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We welcomed the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) as a new Member for the Scottish National party. He made a good maiden speech, and also put forward some points relating to the debate, and we wish him well in his membership of the House. The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) made the wonderful remark that the speech by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea had raised the level of the debate. I do not know what he meant by that, but it appeared to cause some confusion
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among those who had spoken previously. It was, however, meant in the most positive way, because my right hon. and learned Friend raised an issue that we are still debating: at what stage do we use military force where there are humanitarian problems? I also recognise once again the work of the hon. Member for City of York as chairman of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. He put in a lot of hard work in that capacity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) spoke out against the degree of extra noise in relation to the legal aspects of human rights. He has considerable experience in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) is chairman of the Conservative human rights commission, and has taken an active role on our side in pushing this agenda forward. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) spoke passionately, as usual, about the European Union and the fact that it was unaccountable. He also rightly emphasised the importance of the role of the Commonwealth, which is recognised across the Floor.

We have ranged widely over this report on human rights. Hon. Members have spoken passionately, not least about getting the balance right between the realpolitik of foreign policy and the principles in which we believe and which we wish to push forward. There are no easy answers for any Government attempting to persuade another country—especially one with the history, the culture, the memory and the sheer size of China—that they disagree fundamentally with many of the ways in which it carries out its government and in which it protects its human rights. However, that does not stop us, as parliamentarians, putting pressure on such countries, or on our own Government.

I want briefly to raise three aspects of the Government’s report, and to highlight issues that I feel the Government need to address. The first is the issue of Burma, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is no longer in his place, has spoken passionately. Last week, I was lucky enough to meet Andrew Kirkwood, the director of Save the Children in Burma. He has worked in that country for four years, and has led relief efforts for the charity after Cyclone Nargis. The cyclone was a terrible event and a great national disaster, but it was the total indifference and cruelty of the Burmese military that, at times, impeded the humanitarian aid and meant that tens of thousands of their own people died or suffered awfully from disease and neglect. One of the statistics that Andrew Kirkwood gave me was that something like 40 per cent. of children under the age of five in Burma die from measles, diphtheria and other such common diseases.

I know that Burma is not the only country in which such things occur, but I want to raise with the Minister the fact that Save the Children is on the ground doing wonderful work there, at times in spite of the opposition of the senior generals. Andrew Kirkwood pointed out that, at a lower level, Save the Children is getting some degree of co-operation in Burma. He was particularly impressed by the role of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which put an enormous amount of pressure on the Burmese regime after Cyclone Nargis.

Our Government have agreed on the importance of the responsibility to protect in any situation in which Governments are “unable or unwilling” to protect their
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populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. In relation to Burma, will the Minister update the House on what discussions have taken place at international level to move forward that concept from the theoretical to the practical? This issue was being discussed at the time, and it is of fundamental importance to all of us.

The second issue that I wish to raise is that of Zimbabwe. Does the Minister agree that it is now high time for the international human rights observer mission to go to that country? Will she provide an update on what progress has been made to that end? It seems to all of us that Mugabe, the old crocodile, is merely playing politics again, and that we have almost gone back to square one. It is only through international pressure that we will get any shift in that area.

The final area is Somalia. I agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee that the FCO annual report fails to pay sufficient attention to that country’s severe human rights crisis. Whatever we say about Burma, Zimbabwe and—God save us—even Darfur, Somalia is one of the world’s worst failed states. It is in total humanitarian crisis. Nearly half of the population, 3.25 million people, are now in need of emergency aid—a 77 per cent. increase since the beginning of this year—and 1.1 million people are displaced.

We all recognise that trying to resolve this problem is not an easy matter, but the Foreign Affairs Committee was absolutely right to say that this is one area that really should be a major priority. At one stage Somalia was a British dependency, so if nothing else, we have a great historical link here. I would like to see Somalia as one issue that Ministers will want to take forward over the next year. When we return in a year’s time to debate the next report, I hope that we will see that some progress has been made.

Almost by chance, this has been a good debate. People on all sides have spoken with a great deal of passion. In many respects, I do not regret the Government’s decision to make a statement at 8.30 this evening. I am taking advantage of my position at the Dispatch Box because this is an issue about the balance between legislation and human rights, but I personally regret having a Home Secretary preach to me and to my colleagues—many of whom have lost friends through terrorism, Minister—about being soft on terrorism. Get real!

9.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): This has been a wide-ranging, informed and often passionate debate. I would like to thank for their contributions the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). I also congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) on his maiden speech. I recall that when I
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made mine, I was followed by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, so who knows where the hon. Gentleman might find himself one day.

Human rights and democracy have a resonance that few other issues can match. We can all remember the image of women queuing up to vote for the first time in Afghanistan, and queues of a different nature—for food—in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. We in the UK have a mission to promote human rights and democracy not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in our interests. They are integral to all that we do, whether in working for peace in the middle east, in the functioning of international organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the EU, or in our consular work, including support for the victims of forced marriage, prisoners facing execution and children illegally taken abroad by a parent.

The promotion of democracy and human rights is integral to what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is all about and it underpins its every priority, whether in combating the global scourge of terrorism and its causes; preventing conflict and fostering its resolution; promoting a high-growth, low-carbon global economy; or strengthening institutions such as the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth, through which the international community can most effectively come together to make a difference in the world.

In the short time available, I will endeavour to deal with some of the main themes that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe did not cover earlier. We believe that the United Nations Human Rights Council contributes to the protection and promotion of human rights globally. I would not suggest that it is a perfect institution, but some steps forward have been taken, as we have heard in our debate. The new universal periodic review process will, for the first time in the UN’s history, ensure that the human rights position in every UN member country is examined on a regular basis. [Official Report, 16 October 2008, Vol. 480, c. 5MC.]In addition, there will be a discussion of human rights in specific countries as a standing item on the agenda of the Human Rights Council—an item that was not on the old commission’s agenda. Membership of the council depends on the votes of all UN members. While we might disagree with some members on a number of human rights issues, it is our view that continued engagement is the best way forward if we are to continue to win the arguments.

