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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Volume 750: debated on Monday 16 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the outcome of their discussions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, during her visit to the United Kingdom on 6 November.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary met Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, during her visit to London on 6 November. The High Commissioner discussed with the Foreign Secretary a range of human rights issues including Syria, Burma, Sri Lanka and Iran, and our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has left out one of the items which I know the High Commissioner discussed with Ministers, and that is the call that she made for the strong and swift implementation by the Government here of their new legal obligation to extend the Equality Act to include caste in the list of protected characteristics. Postponing that question until the other side of the general election is incompatible with the obligation. In the light of the High Commissioner’s advice, can my noble friend say whether the Government will speed up the timetable?

My Lords, the Government are committed to outlawing caste discrimination. However, we are aware that legislating on the basis of limited evidence carries a serious risk of unintended consequences, and we need to get the detail of the legislation right. My noble friend has been a huge campaigner on this issue. I can assure him that the Government are committed to it, but it is important to ensure that the consultation on what that legislation would look like is completed, as well as making sure that the relevant groups that would be affected are fully brought into the process. He will be aware, of course, of the report of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, published in December 2010, which unfortunately proved to be quite divisive because people used it to support both sides of the argument.

My Lords, Navi Pillay has called for an international inquiry into war crimes committed during the Sri Lankan civil war and has said that the regime is now showing signs of moving in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Following the Prime Minister’s attendance at the CHOGM, what diplomatic efforts are the Government making to secure support for a strong resolution on Sri Lanka at the March 2014 session of the UN Human Rights Council?

Of course, at the time that Navi Pillay visited the United Kingdom, the CHOGM had yet to happen. It was one of the issues that was discussed with the Foreign Secretary. We are keen to see some incredibly robust language and text at the Human Rights Council in March 2014.

My Lords, given that the visit of Navi Pillay took place just a few days after the United Nations Commission of Inquiry was here at Westminster taking evidence about the egregious violations of human rights in North Korea, and given the events of last week with the execution of Chang Song-thaek and the Amnesty International report which shows the expansion of political prison camps as part of the gulag system that incarcerates more than 300,000 people, can the Minister say whether Navi Pillay spoke to Ministers about the situation in North Korea and whether this was one of the issues we had on the agenda for that meeting?

She did discuss that matter with the Foreign Secretary and it was one of the issues on the agenda. The noble Lord may be aware that an Urgent Question has now been granted for Wednesday specifically on North Korea. I look to the Lord Speaker to confirm that but, if that is the case, I can, I hope, answer that question in much more detail on Wednesday.

My Lords, to return the Minister to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the paving legislation on caste discrimination was agreed by this House in 2010. There was an overwhelming majority in the House in favour of including caste discrimination in our legislation not that long ago but it looks like that will not be implemented until after the next general election. The United Nations High Commissioner has asked for strong and swift implementation of the legislation. Can the Minister say whether that is compatible with her statement and the fact that it will now have taken more than five years to implement if the Government stick to their current timetable?

As it stands, the timetable is that the public consultation will be held around February and March next year. That will be followed by some targeted sector-specific engagement with groups that need familiarisation with the new legislation, including certain employers, public authorities and the judiciary. It is anticipated that the legislation will come into force in October 2015, but I am quite happy to take back the noble Baroness’s comments to the Minister who deals with equality issues.

My Lords, freedom of religious belief is becoming a bigger issue, sadly, around the world. What are the UK Government doing in terms of working, particularly with the Human Rights Commission, to promote freedom of religious belief?

My noble friend will of course be aware that freedom of religion and belief is one of the six priorities for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, it is a personal priority of mine and something into which we have put additional resources and energy since my appointment at the Foreign Office. We are dealing with this matter on a number of levels through both the Human Rights Commission and our support for Resolution 16/18, which determined, among other things, tolerance towards minority religions. We have also instigated and chair a political track to this process. The first meeting was held at the beginning of this year and the second at the UN General Assembly in New York in September. We are proposing that a conference on freedom of religion and belief should be held in the United Kingdom next year.

My Lords, will the Minister perhaps say a word about the resources available to the High Commissioner for Human Rights? I understand that the Government have in fact found an extra £500,000 voluntary contribution—a matter on which I am still waiting for a reply from the noble Baroness, following the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, some weeks ago. What are the Government doing at the UN to ensure that the resources for the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2015 and 2016 are not constrained and reduced, as they currently are? Are we supporting an increase in those resources?

I apologise to the noble Lord for the delay in responding. I did in fact sign the letter on Saturday so I know it is on its way to him. It may be on his desk this morning. In relation to funding, the noble Lord will be aware that as well as making our contribution to the UN general budget, which is about 5%, we make voluntary contributions to OHCHR of about £2.5 million a year. On top of that we make additional voluntary contributions, which can be anything between £2.5 million and £4 million. We were the seventh largest donor to the office during 2012. The 2013 figures have not yet been published but I assure the noble Lord that we are incredibly aware of the pressures on OHCHR in terms of its funding and that we do feel that it should be properly resourced. However, that does not stop us from making quite strong representations for better budget management. We are asking OCHCR to do more but we also think that it should do more with the money that it has.

My Lords, closer to home, will the Minister take this opportunity to condemn the gender discrimination which is creeping into our universities and which apparently has the support of the people who control university education at the highest level?

My Lords, when the Prime Minister visited China recently, did he have an opportunity to talk to the Chinese authorities about the thousands of executions carried out there every year?

I am not sure of the specific discussions that took place on human rights but I will write to my noble friend on that point. He will, of course, be aware of the annual dialogue we have with the Chinese where these matters, among other things, are raised.