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Women Human Rights Defenders

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered celebrating the work of women human rights defenders globally.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Members who co-sponsored its application. It is fantastic to have support from six other political parties that are also committed to defending the human rights of women across the globe.

This House recognises and celebrates the contribution of women around the world to promote and protect human rights, the rights of individual women, their families and their communities. The Government need to be fully behind that, which I hope the Minister will confirm.

As we celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, we are reminded that suffragists and suffragettes were the forerunners of modern-day women human rights defenders. Thanks to them, we secured equal voting rights, the right to stand for parliament, the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which are rights and freedoms that we all too often take for granted.

Women human rights defenders are at the forefront of the battle for human rights globally. From India and South Africa, where thousands have taken to the streets to protest against endemic sexual violence, to Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women activists risk arrest to resist the driving ban and forced hijab; from Ecuador, where Amazonian women face reprisals for trying to protect the rainforest, to Colombia, where women are demanding inclusion in the political process and enforcing the historic peace process; and in London, where thousands of women took to the streets last year to protest against the misogyny that is still rife throughout our society, the reality of which is sadly epitomised by the utterances of the current incumbent of the White House.

I am immensely proud of the human rights defenders in my constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green: Deborah Coles, the Director of Inquest and author of “Dying on the Inside: Examining Women’s Deaths in Prison”; Samantha Smethers, the influential chief executive of the Fawcett Society; and Sajda Mughal, the director of the JAN Trust, which specialises in ethnic minority women’s empowerment and families combating extremism.

Women’s activism is recognised as key to development. Evidence shows that women’s movements have been the most significant factor in securing legislation on violence against women around the world. The burgeoning power of women’s voices cannot be overstated. We need women involved in all aspects if we are to address key challenges such as the gender pay gap and enabling women—many of whom are the heads of households—into business and, crucially, ensuring that they keep the profits of their labour. There are some really good examples of what the Government are doing to support women who are heads of households in developing countries, where micro-loans allow women to run their own businesses, from which they get to keep the profits and look after their own families without having to share the profits with men in the household who may not share that purpose.

Women who stand up and speak out face unprecedented levels of repression and abuse in response, because of both their activism and their gender. Women human rights defenders defy societal expectations of what women should and should not do and of what spaces they should occupy. We must recognise not only the achievements of women defenders, but the grave challenges that they face for speaking out.

Next week, 15 May marks a year of detention for the women activists in Saudi Arabia who successfully led the campaign for the right to drive. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took the credit for introducing that right, the very women who brought it about find themselves behind bars instead of behind the wheel. Those incredibly brave women, who have been detained for months with no charge and—as reported by Amnesty International—face torture, including sexual abuse and electric shocks, at the hands of the authorities, have paid high prices for their peaceful actions to realise the rights of all women in Saudi Arabia.

Like the suffragettes in the UK, who were women from all walks of life, women human rights defenders are ordinary people doing extraordinary work. They could be farmers, doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, journalists, or families of victims. They work in their communities to push for progress, defend people and their rights, and stand up to tyranny. Marielle Franco, who campaigned tirelessly in support of minority rights and against police brutality in Brazil was, tragically, murdered in March 2018. Azza Soliman is a lawyer who, for many years, supported women who experienced domestic and sexual violence in Egypt. She was arrested, banned from travelling, had her assets frozen and was accused of dishonouring the nation for speaking the truth on the violence that women face. I note, in that particular circumstance, the combination of silencing a woman and freezing her assets. We must recognise that having access to funds often allows women to speak out. Vitalina Koval, an LGBTI rights activist in Ukraine, was physically attacked for organising Pride marches.

Women human rights defenders drive change in their communities, but are under attack, and face imprisonment, travel bans, restrictions on funding, reprisals against their families, surveillance, smear campaigns and even enforced disappearances, death sentences, extrajudicial executions and murder. All around the world, women are fighting for progress and refuse to be silenced, whatever the cost. They are on the frontline as critical agents of change in their communities and countries, and must be recognised and celebrated as such. They need more than just our words; they need action. They need the international community to call for their release when they are imprisoned, to offer protection when they are threatened, to demand justice when impunity prevails, to fund them when they are impoverished, and, above all, to listen to them when others wish to silence them.

The UK should be at the forefront of the response to that global backlash, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the sensible thing to do. Women and other defenders on the ground can deliver change on media freedom, modern slavery, the rule of law and other UK Government priorities. We must recognise that in our globalised world, we are all connected—the unnoticed restrictions and abuses of those who speak out somewhere else today can happen here tomorrow.

