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International Human Rights Day

Volume 633: debated on Wednesday 20 December 2017

[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered International Human Rights Day and the UK’s role in promoting human rights.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am very pleased to have been given a Westminster Hall debate this year to mark International Human Rights Day, which was on Sunday 10 December, and to discuss the UK’s role in promoting human rights, including on the international stage.

Highlighting the fundamental importance of international and universal human rights to each and every one of us in the UK and abroad, and of the UK remaining a human rights champion on the international stage, is still vital. The international human rights framework, much of which emerged out of the destruction and the depravity of the second world war, with millions killed, destruction and despair widespread and those deemed undesirable led to the gas chambers, is under considerable threat. Authoritarian regimes the world over are trampling over hard-won rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association, the rule of law and judicial independence, the right not to be arbitrarily detained or tortured, and even the right to life itself.

I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Unfortunately, half an hour is not enough, but that is by the way. Does she share my share my concerns that, according to the Pew Research Centre, approximately four out of every five people on this planet live in countries where their right to freedom of religion or belief is significantly and violently restricted?

Yes indeed, and I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is always about on these issues, and is very often heard in the Chamber.

Principles, processes and people are unfortunately viewed as expendable if that is justified by the needs of the ruling elite: national security, state unity, the fight against terrorism and/or the quest for greater development or prosperity. That is increasingly apparent in a growing number of countries, such as Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Burma, North Korea and Venezuela. Of course, that list is not exhaustive; I could go on and on, unfortunately, as I have not even mentioned those countries being ravaged by violent conflict.

My right hon. Friend and I have taken part in other debates in this Chamber relating to Turkey. Does she agree that we need our Ministers to speak truth to power in Turkey and in Sri Lanka—two countries I am particularly involved with? It seems to me that trade comes before human rights on many occasions, and that is of great concern.

I thank my right hon. Friend very much for making that point; I absolutely agree with her, and I will come to that in the course of my speech. I have not talked about countries being ravaged by violent conflict, where, as well as human rights, basic principles of international humanitarian law meant to protect civilians from the worst effects of conflict are disregarded every day.

As always, my right hon. Friend makes a compelling case. Does she agree that one of the biggest threats to our world is the growth of slavery? To be fair, this Parliament and this Government have done what they should do, but I attended a film yesterday about the return of a slave, a woman named Mende Nazer, who went back to the Nuba mountains in South Sudan, a place I know very well. It is horrifying to know that, as a result of the conflict there, slavery is—dare I say it—alive and well.

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I know the Government have been particularly active on that matter. I have been to South Sudan myself in the past, looking at aid agency distribution to the very many starving people in that area. I was not able to go to the Nuba mountains, because I was not allowed to go there at the time. I am glad he raised that issue.

In the countries I have already mentioned, civilians and civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools and markets, are targeted either deliberately or through negligence. Citizens who are not involved in the fighting are held under siege and starved. I would also add Libya, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic as conflict hotspots where civilian suffering is widespread. I am very concerned that we in the UK, and those who support and believe in fundamental human rights, are not doing enough to push back. We have to raise our game.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. Staff from the Department for International Development and many from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do fantastic work in defending and promoting human rights around the world, but sadly the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has severely harmed the human rights of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by his mistakes. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has been more effective in helping Nazanin. I would like to put on the record my thanks to her and to suggest—

I understand the point my hon. Friend makes. I have raised the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on several occasions. I have spoken to a number of people: Iranian Members of Parliament, the Iranian Foreign Minister and the vice-president. I think we have all made the same case: that we would like to see Nazanin and the other dual nationals released as soon as possible.

We must work together to ensure that human rights obligations, which most states have signed up to, are respected, and that serious and systematic violations of, and wholesale disregard for, the international framework are addressed. We must do that by ensuring reform and punishing the perpetrators, because bad practice is spreading, particularly on the limitation of space for legitimate civil society activity. The labelling as foreign agents, criminals, terrorists or traitors of those who are critical of the state or try to call it out on its failure to respond effectively to the needs of its citizens, or on the ill-treatment, or worse, of its citizens is also disturbing.

