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Westminster Hall

Thursday 5 June 2003

[Mr. Edward O'hara in the Chair]

Human Rights

[Relevant documents: Human Rights Annual Report 2002—Fourth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2002–03, HC 257, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 5820.]

Motion made and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]

2.30 pm

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Mr. Deputy Speaker,

and reason. So begins the universal declaration of human rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. I stress the world "universal", which cannot be qualified by degrees of longitude or latitude. At this time, that grand aspiration seems far from being realised, with images of conflict and horrific human rights abuses filling our television screens every day, and some have tried to develop a theory of contextual or cultural relativity. I am therefore most grateful for the opportunity to debate this important report on human rights by the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I am delighted to see so many of my colleagues from the Committee in the Chamber.

From the start, the Committee understands that the application of the general principle must take account of the test of effectiveness; that is, we must consider which approach will have the most likely positive effect on a particular country and its circumstances. Equally, the Committee recognises that the test of effectiveness might be used as a cover, and that there is the danger of falling prey to the temptation of being tough on smaller, insignificant countries and soft on the big ones with a strategic or commercial interest. Although the application may differ, in my judgment, the underlying principles do not change.

What is the background to our inquiry? I have had the honour of chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee since 1997. Since that time, it has kept human rights high on its agenda. In April 1998, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office published its first annual report on its work to promote human rights overseas. Since then, a positive dialogue has developed between the Committee and the FCO. As a result of the recommendations that we have made each year in response to the annual report, we have seen big improvements in its content and format. We are pleased to continue the tradition of scrutiny, which well illustrates the nature of Select Committees' influence on the Departments that it is their job to scrutinise.

In the 2002 report, we covered the form and content of the FCO report. We raised some of the human rights issues associated with the war against international terrorism. We expressed our concerns about the human

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rights situation in several countries and the way in which the Foreign Office had covered them in its report. We also examined the work and role of the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. We thank all who assisted us in the course of our inquiry. The Minister had an early baptism before the Committee, but however we tried to test him on the remotest of countries, he knew all or most of the answers. We also thank the representatives from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The Government reply to our report was published shortly before the winter recess; it was positive, full and thorough; it engaged with the substance of our report and accepted many of our recommendations and conclusions. Indeed, I commend that reply as an exemplar to the rest of the Foreign Office and other Departments.

The Committee broadly welcomed the Government report, which was well set out and informative. We were pleased to note that there had been many changes to the report, many of which we recommended, such as the re-inclusion of the universal charter of human rights at the beginning. Some differences remain, such as those on the presentation of country information. I anticipate a dialogue on that model between the Committee and the FCO.

The report raises concerns about UN human rights policy in various parts of the world, although I cannot do a Cook's tour and mention all the countries.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): Oh, go on.

Donald Anderson : I am sure that my colleagues, including my good and hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), will take up those countries that I omit.

I turn now to a few of the key countries, especially Burma, or Myanmar, which is particularly relevant today because of the renewed oppression there. Aung San Suu Kyi has been taken into "protective custody"; I know that the Minister called in the Burmese ambassador earlier this week to call for her release. Our report highlights the continuing human rights abuses committed by the military dictatorship in Burma, especially against the ethnic minorities, many of which are on the border with Thailand.

Those people have long been the victims of continued repression, forced labour, summary executions, torture, rape and forced relocation. It is estimated that there are some 650,000 internally displaced persons from those minority groups in Burma. We recommended that the next annual report include more detailed information on the plight of the minority groups and that the Government maintain the strongest possible

We were pleased to note that the Government's reply accepted that minorities suffer disproportionately in Burma, and they promised to include further details in the next annual report. The reply also reaffirmed the Government's commitment to maintaining pressure on the regime, both bilaterally and with our European partners.

Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are very much in the news today. Carla del Ponte, the prosecutor for international criminal tribunals for

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Rwanda and Yugoslavia, warned on 13 May that ethnic conflict in the north-east of the DRC could constitute genocide. The precedent, which must worry us all, is Rwanda, where between March and June 1994 more than 800,000 people were killed while the international community looked on. I recall that an assimilation exercise carried out by West Point suggested that had some 5,000 international peacekeepers been there the greater part of that genocide could have been avoided.

I am pleased to note that there was an agreement in February between the Presidents of Uganda and the DRC on the withdrawal of Ugandan troops, but since then the situation has deteriorated. I am pleased to note also that the United Nations Security Council recently endorsed a French-led peacekeeping force, which the EU approved earlier this week. It is vital that human rights in that area be guaranteed as soon as possible.

Perhaps the Minister could bring us up to date with the role that the UK is taking and say a little more about the decision at the G8 meeting in Evian relating to peacekeeping in Africa as a whole. In the early 1990s, the then British Foreign Secretary, now Lord Hurd, made an excellent speech to the UN General Assembly in which he recommended that there be a peacekeeping force trained by Europeans. However, very little has happened since then, although Evian may now point the way forward.

Clearly, the Zimbabwe regime is one of the major human rights abusers in the world at present. Only by adopting the toughest possible stance against it can we hope to improve the human rights situation of its people. The Select Committee has carried out much work on the subject. Immediately before the recess, we published a full report on developments there, which I commend to colleagues.

In our report on the FCO annual report, we deplored President Chirac's decision to invite President Mugabe to the recent Franco-African summit and his willingness to jeopardise the EU sanctions regime. We urged the Government to

In its reply, the FCO said that it shared our concern about the invitation, but intimated that France practically blackmailed the rest of Europe into accepting Mugabe's presence in Paris by threatening to veto an extension of the sanctions regime.

We said in our report that it

I was pleased to note the condemnation of Mugabe's human rights abuses at the G8 summit. Although it was relatively milk and water, at least it was the first reference to Zimbabwe by the G8. We look forward to an opportunity to explore such issues further, perhaps in a full debate on the Select Committee's Zimbabwe report.

Clearly, one of the greatest weaknesses in the 2002 report is the coverage of Saudi Arabia. Despite widely reported human rights abuses there, the FCO report dealt with the situation in a mere three paragraphs. One

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of our witnesses described the section as "woefully inadequate". We are inclined to agree. The report barely mentioned the slow progress that the kingdom is making on the issue of torture. Much of the progress to which the 2002 report referred was also noted in the 2001 report. The three inadequate paragraphs compare poorly with the 17 pages in the US State Department's equivalent publication.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Saudi Arabia's strategic importance to the war on terrorism led to a considerable understatement of the UK's criticism of the country's human rights record. Our report recommended that the next FCO annual report

We were pleased to note from the Government's response that they accepted the breadth of human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia, including the use of torture, and gave a fuller assessment of the situation than appears in the annual report. I urge the Minister to continue such candour in future annual reports. For the Government to be respected on the subject, they must speak out frankly about what has, and has not, worked and continue to press for change in the kingdom.

I turn now to human rights and the war on terrorism. We are pleased to note that the 2002 annual report starts with a section devoted to the fight against international terrorism, something that we recommended last year. Our report stressed again the importance of a concern for human rights being at the centre of the UK response to the outrage in the World Trade Centre on 11 September and stated:

In particular, vital geopolitical or strategic needs of the fight against terrorism should not stop us speaking out against allies as well as opponents.

We highlighted the example of Uzbekistan as a country that has used the war against terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on the freedom of its citizens. We expressed particular concern about the decision of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to hold a prestigious meeting in Tashkent. However, I am glad to note some evidence of progress. I understand that the International Development Minister made a statement and that the President has now agreed to the return of the UN special rapporteur for that country. It is obviously imperative that the Foreign Office continues to stress to its coalition partners its principles of respect for human rights.

