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18 July 2006 : Column 14WH—continued

We had the opportunity to raise such issues when we were in Guatemala during a long discussion with President Oscar Berger. Naturally, his responses were unsatisfactory from our perspective. What came across clearly to us in Guatemala was that although the political will might have existed among decent people to get to grips with such problems, the political or civil infrastructure was not in place to do so. The police in Guatemala suffer from widespread corruption and the judiciary is both corrupt and inept. Many of the large property owners do not feel that they have a stake in the country; in fact, many live in Miami and visit the country only occasionally.

Above all else, we did not find the same commitment to democratic politics in Guatemala as we found in El Salvador. That is largely for historic reasons. During the civil war in El Salvador, it was recognised that neither side could win—neither the left nor the right, neither the FMLN nor the ARENA party. A historic compromise was therefore reached, with both sides
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laying down their arms and making a genuine commitment to the peace accords and the democratic process. That did not happen in Guatemala. There the army won, and democratic politics suffered as a consequence. What political parties exist in Guatemala have shallow roots. To build up respect for human rights and to crack down effectively on criminality, there is a need to enforce democracy and the political process. That is one of the lessons that we learned, and one aspect of our international work that we must continue to pursue.

In conclusion, the example of our visit to central America shows clearly the worth of the IPU. Parliamentary democracy has a central role to play in promoting human rights. The IPU, as the international manifestation of parliamentary democracy, therefore has a crucial role to play. One the of the most telling moments that I experienced in El Salvador was when one of the members of the assembly who belonged to the left-wing FMLN said to me, “Mr. David, at one time my colleague”—he pointed to a friend of his from the ARENA party—“and I were literally trying to kill each other in the civil war. Today, although we have political differences, we are nevertheless friends in the legislative assembly.” That better than anything else illustrates the importance of parliamentary democracy and the work of the IPU.

10.34 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I shall speak briefly because this debate is drawing to its conclusion. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on her introductory speech and the work that she undertakes through the course of the year on behalf of the IPU. I am a member of Amnesty International and I thought that there was a lot of overlap between what she said about work at the parliamentary level and what I am sure all hon. Members wish to promote more generally—respect for human rights and the right of every individual to live free from an oppressive state.

Certain benefits continue to make the IPU relevant, even though it was founded more than a century ago. First, it is important that Parliaments throughout the world assert themselves. People often ask me why I became a politician—they wonder what the benefits of parliamentary life are and what the role of Parliament is. They ask, “What about big business? What about the internet and the media?” However, Parliaments are still the way by which people can decide their priorities and administer their affairs in a logical, coherent and accountable manner. It is in our interests to promote parliamentary democracy throughout the world, particularly in the face of some of the alternative sources of power, which have become more prevalent in recent decades and which perhaps make the IPU even more relevant.

When I talk to constituents and others, I am struck by the increasingly international dimension to politics. The big issues that concern people who organise high street petitions in my constituency and elsewhere are the effects of globalisation— whether they regard them as adverse or positive—the global environment, particularly the warming of the planet, and the effects
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of global policy, such as population increase, immigration, work permit arrangements and so forth. More and more, we live in an interdependent world, so we need to relate to other countries—not just those that we find it the most amenable to have relations with, but those that are perhaps more challenging to deal with directly. The IPU plays a key role in that.

The final positive aspect, of many, is that the IPU is a means by which we can spread best practice. We can advise parliamentarians in less mature democracies than ours about procedures and how scrutiny can be improved. As was mentioned by a previous speaker, however, it is only reasonable that we learn from others too. After all, one of the two Houses of our Parliament is non-elected and the other one has a majority Government with the support of 35 per cent. of the electorate. Occasionally it does us no harm to stand back and reflect on how others might see us and on whether we can learn any lessons from parliamentarians elsewhere in the world.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): When I and a number of others were recently in Saudi Arabia, extolling the virtues of democratic elections, those we spoke to pointed out that their Majlis, which is entirely appointed, has many similarities with the House of Lords. We agreed that the abolition of both of them was a good idea.

Mr. Browne: I do not want to stray too far from the brief, but I have a lot of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says. British parliamentary democracy has been established over many years and has a great deal to recommend it, but we should be cautious about assuming that our models are superior to others. He cites a particularly good and topical example.

I want to raise one or two more points that perhaps the Minister will touch upon if he has enough time. One is that the IPU faces challenges from a number of competitor organisations. I see, for example, that you are the chairman of the all-party British-Czech and Slovak group, Mr. Cummings, and there are many other groups that conduct bilateral relationships between our Parliament and other Parliaments, as well as Commonwealth, NATO and other groups. The IPU needs to ensure that it continues to be relevant and punch its weight. It is a source of great concern to me, and I hope to others, that the United States, which is the most powerful country in the world and has an impressive democratic tradition, is not playing its part in the IPU. The organisation is clearly diminished by its absence.

