[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Today is an opportunity to address candidly some of the human rights abuses happening in the Commonwealth. Today is also an occasion to review the progress that has come to pass due to the combined efforts of the Commonwealth countries working collaboratively.
Commonwealth nations have been successful in obtaining change. All 54 countries have created a document detailing our shared values, and it is the first such document in our 64-year history. The Commonwealth charter sets out strong, clear values, promotes human rights and commits all nations to protecting their citizens from discrimination.
I had the pleasure last week to be part of the UK delegation to the 59th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, at which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) led an informative debate on human rights. Although the debate enabled us to celebrate our achievements in that field, it also sharply highlighted areas of grave concern, which I will discuss today.
I will focus on the treatment, education and representation of women, the death penalty and the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed people. I will call for David Cameron and other senior Ministers to join the Canadian Prime Minister in refraining from attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, owing to the horrific and continual human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She is absolutely right to call on Ministers to refrain from attending CHOGM. Will she confirm that one of the reasons why Ministers should do so is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s advice on the Sri Lankan Government’s human rights record is that Sri Lanka is one of 27 countries about which the FCO has concerns? How can the Government condone those concerns by attending a conference, when they could use the opportunity to make it clear that they do not countenance the Sri Lankan Government’s behaviour?
I am extremely grateful for that intervention, which echoes my thoughts. I will address those questions in more detail later, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for sharing them.
The Commonwealth charter is an exciting development that allows the Commonwealth to shape itself as a compelling force for good. The charter commits all nations to the universal declaration of human rights and opposes all forms of discrimination
“whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
The Commonwealth charter states that those rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and that they cannot be implemented selectively. I will point out where we can improve our practices to ensure that those clear, explicit definitions are upheld.
Women’s rights vary hugely across the Commonwealth. Although I am well aware that the topic merits a debate in its own right, in the limited time available I will draw attention to a few key areas of concern.
The Commonwealth charter states that the education of girls is an essential component of human development. The Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai certainly agrees. Malala’s determination to defend girls’ right to education is one of the most inspiring stories of our modern age. Despite Malala exposing some of the dangers for girls who are trying to access education, however, there are still great barriers. In Cameroon an estimated 38% of girls are currently missing from secondary education, which is simply unacceptable. Women’s education is important not only for empowering the individual, but for the country’s development. It is right that that is recognised in the Commonwealth charter. The Commonwealth comprises not only some of the most developed nations, but some of the least developed. Creating effective education for young women is imperative for change for the better.
Child marriage is a harmful practice that constitutes a violation of the most basic and fundamental rights of young women. There are provisions in the Commonwealth charter for investing and promoting young people’s development. Being a child bride causes appalling harm to a girl’s prospects for education and, indeed, to her health. Only this Monday, we heard of a girl of eight dying from internal sexual injuries after her marriage to a 40-year-old man in Yemen. Unfortunately, that horror is widespread and prevalent across the world, as at least 14 million girls—more than half of whom live in the Commonwealth—marry under the age of 18 every year. There is a clear need to legislate to put an end to child marriage. We need to put an end to the practice, so that every girl is free to enjoy her childhood. All leaders of Commonwealth nations must collectively support steps taken at the United Nations to eradicate child, early and forced marriage.
The Commonwealth charter recognises the importance of women’s rights:
“We recognise that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential components of human development and basic human rights.”
Throughout the Commonwealth, however, women are in need of a voice. To make the necessary changes, we need better representation of women in our Governments. That change would ensure the rights of women can no longer be ignored. Representation is key to creating positive changes to all the current issues that face women across the Commonwealth.
In the Chamber of Deputies of the Rwandan Parliament, 56% of representatives are women; I am ashamed to admit that only 23% of MPs in the House of Commons are women, placing us 65th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union. We clearly have a lot to learn about women’s representation.
The Commonwealth charter commits Commonwealth nations to the universal declaration of human rights, and article 3 enshrines the right to life. The death penalty fundamentally undermines that right. Worldwide, great progress has been made on abolishing the death penalty. However, Commonwealth countries including the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Swaziland, Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon and the Maldives still support the death penalty. Thirty-six Commonwealth countries have the death penalty. Although I acknowledge that many of those countries have expressed a commitment in legislation not to carry out executions and are abolitionist in practice, death sentences are still regularly given, even if they are not fulfilled.
In August 2012, nine people were executed in Gambia, with President Jammeh calling for all death sentences to be carried out “to the letter” by mid-September. Those executions were in sharp contrast to the trend in west Africa towards ending the use of the death penalty. Amnesty International, along with 66 other human rights organisations and west African civil society groups, condemned the executions in a public statement released in September 2012.
There has been a recent resumption of executions in Nigeria, where there had not been an execution since 2006. Four men were hanged in June. Papua New Guinea recently passed legislation that expands the crimes for which the death penalty could be used, signalling a return to its use, even though no executions have taken place since 1952.
We must also recognise that individuals continue to be sentenced to death, or executed, for crimes not involving intentional killing. Therefore, the punishment does not meet the threshold of “the most serious crimes”, as prescribed by article 6 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, to which all Commonwealth countries are committed by our charter. For example, people are condemned to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, for forms of aggravated robbery in Kenya and Zambia and for drug-related offences in Malaysia and Singapore. That is simply not acceptable under current international law. The death penalty must be repealed in all 36 Commonwealth countries.
The persistent persecution of the LGBTI community in the Commonwealth undermines the entire point of being free from discrimination. The Commonwealth charter does not explicitly mention the protection of LGBTI people. I understand why that compromise position was taken, but I believe it is a grave mistake, as 41 Commonwealth countries currently criminalise homosexuality. Those laws are often a historical relic of British colonial rule that continues to stigmatise and marginalise the LGBTI community across the Commonwealth.
My hon. Friend is making a strong and wide-ranging speech. I want to associate myself in particular with her comments on LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries. Will she join me in commending the work of the Kaleidoscope Trust, the president of which is Mr Speaker and which enjoys support from members of all parties across the House? It works with LGBT activists in many Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries to fight against the type of discrimination that she describes.
I absolutely support the work of the Kaleidoscope Trust, but a vast amount of work unfortunately remains for us to do.
It struck me forcefully when visiting the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg last week that many of the battles for racial equality had been won. It should be celebrated that apartheid is over, but segregation between homosexuals and heterosexuals continues in other parts of Africa. Many terrible cases from across the Commonwealth illustrate the appalling way that the LGBTI community and LGBTI activists have been treated. In Cameroon, Alice Nkom and Michel Togue, who are defence lawyers for LGBTI people, have received telephone calls and text messages on a daily basis from anonymous people who threaten them and their families with death. In South Africa, 24-year-old Noxolo Nogwaza was brutally murdered in KwaThema township. An active member of the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee, she was raped, repeatedly stabbed and beaten to death. The police responsible for the investigation into her murder have so far made no progress and no suspects have been arrested.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech so far. Does she agree that that example shows that we must do a lot more than simply change the laws? South Africa has a rainbow constitution that is very much against discrimination based on sexuality, but the problems that she highlights still exist on the ground.
