Thursday 18 December 2008
[Robert Key in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Human Rights Annual Report 2007—Ninth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 533, and the Government response, Cm. 7463.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Helen Goodman.)
I am delighted to be here before you today, Mr. Key, and I wish you and all the staff of the House a merry Christmas.
Let me start by drawing attention to the report that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published in July and the Government response that was published in September. I intend to set out the scope of our report, which is very wide-ranging, as you know, Mr. Key, and to discuss the Government response, which is welcome in relation to some areas. In other areas, however, the Government have said explicitly that they do not accept the Committee’s recommendations and conclusions, and I shall inevitably focus most of my remarks on areas where there is continuing disagreement. I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its officials for its consistent co-operation with our Committee on all our reports, but particularly these detailed and complex human rights annual reports.
We seem to debate this subject every year. That is within the gift of the Select Committee on Liaison, but in recent years, we have had several debates on human rights matters following our Committee’s report. In last year’s debate, I discussed the changes that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had proposed to its annual human rights report to make it “more tightly focused”. Our Committee expressed its hope that that would not be a means of hiding more controversial policies on human rights. However, I am pleased to say that the changes have been welcome and have produced an improved report that is more concise and covers a full calendar year.
The Government have implemented our recommendation that work on human rights should be integrated into their strategic priorities. The 2007 report described the interaction of human rights concerns with the FCO’s four strategic policy goals, and we welcome that.
This year’s report welcomes the Government’s decision to split the ministerial responsibilities for human rights and trade within the FCO. We had been asking for that to happen for two years because one Minister was covering both areas for a time, and we were concerned that that sent the wrong signals to some countries. Although we were happy with the performance of that particular Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), we nevertheless felt strongly that there should be a separation, within the FCO, between the Minister with responsibility for trade, who was also in the Department of Trade and Industry—now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—and the Minister with responsibility for human rights. The separation of those posts, in the June 2007 reshuffle, was welcome, as there should now be no potential perception of a conflict of interests. That is important, and we hope that the separation will remain.
We have considered a number of overall themes and individual countries. On overall themes, our report criticised the lack of prominence in the FCO’s 2007 report on women’s rights and children, as well as the inadequate work on the promotion of democracy. In their reply, the Government have agreed
“to better explain how these issues have been factored into the Government’s overall strategy”.
I hope that that will be the case, and that the Minister will commit to giving greater prominence to women, children and the promotion of democracy in the Department’s next report.
As in previous years, we have looked closely at what has been happening with the United Nations system. The move, a few years ago, from having a Commission on Human Rights to having a Human Rights Council unfortunately has not led to a particularly improved performance within the UN system. That is disappointing and this issue has been controversial. We have noted that the UK has voted against seven of the 10 resolutions in this year’s FCO annual human rights report, and has abstained on the other three. That is because the way in which the UN system looks at human rights issues is not balanced, and has failed to address human rights abuses in significant regions and countries in the world. In my view, it has focused overly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but has not concentrated on or referred to human rights abuses in other regions and countries. That is damaging to the UN’s reputation and credibility.
If we have a universal declaration on human rights—we are celebrating its 60th anniversary this year—the Human Rights Council should be universal in its approach to human rights issues, but it clearly is not doing that at the moment. Will the Minister update us as to how the Government intend to press for a more balanced approach on these matters within the UN system?
The Committee has looked at terrorism for several years, both in this report and in specific reports on other issues. Examples include our report “Foreign Policy Aspects of the War Against Terrorism” and reports on the situation in the middle east, Iran and other areas. This report also discusses issues of terrorism and measures to prevent terrorism. We feel strongly that the Government should act to ensure that no flights
“that enter UK airspace or land at UK airports”
are part of what has become known as the “rendition circuit”. Unfortunately, the Government rejected that recommendation in their response.
We have also expressed concerns about the US Government trying former British residents at Guantanamo Bay under the Military Commissions Act of 2006. We recommended that the UK Government should press for the return of Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer from Guantanamo Bay to this country. We understand, from the FCO’s response, that the Government are doing so for Mr. Mohamed, but they seem to have given up in the case of Mr. Aamer. What further representations have the Government made about Mr. Mohamed, particularly in light of the US authorities’ decision to drop charges against him following the resignation of the original prosecutor on what he said were ethical grounds?
Clearly, there will be a change in US policy on Guantanamo Bay with the change of Administration. President-elect Obama is reported to have made statements about closing Guantanamo within two years. I am interested to know from the Minister how the British Government see their role in facilitating its closure and how other countries in Europe and around the world can assist in that process. As the Committee pointed out in our 2007 report, following our visit to Guantanamo Bay in September 2006, it is all very well to call for the closure of Guantanamo, but there are several hundred people there, some of whom are very dangerous and will need to be dealt with in a different way through a legal process, rather than simply being released into wider global society.
On that point, the hon. Gentleman may not be aware of this, but one of my constituents was detained at Guantanamo Bay for four-and-a-half years, and, on my trips to Washington, in meetings at the State Department and the Pentagon amid efforts to try to secure his release, it was made absolutely clear that the Americans would like Britain, Europe and the rest of the world to assist them with their difficulties in closing Guantanamo Bay, in terms of processes and of taking those detainees who cannot be returned to their country of origin. I support the hon. Gentleman and his Committee in trying to push the Government to assist the new Administration in Washington in closing Guantanamo Bay and in ending what is a stain on American legal history.
I am grateful for that support. Our Committee has shown a close interest in those matters, and, in assessing the changes that might be needed to the Geneva conventions, we have also tried to indicate that this is not a simple question, because people who are caught up in a conflict but do not wear uniforms and are not part of a state’s army pose difficult challenges to the international legal regime. The whole world must consider the issue, and not just say that it is the responsibility of the United States. We, as Europeans, can make a bigger contribution than we currently make to assist in the closure of Guantanamo Bay.
An article published in the International Herald Tribune on 5 December pointed out that even when Guantanamo Bay is closed, there will still be the question of how the world deals with radical jihadist terrorists. Those individuals will still exist and they will need to be dealt with in some legal detention regime, otherwise they will continue to pose a threat to many societies in many countries. As we have seen from the recent events in Mumbai, the bombings in Islamabad, Bali, Tunisia and various European capitals, including London and Madrid, and the attacks elsewhere in the world, this is a global threat and a global challenge, affecting people on all continents, in all communities and of all faiths.
Surely it is not Europe’s responsibility to close down Guantanamo Bay, but solely a decision that the United States must take. The people in Guantanamo Bay could not face trial under any European standard, simply because any evidence that they offered would have been completely contaminated by the length of time that they had been there, and extracted under torture, anyway.
I said that we need to give assistance—to help. In fact, paragraph 77 of the Committee’s report states:
“We conclude that the European Union can and must do more to help the United States in bringing about the overdue closure of the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.”
It is a US decision, but, from my own visit to Guantanamo in 2006, I know that there were people there whom the US wished to send back to certain countries, and that many countries were not prepared to take them. If those Uighurs had been sent back to China, they would certainly not have been treated very well, and they probably would have been executed. Some of them ended up in Albania, and, therefore, the question is what we do with the people who are released, some of whom will not safely be able to return to their country of origin.
We also expressed a lot of concern about torture, and we welcomed the fact that the Foreign Secretary made it clear that he considers, and therefore the Government consider, water-boarding to be torture. But that, of course, is not the current US Administration’s view. We therefore concluded that US assurances that it does not torture “cannot be relied upon”, and recommended that the Government analyse whether the US uses additional techniques that might be considered to be torture. In the Government’s response, they declined to do so, saying that such an analysis “would not be meaningful”. I should be grateful for clarification as to whether the Government still regard water-boarding to be a form of torture and, if so, what representations we are making both to the US about torture by its current Administration, and, in other contexts, internationally.
My hon. Friend might like also to pray in aid the evidence that the then Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), gave to my Committee, when he made it absolutely clear that, as far as he was concerned, water-boarding was torture.
I accept that various Ministers have said that water-boarding is torture, and the logical corollary is, therefore, that the United States practises a form of torture. If it does, assurances that it does not are questionable, at least, and, as we have said, probably “cannot be relied upon”. That is an issue for the Government, and we hope that the matter can be resolved through the change in Administration in the United States, but, until such change happens, there will be a problem.
The Select Committee also addressed our Government’s record on the question of torture, and, although I shall not have time to go into the issue, we commented on the practice of seeking diplomatic assurances from countries to which the Government seek to return individuals. The Government recently suffered two court case defeats on the matter, one in relation to Abu Qatada, and another in relation to two Libyan men. We commented also on the fact that the Government intervened in and lost the case of Saadi v. Italy, which was before the European Court of Human Rights. The Government argued that the risk of harm to the individuals should have been balanced against the danger that they posed, but the court came down on the other side. We, as a Committee, were critical and questioned whether the Government’s position in that case amounted to trying to water down the anti-torture commitments that the UK has rightly held for many years.
Our report also addressed concerns about the claims that interrogation techniques were being outsourced to other countries, and we considered allegations relating to British nationals detained in Pakistan. Although the Government denied that they outsource torture, they undertook in their response to investigate the allegations. Our report recommended that there be clarification of the consular and non-consular access that is provided to people known as mono-nationals or dual nationals in Pakistani custody, because some people detained in Pakistan have both British and Pakistani nationality, and it complicates the situation somewhat. The Government reply stated that, in Pakistan, consular access is sought for all mono-national British citizens, but not for dual UK-Pakistan nationals, other than when there are “special humanitarian reasons”. Clearly, that could cover many cases, and it might be helpful to clarify the circumstances in which humanitarian reasons would be invoked to seek access to people who have both British and Pakistani nationality. The Government have commented neither on that issue nor on whether the evidence that the Pakistani authorities garner will be used for further investigations or charges in the UK.
The issue is topical, given that we know that the people responsible for the terrorist outrages in Mumbai were based in Pakistan and associated with terrorist groups that have also carried out terrorist actions against the Pakistani Government and killed people in Islamabad and elsewhere. The Prime Minister in his statement earlier this week talked about the need for co-operation between the Indian and Pakistani Governments to combat terrorism, and the UK has offered to help both Governments. If we do so, we must know the basis on which people are interrogated, and the basis on which there is access for British or part-British—joint British-Pakistani—nationals who might be detained in that context. Those questions raise wide issues, and if we believe that 75 per cent. of all the terrorist plots in this country originate in Pakistan, they are clearly not minor questions and will be on the agenda for a considerable time.
The Committee dealt with a number of other general issues, one of which was our continuing pressure on the Government about the fact that despite the Green Paper published by my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary in 2002 when he was Foreign Secretary, and despite the support of the Committee and others for legislation to regulate private security firms, no such legislation has been forthcoming. I had hoped that the Queen’s Speech would include an announcement of it. I understand that the Foreign Office is very keen to have such legislation, and I suspect that the opposition to it is coming not from within the FCO but from the Ministry of Defence. I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister of whether the Government remain committed to legislating on private security companies, and whether it might be introduced as one of the “other measures” mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, even though it was not explicitly referred to.
I wish also to draw attention to the fact that there are ongoing allegations about how some private security firms, including the US firm Blackwater, operate in Iraq. The announcement has just been made of a pending British withdrawal from Iraq, but there will presumably be private security companies operating there, which will employ British citizens, who are not necessarily subject to regulation or control by any international law or regime, or perhaps to any status of forces agreement about residual UK or US presence in Iraq. I would be grateful for clarification of that, as it seems that there is a lacuna in the terms of control and regulation. Many of the individuals involved are ex-military or ex-special services, yet somehow we do not have a mechanism for dealing with them. They provide protection to businesses, high-ranking officials and sometimes embassies, and if there is no clarity about the control and regulation of their organisations, there is a real danger.
