Skip to main content

International Human Rights Day

Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Brine.)

Before I start my speech on International Human Rights Day, I would like to a quote a tweet that has just been received from Matthew Rycroft, our excellent UN ambassador in New York. He says:

“For every barrel bomb dropped

For every chemical weapon deployed

For every bullet fired on innocents

There will be accountability.”

I am sure the Minister will support that, because throughout the war in Syria and Aleppo we have constantly asked questions about who is collecting evidence.

I apologise for my croak. I will have a drink of lemonade every so often and see whether I can get through my speech.

I am here to mark International Human Rights Day, which was on Saturday 10 December. I will provide a brief overview of the countries and issues of the most concern. The fact is that although most countries have signed and ratified the main international human rights conventions, many people in the world—far too many—continue to be the victims of serious and systematic human rights violations such as torture, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention, disappearance, slavery and overt discrimination. State officials, who are meant to serve their fellow citizens, often use their powers to terrorise and subjugate them, whether in the name of national security or counter-terrorism; to uphold a kleptocratic regime in which they have a vested interest, because they are tainted by society’s prejudices; or even just because they can get away with it.

Sadly, human rights are too often referred to in a disparaging or dismissive way in the UK. I believe that disregard may stem at least in part from complacency, misunderstanding and possibly even incredulity. It is all too easy to take rights for granted when, by and large, we benefit from them, although of course I am aware that we are all far from perfect, have deficiencies that need to be addressed and must remain vigilant to ensure that our rights are not eroded. It can be challenging to imagine the real suffering endured by the many millions who have their rights violated, and it can be distressing to believe that people can still treat others with such disdain and cruelty. However, as most of us here know, terrible things happen every day, everywhere. Many of us have had the privilege and honour of meeting victims of human rights violations all over the world, who have given us detailed testimony and whose courage and dignity are simply astounding.

I am concerned that, post-Brexit, we are heading for even more challenging times. I fear that we will become so consumed by “Project UK” that, whether deliberately or inadvertently, the importance of the international human rights framework and the promotion and protection of universal values throughout the world will be downgraded at the expense of more short-term prosperity and security considerations. In addition, I fear that the UK leaving the EU could make it more difficult, not less, to speak out and act when serious and systematic violations occur. In the first instance, we are bound to have less leverage acting on our own, and in the second, how often will the UK put its head above the parapet on its own? I would be grateful if the Minister reassured me on those points.

I turn to specifics. I know that there was a very good debate this afternoon on Aleppo. Unfortunately I was in the Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, where we were debating, among other things, arms exports from our own country and how we continue to police them. There can be no doubt that Syria has long been a repressive state with a virtual absence of outlets for non-violent dissent.

I remember going to Syria some time ago, on behalf of the Inter-Parliamentary Union committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, to visit two imprisoned Syrian MPs. Let us say that I was left in no doubt during my visit about the Syrian Government’s utter lack of respect for their human rights obligations, and for the fundamental political rights of their citizens. Understandably, the people of Syria became tired of being subjugated and tried to break free. The Government instituted a brutal crackdown, from which a civil war followed, resulting in mass atrocities, carried out in the main by the Syrian and Russian Governments, although they are not the only perpetrators. Schools and hospitals have been deliberately targeted; thousands have been detained and tortured; hundreds of thousands have been killed; and millions have been forced to flee their homes.

Earlier this year, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded in a report that the Assad regime had killed so many detainees in Syria that it had committed the crime against humanity of extermination. More recently, in late November, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, our former colleague and former UK MP Stephen O’Brien, said that residents of Aleppo were at risk of extermination. I fear that the news we hear tonight gives us no cause for optimism.

This is a complex conflict with many different actors with differing agendas, but let us not forget that it started because the Syrian people wanted their fundamental rights to be respected. Let us not forget either that no Syrian civilian should be deliberately targeted in the fighting or starved to death in besieged areas of the country. Given that we aired many of those issues earlier today, I will not elaborate further except to ask the UK Government yet again to let us know how they will work with their partners in the international community as a matter of extreme urgency to get the vulnerable—the children, the elderly and the injured, and doctors and nurses—out and get aid in, particularly to besieged areas, and to protect those left behind, particularly to prevent and avoid mass executions.

