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Human Rights (China)

4. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What steps he is taking to encourage the Chinese government to adhere to pledges it has made in respect of human rights and press freedom, with particular reference to occupied Tibet. [175894]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): We encourage the Chinese Government to fulfil their human rights obligations across China, including in Tibet. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue of human rights with the Chinese Foreign Minister in December. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics and for London raised the issue of media freedom in November. We will raise our concerns on Tibet at the next round of the UK-China human rights dialogue in Beijing later this month.

Norman Baker: The Chinese have promised media freedom for foreign journalists in China, but have restricted it even more in occupied Tibet. They promised to give the Red Cross access to prisons in China, but exempted Tibet. They promised religious freedom, but effectively have martial law in monasteries. Is not the reality that the Chinese sign lots of bits of paper about Tibet, but do absolutely nothing about it?

Meg Munn: We take seriously the range of human rights issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. I know that he has a long record in relation to Tibet and has rightly highlighted the matter on many occasions. We pursue human rights in three ways—through high-level lobbying, through UK-China and EU-China dialogues, and through project work on the ground, including on issues such as the judiciary, torture, the death penalty and minority rights.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): It is heartening that China has made pledges to uphold human rights. However, it is difficult to equate such pledges with China’s continuing offer of no-strings aid,
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which has emboldened some unsavoury Governments and allowed them to ignore calls for reform. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will continue to do all in their power to encourage China to conditionalise the aid that it gives to some of the most despotic regimes in the world, such as the regime in Sudan?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Our engagement with China always focuses on human rights issues. The Prime Minister is to visit shortly and will continue our dialogue and continue to press on these matters.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): What is the difference between the Chinese Government’s respect for human rights in Tibet and the Serbian Government’s respect for human rights in Kosovo that justifies a very different policy by Her Majesty’s Government?

Meg Munn: We take seriously the issues in Tibet and we raise these matters continually at the regular dialogues. This will be the 16th round of dialogues between the UK and China on Tibet, and on this occasion the delegations will make a visit to Tibet to study the situation on the ground.

Women's Rights (Basra)

6. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): What assessment he has made of the safety of women in Basra province who do not adhere to Islamic dress and behaviour codes. [175896]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The Government condemn all violence against women and are committed to supporting women’s rights in Iraq. We have heard accounts of extremist militias murdering women who allegedly have not conformed to the dress codes that their killers consider appropriate for females. We are supporting groups and individuals working to improve the situation of women in Basra. These include many committed and courageous female professionals and politicians. We support the Basra chief of police’s personal pledge to improve security for women in the city.

Dr. Harris: I thank the Minister for that thoughtful response. Can he assure us that the Government in Basra province are as committed as the House believes they should be to equal rights for all citizens and to protecting some of the most vulnerable from action by militias or by the police or state authorities? Does he share my concern that we may have left in Iraq a situation where dressing un-Islamically, or comitting apostasy or blasphemy, are punishable physically, and that in that respect the situation is worse than when we went to war there?

Dr. Howells: I raised the matter this morning with General Mohan, who is the head of the operations centre in Basra. He reminded me that Basra had once been the most cosmopolitan of cities in the Gulf, and he was confident that it could be returned to that position. He made it clear to me that he was worried about some of the activities of what he called Iranian
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agents in stirring up feeling there in favour of a much more rigorous application of the more austere aspects of some Islamist sects. The hon. Gentleman is right. We must keep a close eye on the situation and keep reminding the Government in Baghdad that they must do everything possible to protect women in that city and in every other city in Iraq.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend comment on the historic background to the sort of treatment that we are hearing about in Basra province? Does it go back to the period of Saddam Hussein or beyond that? Does he agree that the Koranic advice on Islamic dress is simply that men and women should dress modestly—that is, they should be careful and not expose too much of their body? However, it says nothing about the burqa or the niqab.

Dr. Howells: It is important that we remember that in the last years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, he had six women murdered in Basra. Their bodies lay in the main street for six days and no one was allowed to touch them because he wanted to teach Basrawis a lesson about the way that they behaved in public. It was a brutal regime and it has been a brutal history. My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about the subject, is right about dress codes. One has only to visit the middle east to witness how differently dress codes are interpreted across the region. It is a mystery to those of us who go there and ask, “If the dress code is interpreted in that way in one country, why should it be so strictly interpreted in another?” I hope that our dialogue with countries in the middle east will help them understand the concern that we feel at the fact that human beings are treated in that way as a consequence of their mode of dress.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): The Minister will have seen today’s comments by Sir Hilary Synnott, the former head of the British administration in southern Iraq. Sir Hilary said that the problems there are due, at least in large part, to the fact that the efforts of our troops were let down by a failure to co-ordinate and deliver effective civilian work on reconstruction. Can the Minister assure us now that the Government have learned and are acting on that lesson from Basra, before we repeat the experience that has occurred in Afghanistan?

