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11 Oct 2007 : Column 167WH—continued

4.33 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I applaud the Select Committee for producing this robust and detailed annual report and its Chairman for his succinct presentation of its contents today. The Select Committee ought to be congratulated on what is self-evidently a thorough job of work.

I start with an issue close to my heart and, from what I have heard, to the hearts of many of us: cluster munitions. A total ban on cluster munitions has been a campaign issue for many of us for a long time, and although we are pleased that the Government have signed up to the Oslo declaration to ban indiscriminate or dumb cluster bombs, it is still, in the opinion of many, not good enough.

The problem with banning only dumb cluster bombs is that the definitions of “smart” and “dumb” are not set in stone. All cluster munitions are indiscriminate, ineffective and devastating to civilians. They are militarily unnecessary and totally immoral. Few of them go off when and where they are supposed to, and even smart munitions have a significant failure rate, as we have heard. If the Government are to fulfil the commitment they made in Oslo, all cluster munitions should be banned, not just the ones that they term dumb. Britain should be taking a lead on the issue. We should be at the forefront, helping to ban the use, manufacture and sale of all cluster munitions, but how can we do so unless we set an example ourselves?

I can at least thank the Government for their clarification, in their response to the annual report, of what cluster munitions are still retained by the UK—namely, the
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155 mm L20A1 artillery round—but surely I am not the only person present who finds that admission deeply depressing. The Government stand accused by Oxfam, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Landmine Action and many others of simply renaming one of their two remaining cluster munitions to get around the worldwide ban expected next year. Is it not damning that despite all the evidence of the horrific and indiscriminate damage caused by such weapons, the British Government say that they will continue to retain them in service until the middle of the next decade? Is that not the most damning indictment of Government policy, and should we not be ashamed of it?

The annual report into human rights abuses around the world raises many issues that remain deeply troubling. As hon. Members have said, it is impossible to comment on all regions and all issues in the time available. Like others, I shall highlight some of what I consider to be the very worst situations, beginning with Iraq.

The increasing number of executions, the use of questionable trial procedures and the alleged use of torture to extract confessions are deeply worrying developments. Sectarian and political violence have escalated throughout the year, with allegations that Iraqi security forces themselves are linked to some of the armed groups accused of involvement in civilian killings and torture. In particular, the situation of women in Iraq has deteriorated greatly. Violence has increased, including so-called honour killings by male relatives. In addition, the UN estimates that more than 34,000 civilians were killed in Iraq during the past year alone. Although the true number of civilian casualties can never be known, 2 million are internally displaced and a further 2 million are refugees in neighbouring countries.

The aftermath of the conflict has been truly dreadful. Not only must the Government do as much as possible to encourage the Iraqi Government to promote the rule of law and protect human rights, but questions must still be asked about why a full exit and post-fighting strategy was not developed before we entered the arena in the first place. In their response to the report, the Government say that they continue to work with the Iraqi Government on human rights issues. I ask the Minister what progress has been achieved and how often liaison has occurred on the subject.

Another topic in which many other Members have an active interest is the current situation in Burma. The whole world has watched in horror as events in Burma have unfolded during the past months—events that come in the context of Burma’s deteriorating human rights record of pre-trial detention and keeping political and ethnic prisoners in jails and labour camps, as well as credible reports of torture. The news has been filled with stories of mass arrests, of police breaking up peaceful protests using live bullets as well as teargas, and of police and paramilitary forces beating protesters—all of which has resulted in many being injured or killed. Only 10 deaths have been officially acknowledged by the Burmese Government, but it is feared that the death toll is considerably higher.

We are all acutely concerned about the stories coming from foreign journalists under cover in Burma. In one case, a BBC reporter heard reports of bodies of monks being hidden and burned in a local crematorium. As a first course of action, all detained prisoners should be accounted for and released. Although I am pleased to
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see that the junta has appointed a go-between to liaise with Aung San Suu Kyi, I am concerned that no timeline has been accepted for the negotiation process. Will the Minister tell us whether any progress has been made, whether the meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi has taken place, and whether the Burmese Government have been pressed by the British Government to create a timeline for those meetings?

The role of China and India is crucial in bringing pressure to bear on the junta. Has the Minister recently discussed Burma with representatives of China or India and, if so, what was the nature of those discussions? In the past, United Nations resolutions on Burma have been blocked by Russia and China; although I am pleased to see that investigations by the special rapporteur on human rights will take place, the UN Security Council also needs to take decisive and tough action and to tighten up international sanctions.

I have spoken on human rights abuses in China before in this Chamber. Once again, I place on record that I share the Committee’s concerns that changes to the legal system and commitments to other countries are not being followed up. The number of capital offences is still unacceptably high—although for most of us, any capital offence would be one too many.

