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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 18 July 2006

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Inter-Parliamentary Union

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I advise the television cameras not to come too close. To dispel any rumours, I met the ground rapidly, which accounts for my rather strange appearance this morning.

As chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union I want to use today’s debate to raise awareness of the IPU’s work, especially on human rights, and to ask parliamentary colleagues and the Government to continue to support that important work. First, I shall give some background. It is amazing that people can be Members of Parliament for many years without being fully aware of what the IPU does. I hope that many more people will join it when they realise what kind of work that is. The IPU is the international organisation of Parliaments of sovereign states and was established as long ago as 1889. It is the focal point for worldwide parliamentary dialogue, and works for peace and co-operation among people and for the firm establishment of representative democracy. To that end, the IPU fosters contacts, co-ordination and the exchange of experience among Members of Parliament of all countries.

The British group of the IPU organises incoming and outgoing delegations. In the past 12 months the British group has hosted visiting parliamentarians from a number of countries, including Lebanon, Tunisia, Croatia, Ukraine, Burundi, Bahrain and Colombia, and has organised or assisted visits to, among others, Iran, Thailand, Gabon, Peru, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia. There are plans afoot to host inward delegations in the next year from, for example, Gabon, Brazil, Israel, Japan and Moldova, and to organise outward delegations to Israel, Mexico, Albania, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Jordan. Only two years ago, I led the IPU delegation to Lebanon, and those of us who were present during the visit know with what great pride the Lebanese showed us the reconstruction of their country. All of us who have been watching the events of the past few days will be deeply saddened at the damage that has been inflicted on that country and its people.

The IPU deals with questions of international interest and concern, and expresses its views on such issues to bring about action by Parliaments and parliamentarians. In the past year, the IPU has considered such issues as violence against women, abandoning the practice of female genital mutilation, the role of national Parliaments, various forms of financing for development, HIV/AIDS, and women in politics. The IPU also contributes to the defence and promotion of human rights—an essential component of parliamentary democracy and development—and I shall talk in more detail about the work of the committee on the human rights of parliamentarians. The IPU also organises seminars for parliamentary human rights bodies, and we shall be holding one in October on the administration of justice.

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The IPU currently has six main areas of activity: human rights, representative democracy, international peace and security, sustainable development, women in politics, and education, science and culture. More than 140 national Parliaments are members of the IPU and seven regional parliamentary assemblies are associate members. Most members are affiliated to one of the six geopolitical groups that are active in the IPU. Of course, the IPU is financed by its members mainly from public funds. Today I shall concentrate to some extent on the IPU’s activities in promoting and defending international human rights, because one of its main objectives is to contribute to the defence and promotion of human rights, in the knowledge that respect for human rights underpins parliamentary democracy.

The work of the committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, which was set up in 1976 and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, serves as a concrete way for the IPU to protect the human rights of parliamentarians and their wider communities. Parliamentarians are given a mandate to represent the people in their countries, and to do their work effectively they must be able to carry out their mandates free from persecution, threats of violence and imprisonment and other human rights abuses. It is essential that we, as Members of Parliament, support our colleagues all over the world who are being harassed, abused, tortured, detained or even killed just for doing their work.

Often, however, the abuse of parliamentarians is simply the tip of the iceberg. If those who are well known and to a large extent protected are abused, others are often being ill treated as well, so by raising the awareness of the position of the MPs, the committee also raises awareness of the wider situation in the country in question. In addition, by actively and publicly defending parliamentarian colleagues, the committee helps to foster in many of the relevant countries an arena for public and peaceful debate and dialogue. Once the parliamentary arena is secured, that public forum can often be widened and greater protection can be extended to all the country’s citizens. By working on the cases of parliamentarians who have not been able to carry out their mandates that are brought to the attention of the committee, we help to foster good governance and a climate of respect for human rights.