As women in this House know, women who raise their voices in this country can also face a backlash. Online harassment and abuse of women, particularly on social media platforms, is rampant. Amnesty has shown that a woman receives a toxic tweet on Twitter every 30 seconds, and women from ethnic, religious and sexual identity minorities are even likelier to receive abuse. The same study reveals that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) receives over a third of such abuse. She shattered the glass ceiling for black and minority ethnic women in 1987 and, over thirty years later, she is bombarded hourly with the most horrific racist and misogynist abuse.

We in the UK cannot ignore what is happening around the world. We must challenge what happens, whether in Egypt, Ukraine, Brazil or Saudi Arabia, in the knowledge that we are not only supporting the voices of change there, but protecting the voices of change everywhere.

Will the Minister confirm his Department’s commitment to promote and protect women human rights defenders globally, in recognition of the unprecedented surge in attacks against them? That should start with a new strategy to support and protect human rights defenders—I am surprised that such a strategy does not already exist, but today is an opportunity to start that process—and ensure that women human rights defenders are given particular consideration, in recognition of all that they do in the UK and in every country around the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Evans. Women human rights defenders are on the frontline of achieving positive change around the world. From #MeToo to #TimesUp, women are pushing back against hundreds of years of misogyny and oppression.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua, I will highlight the role of women human rights defenders in West Papua. They are mainly women from outside West Papua, due to the fact that the stories of women rights defenders in West Papua are still hidden because of the oppression that they face daily.

I want to talk about Jenny Munro of the University of Queensland and her work on the subjugation of and violence directed against Papuan women street sex workers in highlands Papua, in particular by the Indonesian military. Her work describes co-ordination between the health sector and the military to force women to undergo HIV testing and medical treatment irrespective of the need for such medical interventions. Jenny’s work also describes some of the living conditions of young women who end up doing street sex work as the result of complicated social circumstances, as happens elsewhere in the world, and it highlights the experience of women who return home to Papua after testing positive for HIV.

West Papua faces the highest prevalence of HIV in Indonesia—admitted by the Indonesian Ministry of Health in 2014—and is the only part of Indonesia to be experiencing a generalised epidemic. In 2013, HIV prevalence among indigenous Papuans was officially estimated at 2.9%, while the prevalence among non-indigenous migrants was 0.4%. Health officials estimate that just one in five cases of HIV have been detected, and fewer than one in 10 of those people receive treatment. HIV prevalence is highest among youth aged 15 to 24 and among Papuans living in remote and rural areas. The prevalence of HIV among pregnant women, detected during antenatal screening, ranged from 2% to 6%, a much higher percentage. The data suggest that West Papuans face the most rapid increase in HIV prevalence anywhere in the world.

Similar to men diagnosed with HIV, the women in West Papua experience stigma and ostracism at the community level. However, because women’s position is more precarious to begin with, due to patriarchal values in which women overall are subordinate to male standards of behaviour, they are more likely than men to end up ostracised from their communities. That leads to a complicated management of secrets in order to remain within a supportive family network. Jenny Munro has also done some excellent recent work on young Papuan women who leave West Papua to study outside the province, and on the challenges that they face to complete their education when confronted by discrimination on the lines of gender and race—Papuans are Melanesians, rather than having the same ethnic origins as other Indonesians.

I raise this issue because, without Jenny’s work as a human rights defender, the systemic oppression and exploitation of West Papuan women would be hidden, and the extent of the utilisation of West Papuans by the Indonesian military and the high price in terms of their health and wellbeing would be kept secret. We would otherwise never know what was happening to women in West Papua—being forced into the sex trade to have unprotected sex, often contracting HIV.

Jenny is one of those people who work in an area of oppression or occupation where local conditions are so degraded that it needs women from the rest of the world to speak up for it and to give the people their voice, so that they can be heard here. This is the first time that any Parliament has heard about that particular aspect of the West Papuan occupation, and that is down to Jenny’s work, of which I was made aware in the weeks leading up to this debate.

I call on the Minister to do more to support women human rights defenders in West Papua and in other occupied territories. The sustainable development goals recognise the vital role of human rights defenders, including women, in contributing to progress. The Minister could do more to support women human rights defenders campaigning on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in West Papua and its causes under sustainable development goals 3 on good health and wellbeing, 5 on gender equality, 8 on inclusive growth and decent work, 10 on reducing inequality and 16 on access to justice. I will not labour the point, because tomorrow we have a debate in this Chamber on human rights in West Papua and I will use that opportunity to expand on how I see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s role in safeguarding human rights in West Papua.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I thank my constituents who wrote to me about the issue and encouraged me to come along to make a contribution. For them, it is very important for the human rights of women to be defended, particularly those of women trying to defend and protect other women. The UK Government must do all within their power to take action to protect those women and to ensure that all those countries with which the UK has diplomatic contact are left under no illusion as to the UK’s position on the matter. I am sure that the Minister will respond to some of that in his speech later.

