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15 Jun 2006 : Column 333WH—continued

Like the Chairman of the Committee, I have read the Marty report on extraordinary rendition flights. Although the report does not add an awful lot to the information that is already available, what was interesting was the chorus of condemnation from every European Government
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as soon as it appeared. The Marty report is a serious document, about a serious investigation. Mr. Marty makes the point, as have others, that there is a legal obligation on countries that are signatories to the European convention on human rights to do something about human rights abuses that are brought to their attention.

If such flights are unrecorded and carry unknown persons, the Governments concerned ought to know about them or find out about them. We need to know what happened in Poland and Romania, what happened with the flights that went to Morocco and what the purpose was. We cannot accept the idea that another country—the USA—can take people from point A to points B and C, before they finally end up in Guantanamo Bay or somewhere else, but that that is somehow not our responsibility. I suspect that many member states have simply not been told what is going on with the CIA flights. The Marty report deserves serious consideration and Mr. Marty deserves recognition for his work in trying to bring the matter to our attention. It is now up to parliamentarians in every member state to ask legitimate questions of our Governments about what they are doing about rendition flights.

It is difficult in a human rights debate not to focus on individual countries, and most hon. Members who have spoken have done just that. I, too, want to raise one or two countries, but first I make a general point about migrants. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) spoke about the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe at the end of the second world war, and about the residual numbers who remained in this country, particularly Jewish Polish refugees and others who remained in places throughout Europe. It is true that there was an excellent and commendable effort to ensure that they were properly treated and housed, and where possible allowed to return home after the end of the second world war.

What needs to be drawn to the world’s attention, however, is the plight of migrants now. Every day, open boats carry people from west Africa to the Canary islands, which they try to reach because they are part of the European Union. If people can gain asylum in a European Union country, they have a place of safety and some possibility of a decent standard of living, but hundreds of people have died in those open boats in the sea. Hundreds have died in the Mediterranean and in other places around the world. It is not good enough to blame people traffickers for the trade, and just to say that it is all illegal and should not happen. Of course, it should not happen, but if people are driven by poverty and desperation, that is the result and those are the circumstances in which they die.

We rightly condemned everything that happened under the Nazis and others before the second world war, and the way in which Jewish people, fleeing to a place of safety, died in the most terrible circumstances. That is not a parallel—there are different times and different circumstances. Nevertheless, many thousands of people have lost their lives trying to get to a place of security and safety. We cannot solve all those problems, but we can uphold the principles of the 1951 Geneva convention in relation to political, religious or social reasons for seeking asylum. We can also consider the
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rights of migrant people fleeing from famine or environmental disaster and trying to reach a place of safety.

Attitudes are beginning to change slightly. The US economy has boomed, as has the British economy, on the backs of many people living a shadow existence and working without legal papers. The Mexican migrants in the United States have now started to demonstrate for their rights. It is interesting that they have received quite a lot of support there, because people recognise the huge contribution that they have made and the treatment that they suffered. We must consider the rights of migrant people and what happens on some of the borders, particularly the border between Mexico and the United States, where many people have died and where George Bush has now deployed the national guard, for purposes that I can only imagine. Migrants have rights as well. We prosper from the work of migrants in our society and we should recognise that.

I want quickly to raise some questions about specific countries, so that the Minister can reply and, if not, so that he can write to me. My constituency includes people from all over the world, but one community that concerns me a great deal is the Congolese community, which has been in north London for a long time. The original Congolese arrivals were the family of the murdered former Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, but many others have come since then, over the past 40-odd years.

Many of those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo have come from the most awful, violent situation to seek a place of safety in this country. I should like to be assured that there will be no removals to the DRC, because I do not believe it to be a safe place to which people may be removed. I recognise that the Government support the transitional Government in the DRC, and want the elections that are due at the end of July to be successful. However, there are serious concerns about the funding of irregular armies in the eastern Congo by neighbouring countries—principally Rwanda and Uganda at present—and about the export of the DRC’s mineral riches through those countries, neither of which has enormous mineral riches of its own.