Turning to Guantanamo bay, human rights issues extend beyond our concerns about the middle east and central Asian states. Our US Government partner's decision to hold prisoners at Guantanamo bay in Cuba without trial or due legal process is a source of some concern. We note the result of the Abbasi case in this country and the judgment in November 2002, when the Court of Appeal concluded that he was

However, the Court of Appeal felt unable to do more than ask the Foreign Secretary to consider Mr. Abbasi's representations for assistance. We are concerned about the continued detention without trial of those prisoners,

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which risks undermining our ability and that of our US partners to speak out on other human rights issues. I hope that the Government will continue to press the US Government on that matter, and I would welcome any further information that the Minister could give us.

A final issue relating to the war on terrorism is the publication in November 2002 of the dossier on human rights abuses in Iraq. The dossier is being much discussed at present, as are dossiers in general. The Committee supported the decision last November to publish. It was right to bring to the public's attention what was happening in Iraq as a result of the Saddam Hussein regime. However, the Government's apparent unwillingness to produce further dossiers on human rights abusers may undermine their good intentions in respect of the Iraqi dossier. It could be seen as singling out just one country—Iraq—simply to justify the conflict that began in March. I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to publishing further dossiers on human rights situations in other countries. Periodically, we have made representations in respect of countries such as Zimbabwe. Such dossiers could be extremely useful in highlighting and shaming the worst offenders.

Turning to the UNCHR, I want to mention our disquiet that the international community continues to devalue its stance on human rights by actions such as the Buggin's turn principle in the United Nations and the fact that the Government did not seriously challenge Libya's chairing of the Commission on Human Rights—we abstained on that point. How can we take seriously an organisation concerned with human rights that has a serious human rights violator in the chair? Surely the question answers itself.

We note in passing that Iraq was due to become chair of the UN Conference on Disarmament in March 2003, since when, as we say in Parliament, an amendment has been moved. In fact, the situation was avoided only because Iraq withdrew from that responsibility. Surely, such total incongruities in the UN play into the hands of unilateralists in the United States and devalue the UN's work in this important field. The Select Committee said that there is surely a case for some membership criteria, but we recognise the practical political problems that would be involved.

It is very easy to criticise and naturally we do so. The report concentrates on areas that need improvement. However, it is important to stress that the FCO's annual human rights report as a whole is an important and well constructed document. It is difficult to find a publication of similar quality which provides the same quantity of information elsewhere in the world. I should like the Minister to pass on our thanks and praise to the officials involved.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I know that it is difficult to mention everything, but I was a little surprised that my right hon. Friend did not mention North Korea in his catalogue of woes. In the lexicon of awful states, North Korea must now be virtually the first entry. As a fellow Christian, I know that my right hon. Friend would be concerned about the evidence given by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. One of the worst aspects of the situation is that when people escape from North Korea—they tend to go to China—they now get repatriated. Is it not worth paying special attention to

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that? Maybe, in addition to its report, the Select Committee can take the matter up directly with the Government.

Donald Anderson : My hon. Friend makes a very important point with which I totally agree. The problem is what to omit. I could, for example, have covered the problems of the Christian minorities in Pakistan and other Muslim states. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central said earlier that he would be ready to fill any gaps if I inadvertently failed to mention something.

The Government's record on promoting human rights in the wider context is solid. That is evidenced by the fact that, by the end of the financial year 2003–04, the human rights projects fund, which was created in 1998, will have given support worth over £26 million to more than 600 human rights projects in more than 90 countries. Of course, many of those are micro-projects, but they are none the less valuable for that. In my judgment—I believe I speak on behalf of the Committee on this—the Government have made a positive contribution, but we should not become complacent. Much more needs to be done. We look forward to continuing our constructive and positive dialogue with the Government, from our perspective of scrutinising what they do and fail to do—sins of commission and omission, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) might say—in the years to come.

2.52 pm

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): I apologise in advance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to you and to the Chamber, for the fact that I cannot stay until the end of the debate.

I should like to pick up on what our Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), said about Saudi Arabia, which I want to use to show why human rights are important not only in themselves but for the countries concerned and the stability of the regions in which they exist. We were pretty critical in our report of what the Government had said about Saudi Arabia, and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we contrasted that with a similar report from the US, which was much more elaborate.

Interestingly, in their response to our report, the Government said rather more about Saudi Arabia than they had in their original report about that country. We all noticed that, as did Amnesty International. The Government went into quite a lot of detail about the problems of the judicial system—the lack of transparency and impartiality, torture and prolonged incommunicado in pre-trial detentions—and about the lack of women's rights to participation, quite apart from the lack of democracy. Amnesty International picked up on those points as well.

To all of us who value human rights, they are important for their own sake. I am sure that the citizens of Saudi Arabia would have far better, more fulfilling and secure lives if they enjoyed progressively the human rights that we in the west have come to take for granted. I am not suggesting that countries such as Saudi Arabia can move from where they are now to fully fledged Jeffersonian democracy in a couple of years, but there does not seem to be much progress down that path and we need to make a start on that.

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Although human rights are important to the citizens of the countries concerned, they are also important because—I use Saudi Arabia as an example—they are so pivotal to what happens in the region. That region impinges on our security through oil supplies and prices. We were able to deal with that because Saudi Arabia, as our major ally, maintained peace and stability in the region, but 11 September brought home to us the price that we have paid for that.

Much of Islamic terrorism seems to find the wellspring of its ideology in Saudi Arabia, in its education system and a perversion of its religion. I am not suggesting that every Wahabi is a terrorist, as he is clearly not, any more than every Muslim is, but the group seems to be the wellspring of terrorism. There is an unholy deal in the foundation of Saudi Arabia between the ruling family and the religious establishment, as the latter gets control of education and a chunk of the oil wealth while the ruling family is allowed to get on with ruling the country. We could accept that deal for some time, but we can do so no longer because, as economists would say, the externalities are becoming far too expensive.

Saudi Arabia is not unique. It is difficult to find a functioning democracy among any of the 22 countries and 200 million people of the Arab world. Very few of those countries respect human rights or have an impartial judiciary as we understand those terms, although encouragingly we are seeing progress in some countries. When my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) speaks for the Conservatives in this debate, he will undoubtedly highlight some of the countries that are making progress, as he knows more about them than I do, but I would single out Morocco, Bahrain and Jordan. They are far from western democracies, and other countries are not making any progress, but some are moving forward. Since 11 September, both we and the United States have set out why that is all important.

We should consider what is happening in the Arab world in the context of the great wave of economic liberalisation and democratisation that overtook the world after the collapse of the Berlin wall. We saw that wave in south-east Asia, Africa and Latin America, but not in the Arab world, which is extraordinary. Is there something unique about Arabs that means that they are not fit to run their own affairs or enjoy the human rights and impartial judiciaries that the rest of us enjoy? The answer is no.

Their problem is that most Arab countries are, in European terms, feudal, pre-Reformation states, and we must encourage them to make the leap forward. To understand Saudi Arabia, one could compare it to Tudor England; we are asking it to make a 500-year leap in history in, I hope, a shorter time than that. There is a serious problem, and we must acknowledge it.

Those who deny or are unaware of such a problem should read last year's United Nations Arab human development report, as many Members will have done. It was written by Arabs, not some neo-con think-tank in Washington or New York, and it is a pretty damning indictment. I shall quote a few important points from it:

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That is a more elegant way of saying what I have been trying to say about the lack of participation in any form of democracy. The report continues:

Many of the statistics are lower even than those for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Arab countries have a long history of education, of culture and of playing a role in the world, and it is extraordinary that they should lag behind sub-Saharan Africa in so many respects.

