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11 Oct 2007 : Column 173WH—continued

I want to talk briefly about three specific countries. China has been mentioned a lot, and it would be wrong of me to omit it because I had the opportunity to go to Beijing and Lhasa last month as part of a cross-party delegation led by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman). We had some frank conversations in both cities about human rights and what struck me was that although the Chinese officials to whom we spoke firmly defended the policy of the Chinese state, they were prepared to engage in discussion and argument. We saw some evidence that life had improved considerably—particularly in terms of freedom to pray in Tibet and in Xining, where we visited a mosque—from what used to be the case, especially during the
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cultural revolution. As other hon. Members have said, there are still massive problems such as the denial of routine internet access, the blocking of sites such as the BBC’s, the difficulties and persecution faced by unlicensed religious groups and the re-education through labour campaign that, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) pointed out, amounts to full detention without trial.

The prospect of the Olympics in 2008 provides an opportunity for Britain and the EU to accelerate the human rights dialogue with China. Clearly, we are dealing with a country that represents a quarter of the world’s population, is a permanent member of the Security Council and without which it will be impossible to tackle many serious global challenges, such as climate change or international terrorism. There are important reasons for Britain to have a constructive relationship with China, but I hope that the Minister will agree that we do not serve our own interests if we ignore the question of human rights. Frankly, I think that the Chinese would be astonished if we were to do so. I hope that we will see that dialogue pressed forward with greater urgency.

My impression is that the Chinese Government want, at the time of the Olympics, to showcase the history, culture and tremendous modern economic achievements of the Chinese people. They know that they will be subjected to unprecedented international scrutiny and that a lot of that scrutiny will be critical. It is opportune to keep reminding the Chinese Government of the commitment to ratify the international convention on civil and political rights and to bring forward the changes to the criminal justice code that have often been promised but have not been fully delivered.

Let me turn now to Burma. The Independent newspaper today has starkly reminded us of the atrocities that are taking place in Rangoon and elsewhere. Other hon. Members criticised internet providers for their willingness to accept restrictions on access in China in particular. I want to voice a word of congratulation to the BBC for the performance of the Burmese service in recent weeks. It provided a lifeline to the people of Burma by telling them what was going on inside their own country. I know that people have worked for and spoken to the BBC from inside Burma at enormous risk to themselves, because they regarded it as vital that the truth got out. That is just one reminder of the fact that we have something of real value in the BBC World Service.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s words at the time of the demonstrations in Burma. It is a pity that the issue was not taken to the Security Council a long time ago. In view of the EU Council next week, I hope that the Minister can be specific about the measures that our Government will propose that the EU should collectively adopt. I hope that there will be an intensification of sanctions directed at the members of the junta and their families, such as action against overseas bank accounts, and I hope too that the Government will keep up the pressure not only on China but on India, Thailand and Japan, which all have significant investments inside Burma and are in a position to exercise some leverage on the regime.

Turning to Zimbabwe, I welcome the Prime Minister’s declaration that he will not attend the summit in Lisbon in December if President Mugabe is
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going to be there. What I am not yet clear about is who would attend on behalf of the United Kingdom if the Prime Minister chose to boycott that summit because of Mugabe’s presence. Would it be a Cabinet Minister? Will the Minister be lumbered with that task herself? Would the British delegation be at only an official, rather than ministerial, level?

Secondly, what do the Government propose to do if Mugabe bottles out but is replaced by a senior member of his regime—perhaps by somebody who is known to be complicit in the atrocities that have been carried out in that country? In those circumstances, will Ministers stay away? Will they regard it as an important principle to sustain the boycott under such circumstances?

Thirdly—this came up at Foreign Office questions the other day—when will we see some action on President Mugabe’s honorary knighthood? I really cannot believe that it has taken so long for action to be taken. It is hardly as if he needs to drive down the Mall in order for it to be ceremonially stripped from him. I hope that the Minister can announce some decisive action in that respect.

At the beginning of my remarks, I said that respect for human rights should be integral to both foreign and domestic policy. That point was made very firmly by the Committee’s Chairman when he opened the debate. The Government need to explain how they can justify the combination of a foreign policy that rightly gives a high priority to human rights, and one at home under which Ministers are still trying to deport people to Burma. We know of the case of Lay Naing, who is active in the Burmese underground opposition movement and who has been imprisoned in Burma already for criticising the junta, and who faces the prospect of enforced removal from Britain.

We know that the Government are still fighting through the courts to try to deport people to Zimbabwe. Some estimates say that about 1,000 asylum seekers lost their cases last year and now face deportation. I do not know whether the estimate is accurate, but I can say to the Minister that in my constituency surgery, practically every fortnight at least one Zimbabwean asylum seeker resisting removal from Britain comes to see me. The Government have even been trying to deport Darfuris to Sudan. If human rights are indivisible, we need some joined-up thinking and government. On that point, again, I hope that she can give us some reassurance.

