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Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): I am delighted to introduce this debate on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which is the most important annual event devoted to human rights. The 57th session is due to begin on 19 March and will last for six weeks. It is an opportunity for the world's Governments, as well as human rights non-governmental organisations, to consider the record of Governments and international organisations and to take appropriate action. The United Kingdom Government always play an important role in the meetings. This debate gives right hon. and hon. Members a chance to raise issues of concern, so that the Minister can take them into account when preparing for this year's session.
I will raise a number of general issues before making several specific points on Colombia. First, I want to underline the important role played by special rapporteurs. I pay tribute to Sir Nigel Rodley, the special rapporteur on torture, whose very effective term will end at the forthcoming commission. I also pay tribute to Asma Jahangir from Pakistan, whose work on summary executions has required great personal courage, and to Francis Deng, who has worked to develop new standards for people who are internally displaced as a result of war and conflict.
Those people receive no salary or remuneration for the difficult and sensitive work that they do. It is vital that they can make investigative visits and prepare their reports speedily and efficiently. I hope, therefore, that the Government will support arrangements to ensure that all rapporteurs are issued with standing invitations that enable them to make visits without undue delay or obstruction.
Secondly, I urge the Government to ensure that financial support for special rapporteurs' work is placed on a stable and sustainable footing. At present, most rapporteurs must raise their own funds and have little or no administrative support. Governments create those posts, so they should ensure that the positions are properly supported.
The death penalty is likely to be raised at this year's commission. An unusual medley of states leads the opposition to its abolition: the People's Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America. I urge the British Government to use their influence to ensure that we see no further retreat from the progress that has been made towards eventual worldwide abolition of the death sentence.
Child soldiers are another important subject that will be raised. I am aware that UK Ministers do not accept the international majority view on the age limits for recruitment and combat. Although I do not want to use this debate to weigh the merits of their argument, I ask that those who put our Government's position have it in mind that the Governments of other countries, such as Myanmar or the Democratic Republic of Congo, will be looking to justify their policies of recruiting soldiers who are still far too young and who should be protected from the risks involved.
The world conference on racism, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance will be held in Durban in the first week of September. The conference will be chaired by the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and will be the subject of considerable discussion at this year's commission. Racial discrimination is a worldwide phenomenon. Although we in the UK are beginning to get to grips with the difficult issue of institutional racism, it is as much a matter of attitudes and values as it is of policy and regulation. I hope that the conference will help to produce a renewed burst of energy and ideas so that we can make further progress.
The issue that threatens to block progress at the world conference is compensation: the claim that people descended from slaves or others who have suffered from severe institutionalised racism should be compensated for the wrong that they have suffered and for the permanent depression of living standards that resulted. Given the importance of the world conference, I hope that the Minister will agree that it should not be diverted from its central purpose. I would be interested to hear his views on how that politically sensitive matter should be handled. At the very least, and as a first step, our schools should teach children the history of that period honestly and frankly. It is part of our past, as well as that of people in Brazil, Caribbean countries and the United States.
The commission is the main international forum in which countries' record on human rights is publicly debated. Last year, a mild resolution was passed concerning the protection of human rights in Chechnya, but the situation there is no better and access to the territory no easier, either for Russian or foreign nationals. Reporting from Chechnya has been minimal, but serious allegations of human rights abuses continue to surface. I hope that the Government will encourage a full discussion of the issue.
Other hon. Members may wish to discuss other themes and other countries. I wish now to focus on the difficult and deteriorating situation in Colombia. In doing so I acknowledge the considerable assistance I have received from ABColombia and CAFOD. Colombia has suffered internal conflict for the last 40 years between the state and guerrilla groups--including FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and ELN, the National Liberation Army--and, more recently, an increasing number of paramilitary groups. The central directorate of the judicial police announced that 25,660 murders took place last year, in a country with a population of 35 million. Despite the heroic dedication of staff in the prosecutor general's office, the superior judicial council estimates that more than 60 per cent. of crime goes unreported, while 40 per cent. of reported crime goes unpunished. Even if the conviction rates were higher, that would create separate problems because the country's prisons, which were built for 30,000 inmates, already hold nearly 50,000.
The public ombudsman reports that 314 massacres occurred between January and August 2000. During the year as a whole 3,706 people were disappeared or kidnapped and 77 trade unionists assassinated. Civilians and representatives of civil society continue to be targets, not just the accidental victims of the conflict. Last October in Medellin, Angel Quintero and Claudia
Barrancabermeja is a town of around 250,000 people, of whom 480 were selectively assassinated during 2000. The total so far this year is 108. Last September the entire directorate of CREDHOS, a local human rights organisation, received death threats from the paramilitary group AUC. Such murders and death threats have created a climate in which anyone who stands up for human rights is likely to be labelled a military target. As hon. Members will know, that happened most recently to volunteers working with the London-based organisation Peace Brigades International.
Forced displacement is one of the great tragedies of Colombia. I well remember the displaced people whom I met two years ago in a disused basketball stadium in the town of Quibdo in the Choco region. They had been there for 27 months. Human rights organisations estimate that the number of displaced people could be as high as 2 million, with more than 300,000 displaced last year alone.
