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22 Nov 2007 : Column 193WH—continued

When I chaired the committee for three years—it was made up of five members of Parliament from various countries—we had representatives of Zimbabwe appear before it, and the leader of the Zimbabwean delegation, instead of addressing the cases that we brought before him, always said that it was the fault of the British. We never got beyond that, so on one occasion I asked one of my committee colleagues, who was the Speaker of the Niger Parliament, to take the chair to see if he would be
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treated differently, but he was also blamed for the British, and the delegation refused to address the cases that we brought before it.

I have said before, and I say again, that ill treatment of parliamentarians is often just the tip of the iceberg in countries where human rights abuse is common. If members of Parliament are subject to abuse, it is more than likely that the people whom they are supposed to represent suffer even more. When lobbying for them, we are often able to address the plight of the wider community, such as activists, journalists, human rights defenders, anti-corruption campaigners, and the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed ethnic communities. To that end, while I have been chair, I have initiated a link with the all-party parliamentary human rights group, which now provides briefings for our members on the human rights situation in the country in question, and they supplement information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I thank all my colleagues who have raised specific human rights issues when on delegations and in bilateral meetings. Some recent discussions with parliamentary counterparts in which I have been involved have been free and frank, but to address the issues that really matter, one inevitably touches a raw nerve sometimes. On 13 November, The Times reported a private meeting of the British group with the Iranian delegation at the IPU assembly in April this year. Details of that meeting were provided following a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to the FCO.

Minutes taken at that meeting by an FCO official describe a member of our delegation referring to the hangings in Iran of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni in 2005 in Iran. They were killed for alleged homosexual activities, although they were juveniles at the time of their arrest. The leader of the Iranian delegation was unflinching. The record states that he explained that according to Islam, homosexuality and lesbianism are not permitted. He also said that if homosexual activity was in private, there was no problem, but that those taking part in overt activity should be executed. He argued that homosexuality was against human nature, because humans were here to reproduce and homosexuals did not reproduce. The sort of discussion that our delegation had with the Iranians following those statements can be imagined. That is concrete evidence of the sort of challenging discussions that we have, and shows that we do not flinch from raising such issues with our counterparts from other countries.

I want to mention the work of two British IPU members. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and Lord Morris of Aberavon were appointed rapporteurs for their respective committees. They are helping to ensure that the IPU addresses timely and important topics.

Lord Morris is co-rapporteur of the committee on peace and international security, which is tasked with producing and presenting a report on “The role of parliaments in striking a balance between national security, human security and individual freedoms and in averting the threat to democracy.” He will have to incorporate feedback received from the last IPU assembly before producing a final joint report and draft resolution with his co-rapporteurs from South
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Africa and India at the next IPU assembly in April 2008 in Cape Town, South Africa.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon is co-rapporteur of the committee that is looking at democracy and human rights, and working on the topic, “Migrant workers, people trafficking, xenophobia and human rights” with his co-rapporteur from Mexico. Some of the position papers produced for some of the specialist committees are excellent, and I only wish that there was a system by which every member country of the IPU could debate some of those reports. I am thinking particularly of a paper on missing people, and it can be imagined how many countries provided information and took part in that debate. Perhaps an hon. Member here might want to raise that topic at some time.

The IPU internationally is undergoing reform. To date, it has been relatively little known on the international stage, except among those who are closely involved with its work. It has been viewed at best as a worthy talking shop, and at worst as a costly irrelevance. Of course, I believe that it is a useful forum for parliamentarians to engage with one another, and to work together for the common good. However, it is right to review its procedures and effectiveness, because there is definitely room for improvement.

We need greater opportunity for meaningful dialogue and interaction, instead of what tends to happen, which, as colleagues who have attended IPU conferences know, is that representatives make token set-piece speeches. Sometimes that may continue all day. If representatives of 146 countries all want their few minutes on the platform, yet their remarks do not relate to any previous speeches in the debate, it is frustrating for all those who believe in proper debate. AIDS, poverty, corruption, gender discrimination and ethnic persecution have all been the subject of major debates.