Yemen is another complex conflict in which mass atrocities are being committed by all sides, including as a result of Saudi-led coalition air strikes. Earlier this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the Saudi-led coalition of causing twice as many civilian casualties as all the other forces fighting in Yemen. Since the breakdown of peace talks in early August, the fighting has intensified and continues to take an unacceptable toll on civilians, as we have seen on television recently, so why does the UK continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the conflict in Yemen? I do not want to hear the standard responses, which include that the UK has one of the world’s most robust arms exports licensing committees. Obviously in this case, it is either not robust enough or it is not being properly applied.

Countries in which the human rights situation is a serious concern are Turkey, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, North Korea and Burma.

I commend the right hon. Lady for her indomitable spirit and for speaking out for human rights. Does she agree that, some 98 years after the 1948 convention was passed, throughout the world there is persecution of those with Christian and other religious beliefs on a level and with a significance that has never before happened? Does she agree that hon. Members must do everything we can to protect the most basic human right—the right to life and freedom, and the right to have a religious belief, whatever it may be? Does she also agree that we should use any and every possibility to exert influence in the world? This debate is an example of doing just that.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Over the past 30 years, from among my friends in Iraq, I have seen minorities having to flee from where they live. My oldest Iraqi friend is a Mandaean; there are very few of them left in Iraq now. The last conference I went to in Kurdistan, held by the former President of Iraq, was called to discuss how to protect minorities. Sadly, of course, the persecution of minorities is happening in many countries in the world, but at least we are, I hope, having some influence in Iraq.

I am aware that we cannot do everything, but conversely that does not mean we should not be doing more. First, we should be more vocal and confident in defence of human rights in UK foreign policy. I know that the UK Government, particularly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, raise human rights concerns with foreign Governments, but I contend that more needs to be done to convince state-sanctioned human rights violators that abuses are counterproductive, particularly in the longer term, because fair and tolerant societies are more prosperous and stable and because ultimately violators may be held to account and have to pay for their crimes. The UK must also promote a universal rights agenda, and not tout human rights as British values, which simply plays into the hands of those dictators positioning themselves as protectors against western infiltration and domination. Everyone is entitled to fundamental rights by virtue of our common humanity, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Secondly, we need to push back a lot harder against the worrying spread of the adoption of legislation that seeks to clamp down on civil society and non-governmental organisation activity by restricting freedoms of speech, assembly and association, and/or by imposing unduly burdensome administrative requirements. Civil society and NGO representatives, such as lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders, are vital to checking the abuse of power, promoting good governance, monitoring compliance with international human rights standards and obtaining justice.

I commend my right hon. Friend for securing this debate and for her sterling work as chair of the all-party group on human rights. Is she concerned that there appears to be an increasing attitude on the part of the Government to treat human rights in other parts of the world as though they were circumstantial considerations and concessions to be granted, rather than to insist on a consistent, linear approach to the advocacy of human rights? There should be no mute button on the UK’s advocacy of human rights and no dimmer switch on the spotlight it seeks to put on human rights abuses.

I totally agree, of course, with my hon. Friend. One of my concerns is that, with the increased emphasis on trade, human rights is moving to the bottom of the pile; they are certainly lower down the pecking order of concerns than they have been for many years.

Civil society and NGO representatives, such as lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders, are vital to checking the abuse of power, promoting good governance, monitoring compliance with international human rights standards and obtaining justice. It is not surprising, then, that they are resisted, obstructed and persecuted by those who intend to exercise their authority for personal advantage. The UK and the wider international community must continue and do more to support these courageous activists and to challenge such destructive legislation.