We must do more to identify the spread of this contagion, and to confront it. The path to dictatorship and serious, systematic human rights violations is often a series of less drastic events, which ultimately culminate in brutal repression or horrific atrocities. It can start with a few people being arrested for opposing land grabs or for anti-corruption drives, in an attempt to silence brave human rights defenders, whether community leaders, journalists, opposition politicians, lawyers or representatives of non-governmental organisations. Those people may inconveniently report on or condemn missing Government funds, the eviction of neighbourhoods to make way for luxury developments, appalling conditions in prison, or a Government’s narrative aiming to scapegoat a disadvantaged community.

My right hon. Friend is an outstanding campaigner on human rights. Does she recognise the work of the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights in supporting human rights defenders who come here to have some space and gain knowledge? Does she also recognise that York is the first human rights city in the UK, and does she see that as a platform from which to promote human rights across the UK?

I of course pay great tribute to the activities in York, which have been going on for a long time; they are nothing new. I know exactly what has been done there, and I congratulate York on that.

If the populations are sufficiently cowed in those countries, worse often follows, including systematic torture, long-term, indefinite detention, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group—the PHRG—which has worked cross party since 1976 to raise greater awareness of these matters, I have seen this kind of pattern repeat itself time and again.

Take Burma. We have been raising concerns about the Rohingya for at least a decade. This is nothing new. They have been cruelly persecuted and ruthlessly dehumanised for a very long time. Despite, or perhaps even because of, limited attempts to democratise recently, minority communities in Burma remain very vulnerable—and none more so than the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and vilified by many in Burma, who have come to believe that they do not belong in that country, and that they can be abused, chased out and killed.

Although the international community did not commit the terrible crimes culminating in the crisis we now face, we bear some responsibility. We did not do enough to prevent the situation from escalating. We did not do enough to call out officials and hold them to account, whether that be the military, which is carrying out the campaign of ethnic cleansing—it is perhaps even genocide—or the elected politicians, such as Aung San Suu Kyi.

Many of these issues were raised in a recent report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. Its summary says:

“This crisis was sadly predictable, and predicted, but the FCO warning system did not raise enough alarm. There was too much focus by the UK and others in recent years on supporting the ‘democratic transition’ and not enough on atrocity prevention and delivering tough and unwelcome messages to the Burmese Government about the Rohingya.”

Take Yemen, where there is a humanitarian crisis of extraordinary proportions, much of which is man-made, caused by ongoing armed conflict. The UK and others continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, but have frankly not done enough to ensure that the Saudi-led coalition complies with international humanitarian law and does not actively prevent desperately needed aid from getting through. The Houthis are also responsible for breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights violations, and we must work with them, too—but the UK is not selling them weapons.

Take Turkey, where last year’s attempted coup has been used as another pretext to further curtail many rights and silence many peaceful critics. The UK and others in the international community have been far too ready to buy into the Turkish narrative that the threat of Gülenists—or terrorists, or whatever—is so dangerous that it justifies the shutting down of the independent media, the hollowing out of opposition parties and the arrest and detention of tens of thousands of academics, journalists, judges, lawyers and political activists, as well as non-governmental organisation representatives, including some from Amnesty International.

Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights” campaign raises such situations of concern by focusing on individual cases that illustrate wider problems. The campaign also serves to highlight the importance of taking action to protect individual defenders, for they are like the canaries in a coalmine: when they are being attacked, it must serve as a warning sign and a wake-up call that the Governments concerned are on a downward path so far as human rights are concerned.

For example, the Istanbul 10 are 10 people who have dedicated their lives to defending human rights in Turkey, and are now themselves in danger. They include Idil Eser, of Amnesty International, and Özlem Dalkıran, of Avaaz and the Citizens’ Assembly, who are under investigation for terrorism-related crimes—an absurd accusation intended to put an end to their human rights activism.

There is also prominent Egyptian lawyer Azza Soliman, who has dedicated her life to defending victims of torture, arbitrary detention, domestic abuse and rape, and who is now labelled a spy and a threat to national security. She has been put under surveillance, targeted by smear campaigns and harassed by security forces and pro-Government media outlets. She faces three trumped-up charges, as part of the politically motivated “case 173”—the foreign funding case, which targets NGOs—and, if found guilty, she will be sent to prison. The PHRG has had the honour of hosting Azza Soliman in Parliament and will continue to follow her case closely.

