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The role of women has not been much mentioned so far today. Far too often, women are forgotten when discussing human rights and democracy, even though
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many of the worst human rights abuses perpetrated are against women, and despite the fact that in situations of conflict it is often women and children who suffer the most. I am particularly concerned about the fact that women are often not involved in the resolution of conflict and the post-conflict rebuilding of countries. Earlier this year I visited Kosovo, and one of the people I met was Igballe Rovoga, the director of the Kosova Women’s Network. Talking to her about her experiences after the conflict was illuminating. All the men were gathered into a room to discuss what to do next, and somebody from the UN came in and after a bit of nudging—from some people from Britain, I think—it was asked, “Hang on, we don’t have any women here. What are we going to do?” Eventually Igballe and a couple of others were summoned along to be the token women in the discussions. In fact, they ended up being very influential as they prepared exactly what they were going to say and asked the questions that they wanted to ask. That is an example from within Europe, but this issue is often forgotten about.

Another anniversary is coming up on 31 October this year. On that date in 2000, UN Security Council resolution 1325 was passed, which requires parties in conflict to respect women’s rights, and to support their participation in peace negotiations and post-conflict resolution. Sadly however, eight years later there are still almost no women at the top levels in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction. I hope the Minister will consider what action the Government might be able to take to strengthen resolution 1325. Is a stronger resolution with more teeth required, and should we be arguing for that at the UN?

John Bercow: I am listening with interest and respect to the hon. Lady’s speech. I very much welcome what she says about women’s rights and involvement. Of course, we cannot change the world overnight, but on the principle that he who pays the piper calls the tune, surely we can exert some influence? Does the hon. Lady share my horror—which was certainly shared by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce)—that when the International Development Committee has visited some women’s projects in a number of African countries over the past few years, we have been taken aback by the fact that the speeches have invariably been delivered by the men, while women, including highly qualified graduates and masters graduates, were left serving the tea? We were paying for those projects, so surely we can do something about that?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes a salient point, and I hope it will be taken up by those planning the visits and those running the projects. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce)—will not have let such experiences go unnoted at the time.

Malcolm Bruce: I concur with my hon. Friend’s concerns on that matter. Does she accept our disappointment that in the past year, nearly all the women Ministers in Afghanistan have been removed from the Government? The only woman left in the Government is the Minister for women’s affairs, which they did not feel would be appropriately done by a man. Is that not a regrettable indication that the commitment to resolution 1325 and to women is superficial in many countries?

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Jo Swinson: I wholeheartedly endorse what my right hon. Friend says, and in fact I was about to talk about Afghanistan. The position of women under the Taliban was well documented. They had no access to education, they were treated like second-class citizens and there were draconian controls on their movement and freedoms. As an aside, I wholeheartedly recommend to the House “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, a novel based on fact, which I read over the summer. It is about the position of women in Afghanistan and demonstrates how terrible the situation had become.

One might have expected the situation to be much improved since the fall of the Taliban. Some girls in Afghanistan do have access to education now, but the situation is still dire. I was intrigued by the list that the Minister read out towards the end of her speech, of individuals who have made a particular contribution to fighting for human rights. I have another to add to the list: Malalai Joya, who is the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament.

Malalai Joya was in London last Monday to be awarded the Anna Politkovskaya award for her courage and dedication in trying to protect human rights in her country. Afterwards, Malalai came to Westminster and I was fortunate enough to meet her and interview her for Women’s Parliamentary Radio. Her bravery was inspirational, and the experience was humbling. What she faces on a day-to-day basis makes what we do as MPs in this country pale into insignificance. For the crime of speaking up and suggesting that crimes against women should be punished, that those who are now in positions of power but used to be warlords on the rampage, raping and killing, should be brought to justice, and that the Parliament is not being strong enough on the matter, she has been suspended from Parliament. Where is the freedom of speech in that?

When Malalai Joya was in Parliament, she had bottles thrown at her and abuse and death threats hurled at her. There have been four assassination attempts against her, and she has to sleep in a different house every night. She is continually at risk. Such individuals are a fabulous inspiration, but it is sad that there are not enough people such as her speaking up, and that it is still necessary to do so in a country in which we are investing so much. We ought to have more influence, so that we can prevent such things from happening. She showed me a video in which a 12-year-old girl who had been gang-raped was spoken to. Of course, the perpetrators had not been punished. That is not a one-off horrific situation, it is what happens day in, day out.

It is not just women who are suffering in Afghanistan. The whole country is on a knife edge, and if we fail to secure lasting peace and security there it will have major implications for our ability to promote democracy and human rights worldwide. There are well-documented claims that our military are overstretched by fighting on both fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently, the Iraqi Prime Minister has said that it is time for the UK troops to go, and I hope that the Government will do what Liberal Democrat Members have argued for for some time, and withdraw the troops from Iraq so that there can be more focus on Afghanistan. It is vital that we succeed in our objectives there.

