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15 Jun 2006 : Column 321WH—continued

I do not doubt that the circumstances are difficult, but I would question whether what has happened in Darfur could be described at this moment as a “very good job”. I do not believe that the African Union mission there is strong enough and the impression we get from media reports is that the situation there is still extremely bad. The AU mission is underfunded, overstretched and probably not able to cope, at this stage, with the tasks that it has to confront.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Is there not a great paradox here? The Chinese invest £3 billion in Sudan’s oil industry, which gives the Sudan economy the oxygen it needs to carry out human rights abuses and genocide against some of its own people, while the west puts in hundreds of millions of pounds worth of aid and peacekeeping assistance. Is it not about time that the five permanent member nations of the Security Council got together and dealt more satisfactorily with big problems like Sudan?

Mike Gapes: I agree, and that is why I was just about to call for the United Nations to focus more on assisting the African Union in Sudan, by sending a blue-helmeted UN force to assist AU forces in protecting the human rights of the people in Darfur and elsewhere. Probably the only way forward is to strengthen that mission, and the Chinese clearly have an important role to play in making that possible. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China can block such an initiative or support it.

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Jeremy Corbyn: On the issue of the African Union and its effectiveness or otherwise in dealing with problems in Africa, is my hon. Friend in a position to say anything about attitudes towards Somalia with regard to the serious issue of human rights abuses that have been routinely happening in the southern sector around Mogadishu, or the possibility of the AU promoting a transitional Government to cover the whole country?

Mike Gapes: Somalia has not had a central Government with any authority for 15 years or so. The situation there is that of a classic failed state. The African Union should have a role, but other countries in the region will be interested because Somalia is a littoral state, and terrorist camps and other bases could be established there, which would be a threat to many neighbours. The whole international community should take serious action in Somalia to try to ensure that we get a stable Government there. If the US’s renewed interest in Somalia, after many years of absence, can be translated into a positive engagement of the international community, that would be a good thing.

Before I finish, I would like to touch briefly on a few other African countries. The situation in Zimbabwe causes considerable concern to our Committee.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he share my concern about the somewhat incredible news that Britain is building a huge new embassy in Harare that will greatly expand our capacity in Zimbabwe and the number of people on the ground there? Apparently, it is one of the largest construction projects in the country. I am reliably told that Robert Mugabe is boasting about Britain’s so-called inward investment into Zimbabwe and support for his regime. I find that surprising.

Mike Gapes: I am not sure whether Mr. Mugabe’s boasts can always be given credibility. I suspect that most of the inward investment that the Zimbabwean Government are currently getting is probably linked to the Chinese, who recently agreed a contract whereby Zimbabwe supplies chrome to China in return for the construction of new power stations. That will probably far outweigh any other construction work done by anybody. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point needs to be looked at, and my Committee can no doubt consider that when it next meets. China is again engaged with a country in Africa with serious human rights abuses. Will the Minister comment on China’s policy on Africa? Is he prepared to raise, in his human rights dialogue with China, questions about Chinese foreign policy and its attitude to autocratic, undemocratic and repressive regimes in Africa?

I would also be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on the conflict in the horn of Africa, which we touched on in our report. The situation there has the potential to lead to terrible problems. There has been famine and great displacement of people over many years. After all, Live Aid came about as a result of the programmes about that region that were broadcast over 20 years ago. We need to look closely at the fact that although there are now elected Governments in Eritrea and Ethiopia, there is nevertheless serious potential for renewed military and border conflict in that region.

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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, will he comment on whether he finds the UK Government’s position on Zimbabwe inconsistent? The annual report rightly condemns torture in Zimbabwe and the repression of the Movement for Democratic Change, yet the British Government also seem to have a policy whereby failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe who face the threat of reprisal for coming to Britain to seek asylum, among other things, are in some way removable. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a credibility problem with condemning Zimbabwe for human rights repression on the one hand, but saying that it is in some way okay for people who are at risk to be sent back there?

Mike Gapes: The Committee has not considered asylum policy as it is not within our remit. As a Member of Parliament with constituents in exactly the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes, I would be concerned if they were removed to a situation in which their lives could be threatened and repressed. I know that there have been some legal judgments and court appeals, but I am not quite sure, off the top of my head, what the current situation is. The Government should consider this matter closely, not just in relation to Zimbabwe, but for other countries for which they usually make annual assessments, in which circumstances change—Sri Lanka is another case on which we might comment—as a result of which, people could be sent back to difficult circumstances.

