Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Order, order. Minister, may I welcome you again to the Committee, this time flanked by Dr Carolyn Brown, who is Head of the Human Rights Policy Department and Dr Nicola Brewer, Director of Global Issues in the Foreign Office. I welcome you all. We note that on this the fourth annual report on human rights the Foreign Office have chosen very well indeed a photograph of Milosevic being taken into custody, which is one very positive development since the last report. There is also good news of course on Sierra Leone. I am pleased that in the inside cover of the report, the objectives element states that you have been able to incorporate into the format of the report many of the suggestions which have been made by this Committee and indeed by non-governmental organisations and we are certainly grateful for that. You say that the report provides an overview of the main challenges to human rights around the world and the period covered is from June of the year 2000 to July of last year. Obviously though ending in July of last year everybody thinks of this absolutely decisive occurrence, atrocity, on 11 September on the World Trade Centre. So perhaps we might begin in relation to the effects of that atrocity on human rights. Can you speculate, Minister, as to the way you think the emphasis of the report might have been altered had this report been taken to the end of last year, in the light of the World Trade Centre?

  (Mr Hain) Speculation is a dangerous thing for any Minister but obviously we shall have wanted to take account of developments there in respect of the action, detainees and other issues which concern everybody associated with it. We would also have wanted to recognise that the terrorist attack on New York and Washington created entirely new circumstances for the world upon which we have had to act.

  2. Chapter 4.2 of the report deals with developments in international humanitarian law. Obviously the prison conditions in Guantanamo Bay have figured very largely in recent discussion on that. What concerns, if any, have we expressed to the US, obviously in particular about our own citizens?
  (Mr Hain) We have been in the process of constant dialogue with the authorities in the US and a delegation of British officials did visit the Guantanamo base and were able to talk to the detainees who are British. Whether it is at that level or at the level of the Foreign Secretary talking pretty well every other day to Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington about a whole range of international issues, this included, we have been in constant contact.

  3. There have been very strong leaks that Colin Powell has pressed the President to have the detainees classified as prisoners of war. Is that a view we share?
  (Mr Hain) First of all, I have read those reports just as members of the Committee could have and I cannot shed any further light on them. What is important here is that we distinguish basic principles rather than get into the intricacies of international law applied in the context of a battlefield situation and subsequent apprehension. The principles are clear: the individuals apprehended are alleged to be and assumed to be guilty of very serious crimes, either in Afghanistan or by association with others, members of al-Qaeda, in an international conspiracy, the most dramatic form of which we saw in the USA on 11 September. They therefore have to be treated very, very carefully and circumspectly and with exceptional security measures, especially as there is a tendency for suicide action. That is the first reality that we simply need to be constantly aware of. The second is that everybody, whatever crime they are alleged to have committed, should be treated humanely. That is a principle we strongly adhere to; we believe that the American authorities, even in the difficult circumstances in Guantanamo Bay, where there was no prior planning for such an eventuality, have also sought to adopt the same principles of humanitarian treatment.

  4. Do you accept that the letter of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 are not relevant here? (Mr Hain) No, the US authorities have said that the detainees are being treated humanely consistently with the principles of the Geneva Conventions in mind and that certainly is an attitude which we would wish to endorse.

  5. Are you concerned that this classification of unlawful combatants is unknown to international law?
  (Mr Hain) The exact circumstances in which the individuals were apprehended and exactly what they were doing and how they might be categorised or classified or designated is highly complex because we are not dealing here with the traditional conflict between nations. In respect of al-Qaeda detainees at least, perhaps in respect of Taliban armed forces with which admittedly they were linked in some fashion, and it varied, then one could have applied traditional categories but this is a very complex matter and rather than trying to get me to define, though I am happy to answer any questions from the Committee, and to be pressed on it, exactly how I would as a non-lawyer, not as a domestic lawyer or an international lawyer, define the exact circumstances or the classification of an individual detainee is not very fruitful

  6. Are we drawing the attention of our US allies to the fact that it is not for them unilaterally under the conventions to classify these detainees as prisoners of war or not?
  (Mr Hain) Statements which have been made by the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and indeed by President Bush himself indicate quite clearly, and I am happy to report them to you, that they do want to act in a way which is consistent with the Geneva Conventions. Donald Rumsfeld said on 11 January that they have indicated that they do plan to treat the detainees in a manner which is reasonably consistent with the Geneva Conventions, to the extent that this is appropriate, and that is exactly what they have been doing. It is not for me to defend every statement which has come from Washington or anywhere else in the world uttered by a Foreign Minister, whether an American or anyone else.

