Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


30 APRIL 2008

  Q1  Chairman: Kate Allen, Tom Porteous, you are both well known to us. You have given evidence to our Committee before. This has become like an annual event, as part of our annual human rights inquiry where we comment on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's annual human rights report, which is now more than 10 years old. Can I begin by asking a general question about how the UN system is now working and the Human Rights Council which has been introduced recently? What is your assessment? Is it better than the previous commission or is it, as some people have alleged, pretty much the same?

  Tom Porteous: Thank you very much for giving us a chance to give evidence this afternoon. I also thank the Foreign Office for producing this report. It is a very useful report. It provides a standard against which we can measure the performance of the Foreign Office on human rights. On the question of the Human Rights Council, it is nice to be able to start this evidence session with something positive to say about the work of the UK Government.

  The UK has played an excellent role at the Human Rights Council and is possibly one of the best allies among Governments at the Council of human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch. It has worked hard to fight off efforts by some Governments who obviously do not want the Council to work properly and are therefore trying to water down its institutions. We want to see the UK continue to play this role. That is why we welcome the fact that the UK is seeking re-election to the Human Rights Council. As to the assessment of its performance, it is too early to tell whether it is any better than its predecessor. Certainly, it has the potential to be better.

  We have just seen in March the start of the universal periodic review process, by which Governments have a chance to review the performance on human rights of their peers. We were quite disappointed by the timidity of Governments in criticising their peers, or at least some of them. For example, in March we felt that Algeria and Tunisia got away very lightly, whereas the UK and the Czech Republic came in for some pretty heavy criticism, so we should like to see more consistency.

  The March session also revealed the continuing reluctance of the Council to take on the big human rights crises that exist in the world and that are emerging. If the Human Rights Council is to have more credibility than its predecessor, it needs to examine the major human rights crises in the world. We have seen the Human Rights Council address Israel and the occupied territories. It is right that it should do that. If it only addresses that, clearly there is a big problem. We have seen it address Darfur. That is positive, although the resolution in March on Darfur was extremely weak. We think that the council needs to address crises like Somalia, Burma, Burundi, China—particularly Tibet—Iraq, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan. Unless it addresses those human rights crises in the real world it will not have the credibility that it needs to make a better impression than that of its predecessor.

  Q2  Chairman: So you would agree with the FCO's report when it says that there has been a disproportionate and unbalanced focus in the Council's early months on the situation in the Middle East?

  Tom Porteous: Yes, we would. We think that the situation in the Middle East needs to be considered from a human rights perspective by the Human Rights Council, but other situations need to be considered as well if what it says about the situation in the Middle East is to be taken seriously.

  Kate Allen: I very much agree with the comments from Human Rights Watch. This has been the first year of the Human Rights Council and it has the potential to be much more effective than the commission. We have been pleased to see the role that the UK Government have played. Looking at the FCO's new strategic directions and the fact that effective international institutions are one part of that, as is preventing and resolving conflict, we would like to see the Human Rights Council's role as an early warning signal of areas of conflict, by looking at what is happening in terms of human rights, developed in the longer term so that it is not always dealing with crises, but is able to talk about prevention and those early warning signs.

  We think that the universal periodic review process is a good one. The UK was one of the earliest countries to go through that process. We were very pleased that the Government involved civil society in that process and welcome the fact that the Government are supporting seminars and other means to help other countries look at how that process can work.

  I should have said at the start that Amnesty also welcomes the Human Rights Report, because it is a hugely important piece of work. We have our differences with it, but we also know that the report provides that moment in the year when we concentrate collectively on the Government's record on human rights, and we very much value that.

  Q3  Sir Menzies Campbell: From your standpoint, how far does the absence of participation by the United States affect the work of the council?

  Tom Porteous: I would not say that the United States is entirely absent, because it is there in Geneva and pays close attention to what is going on at the council. It did oppose the creation of the council for various reasons, and our office in Washington is certainly working hard to secure greater engagement by the United States in the Human Rights Council, because we think that it can play a positive role.

  Q4  Sir Menzies Campbell: Is that your view as well, Ms Allen?

  Kate Allen: Yes.