May I add to the hon. Gentleman’s powerful point by saying that the UK taxpayer has spent nearly £250 million on private military and security companies in Iraq and Afghanistan to date? The need for greater transparency and regulation is therefore even greater.
That is true; there is a public interest in that. There is also a Government commitment, through the Green Paper from 2002. Nearly seven years on, where is the legislation? We need to move on that.
There are some wider issues that I shall not go into in detail. We have just launched an inquiry on global security proliferation, and we are examining weapons issues. In the most recent report, we mention the arms trade treaty, arguing that conventional arms should be included and that the scope of the treaty should be as wide as possible. We were told that the Government would press for that, but that they would not necessarily deal with all the issues to do with conventional arms. I would be grateful for clarification of where the Government see the arms trade treaty as being at the moment, and we will return to the matter in the coming months when we produce our report on proliferation. We will visit Geneva and Vienna in January to consider those issues among others.
Another global matter that I wish to touch on briefly is the International Criminal Court, which is now functioning well. We have seen the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, from the Bosnian conflict, which was an important signal. However, there are still outstanding issues, such as the role of Mr. Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. There are also the complications with regard to President Bashir of Sudan and other people who might be referred to the ICC. One of the big problems is that although the US and the Security Council did not block the reference of Sudan to the ICC, the US and other countries are yet to accede to the Rome statute. There is a clear need for us to press that issue. Hopefully President-elect Obama, given his legal background and his knowledge of international law and international relations, will change the American approach on such things. I would be interested to know what our Government are doing to press those points.
I wish briefly to mention a number of individual countries referred to in the report, although not all of them, as the agenda is inevitably selective. In a report that we published earlier this year, we examined in depth the human rights and political situation in Iran. That is also mentioned in our human rights report. From recent discussions that I have had with representatives of the Baha’i community, I understand that human rights issues are getting worse for them, with more persecution and more arrests.
Iran has the most executions in the world except for China, and I believe the highest of all per capita. There is also hanging by strangulation, public stoning, flogging and amputation, which are not just part of the criminal code but were justified to us when we met Mr. Larijani, the head of the Iranian Government’s human rights commission. Since 2006, there have been a number of high-profile cases, including the punishment of same-sex relationships by death and discrimination and violence against women. Human rights in Iran should not be treated as a secondary issue. Although it is important to emphasise the continuing breach of the non-proliferation treaty through the Iranians’ enrichment programme and other nuclear-related matters, it is important that we recognise that the human rights situation is very poor for many millions of Iranians.
We touched also on the human rights situation in Burma. When we produced our report, there had recently been the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and the inadequate initial response by the Burmese Government authorities. We know that the British Government have tried hard to get the issue on the UN Security Council agenda and found it difficult because of the attitudes of some other countries. I would be grateful for an update on what action might be taken under the broad agenda of our responsibility to protect and the appalling human rights situation in Burma.
On China, our report was published just before the Beijing Olympics and there was inevitably a focus on that. We had an evidence session with the Dalai Lama, which was very well received by British people but did not go down so well with the Chinese Government. I would be grateful for an update on the Government’s position on what is happening in Tibet and the fact that the talks, which were renewed around the time of the Olympics, seemed to hit a brick wall in September. The Dalai Lama’s call not for independence but for a third way of genuine autonomy has been blocked and rejected by the Chinese authorities.
I know that the Minister expects me to ask about the Government’s recent change of position in respect of Tibet and their statement that we would no longer use the word “suzerainty”. That has caused concern among some lobby groups and non-governmental organisations, who interpret it as a change of approach to Tibet. I would be grateful for a clarification of what it means in practice in respect of human rights concerns and our support for autonomy within Tibet.
No, I am not. Perhaps the Minister could respond to that question when she winds up.
I have mentioned the Government’s statement on Iraq. We raised concerns about the people who were employees of the British Government in Iraq and who at present are required to become refugees outside Iraq before they can apply for the gateway programme to get into the UK. Many people have had to flee Iraq and may be in Syria or Jordan. There is the question of whether we are doing enough to assist people who have worked closely with us—not just interpreters, but others. The lives of some of those brave individuals were, and probably still are, threatened by some of the extreme radical Sadrist or Ba’athist groups which remain in Iraq, despite the welcome political progress that has been made.
I welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement about the timetable for withdrawal. I am still convinced that it was right to liberate Iraq from the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein, but there are issues that need to be addressed, and I hope that the Government will do so.
The report touches on human rights in Russia. Last year, we published a major report, “Global Security: Russia”. Clearly, there are human rights concerns in respect of that country. When he took office, President Medvedev talked about having a law-based system, but there does not seem to be much evidence of change in some important respects.
The UK has concerns about human rights matters that have affected British citizens and Russians alike. This is not the time to go into the outstanding disputes over the British Council, the murder on London streets of a British citizen, Mr. Litvinenko, by polonium, or other issues, but it is important that we register the fact that there are important human rights issues in respect of Russia.
The regular six-monthly European Union-Russia human rights consultation took place in October. I would be grateful for clarification of the outcome of it, where we are today, and whether there has been any progress at all. The EU has just announced that it is opening negotiations with Russia on a renewed partnership and co-operation agreement. The Committee was rather sceptical in its 2007 report about whether it was worth the candle because of all the outstanding difficulties, but the British and Swedish Governments made a joint statement and the position changed. Clearly, it is important that we do not just have the noble Lord Mandelson going to Moscow to talk about improved trade. We also need the Foreign Office Ministers responsible for human rights to go there to talk about human rights matters. It is important that we can keep human rights issues in Russia high on the agenda.
On Saudi Arabia, I have to say that I am disappointed by the Government’s response to our report. Saudi Arabia may be a major partner and ally, there may be the two kingdoms dialogue, we may have lots of exports to Saudi Arabia, and the western world may rely on its oil, but let us be frank: its treatment of women is deplorable. It has an appalling human rights record—one of the worst in the world—and there is no point in beating about the bush. Progress is incredibly slow on such matters.
The Foreign Office told the Committee that the Saudis executed 158 people in 2007, and Amnesty International told us that most executions are done in public, including that of a 15-year-old boy who was executed in 2007, and that the country even carries out executions for witchcraft. Saudi Arabia seems to be 600 or 700 years—or perhaps 400 years—behind the rest of the world in some respects. Frankly, if we have global human rights standards, we need to be more outspoken.
We recommended that the Government’s current policy of assisting with gradual reform is inadequate and that the two kingdoms dialogue should explicitly address matters such as the death penalty. We recommended that measurable, time-limited objectives should be part of the dialogue. We suggested that the Foreign Secretary could write to us in confidence on the matter if he wished to give us information that he did not wish to make public for diplomatic reasons. The Government have rejected all those recommendations, and I am very disappointed.
We were concerned that the Government’s report failed to pay sufficient attention to the appalling human rights crisis in Somalia. I am pleased that the Government have accepted our recommendation and that next year’s report will have a significant section on Somalia. Clearly, we need to address not just the situation in Somalia itself but also the regional impact, and the fact that there are still Ethiopian troops in Somalia two years later. I was told by the Ethiopian ambassador when they first went in that they would be there for only six weeks. Clearly, there is now a serious situation in that country.
On our recent visit to the UN, we were told that there are still insufficient helicopters and engineering resources for the UN peacekeeping force in Sudan, and we hope that the Government will look again at assisting in that area. We are disappointed that so far there does not appear to be a stronger commitment in material terms. This is perhaps not an issue for the Foreign Office; it is more a question for the Ministry of Defence. Nevertheless, we could be doing more to help the African Union hybrid force in that area, and the people in Sudan and Darfur. Sudan is a major country with the potential to have an impact on conflicts around its borders.
Will my hon. Friend’s Committee be able to deal in some depth with the situation in the Congo in next year’s report, particularly as two of the themes appear to be the treatment of women and the treatment of children, both of which are of massive importance, particularly in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo?
I accept that our Committee did not cover the Congo. We tend to comment on the FCO’s report. We look at the areas that it deals with and then mention other areas that it did not cover for future consideration. I hope that the Congo will be pushed up the international agenda by our Committee and by the FCO.
Clearly, we are concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe, which has become much worse since our report was published and since the Government’s response was published in September. There is a crisis in that country. Many people have had to leave to go to South Africa and elsewhere, and there is a catastrophic cholera outbreak which, of course, is no longer happening, according to Robert Mugabe.
We all know that the real solution is that the democratically elected Government should be able to take power, but that requires South Africa in particular and also other countries in the region to be more active and to apply more pressure. The international community as a whole must help to deal with that appalling situation, and with the humanitarian disaster that is occurring in that once peaceful, prosperous and agriculturally productive country.
I should like briefly to mention three countries that we did not refer to in the report, but I flag these up because there is concern about them and we in the UK need to consider that. All three countries are Commonwealth countries and former British colonies in Asia. The first is Sri Lanka, although because there is an Adjournment debate on the situation there in the main Chamber later, I will not speak about it in detail now.
Many Sri Lankans—mainly, but not only, Tamils—live in this country. There is deep concern about what is currently happening in Sri Lanka in respect of the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the central Government. Clearly, the Government view is that they can have a military victory, but there will be consequences as a result of that. As well as the appalling human rights abuses that have been carried out by the LTTE, including using child soldiers in the past, bombing by the Sri Lankan Government has hit schools and medical facilities. Many people have been forced to flee as a result of the military actions taking place in the north of Sri Lanka at this moment.
There is deep concern among the people of Sri Lankan origin in this country. I declare an interest, in this sense, because a large number of Tamils live in my constituency, and whenever I visit the Hindu temple serving that community, people tell me about the appalling situation and show me photographs. There is no doubt that there is not one bad and one good side in that situation. The Sri Lankan Government would argue, no doubt, that they are combating an organisation that carries out terrorist attacks, including blowing up buses and assassinations, which is all true; nevertheless, some appalling things are happening in Sri Lanka.
Secondly, we need to recognise that human rights include the right to freedom of worship. People in Hindu communities in Malaysia are suffering as their temples are being destroyed. The Malaysian Government need to recognise that, although we do not regard Malaysia as a great human rights abuser, there is concern around the world about the situation there. Hopefully, they can take steps to redress that problem.
Thirdly, human rights, women’s rights—a topical issue because of the high-profile case of the young trainee doctor—and religious minorities’ rights in Bangladesh need to be looked at. A military coup in Bangladesh led to the abolition of what might have been a dysfunctional democratic system, but although large numbers of lawyers and political party activists are being locked up—far more than were locked up by Musharraf in Pakistan—this country does not have a focus on what is happening in Bangladesh. Our Government need to raise the profile of Bangladesh. I hope that we can consider that issue in the coming year.
I am conscious that I cannot speak for the whole of the time available, much as I would like to, so I conclude by making a general point. I have already mentioned that this is the 60th anniversary year of the universal declaration of human rights. I believe that there is a real threat to the universal values and the universal system established when the United Nations organisation was first set up before the end of the second world war, with early meetings in 1942 and 1943, meetings in London and San Fransisco, and the setting up of the institutions of the international order 60 years ago.
The world’s focus, economically and politically, is shifting from Europe and north America to Asia. Many of the countries that are growing in economic and political importance in this century do not necessarily share the universal human rights approach that was established in the 1940s, when Eleanor Roosevelt and others played such an important role. We need to be vigilant and we must emphasise the importance of those universal human rights values. Whether it is China or Saudi Arabia, or any other country with an important economic weight in the global system, countries have to understand that we will not pull our punches on human rights. Human rights are universal. A young woman in Jedda and a young woman in Shanghai should have the same rights and respect as a young woman in Berlin, London or Chicago. We need to recognise that those universalist values should continue to be at the forefront of our agenda. That is why the human rights annual report from the FCO, initiated by the late Robin Cook in 1997, is welcome and why the Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to monitor the Government’s work and press them to do more on these issues. Although we recognise that they do quite a lot, unfortunately not everything that we would wish to see is contained in the response. Perhaps next year they will do better.