I conclude—I shall not take any more interventions—by commending the FCO for the quality of its report. Over the years, our Committee has made several suggestions and we are pleased that the report’s quality has improved and that many of our suggestions about its content and style have actually been taken on board. This report is, again, an improvement on previous reports. I am also pleased that the universal declaration of human rights is boldly printed at the beginning of the report. I hope that we will continue to argue internationally that human rights are universal, particularly with fast-growing countries that have different political traditions and have not yet embraced the virtues of democracy. As the General Assembly said in 1948, there should be

3.6 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and I congratulate him on steering his 14-member Committee to a unanimous report in response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report, which is about 300 pages. It is therefore necessary to be selective, and I shall confine my remarks to just four areas of serious human rights concern.

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I start more or less where the hon. Gentleman finished: with Zimbabwe. I am glad to see, from the interventions so far, that this matter is of considerable concern to Members on both sides of the Chamber. I am sure that that is also true of Members in the House generally. To appreciate the sheer magnitude of the violation of fundamental human rights in Zimbabwe, one need go no further than the opening page of the section on Zimbabwe in the Human Rights Watch “World Report 2006” covering the calendar year 2005. It commences:

The report goes on:

If one wants to appreciate visually what the so-called operation constituted physically on the ground, one need look no further than the remarkable satellite pictures that were published in The Independent on 31 May showing the 30,000-strong community at Porta Farm outside Harare—30,000 is approximately the size of Tonbridge in my constituency—before and after the destruction of that community, by it being razed to the ground. Those satellite images show graphically and with visual clarity just how appalling the destruction there was.

I am glad that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—it refers to this in its report—managed to bring the issue of Zimbabwe before the Security Council in July 2005. However, simply bringing the issue before the Security Council is not good enough when 700,000 people have been driven from their homes and the economy has been so wrecked by the Government’s policies that 4 million people are estimated to be in need of food aid. We now finally have the first ever Security Council resolution to refer the issue of Darfur to the International Criminal Court, and now that we have achieved that precedent, it should surely be the clearly stated objective of the British Government and many others around the world to refer the situation in Zimbabwe to the court.

The second issue that I shall raise concerns a serious human rights abuse involving more than 100,000 people. I have scoured the FCO’s annual report and the index, but, regrettably, the issue does not appear to warrant a single mention. For more than 10 years, more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have been in refugee camps in southern Nepal, but, sadly, they have been more or less forgotten. In March, I had the opportunity to visit the Sanischare camp in southern Nepal with, I am glad to say, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and a parliamentary delegation. We found charming, disciplined and industrious people who had maintained their refugee camp to a commendably high standard. It was immaculately clean and, for a refugee camp, remarkably socially progressive; indeed, there was a facility for women who had been subjected
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to abuse, as well as special recognition of the needs of the disabled and the handicapped. The camp was a tremendous tribute to the progressiveness and spirit of the Bhutanese refugee community in Nepal.

Those people have suffered quite outrageous treatment from three separate Governments. They were outrageously treated by the Bhutanese Government, who ethnically cleansed them from their part of India, or their country, more than 10 years ago. They have been, and continue to be, outrageously treated by the Indian Government, who refuse them passage across India and back into Bhutan. They have also been outrageously treated by the Nepalese Government, who refuse to allow them to work or to trade outside their camps and who, perhaps most reprehensibly, refuse to allow them to go to third countries, even when such countries are willing to take them.

On returning from Nepal, I pursued the issue with the former Foreign Secretary—the current Leader of the House—and I received a reply on 6 June from the Minister for the Middle East, who concluded:

I must tell the Minister that raising the issue and urging its resolution is unlikely to achieve any more success in the next 10 years than it has in the past 10 years.

The Bhutanese will remain trapped where they are unless and until there is a significant change of policy, and if I may, I should like to propose such a policy change. In many ways, the long-standing refugee problem that we faced in Europe in the 1950s was similar. We had to solve the residual problem of the world war two refugees who were still in refugee camps in Europe at the end of the 1950s. The issue was resolved by the UN taking the initiative and declaring 1959 world refugee year, with a particular focus on refugees in Europe. Third countries took in most of the refugees, and houses were built at public expense for those who remained.

