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15 Jun 2006 : Column 339WH—continued

We have heard some mention of human rights in respect of gender. Page 214 of the FCO’s report shows well how the UK can set an example, through the issue of sexual orientation. It states how this Government,
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before preaching to other countries, have set out a series of protections in UK law and human rights law to provide employment protection for lesbian and gay people. Indeed, mention is made of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and so on. That emphasises the question why the Government have not done something similar for freedom of speech provisions, given the reference to blasphemy in Pakistan on page 216.

I want to draw attention to one more example: the attack made in this country on the Human Rights Act 1998. The FCO’s report draws attention to the Human Rights Act in at least two places: on page 194 in respect of torture, which is crucial given the recent debates, and in the annexe on the Council of Europe and other bodies on page 280, where we rightly boast of the fact that we have introduced international human rights law into domestic law through the European convention on human rights. However, the arrangements are under sustained attack by other parts of the Government at the same time as the Foreign Office draws attention to our satisfactory position on human rights law.

I do not have time to go into the subject and neither is this the place to do so, but I may say that it is not clear in any of the cases mentioned by the Government, whether they relate to the Afghani hijackers or the deportation of foreign prisoners, that there is any evidence that the Human Rights Act or the ECHR has had any impact on the UK Government’s ability to give the safety of UK citizens the priority it requires. We have not seen that at all. At a time when the Government rightly talk about their record on human rights through the Human Rights Act, it is depressing to see the same Government attack human rights.

I welcome the Committee’s report almost in its entirety, but although I appreciate that the Committee cannot go through every topic and every country, it was disappointing to see little mention made of the crucial issue of trafficking of humans for sexual exploitation and labour in this country. The Government’s report appropriately mentions that at the time it was written in July 2005, the Council of Europe—a body in which you, Mr. Hancock, have played a fine role in the Parliamentary Assembly—had negotiated the drafting of a convention. We still have not signed, far less ratified, that convention, and as I understand it, that is a matter for the Foreign Office in consultation with other parts of Government. Can the Minister update us on whether we are in a position to sign and ratify that convention? As we know from recent news stories, the problem is serious and could be getting worse.

On the subject of the Human Rights Council of the UN, it is vital that the UN machinery on human rights works and is made to work. I wish it full steam ahead and hope that the Government will do all they can to strengthen its role.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that civil society and non-governmental organisations should be represented there at the same time?

Dr. Harris: Yes. That point was made in the report and it is critical that we do that. One can pick and
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choose one’s NGOs as one likes, but the principle is that in many cases they lead the way and human rights law and human rights norms follow.

I want to raise some questions on Turkey. There is an excellent section on Turkey and the European Union in the Committee’s report. There is no doubt that Turkey’s human rights record is improving, but does the Minister understand the alarm with which news of further trials and arraignments on freedom of speech issues—for criticism of the Turkish state or of Turkish history in relation to the Armenians—is greeted? The issue is contentious, but the mark of a democracy that is mature and liberal enough to join the European Union is that such debate is tolerated and that the courts eventually, at the end of a long and painful process—sometimes it is literally painful for the accused—either come to the right decision or provide recourse to the ECHR. It is not acceptable that an applicant state to the European Union should have such repressive laws, still not fully repealed, on freedom of speech.

That is mentioned in some detail in the report, but it is not clear—I would like reassurance on this—whether Ministers recognise that we cannot be partially right on human rights. We either comply in our domestic law with the basic norms or we do not. Leaving one area to be dealt with by the courts is not acceptable.

Two points are of particular interest to me because of my membership of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The question of rendition was introduced well and in a balanced way by the hon. Member for Ilford, South. The Government’s role in that, and their willingness to be proactive, is a real problem, and I want to refer briefly to the Joint Committee’s report on rendition. It made two points on the matter, which echo the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Joint Committee report states that

the report that we are debating today—

The report sets out what more the UK has to do in respect of its human rights obligations. It stated that

Clearly, the Government have not yet responded on their compliance with the UN convention against torture, but I hope that the Minister is aware of that, because it is also a matter for the Foreign Office.

There is an excellent section in the Foreign Affairs Committee report on the thorny question of memorandums of understanding, although the hon. Member for Ilford, South did not have time to speak about it in detail. Again, important points were raised on that matter by the Joint Committee. One was the inadequacy of the current memorandum of understanding. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman stated that memorandums of understanding could not always be relied upon. That is
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not my personal view; I think that there is a real problem in relying on them at all if they are to be robust on monitoring.