I warmly endorse the final point made by the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). I entirely agree with him and share his concern that the deep fundamental principle of the universality of human rights is being threatened in many parts of the world. It is incumbent on the international community—Governments in particular—to stand up for that principle of universality: the principle that human rights do not have national frontiers.
The 2007 annual report on human rights from the Foreign Office lists a total of 21 countries under the heading “Major countries of concern”. As was the case with the Committee Chairman’s contribution, I must be necessarily selective. I want to focus on three particular countries, all of which feature in the FCO’s list of countries of major concern. I shall start with Zimbabwe. I begin where I finished my remarks on Zimbabwe in the equivalent debate just over a year ago, on 11 October 2007, when I said:
“Should this country and the Government therefore consider whether the ambit of international criminal law ought to be widened somewhat to bring within it those who carry out outrageous, appalling mass human rights violations that, under the present definitions, fall just below the level of crimes against humanity?...If an individual in this country treated another individual in the way that Mr. Mugabe treats millions of his subjects, it would be a matter for a criminal prosecution”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 11 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 148WH.]
There is no doubt that, from a human rights standpoint, the current ambit of international criminal law is seriously deficient. International criminal law, such as it is, is also being applied in an anomalous and inconsistent way. I should like to compare, for example, Mr. Mugabe with Mr. Milosevic. Mr. Mugabe and his regime, like Mr. Milosevic and his regime, have been responsible for an unknown number of unlawful killings. Mr. Mugabe and his regime, like Mr. Milosevic and his regime, have been responsible for police brutality and torture and now we see a wave of abductions. Mr. Mugabe and his regime, like Mr. Milosevic and his regime, have been responsible for removing huge numbers of the citizens for whom they are responsible from their homes and turning them, in huge numbers, into refugees obliged to flee from their country.
Mr. Mugabe, in this case unlike Mr. Milosevic, has been responsible for destroying his country’s economy and the value of his country’s currency, inflicting destitution and the total breakdown of public services, including education and health, and allowing wholly preventable diseases to occur. Contrary to what Mr. Mugabe is claiming, it is evident that, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva this week, nearly 1,000 people have died of cholera in Zimbabwe, and there are nearly 20,000 suspected cases. The contrast is that Milosevic was indicted and taken to The Hague, and he stood trial for crimes against humanity, yet Mugabe has got off scot-free so far and has avoided any international criminal proceedings.
I was delighted that the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, in his recent excellent article in The Observer headed “It’s time to topple the tyrant Mugabe”, concluded:
“As a country cries out for justice, we can no longer be inactive to their call. Mugabe and his henchmen must now take their rightful place in the Hague and answer for their actions. The time to remove them from power has come.”
The right hon. Gentleman said that when he spoke about the matter last year, the case against Mugabe was not at the level of a crime against humanity. Does he agree that the powerful case that he is now advancing suggests that it has reached that level? It has been suggested that because Mugabe is approaching his 85th birthday, the International Criminal Court may cease to have jurisdiction. Does he know whether that is so? If it is, will my hon. Friend the Minister respond to that, because it would be news to me. The real issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said, is the role of South Africa in bringing Mugabe to justice.
I am not aware of any age cut-off for criminal proceedings by the International Criminal Court.
As I said last year, there is a serious requirement to consider the ambit of international criminal law. The situation in Zimbabwe has worsened hugely since our previous debate, just over a year ago. What steps will the Government take, with other Governments, to ensure that Mr. Mugabe is indicted and brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague?
I come now to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. In the debate last year, I referred to the situation in Gaza and the occupied territories, and I have no compunction about doing so again. It is deeply regrettable that, as in Zimbabwe, the situation is no better, and is markedly worse than a year ago. Gaza is effectively a giant prison in which 1.25 million Palestinians are imprisoned by the Israelis. Indeed, it is worse than any modern, properly run prison, because it is a prison where power supplies may be, and have been, cut off. It is a prison where food supplies may be, and have been, cut off. It is a prison where job opportunities are vanishing almost to the point at which they no longer exist. It is a prison where basic services, such as health and education, are breaking down. It is no good the Israeli Government saying that that is justified on security grounds. That justification does not wash on moral, legal or effective policy grounds. An indisputable historical fact is that no terrorist action or movement has ever been stopped or overcome by a general system of reprisals against the surrounding civilian community. That has never succeeded, and will not succeed in this case.
To make my position clear, I condemn, as strongly as anyone, terrorist action out of Gaza towards the Israeli settlements in southern Israel. It is indefensible, I condemn it utterly, and I fully support the Israeli Government in dealing with it, but terrorism must be countered by targeting the terrorists. Terrorism cannot be countered by a system of reprisals against the general civilian population.
The situation in the west bank is little better, and was extraordinarily well set out in the 2008 report “The State of Human Rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories”, which, to its great credit, was produced by the Israeli organisation, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. An opening paragraph encapsulates absolutely what is going on in the west bank, and states:
“The massive presence of the settlements in the heart of the Occupied Territories and the policies adopted toward them has created a state of institutionalized separation and discrimination as well as a nullification of the principle of equality. In the same territorial area and under the same administration live two populations who are subject to two separate and contrasting legal systems and infrastructure. One population has full civil rights while the other is deprived of those rights. The absolute separation between the populations is purely on the basis of national origin. The settlers' lives, although they live in an area under military rule, are in almost every respect the same as those of Israeli citizens living in Israel. This is in stark contrast with the local population in the same area, the Palestinians, who continue to live under the regime of a military occupation. Thus, for example, a Jew who has committed a crime is entitled to all the rights of an accused under Israeli law, and will be tried before a civil court, whereas a Palestinian who has committed a crime—even during the same event—is subject to much harsher military law and will be tried under the military court system; Israel has built a modern arterial road system in the West Bank intended in fact only for use by Israeli traffic, whereas the Palestinians are forced to travel for the most part on twisting and dangerous roads; the discriminatory use Israel makes of the planning system in the Occupied Territories restricts building and any possibility of expanding Palestinian towns and villages, in contrast with the generous planning flexibility enjoyed by the settlers; the amount of water allocated to the settlements allows them to grow grass and build swimming pools, whereas there are Palestinians who are forced to buy drinking water from tankers.”
That sets out accurately and acutely the division of human rights into two in the west bank.
How long will the British Government, as well as most of Europe and certainly the US Government, remain so extraordinarily passive and silent about the absolutely unacceptable position of human rights for Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied territories? The British Government and many others must give an altogether different level of priority to the matter and show a willingness to speak out frankly to the Israeli Government on what they need to do to recover respect in the international community with regard to the treatment of the Palestinian community, while at the same time—I make this absolutely clear—supporting the Israeli Government in trying to deal directly with terrorists or those who are committing atrocities against the state of Israel.
With the Prime Minister’s statement today, it is clear that we are coming to the end of our military involvement in Iraq. Quite apart from the call from those on the Opposition Front Bench for a public inquiry on how we came to invade Iraq in the first place, there will be a need for evaluation of the consequences of our invasion and subsequent involvement in that country. I urge the Government to produce, in the course of the next year as our time in Iraq comes to an end, an evaluation of what has been the overall equation with regard to human rights, and to do that evaluation objectively, honestly and impartially.
I was at a NATO Parliamentary Assembly function in Washington at the beginning of this week, and on Monday the hotel where we were staying delivered to me that day’s edition of USA Today. A report on the front page of President Bush’s final visit to Iraq stated:
“After the news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush visited Camp Victory, a military base, to greet hundreds of cheering troops. He said…‘Thanks to you, the Iraq we’re standing in today is dramatically freer, dramatically safer and dramatically better than the Iraq’ in 2000”.
I have to say that we had a very lopsided presentation from a human rights standpoint from the Prime Minister in his statement today.
Let us consider the three yardsticks that President Bush erected. Is Iraq dramatically freer? Yes, there are aspects on which Iraq undoubtedly is substantially freer than it was under Saddam Hussein, which is very welcome. It may be somewhat fragile, but there is a genuine degree of democracy, and there is hugely enhanced freedom of expression and freedom of the media, which is all-important in a free society.
However, with the huge wave of criminality, kidnapping and sectarian violence, I wonder how many ordinary Iraqis feel today that they are dramatically freer in terms of being happy to leave their homes, to walk around in the streets, to be on their own—women in particular—and to go about their business. I wonder how many of the millions of ordinary Iraqis feel today that their ordinary way of life has been made dramatically freer against the background of some of the factors to which I have referred.
Is Iraq dramatically safer? One group of people cannot answer that question. They are the hundreds of thousands—we do not bother to count them—of Iraqi civilians who are dead as a result of what has been unleashed internally in Iraq following our invasion, dead as a result of criminality and dead as a result of sectarian violence. Will the Minister give us her best estimate of how many hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have died as a result of violence in Iraq since we invaded?
Another group of people, who most certainly can answer the question, would answer with an emphatic no. Those are the people who have voted with their feet—the people who have felt it necessary to leave their homes, the people who have become refugees in other parts of Iraq and in neighbouring countries. The figures for those—we owe a debt in this regard to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—are appalling. Some 2.7 million Iraqis have been forced to become refugees in their own country. A further 2.5 million have become refugees in neighbouring countries. More than 5 million Iraqis have been forced to become refugees. Iraq has not proved dramatically safer for them.
There are those who have had to flee because of religious persecution. Whatever the evils of Saddam Hussein’s regime—there were many of them—because it was a secular state, it was not into religious persecution. The figures that have been reported in the press regarding the decimation of the centuries-old Christian community in Iraq are that five years ago, there were 800,000 Christians in Iraq; today, that has slumped to 250,000. More than 500,000 Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee the country.
An issue that we dealt with specifically in our report is the safety of women in our own area of responsibility in the Basra area. At paragraph 128 we said:
“We believe that the deteriorating human rights situation faced by women in many parts of Iraq is unacceptable, and we recommend that the Government should use all its leverage to press the Iraqi Government to ensure women are afforded security”.
The Government, in their reply, offer some figures and claim that in the Basra area the extent of violence against women is reducing. I point out to the Minister—perhaps she will comment on this—that the figures in the Government response are wholly contrary to the report and figures that were produced in The Independent on 30 November. It stated:
“Authorities in the southern Iraqi city of Basra have admitted they are powerless to prevent ‘honour killings’ in the city following a 70 per cent. increase in religious murders during the past year.
There has been no improvement in conviction rates for these killings. So far this year, 81 women in the city have been murdered for allegedly bringing shame on their families. Only five people have been convicted…One lawyer in the city described how police were actively protecting perpetrators and said that a woman in Basra could now be murdered by hired hitmen for as little as $100”—
$100 for a woman’s life. I hope that the Minister will respond to that.
The final claim was that Iraq is dramatically better. President Bush did not quantify what he meant by “better” in that context, but I assume that he was referring to living standards. Living standards for some have improved, but for others they remain grim. There are huge levels of unemployment. There are still poor levels of power supplies. There are worries about public health and there are certainly worries about stability.
I put it to the Minister that although there have certainly been significant human rights pluses, the House of Commons, the public at large and certainly the Foreign Affairs Committee will expect the Government to produce, as we exit from Iraq, a full, objective and independent evaluation of the human rights results—both the benefits and the adverse consequences—of our invasion of Iraq.