The report continues:

That is the heart of my argument. The fact that unemployment is such a huge problem and that economic growth is not engendered leads to the marginalisation of an often well educated and young group of the population. They cannot find a job or an outlet for their aspirations or interest in playing a role in governing their country. Their discontent can be focused legitimately only into the mosque, and some Islamic clerics undoubtedly feed on and foster that discontent. Many of the terrorists and much of the terrorism that we saw on 11 September 2001, and have seen since, come from there. That is why I believe that change in the Arab world is so important.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): My hon. Friend focuses on one of the most important areas of debate in shaping future government in the world, and he puts his finger on the problem of the lack of human rights in countries with a feudal structure. How does he think that, in practical terms, we should approach those countries to ensure that when they try to make the quantum leap from feudal government to the democracy and freedom that we would like to see, they do not regress into theocracy, which is a great risk?

Mr. Maples : That is clearly a huge danger, so the problem must be approached with care, subtlety and sophistication. However, I believe that we should approach those countries as friends. Most, although not all, Governments of Arab countries are friendly to the west. In many of those countries, even Saudi Arabia, there is a younger generation of ruling families or political elites who understand the problems that we are discussing and the need to address them. I am sure that my hon. Friend is right: if those countries tried to leap tomorrow into elections, they would run the risk, particularly in Saudi Arabia, of the worst sort of people taking over, and it would probably be their last election for another 500 years or so. I am not suggesting such a dramatic leap, but those countries could start to take steps down that road.

Saudi Arabia, for example, could start by relaxing restrictions on what the media and newspapers can report, and it could begin to reform the education system, so that it is not so heavily under the control of an extreme religious group, which, I believe, is misusing it. The country could set up an independent judiciary and establish the rule of law, which would not only be good for the Saudis, but would encourage foreign investment.

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One thing that international businesses want to see before they invest in a country is a Government who are not corrupt, or at least not staggeringly corrupt, as many of those Governments are, and a rule of law, so that, if there are disputes, there is an objective, transparent tribunal to which they can take their case. In much of the Arab world, if not all of it, none of those criteria exists. I say to my hon. Friend that it will be a long, difficult journey to achieve that, and one does not start by saying, "Let's move straight to the western model of democracy tomorrow." Why should we impose our model on them? However, I believe that we have a sufficient stake and interest in the matter to want to evolve towards that situation.

Mr. Drew : Does the hon. Gentleman accept, as a consequence of what he argues, that there is no particular problem with, for example, the system of Sharia; the problem lies in the way in which it is interpreted by regimes? Sharia is interpreted politically by regimes in places such as Sudan, Nigeria and Indonesia as a means of ethnic cleansing of other religious groups or ethnic minorities. That is why we must ask those countries to adopt a rule of law that encompasses all their people and not just the religious minorities that support it.

Mr. Maples : Of course I agree. That must be part of the reform programme that we seek to foster and promote.

I have followed the affairs of the Arab and Islamic world much more closely in the past two or three years than I had previously, and it seems to me that the problems of the region have grown enormously over the past 20 years. Before then those countries may have abused the human rights of their subjects and they did not allow democracy, but, on the whole, they did not export their problems and were not as intolerant as many of them are now. Pakistan is an example of a country that has always had its difficulties, but never to the current extent. The wellspring of that change is an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism which fosters terrorism and intolerance on a massive scale: that is the heart of what must be dealt with.

Returning to some of the economic considerations, a crude statistic that was given to us in evidence, which goes to the heart of the matter, is that the GDP per head in Saudi Arabia has halved in the past 20 years. A country with a growing population cannot be stable if its GDP per head has halved, because it cannot provide the jobs and rising living standards that its people expect. Economic development is a crucial ingredient in the political climate change that we want to see, and the rule of law is an important part of that.

I shall pick up another couple of points from the Arab development report. It contrasts the fact that the total GDP of all 22 Arab countries was less than that of Spain. That means that 220 million Arabs are producing less than 45 million Spaniards. Why? One does not have to go back too far to find a time when Arab countries were in advance of Spain in many respects. It must be moral or political freedom, the rule of law or free market economics that produces that sort of prosperity; none of that has been allowed to take hold in so much of the Arab world.

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The report says:

It is not only Saudi Arabia that has serious unemployment problems. Let us remember that this is a United Nations report written by Arabs. It continues:

The United States has a programme for establishing such states, and so do we. I believe that we should work with these countries as friends. We should not lecture them publicly and criticise them too much. People like me can do so, but I quite understand why Ministers do not want to do that.

We should be clear about our goal: the gradual transformation of these countries into far more modern states where there is a rule of law and a gradual move towards democracy and a free media, where the Government are more representative and not corrupt, and where there is a clear distinction between the ruling family and the country, as is the case in every post-feudal state in the rest of the world. Those are important ingredients. If they are coupled with economic reform, we stand a chance of seeing the developments that we want.

Finally, I believe that the human rights reports by the Select Committee and the Foreign Office relate to the stability of our world. One of the greatest threats that we face is international terrorism. Most of that is fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, most of which is fostered by Saudi wealth and the Saudi education system. We are doing Saudi Arabia and ourselves a favour if we try to help to build, in that country's political class, a new generation of rulers to reform it from within.

I do not believe that the alternative is the maintenance of the status quo. It is much more likely that there will be a fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia in much the same way as there was in Iran, and we must then wait for a generation in the hope that the country comes out of that situation. My alternative is much more attractive, and I hope that the Government will aggressively and constructively pursue reform in the Arab world.

3.7 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn): First, I welcome the Foreign Office annual report on human rights, which is well written and fairly comprehensive. We should sometimes say thank you to the officials who have worked on it. Much hard work has gone into that useful document, and it shows the importance that the Government place on human rights. That is to be welcomed. That said, I have some criticisms to make of it, some of which will be familiar to the Minister.

There is some strength in taking a thematic approach to the layout of the report, but it is difficult for readers coming to the report for the first time. For example, Turkey—a country in which I have an interest—is covered on 12 separate pages scattered throughout the report. It is covered in "Challenges and progress", "Human rights, economy and society", "Women's and child rights" and so on, so it is difficult to get a grip on what is happening in a particular country and what the Government's approach is. It would be worth the

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Minister reflecting again on the layout of the report. He said that he would, but I do not think that he has reflected a great deal because he has repeated what we have already heard, which is that it would be too expensive to produce a country-by-country report and that it would duplicate work done elsewhere. I do not accept that, nor do I think do most members of the Select Committee. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will say that he will reflect further on the layout for next year's report.

Hon. Members have widely criticised the Iraq dossier on human rights. Many saw it as a cynical document produced simply to justify the war. I do not share that criticism. I thought that it was a useful contribution to the debate. It was important to outline the abuses taking place in Saddam's regime, and I am glad that the Government did that. However, the Government undermine their own case by not being prepared to produce some of the documents relating to other countries. In their response to the report, the Government said that they had "no current plans" to produce dossiers on other countries. It seems extraordinary that we can produce a dossier on only one country. The Government are undermining their own case.

I suggest that other countries are a cause for concern. It would be helpful if the Government were to produce a document on human rights abuses in countries that pretend to be friends of ours. Both Members who have spoken mentioned Saudi Arabia. That country tortures not only its own people but ours. British citizens were tortured there only last year. Five British citizens and one Canadian were subject to sleep deprivation, were shackled and then hung upside down and beaten. Frankly, it is astonishing that the Government cannot produce a dossier on human rights abuses in what the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) would probably call our "no good, crummy allies".

I want to consider a couple of other countries. I have already mentioned Turkey, and I am pleased that its human rights record is improving. Part of that is due to the pressure of being an applicant member of the European Union, but it is due also to British foreign policy. Some of the things done there by the Foreign Office are to be commended. The police training being undertaken jointly by the Foreign Office and the Home Office is a good and important initiative. I am pleased not only that the torture reporting handbook has been translated into Turkish, but that 2,000 copies have been distributed there. However, we should accept that there is a long way to go. In 2001, the European Court of Human Rights made 160 judgments against Turkey, and I am still concerned about the widespread use of torture in prisons and police cells. I urge the Minister to keep up the pressure on Turkey, because it is having some effect.