The Geneva headquarters of the IPU should consolidate its mechanisms and revise its working methods. The committee that I chaired for three years, and of which I was a member for five years, works on a shoestring budget with limited support from the wider organisation, yet the members of the secretariat who work on that committee are dedicated to their work. It is generally not known that the IPU secretariat and the secretary-general deal with a lot of cases in private. We get people out of jail, we ensure that parliamentarians can exercise their mandates and we get people out of detention. However, that takes a lot of effort by individuals, and a great number of people have come to the House of Commons—all my hon. Friends will know of such occasions—to thank members of the IPU for their efforts in getting people out of jail. The former deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia is a case in point, but we could name several others.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Hearing the right hon. Lady talk about getting people out of jail and detention, it occurs to me that Amnesty International does similar work and lobbies in similar ways. Has the IPU ever considered working with Amnesty International on individual cases?

Ann Clwyd: Much of our information about individual cases comes from Amnesty International and other human rights organisations. What the hon. Gentleman suggests is a good idea, but it happens
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already. The IPU secretariat in Geneva has close links with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other similar organisations. Much of our information comes from people in the relevant country or from organisations observing what is happening there. Without such information, the IPU would find it difficult to make its cases stand up, although I can say with great confidence that they do stand up. I have with me the kind of file that the IPU human rights committee puts together on individual MPs, including many from Colombia and Eritrea, for instance. It lists all the circumstances and details of people’s cases, which are subsequently made public. If anybody wants to see these files, the IPU secretariat has copies, which give a lot of interesting detail. Unfortunately, Parliament does not have an opportunity to discuss individual cases, except on occasions such as this.

Jeremy Corbyn: I know that this is slightly wide of the subject and that you, Sir Nicholas, will stop me if I am too far off the mark, but does my right hon. Friend not think that it would be useful to have Select Committee scrutiny of UN and international human rights matters—separate from the very good work done by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs—to give greater emphasis to these issues worldwide?

Ann Clwyd: Yes, I do agree that it would be useful to have Select Committees in Parliament monitoring UN organisations. In the past, the Select Committee on International Development has looked at various parts of the UN, particularly when there was a debate about whether we should continue funding UNESCO, and we have looked at many other UN organisations. The UK is a large contributor to such organisations, so greater scrutiny is needed across the board, and we should consider the UN Commission on Human Rights in particular.

At the 116th IPU assembly in Bali in April, the human rights committee submitted 35 cases of 126 Members of Parliament in 18 countries around the world, all of which were adopted by the conference as a whole, and I have just discussed some of those cases. Of course, it is important that the whole conference adopts the committee’s decisions at the end, but the committee could do a lot more with more funding, which would enable the IPU to undertake more missions, with more concrete follow-up by member Parliaments.

The committee on middle east questions should also be strengthened. I was recently put on that committee; the chairman is a Mongolian Member of Parliament, and about five other Members of Parliament from all over the world are members. Palestinian and Israeli delegations have invited the committee to the region to see what is happening on the ground. Until recently, the executive committee had not provided the necessary funding for the visit to go ahead, but at the latest assembly, in Geneva, I secured a commitment to send and fund a mission. I hope that that will enable parliamentarians to engage constructively on one of the most important and divisive matters facing the world today.

We also need to keep pressing the international IPU secretariat on the need for greater accountability and transparency. The organisation is meant to promote good governance and democracy, but I am unhappy
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about the extent to which top-down decisions are imposed without adequate and informed discussion, and those hon. Members who are members of the executive committee will know how frustrating that is.

As for the budget, the appointment of vice-presidents to the international executive committee is supposed partly to address the need for an international IPU treasurer, as one of the vice-presidents would be in charge of overseeing the IPU’s finances and accounts. The British group has been calling for that for a long time.