The fundamental problem is that, although equality is embedded within the Commonwealth charter, LGBTI rights are not mentioned explicitly, so these grey areas are exploited.
Last year, armed police raided a human rights workshop attended by LGBTI activists in Kampala, Uganda, arresting five staff of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project and 12 other participants. That happened in the context of the Ugandan Parliament seeking to pass an anti-homosexuality Bill, which could include punishing homosexuality with the death penalty. The Bill would create legal provisions to persecute and punish people just for being LGBTI, which directly contradicts all international human rights legislation and should be condemned by the international community. I am aware that Uganda claims that criminalising homosexuality is partly in the interest of public health. In reality, however, it further stigmatises and marginalises groups, making education about effective forms of sexually transmitted disease control considerably more difficult. HIV control is incredibly important as it is an enormous problem within the Commonwealth.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the David Cairns Foundation, which does superb work, and I wish all power to it.
Commonwealth countries contain more than 60% of people living with HIV globally, despite representing only some 30% of the world’s population. The importance of HIV control is backed by the eminent persons group— a group of 10 leading figures from around the Commonwealth, chaired by the former Prime Minister of Malaysia. In 2009, the EPG was commissioned by Commonwealth Heads of Government to examine key areas of reform for the Commonwealth. It recommended decriminalising homosexuality. That recommendation was made specifically in the interests of non-discrimination and outreach to educate LGBTI communities about HIV transmission.
The Commonwealth charter needs to name LGBTI as one of the categories of potential discrimination. It needs to call for homosexuality to be legalised across the Commonwealth to ensure that that persecution stops. In the interest of not sounding too negative, I would like to congratulate the Commonwealth countries where it is legal to be LGBTI, including Australia, the Bahamas, Canada, Cyprus, India, Malta, Mozambique, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Africa and the UK.
Finally, I want to talk about Sri Lanka. The horrific civil war that waged for 26 years in Sri Lanka ended in 2009. There were concerns about human rights abuses and war crimes, committed by both the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. International attention was captured by allegations of the systematic targeting of civilian hospitals within a designated no-missile zone. Video evidence exists of extreme cruelty, including beheadings and rape. Such images shocked the international community and left a permanent scar on Sri Lanka’s human rights record. It was absolutely correct that the allegations were investigated and that due redress followed those investigations. To examine events during the period from 2002 to May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which was welcomed by many civilians. Implementing the commission’s recommendations, however, has been both slow and selective. Post-2009, grave concerns still exist about military engagement in civilian activities in the north, including sexual abuse, the situation of detainees from the war, the impact of forcible disappearances, impunity, hatred and violence against religious minorities, the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, the weakening of democracy, growing authoritarianism, the erosion of the rule of law and the abduction and murder of journalists.
Last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, completed a seven-day visit to Sri Lanka. She raised strong concerns over the continual and increasingly authoritarian direction in the country. The international community—in particular, the Commonwealth community—should put pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to force him to show that there is a strategic plan to implement all the LLRC report before Sri Lanka’s Ministers consider attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Owing to the lack of clear implementation of the LLRC report and continuous concerns about human rights abuses, I am calling on David Cameron and senior ministers—
I apologise. Thank you for the correction, Mr Gray. I am calling on the Prime Minister and senior Ministers not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November, unless there is a serious and committed response from President Rajapaksa. I want our Prime Minister to show his commitment as an international citizen and as a serious defender of human rights by joining the Canadian Prime Minister in his boycott of the meeting.
In conclusion, the Commonwealth charter clearly intends to defend all people in the Commonwealth. I hope that by the time the Commonwealth games come to Glasgow in summer 2014 dramatic improvements can be seen across the Commonwealth for the good of its people. To that end, I call on my fellow parliamentarians across the Commonwealth to ensure the full implementation of the Commonwealth charter. I call on them to invest in and encourage the development of women’s rights and to ensure women’s representation and education. I call on them to end the practice of child marriage. I call on them to decriminalise homosexuality to ensure the health and safety of our LGBTI communities. I call for the abolition of the death penalty in all Commonwealth countries. Finally, I call on our Prime Minister not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this November, so enabling him to draw attention to the current concerns in Sri Lanka.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)—I want to say “my hon. Friend”—for her speech. It is a pleasure to attend this afternoon’s debate to support and agree with much of what she had to say. Like her, and the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), I was at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference last week and found it a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, experience. I had not intended to take part or speak as much as I did, which is probably the case for many of us, but some of what we heard at the conference could not go unanswered.
Gatherings of the Commonwealth, such as the CPA conference, are great moments. Bringing parliamentarians across the Commonwealth together is completely appropriate, to remind us of the shared values and history that we enjoy. We found a lot of consensus among Commonwealth parliamentarians on a range of issues. I attended a number of sessions, including one on the empowerment of women, although that went a little bit agley, with a contribution on the legalisation of drugs, which did not seem appropriate to a debate on female empowerment in business, unless there was a niche interest. We also had an interesting session on caring for our elderly population, which was a bit more orderly. The female parliamentarians also had many enjoyable hours in the Commonwealth women’s conference, from which of course we men were barred. That aside, it was an interesting gathering.
In the plenary sessions, bearing in mind the Commonwealth charter and the provisions on democracy, we had some interesting discussions about self-determination and the democratic rights of the citizens of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. There was strong support for the motion that we eventually agreed on Gibraltar and for the motion that we quickly agreed on the Falklands. The British delegation was united in support of the rights of people in the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar to determine their own destiny and future.
We had an interesting debate on human rights in general and on the charter. The hon. Member for Bristol East made a fine speech from the podium—fine and provocative, which I think was what she intended, and it certainly sparked an important debate. She made reference to the charter’s article on human rights:
“We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights…We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
Debate was sparked off by “other grounds”, and turned into a discussion of the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in different countries.
I do not speak regularly on LGBT issues in this country because, fortunately, we operate a “live and let live” policy. Rights have advanced greatly in the past few years, certainly under the previous Government and hopefully under this Government with regards to equal marriage, so the issue is not one on which I would usually engage, although I am supportive of those rights. We almost take them for granted in this country, people of my generation in particular but, given some of the contributions at the conference after the speech by the hon. Member for Bristol East, I could not help but participate in the debate.
