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At present, attention is focused on the Nobel peace prize, awarded to Martti Ahtisaari for his efforts over three decades to resolve international conflicts. I also
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support other prize-winning human rights activists: Gege Katana, who has stood against sexual violence in Congo, winning the Front Line award, and who was guest of honour at a reception at the British embassy in Kinshasa, and Sudanese human rights lawyer Salih Mahmoud Osman, winner of the European Parliament’s Freedom of Thought prize.

Many human rights defenders are in jail or under house arrest. The most prominent is Aung San Suu Kyi, who provides a reminder to the people of Burma that there is an alternative to military repression. In China, Chen Guangcheng received a sentence of four years and three months for obstructing traffic and damaging public property. He, too, is a human rights defender. British embassy monitoring helped to secure EU pressure for the release of Umida Niyazova from an Uzbekh prison. On the EU’s doorstep, Viktor Gonchav, Anatoly Krasovsky, Yury Zakharenko and Dmitry Zaradsky opposed the Belarusian authorities. They disappeared during 1999 and 2000. There has been no independent investigation. However, to come back to an earlier intervention, I welcome the recent release of the last three political prisoners in Belarus. For the first time in a decade, that country has no political prisoners, and that is a positive step. Our reactions to that have to be tempered by the fact that we must continue to encourage engagement, while recognising that, in some instances, sanctions of different kinds continue to have a purpose as progress is made.

Finally, let us remember Gift Tandare and the many other victims of Robert Mugabe’s repression in Zimbabwe. Violence and the threat of violence have long been the chosen political tools of Mugabe and his party. When the then Opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was beaten last year, Mugabe’s response was that he deserved to be “bashed”; he told the police to “beat him a lot”. A positive future in Zimbabwe depends on the violence of the past never being repeated.

The people whom I mentioned have fought for the causes they believe in. They have been unfairly imprisoned and have suffered. Part of our policy on human rights must be to fight their corner, just as we must tackle their Governments. Above all, we must build an international community that ensures that our universal human rights are universally promoted, respected and protected.

5.15 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): First, may I welcome the Minister for Europe to her first foreign affairs debate in the House? I congratulate her on what I understand to be her imminent appointment to the Privy Council.

Caroline Flint: I am already a Privy Councillor.

Mr. Lidington: I apologise; I am delighted to be able to welcome and congratulate the right hon. Lady. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who will wind up the debate on behalf of the Government.

This afternoon’s debate is, as I understand it, something of a last-minute arrangement. My hands were almost wet with black ink this morning as I read the Government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on
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human rights—a response that seemed to have been rushed off the presses in double quick time, as neither the Table Office nor Amnesty International had a copy as recently as last Thursday. However, it is welcome, particularly as this December we mark the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. That declaration was full of confidence and hope. It was drawn up by men and women who knew what they were talking about, because they had experienced the horrors of the second world war, and the destruction of human liberty and dignity that it entailed.

The declaration was not conceived as a treaty or a list of legal obligations, but rather as a set of universal principles to protect and enrich the lives of all humanity, and to guide and inspire the policies and actions of all nations. Sixty years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting commission, urged the General Assembly of the United Nations to support the universal declaration as a first step towards a world in which the dignity, autonomy and freedom of every human being was properly respected. She spoke of work to turn the words of the declaration into practical, concrete policies as

If we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that the task is still far from complete, and that millions of our fellow men and women still live in the shadow of war, oppression and persecution.

Such a breadth of issues are covered by the title of today’s debate, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual report on human rights and by the Select Committee’s comments on it that my remarks will inevitably be selective. I agree with the Minister that we should conduct our foreign policy in a manner that strengthens and supports our values and our commitment to democracy and human rights. We have to be honest with ourselves: it is true that the management of international affairs will always be tempered by realism. We have to work in the world as it exists. Human rights are not the only consideration when framing this country’s foreign policy; nor have they ever been the only consideration when framing policy for any Government of any political party.

Whoever serves as Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary must take account of factors such as trade, terrorism, cross-border crime and energy security. Sometimes efforts to end a civil war or to resolve an ethnic or religious conflict may involve contradictory pressures. Do we make our first priority the duty to bring to justice those responsible for barbarous and criminal acts of persecution, or is the priority to bring about an end to the conflict and suffering, even if that means that a tyrant is let off the hook and can retire in comfort? Those dilemmas are real, and that point was acknowledged by Human Rights Watch in its written evidence to the Select Committee about the 2007 report.

