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UN: Durban Review Conference

Volume 711: debated on Monday 1 June 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure that the United Nations and the High Commissioner for Human Rights learn lessons from the walk-out led by the British delegation during the speech by President Ahmadinejad at the Durban Review Conference.

My Lords, the Government will continue to play a leading role in combating racism and anti-Semitism in all fora, including the United Nations. We welcome the strong stance taken by the UN Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights in condemning the Iranian President’s hateful words at the Durban review conference. We will always stand up to such intolerance and will continue to encourage key figures in the United Nations to speak out when such unacceptable statements are made.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. I warmly commend our ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Peter Gooderham, for leading the walkout of the United Kingdom delegation, which included me, joined by other European delegates, when the Iranian President Ahmadinejad made his disgraceful anti-Semitic speech. What specific steps do our Government now intend to take to ensure that the failed Durban framework is replaced by a much more effective approach to the vital global fight against racism and discrimination of all kinds?

My Lords, I certainly echo the noble Lord’s kind words about our ambassador in Geneva. While in some ways this was a bad day for UN human rights, it was a pretty good day for British diplomacy, as Britain was a leader not only of the walkout but of the walk-back to ensure that there was an agreement at the end of the meeting that was positive and which excluded the references to Israel that had marred the first conference five years earlier. There is no call for a further follow-up conference. Therefore, we hope that this exercise has come to an end under its own momentum.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that, although President Ahmadinejad’s views are wholly obnoxious on these matters, at least four weeks ago he apparently said in a speech that if the Palestinians were to continue to accept a two-state solution, the Iranian Government would back that 100 per cent? What is the reaction of the British Government to that particular comment?

My Lords, it is relief that the President of Iran occasionally says something sensible. However, I do not think that it has led us to any fundamental reassessment of his judgment on international affairs at large.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that, far from learning very much from the wild ravings of the Iranian President, the Human Rights Council seemed to have wandered into a further area when it addressed the Sri Lanka issue? The Tamil Tigers may have adopted atrocious methods in the past, but there is no doubt that an appalling massacre has taken place; yet the council seems to be completely blind to it. Would the Minister like to comment on that?

My Lords, the UK was one of those who pushed very hard for the special meeting of the Human Rights Council. We were deeply disappointed by the unbalanced result. The issue mentioned by the noble Lord of the Tamil Tigers’ terrorist past won the argument for many countries. It is an enormous pity that it could not balance this and, particularly, acknowledge fully that serious war crimes were almost certainly committed, and that the international community and peace in Sri Lanka will be served only by getting to the bottom of it.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one lesson to be learnt from this incident is that Her Majesty’s Government, and, indeed, the international community, should make a robust, effective and balanced response to all violations of international law and of human rights, whether in Iran, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Gaza or the Palestinian Occupied Territories?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. There is no doubt that, as Sri Lanka was debated in the corridors of the Human Rights Council last week, the back story was of double standards and the need for all countries, whatever their position on this, to show a universal approach across the situations that the noble Lord mentioned.

My Lords, several delegations, even the majority, sat in their seats during the raving of the Iranian ambassador. What do the Government propose to do about that?

My Lords, the noble Lord will understand if I tell him that, ultimately, whether delegations stay in their seats, or are prised from them and leave, is a matter for them, their consciences and their national policy. We were very pleased that we walked out, and that the rest of Europe walked out with us, but we felt that it was equally important to come back, because we must retain universal forums like this where even someone as abhorrent as President Ahmadinejad has the right to be heard.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not too soon to start thinking about the review of the Human Rights Council’s operations, to be undertaken in 2011? We should start to talk to a wide range of countries around the world about how the council could perform better, as it is performing so lamentably badly at the moment.

My Lords, I notice that the noble Lord has already contributed to that process in a recent editorial piece. He is absolutely right: the Human Rights Council is performing well below our hopes, but I have to put it in the broader context of something of a global crisis in human rights. I am afraid to say that double standards and the shifting in power between the West and other parts of the world have put many of the gains that we took for granted in human rights—whether they cover the rights of women or the so-called doctrine of the responsibility to protect—in crisis across many of these areas.