It is easy for me as a woman to stand in this place. It is relatively easy for women in this country to stand up and give voice on whatever societal ills they wish to speak up about. However, when I come into this building, I am acutely aware that many women around the world do not have that level of privilege—nowhere near it. In many countries, for people to speak out can be to sign their own death warrant, or to lose everything they hold dear. The risks of doing so are incredibly profound. Women are not able to speak out in that way without risking their families and homes.

I encourage the Minister to speak out, particularly to those regimes that are often found wanting on human rights, especially Saudi Arabia, which has not done nearly enough to change its behaviour. The most recent executions did not involve women, but they were of people who could not defend themselves properly under that regime. Where we see persecution of men, persecution of women will be doubled or trebled in severity, because women there do not even get the chance to speak out.

As the Minister knows, I have some involvement in Yemen through the all-party group on Yemen. Recently, I was pleased to meet some women campaigners who visited London. They were able to tell me more about their situation and how difficult it was to tell their stories, or even to get out of Yemen to come here and give us their testimony. It seems a lot easier for men to get to London and to make representations to groups or in front of Ministers, but if women’s voices are not heard—if women cannot even get out of their countries to give their testimony—their stories will not be told, and we will not hear about the disproportionate impact on women.

The World Economic Forum studied 146 countries and found that, of all of them, women in Yemen came last. They had among the worst circumstances in the world, and the war in Yemen over the past few years has only made that worse. In such situations, women seem to make more sacrifices than men—the cause of women and girls’ education in Yemen has gone backwards, as women are married off younger in order to get a bit of security for their families and their own lives.

Women in Yemen are compromised not only in education but in health services, because they cannot access such services without a male relative or because those services have been lost in the war—attacked in air strikes—and it is not safe for women to get to the hospitals, let alone to get the treatment they so desperately need. As for women working in those services, many civil servants in Yemen have not been paid for a considerable time, so the women cannot work to bring money into their families. They therefore cannot defend other women who desperately need health services, particularly for maternal health.

When talking about women’s voices, I ask the Minister to consider who is around the table in his meetings when he goes to and engages with other countries. Are women allowed to go to such meetings? Are they allowed to give voice to the issues that they might wish to raise? Are they able to give a full account, or are they being screened away by the men with the power? Will he consider that in relation to his meetings and the groups he is meeting? Where are the women in such conversations, and are they present and able to give voice to their concerns?

I also want to remark on women in this country who have come from other countries to claim asylum. In my casework, I encounter women who have been trafficked or come here under some kind of coercion—I can think of one woman who came here as a married woman but came out as gay when she got here, because it felt safer here—but all such things are often counted against them in the immigration process and in their asylum interviews. I sat in on that particular woman’s asylum interview, and the Home Office official said, “Well, you lied about your sexuality to your husband, so you must be lying here today. How can we say that you are not?” Women need to be believed—their stories and testimonies must be believed. In a lot of circumstances, for a woman to be able to tell her story, she has come through a hell of a lot to get there in the first place. Telling that story in front of her husband, her children or whoever it happens to be—in front of a male person from the Home Office—can be incredibly traumatic. A lot of the women I see in my surgery have not been believed but should be. I believe them very much when they tell me their stories.

I would like the Minister to pass on to his Home Office colleagues that when women have been trafficked to this country in difficult circumstances, we should do everything in our power to make sure that they have sanctuary and safety here, even if they could not feel safe in the country they came from.

I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate on women’s work to defend human rights globally, and for pointing out, in her well-informed and comprehensive speech, the importance of the path set by the suffragettes in the UK to secure votes for women.

In the spirit of celebrating human rights defenders, as this debate seeks to do, I want to pay tribute to the fact that across the world, as we have heard, ordinary women commit acts of great self-sacrifice in the face of persistent abuse, threats to personal safety, persecution and violence, simply for standing up for what is right. All of us who believe in human rights, certainly in all western democracies, have a duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with those women and do all we can to support them. All states that believe in freedom should use every diplomatic means and avenue at their disposal to secure human rights for all—no ifs, no buts.

We should support all women who stand up for human rights in countries where women are seen as mere chattels—the legal property of their closest male relatives—such as in Saudi Arabia. Women all around the world are denied their basic human rights simply because they are women. We need to talk about that and learn more about it. I learned much from listening to the speech by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) about the situation in West Papua.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred to the appalling situation in Saudi Arabia. So-called wrongdoing in such regimes, such as women’s campaigning to be permitted to learn to drive, is sufficient to put one’s life in danger. We who believe in freedom must have the courage to stand up to those regimes and to support women, instead of turning a blind eye. We talk much in the west about the contribution of women in western societies, but we betray the women living under misogynistic regimes—such regimes are misogynistic, as the hon. Member for Leeds North Wests pointed out—where women have much lower status than men. We betray those women by staying silent about their plight.

