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Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 June 2006

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Human Rights Annual Report 2005

[Relevant documents: First Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 574, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6774.]

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

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. As the air conditioning is still not right in the Chamber, it is appropriate for hon. Members to take off their jackets if they choose to.

2.30 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to introduce this debate on the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on human rights, which was published in February this year and is our response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual report on human rights, which was published in the autumn last year.

Every year since 1998, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has published a report on human rights around the world. The Committee then takes evidence, either in writing or orally, including evidence from Ministers, on various aspects of the report. We are particularly interested in the response of human rights organisations, two of which—Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—gave evidence to us. We also received many other submissions for consideration before adopting our report.

The report that we published in February was the first from the new Select Committee that was established following the general election. I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Committee. It has 14 members so it is more difficult to reach a consensus than in the previous Committee, which had 11 members. This report was agreed by consensus—not all are—which is a tribute to all its members and the responsible way in which the issues were approached.

We touched on a range of areas and I have not got time to deal with all of them now, but I am happy to take interventions and hope that my colleagues will highlight areas that I do not mention. We looked at some topical and controversial issues, such as rendition, torture and the situations in Iraq and in the middle east. We also looked at a number of other aspects of the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I welcome the new Minister for Human Rights, my long-standing and right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), to his post and I hope that he will respond as far as possible to the issues that I raise.

I want to place one issue on the record at the beginning: the concern, which is reflected in our report, that the Minister for Human Rights is again also the Minister for Trade. The Committee was concerned that there might be a conflict of interests between those two
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aspects of one ministerial role. In its response to us, which we received a few weeks ago and which was published on 2 May, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said:

I want to press the Minister on that. For example, on a Government trade promotion visit to a country where human rights are a matter of concern, how easy is it to put on a human rights hat while trying to win hundreds of millions of pounds of contracts for British companies, British jobs and British investment? Can the Minister give a commitment that he will not moderate his criticism of a country’s human rights policies—as a new Minister, I am sure that he can give new commitments—and that he will be robust in his criticism on human rights matters rather than bowing to what will inevitably be a tendency in some quarters to say, “Go soft on that because it might damage our commercial interests.”?

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I commend the Committee for its work. I put a counter-argument: while my right hon. Friend the Minister is robust and has a reputation for being a straight talker, is there not strength in not allowing trade issues to be totally divorced from human rights so that where there are contacts—there are many because of the commercial importance of trade—human rights are to the fore?

Mike Gapes: That is another argument and clearly that is the Government’s view, but the Committee’s concerns are real and I hope that when the Minister responds he will deal with them.

Another issue that we touched on was the changes in the internal mechanics of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, linking its work on sustainable development with its work on human rights. The human rights democracy and government group used to be more free standing within the FCO structure, but that is no longer the case. In its response, the FCO said that that does not represent any downgrading of its human rights work. We hope that that will be so and during the coming year we will look closely to ensure that it is so.

In our report we highlighted a number of important international issues. One is about what is happening in the United Nations. The past few months have seen an important change eventually agreed within the UN: the disbanding of the old, discredited United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its replacement by a new UN Human Rights Council. The Committee was concerned about the way in which some countries were clearly trying to sabotage the effectiveness of the new body, even before it was established. We hope that the new organisation, the Human Rights Council, will be able to do its job properly and effectively. We know that the Government have been supportive of that. In its response, the FCO made many positive statements about how the new council may be different in both form and effect from its predecessor and we hope that that will be the case.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend say a little more about that? Did his Committee consider the role of civil society and non-governmental organisations, which were an important factor in the
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UN Commission on Human Rights? I recognise that there were criticisms of the commission, but as yet the Human Rights Council has not indicated what form of operation it will have and how it will be involved. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it is important to represent civil society, particularly in countries with repressive regimes.

Mike Gapes: I agree and I hope that the Minister can give us a progress report on how things have developed during the first few months. It is too early to make a judgment yet.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): An example of the weakness of the UN Commission on Human Rights is Libya. How confident is my hon. Friend that the new Human Rights Council will be able to tackle abuses of the sort that the Committee clearly felt were taking place there?

Mike Gapes: We cannot know. In practice, we must see how the new council develops. It is hoped that with a more streamlined and effective structure we will not have the difficulties of the past, but some countries in the United Nations that will be elected to represent regional groupings will not have good human rights records. That has always been a problem, although the new Human Rights Council seems to have fewer of those countries involved than the previous commission did. We must see how it works out in practice.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the whole report. There were a number of weaknesses with the old commission. One was that positions had to be met largely by consensus—the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned some of the members with poor human rights who were on that body—but perhaps one of the most difficult paradoxes with the old system was the conflict between naming and shaming on the one hand and not interfering with a country’s sovereign rights on the other. Did the Committee look into that and did it come to any conclusion?