I remain sceptical about hitching the IPU wagon to the UN, particularly at the moment, because the UN has problems of its own, which it must address first. Those hon. Members who are on the IPU executive will know that such a move was proposed by the international IPU in Geneva, which is currently working to that end. However, parliamentarians may be better off making their views about the reforms that need to be undertaken at the UN known to their own Governments first. The suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) may be one way forward. There is further debate to be had about reform of the IPU and the way forward for the British group, and I am sure that my successor and my colleagues will keep those and related issues under scrutiny.

I should thank the Foreign Office for its assistance during our many conferences and for its useful advice at specific times during our week-long debates in other countries. Annual Adjournment debates such as this have proved a useful tool in making colleagues, the Government and the wider world aware of what we do and what support is needed. I trust that they will remain a welcome fixture in the parliamentary calendar, although preferably not on a Thursday afternoon.

Although I am standing down as chair of the British group, I intend to remain fully active in the IPU and to support my colleagues as they continue to strengthen inter-parliamentary dialogue and to further what is perhaps the most important work that the IPU can do—protecting the rights of fellow parliamentarians around the world.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): The House thanks the right hon. Lady, the chairman of the British group, for her wide-ranging speech. I call the spokesman for Her Majesty’s Opposition, Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.

3.19 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I thank you, Sir Nicholas, for chairing this debate, and it is a great pleasure to serve under you, particularly as you are a member of the IPU’s executive. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) referred to your excellent work, and it would be quite wrong of me not to refer to all her excellent work during her three years as chairman. In that respect, I was delighted to hear her concluding remarks, although I had assumed as a matter of course that she would remain active in the IPU—if she did not, it would be a sad loss. Knowing her very sincere commitment to human rights, I know that that issue is dear to her heart, and that she will continue to fight for all those whose human rights are less well protected than our own.

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That was, of course, said by the famous former Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, in a speech in this House. We tend to take for granted, in this font of democracy in the United Kingdom, that parliamentarians can say what they like without fear or favour—without fear of being arrested when they leave the Chamber. The Government have made a pig’s ear of Northern Rock and losing child benefit records, but I shall not be arrested when I leave the Chamber for having said so. We are free and able to say what we like without fear of persecution. That is a huge privilege that our people have fought for over centuries and that the right hon. Lady referred to time and again. It is up to us, who have a strong democratic tradition and democratic rights, to fight on behalf of people throughout the world who do not have that privilege.

Freedom under the rule of law, and freedom to have a Parliament and a fair press and fair media, are things that we all take for granted, but the right hon. Lady quoted many dreadful cases. I was delighted that she got a very strong resolution on Burma passed at the last IPU conference, particularly as she had generously let our motion on environmental changes drop, so as to obtain that topical and timely debate. It is shocking that Members of Parliament in that country have been arrested, tortured and beaten, that some have disappeared and that some have had to seek exile. There are other countries, such as Zimbabwe, where Members of Parliament suffer the same fate. It is unacceptable. As she said, where Members of Parliament are treated in an undemocratic and unfree way, that often transfers to how the country is governed throughout, and particularly to the operation of the media.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I apologise for my tardy arrival. I was in an evidence session of the Select Committee on International Development, to which I shall have to return in due course.

My hon. Friend has rightly focused on the bestial atrocities committed in Burma. Does he agree—I know that the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has been extremely robust on this point—that the situation in Burma, which affects citizens as much as parliamentarians who are denied their rightful legislative slot, underlines the importance of having such matters raised consistently and multilaterally in every conceivable forum by Ministers of the highest level in our Government? That sends a signal. Equally and conversely—although I intend no disrespect to the Minister for Europe—if those issues are raised only by more junior Ministers, that sends a negative signal.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Of course those issues need to be raised at the most senior level, when the most senior Ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, visit the relevant countries, or neighbouring countries, such as, in Burma’s case, China. That matter should be raised whenever a high-level visit is made to China. That would be helpful.