We all welcome the recent decision of the Saudi regime to allow women to drive. According to some folk in Saudi, the lifting of the ban is controversial since they believe that it will lead to women becoming promiscuous. But we need to remember what we heard from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green: in the month before the ban was lifted last year, more than a dozen female activists who had campaigned for the right to drive were rounded up and put in jail. At least nine of them remain in prison. The families of the activists say that they have been tortured and put in solitary confinement for long periods. No formal charges have been brought against the women, only a series of allegations of their having been involved in a foreign plot against the Government.

It has been pointed out to me—and to many of us, I am sure—that we should have a care for cultural sensitivities. I am sure that we are all in favour of being mindful of cultural sensitivities, but we must not be complicit with our silence about a regime that believes that women are not equal to men in any sense. They are not allowed to go out unless they are accompanied by their male owners, and they can be cruelly treated and imprisoned for having the temerity to hope to be seen as individuals in their own right, rather than the possession of a man. We must not be silent about that in the name of cultural sensitivities. When we are silent in the face of others being repressed, we become a friend of the oppressor, or perhaps even a useful idiot for the oppressor if we continue relations with that state as though it were not a tyrannical regime. That simply will not do.

There is deep concern about reports of the torture and ill treatment of detained women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. They have been imprisoned since mid-2018 solely for peacefully campaigning for the protection and promotion of human rights, including women’s rights. Some were detained incommunicado, with no access to their families or lawyers during the first three months of their detention, and were subjected to chilling smear campaigns by state media. They all remain without access to legal representation.

Recent reports have emerged that some of the detained women activists have been subjected to electric shocks, flogging, sexual threats and other forms of torture. Testimonies recount that the abuse has left some of the women unable to walk or stand properly, with uncontrolled shaking and marks on their bodies. At least one of them has attempted suicide on several occasions. Those women have long been advocating for Saudi women’s right to drive, have called for an end to the discriminatory male guardianship system and have peacefully campaigned for greater respect for human rights. For that, they risk being tried and sentenced before the specialised criminal court, the country’s counter-terrorism court.

In 2016 the United Nations Committee Against Torture, in its second periodic report on Saudi Arabia, expressed concern at the application of terrorism legislation through the specialised criminal court, which enables the criminalisation of acts of peaceful expression considered as “endangering national unity” or

“undermining the reputation or position of the State”.

Those regulations have been used to try human rights defenders for exercising their fundamental rights. They violate international standards for the right to a fair trial and have enabled the authorities to detain individuals without providing them with access to legal representation during the investigation phase.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women further recommended in March 2018 that the Saudi state should facilitate women’s access to justice and institutionalise legal aid that is accessible, sustainable and responsive to the needs of women. If it were not so serious, it would be laughable that Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council. As such, it is obligated to uphold the highest standards for the promotion and protection of human rights, and to co-operate fully with the Council’s mechanisms. However, the Saudi Government have been largely unco-operative with the Council and continue to exhibit a flagrant disregard for fundamental freedoms.

My concern is that the international community seeks to stay on good terms with this rich and powerful regime at any cost, and the Saudi Prince knows that. Where is the motivation for Saudi Arabia to care about international opinion? I urge the Minister and the UK Government to lead attempts to bring pressure to bear on the Saudi Government to persuade them that their action is simply incompatible with civilised, modern codes of behaviour. Halting UK arms sales to a country that deals in terror, killing and oppression would be a good start. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), that would immediately benefit the people of Yemen.

It is worth noting that the Saudi Government require visiting reporters to be accompanied by a Government minder. That really says it all. I want to challenge the UK Minister to urge the UK Government to lead support for all women human rights defenders in the international community, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central pointed out, our constituents really care about these matters.

I apologise for being late—my plane was delayed and I ran the whole way here, so I am still catching my breath. Women have been at the forefront of the defence of human rights for many years, such as Maud Kells from Northern Ireland, who has spent 50 years providing maternity care for Congolese women, even after she was shot by a bandit while in the missionary hospital she helped to found. Women like her deserve recognition and the utmost respect. That is what this debate is all about: giving women the recognition that they rightly deserve.

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is amazing that such women are ordinary women, who are doing extraordinary things in some of the most barbaric conditions and regimes.