The other country in which British foreign policy is making a real difference is Iran. Our policy of constructive engagement with the regime in Tehran is having an effect. Some credit ought to go to the Foreign Secretary, who has taken a personal interest in Iran and has visited it two or three times. Also to be welcomed is the new EU-Iranian dialogue on human rights. We hear people say that, in our foreign policy, Britain is merely

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a poodle of America. The lie to that is given by our approach to Iran, which is completely different to that of the Bush Administration. President Bush says that Iran is part of the axis of evil. I think that he is wrong; more important, however, the Government seem to think that he is wrong. We are making a difference with our policy of constructive engagement.

Constructive engagement may be making a difference and paying dividends in some countries, as it is in Iran, but I am at a loss as to why we persist in such activities in countries where they make no difference. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), the Committee Chairman, mentioned Uzbekistan. I have a long-standing interest in that country, but I cannot understand why a country with a human rights record as bad as Uzbekistan's should have been rewarded by being asked to host meetings of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development only last month.

We should bear it in mind not only that Britain attended those meetings, but that British Ministers chaired them. It is a disgrace that we should have done so in a country that has such a poor human rights record. I note that one of those who chaired the meetings was the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who was a Minister at the time. She is good at parading her conscience before Parliament and, given that country's human rights record, I find it amazing that she felt able to go to Tashkent. The Foreign Office admits in the report that there has been no improvement in Uzbekistan's worrying human rights record. I wonder what on earth we were doing there.

I shall briefly turn to Zimbabwe. I deeply deplore the fact that President Mugabe was invited to and went to Paris in mid-February. In deeply deploring that action I am doing a lot more than the British Government managed. The Government's silence on the issue was worrying. Perhaps, it had something to do with timing—Mugabe was in Paris on 16 and 17 of February, and the EU sanctions regime was due for renewal on 18 February. Perhaps I am being naive and there was a quid pro quo: we soft-pedalled our criticism of President Chirac's invitation in return for Chirac not vetoing the renewal of EU sanctions against Zimbabwe. If that is the case, I find that pretty grubby.

I would have been much happier if the Government had stood up and said loudly and clearly what they really believed, which is that it is a disgrace that Mugabe was invited to Paris. We were treated to the spectacle of Mrs. Mugabe shopping on the boulevard St. Germain and the Champs Elysées while millions of Zimbabweans starve. The Government should have said that that was a disgrace.

I reach the same conclusion that the Select Committee reached in its report on the FCO report:

We cannot possibly press for human rights improvements in other countries if we cannot be proud of our own record.

Our record—to put it mildly—is undermined by our acquiescence in what is taking place in Guantanamo bay, which has been going on for too long. Most

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reasonable people could accept that suspects might be detained in Guantanamo bay in the immediate aftermath of the war against the Taliban. I thought it was reasonable, as I am sure did many other hon. Members. It is now many months later and we should be in a position to press our American allies to either release people or bring them to trial. In the United States, it has been possible to bring other people to trial for terrorist offences committed elsewhere; the same should be possible for those being held in Guantanamo bay. While we acquiesce in what is going on there, our case for promoting human rights worldwide is undermined.

Nevertheless, I give a warm welcome to the report, which is an important contribution.

3.17 pm

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): While I lead in this debate for my party, I also speak as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and I find no difficulty in that. I am happy to endorse the conclusion that the human rights annual report of 2002 is a significant contribution to the promotion of the greater understanding of the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the field of human rights. Nevertheless, issues have arisen that require further debate and I am glad that that is happening today, particularly as events have moved on since our report and the Government's response were first published.

In the time available, I will attempt to highlight the situation in only a few of the countries that have been examined in the report. I have already noted an amazing degree of unanimity between my Foreign Affairs Committee colleagues on the issues that they have raised. However, it will do no harm to re-emphasise some of those points with a slightly different inflection.

As the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) pointed out, the report pays particular attention to the human rights abuses in Iraq under Saddam's Hussein's regime. The post-war evidence has confirmed the extent and scale of the appalling abuses that have been perpetrated under that regime. It is important to mention that in a debate on human rights. However, it is inevitable that suspicion is aroused by the concentration on Iraq in the FCO report. To a degree, that is fuelled by a wider political agenda, not least justifying military action against the regime. As was mentioned, that suspicion can only be strengthened by the apparent unwillingness of the FCO to produce similar dossiers of equal weight on other well known human rights abusers. There is a feeling that the report tends to cherry-pick certain countries for special attention as part of a wider agenda, whether political or otherwise.

I shall give specific examples later, but as a general point, as the Chairman of the Committee said, much can be learned from the manner in which the US Congress tackles reporting on international human rights abuses. The US Department of State is obliged to report to the Senate with a comprehensive analysis of human rights abuses country by country. To take just one example, which other hon. Members have highlighted, the State Department's report on Saudi Arabia contains a comprehensive list of case-by-case examples of human rights abuses covering 17 pages, while the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report contains merely a paragraph or two or three.

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A more comprehensive structure is needed for reporting on human rights abuse and the countries that are the worst perpetrators. The FCO would do well to consider adopting some form of recognised standards for evaluating the level of human rights abuse that occurs. I do not suggest at this stage that we should make it incumbent on the FCO to produce a lexicon or encyclopaedia country by country around the world, no matter what its size or influence or the scale of the abuse. That might well be an unreasonable request. Nevertheless, there is a need for a system to standardise evaluation of our concerns.

The Minister might want to consider, as a good example, adopting the Copenhagen criteria, which are applied to every applicant country that wants to join the European Union. That set of standards is already accepted, certainly within our continent, and could well be applied as a litmus test in considering the level of abuse that occurs in other countries.

Let me return to the detail of the FAC report. In particular, I should like to pick up again on the continuing ambiguous status of the detainees in Guantanamo bay, to which the hon. Member for Hyndburn referred. The FAC has reiterated its concern that the Government should press the US on the conditions in which those detainees are held and on the need to charge them and bring them to trial or release them. Time is passing, as we have heard, but given the comments made by the Prime Minister yesterday— 4 June—at column 164 of Hansard, little if any progress appears to have been made.

I find the situation unbelievable. In one sense, we are talking about our closest ally, with which we stand shoulder to shoulder, as we are told, in resolving issues of great international import. Clearly, with that relationship, we had a strong guiding influence on the way the conflict in Iraq was prosecuted. However, it appears that we have no influence to resolve an issue of clear human rights abuse of British citizens, which demeans and denigrates the standing of both America and ourselves when it comes to consideration of these issues on the world stage.

It is extremely difficult to accept the US position of holding detainees outwith its own legal system. The US criminal justice system is respected throughout the world as just and efficient. It had a record of successful prosecution of terrorists, not only bringing people to trial, but concluding those trials and convicting those who were guilty of atrocities, so why can it not use that system now? It is a tried and tested method of dealing with such offences.

My concerns were heightened by reading reports from Amnesty International this week of possible plans for the American Government to construct an execution chamber at Guantanamo bay. It is almost beyond imagination that many people should be detained without charge and without trial, yet execution chambers are now being considered. That flies in the face of natural justice by any stretch of the imagination. What would be the situation if the position were reversed and US citizens were being detained without charge or legal representation in the United Kingdom? I cannot believe for one minute that in that situation nothing would happen and there would be no progress for month after month after month.

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On the UNCHR, the Foreign Affairs Committee is concerned about the different approach that the FCO has adopted in tabling motions on human rights abuses in, for example, Zimbabwe and China. We need to report the fact that the UNCHR sessions can be notable for their fractions and their highly politicised nature. That is a fact of life about the way in which, sadly, the United Nations works on occasions. However, the UNCHR is the primary forum for the scrutiny of human rights around the world. Country resolutions must be maintained because if they are not, that will only be a victory for the countries, people and organisations that want to reduce the effectiveness and status of the UNCHR on the global stage.

