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Westminster Hall

Thursday 11 October 2007

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Human Rights

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 269 and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 7127.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman .]

2.40 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): As we have lost 10 minutes because of the Division in the House, we will be able to continue the debate until 5.40 pm.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): In introducing the report, I pay tribute to all those involved in the work of our Committee in producing our comprehensive human rights annual report for 2006, which was published on 18 April, and to those involved in producing the detailed response that we received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was published in June.

Inevitably, I cannot cover all the areas that we highlighted in our comprehensive report—I hope that my colleagues will pick up on some of those that I will not be able to touch on—but I want to begin by considering the way in which the Department deals with human rights issues. For some years, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has expressed concern about the double-hatting of the Minister with responsibility for trade and for human rights. We strongly welcome the fact that that arrangement is no longer in place. We now have a Minister who is responsible for human rights as well as other responsibilities, including the United Nations, and that is Lord Malloch-Brown, and his colleague the Under-Secretary, who is here today, also deals with human rights issues. The Trade Minister no longer wears that hat. That does not in any way cast aspersions on the efforts of the former Minister for Trade, who was also responsible for human rights, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who did an excellent job, but perception is sometimes important in politics and the perception of a separate Trade Minister and Human Rights Minister makes the distinction clear.

As a Committee, we have called over the years for modifications and changes in the way in which the report is presented by the Government when they publish their human rights report. We understand from the FCO’s response to our report this year that the next report will not be published until March 2008, will be “more tightly focused” and will emphasise human rights in relation to the Government’s strategic priorities, the international system and countries of key concern. Will the Minister reassure us that that will not mean that some of the more controversial issues will receive less attention in the round as it tries to concentrate on the generalities and that it will still have a clear, sharp focus on some of the most difficult issues of concern?

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One major area of concern to our Committee is the way in which the United Nations human rights system works. Members will be aware that the Human Rights Council was recently established and that there was considerable hope that it might improve the way in which the international system dealt with human rights. Unfortunately, I do not believe that that is the case yet. Results are mixed and some countries are still using the council to pursue their own agendas rather than the cause of human rights internationally and in general. Unfortunately, countries that have a record of human rights abuse still serve on the Human Rights Council. The United Kingdom has a good record of pursuing human rights issues in the United Nations system, and that is still the case. Will the Minister update us on the Government’s priorities in such matters and on how we can try to make the UN Human Rights Council more effective in the future?

Another issue for international concern highlighted not only in the report but in our more recent report on global security in the middle east is the use of cluster munitions. We welcome the fact that the British Government attended the meeting in Oslo to try to produce a treaty to ban all cluster munitions. The Government say that they are committed to that aspiration and aim. However, there are clearly difficulties, because some major countries that have and use cluster munitions did not attend the Oslo meeting. We have seen the indiscriminate use of large numbers of such weapons, as happened in Lebanon where the Israelis used large numbers of cluster munitions, particularly in the last 72 hours of the conflict in 2006.

We have discussed, debated and corresponded with the FCO about definitions of “dumb” or “smart” cluster munitions. Some of that is reflected in the reply to our report. More recently, in our middle east report, we produced further evidence about the issue. One of our main concerns is the high failure rate of many of the so-called smart cluster munitions. We believe on the evidence given to us during our middle east inquiry that failure rates could be as high as 10 per cent. In their response to that report, the Government said that they

They should tell us more about their failure rates and about what steps are being taken to reduce and ultimately to eliminate cluster munitions. Even if the failure rate is only 2.3 per cent., as they claim, that still means that people will be maimed, that children could lose their limbs and that agricultural areas will not be able to be developed because of the dispersal of such weapons. That is a matter of continuing concern to us.

There are other wide issues that I will not have time to touch on today, but I feel that I should at least mention them. A considerable part of the report talks about the US practice of rendition of prisoners, as well as about aspects of what was called at that time “the war on terrorism”, and their implications for human rights in general. Another aspect touched on in another Select Committee report that was published over the summer was the controversy concerning the inquiry about Saudi Arabia and the al-Yamamah BAE Systems contract. I will not go into that in detail now, but I note that although the inquiry was stopped in this country,
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the work of the US Department of Justice is continuing. I understand that that department has requested co-operation on that from the British Government. Our conclusion was that the UK’s reputation had been damaged internationally because of those events and, as a Committee, we stand by that.

Another area that I want to mention is now more topical. When we published our report in April we pointed out the deteriorating human rights situation in Burma. We pointed to the repression of the opposition by the illegitimate military regime, the continued imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the way in which the Burmese regime was assisted by some countries in preventing the issue from getting up the international human rights agenda.

The British Government, our former ambassador to the United Nations, and others, have tried hard to put Burma on the international agenda, but China and other countries have consistently blocked it in the Security Council. Clearly, some countries, of which the UK is not one, have significant economic interests in Burma, including some European countries—Total, the French oil company, has been mentioned.