Mike Gapes: That issue was touched on in the evidence that the Committee received, particularly from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but I have to say that we need to do more work on the subject. I am sure that we will look into it in coming months.

We also considered the International Criminal Court, which is now dealing with its first few cases. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us how many countries have now ratified the treaty establishing the court, and whether he anticipates any further cases being referred to it in the near future. Our Committee strongly supported establishing such a court but, clearly, it has to be effective and to deal with cases in a timely way. I should be grateful for an update.

I shall now touch on a few subjects in greater detail. I have already mentioned rendition and torture, but associated with them is, of course, the United States’ facility in Guantanamo Bay. Our Committee has consistently pressed the Foreign and Commonwealth
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Office for greater clarity on its policy on Guantanamo. We have pressed Ministers to be more outspoken in their condemnation of the very lengthy detention—now running into several years—of a number of suspects there, who have no legal status and for whom there is no legal process.

British detainees were released, but people who were resident in this country are still detained there. The fact that no British citizens are detained there does not alter the fact that many hundreds of people from all over the world are detained there. There are strong, principled objections to the existence of that facility and to the way in which it operates.

In February our report called on the Government to “make loud and public” objections. Since then, I have been greatly encouraged by the fact that the Attorney-General, in an official speech, gave what he called a “personal view” about the camp, calling it unacceptable. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office response to our report uses the same word—“unacceptable”—to describe the circumstances under which detainees continue to be held. I note that last week even President Bush said that he would like to empty the camp, although he does not feel able to do so quite yet.

Clearly, there is a dilemma for the United States: how will it deal with the several hundred people in Guantanamo? Will it release them, transfer them back to the countries from which they came, or shift them to the territorial United States and detain them there? Many people there may well represent a continuing serious threat, but that does not mean that Guantanamo can be a long-term solution to the problem arising from events in 2001 and 2002, which is when most of the people there were taken into detention in Pakistan, Afghanistan or areas related to them.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to state clearly the Government’s position on Guantanamo Bay? I am asking him to speak not personally, but officially. Will he say that the existence of Guantanamo is unacceptable and will he today call for it to be closed down? If he is not prepared to go that far, will he at least tell us what changes in the circumstances in which detainees are held would make it possible for the British Government to call for it to be closed or, alternatively, would make continued detention of those men acceptable to our Government? There is still a lack of clarity on the Government’s position as a whole, and greater clarity would be helpful.

I now come to rendition, an issue that our Committee has been pursuing for more than 16 months. We know that there have been flights associated with the US Central Intelligence Agency into, out of or through the UK in recent years, but it is far from clear which of those movements, if any, were connected with the concept of rendition. In February this year, when our Committee was in Washington, we had discussions with a number of officials, including people in the State Department, and it was suggested to us that the flights might simply have carried cargo of various kinds—individual American agents, forensic evidence, computer discs, documentation—and not necessarily detainees.

There have been a number of ministerial statements on the subject, and we were recently at last given clear statements that, since 1998, Ministers have agreed to
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only two requests by US authorities to render a suspect through the UK or our overseas territories. It is regrettable that it has taken so many questions, so much effort and so many repeated requests to get the Government to make those statements. Much of the controversy around the issue would have been avoided if earlier statements had been made, if there had been earlier clarity on the facts of the situation, and if the Government had been more forthcoming earlier.

In particular, the Government could have avoided a lot of bother with our Committee if they had responded fully and frankly to our Select Committee when we first raised the issue in early 2005. Instead, we got what seemed to us a reluctant drip-feed of information. Eventually, answers were given—not, in the first instance, in response to our inquiries, but in answer to questions asked by Opposition spokespersons in the House. There is a lesson here for Departments, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: if they want to avoid ongoing controversy about an issue, it is better to come up with the facts early rather than in a drip, drip, drip fashion, while there are ever more headlines on the subject and ever more issues raised about it—and eventually the information comes out anyway.

I am not saying that we have all the facts now, but we certainly know more than we did when we started asking questions. It would have been helpful if, over the past 18 months, our Committee had been given more information in response to our questions, rather than our finding it out from other sources.