Following on from the previous contribution by the hon. Member for Hyndburn, I should like to make some observations about Turkey. I welcome both the attention that the Government are giving to Turkey and the progress that they are making in helping reforms to be introduced that meet the Copenhagen criteria. However, there is a great deal still to be achieved.

The Committee has had the advantage of visiting Turkey in recent times for an in-depth analysis of the conditions there, so we can say that a great deal still needs to be done. One should not underestimate the size of Turkey and its population and the problems inherent in that. Reforms to the criminal justice system are absolutely vital, but resources and aid to help them go through are vital also. Modern and humane criminal detection techniques must be introduced—by saying "humane", I refer to the inhumane system that exists. In particular, we need to put as much effort as possible into training police officers in modern policing methods, modern methods of evidence collection and the modern examination of suspects. The traditional methods seem, to be polite, to consist of coercing confessions out of detainees.

A key strategy is to work with our EU partners to make a real difference in institutional strengthening, in particular in education. When we were in Turkey it was a great surprise to me to discover that compulsory state education was raised above the age of 11 only in recent years. At the other end of the scale, the Chevening scholarships that the FCO awards in Turkey are hugely popular and successful. The diversion of funding from Turkey to states of the former USSR can be seen only as a retrograde step in our efforts to assist Turkey's development into a modern state of the 21st century.

There has been only brief mention of Iran—I think that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) mentioned the country in his general analysis of the situation in the middle east and in the Arab world, which was a helpful contribution. The start of the EU-Iran dialogue must, of course, be welcomed. However, there is a danger that steps to support a real change in Iran's human rights practices will be sidelined by a focus on concerns that we and our brothers in arms, the United States, have over Iran's nuclear programme. That would be a retrograde step.

The Government must not lose sight of the positive political and civic society developments that are now evolving in Iran. There are strong signs of a desire among the younger population to move away from the

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constraints of fundamentalism to a more democratic society and a criminal justice system that embraces human rights. Demonising Iran as a member of the axis of evil—I quickly add that the Government have not done that, although it is being done elsewhere—only polarises Iran's relations with the west. That can only undermine the brave efforts being made in Iran to bring about the reform that we want to encourage.

We have rightly heard a lot about Saudi Arabia this afternoon. It is clearly a classic case over which this country could be accused of applying double standards. The Foreign Affairs Committee report highlighted the weaknesses in the FCO report, which failed fully to reflect Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record, particularly as regards torture. I have drawn attention to the disparity between the detail with which the US Senate scrutinised Saudi Arabia's human rights record—the US is the Saudis' closest ally, by the way—and the cursory treatment of the issue in the FCO report.

I am pleased that the Government's response to the Committee's report provides a more detailed analysis and that a commitment has been made to including a more detailed assessment in the FCO's 2003 report. That is to be welcomed, but I expect the 2003 report also to include evidence of positive outcomes from the FCO's discussions with the Saudi authorities about human rights in the current 12 month-period.

I turn now to Zimbabwe. In their response, the Government confirm that, at their lead, the EU sanctions were rolled over for a further 12 months. That is to be welcomed, but it is clear from events in Zimbabwe that human rights abuses are escalating and that people's basic democratic rights under the rule of law are being ignored. Clearly, the renewed sanctions alone are having little effect on restraining the excesses of President Mugabe's regime of terror. Perhaps the Minister can help us by telling us what progress the Government are making in the region on securing a return to democracy and the restoration of human rights in Zimbabwe. How effective have their interventions with neighbouring leaders been in securing an African initiative to achieve those goals? When did Ministers last hold discussions with, for example, the President of South Africa and other African leaders in the New Partnership for Africa's Development? What were the outcomes? When are further meetings planned to find a regional solution to the chaos and disaster in Zimbabwe?

Finally, I support wholeheartedly the conclusion in the Committee's report that it is vital for the UK to set the highest standards of respect for human rights in all areas of public life if its work in promoting such rights overseas is to reach its full potential. I therefore welcome the Government's recognition of that responsibility and their readiness to strive for improvement.

3.32 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): I want to say a very few words about the Committee's report. I do not intend to succumb to the invitation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson) to list all the countries that he did not cover in his speech. For the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), however, I should say

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that North Korea was mentioned during the Committee's deliberations. Indeed, the Minister was questioned about it and the Committee made recommendations.

I quickly want to make three or four points about the report, most of which have been mentioned already. I want to make them again, however, because I attach particular importance to them. First, however, I commend the speeches of my Committee colleagues, all of whom have made significant contributions.

First, I want to reinforce the points that have been made about Guantanamo bay and particularly that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope). He said that this country was acquiescing in human rights abuses by standing by and allowing the issue to remain unchallenged. It is time that the detainees were given some form of status. They must be within or outside the Geneva convention, they must be given legal representation, they must be brought to trial and some conclusion must be brought about as regards their status. I sincerely hope that that is not the conclusion mentioned by my Committee colleague the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), who referred to Amnesty's shocking revelations that an execution chamber could be in the process of being built in Guantanamo bay. That would be diabolical. I hope that the Minister can reassure us about that.

To emphasise the contributions of my colleagues, I want to raise the matter of Zimbabwe and press the Government to do all they can about it. The situation in Zimbabwe was brought home to me graphically recently when I interviewed a refugee who fled to this country after being brutalised and sexually assaulted after her husband was murdered in front of her. That poor lady had to escape to this country, where she has been granted leave to remain, but she had to leave behind her young daughter. The difficulties and trauma that that family have gone through are absolutely inconceivable in today's society. The international community must deal with the problems in Zimbabwe. Once again, I press my hon. Friend the Minister to do all he can to try to redress the situation.

I turn now to the International Criminal Court, the failure of the United States to ratify that and, indeed, the suggestion that it has attempted to get around the ICC question by signing bilateral impunity agreements with various countries. It appears that not only do the Americans not want to ratify the treaty, they want to avoid it at all costs. That was brought home to all of us recently when, sadly, some of our own soldiers participating in the military action in Iraq were accused of some forms of atrocity. That reinforces the need for an international criminal court for even the most civilised of nations. Again, I press my hon. Friend the Minister to do all he can to persuade the Americans to change their attitude to that institution.

I welcome the Government's report and I commend the Foreign Affairs Committee's response to it. I look forward to the Minister's response to the genuine and informative contributions made this afternoon.


Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): May I, too, apologise for perhaps having to leave before the winding-up speeches? A problem with this annexe

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Chamber is that we so often have a clash of commitments. Perhaps, if there are no other speakers, I might be able to hear the Minister in full—I hope I can.

The Opposition welcome the debate, the annual report, the Foreign Affairs Committee report and the Government's response to it. I pay tribute to the hard work of the members of the Select Committee and to the hard work of the officials who compiled the annual report.

The annual reports are important because they are a tangible demonstration of the importance that human rights have assumed in the policy-making process in today's British Government. I do not propose to go through the report in great detail, but I shall concentrate on some of the wider issues and on a few countries of particular concern. I was struck especially by the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) on his perception of developments in Arab countries, which are so much the focus of everybody's attention at the moment—and rightly so.

Human rights today are more important and more talked about than ever before, as are the ideas of representation and democracy that go with them. All those are important and they are part of a broader idea—that of freedom, which embraces democracy, political and religious freedom, women's rights, the rights of minority groups and human rights in their broadest sense. That idea has always been at the heart of my party's philosophy, and the economic freedom that we have always championed goes hand in hand with those principles.

In many ways, the idea of universal human rights as a legitimate policy consideration dates back to the last century, so it is a fairly new idea. Since the emergence of the modern state system following the peace of Westphalia in the 17th century, international law, such as it was, had focused on relations between states and subsuming the rights of individuals into those of the state. Internal matters were viewed as just that—internal—and not as legitimate reasons for external intervention.