The right hon. Lady made a good point, which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), about the fact that the IPU provides
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a useful forum for meetings between members of different Parliaments. That does not apply in Burma’s case—it is impossible—but IPU members have met Chinese parliamentary members informally. If it can be stressed to them how appalling and unacceptable the situation is in their neighbouring country of Burma, the message does, over a period, reach those in charge of China. It is to be hoped that, after a time, it will bring about a change in China’s attitude towards Burma. That has probably happened in relation to North Korea, as there has undoubtedly been a change in the Chinese Government’s attitude towards the way the North Koreans are governed—or perhaps I should say misgoverned. I think that the relationship between North Korea and South Korea is beginning to thaw very slightly. Let us hope for the people of North Korea, who live under one of the most autocratic Governments on the planet, that that thaw will continue.

In paying tribute to the right hon. Lady, I want to include the staff and secretariat of the IPU. I was privileged to go on the outward visit to Mexico. The preparations for the visit were immaculate, the staff were extremely courteous and the whole visit ran very smoothly. I regret to say that it was not until I had been a Member of Parliament for 15 years that I went on that visit. Perhaps the right hon. Lady and other IPU executive committee members would reflect on how to raise awareness among all Members of Parliament—in particular, among those of my party, who, I am sorry to say, tend to be under-represented, perhaps because we are fewer in number than those in the Government party—of the importance of IPU visits and of its very good work.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that delegations should not only give a full report back after visits, as they are required to by IPU rules—I do not complain about that—but, where possible, link up with the appropriate all-party parliamentary groups, so that the great volume of information and knowledge that they collect, and demands for human rights action, can be given effect in Parliament? It does not help anyone when Members go on a visit and do little about it afterwards.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, which the right hon. Lady will no doubt have heard. As he knows, because I am sure he has been on such a visit, there is always a preparatory meeting. It would probably be appropriate to consider inviting the secretary of the relevant all-party group to the meeting so that he or she could contribute to the knowledge of colleagues going on the visit. That would be very beneficial. We received a full briefing from the Foreign Office, and our ambassador in Mexico was incredibly helpful during our visit. I am sure that that is true for many other visits.

As to the workings of the IPU, the right hon. Lady did not mention it, but it is a pity that the United States has become a non-paying member. As one of the world’s most powerful democracies, it would be useful if it returned to the fold. Her annual report says that she is fed up with having to defend its interests, and wishes that it would do so for itself.

Ann Clwyd rose—

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: No doubt the right hon. Lady wishes to make that point.

Ann Clwyd: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that matter, because I was in Washington last week, where I raised it with people at the White House and in the State Department, and with our ambassador. I have done that on previous occasions, but I hope that it may bear fruit this time around. A vote on the matter was lost by, I think, one vote, last year, but it is essential that the United States rejoins the IPU. It withdrew rather a long time ago, and it is true that we have had to defend its interests from time to time. It should come and do that itself.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sure that the right hon. Lady’s wise words and quiet counsels behind the scenes will have had an effect if anyone’s could, and that, even if there is not a change of heart immediately, perhaps there will be one after next year’s presidential elections. Let us hope so.

John Bercow: Far be it from me to wish to stoke up a controversy, but sometimes there is an important difference between having interests and having an interest. Whatever the norms and niceties of diplomatic protocol, if the IPU is to be as robust in the future as it has been under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, we must never neglect—perhaps in the misguided name of courtesy and a quiet life—to raise human rights issues on our visits, or when receiving incoming delegations.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I agree. My hon. Friend puts the point from his customary robust stance. We can all be robust. The trick is to be robust at times and quietly diplomatic at others. On this issue, the right hon. Lady’s approach on the United States was probably the right one, because if we took up megaphone diplomacy, it would probably back off. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in the case of human rights: there is no point whatever in shirking from saying that human rights in countries such as Zimbabwe, Burma, Haiti—

Jeremy Corbyn: Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Yes, in some instances. If the facts about the Saudi Arabian case are as the right hon. Lady described—I do not doubt that they are—it is unacceptable for two reasons. First, the individual involved was the innocent party. Secondly, as I understand it from what she said, that individual’s lawyer has also been arrested, which means that she will not get a fair trial. She has been judged guilty before the trial has begun. I hope that the Minister will say something about that in his winding-up speech, and about what representations the Government are making.

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