We heard some quite frightening speeches, in particular from Cameroon and, to an extent, from Ugandan representatives. It reminded me that, although we have much in common throughout the Commonwealth, with many shared values, there is a great deal that divides us, and we should not pretend that those divisions do not exist. Furthermore, it is incumbent on all parliamentarians from this country and from other parts of the Commonwealth to make it clear when we disagree. In response to comments from a Cameroonian delegate regarding homosexuality, in which she stated that it went against the laws of nature, there was a sharp intake of breath from our delegation and many others in the room, particularly the Canadians, who also spoke on the issue. I therefore felt the need to speak in that debate.
Appropriately enough, we were in South Africa, a country that knows all too well the history of dividing one group from another to the disadvantage of all. When we attack one individual’s rights, ultimately we have an impact on everyone else’s rights. I felt the need to intervene in that debate, and to point out things with which I am sure everyone in the Chamber would agree. We do not want to preach to those countries, and we have a stain on our own history in terms of what people have thought—not so long ago in this country we thought that a role for women in politics was inappropriate and that people in Africa were incapable of governing themselves. We know about such stains on our history, which I made mention of and about which we are embarrassed.
Similarly, as I said in Johannesburg last week, even today in our own country, which is a modern, liberal-looking democracy, as parliamentarians we come across people who still hold quite frightening views. Our responsibility is to challenge such views. I do not pretend that our country does not have people who think some of those things, but we have a level of protection for rights, which have expanded in recent years, of which we should be proud. I therefore felt that it was important to speak up on the issue and to make it clear that, while we have stains on our own history, we have learned the lessons. It is not about preaching, but about simply standing up for the rights of minorities elsewhere.
If there was one glimmer of hope on the LGBT issue, it came in the contribution of one of the Ugandan parliamentarians. He seemed to be saying, “Well, we know that our views on this issue are not as developed as yours. Maybe, in a couple of decades’ time, this won’t be an issue for us.” That seemed a strange admission, almost as if he was saying, “We know we are wrong, and in 30 years’ time we won’t be wrong.” It was an odd contribution. I spoke to that parliamentarian afterwards, however, and he was at pains to assure me that the particular piece of legislation before the Ugandan Parliament, of which the hon. Member for Rotherham made mention, was unlikely to be introduced in its current form.
That debate divided the Commonwealth—sadly, as older Commonwealth against new Commonwealth—and comments that were supportive of what the hon. Member for Bristol East had said tended to come from our delegation. My right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) made an excellent contribution, and there were contributions from Canada and New Zealand. Samantha Sacramento, the Minister for Equality from Gibraltar, made a fine contribution as well, but for me the best speech came from the podium, from the Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament. Deputy Speaker Mfeketo made a brilliant speech in which she spoke passionately about how the experience of South Africa was relevant to LGBT rights; in that country, they know about the impact of one community being divided off and having special laws passed against it.
Such comments were more powerful coming from another African politician, rather than, sad to say, from a white parliamentarian. Many contributions, such as that of a parliamentarian from Mauritius, were in essence, “Well, you gave us these views. You came here in colonial times with those views. You came with your Bible and told us that this was wrong, and yet now you are preaching to us.” All the contributions from Canada, New Zealand and the UK were of limited impact compared with the fine speech of Deputy Speaker Mfeketo.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. Does he share my concern about some groups, in particular from the United States, which have been stirring up homophobic hatred in countries such as Uganda? There are some quite sinister activities going on, with a number of reports over the past few months. That is exactly the opposite of what we ought to be seeing.
I am concerned about that, and some people in our own country like to stir up such views. I hope that Ugandans are as quick to dismiss the views of such outside influences, wherever they come from, as they would be to dismiss the views of their former colonial masters.
As I said, the contribution from the South African Deputy Speaker was very fine, and I associate myself with calls from the hon. Member for Bristol East at the conference and the hon. Member for Rotherham today that we must do more to ensure that the charter does exactly what it says on the tin—as the old Ronseal advert used to say. Furthermore, when the charter mentions discrimination on “other grounds”, our country and our Government must challenge such discrimination, whatever and wherever it may be.
I want to comment briefly on Sri Lanka. I heard the hon. Member for Rotherham call for a boycott. I have engaged in issues arising from the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I have always been against boycotts as a way of trying to solve such issues. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s conference next year will be in Cameroon. Given some of its views on the rights of LGBT people and women, it could be said that we should not attend it, but boycotts are not necessarily the solution. What Prime Minister Harper has done in Ottawa was bold, but I am not sure that a boycott would be in our interest. I sometimes think it is better to attend such meetings and to make the case on the ground in the country concerned. We must be careful about boycotts, although I entirely concur with the hon. Lady’s comments on human rights in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bristol East referred to that issue at the conference, and she challenged the Sri Lankan delegation to demonstrate a commitment to human rights at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
I concur with much of what the hon. Member for Rotherham said. The conference last week was fascinating. One does not often come back feeling like a human rights advocate because one does not often feel the need for that in this country, but I came back from South Africa better educated and a little frightened at some of the views I heard. The Government must ensure that they challenge those despicable views.
It is a delight, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for such an important debate. I want to concentrate on three issues: the murder of my constituent, Khuram Shaikh; Sri Lanka’s inability to follow the Commonwealth commitments on the rule of law; and the Prime Minister’s decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Sri Lanka in November.
Some hon. Members may be unaware of Khuram Shaikh’s case. At Christmas 2011, he went on holiday with his partner, Victoria, to Tangalle in Sri Lanka. At a Christmas day party at their hotel, a number of what the Sri Lankans would call political goons entered the hotel and started to cause trouble. My constituent was stabbed and shot dead. Victoria was taken to a basement room and gang-raped. I know that because I visited the crime scene in Sri Lanka and have spoken to witnesses. People in my office have met Victoria, I have read witness statements, and the Sri Lankan police have shown me medical reports that prove those points. Obviously, Khuram’s family are extremely distressed. We are approaching two years since the murder but no one has been charged. Khuram’s father, who is also my constituent, visits his grave every day and his brother, Naser, campaigns hard for justice. The pain and anguish can still be seen in their eyes when one meets them.
I turn to the human rights aspect of the case. We are all well aware of the Commonwealth charter, which refers, among other things, to the rule of law, a key principle that Commonwealth countries are expected to abide by. We all know of glaring examples of Sri Lanka not following that principle: the recent impeachment of its chief justice; journalists being murdered or kidnapped, as my hon. Friend pointed out; the disappearance of people who do not agree with the Government; and systematic political interference with cases in the justice system.
The lack of justice for the murder of Khuram Shaikh is an example that encapsulates Sri Lanka’s refusal to follow the rule of law. It is a matter of public record that one of Khuram’s alleged murderers is a local politician who is close to President Rajapaksa and his son. Indeed, such political goons operate and deliver on behalf of the President’s political party in Sri Lanka.
