Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


16 NOVEMBER 2005

  Q40 Andrew Mackinlay: Human Rights Watch, in their note to us in respect of Iran, said that it does appear that sometimes the criticism—presumably that is of Her Majesty's Government—"has not gone beyond mere rhetoric". I would like to come back to that in a moment and invite Human Rights Watch and Amnesty to amplify upon that. Before doing so, however, can I say to Mr Crawshaw that certainly Human Rights Watch is highly regarded both in this country and internationally and, rightly, it shapes the opinion of legislators and governments. I was therefore personally very surprised and disappointed by the report published earlier this year on the MKO, or what we know as the People's Mojahedin of Iran. I was surprised by its contents, which I do not want to debate here now but, inasmuch as it influences our opinion, can I say that I wrote to the Human Rights Watch director in New York, talking about the methodology of the document. Frankly, it did not coincide with my own personal views. A similar letter, I understand, went from Labour peers Lord Corbett, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, Lord Russell-Johnston, Lord Avebury, and David Amess and Lord of Appeal, Lord Slynn. So far as I am aware, nobody has received a reply from the director of Human Rights Watch, which I think reflects very badly on the organisation—particularly as we had challenged the methodology of this. The report itself—and this is the only reference I want to make, Chairman—says, "Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 12 former members of MKO". It seems that, on telephone conversations, this report, which many of us see as tendentious, was publicised. It does have an effect on rights because, as you know, there is a battle on as to whether or not the MKO should be on the list of terrorist organisations. I think that it is legitimate for me to raise this. As I say, I respect Human Rights Watch. I hold it in high regard and value it, as other people do. But here was, on the face of it, a tendentious report, reasonably challenged by the people I have referred to and by people in other countries as well, and we do not even have the courtesy of a reply. I wonder if you could deal with that.

  Mr Crawshaw: I am sorry about that. As you say, it would take too long to talk about the details of the report. I would only say that Human Rights Watch does absolutely stand by what it said in that report, which was—you will remember from knowing it—not to do with terrorist organisation or not. It had to do with abuses within the camps; in other words, very serious abuses within that. I am sorry if you feel that there has not been an answer and—

  Q41 Andrew Mackinlay: Well, there has not been.

  Mr Crawshaw: I know. I am sorry if you feel there has been a rudeness in the lack of the answer. There were threats of legal action being taken, which clearly we as Human Rights Watch feel quite inappropriate, and we stand by our stuff absolutely. I think there may have been a caution until some of that had progressed further; but that does not really—

  Q42 Andrew Mackinlay: No, it does not. I am sorry to labour the point, but this report, having read it and read it again, was based upon telephone conversations.

  Mr Crawshaw: In the narrow sense, that was—

  Q43 Andrew Mackinlay: The impression some of us got, right across the political spectrum here in the United Kingdom, right across other European legislatures, was that in fact the organisation, on this matter, had been infiltrated—which is presumably something which is possible.

  Mr Crawshaw: Which we, of course, believe absolutely not to be the case. I know that we do need to move on. Those particular interviews were done by telephone; however, there is a wider background to it. I am sorry, and I am very happy to—

  Andrew Mackinlay: You will see that I get a reply.

  Q44 Chairman: Can I suggest that Mr Mackinlay will get a reply, but also it might be helpful if Human Rights Watch were to write to the Committee, explaining the report, sending us a copy of it, referring to your response as well, so that we have it on the record.

  Mr Crawshaw: I am happy to do that[10] and also, given the amount of internal discussion, if that is a letter which partly is waiting for a fuller letter—

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

  Q45 Andrew Mackinlay: Let us go to the substance, which I actually have some empathy for: that HMG has been a bit soft. We have seen, since the report was published, a change of government in Iran and so on. So, over to you, Mr Crawshaw and Ms Allen—because this might be an area on which we have some agreement—I would like you to amplify upon your concerns on where we are in Iran on human rights.