Displacement hits women and children the hardest. A third of displaced families are headed by a woman. Only 15 per cent. of displaced children have access to schools. Many settle on the outskirts of the big cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Many lack access to health care. The legal requirement to respond to the needs of displaced people is not matched by the actions of a Government who are still failing to provide a systematic programme or budget.
The office of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Bogota reported that displaced people and those who work alongside them have also received death threats. Despite the recent partial implementation of law 387, many of the recommendations made previously by Francis Deng, the UN special rapporteur on internally displaced persons, remain only words. Mr. Deng reported last year that most of the recommendations that he made on a previous visit in 1994 remain relevant today. It is important that his mandate continues.
The Colombian Government have made attempts to improve their human rights record over the last year, especially in bringing human rights violations before the civilian courts. I am personally grateful for the efforts made by the Colombian ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Victor G. Ricardo, to ensure that Members of Parliament are kept up to date with developments. As recently as 23 February I received a detailed note of the action being taken in some 15 different cases.
At Foreign Office questions on 23 January I urged my hon. Friend to take steps to ensure that he could learn directly from grassroots communities in Colombia about what was taking place in the country. The Minister announced that he had issued an invitation to Father Francisco de Roux, a Jesuit priest who lives and works in Barrancabermeja and is the director of the Magdalena Medio Peace and Development Programme. I am delighted to say that Father Francisco is in London this week to meet the Minister and his officials. I was also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) and I had an opportunity to meet him earlier this morning.
I asked Father Francisco what his message was for our Government and the international community. He said the most important thing was to encourage a dialogue for peace, but added that such dialogue--fragile as it currently is--was threatened principally by the paramilitary forces. He told us in detail how they have taken control of half his city by cutting communication links and forcing local families to provide their homes for use by the gunmen. He told us about members of a women's organisation who had worked in Barrancabermeja for 25 years but were being threatened by the paramilitary and told to leave. He told us about his friend Omar Vera, his wife, Benita, and their two children who were forced to flee to Bogota because of their work for the community. He also explained how the actions of the paramilitary go unchallenged by the police and the military, who parade openly on the street: everyone knows where their headquarters are, but no one arrests or charges them.
Father de Roux gave a personal account of how he had negotiated with a local commander for a food convoy to travel to peasant communities in the Magdalena Medio area. Just 15 minutes later, the truck and the food were seized by paramilitaries. After Father de Roux complained to the commander, everything was returned and no one was arrested.
Father de Roux underlined his belief that some of the worst elements in the military have been removed, but such events suggest that considerable collusion between the military and paramilitary still takes place at all levels. I pay tribute to him and the people who work with him, who show great bravery and deserve our continued pressure for action to improve human rights in Colombia.
As a last word, I make three strong recommendations to the Government in advance of the UN Commission meeting. First, we should press for more support for the office of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Colombia, including the opening of offices in regional areas. Secondly, we should insist on a strong statement from the Chair to emphasise international concern about the lack of progress on human rights and, in particular, the actions of the paramilitary. Thirdly, we should press for a commitment to monitor the impact of Plan Colombia and, in particular, the impact of crop spraying on rural communities and the level of military activity that arises from it.
Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): This is the second time in the past 16 hours that I have risen to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins). I am grateful to him for introducing the debate and I congratulate him on his comprehensive and excellent speech.
It is almost a year since we last debated human rights in Colombia in this Chamber on 28 March 2000. Last night I refreshed my memory by re-reading our earlier debate. On that occasion, my hon. Friend pointed out that the 56th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights had begun in the previous week. This year we are fortunate in being able to anticipate the 57th session.
I want to concentrate on three subjects: first, the human rights disaster that may be unfolding from the distortion of Plan Colombia, which has developed into a bilateral military aid project between Colombia and the United States of America; secondly, the emerging pattern of escalating violence in Colombia, which is targeted against the brave people who work for human rights; and, thirdly, the lack of improvement in the persistent problem of impunity in Colombia and its consequential effects in denying human rights across the country.
In March 2000, hon. Members warned that the plan--originally designed for the purpose of advancing the peace process, improving the economy, contributing to the fight against narcotics, reforming the judicial system, promoting human rights and supporting democratisation and social development--was already losing its way. It was in its infancy, but was already becoming dominated by a misconceived, anti-narcotics military plan between Columbia and the United States, posing a danger to the peace process with a potentially destabilising effect on the country. We now know that our worst fears have been realised.
That did not have to be the case. United States Colombia aid legislation passed in 2000 contained strict human rights provisions, for which human rights groups fought hard. They were intended to block United States aid unless and until Colombian armed forces ceased to support the paramilitaries. It was argued that without them the funding would inevitably support massacres, killings and disappearances. Although the House and the Senate agreed with them, they were qualified to allow a presidential waiver of the human rights provisions on national security grounds.
When paying the first tranche of money in August last year, President Clinton invoked the waiver provision; he allowed the aid to go forward, even as his State Department was preparing a report that showed that the Colombian forces who would get the money were inextricably linked to paramilitary groups, were implicated in human rights abuses, were ambivalent about allowing the civilian courts to deal with military personnel who were charged with human rights crimes, and failed to prosecute or even, in some cases, suspend officers implicated in abuses. It was worrying at the time that at least one of President Clinton's spokesmen was prepared to make human rights considerations subservient to their drug war. About that time, the United States drugs tsar, Barry McCaffrey, was reported as saying, "You don't hold up the major objective to achieve the minor." However, the official justification for the waiver at that time was a plea to allow the Colombian Government to have more time to make good their commitment to improve human rights protection.
