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Topical Questions

Volume 657: debated on Tuesday 2 April 2019

I start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who stepped down last week. He served twice as Minister for the Middle East and was immensely respected and liked both in the Foreign Office, which does not happen with all Ministers, and in this House for his integrity, wisdom and kindness.

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran. I know that I speak for the whole House in hoping that the Iranian authorities will see beyond the differences between our two countries and allow this innocent woman to come home and join her family.

Today is the 107th day of İmam Sis’s hunger strike. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and I visited him in Newport East this weekend. He is one of 1,000 Kurds on hunger strike around the world, demanding that Abdullah Öcalan is allowed access to his lawyer and removed from solitary confinement. Turkey is a NATO member and has the highest number of MPs and journalists in prison in the world, following—

Order. I am sorry, but this is an abuse of the House. What we want is a one-sentence question with a question mark at the end of it. Lots of other colleagues want to take part. One question, Mr Russell-Moyle.

Has the Foreign Secretary raised the matter with Turkey, and will he send representations to the Council of Europe following the Welsh Assembly’s resolution?

I am very happy to look into the case in detail for the hon. Gentleman. Turkey may be a NATO ally and an important friend of the United Kingdom, but that does not prevent us from raising important human rights issues.

T2.   What assessment has the Department made of the validity or otherwise of accusations of vote rigging in the recent Nigerian elections? Further to that, what support will be given to ensure the integrity and independence of the judiciary in Nigeria and the upholding of the rule of law? (910186)

The UK was one of the funders of what is known as a parallel voter tabulation exercise, which is like an extensive BBC exit poll. It gave a result that was consistent with the officially declared results, and our Prime Minister called President Buhari to congratulate him on his re-election. However, we are aware of various reports from both our observers and others, and a strong stance against election-related violence was taken yesterday in my meetings with Nigerian opposition leaders, where I emphasised that concerns must be taken through the judicial process and that the independence of the judiciary in Nigeria is incredibly important.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) said in respect of Cameroon, if Brunei does not abandon its barbaric proposals to whip or stone LGBT+ individuals to death, will the Minister of State guarantee that the Government will ask their counterparts on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to consider Brunei’s immediate suspension?

I raised with the Bruneian Government my concerns over the introduction of the hudud punishment most recently in a letter to the deputy Foreign Minister on Friday 29 March, and I discussed the imminent introduction of the Sharia penal code when I was in Brunei last August. Our high commissioner Richard Lindsay in Bandar Seri Begawan has also received assurances that both common law and the sharia penal code will operate in parallel for all nationals and residents, including British citizens, and be the primary means of administering justice in Brunei. We will continue to lobby to ensure that any British citizens in Brunei will be subject to common law rather than the penal code.

T3. [R] I thank the Government for securing United Nations Human Rights Council resolution 34/1 on Sri Lanka, but do Ministers share my grave disappointment that, 10 years after the horrors of Mullivaikkal, no one has been brought to justice for war crimes in the Sri Lankan conflict? (910187)

I reiterate the earlier comments of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We welcome Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of a new resolution of the UNHRC in March, which continues its reconciliation and accountability commitments. However, I understand that my right hon. Friend speaks for many of her constituents who come from the Tamil part of Sri Lanka. As a penholder, the UK has played a leading role in trying to bring the parties together, but while we accept that positive steps have been taken, much faster progress is needed. We shall continue to urge Sri Lanka to implement fully its commitments under UNHRC resolutions 30/1 and 34/1.

T5. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Foreign Secretary has spoken about the pernicious role of the Iranian Government in various disputes around the middle east, not least in support of the Houthis in Yemen. What more can he tell us about what Britain is doing alongside his counterparts around the world to put serious pressure on the Iranians, not only on human rights abuses in their own country but on the appalling role they play right across the middle east? (910191)

The hon. Gentleman is right; Iran’s human rights record remains a matter of serious concern. On 17 December, the UK co-sponsored a UN resolution on human rights in Iran, highlighting its failure to meet a whole range of international obligations in that area.

