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Togo: Human Rights

Volume 652: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights in Togo.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am grateful to have been allocated this debate. I am saddened by its necessity, but necessary it is, as I wish to raise the serious and worsening human rights situation in Togo. At present, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, the United Kingdom does not have permanent representation in Togo, but covers it remotely, from Ghana. I would be grateful if the Minister, in responding to the debate, outlined how the current system works, because I have a number of constituents from Togo who say that it is ineffective.

The human rights abuses occurring in Togo rest heavy on the shoulders of my constituents who left that country to settle in the UK, because although they are far from home, news of the continued abuse of their relatives and fellow countrymen and women at the hands of the authorities and security forces reaches them nearly every week. It is not only the case that the authorities heavily curtail people’s right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly for peaceful protest; it has also been well documented that security forces use excessive force against demonstrators. Last year, Amnesty International stated that during one of the mass demonstrations organised by opposition groups, at least 11 people were killed by security forces. In addition, the random arrests, detentions, torture and other ill treatment of prisoners, human rights defenders, journalists and civilians continue. It appears that, in Togo, human rights violations continue with impunity. The Government and the security forces have a blatant disregard for justice and the rule of international law.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. Does she agree that the shocking report of the death of a 12-year-old in the run-up to the elections in Togo in December is an example of the fact that human rights are still supressed to a great extent in Togo, and that we in this House must do more to encourage human rights? I suggest that it may be possible to do that by using the Togolese ambition to be a Commonwealth member nation; that may be a way to influence what is happening there.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, particularly as it has given me time to catch my breath, because I have just run all the way across the parliamentary estate—there are not many things that a 63-year-old woman would run across the estate for, but I will for human rights in Togo. The issues in relation to the election are very important, and I will touch on them later.

It is time for the Government of Togo to practise what they preach and fulfil the promises that they have made to the United Nations, to the international community and, most importantly, to their people. Togo is a United Nations member state. As is protocol, the UN conducts a universal periodic review of the human rights records of all UN member states. The first cycle of the UN universal periodic review of Togo took place in October 2011. Of the 133 recommendations made, Togo rejected a number, including a recommendation to amend or repeal the laws used to crack down on journalists and human rights defenders, a recommendation regarding the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the country and a recommendation regarding the inclusion of laws that criminalised defamation. There has been some progress in the ratification of crucial international instruments, but there is so much more to do. It is imperative that Togo live up to the recommendations that it has agreed to within the universal periodic review. Things must happen not just on paper, but in practice.

Togo was elected to join the UN Human Rights Council for the period 2016 to 2018 and was expected to use that mandate to strengthen its human rights commitments. Combating torture was one of the key recommendations made in the review. The country ratified the optional protocol to the UN convention against torture by rolling out capacity-strengthening workshops to combat torture for criminal investigators and prison and rehabilitation officers, but torture remains a practice in the country that is used by security forces against participants in anti-Government demonstrations.

Many hon. Members will be aware that between August and December 2017 the authorities continued violent crackdowns during mass protests. Those protests were led by the political opposition, calling for, among other things, the end of President Faure Gnassingbé’s tenure as President. Freedom House is an independent watchdog organisation that dedicates itself to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world. In its country overview for 2018, it stated:

“Togo’s politics have been dominated since 1963 by Gnassingbé Eyadéma”—

apologies for my pronunciation—

“and his son, the current president…Advantages including a security service dominated by the president’s ethnic group, disproportionately drawn election districts, and a fractured opposition have helped President Gnassingbé and his party hold on to power. In 2017, protests calling for the reintroduction of term limits were harshly repressed.”

The President has been in power since 2005. His predecessor—his father—held on to power for 38 years before his death. Claims of the repression of protests that call for the reintroduction of term limits are supported by many human rights organisations and institutions. According to Amnesty, protests were met with excessive use of force by the security forces. Among other instances, security forces used live ammunition in 2017 to disperse a protest against rising oil prices in the country. Several people were injured, and many were surprised that only one death was recorded. In June 2017, videos posted on the internet showed members of the security forces, armed with shotguns, beating students on the ground with batons at a student demonstration calling for improved living conditions. That outrageous act occurred at the University of Lomé within the student union. As if that were not enough, security forces arrested at least 19 students, 17 of whom were later released. Several students stated in court that they had been beaten during their arrest and transfer.