I know that the Government take the issue seriously—indeed, much more so than many other European countries or the United States. However, the elections alone will not solve the DRC’s problems. They will be solved when a genuine peace is reached and there is real transparency on the exploitation and export of minerals from the DRC, which there certainly is not now. There is a ghastly war there, in which 3 million people have died. Those are first world war levels of casualties, which are far higher than the horrors that have been described in Iraq and other places, but there is no obvious end in sight. However, we know that many people are making a great deal of money out of the conflict, because of the DRC’s mineral riches.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling described well what is happening in Iraq. My view, which is on the record, is that the war was illegal. That issue has been the subject of huge debate, but we cannot ignore the fact that the massive death rate amounts to recorded deaths in Iraq—by assassination, murder or whatever else—of 20,000 people a year that
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we know of, and many others as a result of that. The experience of Iraq and its horrors will be with us all for a very long time to come. It would be far better if the occupying forces withdrew. That would be more likely to bring about a long-term political settlement that brought about a degree of hope.

I mentioned Somalia in an intervention on the Chairman of the Committee. Again, my constituency has a substantial number of people from Somalia and from Somaliland living in the community. Indeed, there has been a Somali community in Britain, principally in Sheffield and in Cardiff, for a long time. Obviously, Somalia is a place of enormous problems at present. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined the British Government’s political strategy in respect of the situation there. In Hargeisa in Somaliland, there is an elected Government who represent that part of the former colonies of Britain, Italy and France, and who attempt to administer, develop and run the country in a normal way.

In Mogadishu, in the southern part of Somalia, there is no normal functioning Government in the sense that we would understand it. There is a transitional Government, who are attempting to represent the entire country and, as I understand it, they are supported and recognised by the African Union. There have been enormous upsurges of activity between the warlords and what are loosely described as Islamic forces in the south.

I am obviously worried about the present situation, but I am also very worried about what the future will bring. Are we seeing the seeds of another huge war in that region in which there is foreign intervention, or are we prepared to be involved and negotiate to try to bring about some kind of Government covering the whole region, which would prevent further death and bloodshed? I am constantly shocked by the degree of violence that young people who have sought asylum in this country have seen and suffered in Somalia. Obviously, they have a right to asylum in this country.

My final point is also on a collective issue: caste-based discrimination around the world. That issue was raised at the Johannesburg summit some years ago, it has been raised at the Human Rights Commission and no doubt it will be raised at the Human Rights Council. It is discrimination based on caste and descent and it affects principally the Dalit peoples of India, although it exists in other countries, too. I know that the Foreign Office takes the issue seriously.

I should declare that I am a trustee of the Dalit Solidarity Network. We have had numerous meetings with Ministers on the issue, and I thank those Ministers for the meetings. I hope that their preparedness to push for the Ambedkar principles to be included in any foreign investment that takes place in India or other places will produce results, because the degree of discrimination that is practised against 200 million people around the world, who suffer higher infant mortality, lower life expectancy and violent discrimination in some parts, is very serious indeed. Although it is not up to us to run the affairs of every country around the world, that is not the point. It is up to us to do what we can to ensure that basic standards and the basic principles of the UN are understood and upheld. I hope that the Minister can give us some cause for hope in that respect.

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4.3 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am pleased to speak in the debate, although I feel like something of an impostor, because this is the first time that I have spoken on foreign affairs matters. I guess that I was asked to do so because of my interest in human rights as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I want to put on record a reference to the great help that we have had from the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and the rest of the Foreign Affairs Committee on some of the overlapping areas relating to rendition and so on.

It is also appropriate to say how welcome it is that we are having this debate and to congratulate the Committee on its work. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South on the way in which he introduced the debate. He was previously unfairly accused of being a Government loyalist, which is a very career-damaging and often majority-damaging allegation to make. It was an outrageous allegation in his case. He has demonstrated that he took a balanced approach to the report and to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The hon. Gentleman initially spoke about the importance of the Minister’s role and of ensuring that no trade-off is seen to exist between trade and human rights. He then pointed out how robust the Minister is; it is a pleasure to see the Minister being so robust and looking so well. I trust that his health is as robust as it appears. He looks better than most of us, I fear.

Mr. McCartney: That’s the NHS for you.

Dr. Evan Harris: Indeed, and coming from the right hon. Gentleman, that says a great deal. He is a strong supporter of the NHS, as I am. I suspect that if and when we reach his level of seniority—I shall use that term carefully—we would be pleased to be doing as well as him.

There is a problem with the Minister responsible for trade also being the Minister responsible for human rights. The question is not simply whether there is a trade-off. I have every confidence in the personal integrity of the Minister in not allowing that. It is also a question of perception. In foreign affairs and diplomacy, it is often the perception that may undermine some of the good work done. The Foreign Affairs Committee report has made a fair point in that respect. The Minister should not see it as a personal criticism, and the Government should not see it as a policy criticism in respect of the actual record. That is a moot point, but even in terms of the perception, there is something to be said.