The allegation in Sri Lanka is that the case will not come to trial. We are approaching the second anniversary of the murder, but the suspects have not been charged. The rule of law is not being applied, because those people are being protected by the Sri Lankan President. Khuram’s case has taken on significance in Sri Lanka because it encapsulates the problems that many Sri Lankans face at the hands of their own Government. There is no doubt in my mind that the Sri Lankan Government do not respect human rights, and there is no doubt that the rule of law is not being applied. Khuram’s case exemplifies that.
I turn to what the British Government can or should do about these issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been very helpful in pursuing the case, and I am pleased that our Queen has decided not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in November. There is a political dimension to the matter. All the indications are that the Prime Minister will attend the summit in Sri Lanka, and I believe that to be a grave mistake. The Government put strong emphasis on exports and believe that developing trade is important. I welcome Rolls-Royce’s major deal with SriLankan Airlines, but that should not wipe out our concerns about how the Sri Lankan Government treat their own people and foreign nationals. The Prime Minister’s attendance will be seen as endorsing the Sri Lankan Government’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law.
The spectre of Khuram’s death and the failure to get justice will haunt the British Prime Minister as long as he is on Sri Lankan soil. It will be literally horrifying to see a British Prime Minister shaking hands with a Sri Lankan President who is so intimately involved in protecting the murderers of a British national. For that reason alone, I urge the Government and the Minister to think twice about who attends the summit.
With the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting scheduled to go ahead as planned later this year, I intend to talk about the insult and hurt caused by its taking place in Sri Lanka. This country has had a bad few weeks of doing nothing about human rights abusers, but my disappointment at Britain’s decision to give succour to the human rights abusers in Sri Lanka knows no bounds.
Our Government have happily bestowed respectability on a regime that cluster-bombed its own hospitals, killed tens of thousands of its own citizens and turned its country into the most dangerous place in the world in which to be a journalist. Amnesty International has said:
“We continue to witness a deterioration of human rights in Sri Lanka”.
It has also stated:
“Despite the armed conflict ending over four years ago, human rights violations continue, with the Sri Lankan Government cracking down on critics through threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks. Journalists, the judiciary, human rights activists and opposition politicians are among those who have been targeted in this disturbing pattern of government-sanctioned abuse.”
I share Amnesty’s disappointment that the UK Government
“failed to assert that the Commonwealth Heads of Government should not be hosted by Sri Lanka unless there were significant improvements in human rights”.
I remember the terrible stories constituents used to tell me about their friends and family. For example, my local newsagent had lost contact with his sister who was trapped with her family in a bunker in the so-called no-fire zone, being shelled by the Sri Lankan Government every day. So incessant was the bombing that, in desperation, she made a run for it across open land that was heavily bombarded. No one has heard from her since. A young man who lives near the tube station told me about his aunt, whose body had been so badly mutilated that her family had to take a box to pick up all the pieces.
Channel 4’s groundbreaking “Killing Fields” documentaries have drawn the world’s attention to a major human rights catastrophe—what the UN panel of experts called a
“grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.
The latest figures show that more than 146,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for, with the World Bank estimating that 100,000 people are still missing, probably dead. Justice must prevail, yet there has been no independent international commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes.
There is still no civil administration in the north. Instead, the area has a military governor. The people have no democratic representation of the kind we would recognise in the west. Tamils continue to suffer due to the Sri Lankan armed forces’ military control of the north and east, and resettled war victims have no say. The situation on the ground is not good.
Speaking at the end of her visit to the country in August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that
“although the fighting is over, the suffering is not.”
She argued that Sri Lanka
“is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”
She raised concerns about the
“curtailment or denial of personal freedoms and human rights…persistent impunity and the failure of the rule of law.”
She also warned:
“There are a number of specific factors impeding normalisation, which—if not quickly rectified—may sow the seeds of future discord.”
Meanwhile, even a recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report has named Sri Lanka as one of its 27 countries of concern. It is no wonder the Foreign Affairs Committee concluded last November that holding the Commonwealth meeting in Colombo was “wrong” and urged the Prime Minister to avoid going unless he received
“convincing and independently-verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights”.
No such improvements have taken place. According to Freedom From Torture,
“for the first time in years, Sri Lanka has replaced Iran at the top of the shameful table that tallies the country of origin for the thousands referred to us each year for clinical services here in the UK.”
As time goes by, it becomes increasingly clear that the war and all that has followed have been a criminal venture. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the conflict as an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe”. Tens of thousands of people were massacred, and oppression on a scale beyond our imaginations really did take place.
Thanks to the amazing work of brave journalists such as Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, we know that the Sri Lankan Government were firing cluster bombs, white phosphorus and rockets at civilian areas, including hospitals and so-called safe zones. In previous debates, I have reflected on the dreadful loss of Ms Colvin. It is a cruel irony that she was killed covering human rights abuses in Syria, where the world has so far done little to stand up to a brutal regime that has no qualms about mass killings of civilians and abuses of the rules of war, when she spent so many years campaigning against similar abuses in Sri Lanka.
As the UN has stressed,
“not to hold accountable those who committed serious crimes...is a clear violation.”
When we hold no one to account, we get what we now witness in Sri Lanka: extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, gender-based violence and torture. Despite that, a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is still scheduled to take place in Colombo, and our Government are doing nothing to stop it. What sort of message does that send?
The Commonwealth was right when it took from Sri Lanka the honour of hosting the previous Commonwealth summit, and Britain was right to be in the group of nations leading the way in calling for that honour to be taken away. If that was right then, how can it be right now to bestow honour on a regime that has not changed?
The truth remains that Sri Lanka has still not undertaken a truly independent international investigation into war crimes. Were such an investigation enforced, there might be reconciliation and lasting peace. The British Government clearly disagree. They have sent the wrong message by not boycotting the summit, and that is made worse by policies such as deporting Tamil asylum seekers and selling weapons to Sri Lanka’s military.
The coalition’s actions stand in marked contrast to those of the previous Labour Government. We helped to bring an end to Sri Lanka’s preferential trading status in the EU, we voted against an International Monetary Fund loan deal worth $2.5 billion and we blocked Sri Lanka’s bid to host a Commonwealth summit.
If we just roll over and let the Sri Lankan Government take the mickey out of us, whatever will people think in Syria? For the sake of other civilians around the world who are under threat from their Governments, we have a responsibility to be strong when it comes to Sri Lanka. Justice will not be served by giving the Sri Lankan regime a platform or by giving President Rajapaksa dozens of photo opportunities alongside leaders such as our Prime Minister who were too weak to say they would not go to the summit. Every brutal dictator around the world will look at those pictures and think, “Yes, Sri Lanka is respectable now. They ignored the rules of decency. They committed atrocities against their own people. The world did nothing. And now tribute is being paid to them. Crime does pay.” Is that the message we want to send? Not in my name.
Given that the UN Commission on Human Rights is in session this month, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has done the House a service by ensuring that we have the opportunity to debate human rights across the Commonwealth.