More time was given. Five months later, in January, the second tranche of aid was due for payment. The human rights situation in Colombia had deteriorated; there was documented evidence of paramilitary activity continuing throughout the country and compelling evidence of collusion between them and the armed forces. Putumayo, the state where the drug eradication efforts are concentrated, had a high concentration of active paramilitaries. In his last days in office, President Clinton ignored the mounting evidence that Colombia was failing to meet the basic human rights requirements and agreed to pay over the money without the necessary human rights certification. He relied on a technical interpretation of the legislation to enable him to do so, arguing that he was bound to do so as a result of his earlier decision.
On 17 January, an estimated 50 paramilitaries conducted a chilling massacre in the village of Chengue in the province of Sucre. They killed 24 men by crushing their heads with heavy stones and sledgehammers in the main square of the village. Two bodies were later found in shallow graves. As they left, the paramilitaries set fire to the village.
The day after the massacre, the paramilitary leader, Carlos Castano, acknowledged responsibility for the killings and on the same day, President Clinton announced that human rights protections were not relevant to the payment of the second tranche of money under Plan Colombia.
The experience of the implementation of the plan on the ground is that it is worsening conditions that have already deteriorated. If the initial objectives of the plan are to work, they must be consistent with a peaceful solution and not an excuse for an increased military
Alternatives are emerging. The local government of the six south-eastern Colombian provinces opposed the plan. They remind us of what we knew and debated last year--that there was no consultation with civic society when the plan was designed--and they introduced initiatives based on ways to help local peasant communities, alternative eradication methods and new infrastructure projects. The European Union and the new United States Administration now have an opportunity to assess the project thus far and to transform it into a development plan. Unless that opportunity, in conjunction with the up-coming human rights commission, is seized now we may lose the opportunity to achieve the project's initial objectives.
On average, 14 people die every day in the conflict between Government forces, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia. On 1 February, the United Nations human rights observers reported that the human rights situation in Colombia was in a state of "alarming degradation". One of the most worrying features of the violence there is the targeting of human rights workers.
Father de Roux's city is of strategic importance to the continuing dialogue between the Government there and the guerrillas, particularly the ELN. Traditionally, the city is a stronghold of that rebel group. The ELN requested that the Government grant it a safe haven for peace talks, such as the one that has been granted to the FARC. The proposed site was two hours by boat from Barrancabermeja, but the paramilitaries were determined to block that proposal. They vowed to cleanse the city of guerrillas.
Father de Roux reported to us this morning that almost half his city is now controlled by paramilitaries, who are employing their well-honed tactics of terror in poor neighbourhoods. They are forcibly placing their people in houses all over the city and are disrupting communications. There is no doubt that they have informal relationships with the military and police. They openly patrol the streets and, as part of their regime of terror, target human rights workers.
This year the paramilitaries issued threats against members of the People's Women Organisation. For 25 years, that organisation has been doing good work in the poor communities of the city. Its refusal to accept the paramilitaries has led them to turn their attention to the women and pressurise communities to expel their organisation.
In addition, members of the Peace Brigades International have become targets of paramilitary violence. A Swedish citizen, Lars Emerson, who works with the PBI, has been declared a military target.The authorities in Barrancabermeja are failing in their obligations to protect their citizens and the human rights workers.
Amnesty International has launched a worldwide campaign to protect human rights activists in Barrancabermeja. In the context of the meeting of the Human Rights Commission, a strong condemnation of the Colombian Government's failure to provide the necessary security for human rights workers or to combat the paramilitaries must be a priority.
The Colombian Government have attempted to improve their record in bringing those who perpetrate the violence before the civilian courts. However, their success rate is poor. The US State Department's report for 2000 states:
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): I begin by saying that I recognise the inherent difficulty that is faced by any Government--as opposed to an NGO or, indeed, a Back Bencher--in pursuing a human rights dialogue with countries with which we have a relationship that is complicated by factors other than human rights. The Government have made considerable progress in working out how to deal with such dilemmas. In the modern world, we expect a degree of consistency in the way in which we relate to countries across the board. When I occupied the Minister's role, I was always conscious of the fact that it was far easier to beat up Burma than to be critical of some of the larger states. We must try to get the balance right.
I shall refer to a number of countries with which it is genuinely difficult simultaneously to maintain a relationship and a right to criticise. That right does not spring from some automatic moral onus. We can influence the behaviour of Governments--sometimes non-Governments--who allow the systematic abuse of human rights only by exercising a proper approach and maintaining a proper dialogue.
The Geneva hearings are important both symbolically and because they bring the world community together in a human rights jamboree. However, I am tempted to say that human rights are not only for Geneva, but for life. In reality, human rights abuse in countries such as Colombia takes place day in, day out. For the victims, the erosion of opportunity--sometimes even of life--is absolute, and that is not improved by an annual jamboree. We need year-round consistency. I am not criticising the Government--they have done more than any Government of recent times to take that agenda forward.