One of the many issues that need urgently to be addressed is that of the re-education through labour programme. These camps are still being used to detain political and religious dissidents in an attempt to silence them. I understand that new legislation is being pushed through to change the modus operandi of the camps; but it is their nature and not the practical details that are the real problem. The detention of those convicted of crimes must be within the scope of criminal law, subject to appeal and in line with international law and precedents on human rights.

Hopes have been raised that, with the coming Olympics, the Chinese Government will see the necessity of cleaning up their human rights act before it comes under the scrutiny of the world’s foreign press and other Governments. However, as we see from the report, the pace of change is glacial. I agree with the Committee’s conclusion that unless benchmarks and a timetable are developed, progress will continue to be agonisingly slow. Pressure needs to be applied, and there is no better time than now; with China relying on the publicity that the Olympics games can bring, we will never have a better lever on which to insist on improvements to human rights in that country.

I am pleased that foreign press restrictions during the Olympics are to be lifted, but does not the Minister think that the issue of permanent and free access to foreign journalists should be pressed at this time? How can we properly assess the human rights situation in China if foreign press, including local journalists, and human rights groups are to be restricted and censored? The complete media freedom promised by the Chinese during the Olympics needs to become a reality, and pressure needs to be applied for it to remain so.

I join the Foreign Affairs Committee in concluding that halting the inquiry into the al-Yamamah arms deal may have caused severe damage to the reputation of the Government and UK plc in the fight against corruption. Indeed, I would go further and say that I believe it has already done so. I also join Human Rights Watch in its statement on page 18 of the report that the decision to
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drop the investigation sends a very negative message to those countries that we are encouraging to become more accountable and transparent. As a country, we rightly promote the message that no one is above the law, but the Government are apparently not willing to let an independent investigation take place. On behalf of my party, I again urge the Government to reconsider their decision to abandon the Serious Fraud Office investigation.

I wish to touch on one other issue before I conclude and it is that of Zimbabwe. So often, political action seems to depend on the fluctuations of the news. After the actions earlier this year that gripped the public’s attention, there is again a danger that Zimbabwe will become a forgotten conflict. As the report said, the Government need to maintain the pressure on South Africa and other members of the Southern African Development Community, especially as the Mugabe regime is now beginning to crack. Does the Minister remain optimistic that the planned 2008 election will be fair, free and democratic? Will she also update us on the forthcoming EU-African summit and, given the absence of the Prime Minister, confirm who will be representing the Government?

Finally, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister and her Department on their work on the special court for Sierra Leone. I have spoken before on that issue in this Chamber, so I shall keep my remarks short. However, I believe that Britain’s role in agreeing to imprison Charles Taylor, should he be convicted, will be an important step in publicising the enforcement of human rights. We will be sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that those who violate human rights will be tried and, if found guilty, punished. I can only hope that this message is heard in many of the countries of which we have spoken today.

Once again, I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for such a thorough, detailed and thought-provoking report.

4.47 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on its comprehensive report. Its comprehensive nature means that I shall be able to allude to only a few of the topics that the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and his colleagues have drawn to the attention of the House.

I say clearly, for myself as well as for my party, that respect and support for human rights are principles that should be integral to the United Kingdom’s foreign and domestic policies. That is partly because it is morally right to do and say such things. Democratic Governments have a duty to speak up for people who have been silenced, jailed and tortured by their own Governments. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) told us of his earliest political memory in Franco’s Spain. I shall never forget my first visit to East Berlin as a schoolboy, seeing the armed guards patrolling the walkway above Friedrichstrasse station when we changed trains and then going out through the Berlin Wall, and seeing the minefields that had been laid to stop the citizens of East Germany escaping from their own Government.

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It is not only a matter of what is morally right, however. It is also important to recognise that supporting human rights is very much in our practical national interest. I say that because, for the most part, dictators tend not to make the most reliable or stable of British allies. The record shows that individual freedom and prosperity feed into each other and that a community of plural democratic societies is more likely to make for a peaceful and stable world than a group of autocratic tyrannical regimes. The question is how to develop those policies of respect for human rights through our pursuit of British interests overseas.

I shall start by considering the United Nations, which is something that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) highlighted. When I read the Government’s “Human Rights Annual Report”—a document that is even more comprehensive than the Committee’s report—I realised that the Government had placed high hopes on the creation of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The former Foreign Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, told the United Nations General Assembly that the creation of the Human Rights Council

The Government, on page 162 of their “Human Rights Annual Report”, declare that

They go on to say:

the Human Rights Council—“fulfils that promise.” When the Foreign Office presented its written evidence to the Committee, it stated:

I have to say that that phrase reads to me as if there is now some hesitation on the part of Ministers about whether the initial promise has actually been realised. I want to press the Minister to say more about the Government’s verdict on the performance of the Human Rights Council so far. If one considers what the council has said, what it has done and what it has omitted to do, one discovers that there are still some serious flaws in that particular multilateral institution.