I have enjoyed listening to the debate; indeed, it has been a privilege to hear it. We heard a highly informed and detailed contribution from the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who spoke first on Zimbabwe. I think he accepted the point that I raised in an intervention. Given the appalling human rights situation in that country, the treatment of returning asylum seekers by the Mugabe regime and the unpredictability of that regime, it is hard to see how our Government can see people as potentially removable to that location even if they fail in their asylum application here. There may not be any or many returns at the moment, but the fact that the Government have fought
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so hard to deprive people in that situation of a meaningful existence in this country in the interim suggests that they are of the view that the situation in Zimbabwe may change at any minute. I do not believe that there is enough evidence of progress on the ground to suggest that. It is unreasonable—indeed, outrageous—that people are left with no means in this country when they are clearly not removable and that the Government have exerted every legal muscle that they can to defend their position.

Hon. Members should be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he put that case and for the way in which he set out the situation on Iraq. I do not have time now to go into the human rights situation in Iraq, but I endorse everything that he said about how bleak the situation is and how we must look at the human rights situation and, indeed, life expectancy when judging not only what damage has been done by our policy, but how best to move on from that. That will not be an easy judgment call, whatever our views on the way forward.

I also share the right hon. Gentleman’s view on Afghanistan, which is a separate case from Iraq. Just because we are working with the United States in Afghanistan, that does not mean that the criticisms that are often made of US Administration policy in Iraq automatically flow to Afghanistan. They do not, although there are some concerns.

It was enjoyable to hear the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), my neighbour from Oxford, give a learned discourse on the human rights problems in China in particular. He referred to letters from his constituents. The people of Oxford are pretty liberal in writing to people, and I am sure that I have seen some of the letters to which he has responded so expertly today. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) gave a typically passionate speech on the plight of migrants worldwide. We also see that passion in his views on UK policy in that regard. We are not debating that subject today, but it is a real problem. We must have, as the UN must, metrics and measurements for the welfare of people that include the huge problems faced by migrants in the world, whether they are voluntary migrants or forced migrants, as they are in many cases owing not just to famine but to war and repression. There is a major problem in that regard.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about Guantanamo Bay. Again, now is not the time to go into detail, but as a medical doctor I want to take the opportunity, in advance of a discussion at the British Medical Association’s annual representative meeting in a couple of weeks, to point out the concerns raised by UN special rapporteurs about the role of physicians in Guantanamo Bay. The situation is quite clear, and I quote from their report:

and, indeed, so long as the hunger strike is voluntary rather than under coercion from other people. The report goes on to state:

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Paragraph 81 continues:

The rapporteurs say—and I agree—that that policy

this also applies to the International Committee of the Red Cross—

There is a fundamental difference. On the one hand, most of the world—the US is on the other hand, as it were—has a fundamental human rights provision about the autonomy of patients. It is bad enough for that right to be ignored in a prison, but for doctors to be actively involved gives an air of legitimacy—the torturer with the white coat. I hope that the Minister will tell us what representations are being made about that particularly nasty aspect of what has gone on in Guantanamo Bay.

It is timely that this debate comes after the suicides in Guantanamo Bay. When one reads the UN report and other first-hand reports of what happens, the only surprise one has is that there have not been more acts of self-harm and suicide. For the US to act in the way that it has and to call those suicides an act of war, purely politically inspired, is extremely depressing.

It is important for the UK Government to set an example, considering the human rights work they do. It is worth putting on the record once again the fact that the debate is a consequence of the Government’s decision in 1998 to issue a human rights report. That had not happened before and it gives us something to debate—the Government might see it as ammunition. I have raised the question of potential returnees to Zimbabwe. It is difficult to see how we can maintain as much credibility as we do if we are not consistent.

Another such example relates to our position on certain matters criticised in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to comments made about Pakistan in particular—I am afraid that I am going to talk about religion and follow it up by talking about sex—and the cases that we read about in which the Pakistani Government prosecute, on pain of death, people who blaspheme. That is outrageous, and I think the UK Government have made representations about it. At the same time, the law of blasphemy in this land has not been repealed; the fact that it is not used but is simply a threat is a problem. The Government would have greater credibility on the fundamental issues of free speech if they took the opportunity to deal with the matter. Foreign Office Ministers should make the point to Home Office Ministers that we should not have laws on the statute book that we seek to have removed in other places.

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