5.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): It is an honour to take part in this debate. In my last ministerial role, I took through Parliament the Equality Act 2006, which set up the first institutional body of its kind in this country—the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which opened its doors this month to provide such support in this country. As has been said very clearly by many Members, human rights are basic rights and freedoms and belong to everyone in the world. That is what we are here to discuss today.

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The Foreign Affairs Committee has demonstrated its positive and constructive engagement with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on our work to promote human rights. I am grateful for the many positive comments made about this report, which, as Members have said, has been put together in great detail by dedicated staff within the FCO, and which owes its inception to the late Robin Cook, who would be proud to hear today’s debate and the range of issues raised.

We value the work of the Select Committee and its comments on our work. Its report is very important. There are many ways in which we can improve what we do and better demonstrate our strong commitment to promoting human rights internationally. The promotion of human rights throughout the world will remain at the heart of our foreign policy. In his recent speech in Bournemouth, the Prime Minister emphasised the role of human rights and our shared humanity when he declared unambiguously that human rights are universal. The Foreign Secretary said recently that

He made it clear that countries from Burma to Zimbabwe should play by the rules, rather than ignore them. Those rules must be the shared values and obligations to which we have all signed up—most fundamentally on human rights. He underlined the importance of our building strong and democratic societies in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In its report, the Committee noted the strong personal commitment of the then Minister with responsibility for this matter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who had hoped to join us this afternoon but was unable to do so because of other parliamentary business. The Committee recommended that it should be made more explicit for all Ministers that work on human rights is fully integrated into our work across the UK’s 10 international strategic priorities.

Since the Committee reported, we have adjusted ministerial portfolios, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). The overall responsibility for human rights issues falls to Lord Malloch-Brown, but my presence here today is evidence of the extent to which other Ministers and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary himself, are active in promoting human rights issues in our areas of responsibility. We take every appropriate opportunity to raise human rights concerns in our meetings and contacts, and I can testify to that in my personal experience as a new Minister in the FCO. That thread runs through all our work.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) mentioned the importance of our contacts in dealing with such matters—not just international bodies, but our bilateral relationships. Let me give him a specific example. In September, I visited Mexico and while I was there, I discussed the major human rights issues that it faces with a range of contacts, specifically civil society and Mexican non-governmental organisations. We discussed the need to modernise the judicial system in order to end impunity and to tackle corruption. I heard also about the excellent work on justice reform that we have been able to carry out with the Mexican authorities through the Foreign Office’s global opportunities fund. Such support is being given to a range of countries around the world.

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Jeremy Corbyn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Mexico. During her visit, was she able to raise the issue of migrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras who are harassed routinely while trying to travel through Mexico, the problems of the appalling treatment of some women in the states bordering the United States, and the disappearances that occur because of that? I know that human rights groups in Mexico often take up that matter.

Meg Munn: I met a Mexican foreign affairs Minister and discussed a range of issues, including ones such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend.

Mike Gapes: The Minister mentioned the global opportunities fund. In the light of the statement on the comprehensive spending review, can she assure us that the FCO will maintain its support for the fund, and particularly for human rights work?

Meg Munn: As I have just outlined, the global opportunities fund is extremely important in supporting such work. My hon. Friend was doubtless present for the statement earlier this week, as I was. We have just had that settlement, but how it will impact on the various areas of the Foreign Office has yet to be determined. However, I am sure that we will be in touch with his Committee with those details, and that he will want to return to that issue. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me. I have a lot of points to make and I would like to cover as many of the issues raised by hon. Members as possible.

Human rights are being addressed across Departments. Last Friday, a joint statement was issued in which Lord Malloch-Brown and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), expressed deep disappointment following the announcement that elections in Nepal had been postponed. Human rights work is important and is a priority in its own right. We believe also that the realisation of human rights throughout the world is a basis for our own security and prosperity, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury said. Human rights, therefore, are integral to our foreign policy and dealings with other countries.

We have continued to embed human rights more explicitly in our approach to all our international priorities, including counter-terrorism and conflict prevention and resolution. The content and format of the next annual report on human rights should help to make that clear. I refer Members to our response. In paragraph 4, we set out how the next report will appear. I know that Members had some concerns about the way in which the report appears, and I hope that as we develop the report in the years to come, we will continue to make improvements that respond to concerns.