The first country that I want to talk about is Afghanistan. It is sadly ironic that in recent days the vast attention of the media has been focused on the destruction of Buddhist monuments. Of course, it is right and proper for the world community to criticise the Taliban Government for that destruction, which is an offence against human dignity. However, they have not faced that sustained level of criticism for their systematic erosion of the rights of the population of Afghanistan--especially women, who have borne the brunt of the conflict for a long time. At one point, Afghanistan had some 6 million refugees, both internally and over the borders in Iran and Pakistan, and even now it has about 2 million people living outside its borders. The systematic abuse of the rights of women has been a consistent theme. In extreme cases they have faced death, and violence--especially sexual violence--has been part of a systematic policy of eroding their position in society.
I have always been conscious that western European states have sought to maintain an ambiguous relationship with China. We perceive China as an emerging military and economic super-power, which are two things that it will become. Therefore, I would argue that we want good relations with the Government and people of China. In my city there is a large Chinese community, which actively operates between modern China and modern Britain; all the bridges that it builds are good and healthy.
However, the Chinese human rights record requires comment and criticism. The Chinese Government have allowed people from various positions in their society to be tortured. Political dissidents, people who exceed family planning laws, vagrants and common criminals have all suffered. I shall quote, although my Chinese pronunciation is not good, Mr. Hou Zongbin who, as chairman of the National People's Congress Committee for Internal and Judicial affairs, is a senior representative of the Chinese state. In December 2000, he reported on the findings of the NPC teams inspecting the implications of criminal procedure law in 12 provinces. He said that torture to extract confessions is
People from both sides of the divide in Kashmir live in Britain. Indeed, both sides are represented in my city. The last thing that I want to do is exacerbate tensions not only in Britain, but, through British Kashmiris, back in Kashmir. Although today's debate has nothing to do with a final settlement of the situation, I must say that I applaud the ceasefire, provided that it is genuine, imposed by the Indian Government. Despite the relative period of calm, violence and abuse against the civilian population by the Indian authorities is so extreme that we must place our concerns about the Indian Government, with which we would normally have the best possible dealings, on record. When we see an erosion of human rights, our friends must know that they are not immune to criticism.
Many senior Colombians have tried to persuade me that the civilian Government are bringing pressure to bear on senior military officers to bring pressure to bear on the middle officer ranks. The crude reality is that too often the association between the army of the state and paramilitaries is so close as to make little difference and my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East referred to that. The consequence is that the activities of the state are directly involved in the mass abuse of the rights of the Colombian people. I was going to quote 228,000 displaced people last year, but my hon. Friend says that it might be 300,000. Whether the figure is 228,000 or 300,000, the scale of human suffering and misery is almost unbelievable in a modern Britain.
We must retain Colombia at the top of the United Nations hearings agenda because international witness pays dividends for public perception of how matters are dealt with back home. The hearings are important and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East for introducing the debate at this time. It is important that the Government hear what is said in the Chamber during the Geneva hearings. The erosion of human rights does not occur only in countries that have been and will be mentioned today. It is a worldwide phenomenon and this country, with its free Parliament and a happy inheritance of relatively high respect for human rights by our institutions places on us the moral onus to maintain a human rights vigil 52 weeks a year, every year. I trust that following our debate the Government will consistently maintain those responsibilities.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Last week, the all-party group on human rights held a meeting and heard four excellent speakers with direct experience of Chechnya, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) for introducing today's debate. However, it should, more properly, take place on the Floor of the House, and it should be a full day's debate. It is ridiculous that we are expected to encompass these important issues in such a short time and those who initiate debates on these important issues in future should insist on a full day's debate. I should like to discuss many countries, but I shall confine my comments today to Chechnya, which is suffering a forgotten war. I am ashamed that, as my hon. Friends said, those of us who are free and living in a democracy where we can be heard sit back while terrible things happen in Chechnya.
The four speakers that we heard last week included a representative of Human Rights Watch, which is based in Moscow, an elected Chechen Member of Parliament, who, of course, has never taken his seat, and Anthony Lloyd, a reporter from The Times who was based in Chechnya. They highlighted continuing human rights abuses by both parties, and it is right to emphasise the involvement of both parties because although it is mainly the Russians who commit atrocities, the Chechens also bear some responsibility.
The general conduct of the Russian campaign in Chechnya has been a matter of concern, especially the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force against civilians. The razing of Grozny last year attracted a lot of press coverage, and it has also been reported that most of the territory within Chechnya, to which there is very little access, has been devastated. Most civilians, including more than 100,000 displaced people in Chechnya, have been left to fend for themselves with practically no assistance from the Russians. The Russian forces are accused of arbitrary detention, torture, extortion, disappearances and the continuing harassment of civilians. Unfortunately, those practices are reportedly a routine part of Russian operations. The notorious filtration camps such as that at Chernokosovo--in which Chechen men were allegedly systematically raped, beaten and killed--were widely reported last year.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. When talking about Chechnya, we should not forget the four brave British citizens who were so foully murdered in that country.