I turn next to a matter referred to by the hon. Member for Ilford, South—the key cross-cutting issues of women’s rights and children’s rights to which we refer in paragraph 12 of our conclusions. In it, we also refer to the important roles of free trade unions and a free media. I hope that the Government will take the recommendation seriously and that they will respond fully on those crucial areas of the universal application of human rights. It is important to appreciate just how valuable free trade unions have been—I stress free, and not state-sponsored unions—both historically and today in safeguarding and upholding individual human rights.
It is a reflection of the effectiveness of free trade unions that they have always been hated by fascist Governments and communist Governments. It is worth recalling that when Hitler came to power in 1933, the first people to be sent to the concentration camps were the trade union activists, not the Jews. As for the communist states, free trade unions were ruthlessly suppressed by Stalin, and they are being ruthlessly suppressed by the Chinese Government today. I hope that the Minister will say clearly that the Government are out to support free trade unions—most particularly, I suggest, in the People’s Republic of China.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, and I agree with him. Is he not concerned also about the situation in Colombia, where there is the largest killing of trade unionists anywhere in the world? That is a serious violation of human rights, and the report draws attention to it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. Yes, it is a deplorable feature of what is going on in Colombia. Again, I am sure that the Government will focus on that when it comes to this year’s report on human rights.
Finally, I want to say this about women’s and children’s rights. As I go into 2009, one report is seared in my memory. It has recently appeared in many parts of the press, which corroborates the report. It shows just how far we have to travel in order to uphold women’s rights and the right to protect children.
The report was about a 13-year-old girl in Somalia who had been gang-raped. She went to the authorities for protection and found herself accused of adultery. When her final day came, she was taken to a stadium where a crowd of about 1,000 people had been assembled. She was dragged off a truck, terrified and screaming, and put into the hole that had been dug for her, with just her head and shoulders exposed. Then the men began to stone her. They stoned her for 10 minutes. At the end of that 10 minutes, they pronounced her not quite dead. They resumed the stoning until she was properly dead.
It is a bit of a busman’s holiday for me to speak in this debate, as I am Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We obviously concentrate on human rights in the United Kingdom, but it can sometimes be frustrating for the Committee to see so many problems around the world that we are not allowed to investigate.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on his speech and on the work of his Committee. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the Government’s report on human rights. It is a pity that we should be debating the 2007 report at the end of 2008, because much of it is out of date. However, the debate has shown how we can bring some of that material up to the present.
I refer to the 2009 Durban review conference. The UN world conference against racism was held in Durban in September 2001. It was a groundbreaking achievement. For the first time, the international community came together to create a declaration and a programme of action to tackle racism, discrimination and xenophobia. However, the conference was plagued with problems, and was hijacked by anti-Israel and anti-Zionist groups. They led a well organised and well funded high-level campaign, backed by Islamic and Arab Governments, to exclude anti-Semitism from the anti-racism agenda, to label Israel as an apartheid state responsible for genocide, and to revisit the equation that Zionism equals racism.
Despite the efforts of Islamic and Arab states to include that extreme negative test, the final Government level declaration at Durban 1 contained positive text on anti-Semitism and holocaust commemoration. The problem, however, was that the language has somehow become legitimised as extreme rhetoric, and is now often widely accepted in mainstream attacks on Israel. Durban began a trend to exclude terrorism against Israel and anti-Semitism from the entire global human rights agenda.
In April 2009, a Durban review conference will be held in Geneva. The final conference will produce a declaration, which is meant to be a review of the extent to which the Durban 1 declaration has been implemented, and it will make recommendations for further action. The April conference will be the final part of a longer review process.
Although the proposed text before the conference has not been agreed, it is of great concern. It includes suggestions that Israel is an apartheid state, that Israel’s occupation is racist, that Zionism is racism and that Israel is committing genocide. It questions Jerusalem being the capital of the Jewish state, excludes Jews as victims of racism and excludes holocaust denial from victims of the racist agenda. It creates a hierarchy of categories of racism, whereby Islamophobia is considered to be more important than any form of racism. It also wishes to curtail freedom of expression to include criticism and blasphemy of religion. Although the document is not final, and it is subject to high-level government negotiation, at present it is the only text available.
The Israeli and Canadian Governments have already formally withdrawn from the process; and the United States withdrew from Durban 1. Some states have noted that they might withdraw if the draft document crosses their red lines—for example, Denmark and France. I am pleased to say that I have received good assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister, to which I shall refer in a moment. The red lines are appropriate and fair. They are that there should be no singling out of any one state; no clause relating to defamation of religion; the retention of the anti-Semitism condemnation; the retention of holocaust commemoration; and, in particular, no hierarchy of racisms.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the United Nations commissioner for human rights in November. He informed the commissioner that the United Kingdom was dissatisfied with preparations for the conference, including the drafting of the document and challenges in it to the right of freedom of expression, singling out Israel and the fight against anti-Semitism.
I understand that a further round of negotiations will take place next month, after which the Government will assess their position. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would give us a clear assurance that if those red lines are not met, if the text stays as it is, the Government will consider it to be unacceptable and will withdraw from the conference. Ultimately, it is a contradiction in terms: a conference against racism cannot proceed with a text that excludes anti-Semitism and that has a hierarchy which considers some forms of racism to be more serious than others. I hope that my hon. Friend will give us those assurances. I am pleased to say that early-day motion 83 has attracted a significant number of signatures in support of that contention.
I refer next to Cyprus. We do not often hear about Cyprus in the context of human rights, but we should. I shall not speak today about the Cyprus problem; I have secured an Adjournment debate on the subject on 16 January. I want to speak about some of the specific human rights issues that arise there. In that context, I declare an interest. I have just returned from a visit to Cyprus, and some of my expenses were met by the House of Representatives.
The general issues are well known the deprivation and expropriation of property whereby Greek Cypriots have, since 1974, been expelled from the north; the refusal to allow people to return to their own homes; un-investigated deaths from both 1963 and 1974 and many other similar, serious generic human rights problems. However, I want to focus first on the enclaved people in the Karpas peninsula in the north, which I visited for the second time a few weeks ago. Their lot is not much improved. They are effectively living in a police state, in fear and without the benefit of the rule of law. They are oppressed, and there are now only 200 or 300 of them left out of an original population of tens of thousands at the time of the Turkish invasion in 1974.
If somebody left Karpas to seek an education in the south they would not be allowed to return. Families are not allowed to return. They do not have the right to run their own businesses—those that they had in 1974 were expropriated. Houses are in poor condition, and have not been modernised because they are not allowed to repair them. Indeed, some houses were demolished while the residents were away receiving medical treatment. They live in extreme poverty and destitution. Their lot is appalling. Last year I wrote to the secretary-general of the Council of Europe about the matter, and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could say what efforts the Government are making to support and raise those concerns in the Council of Europe and to make representations to Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot authorities.
I would like to talk about the Maronite enclaved people, who are hardly ever referred to. Northern Cyprus contains four Maronite villages, one of which, Agia Marina, has been entirely expropriated for use as an army camp, and its people are not allowed to return even to visit the church. I went with them to the gate of the army camp. The soldiers were perfectly polite—I have no complaint about the way in which they responded to us—but made it clear that we were going no further than the road barrier.
Maronites are allowed to return to the village of Asomatos only for a couple of hours on Sundays to visit the church, but they are not allowed to ring the church bell—in fact the rope has been taken away to ensure that that does not happen. Only a couple of old ladies now live in Asomatos, and they are completely isolated on the fringes of another army camp where properties have been requisitioned by the Turkish army. The Maronites are frightened that their whole culture is dying out. They are worried that their language is dying and that Maronites living in the south are being assimilated into the wider Greek Cypriot community. That is a serious human rights issue about which we hear very little indeed. In fact, I think that this is the first time that their lot has been debated in the Chamber.
There are wider issues about freedom of religion in the north. When I visited, a few weeks ago, I saw increased mosque building, mainly on Greek Cypriot land. This year the people of Morphou were not allowed to Agia Mama on 2 September—the saint’s day. The day before St. Andrew’s day, I visited Apostolos Andreas, the church at the very end of the Karpas peninsular. It is in poor condition. People were there for a religious festival, but when they tried to ring the bell, the police stopped them. That is inappropriate behaviour in a part of the European Union—albeit, there is a derogation in relation to the inability of the Cyprus Government to govern matters in the north.
The north Cypriot economy is in a real state. It relies on income from casinos and increasingly from “night clubs” that are nothing more than brothels in which far too many trafficked women are forced to work, whose cause we have done nothing to raise. What attitude will the Government take to deal with that problem when making representations to Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot authorities?
We have heard a lot in this House about the restrictions in Turkey on freedom of speech and expression and about what happens to journalists, such as Dink, who was murdered, but we hear little about what goes on in northern Cyprus, which is subjected to a very similar regime. Just over a week ago two young Turkish Cypriots, aged 19 and 21, were arrested, taken to court in the north and remanded in custody for seven days, for insulting Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat on a personal Facebook group. They had used pretty childish and abusive language to criticise Talat along the lines of, “So you’re President now, you think you’re a big ass”, among other things. Apparently, a journalist from Yeni Duzen, which owes its patronage to the Republican Turkish Party—the CTP—got wind of the Facebook group and reported it to the Turkish Cypriot police, who arrested and detained the two boys and are now trying to track down the other 160 group members. Last Friday, the boys were remanded for another seven days so that the police could complete their so-called ongoing investigation. I understand that there is a strong risk that they will be formally charged probably based on criminal defamation laws. That comes after four youths were beaten, arrested and had their passports confiscated a few months ago in the north, for writing, “Turkish troops out of Cyprus”, on a wall.
So it goes on. A journalist whom I know well, Sener Levent, was jailed in the north for things that he had written, and faces dozens of criminal charges. We see in northern Cyprus the same sort of oppression as we see in Turkey.
Order. No, the hon. Gentleman will not venture there. I am being very generous already. We are considering the 2007 human rights annual report and the Government’s response, neither of which mentions Turkey or Cyprus. The Minister need not feel obliged to respond to those points, important and entrancing though the speech is.
I do not wish to criticise your ruling, Mr. Key, but I refer you to paragraph 80 of the human rights annual report, which refers to Council of Europe matters. It does not deal specifically with Cyprus, but with some Council of Europe rulings on such matters. The European Court of Human Rights is part of the Council of Europe. I refer to these matters in the context of ECHR cases, which are an appropriate part of today’s debate.
The Committee’s report refers to the Government’s report, which has been endorsed. In that context, I hope that you will allow me, Mr. Key, to refer to some of those ECHR cases. I shall refer more generally to those points, because those cases raise important issues, in relation to property and the missing persons in Cyprus.
The Loizidou case was the leading case in this matter, but more recently, in the case of Arestes, Turkey has failed to execute the judgment ordered by the ECHR. The role of Turkey is referred to in full in the Government document and cross-referred to in the Committee’s report. The Arestes case deals with the so-called Turkish Cypriot Property Commission. Eight cases have been designated as test cases by the ECHR to examine the effectiveness of the property commission remedy, and 32 other cases have been declared admissible, one to the value of £130 million. The issue is that the commission does not award restitution, without which there is no remedy, as far as the European convention on human rights is concerned.
