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Westminster Hall

Thursday 22 November 2007

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Inter-Parliamentary Union

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

2.30 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I welcome the Minister and the chairman of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd).

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): It is an absolute delight to serve with you as our Chairman, Sir Nicholas. I look forward to an informed and enjoyable debate on the important work of the IPU. I am delighted to open the fourth debate on the subject.

As we all know, the IPU contributes much to the promotion and support of democracy and human rights around the world. I welcome the opportunity to debate its work. The responsibility would normally fall to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who is travelling in Singapore. No doubt she would enjoy being here much more, and I know how important she considers the IPU in her ministerial role.

The IPU was co-founded by William Randal Cremer, a Liberal Member of Parliament, more than 100 years ago. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength. Cremer was the first British recipient of the Nobel peace prize and the first person to be the sole winner. His main interest in life was the quest for world peace, and co-founding the IPU was a visible demonstration of his beliefs. Since that time, the British group has played a major role in the development of the IPU, and Members of the House have participated at all levels.

The IPU is an indispensable part of this country’s foreign policy. Parliaments and parliamentarians can often carry on talking to each other even when their Governments disagree and even when, on occasion, those Governments do not have any conversation or contact. That can be of real value both to us at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, importantly, to the UK more generally. Parliamentarians respect and trust each other in the forum, sometimes more than they do a foreign Government. IPU delegations can also be incredibly effective through the informal links that they build up with parliamentarians in other countries. They can have a quick chat, a cup of coffee or e-mail correspondence with one of their colleagues from abroad, which is harder for Governments to do as their relations are often, perhaps unavoidably, much more formal. The IPU is an important part of UK diplomacy and plays a significant role by keeping links strong and reminding countries of the UK’s good will towards them.

I wish to place on the record my congratulations to the British group of the IPU on its excellent work. I know that it is well respected in the IPU because of its
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active role in debates. In addition, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), our chairman. She is not only a right hon. Friend but a friend, which is sometimes more difficult. She is rightly regarded in all parts of the House as a woman of great principle, phenomenal dedication and dogged determination, even when her views are not in the majority, which says more about her than about others. She has done a phenomenal job in her role.

Apart from founding the organisation, members of the British group have led the IPU or sat on its executive committee over the years. The group also arranges a busy programme of bilateral inward and outward visits, and I look forward to hearing more about the activities that have been undertaken. The IPU does not shy away from commenting on important issues, and nor should it. Parliamentary democracy and gender issues have been continuing focuses, and topics such as climate change, the situation in the middle east and recent events in Burma are just a small sample of the range of matters recently addressed. I am grateful for the opportunity that the IPU offers Foreign Office officials to contribute to its briefings and for the feedback that we receive.

I know that the House will want to join me in paying great tribute not just to the work of the group’s chairman, as I have said, but to its staff and those who help to make possible the crucial work that the IPU carries out. In general in public life we do not pay tribute to many of the people whom we rarely read about or see in the headlines, but the staff make the IPU work effectively.

I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate in the debate, and I look forward to hearing their contributions. With your permission, Sir Nicholas, and the leave of the House, I look forward to having the opportunity to respond to the debate later.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I am sure that the House will give the Minister the right to reply at the end of the debate.

2.36 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): It is a particular pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. You are one of the more active members of the IPU executive, and you have had an interest in the work of the IPU throughout your parliamentary career. It is also a pleasure to have my hon. Friend the Minister, who is also a friend, here for the debate.

I shall be stepping down as chair of the British group of the IPU at the end of this year, after three years. I should like to thank all my fellow officers—my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and the hon. Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)—and my colleagues on the executive committee for their interest in and support for the group. In addition, I thank all parliamentarians who have participated on inward and outward delegations and in any IPU-related activities. On behalf of the British group, I particularly wish to thank the secretariat, members of which are watching the debate this afternoon with a watchful eye, as always, to see that we do not stray too far and to offer
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their support. They have been particularly helpful in the three years for which I have been chair.