I can recommend an excellent book published by Human Rights Watch, entitled "'Welcome to Hell': Arbitrary Detention, Torture and Extortion in Chechnya", from which I should like to quote a couple of passages. It is reported that Russian guards said to one detainee:
Last week, there was also a chilling report in The Guardian by one of Russia's most respected journalists, who writes for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. She travelled deep into Chechnya to investigate reports of torture, rape and detention camps run by the Russian army. If there were any doubts about the veracity of the shocking stories that she heard, they vanished when she
There were further reports this week of the discovery of what appears to be a mass grave near the main Russian garrison on the outskirts of Grozny. The number of corpses found has risen to more than 50, and investigators from Memorial, the brave human rights group in Russia, have reported signs of torture. Several corpses had ears missing. Most had their arms bound behind their backs, and many had been blindfolded. Several of the dead had disappeared after being detained by the Russians at the end of last year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East mentioned Sir Nigel Rodley, the UN rapporteur on torture. He has asked to visit Grozny in Chechnya but, so far, has not been told whether he can do so. That is regrettable, although the two rapporteurs responsible for children and armed conflict and for violence against women have been allowed to visit the area. I hope that the Secretary-General's other representatives who have asked to visit the area will be allowed to do so.
We are concerned about the lack of accountability of the Russian forces. The Russian Government have repeatedly refused requests for independent scrutiny of the alleged violations, except for the visits by the special representatives, and are deemed to be acting in bad faith in the conduct of their investigations. Only one agency has the authority to investigate crimes in Chechnya and, according to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, only 47 investigations of crimes against civilians have been launched. None deals with allegations of torture of civilians held in custody, which apparently was committed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs or army service men. In addition, there have been no indictments in connection with the alleged mass killings in three areas and one of last weeks' speakers referred to the black hole into which complaints that are referred to Russian officials disappear.
All last week's speakers referred to the climate of impunity that now exists in Chechnya. Russian troops believe that they are free to do as they want because they are certain that they will not be held to account for their actions. Senior Russian Government sources refer to the elimination of terrorists rather than the elimination of terrorism and that is worrying.
Unfortunately, most other Governments have shown themselves unwilling to take effective action to ensure that the Russian Government brings those violations to an end. For example, no cases concerning alleged violations of the European convention of human rights by the Russian forces have been referred to the European Court of Human Rights. It was suggested last week that Governments should pressure the Russian Government to accept independent observers in Chechnya to investigate violations that have been reported to the authorities, especially the large number of documented disappearances on which no action has been taken.
No Governments have recognised the Chechen Government, whose election was upheld by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and former President Yeltsin. Mr. Idigov, an elected Chechen Member of Parliament, who was here last week, and former official representative of the elected President of Chechnya, told our group of his inability to meet representatives of western Governments to discuss the Chechen conflict. The Russian Government are also unwilling to talk to the rebel leadership to try to bring an end to the conflict.
Will the Minister try to give Chechen representatives an opportunity to address groups of people and Governments? If they were allowed to do so at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which will meet on 19 March, it would be a valuable contribution to a wider discussion of the issue.
The Chechen forces are responsible for violations of civilian immunity, mainly by killing, injuring or threatening civilians who work with the Russian-installed Administration in Chechnya. We must also ask what future the rebels foresee for the Chechen people and whether universal respect for human rights is part of their future agenda.
The conflict is taking place behind closed doors. Non-governmental organisations and independent journalists face significant obstacles to gaining access to, and working in, Chechnya. Unlike in many other conflicts, there are virtually no aid organisations on the ground--we know some reasons for that--and very few witnesses to what is happening. A few weeks ago, Frank Judd said:
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I also congratulate the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) on securing the debate, and I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). It insults suffering people all over the world that we have only an hour and a half this morning to discuss the problem. We ought to have a full debate.
The proposed agenda for the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva later this month is huge. We can do no more than scratch its surface this morning. It includes many issues and mentions 22 countries where human rights abuses are occurring. I will not deal with each in detail; if I did, hon. Members would never speak to me again.
We must seriously examine the language of the agenda. It includes terms such as affirm, reaffirm, commit, ratify, adopt, eliminate and maintain momentum. Where is the action? We are always reaffirming, but we never seem to get much action. Is the commission just a talking shop? The trouble is that there is no effective penalty against states that refuse to implement human rights. We hear, and we have heard this morning, appalling accounts of torture, abuse and murder. I could add to them at length. The commissioner travels around the world--on a very sparse budget compared with the rest of the UN--
I call on the world to stop the rhetoric--we could talk endlessly about human rights--and start to address the underlying causes of human rights abuse. In yesterday's debate on the International Development Bill, we talked at length about poverty. We must do more about trade agreements that discriminate against poorer countries. The AIDS epidemic, the scale of which has been recognised only in the past few years, seriously damages human rights. There is a lack of good government and democracy. There is a need to control the arms trade. Four years on, we still do not have a draft Bill about that. Where is it? The drugs trade is another huge problem.
I will not deny that there has been some progress. The International Criminal Court is good news, and the legislation for it is currently going through Parliament. When, however, will we ratify the protocol on child soldiers under the UN convention on the rights of the child? The land mine convention was an excellent move, and we were all pleased about it. However, the cluster bombs that have now come on the scene are probably doing more damage to people and their human rights than landmines ever did. There has been depressingly little progress on that front.