  Ms Allen: Can I say from Amnesty that we think that the entry this year is a bit more critical in tone than last year's report, and we agree that the situation in Iran is difficult and worsening. Our concerns include recent curtailing of freedom of expression; the arrest of 25 internet journalists who have received prison sentences; students who have been imprisoned following demonstrations. We have heard allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and of course the deaths following demonstrations in Khuzestan, where 31 people died, and in Kordestan, where 20 demonstrators were killed. Our other major concern with the situation in Iran is the extensive and appalling use of the death penalty. We have seen at least 159 people executed in 2004, including juveniles and minors. We are also very aware that torture continues to be routine in many prisons. The use of the death penalty and the use of it on minors is deeply shocking. We have intervened in many cases, as Amnesty: some successfully, some not. Those are the major concerns that we have at the moment about the human rights in Iran.

  Q46 Andrew Mackinlay: What about the United Kingdom Government's response to those abuses, which I concur with your assessment of? Are we banging on the door with a wet sponge, basically?

  Mr Hancock: In response to the individual death penalty cases, it is worth putting on record our appreciation for the fact that the Government has been willing to intervene on those, and that has had an effect as well—alongside some other European countries. I would really like to be clear in stating that we appreciate that. I would just echo the point that this report does indicate some of the thinking which goes on at the Foreign Office, and it is important that they have become more critical this year. Importantly, it referred to discrimination in Iran and the people it is obviously aware of is the Baha'i community. I think it would be worthwhile mentioning that is not the only religious belief system that is discriminated against. So there is perhaps a little more detail that the Foreign Office should be seeking to add in terms of other affected groups.

  Q47 Mr Pope: You mentioned concerns earlier about conditions in some of the former Soviet states in central Asia. I want to raise the specific issue of Uzbekistan, because earlier this year there were the terrible events in Andijan where around 500 people were shot dead by Uzbek troops; widespread arrests followed, and there were allegations that many of those people had been tortured. Since then, the EU has suspended its Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with Uzbekistan. Do you think that is enough? Has the British response been robust enough? There are pages on Uzbekistan in the Foreign Office Annual Report, but my view is that it seemed a little weak on conclusions. It was detailed on analysis but weak on conclusions, and I wondered if you could give us your view.

  Mr Crawshaw: I would certainly echo that, especially at the time that this report went to press—which was after the Andijan massacre which you have mentioned. It was really on the scale of Tiananmen Square, in the sense that, as you say, it was at least 500 and it may well have been much more than that. We do not know exactly. Human Rights Watch and others have produced a report called Bullets Were Falling Like Rain—which as, you   will recall, is a quote from one of the demonstrators—and a subsequent report, Burying the Truth, which is the torture people were suffering in order to come up with the government's version—quite fictional version—of events which claimed that basically this was a bunch of terrorists that they were confronting. It was regrettable, especially with the UK holding the EU presidency from July of this year, that there was not really a momentum to confront what had happened. You mentioned the suspension of the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement, which sounds a little bit over-detailed, if you like, but it is actually the first time that it had ever happened—so it was quite a significant moment. This had not happened before. There were other sanctions, first in October but which now have been strengthened, both with a visa ban and with an arms embargo. So you have the sense that some pressures are there. What would be very important—and I have to say that I do still worry about it—is that there is not the sense that, "We have now taken action that was needed and now we can move on and forget about this". There is the visa ban for senior members of the regime—they have finally put some names to that and there is a list of names—but I think that it is very important for it not to stop there, because Karimov still believes that he is sitting pretty, and he does need to be under pressure.

  Q48 Mr Pope: I got the impression certainly that Uzbekistan was a useful ally in the war on terror with its air bases and that there has been a certain amount of soft-pedalling.

  Mr Crawshaw: That was of course absolutely, 150% the case before, when Britain, let alone the United States, refused to confront what was happening there.

  Q49 Mr Pope: There is one area about Uzbekistan that has been a real concern to me, and I think also to the Committee. That is the allegations that have been made that people have been tortured in Uzbekistan and then the information which has been garnered by the use of torture has been shared with the Americans but, much more pertinently, with our security forces. I have tabled a number of Parliamentary Questions on this very topic and answers came there back none. I wondered if either of your organisations had any evidence about this. We have had a letter from our former ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, which has made a number of allegations along these lines. If you have any evidence, I am sure that the Committee would be very pleased if you could share it with us, either today or in writing.