  7. I hope you will not.
  (Mr Hain) I think I should defend our own Government's position and that I am very happy to do so.

  8. But you also surely have a duty to defend British nationals.
  (Mr Hain) Of course and that we have done.

  9. You also have a duty to ensure that our allies as part of a coalition act in ways which do not prejudice the representations we make in other fora. For example the Executive Order the President issued in November does avoid the normal legal procedures. Do you think that Executive Order with its procedures and lacking legal safeguards will prejudice representations we make to other countries in terms of the conditions available to prisoners?
  (Mr Hain) What is important is what is happening on the ground. We sent a delegation of British officials who talked to all three of the British detainees in Guantanamo Bay. I do not say they are ecstatic about their treatment, who would be in those circumstances, but they made no complaints about inhumane treatment and the Red Cross, in line with normal accepted practice in these circumstances, is present, is able to monitor the situation, is able to make representations.

  10. So you are content with the situation so far.
  (Mr Hain) I do not think anybody is content with the situation, let alone the Americans in the sense that they would not have chosen to have to deal with these circumstances. Let us remember that we are dealing with a situation which was not planned for, where there are, according to the New York Times, currently 158 detainees held in Guantanamo Bay as of a week ago and the planned capacity, according to the Baltimore Sun of 25 January, is 2,000. The detainees in Afghanistan held by the US currently number 270—at least that is my latest information. The BBC reported a spokesman for the US authorities, a former US Ambassador to Qatar, Kenton Keith, saying that he believed the number of prisoners to be around 7,000 in total. These are exceptional totals in circumstances which were not planned for. I think it is quite proper that everybody cast a beady eye on the treatment of prisoners to ensure that they are treated in a humanitarian fashion and we are doing that along with the Americans themselves.

  11. They are not exceptional totals in terms of other wars.
  (Mr Hain) They are exceptional detainees in the sense that they have been apprehended in circumstances where al-Qaeda have been fighting the international coalition. They are assumed to be members of al-Qaeda, it is alleged some of them very senior ones. Al-Qaeda are known to be ruthless terrorists, to be prepared to commit suicide and take anybody else with them, as we saw so dramatically on 11 September, therefore they are exceptional circumstances which were not planned for and if some things have gone wrong along the way, that is perfectly natural. The Americans have insisted that they are treating all detainees in a humanitarian fashion, broadly according to the principles of the Geneva Convention. This is something we want to see and we will certainly be monitoring that.

  12. You have talked about exceptional circumstances and al-Qaeda. The Geneva Conventions devised in 1949 were principally for wars of one state against another, enforcing obligations on states. Where one has non-state actors, as in this case, is it your view that the Geneva Conventions should be revisited to look at these new circumstances?
  (Mr Hain) I am quite low down the Ministerial food chain to begin to make pronouncements of that kind. We need constantly to update all our international procedures and treaties. We are now in an era of an entirely new threat from an international terrorist force which struck so unexpectedly and horrifically on 11 September. I guess we need to review all our security procedures and legal procedures to take account of these developments.

Ms Stuart

  13. For the moment let us look in particular at the prisoners in the Guantanamo base as you very kindly brought along your Director of Human Rights Policy Department. It would help me to understand slightly better the workings of the Foreign Office if you could give me some indication what reports were shown to the Human Rights Department and to what extent they were involved in the policy decision making which then led to the Government's position on the prisoners. What is the interaction between that department and the decision-making process?
  (Mr Hain) It is fairly central. Under this Government, from 1997 on, initially under Robin Cook, now under Jack Straw as Foreign Secretary, and myself having been involved over a number of years, we put human rights at the centre of our foreign policy. I think we have a very good record on that and I am happy to explore it. We always want to do better and your advice helps us to do that. The policies of the Human Rights Policy Department, which Carolyn Browne heads have been mainstream. It is not an any other business item which you get round to if you are in the South Asian department or the Africa department or the Middle East department. Human rights are constantly on your agenda. Our ambassadors and high commissioners make it a mainstream matter for them. We have had considerable interest in the allocation of human rights advisers to our posts[1]. Initially we have two human rights advisers already in place in Kiev and Katmandu out of eight and we already have a full list in Kuala Lumpur where we are recruiting and Caracas where we are recruiting and three in Africa. This is an indication of both the success of human rights advice and in addition here in London we had diplomats on secondment to Article 19, to the Minority Rights Group and to Inter-Rights and we have human rights advisers working inside the Foreign Office from non-governmental organisations. Having worked for example with one of our officials who was recruited from Amnesty International, she brings considerable added-value to the work of the department. It is very much appreciated.

