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Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): May I be the first Labour Member to welcome my right hon. Friend to her post? She referred to the UN Human Rights Council. Does she agree that progress in that organisation has been very disappointing? A bloc of countries seems to be operating as an “axis of sovereignty”, as some people have called it, and blocking the universal implementation of the international human rights standards.
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In the 60th anniversary year of the universal declaration, it is deplorable that a number of countries, including some democratic countries, are not prepared to adopt those universal standards.

Caroline Flint: I take this opportunity to commend my hon. Friend for his work on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. The United Nations does a great deal that is good, but it must also be open to scrutiny and reform. That is why the monitoring and scrutiny of individual countries, including our own, in relation to the conventions and treaties that we sign up to, is an important part of maintaining pressure to turn signatures into action. That commends the organisation and gives it a lease of life in the 21st century that is appropriate to the challenges and difficulties that we face today.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) made an important point, to which the Minister has not fully responded, about the performance of the new UN Human Rights Council. It was supposed to be a fresh start for the UN in tackling human rights abuses, but so far it has shown all the signs of replicating the bad old ways of the old UN Commission on Human Rights. What can the Minister say to reassure the House that she has some clear ideas about how to improve the effectiveness of that new UN body?

Caroline Flint: A week into the job, I am on a learning and listening exercise, but we are committed to enabling the Human Rights Council to work well. We are one of its 47 members, and we are active in all other areas of the UN that deal with human rights. We welcome the appointment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and we actively support such work, but we have to look at how this works in practice. The UN and the EU are different organisations, and I and other Ministers will continue to look at them to see how best we can make sure that the various structures work as well as they possibly can.

We often need to remember that human rights work involves more than the few very badly performing states; it is as important to focus on the countries that are in transition and committed to the rule of law, but which need assistance to get there. Building democracy is a slow, painstaking process, but we have had some successes. In Bangladesh, for example, the Department for International Development contributed to a project to create a state-of-the-art register for 80 million people, complete with photos and fingerprints. We did that in just 15 months, so I say well done to all those involved. The result is that in August, there were peaceful and successful local elections with a turnout of some 80 per cent; importantly, that included a high turnout of women and minorities within the community.

The frameworks, conventions and declarations on human rights therefore form the backbone of the international system. It is the responsibility of our generation to ensure that they are more than pieces of paper, and that they are genuine commitments backed up with action—a point reflected in the interventions today. We also need to ensure that the UN General Assembly is more than a talking shop. When the UN works it is a powerful instrument for good, as the recent success on the arms trade shows—how many lives will
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be saved because of this piece of paper?—but these successes must become more frequent and more assured. We want to reform the international system to ensure that the words are matched with actions.

Mr. Vara: Does the Minister agree that although it is one thing to bring about more democracy in countries that require it, it is also important that we concentrate on those that might start going backwards? We should consider the recent example in Kenya. We have to be vigilant and ensure that, where the torch of democracy is lit, it does not die away.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The fact is that democracy and human rights are an issue that is never over. As well as the countries that are often pointed out as the worst examples regarding a lack of democratic institutions and the infringement of human rights, there are many that are perhaps in between—in a state of transition—and where, when progress is made, things happen that put it back. I am afraid that human rights and democracy are not an issue on which we can tick the box and say, “Job done”. This is a continuing engagement that will task the minds of all of us here today, and of generations to come.

Mention was made of other organisations. The Council of Europe, in the UN vein, produces human rights norms for the whole of Europe. As I said earlier, more than any other actor it has succeeded in eradicating the death penalty in Europe. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is another important part of Europe’s human rights architecture, particularly in its election monitoring. The European Court of Human Rights, by giving individuals the power to petition the Court directly, holds Governments directly to account, but it is increasingly becoming the victim of its own success. As its case load has grown, so have the delays in making judgments. That problem must be addressed.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Does the Minister not acknowledge the difficulties that some people have in petitioning the court because of obstruction in their own countries? For example, some of those whom many of us would regard as political prisoners in Russia are finding it increasingly difficult to get justice there or to take their case to the ECHR; sometimes, their lawyers are even murdered, or are intimidated and will not take the case forward. What is the UK doing to try to help the Council of Europe resist such manipulation?

Caroline Flint: We are a positive and strong supporter of the Court and we would seek in whatever ways we can to support the implementation of its powers, but where we can we do raise in different ways with different countries issues associated with human rights and individuals. This is about making sure that these institutions work for the purposes they were set up for, but I am happy to look into the point that the right hon. Gentleman has made in order to see what else we are doing, and to write to him.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): First, will the Minister undertake to give personal attention to the question of resourcing the ECHR in view of the work load, which, as she said, is rising exponentially? Secondly,
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given that President Medvedev has indicated a wish to rebuild where some recent difficulties have occurred in bilateral and multilateral relations, can she put all possible pressure on him to encourage the state Duma to ratify protocol 14, so that we can get a better process in the Court and get the backlog tackled?