  Mr Crawshaw: The hard evidence of what was shared back—of course the former ambassador is in the best position, unless we think that he has invented it. He has documented clearly what happened, and the British Government has not denied it really. Therefore one has the philosophical question, if you like, that the Government seems to believe that, "If this might save us all from being blown up, then we shouldn't ask too many questions". I referred to it in our submission, I think, that Eliza Manningham-Buller in one of her submissions basically said as much as that: "We're not going to ask, because that would make things difficult". I really think that is a most extraordinary way to behave, in terms of keeping us safe—thinking, "We don't actually want to know if this person was tortured". First because of the phrase being used, "selling our souls for dross"—that was the memorable phrase; the inaccuracy of stuff gained under torture; but, beyond that, the message being sent. So it is not really "Has it happened?"; it has happened and it is partly being defended. It is "Should it be?", and we would say absolutely not.

  Ms Allen: We would support that and say that we of course see the case in front of the House of Lords, as to whether evidence extracted under torture elsewhere in the world should be used in British courts, along with diplomatic assurances, as the other part of our major concerns about where the British Government is going on this issue of torture, and the absolute undermining of the prohibition on torture. As with Human Rights Watch, we are shocked by these ways of introducing torture into the way in which cases were taken here in the UK, and we very much look forward to the conclusion of the House of Lords' decisions on this.

  Mr Crawshaw: The British Government has said, and it is quite right to say, it has played such a leading role in the past in confronting the issue of torture. It has already played a very important role. It is deeply depressing to see what we have now, which is exactly what Kate has just said—really a fourfold betrayal. On the one hand you have what you are addressing—the use of material for intelligence use; you have the House of Lords case, of being able to use it in British courts; you have diplomatic assurances if you were being sent back to the risk of torture; and then what I flagged earlier—this extraordinary, worse than a silence—you have a denial of your closest ally, the US Government, having what we have called "leadership failure" in documenting it. So on all of those things the British Government has simply backed away.

  Mr Pope: The worst aspect of this is that if it is happening, it is happening in secret. They are not even being up-front about it.

  Q50 Mr Purchase: Before we condemn completely, are there any circumstances, do you think, in which the long-term bilateral relationships between nations are sometimes best served by not overtly recognising abuses in either one of those nations?

  Ms Allen: The issue of torture is such an extraordinary human rights abuse, and it is one that is internationally condemned and legislated against, that I do not think that we can turn a blind eye to any instance of torture. I think that it is incumbent upon the British Government to adhere to that. That is the concern at the moment: that by abandoning that, it is sending such an appalling message around the world, and the message that is being heard by those who use torture as a green light. So this is something that really does have ramifications well beyond this country. Those are the concerns that we have. There has never been a country that has used torture in one situation. Torture is always used again and then again, until it becomes routine. There is no line that you can draw about torture, except that it should not take place.

  Q51 Mr Purchase: Even if it was a judgment, a reflective judgment, which says that to draw attention or to campaign, or to do whatever, may well damage long-term prospects for the end of torture in a particular country? Philosophical, I know, and hopefully hypothetical, but I ask you the question.

  Ms Allen: I do not think that you can end torture by turning a blind eye to torture happening, or condone torture happening. I think that it is one of those issues that absolutely, categorically, we have to stand against. The impact of torture is appalling in terms of the individuals where it is used, but it also has its impact upon those that use it and the countries that authorise it. I just do not think that that is a way that we would come to any long-term ending of torture.

  Mr Crawshaw: I would echo it absolutely as regards the turning of a blind eye, but I would emphasise that here we have more than turning a blind eye; we have an active statement that the problem has been addressed, when it clearly has not.

  Q52 Mr Hamilton: We know that since the publication of the Annual Human Rights Report the Mugabe regime has launched what they so charmingly call "Operation Murambatsvina", which means "Operation Clear the Filth". We saw it on our TV screens, especially when our colleague Kate Hoey went over there secretly to film the evictions, and there have been many more pictures of the houses being burnt down and people living on the streets in fear and poverty. Conditions in Zimbabwe are deteriorating every day. They continue to do so. Human rights abuses continue to be prevalent and multiplying. I wondered what your comments would be about how we, as the United Kingdom, can help improve human rights in Zimbabwe—especially given that we are seen as the great enemy, the great colonial imperialist power. They will not allow us in; they will not allow our diplomats to do anything; they will not allow journalists from the BBC in. What can we do?