Like previous speakers, I want to focus on Sri Lanka. I therefore warmly welcome the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), as well as the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden alluded to the fact that Navi Pillay, the UN’s human rights commissioner, visited Sri Lanka at the end of August and held extensive meetings with people in the north and the east, as well as with Government officials, politicians and a series of organisations. She is the most senior UN official to have visited the north since the UN Secretary-General visited back in 2009. Although it is welcome that Ms Pillay was allowed to go wherever she wanted, it is striking that she has reported that the Sri Lankans who came to meet her were harassed and intimidated by security forces before and after their meetings.
Ms Pillay’s statement following her visit was particularly striking. She noted, among other things, that the surveillance and harassment that she described appear to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, where critical voices are often attacked or even permanently silenced. She outlined concerns about recent attacks on religious minorities and reported a series of complaints about missing relatives, military land grabs and life without basic facilities. Given that Ms Pillay is such a senior figure in the UN, the bluntness and directness of her comments are striking.
Ms Pillay’s concerns are far from isolated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden alluded to, Amnesty International continues to highlight the lack of genuine, substantial measures on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka to meet their human rights obligations. There remains a significant body of evidence pointing to serious human rights violations, some of which amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, including extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and the intentional shelling of citizens. Critics of the Government, whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Christian, continue to face harassment. Torture in police custody is routine, and attacks on minorities appear to be increasingly widespread and tolerated.
According to Amnesty International, there have been more than 20 attacks on Muslim places of worship and businesses in the past 12 months. There was apparently no known investigation into an attack in July on the Arafa Jumma mosque in Mahiyangana. Apparently, a Government Minister simply ordered that the mosque be closed. Journalists, opposition candidates, human rights activists and particularly Tamils in the north and the east are routinely harassed, intimidated and assaulted.
As other hon. Members have said, the question remains, why on earth are Commonwealth Heads of State still planning to meet in Sri Lanka for their annual summit, thereby validating the regime? As the House is aware and as other Members have restated, the Canadian Government have made clear their profound concern. Indeed, Prime Minister Harper has said he will not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting if Sri Lanka remains the host.
A series of other eminent Commonwealth advocates have highlighted Sri Lanka’s unsuitability to host CHOGM. Their concerns are thrown into sharp relief by the new Commonwealth charter, which was agreed in March by Her Majesty the Queen, following the agreement of the rest of the Commonwealth states. The charter was one of the key recommendations made by the eminent persons group to reform the Commonwealth that was accepted at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October 2011, and the Prime Minister committed to it. Perhaps the most crucial passage in the charter is:
“We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies.”
The Sri Lankan Government can by no means be painted as achieving, or even be perceived as taking serious steps to achieve, that commitment. I therefore continue to be surprised at how little effort Ministers have put into using the CHOGM as leverage to achieve reform in Sri Lanka. Why, for example, have the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office not sought to build a coalition to have Sri Lanka formally put on the agenda of the Commonwealth ministerial action group? There may be meetings of Commonwealth Ministers where the subject of Sri Lanka comes up; but that is not the same as a decision to put it on the agenda of the ministerial action group.
In the past, countries such as Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Nigeria and Fiji have all been—indeed, Fiji still is—formal items on the ministerial action group agenda. An implicit rebuke is thereby sent from the whole Commonwealth, and it is forced to set up a series of actions to be taken to bring a country back in line with Commonwealth values. If the Minister and his colleagues are serious about wanting to apply pressure to the Rajapaksa Government, perhaps he will commit today to building a coalition of Commonwealth countries to put Sri Lanka on the Commonwealth ministerial action group agenda. Given the importance of Canada’s views within the Commonwealth, Britain would surely have a crucial ally in beginning to apply the pressure necessary to achieve that end.
I should welcome clarification of the Minister’s view of the Commonwealth secretary-general’s performance in his handling of human rights concerns in Sri Lanka. I can find no evidence of any statement even of concern from him. He has agreed to organise an observer mission to follow the provincial elections in the north of Sri Lanka, but in the context of widespread human rights abuses, that invitation appears to be another example of the observance of the forms of democracy, rather than its substance. If I am right to think that Mr Sharma has not spoken out, it is surprising that a secretary-general who presided over a recommitment to the Commonwealth’s democratic values and traditions as recently as March should have nothing to say about continuing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka—never mind those that date back to the events of 2009.
If the Prime Minister goes to Sri Lanka without taking any further significant steps, he will be validating the regime and giving it succour and comfort. He will create further incentives for Mr Rajapaksa and his colleagues to continue to ignore Commonwealth values.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate, which is timely coming so soon after last week’s Commonwealth parliamentary conference.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for giving an informed speech in South Africa about human rights and the charter. It was not only an informed speech but an extremely brave one, which directly confronted prejudice in all its forms across the Commonwealth. The spirited debate that followed showed that she had touched a few nerves. I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who among other things kept us amused during long hours at the conference. I thought in some of his comments he was in danger of making it seem much more interesting and fun than I remember it being—but I obviously spent too long in meetings. It is worth pointing out in passing what a strong UK delegation we sent to the conference. We certainly made our voices heard on the question of promoting human rights in the Commonwealth. We got a lot of interesting work done, and I think we genuinely made progress for some of our colleagues.
We should take a moment to welcome the Commonwealth charter, because it contains some very useful statements and sentiments, which will help us to move towards greater equality in Commonwealth countries. I am short of time so I shall not read out key phrases—we have already heard some of them—but it contains a strong commitment to tackling discrimination in whatever form people experience it. It is up to all of us to press for those commitments to be implemented.
In the few minutes I have for my speech I will concentrate on the need for further progress on gender equality. I shall do that through two aspects of the matter: women’s representation in Parliament and the education of young girls. I am not suggesting that the other issues that have been raised this afternoon are not important, but I do not want us to lose the gender dimension of the work that needs to be done.
The Commonwealth’s current plan for action for gender equality runs from 2005 to 2015; it has found that across the Commonwealth Parliaments continue to be male-dominated, and that the goal of increasing female participation in political bodies and representational politics is far from being achieved. Some of the major challenges identified by the Commonwealth secretariat included the persistence of traditional gender stereotypes, conflict for women between family and work demands, the masculine culture of politics and inadequate funding to support female candidates. Going by the many discussions in the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians sessions last week and the week before, those things continue to be barriers to women’s representation in politics and wider public life for many of our colleagues across the Commonwealth.
However, we in Britain should recognise that we also have some way to go. I paid tribute several times last week to our African sisters who have made more progress than we have. For example, the Rwandan Parliament has made great strides in the advancement of women. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said that they currently hold 56% of the parliamentary seats there. They are also well represented among Ministers and are creating strong role models for women and girls. Aspects of the Rwandan experience are being transferred to other Governments. The Seychelles, South Africa and Mozambique are making significant progress in increasing the number of female representatives in their Parliaments.