These issues are of great importance. Owing to the fact that progress has not been made through the UN, there is now discussion about a European Union strengthened sanction regime. Although that is welcome, it is also regrettable, because the UN and the international community as a whole should grasp the nettle of the appalling behaviour of the military regime in Burma, which includes the repression that we have seen all too vividly on our television screens in recent days.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I returned recently from a visit to the India-Burma border, and for as long as I live, I shall remember meeting a seven-year-old boy, who, at the age of three, was abducted by Government troops of the State Peace and Development Council, taken to a small, stone, cold room in the middle of an army camp and kept there in confinement for eight hours, without being offered food or water. That is just one example of the depths to which this despicable regime will sink in a bid to cling on to its ill-gotten gains. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is particularly important that international and multilateral action continues and accelerates, because what is taking place now, as we have seen in The Independent today, is an invisible savagery? The cameras have gone, but the monks and others are being brutally and savagely beaten, incarcerated and prevented from expressing the views of the masses of that beautiful but benighted country.

Mike Gapes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to the work that he has done in this House over many years in order to highlight the situation in Burma. Clearly that regime is trying to cut off communication with the outside world in order to make it impossible for us to know what is really going on. We know that 10 people have died, but suspect that many more have done so of which we do not know. Certainly, hundreds, if not thousands have been brutally incarcerated.

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Some countries have leverage, and I hope that the Government of China will use all of their endeavours, in every way that they can, to moderate and change the behaviour of the Burmese Government, to make them engage seriously with the United Nations envoy, Mr. Gambari, and to recognise that it is unacceptable, in the 21st century, for regimes to behave in this way. Those things happened quite often in the 20th century, but in the 21st century, and in a world of globalisation, economic relations and human contacts, it is not acceptable, even for countries that find it uncomfortable, because the rest of the world is watching.

During the run-up to the Olympic games in China next year, the rest of the world will be watching not just what happens in China but what happens in other countries, because the world will start to look at all of the flags and countries and say, “Well, where do those people come from? How do they live their normal existence?” I hope that China, which is a very important country and will be a major one this century, can use its influence positively.

I shall turn to some sad and difficult places in Africa, where, again, China has an important role, because of its economic power. It is the major purchaser of oil and raw materials from many African countries, from Zimbabwe to Sudan, Angola and many others. The situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. Members of my Committee strongly endorse the Prime Minister when he said that he will not attend the EU-Africa summit if Robert Mugabe is there. Indeed, that view was expressed by some of us yesterday when the Foreign Secretary gave evidence to us. Clearly there is a view among some people in other parts of the EU—I had an exchange with the Commission President, Mr. Barroso, over this matter in Lisbon on Monday at the Conference of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairmen—that those issues are not as important as others, and that they have to be put to one side. In reality, if Mugabe attends the EU-Africa summit, it will devalue the presence of others and send out the signal that we are setting aside important issues. That will undermine the case for human rights, for which we are campaigning.

I remind hon. Members that, in Zimbabwe, there is 7,000 per cent. inflation, and there are daily beatings and the repression of independent free trade unionists and opposition political figures. There was a rigged election, and the President is 82 years old and seems to wish to be President for life. That has to change. Many hon. Members will have had people come to their advice surgeries who have fled from the violence and repression in Zimbabwe, and we know that, because of our historical links, the regime in Zimbabwe tries to caricature our criticisms as being part of a neo-colonialist agenda. Far from it. We raise criticisms because the people in the Movement for Democratic Change, trade unions and human rights organisations, and brave figures in the Churches in Zimbabwe, ask us to do so, because their voices cannot be heard in their own country. They need the international community to speak for them. The European Union, too, has a responsibility to do that.

I shall touch also on the situation in Sudan. Hopefully, the negotiations due to take place in Tripoli in Libya in a few weeks’ time will lead to a comprehensive breakthrough. Hopefully, before long,
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the African Union and United Nations hybrid force will be deployed. That has been authorised under Security Council resolution 1769. However, it is important that that force can do its job and that it gets real support. I would like the Minister to tell us what concrete, tangible support the United Kingdom will give to that force in order to ensure that it can do the job of protecting the millions of people in Darfur who have been displaced, have fled, and suffered as a result of the violent behaviour of the Sudanese regime, the militias, the Janjaweed and others.

John Bercow: I know that I am trespassing on the hon. Gentleman’s generosity, but does he agree—this is consistent with what he has just said—that the role of the force needs to be, to coin a phrase, proactive rather than reactive, and that essentially the international community should be seeking not a peacekeeping role, but a peace-enforcement mandate? That is very long-delayed.

Mike Gapes: I agree. The Committee’s report does not go into the details of the concept of a responsibility to protect, of the UN high-level panel, and other matters. We dealt with those in other reports. However, the essence of the problem is that there are still some countries in the world that believe that we have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. That is a traditionalist agenda that, hopefully, is changing. The dilemma that we have had over Sudan, again, is that some countries in the UN and the African Union are not prepared to enable the development of an intervention that could make a real difference.

I hope that the politics are changing, that there will be agreement in Tripoli and that, therefore, there will be a political solution to the conflict, such as the agreement between the southern Sudanese and the north after many years of conflict. However, we cannot rely on that and we must recognise that it will take time to stabilise the situation. Some 200,000 people have died already, and 2 million have been left homeless. The situation requires serious and concerted action by the international community.

