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International Day of Democracy

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the speech from the Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on 8 December at Chatham House on Building the Network of Liberty, what plans they have to support the International Day of Democracy.

My Lords, democracy and freedom are at the heart of the Foreign Secretary’s vision for a “network of liberty” that would use partnerships, technology, trade and security to promote democratic values. We will be working closely with international partners and civil society, including around the International Day for Democracy in September, to advance the frontiers of freedom.

My Lords, last week my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said that she was sure she would be able to succeed in setting up the new

“network of liberty that spans the world.”

What progress do the Government believe will have been made in forming that network by the next International Day of Democracy in September 2022, and what progress do the Government expect members of that network to make in preventing further aggression by Russia against Ukraine?

My Lords, my noble friend, of course, is correct on both points in terms of the detail she asks for. First, on the network of liberty, it is very much what we all stand for: the principles of democracy, freedom and liberty. The UK can show quite direct leadership over the next year through the various events we are hosting; for example, on human rights, ranging from the FoRB conference to the LGBT conference. There is also our leadership on media freedom as we build towards strengthening democracy and key pillars in the build-up to the next democracy summit.

Secondly, on Ukraine, my noble friend will be aware of the recent meeting convened by my right honourable friend of key Ministers on the issue of Ukraine and standing together against Russian aggression. However, as I have said before from the Dispatch Box, right now in Europe, particularly with the concerns around Ukraine and recent concerns in a country that my noble friend knows well—Bosnia-Herzegovina—Russian aggression needs to be curbed and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said as such in his conversation with President Putin on 13 December.

My Lords, in advance of this weekend’s sham elections in Hong Kong, will the Minister call for the release of Hong Kong’s legitimate and democratically elected representatives, who are incarcerated in prison? Following what the Foreign Secretary calls China’s “ongoing breach” of the British-Sino declaration, when do the Government intend to raise an objection under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties—and would not that send a much stronger signal about how to safeguard liberty and democracy than allowing states to trash treaties with no consequences whatever?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, which is why we have consistently called for adherence to the agreements that China has signed. Indeed, the one that it signed when it came to the issue of Hong Kong was an agreement that has been lodged with the United Nations —and it needs to stand up and fulfil its international obligations. On the issue of calling out for the full release of those who have been detained, I agree with the noble Lord, and we consistently do so publicly and bilaterally with China.

Not to take away too much from anything that has been said, before we look too much at the mote in other people’s eyes, might we just look at the beam in our own? The attempt to undermine our human rights legislation will not be received well around the world. We have two reports here written by Members of our House with between them 500 years’ service in Parliament, one called Democracy Denied? and the other Government By Diktat. Can we do something about our own democracy before we preach too much to others?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that, when it comes to the world stage, we have nothing to preach about. I often say that we need to ensure that we make it clear, when we talk to others on a range of the key pillars of democracy, that our own journey was something of a struggle, to get to where we are in 2021. The job is never done. One needs always to reflect on one’s own backyard before we start talking about the importance of democracy elsewhere. That said, I believe that the United Kingdom is and remains a real beacon of democracy around the world, and we continue to share our experiences, lessons and history with others to see how we can strengthen democracy globally.

My Lords, it is fitting that we should discuss the International Day of Democracy as we remember the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who was laid to rest eight years ago today. Does the Minister agree that we could best honour his memory by supporting democratic Governments in southern Africa and standing with those in the region and across the world who strive for democracy against repressive regimes? Will he urge the Prime Minister to send a clear and unmistakable signal of that solidarity by visiting Zambia at the earliest opportunity to meet its recently elected President and visibly demonstrate our support for the people of Zambia and its democracy?

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord. It is vital that we stand with democracies, particularly fragile or infant ones around the world, to see how best we can support them. The noble Lord talks about Zambia, and of course we have worked very closely with other key partners in ensuring that democracy not only prevails but is sustained. Indeed, there are notable achievements; most recently, for example, further afield in Africa, in Sudan, the continuing lobbying has resulted in a sense of the restoration of the legitimate Government—but you can never take your eye of the ball, and the noble Lord makes some very valid points.

The network of liberty is an extremely powerful concept, but does it not exist to some extent already? Is not the growing Commonwealth co-operation on security and defence, which is developing all the time, already part of that network—and is it not an important part of the future story?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Anelay and I had a brief discussion on this very question about 24 hours ago. The United Kingdom has been over time a strong beacon in supporting democracy around the world, and the Commonwealth network is a huge example of how we strengthen democracies and human rights.

Does the Minister agree that the Council of Europe is an important agency for promoting democracy? Is it not significant that Belarus is the only country in Europe not a member of the Council of Europe? Following the illegitimate election of President Lukashenko, what are the Government doing to try to ensure the return of democracy in Belarus?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point—it is not often that I say this to him—I totally agree with him. He knows my views on the Council of Europe. On Belarus, the United Kingdom has worked very strongly and closely with key partners, including the G7, in calling out the flagrant betrayal of democracy and the continued reliance on Russia. It comes back to the point that my noble friend Lady Anelay raised about Russia and Russian support. It is therefore important that we build alliances, strengthen coalitions and co-operation, and send a clear message to Russia that its aggression, particularly in Europe—but also elsewhere around the world—will not be tolerated. In doing so, however, we must build alliances and partnerships.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether we were consulted before last week’s summit of democracies about the division between the democratic sheep and the undemocratic goats? Did we endorse the choice made by the United States?

My Lords, while the United States played the role of the shepherd, I assure the noble Lord that we were very much not just part of the flock, but part and parcel of the decision-making and setting of the agenda of the democracy summit. I myself met with Uzra Zeya, the lead Under-Secretary of State for this summit, and discussed in detail issues of media freedom and illicit finance, which were very much part and parcel of the discussions at the summit.

My Lords, in her speech, the Foreign Secretary said she would be launching the new development strategy in the new year and that this will focus on providing women and girls with the freedom they need to succeed. Malnutrition is the single largest cause of death in women worldwide and is linked to 45% of the deaths of all children aged under five. Can the Minister explain the Government’s failure to make any financial commitment to this month’s Nutrition for Growth Summit? This is a summit that this country initiated and led on, but it is not now providing leadership on it.

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s point about the international development strategy, yes, that is being worked on and we are looking to publish it early next year. The points that the noble Lord raised about nutrition will be very much integrated into our strategy. The noble Lord talks about the important leadership we have given on the agenda for the summit on nutrition. I accept that, whereas previously we have been able to give quite specific financial support, on this occasion—due to some challenges that we faced with the reduction in ODA spending—we have not been able to provide support in the manner that we have done previously. However, that does not take away from the fact that nutrition will part and parcel of our integrated strategy on development across the world.

My Lords, the rule of law must apply in a democratic country, along with the freedom of the press. That does not happen in Zimbabwe. Will the Minister and the Government condemn the fact that Covid is being deliberately used in many countries, particularly Zimbabwe, to stop by-elections and the normal democratic process?

My Lords, I absolutely condemn such actions. The use of the Covid pandemic as an excuse to suppress human rights and democratic rights around the world is all too apparent. That is why we need the kind of alliances that I have just talked about and that my right honourable friend illustrated in her recent speech. Specific to Zimbabwe, as the noble Baroness will be aware, we have also used our new, autonomous sanctions regime to ensure that those who commit egregious abuses of human rights are held to account.