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15 Jun 2006 : Column 345WH—continued

There are some democratic and human rights successes in the world. The report might imply that the
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world is all doom and gloom in respect of human rights abuses, but there have been successes. For example, millions of people in Afghanistan defied the threats of Taliban supporters and turned out en masse to elect a President in 2004 and their new representatives to a new Parliament last September. In Iraq, people defied insurgents’ fearmongering and voted to adopt a permanent constitution last October, and in December more than 75 per cent. of those eligible voted for their National Assembly, despite all the threats to their lives and well-being.

As has been mentioned, one year ago this month, Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon after massive demonstrations and after the cedar revolution that had followed tainted elections and the killing of a popular leader. As the report makes clear, the people spoke in Ukraine’s orange revolution, in Georgia’s rose revolution of 2003 and in the bulldozer revolution in Serbia, which brought Milosevic down in 2000. So it is not all doom and gloom in the world; there are some successes.

Before I conclude, I should like to dwell on one or two other aspects. The relationship between aid and human rights abuses needs to be examined carefully. Under Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank has shown what can be achieved by taking that approach into account. Like Wolfowitz, I worry about the growth of corruption in Kenya, and the World Bank has suspended five loans to that country. In January, Mr. Wolfowitz suspended all loans to Chad when its President decided to disregard an agreement with the World Bank designed to ensure that oil revenues would not be misused.

The Department for International Development needs to examine carefully how it allocates aid towards democracy building. It should set clear targets and make it clear that if countries do not meet them, the aid will be cut, but that if they do meet them, the aid will be increased. I also feel that we made a mistake with the Hamas-led Palestine Government following the recent election in that country. Cutting off all aid leaves us little or no negotiating power with that Government; one always needs a few levers of power to carry on negotiations with one’s adversary.

Finally, I turn to the International Criminal Court, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling and in paragraph 28 of the report. The court is important and we need to consider it. My right hon. Friend is right to say that if tyrants and dictators like Robert Mugabe feel that there is an effective international court mechanism, that if they are convicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, there is a high likelihood that they will be brought before a successfully operating international court, and that that court has the teeth to give out a severe sentence—a life sentence that means life—there might just be some deterrent effect on them. It is a scandal that Charles Taylor is still free because of arguments about the jurisdictions in which he should be tried and, if he is found guilty and sentenced—as he undoubtedly will be—imprisoned. We need to concentrate carefully on that.

It is worth mentioning Foreign and Commonwealth Office policy. We often underestimate the effect of the contacts that our officials have all over the world. They meet officials right up to heads of state of all sorts of regimes. We should be and could be at least as effective
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as we are now, and it is regrettable that due to budgetary considerations some of our embassies have been closed in recent years. For example, four out of five of the central American diplomatic missions have been closed. There have been cuts in staff and facilities in other embassies around the world. That is a false economy for the small amount of money that it saves. In the case of the central American embassies, it was probably less than £1 million.

I wish to close by quoting article 1 of the universal declaration of human rights, which probably sums up this entire debate and our approach to human rights abuses. It states:

That absolutely sums up what we are all about. I again applaud the Chairman of the Select Committee for his excellent report. I hope that he will go on doing this work and holding the Government to account in the way that he did with the report.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Before I call you, Minister, may I on behalf of all Members welcome you to your position? This is the first opportunity that you have had in your new role to speak on this subject. I echo the sentiments about seeing you in good health and spirits and wish you all the very best.

I would like to thank all the Members for conducting this debate in a way that I hope will enable us to finish in time to see at least a sizable chunk of the match. I know that the Minister is supporting England because he told me so earlier.

4.42 pm

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): Thank you, Mr. Hancock.

First, I offer to do an audit of today’s debate and to send a detailed note, for distribution to all concerned, including the Select Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), on any points to which I do not respond. Seven or eight different issues have been raised in respect of Africa, all of which are important in two respects: first, the difficulties in each of the specific areas and, secondly, the fact that things are moving in some of those areas as we speak: for example, in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Perhaps it would be more helpful if instead of responding piecemeal I sent a memorandum to the Select Committee to give a general update of the work in and around my portfolio on Africa. Obviously, I shall also send a copy to you, Mr. Hancock.

My speech will have two parts. First, I shall respond to the report and, in doing so, pick up on some of the issues that have been raised today. Then I will answer some of the specific questions that hon. Members asked in their contributions.

I thank you, Mr. Hancock, and the Liaison Committee for organising today’s debate, and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the dialogue—and it was a dialogue—with ministerial colleagues and staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The annual report on human rights will continue to improve and to demonstrate our continuing commitment to promoting human rights overseas.

