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Human Rights: UN Conventions

Volume 697: debated on Monday 10 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they remain committed to promoting respect internationally for all the United Nations conventions on human rights.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the opportunity to discuss the Government’s international human rights work on International Human Rights Day. The Government are fully committed to promoting respect internationally for the core UN human rights conventions. We work actively with Governments, both bilaterally and in multilateral bodies, to promote respect for all those conventions to which the UK is party. We also lobby Governments who have not yet signed these conventions to consider doing so.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that many Governments around the world use the war on terror as a pretext to abuse human rights? Will the Government promote adherence to international human rights and democracy whenever the Department for International Development gives aid to developing countries?

My Lords, my noble friend is very familiar with some of those cases. He has demonstrated, through his own travels and action, his support for human rights around the world. It is certainly in the dialogue between DfID and our partner countries to ensure that there is respect for human rights in those countries.

My Lords, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve, has been trying for some time to persuade the Government to accept the right of petition under the First Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to allow our people to complain to the committee about breaches of the covenant. It has done the same with regard to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Is the Minister aware that the Government’s alibi is that they are not convinced of the practical value of this? If that is still the position today, on International Human Rights Day, can he explain how it is in the best interests of the United Kingdom to be alone in the European Union in taking that position and almost alone within the Council of Europe? Why do we allow women to take their cases under the CEDAW mechanism but not black people and not the rest of us under the other mechanisms?

My Lords, the noble Lord draws attention to the optional protocols on individual petitions. On women’s rights, we have, as a matter of experimentation, signed up to the optional protocol to allow women to bring such cases. We have not done so more broadly because these optional protocols are not a judicial process and do not allow the awarding of damages. We believe that we can more effectively address these issues through other arrangements.

My Lords, is the report correct that Mr Mugabe signed a document in Lisbon on human rights, democracy and their worth? Does that not make a farce of that procedure? Could your Lordships’ House have at an early opportunity a good report of what went on at that acrimonious and apparently totally unsuccessful meeting?

My Lords, I am not aware that Mr Mugabe signed such a document, but am not surprised if he did. Double standards do not seem to trouble him. We will be delighted to brief the House on the meeting.

My Lords, on this anniversary day celebrating human rights, can the Minister tell the House anything about the situation in Burma and North Korea? In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest and we have seen Buddhist monks mowed down by the military in the past few months. In North Korea, despite some progress in the six-party talks on nuclear disarmament, little progress seems to have been made on human rights.

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord draws attention to both cases on this particular day. We continue to be active with Burma’s neighbours, as well as with the international community, to try to ensure more effective action. We hope that the Secretary-General’s special representative will return to Burma in the coming weeks and allow a dialogue to proceed. In the case of North Korea, the human rights situation remains appalling. We hope that, if there is progress on the six-party talks, one consequence may be a gradual liberalisation of the political situation inside that unhappy country.

My Lords, the Minister did not answer my noble friend’s question: why are we the only the nation in the European Union with a reservation on the right of petition? May I also ask whether the Government will reconsider their reservation on the Convention on the Rights of the Child in view of the numerous reports of the violation of children’s rights in immigration detention, of which there was an outstanding example this morning?

My Lords, we will continue to keep the rights of the child under review, but we do not feel at this stage that it would help in addressing the kind of case to which he refers. More broadly, this is not an absolute position on our part. We empirically review this, and do not believe that this is a way to further the protection of the rights of children or the other groups referred to. However, we are not ideological about this, and if there is evidence to the contrary, we will certainly reconsider it.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the UK is not in breach of the United Nations convention, especially under Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act?

My Lords, every other EU state, and most Commonwealth democracies, allow people to take their cases to Geneva under the ICCPR. Their experience is all the empirical experience in the world, so I do not understand why, on Human Rights Day, the Government could not have got credit in the international community for saying that we will follow the rest of the democratic world. Could the Minister explain?

My Lords, the noble Lord is deeply committed to this issue, and I am not the first Minister to respond to him on it. Our view remains that we can more effectively protect those rights without availing ourselves of the individual protocol arrangement. As I say, however, we are happy to continue to discuss and review this.