Today, the situation is different, changed by the increasingly interdependent and globalised world in which we live. A consequence of globalisation is that the focus in international affairs is more on the individual than the state. Although there are caveats, and the state still has a unique role as the basic unit in international relations, the distinction between the state and individual has become blurred. Human rights are viewed as a legitimate and important factor in the formulation of foreign policy, and the 1946 United Nations convention on human rights and the 1948 universal declaration on human rights marked the beginning of their emergence as a significant factor in their own right.

Human rights as a concept is here to stay, which I welcome. I also pay tribute to the work of such organisations as Amnesty International in advancing the cause of human rights. Naturally, there are differences about where it is thought the emphasis should be placed, and cultural and historical patterns of development must be borne in mind. The key point to remember is that we must understand other cultures, not

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simply lecture them, and recognise that many are making significant, if gradual, progress to improve their human rights records.

It is right that we speak out against blatant abuses that are an affront to our beliefs and principles, and we will all continue to do so. However, we should not necessarily expect an overnight change. As was touched on earlier, simply shifting from one extreme to another in any country can have attendant practical difficulties. Democracy and representative government are important aspects of the wider concept of freedom, and they often go hand in hand with a better human rights record. Once again, we must avoid hectoring and lecturing while spelling out the fact that we believe a stable state in which people can influence Governments and hold them to account in the context of the rule of law is best.

We support the right of individuals to enjoy life's freedoms without fear of persecution or the violation of basic human rights. We can never condone the oppression of individuals on the grounds of political or religious belief, gender or orientation. Many individuals today have fewer rights than others simply because they are women; that is unacceptable.

I will now turn to a few country-specific examples, although I will be brief as time is short and the report is long. The Committee suggested investigating using a country-by-country approach in the annual report, and although we agree with the Government that the thematic approach is a successful way of arranging the material, the country-specific sections, which already exist when there are clear causes for concern in a particular case, are useful.

In Iraq, we have seen the toppling of Saddam Hussein's brutal and criminal regime. It paid no heed to human rights or the rule of law, and although the reason for military intervention may have been to enforce the disarmament of Saddam, the toppling of his regime is clearly a consequential benefit to the Iraqi people. It is regrettable that the peace does not appear to have been as well planned as the war, although Iraq has the opportunity to rebuild itself on the firm foundations of democracy, the rule of law and the good human rights that we are championing today. However, the lawlessness that we have witnessed threatens to undermine the human rights of many ordinary Iraqis, depriving them of security, the means to earn a living and even the right to live free from intimidation and violence. I hope that the Minister will explain the steps currently being taken to remedy that situation.

Zimbabwe is one of the most obvious examples of a country in which human rights, democracy, the rule of law and basic freedom are denied to all people, both black and white. Each person lives in fear of being turned on by a malevolent regime. Contempt for democracy and human rights often go hand in hand, and they represent a challenge to basic ideas of freedom.

A main difference between the parties today—perhaps even the only one—is on Zimbabwe. The British Government have shamefully failed to do enough, despite the helpful suggestions made in the past year and a half by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the shadow Foreign Secretary,

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and before that by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), both of whom have said that we should take more steps to relieve Zimbabwe of its wretched dictatorial regime.

Pages 40 to 42 of the annual report and paragraphs 67 to 72 of the Select Committee report give due prominence to Zimbabwe. I am sorry to say that the two paragraphs regarding Zimbabwe in the Government's response seemed rather thin and vague to me—and, I am sure, to many Zimbabweans, too. I suppose that that is hardly surprising, because the Government's policy on the issue is threadbare to say the least.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is now on the brink of bloody genocide. In the past two weeks, 50,000 people have fled the fighting between rival ethnic militias. Many more than the reported 300 people are likely to have died. The United Nations report into violence in the eastern Ituri province between October and December last year confirmed widespread rape, torture, executions and even cannibalism. Although we welcome the recently announced involvement of the United Nations Security Council, how can it be right that the Prime Minister yesterday had to concede that UN plans to alleviate the suffering were not yet

In Burma, which pages 31 and 32 of the annual report cover, we have recently witnessed one of the most disgraceful affronts to democracy and human rights in the arrest, once again, of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the treatment of her and her supporters. I note that, in paragraph 29 of its report, the Select Committee welcomes the progress that seems to have been made in Burma recently, but regrettably the arrests are an enormously retrograde step, and I think that Members on both sides of the Chamber will deplore them.

As the report—and many organisations such as the Jubilee Campaign—has highlighted, the military junta ruling Burma has one of the most abysmal human rights records of any country on the globe. It continues to persecute anyone it thinks is threatening its stranglehold on power in any way. The junta has shown itself to be utterly unwilling to pursue reform, whether gradual or otherwise. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has pressed the Government to push for a truly international approach, including targeted sanctions, travel bans and assets seizures of leaders and supporters of the junta. He also wants the Government to co-operate more actively with countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations to bring pressure to bear.

I am truly saddened that the Government have failed to take a tougher line, just as they have failed over Zimbabwe. The situation must end, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to explain what further steps he might take.

I could talk about any number of other areas of the world, from Guantanamo bay, which the Chairman of the Select Committee has mentioned, to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, Iran, China and even the Cayman islands and beyond, where there are human rights issues to which many might wish to draw attention. However, that would take too long for this afternoon's debate, and I know that there will be cross-party agreement on wanting to pursue those issues.

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To address the deep-seated problems in some countries—I am thinking specifically of some African countries—we must do more than simply throw money at them. Of course, money and good governance are important if we are to ensure that that money is well spent. We recognise that an individual's rights are always limited by the society in which they live, and that to some extent it is not for us to presume to lecture others on how they should or should not behave. However, so long as the basic human rights of individuals are respected, and they have the means to express their views and signify a degree of consent to what is done in their name, some of the prerequisites for stability can be said to exist, and the country can be more at ease with itself and move to address the interests of all its citizens.

A balance is required between the rights and the responsibilities that individuals and the community have to one another. In the west, we are on the side of individual rights; in other parts of the world, the onus is more on the responsibilities of individuals to the community as a whole. There is a vibrant debate on where that balance should rest. However, there are some countries where that balance simply does not exist, where neither the group nor the individual has any rights, people cannot speak up for themselves, civic society barely exists, torture is commonplace and there is no progress on any of the items on today's agenda. There are many deeply vulnerable people in the world, and we must speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. We must seek a fair deal for everyone. That means the active promotion of human rights, which I hope the whole House will support.

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell) : Being a Minister is sometimes a strange existence. In six years as an MP, I have never got to my feet and had a full hour and 40 minutes ahead of me to speak. I immediately reassure everyone in the Chamber that I have no intention of taking that length of time.

I thank the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for initiating the debate. I understand that we have had evidence sessions in the past in which the Foreign Office Minister responsible went to the Foreign Affairs Committee, but that has never been followed up with a debate such as this. This is a positive and significant development. I place on record my strong view, which the Foreign Secretary shares, that the process helps us to improve and sharpen up our act when it comes to the human rights report. That is not simply words. This is a very difficult process and all of us, in whatever we do, need to be challenged, questioned and scrutinised. The process can only help us.

What emerges from these debates is a strong, shared conviction that the promotion of human rights is fundamental and should be at the centre of attention. I have been committed to it for an awfully long time. I am very pleased to have the responsibility, as the Foreign Office Minister, of piloting the process.

We have had a wide-ranging and well informed debate. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), stressed in his

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introduction that when we talk of human rights we are talking about universal values, which I very much welcome. A criticism is sometimes made that the debate about human rights is the west trying to impose its values and norms on the rest of the world. I strongly reject that criticism. The United Nations universal declaration of human rights was drafted by people from all faiths and all regions throughout the world. Whatever the culture, religion or geographical part of the world, people who are oppressed call in aid the universal declaration of human rights, so I do not take the view that we are on some western, messianic mission. The promotion of human rights applies everywhere.