T4. Newly elected President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe is not restoring good governance and human rights or rooting out corruption in the country. What more can we do as a soft power superpower to ensure that the Zimbabwean Government root out corruption, recognise human rights and bring in inward investment, to return prosperity to that great country? (910189)

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question and reassure him that we are doing everything we can. We summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador to the UK to register our concerns about the human rights violations and abuses that were noted in the January fuel protests. I travelled to southern Africa and met a range of neighbours to encourage them to send the same message as Commonwealth countries to the Government of Zimbabwe. If the Government of Zimbabwe would only follow through with the things they have said they will do, we would not be in this situation.

T7. Will the Secretary of State consider hosting a major conference on the rights of women? Is he not disturbed by the reports of rape being used worldwide against women as a punitive measure? It is scandalous, and the lion woman’s brave avenging of the rape of her daughter should be celebrated—cautiously, of course. Can we have an international conference on the rights of women? (910193)

Yes we can, and indeed we will. This November, we will host a major conference on the prevention of sexual violence as a tool of conflict. I have met Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel peace prize winners who have campaigned on this issue. Whether it is Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq or Burma, we are clear that this has to become an international taboo.

T6. What advice would my right hon. Friend give to those on the Opposition Benches, and particularly on the Opposition Front Bench, who regard the regime in Venezuela as a leading exemplar of government, despite its sending 2 million refugees into Colombia, putting up roadblocks to prevent aid from coming into the country and inviting in Russian troops to keep the peace? (910192)

I would say to them that the shadow Chancellor was absolutely right when he said that Venezuela was “socialism in action”.

T8. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. What is the Minister doing to promote the civil rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka? (910194)

If I may, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). We are doing a lot, as a penholder, and playing a leading role in trying to bring parties together. We are pleased to see that Sri Lanka is co-sponsoring a new resolution at the Human Rights Council in March in Geneva, but I appreciate that we need to see some genuine progress, and I very much hope that the international community can come together and bring that about.

I know that the Foreign Secretary and I will both welcome the House’s decision last night to reject an EU customs union. What assessment has he made of the foreign policy implications of such an arrangement, were it ever entered into?

I think people would see it as very curious that a country that voted to take back control was choosing to cede control in a number of areas of vital national interest. I think they would also be concerned that it would not resolve the national debate on Brexit, because many of the people who voted for Brexit would not see this as delivering a true Brexit.

Will the Secretary of State recognise the incredible action by thousands of young people across our country in striking for action on climate change? Will he not only recognise that we are facing a global emergency on climate change, but declare a national emergency on climate change, just as the Labour party has done?

I very much welcome young people being involved in climate change issues; I do not welcome quite so much their missing school to do so. I would say that we are making a lot of progress in this country—in fact, I think we have done more than anyone else in the G20 on climate change—but it is not enough. As a global community, we still need to do more, which is why we want to host COP 26 and galvanise the world to take more action.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, already, another seven journalists have been killed in the course of their work this year, coming on top of the 80 who died last year? Two of those were in Mexico, which is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalism. Will he say what more can be done to press the Mexican Government to take action?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue, and indeed for raising it consistently. He is absolutely right: Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist. The Mexican Government have taken action, and we are in touch with them closely about what they are doing. However, we need to draw the world’s attention to this issue. According to the latest figures I have seen, 348 journalists were arrested or detained last year for doing their job. That is why this summer, jointly with Canada, we will be hosting the first ever international conference on media freedom at ministerial level.

What steps is the Foreign Office taking to guarantee the human rights of people in Sudan, especially since the President declared a year-long crisis in Sudan?

I am very glad the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to raise this, because it is a very serious situation, and we are engaging strongly with the Government of Sudan on the issues he raises. Most recently, I had a phone call with the Foreign Minister of Sudan in which I particularly drew attention to the women who were due to be flogged. I am very pleased to hear that they have subsequently been released.

Tomorrow, Brunei introduces a penal code that includes death for apostasy, death for adultery and stoning to death for homosexuality. I suppose at this point I should declare my interest on all three counts. Very much more seriously, what are we going to do with our super soft power to make it clear just how much this is a total violation of the standards we should share?