  Q5  Chairman: We shall move on to the progress towards an arms trade treaty, which we have been pushing, as you know. In our report last year, we noted that the UN General Assembly had started the process, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report gives some information about that. What is you assessment of real prospects? The written evidence from Amnesty suggested that "substantial blocks" were starting to emerge as key Governments begin to outline their concerns. In your opinion, what are those substantial blocks and what can the Government and we as parliamentarians do to overcome them?

  Kate Allen: We are very pleased by the progress that has been made on the arms trade treaty and delighted at the UK Government's continuing leadership on the issue. They have been there from the very beginning as a champion of the treaty, and that has been vital to the progress made so far. Our view of where things are going is that there are some obstacles, but progress is also being made. The group of Government experts looking at the detail are progressing well, although there are substantive issues yet to be touched on.

  I think that there are some dangers, such as complacency and a feeling that the arms trade treaty has been done and has been through the General Assembly as an issue, so the danger is that it might now get lost. Our call from Amnesty is very much to maintain the UK Government's concentration on the arms trade treaty. There is a long way yet to go in devising the detail of the treaty and in ensuring that it is strong and effective.

  As parliamentarians, it would be good to keep that focus. All too often, attention can move to the next issue, and that would be a problem. A small number of states are opposing the treaty, and some of them are also on the group of experts—I refer particularly to India, Pakistan, Russia, China and Egypt. Some states are opposing the treaty, causing difficulties and questioning the scope of what an arms trade treaty should cover. From our point of view, as Amnesty, it is important that the arms trade treaty covers all conventional arms, including small arms, light weapons, ammunition and components and parts. We want a comprehensive arms trade treaty. I think that the British Government want that, too. The danger is that those countries that I have named will water down the scope of the arms trade treaty, and that must be guarded against.

  Q6  Mr. Purchase: Obviously, I would also like to see a very comprehensive treaty. I know that it would still depend on civilised and decent Governments ensuring, on their part, that it was followed and adhered to properly. Regrettably, given the mode and method of production in the greater part of the world, people can obtain weapons of all kinds illegally and transport them round the world almost with impunity. Do you have any thoughts about how large the trade is in the illegal transportation and sale of arms, which has always been a problem, and where the majority of the armaments are emanating from?

  Kate Allen: Many of those illegal arms start their life as legal arms. So we consider that the arms trade treaty, controlling the flow of the arms trade around the world, will have a knock-on effect in terms of how illegal arms become available around the world. The arms trade treaty, in itself, can provide a great framework for reducing illegal flows of arms. However, that would depend on the treaty being the comprehensive one that I have talked about and on monitoring mechanisms accompanying the treaty in respect of what arms are used for after they are sold legitimately, thus ensuring that the flow of illegal arms is reduced as far as possible.

  Q7  Sir Menzies Campbell: The FCO report makes some reference to cluster munitions, but perhaps not in as much detail as you and I would prefer. In your submission to us, Ms Allen, you gave the opinion that the Government appear to be arguing for exemptions that would allow them to keep the stock of some weapons presently in their possession, particularly the M85, which I understand was extensively used in Lebanon, with the consequences that we know about. How would you characterise the Government's efforts in promoting the cause of a treaty to ban cluster munitions?

  Kate Allen: We are pleased that the UK Government is supporting a treaty to ban cluster bombs, but it is confusing to see them wanting exemptions for two different means of delivering those weapons. You talked about the M85, which, as you say, has been used in Lebanon. The UK Government describe M85s as smart cluster bombs—ones that self-explode—but that was not the case in Lebanon. We are all too aware of the damage that those cluster bombs have done to the civilian population since they were used.

  The other mechanism is the CRV-7, which is a helicopter rocket system that the Government are seeking to exempt. That is intriguing because the Government have never actually used it. They have not used it in Iraq—they have not used cluster bombs in Iraq since 2003—so it would be intriguing to know why those bombs would be made exempt.

  We at Amnesty feel that it is inconsistent to look for those exemptions. It is possible that arguing for exemptions in the cluster bomb treaty will undermine some of the work on the arms trade treaty. We would like to see the UK Government drop that. It is ironic that one of the arguments that the Government use about CRV-7s is that they are needed to protect our forces, but unexploded cluster bombs have killed more NATO troops in Kosovo, including UK troops, than the whole military operation at that time. So these are incredibly indiscriminate and dangerous weapons. We would like to see the UK Government sign up to a complete ban.