I have had the honour of chairing the committee internationally for the past three years, and have been a member for five years. Its working methods are not widely understood and I should like to explain them. The committee has five members, representing different geopolitical areas in the world. It meets four times a year, in private, to consider the cases of MPs who are thought to be under threat. We receive the initial complaint about the situation of a member of Parliament from a variety of sources, and the source can remain confidential if that is requested. The committee must first decide that a case is within its remit. The allegations in question are then transmitted to the authorities of the countries concerned, so that they can make their observations. We act as a channel of communication between the parties.

The committee can do much more. It can ask for information, send trial observers and organise on-site missions. I was a member of an on-site mission to Syria, where there was agreement to receive members of the
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committee to the country, but, after three days of argument, we were refused a visit to the parliamentarians in question, who were in prison. To my knowledge and that of the IPU, Syria is the only country to have done that. That deeply regrettable incident was made public at the time. I am pleased to say that the two MPs have been released in the past six months, but we have failed to get further information about their conditions and state of health.

If the authorities involved are not dealing with a case satisfactorily, as in Syria, and when the alleged abuses are of a serious nature, the committee can turn up the pressure and go public. That is when others get involved and raise awareness of MPs’ cases. When I gave my report to the delegations in Nairobi earlier this year, only two countries got up to protest: Turkey and Zimbabwe. It is interesting that the person who came to protest on behalf of Zimbabwe was Mr. Mugabe’s nephew.

Committee members sometimes want to comment immediately on cases that involve serious violations of MPs’ rights, but we have to exercise restraint. Last week, at a meeting in Geneva, we discussed changing the rules of the committee, because it is extremely frustrating for members of the committee to give a press conference, as we did in Nairobi, and not be able to comment on various cases because they are still private. However, irritating though it is to have to sit there and keep quiet, especially to a former journalist such as myself, that method works quite constructively in that when we make representations to the relevant countries on behalf of the MPs who are in trouble, those countries are more likely to come to an agreement privately than if we had gone public and made a big song and dance about it. Many of the committee’s success stories were dealt with under the confidential procedure. I cannot talk about them, but I assure hon. Members that many cases were solved with pressure from the committee.

The cases in which the committee’s work—often alongside that of other parliamentarians—has been an important factor in securing the rights of MPs include those of Mr. Yorongar, the former presidential candidate from Chad; Alpha Conde, the former presidential candidate from Guinea; and Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. I shall quote their words to give hon. Members a flavour of how people feel when they know that somebody else is speaking on their behalf. Mr. Jorongar said:

Mr. Conde said:

Mr. Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, said:

As politicians, we are all focused on getting results. Against that yardstick, the committee is one of the
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IPU’s most effective mechanisms. Some of the cases that it is reviewing now have been made public. In our May session in Nairobi, the committee considered 64 cases in 35 countries, many of which involved more than one parliamentarian, and held face-to-face meetings with 12 delegations. We considered seven cases for the first time. Taking into account both public and confidential cases, there are now, unfortunately, a record number of human rights cases before the committee.

Recent positive developments reviewed by the committee in Nairobi include the release from prison of opposition MP Cham Chainey in Cambodia and the ability of the Cambodian opposition to work more effectively in Parliament. Also, the committee is working with the Parliament of Burundi to ensure that the deaths of former MPs are properly examined, in the context of work that is being done to bring about peace and reconciliation there. The committee is also being helped by the Rwandan Parliament in connection with the disappearance of MP Mr. Leonard Hitimana, who disappeared in April 2003 and still has not been found. The National Assembly has submitted his case to its national human rights commission, which is now also investigating.

I wish to remind UK parliamentarians, the UK Government and the wider world about the plight of parliamentarians in certain countries. In Burma, the situation is particularly tragic. No real progress has been made, despite all our efforts to allow elected MPs to take up their mandates. If anything, the situation is worsening. Recently, a parliamentarian-elect was sentenced to a 90-year prison term, and the imprisonment of two others was extended under draconian laws. There is continuing pressure on parliamentarians elect to resign their mandates and membership of the National League for Democracy, and the authorities have totally ignored the NLD’s proposal to convene the Parliament that was elected in 1990. The committee has constantly condemned that state of affairs, and has appealed to everyone to do what they can to help to bring democracy to Myanmar—Burma—and its people.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I endorse wholeheartedly what the right hon. Lady says about the appalling plight of long-suffering political prisoners in Burma. Does she agree that it might be beneficial if the IPU committee were, at some stage, either publicly or privately, to press for a second discussion of the behaviour of the Government of Burma in the United Nations Security Council, with a view to achieving the successful passage of a binding resolution instructing the regime to cease abusing the human rights of its citizens and start respecting them?