Women human rights defenders not only face the challenges and attacks suffered by male human rights defenders, but suffer more due to the historical and structural inequalities in power relations and discrimination. They suffer heightened risks and acts of violence because of their gender and the specific, often marginalised, human rights issues they work on. For example, women human rights defenders are more likely to experience sexualised smear campaigns, sexual assault and rape, including at police stations. Targeting of their children also takes place. There is also sometimes marginalisation within their own movements and communities, which must be extremely difficult to bear.

That is why this debate is important. We cannot forget—we must not forget—the struggles and risks faced by women human rights defenders. They stand up to repression, barbarity and cruelty every single day, risking everything to have the kinds of rights and freedoms that we in the west take for granted. They must not be forgotten, no matter how rich, powerful or important the state perpetrating the oppression happens to be. It is right that we celebrate them, salute their courage and stand beside them in their struggle. I look forward to hearing how the Minister intends to put the UK at the forefront of those efforts.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for bringing this important debate to the House and for her comprehensive introduction to the subject. She gave a thorough guide to women’s activism worldwide and at home—from women campaigning against a Saudi driving ban, to the protests against the utterances of the incumbent of the White House. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—they are a small but select group, as might be expected at this time of day following a break. No Westminster Hall debate would be complete without an intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I thank him for that.

As we have heard, women human rights defenders around the world work tirelessly to challenge violence against women, to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to create economic justice for women. While women doing that work face the same threats as other human rights defenders, including surveillance, false charges and violence, they also face, as I think every Member has said, threats due to their gender.

Women human rights defenders encounter intensified threats when their work challenges male dominance in society. Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, highlighted that when he presented his report to the Human Rights Council. He said:

“In the current political climate, in which there is a backlash against human rights, women who defend and promote rights are often the first to come under attack”.

His report shows how the rise in misogynistic, sexist and homophobic speech by political leaders in recent years has normalised violence against women human rights defenders. In some cases, those acting on behalf of states have engaged in direct attacks against women defenders and their families.

The special rapporteur’s report said:

“In many countries, women who dare to speak out for human rights are stigmatised and called bad mothers, terrorists or witches, silenced and marginalised from decision making and can even be killed. It is particularly worrying that the hostility they face comes not only from state authorities, but also the media, social movements, their own communities and even their family…Public shaming, attacks on women’s honour and their reputation…publishing their personal details on the internet, sexual violence and attacks against their children and loved ones are used to silence women human rights defenders”.

The report notes that women face the same risks as men defending human rights, but it makes it clear that women defenders face additional and different threats that are shaped by entrenched gender stereotypes and ingrained social perceptions of women. The special rapporteur stated:

“We have documented how the obstacles and risks faced by women human rights defenders are shaped by their gender. Women are attacked for promoting and protecting human rights simply because of their identity as women and because of what they do”.

The report raises alarm about the increasing number of states that have been restricting civil society space and imposing legal and administrative requirements that curtail the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly. In some countries, women’s rights defenders have been targeted for promoting women’s human rights, including the right to equality and to sexual and reproductive health.

The special rapporteur expressed serious concern at the increasing use of the concept of gender ideology, which is presented in various parts of the world, and especially in Latin America and eastern Europe, as an attempt by feminists and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights defenders to destabilise the social and political order. He stressed:

“There are no short cuts to reversing this deplorable situation. We must dismantle harmful gender stereotypes and radically reimagine social constructs of gender to prevent the domination and marginalisation of women…States and international organisations must recognise the specific challenges and risks women defenders face. They must ensure that such defenders are recognised, supported and enabled to participate equally, meaningfully and powerfully in the promotion and protection of human rights”.

It is also important to mention UN Security Council resolution 1325, which highlights the importance of women’s voices and involvement in achieving and keeping peace. In 2000, the Security Council formally acknowledged through the creation of resolution 1325 the changing nature of warfare, with civilians increasingly targeted and women continuing to be excluded from participation in peace processes. The resolution specifically addresses how women and girls are differentially impacted by conflict and war and recognises the critical role that women can and already do play in peacebuilding efforts. It affirms that peace and security efforts are more sustainable when women are equal partners in preventing violent conflict, delivering relief and recovery efforts, and forging lasting peace.

Each of the resolution’s mandates relates to one of the four basic pillars of participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery. Participation calls for increased participation of women at all levels of decision making, including in national, regional and international institutions; in mechanisms for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict; in peace negotiations; in peace operations, as soldiers, police, and civilians; and as special representatives of the UN Secretary-General. Protection calls specifically for the protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence, including in emergency and humanitarian situations such as refugee camps. Prevention calls for improving intervention strategies in the prevention of violence against women, including by prosecuting those responsible for violations of international law, strengthening women’s rights under national law, and supporting local women’s peace initiatives and conflict resolution processes. Relief and recovery calls for the advancement of relief and recovery measures to address international crises through a gendered lens, including by respecting the civilian and humanitarian nature of refugee camps and considering the needs of women and girls in the design of refugee camps and settlements.

