Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-69)


16 NOVEMBER 2005

  Q60 Sir John Stanley: Does Amnesty have a view on this? Are you saying to us that the dialogue is a convenient receptacle for the Chinese Government, basically, to buy off the British Government in making only very modest adverse criticism of China on human rights?

  Ms Allen: I think that it is time for the British Government to be absolutely, publicly clear about what it sees as the advantages of the dialogue, what progress it wants to see, and to pursue that in a public arena. We were quite disappointed, during the recent visit of Premier Hu, that those opportunities were not sought and that the debate—the public debate at any rate—was simply one about trade, important though that is.

  Mr Crawshaw: Clearly the list of concerns is long and it is clear to all of us here. You are asking are there any signs of hope. One sign of potential hope is that civil society is there and wants to go in one direction. It is not that, "Oh, in China they do things differently"; it could go in one direction, of people being suppressed in many ways. In those circumstances it is particularly disappointing when a British Prime Minister, for example—as flagged in our written submission—is asked by a Chinese journalist about issues and the words "human rights" are not even mentioned. To me, given that list of concerns, it is a very odd sense of politeness not even to flag that up—because trade is so important. It does not seem to take us forward.

  Q61 Sir John Stanley: I turn specifically to the situation in Tibet. Is that a situation in human rights terms which you consider to be stable, or is it one which is deteriorating? Conceivably you may think it is improving. Please tell us.

  Ms Allen: We do not think that it is improving. We continue to document abuses taking place in Tibet, particularly of monks and nuns and of other religious minorities. So we have nothing to say about improvement in Tibet. It is one of our major concerns in terms of the Chinese regime.

  Q62 Sir John Stanley: What do you consider to be the objectives of the Chinese regime in terms of Tibetan culture and Tibetan identity?

  Ms Allen: There are very clearly moves by the Chinese Government in terms of trade—its economic power—that involve moving people into Tibet. Those issues do cause us great concern about Tibetan culture and its survival.

  Mr Crawshaw: I echo of all what you have just heard. Clearly the attempt to suppress the identity is visible at every level.

  Q63 Chairman: Can I ask you about the position in Indonesia? Do you think our government is doing enough to support human rights there? There is also the West Papua question. Would you like to comment on that?

  Mr Crawshaw: What we at Human Rights Watch have done a lot of work on has been on Aceh, and sometimes one could have wished for a stronger voice on that from the UK Government; but broadly it has, at least to some extent, been addressed by the UK Government in the meantime. On West Papua, it is problematic that we are being blocked from going there. We hope that we will nonetheless, but there is the great reluctance on behalf of the government to allow the kind of scrutiny and the kind of openness which will allow, frankly, the abuses which we know to be going on to be fully documented and therefore to be addressed. I think that a strong voice on that from the UK Government would undoubtedly be helpful. Too often there is the belief that if a government is broadly better than it was, therefore very serious remaining problems should not be addressed. I think that the opposite is in fact the case.

  Q64 Chairman: Can I take you on to Nepal, where clearly we have much closer historic relationships than we do with Indonesia and close military relationships. We continue to provide military support to the King's Government and army, despite the current political situation there. Do you think that that military aid should be suspended until there are elections?

  Mr Crawshaw: Amnesty may have different information on this, but it is something which I have been discussing recently with colleagues in our Asian division looking at this. Our understanding has been that that military aid had been suspended earlier—unless you had information to the contrary. That was our clear understanding, and of course we   welcome that because it would be most inappropriate.

  Ms Allen: Absolutely, and that is our understanding too.

  Q65 Chairman: And you would hope that that would be maintained until such a point as there is a restoration of a democratically elected government?

  Ms Allen: Absolutely. We see a situation of 200,000 people displaced. We know of 400 people, named people, who have disappeared. There is an absolute climate of fear. It would be intolerable to think that the UK Government would be exporting arms.

  Q66 Chairman: Can I try to pick up a couple of other questions that I have jumped across? What is your assessment of the position in Russia? The Annual Report does talk about it, but clearly the British Government is keen to have good relations with Russia. There are a number of concerns that a number of organisations raise there. How do you feel about our position with regard to Russia?