I also took to heart what the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee said when he talked about the danger of the perception, if not the reality, that we are tough on weak nations and less tough on the mighty and those with whom we are friends. I reject that implication. That is not the touchstone or the guide for our actions, but it is a danger and we should constantly be aware of it. We have several responsibilities and priorities as we deal with our foreign affairs and we need to check ourselves constantly and question our actions. The process can only help.

I also very much welcomed the comment made by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee that this is a significant and good report. That has been echoed throughout the debate. It is not only MPs who say that: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in evidence sessions to the Committee, made it clear how much they welcomed the report. They also welcomed the way in which it has improved and developed. The Committee Chairman also rightly drew attention to the fact that over the years since the inception of the report, we have far more often than not responded to the points, criticisms and suggested changes that the Committee has made.

The Committee Chairman also raised the need for ongoing capacity for conflict prevention within Africa. That has been looked at within the G8. The recent Evian summit underlined that there is a gap in backing up peace agreements and ceasefires with credible peace support operations. The joint G8 African plan for building African capacity to deploy peace support operations, which was further elaborated at Evian, sets out key elements such as equipping and training by 2010 multinational standby military capabilities for peacekeeping. That is a long way off. We clearly need to build up to that sooner rather than later. It would be a significant step forward.

Donald Anderson : This is not a new idea. I recall Lord Hurd making a similar proposal to the UN General Assembly 10 years or more ago before the awful outrages in Rwanda. I hope that the Minister will carefully monitor the action plan, road map, or whatever it is called, until 2010 and beyond.

Mr. Rammell : That point is well made. When we look at some of the difficult conflicts in Africa such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo I am very conscious of the need for greater capacity. The idea has been around for a long time, but it is now a key part of the action plan. We have to drive that forward and make it a reality.

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The Chairman of the FAC also referred to the situation in Burma, as did the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). It is deeply worrying. There has been some progress: 400 prisoners have been released since 2001, but that is by no means enough. More than 1,200 people are still in detention. Burmese ethnic minority groups suffer disproportionately. The detention last week of Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters has been deeply concerning.

In the absence of my hon. Friend the Minister who has direct responsibility for Burma, I called in the Burmese ambassador earlier this week and made our concern abundantly clear. Indeed, I followed that up with a telephone call this morning. I also made it clear that we expect Mr. Razali, the UN's representative who arrives in Burma tomorrow, to be given access to Aung San Suu Kyi to reassure himself about her safety and well-being. If that is not possible, we will regard it as a significant and serious rebuff to the international community, for which there will be consequences.

That leads me to the criticism that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made that we have no further game plan on how to increase pressure upon Burma. That is certainly not the case. Unless we see significant improvements, we are considering extending measures such as the assets freeze and the ban on links that have been placed on members of the Government, their business associates and their families. That could help in that situation.

Mr. Duncan : I am pleased to hear that, but given what has happened to Aung San Suu Kyi what are the Minister's arguments for delaying those actions any further?

Mr. Rammell : We want to achieve a result. We want the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi. In any situation such as this, where we are trying to exert legitimate pressure, we have to judge our actions and their consequences. Our immediate priority is her release. It is under active consideration. We have taken the opportunity to talk to the Burmese ambassador to make it abundantly clear how concerned we are.

Several hon. Members commented on the situation in the DRC. The statistics are staggering and appalling. More than 3 million people have been killed in that country in the past five years, but that gets nowhere near the degree of international media and political attention that it should. The peace process was moving in a positive direction. There was the agreement between the Ugandans and the DRC under the auspices of the UN that the Ugandan troops would withdraw. That has nevertheless created a power vacuum and there is now a serious conflict in which many more people have been killed. I confirm that we have been asked to contribute towards the French-led interim emergency multinational force. We have agreed to do so and are in discussions about the most appropriate and effective contribution that the UK can make to that force.

Mr. Chidgey : I wonder if the Minister could throw some light on recent reports that there have been

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complaints from French quarters about the insufficient scale of the British Government's contribution to those forces in the DRC?

Mr. Rammell : That underlines the truism that one should never believe what one reads in the newspapers. I was surprised and shocked when I read that story at the weekend, because that is not my understanding of the situation. We have received no criticisms directly from the French Government that we are not pulling our weight or intending to pull our weight. To put it bluntly, that story was wrong, although, of course, I would never accuse a journalist of fabricating a story.

Several hon. Members referred to the situation in Zimbabwe, which is of enormous concern. If we undertake a benchmarking exercise, by comparing the human rights report with that of the previous year, and try to assess which countries have deteriorated most, Zimbabwe is one of the prime candidates.

I believe that we have taken a strong line on the situation in Zimbabwe. The most recent European Union statement with which we were associated, and to which we had significant input, made it clear that the protests that are taking place this week in Zimbabwe should be an opportunity for peaceful demonstration, and we strongly urged the Government of Zimbabwe to respect the rights of their citizens to demonstrate and to express their views peacefully. However, I put on record that the early signs are not good. In some areas the Zimbabwean police and military have forcefully dispersed peaceful demonstrators—at least one person was shot and more than 100 were arrested, including six Opposition MPs. That is worrying evidence that the Government of Zimbabwe are not willing to extend to their people the basic right to peaceful protest.

We put some belief in inter-party dialogue and have been urging neighbouring African states to take the lead in exerting pressure on the issue. President Mbeki's statement to the G8 leaders at the Evian summit that he was hopeful that there would be movement on the issue is of some reassurance.

Mr. Chidgey : On that point, the Minister will recall my earlier remarks. He will be aware, as I am, that the serious commentators who operate in the commercial sector and elsewhere in Zimbabwe now forecast that, unless the situation that exists in Zimbabwe and which is still deteriorating is reversed, Zimbabwe will "fall over the edge" into the situation of a failed state, from which it will be almost impossible for it to recover in a reasonable amount of time. Can the Minister tell me whether it has been possible to get that message across to the leaders of Zimbabwe's neighbouring countries with sufficient clarity for them to understand the implications that that would have for the region as a whole?

Mr. Rammell : That is a serious concern. There has been about a 99 per cent. decrease in foreign investment in Zimbabwe as a direct result of what is happening, and so there is a real danger that Zimbabwe will go from the precarious situation in which it is today to that of being an absolutely failed state. We are consistently trying to get that message across.

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The hon. Gentleman also mentioned when and how we are discussing the issue with other African leaders. I reassure him that, two weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs discussed the matter and that the Prime Minister did likewise at the G8 summit. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is constantly reviewing how to exert the maximum pressure on Zimbabwe. The G8 summit statement from Evian for the first time singled out Zimbabwe. In no way, shape or form shall we relax on that issue.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton voiced a criticism, but if it was valid it is difficult to understand why President Mugabe and the Zimbabwean state-sponsored press made such criticisms of our role. However, care needs to be taken in such a situation. If we want neighbouring African states genuinely to exert pressure, we must realise that our conduct is sometimes perceived, I believe wrongly, by them as a hangover from the colonial past. That subject is repeatedly raised by Opposition Members at Foreign Office questions, but that factor is not always taken into account.

We are also criticised for not initiating a debate at the United Nations Security Council to get a resolution on the issue. We should remember what happened at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva a few weeks ago. A resolution was put forward by the European Union criticising Zimbabwe's human rights record, but a no-action motion was put forward that was supported by six members of the Security Council. If we cannot get the UNCHR to agree to such a criticism, what chance do we have of getting anything stronger at the UN Security Council? The real danger of going down that path would be to put forward a resolution that was later defeated: that would simply reinforce President Mugabe's position. It is easy to criticise, but I have not heard a genuine substantive argument as to how we can take those issues forward.