I wish to mention Saudi Arabia, which is a member of the IPU. Hon. Members will have heard the news this morning that most of those in the race for the US Democratic presidential nomination have called on King Abdullah to reconsider and cancel the ruling on punishing a woman who was a gang rape victim. She was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail because she was in an unrelated man’s car. The car was attacked by a gang, who raped her. Hillary Clinton has said that King Abdullah should cancel the ruling, Barack Obama said that the sentence was “beyond unjust” and similar criticism has come from the other Democratic candidates. The 19-year-old victim has not been named, but she is known as “the Qatif girl”. She was originally given a lighter sentence but it was increased on appeal last week, as were those of the seven men involved in the attacks.

The case has attracted much attention and criticism throughout the world. The US State Department has expressed astonishment at the sentence. I would be interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister what the Foreign Office has said about that case. It is completely unacceptable for the rape victim to be punished for reporting the rape and for her lawyer to be suspended. The lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahem, has handled the country’s most controversial cases. His licence was revoked last week by the judiciary in that town, Qatif, and he says that he has been banned from the courtroom for refusing to allow his client to attend a hearing in which she would have had to come face to face with her rapist. If the IPU were meeting now, the case would certainly be viewed as a matter of urgency for its conference. I would be very pleased to hear that we had given a similar condemnation and called for King Abdullah to take action.

During my time in office, British MPs and peers have met their counterparts from all four corners of the globe. They have either acted as hosts or been guests in countries from Albania to Azerbaijan, from Brazil to Burundi, from Korea to Kyrgyzstan, and from Madagascar to Mexico. Since last year’s debate on the IPU, in July 2006, the British group has received delegations from Venezuela, Macedonia, the Republic of Korea, Brazil, Kyrgyzstan, Cuba and Gabon. Our members were able to visit their counterparts in Algeria, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Madagascar, Mexico, Panama, Burundi, Cambodia, Vietnam and Albania.

At recent IPU assemblies, we have had bilateral meetings with parliamentarians from Japan, Libya, Pakistan, Venezuela, Malta, South Africa, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Nepal, Somalia, Uruguay, India, Namibia, Pakistan, China and Syria. Anyone who thinks that an IPU conference is a romp has another think coming. We have to work very hard to ensure that bilateral meetings are of value to both sides. Strengthening our ties with fellow parliamentarians is what the British IPU group is all about.

In order to have a meaningful dialogue with our colleagues, we need to ensure that we are discussing a wide range of subjects. During my time as chair, I have tried to push the boundaries a bit. I have encouraged the British IPU group to focus more on interaction with
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other parliamentarians on specific concerns regarding human rights violations, continuing conflict and humanitarian crises. I do not believe in confrontation for its own sake, but parliamentarians in the UK tend to take things for granted. We can express our views on the Floor of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in the media and to our colleagues without the fear of persecution, harassment, torture or death. Tragically, it is not the same for too many of our colleagues all over the world.

Therefore, as people who have those freedoms, we have a duty to stand up and speak for colleagues who are in trouble all over the world. We need to take every opportunity to raise the cases of parliamentarians whose rights have been abused and whose mandates are not respected. When we meet parliamentarians from other countries, we must therefore make them aware of our concerns about parliamentarians whose lives or livelihoods are at risk, our desire to help to get the matter resolved and our belief that fellow parliamentarians should do the same.

The IPU committee on human rights of parliamentarians, which I chaired for three years until last year, investigates cases of injustices against parliamentarians the world over. Parliamentarians depend on their committee members and all IPU members to raise awareness of cases and to lobby for progress. At the last IPU assembly, which was held this year in Geneva, my former fellow committee member, who is now chair, Senator Sharon Carstairs from Canada, strongly appealed to IPU member Parliaments to provide more active follow-up to help to address concerns in 34 public cases, some of which illustrate a total disregard for the most basic human rights of parliamentarians.