On the UN Durban review conference and the world conference against racism, I certainly confirm our immense disagreement with the events that took place in 2001. We do not want to see a repeat of them. In particular, we condemn the featuring, which was outright, of the anti-Semitism that we heard in the NGO forum. I can tell the House that we are participating in negotiations in Geneva at the moment and that we will reassess our position when the preparatory committee ends this week.

I share the deep concern for the prolonged suffering of the people of Zimbabwe. We want the political agreement that was reached in Harare to work. EU colleagues discussed and agreed on that early today. If there is no further progress towards a democratic resolution, we will have to consider introducing further targeted measures. To be effective, the agreement must achieve an improvement in the lives of the ordinary people of Zimbabwe and restoration of respect for human rights. With the international community, we stand ready to
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support the recovery of Zimbabwe and to respond to the needs of the new Government, but they must, as a Government, show themselves committed to reform, including respect for human rights.

On Burma, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Aylesbury, for Preseli Pembrokeshire and for Mid-Norfolk, I share the immense concern for the appalling suffering of the Burmese people, which was made yet more acute, as we have heard, by the devastating Cyclone Nargis in May. We welcome the release of several political prisoners last month, but the truth is that 2,000 remain behind bars and political freedoms are completely absent. However, let us remind ourselves that, after the cyclone, the UK was at the forefront of international efforts to convince the regime to accept international aid.

To respond to the fair point raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, we believe that states have responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to their populations and while the responsibility to protect applies in the context of four crimes—genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing—it does not preclude the broader responsibility of states to provide for the security and welfare of their populations.

After the cyclone, our absolute priority was to get aid as quickly as possible to those who desperately needed it. We judged—I believe correctly, as we look back—that by working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the UN we would manage to establish an aid delivery mechanism supported by the Burmese and that that would indeed be the most effective solution to that crisis.

On Colombia, I refer my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, who ably chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, to a statement made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary following the visit just last week of the Colombian Foreign Minister:

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to pursue that.

Guantanamo Bay was also raised by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. I make it clear once again that the position of the Government is that that detention facility should be closed. I listened carefully to the caution counselled by my hon. Friend. We hope that the new US Administration will give fresh impetus to the wish of the US Government to reduce the number of those detained at Guantanamo Bay and to move towards closure of that detention facility.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to the role of women in promoting democracy. Women are disproportionately affected by conflict, and must clearly play a role in its resolution. The United Kingdom commits itself actively to promoting the rights of women by giving them a voice, jobs, education and the right not to die in childbirth. It has supported the Afghan Government’s micro-finance programme, which has given women better opportunities to secure finance to create work through creating business. In Ghana, through the
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efforts of civil society, it has supported demands for legislation against domestic violence, which is now in place.

The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea got the debate going on an issue on which he feels strongly, and brought his knowledge to bear. While I respect his judgment on that issue, my view is that military intervention is not and has never been the course of first or only resort. I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that to rule it out is to deny what may present a way forward that has eluded us through any other means, but it is not to be taken lightly; it is only one possibility.

Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that I believe Iraq has come a long way. More than 12 million people voted in the 2005 election. In Afghanistan, a third of children who are involved in schools are girls, whereas previously none was. For me, that represents human rights and democracy in action.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South has allowed me to put it on record that human rights and democracy are work in progress, whoever we are and in whatever country we are, and that includes the United Kingdom. The promotion of democracy is not just about elections, important though they are; it is about the work that we do to support the voice and the power of civil society to secure freedom of expression and to demand change. It is about building the rule of law, the accountability of the judiciary, the military and the police, and the capacity of political parties. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for City of York in chairing the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has done so much in that regard.

Let me close a debate that has highlighted much of the cruelty and tragedy that happen when leadership fails by paying tribute to a document that shows leadership at its best. The universal declaration of human rights, signed almost 60 years ago, was referred to by a number of Members, including the hon. Member for Daventry. I assure him that I will take away his shopping list, and the thought with which he presented it to the House. That document is a testament to a united world, written in the aftermath of a war that ripped the world apart. It is a reminder that we can choose whether we wish to be defined by what makes us different or by what we share. It shows us what nations can achieve when we come together to assert that all people everywhere are entitled to the freedoms that many of us take for granted, and it should reinforce our determination to do more and better to ensure that it—that landmark declaration of human rights—is as powerful in practice as it is in aspiration.

I pay tribute to the work of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, to non-governmental organisations and, crucially, to those individuals who take a stand for human rights in countries and conditions that would make the best of us falter. We have had a wide-ranging debate, which has been powerful, well-informed and passionate. I hope that people will take that passion from the House today, and will not keep it to themselves.


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Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

COMMITTEES

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With the leave of the House, I will take motions 2 and 3 together.


Children, Schools and Families

Ordered,


Human Rights (Joint Committee)

Petition

Planning and Development (Essex)

10 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Overdevelopment is the most demanding specific local issue in my constituency. It is destroying our green belt and open spaces and causing harm to the quality of life of all residents. It is putting intolerable pressure on public services and infrastructure. The blame lies jointly with the Government’s building targets, local councillors and a strange acquisition with developers. We need more transparency on planning in Castle Point, and we need councillors to start to listen to residents. I congratulate Robert Kimmel and all those who by signing this excellent petition show that they care about their local community.

The petition states:

[P000275]


13 Oct 2008 : Column 649

Deaths of Ann Mawer and Sue Barker

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Chris Mole.]


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