As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) mentioned, the IPU always faces the challenge of defining precisely what its role is. It is clearly beneficial for us to continue to have discourse with countries around the world, but in Iran, for example, to which there was a trip earlier this year, not everybody is free to stand for Parliament in the first place. Iran’s parliamentarians are a group of people who have been elected only after satisfying the people in positions of authority that their views are broadly aligned with those of the regime.

The IPU is engaged in a difficult balancing act. I congratulate everybody on the IPU executive in Britain for trying to strike that balance and on their vigilance and their determination to represent the cause of
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parliamentary harmony and discourse around the world. I hope that, in another 117 years, it will be functioning as successfully as it does today.

10.40 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), not only securing the third of what I gather have become annual debates—I hope that we will continue to hold them annually—but on her long-standing work on human rights in various guises. She is the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Iraq, but she did not even touch on Iraq in her speech. However, she gave numerous examples of human rights abuses by some pretty nasty regimes, and she is to be congratulated in the highest terms for her work. We have also heard excellent speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David).

I shall touch on only one or two points, because time is pretty limited. One of the main functions of the Inter-Parliamentary Union is the strengthening of democracy and good governance around the world. The dreadful news that we see on our television screens and read in the newspapers each day tends to cloud our thinking and make us think that democracy is perhaps on the wane and that human rights abuses are getting worse. I am not sure that that is the case. If we consider the historical context, we see that some of the worst abuses in human history occurred in the last century—the second world war, Pol Pot’s killing fields and Stalin’s gulags, to give a few examples. The IPU’s work has huge influence around the world, and it is vital that it is continued and strengthened. Those involved are doing a great job of work.

As I said, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley is the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Iraq, where in December last year 75 per cent. of those eligible to vote turned out and voted in the National Assembly elections, despite huge intimidation. In Afghanistan, despite enormous threats from the Taliban, supporters turned out en masse and elected a president in 2004. Ukraine saw the orange revolution in 2004, and Georgia the rose revolution in 2003. The bulldozer revolution in Serbia brought Milosevic down in 2000. There are great examples of democracy being spread throughout the world. The IPU’s contacts with parliamentarians in those democracies do a great deal to strengthen them and bring about better human rights and well-being for the peoples of those countries.

As I said in my intervention on the right hon. Lady, the IPU could build better relationships with multilateral and supranational bodies such as the EU and, in particular, the UN. The latter does a great job of work, but with the resources that it is given, it could do an even greater job. Last year, it had an historic summit, but the process of reform seems to have stalled. It is the job of parliamentarians—the IPU is well placed—to have high-level contacts within the UN, to ensure that that process continues.

One of the main successes of that reform, as the right hon. Lady will know well, was the creation of the Human Rights Council, which had its first meeting in Geneva recently. We will all look to see how effective
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that organisation is, and how it deals with those of its members who have bad human rights records. Relationship building, not only with individual countries and members of Parliament, but with organisations of that sort, could go a long way to helping to improve democracy and human rights. Relationship building and education are critical parts of the IPU’s work. The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) referred to the visit to Saudi Arabia, a country that has a faltering human rights record, but which is an important ally of the United Kingdom and a very influential country in the current middle east conflict. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) spoke warmly about the success of that visit to Saudi Arabia and the two nations’ conference. Through such contacts and networking, the IPU can do a great deal of good.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred to engaging with young people, which is another critical part of the IPU’s work. If one can engage with young people at the start of their parliamentary careers, they rise up through the system and can eventually become influential people in their own country. My hon. Friend also referred to the work of the British Council and to the Chevening scholarships given by the Foreign Office. Those are excellent things, but it is a pity that the remit of the Chevening scholarships has been narrowed recently. I ask the Minister to look into that carefully.

As my party’s spokesman on trade, I was particularly interested to read in the 2005 annual report about the work of the IPU in a symposium and steering committee chaired by Lord Paul in Geneva on 21 to 23 April on the subject of the Doha trade round. It demonstrated that really successful initiatives, such as that symposium, should be followed up when the right things do not happen. This is a critical time for World Trade Organisation talks, and I wonder what sort of emergency procedures the IPU has to enable it suddenly to summon a new symposium to find out what further impetus the IPU could give stalled WTO talks. The WTO talks are one of the best ways of improving human rights and standards of living in the poorer countries of the world. If those talks stall, it would be a great setback.