Members of the political opposition held mass demonstrations in major cities across Togo. There are reports that those demonstrations were, again, broken up by security forces, which used tear gas, batons, water cannon and live ammunition. It is simply not humane to use water cannon to disperse crowds and most certainly not for people who have a right to protest peacefully under the UN declaration of human rights, to which Togo became a signatory on 20 September 1960.

One of the main things that Togo seems to have refused to address or improve is the authorities’ repression of people’s right to freedom of expression. The Freedom House report entitled “Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism” stated:

“In almost half of the countries where internet freedom declined, the reductions were related to elections.”

Unsurprisingly, that is true in the case of Togo. In September 2017, the authorities shut down the internet for nine days in retaliation to opposition-led protests. In doing so, they disrupted the organisation of protests and heavily disrupted the work of human rights defenders and journalists who were monitoring the protests. Those reports were later verified by the digital rights group Internet Without Borders. Togo is a signatory to the international covenant on civil and political rights, and its shutdown of mobile phone services and the internet is a violation of article 19 of the covenant.

In a year in which human rights defenders are operating in a shrinking civil society space, I hope that the House will agree with me that disrupting the crucial work of human rights organisations and human rights defenders is detrimental to democracy and should not be allowed to continue. Many cases have been brought to my attention to highlight the gross extent to which the Togolese Government curtail people’s rights. They do so by arbitrarily closing down media outlets and arresting community and opposition leaders to crack down on anyone who expresses dissent.

One such case is that of Robert Kossi Avotor. Robert is a journalist who was viciously attacked with batons in the city of Lomé by the police. He was also handcuffed in a successful attempt to prevent him from photodocumenting an eviction that was taking place. He was subsequently detained and had his images deleted, before being released without charge. Although he filed a complaint with the prosecution service, he received no response. This is a classic example of the security forces using extreme force and brutality to curtail the legitimate work of journalists and human rights defenders. They are propped up by the general prosecutor, who issued a warning stating that anyone who reported on Robert’s attack would face criminal prosecution for disseminating “fake news”. When a Government who do not respect human rights are propped up by a judicial system that does not respect the rule of law and intimidates those seeking justice for crimes committed against them, what hope is there for the people of that country?

I would like to thank the Minister for the attention in the written answers she has already provided to me. In November last year, the Minister responded to one of my written questions on Togo, saying that the UK Government supported the President of Ghana and that they encouraged both the Government and the opposition in Togo to work towards ensuring that the elections to be held on 20 December would be free, fair and void of any violence. Sadly, as many will be aware, the elections were anything but that. According to various news sources, in the days leading up to the elections, many people were killed by security forces. Despite advice given by Ghana and the UK, protesters still gathered and organised demonstrations in the lead-up to the elections, which in turn flared into violence. Some 14 opposition parties joined forces to call on their supporters to boycott the elections, amid fears that the President would put forth legislation to allow him to run again in 2020 and 2025.

During the mediation talks held by Ghana and Guinea to resolve the crisis, the opposition asked for an overhaul of the electoral commission and for term limits to be set, but this was not to be. Elections are a major source of contention and strife in Togo. How many more people will be arbitrarily arrested and detained? How many more people will tell us their tales of torture, simply because they exercise their human right to freedom of expression or opinion?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Like her, I have many constituents, some of whom are in the Public Gallery, who will be watching this debate closely, and who have real concerns about their friends and family still in Togo. Does she share my concern about the repressive cyber-security law that the National Assembly recently passed, which human rights campaigners around the world agree will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression?