The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe said last year, when he was a Foreign Office Minister, that in an ideal world the Commission for Human Rights would be free of country-specific texts. Sadly, it is not. Although I promised not to talk about all the countries, I will briefly mention two or three.
I endorse all that has been said about Colombia. I too have been there, and I stayed in a village in the jungle where the most appalling abuses of human rights were taking place. The drugs trade--the problem that overhangs Colombia--has not been mentioned. We must ask ourselves whether we are tackling that correctly on an international level--I merely throw that out to the Minister. The United Nations should be discussing the issue. The problems of Colombia will not be solved until we do something about the drugs trade. Even if Plan Colombia has any effect--which it will not; it will only increase the suffering of the people of Colombia--it will merely divert the growing of drug crops elsewhere in the world and create yet another problem spot. I therefore urge the Government to look at that problem.
I wanted to touch on Sudan but, sadly, there is not much time in which to do so. Colombia is one hell-hole that I have visited; southern Sudan is another, with people bumping along the bottom of existence. They have no food; they are taken into slavery, abused, burned, raped and pillaged. It is a mediaeval society about which we have done little in the 40 years since we left Sudan. The Sudanese people expect us to do something; they were our people at one time and we united the two parts of their country. However, there is precious little progress or resolve among the international community to do anything about that problem.
According to Amnesty International--and the hon. Member for Manchester, Central--the wide-ranging crackdown on peaceful dissent continues in China: 260,000 people are in labour camps, there are great abuses of human rights in Tibet, the members of Falun Gong are persecuted and 18,000 people suffered the death penalty in the 1990s. In the USA, the death penalty is still imposed on people under the age of 18. I would call such people children--and they are being killed by the American Government. Will there be a UN action against the United States for that infringement of the rights of the child? That is an important topic and the USA should lead the world on it.
China is undoubtedly changing and progress is being made. Should we support that progress and condemn the human rights abuses? Should we encourage trade and cultural contact or suppress them until China changes? Should we stop the Olympic games in 2006 because of China's human rights record? Dealing with countries such as China is a dilemma for us; what I have said applies equally to Burma, which has been mentioned, and even Turkey. Maybe we need a carrot and stick approach. Will total condemnation and isolation only make things worse? I would like to know the Minister's views on those issues.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle ): Let me make one thing clear: it was China who tabled the no-action motion and the EU voted against it--but it was passed anyway. That is a very important point. The hon. Lady said that it was the other way around.
I wish to highlight an issue that has not been mentioned, which I hope the Government will raise at the UN Commission. Human trafficking in women and girls is the most extraordinary and sickening development in recent times. Two million women work as prostitutes worldwide; there are thousands in London. Some of them pay people traffickers £25,000 to come over to work in London as sex slaves, nothing more nor less. Paul Holmes of the Metropolitan police vice squad has said how many thousands there are in London, but doing anything about sex slaves and the problem of people trafficking in London is not one of the Met's performance indicators. I know it is not the Minister's area of responsibility, but it is a worldwide problem. People are coming from eastern Europe and it is happening around us in London. The international community spends millions of pounds on tracking drug traffickers. When will we start to spend the same amount on combating people trafficking? We must have some action from Geneva.
Lastly, I remind the Minister that many of us signed a renewal of the declaration of human rights. It was first signed over 50 years ago in 1948. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) signed it. We were in the Dining Room with the Foreign Secretary. I think that we used the same pen as him, which was pretty riveting stuff. What does it all mean, if it does not result in improvements? Liberal Democrats believe that the time has come to move from the process of declaration to the implementation of our commitment based on that universal declaration.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) on securing this debate. I also congratulate all those who have spoken. It seems to be the same crew every time, and here we are again. It is particularly apposite because the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights will be held in Geneva from 19 March to 27 April. Like the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), I regret the fact that this debate is in Westminster Hall rather than on the Floor of the House and that the Government have not allocated any time for a debate before such an important meeting.
As the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) said, the provisional agenda is comprehensive, covering everything from racism and religious intolerance to summary executions and the effective functioning of human rights mechanisms. Like her, I shall not read out the whole agenda. I simply ask: who will represent the UK at that meeting? Will the Minister place copies of the UK's position on each item of the agenda in the Library to summarise the lines that we will take on all the important matters that will be raised? I hope that the UK will be present throughout and will make a firm contribution. As the hon. Lady reminded us, we all signed up to a renewal of our views on human rights two years ago. This Government have made much of their vaunted ethical and moral foreign policy.
In the brief time left to me I should like to raise three specific issues. The first concerns Burma. I should like to pay tribute again to Wilfred Wong of the Jubilee Campaign, which consistently provides us with information about Burma. Recently it sent out some filmed evidence of atrocities currently being inflicted on Burma's internally displaced minorities. Would the Minister accept a copy of that video and let me have his comments on it? As I understand it, the British Government have yet to acknowledge that there is a genocide and neither has there been any financial assistance to the Kareni or the Shan. There are more than 342,000 internally displaced Kareni and Shan people in Burma, many of them hiding in the jungle from the Burmese army who normally kill them on sight.
Mr. Battle : That is not true. We are assisting them, although not in Burma as we do not deal with the Burmese Government. We are assisting in the refugee camps that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited in Thailand. That is the way to do it. That is where most of the Karen are.