Caroline Flint: I note the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I shall look into those matters. We clearly want to ensure that we can build relations with Russia. Recent actions, in many respects, isolate Russia. We do not want to isolate Russia; we very much want to build our relationship with that country.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; she is being very generous. She mentioned dialogue with other countries. What dialogue has been held with the Government of India following the murderous events of the past two or three weeks in the state of Orissa? Although India might be the world’s largest democracy, what has happened over the past few weeks is not necessarily a sign that it is the world’s most mature democracy. Allowing freedom of speech and freedom of religion is a sign of maturity, and I hope that the Minister will send the strongest signal to India that this sort of behaviour in respect of religious minorities is not acceptable.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman makes an important contribution. We welcome the Indian Prime Minister’s unequivocal statements condemning the continued violence against Christians in Orissa, the most recent of which was made on 29 September, following the EU-India summit. We urge the Government of India to uphold the right to freedom of religion and to bring to justice those responsible for attacks against people of all religions in India. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with any more detail that I can provide on that issue.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I thank the Minister for giving way on this particular point, because the right of individuals to petition the European Court of Human Rights is very important. In the past couple of months, I have been contacted by the Advice on Individual Rights in Europe—AIRE—centre, which assists people from England and the United Kingdom generally in going to the ECHR. The AIRE centre was concerned that the paperwork necessary for people to petition the European Court was not being provided—I am talking about family law, which the Minister will not be surprised to learn is one of my interests. Is there someone in the Government who would assist a petitioner who is being refused their documentation and thereby being prevented from going to the European Court?

Secondly, although it has signed it, the UK is one of the few countries not to have ratified protocol 4 to the European convention on human rights. That protocol means that one cannot take somebody’s passport off them. Is there a reason why the UK continually fails to ratify that protocol? Does the Minister feel that it is acceptable that somebody is banned from leaving the country in that way?

Caroline Flint: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me; I am happy to write to him shortly on those two rather detailed points. It is important that we discuss these issues and that any constituents’ concerns can be followed up.

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I would like to pay tribute to the work of our other partners, such as the Commonwealth, which promotes human rights standards across its membership, and non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Those organisations demonstrate that work to promote democracy and to protect human rights goes on at two levels; it addresses the need to change a Government’s policy, and the need to protect individuals. Our bilateral action on human rights is a combination of those two approaches. The internal legal framework is the foundation of all our bilateral work on human rights. We feel that we have a legitimate right to encourage countries to sign up to these texts and a legitimate right to be concerned when they fail to meet their international obligations. Although the rights themselves are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, there are many different routes towards honouring the commitments.

Some lessons stand out. Conflict situations put pressure on human rights. That is equally true for countries trying to protect their citizens from terrorism as for countries in the grip of a civil war, but there is no one hard and fast rule to address every human rights issue relating to conflict and counter-terrorism. For example, the conflict in Sudan—the site of whole-scale atrocities, gender-based violence, child soldiers and displacement—is different in nature from the lethal violence employed in the Palestinian dispute or from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. What those issues have in common is that we are engaged on them all, trying to figure out the best route to achieve our aims. In the US, we have had serious discussions with the Administration on all aspects of counter-terrorism and human rights issues, including rendition, Guantanamo Bay and the handling of detainees. The US is well aware of our views on water-boarding, for example, and has actively engaged in a dialogue with us on the issues. That frank approach helped secure the release in 2004 and 2005 of all nine of the British nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay as well as four individuals who had formerly resided lawfully in the UK. Continued close co-operation with the US is critical to our ability to counter the threat posed to the UK by global terrorism. Dialogue on the importance of human rights to our counter-terrorism efforts is a critical part of that.

Daniel Kawczynski: The Minister mentioned Sudan, and we have debated the humanitarian situation in Darfur for a long time now. The Prime Minister promised us an initiative on the matter in the UN some six months ago, yet I see little progress. I visited the camps in Darfur, and the situation there is one of the most appalling that I have ever seen around the world. Will the Minister say whether a Minister in her Government has recently met the President of Sudan to tackle him directly over those barbaric atrocities?

Caroline Flint: I will provide the hon. Gentleman with details about who has met whom and where. In Sudan, aside from the considerable humanitarian support that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge is offered by DFID, we see that the best route to success lies in a permanent peace settlement. That will not come about because the UK says so, so we need to work within the UN to achieve it. That can be frustrating, and I hear that in his remarks. It can be slow, but it is the way most likely to end not only the conflict but human rights abuses.