Ann Clwyd: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, various people have made similar suggestions. One positive development is the setting up of the Association of South East Asian Nations inter-parliamentary Myanmar caucus, with MPs from Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. The caucus has been putting pressure on the Burmese authorities and will continue to do so. I agree that all forums should be used to try to exert pressure in what is obviously a totally unacceptable situation. We know that members of
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Parliament who were elected in 1990 are dying off in prison, detention or exile. A lot of pressure has been put on the authorities in Burma to release the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, from her continued house arrest, but we are particularly concerned about the elected politicians. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to exert that pressure.

In Bangladesh, there are two serious cases which the committee is considering. The first is that of Mr. Sha A. M. S. Kibria, who was killed by a grenade explosion on leaving a meeting in his constituency in January 2005. Although several suspects were arrested, the investigation has failed to address essential questions, and there are allegations of testimonies being obtained under torture. The investigation was closed, and the Supreme Court in Bangladesh is now considering whether it should be reopened. The committee is keen to follow the proceedings closely, and has recommended sending an observer. Grenades were also used in the second case, but Sheikh Hasina, the Opposition leader, was more fortunate. She survived the attack, which took place on 21 August 2004, during a meeting of her party; however, 25 people were killed and more than 100 maimed. An investigation has been ongoing, but sources and the authorities have different views about its results so far. A judicial inquiry commission has been set up, but its report is confidential, and not even the aggrieved parties know what is in it. In both cases, it has reportedly been impossible to raise the attacks in the Parliament of Bangladesh. Nevertheless, our committee has concluded that that Parliament has a responsibility to ensure that both crimes are properly investigated, and we have called on it to follow the investigation more closely.

The committee continues to press for a full royal pardon for Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. It has once more called on the Prime Minister of Malaysia to provide the King with the necessary advice so that he can consider the pardon petition that a large group of Malaysian citizens have submitted. When Anwar Ibrahim was released from jail, he came to Geneva to thank the committee for the efforts that we had made on his behalf, and the same is true of many of the people who are released as a result of IPU pressure. Other examples include MPs from Zimbabwe and the former President of Indonesia, Mrs. Megawati, who was in trouble before she became President of Indonesia, but who was able to carry on her activities because of the IPU.

Unfortunately, the committee has been unable to report any positive developments in either of the cases in Pakistan that it has been examining. Mr. Asif Ali Zardari was released on bail in November 2004. His name was struck off the exit control list and he was issued with a passport. However, he has been declared an absconder, despite the fact that the authorities know that he is receiving medical treatment abroad and he is regularly represented in court in Pakistan by his counsel. More important, the authorities have done nothing to identify and bring to justice those who tortured him in May 1999 during his interrogation.

The other case in Pakistan is that of Mr. Hashmi, who is serving a seven-year prison term, which was handed down in April 2004. The committee is concerned not only about the conduct of the trial proceedings, but about how long it is taking the courts to hear Mr. Hashmi’s application for suspension of the sentence
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and his appeal. The committee is also worried because the information that the authorities and sources have provided about his conditions of detention is quite different, and it considers that an on-site mission would help it to gain a better understanding of the case. I found it particularly disappointing that senior legal representatives from Pakistan who come before our committee constantly tell us different stories. It is appalling that such senior officials, including attorneys-general, can come before our committee and give quite misleading statements, to put it mildly.

In Sri Lanka, the committee has been examining the case of Mr. Dissanayake, who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for contempt of court. In early February, the President of Sri Lanka remitted the remainder of the sentence, with the result that Mr. Dissanayake was released on 17 February, several weeks before he would normally have been entitled to release on the grounds of good conduct. The committee obviously hopes that he will be fully pardoned, because, like Anwar Ibrahim, he will not be able to resume his political role unless he receives a pardon. It is therefore important that pardons are tagged on to the release in countries that have such a system.