  Tom Porteous: I would add to that that the FCO report itself says, proudly, that the UK has withdrawn the BL755 and the M26 munitions, because they do not have a "target discrimination capability nor a self-destruction ... capability". Exactly the same is true of the CRV-7. So under the FCO's own criteria, that too should be withdrawn.

  There are two other ways in which the UK is trying to water down the Oslo process, as we see it. First, it is seeking to neutralise the efforts of other states involved in the Oslo process to include in the treaty a ban on assisting other states that are not party to the treaty. This is a question of interoperability. Basically, the US, we feel, is putting pressure on the UK to include this exemption in the treaty, so that the UK—

  Q8  Sir Menzies Campbell: So UK-US forces can more easily operate together.

  Tom Porteous: Yes, operate together, and under those circumstances, the US could use these cluster munitions. The other way in which it appears to be watering down the treaty is that it seems to be opposing provisions in the treaty that assign special responsibilities for clearance of already contaminated areas on those who used the weapons in the first place.

  Q9  Sir Menzies Campbell: So there is some evidence of good intention, but it is not exactly fulfilled by good actions. Is that a good way to characterise it?

  Tom Porteous: If we are to get a treaty that does the trick of stopping cluster munitions causing unacceptable humanitarian suffering, what the UK is trying to do will prevent that.

  Q10  Sir Menzies Campbell: Just one last question: what is the provenance of the M85s? Who manufactures them?

  Tom Porteous: They are mostly manufactured in Israel.

  Q11  Sir Menzies Campbell: And the other one, the helicopter rocket-launched weapon that you mentioned—the CRV?

  Kate Allen: Can I get back to you?

  Q12  Sir Menzies Campbell: Of course. So we are not manufacturing them, but we are buying them in, if they are in the British inventory.

  Kate Allen: I will certainly get back to you on where they originate.

  Q13  Mr. Hamilton: Amnesty has argued that there is minimal emphasis on human rights in the strategy on corporate social responsibility, business and human rights, and none at all on the Government's international obligations to hold companies accountable. We hear quite a lot about the fact that many multinationals are more influential than some Governments and, indeed, have larger incomes than some Governments. But how important do you both feel that the role of business is in promoting human rights, especially in international trade? How can Governments influence those multinational companies, which can switch capital from state to state as they see fit?

  Tom Porteous: Obviously, business can be extremely beneficial. Businesses pay taxes, and they create employment and so forth. We are certainly not anti-business. However, it is pretty clear that some businesses have played a role in various parts of the world in facilitating quite serious human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have documented this. Just last year, we did a report on the abusive labour practices of Wal-Mart in the USA; it is not limited to the developing world. But we have also done work on the links between abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and gold extraction. We have done work on the role of Google and Yahoo! in China, where they are co-operating with a Government who are fairly restrictive—to say the least—on freedom of expression. There are clear links between human rights abuses and business in Burma, Indonesia, Nigeria and elsewhere. Both of our organisations have done quite a big job in documenting that.

  Thanks to the work of campaigning groups like ours, there is a growing awareness of such issues in business and in government. Human rights organisations have been in dialogue with Governments and businesses to address this problem. Reputable businesses have a lot at stake. If an important brand with an international reputation is sullied by accusations that the business is involved in human rights abuses, there is a problem from a business point of view. We have found it quite easy to enter into dialogue with some businesses.

  What has come out of that dialogue so far is a plethora of voluntary processes and guidelines for businesses, such as the extractive industries transparency initiative, the global compact, which is a UN initiative, and the voluntary principles on security and human rights, with which Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are involved. Those things are good, and we have made a good start. However, Human Rights Watch believes—interestingly, a growing number of businesses agree—that, without regulation, you will not get very far. The voluntary principles are fine and have got us some way, but they will be only partly effective.