Like the hon. Member for Richmond Park, I want to raise the issue of China, because, once again, the United Kingdom will not be sponsoring a resolution condemning China's record on human rights, for which the Conservative party has consistently pressed since it has been in opposition. When the Conservative party was in government, we co-sponsored the resolution. The United States will introduce a resolution on China's human rights practices at the meeting of the Commission's meeting in March, I hope that the Minister will say now whether he will co-sponsor the resolution encouraging China to take positive, concrete steps to meet its internal obligations to protect the fundamental freedoms and civil liberties of the Chinese people. I am not encouraged to think that the Minister will give me that assurance, which is a great shame; when asked whether he would support the resolution on the Chinese Government his weak and weedy written answer was as follows:
Less than two weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) and I went to Zimbabwe, where we met some of the bravest people that it has ever been our privilege to meet. We met residents of the high-density area of Harare, whose freedom and jobs are disappearing out of the window, farmers who have been casually thrown off their farms, and workers and their children whose homes have been taken from them who are forced to live in sheds that once housed working machines. We met farmers who have not been allowed to plant seed on their farm for more than a year and whose farms are going to rack and ruin. We met lawyers--the judges in Zimbabwe are the last bastion of the rule of law. We met Morgan Tsvangirai, the brave leader of the opposition MDC party, whose offices have been bombed and activists beaten up, some just for wearing an MDC tee-shirt.
Since we left Zimbabwe, in the last few days the seventh white farmer has been murdered--Mrs. Olds' husband was also cruelly slaughtered two years ago and within hours of his death Mugabe went on television saying that white farmers were "our enemies".
Where is the voice of the United Kingdom Government in all this? We have been deafened by their silence. The Chief Justice has been thrown out of office, foreign journalists have been expelled, the economy is in free fall and there will probably be food shortages by the end of the year, but the United Kingdom has done nothing.
What has Mugabe done in the past few days? He has taken off on a tour of Europe and been feted by our so-called European partners while we stay silent. The Times this morning reported that not only did Mugabe have an
Today, while we discuss human rights, I am giving the Minister an opportunity to tell us on the Government's behalf where Labour's voice is and whether they appreciate freedom and hate tyranny. If he cannot in this debate condemn Mugabe's actions and join us in calling for sanctions concerning the closest supporters of Mugabe, he is practising the politics of convenience and betraying everything that this Government and country should stand for and certainly the people of Zimbabwe. The Minister is a decent and honest man, so I hope that the first words that he utters will be a condemnation of Mugabe.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle ): My first words are that I hope that I will not be condemned for not being an honest and decent man, but I will return to the issue of Zimbabwe. It is a most serious concern, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) for raising it.
I start by complimenting my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins), who has a record of raising matters of international development, justice and peace. I am tempted to say to him that, as other hon. Members know, campaigning on human rights in other parts of the world is not always popular when we are trying to be re-elected and to represent our own constituents. I do not mean that cynically in relation to the immediate election, but raising international affairs is not the easiest job in our society, and I compliment all those who do so regularly.
This year, I held a meeting in the Foreign Office with a range of NGOs to get their input. We talked to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Anti-Slavery International, Article 19, the UN association, Disability Awareness in Action, Human Rights Watch, the Law Society, the Catholic Institute for International Relations, minority rights groups, the Refugee Council, Save the Children, Amnesty, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Index on Censorship and others. I cannot name them all, but there were more organisations. The purpose of the meeting was to hear their voices, to see what issues they wanted us to discuss and to ask them to suggest amendments that we should work towards in getting consensus and resolutions passed by the UN. Those organisations warmly welcomed that.
Having recognised the input of NGOs, perhaps we should do more to recognise the input of right hon. and hon. Members. As we have heard this morning, they have real expertise to offer on these matters. I will happily take back with me the proposal that we have a serious debate every year on the Floor of the House in anticipation of the commission, which would allow us to decide what our key themes should be. I will say why. Amnesty International's first priorities were Russia, Chechnya, Colombia, Sierra Leone, China and Saudi Arabia. Zimbabwe was not on that list, but perhaps it should be. I thank the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham for her contribution on Zimbabwe, which raises serious concerns. Many other countries were listed, as well as themes such as torture, the death penalty, forced disappearance, children, abduction and slavery in Sudan. The range of the agenda was there at the meeting, but perhaps we need to extend the parliamentary debate. Next year, we may be able to work together in different ways to achieve that.
The forum was a welcome contribution and we must not underestimate the wealth of knowledge and experience of NGOs and others who help us--Members of Parliament and Ministers--to understand what is happening on the ground. In the age of the e-mail and the fax, we can learn much more about the impact of the denial of human rights on local communities. We do not have to wait for telegrams from embassies, which should no longer be regarded as the source and fount of all knowledge about a country. We can receive direct information from our global communications systems--a helpful tool to encourage us to be more alert and responsive. We need to take further action, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) said when she encouraged us earlier to move on from resolution-based politics.
We have tried hard; we shall continue to do our best to put human rights at the heart of foreign policy; but we have a long way to go. I do not resile from the task; promoting human rights is one of my passions. Of
Mr. Battle : We are sending a full team to negotiate the wording and it will be in place for the whole period. Different sessions take place on different countries among different teams, so I could not physically attend every workshop to debate the wording the whole time. That is not the role of Ministers, but I shall be there as long as I can. I am going there to listen as well as speak.
