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15 Jun 2006 : Column 327WH—continued

This week, the Foreign Affairs Committee had a private, informal meeting with one of the leading British journalists in Iraq. As it was private, the Chamber will understand that I shall not give his name. He made a telling comment, which perhaps sums up the situation. He said, “Iraq is in a civil war fought by assassins and death squads.” What I want to put to the Minister is, first, whether the Government will look at Iraq in the context of the totality of its human rights—not simply whether elections have been held,
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but in the context of the rights of children and women, people’s right to remain in their homes, and their right to life.

When the Government have looked at the human rights dimension in its totality, will they answer some key questions? First, is the presence of the United States, together with our presence, hindering or helping human rights in Iraq? Secondly, if we withdrew, would that result in a deterioration of the human rights situation? Would it perhaps improve it? A third and equally important question is whether, given the huge commitment of armed forces that we are making in Iraq, we could get a better human rights benefit if they were deployed elsewhere.

That brings me, lastly, to the subject of Afghanistan. At the outset I want to say that I am wholly persuaded, as I am not in the matter of Iraq, that our forces in Afghanistan can make a human rights difference. Yes, I acknowledge that suicide bombing has started there. I recognise that the Taliban are trying to build themselves back, and that, monstrously, they have destroyed schools just because girls go to them, and murdered schoolteachers because they teach girls and not just boys. However, I am in no doubt that the human rights position in Afghanistan is vastly better now than it was when the Taliban were in Kabul. They are nowhere near Kabul at the moment, and I hope to goodness that they go nowhere near it in future. But, and this is the key policy issue for the Government, are we too heavily committed to Iraq, when compared with what we are receiving in return, and are we too thinly committed to Afghanistan, when compared with the human rights that we must hang on to there? That is the key human rights judgment that the Government must make, and I hope that they address it.

3.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and his Committee on their report. It is such an extensive body of work that there is no time to give attention to anything but a small fraction of it, so I shall address two areas that are different from those raised by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley).

I want to touch on the sections about Indonesia, and particularly China. I welcome the Committee’s conclusion, which refers to progress on human rights in Indonesia. It calls on the Government to engage with Indonesian partners to move further towards reform, particularly in light of the USA’s decision to reinstate military-to-military ties with Indonesia; and it recommends that the Government expand their annual report to cover the West Papua conflict.

Such coverage would be most welcome, because there is a serious situation in West Papua, and little news gets out of there because few journalists get in. When discussing West Papua, we should always remember that in a shameful episode in the history of the United Nations, its people never had the right that they should have had to exercise self-determination. Although I welcome what the Committee and the Government have said about encouraging the Indonesian Government to engage in dialogue with the West Papuan representatives and to proceed with full implementation of the autonomy
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legislation, I point out that there is an unresolved issue in West Papua about the status of the so-called, and indeed perversely named, Act of Free Choice. No such free choice took place in West Papua, and the issue of self-determination must be faced. It would be better if the British Government, along with others in the international community, made the United Nations face up to it.

I want also to touch on the report’s sections about China. Like Amnesty International, other human rights organisations and many constituents who contact me about this issue, I am concerned about the continuing and serious violations of human rights in China. As set out in the reports under debate, those violations include torture, execution, excessive force in policing labour and rural unrest, repression of dissent and the free exchange of information, especially through the internet, and forced repatriation of North Korean asylum seekers without recourse to a refugee determination procedure.

Various political and religious dissidents are in prison, as a result either of unfair trials under so-called national security legislation or of administrative detention. For example, after trying legally to register a political party, the China Democracy party, Qin Yongmin is serving a 12-year prison sentence following an unfair trial on charges of

There is a great proliferation of rules and regulations relating to the internet that put those using it to call for political and social reforms or to spread sensitive information, even about SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—for example, at risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment or even execution.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my right hon. Friend not find it extraordinary that the world’s internet service providers have colluded with that policy in China, and indeed assisted, through the systems that they have installed to make money out of the Chinese market, the persecution of individuals?

Mr. Smith: I find that approach not only extraordinary but shameful. It represents collusion with unacceptable and repressive practices.

Shi Tao is a journalist serving a 10-year prison sentence for sending an e-mail in 2004 to a United States-based pro-democracy website. His e-mail summarised the content of a Chinese central propaganda department document that had been orally transmitted to editorial staff instructing them on how to cover the approaching Tiananmen square anniversary. On the basis of that e-mail, Shi Tao was convicted of

There are countless other such cases.