We are all talking about the environment these days, but I did not hear the words “environment” and “sustainability” mentioned once, although sustainability, the environment and human rights are one and the same thing in terms of good governance. What work could the IPU do to encourage some of the less well functioning democracies of the world to improve their environment and sustainability?

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley mentioned embassy closures. The hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned two visits to central American countries. We now have embassies in only three of the six central American countries. In addition, I note that we do not have an embassy in Madagascar, from which an inward visit is envisaged. The Foreign Office is closing embassies and removing British representation, all for the sake of a very small amount of money, compared to, say, the overspend of the Department for Work and Pensions. The Foreign Office closes embassies and saves perhaps £1 million, but the Department for Work and Pensions overspend far exceeds that.

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Through those closures, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the strong concerns expressed in this debate, and that he will think about whether we cannot have at least a very small delegation in such countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley suggests. This week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) asked an interesting parliamentary question about how many embassies are manned by one person. The answer is that there are quite a lot around the world. However, that is a better model than closing an embassy, because that way there is at least some presence on the ground when something goes wrong, when some dreadful tragedy occurs, or when some human rights abuse takes place. There is at least someone to make representations to the relevant Government.

The work of the IPU is vital. I again pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley for her work, and to her staff in the IPU. I see that Mr. Kenneth Courtenay is listening to the debate: as has been said, he does a great deal of work and organisation, often at very antisocial hours. The work of the IPU is vital, as is the work of its sister organisation, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which has not been mentioned this morning. I hope that they continue. I hope also that the right hon. Lady continues to strengthen her work, particularly in dealing with some of the nastier regimes throughout the world, to help to alleviate the suffering of those parliamentarians who are caught up in such regimes, and that through her work, human rights will be improved and the well-being and good governance of those countries will continue to improve.

10.50 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the role that she plays in the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and its important work to foster good relations with parliamentarians throughout the world. It is encouraging to hear about the positive work that the IPU undertakes on a range of difficult and topical issues.

I have heard in the debate and from my officials about the active inward and outward visits programme, and the important role that it plays in encouraging good government through a strong parliamentary system. Engagement with Members of these Houses of Parliament can only help the sharing of good practice with other Parliaments throughout the world. Hosting the inward visits programme gives Members the opportunity to share the strengths of our system, and travelling overseas allows many of us to experience at first hand the problems and challenges facing our colleagues in other countries.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been delighted to be involved in the programme of visits during the past year with delegations from Africa, the middle east, Latin America and eastern Europe, and we were pleased to offer help before and during overseas visits to regions including Latin America, the middle east and Africa. The visits complement the FCO’s traditional diplomacy. A recent good example mentioned
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by Members is the IPU visit to Iran, which added a welcome parliamentary dimension at a sensitive time in our relationship with that country. We look forward to continuing to help IPU programmes.

My right hon. Friend raised the question of human rights generally and specifically. I have already told her that I shall deal in correspondence with individual cases and countries where appropriate and necessary. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Her Majesty’s Government are committed to protecting and promoting human rights, democracy and good governance throughout the world. Those fundamental values lie at the heart of our foreign policy. Democratic countries that respect the rights of their citizens are more likely to settle disputes peacefully and respect their international commitments and obligations. The promotion of democratic practices and values is essential if we are to help other countries achieve the high goals that are set for emerging democracies.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I was an IPU observer of the Palestinian elections at the beginning of this year. In addition to addressing the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) about the two Palestinian parliamentarians who have been in prison for some time, will my right hon. Friend the Minister say something about the 21 further Palestinian parliamentarians who were picked up in the past few weeks, and the four Palestinian parliamentarians who are having their east Jerusalem residency rights revoked by Israel, apparently on the ground that they refuse to give allegiance to the state of Israel, when the city in which they live is occupied territory? He knows that those provisions are illegal under The Hague convention.

Mr. Hoon: I have referred to those cases, and I shall deal with them in correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley.

We very much value the IPU’s work in working towards the goals of achieving democracy and respect for the rule of law. As chair of the IPU committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, my right hon. Friend has been active over the past few years. She recently presented her newest report, which details 118 cases in 21 countries where the rights of parliamentarians are curtailed or worse.

The ability of members of Parliaments to speak freely and question Governments properly is fundamental to a democracy. The curtailing of that right in some parts of the world is totally wrong. I am pleased that some cases have been brought to a satisfactory conclusion through IPU action. My right hon. Friend’s update is welcome, and it shows yet another aspect of the IPU’s positive work.

The British group continues to contribute positively to the work of the IPU through its active participation in the six-monthly assemblies. The Government strongly welcome the bilateral meetings that the IPU organises in the margins of the international conferences, and indeed, the feedback that we receive from them. Such meetings are vital if we as parliamentarians are to understand better what happens in other countries.

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