Another case from Sri Lanka involves the murder of Joseph Pararajasingham, who was a well-known human rights advocate. He was shot dead in his local cathedral during the Christmas eve mass last year. The fact that the cathedral is located in a high-security area and additional security forces were on duty that night suggests that the murderers enjoyed the complicity of the security forces. However, the investigation has not made much progress so far. Again, the committee has stressed that the authorities have a duty to conduct a prompt, thorough and independent investigation. It also expresses concern at the potential effect of that murder on the willingness of parliamentarians in Sri Lanka to speak out on human rights issues and minority rights.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): In praising the IPU’s work on these matters, will the right hon. Lady also recognise the bravery of politicians in some countries, who know the hostility and danger that they will face if they speak out on human rights issues, but who are still prepared to do so, even if they face death? I feel nothing but pride and admiration towards such politicians for speaking out in the manner that they do.

Ann Clwyd: Yes—that is a good point. That is what comes over from the testimony of some politicians when they come to us in private, as happened recently in Geneva. I happened to be sitting in a room, when a member of Parliament from another country—I will not say which country—came in with a letter for me. He said, “I’m just leaving this letter. If they knew I’d come here to see you and what was in the letter, I wouldn’t be safe going back to my own country.” However, he wanted us to know what had happened, because when we raised his case during an interview with representatives from his country earlier in the day, they denied everything that we thought had happened. However, his letter confirmed that it had happened. There are people, even in the delegations that come to Geneva or to the IPU’s annual conferences, who risk their lives just by approaching us at those conferences. The man whom I met had been tortured in custody, but the authorities denied everything that he said had happened.

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On Lebanon, there is a lot more that I should like to say, but that is not my role today. However, the committee is considering the case of Mr. Gibran Tueni, who was murdered on 12 December 2005. His assassination took place the day after his return from Paris, where he had been staying because of death threats. An investigating judge has finally been appointed by the competent authorities, and the National Assembly has initiated a civil court action.

Again, there is much that I should like to say in relation to Palestine, but I shall confine myself to saying that the Committee continues to monitor developments in the cases of two Palestinian Members of Parliament who are in Israeli jails. One is Marwan Barghouti, who was re-elected as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in the January 2006 elections and who continues to serve his prison sentence. The committee has great concerns about the fairness of the judicial proceedings to which Mr. Barghouti was subject. We have reiterated our desire for a committee member to pay Mr. Barghouti a private visit. In the case of Mr. Hussam Khader, a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the committee observed his trial in Israel and has considerable concerns about the fairness of the proceedings. Again, the committee has stated its wish to pay Mr. Khader a private visit in prison.

In Turkey there is long-standing case, which has been made public, involving 15 former members of the Turkish Parliament who, back in 1994, were charged with separatism. The case of four of them, including Leyla Zana, is well known and has had plenty of media coverage, especially when they were released from prison in July 2004. The European Court of Human Rights has concluded that their trial failed to uphold fair trial guarantees. As a result, a review of the trial was ordered and is under way. Six of the former MPs went into exile; should they return to Turkey, they will be arrested on charges of separatism. The committee is trying to find out what grounds and facts support the separatism charge still pending against those former MPs. One former parliamentarian, Mr. Sincar, was murdered. Some time ago, the Turkish IPU group informed the committee that several persons have been brought to justice for his murder, but we failed to receive further details.

Eritrea is a country where there is great cause for concern, particularly in relation to Eritrean MPs. Since September 2001, 11 MPs have been languishing in jail and their fate has largely been forgotten. No one knows where they are held or even whether they are still alive and they have never been brought before a judge. They were arrested after the publication of an open letter in which they called for democratic reforms. The Government state that they committed crimes against the sovereignty, security and peace of Eritrea during its war with Ethiopia and that they can therefore be tried only once the peace process has been completed.

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