  Ms Allen: We very much agree with the sentiments that you are putting forward. What we are seeing at Amnesty is fewer cases of torture but a clearer and a different change of strategy, which has moved towards the manipulation of food, which only goes to those who support the Mugabe regime; and, as you say, the removal now of 700,000 people in Operation Restore Order. We do see a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Zimbabwe. I think that the British Government has used its pressure very extensively. What we would think is necessary is for the UK and the EU to use their pressure through dialogue with African states. As you have said, the pressure from the UK is portrayed as colonial by Mugabe; that is the way in which it is seen and talked about. I think the more that the UK Government and the EU can do to encourage African states, and in particular South Africa who have been such a disappointment on this issue, to raise their concerns, so that it is seen as something that is led from within Africa, the better. Those would be the ways that we would want to see the UK Government use its influence.

  Q53 Sandra Osborne: Could I ask you about Colombia? The FCO report describes Colombia as a country of concern, particularly in relation to human rights, while having a fairly positive attitude towards President Uribe, saying that there is no evidence that it is government policy that the military collude with the paramilitary in Colombia—although it is widely believed by NGOs that that remains to be proven. Do you have any knowledge of how the UK Government ensures that the military aid to Colombia is not misused and abused? What mechanisms do you feel could be put into place to monitor the situation?

  Ms Allen: We very much share those concerns. We think that the UK should cease to provide military aid until the Colombian Government has implemented the recommendations from the UN around human rights. We are very much concerned that the military support given by the UK Government could be misused by the army. It does have close links to the paramilitaries. Those links have not been cut. Those are the recommendations that the UN is pursuing. So we would like to see that. On the arms issue generally, out of 19 of the 20 countries which are of concern to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the Human Rights Report, there are arms exports to those countries. What we would like to see in this Human Rights Report for the future is an explanation of why that is, so that we can have a conversation about that with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The only country of concern that is not receiving arms exports from the UK is North Korea. We would like to see the reasoning why those exports have been agreed. Having said that, we are very pleased by the Foreign Secretary's support for an arms trade treaty. I think that the support of the UK Government is absolutely brilliant and very essential to see the potential for that treaty, and we would very much want to congratulate the Foreign Secretary and the British Government on that support.

  Q54 Chairman: In two weeks' time, this Committee is visiting the Middle East, Israel and the Occupied Territories, and we will also go to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Very briefly—because we will obviously be getting lots of other evidence on those areas—what do you think the UK can do to improve human rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories?

  Mr Crawshaw: One thing I would flag above all others—there are obviously a number of concerns, including after the pull-out—something which is still insufficiently addressed is this question of impunity, which underlies so much else in terms of the message that is being sent. The language of the Human Rights Report, as I remember it, was quite soft. It praised the fact that there was some kind of justice in connection with the Britons who had been killed. Those are such extraordinary, exceptional examples that it is really most inappropriate to use those as though they were an indication that things are getting substantially better. They are not. Again, we would be very happy to send to members of the Committee a report which we did recently called Promoting Impunity. If Committee Members have not seen it, it does contain quite shocking material in the sense of that pattern—the absolute refusal to confront. I think that Britain could play an important role in saying, "This is what needs to be done". There is of course a pattern of different abuses that are to be seen there, but I think that is one thing which needs to be heard loud and clear.

  Q55 Chairman: What about on the Palestinian side?

  Mr Crawshaw: On the one hand you have the continuance of suicide bombers, which are a crime against humanity obviously; taking strong action against those—which is something which needs to happen; and a number of abuses, including physical abuse. That is the important message to send. I think that one which can and should be heard is certainly that one too—the Israeli Government and impunity.

  Q56 Chairman: What about Saudi Arabia? Do you think that we are providing sufficient support to deal with human rights abuses there? Also, the UK nationals who allege that they were ill-treated in Saudi Arabia—do you have any view on that?