I would like to draw attention to Amnesty International UK’s Write for Rights campaign, which this year features cases from, among other places, China, Iran, Egypt, Malawi and the UK. Last weekend, I had the pleasure to co-host with Mr Speaker and Amnesty International UK a parliamentary reception to encourage MPs and peers to take action in support of those whose fundamental rights are at risk of being violated. It means so much to those receiving messages of solidarity; it keeps their hopes alive for a better future. A letter to the authorities can also spur them into action; when they know that the eyes of the world are watching, they may be moved to do the right thing.

Let me take the opportunity to highlight the case of dual British-Iranian national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iran since April. The legal process to which Nazanin has been subjected has been so flawed that it is nonsensical to make reference to it, or to the outcome of any such process. Kamal Foroughi is another dual national who has been imprisoned on spurious charges on the basis once again of a highly deficient process. These are arbitrary detentions. Indeed, I would go further and say that these individuals are, in effect, being held hostage. I therefore ask the Government publicly and unequivocally to call for their release.

As for specific country situations, it is important to mention the current plight of Government critics and the Kurds in Turkey. I know that the Turkish Government have had to deal with a savage coup attempt this summer, but I fear that their current repressive response will serve only further to alienate large swathes of the population and result in further bloodshed. Thousands of alleged coup sympathisers are in jail, and tens thousands of them, including soldiers, judges and teachers are being forced out of their jobs. According to the latest annual survey compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey is currently the top jailer of journalists in the world. In a two-month period, the Turkish Government, led by President Erdogan, detained more than 100 journalists and closed down at least 100 news outlets. As of 1 December, at least 81 journalists were in detention in Turkey.

Although the crackdown against journalists has been exacerbated by the coup, media freedom was already under siege earlier in 2016. As the Committee to Protect Journalists points out, authorities are arresting, harassing and expelling journalists and shutting down or taking over news outlets. In a report in December, Amnesty International highlighted that an estimated half a million people are being forced out of their homes in the south-east of Turkey as a result of a brutal crackdown by the Turkish authorities over the past year, which might amount to collective punishment.

To compound the situation, the targeting of Kurdish opposition voices, including leaders and MPs of the opposition HDP party who have been arrested and detained following the coup attempt, has meant that NGOs providing vital support for poor and displaced people have now been shut down. Displaced residents have rejected Government claims that the ongoing curfew and house demolitions are being done in the interests of security, given that the clashes finished over eight months ago. Instead, they are seen as a calculated plan to redevelop their neighbourhoods and resettle them elsewhere.

I would like to take this opportunity to relay my concerns about Egypt. Since 2013, when al-Sisi led the military overthrow of President Morsi, the authorities have prosecuted and jailed thousands for peaceful opposition to the Government. Under al- Sisi, a wide range of activities protected under the Egyptian constitution and international law have been interpreted as threats to national security. In the CPJ report, Egypt is ranked third in the world in terms of the number of jailed journalists.

Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the possible introduction of an NGO law, which would effectively prohibit independent NGOs in the country, by subjecting their work and funding to control by Government authorities, including powerful security agencies.

We all know of the horrific recent attack on a Coptic church in Cairo. Islamic terrorists attacked people because of their religious beliefs. Does the right hon. Lady join me and others in this House in supporting the Egyptian Government’s efforts to contain ISIS terrorists in Egypt?

I agree that it was a dreadful attack, and we deplore any attacks on people because of their religion.

Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the possible introduction of an NGO law, which would effectively prohibit independent NGOs in the country in question, by subjecting their work and funding to control by Government authorities, including powerful security agencies.

There are also continuing concerns about Eritrea.

Order. The right hon. Lady rightly talks about the difficulties in Eritrea, but I remind her that we are very time-limited. The House must adjourn at 9.14 pm, which is only eight minutes away, and I am sure she wants to hear what the Minister has to say.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Yes, I would certainly like to hear what the Minister has to say, but Eritrea is a matter of continuing concern, and I would like to mention the case of the G11, which I and others have been campaigning on for many years, including in connection with the Inter-Parliamentary Union Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians.

In September 2001, 11 Eritrean MPs were arrested after calling publicly for democratic reforms. They have not been heard of since. I would again ask the UK and the international community to do more to help establish the fate of the G11, as well as to convince the Eritrean Government to end indefinite military conscription once and for all.