Dr. Howells: I was surprised to read Sir Hilary’s statement, because in fact there have been some very substantial achievements in and around Basra; one has only to think, for example, of some of the projects run by the Army down there. There are huge new date plantations, employing 4,000 people. When our rebuilding of parts of the electricity and water infrastructure finishes very soon, there will be additional electricity and drinking water for the first time for 1 million people.

There have been achievements. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the lack of preparedness after the invasion in respect of understanding what was required in rebuilding the country and offering people services that made their lives different from how they had been during the days of Saddam Hussein.

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Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): My hon. Friend will recall that immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the British Government took steps to ensure that Iraqi women from all the different communities in Iraq were able to come together and have a strong voice in the shaping of the new constitution and the election of the new Parliament. Can he assure me that the Government will continue to support a strong voice for Iraqi women—both directly, through the efforts of his Department, and indirectly, through the work of the Muslim Women’s Network, organised by the Women’s National Commission?

Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed; my right hon. Friend is right to remind us of that. It is difficult to see how Iraq can move forward if the rights of women are not enhanced and protected. However, I am confident that they will be. Besides anything else, there are now some powerful and vocal female members of the Iraqi Parliament—they will make a difference, if no one else will.

Western Balkans

7. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): What recent steps have been taken by the Drugs and International Crime Department in co-operation with the border authorities of states of the western Balkans to reduce illegal immigration and trafficking of people. [175897]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): Through its Drugs and International Crime Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contributed about £1.5 million in 2005 to 2007 for capacity building of law enforcement in the Balkans, including awareness-raising projects aimed at potential victims in Romania and Bulgaria. We have helped fund three projects in Serbia, three in Albania, two in Macedonia and one in Bosnia. I have met the Interior Ministers of Romania, Bulgaria and Albania to discuss how best to tackle crimes such as illegal immigration, drugs and human trafficking through those countries.

Mr. Steen: As one of the principal objectives of the Drugs and International Crime Department is the dismantling of trafficking groups, and as British taxpayers paid tens of millions of pounds for that department, will the Minister say how many trafficking groups have been dismantled in the western Balkans in each of the past five years? How much money has been taken from the traffickers and put into the British taxpayers’ purse and how much money has been given to the victims of trafficking in the western Balkans as a result of the dismantling of such groups? Has any of the money—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is pushing his luck.

Dr. Howells: I will certainly try to supply the hon. Gentleman with the figures that he asks for. I commend the work that he has done and recognise that in forming an all-party group in this House he has drawn attention to an extremely serious crime. He understands, and I hope that he will keep telling people, that trying to break up those routes and those gangs is very difficult and becoming more difficult,
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because they are often financed by additional smuggling of drugs, whether Afghan-based heroin or the cocaine that is increasingly coming through that route into western Europe. It is a big job. There are people doing some very brave things in the western Balkans in trying to break up those gangs. I will try to get the figures that the hon. Gentleman asked for, because I do not know them offhand.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The Council of Europe convention on human trafficking comes into force next month, yet we are still to ratify it. The Government say that some legislative changes are required. Will they tell us what those changes are, and publish a timetable for them so that we can get on and help the victims of trafficking?

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right to attract our attention to this. Implementing the convention is a key part of the comprehensive United Kingdom action plan on tackling human trafficking. Some of the other signatories to the convention have legal systems that allow or require ratification before implementation; ours does not. We intend to implement the measures, in effect, before formal ratification. As the hon. Gentleman hinted, the complexity of some of the issues to be resolved, including the likelihood of secondary and primary legislation and the need fully to consult stakeholders, means that ratification will take time. We want to ratify as soon as possible, but we believe that getting the arrangements right so that they work on the ground is much more important than political posturing.

South Africa

8. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of recent political developments in South Africa. [175898]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): Recent events in South Africa show that the country continues to develop and strengthen its democracy. South Africa is, and will remain, an important partner for the United Kingdom on a range of key bilateral, regional and wider international issues.