We all acknowledged last week that much more needs to be done. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has a great role to play in continuing to support women and getting more of them into politics. We had the first gender conference here last November, supported by the CPA UK branch and the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It identified the need for ongoing training, ongoing support, mentoring schemes and the need to talk to women about how they raise money locally to support candidatures in local and national elections. I hope that we as a Parliament can continue to support that work.
However, we will not get more women into public life unless we address the issue of girls’ access to education, which, again, we discussed in detail last week. We know that we will fail to meet millennium development goals 2 and 3 on getting universal access to primary education and getting more girls into school, but those matters are so important. The World Bank has made it really clear that economies in developing countries will not progress unless more girls are educated. Across the Commonwealth, we have to press for millennium development goals 2 and 3 to be met, and I hope that we can use CHOGM for that. I have heard what my hon. Friends have said today—that the meeting should not happen. However, it is likely to take place in Sri Lanka, and I hope that we can use it to lobby our Commonwealth Heads of Government to make better progress on getting girls into education and to tackle the issues of child marriage and female genital mutilation, which we did not manage to raise as much as we could have done last week. We must have that on CHOGM’s agenda.
Lastly, when I was in Lesotho a couple of weeks ago, I saw that its Government were trying to get more girls into school. They have major challenges ahead of them. A number of UK charities, including the Durham-Lesotho Link in my constituency, are doing all that they can to help improve access to education. Sentebale is doing important work there. We have to reach out beyond Parliament to voluntary sector organisations, so that we are not only pressing Commonwealth Governments to make progress but assisting them practically in doing so.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on bringing the matter of human rights before us for consideration in the Chamber. It is a great privilege to be able to comment on it in the time I have. I specifically want to focus on the right to religious freedom and liberty, which has increasingly been denied to those who profess the Christian faith throughout the world. Members have referred to the Commonwealth charter. Words mean nothing without action, and this debate is all about action to follow the words of many people on the matter. In introducing the debate, the hon. Lady referred to religious liberties, as others have, and I want to focus on that issue.
The national director of Aid to the Church in Need UK, Neville Kyrke-Smith, has cited research stating that 75% of all religious hatred in the world is directed against Christians. He has referred to 200 million Christians facing discrimination and 100,000 being killed each year for their faith. I am aware, Mr Gray—you will keep me right on this one—that “Human Rights in the Commonwealth” is the title of the debate, so I shall focus my contribution on the Commonwealth and its countries. There certainly continues to be a denial of the right to religious freedom, and subsequent persecution of Christians, in those countries, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should be more proactive in addressing that. The Open Doors 2013 world watch list is shocking. Nine out of the top 50 persecuted areas are Commonwealth countries, so clearly, Commonwealth countries have a job to do. I find the situation disturbing in the extreme.
In the top 10, there is the Maldives, which is well known as a holiday destination. I shall not mention the person’s name, but one of my constituents is in the Maldives this week. He is a Christian who goes to my church, and if he reads his Bible in the Maldives and people know about it, he will be arrested. He will be deported, and probably thrown in prison, and have all sorts of actions taken against him. Open Doors records:
“This is the only country in the world which requires all citizens to be Muslim. Conversion to another faith is prohibited by law and converts face extreme pressure from family and society—often having to leave the country. The authorities exert extensive control on the people to correct any deviation from Islam. There are no church gatherings or buildings. Religion is moving towards Deobandi Islam—the religion of the Taliban, whose mission is to cleanse Islam of all other influences. There are very few indigenous believers.”
Will the Minister tell us what has been done, from his office, to influence Commonwealth countries and specifically the Maldives to allow the basic right to religious freedom? What protection is given to people, and what action and responses have there been?
Referring to Nigeria and particularly Nigeria north, Open Doors said:
“The Islamist agenda to bring Nigeria under the ‘House of Islam’ versus the election of a southern Christian as President has caused much unrest. The Islamist group, Boko Haram, has claimed the lives of at least 800 Christians”—
we cannot deny the extremity and brutality of the violence there has been.
“The decisions of local government, especially in the twelve northern Sharia states, mean that Christians experience restrictions in schooling, threats of abduction, forced marriage”—
there has been violence against women, as hon. Ladies have referred to in their contributions—
“as well as denial of employment, clean water and health care. It is dangerous to convert and for churches to integrate new converts.”
Some of the stories that have come from that country are awful and abhorrent.
What has Great Britain done to influence the situation? Have we given any support on the ground to Christians in the area? I hope that we have, through the Foreign Office and through Ministers. If we have not, what are we doing? Have we advocated religious freedom? If we have not so far, why not? If I sign my name to something in the House, I always intend, as other Members do, to take it right through to the end. I am keen to find out what we have done, as a Government and a nation, on behalf of Christians, who are the silent minority in many countries. We cannot remain silent, and I ask the Minister to begin to address the issue through whatever means are diplomatically permissible.
Time does not permit me to go on too long. However, I would like to take the time to highlight the fact that of the seven countries that are applying for Commonwealth status, three are in the watch list of the top 50 countries for Christian persecution—Algeria, Sudan and the Yemen. Will the Minister pledge today that those applications will not succeed unless each country takes major steps to see an end to the persecution of Christians and to allow complete religious freedom for all?
When I look at Commonwealth countries and understand that they make up almost a third of the population of the world, at 2.2 billion people, I am reminded of my history lessons. History was one of the subjects at school that I liked—it was probably the only one that I excelled at, to be honest. I am interested in history, and particularly the history of the Victorian era. Under Queen Victoria, Britain ruled a third of the world. It was said that the sun never set on the British empire, because of the vastness of what Britain controlled. Although I am fully aware that membership of the Commonwealth does not equate to that in any way, it does equate to some form of influence. I believe that we must step up and use our influence to ensure that there are human rights and religious freedom for all, in every area of the Commonwealth.
When Queen Victoria was asked the secret of the empire’s success, she said:
“Tell your prince that this book is the secret of England’s greatness.”
She was referring to the Bible. I believe that the freedom to worship will also be what the success of the Commonwealth is about, and I fully support the views that other Members have put forward today.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and all the other speakers, several of whom were in South Africa with me last week. I hope that I do not repeat too much of the speech I made in Johannesburg, as they might find it much duller on a second hearing.
As a starting point, I want to echo what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, which was that the charter means nothing if it is just words on paper. It is very easy for people to sign up and say, “We all share these values”, and “We are one big happy family—aren’t we lovely people?”, and so on. What the Government do on the ground is what matters. It is about how they implement the charter and how they continue to review and monitor it, and make it stronger. The most important thing is that the charter must not be used as a fig leaf for human rights violations.