At the end of the Human Rights Council’s first year, its members pushed through a set of rules to agree that Israel should be the only country subject to a permanent agenda item at the council. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) that we should not hesitate to draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place in the Palestinian territories, particularly in Gaza. However, I must challenge the idea that Israel should be uniquely singled out in such a way. At that same meeting, the proposal to have special rapporteurs to the Human Rights Council on Belarus and Cuba—two countries with reprehensible records on human rights—was eliminated. Did our Government resist those measures? My understanding is that the British Government, along with the rest of the EU, did
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not resist those steps and that it was left to Canada alone among the established western democracies to hold out unsuccessfully against what seems to have been a shabby compromise.

Let us consider some of the ways in which the Human Rights Council has gone about its business. The hon. Member for Islington, North referred to the universal periodic review. I have no quarrel with the idea that every member state of the United Nations should submit itself to that type of regular scrutiny. I applaud the fact that the British Government have volunteered that we as a nation should come forward and take part in such a review at the earliest possible stage. But how adequate will it be to have a universal periodic review that takes place on what amounts to an immutable four-year cycle and that allows for the scrutiny of any member states’ record for a very short time? According to Freedom House, which has a good track record on scrutinising global human rights issues, the reviews will be conducted by three representatives of member states and not by independent human rights experts or non-governmental organisations. In the documents used as a basis for the review, there will be 20 pages of text submitted by the country in question, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights can submit 10 pages, and what are termed “other relevant stakeholders” can provide a further 10 pages. The time allowed for the scrutiny of each country will be very short; I understand that it will be limited to only three hours. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? Even the most half-trained diplomat of a tyranny should be able to fend off an interrogation of his human rights record conducted on such a basis and subject to such limitations.

The same problems arise when we consider the terms of reference that will be applied to the independent experts whom the council will ask to look into both thematic human rights issues and the records of individual countries. Those experts will all be subject to a code of conduct that requires them to show restraint, moderation and discretion. I have no quarrel with that but the code of conduct also says that they must avoid using unfounded or politically motivated communications or abusive language and that they must not rely on reports disseminated by mass media, non-governmental organisations or persons, unless those individuals or organisations are the victims of violations and claim to have direct or reliable knowledge of those violations substantiated by clear information. Once again, it seems that the limitations that the Human Rights Council has written into its rules risk giving abusers of human rights the opportunity to side-step the scrutiny and judgment that I think all hon. Members would agree such individuals merit.

During the first two years of the HRC’s existence, there have been 11 country-specific resolutions criticising Israel. The question of Darfur has been delayed again and again from coming before the council until a resolution was eventually agreed at the end of 2006. There was a country-specific resolution on Burma——not when the crisis was building up, but when visible evidence on the internet and television screens made it impossible for people further to ignore it. On Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan and other offenders, nothing at all has so far been done by the council.

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The high hopes that the former Foreign Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, and others expressed at the time of the council’s creation have sadly not been realised. I hope that the Minister will let us know what action the Government will take to try to secure a more robust and less partial scrutiny of human rights abuses in future sessions.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman concede that one of the problems is that, although it is true that the Human Rights Council does not want to take action on certain issues, many member states and Governments simply do not want to refer matters to the council? If member states think that they should be doing something about a particular human rights abuse somewhere around the world, it is up to them to draw attention to it. It is also up to the council to make itself much more open, as I said in my speech, to civil society and non-governmental organisations. For example, there are plenty of human rights groups inside and outside Burma that I am sure would love to be heard at the Human Rights Council.

Mr. Lidington: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We are forming an unlikely alliance on this subject, which I hope does not embarrass him too much. He makes some valid points.

There are some things that the Government are doing and should continue to do in terms of multilateral action, and I welcome the fact that Britain is one of the largest funders of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. That office has a good track record of practical action in the field and in arranging monitoring and practical logistical support for elections in different countries throughout the world. The Government could do more to try to build the Community of Democracies, which is very much an institution in embryo, into a more vigorous organisation as a caucus in the UN and outside.

We must also accept that our efforts to secure greater respect for human rights should not only be through multilateral action. We have to look to the UK’s place as a permanent member of the Security Council—this reinforces the importance of keeping our permanent membership of the UN Security Council and not allowing it to be hived off to the European Union in the way that the Government are on the brink of endorsing—and to our membership of the EU to try to get not only ourselves but other member states to adopt measures that will encourage respect for human rights in different parts of the world.

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