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I have not taken personally the comments about my role as Minister with responsibility for trade and investment in the FCO, because in the end managing a portfolio involves a judgment. Today’s debate has been a humbling experience because across the party divide there is not only a common interest in human rights but a commonality of knowledge about individual countries and specific issues, which are complex and difficult for the international community. Individual countries and groups of countries do not always take the same view as we do on issues. None the less, we must have a constructive relationship and dialogue with them to influence policy, sometimes in the short term but sometimes over a longer period. The corporate knowledge that I have heard today has been humbling to me as a new Minister, and I mean that genuinely.

I give a commitment to the House that what I heard today will in fact strengthen my role and the way in which it has been constructed. Frankly, one cannot have a dialogue on human rights unless there are other aspects about which a country is prepared to talk, whether they be joint interests or their own interests. Nor can one have a discussion or debate that is limited to sustainable development, trade agreements such as the Doha round or global warming, because if they go wrong or do not operate effectively, there is an impact on human rights, whether in the region or in the individual country. As a Minister, having the capacity to operate across those disciplines is more helpful than the Select Committee seemed to think.

It is also true, if hon. Members do not mind my saying so, that it is the role of all Ministers, whichever Department they work in, to raise the issue of human rights when they visit other countries. It should not simply be an issue for a foreign affairs or trade Minister. Every Minister should be aware of and responsible for human rights, as should parliamentary Back-Bench groups. We all have a responsibility, but particularly those of us in Government. I give a commitment that as part of my role I will ensure that all my ministerial colleagues receive a briefing about the issues in the country or countries that they visit. I shall ask them to raise those issues and report back.

It is clear to me that Parliament, non-governmental organisations and civil society in general play an essential role in alerting the Government to human rights concerns and in advising us on how to respond. Having only recently taken on this portfolio, I am particularly keen to build on my knowledge of the organisations that operate in these sectors.

As hon. Members may know, the FCO has six advisory panels on anti-torture, the death penalty, child rights, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the rule of law. I would like to tap into their knowledge and expertise to greater effect. For example, I would like to have an expert briefing session with some of the panel members before making official visits to countries where human rights is a concern. That means that, before I go in a few weeks’ time to China, for example, I will meet with NGOs about concerns. Our discussion will influence the structure and nature of the discussions that I will have with colleagues in China, or whatever country I visit. It is important that I involve people in advance of visits and utilise their knowledge and experience to help me to raise human rights issues during the visits that I make.

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I also want to upgrade some of those groups, for example, the advisory panel on child rights, which are very important. Like the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), I worked many years ago on child abuse issues. He chaired the all-party group on child abduction very effectively, and it influenced and changed the culture and policy of the FCO at the time. That is why child abduction from the United Kingdom has fallen to almost nil. We can have an influence on policy and on the culture by engaging and involving NGOs and Members of Parliament, whether individually or collectively in groups, and I want to ensure that that is a regular feature of my work and activity in this role.

Jeremy Corbyn: I welcome what the Minister just said about child rights. Would he extend that view to consult British-based civil society and NGOs before sessions of the Human Rights Council?

Mr. McCartney: In fact, I had such a meeting in advance of the first council meeting this Monday. We will also have a wash-up meeting following the council to discuss the next two sessions that will take place before December. I do not want to be a hostage to fortune, but I am hoping that the first council meeting will go smoothly. There is no guarantee of that, of course, but the next two councils may be more difficult, as that is when we will put the meat on the bones and discuss how the council will operate, the roles of the commissioner to the council and the members, and all the issues around that and around greater involvement of NGOs.

I want to be absolutely clear about this. From my perspective, NGOs are a critical factor in the success of the political outcomes that we want the new council to achieve, but at the same time I want to ensure that the NGOs that operate in the United Kingdom are clear about my role and that there is open dialogue not just with the Minister but with the skilled negotiators who operate regularly with the council. The meeting that I had was an excellent opportunity for constructive input in advance of the first session, which will be held on Monday and Tuesday next week. That is why it is a two-way process.

I greatly value NGOs’ input into this policy area. In return, it is important to ensure that civil society, including trade unions, for example, is regularly briefed on our objectives. We may not always see eye to eye, but a frank and honest exchange on what we each seek to achieve should promote greater understanding in both directions. There is not time to cover all the issues, but I made two offers at the beginning of the debate and I hope that they are acceptable to the Committee.

In its report, the Committee suggested that the Government risk downgrading their human rights work by including human rights responsibilities in my portfolio. I hope that I have dealt with that. I have no problem with raising human rights issues in any of my meetings. In the past two days, I have met representatives from four countries: China, Egypt, Singapore and Panama. I will refer to another country later in my speech and explain why. Those occasions involved different issues, but for different reasons I raised human rights issues with all of them. We discussed the role and engagement
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of NGOs in the region and how they can assist us in the process. Some have thanked them for the role that they are playing quietly and effectively behind the scenes in diplomatic terms. Others have asked them to up their game in respect of what they need to do to influence Governments on human rights.

