, and I should declare an interest because I gave my hon. Friend’s son an award.
Despite the events of last night, we continue to support Croatia’s continued aspiration to become a member of the European Union, and as a Scot, I continue to support Italy’s membership, although I am not so sure after the Spanish referee’s decision at the game last week.
I shall be going from the Chamber straight to Wembley to play with the all-party parliamentary football team in a football match to raise money for charity, and I invite all hon. Members—including you, Sir Nicholas—regardless of footballing prowess and experience, to join me in that adventure.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Five o’clock.