Mr. Boswell: I am sure that my hon. Friend will have had a chance to study the European convention on human rights, which is a pellucid document. Does he not agree that all those derogations or qualifications of the undiluted human rights mixture—for example, the needs for national security, terrorism and, indeed, the clashing of rights—are explicitly allowed for? It is the conditions under which those derogations operate that may be of interest.

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Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth quoting the comments of Human Rights Watch, which begins by congratulating the Government:

the Foreign Office report on human rights—

I agree with those comments, and when I read them, I thought that they were a constructive criticism. I hope that the Government will accept them in that spirit and act accordingly.

Mark Pritchard: I am so glad that my hon. Friend started off with setting priorities, because I am sure that he will share my shock and dismay that, when one looks on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website at strategic priorities and policy goals, particularly inward visits from foreign Members of Parliament and Ministers, one finds no reference to human rights whatsoever. Of all the inward visits that I have seen for the past month, the vast majority have been to do with climate change exchanges—not one single inward visit has been to do with human rights.

Mr. Lidington: I very much hope that when Foreign Office Ministers meet their counterparts from whichever country, the promotion of human rights is part of the agenda for discussion.

Having made those qualifications, the principle remains true: if we pursue our national interest while neglecting our policy’s human rights implications, we will fail. Not only do we have a moral imperative to act when human rights violations occur; it is in our national interest to see human rights advanced and protected worldwide. A world in which those values prevail is one that is more secure, more stable and more prosperous than the world we have today. Our foreign policy should reflect, in our conduct abroad, the values that we cherish at home.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Lidington: I shall give way in a moment.

The promotion of human rights should not be seen as an add-on, but as an integral part of our thinking, incorporated in, for example, our national security strategy and our policies on international development. For instance, I should like us to build plans for the reduction and eradication of human trafficking into our poverty reduction programmes, and to find a way in which to integrate our concern for human rights into the pursuit of millennium development goals.

Mrs. Moon: The hon. Gentleman has gone on to make the point that I wanted to make about the involvement of not only our foreign policy but our international development policies. However, does he agree that to a large extent our focus has to be, and is, on education, in respect of how we inculcate our values? In part, our values have been demonstrated through our insistence on education. I am thinking particularly of education for girls and our insistence on raising the status of women throughout the world.

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Mr. Lidington: The hon. Lady has made a good point, and I completely concur. Education—particularly the education of women and primary education—is an absolutely vital tool in a successful international development policy, including in those elements of the policy that focus on encouraging pluralism and respect for the civil rights of others.

Of course, we cannot simply reorder the world as we choose. We do not have the power to do so and, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) hinted earlier, soldiers can remove a tyrant but find it difficult to build a functioning democratic system to take over. If the events of recent years have taught us anything, it is surely that if democracy and human rights are to take root, they need to grow in a way that is sensitive to each nation’s history, culture and tradition. If we think about the history of Europe since 1989, it is striking that democracy and civil rights have flourished most quickly and richly in countries whose political cultures already had elements of pluralism within them and in which some people at least had a memory of how a democratic system of government and democratic and pluralist institutions ought to function.

However, there are things that we can and should do. As the Minister discussed, one is to give practical support for building and sustaining democracy. I agreed with her point that membership of the European Union has helped to strengthen new and fragile democracies in Spain, Portugal, Greece and, more recently, in eastern and central Europe. I agree, too, with her tributes to the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

This country has a good track record of contributing what one might term “democratic know-how” to new democracies. I had better declare that I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy; I do so because I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and his predecessors as chairmen of the WFD, which has contributed hugely, in a largely unsung and unglamorous way, to the strengthening of democratic institutions in eastern and central Europe and now also in other parts of the world.

Secondly, we can speak out; we have the freedom to speak without fear of retribution. It therefore becomes our duty to lend a voice to the millions of people who are denied that right. I want to touch on one or two countries for which that duty is pressing. I should like to consider the case of Burma first. At the beginning of this year, I thought that the record of the Burmese Government could have plunged no lower. However, even those of us who believed that we were inured to the horror that is government in Burma were shocked by the ruthless brutality of a military junta who were prepared to obstruct efforts to bring help to the dying and destitute in the wake of cyclone Nargis.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is due to visit Burma this December, and that is welcome. However, I hope that the Government agree that the time has come to bring to an end the apparently open-ended and inconclusive diplomatic exchanges with the regime. Do the Government agree that it is now time to set clear benchmarks for the Burmese junta and deadlines for meeting them? I hope that they will press for such an approach at the United Nations Security Council and in their bilateral exchanges with the Secretary-General.
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The very first step should be the release of political prisoners in Burma—something that was demanded by the Security Council a year ago and on which no action has yet been taken by those who rule Burma.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I welcome my hon. Friend’s reasonable and nuanced speech. As chairman of the all-party group for democracy in Burma, I pay tribute to what he just said. Does he agree that as the regime is unquestionably one of the most bestial oppressors in the world, and that as we in this country have no vested interest in turning a blind eye, we should press robustly for a binding Security Council resolution against the regime and support pro-democracy organisations in that country?