Another issue raised by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and other Members was the situation in Saudi Arabia. I made it clear when I appeared before the Committee—the Department followed it up in its response to the Committee's report—that we have genuine concerns about a wide range of human rights issues in that country. They include aspects of the judicial system, capital and corporal punishment, torture, discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, assembly and worship. Both today and when I appeared before the Committee, hon. Members said loudly and clearly that they believe that we do not give sufficient emphasis to the problems. We shall consider that further.

The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee also mentioned the potential conflict between combating terrorism and the need to consider human rights. It is not an either/or choice; we need to reinforce human rights to help us deal with the battle against terrorism.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the situation in Uzbekistan and I heard clearly what my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) said on the

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subject. We have a strong record in raising our significant concerns about human rights in that country. Last October, our ambassador made a critical speech at the opening of Freedom house, which was reported in our media. That speech was widely welcomed by human rights campaigners. I listened also to what my hon. Friend said about the banking meeting attended by the then Secretary of State for International Development. All I would say is that when I appeared before the Committee, I argued that it could bring international attention to what was happening in Uzbekistan and that proved to be the case. The critical speeches made by the then Secretary of State were broadcast on Uzbek television, and it is one of the first times that the President has been publicly criticised through the media. Difficult judgments have to be made, but in that instance we had a result.

Another issue that has come through strongly this afternoon—every Member who spoke referred to it—is the situation in Guantanamo bay. We have at all times sought to reassure ourselves about UK citizens who are detained there, and FCO officials have undertaken a number of visits. However, I must also refer hon. Members to what the Prime Minister said recently about the fact that we are in an unusual and difficult situation, in that we are still receiving valuable information from people who are there. We recognise that the situation is irregular and we should certainly like to bring it to an end as swiftly as possible—it cannot continue for ever. The strength of feeling and conviction that I have heard from hon. Members this afternoon has firmly registered with me and I shall take that back to our discussions in the Foreign Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn also spoke about the dossier on Iraq. I am not in any sense going to apologise for that dossier—my hon. Friend did not call on me to do so—because I think that it properly identified one of the regimes with the worst human rights record of the last 10 to 15 years. That dossier graphically brought home to people some of the appalling human rights abuses that were taking place in Iraq. However, we shall actively consider the question that my hon. Friend asked about whether we shall make similar reports available in future. We cannot do so all the time, but where there are significant instances of human rights abuse, such a vehicle can be considered.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the position of Libya on the commission and asked whether there should be membership criteria. Ideally, we should consider that, although one must get agreement and, to be blunt—I know that this is not parliamentary language—turkeys tend not to vote for early Christmas. There is a fundamental difficulty in getting consensus and agreement on what kind of membership criteria we need to agree on and how we can get other countries' support. Nevertheless, that is being actively considered and we should consider it further in the Foreign Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is no longer here, mentioned human rights in North Korea, which are of enormous and deep concern to us. At the UNCHR we managed to get a successful

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resolution, which was agreed by 27 votes to 10, on the appalling human rights situation in that country. In the context of the commission, that vote is as near as damn it to overwhelming support.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) made some interesting arguments about the situation in the Arab world and how we can promote participation and democracy, in support of which he called in aid the United Nations Development Programme Arab human development report. I would endorse that—it is an excellent analysis of the situation. One of the arguments that he put forward in response is to engage with the Islamic world, which is one of the main planks of the global opportunities fund, under which we hope to promote civil society and democratic participation, in particular by women. I am happy to respond positively on that.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the format of the annual report. That issue has been raised on a number of successive occasions and I said that I would give it serious consideration when I came before the FAC. I have done that, but am not in a position to give a positive response, which, to be blunt, is due more than anything else—all the other arguments can perhaps be addressed—to resources. The American State Department employs 18 full-time staff for its report and a further 30 staff who work full-time for five months of the year in compiling it. I echo the words of praise for our officials in the Foreign Office on drawing up the report. We have three staff who work full-time on the report. If we acceded and went down the road requested by issuing a country-by-country report, we would have to consider seriously where the resources could come from.

Mr. Chidgey : I take the Minister's point, and I would not want the employment of more staff to increase the burden on his office or the taxpayer. Nevertheless, is it not possible for dialogue to take place between officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and their counterparts in the American Administration, so that we can benefit from the information that has already been gathered? Does the information have to be verified by our own Department? Can we not take advantage of what is already on the record?

Mr. Rammell : I would hesitate before agreeing to endorse reports from other sources. If the hon. Gentleman thought that through, he would understand the concerns about doing that. However, I cannot say any more than I think that it is a resource issue.

The situation in Turkey was mentioned and the movement towards its accession to the European Union has brought positive results. We have seen improvements including the abolition of the death penalty in peacetime and the possibility of radio and television broadcasting in Kurdish. Our contribution in relation to police training and the torture handbook has been significant.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn asked about Iran. We have continuing and serious concerns about the human rights situation, but we have grasped the opportunity, after a proposal from the Iranians, to engage in a formal dialogue. That is beginning to bear some fruit, but we must keep the situation under constant review.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), apparently on behalf of Amnesty International, mentioned the allegation about an execution chamber in Guantanamo bay. Neither my officials nor I have heard of that allegation before, so I will say only that our position on the death penalty is clear: we oppose it wherever it occurs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) made a powerful contribution on Zimbabwe, underlining the human misery that is taking place at the hands of that country's Government. That brings into sharp relief the need to work for further progress. He also spoke about the International Criminal Court and I emphasise the Government's strong support for it. We have campaigned and argued for it from the beginning and I am pleased that 90 states have ratified the ICC statute.

My hon. Friend asked about the US Government's concerns about the court and their bilateral agreements. We have made it clear to our American colleagues and friends that we will sign such an agreement only if it conforms to article 98.2 of the statute and does not otherwise conflict with our obligations to the court. The European Union has agreed guiding principles to that end, which provide the basis for discussion. There is a lot of talk in the press about our relationship with the United States. It is strong and works to our benefit, but we disagree on some issues. This is one of them, as we do not share the US Government's concerns about how the ICC will work.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton mentioned lawlessness in Iraq. Despite the difficulties, the prevailing situation is much more positive than what existed under Saddam Hussein. The situation is improving, but the coalition takes its responsibilities to secure and improve law and order seriously. The Iraqi interim authority will play a key role in that, too.

The hon. Gentleman also said that we need to support reform and development in Africa and do more than throw money at it. I agree with him in one sense, as we must ensure that money is being spent properly and efficiently. However, we cannot get anywhere without money, and I am particularly proud of the Government's record on the international aid budget. Hon. Members should remember that we are increasing it in the coming three years from £681 million to more than £1 billion.

We have had a good debate. I reiterate our firm conviction that human rights are at the heart of our foreign policy. We have both an ethical concern for human rights, as we want them to be pursued throughout the world to the benefit of all peoples, and a strong argument in our self-interest. States and Governments that practice good human rights also tend to be stable countries with which we can work and do business. That also improves the security situation throughout the world.

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We will never be able to have a one-size-fits-all policy and we must judge each country and situation on its merits. Furthermore, the argument has come through time and again that we should not regard each country as a monolithic structure, as forces of both progress and reaction will be at work at any one time. We must make balanced and continuing judgments about their progress and whether we can engage with the country in question.

The annual report has been welcomed widely this afternoon and it is a positive contribution to the Government's work on human rights. We should

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welcome the involvement of and criticism from non-governmental organisations, campaigners and MPs. The work of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is important and I end with thanks for the Committee's work and by underlining what hon. Members have said this afternoon: the report shows improvements, but further improvements can always be made. I hope that when we have this debate next year, we will have seen even more improvements.

Question put and agreed to.

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