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11 Oct 2007 : Column 154WH—continued

3.41 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) on his return to the Back Benches. He made an important, telling and moving contribution and I am sure that the Minister will take that away.

I shall discuss human rights in China, but I should first like to associate myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said about Burma and the despicable, tyrannical regime there. I shall not repeat what he said, but I closely associate myself with his remarks.

I should also like to associate myself with the comments of my colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), and particularly with what he said about Israel and Palestine. He and I have visited that area several times in the past few years, and every time he has spoken in these debates, he has done so with great passion and intelligence, so I am very pleased to be associated with what he has to say. When I was in Gaza last year, the situation was absolutely shocking. When one moves around the west bank and sees what the road closures are doing to the Palestinian economy, it is hard to think that it is somehow justified by the terror threat. One can say that without for one second having any time or support for the suicide bombings, which, I am sure, every hon. Member would condemn out of hand. The behaviour of the Israeli authorities in the occupied west bank is making that situation worse, not better.

I welcome the Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual human rights report, which is now in its 10th year. It has improved hugely in those 10 years and is now a detailed, accurate and authoritative document that makes a big contribution to the debate on human rights and how to tackle human rights abuses around the world. I place on record my thanks to the FCO officials who work on the report. They clearly have a strong commitment to human rights, and that shines through in the document.

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While I am being nice to people who work for the FCO, I also place on record my observation that, when I go abroad with the Foreign Affairs Committee and we visit our embassies and high commissions in other countries, it is clear that human rights are not being shoved into a separate compartment on their own, but are a thread that runs through the work of many of our diplomats. That is to be commended.

We have had a wide-ranging debate, but I want to make my comments brief and narrow. I shall address three issues, the first of which is human rights in China. I have raised this issue before and make no apology for raising it again, because the People’s Republic of China has the unenviable record of being the world’s No. 1 human rights abuser. In terms of judicial executions, as far as we can tell, it executes more people than the rest of the world put together, but it is difficult to come to a definitive figure on how many people have been executed. The last time I researched it, we came up with the figure that 10,000 people had been executed in a single year in China, but it is difficult to know because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham demonstrated, many of them take place in extraordinary situations and in great secrecy.

The lack of transparency in the judicial process is a main concern. Torture is widespread and an instrument of state policy. The judiciary is not independent. Re-education through labour is commonplace. Prisoners are treated badly and, as we have heard, the harvesting of prisoners’ organs is all too prevalent. Human rights violations are widespread in the People’s Republic of China.

Against that backdrop, we have our bilateral human rights dialogue with China and the EU-China dialogue. Last year, the Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that progress in those dialogues was “glacial”. The then Foreign Secretary disputed that in her response, saying that progress had been “incremental”. I shall not bore hon. Members with the semantics of the difference between glacial and incremental, but perhaps we can all agree that that progress on human rights in China has not been rapid or great. Human Rights Watch said that the dialogues were “not a success”, and Amnesty International, like the Committee, has called for specific benchmarks to be published in advance of the dialogues so that we can all see what progress is being made.

In their response to the Committee’s report, the Government and the FCO said that the Government are

I might have missed it, but I would be grateful if the Minister updated us as to where we are with involving the Committee in improving the transparency of that work.

I have some other, specific questions for the Minister. The next round of the EU-China human rights dialogue is later this month: will she tell us what the EU’s objectives are? I accept that she might not have that information to hand, so perhaps she could write to us. In respect of our bilateral dialogue with China, will she tell us how many objectives the UK Government
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had in the last round and on how many of them progress has been made? Many hon. Members are concerned that we are not making sufficient progress.

Jeremy Corbyn: While my hon. Friend is talking about China, will he say something about Tibet and what happened when that issue was raised in China, unless he was going on to do that anyway?

Mr. Pope: I am grateful for that intervention, but I am not the best-placed person to respond regarding Tibet. During the Committee’s visit last year, we split into two delegations, one of which went to Tibet and will be very well informed about what is, as far as I can see, a pretty appalling human rights situation there, but I was in the other leg, which visited Shanghai and Beijing, so I cannot comment in great detail. Perhaps others will.

On that trip, when I was watching BBC World, which was the only English-language TV programme in my hotel, there was about to be an item on the 40th anniversary of the cultural revolution when the transmission was simply cut off. Ten minutes later, when the item, which was obviously going to cause offence to the Chinese Government, concluded, the transmission came back on. Leaving aside that it might be tempting, if the British Government closed transmission of the BBC every time it was critical, it would certainly curtail the BBC’s coverage of British politics. The truth is that such actions underline the paranoid and secretive nature of the regime in Beijing. There are ways that we could counter them. Information is a great tool and open access to the internet and mobile telephony are important to people who are fighting for human rights. I hope that the Minister will agree that the behaviour of some of the providers of internet services in China has been nothing less than pusillanimous. They have caved in to pressure on restrictions to internet access. There are many internet cafés, certainly in the cities, where one can access the internet, but one cannot have free access to the internet in China, and that is a disgrace.