I want to highlight cases in four countries in particular, starting with Eritrea, which faces a truly appalling situation. Eleven former MPs have been held incommunicado since 18 September 2001 after publicly calling for democratic reforms. No one knows where they are being held or even whether they are all still alive. They have never been brought before a judge, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has concluded that the most basic rights of those parliamentarians have been violated. The Eritrean authorities, I am sorry to say, have shown a total lack of interest in addressing those cases.

There is another batch of cases in Palestine. Everyone in the IPU internationally is engaged in some of those cases. The case of Marwan Barghouti has been long-running. He was re-elected as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in the January 2006 elections, but he is serving five life sentences and two 20-year prison terms, which the Tel Aviv district court handed down in June 2004. The expert legal report commissioned by the IPU, by someone we sent to follow the trial, stated that the trial did not meet the fair trial standards that Israel, as a state party to the international covenant on civil and political rights, is bound to respect. Mr. Barghouti was transferred to Israel in breach of the fourth Geneva convention and the Oslo accords. I am disappointed to note that when the IPU raised this case and related concerns with the Israeli parliamentary authorities it received no co-operation.

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The second case involves Mr. Hussam Khader, a former member of the PLC. He is serving a prison sentence, which was handed down in November 2005, after a plea bargain was reached regarding the charges and the sentence. None of the charges involved any violent acts on his part. Again, in view of the report of the lawyer who observed Mr. Khader’s trial on behalf of the IPU, the committee considered that the trial fell far short of being fair. That is one of the reasons that the IPU urges the authorities to release him. When the Israeli Government announced in July that it intended to release Palestinian prisoners who had “no blood on their hands”, the committee asked the secretary-general to send a special appeal to the speaker of the Knesset, requesting her to ensure that Mr. Khader would be on the list of those to be freed as he fell into the category of those eligible for release. However, that was to no avail. Mr. Khader was not among the 225 Fatah prisoners released by the Israeli authorities. The IPU committee deeply regrets that its constant appeals have again gone unheard.

The third case involves Mr. Ahmad Sadat who was elected as a member of Parliament in January 2006. In March 2006, he was abducted from a prison in Jericho and taken to Israel. The Israeli authorities wanted him for the murder in January 2002 of the Israeli Minister of Tourism. A month after his abduction, however, the charge was dropped for want of evidence. The committee believes that that clearly shows that his abduction and transfer to Israel were not related to the murder charge but rather to his political activities. According to some media reports, other security-related charges were brought against him, but at present it is unclear whether any charge at all is pending. Again, despite many requests, the Israeli authorities have provided no official information on his situation. The IPU committee is urging the Israeli authorities either to release him immediately or to charge him with a recognisable criminal offence and try him without delay.

The last batch of cases involves members of Parliament elected in January 2006 on the Hamas list. Forty-one MPs were seized by the Israeli security forces last year, in the context of military operations in the Gaza strip to obtain the release of an Israeli soldier kidnapped on 25 June 2006 in a cross-border attack on military installations. An Israeli court ordered their release on bail on 12 September 2006, but the decision was overturned on appeal. They, too, remain in detention.

The MPs are accused of membership and leadership of a terrorist organisation, which in fact means that they are accused of having participated—and having been elected—in elections that were internationally recognised as free and fair. Since that cannot possibly be a crime, the IPU human rights committee is urging the Israeli authorities to release them immediately or to bring valid charges against them as soon as possible. The IPU is also concerned about the conditions of their detention.

The last case concerns the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Dr. Aziz Dweik, who was detained in the same circumstances in early August 2006. The same considerations apply in his case. The IPU continues to be concerned about the conditions of his detention and fear that they may result in a serious decline in his health.

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All over the world, when the IPU human rights committee makes representations to member countries, they respond. Sometimes they need prodding, but they do eventually respond. It does not matter in what part of the world cases occur. I find it unacceptable that the Israeli authorities continue to ignore the IPU and the committee and will not address their concerns or requests for further information. I call on them now to engage with the IPU, and to respect the Palestinian parliamentarians’ mandate and international human rights norms and due process.