The view of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, when considering in detail the memorandums that have been negotiated so far, is that they do not provide the required rigour. I question whether it is worth the Government going down that path, because it undermines their position on the complete blanket ban that there must be on torture. In the words of the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, such memorandums undermine the multilateral nature of agreements against torture by seeking bilateral deals with Governments who have a clear record of torture.

Ad personam or ad hominem agreements suggest that a country is not complying, and it is wrong that we should move outside multilateral monitoring arrangements and multilateral norms. I know that the Government, from the Prime Minister down, do not accept that, but such a position undermines our ability to persuade people of the importance of human rights measures while seeking one-to-one agreements.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. Once again, I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on making a thorough report.

4.23 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is good to see the Minister in his place, particularly after his recent difficulties. I wish him every success in his new job.

We heard two excellent speeches from members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, namely the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Committee Chairman, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). Indeed, everyone who has taken part in the debate has made an excellent speech, including the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn).

I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was a big subject to be tackled by a Select Committee, but it showed the highest quality in its debates, its taking of evidence and its reporting. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Committee is now bigger and to get a unanimous agreement among 13 members takes some doing.

Among other things, the hon. Member for Ilford, South mentioned Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, as did other hon. Members. We all want to see those held at Guantanamo Bay brought to trial and acquitted or sentenced as soon as possible. Justice delayed is justice denied, and that applies particularly there.

The Government have made it clear on a number of occasions that they abide by all the conventions on torture and that they will not use torture in any theatre. However, the question of intelligence gained from torture is slightly difficult. One often does not know where intelligence comes from, and even if one does know, it may be obscured. Even if one suspects that information has come from torture, if it could save British lives or the lives of our allies, I would have
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thought that the Government had a duty to use it. I therefore slightly take issue with the hon. Gentleman in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the worst human rights abuses—namely those in Burma and Syria—but he also mentioned the newly arising human rights problem in Sri Lanka. That is a wonderful and civilised country, with the assets of beauty, historical artefacts and a wonderful, gentle people. It is sad to see it disintegrating into chaos. The international community needs to think carefully about what it can do, because the problem should be capable of being solved.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling rightly drew attention to the appalling situation in Zimbabwe perpetrated by its President, Robert Mugabe. My right hon. Friend mentioned Operation Murambatsvina, the so-called “clear the filth” operation—that is what Murambatsvina means—and he alluded to the aerial photographs being taken before and after that operation. It was an appalling act of atrocity.

Not only did Mugabe’s Government perpetrate that atrocity, but when some of the international community tried to provide tents, the tents too were seized by the armed forces. That shows how little regard for human life President Mugabe has. What limited food supplies that country has have been manipulated and given to his supporters, and he has ensured that those who do not support him have gone hungry. That is appalling, given that that country used to be the bread basket of Africa and that it exported its food all over the world.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the visit that he led so ably to Nepal. I am delighted, as I am sure he is, that the political situation there seems to have stabilised, at least for the moment. That is a great relief to everyone. I hope that the interim Government hold elections in the near future and become properly elected, and that they manage to take over all the institutions of state and run a proper, democratic regime—including taking over the army, so that it will be possible to equip it in a way that will allow the Maoist threats to be defeated. We discovered while we were there that the army has great difficult in moving about the country. It does not have enough helicopters or the wherewithal to control acts of terrorism, especially in the more remote parts in the west of the country. I hope that the situation continues to stabilise.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the Sanischere camps in Nepal, of which there are seven. It was good to see that the international NGO community is running those camps to the highest possible standards. As he said, it ought to be possible to come to a conclusion and ensure that those people are properly settled, wherever it may be. They could be returned to Bhutan—I have been there and discussed the situation with the Bhutanese Foreign Minister. The Nepalese could be resettled in their own country, and offers of help have been made to resettle them in third countries. It seems that that situation has a possible solution.