Finally, I shall touch on one other area, which the report does not highlight, but about which we should do more in the coming years. It is a conflict that is barely reported in this country. There are regular demonstrations outside Parliament by Sri Lankans protesting about the conflict and civil war in Sri Lanka, but there is almost nothing in our media about it. That may be caused in part by the appalling behaviour of one organisation in the conflict, blowing up buses and carrying out terrorist actions, which does not help to win international support or sympathy. However, it is not just the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the Tamil Tigers—who are responsible for the conflict; the official Government forces have carried out some dreadful actions, too.

In Sri Lanka over the past year and a half, the situation has steadily deteriorated, and many tens of thousands of people have suffered. It is estimated that more than 300,000 people have had to leave their homes since August 2006, and that 100,000 have been displaced since March. The situation is very serious, and the international community should do far more. Sri Lanka’s neighbours—India, in particular—could use their influence, but the issue must be pushed up the international agenda.

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We know from many other conflicts that one cannot solve them purely by military means; one must engage in political processes. In Sri Lanka, there was a political process that came to a kind of agreement, but then it broke down. We need the international community to re-engage with the situation, and given that our country has had a relationship with Sri Lanka, both as a colony and subsequently, we have some influence there. I hope that the Government will do far more to end the conflict.

I have spoken for about 20 minutes, with some interventions, and I know that several Members wish to speak. Human rights are not an add-on; they are an essential part of our country’s policies—not just of our foreign policy. When an individual in this country makes a decision to go on a package holiday, and they choose a country where a repressive regime uses the foreign currency that is spent, there are consequences. I was recently involved in an altercation about Burma with a figure from the travel industry. His claim that people who went on holiday to Burma might be able to report on what was going on there struck me as one of the most bizarre arguments that I had heard for a long time. I can hardly imagine the Burmese military regime allowing people to go up to the north of the country where the monks have been taken in chains and locked up.

We must push these issues up the agenda. All of us must think about what we can do to help to improve human rights not only in our own country, but throughout the world.

3.4 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and I congratulate him on his successful leadership of the Committee through to a unanimously agreed and important report. Like him, I shall cover a number of topics, and although throughout the debate our treatment of the issue might appear to be spasmodic, it has as its underlying theme human rights and their universality. That universality must be constantly stressed, particularly against regimes throughout the world who think that, as far as the involvement of other countries is concerned, human rights can be dismissed on the ground that they are internal matters from which the external community should be excluded. That, of course, is totally contrary to the United Nations Vienna declaration on human rights. The ringing opening sentence of article 5 must be constantly restated to such countries. It reads:

I shall start with the occupied territories, and particularly Gaza, although what I have to say about Gaza applies, to a lesser extent but with considerable force, to the west bank and east Jerusalem, too. Sadly, Gaza is now one of the great human rights scandals in the world. Approximately 1.25 million people are effectively imprisoned there, with little, and in some cases no, ability to get out. In some respects, the situation is worse than being in prison, because some key elements of life—access to power, and certainty of water and food supplies—have been severely and dangerously reduced. Sadly, that is a result of Israeli
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Government policy, which has in part been based on carrying out serious attacks on the basic infrastructure of Gaza. That policy is most certainly morally wrong. It is not right to deprive innocent women and children, and the overwhelming majority of peaceful and law-abiding civilian males, of the basic necessities of life in the pursuit of terrorists. It is not merely morally indefensible but politically crass.

The key element in dealing successfully with terrorism, as we learned over many decades in Northern Ireland, and as we still learn today inside the United Kingdom in trying to deal with the al-Qaeda terrorist threat, is to deal with the small minority of terrorists separately from the rest of the civilian population. That is the key policy requirement. If in Northern Ireland the Government had launched attacks on the basic infrastructure of the Catholic areas in Belfast or Londonderry, the political consequences would have been absolutely catastrophic. They would have left us light years away from the political settlement that we have finally achieved.

The Government recognise the immense dangers of such a policy. At the opening of their response to our report, they say, at paragraph 78:

Although the Government make that statement and believe it, I am sure, sincerely, it is not good enough to do a sticking-plaster job through our aid programme in order to meet the basic needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza. The only way in which that intention will be delivered is by securing a fundamental change in Israeli Government policy. That requires the Israeli Government to recognise that although they are perfectly entitled to deal with Hamas terrorists and Hezbollah terrorists to the north—indeed, they would have the law-abiding world, including our own Government, behind them—that must not affect the needs of the overwhelming, law-abiding majority of the civilian population. The Israeli Government’s policy towards those people should be absolutely the reverse and should concentrate on winning hearts and minds.

That same policy—the correct policy—is the one that we have been following in Afghanistan with a fair degree of success, even in Helmand province, which is the area of greatest security difficulty. Although the Committee’s report rightly acknowledges that we have a huge way to go in establishing basic human rights in Afghanistan, the Government could and should do far more to emphasise the success that we have had and continue to have in promoting human rights in Afghanistan.

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