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International Human Rights Day

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 10 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have (1) to participate in, and (2) to promote, the United Nations’ International Human Rights Day on Thursday 10 December.

My Lords, we are marking International Human Rights Day with activities in the United Kingdom and overseas. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will have more to say on our plans later today. Tomorrow, I will be hosting an event with human rights groups. We fully support this year’s UN theme of ensuring that human rights are central to Covid-19 recovery efforts. The pandemic has exacerbated many global challenges, underscoring the need for British leadership to protect, promote and strengthen human rights. We are committed to acting as a force for good in the world.

My Lords, human rights defenders are the most effective partners for achieving sustainable human rights change. Will my noble friend ensure that support for them will now be built into all FCDO priority campaigns, and will he consider committing to a strategic approach to supporting human rights defenders, as exists for other human rights work?

My noble friend makes a very important point and I share her view that human rights defenders go across all pillars of human rights priorities. Earlier this week I had a very constructive meeting with Amnesty International on this very issue. I assure my noble friend that I am looking to our key partners in that sphere to see how we can strengthen the various human rights pillars, be it media freedom, freedom of religion, addressing gender- based violence or LGBT rights. There are so many areas where human rights defenders play a brave role in the field, and it is right that we defend them.

My Lords, today is International Human Rights Day, but not for trans people. In the United Kingdom, trans women and trans men face unrelenting organised attacks, defamation and blatant misrepresentation, which has created a climate of fear, sadly whipped up by some Members of your Lordships’ House. The attack is now on trans teenagers and their parents. Will the Minister discuss with other ministerial colleagues across government what legal protections can be afforded to trans people in the United Kingdom to allow them to live their lives without fear or harm and enjoy their human rights?

The noble Lord highlights a very disturbing issue. It is right that, when we go out and defend human rights—particularly the rights of the LGBT community—we stand up for rights at home. I will certainly take those concerns forward. If he is aware of particular issues or cases, I ask him to write to both me and my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Home Office. I assure him that, as a co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition alongside Argentina, we are sharing best practice and promoting LGBT rights equality globally. Even in countries such as Pakistan, we have seen transgender legislation being brought forward, which is encouraging for a country that is substantially challenged on a whole range of human rights.

Does the Minister agree that it is often women and children who bear the brunt of day-to-day human rights abuses, especially during conflict? Covid has contributed to putting women in more danger of being abused and of their rights being pushed back, so it is imperative that the excellent UK work on PSVI and women, peace and security continues. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that gender issues and putting women and girls at the heart of international development—beyond just education, worthy though that is—will remain central to the work of the merged department and the decreased aid budget?

In the interests of brevity, the short answer to my noble friend is: absolutely. PSVI and women, peace and security are central to our thinking and we have raised these issues and priorities, including ICAN support for the protection framework for women mediators. They will be central to our work in places such as Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

I thank the Minister for what he does for human rights every day. Does he share my concern about continuing discrimination in India against Muslims, Christians and other minorities such as the Dalits and the Adivasis, and the impact that this has on India’s international status and Commonwealth profile? Is there anything that the FCDO has done or can do about this?

My Lords, I can confirm for the noble Earl that we raise human rights concerns across the globe. We have very constructive relations with India; in that respect, we raise our candid concerns about human rights in India. I assure him that the issue of human rights, particularly freedom of religion, is enshrined in the Indian constitution, and we continue to engage very constructively on this agenda with India.

My Lords, I commend the Minister’s commitment in this field and that of his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. Does he agree that there is great value in giving young people an appreciation of the importance of human rights? To that end, would he consider relevant educational initiatives, such as including a human rights component in curriculums and encouraging schools to invite speakers with a known human rights commitment to speak to them—particularly those with personal experience of human rights violations?

I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. I join him in paying tribute to my predecessor in this role, who played a vital role on a whole range of human rights priorities. The noble Lord has some very practical suggestions. I assure him that I will take them back and write to my opposite number in the Department for Education to see how we could best take that forward.

My Lords, the Minister will have read the concluding statements from Andy Heyn, the consul-general in Hong Kong, on the restriction on dissent that he has seen during his time there and the fundamental changes that that has brought about in Hong Kong. What chances does the Minister see for the continuation of the vital independence of the judiciary there?

My Lords, the noble Baroness and I have had many a conversation on this issue. Of course, the instigation of the national security laws has caused great concern, including about the appointment of judges, which now sits with the Chief Executive. That is a concern. I cannot say what the future holds; that would be mere speculation. What is important is that we continuously remind the Hong Kong authorities of the importance of the independence of the judiciary.

My Lords, as we mark Human Rights Day, hundreds of political prisoners, many of them women, are incarcerated by our ally and trade partner, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. One of them is Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been in prison since 2018. As I speak, she is appearing in front of a terrorism court in Saudi Arabia. I know that the UK Government have raised the case with the Government of Saudi Arabia, but can my noble friend the Minister tell the House what answer was received and what steps will be taken next? Will Ministers use the opportunity of a new Administration in the United States to work actively to secure Ms al-Hathloul’s release and that of other activists like her?

My Lords, I share my noble friend’s concern. I and my right honourable friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa have consistently raised the issue of human rights defenders, particularly women human rights defenders. At least five women human rights defenders remain in detention in Saudi Arabia. We raise these cases. My noble friend makes a practical suggestion; again, with a new Administration coming in, we continue to look at how we can work constructively with Saudi Arabia in raising these concerns on a regular and consistent basis.

My Lords, I would like to follow up on the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, on sexual violence, and the Minister’s response. The 2020 report of the UN Secretary-General found that domestic legislation in many countries meant that justice was still too often not served. What is the Minister’s department doing about that? Is it offering technical support to countries, either multilaterally or bilaterally, to address this issue?

As the Prime Minister’s representative on PSVI, this is an issue very close to my heart. I assure the noble Lord that we are looking at all elements, including technical support. As we move out of conflict, that is when the laws, regulations and constitutions of countries are created. They must be all-inclusive, which is why women mediators in particular have to be central and pivotal to that cause.

My Lords, I refer to my interests as disclosed in the register. Does the Minister agree that the reason why this country should wholeheartedly support this United Nations international Human Rights Day is that this country’s unwritten constitution has developed the observance of the rule of law and human rights and has become increasingly critical of efforts to restrict their applicability?

At this juncture, I have to say, I totally agree with the noble and learned Lord. We are proud of our traditions in this respect.

On 2 December, the UN General Assembly once again neglected the human rights repression by serial abusers such as Iran, China and Russia and devoted an entire session to deriding Israel. The five resolutions voted on in that session are yet more distractions from tragedies unfolding in many countries but, unlike Canada and our other allies, the UK voted against only one of them. Does the Minister agree that it is time for the UK to stand up not just against item 7 but against oppressive regimes by introducing resolutions that condemn human rights abuses?

I totally agree with my noble friend that we need to consider and show leadership on resolutions against repressive regimes. He is right to raise the issue of the Human Rights Council and item 7. We have seen an incremental change and I feel very strongly on a personal level that resolutions, particularly those of a technical nature, need to be looked at. This is not just about creating bureaucracy; it is about creating effective change on the ground. We must hold regimes, wherever they are in the world, that are repressive towards human rights to account and make sure that the perpetrators of crimes are brought to justice.