I would like to say a few words about Guantanamo Bay. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and I had the dubious distinction of being some of the very few British citizens who have seen the inside of Guantanamo Bay when we visited it a year ago. It must now be clear to everyone—even to President Bush—that the very existence of Guantanamo Bay and the fact that detainees are held there without due process fatally undermine the moral authority of the United States in particular. To be honest, they also tarnish the reputations of US allies in the long-running conflict with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I am pleased that the Government have said that Guantanamo should close, and that it should close soon. They should reiterate that today.

We discovered a couple of interesting things about Guantanamo Bay when we visited it. I was surprised by the appearance of the built environment. My mental image was of razor-wire cages out in the open, whereas in fact it looks much more like a modern maximum security prison. Indeed, the Select Committee visited the maximum security wing at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh for a comparator to see how similar or
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dissimilar the facilities were. We were struck by the fact that the cells and buildings look remarkably similar, certainly those in the more modern parts of Guantanamo.

The important thing to come away with was not the similarities but the differences. In Belmarsh, terrorist suspects and convicted terrorists have access to visitors, newspapers, television, radio, lawyers and due process, and they have a release date. In Guantanamo, none of those things applies. People are held in a kind of limbo, often even without any real access to exercise. One can only speculate on the psychological trauma that must be caused when one is held somewhere without any access to family or friends, without any thought that there could be some kind of judicial appeal mechanism and without a possible release date in sight. It must be incredibly damaging.

I agree with people who only ever say about Guantanamo, “It must close, it must close”, but we must face up to the fact that it is actually quite difficult to close it. I am sure that some of the people inside Guantanamo are innocent—that is an even more appalling prospect—but some are not. Some are hardened terrorists who were rounded up trying to kill coalition forces on battlefields in Afghanistan. Deciding where they can be released is not straightforward. They cannot be released to Afghanistan, where presumably they would go back to trying to kill coalition forces. In many cases, they cannot be released to their country of nationality, where they would face torture and possibly execution. There is a responsibility on those of us who have been critical of the US for the existence of Guantanamo to face up to that practical difficulty and to work with the international community to find a way through it, thereby enabling Guantanamo to close down.

My last point is about a country that I am fairly confident nobody else will mention. These days, not many people would think that it has a human rights problem. In truth, Nicaragua has friendly relations with the UK and it holds free elections. The last elections were held in November last year, when Daniel Ortega was elected president again.

I visited Nicaragua just a couple of weeks ago with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). We were impressed by the friendliness of the Government and the people, but, at the request of the British embassy in Costa Rica, from where the UK conducts diplomatic relations with Nicaragua, I visited the police holding cells in Bluefields, which is on Nicaragua’s eastern seaboard.

The cells form part of a prison compound and there I found a cell of remand prisoners. The cell was designed for a maximum of 10 prisoners. At the time I visited, there were in excess of 30 men in it. They told me that recently there had been as many as 50 men in the cell. There was little or no sanitation and the heat was extreme. The day I was there the temperature was well in excess of 40°. The prisoners told me that they had only one hour of exercise away from the cell—not each day but each week.

The conditions were intolerable. I do not blame the police guards. To be honest, they were doing their best in intolerable circumstances. They were quite open about showing us around, because they wanted the situation to be raised. They were no happier guarding
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prisoners in such circumstances—perhaps they were slightly happier—than the prisoners were themselves.

Will the Minister raise the issue with our friends in the Nicaraguan Government? There are problems with their judicial system, but the holding cells were an absolute disgrace. They are a stain on the otherwise good reputation of the nation. There were people in the cells as young as my 16-year-old son, and the situation does not bear thinking about.

I hope the Minister will agree that one of the benchmarks of a civilised society is not how we treat citizens who are able to go about their normal lives but how we treat people who are in captivity. They deserve to be treated with some dignity, but those people were not receiving such treatment.

3.57 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome this debate, the Select Committee’s report and the response from the Foreign Office. It is a tribute to the late Robin Cook that annual reporting was set up in 1997 and has continued since. It is important that we continue having such reports, and I pay tribute to those who worked so hard on this one.

In a debate like this, it is not difficult to find something to talk about. It is quite difficult to find subjects not to talk about, because there are so many that one could raise. I wish first to discuss what I hope Members will agree is an important issue: the modality of dealing with human rights issues in a global sense.

There is a western view of human rights which is that, in essence, they centre around individual rights of association, assembly, free speech, religious persuasion and so on. It is sometimes uncharacteristically and rather unfairly put against what is termed an eastern view of human rights, which is all about the collective good of society as a whole. I do not think that that is necessarily a valid or particularly important debate, but it comes up quite often.

It is important that individual national Governments and Parliaments such as our own take up human rights issues and promote them. Indeed, I have spent a great deal of time during all my years in the House doing that as vice-chairman of the all-party group on human rights. Nevertheless, it is the international institutions that are important. I note the comments by the Select Committee, the Foreign Office and, indeed, Amnesty International and others on the operation of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and on whether we are happy with its operation or whether it could be improved to some extent.