  Mr Crawshaw: I certainly think, and Human Rights Watch believe, that the situation is extremely serious there, and is getting worse as the years go on. It has been deeply regrettable, and again I find it, to use a polite word, puzzling that the British Government, most particularly the Prime Minister—we have seen some very accurate criticisms within the Human Rights Report—repeatedly fails to confront this. I assume that he feels that it would be impolite somehow to address it. I think I have flagged it in our submission that, when a Parliamentary Question asked whether he had raised the question of disappearances—as we all know, a synonym for murder in effect, and those people being taken from their beds in the middle of the night and never seen again—a very serious problem in Chechnya today—it was not addressed, even in those private conversations it seems. We also have very strong pressure on NGOs which is growing, including stuff which might even theoretically make it impossible for international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, which has a Moscow office, to continue to work there. These things need to be addressed absolutely head-on. There is no politeness in the world which can believe that, somehow, because trade is now doing well, because of a range of other things, these things ought not to be addressed. These are crimes against humanity. The United Nations recently agreed a new convention on disappearances; a new treaty against disappearances has been agreed. It is already a crime against humanity. So I think that the British Government, beyond the absolutely accurate criticism in this report, needs to confront that head-on and not believe that Putin is some friend in—and again, it comes back to the same story—the war on terror. There are undoubtedly terrorist attacks in Russia. We have seen that. There have been horrific attacks in Beslan and elsewhere. But the way to move forward from those is not to soft-pedal on the crimes being committed by the state.

  Ms Allen: This Committee last year was critical of the report concentrating on Chechnya, to the detriment of reporting on other areas within Russia. I think that the report has put that right this year; that it does cover human rights across the country, in particular in Chechnya and the concerns that we share there. Again, we would want to see, like Human Rights Watch, some clear statements by the British Government of what improvements it would want to see and the way in which it would raise those with the Russian Government.

  Q67 Chairman: Finally, we have had the Africa Commission report this year, which talks amongst other things about governance and human rights in Africa, yet one of the key members of that commission is Mr Zenawi from Ethiopia. We have seen recent tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Do you think the FCO Annual Report refers sufficiently to human rights abuses in both those countries? How do you feel we should take forward concerns about human rights in some African countries?

  Ms Allen: We do have concerns on human rights in both Eritrea and in Ethiopia that are not covered fully in the FCO's report. We have concerns in Eritrea about religious minorities; over 1,000 members of one minority church in prison; again, the use of torture. In Ethiopia our concerns are around some of the recent demonstrations that have taken place in Addis Ababa and the security forces shooting and killing many civilians. We are also deeply concerned by the tensions on the border. We saw all too appallingly in 1998 to 2000 the impact of that border dispute then. So I think that we would welcome greater attention from the UK Government on those issues.

  Q68 Chairman: There is one other country in Africa where Britain at least, through some of our oil companies, has major interests and that is Angola. There are clearly outstanding issues from the civil war there. Do you think that the Annual Report gives sufficient coverage to Angola?

  Ms Allen: There is very little mention in the report of Angola. We do, from Amnesty, have some very clear concerns. There are, and there continue to be, clashes between the MPLA and UNITA. We see a country where one million civilians were estimated to hold firearms illegally, with all the effect of that. We are aware of some improvement in police behaviour, but there are still very many reports of the police committing human rights abuses. We again have seen literally thousands of families evicted from informal urban settlements in Rwanda. So we have some very serious concerns about human rights and, as you say, Chairman, they are not covered in the FCO's report.

  Q69 Chairman: We have covered an enormous area of territory—probably most member states of the UN in one way and another! I would like to thank all three of you—Mr Crawshaw, Ms Allen and Mr Hancock—for coming along. We are very grateful. No doubt you can follow up, if you feel that there is anything that you want to send us. We will be very pleased to receive it. Thank you for your time.

  Ms Allen: Thank you for giving us the opportunity.

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