I do have major concerns about that. If people are not free to access information and communicate with each other, it puts Togo in the same position as many other regimes, such as China. The Togolese Government beat their opposition for expressing dissent, and silence the media and journalists. In November, the Minister replied to a question that I raised, saying that the UK Government recommended that allegations of arbitrary arrest and detention, and allegations of torture, be investigated thoroughly. Reports from Amnesty International and other human rights organisations dispute that that has taken place in Togo.

I have five questions for the Minister. If she cannot answer them now, I request that she sends me a written response. First, what can the Foreign Office do—what will it do—to encourage Togo to end its security forces’ excessive use of force and for their authorities to respect people’s right to peaceful protest? Secondly, does the Minister join me in condemning the Togolese Government for shutting down the internet, and contravening article 19 of the international covenant on civil and political rights? Thirdly, what assistance is the UK giving to support human rights defenders and civil society in Togo? Fourthly, how might the Foreign Office encourage Togo to ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuses are held accountable and prosecuted in a court of law? Finally, will the Minister ask the Togolese Government when the high commissioner for reconciliation and strengthening national unity will action the plan to implement the truth, justice and reconciliation commission of Togo’s 68 recommendations?

The 70th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights was marked on 10 December 2018. Togo is a signatory to that declaration. On paper, Togo is doing the right things to show that it cares about and is committed to human rights values and principles—I have touched on those things throughout my speech. However, in reality, the Government and the security forces there fail to adhere to human rights standards. Togo seems to be a country open to improvement when it comes to its human rights failings. That is why it was elected to the Human Rights Council. However, we seem to be dealing with a Government who make assurances to protect human rights and adhere to human rights standards one day, and abandon those values when they think that nobody is looking.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this excellent debate. The UN and, to a lesser degree, other international organisations are somewhat distant from Lomé. Does she agree that, in addition to the leadership that Ghana is showing, it would be good for the Economic Community of West African States to take a greater role in Togo and provide some leadership on what the international community wants? That local, regional leadership sometimes works better than distant people from New York telling individuals how to run their country.

I agree that this is not a job for just one country, but for many. The UK cannot act alone, but together with others it can. Anybody who can apply pressure and alleviate the suffering of the people of Togo should be welcomed and encouraged. I would be interested to know the Minister’s view on that issue.

It is my sincere hope that the UK Government will work closely with the Togolese Government to ensure that they are respecting human rights values not just on paper, but in reality too. In a year’s time, I do not want to be sitting in my constituency surgery with my constituents who come from Togo telling me yet more stories like the ones that we have heard. I am sure that we are all appalled. I am sure that the Minister will do everything she can, and I am interested to hear what that might be.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this important debate and, through her, I thank her constituents who have rightly brought these important matters to her attention and thus to the attention of the House.

Promoting human rights worldwide is generally part of the UK’s foreign policy. We believe that everyone everywhere should enjoy equal rights and protections under the law. We believe that human rights are the essential foundation for a fairer, more secure and more prosperous world. Standing up for human rights is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. In our work, we promote respect for human rights in various ways, from quiet diplomacy and private discussions to leading and supporting international public campaigns with our international partners. With regard to media freedom and in particular the internet, we are campaigning very much this year for media freedom worldwide. The hon. Lady will be aware that we have also increased our support to the BBC World Service and our overall coverage across Africa in a variety of languages.

On the political and human rights situation in Togo, and UK Government action, I will start by recapping the political situation as we see it. President Faure Gnassingbè has been in power in Togo since 2005 following the death of his father, who had held the post for 37 years. The current President was elected for a third term in 2015, having set aside the term limits set out in the 1992 constitution. Togo is now the only country in the Economic Community of West African States that does not currently have presidential term limits. There have been increasing demands in recent years for that to change. A referendum on the issue was planned for September 2017 but did not go ahead.

Since late 2017 Togolese opposition parties have joined together to form a 14-party coalition, and have begun to stage protests in Lomé and across the country, to demand electoral reform. These protests are ongoing. Unfortunately, as the hon. Lady said, violence has been associated with the protests, mainly in the north of the country, perpetrated both by security forces and by protestors. At least 12 people, including some members of the security forces, have been reported as killed since August 2017.