My right hon. Friend mentioned in vivid terms the human rights abuses going on in Iraq, and he questioned the future of our troops there. He was right to do so. We must all think of what we are achieving in Iraq and whether by being there we are helping the formation of
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democracy or acting as a magnet for further terrorism by making the various groups united in their opposition to what they see as western occupiers.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East rightly drew attention to the Papua New Guinea problem. It is not often aired on the world stage, but human rights abuses are going on there. The Indonesians are our friends and we ought to be able to impress on them that inflicting killings and other extra-judicial abuses on the people there is not acceptable; we should be able to find a solution to that conflict. He also mentioned in vivid terms human rights abuses in China. These days, we have huge trade contacts with China and it ought to be possible for trade Ministers, when dealing with trade issues, also to emphasise that such human rights abuses are not acceptable.

The hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is the point at which I want to come to what I had prepared to say today. I want to say one or two things about the council and one or two of the other things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Our parents and grandparents witnessed the full horrors of the second world war and with that experience came their determination to set up, through their leaders, organisations to ensure that such atrocities never occurred again. The United Nations and its agencies created legally binding conventions, such as the Vienna convention on torture, for that purpose, but for some reason those are rarely implemented nowadays.

The advance of the modern media is leading to greater news gathering capacity, and one might perceive that human rights abuses are worse nowadays than historically. I am not sure that that is the case, given some of the dreadful atrocities of the 20th century—Stalin’s gulags, Pol Pot’s killing fields and Germany’s concentration camps. Nevertheless, any single human rights abuse is one too many.

More effective action could be taken through the United Nations, although it is clear that all nations must co-operate better to prevent human rights abuses. As I mentioned in my intervention, it is no good if, under the current United Nations structure, any one of the permanent five members of the Security Council can, because of their own economic interests, veto action that could prevent human rights abuses. There have been many obvious examples. Purely because of their oil interests, Russia and France vetoed strong action against the Government of Saddam Hussein.

We need not only stronger co-operation within the United Nations, but stronger co-operation between the member nations and other organisations that could help in the human rights field—for example, the European Union, NATO, the African Union, the Commonwealth and the Organisation of American States.

Late last year, during a visit to the United Nations with a number of colleagues from all parties, I was particularly pleased to hear about the creation of the UN Human Rights Council, which replaces the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. However, as the hon. Member for Islington, North said, it has shortcomings. The resolution at the summit that set it up requires that when member states vote for HRC members, they should merely take into account a candidate’s human rights record. Worse, the resolution set a higher
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bar—two thirds of the General Assembly—for suspending an elected member of the HRC. As we heard when we were there, trying to get a resolution from two thirds of all 190 nations of the General Assembly takes some doing.

There are further shortcomings in the Human Rights Council: there are no criteria for membership of it; the peer review mechanism would not automatically affect eligibility for membership; there is only minimal reduction in membership from that of the old UNCHR; the resolution significantly shifts the balance of power away from the western regional group; and finally, the special sessions can be called by only one third of the council’s membership.

As has been indicated, the report was wide-ranging. I should like to touch on one or two of the general mechanisms, but I am not going to dwell too much on any individual country’s human rights problems. In paragraphs 90 and 96, the report mentions the problems of military exports and international arms trade treaties in respect of human rights.

I supported the Export Control Act 2002. In recent years, legislation has also introduced controls on the transfer of technology and the provision of technical assistance that may be used in connection with weapons of mass destruction. I also support the proposed international arms trade treaty. We do not always follow up on what human rights abuses are perpetrated by arms that have been exported under arms licences. We have sold Hawk jets to Indonesia, but did not see what the Indonesians were using them for. Sometimes, when we suspect that human rights abuses are being perpetrated, we need to ensure that the military export licence is being adhered to properly.

In paragraph 100, the report also makes it clear that we have a duty of corporate social responsibility, and I share the Committee’s concerns on the subject. We do business with many countries that have appalling human rights records and we need, by our own example—in this country, we have some of the highest corporate standards—to say to such countries that they need to do better.

As I said in an intervention, we particularly need to remind countries, such as China, which does business with countries with some of the worst human rights records—for example, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Venezuela and Iran—that it too should encourage higher standards of corporate social responsibility. If China, and Russia, wish to exercise their positions as world states, they should uphold such corporate social responsibilities.

Paragraph 82 and those that follow make it clear that one of the ways to prevent human rights abuses is through democracy, and I totally agree with that. In 1975, Freedom House found that only 40 nations of the world were democracies; today, it cites more than 89—twice the number in 30 years. If a country is a democracy, it does not exercise some of the arbitrary abuses of human rights that non-democracies do. We need to work much more closely to encourage democracy.

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