Ms Keeble: What assessment has my hon. Friend or her Department made of the impact of the change of leadership of the African National Congress on the Government in South Africa? Is she concerned that our strategic allies face political uncertainties, or pressures, not only in southern Africa but more spectacularly in east Africa?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend raises an issue concerning internal matters in the African National Congress. As far as the United Kingdom Government are concerned, South Africa is a key partner. President Mbeki is due to remain in office until the next South African elections, and we will continue to work closely with him and his team throughout this period.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Given the continuing catastrophe in Zimbabwe, what pressure are Her Majesty’s Government bringing to
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bear, through the South African Government, to bring to an end the totally unacceptable activity that continues in Zimbabwe?

Meg Munn: The UK Government consider the role of South Africa to be very important in seeking to address issues in Zimbabwe, and we believe that regional action is likely to be the most effective. We continue to back President Mbeki’s mediation role through the South African Development Community initiative. Deadlines have been missed, which is unfortunate, but we are told that negotiations are entering their final stages, and we will continue to talk to South Africa about this.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Following up the question from my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), what recent political developments give the Minister confidence that Thabo Mbeki and the South African Government will put increased pressure on Mugabe to return Zimbabwe to democracy, and perhaps also suggest that the elections for the presidency a little later this year should be monitored and supervised internationally?

Meg Munn: As I said, we have been told that the final stages of negotiations under the SADC initiative are under way, but I am afraid that there are no new signs of optimism in relation to the process. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of elections; we would want those elections to be moderated and supervised internationally.


9. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the observance of human rights by the Government of Colombia. [175899]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The Colombian Government have stated many times their commitment to improving human rights, and progress is being made. However, as I discovered on my visit a few weeks ago, too many Colombians live in fear of violence, murder and kidnapping. Illegal armed groups are mainly responsible, but reports of soldiers and policemen committing abuses are a continuing concern. That is why we are helping the Government of Colombia, and civil society, to protect and promote the rights of all Colombians, which is a priority for this Government.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. According to Amnesty International, Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionists to live and work. More than 2,200 were killed between 1991 and 2006, and security forces and Government-backed paramilitaries were thought to be behind many of those deaths. Will my hon. Friend consider withdrawing support for the Colombian security services until they give absolute guarantees that the rights of trade unionists will be protected and observed?

Dr. Howells: No, we will not withdraw our support, because we are trying to convince people in Colombia that human rights are an important consideration. We are working with the authorities and non-governmental organisations there, and we are certainly working with
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the Colombian TUC. In fact, I met the president of the Colombian TUC on my visit just before Christmas, and he was convinced that the work we are doing is very valuable. We will continue to take part in efforts to ensure that Colombian trade unionists are given the protection that they deserve. They have been kidnapped and killed by all manner of groups, including FARC, which sometimes considers them to be getting in the way of good drug business in the south of the country. FARC kills trade unionists, just as right-wing militias would.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): In addition to suffering quite the most savage and egregious violence of the sort to which the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) referred, the Minister of State will also be aware that substantial numbers of Colombian trade unionists have been imprisoned—in some cases for very lengthy periods—without being charged with any offence, and therefore without the opportunity to defend themselves in a proper trial. I feel sure that the Minister of State has remonstrated in the strongest terms; perhaps he can give the House details of how he has done so.

Dr. Howells: Yes indeed. During my last visit, I raised that matter with Vice-President Santos and the Defence Minister. It is not a great advert for any democracy—and I believe that Colombia is a fast-developing democracy, and a good example to Latin America. Everyone must be given a fair trial there, especially trade unionists, who have been very brave in standing up for the rights of ordinary people in some of the most dangerous areas in the world.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that some of us who visited Colombia a couple of years ago would very much endorse what he and other hon. Members have said about the role of the trade union movement? Those involved were some of the bravest people we met. Will he therefore continue the dialogue with the international trade union movement? Will he remember, too, that some of the Churches were hugely influential in carrying out marvellous work, and that they too should be encouraged?

Dr. Howells: Yes indeed; that is an important point. Such things will help Colombia to be part of a wider international dialogue. There is some very good work going on there, and my right hon. Friend mentioned some of the agencies involved. There are many others too, involved with small activities that people are undertaking. Let us also remember that five or six years ago the country was on the verge of being a failed state, run by gangsters. The biggest cartel of gangsters today is made up of those posing as revolutionaries—FARC. It is the biggest drug cartel in South America, and certainly in the western world. It will use any form of repression, such as torture or kidnapping, and it will hold people for a very long time in order to further its own commercial ends.

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