ActionAid UK has demanded that Governments and donors urgently scale up efforts and resources to support the leadership of women human rights defenders and to protect their rights, and cease to condone the rise in violence, whether through harmful action or no action at all. It asks the UK Government to recognise, champion and prioritise women human rights defenders and to support and increase resources to protect the rights of civil society, including women’s rights organisations and defenders.

The UK Government should defend those rights and hold Governments and other powerful actors to account, and they should actively resist and challenge reversals of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights by Governments within the UN and other key global policy forums. They should introduce mandatory gender-sensitive human rights due diligence for UK companies to ensure that they identify, prevent and mitigate rights violations in their supply chains and linked to their activities, including against women human rights defenders who are challenging abuse. They should also permit access to effective remedy, in line with UN guidelines on business and human rights.

Amnesty International has asked the UK Government to hold meaningful consultations with women human rights defenders in the development of their foreign policy and development programmes. Importantly, we should recognise the vital role of defenders in contributing to progress on the sustainable development goals, especially goal 5 on gender equality and goal 16 on access to justice. I fully support those asks of the UK Government, and would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that.

In December last year, Lord Ahmad announced at an event to mark Human Rights Day that Foreign and Commonwealth Office internal guidance on supporting human rights defenders would be made public, which is welcome. Will the Minister confirm when that guidance will be made public, as promised in December last year?

In conclusion, if we want to make the world better for women and girls, we must acknowledge and celebrate those who defend women’s human rights every day. We must defend the defenders.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate. She mentioned the scourge of the misuse of social media and the internet, and a further report by Amnesty International identifies that those most at risk of being abused on social media—whether Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere—tend to be women, because it is used as a way of trying to silence them. We heard about the unacceptable situation faced by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). She is by no means unique, but the sheer volume of that abuse could be the focus of a further long debate. We all have concerns about the idea of regulating, or introducing too much compliance to, the internet, and we believe that free speech is an element of a free society, but, equally, the shocking level of abuse has, unfortunately, cautioned so much political debate, and it will continue to do so unless some sort of code—whether voluntary or otherwise—is introduced. That is probably an issue for further debate, but it reflects the challenges faced by human rights defenders, especially women.

I am grateful for the contributions by other hon. Members, who eloquently described the impact of women human rights defenders locally, nationally and internationally, and I will begin with a quote from a human rights defender that goes to the heart of this debate. Sara Landeros is one of a number of women human rights defenders the Foreign and Commonwealth Office profiled on social media last year to mark the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders and to give them a platform to talk about their work. Ms Landeros’s organisation provides legal representation for persecuted human rights defenders in Mexico. She said:

“As a defender, you don’t have the right to give up. When you are defending victims, you have to be strong. If they, as victims, have not stopped, then you have to keep going too, for them.”

That kind of selfless commitment and dedication lies behind everything that human rights defenders do day in, day out, as they work tirelessly to defend the rights of others who are often voiceless in society.

Human rights defenders often operate in the most difficult environments, and by exposing issues that the powerful would prefer to keep hidden, their work puts them in constant danger. They or their families could face discrimination, violence or, at the very worst, death. That is what happened to Berta Cáceres, who bravely stood up for the rights of an indigenous group in Honduras against a proposed hydroelectric dam project. She paid for that with her life, and it has taken five years for those responsible to be held to account. Tragically, Berta’s murder is by no means unique, and many others have been killed for standing up to those in power. Many others face similar threats.

In some cases, the threats that women face are the same as those faced by their male counterparts, including surveillance, false accusations and physical arrest. For example—this was raised by the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Hornsey and Wood Green—we are deeply concerned about Saudi women activists who have been detained. The British Government, including the Prime Minister, have lobbied consistently on behalf of women human rights defenders who are currently in detention in Saudi Arabia, and asked for them to be given due process, for allegations of torture to be properly, fully, publicly and independently investigated, and for those responsible for any alleged abuse to be prosecuted. British Embassy officials have continued to request to observe each and every trial session and have unfailingly, quietly behind the scenes, advocated the importance of the right to freedom of speech and a fair trial. Sadly, however, many of those women remain in jail facing unclear charges.

Women are also exposed to particular risks by virtue of being women. Those range from sexual abuse and harassment—several Members have raised that issue—to domestic abuse and hostility in the workplace. In such circumstances, it takes even more courage, strength and resilience to stand up to the powerful.

What is the proposed action if Saudi Arabia does not comply with the discussions through the back channels? Such discussions are correct and part of diplomacy, but we are facing a crisis. What could be done differently to promote a just solution for not just women but all those facing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia—a country with which we do so much business?