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The middle east peace process has for a long time been at the top of UN agendas, but the EU is also playing an important role, particularly on security sector reform. The EU, for example, leads on building capacity for the Palestinian civil police.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Before we move on from Sudan, let me point out that Darfur shows the fragility of the international community’s ability to support the emerging norm of the international community’s responsibility to protect. The matter is not just about the failure of the Security Council to enforce that; the international community does not have the military lift capacity to do so either. We are hoping that things in Darfur will not get worse and that something will turn up. There is no UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, effectively, and there is no real process in Darfur. The responsibility to protect is just being forgotten.

Caroline Flint: It is not forgotten. I acknowledge how frustrating and difficult the process is. In answer to the earlier intervention by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, (Daniel Kawczynski) I can say that the Foreign Secretary told Sudanese Vice-President Taha in New York on 27 September that the Sudanese Government should co-operate with the International Criminal Court over crimes committed in Darfur and should take bolder and more ambitious action to bring peace in Darfur. The process is difficult, slow and frustrating, but the UK Government are doing all we can on a number of different fronts, through our development funds and our engagement on every level, to try to support a peaceful resolution in Sudan.

Human rights work is not simply about exposing abuse. It is about changing mindsets, and so our work across the globe, whether in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe or Iraq, is targeted and pragmatic. The end point is not necessarily to humiliate a Government, but to get them to change and to reach a point where there are no longer 7,500 people on death row in Pakistan, where the Afghan Government do not execute 15 people in the middle of the night, where Zimbabwe has free elections and where women are no longer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned earlier, the victims of so-called honour crimes in northern Iraq.

Before I finish my remarks, I want to return to my original theme.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I deliberately waited to see whether the Minister was concluding her speech. It is striking that in a debate that is intended to show the Government’s approach to promoting democracy and human rights, the Minister has so far concentrated entirely on soft power, not hard power. She will be aware that she is a member of a Government that for their first 10 years, under Tony Blair, made a virtue of arguing that military means would have to be used from time to time, such as in Kosovo and Iraq, either to promote democracy or for regime change. Should the House interpret the absence of even the slightest reference to that in her speech as she approaches her concluding remarks as meaning that the Government, under the new Prime Minister, no longer believe in that approach and are unlikely to pursue it in the way that we saw during the first 10 years of this Labour Government?

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Caroline Flint: I should not like the right hon. and learned Gentleman or anyone else to interpret anything that I have not said. I mentioned that our work in the Foreign Office is closely linked to the work of DFID and the Ministry of Defence, and there clearly have been situations, as no doubt there will be in future, where our military capacity will play a contribution, but they have to be determined case by case. Last week, for example, it was interesting for me to meet British soldiers in Cyprus who are part of the UN peacekeeping forces trying to make sure that hostilities do not erupt in the island. Some of the British soldiers whom I met were from south Yorkshire, where my constituency is, and they had just come from Darfur and other places around the world where they daily witness violence and the death of civilians. I do not want anyone to intimate that we do not think carefully about the issue, but today’s debate is intended to look particularly at what the Foreign Office does in relation to human rights and democracy in the world.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): May I pursue the intervention that was just made? It raises issues that at least need to be mentioned. I refer particularly to voices from the United States that, reflecting frustration with the international community, talk of the need for a league of democracies that can do the kind of things that were said to be necessary a few years ago. Is such a proposal, with its intention to bypass the frustrations of international organisations in achieving certain democratic objectives, one to which the Government are attached?

Caroline Flint: I understand that some of that debate arises from the US presidential campaign, so I am not sure that it is appropriate for me to comment. One thing is clear, however: there will be a new President in the months to come, so there will be opportunities to think about our relationship with the US on the international stage, as well as the relationship between the European Union and the US. That will be interesting and will, I hope, build on our constructive relationship with the US and offer new opportunities.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Flint: I want to make some progress.

As Europe Minister, I thoroughly support the EU policy to promote and protect human rights defenders. They may be lawyers or politicians, they may be housewives or soldiers, but they share one thing—they are on the front line of human rights and, more than any policy document, they provide a short sharp glimpse into the world’s trouble spots.

It is brave for one individual to challenge a state, especially on its human rights record, so such people need our support and I conclude my speech by paying tribute to some of them: Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist shot dead outside her home in 2007, and the many supporters of the “One Million Signatures” campaign in Iran, men and women calling for an end to discriminatory laws against women, many of whom have been harassed, detained, interrogated, and in some cases even prosecuted for crimes against national security, simply because of their efforts to support equality.

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