Prominent Palestinian human rights defenders Issa Amro and Farid al-Atrash face prison sentences for their peaceful campaigning against illegal Israeli settlements in the city of Hebron in the occupied west bank. Award-winning housing activist Ni Yulan, who has defended Beijing residents against forced eviction for nearly 20 years, faced harassment, surveillance, restrictions on her movements, detention and physical attacks. She has used a wheelchair since being badly beaten by the police in 2002. LGBTIQ activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were killed by members of the armed group Ansar al-Islam, which is linked to al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. Little progress has been made on bringing the perpetrators to account.

What tools does the international community, including the UK, have to end violations and to ensure that those instigators, facilitators and perpetrators of abuses are held to account? First, there is the UN Security Council, which remains an important mechanism. I am aware that the UK, with its permanent seat and through our indefatigable ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, has raised a number of important issues, such as serious humanitarian crises in Syria and Lake Chad basin, with a view to getting the international community to take action. However, as all my hon. Friends know, the UN Security Council so often does not work for the benefit of those in desperate need—at least, in part, because we cannot get states with veto powers to refrain from preventing initiatives from getting off the ground.

Secondly, international justice, such as through the International Court of Justice, was also a great hope of ensuring that the perpetrators of serious international crimes are punished, particularly when the states where the crimes were committed either would or could not do so in their own courts. That should also have a significant preventive effect, by getting those thinking of carrying out such crimes to think again, in the knowledge that they would someday be held to account.

The international community has had some notable successes in assisting in obtaining justice, particularly in connection with the Balkans, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, but far too many people with blood on their hands are able to walk away freely with little if any concern about having to stand before a judge any time soon. Many states, including the US, China and Russia, are still not state parties to the Rome statute, and a number of African states are threatening to pull out. Referrals to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council are very difficult to secure.

The UK continues to support the ICC’s work, not least with funding, but international justice all too often is not working for the victims, such as those in Syria, Sudan and Yemen. For instance, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir continues to be at liberty, despite having been indicted by the ICC for genocide and war crimes in Darfur. When al-Bashir visited South Africa in 2015, Zuma’s then Government ignored their legal obligations and refused to arrest him. That was powerfully highlighted in The Observer’s editorial last Sunday, headed “World justice is failing the innocent when tyrants kill with impunity”. It quotes the current ICC chief prosecutor, who released her annual report this month. She believes it is imperative to close the “impunity gap” and says:

“What is required, today more than ever, is greater recognition of the need to strengthen the Court and the evolving system of international criminal justice. It is up to States Parties, first and foremost, as custodians of the Rome Statute, to stand firmly by its values and further foster its positive impact in practice.”

I return to the UK’s role specifically. It does not help that the UK Government often undermine their status as an international human rights champion by turning a blind eye when one of their allies or competing national interests are involved. Continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia does not help us when we are trying to get others on board to improve the situation in Syria. It does not help the UK either when at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK Government try to water down resolutions against Bahrain because they want to continue believing that Bahrainis are on the path to reform, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, such as the ongoing judicial persecution of Nabeel Rajab, the reprisals against family members of human rights defender Sayed al-Wadaei, continuing reports of the use of torture by state officials and the resumption of military trials against civilians.

With the UK Government and Parliament preoccupied by the reassessment of our relationship with the European Union, I worry that we are taking our eye off the ball. The term “global Britain” keeps being bandied about, but what does it actually mean? There is a lot of talk about Britain becoming a pre-eminent trading nation, pushing for trade agreements with many countries across the globe, but we have to ask, trade at what cost and to what effect? The PHRG meets too many people from around the world who are negatively impacted by the operations of mining and other resource extraction companies, some of which are based in the UK. Those people are lobbying for clean water, against land expropriation and for better local services, and they are often threatened, attacked and stigmatised for being anti-development and anti-patriotic.

Finally, I look forward to the UK Government talking a lot more about values that will contribute to making the world fairer, less violent and more humane and, even more importantly, taking concrete action with members of the international community to ensure that those values—our values—are at the heart of our relations with other states and are a reality for many more people.