If I may, I will say a little more about that later. I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that the Floor of the Chamber is probably not the right place for me to make up policy on the hoof, but there are clearly grave concerns, and perhaps I can write to her in due course to explain some of the steps we intend to take in that regard.

We are all proud of those women who stand up day after day, proving time and again that their words and work have a real impact in righting wrongs and creating a more equal and just society. It is therefore right to honour them in this debate, and the Government—indeed, I am sure, all Members of the House—unequivocally support them.

Protecting and promoting human rights is a cornerstone of our work in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although it often means engaging in difficult conversations, both publicly and privately, with a variety of Governments with whom we have strong diplomatic relationships. We are fortunate to work with and support courageous women, such as Rebeca Gyumi, who succeeded in raising the legal age of marriage for boys and girls in Tanzania. In recognition for her work, she was awarded the UN human rights prize. She is still hard at work in Tanzania and working with the British high commission there.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, we used our Chevening alumni programme fund to raise awareness among young people about sexual harassment. The project implementer is a former Chevening scholar, who is now a prominent human rights defender and lawyer focusing particularly on gender and equality. She and tens of thousands of other women human rights defenders around the world dedicate their time, efforts and energy to helping others; they deserve our gratitude and support.

Throughout 2019, the UK will increase the transparency of our support for such human rights champions. We will work with like-minded partners—Governments, NGOs and others—around the globe to support and uphold human rights.

We all have concerns about how Saudi Arabia treats women and human rights defenders. Given that we are aware of the barbarity of the Saudi regime—notably, that it appears to have no qualms about bombing innocent civilians in Yemen—is the Minister comfortable with the UK continuing to sell arms to such a blood-thirsty regime?

The situation in Yemen is far more complicated than the hon. Lady puts it. I could rehearse the issues that have resulted in the civil war in Yemen. As she is aware, there are the most rigorous arms control codes in place, which have been adhered to by all UK Governments for the last 20 years. All Ministers take the issue extremely seriously. I can assure her that there are opportunities, challenges and responsibilities in signing off any arms sales, and there are strict criteria, in UK and international law, to which we adhere.

I have talked about our bilateral work, but we also work multilaterally through the UN. The UK is working with partners to strengthen the resolve of the international community to support women human rights defenders. A year ago, we committed £1.6 million to support efforts to get more women participating in peace processes, as mediators and peace builders, across the Commonwealth. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) is right that that is an important part of the process. The UN is continually aware of the issue through Security Council resolution 1325. It is trying to raise interest across the globe and to create female advocates, who will make a real difference.

Working with partners means continuing to work with the many thousands of non-governmental organisations that share our human rights values and objectives, a number of whom have been referred to during the debate. They are the experts; it is their expertise and passion, alongside that of Governments, that helps to deliver change. They also support the human rights defenders on the frontline of human rights.

We are actively supporting women’s political participation because we recognise that political empowerment gives women the opportunity to share their views, to challenge the status quo and to make informed decisions. That is why women’s empowerment is at the heart of the Department for International Development’s latest “Strategic Vision for Gender Equality”, which was launched last year. That strategic vision aims to build gender equality from the ground up through the education, employment and empowerment of women and girls, including in conflict, crises and humanitarian emergencies.

Let me touch on the specific points that were brought up in the debate. I hope Members will forgive me if I do not fully answer all of them, and I will respond in writing if necessary. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked when the Government intend to publish the UK guidelines on working with human rights defenders. The guidelines are an internal document to help diplomatic staff in our embassies and high commissions to support human rights defenders. We have worked with NGOs to update the guidelines, and Lord Ahmad agreed in December to make UK support for human rights defenders more transparent. We intend to publish a document setting out UK support for human rights defenders in 2019, in consultation with NGOs. We hope to have something published within the next few months, but I am sure the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton will remind me about it later in the year if we have not had a final publication. We will be as transparent as we can be, but Members will appreciate that parts of the toolkit involve sensitive discussion, and it would not be wise to publish the rules and regulations in their entirety.

I will be facing the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) again tomorrow, at the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) about West Papua. I know the subject is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart, and I would not wish to belittle it; he has been passionate about it since his pre-parliamentary days, as he has made clear. I hope that debate will give us the opportunity to cover the situation in depth. He made some powerful points about particular female human rights defenders in West Papua.