The Sofi case—I am not referring to one side of the argument only—concerns a Turkish Cypriot who is challenging the guardianship law in the republic, and the ECHR is allowing a hearing on the republic courts. Only today we saw the recommendation of the ECHR advocate-general on the Orams case, which concerns the purchase by a British national of a property in northern Cyprus built on Greek Cypriot land where the Greek Cypriot has been able to obtain a judgment in the courts of the republic, which should now be enforced in the UK courts on the basis of a reference from our courts to the ECHR. I hope that we will see an end to that case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to missing persons, on whom the ECHR leading case is that of Varnavas in Turkey, which has been rumbling on for about 18 years. On 19 November, a full Grand Chamber hearing looked into the lack of an investigation into the deaths of nine missing persons—eight soldiers and one civilian—and, on behalf of three of their families, allegations of inhuman treatment. The Committee on Missing Persons cannot provide an effective investigation because it is not in its role to do so. The Cyprus courts are also involved. A Turkish Cypriot has applied to the Supreme Court of Cyprus for a judicial review on the lack of investigation of a death in the Republic.
In another case, the Pasha family are suing the Republic of Cyprus for not telling them that their missing relative—a reservist who had been collected by the National Guard truck in the ceasefire in 1974—had in fact been buried on the Greek Cypriot side. Many such cases seriously breach human rights and come within the context of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, and they need to be resolved.
On a positive note, the Committee on Missing Persons, which is part of the United Nations—my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred to the United Nations in his opening remarks—is functioning well, but it cannot look at the cause of death or attribute responsibility. It is working on a bicommunal basis, which is one of the positive things in Cyprus. It has exhumed 450 bodies so far, out of a total of 1,996 missing people on both sides. It has been able to identify and return 107 sets of remains—31 Turkish Cypriots and 76 Greek Cypriots—and investigated 224 sites. It needs $3 million to run, and is funded year by year only. Does my hon. Friend the Minister think that the Government will consider putting their hand in their pocket to ensure that such vital work continues, because it has at least another two years’ worth of work to do?
In relation to demining, to which both reports referred, another €4 million is needed to clear the rest of the buffer zone. Both communities and the UN have put money into demining, but it remains a significant problem to conclude. I hope that the Minister can respond to those important human rights points.
I should like to turn now to the question of Sri Lanka, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred. It is a very serious issue on which we must focus. I regret the fact that the ceasefire ended earlier in the year because without it there can be no military solution to the conflict. We should all like to see self-determination and a fair and just solution to the problems in the north. The human rights crisis is grave, with reports of disappearances, extra-judicial killings and violence against the media.
Sri Lanka is ranked 165th out of 173 countries in the 2008 world press freedom index published recently by Reporters without Borders. It lags behind Somalia and Iraq, and is only just ahead of Iran and China. Journalists have been murdered, attacked and intimidated, especially in war areas. In a response to a parliamentary question, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), estimated that, after the latest surge in fighting, the number of displaced Sri Lankans has risen from 75,000 in July to between 200,000 and 250,000 now. Most of them are Tamils, and two thirds of them are likely to be women and children. There was no humanitarian access to assess the figures properly. Those people are trapped without any assistance. I am pleased that the Government have committed a further £2.5 million in humanitarian relief to international agencies. The total estimate of internally displaced people is around half a million.
The Government are correct when they say that there must be inclusive political negotiations for a just settlement in Sri Lanka that can satisfy the legitimate aspirations of all communities and help to promote democracy. I am not surprised that the Sri Lankan Government were not re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council earlier in the year. There is no doubt that Sri Lanka has failed to honour its commitments to uphold human rights and co-operate with the UN since it became a member two years ago.
Recently, I have been raising questions on Sri Lanka’s beneficial trade position with the UN and the general system of preference plus, which was due for review recently. Will my hon. Friend say what attitude the Government took in the final part of those negotiations, in particular whether that beneficial position for Sri Lanka has now been ended? Such a position cannot be justified at a time of such huge and horrible human rights abuses.
The Sri Lankan air force drops bombs indiscriminately in northern Sri Lanka, causing civilian casualties. Last year, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Louise Arbour, visited Sri Lanka, and confirmed that there were a large number of abductions, disappearances and killings. She called for an international human rights monitoring mission to Sri Lanka.
Only this week, we have seen a huge upsurge in military violence. Both sides say they kill scores of each other’s fighters, but independent reporters are banned from the war zone. Inevitably, we are reliant on the views and accounts put forward by each side. I heard a particularly disturbing account from Wednesday’s fighting. A five-month-old child was killed and 13 other refugees, including three children, were wounded when Sri Lankan air force jets bombed refugee settlements in Vaddakkachchi four times. The Sri Lankan army has also intensified artillery attacks, targeting civilian settlements in Vaddakkachchi, Oddisuddaan and Mutiyava’lai. On Monday, artillery shells hit Mullaiththeevu general hospital, causing injuries to two patients.
I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on the situation in Sri Lanka. Is he aware of the allegations that the Sri Lankan army has been using cluster munitions in some of its attacks against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, thus endangering yet more civilians?
I was not aware of that, but the hon. Gentleman has made a very important and valid point.
Let me turn to the reports from international non-governmental organisations. A few weeks ago, Amnesty said that the Sri Lankan Government must end their policy of blocking the humanitarian aid that is needed by the displaced people in the Wanni region. It called on both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE to allow in international monitors to assess the needs of the thousands of the people trapped in the Wanni, and to ensure proper distribution of food and other resources.
The Sri Lankan Government lack the capacity to uphold international human rights standards and to ensure that support is provided to protect the lives of thousands—whether it be through shelter, sanitation or food. Criticism should not be targeted just at the Sri Lankan Government. The LTTE must also bear its share of the responsibility for the human rights abuses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South said. Tamil Tigers are subjecting ethnic Tamils in the Wanni to forced recruitment, forced labour and restrictions on movement that place their lives at risk. They have prohibited the movement out of Wanni except for some medical emergencies. Only about 1,000 people have been able to escape from the region since March. The LTTE has trapped hundreds of thousands of people in a dangerous war zone, according to Human Rights Watch. It has also stepped up child recruitment. It is encouraging youngsters aged between 14 and 18 to join up. It has undoubtedly killed large numbers of civilians, committed political assassinations and carried out suicide bombings, thus eliminating most of the political opposition within the Tamil community. It is responsible for killing journalists and rival organisation members as well. This is a terrible conflict, with human rights abuses on both sides. The answer has to be a political settlement one way or the other.
I should like to refer to part 3 of the report, which is the interface between the human rights work of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the report of my own Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I do that with approbation because it has done an excellent job on the issue of rendition, with its views very much coinciding with ours. When it comes to rendition, there is a real difficulty in finding evidence of what is going on. With all the circumstantial evidence and allegations, it is very difficult to establish what is really happening.
We agree with the recommendation of the Committee concerning the question of water-boarding, which I dealt with when I intervened on my hon. Friend’s speech. We also agree with the point about UK officials and torture. The Committee refers to the Guardian reports of April 2008 in which allegations are made relating to torture and the conduct of UK officials in Pakistan. We plan to follow that up ourselves with an evidence session in February in which the Guardian journalist who has being carrying out these detailed investigations will be questioned.
The report also refers to the issue of diplomatic assurances. We very much concur with what the report says. The Joint Committee has published its own report on those assurances, in particular on memorandums of understanding. We cross-examined the Home Secretary on that, and the position that was advanced was peculiar. To summarise, the position seemed to be that it was all right to ill-treat people if the ill-treatment fell short of torture. However, the prohibition relates not only to torture, but to inhuman treatment, which could be at a low level. There is no line drawn in human rights law between inhumane treatment and torture, as the Court of Appeal rightly found when it ruled on the matter. My Committee was embarrassed by the argument that the Government advanced in the case of Saadi v. Italy, which, as the report says, was soundly rejected by the European Court of Human Rights. The Foreign Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are singing from the same hymn sheet on such issues, although we approach them from different directions.
Finally, I should like to comment briefly on the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, and in particular to commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s speech last week to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission reception. It was a powerful defence of human rights at home and abroad. He said that liberty, democracy and justice are rights that all human beings are born with, no matter where they come from; that we should all campaign for Roosevelt’s four freedoms at home and abroad; that liberty and fairness are as relevant as they ever have been; and that the universal declaration of human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 are a shield and safeguard for all of us.
Any 60th anniversary is a seminal moment, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South was right to draw attention to the threat posed by some of the regimes around the world that are becoming more influential to those basic, fundamental principles. The values are universal and, in my view, timeless. They have their roots in centuries of our history, but they are for the world as a whole. It would be an absolute disgrace is there was any resiling from those basic values, which all in the House stand to defend.
I am very pleased to be taking part in the debate, although I am slightly surprised at the timing—it is a Thursday afternoon, immediately before the Christmas recess. I know that you are not responsible for these decisions, Mr. Key, and I do not know who is, but it possibly suggests that some people are not awfully keen on debating human rights. I am sure that I am not referring to any hon. Members present.
May I help my hon. Friend? I do not think that it is anybody’s fault. There were two slots for a debate in Westminster Hall, and the Foreign Affairs Committee will be away on the second. Therefore, our only alternatives were no debate, or a debate today. I am sure that it will be a debate of quality, considering the excellent contributions that we have already had.
I bow to that wisdom, and I am happy to take part in the debate, as I am sure all other hon. Members are. I wish you a happy Christmas, Mr. Key, if that helps.
The principle of the debate is very important. Clearly, the work that Robin Cook did to ensure that the Foreign Office produced an annual human rights report was a good step forward. Of course, that encourages the Foreign Affairs Committee to produce a report, and for the Government to respond, all of which is welcome and important. I rather liked how the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), introduced the debate by saying that the Government had apparently promised to explain their views better next year. I am not quite sure what that means, but I look forward to that better explanation.
I should like to address the thematic issues that are dealt with at the beginning of the report, because they are an important part of it. The United Nations was set up after the second world war, and the universal declaration of human rights was written in 1948. A great many things stem from it, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, which was formerly called the United Nations Human Rights Commission. I was interested in what the Committee said about it. I have attended quite a lot of sessions of the commission and, latterly, the council, and they are valuable, important institutions. However, they are not terribly efficient in going about their business. There is a difficult balance to strike between being supportive of the principles of their work, and expressing concern about the speed with which they work and the lengthy sessions that they hold.
There is a growing tendency, which runs wider in the UN system, of excluding, as far as possible, the work of non-governmental organisations. Clearly, when the UN was set up, a role for civil society organisations was envisaged—it is enshrined in every UN conference and agency. NGOs attend the sessions but, in Geneva, I have seen them get less and less time, and more objections are made to individual organisations. I am not saying that there should be no right of objection—in some cases it is legitimate—but I am concerned about the general diminishing of the role of civil society organisations.
In an open, democratic society, civil society organisations can make their points of view known to their Governments, international forums and other places. However, where there is no open, civil society, and no easy opportunity for human rights defenders to approach a Government or other authority to demand justice for people, access to an international body such as the UNHRC is the only avenue. I would be grateful if the Minister could say what our representatives in Geneva are doing to ensure and guarantee civil society organisations a place and facilities, so that they can have a voice and a presence, and take action.
I notice the problem especially when there is a peer group review of human rights on the basis of a report from each country, which is a welcome process. Some countries—I have observed this—show enormous reluctance even to acknowledge the objections made by civil society organisations. In some cases, there is an abject refusal of any other Government to take up the cause of human rights in another country for all kinds of commercial, military and other reasons. The voice of civil society is important, and I hope that the Foreign Office understands the points that I have made on it.
I could talk about a lot of things in this debate, but I should like to deal with the thematic concerns about human rights abuses around the world. In the report and the response, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Government respectively correctly say that the thematic approach of looking at the treatment of, say, women and children is important. However, today is international migration day. No group of people is treated worse, reported and recognised less, and exploited more, than migrant workers, or people who are trying to lead lives in countries other than their own. In effect, they are paperless individuals.
