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Commonwealth Summit: Human Rights

Volume 790: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their human rights priorities for the communiqué of the Commonwealth Summit in April 2018.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw attention to my interests as outlined in the register.

My Lords, Commonwealth member states are meeting, as I speak, in London to negotiate the communiqué. While it would be inappropriate to comment on those negotiations or speculate on specific outcomes, the UK believes that the promotion and protection of human rights should be of central importance. Encouraging member states to uphold the values enshrined in the Commonwealth charter, which include democracy, freedom of expression, the rule of law, and opposition to all forms of discrimination, will be an important part of April’s summit.

My Lords, on 28 February of last year the Prime Minister stated:

“We must reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practice their beliefs in peace and safety. And I hope to take further measures as a government to support this”.

That commitment, of course, is also outlined in the Commonwealth charter. While I am grateful for the Minister’s Answer, could he please provide details on how the Prime Minister’s commitment will be manifested in practical terms during the UK’s period of chair-in-office of the Commonwealth?

First, I acknowledge the formidable work my noble friend does, along with other noble Lords across this House, in the area of freedom of religion and belief. It remains a key priority for Her Majesty’s Government to focus on freedom of religion and belief in the context of the Commonwealth summit. During the summit week, various fora will be held, including the Commonwealth People’s Forum, where civil society groups will have an opportunity to directly raise issues, including freedom of religion and belief, and there will be an opportunity for Foreign Ministers and leaders to hear about the outcomes of those fora. The UK will be chair-in-office for two years. I assure my noble friend that we have received various bids and we will certainly be focusing on all elements of human rights, including—

I want to ask the Minister about two groups of people whose human rights are sadly violated. The first is LGBT people in many African countries, who are treated most shamefully, and the second is the Dalits and Adivasi or tribal peoples in India and other south Asian countries, who by every indicator are discriminated against most cruelly.

On the latter group, I totally agree with the noble and right reverend Lord. We continue to raise these issues in the context of the Commonwealth but also bilaterally where those groups are discriminated against. On LGBT rights, I assure noble Lords that the Prime Minister herself has committed to raising issues around LGBT rights during Commonwealth Week. As I have also made clear on a number of occasions, we continue to raise these issues, particularly with those nations across the Commonwealth which still criminalise homosexuality. We continue to raise this both in the context of the Commonwealth and bilaterally.

Does the Minister agree that the Commonwealth has been strong on declaration —Harare and the charter—but less strong in practice? For example, of the 58 countries in the world where capital punishment is legal, 36 are in the Commonwealth. The recent report of Open Doors shows that, of those 50 countries in the world where it is difficult to be a Christian, seven are in the Commonwealth. Is this a priority of the Government?

I assure the noble Lord that, on all issues of human rights and opposing the death penalty, the Government remain very clear and firm, including in the context of Commonwealth visits. For example, most recently I visited the Gambia and raised LGBT rights and the death penalty directly with the appropriate Ministers. We will continue to do so. I agree with the noble Lord that declarations from the Commonwealth are always strong but the actions have perhaps not delivered on those declarations. Together, working with the Secretary-General, it is our aim to revitalise and re-energise the Commonwealth.

My Lords, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s latest report will be launched in London by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth a week before the Commonwealth summit. The ambition is to make human rights, including modern slavery, a core concern of the summit by leading the international efforts to try to achieve this. I note the Minister has already pointed out that he cannot comment on the outcomes of the Committee of the Whole, currently meeting in London, but can he tell us whether he supports the work of the Human Rights Initiative and whether he will raise this issue with the Committee of the Whole to make sure that it does go forward into CHOGM?

On the first point, yes I am committed to that. On the Committee of the Whole, the UK’s position, including on the broad spectrum of human rights, will be raised during the discussions, which, as I said, are taking place right now.

I welcome what the Minister said in relation to the fora, and the voices in the fora actually being heard by the leaders. But can we do more to ensure that voices on human rights are not simply the British Government’s but that we work with other allies, particularly in Africa? For example, we will have the new President of South Africa—and I have raised this point with the Minister before—who wrote the constitution of South Africa, ensuring that LGBT rights were guaranteed in the constitution. Can we not do more to ensure that other voices are heard?

The noble Lord is of course quite right to remind me that he has raised this with me before. We have followed up on this, and I assure him that, although there is always more to do, we will continue to do so on LGBT rights, and more broadly across the human rights spectrum.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Berridge is quite right to focus on the promotion of human rights, as are the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. But can we make sure that promotion is done more by example than by lecturing—let alone by hectoring—which does not achieve the results we want at all? My noble friend has played a leading part in this forthcoming summit, which is full of opportunities. Would he not agree that prosperity and security are the best gifts we can contribute to the gigantic Commonwealth system across the world? In return, they can contribute to our welfare and our finding a role in the world.

The noble Lord speaks from vast experience in this respect, and I agree with him. I would add that we can learn from the valuable experience of all 53 nations. The approach of Her Majesty’s Government, and indeed mine as a Minister on human rights, has never been one of pointing fingers. It is about learning from experience. Our own journey on gender equality, LGBT rights and the broader spectrum of human rights has been one where we have learned from example and through sharing experiences, whether we do it with other countries or countries do it with us. That is the value of the Commonwealth network.