We have made and will continue to make representations. Obviously there are grave concerns about the nature of the sharia penal code, if it were brought into play. As I mentioned earlier, we are raising concerns about the introduction of the hudud punishment. We have a strong bilateral relationship—underpinned of course by our military presence in Brunei, as my hon. Friend will be aware—and we hope that will mitigate the potential impact of the sharia penal code on UK forces, associated civilians and their dependants.

What pressure can the Foreign Secretary bring to bear on the Indian Government to ensure that UK nationals in prison there have their human right to a fair trial respected? The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) has been a powerful advocate for Jagtar Singh Johal. I have a similar case of an elderly constituent who has been in prison since 2015, and his family are seriously concerned about his health.

I accept that the time for which the legal process drags on in many Indian consular cases is hugely frustrating. I am obviously very happy to meet the hon. Lady in relation to this particular case.

If I may, in relation to the Jagtar Singh Johal case, let me say that I know it has been an incredibly distressing for Mr Johal and his family. I very much respect the hard work of the constituency Member of Parliament. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) knows, we have met the family on three occasions since Mr Johal was imprisoned at the beginning of 2018. The hon. Gentleman is going to meet the Foreign Secretary on 24 April.

This Sunday is the 25th anniversary of the terrible genocide that took place in Rwanda, a country my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows well. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), the noble Lord Popat and I will be at the ceremonies on Sunday in Kigali, representing our Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend think that the UN doctrine of the responsibility to protect—R2P—which has been so well developed by Gareth Evans, is yet sufficient to ensure that such terrible events could never take place again?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. I hope to join him in Kigali this Sunday as the UK Government representative. The world can never forget the events in Rwanda 25 years ago. The world has made progress in vowing to say never again to genocide, but we must remain alert and engaged in order to prevent such incidents from happening ever again.

How does ignoring or dismissing the International Court of Justice ruling on the Chagos islands enhance the United Kingdom’s reputation as a soft power superpower or uphold the international rules-based order?

First, it was not a ruling; it was an intermediate decision and non-binding. We are of course in discussions with Mauritius, but we fully uphold our right to take the position we have taken over many years.[Official Report, 3 April 2019, Vol. 657, c. 8MC.]

The UK has a duty to prevent under the genocide convention. Mass atrocities are invariably preceded by red flags. Early warning signs, such as the persecution of minorities, happened in Burma against the Rohingya and, indeed, in Rwanda. What is the FCO doing to help identify and act on such red flags?

We are doing lots, but the most important thing that we have to do is make sure that when there has been genocide or alleged genocide, there is accountability. Burma is a case in point, and we hosted a major meeting on that very issue at the UN General Assembly. If there is no accountability, people think they have a chance to get away with doing it again, and that must not happen.

Further to the earlier answers on Brunei, we are talking about people being stoned to death for being gay—having rocks thrown at their heads again and again to draw out the process of death by blunt trauma. Surely the Minister agrees that that is barbaric, inhumane and contrary to Commonwealth values. How can the Government reverse this appalling state of affairs?

As I have pointed out, the Sultan of Brunei has become more religious as he has grown older, and that is one of the reasons why he wanted to bring in the sharia penal code. I was out there last August and it was very clear to me, from speaking to him and his advisers, that they envisaged that the common law stream would continue as well. I appreciate that the headlines cause concern. I have written to their representative here in the UK and made it very clear to them that this was going to cause massive parliamentary and media concern, which obviously has come to pass over the past couple of days. Our excellent high commissioner to Brunei, Richard Lindsay, is, on a day-to-day basis, making clear those grave concerns, which have also been expressed during the course of this morning’s questions.

The 70th anniversary of NATO falls on Thursday. What message does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have for member states with regard to strengthening this alliance, which has done so much to keep peace over so many years?

NATO has, I think, been the most successful military alliance ever, and it is the foundation of our rules-based international order. My message is very simple: we must not be complacent for the future, and there is a fundamental imbalance when one half of the alliance is spending 4% of its GDP on defence and the other half—the European side—is spending between 1% and 2%.

Order. Thank you, colleagues. I am grateful to all who took part, but we must move on. Demand, as usual, massively exceeds supply.