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has made a statement today, in which he talks initially about the value of migration. Clearly, every society benefits from migration, including ours. Skilled and unskilled workers move from one place to another and make an enormous contribution to their societies. Many people have left this country for other places to better themselves. It has always happened and it will continue. Mr. Guterres rightly makes that point, and goes on to say:
“But migration also has a darker side, especially when people move because they are escaping intolerable conditions at home and when they do not have access to the passports and visas that would enable them to migrate in a safe and legal manner…Throughout the world, refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants are being held in detention and subjected to physical abuse. Many face harassment, discrimination and exploitation, not least by the human traffickers and smugglers who prey upon people who are desperate to move. Sensationalist media coverage and political populism have contributed to the growth of racism and xenophobia, which are often targeted at the most vulnerable and visible migrants. In contravention of international refugee law, people whose lives and liberty are at risk in their own country are turned away from the borders…where they hope to find safety and security.”
It gives me no pleasure to report that in this year alone several hundred people have died trying to cross to the Canary islands from west Africa, trying to cross to Italy, Malta and Greece, and trying to cross to the United States from various countries in central America. There is a legacy of people who have been exploited grossly at home in central America, who have sought economic salvation in the United States, but who have died on the way. I hope that in its future work, the Foreign Affairs Committee will consider the operation of the conventions on migrant peoples and on the rights of migrant workers to enjoy equivalent economic conditions to other workers. I hope that this twilight existence and this exploitation will be ended.
I agree absolutely. Last year, I was a rapporteur of a joint conference of the International Labour Organisation and the Human Rights Council in Geneva which made the point that all countries should be signatories of exactly that convention. I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s point and believe that Britain should be a signatory.
It gives me no pleasure that there are people, even in this city, almost within sight of this building, who lead a twilight existence because they have no papers. I am one of many colleagues who support the Migrants into Citizens campaign to bring about legal justice for such people. There is a fourth world of 200 million people who move around because of disasters in their own societies, who contribute greatly to the living standards of the rest of us, but who are denied access to rights, benefits and justice. I hope that greater attention will be given to that in future years.
We have discussed a number of countries. No one Member is able to refer to every country mentioned in the debate or report. However, I emphasise the points made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) concerning Israel and Palestine and the treatment of people in Gaza. The Free Gaza movement emphasises that the encirclement of Gaza is dreadful, that the living standards of people in Gaza are dreadful, and that the lack of food, clean water, energy supplies, medicine and the right to travel to gain medical assistance is appalling. Those things are entirely politically counter-productive. If people are encircled like that and denied access to the benefits of society—if young people, particularly young men, are forced to lead their lives vicariously through computer screens, looking at the rest of the world that they can never travel to or see—it is small wonder that they end up holding views that nobody would want, like or agree with.
The need for justice for the Palestinian people must be recognised. That in itself would bring about a move towards security. Building security walls and erecting barbed wire entanglements and encirclements, taking water supplies, and denying people the right to travel, to free movement around their own society, and to access to particular roads is not a recipe for anything other than a fractured, dangerous and violent situation. That is the situation now.
I hope that we will be firm with Israel on its policies. I do not support or condone violence by anybody. That includes rocket attacks, attacks by F-16 jets and so on. I want to see peace and justice in the region and believe that that can come about only through a recognition of the rights and needs of the Palestinian people. I am interested and pleased that the Foreign Affairs Committee went there, looked into those issues and made clear statements concerning Gaza in its report. I commend it for that.
Like many colleagues, I have the pleasure of representing an inner-city constituency. There is a large Somali community there. The human rights of Somali people are raised in the report. It states:
“We conclude that the FCO’s report fails to pay sufficient attention to the severe human rights crisis in Somalia. We are particularly concerned by the absence of any mention of alleged abuses carried out by Ethiopian troops”.
I was pleased that in introducing the report, the Committee Chairman referred to that point. The situation in Somalia is disastrous. There is no effective national Government. To some extent, there are effective regional governments in Somaliland and to a lesser extent in the Puntland. There is no overarching Government who can effectively control the whole of Somalia. I suspect that there is still a presence of Ethiopian troops. Nobody can receive a full education, have access to health care or have any of the other things that we would want.
Another issue is the pirate ships off the coast of Somalia. It is a condemnation of the world’s media that it takes the hijacking of an oil tanker to draw attention to the situation in Somalia. The war that has been going on all these years and the massive killings have received hardly any attention. It says something about the values of the western media that they are more concerned about an oil tanker than the rights of so many people. I understand that more emphasis will be placed on the situation in Somalia in the 2009 report. I hope that that is the case.
Lastly, as I said in an intervention on the Committee Chairman, there is no mention of the Congo in the report. I am pleased that there will be a report on it next year. The situation in eastern Congo must be a priority within the theme of the rights of women and children. I have visited the Congo on a number of occasions and in April I visited the refugee camps in Goma. I met women who were victims of war, and of rape and sexual violence being used as weapons of war. There is a Department for International Development programme in the Congo and a Foreign Office representative in Goma who is trying to bring about a political peace process.
We are giving as much support as possible to women’s organisations in the Congo. Something that cheered me up—if anything can cheer one up in eastern Congo—was a women’s demonstration that took place in Goma a few weeks ago against the way in which the militias, the army and others act with impunity in their treatment of women. I urge the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Foreign Office to do everything that they can to promote a political peace process and to support the UN in trying to give the hope of peace and justice to the people of eastern Congo.
The Committee Chairman rightly mentioned that this year is the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. That is a remarkable document. The work and negotiations of Eleanor Roosevelt in bringing it about were very important. I have sat through many debates in many places in which that document has been condemned as a western instrument which fails to take account of cultural values around the world. Those who drew it up tried to take account of a wide variety of cultural differences and thought hard about that issue. I understand the view of some that it puts far too much emphasis on individual rights, individual liberties and individual justice. I would not argue that point, but that we often fail to pay attention to the other side of the document, which speaks of economic rights, rights of social justice, education, housing and the right to work.
The declaration makes it clear that we must be prepared to ensure that human rights defenders around the world are protected. If they cannot be protected, how can the human rights of those who are suffering be protected? We must therefore support improved human rights courts and regional human rights facilities, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Above all, we must show that we are serious about defending the human rights of people around the world by being prepared to condemn, without fear or favour, what goes on in particular countries.
I agree with the Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling and others about Saudi Arabia. Human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, although they are recognised, are not discussed in enormous detail, I suspect because Saudi Arabia has a vast amount of oil and buys vast amounts of arms from this country. That, quite simply, is what the equation is about.
If we believe in universal human rights and justice, they should apply all over the world. It is up to us to ensure that our foreign policies reflect that. We should recognise and celebrate that 60 years on, that seminal document written by Eleanor Roosevelt along with many others is well worth defending. Think of its successes. It has helped to save the lives of an awful lot of people who otherwise would have been killed by oppressive regimes.
I congratulate the Committee on its examination of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report, and I commend the FCO for its work in producing that report. It creates a valuable context for our debates here. I would also like to mention the people who work in organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch: all the campaigners, activists and journalists in this country and around the world who are at the front line in ensuring that individuals’ and communities’ human rights are respected.
Particularly in this year, the 60th anniversary of the UN universal declaration of human rights, we should remember the achievements of such people as well as understand the challenges ahead of us. There are many. As we have heard, the UN Human Rights Council is far from optimal in how it does its business and promotes that work within the international community. We heard about the problems with the UN conference on racism at Durban, including the appalling approach to Israel and anti-Semitism. I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that as we prepare for the Geneva conference we should ensure that those documents to which he referred are properly amended.
When one thinks about the state of human rights development around the world, one cannot help but comment on how many Governments and dictatorships use the cloak of democracy to give themselves legitimacy and defend themselves against accusations of human rights abuses. There is a serious point about how we debate democracy when we see elections being abused and failures to understand the true nature of democracy or the importance of the rule of law in ensuring that democracy is meaningful.
I am thinking particularly of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sometimes I think that we have talked about democracy without remembering the critical element of the rule of law. That is why many people around the world do not understand why we are so committed to democracy. In its fullest sense, it is about defending the rights of individuals and minorities as well and ensuring that due process gives rights to communities.
In talking about the wider international apparatus of international law, one must hope that the new President Obama will ensure that the United States becomes a signatory to the treaty on the International Criminal Court. That would be a major step forward in the international framework. I hope that the Government, at least behind the scenes, are pressing him on that. However, I also hope that the Government’s approach to the ICC and its potential benefits to the international community will be a little more forceful. I was concerned to read that they want to invoke article 16 in respect of the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir. I understand some of the rationale behind that, but I think that it would be a retrograde step.
I would like the Government to go to the UN Security Council, get a resolution and push China and Russia hard to support the idea of making Zimbabwe effectively a signatory to the ICC treaty, as the Security Council is allowed to do. It could be used as a weapon against Mugabe and the ZANU-PF elite. That is how international law could be used to bring pressure to bear on such appalling people.
I congratulate the Government generally on some of their approaches to such matters. I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments in his speech on the 60th anniversary of the UN declaration, although some of the comments made by the Secretary of State for Justice with respect to the Human Rights Act in an interview with the Daily Mail did not do him or the Government justice. The Government ought to defend the Human Rights Act as one of their best achievements. In the context of this debate, they should not be backsliding. That, among other reasons, is why my noble Friend Lord Lester, who was brought in as an adviser to the Government, felt that he could no longer continue in that role. It is a warning shot to the Government about how they behave on such issues.
The European Union is critical to the fight for human rights. If we consider how enlargement and trade negotiations have worked, we see that the European Union is a major force in developing human rights. In countries such as Turkey, Croatia and Serbia, we can see how significant it is. In its work with other bodies such as the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, it is a force for good.
As others have done at greater length, I shall make a little tour of the world in my remaining minutes, starting with China, which has not been discussed fully. Obviously, it has major status as the world’s largest country. It has made some progress on human rights, but far too little. We have seen how China uses trade and its economic clout with other countries to get its way. Recently, it postponed the 11th EU-China summit because it was concerned that the Dalai Lama was visiting certain European capitals. Britain and the EU must stand up to such bullying. If we give way to the Chinese on that sort of thing, we will end up in a sorry state. That is why I am concerned about the change in Government policy with respect to China and Tibet and the move from the long-held policy of suzerainty to one of sovereignty. We are apparently gaining nothing in those negotiations. I hope that the Minister will address that, as several colleagues have mentioned it.
On Sudan, there are many issues one could talk about, but I have yet to hear from anyone in the Foreign Office why this Government, working with our colleagues, have failed to ensure that the helicopters needed by the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur are delivered. We understand why Britain itself does not have helicopters—because of our missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere—but there are many helicopters around the world that could be used if we had the guts and the political will to use the money set aside to obtain them. It is quite wrong. During my remarks to the Foreign Secretary in January this year, he agreed that the issue was urgent. Well, 12 months on, we have not done anything about it, so it was not that urgent for the FCO.
Other colleagues mentioned Sri Lanka. Last year’s Amnesty International report says:
“2007 was characterized by impunity for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Soaring human rights abuses included hundreds of enforced disappearances, unlawful killings of humanitarian workers, arbitrary arrests and torture.”
I am afraid that in 2008, that situation has got even worse.
We must hold the Government of Sri Lanka to account. Of course the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have committed human rights abuses, with their terrorist outrages and some of the things that they have done involving child soldiers, but ultimately it is the Government of Sri Lanka who ought to meet higher standards. Their failure to allow the media spotlight to fall on that country and their rejection of humanitarian aid agencies are outrageous, and this Government should send a strong message to the Government of Sri Lanka that they must do better. As colleagues have said, the solution cannot be a military one; it must be political. The Sri Lankan Government should get round the table with the Tamil community and its leaders.