I speak with just a little personal knowledge of these matters because I was a United Nations Association volunteer labourer in a refugee camp in Austria. Hon. Members might be amazed and shocked to know that I was eventually promoted to work leader, although I was almost certainly the least technically proficient on any building site that there has ever been. Despite my limited involvement, however, world refugee year was a success, and the refugee problem in Europe was solved.

I put it to the Minister in all seriousness that that is the route to solving the present problem. If the United Nations takes the initiative and declares that 2007 will be the year in which we solve the Bhutanese refugee problem, I am certain, given the discussions that we had in Kathmandu, that a sufficient number of third countries would be willing to take what is, when shared around, a quite small number of refugees and that the small number who remain could be looked after in Nepal. I put that to the Minister as an alternative that would bring about a solution to this neglected, but still serious refugee and human rights problem.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I thought that my right hon. Friend was going to mention that people in the camps are not allowed to go out and work in the locality in Nepal, while local people are allowed to come into the camps to use their very good health care facilities. That means that the numbers in the camps will continue to grow as the years go by, which will make the problem all the worse.

Sir John Stanley: I am sure that my hon. Friend was paying close attention to what I said, but he will see from the record that I said that the Nepalese Government prevented those in the camps from working outside. However, I agree that that is a serious human rights abuse, and people in the camps should be allowed to work and trade outside.

I turn now to the final two issues, which I shall treat from a human rights standpoint. First, there is Iraq. I appreciate that any Minister must be in the business of putting the best face on Government policy, however dismal the apparent consequences prove to be. However, I nearly despair when, in response to the unending stream of murderous activities in Iraq, Ministers, from the Prime Minister down, repeat, almost parrot-like, “We have established democracy in Iraq.” It is still to be proved whether that will be the case in the longer term, but I put it to the Minister that democracy is not the only human right. Other fundamental human rights need to be put into the equation for Iraq. I want to highlight a few of those in the context of Iraq.

What about the rights of children in Iraq? A new food security survey of Iraq has recently been carried out by the UN World Food Programme and UNICEF. That survey has shown that acute malnutrition among children in Iraq is now significantly worse than it was before our invasion of the country. I refer to the Reuters report about the survey on 15 May:

What about the very important human rights of women? That is another group of key human rights in which things have gone backwards since the invasion. It is not just a matter of women’s clothes, although I was certainly struck by a piece in The Sunday Times of 4 June. The heading of the article was “Men in black terrorise Iraq’s women”. In that long section was a further piece headed: “Western clothes are death sentence”. Besides those issues, the right and ability of women in Iraq today to continue to come out of their homes and do a job is in question. I was, again, struck by a long section in The Independent on 8 June, under the headline “For the women of Iraq, the war is just beginning”. That piece, by Terri Judd, included this passage:

The article continues:

Women’s rights in Iraq are going catastrophically, disastrously backwards.

What about the right to live in the country of one’s birth, another fundamental human right? Again, a drastic deterioration is going on there. As Islamic militancy has risen, more and more non-Muslims, some of whose families have been in the country for generations or even centuries, have felt it necessary to uproot themselves and leave the country. Tens of thousands of Christians have now left Iraq. As kidnapping and murder have become ever more rife, more and more people with money have been forced to abandon their homes and leave the country.

I was struck by an article in The New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, under the heading, “As Death Casts Its Shadow, The Middle Class Flees Iraq”. I have two quotations, which I think are incredibly powerful, from individuals in that dilemma:

The second reads:

That is why huge numbers of people are abandoning the country of their birth, Iraq.

Lastly, and possibly most fundamentally, what about the right to stay alive—the right to life—in Iraq? No one knows how many people are being murdered in Iraq each day, but we have a fair idea of the order of magnitude from what is being, reasonably consistently, reported. The “Today” programme yesterday said that 25 to 30 people a day are being murdered in Baghdad—about one an hour. How many people, we may wonder, will be murdered in Iraq during this debate? An adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence reported last month that it was also about one an hour in Basra. The former Prime Minister, Mr. Allawi, said in March:

That is probably the order of magnitude. It adds up to thousands of murders a year.

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