Reports are difficult for us to corroborate because, as the hon. Lady notes, we do not have a permanent diplomatic presence in Togo, and media reporting is often contradictory or biased. Nevertheless, our non-resident high commissioner, who is based in Ghana, continues to monitor the situation in Togo. In the last 18 months, he has visited Lomé twice and he keeps in touch with partners and multilateral institutions.

Iain Walker does a fabulous job, as did Jon Benjamin, but with the expansion of the network across Africa, is there a possibility that we could get greater representation in Lomé, perhaps within three years? Is that in the pipeline?

I was going to mention our honorary consul in Lomé, Sitsu Curterello—I will make sure that Hansard gets the right spelling. As my hon. Friend mentions, we are increasing the range of roles and our diplomatic presence across a range of African countries. Under current plans, we are not anticipating opening an outpost in Togo directly, but we are anticipating increasing representation in Ghana. As he will know, the coverage of political affairs is done from Abidjan, so we are increasing our presence across west Africa.

On that point, my constituents have expressed dissatisfaction with how that system works. If I meet them again and they give examples of where it is ineffective, and I write to the Minister, will she respond?

I would welcome that. As the hon. Lady knows, the more specific the better—that is always helpful.

One point that I have raised with the Togolese chargé d’affaires in London is the accreditation of our representative from the high commission in Ghana and of the honorary consul. We would like that paperwork to be finalised because it has been outstanding for longer than it should have been.

In terms of regional mediation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) said, we believe that ECOWAS has an important role to play. It is best placed to mediate in the current political crisis, as it did so successfully in Gambia. We support the efforts of the Presidents of Ghana and Guinea to that end. Indeed, a road map was brokered by ECOWAS in July 2018. We urge the Togolese Government and the opposition parties to implement that road map, and we encourage all parties to resolve the crisis peacefully through a political agreement.

Regarding the political situation more broadly, it was encouraging that legislative elections took place on 20 December and that they were assessed by ECOWAS monitors to have been credible and non-violent. However, it is concerning that local elections, which were due on 16 December, were postponed for an unspecified period. It is also regrettable that more opposition parties did not stand in those elections.

On the wider human rights picture, the UK welcomed Togo’s positive progress during its last UN universal periodic review in 2016, which included taking steps to prevent torture and other human rights violations by the security forces, and releasing a number of political detainees. Clearly, where such allegations have been made, it is important for them to be fed in so that they can be reflected in future United Nations universal period reviews. We also welcomed Togo’s election to the Human Rights Council from January 2016 and its decision to impose a complete moratorium on the use of the death penalty, as announced at the UN in September 2016.

We have raised concerns, however, about child trafficking, prison policies, prison overcrowding and the treatment of detainees in prison. At the time of the universal periodic review, we urged the Togolese authorities to thoroughly investigate all allegations of torture, arbitrary arrest and detention. We also remain concerned about the Government of Togo’s continued resistance to provide legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. We have urged them to ensure that the human rights of every individual in Togo are protected by law.

When I met the Togolese chargé d’affaires in London recently, I raised our concerns about human rights and took the opportunity to emphasise the importance of implementing the road map and of holding free, fair and peaceful local elections. We also discussed UK support for the economic development of Togo. The UK recognises that Togo is a country with a low average income. We provide about £12 million of development assistance annually, not directly through the Government but through a range of non-governmental organisations. In 2018, that included £1.6 million for the UN population fund, which supports reproductive healthcare and development across the country.

In conclusion, the UK Government welcome the steps taken by the Togolese Government to improve human rights in some areas, but we remain concerned about reports of violence, human rights abuses and violations associated with political protests. The treatment of detainees and the lack of protection for LGBTI people are matters of continued concern. We have said to the Government of Togo that they must now step up and deliver real progress on human rights, including on the ECOWAS road map, which will benefit all the people of Togo.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.