Neither Britain nor the European Union has sorted out a strategy for pressurising the Russian Government properly. We need to think of new ways to embarrass the Russian Government. I suggest to Ministers that they should start every meeting with the Russians by reading out the Russian constitution and asking how well the Putin-Medvedev Government are meeting its lofty principles.
Not surprisingly given the statement today, I will end on Iraq. There is no doubt that the situation in Iraq over the last six years has been appalling for most Iraqi citizens. As the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said, if one looks at the measures of freedom, security or safety I am afraid that it is not absolutely clear that things have improved as a result of the war in Iraq.
What was most disturbing about some of the comments on the Floor of the House today, particularly those by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party, is that, listening to those comments, one would have thought that we went to war on the basis of a desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made it very clear that that was not the basis of the war. The basis of the war was weapons of mass destruction. They have not been found, the cause of war has been exposed as being wrong and yet there was no apology today. Given the suffering of the people of Iraq, that was an absolute travesty.
First, I want to compliment the Foreign Affairs Committee, in particular its Chairman, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), on the very comprehensive and challenging report that it has presented. In the spirit of Christmas, I also express thanks to the Government for a voluminous human rights report, and that adjective is not meant as a criticism. The scope and the length of the annual report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office indicate how concern about human rights rightly affects every aspect of this country’s foreign policy.
It seems to me that the basic principle is that, as a nation, we should aim to conduct our foreign policy in a way that is true to our democratic and pluralist values. At the core of those values is surely a deeply held belief in the primacy and the inviolability of individual human rights. What that means in practice, at least in part, is being ready to express our concerns about human rights whenever they arise and in respect of all countries, and that that principle should apply whether we are talking to our oldest and staunchest allies, to authoritarian regimes that are hostile to this country or to emerging democracies.
For example, a number of right hon. and hon. Members cited China, and I very much want to see Britain develop a strong relationship with the People’s Republic of China, as it assumes an increasingly important role on the world stage. The reality is that there will be fewer and fewer global problems in the 21st century that will be capable of being solved without the active participation and partnership of China in seeking and implementing solutions to them.
In general terms, the greater China’s global interest and global reach, the greater a stake China will have in global stability. However, a strong and healthy relationship with China is not one in which we take some vow of silence when we talk to Chinese leaders about human rights abuses in their country or about issues such as Tibet. I would welcome an assessment from the Minister of the state of affairs in Tibet and in the ethnic Tibetan areas of neighbouring provinces.
I have said privately and publicly that I believe that it is in the interests of China, if China wishes us to accept what it says about the state of affairs in that part of the People’s Republic of China, that it once again allows access to human rights organisations and to foreign journalists, so that they can travel and report freely on what is going on in that region. I hope that the British Government have been pressing for such access to be granted and I would be grateful to learn from the Minister whether we have been successful in ensuring that diplomats from our embassy in Beijing gain access to Tibet or to the neighbouring provinces that were affected by the disturbances in Tibet earlier this year.
The same principle applies in our approach to Russia. In the long run, Britain’s interests in a constructive relationship with Russia will not be well served by turning a blind eye to oppression within Prime Minister Putin’s Russia or to human rights abuses in Chechnya or beyond Russia’s borders.
Perhaps it is most clearly in Zimbabwe today that the issues of human rights come into the starkest relief. A few days ago, the European Council agreed to add 11 further names to the list of people in the Mugabe regime whose assets in Europe would be frozen and who would be made subject to a visa and travel ban, to stop them coming to European Union member states. That joint measure is welcome and I do not think that there is any quarrel across the House about supporting it. However, I question whether it is enough.
We now have a Government in Harare who seem intent on using both starvation and disease as weapons against their people to try to secure their own hold on power in the face of rejection at the hands of the electorate earlier this year. Do the Government support the call from Ministers in Botswana for a ban on fuel supplies to the Zimbabwean army and police and, if so, have our diplomats been pressing Zimbabwe’s neighbouring states, in particular South Africa, to implement such a ban?
Furthermore, what is the Government’s approach to the proposal that was first put forward this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) that either the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal established by Security Council resolution should be invoked so that Mugabe and his henchmen know that there is a real prospect of them being brought to account for their crimes, and that it would be in their interests to quit power sooner rather than later?
Also, what is the Government’s response to the desperate plea from the World Food Programme for international action to alleviate the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe in the face of the decision by their Government to restrict access to basic foodstuffs? The WFP has appealed for $140 million in aid, but it says that only $60 million has been pledged so far. Consequently, it is now talking about having to cut back on the rations that are distributed to the people in Zimbabwe who are dependent on UN food aid, despite the fact that on every forecast the number of people expected to become dependent on such assistance is set to grow, and grow significantly, in 2009. How much have our Government committed to that aid programme? What are we saying to other developed countries around the world about our common responsibility to alleviate this dreadful suffering and this appalling and shocking abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe?
I am conscious that both the Foreign Office’s report and the Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry are so broad in scope that I shall inevitably have to pick and choose which themes and which countries I refer to. However, Iraq is important, intrinsically so because of what is happening there and more particularly so because the state of affairs in Iraq is to some extent the responsibility of this country.
I have two questions to put to the Minister about Iraq. The first concerns Iraqi interpreters, which is another subject that my right hon. Friend raised. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said earlier today in response to the Prime Minister’s statement, we have a duty not only to offer our thanks to the Iraqis who have served the British authorities and armed forces at great risk to themselves and their families, but to offer our sanctuary when their lives are threatened as a consequence of helping us. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that by the time our troops are withdrawn from Iraq, in the middle of next year, all the cases of people who have worked for our forces or for the British authorities and who seek either financial assistance or relocation will have been properly dealt with? It would be a betrayal to withdraw from Iraq leaving completely unprotected people who have put their personal safety at risk in the service of our forces.
Will the Minister comment on the rules of the scheme that the Government operate? I hope that I am mistaken, but they appear to exclude people who, although they worked for the British authorities for the requisite period of time, worked for Ministry of Defence contractors rather than directly for the armed services. In some such cases, Iraqi interpreters and other workers were subject even to military discipline, and it would be a scandal if those Iraqis were excluded from our offer of sanctuary simply because the MOD contracted out certain functions, rather than carrying them out directly, while their counterparts who worked directly for the forces in almost identical circumstances were given protection.
My next point on Iraq is more general. The Prime Minister rightly drew attention today to the improvement in the security situation in at least parts of Iraq in recent months. I hope, however, that the Foreign Office and the Select Committee will continue to look closely at what is happening in that country, particularly at the position of religious minorities.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said, in a report published only this week, that
“religiously-motivated abuses are continuing and widespread. The lack of effective government action to protect these communities”—
including Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans and others—
“has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities.”
The report also said that religious minorities had been subject to
“harassment and abuse during Saddam’s era”
“their situation has grown more severe”
since 2003. That should rightly be on our conscience and should be a concern that affects our continuing relationship with the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and Irbil. It should also be a key aspect on the agenda whenever British Ministers or officials meet their Iraqi counterparts.
That leads me to a more general point about religious persecution. Throughout its report, the Select Committee highlights examples in country after country in which the human right to freedom of belief and of worship is at best abused and at worst deliberately persecuted. There are references to the plight of the Baha’is in Iran, to the prohibition in Saudi Arabia of the practice of any religion other than Islam, and to the persecution of pretty much every religion in North Korea. Also mentioned are the insistence of the Chinese Government on a system of approval or licensing if particular religious organisations are to be tolerated, and the anti-conversion laws in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those are all cases in which the denial of freedom of religion has come about by a deliberate act of policy by the Government concerned.
In other countries, people of certain religions—particularly, but not exclusively Christians, I am afraid—are persecuted not by Governments but by other groups in society. The problem in such countries is that their Governments are either unwilling or unable to introduce adequate safeguards and to stop that abuse or persecution. The Chairman of the Select Committee talked about the position of Hindus in parts of Malaysia. In the past year I have received letters about the difficulties faced by Ahmadi Muslims in Indonesia. Of course, everyone in the House will be aware of the appalling attacks on Christians in the Indian state of Orissa in recent months. Those matters should all be on the agendas of our Foreign Office Ministers. I hope that they will not only look at individual cases, but examine whether the Government and the Foreign Office could do more, institutionally, to highlight abuses of the right to religious belief and worship throughout the world, and to bring those issues to public attention.
The Foreign Office has a panel on freedom of religion, but I understand that it comprises more than 60 religious organisations in the UK and that it meets irregularly. Is there a case for making such a panel permanent and for its meetings to be regular? Might the Foreign Secretary consider appointing a special representative to focus entirely on freedom of religion, belief and worship? That is a common theme across many countries. As I have said, the US has a statutory commission with the job of monitoring and holding inquiries into alleged abuses of religious freedom around the world, taking evidence and making reports. Is there a case for the UK Government not to copy exactly what is done in Washington, but to focus their efforts more carefully?
I conclude by discussing the Durban conference, on which I agreed completely with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). The conference, in 2001, was a parody of concern for human rights. I remind the Minister that when we last debated human rights in the Chamber, on 13 October, she said that she would review the UK’s position shortly after the debate. In fairness to her, she was absolutely clear in denouncing what had happened in Durban, and I do not question the principle of her comments. She said that
“we are participating in negotiations in Geneva at the moment and…we will reassess our position when the preparatory committee ends this week.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 641.]
We are now two months hence, and the Government are still, apparently, engaged in those negotiations. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was being very generous to the Minister when he said that he accepted that there was a while to go yet, and that we had to see whether further concessions might be available. I question the point of the United Kingdom continuing to participate in the preparations for that conference. On the basis of what I have seen and read so far, there is little evidence to suggest that it will be anything other than the charade that we saw in 2001, and, if it turns into that, it will be an event in which the Government of the United Kingdom should take no part.
The Government’s own human rights report said:
“The United Nations remains the bedrock of international efforts to promote human rights.”
I agree. It is precisely because the United Nations’ reputation will be besmirched if there is any repetition of Durban that the Government should make it very clear that they want no part in any repetition of what happened that year.
Thank you, Mr. Key. This has been an important and welcome debate. I am happy to take part in it no matter what day, or time of day, it is. Perhaps it is appropriate if, first, I join with others in wishing you, Mr. Key, the staff of the House and right hon. and hon. Members all the compliments of the season, but, for me, today is as good a day as any to discuss the matter before us.
The United Kingdom promotes human rights and democracy not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in our interests to do so. I think that right hon. and hon. Members will happily share in that argument with me, because this is a world where, if human rights are more fully realised, people are treated with respect for their inherent dignity and worth, and democracy and rule of law prevail, that will also be good for our prosperity and security in the United Kingdom.
The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has continued to offer recommendations, criticism and, I am glad to say, praise, where merited, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its work to promote and protect human rights throughout the globe. Right hon. and hon. Members have done likewise today. I welcome the scrutiny as well as the support, and I welcome the guidance that is always given freely and in good heart, because it is a very important contribution not only to our policy making but to the actions that we take.
This is our report’s 10th edition, and FCO staff in London and overseas work hard to ensure that it is thorough and insightful guide to our policies and activities. I welcome the Committee’s comments that the latest edition is an advance on our previous efforts, and I assure the House that we will try to improve yet again with our 2008 report, which will be issued in spring 2009, giving us much of 2009 in which to debate it.
I shall turn to the points that have been made in the debate. I share many of the sentiments, much of the outrage and, mostly and importantly, the need to recommit ourselves today to the spirit and the reality of the universal declaration of human rights, as we rightly celebrate its 60th year. I shall endeavour to do justice to the many points that have been made, but, of course, where I am not able to, I shall follow them up in writing or, where appropriate, raise them with ministerial colleagues if the issues fall into their domain.