I also want to echo what the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said. When I spoke in Johannesburg last week, I was very conscious that we should not, as the UK, be going in and preaching to other people about human rights, particularly given our history as the colonial power in many of the countries that we are addressing.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it is ironic that, going back many years, we took Christianity to some of these countries and told them that things such as homosexuality were wrong, but now we are coming back and saying, “Hang on, we got it wrong that time. You have to think something completely different.”
One thing that came out of the response to my speech in Johannesburg was this. We were told by a few of the delegates, “You have to give us time, because we’re new democracies. You’ve been established a lot longer. It will take us longer to win hearts and minds and to progress these ideas of equality.” What concerns me about some of the countries is not that they are taking longer to reach the position that we are at with things such as same-sex marriage and allowing gay couples to adopt, but that they are moving backwards—in the wrong direction. I am thinking of things such as the Bill that Uganda has been debating for the past few years about bringing in the death penalty for homosexuality. The issue there is not people struggling to keep up with us and moving more slowly than us; that Bill is actually a step in the wrong direction. We also see that with other countries outside the Commonwealth, such as Russia, which is now moving in a very worrying direction on LGBT rights.
As was said, the Commonwealth charter refers to the Commonwealth’s opposition to
“all forms of discrimination”.
I want to pick up the point about LGBT rights being covered, we think, under the broad description of “other grounds”. I suspect that the intention was that because it would be impossible to get every Commonwealth country to sign up to a specific reference to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, “other grounds” would be included so that countries that want to interpret that as meaning that we are against discrimination on those grounds can believe that, and those that are more reluctant to do so can pretend that it is not really in there. That lets some of the countries off the hook. I am referring to the 41 countries that will claim adherence to the charter, but will continue with their policies of discrimination.
Let me cite an example. I mentioned it in South Africa in response to the delegate from Cameroon. In June of this year, the gay activist Eric Lembembe said in response to attacks that were taking place on the offices of gay rights organisations in Cameroon:
“Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”
Two weeks later, he was horrifically tortured and murdered.
This is the important thing. Governments have a key role to play, but not just in the laws that they pass. They must recognise that the laws that they pass and the discussions that they have in Parliament filter down into horrific attacks on people in the streets. We see this even in countries such as South Africa. I echo what the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole said. The Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament made an amazing speech, declaring her support for equality and saying that that was a country that had fought discrimination, and had fought apartheid. Thirty or 40 years ago, at that Commonwealth meeting, there would have been people arguing that apartheid was perfectly legitimate on human rights grounds, that different people had to respect different cultures and so on. However, even though that country has enshrined anti-discrimination measures in law, there is still that battle for hearts and minds that needs to be won at grass-roots level. The stories that we heard about corrective rape of lesbian women and the fact that the police were not really prepared to take those allegations seriously were very worrying indeed.
I therefore ask the Minister to tell us what the Government have done to pursue this agenda since our debate in March on Commonwealth day. He said then:
“We fundamentally believe that we should do much more and we remain concerned by recent attempts in several Commonwealth states to introduce punitive laws on homosexuality.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 186WH.]
Is it the Minister’s view that laws criminalising homosexuality and, in particular, attempts to introduce the death penalty for same-sex relationships not only undermine the clause in the charter that talks about an appreciation for
“the dignity of all human beings”,
but violate international human rights standards?
I will mention very quickly the issue of the death penalty, because my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham was very comprehensive in her coverage. I am pleased that the UN Human Rights Council is looking at, in particular, the issue of the death penalty for under-16s, for pregnant women and for people with mental and intellectual disabilities, and the impact on the children of those who are executed. That has not been on the agenda before, so I welcome that, but would the Minister update us on the impact in the Commonwealth of the Government’s “Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty” and what attempts the Foreign Office is making to promote the second optional protocol to the international covenant on civil and political rights? That protocol specifically signs people up to opposing the death penalty. Does the Minister share my assessment that the death penalty—the use of capital punishment—does not comply with the spirit of the charter, and is that an argument that we will be advancing with other Commonwealth countries?
Let me briefly mention something else that I talked about in South Africa. We had just had news of the resolution of a particularly horrific case in the Maldives. It involved a 15-year-old girl who had been sexually abused by her stepfather for many years and ended up giving birth to his child. When she tried to report that to the authorities, she confessed to having some sort of sexual relations with another adult man and she was sentenced to a flogging—100 lashes—which could have been postponed until her 18th birthday. When I went to meet the relevant Minister in the Maldives, I was told that that should not have happened; she was a vulnerable child and should have been a ward of court. The people there were at great pains to assure me that it was a mistake. As it happened, the Government could not direct the court to drop the sentence, but that did eventually occur.
Yes, that is a particularly extreme example of someone who should not have been subjected to such an ordeal, but many other women still find that although they are the victim of a crime, they are treated as criminals. They are charged with adultery and receive the punishments that flow from that because they have been raped. Sometimes they are forced to marry their attacker. There is just the fact that flogging is used. I was told in the Maldives that they tend to turn a blind eye to adultery unless a pregnancy results, because that is concrete evidence that something has been going on. As a result, 95% of convictions and punishments for adultery are given to women, because it is obviously much easier to show that a woman has become pregnant than it is to show which man was involved.
The use of flogging as a punishment is, I would say, in clear breach of the prohibition on
“cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”
in the universal declaration of human rights. Are we pushing that point at international level to try to persuade countries that they should not be using flogging as a punishment? Women should have no fear of reporting crimes against them. They should be confident that they will be treated as victims, rather than being put on trial themselves.
The last thing that I will mention is CHOGM, which many other hon. Members have discussed. The Government’s long-standing and repeated position was that they would make a decision on attendance closer to the time. The Minister said during our debate in March that no decision had been taken, and I received a similar response in Foreign Office questions in April. The Government have a real opportunity to use this situation as leverage to say to the Sri Lankan Government, “We are reviewing whether to come to CHOGM. We are reviewing the size and scale of our delegation and, indeed, our attendance overall.” However, in May, the Prime Minister announced that both he and the Foreign Secretary would represent the UK in Colombo. Can the Minister tell us what changed between the end of April, when it seemed that that was still a matter for consideration, and early May? Why was the decision taken to send the most senior delegation, and why did the Government choose to announce that so far in advance?
It is not even clear that the Government are united behind the decision. In May, the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged in the House that it was a “controversial” decision
“in the light of the despicable human rights violations”.
He concluded rather vaguely:
“If such violations continue, and if the Sri Lankan Government continue to ignore their international commitments in the lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, of course there will be consequences.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 634.]
When I tabled a written question, however, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), was unable to tell me what those consequences might be and in which circumstances they would be considered. I hope that this Minister will be able to provide more clarification in his closing remarks.
I do not have time now to discuss the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights about her recent visit to Sri Lanka—some of my colleagues have mentioned that—but I hope that the Minister will do so. I know that he has limited time; he is looking at the clock, but he will get his 10 minutes. The UN commissioner’s conclusion was:
“The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded”.