  Ms Allen: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office says in this year's report that there have been "small but significant improvements" in the reform process in Saudi Arabia. As the Committee knows, we have been very critical over the last few years of the UK Government's approach to the Saudi Government. We would recognise that there have been small steps. We are not yet sure whether those are significant or not. The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is still absolutely dire in very many ways that we have documented, including appalling use of the death penalty and the use of torture. In terms of the British nationals, very recently I met Dr Bill Sampson and Les Walker, two of the British nationals who were tortured by the Saudis within the last couple of years. They talk about the most appalling forms of torture that they both suffered, including sexual abuse and threats to Mr Walker's wife as well. So appalling accounts of torture, and I think the UK Government needs to make sure that it gives full support to those men as they try to get redress from the Saudi Government.

  Q57 Sir John Stanley: Can I turn to Afghanistan? Whatever the shortcomings—and there certainly are plenty at the moment—would you agree that, in human rights terms, the Afghanistan President Karzai is a significant improvement on the Afghanistan of the Taliban?

  Mr Crawshaw: Yes. That is not a difficult question to answer. The follow-up to that is not to say, "Let's not look at the seriousness of the problem". What I thought you were going to say—which I would also be happy to send to you from Human Rights Watch's point of view—was has the British Government played an important role, which it has done, in terms of confronting the power of the warlords? Again, the United States, with enormous short-sightedness—and I perhaps use this word repeatedly, but I do think it is extraordinary that they believed in Washington that somehow supporting people who had well-known track records for brutality, continued to be brutal in their rule, were "allies in the war on . . ."—in this case not just terror but on the Taliban—could be useful allies. That is not the way you get a stable country and it did President Karzai no favours to bolster those warlords—including arming them, which has contributed greatly to the continued climate of instability in Afghanistan at this time. We would have wished Britain in the past to take a stronger role, but broadly I think Britain has understood that much better than its close ally in Washington. Clearly the need to support the international force there is strong.

  Q58 Sir John Stanley: Do you think that we are holding on to the gains, in particular women's rights, in Afghanistan or is the situation now going back into reverse, as is being reported in some quarters?

  Ms Allen: I think that when you are in a situation as in Afghanistan at the moment, where security is such an issue and it is absolutely the overwhelming issue, particularly outside of Kabul, the situation for women does become quite bad. It is very much our experience that the levels of violence, discrimination and humiliation of women remain high within the country; that for safety's sake women are retreating back into the home; that it is very difficult for women and young girls, particularly in rural areas; and that we do need to see support to women in Afghanistan, to some very brilliant women's organisations and some very courageous women who have stood in the recent elections. That really does need, in this situation, to be the kind of support that needs to take place over many years. That has to be there over the next decades, not just in the next year or so, to ensure that there is significant change which is seen through, to see that women's position in Afghanistan really does improve.

  Q59 Sir John Stanley: Can I turn to China? The overall view— and it is very difficult to escape from— is that we are making virtually no progress at all as far as human rights in China are concerned. We have a country with an absolutely massive use of capital punishment; a country which is continuing, totally ruthlessly and systematically, to suppress all forms of what would be regarded by the regime as contentious political expression; the suppression of free trade unionism; the suppression of a lot which we would regard as perfectly normal religious expression. Would you take the view that we are making no progress whatever on human rights in China, or do you hold out any areas in which we are making progress?

  Ms Allen: We do not see any areas where progress is being made. You talk of the death penalty. We heard a Chinese national legislator announce last year that 10,000 people are executed each year, many of those after very summary trials and after the use of torture. What we have seen is the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue in June this year, which is now in its thirteenth round. Our view at Amnesty is that we would like to hear from the British Government about what progress it thinks is being made in these dialogues. From our perspective as Amnesty, it would be extremely helpful to have some clarity about what the British Government is setting out to achieve. We have no criticism of quiet diplomacy, if it is having an effect; but, after the thirteenth round, we do question that and we would like to know what the British Government sees as the progress to be made there. It is clear that the Chinese Government is very much wanting to be involved in that dialogue. It would be ironic though if what the dialogue itself achieves is simply the UK being quiet publicly and in various international fora about the appalling record of the Chinese regime, which you have outlined so clearly.

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