Finally—very briefly, Madam Deputy Speaker—I would like to highlight the work of the all-party group on human rights, which I chair, and whose members include hon. Members present tonight. It has worked since its inception in 1976 to raise greater awareness of international human rights violations. I thank MPs and peers who are members for their continued commitment to, and support for, our work and our aims.

As my parting shot, I will end by reminding the Minister and my colleagues that we often pay the price for our lack of action, our indecision, or even our indifference. As Syria so graphically illustrates, a repressive country, even if seemingly far away, can ultimately affect us all, whether we like it or not.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing the debate and pay tribute as others have, to her long-standing contribution to this House’s work on human rights, not least in her present capacity as chair of the all-party group on human rights and as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members.

The defence of human rights is a fundamental building block of British foreign policy. There are three reasons for this: first, respect for human rights is embedded in our national DNA; secondly, it is enshrined in international law; and, finally, it is firmly in our national interest.

This debate coincides with the week in which International Human Rights Day falls. I am pleased to inform the House that in the run-up to that day and on the day itself, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s network of embassies and high commissions organised, and took part in, a wide range of activities that illustrate the importance we attach to human rights.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) asked whether there was a mute button on human rights. I assure him that is not the case. Our human rights work is not just about celebrating International Human Rights Day. For Her Majesty’s Government, there are 365 human rights days every year, and in a leap year 366.

FCO Ministers regularly raise human rights issues with our international partners in private and in public. I could cite a whole range of examples of that, but I recently took part in the latest meeting of the UK-China bilateral dialogue on human rights. All our diplomatic missions are alive to the importance of human rights, and every desk officer in London follows the human rights situation in their particular country. To those who suggest that we have downgraded the importance of human rights, I say that that is simply not the case. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley raised the question of whether we view trade as somehow more important than human rights, but trade and human rights are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are mutually supportive.

Human rights are broad and complex. Each country is at a different stage in its journey towards fulfilling them. Unfortunately, some are patently travelling in the wrong direction. Time does not permit me to enumerate all the different violations that concern us, but let me mention just two areas to which we are currently paying considerable attention. The first relates to civil society and pressures from autocratic Governments, and the other is modern slavery. A vibrant civil society helps countries to become more stable and prosperous than would otherwise be the case. When countries restrict civil society by clamping down on media freedom, stifling dissent or making it impossible for NGOs to operate, they are self-harming. As a country and as a Government, we do an enormous amount to support NGOs around the world. The right hon. Lady mentioned Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights” campaign, and Amnesty International’s long-standing pre-eminence as one of the world’s leading human rights organisations is built on dedication and hard work over decades.

As for modern slavery, this Government are committed to taking a leading global role in the eradication of slavery by 2030, as set out in the UN sustainable development goals. The Prime Minister is leading this effort from the front, and all relevant Departments are co-ordinating their efforts to increase urgency in tackling the evils of trafficking and exploitation around the world.

Returning to the right hon. Lady’s point about Brexit and whether it will somehow undermine our human rights approach, let me be clear that it absolutely will not. The values that we share with our EU partners are universal, and we will remain human rights allies with our neighbours. As a global Britain, we have the opportunity to forge new partnerships for human rights.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) noted issues around the protection of minorities. Let me be clear that we continue to raise concerns about such protection, including of religious minorities, at a senior level with Governments around the world.

International Human Rights Day commemorates the signing of the universal declaration of human rights in 1948. That declaration remains an inspiring statement of shared values and pledges. It is a pleasure for us all to live in a country that espouses those values. Sadly, the world is still far from respecting all of them, and that is why we must continue to work for human rights through our foreign policy. Commemorating International Human Rights Day reminds us of the declaration that we made 68 years ago. It is a moment when we renew our determination to help to achieve the universal implementation of the pledges contained in that declaration.

Time has been limited in this debate, but I invite the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley and any Members in the Chamber to write to me and other colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We will be happy to take on any issues that they have raised that I have not been able to deal with today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.