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Iran: Toxic Chemical Agents

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 9 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that toxic chemical agents have been used against schoolgirls by the authorities in Iran.

My Lords, the deeply sinister reports of toxic agents being used against schoolgirls in Iran have shocked the world. While we cannot yet draw conclusions on who is responsible, one thing is clear: the Iranian authorities must carry out a fair, transparent and rigorous investigation. It is essential that girls are able to fully exercise their right to education without fear. The United Kingdom considers this a very serious matter and will continue to follow developments very closely.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for the way in which he expressed that reply. Can he share with the House his assessment of reports that these wicked attacks are a retaliation following the protests led by women and girls that have convulsed Iran since the death, while in the custody of Iran’s morality police, of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini; and his assessment of the threat on a state-run website that the poisoning would spread if girls’ schools are not closed down? Is it plausible that such systematic and widespread attacks have taken place without the knowledge of the state intelligence agencies and the IRGC? Will the Minister be taking his public demand that there should be an urgent and transparent investigation to the United Nations Human Rights Council, so that those responsible for what he has said are sinister, wicked attacks are brought to justice?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord and he will be aware that I also called this out on 3 March. I have literally just flown in from the United Nations this morning, where Iran and the whole issue of girls and their education, and women’s empowerment, was discussed in a very global sense at the Commission on the Status of Women. I can assure him that, in my meetings with key bilateral partners as well as within the wider context of the UN, these matters have been raised. The noble Lord raises the issue of the Human Rights Council and we are of course following what further steps we can take with key partners there. As to who is responsible, there is a lot of speculation out there but it is clear that, since November, 800 to 900 girls have been impacted. This is very sinister and it is down to the Iranian authorities to investigate it properly, in the interests of their own citizens.

My Lords, what is happening in Iran to many girls and women is of course sinister and shocking. But looking at education in Iran further down the line, schools for girls are being closed. There is separate education for boys and girls, with girls being totally marginalised and taught only arts and humanities. Will my noble friend the Minister ensure that these longer-term issues, as well as the shocking violence taking place against girls and women, are addressed? These other issues should also be addressed so that we do not have another generation of women who are deeply affected by a lack of education in Iran.

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend; there is nothing to justify that kind of suppression of girls’ education anywhere in the world, be it in Iran or Afghanistan, which we have talked about. I can share with her that, having spoken specifically with the OIC and the Islamic countries, there is a plan for a UN-sponsored conference within the region immediately after Ramadan. It is likely to be in Kuwait and will focus on the very issue of women and girls’ rights within the context of Islam, so that Islam does not suppress them but promotes them.

My Lords, I too just returned from the UN at the beginning of last week. One issue being raised at the UN now, in its Human Rights Council, is not the genocide convention, although that is being raised a lot too, but the apartheid convention and whether its definitions of race should be expanded to include gender. All the same components of not allowing women to have access to civil society, participation in politics or education can certainly be seen in Afghanistan, and should be called out for happening there because apartheid is a crime—a crime against humanity. The inclusion of gender in that definition is about addressing the serious ways in which women’s non-participation is increasing in such places. We now see that in Iran too. Is the Minister raising the issue of expanding apartheid to include the question of gender?

My Lords, what I can say to the noble Baroness on the issue of gender is that, within the context of UN discussions at the moment, there is a very regressive prevailing attitude among certain countries on reopening things which have already been determined, including definitions of gender. This is now causing great concern. We often talk about like-minded countries but there are un-like-minded like-minded countries, if I can phrase it that way, leading the charge so we must remain firm on this. I assure the noble Baroness of my good offices, and those of the FCDO and all colleagues, in ensuring that we keep girls’ and women’s rights very much at the forefront of our international policy.

My Lords, the production and utilisation of chemical warfare in civil and international conflicts is explicitly prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Iran is a signatory and a participating member. Will His Majesty’s Government commit to using this existing framework to advocate for the creation of a fact-finding mission by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?

The right reverend Prelate raises a very important point: the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the enrichment of uranium towards having them is very much at the heart of our approach. He may know that, yesterday, the E3 made a statement directly on the visit of the IAEA’s DG, Mr Grossi, who was in Iran. What is really worrying at the moment is that the levels of enrichment which now prevail in Iran have, according to the latest reports in the region, reached about 83.7%. This is fast approaching the very level which would allow for nuclear weapons to be produced. We call again on Iran publicly, as we did yesterday, to desist from this practice because not doing so is creating a precarious situation—not just in the region but globally.

My Lords, in a debate in the Moses Room on 23 February, the Minister promised to take back the concerns of your Lordships’ House regarding the closure of the BBC Persian radio service. Given the importance of the BBC in reporting this appalling attack on schoolgirls, can he tell the House what response he received from the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor on ensuring that the decision to shut down BBC Persian is reversed?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. I asked for a specific update and I know that we are looking at the languages which the FCDO supports directly. Persian is not one of them but I have certainly taken back the very points raised in those debates and I hope to update my noble friend in the very near future.

My Lords, the FCDO women’s strategy rightly highlights the persecution of women in Iran. Home Office figures for 2022 state that 1,218 vulnerable and persecuted women from Iran claimed asylum within the UK, of whom 232 are under 29 and are not eligible for the resettlement scheme. Under the Government’s Bill, they would now be voided and deported. Will the Minister give me and them the assurance that they will not be deported back to Iran? If they are not deported back to Iran, then where? Will he please explain to an Iranian woman who is seeking asylum within the UK what the safe and legal route is, since currently there is not one?

My Lords, I believe that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken about the importance of safe and legal routes but I assure the noble Lord that the situation in Iran also prompts the importance of the United Kingdom particularly continuing to support those women and girls who seek refuge here. We have a long-standing tradition in this regard and I believe it is important that that continues.

My Lords, I know that the Minister will not speculate but, just to pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, there is increasing evidence of the state’s involvement in this, particularly by the IRGC. When are we going to hear from the Government about that organisation being proscribed?

My Lords, we have imposed further sanctions on individuals within the IRGC and the organisation itself has been sanctioned. I have heard consistently across the House and from all Benches about the importance that is attached to proscription, but the noble Lord is quite correct; at this moment, I cannot speculate from the Dispatch Box about what may happen next.