Our experience in Iraq has been disastrous for our credibility in promoting democracy and human rights abroad. When I visited the UN earlier this year and
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spoke to various diplomats, the feeling was that it undermines what we are trying to do elsewhere. It is ironic in some ways that improving the humanitarian situation in Iraq was often quoted, albeit after the event, as one reason for our intervention there. The lack of planning for rebuilding the Iraqi state after the military action was entirely unforgivable. It was a great mistake, and it has been responsible for some of the appalling violations of human rights in Iraq since 2003. The figures speak volumes: since 2003, we have spent £6.6 billion in Iraq on the war and £125 million on humanitarian assistance. That shows where the priorities lie, and they need to change.

I have one further point on Iraq. It is nearly 18 months since five British men were seized at the Finance Ministry in Iraq and taken hostage. One can only begin to imagine the agony that their families have faced in the past year and a half, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that every effort is being made in the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of those men as soon as possible.

Simon Hughes: I wish to reinforce the fact that if we go to war without UN authority and pass laws to detain people without trial, we are prevented from going to countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and arguing that they must protect human rights. We have ceased to be credible, and what we do at home has a direct effect on our ability to influence such things in other countries.

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently, and he is quite right.

I wish to mention a few other countries. We have heard about the difficulties over the summer involving Russia and Georgia, and there are wide-ranging implications for human rights not just in Georgia but in the other vulnerable states in the region. The deterioration of our relationship with Russia is a great cause for concern, and it will not necessarily be easy to rebuild it and put it right. A strong unified EU response is vital. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) was right to call for strong EU pressure on Asian countries on the subject of Burma—a subject on which I echo many of his comments. We have seen the fabulous work of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in the all-party group on democracy in Burma. The dreadful situation there was particularly evident in the response to the natural disaster earlier this year.

The lack of democracy in China is well documented. I visited China earlier this year on a Select Committee trip, and in the entire trip we had two hours off to explore Beijing. I went to Tiananmen square and the forbidden garden and tried to engage my guide in a political discussion. I asked her what she thought about Chairman Mao, and it was like coming up against a wall. She had good English, so she understood the question, but she did not understand the concept that one might have an opinion about a political leader, and especially that it might be a critical opinion.

Mr. Crabb: On the subject of Tiananmen square, is the hon. Lady aware that someone using the Google internet site in China and typing in “Tiananmen square” gets very different results from someone doing the same here in the UK? What does she think that says about China’s approach to controlling modern forms of communication and its commitment to freedom of communication and speech?

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Jo Swinson: I think it says that China is determined to put huge resources into trying to control the internet. I understand that it has 50,000 individuals shutting down internet sites, but I do not believe that that will be sustainable in the long run. One of the wonders and joys of the internet is that it will be a great vehicle for improving democracy and showing people that things are different in the world outside, and that they, too, could and should have human rights.

I was on holiday this year in Cuba, where the situation is similar. A foreigner is allowed to use the internet, but its use is greatly restricted for locals. Even foreigners have internet rationing. Cuba does not have the same resources to block sites as China, but following some political news still proved slightly difficult. However, the internet will be a mechanism to promote freedom. China will try to restrict it, but it will be like trying to empty the Atlantic with a teaspoon, or whatever the correct analogy is. It will ultimately not be successful.

Mrs. Moon: Has the hon. Lady had the opportunity to read Mark Leonard’s excellent book, “What Does China Think?”, which demonstrates that there is huge debate across China? In fact, there are more think tanks considering different political methods and ways of moving the country forward politically than there are in this country. It can sometimes be simplistic to think that there is no debate taking place in China. It is just that the debate is not taking place in a form that we would understand.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Lady is right. Clearly, people in China have to be very careful about what they say and where they say it, but that does not necessarily mean that they are not thinking about these things. I am sure that Members will be interested to look at the book that she mentions. She has made a very good point.

I am sure that dismay is felt across the House at the events that we have seen take place in Zimbabwe over the weekend with Mugabe’s power grab. There was that little chink of optimism with the signing of the agreement on 15 September, but it is beginning to look like nothing more than a delaying tactic on Mugabe’s part. Last Tuesday, during Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, the Foreign Secretary said:

Clearly, Mugabe has failed that test. I hope that the Minister will say in summing up what action the Government are taking to increase the international pressure on him to reverse this weekend’s power grab, and whether they still believe that the current system is sustainable in trying to get the result that we want, or whether we will have to bring in a new mediator to achieve any progress.