In the past, I have attended meetings of the council. Some of them have been incredibly long-winded, detailed and ineffective in dealing with anything. Debates go on for several days and appear to have no beginning, end or resolution. However, other parts of the council’s work are very important. For example, the appointment of special rapporteurs for particular places and issues around the world enables the issues to be raised and a debate to take place.

I would like a response from the Minister—she may prefer to write to me—about the role of civil society and non-governmental organisations within the UN system. That system was set up after the second world war and specifically recognises that civil society as a
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whole has a right of representation on UN bodies and institutions. That is accepted through the Economic and Social Council and other forums, and certain non-governmental organisations enjoy special status within the UN. I am not complaining about that, but when it comes to the Human Rights Council, it is particularly important. For people who live in countries with an oppressive regime or where the nature of society is oppressive—the Government in question may not be repressive, but the nature of society may be oppressive against individual rights—the role of a non-governmental organisation in its international representations, and its ability to speak internationally and to question what its national representatives are doing internationally, is important and powerful.

When Louise Arbour came here to discuss the establishment of the Human Rights Council and what went with it, I raised with her the specific question of the role of non-governmental organisations. To be fair to her, I received the positive reply that she recognised their value, the facilities that they need and so on, and that they would be protected within the new Human Rights Council system.

I now find that the amount of time that NGOs have to speak in Geneva is often curtailed. Frequent changes to the agenda mean that it is difficult for NGOs from distant places even to know when their item is likely to come up. It might not be too difficult for a British-based NGO to get a flight to Geneva and back because the trip can be done in a day, so if something is coming up, the NGO can go there, but a human rights group from Colombia or Asia cannot do that. It may have to be there for several weeks at a time, which is expensive, and it might not have an opportunity to say what it wants to say. My plea is that in our participation in the Human Rights Council, we ensure that civil society and non-governmental organisations are represented and given opportunities to speak there.

I recognise, as Kofi Annan said in his response to one of the investigations into the UN’s operation, that some NGOs should not bear that title and masquerade as something that they are not. They may be representatives of Government, and the number of commercial organisations masquerading as NGOs seems to be increasing. The issue must be addressed and resolved, but I hope that we do not destroy the possibility and importance of that representation just because some people abuse the system.

I welcome self-reporting by each member state of the Human Rights Council. I believe that they have half a day every three years to say what their record is and how that reporting takes place, and to be questioned. That is welcome and I would like the Minister to give a commitment that we support that process and that it will continue in any review.

John Bercow: I see the merit in the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but given that some of the self-reporting regimes would be engaged in the most disgusting, self-serving hypocrisy in the process because of the nature of their regimes, does he agree that alongside his point about NGOs, there might be something to be said for constructing formal machinery to allow organised opposition groups in tyrannical states to present their findings for formal consideration?

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Jeremy Corbyn: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, and we are not far apart on that. My point about NGO representatives covers that point. An NGO from a country that is oppressing a particular minority would have difficulty expressing that view in its own country, but it might be represented in Geneva and make its point through another NGO group, such as the World Council of Churches. If countries self-report on their situation they should be open to questions and criticism by other countries, NGOs or civil society representatives. That is important.

Governments are not always keen to discuss some issues, and that applies to all Governments. A lot of people had to make a massive effort to ensure, for example, that the millennium summit in Durban in 2000 even discussed discrimination by caste and descent, such as that against the Dalit people. No one, but no one, wanted the matter to be discussed because it was too big, too embarrassing and too complicated. That is why there must be an opportunity for civil society to be represented at UN forums.

The Select Committee’s report rightly draws attention to the embarrassment of the UK’s suspension of the investigation into the al-Yamamah arms deal and the problems of our then proselytising around the world about anti-corruption. Everyone is against corruption and the vote on that is always unanimous, but sometimes something needs to be done about it. I compliment the Select Committee on the deft words and choice of language in its conclusion, and I hope that the Minister understands that it is embarrassing to talk about corruption elsewhere in the world when it is well known that a corruption inquiry in this country was suspended without its final conclusion being known. We should draw attention to that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), I find it difficult to restrict myself to a small number of subjects, and I want to mention a couple more. I was part of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation three weeks ago to Burundi which, like Rwanda, is coming out of conflict and is very much a post-conflict society. Next door is the Congo, which is very much not a post-conflict society, but is tragically a current conflict society with all the horrors that go with that.

There was much to commend in Burundi such as the efforts for reconciliation, political development, capacity building and all that goes with that, but there are still serious problems that must be addressed. The country has only 6 million people and lost 300,000 in the recent Hutu-Tutsi conflict, which mirrored what was happening in Rwanda. Over the past couple of decades, it has lost more than 1 million people in such conflicts, and has a great number of orphans and displaced people.

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