Torture, as referred to in the reports, is systemic, and the Chinese authorities use it extensively. It is reported in many state institutions as well as in work places and homes. It is used by many different types of official, including police officers and prison guards, and worryingly, it is used increasingly by officials outside the criminal justice system, such as tax collectors and birth control officials. Allegations of torture are rarely
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investigated, and those who should be held accountable often escape prosecution or receive only light punishments. In many cases, prisoners have died as a result of torture.

Zhou Jianxiong is one of many victims of torture in China. He was an agricultural worker from Hunan province who was tortured to death by birth control officials in his hometown of Chunhua on 15 May 1998. He was tortured to make him reveal the whereabouts of his wife, who was suspected of being pregnant without permission. Zhou was hung upside down, repeatedly whipped and beaten with wooden clubs, burned with cigarettes, branded with soldering irons, and he had his genitals ripped off. We are talking about the most ugly and abhorrent practices, and they are taking place on a terrifying scale.

As to the death penalty, each year China judicially executes more people than do all other countries put together. Between 1990 and 2000 at least 19,520 executions took place. Recent research by a Chinese parliamentarian suggests that the execution rate in China might be as high as 10,000 per year. Murder, rape and other crimes of violence all attract the death penalty, but so too do many non-violent offences including bribery, embezzlement, forgery, tax fraud, car theft and cattle rustling. Official sources have indicated that the recent preoccupation with applying the death penalty to economic crimes might even have arisen to help China meet the challenges of World Trade Organisation membership.

I could cite many examples of people being executed for relatively minor crimes. Executions in China take place by shooting, or increasingly by lethal injection. The introduction of the lethal injection raises serious concerns about the increased involvement of the medical profession in the execution process. Amnesty International is increasingly concerned that the timing of executions might sometimes be orchestrated to meet the needs of the organ transplant industry. That is another horrific practice about which constituents have expressed to me their outrage.

China says that it has strengthened its regulations and guidance, and that taking organs from executed prisoners must be done with their consent. However, in truth it is a lucrative industry. Transplant tourism, recently condemned by the British Transplantation Society and leading transplant surgeons in this country, is utterly abhorrent to people. As China understandably gains more prominence through its growing economic might and its enormous historical, cultural and scientific contribution to the world, it is important that we speak out. Its people are held back and its standing is damaged by those utterly unacceptable practices.

Gross violations of human rights continue in the more remote parts of China. For example, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region there are arbitrary and summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention and unfair political trials. Such things have been aimed predominantly at the majority ethnic population, the Uighurs, who are Muslim. The political prisoners held in the region may number many thousands, although no one can be sure. As in Tibet, the Chinese Government’s fear of separatism is the principal cause. The authorities continue to discriminate against the Uighur population in favour of recently arrived Han Chinese in religious, cultural and employment issues. Since the escalation of
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the global war on terrorism, human rights violations appear to have intensified in the autonomous region and there is concern that the international community has perhaps become less keen to confront China about its behaviour towards the Uighurs.

Mr. Hands: On the question of Uighurstan, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the approach of the neighbouring central Asian republics, which contain ethnic kinsmen of the Uighurs, is reprehensible? To curry favour with China they have sold their cousins down the river and are refusing to have any contact with the Uighurs, which in my view is a great pity.

Mr. Smith: I was not aware of the detail that the hon. Gentleman has drawn to my attention. It is incumbent on everyone, whether they are ethnic kinsmen who are next door or, as we are, people who are some distance away, to highlight the abuses that are happening and the denial of what should be the basic rights of the people in that region. In respect of the other autonomous region, Tibet, it is more widely known that freedom of expression, religion and association continue to be severely restricted. There are persistent reports of deaths in custody, torture and ill treatment.

I endorse the comments in the conclusion of the Committee’s report. Not only are the abuses abhorrent, unacceptable and to be resisted, but, as the Committee concluded,

I can understand how the Government have to respond on this issue. I simply implore my right hon. Friend the Minister to adopt a robust attitude on these matters in the opportunities that will come his way, given his trade responsibilities. He is likely to be visiting China in the relatively near future. I urge him to raise these issues robustly whenever he does so.

As I said, China is a mighty economic and military power, and is becoming increasingly so. It is incumbent on all of us to say not only that its human rights record is utterly unacceptable, but that we need faster progress. One can see some of the difficulties, such as in terms of reforming its judicial procedures—an issue on which the Government are giving some assistance to China. Nevertheless, all of us, including Ministers, must be prepared to speak out on these issues and to use our influence to the maximum to ensure that there is much more rapid progress.

