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Human Rights: Women

Volume 711: debated on Monday 1 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether their goals in areas of conflict include the prioritisation of women’s human rights.

My Lords, the protection and promotion of women’s human rights form an important part of the Government’s objectives on conflict. Specifically, improving our ability to tackle the long-term and structural causes of conflict, which include human rights abuses, is part of the FCO’s strategic objective to prevent and resolve conflict.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. First, will he reassure the House that the British Government are doing everything they can to ensure the removal of the discriminatory clauses contained in President Karzai’s so-called Shia law? Secondly, will he advise the House on progress on United Nations Resolution 1325 and the action plan for Afghanistan?

My Lords, I am very happy to reassure my noble friend on both points. On the first, when the circumstances of this law and its prospective status were discovered, not just our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary but the United States President and Secretary of State surprised President Karzai by making calls to him within the space of a few hours expressing outrage. Everyone respects the right of a country to write its own laws but you cannot expect the armed services of Britain, the United States and other countries to put their lives in jeopardy—many lives have been lost—in a country that legislates abuse against women in this way. We believe that point is now fundamentally understood. This Government have a global action plan on UN Resolution 1325. We are taking a series of steps in Afghanistan to support women’s human rights and better their representation across all areas of government and public and private life.

My Lords, do the Government’s goals include the elimination of the abhorrent use of rape as a weapon of war? If this is the case, how long do they estimate that it will take to achieve such a goal?

My Lords, UN Security Council Resolution 1820 of 2008, of which the UK Government were a sponsor, has this as its specific target and is supported by action plans and direct pressure on the UN to move in this direction in countries where this issue is particularly acute such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, I hesitate to give the noble Baroness a date at which these practices might cease. I fear that wherever you see brutal subjection of civilians to violence for political ends and men who feel that they are not constrained by the rule of law or military discipline, we have a long way to go to prevail in this vital task of eliminating this practice.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree with the 2006 report of the UN high-level panel, of which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was a member, which reported that the UN’s support for women has been “incoherent, fragmented, and under-resourced”. Does he agree with the panel that there should be a single, strong and well resourced agency, and would not this go some way to help address this problem?

My Lords, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and I spent a huge portion of our last month in office trying to implement exactly that recommendation and to create a single women’s entity under the leadership of an under secretary-general. It is a depressing commentary on the speed or slowness of reform at the UN that we are still hoping to get it done, but perhaps not until the forthcoming General Assembly. I assure the noble Baroness that I remain as committed as ever to that objective.

My Lords, does the noble Lord think that Western Governments intervening in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq to tell Muslims how they should construct their society and what values they should observe within their own countries is going to be helpful in winning hearts and minds in those countries, or is it more likely to push people towards Islamic fanatics instead? Should they not run their countries, and should we not run ours? Perhaps we could even spare the time to deal with polygamy, forced marriage and female genital mutilation in this country before we try to teach other people how to run theirs.

My Lords, to the general point that the noble Lord makes, that we should not be seeking to micromanage the social and governmental practices of Muslim countries, I completely confirm my agreement with him. I acknowledged that in my first Answer. However, I added that I believe there are certain universal human rights, such as the rights of women. If we are to commit our men and women to putting their lives on the line to defend a society, we have right to expect that these fundamental values are in turn respected by the country and government we are seeking to defend.

My Lords, many of us will be very pleased to hear what the Minister has just said, but there is one particularly abhorrent practice in some countries, which is the hanging of young women under the age of 18 for perceived sexual misdemeanours. What action are the Government taking to try to stop that abhorrent practice?

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, because the policy dates back to when she was in government, we seek to oppose the death sentence everywhere in all circumstances and have been fighting through the UN General Assembly and elsewhere to try to build up a universal ban. We have a long way to go, but I certainly agree with her that on this particular issue we must make additional efforts. Within our different programmes of support for women’s rights, I suspect that I can confidently reassure her that we target this particular abuse.

My Lords, when Her Majesty's Government intervene regarding women’s rights, will they make a point of emphasising the appalling treatment of widows, many of whom, following conflict, are very young? Their rights are totally ignored and they are very often punished because they no longer have a husband. Attention needs to be drawn to this issue.

My Lords, in the case of conflict and the aftermath of a disease such as HIV/AIDS, time after time we see issues whereby widows and women heading single-parent families do not have the basic legal protection that allows them to find a job, pay for a house or establish the family as an economically viable entity, let alone have the social respect they deserve.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that in tackling these challenges, one of the most important principles is the example of the UN system itself and of multilateral forces operating in the name of the UN? Must it not become absolutely and abundantly clear to all concerned that the rights and dignity of women must be central to all that the UN is doing in the field?

My Lords, let me absolutely say yes to that. It was my experience at the UN that there were more women in senior places there than, I am afraid, I found when returning to the United Kingdom.