  The reason why businesses are coming to the conclusion that regulation might be necessary is that the smaller businesses that can get under the radar are able to continue engaging in abusive practices. It is the big companies that suffer, because they are the ones with the reputations. They want to have a completely level playing field. With the growing influence of China, Malaysia and countries in parts of the world like Africa, big business is beginning to realise that, if a regulatory framework can create that level playing field, it will be to their advantage. Obviously, it would be to the advantage of the victims of the abusive practices that businesses have engaged in, and continue to engage in, particularly in conflict-prone parts of the world.

  Q14  Mr. Hamilton: I do not know whether Ms Allen wants to come back on that as well. It is quite surprising to hear that big business is in favour of regulation. Generally, it is not in favour of further regulation. In your response, you have not mentioned the role of the consumer. It seems to me that the consumer and the market can play an important role, because if consumers see that the products that they want to buy are produced by companies or factories that abuse the human rights of the workers, they will take their own action, will they not? A good example of that is Apple computers.

  Tom Porteous: That is true to an extent. We have been at the forefront of raising the awareness of abusive practices, and it seems to work on companies with big brand names, whether Wal-Mart, Nike or Gap. However, the situation is different with essential commodities such as oil. In many parts of the world, the extraction of oil is related to serious human rights abuses, but people do not know where the petrol at their local Shell filling station comes from, and they will go on filling up their cars. When it comes to such essential commodities, there remains a big problem.

  Kate Allen: To come back to this Government, I think that their approach is disjointed. The Department of Trade and Industry published a strategy in 2005 and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office published one in 2007, but the role of the Department for International Development was ignored a bit in both strategies. The UK Government very much rely on voluntary initiatives. Certainly, one of the areas that Amnesty was very much supporting some years back was the question of the UN norms. That went off the agenda, and instead, we had Professor John Ruggie looking at this issue. He has just reported, and that report is on its way to the Human Rights Council. That is now an opportunity to take this issue, which is vitally important.

  Like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty has reported on many abuses that companies have been involved in—sometimes unwittingly, sometimes purposefully. These issues need to be confronted by the Human Rights Council, and from an Amnesty perspective, we are increasingly less interested in voluntary mechanisms and more interested in mandatory ones to control this situation. Professor John Ruggie clearly points out that this is one of the governance gaps following globalisation—it is a total anomaly that a parent company and its subsidiaries continue to be treated as distinct entities and that the parent company has no responsibility for the actions of its subsidiaries. These are issues that, in a globalised world, have just got to be challenged. It is absolutely time for the Human Rights Council and others to get to grips with what will be one of the big areas for advancing over the next 10 or 20 years.

  Q15  Mr. Purchase: I agree broadly with the analysis made by Amnesty that it is difficult for Governments to hold big international companies to account. We have, as you said, this plethora of voluntary agreements. When I talk to large international companies, they always reasonably say, "We have an interest in good human relations, good environmental policies and working to the highest standards", but the truth of the matter is that that is absolutely voluntary.

  As my colleague mentioned earlier, often some of these international companies have a greater product or output than many of the countries in which they are located. How do we start to tackle that? There are certain powerful Governments who could make an effort—Britain, America, Germany and so on—but the majority of countries where large multinationals are located are smaller entities than the company they are hosting. How do we start to get to that?

  Kate Allen: It is absolutely vital that countries such as the UK start that process of discussion and debate that leads to something mandatory. Look at the damage done: in Bhopal, 20-plus years later, the companies involved have still not taken responsibility for what happened. They have still not been effectively brought to account. The people of Bhopal have continued to suffer—new generations. It needs the UK Government, with their influence, to start the discussion. It was regrettable that the UN norms went off the table, but we want to see that process and Professor John Ruggie's report to begin a new approach to this from the Human Rights Council.

  Tom Porteous: Two quick points, one of which is that the extractive industries transparency initiative, which is this Government's initiative, has been very positive. However, that initiative deals with revenue transparency of big oil-producing countries such as Nigeria and Angola. I think that there needs to be a similar initiative looking at the expenditure transparency of those countries. A lot of the money paid to those countries disappears, when it should be going on social spending on health, education and so forth.

  Mr. Purchase: Nigeria, you might think.

  Tom Porteous: The second point is that a lot of the money ends up in western banks, albeit offshore banks. More could be done by this country and other western countries to deal with that particular problem—to identify the corrupt payments that end up in western bank accounts.