Mr. Battle : I think that my diary will confirm that I shall be there for two full days. I am more than keen to attend for as long as I can. The hon. Lady might like to know that I am probably due to answer parliamentary questions on the Floor of the House and that I have other responsibilities in Parliament. I repeat that I want to attend the session for as long as I can, and that I have every confidence in the team. I want to move on because I have so much ground to cover in my remaining time.
Britain lobbied hard to be re-elected to the 53-member Commission on Human Rights and we secured a place last May for another three years. We were elected top of the western group and we should not take our place at that table for granted. We have to campaign for it and we need a respected track record to be there. Only six of our EU partners are on that commission, not including the current presidency.
We are keen to ensure that we retain a good track record. We shall actively contribute to EU initiatives on Sudan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territories, Iran, Iraq, Chechnya, East Timor and Colombia. We shall also campaign on the death penalty and rights of the child. The hon. Member for Richmond Park mentioned trafficking in people, an issue that is thankfully moving up the agenda. It is every bit as serious as the international drugs trade. All those matters will be on our agenda and I shall ensure that the hon. Lady's representations are heard.
A key UK objective in all UN human rights forums is to uphold the human rights principles that all Governments signed up to at the world conference on human rights in Vienna in 1993. It is increasingly understood that human rights are the legitimate concern of the international community. Human rights are universal, a seamless garment applying equally to all human beings everywhere. Everyone with a name and a face has a right to be represented in terms of basic human rights.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East praised the work of the special rapporteurs, which I welcome. However, I should pick him up on one small point. He paid tribute to Sir Nigel Rodley, and I endorse that praise. However, I understand that Sir Nigel Rodley has no plans to step down at this session of the Commission on Human Rights, even though he has recently been elected to the Human Rights Committee. We will work closely with the Danes on their draft resolution on torture, which will renew the special rapporteurs' mandate. It is not a fait accompli--he has not finished his work yet, and I do not want to give that impression.
A number of countries--Norway, Canada, Iceland and the Czech Republic-- have indicated that they will issue standing invitations in respect of UN thematic procedures. NGOs have been lobbying EU member states to do the same. We are in favour of the practice of issuing standing invitations and have been consulting other Departments to ensure that they are happy with that arrangement. I am optimistic that, when I get to Geneva, I will be able to make a positive announcement on that issue so that we can move the internal workings on to make them more implementary rather than simply resolutionary.
It is our policy to encourage all Governments to ratify the core UN human rights treaties with minimum reservations, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Richmond Park. Internationally, emphasis and attention must now be given to implementation. Governments have freely undertaken obligations under the treaties, and they must fulfil them and co-operate fully with UN mechanisms. The UK is no exception: all our Departments have to respond in detail to the questions of special rapporteurs, and so they should.
We want to continue our efforts to eradicate torture and will continue the Foreign Secretary's anti-torture campaign, the second phase of which was launched in December 2000. We want the World Conference against Racism to be successful. It has been set up, and we want to follow it through and be actively engaged. I would like to go myself--if that would make the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham happy, it would make me happy--but events before the date of the conference might preclude that. We try to do as much as we can to ensure that as many countries as possible open their doors to UN rapporteurs and scrutiny. Openness to scrutiny is a start along the road of implementation.
We are committed to taking preventive action at all levels to protect children caught up in armed conflict. We have ratified International Labour Organisation convention 182 on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for armed conflict. We are
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) mentioned China. We raise the matter of human rights regularly with China. Dialogue took place in February and, when Mary Robinson was there, there was some progress on China. We will not step back from pressing the Chinese on Falun Gong and the treatment of people who practise Falun Gong and are being harassed, even in this country. I personally raised that with the Chinese ambassador. We insist that they answer for a list of people in China whom we know are being tortured or are missing, and we will not step back from that. It is important to keep momentum behind that dialogue. We have the mechanism to push it, but there has not been sufficient action. We are not happy with progress on that matter.
Mr. Battle : If the hon. Lady would stop nattering, I would be able to get to the points that need to be addressed. I will ensure that our positions and resolutions at the Commission on Human Rights are available in the Library for hon. Members to read. That back-up will enable me to respond in detail on all the countries that have been mentioned.
I met Father Francisco de Roux in Colombia. I do not have time to respond in full to the two hon. Members who raised the issue of Colombia, but I thank them for doing that. That situation has worsened. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office is on her way to Washington, where she will discuss the implementation of the American Plan Colombia.
Mrs. Gillan : On a point of order, Mrs. Michie. Is it right that a Minister should reply to a debate, even in Westminster Hall, and ignore some of the main points that were made? The Minister has failed to reply to urgent questions on the Government's attitude to Zimbabwe. Is it in order for a Minister not to respond to a debate?
Mr. Battle : If the hon. Lady would but listen, she would know that I have made it clear that we take the situation in Zimbabwe very seriously. I cannot go into detail on that because I want to reply to the hon. Member who introduced the debate. I am prevented from doing so by the hon. Lady, who is hijacking the debate.