Then there is Burma. In 1990, following their electoral success, newly elected representatives from the National League for Democracy should have taken their seats in Parliament and formed a Government. Instead, they disappeared or were killed, imprisoned or hounded out of the country. Since that time, the IPU and UK parliamentarians have lobbied on their behalf and met exiles on many occasions to discuss their plight and that of their fellow countrymen.

Unfortunately, however, as we all know, far from improving, the situation in Burma has worsened. The recent massive crackdown by the military on the peaceful demonstrations by monks and civilians bears testimony yet again to the fact that the military junta does not want to engage in any credible process of transition to democracy. Scores of protesters—we do not know how many; we can only guess at the number—have been arbitrarily arrested, as have 13 parliamentarians-elect. In several cases, the whereabouts of prisoners remain unknown.

I am sure that all members of the British group and Members of this House will join me in endorsing the IPU’s call to the Burmese authorities to release the prisoners immediately and unconditionally, along with the 13 MPs-elect who were already languishing in prison before the demonstrations took place, and to refrain from further repressing dissent, lift all restrictions on human rights and end the harassment of political activists.

It is important that member Parliaments of the IPU, particularly those from countries such as China, India and the Association of South East Asian Nations countries, pursue and strengthen action in support of the parliamentarians-elect, and in support of respect for democratic principles in Burma. I and others on the IPU executive have been in regular contact with members of the ASEAN inter-parliamentary Myanmar caucus to discuss joint action. Indeed, at the recent conference in Geneva, the UK withdrew its urgent resolution on climate change in favour of a resolution that criticised events in Burma. Since then, we have continued to be in regular contact with the caucus, and I commend the delegates’ continued efforts to lobby their Governments for specific measures to be taken against the Burmese military regime.

I was encouraged by a robust emergency resolution last October that we all agreed to, with some exceptions. There were some very interesting votes, as hon. Members will know, by some of the delegations that we did not quite expect to come on board with us. At that IPU assembly, the British delegation had formal meetings with the Chinese, Indian and Singaporean delegations and asked them to consider travel bans and targeted sanctions if the junta did not take concrete steps to restore democracy in Burma.

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady agree that one of the ideal opportunities afforded by the assemblies is less formal dialogues between parliamentarians? Conversations are held not between Members of Parliament and Governments but between MPs and MPs from other countries. The last assembly in Geneva gave us such an opportunity. In particular, we had lengthy discussions with a Chinese member of Parliament with whom we were able to raise directly the issue of Burma. MPs may not be able to do anything about a situation, but they can certainly take back to their own Parliaments the intensity of feeling that exists in countries such as the United Kingdom about the atrocities in countries such as Burma.

Ann Clwyd: The hon. Gentleman was a member of the delegation and took part in some of the bilateral meetings. I absolutely agree that they are useful, informative and vital to both groups. Delegations have not agreed on some issues, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but on others there has been surprising consensus, even among countries from which we did not expect consensus to be forthcoming. The parliamentary authorities—I am particularly addressing the Whips of all parties—should not underestimate the importance of IPU delegations.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): He was a Whip.

Ann Clwyd: My hon. Friend points out that the Minister was once a Whip, but, if I remember rightly, he was a benign Whip. Perhaps he would like to share some of his experiences with us later.

Many hon. Members are interested in pursuing the case of Zimbabwe. Although the Zimbabwean Parliament debated the beating of two Opposition MPs, Mr. Biti and Mr. Chamisa, by law enforcement officers at a prayer meeting on 11 March, and a subsequent brutal attack on Mr. Chamisa at Harare international airport, it does not seem to have taken any action to ensure that those criminal acts were duly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Opposition parliamentarians have allegedly been tortured. Mr. Madzore was arrested on 28 March, and allegedly tortured before being released when charges were withdrawn in August, and Mr. Job Sikhala was allegedly tortured in January 2003. The IPU committee has noted on several occasions that in those cases the Zimbabwean authorities did nothing to comply with their constitutional duties, and the Parliament failed to exercise its oversight functions effectively. On the contrary, law enforcement agencies were allowed to continue torturing and ill-treating even Members of Parliament with impunity. That is unsatisfactory.

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