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Middle East: Rule of Law

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to promote and support the rule of law in the countries of the Middle East.

My Lords, in the Kuwaiti Parliament on 22 February last my right honourable friend David Cameron affirmed that we stand with the people and Governments of the Middle East,

“who are on the side of justice, of the rule of law and of freedom”.

As part of Britain’s long-term approach to, and friendship with, the region, and drawing on UK legal expertise, this Government undertake a range of activities to assist in promoting the rule of law. This includes training and mentoring to help build the skills and capacities of judges, justice ministries, lawyers and the police, and specialist support to develop policy and unlock legislative reform.

I am sure that the Government and the House will agree that the lack of rule of law and democracy and human rights in the Middle East underpins so much of the instability and conflict in the area. I know that the Minister is aware of the proposal that I made to Zayed University in Abu Dhabi with outreach into Palestine to develop the rule of law in Palestine and Abu Dhabi. We have a very special position in the United Kingdom because of our expertise and history on the rule of law. Will the Minister continue to support the proposal that is now well developed for Palestine and Abu Dhabi to link up on the first postgraduate programme including human rights and international law in the Middle East?

My Lords, I am aware, as I think the noble Lord knows, of the project to set up the postgraduate school of law at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi combining Palestinian and Abu Dhabi endeavours. We welcome that as an excellent initiative and my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State, Alistair Burt, has also indicated his welcome for it and suggested ways in which we in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can assist with the project.

Can the noble Lord confirm that this country has already assisted in setting up a system of courts in Qatar, and will they offer similar help to Bahrain and other Gulf States? Finally, would Commonwealth legal models provide suitable examples for similar systems in the Middle East?

On the final point from the noble Lord, who knows a great deal about these things, I think the answer is yes. Of course, we are active in offering legal assistance and legal training help in all those countries in the region that wish to accept it, which is most of them. In addition, we have the Arab Partnership Fund, which highlights priority areas for action, including the rule of law and anti-corruption work, throughout the Middle East and north African region. Obviously at the moment there are some problems in the way of carrying on these programmes, but wherever they are wanted and needed, we are pressing to offer them.

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that the rule of law must be predicated on an element of justice alongside freedom, and that most of the Middle East countries have used terrorism laws in the aftermath of 9/11 to put on their statute books some of the most repressive and catch-all legislation there is? The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mentioned Bahrain, which has very repressive anti-terrorism laws. Are we working with these countries to help moderate their attitude towards terrorism and to provide a little more scope for peaceful dissent without dissenters being entrapped by those laws?

The short answer is yes. My noble friend is completely realistic in pointing out that there were some undesirable practices and programmes in the past. Our view is best encapsulated by a quotation from the Prime Minister when he said in Kuwait the other day:

“It is not for … governments outside the region to pontificate about how each country meets the aspirations of its people. It is not for us to tell you how to do it, or precisely what shape your future should take”,

in these countries. He continued:

“But we cannot remain silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success”,

in each country. That is the principle on which we proceed. Where we find obstacles, we will seek to overcome them.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the Prime Minister gave such enthusiastic support to an initiative that was actually begun by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton when he sat on the Woolsack. Are the Government specifically encouraging the very useful work that the Law Society and the Bar Council have undertaken in a number of countries in the Middle East?

I also agree with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, that human rights lie at the heart of the rule of law. In so far as that is concerned, will the Government particularly direct their attention to encouraging the countries of the Middle East to sign up to the protocols against the death penalty and the use of torture, and the protocol for joining the International Criminal Court, as Tunisia has done since the revolution?

My Lords, the answer is yes to all those points, and certainly to the support of the Bar Council. There is also the Justice Assistance Network, a cross-governmental network that draws on UK expertise to provide coaching, mentoring and twinning support for judges, prosecutors and court staff. We are active and positive in all these areas, and we recognise the work done by both the noble Baroness and the previous Government in this area.

My Lords, I should disclose that I am the president of the court referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. In that connection, perhaps I may underline the contribution being made by many law firms in the Middle East. Does the noble Lord agree that what will happen is that those countries will look at the way we observe the rule of law in this country? In those circumstances, is it not critically important to show that we meticulously observe the rule of law and recognise the importance of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to our own situation?

The noble and learned Lord is drawing me into a major and vastly important area on which I am not going to comment today except to say that his contribution to it is of course enormous and that we recognise the value of his opinions. But the broader question of the European Court of Human Rights, how it works and its relationship to the EU as a whole and to this country, is one that no doubt we will debate in this House vigorously in the coming weeks.