  Q16  Andrew Mackinlay: Kate Allen, in your written evidence you primarily suggested that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not have a coherent strategy on gender issues, so perhaps you would amplify that.[6] The Committee is conducting an inquiry on Overseas Territories, so while you might want to paint on a broad canvas, we would also like to know about any issues relating to Overseas Territories in particular, because they are clearly within the direct competence of the FCO. We have already identified the fact that there is some disparity in the application of a number of treaties, conventions and Western European norms in Overseas Territories.

  Kate Allen: May I answer the question quite broadly and perhaps get back to you on the specifics of Overseas Territories as they relate to women's human rights? Amnesty's criticism is that issues relating to women's human rights are not included in the policy goals that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has outlined. We do not see a comprehensive approach to tackling women's human rights by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We know that that happens in some projects and in some embassies, but it does not happen consistently and it is not included in country strategies or in policy generally.

  We would like to see something that takes on those issues. I would like to outline a couple of reasons why and paint a picture of how women's human rights need to be addressed by the Foreign Office. If you look at violence against women in Russia, for example, you will see that 9,000 women are killed every year in situations of domestic violence, but there are no policies in that country to deal with the situation and the perpetrators very often go free. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tens of thousands of women were raped and abused during the conflict, and there are no effective facilities for support or health support for those women.

  With regard to the empowerment of women, we know that very little happens. In Iran, a campaign for equality was launched by women there. Many of the women who launched that campaign, which is just a straightforward campaign for equality, are now in prison. One of them, Delaram Ali, has been sentenced to 10 lashes as well as imprisonment. In Nepal, we see a peace process but no women involved in it. They are totally excluded from drawing up the ways in which that peace process will take place.

  In all those ways, the Foreign Office could have a voice with regard to the position of women's rights and could be saying consistently that they should be addressed in foreign policy. That would make a huge difference to how women around the world are able to live their lives, how they contribute economically, their independence and their ability to look after their children and be members of society. It is absolutely vital, because this is pervasive and affects everything, and gender issues need to be mainstreamed within foreign policy for that reason and because of how women in particular suffer in those instances. I do not have the detail on Overseas Territories, but we will get back to you in time for your inquiry.

  Q17  Chairman: May I switch the focus to some terrorism-related issues? As you are aware, over a number of years, our Committee has pursued the issue of extraordinary rendition in several reports and through extensive correspondence with three successive Foreign Secretaries. I do not want to go into the whole history, but we have obviously taken up with the Foreign Secretary the revelation that people were rendered through Diego Garcia by the United States, and are awaiting a detailed response.

  I would be interested in your assessment of the legality and the legal obligations that apply to the UK Government when a flight going to or from a rendition, but without having a person on board, goes through UK airspace or lands on UK territory. What is your interpretation of the legal situation with regard to that?

  Kate Allen: Very clear: if the British Government know what the flights are used for, they have legal responsibility to challenge. That is absolutely clear. The British Government do know, because Amnesty International and others have said that flights that have used UK airports are on a rendition circuit. We have never said that we have known that people were on those flights, but we have said that we know that those flights either picked somebody up and delivered them and have been returning, or have been involved in that rendition circuit. It is very clear that the UK Government have legal responsibility, because they know what those planes have been involved in.

  Q18  Chairman: Specifically with regard to Diego Garcia, would the UK Government, in your opinion, have a responsibility to ensure that no flights involved in rendition went through the airspace or used the facilities there?

  Kate Allen: Absolutely, in the same way as with UK territory. There is no difference in that sense. The Diego Garcia issue is one where the US Government came back some time later, having given assurances to the UK Government that Diego Garcia was not used, and the Foreign Secretary having given those assurances to Parliament—many had doubts but no evidence.

  The US Government have now said that it happened on two occasions. One of the concerns that we have as Amnesty is that there are two men, on two separate planes, who were rendered through UK territory. We think that it is also incumbent upon the UK authorities to find out what has happened to those two men—to find out their names, where they are and what condition they are in.