We also need some consistency from the Government on Zimbabwe. The Foreign Office has been very good at urging the promotion of human rights, at trying to stop the torture and bloodshed and in condemning the actions of Mugabe, and I am sure that they have been pursuing all the diplomatic channels to try to get movement in that country. However, at the same time the Home Office is having legal arguments to try to send back asylum seekers who are fleeing the very torture that the Foreign Office is condemning, and some failed refugees
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have been in detention centres in this country for two years. Is that really the kind of human rights position that we want to promote? Is that really going to give us the moral authority to criticise Zimbabwe’s attitude to human rights? How can the Government possibly have a clear conscience in this matter? Surely Zimbabweans here must be allowed to work to support themselves while this situation persists.

The United States of America proves that democracy is no guarantee of human rights. I welcome the Minister’s strong condemnation of water-boarding—one of the torture methods apparently sanctioned by the US. Not only is that country condoning torture, but it uses the death penalty, including on some young men and women, and it has the illegal and immoral stain of Guantanamo Bay on its conscience. The Government did finally secure the release of the UK citizens, although I note that one UK resident is still up for one of these military commissions, or kangaroo courts, which certainly does not conform to the standards of justice that we would hope for and expect. It took the Government far too long to act on Guantanamo, and that was shocking. I remember Ministers referring to it as an anomaly, refusing to condemn it or to say that it should be closed. We always welcome a sinner who repents, but it took too long. I suppose that it is some cause for optimism that both candidates for the US presidency have talked about closing Guantanamo Bay. It must be the top priority for the next US President if that person is to have any moral authority on democracy and human rights on the world stage.

Before I conclude, I should like to apologise to the House. A prior commitment clashes with this debate, and because the debate was delayed because of the earlier statement, I will not be able to stay to hear the next two speakers. However, I intend to come back as soon as I can to hear the rest of the debate.

Effective international institutions are of course very important to the aim of improving human rights—through the EU, the UN, NATO, the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth and beyond. Closer co-operation across Government with our foreign counterparts is crucial to the security of this country. It is important that respect for human rights and the liberty of the individual is not undermined in the name of security. The UK must play a role on the international stage to promote human rights and encourage democracy. The challenges are huge, and sadly, the UK’s position has been undermined by our actions in Iraq. None the less, we must redouble our efforts, and I hope that the mooted supposed Government U-turn on 42 days that may come shortly is a sign that they, too, are keen to safeguard human rights in the UK. That would indeed be a step in the right direction to give us back the authority to be a positive influence for democracy and human rights in the rest of the world.

6.44 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I reiterate my welcome to my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) to their positions on the Front Bench. I look forward to scrutinising their work closely through the Foreign Affairs Committee over the coming months and years.

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I spent last week with the Committee at the United Nations in New York, and I want to share with the House some impressions that are pertinent to this debate. There seems to be a great expectation throughout the UN system—among the people who work in the UN full time, the permanent representatives of many countries and the non-governmental organisations—that, as has been mentioned, Guantanamo Bay will be closed, although there does not seem to be much discussion on the lines set out in a previous Foreign Affairs Committee report, about how we in the rest of the world can contribute to that closure. Some very dangerous people who are detained there will still have to be dealt with. It is easy glibly to say, “Shut the place”. The decision also has to be taken on what to do with 100 to 150 hardened terrorists who are a great danger to many people.

We have expectations that the attitude of the United States will change, becoming more multilateral and less unilateral. Of course, we have already seen the malign influence, which has gone from the UN system, of the unlamented John Bolton. His successor, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was ambassador in Afghanistan and in Iraq, is doing a much better job in assuaging people’s concerns. In his urbane style, he is able to act as an antidote to the provocative and inflammatory work of his predecessor.

However, we should not exaggerate what will happen with the change of the US presidency. Whoever is the next President, the United States will still have national interests, global interests and economic interests. It is a little naïve to think that the personality of the President will lead to a change in the policies of a country in which there is a separation of powers, and where there will be, as result of the economic crisis that we face today, less of a focus on trying to intervene in democracy and human rights issues worldwide, and more of a focus on coping with the economic consequences of the financial catastrophe that has hit the US harder than the rest of the world. I fear that there may be protectionist pressures in the US. I fear that there may be moves toward inward-looking behaviour.

An interesting opinion poll was reported to a seminar that took place during the Democratic national convention in Denver a few weeks ago, which I had the privilege to attend. It showed that there has been a significant shift among American public opinion away from involvement in the rest of the world, and a greater shift among Democrat voters than among Republicans. We need to bear that in mind, because whether it is President Obama, as I hope it will be, or President McCain, there will be domestic pressures on them, which may mean that we have some uncomfortable responses to deal with. There will be demands on the rest of the world, as well as a more multilateralist approach.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is right to introduce a note of hard-headed realism into the debate, and I can see the sense of what he says about what might happen under an Obama presidency. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with me, however, that notwithstanding the pressure to support protectionism and those in America who benefit from it, what we really need to see if there is a President Obama is his assertion of his optimistic side and idealistic self? Most people do not get the chance to be President; if he gets there, he should pursue the noble goals, multilaterally and internationally, in which he believes.

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