I must confess that I have nothing specific to say in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I think she recognised that her concerns were more of an issue for the Home Office, so I will pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration and try to get that sorted out. On a personal note, the hon. Lady may be aware that one of my great British political heroes is Andrew Bonar Law, who was the Member for Glasgow Central in the days when it was a safe Conservative seat—I think the business folk had something to do with that. Ironically, during his time in the House, just over 100 years ago, the great debate was about women’s rights to vote. He was quite a liberal on that matter, although he went on to be a Conservative Prime Minister. I think he would have been proud that the hon. Lady is the first female Member of Parliament—the first of many, I am sure—for that historic seat in the centre of that great Scottish city.

I promised the hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green and for North Ayrshire and Arran that I would mention Saudi Arabia, and I will write to them if there are more specific points I can address. They asked what actions the Government are taking in regard to the continued detention of women human rights defenders. We are concerned about that situation in Saudi Arabia, and we are monitoring it closely. Concerns are consistently raised by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary when they deal with the Saudi authorities at the highest level. I will make similar representations. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green may be aware, I am also interim Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, so I will endeavour to raise these issues in future conversations with the Saudi ambassador to London.

Concerns have also been raised through the UN. The UK was a signatory to the joint statement published at the UN Human Rights Council on 7 March, which expressed significant concerns about the situation. We are deeply concerned about the allegations of torture and have raised that directly with the Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, particularly because of the death penalty, its restrictions and clampdowns on women’s rights, and broader issues about freedom of expression, of assembly and of religion and belief.

The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton asked about business and human rights, and what we are doing to better human rights practices. We are committed to focusing on business and human rights through the promotion of the UN guiding principles. She is quite right to identify the importance that we rightly attach to issues around sustainable development goals 5 and 16. We also wish to utilise as many diplomatic skills as we can in relation to legislative and non-legislative measures to protect against, and provide remedies for, human rights abuses by business. The UK was proud to be the first country in the world to produce a national action plan responding to the UN guiding principles on this matter. We have since encouraged other states to draft their own national action plans. We were also the first country to produce an update to that plan, in 2016. We regard those guiding principles as the authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risks of adverse human rights impacts on business. We will continue to promote those principles.

Thank you for giving me a little leeway on time, Mr Evans. We have had a little time on our hands, and it is fair to say that, while the debate will not fully take up its 90 minutes, there is no lack of passion from those who are here. As the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton pointed out, the debate is on the first day back after a break, when people are making their way back to London, and that has affected the quantity of debate, if not its quality.

We have heard practical examples of the ways in which women human rights defenders can and do transform lives. That is why we should all be proud that the UK remains committed to helping women all over the world to feel safe and protected in the work they do, so that they can speak freely and be part of the change we all want. I speak for not just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but, I hope, everyone in Parliament when I say that we want a world in which all people are treated with fairness and dignity, and in which those fighting to improve human rights can do so without fear of discrimination, violence or retaliation. Let us take all our inspiration from women such as Sara Landeros. If she is determined to keep fighting on for that better world, we must do the same. The Government and, I am sure, Parliament are committed to doing that.

I thank the Minister for what he said at the end of his speech. I am pleased about his commitment to do what he can to bring forward the internal document on supporting human rights defenders. I am also pleased that Lord Ahmed has said that there have been moves to make the approach to human rights in general more transparent, and that in-depth consultation is going on with NGOs about bringing forward the document. I know that Members of this House will be keen to see that, and perhaps even to have a debate on it at the relevant time.

I was pleased that the debate introduced two crucial issues not mentioned in my opening speech. The first was the dire situation of women with urgent health needs in West Papua. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) said, we believe that this is the first time that aspect of human rights in West Papua has had such a platform in the UK Parliament. I am pleased that we shall be able to explore it in even more depth in tomorrow’s debate on West Papua.

The second issue is something emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who is herself a role model, as a woman shadow Minister—I note that the Government have only one woman on their Foreign Office Front-Bench team, but we live in hope that more will be appointed. There is an opportunity now, as the Minister is currently doing two jobs. Perhaps a woman could do one of them for him. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton spoke about UN Security Council resolution 1325, the importance of the picture of conflict, and how much more at risk women human rights defenders are in those conflicts. She mentioned the need to design refugee camps specially to protect women. Often it is women human rights defenders in the camps who make the case for that, in Yemen or in Libya, where there are terrible detention camps for refugees fleeing conflict in Africa.

The lives of many girls and women are phenomenally disrupted by conflict, which changes things for them very much, but out of that, occasionally, wonderful women leaders might arise, to be part of the excellent programme now being put in place by the UN under resolution 1325. That work involves promoting women in human rights as part of the peace process, and putting the case for them to be at the table, as my hon. Friend said. Then there will be women who are able to express, in a unique way, with passion and clarity, what other women face in difficult situations around the world.

I hope that we can have a further debate once the principles of the human rights picture are put forward by the FCO.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered celebrating the work of women human rights defenders globally.

Sitting suspended.