One other particular issue that must be pressed is the access of Amnesty International and other human rights organisations to the People’s Republic of China so that they can talk to people and report objectively on the situation and such progress, or lack of it, as is being made. It is scrutiny, advocacy and sending a clear signal that China’s economic progress must be matched by human rights reform that will help secure the changes that the Chinese people need if their rights as human beings are to be properly respected.

3.44 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome this debate and the opportunities it provides for us to have a serious discussion about human rights and the
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role of the UK Government in that issue. I want to make a number of points, but I shall be as quick as I can because I believe that we are trying to finish early—I heard a rumour to that effect.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Very generous.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am sure that it was just a rumour, but I shall nevertheless bear it in mind.

Next week, the United Nations Human Rights Council starts its proceedings in Geneva. In his introduction, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed its establishment and hoped that it would be an improvement on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As one who has attended many meetings of the Human Rights Commission, I shall not weary the Chamber with all the details of it. Some of its sessions were extraordinarily long and extraordinarily ill focused but there were some advantages to its system.

One such advantage was that the commission had standing reports on various world issues, such as the plight of the Palestinian people, the situation in respect of opposing apartheid, and Cyprus. Above all, there were significant opportunities for civil society and non-governmental organisations to be represented directly in its main plenary sessions. Although a huge number of NGOs and civil society organisations were represented there, it is reasonable to question the NGO status of some of the so-called NGOs. Some were frankly little more than fig leaves for another government organisation.

Nevertheless, there was an important principle that civil society should be represented at the highest level within the United Nations system. It is implicit in the charter, the declaration and the system that operated through the Human Rights Commission. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us assurances in that respect.

I notice that a Minister—I believe it will be the Minister who is present today, but I am not sure—is to be the 40th speaker to address the Human Rights Council. They will be speaking at 10.30 am on 20 June in Geneva. I hope that their contribution will reflect the view from this country that we strongly support the inclusion of civil society organisations within the Human Rights Council system.

I say that for an obvious reason. Where a Government represent a country that has a serious systematic abuse of human rights—for example Burma or, in part, Colombia, or many such places—it is essential that an independent voice is heard and that such Governments are made to answer the allegations that are made against them.

I hope that there will not be endless delays and that the British Government will support a regular review of the human rights position in each country of the world. The idea is that every two or three years—I cannot remember the exact details—

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): Three years.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for that. Every three years there will be a half-day review on each country’s human rights situation. That is important,
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because it means that everybody is then under the microscope. Some countries used to claim that they were regularly under the microscope and that others were never put under it.

The Chairman of the Committee made a point about the horse-trading that went on around resolutions. I do not think that it will be avoided in the Human Rights Council any more than it was in the Human Rights Commission. However, such a review process would mean that the whole thing was more open and, I hope, that there was more focus on what went on there. I hope that the Minister will give me some good news in that regard.

My next point concerns extraordinary rendition flights, the Council of Europe report and Guantanamo Bay. I am pleased that that human rights report and the Foreign Affairs Committee report specifically mention Guantanamo Bay. There can be no defence for its existence as a centre of detention. Anyone who is held there cannot get a fair trial any more, anywhere in the world, because they have been held incommunicado, because of the treatment that they have suffered and because of the way they were taken there in the first place.

One must think about the way in which suspects—as far as the United States was concerned—were picked up in Pakistan. In some cases, the prison authorities and others were bribed to hand over individuals, who were then flown by a circuitous route before somehow ending up in Guantanamo Bay. The British nationals were finally released and were interviewed by police at Paddington Green, but it is interesting that they were interviewed for quite a short time and released without charge, with no further action being taken against them. It is highly significant that, even under British terrorist law, they were released very quickly indeed.

I ask the Minister to consider the situation of those who have a different nationality, but who were ordinarily resident in Britain, who had indefinite leave to remain and who were therefore eligible to apply for British nationality, but who are still in Guantanamo Bay. What action is he prepared to take to pressurise the US to release them, and everyone else from Guantanamo Bay?

There is a further aspect that needs to be cleared up. The US base on Diego Garcia is in the British Indian Ocean Territory. It is a UK possession, but there is a renewable lease to the US for the base to be sited there. I would like to know whether the base on Diego Garcia has ever been used as a staging post for flights from Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else, through which prisoners on rendition flights have eventually ended up in Guantanamo Bay. If that were the case and there had been human rights abuses as a result, the British Government—just like any other Government who have condoned human rights abuses through inaction and allowing those flights to take place—would be liable for investigation. We need to know exactly what happened on Diego Garcia.

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