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UN: Human Rights Council

Volume 694: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they will take to ensure the universality of monitoring of human rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

My Lords, despite resistance from others, we support full implementation of the Human Rights Council’s mandate to promote and protect human rights everywhere. We welcome provision on its new agenda to address specific human rights accusations, wherever they occur. We continue to work positively on the establishment of the council’s universal periodic review mechanism to review the human rights record of every UN member state on an equal footing.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his new office in this House. I hope that I can say without being accused of flattery that among the international NGOs with which I am concerned there was rejoicing at his appointment. I also thank him for the very diplomatic reply to my Question, but perhaps I may ask him to be a bit less diplomatic in his answer to my next question.

In the light of what happened last month at the fifth session of the UN Human Rights Council, especially the inclusion of only one situation for selective treatment—that of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel—what, if anything, can be done to guarantee that the council ensures universality and is not guilty of double standards and politicisation in breach of its mandate? I reflect in that question what has already been voiced in the European Parliament.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for his kind words and I am very grateful for the support of the NGOs of which he knows. The new Human Rights Council is a work in progress, and you win some and lose some. British diplomacy has been very active in ensuring that nine country-specific and 28 thematic special procedures have now been approved as a result of the last session. Unfortunately, we lost the vote on retaining rapporteurs for Cuba and Belarus—two countries that evidently deserve rapporteurs. The noble Lord is correct that, unfortunately, the only special arrangement referred to related to the Occupied Territories, but I hope that we will continue the fight to get more equal treatment for all cases.

My Lords, can the Minister suggest what measures might be taken to support and strengthen the working groups of the old sub-commission, including those on slavery and indigenous people, in the face of the forthcoming review of their mandates?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. The arrangements to which she refers were almost cut in the new council. We had to fight hard to preserve them and we will now fight equally hard to try to strengthen them.

My Lords, I join others in welcoming the noble Lord. We are immensely pleased that someone of such vast international experience can join us and we hope that he is frequently able to share his wisdom and experience with us at the Dispatch Box. The United Nations Human Rights Council has had a pretty patchy first year, as everyone agrees. We all want to see it strengthened and we hope that the new agenda and new procedures will do that. But is it really true that, even in this new phase, it has decided to end its scrutiny of Iran at a time when we are getting reports of people being stoned to death there, together with other atrocities? Surely now is not the time for the council to give up on that matter. Does the noble Lord have any information on that subject?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his welcome. I believe that I am correct in saying that Iran is not currently the subject of one of the country-specific mandates. We have not yet been able to establish a country-specific mandate for Iran. I completely concur with him that we should try to do so.

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that his appointment is widely welcomed on these Benches, too. Will he confirm that it remains the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to oppose the use of the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances? Can we have an assurance that part of his efforts at the FCO will be devoted to ensuring that countries such as Iran and Iraq do not abuse the death penalty in the present blatant and indiscriminate manner?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his welcome. I stand absolutely with him in wanting to ensure that we ban the death penalty everywhere.

My Lords, the noble Lord raises the enormously important issue of how as a global community, not just a British one, we both protect human rights and prosecute the war against terrorist attack. We all agree that these need not be incompatible objectives. The protection of human rights around the world is one of the vital ways in which we limit support for terrorism. We want to stand for freedom, but freedom within secure borders here and abroad.

My Lords, the Minister will be highly familiar with the internal politics of the UN General Assembly and the various agencies and councils. Her Majesty’s Government are members of an extremely close caucus, the EU, and of a very useful network, the Commonwealth, which together amount to nearly 40 per cent of the membership of the UN. How actively do Her Majesty’s Government work through these networks and how useful do we find that in promoting the aims of a more effective Human Rights Council?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. After many years at the UN General Assembly, I arrive in this House a happy and relieved man—a refugee from a much more complicated environment. The point on the Commonwealth is a good one. We should make much more use of it to promote values such as human rights and democracy around the world and turn it into a much more active lobby, if you like, for that within the broader UN membership.