  It is also important that there is a proper independent inquiry on renditions. There has not been an independent inquiry. There have been inquiries by the Intelligence and Security Committee, but there has not been what Amnesty would consider an independent inquiry. That is what we would like to see now, particularly after the Diego Garcia revelations.

  Chairman: Mr. Porteous, do you want to add anything?

  Tom Porteous: I would just like to draw the Committee's attention to a new general comment of the convention against torture, which was written precisely to address concerns that the US and its allies were using abusive practices, including rendition and complicity in rendition, in violation of that convention. The convention against torture is pretty clear on those issues.

  Sir Menzies Campbell: To allow an aircraft to refuel—whether empty of passengers or not—because it is en route to somewhere else is to facilitate it. That is very straightforward.

  Q19  Chairman: I would like to move on to the related issue, which has also caused some controversy in recent years—the so-called diplomatic assurances with regard to individuals whom the British Government wish to return to their country of origin.

  There is a long history, which we do not have time to go into now, but recently there have been some legal judgments in the Court of Appeal about individuals who were to be deported to Libya and to Jordan. What is your assessment of where that leaves the diplomatic assurances and what would you suggest should be done in such cases?

  Kate Allen: In addition to the cases that you have mentioned, there has been a European Court of Human Rights ruling on the Saadi case. That ruling says that there cannot be a balance between national security and returning somebody to situations where they might be tortured. There cannot be that balance; people simply cannot be returned to situations where they might be tortured. In addition, domestically we have had the decision about Libya and Jordan. I understand that the Government are not going to appeal on Libya but will appeal on the Abu Qatada case in relation to Jordan.

  Amnesty International's view is clear: diplomatic assurances are not worth the paper they are written on. Those assurances are sought from Governments who routinely use torture, who have signed the UN convention against torture and who, therefore, routinely break international law. It is hugely undermining to the British Government's work against torture around the world that they are, and continue to be, engaged in this attempt to remove people to countries where they might be tortured.

  At the moment, the legal position and the various challenges leave the Government in the position where they will have to argue for diplomatic assurances country by country, case by case. These various judgments tell the British Government that they are going in the wrong direction, but there is the potential for that to continue country by country, case by case. It would be better if the British Government stopped pursuing diplomatic assurances, recognised that the ban on torture is an absolute and that there are no exceptions, and ceased going down this route. They would then regain their moral authority in the world in terms of challenging torture wherever it happens.

  For us at Amnesty, this is one of those issues where we deeply regret the way in which the British Government have gone over the last few years. The diplomatic assurances and the attempt to bring torture evidence into the British courts, which the House of Lords ruled against—all those things make it extremely difficult for the British Government to do the good work that they used to do in eradicating torture.

  Chairman: Mr. Porteous, do you want to add anything?

  Tom Porteous: Yes. First, I agree with all that, and that the UK is acting with total disregard for the safety of those detainees when it pushes for deportations under diplomatic assurances. On the specific question of where the Court of Appeal judgment leaves the British Government, neither that judgment nor any of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission judgments that we have had so far rule that diplomatic assurances cannot work. They have not ruled them out yet, although we would like them to do so as we think that diplomatic assurances cannot work in principle. As Kate says, things will be done country by country. This leaves the British Government in an awkward position, as it will be difficult to win such cases on a case by case basis.

  I also point the Committee in the direction of a more recent European Court of Human Rights judgment that came out last week. The case of Ismoilov v. Russia provides the best articulation yet from the European Court of Human Rights on why diplomatic assurances from states that practise torture cannot be considered reliable in a blanket sense. It is an important judgment and it shows that if any of these cases get to the European Court of Human Rights, the UK will lose.

  My final point is that, as well as all the problems that my colleague from Amnesty International has just outlined, the UK has gone to every forum it can possibly to go aggressively to pursue the weakening of the international non-refoulement obligations. It has gone to the European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe and the EU, and done so in the knowledge that its actions will undermine the global ban on torture. We feel that that is a serious cause for concern.

  Chairman: Can we move on to Guantanamo Bay?

6   Note by witness: "In our actual submission we said we are "concerned at the absence of a serious and integrated approach to gender issues in both the policy goals and the report; a separate section on women's rights is insufficient". Ev 1. Back

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