She warned that Sri Lanka, far from showing improvement, was
“showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.
I hope the Minister will tell us what consideration the Government have given to the UN commissioner’s report and whether it has influenced the size, scale and scope of the delegation going to CHOGM.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this timely debate. I thank all Members who have taken part for their thoughtful contributions. I am struck by how many hon. Members went to the Commonwealth parliamentary conference in South Africa. As the Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth, I find that level of support and interest in the House reassuring. I do not have much time to answer all the questions, so if I do not address their questions, I will get back to hon. Members and write to them.
I was struck by the fact that there is more in the debate that unites us than divides us. We all have incredibly serious concerns about human rights in the Commonwealth, particularly in Sri Lanka. In the little time available, I will try to explain the Government’s thought process and how we arrived at the final decision to go to Sri Lanka.
I apologise for the fact that I was not here for the debate. I, too, was in Johannesburg and I want to endorse what my right hon. Friend the Minister says: there is far more that unites us over human rights than divides us. I happened to catch the debate on the screen earlier, so I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said that voices from this country’s delegation were united in support of the speech from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) about the importance of human rights, particularly gay rights.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who speaks for the Opposition, clearly made an excellent speech—I regret to say that I have not read it, but I shall certainly do so at the earliest opportunity. If you will permit me, Mr Gray, before I turn to Sri Lanka, I will quickly address some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Rotherham, because the debate was designed to cover more than that topic.
The hon. Lady asked about early forced marriage, which I completely agree is entirely repugnant. Through our forced marriage unit, a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Department operation, we directly support anyone at risk in the UK and British nationals abroad. We will continue to strengthen protection for those facing forced marriage. We provide training for professionals to help them to identify potential victims and improve awareness of the issues, so that those at risk, including children and young people, know where to go for support. I am sure that there is more that we can and should do, but we are entirely at one on how morally repugnant such marriages are and on female genital mutilation, about which I feel strongly. People in this country, where alas is it all too pervasive, are finally taking it seriously.
The hon. Lady also raised the death penalty in Nigeria. We are of course appalled that the execution of four prisoners on 4 June ended Nigeria’s seven-year moratorium on the death penalty. We consider the executions to be a serious setback for human rights there. We urge the Nigerian Government to halt further executions. It is worth reiterating the Government’s position: we oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. We lose no opportunity to make that clear to those who still use it.
The hon. Lady raised the proposed anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda. We have raised our concerns with the Ugandan Government at the highest levels. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Sam Kutesa, the Ugandan Foreign Minister, during a bilateral meeting held in the margins of the Somalia conference on 7 May. We are in close contact with civil society groups and, through support for training, advocacy and legal cases, we support efforts to improve human rights in Uganda, including campaigns for LGBT rights. Commonwealth membership is based on shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and it is clear that the Commonwealth’s credibility is linked to its ability to uphold and protect those core values.
The debate has come at a crucial moment. The Commonwealth’s ministerial action group has a new, stronger mandate to protect standards of governance and human rights—it is time for CMAG to live up to that mandate.
I think I know what the hon. Gentleman is going to say and I will answer his question about CMAG in a minute.
Although respect for human rights across the Commonwealth is uneven, we have an opportunity to address that, guided by the principles set out in its charter. As we heard from hon. Members this afternoon, the charter was presented to Parliament in March and it commits members to
“equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights for all, without discrimination on any grounds”.
Used effectively, the charter will inform debate and provoke change. Circumstances in some member states may lead some to doubt the strength of that commitment or the capacity of the Commonwealth to bring about change. I recognise that valid concerns exist, but we must grasp the opportunity that the charter offers. Reform will not happen overnight—I am realistic about that—but I am confident that the Commonwealth can deliver.
In the remaining moments, I shall address our attendance in Sri Lanka, which is an issue we are divided over: some hon. Members think that we should not go to Sri Lanka and others think that we should. The right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), who is no longer in his place, thinks that we should not. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who is in his place, thinks—I think rightly—that we should. It is worth pointing out the history. In 2009, Sri Lanka offered to host CHOGM in 2011. At CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, the Heads of Government decided not to accept the offer and decided that Australia should host CHOGM in Perth in 2011. They decided that Sri Lanka should host in 2013, and that decision was reaffirmed in Perth, at which the Commonwealth representative was a Minister from the previous Government. There was no widespread support among the Heads of Government for a change of location.
The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the Commonwealth day debate on 14 March. As she said, since the debate the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I have decided to attend the meeting. That is the right thing for the Commonwealth—an organisation we strongly support—which has a positive role to play in promoting freedom, democracy and human rights. The non-attendance of Her Majesty was also raised. It is worth pointing out for the record that Her Majesty, as head of the Commonwealth, will be represented by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. That CHOGM will discuss the crucial issue of what will succeed the millennium development goals in 2015, following the publication of the report of the high-level panel, co-chaired by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It is important that the Commonwealth articulates a clear view that recognises the centrality of Commonwealth values such as gender equality, good governance and the rule of law to the enabling of development. We are pressing for the discussion of those values to play an important part at CHOGM.
We must be willing to respond if we think that the actions of fellow members do not reflect the values we espouse. We will take with us to Colombo a clear message that the British Government have given consistently in this Parliament, in the UN human rights council and in our contacts with the Sri Lankan Government: Sri Lanka must make progress on human rights, reconciliation and a political settlement. A key test of that will be the northern provincial council elections on 21 September, which we are pleased the Commonwealth and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation have been invited to observe—a positive step forward. On such issues, the Commonwealth is complementing the work of other bodies such as the UN. The human rights council passed a resolution in March, co-sponsored by the UK, calling for reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Sri Lanka last month and expressed strong concerns, many of which we and others in the Commonwealth share—and those concerns certainly seem to be shared by hon. Members this afternoon. CHOGM will focus attention sharply on the work yet to be done to achieve the aims that the Sri Lankan Government themselves have agreed in follow-up to the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. It will allow Commonwealth Governments to understand better the problems still affecting Sri Lanka and consider what support they, and the Commonwealth collectively, can offer.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the House on 3 September, we have concerns about media and non-governmental organisation freedom at CHOGM and have pressed the Sri Lankan Government to allow unhindered access. My ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), will reiterate that message when he visits the country on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government in October.
I was asked why there is no reference to LGBT rights in the Commonwealth charter. The charter explicitly states:
“We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
Our view is that the phrases “all forms of discrimination” and “or other grounds” cover discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as any other form of discrimination. The way of life of LGBT people is criminalised in over 40 member states, and they live with dreadful prejudice in some of them. The appalling attitudes towards homosexuality that persist in some Commonwealth countries threaten to undermine the commitment to non-discrimination that is central to the charter.