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Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders

Volume 825: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2022

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking (1) to strengthen civil society, and (2) to improve protection for human rights defenders, internationally.

My Lords, the FCDO is taking a leading role in countering the increasing trend of closing civic space around the world. We continue to raise restrictions to civic space with Governments and multilaterally, drawing on the range of diplomatic and development levers available, including sanctions where appropriate. We also continue to work closely with the UN and other key partners, as well as at a country level, to understand how we can improve protection for human rights defenders globally.

I thank the noble Lord for that response. He knows that I have consistently raised this issue, because when nations fail in their most important task of providing safety, security and freedom to their people, it is often—or always—civil society that leaps first to their defence. In the integrated review, the Government committed to promote open societies and work with human rights defenders as a priority, but how is this priority being translated into action? Does the FCDO plan to develop a strategy to resist this global trend of the closure of civil society space? If it does plan such a strategy, will the Minister commit to consult with civil society both here and globally in its development?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, the answer is yes, because you cannot develop a strategy unless you work with practitioners. I am certainly keen to take that forward. As the noble Lord may well be aware, the United Kingdom Government launched a specific document on UK support for human rights defenders back in 2019, and we worked with civil society groups, including Amnesty International, at the time. We are working through our extensive network of diplomats, and indeed through posts, in supporting human rights defenders. At times, we have to be very cautious of our approach in terms of the public profile we give to human rights defenders in other countries through the support we are extending to them, but we stand very much focused on the training of our diplomats as well as working very constructively with civil society organisations around the world.

My Lords, on this Red Wednesday, when Mr Speaker has given instructions for the Palace of Westminster to be lit red this evening to commemorate all those who suffer or are persecuted for their belief—hundreds of millions of people around the world—will the Minister say what more we are doing to promote Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which insists that every person has the right to believe, not to believe or to change their belief? In particular, will he take up again the case of Zhang Zhan, the young woman lawyer who went to Wuhan to expose the origins of Covid-19, motivated by her faith, who now languishes in a CCP jail, with British diplomats refused permission to attend the court hearing and no information given about her whereabouts, or indeed about her health?

My Lords, I will follow up and update the noble Lord on his second point. On his first point, of course, the United Kingdom stands very firm in our defence of freedom of religion or belief around the world. It is important that we remain steadfast in that. As a country, we celebrate the rich diversity of faith or belief. Indeed, our own journey, while it may have been challenging, is testament to this. As we look around the rich tapestry of faith institutions in the United Kingdom today, we have church steeples, cloisters, gurdwaras, synagogues, mosques and temples; that really demonstrates how we celebrate faith. Equally, many are denied their right to faith or belief around the world. That is why we held a conference earlier this year; the noble Lord was directly engaged with that. He also knows of my personal commitment to ensure that this remains a key priority for His Majesty’s Government.

My Lords, the work described in the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is undoubtedly needed. Front Line Defenders identified at least 358 people who were killed in 2021 because of their work defending rights. We have heard that in the Government’s integrated review there is a commitment to work with civil society and human rights defenders as a priority. We have an upcoming review of that; can my noble friend the Minister commit that that will remain a priority?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that it remains a priority. Indeed, very recently after the appointment of the new Government my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, the new Minister for Development, Andrew Mitchell, and I met civil society organisations directly to ensure that each of their priorities was fully understood, both in terms of the work we are doing in defending human rights around the world and equally in terms of understanding their development priorities.

My Lords, how can the Minister say that it is one of his priorities when government programmes on open societies and human rights have been slashed by 74% between 2019-20 and 2021-22? We know that the most important human rights defenders around the world are women. It is a year and a week since the Government said they had

“decided to restore the women and girls development budget to what it was before the … ODA … cut”.

Why can I not find any evidence of this reversal? Would this not be a horrific, dreadful broken promise if the Government have reneged on that commitment?

My Lords, the first thing I would say to the noble Lord is that it is not just about money. One of the primary assets we have is our advocacy and diplomacy. The noble Lord himself is an example of diplomacy and advocacy around the world. I am proud of the fact that the United Kingdom leads on this agenda, not just on freedom of religion, standing up for girls’ rights, standing up for development, standing up for human rights defenders through practical initiatives, yes, but support through money as well. We stand by our commitment to ensuring that humanitarian support and the priority given to women and girls remains part and parcel of our development and diplomacy effort.

My Lords, at the heart of civil society are the trade unions, the workers’ last line of defence against bad bosses and authoritarian Governments across the world. Yet, unfortunately our own Government have dramatically undermined workers’ rights for the past 12 years and are planning to go further, even against the advice of employers. Can the Minister confirm that he is co-operating with the International TUC and the ILO to stop the abuse of workers such as we have seen in Qatar, with thousands of workers dramatically losing their lives. Is he not embarrassed that the Government claim to be championing human rights while restricting them at home?

My Lords, among other things I am the UK Human Rights Minister and, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, would testify, I believe in co-operation and working very closely with the Trades Union Congress and indeed with the CBI. I assure the noble Lord that in our interactions I meet regularly with the ILO and hear the views of the TUC. Indeed, the TUC forms part of the UK delegation in the annual International Labour Conference. I stand by that. Trade unions play an important role in our consultation and, as he said, both in Qatar and elsewhere we take their views very much on board in standing up for the rights of migrant workers. We have a debate later this week on human rights, workers’ rights and migrant rights. It is because of UK support, technical support, diplomatic support and through experience of our CSOs that we are able to help countries, including those in the Gulf, improve migrant rights as we have seen in places such as Bahrain.

My Lords, there is an in-principle agreement between the UK and Mexican Governments to hold a human rights dialogue alongside the free trade negotiations. Although the trade talks have already completed two rounds, the human rights dialogue has not even started yet, and there is no sign of a timetable despite the human rights crisis in Mexico. Can the Minister tell the House whether a date has been set for this dialogue to begin and, if not, what the problem is?

My Lords, I am not sure of the date of commencement, but I will write to the noble Baroness. We work very closely on this agenda with Mexico. I know, for example, on issues of LGBT rights, on the Equal Rights Coalition we handed over in September the co-chairmanship among other countries to Mexico, so we have a comprehensive human rights dialogue with it. As I said, I will write to the noble Baroness about the date.

My Lords, as we have seen from the tragic events in an LGBT club in Colorado and the staggering rise in trans hate crime in this country —there were 2,630 such crimes in 2021—hate speech, from wherever it comes, has devastating consequences. I would therefore like to ask the Minister this: what specific action are the Government taking to work with LGBT human rights defenders in countries where LGBT people are criminalised and where the death penalty exists for LGBT people, such as the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise these issues, and I pay tribute to his work on this important agenda. I assure him that, through our network of more than 280 missions around the world, we deliver direct diplomatic engagement and raise LGBT rights directly, even in those parts of the world. Again, there are noble Lords with whom I confer privately sometimes because of the sensitivity of the issue. I do not hold back; we hold those discussions quite candidly to ensure the rights of all citizens, whatever their faith, belief or sexuality, as we enjoy them here in the UK—notwithstanding the domestic challenges that the noble Lord highlighted. We continue to remain focused. Human rights should be universal for everyone everywhere.