I thank the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for initiating the debate and commend her for all her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights.

It is perhaps trite simply to observe that human rights matter, but they do matter, because they, and they alone, are guardians of fairness and opportunity for all. They reflect the widespread belief in freedom, non-discrimination and the innate dignity of each and every human being. Human rights are more than simply articles of international law, although that in itself would be reason enough to defend them. They also protect collective opportunities and freedoms that are the key to achieving long-term prosperity and security.

On the issue of the Rohingya, the right hon. Lady knows that as a Minister of six months’ standing, these matters are incredibly close to my heart, and they more or less give me sleepless nights. I want to work as far as I can with NGOs across the world to ensure that, as she rightly says, those who commit these crimes are not able to do so with impunity. As I said on the Floor of the House, we can be very proud of our humanitarian work, but if that work somehow crowds out the diplomatic and political work that needs to be done, we are simply saying to the next set of dictators who wish to rid themselves of an inconvenient minority within their own country that they can get away with it with impunity, if they look upon what has happened after August 2017 in Burma. I hope I will work closely with her and many others across the political divide and the world to ensure we have genuine progress and to make sure not only that there is justice in Burma for the Rohingya but, more importantly still, that we set a template for the future in this very important area of human rights.

My time is very limited, but I will say a little bit about the Government’s policy on human rights. We believe that this fight is central to foreign policy. I understand why the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) said what she did in her intervention. There are times when we seem to be compromised by elements of trade and trading relationships. I very much hope, at least in my role as a Minister in the Foreign Office, that we will put human rights at the top of the agenda. I will not pretend that there will not be moments when we feel slightly compromised. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley was correct when she said that Matthew Rycroft, our man at the UN—I have just come back from there on Friday and am going for two days in January—does a terrific job in addressing these issues and ensuring that our agenda is at the top.

We recognise that all rights set out in the UN declaration of human rights and in international law are of equal importance, but to achieve maximum impact, we prioritise certain issues. We want to tackle modern slavery, to defend freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, to end inequality and discrimination and to promote democracy. I would like to briefly give hon. Members a quick insight into some of the FCO’s work in each of those areas.

Modern slavery is one of the great human rights challenges of our time. It is appalling that it still exists in the 21st century. Eradicating it through concerted and co-ordinated global action is one of our top foreign policy priorities. Freedom of religion or belief matters because faith guides the daily life of more than 80% of the world’s population, whatever their faith may be. That freedom also applies to those who do not have a faith at all. The issue of apostasy is also something I wish to look at in my time as a Minister. Freedom of religion or belief also matters because promoting tolerance and respect for all helps us to have inclusive societies that are more stable, more prosperous and better able to resist extremism. We can be very proud of our record in the UK. It is not perfect, of course, but we have a pretty good record. I see a number of London MPs here. Our capital is a rich city of such diversity, and that sense of tolerance is something of which we can all be very proud.

We promote and defend those values in a variety of ways, including by directly lobbying Governments, as I do regularly when I see high commissioners and ambassadors. I do so privately sometimes, which is the right way. We always make the case repeatedly, and I never resist that, because the moment we do not mention human rights when talking about trade and other connections, the message is misconstrued that we somehow care a little less for it. That topic comes up in every conversation I have, but they will sometimes be private conversations, and I hope the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley understands that.

We need to maintain great consensus on the issue by working with international partners and by running a list of projects that promote understanding and respect and celebrate diversity. Many of those projects are run in co-operation with a range of civil society groups. The freedom of individuals and organisations to discuss, debate and criticise—to go through what we go through each and every day—or to hold their Governments rightly to account is an essential element of a successful society. That is why we believe it is another universal human right that we work very hard across the globe to uphold.

I could say so much more, but I fear my time is limited. The right hon. Lady understandably wanted to have her say, and she made heartfelt comments. In the 70th year since its adoption, the UN declaration of human rights remains the most powerful statement of hope and aspiration for us all. There has been tremendous progress in the past 69 years, but we know there is still so much more to do. This Government will continue to lead the way on promoting human rights, as they have always done, to ensure that human rights are truly enjoyed equally in every corner of the globe by the whole of humankind.

Question put and agreed to.