I shall move on to specific issues, and I, too, start with the UN Human Rights Council. It is just over one year old, and much of its first year has been spent completing its own establishment in order to get fully up and running. Securing UK objectives in an environment in which we and our like-minded partners are in a voting minority continues to be a challenge. I understand the reasons for the criticism from the hon. Member for Aylesbury about some of those issues, but in multilateral bodies, it is important that we try to secure the outcomes
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that we want. However, we are not always able to do so, and sometimes we must compromise our position. We will none the less continue to work to develop a Human Rights Council that meets the objectives of everybody in this Chamber.

The council has shown that it can be effective in the face of urgent situations involving human rights abuse. The 2 October session on Burma, which the European Union called for, sent a strong, clear and united signal from the international community to the Burmese regime. Countries throughout the world, including some Association of South East Asian Nations countries, which are very close to Burma, made strong statements—much stronger than previously. Members must recognise that as a positive development. The council has also taken other encouraging steps, including beginning to address the tragic situation in Darfur. On thematic human rights issues, the UK led a successful initiative at last month’s session to create a new UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, thereby improving the UN’s ability to address that abhorrent practice.

However, we have been disappointed by some of the council’s work, including, as Members have said, the disproportionate and unbalanced focus during its early months on the situation in the middle east, while other situations were comparatively neglected. It is clear that the council is not yet all that we would like it to be, but we continue to have ambitious goals, and it has the potential to develop much further. We are committed to supporting a strong, balanced and effective body.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned the involvement of civil society, and I shall certainly raise the issue with Lord Malloch-Brown in order to take it forward. We welcome the establishment of the universal periodic system to review every UN member’s human rights work. It should lead to greater fairness, balance and transparency in the consideration of individual countries. I note that Members have some reservations about how that process might operate, but what is important is that we move forward with it and improve it, while recognising that it is still a new body.

Mr. Lidington: Does the Minister agree that if the Human Rights Council is to have credibility, it must be able to take the initiative and call for a special report on cases where there is a flagrant abuse of human rights, and not simply defer the matter until that country’s turn comes round next in the four-year cycle?

Meg Munn: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It should not be a mechanism by which situations are avoided, but one that seeks to recognise that all countries need such external scrutiny. The mechanism will enable the council to achieve a wider analysis and a greater balance.

I turn to the issue of cluster munitions, which several Members raised. The Government share the humanitarian concerns that cluster munitions raise. Our policy is to secure a legally binding instrument that prohibits the use, development, transfer and production of certain types of cluster munitions. We want to achieve the result that saves the most lives. Our objective is to ensure that we get the best possible humanitarian outcome from any international action on cluster munitions.

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Mark Hunter: In my contribution, I referred to a statement by a number of bodies—including Landmine Action, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam—pointing out that the Government had involved themselves in an exercise to rename cluster munitions, simply to avoid the expected worldwide ban next year. Will the Minister respond to that serious charge? Does she refute it? I should like some kind of response from her on that central point.

Meg Munn: I certainly do. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is referring to weapons systems involving valid and legitimate weapons that will be used only in strict compliance with international humanitarian law and the UK’s own rigorous targeting guidelines.

It is absolutely right that several Members should raise the appalling situation and ongoing brutality in Burma. There is probably no more vivid example of the trampling of a people’s basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the sight of monks and ordinary citizens being clubbed or shot on the streets is one that few of us will forget. The sense of revulsion is widely felt, and I, like many Members, am concerned that we do not know what is now happening in Burma. We are not receiving many pictures of the events there anymore, so we remain concerned. However, there has been a strong response from the international community. Burma’s neighbours, the ASEAN nations, issued an unprecedented and clear statement expressing their revulsion at the regime’s violence. China also played an active role in helping to get the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, into the country, and it joined in the international consensus at the Human Rights Council.

Meanwhile, the European Union is discussing how to toughen sanctions, an issue on which the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked for more detail. We should continue with the targeted measures that impact on the regime, not on the ordinary people. If he will bear with me, I should prefer not to go into the details, precisely because they are subject to upcoming negotiations. It is important that we seek to achieve the best position that we can, with the majority of the EU in support of such pressure.

I was asked about our roles and discussions with China and India. The Foreign Secretary has had discussions with his opposite numbers from China and India, and I have regular discussions with the ASEAN nations about these issues. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) asked whether there are specific timelines. There are not at this point. We are seeking to make the Burmese regime recognise that it must enter into political reconciliation, stop the violence and talk through what should and must be the future of Burma in the modern world. We are making progress. It is slow progress, but we must keep the confidence of all involved. There have been some positive steps, such as the appointment of a Liaison Minister, but we are not complacent about the situation and we do not at all say that everything is okay in Burma. Clearly, it is not, but we must work through the processes with the EU and the UN. It is also enormously important that people in the UK continue to raise the matter, keep it in the public’s mind and apply pressure internationally, in order to move to a situation that will relieve some of the long suffering of the Burmese people.

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