I intend to be very proactive in my approach to human rights. The first meeting of the Human Rights Council is next week. I intend to be proactive in the council’s work, both at meetings and between them, to ensure that discussion with NGOs and other countries is effective in trying to influence outputs at the council and more effective than in the past. We have a moral and political responsibility to tackle all the issues seriously. I will also ensure that our key partners regularly discuss issues of mutual interest.

I believe that the Human Rights Council has the potential to be better than its predecessor: the UN Commission on Human Rights. It has a broader mandate, including addressing violations of human rights; it will meet more frequently, allowing for a more systematic approach; and it retains the best of the old commission—a system of special procedures, an individual complaint process and an expert advice body. The NGOs will continue to make their vital contribution to the council's work, as I outlined.

In addition, the Human Rights Council will have a new universal periodic review system. If agreement cannot be reached, with a balanced, transparent and effective mechanism, the review function has the potential to improve the council's consideration of every country's record. The Government's view is that the universal periodic review mechanism must be fair, impartial and efficient, as well as positive and practical, and allow for all parties to have their say. That will help to counter the charges of politicisation and double standards that dogged the commission. Yesterday, I spoke with NGOs to try to reach agreement with them on the practicalities of discussions with other countries to make that mechanism more effective. I have asked the NGOs for their views on how to do that.

Success is not guaranteed, but as a founder member the UK will do its utmost to ensure that the Human Rights Council is effective. Country resolutions will remain necessary for the worst offenders, but we would like the council to develop a broader range of tools to support states that are trying to improve their human rights performance. We would also like to preserve the role of the special procedures and to integrate that work more closely with that of the council. There will not be time to secure progress on all those issues in June, but we hope that the council's first session will conduct its business in a spirit of constructive dialogue and pave the way for effective action on specific issues in the months to come.

In its report, the Committee devoted a lot of attention to issues connected with the fight against terrorism and I would like to address some of those issues now. The Government are committed to defending and promoting human rights at home and abroad without reservation, but effective counter-terrorism measures are part of that and essential to help us to preserve a democratic and free society. They support the most basic human right of all—the right to life, which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling mentioned—and protect people's ability to enjoy fully their other rights.

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Equally, it is vital that the fight against terrorism is conducted in a way that respects and promotes human rights, because not only is that the correct thing to do but it is one of the most effective ways of undermining terrorists. Human rights have also been an integral part of our approach.

Some hon. Members raised rendition and allegations that terrorist suspects may have been transferred through airports in the UK. The Government have taken those allegations very seriously. At the beginning of this year, relevant Departments carried out an extensive review of files and found no evidence of detainees being transferred through the UK when there were grounds for believing that there was a real risk of torture. The review found only four occasions, all in 1998, when the United States requested permission to transfer detainees through the UK. Two of those requests were granted. Both were for terrorist suspects to be transferred to the US to stand trial by due legal process on charges on which they were subsequently convicted. Two were refused. As that small number of cases shows, when the UK is requested to assist another state, we would not do so if it would put us in breach of UK law or our international obligations. In particular, we would not facilitate the transfer of an individual from or through the UK to another state where there were grounds to believe that the person would face a real risk of torture.

In recent months, we have also co-operated in full with the secretary-general of the Council of Europe and the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. As part of the Government's commitment to transparency, the Secretary of State for Transport has also published flight information received from Eurocontrol on transits through the UK by aircraft alleged to have been involved in rendition. We have always been clear that US aircraft regularly transit the UK, as do aircraft from many other countries. That is perfectly normal and despite the allegations in the Council of Europe’s latest report, there remains no evidence that any of the flights were involved in rendition. We will study the Council of Europe’s report, but we see little that is new. If there are new facts, we will be happy to look into them, but investigation has not thrown up any new evidence.

As the Foreign Secretary told Parliament, the Government have made it clear to the United States authorities, including in recent months, that we expect it, as well as all other countries, to seek permission to render detainees via UK territory and airspace, including overseas territories. We will grant permission only if we are satisfied that the rendition would accord with UK law, our international obligations and our obligations under the UN convention against torture and the European convention on human rights. We are also clear that the US would not render a detainee through UK territory or airspace, including overseas territories, without our permission. As I have just noted, the US has sought such permission in the past.

The Intelligence and Security Committee takes the lead on intelligence matters. Some information cannot be made public and under the Intelligence Services Act 1994 Parliament decided that it is a matter for the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is a committee of parliamentarians and does an effective job of holding agencies and Ministers to account.

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