The Council of Europe recently published a report by a Swiss member, Dick Marty, but as far as I can see—and I have read it—it contains very little that is new and little hard evidence. I understand that a report of the European Parliament temporary committee is due. It, too, is investigating the issue, but I am not aware that the report contains any new information. The European Parliament adopted a resolution, almost unanimously, just a few days ago. It was supported by all the political groupings. I do not want to raise controversy within the Conservative party, but the European People’s party supported it, as well as the Socialist group, the Liberal group and others. That resolution called overwhelmingly for the closure of Guantanamo Bay.

There is other related information. A recent report by Amnesty International alleges that our Government provided the United States with information that led to two individuals being rendered from Gambia. Can the Minister comment on that report and give us any information about that accusation? It would be helpful to know whether there is any basis for that allegation or whether it is false. Ministers are aware that public concern on the matters is genuine. We need clear, full explanations, otherwise the speculation will continue, and there will be endless, almost frenzied, media interest, which is not helpful either for governance or for human rights in general.

Finally, before I make some rapid progress in order to conclude, I refer to the Government’s response to questions about the use of intelligence gained through torture. They did not respond fully to our recommendation that they should clearly set out their policy on the use of information derived by other states through torture, and encourage a public debate on the ethical dilemmas they face. The response we got restates the opposition
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to torture, which is welcome, and deals with practical considerations, such as the unreliability of evidence and so on. However, it does not engage with the ethical dilemma. It would be helpful to have a clear statement of the Government’s attitude as to whether we are prepared to take information or intelligence from dubious sources. Are the Government content with that or do they believe that it raises difficult ethical questions?

In the time left to me, I would like to touch on the situation in a few specific countries. Other countries will come up during the debate, no doubt. The first of these is topical: there is a good article by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian today, which refers to the situation in Burma. Our report highlights the position in Burma, where there is political and ethnic oppression by the military Government. We recommended that the UK Government maintain pressure on the Burmese military regime and work with the United Nations and other bodies to create such pressure.

The Government’s response said that they had done so, that council members agreed that Burma faced a number of problems and that the international community should do more to address them. They also said that they were open to further discussion on the issue. In the spirit of further discussion, perhaps it is time for more rigorous statements to be made to other security council members—particularly the Government of the People’s Republic of China—about the importance of securing the freedom of the important political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won an election about 15 years ago, but has been restricted, detained and imprisoned ever since. It would be a symbol of the importance of human rights in Asia and the world if she were given her freedom and were able to campaign and organise politically in the way wanted by the vast majority of people in Burma.

I turn briefly to the middle east. I am not going to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian issue or others that we touched on during the debate we had the last time I introduced a human rights report. I would rather talk about two other countries in the region. The Committee’s report was critical of the lack of coverage in the Foreign Office report on the human rights situation in Syria. We are pleased that in their response the Government promised to include more on Syria in the report they will produce this year. I hope that they will and that the report will focus on Lebanon, where Syria is implicated seriously in the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, and a number of other violent incidents and human rights abuses.

I would like to raise another issue that is not in our report, but is in that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—I can be self-critical of our Committee. Today, we have seen terrible events in Sri Lanka. The situation there is deteriorating fast. Bombings, killings and the upsurge in violence raise serious issues of human rights abuse, and I hope that the Government will do far more to get the Sri Lankan negotiations back on track in order to stop the upsurge in violence and stop the human rights abuses.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend moved on from the middle east before I had the chance to haul him back to Turkey. One of the recommendations in the report related to the importance of human rights improvements to Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Neither
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the Committee’s report nor the Government’s report drew any conclusions on northern Cyprus, which has now acceded to the EU under the assumption that more effort would be devoted to removing the de facto borderline there. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on why there is no reference to the lack of human rights of some of those in southern Cyprus due to the Turkish-backed regime in the north?

Mike Gapes: I can tell my hon. Friend honestly that our Committee does not have the resources to concentrate on every issue in the world. We hope to consider the situation in Cyprus and other parts of the EU as part of different inquiries when we visit different EU states. I am sure that the Committee will be able to comment on that at some point. I shall bear in mind his remarks for next year and the Minister has no doubt heard what he said and may want to comment on it.

I would like to touch on the position in several African countries. I have already mentioned China, which has an important role in the world now: its global reach is very great. One of the countries in which China is playing an important role is Sudan, from which it imports a considerable amount of oil and where it is providing assistance in infrastructure programmes. As we know, the civil war in Sudan between the north and the south ended. However, a major conflict in the Darfur region continues to cause grave concern and has led to the deployment of an African Union peacekeeping mission, which seems to have little impact on the situation there.

In the Government’s response to our report, they described the AU mission as having

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