  14. May I just press you a little bit further on the very precise instance of the Guantanamo base? Which reports would have been seen by the department and to what extent would that have affected the policy making?
  (Mr Hain) All the reports.

  15. You would have seen all of them.
  (Mr Hain) All the reports from Guantanamo base would have been seen by the department and it would have been second nature, because that is the way the Foreign Office works today, to make sure that human rights is at the top of our agenda. It was not always like that in the past, but it certainly is the case now and for the future. I do not say we always get it right. We try to and your observations on Guantanamo Bay or any other instances of foreign policy would be very much welcomed.

Mr Pope

  16. You said something interesting there which was that human rights are at the top of the Foreign Office agenda, which certainly was not the case with previous governments. We have constructed this coalition against terrorism. The coalition is fragile and some of the countries in the coalition, to be frank, have pretty poor human rights records. I just wonder how difficult it now is for the Foreign Office to press countries who have poor human rights records which are in the coalition. There are countries with whom we have probably been pretty robust prior to 11 September and now the priority is to keep them on board in the coalition. Frankly a number of countries surrounding Afghanistan do not have a great human rights record. I just wonder what the priority is. Is the priority since 11 September to continue to press those countries to improve their human rights record or are we comparatively soft peddling because it is more important to keep them on board the coalition?
  (Mr Hain) It is a key question and I shall answer it directly. It is something we constantly try to keep a balance on. If you look at the international situation, it has changed quite dramatically. Who would have suspected, for example, that Pakistan would have come out of its self-imposed categorisation as a state of concern into one which is part of the international coalition, its own human rights record not being a pretty one, being now addressed in dialogue with us and with others. We can have members of an international coalition to fight a common threat of this awful kind whilst at the same time having a full and frank dialogue including, where appropriate, pressure with individual countries, it might be Iran, it might be Pakistan, it might be others involved. That continues and it has not stood in the way. May I make one additional point? I do not see a conflict between security and individual liberty, indeed the right to life is the most basic human right and our security is enhanced by projecting concern for human rights and making sure that concern is implemented.

  17. I just want to come back about Pakistan. Human Rights Watch say, "The US and British embrace of Musharraf in their anti-terrorism coalition effectively ended any international pressure for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan". Do you agree with that?
  (Mr Hain) I do not agree with that; on the contrary, whether it was the Prime Minister's meeting with President Musharraf on the 8 January or whether it was the constant contact that the Foreign Secretary has had with Pakistan and his opposite number and our own dialogue with Pakistanis in post, we have constantly been in dialogue about human rights and we shall continue to be so.

  18. May I ask about the effect in the UK and how that affects things internationally? As part of our own response to 11 September we put through Parliament the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. That entailed us having to get a derogation from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Have any of our European Union partner countries derogated from the Convention?
  (Mr Hain) I am not aware, to be perfectly frank.
  (Dr Browne) I am not aware either.
  (Mr Hain) Perhaps we could come back to you on that point[2].

  19. When you come back, if they have not derogated, why did we need to? Does the fact that we have this derogation not impair our ability to go to countries which have very poor human rights records and raise it with them? They may just throw it back in our face, "You have derogated from the Convention on Human Rights, how dare you come to us".
  (Mr Hain) I do not think so. We fully consulted our European colleagues on this matter. It was a matter on which we have acted in concert. None has yet derogated but that is not to say they will not. No, I do not think so, because we were dealing with exceptional circumstances here, we have acted in accord with that and that does not mean that we have somehow thrown human rights out of the window: on the contrary, our commitment to human rights, both in Britain, throughout Europe and internationally remains as steadfast as it has always been.

1   Note by witness: Initially we have three human rights advisers already in place in Manila, Kiev and Katmandu. Back

2   See evidence, p Ev 14. Back

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