Mr. Lidington: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Minister’s particular responsibilities at the Foreign Office are to do with Europe, and I hope that she will go back from this debate determined to ensure that Burma is high on the agenda of meetings of European Foreign Ministers. An EU Heads of Government summit is due this week and an Asia-Europe meeting is due on 24 October. I hope that at the latter meeting in particular the British Government will ensure that the issue of Burma is brought to the fore.

This is not only to do with China or India but with Burma’s neighbours—Malaysia, Indonesia and all the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which have it in their power and influence to affect the survival and the manner of government of the Burmese junta. I hope that every bit of diplomatic weight that the United Kingdom can bring to bear will be used to determine a European approach to those discussions and to put the maximum pressure on our Asian friends in order to secure a measure of greater liberty and common decency for the people of Burma, who have suffered for far too long.

Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. May I put to him another reason why it is important that this must be done at EU level? It strikes me, as vice-chairman of the all-party China group, that one of the difficulties that we have in situations to do with countries such as China or India is that we are simultaneously trying to promote trade and talking about human rights. It is often difficult for individual countries to do that in the same conversation, whereas if the EU as a whole brings pressure to bear on China or India on an issue such as Burma, we are making it clear that, irrespective of our separate interests, our concern about human rights is paramount and overwhelming.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend, who is Chairman of the International Development Committee, makes a powerful point, and I completely agree with him.

European action is necessary in respect not only of Burma but of Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, the fragile power-sharing agreement looks as if it is on the verge of collapse. Mugabe seems determined to wriggle out of sharing power and to inflict yet further hardship on his wretched and long-suffering people. I hope that during the concluding stages of this debate the Government will be prepared to say clearly that if that power-sharing deal does indeed break down the United Kingdom will
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not hesitate in pressing in the European Union and at the United Nations for further action, particularly for further targeted sanctions directed against Mugabe and his henchmen, who run that despotic regime.

Mr. Hollobone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for touching on Zimbabwe, because the Minister did so only in passing and without intervention. Surely this is the saddest example of the diminution of British power overseas. With one third of the population displaced and an evil tyrant who has taken away any democratic rights, Britain is almost powerless to do anything. What is my hon. Friend’s view of the growing influence of China in southern Africa, particularly in Zimbabwe, given that China seems to be propping up that brutal regime?

Mr. Lidington: We should be using our contact with China—both our bilateral contacts and our discussions within the forum of EU-China relations—to bring pressure to bear so that it sees that its growing role as a powerful player in international diplomacy and economic affairs carries with it a responsibility to use that influence for the good of the people of the countries with which it trades. I do not despair of China’s reaction because we have seen, particularly in respect of North Korea, to some extent with Darfur, and even—on some details—in relation to Zimbabwe, a shift on the part of the Chinese Government. China is not yet pursuing a course where it gives priority to civil rights and democracy in Zimbabwe or any other country, which I wish to see, but that should be a key element in the dealings of the British Government with China now and in the future.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is exceptionally generous, as I know because he is a constituency neighbour of mine. Does he think that Mugabe fears the International Criminal Court, or is the man capable only of greed, violence, hatred and megalomania?

Mr. Lidington: There are grounds for believing that Mugabe does fear the International Criminal Court, and it is one sanction that we should not take off the table. We should be prepared to contemplate it. Mugabe has had the opportunity in the agreement brokered by Thabo Mbeki to leave office or cede power with what I suppose in his eyes is a degree of honour. He seems to be determined to reject that opportunity, and to cling on to the last vestiges of power for as long as possible. It should be made clear to him that serious consequences could flow from that decision.

I want to say a few words about a broader challenge to human rights that is not restricted to one particular country: persecution on grounds of religion. Article 18 of the universal declaration asserts the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Too often, that freedom is denied—sometimes by Governments and sometimes by extremist groups operating within a particular state. One could cite the persecution of the Bahai’s in Iran, attacks on Christians in parts of Pakistan or the destruction of churches and the displacement of 50,000 refugees in the state of Orissa in India, but what should give us in Britain particular cause for concern is the discrimination against religious minorities, particularly Christians, in countries where British troops are serving to sustain democracy and human rights.

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