I shall begin by addressing the broader issues and then turn to individual countries. First, to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Committee Chairman, and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), I can of course confirm that women’s rights and good governance will remain a vital part of the Government’s work, and that we will seek better to explain how the issues have been factored into the Government’s overall strategy, as the Committee asked us to. That work will include annual reports on countries of concern, too. We very much agree with the recommendation to bring out in our next report the important role of free trade unions and free media, and I certainly concur with the many comments about that today.
Issues about international organisations have rightly peppered the debate, and we are committed to ensuring that international institutions are effective and fit for purpose, because the UN and other, regional, organisations are the primary mechanisms through which we promote, and exert pressure for, the implementation and further development of individual human rights standards. Such organisations are also where action is taken against human rights abuses, and we work constantly to strengthen the effectiveness of the system, because we believe that it is fundamental to all that we do so. As a member of a number of multilateral institutions, whether they be the UN, the European Union or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, we are committed to implementing human rights fully at home and to promoting them abroad.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to the Human Rights Council, and I believe that it can and does contribute towards the protection and promotion of human rights globally. However, it is also true to say that it is not perfect—for some of the reasons that we have heard today. Out of the Human Rights Council, I am glad that we now have the universal periodic review process, which, for the first time in the United Nations’ history, will ensure that the human rights situation in every single UN country is regularly examined. Earlier this month, the council held a special session to review the worsening human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a matter of extreme concern which has been raised in today’s debate and among the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North rightly raised the issue of the voice and the influence of non-governmental organisations, and I agree about the need for their participation at the United Nations, in other international organisations and, indeed, in-country. The voice and influence of NGOs is crucial if we are to see governance improve and change, transparency, and Governments taking action in the interests of their people. To provide some assurance, I should say that the UK has argued hard for NGOs to provide input into the new universal periodic review process, and they are able to input substantively on every country under the new process. Issues were raised about China, Cuba and Russia, and, importantly, with those countries up for review next year, that is no small opportunity for NGOs. The House will want to know that, interestingly, FCO staff who work on human rights meet a wide range of NGOs before and after every session of the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly Third Committee, giving us a chance to benefit from their experience and expertise, and the NGOs a chance to provide input into the organisations’ policy. We will continue to progress that work.
On the issue of human rights for women, right hon. and hon. Members rightly talked about the fundamental need to improve the lot of women and children. I shall refer to the rights of women, and to protection against the abuse of women’s human rights. The issue of violence was raised today, and I shall focus on that, because words are not enough; we need, without any shadow of a doubt, action. The fact is that, for social, cultural, religious or other reasons, many states remain resistant to promoting the protection of women’s human rights, so what has the UK done to combat violence against women? I am glad that we played a major part in the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1820, which established for the first time a link between sexual violence in conflict and international peace and security. It also improved the reporting requirements on the impact of women in conflict. I believe that that is how we should go forward. We have also worked in the EU to develop guidelines on combating violence against women. That is not just words, because from now on the EU will conduct systematic lobbying and reporting on the issue, and EU funding will be used to tackle it. I am not just hopeful but intent that those things will make a real difference.
The Government never use torture, including water-boarding, which has been mentioned, for any purpose. Nor do we encourage or assist others to do so. We consider water-boarding to be torture, and as I have said, we are quite clear that we unreservedly condemn its use. The other reality is that we have different legal views from the United States on a number of counter-terrorism issues, but both the UK and the EU will continue to discuss those matters with the US.
I think that it would probably be appropriate to say that the use of torture and what is defined as torture continues to be a matter of important debate between the US and the UK. I can assure my hon. Friend that that will not change.
The Guardian articles referring to allegations of UK complicity in the mistreatment in British nationals detained in Pakistan have been mentioned. We have taken them seriously, and I can tell the House that the Security Service has checked for any relevant information in light of the allegations, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been informed that there is nothing to suggest that torture in Pakistan was supported. I restate the important point that we abide by our commitments under international law and expect all other countries to comply with their international obligations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) mentioned the Durban review conference. I can do no more than restate that the UK of course opposes language singling out Israel and the treatment of anti-Semitism that restricts the right to freedom of expression on historical issues. There is no doubt that what happened previously in the process was unacceptable, as has been put on the record many times. There has been no change and no move away from that view. However, I can confirm that there will be a further round of negotiations in January 2009. After that, the Government will decide whether to remain in the process. It is right that we make every effort to use every forum that we can to move forward on combating racism wherever it takes place. We do not flinch from that.
I am grateful for the Minister’s assurances. May we take it that soon after the review meeting in January, the Government will make a clear statement one way or the other about the conference, and that if the red lines are not met, we will withdraw from it?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will make a statement as soon as possible afterwards. Of course, the UK delegation has been active in proposing more positive language and making clear our objections to what we have deemed unacceptable at the preparatory committee. As I said, we will not flinch from that.
I shall mention as many individual countries as I can, starting with Somalia, which my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South, and for Islington, North, mentioned. On human rights abuses by Ethiopian troops, the Ethiopian Government have of course announced that their troops will withdraw from Somalia in the near future. Until they do so, we urge the Ethiopians to use only appropriate means and that they should and must adhere to international humanitarian law and respect human rights. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown raised the issue of human rights in Somalia with the Ethiopian Prime Minister in late January 2008, and I assure the House that the 2008 FCO human rights report will go into much more depth about Somalia, as has been called for in the debate.
On Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, just last month on his visit there the Foreign Secretary delivered some clear messages in his meetings with Israeli leaders. The UK has serious concerns about Israeli restrictions on Gaza and their impact, much of which has been well rehearsed and described. We have consistently called for Israel to dismantle its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, which are illegal, and those messages were pressed home. There is also no doubt that we recognise Israel’s general security concerns, as right hon. and hon. Members have in the debate and at other times. Ministers and officials regularly press the Government of Israel about human rights abuses, and I am in no doubt about the manner in which messages are delivered.
On Iraq, perhaps it will help right hon. and hon. Members if I remind them that the FCO and the Ministry of Defence will open and close a full debate on 14 January on the future strategic relationship with Iraq. It will allow a wide-ranging discussion of issues including human rights. I believe that Iraq has made significant progress during 2008. There have been marked improvements in security and the economy, and some improvements in human rights. Iraq has shown itself to be a functioning democracy, for example in the parliamentary process that led to the recent security agreement with the United States.
The UK’s human rights work in Iraq is focused on helping to build its institutions and develop the security forces. We strongly supported the passage last month of legislation to set up the new national human rights commission, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that the FCO, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence continue to support the authorities in building an effective and accountable police service, and particularly in developing Iraqi forensics capability. The reason for that, of course, is that confession-based evidence can lead to abuse. We hope that a move to a basis of scientific evidence will be of assistance.
It is true that there is much violence in Iraq, and of course extremist violence remains the single biggest threat to Iraqis’ everyday security and well-being. Religious persecution was mentioned, and we remain very concerned about the treatment of Christians in Iraq. My fellow Foreign Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), made it clear during a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday that although progress is being made and Christians are being able to return to their homes, there is a lot more to do. In the end, the fundamental solution is for the Government of Iraq to ensure that the writ of its constitution is carried forward in respect of the Christians in the country.
I turn to Sudan. Perhaps I can give some assurance to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) by putting the situation in some context. There is no doubt that UNAMID, the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, is one of the most difficult missions that the UN has ever undertaken. It is now at a total strength of something like 12,500 troops, police and civilians. However, I assure him that we have lobbied extensively in support of the UN to find helicopters and engineers. We are exploring all options for helicopter provision and will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman will know that in March the Prime Minister announced UK funding of £4 million to train and equip African troop contributors, and that we continue to work closely with the UN, the African Union and international partners to help UNAMID to improve security, and that that will continue.
Tibet was discussed by the hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Kingston and Surbiton. Perhaps I could respond in this way: this is not a concession of any kind but a reflection of where we are. Perhaps by being clear on the issue of Chinese sovereignty, we can do more for human rights in Tibet than we could have with our previous position. It is true that Tibet has been under Chinese administration for many decades, but the Dalai Lama himself has made it clear that he is not seeking independence for Tibet. For us, this is about a means to promote human rights.
On Zimbabwe, several right hon. and hon. Members asked about trying Mugabe for crimes against humanity. There is absolutely no doubt that the Government of Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe have inflicted a severe, massive human toll on their own people and continue to do so. The future of Robert Mugabe will be for the people of Zimbabwe to decide. It is important to note that Zimbabwe has not ratified the Rome statute, so action by the International Criminal Court would require a UN Security Council resolution, which, in truth, is somewhat unlikely at present.
The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the current difficulties in the Security Council. Our priority, rightly, is to work for the people of Zimbabwe. The debate has raised several matters of immense concern to us which have required us to engage with the international community to respond to the crisis. We have upheld the EU targeted measures that restrict the movement of key figures, and we continue to work in the UN and, of course, the Security Council to raise Zimbabwe as a matter of urgency. We lobby South Africa and the regional elders to effect change, and we welcomed the report of the group of elders which directly linked the failure of social and economic policy with the current humanitarian crisis.
The UK is a major contributor to Zimbabwe. In the current financial year, we expect to have provided some £47 million in aid. The UK is the second-largest bilateral donor to Zimbabwe, and I can assure the House that our bilateral aid is channelled through the UN and non-governmental organisations, not the Government of Zimbabwe. We made a major contribution of £9 million to the UN world food programme appeal, and most recently provided a support package of £10 million to provide life-saving assistance and to respond to the escalation of cholera.
The final country that I will be able to refer to is Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South is right in referring to the worsening human rights record there. I can assure him of action over the past year. We have done what we can: we helped secure unprecedented Security Council action and strong condemnation of the regime by the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, and we strengthened EU sanctions. We also raised Burma with those countries that are best placed to influence the regime, including China, India and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Ultimately, as we all know, the key to ending human rights abuses in Burma lies in a peaceful transition to civilian democratic rule, and we fully support and will continue to support the efforts of the UN Secretary-General to bring that about. Our embassy in Rangoon continues to press for that.
I am pleased to have participated in this debate and I know that right hon. and hon. Members are also pleased to have done so. Once again, I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for its ongoing scrutiny of our international rights policy. I know that that scrutiny will continue as we move into the next annual human rights report cycle.
What better way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights than to express our determination to do more, to do better and ensure that this landmark document is as powerful in practice as it is in aspiration? I thank hon. and right hon. Members here today—and those who could not be here—for their support in doing this.
I just want to respond briefly to two things mentioned during the debate. First, I assure the Minister and her officials that the Foreign Affairs Committee has already decided to write in response to a number of detailed points in the Government’s response to the Committee’s human rights report. We will be pursuing a number of issues in writing over the next few weeks and we look forward to receiving greater clarification on some of those issues than we have had today and in the Government’s response so far.
Secondly, I thank you, Mr. Key, for being so tolerant in this debate and I look forward to speaking in debates on the reports from the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I hope that the Chairman of those debates is as tolerant as you have been.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for raising the question of migrant workers, which is an cross-cutting issue of human rights that is covered by a number of Committees in the House. We all have a duty to look at that in whatever way we can.
Finally, a number of areas were mentioned that were not included in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s human rights report. I did not have time, in my opening remarks, to mention all the things that were contained in the report, so I am grateful that my fellow Committee member, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), took up some of those. Other hon. Members have added to the debate in other areas.
We will be revisiting these questions. We look forward to the Government’s report in the spring and to either this Minister, or the Minister in the other place, as was the case last year, coming to our Committee to answer our questions. We will, no doubt, probe a number of new issues as well as the ones that we have touched on today.
I thank you, Mr. Key, and wish all right hon. and hon. Members a merry Christmas.