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Westminster Hall

Thursday 18 December 2008

[Robert Key in the Chair]

Human Rights

[Relevant documents: Human Rights Annual Report 2007—Ninth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee,Session 2007-08, HC 533, and the Government response, Cm. 7463.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Helen Goodman.)

2.30 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to be here before you today, Mr. Key, and I wish you and all the staff of the House a merry Christmas.

Let me start by drawing attention to the report that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published in July and the Government response that was published in September. I intend to set out the scope of our report, which is very wide-ranging, as you know, Mr. Key, and to discuss the Government response, which is welcome in relation to some areas. In other areas, however, the Government have said explicitly that they do not accept the Committee’s recommendations and conclusions, and I shall inevitably focus most of my remarks on areas where there is continuing disagreement. I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its officials for its consistent co-operation with our Committee on all our reports, but particularly these detailed and complex human rights annual reports.

We seem to debate this subject every year. That is within the gift of the Select Committee on Liaison, but in recent years, we have had several debates on human rights matters following our Committee’s report. In last year’s debate, I discussed the changes that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had proposed to its annual human rights report to make it “more tightly focused”. Our Committee expressed its hope that that would not be a means of hiding more controversial policies on human rights. However, I am pleased to say that the changes have been welcome and have produced an improved report that is more concise and covers a full calendar year.

The Government have implemented our recommendation that work on human rights should be integrated into their strategic priorities. The 2007 report described the interaction of human rights concerns with the FCO’s four strategic policy goals, and we welcome that.

This year’s report welcomes the Government’s decision to split the ministerial responsibilities for human rights and trade within the FCO. We had been asking for that to happen for two years because one Minister was covering both areas for a time, and we were concerned that that sent the wrong signals to some countries. Although we were happy with the performance of that particular Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), we nevertheless felt strongly that there should be a separation, within the FCO, between the Minister with responsibility for trade, who was also in the Department of Trade and Industry—now the Department for Business, Enterprise and
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Regulatory Reform—and the Minister with responsibility for human rights. The separation of those posts, in the June 2007 reshuffle, was welcome, as there should now be no potential perception of a conflict of interests. That is important, and we hope that the separation will remain.

We have considered a number of overall themes and individual countries. On overall themes, our report criticised the lack of prominence in the FCO’s 2007 report on women’s rights and children, as well as the inadequate work on the promotion of democracy. In their reply, the Government have agreed

I hope that that will be the case, and that the Minister will commit to giving greater prominence to women, children and the promotion of democracy in the Department’s next report.

As in previous years, we have looked closely at what has been happening with the United Nations system. The move, a few years ago, from having a Commission on Human Rights to having a Human Rights Council unfortunately has not led to a particularly improved performance within the UN system. That is disappointing and this issue has been controversial. We have noted that the UK has voted against seven of the 10 resolutions in this year’s FCO annual human rights report, and has abstained on the other three. That is because the way in which the UN system looks at human rights issues is not balanced, and has failed to address human rights abuses in significant regions and countries in the world. In my view, it has focused overly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but has not concentrated on or referred to human rights abuses in other regions and countries. That is damaging to the UN’s reputation and credibility.

If we have a universal declaration on human rights—we are celebrating its 60th anniversary this year—the Human Rights Council should be universal in its approach to human rights issues, but it clearly is not doing that at the moment. Will the Minister update us as to how the Government intend to press for a more balanced approach on these matters within the UN system?

The Committee has looked at terrorism for several years, both in this report and in specific reports on other issues. Examples include our report “Foreign Policy Aspects of the War Against Terrorism” and reports on the situation in the middle east, Iran and other areas. This report also discusses issues of terrorism and measures to prevent terrorism. We feel strongly that the Government should act to ensure that no flights

are part of what has become known as the “rendition circuit”. Unfortunately, the Government rejected that recommendation in their response.

We have also expressed concerns about the US Government trying former British residents at Guantanamo Bay under the Military Commissions Act of 2006. We recommended that the UK Government should press for the return of Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer from Guantanamo Bay to this country. We understand, from the FCO’s response, that the Government are doing so for Mr. Mohamed, but they seem to have given up in the case of Mr. Aamer. What further representations have the Government made about Mr. Mohamed, particularly in light of the US authorities’ decision to
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drop charges against him following the resignation of the original prosecutor on what he said were ethical grounds?

Clearly, there will be a change in US policy on Guantanamo Bay with the change of Administration. President-elect Obama is reported to have made statements about closing Guantanamo within two years. I am interested to know from the Minister how the British Government see their role in facilitating its closure and how other countries in Europe and around the world can assist in that process. As the Committee pointed out in our 2007 report, following our visit to Guantanamo Bay in September 2006, it is all very well to call for the closure of Guantanamo, but there are several hundred people there, some of whom are very dangerous and will need to be dealt with in a different way through a legal process, rather than simply being released into wider global society.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): On that point, the hon. Gentleman may not be aware of this, but one of my constituents was detained at Guantanamo Bay for four-and-a-half years, and, on my trips to Washington, in meetings at the State Department and the Pentagon amid efforts to try to secure his release, it was made absolutely clear that the Americans would like Britain, Europe and the rest of the world to assist them with their difficulties in closing Guantanamo Bay, in terms of processes and of taking those detainees who cannot be returned to their country of origin. I support the hon. Gentleman and his Committee in trying to push the Government to assist the new Administration in Washington in closing Guantanamo Bay and in ending what is a stain on American legal history.

Mike Gapes: I am grateful for that support. Our Committee has shown a close interest in those matters, and, in assessing the changes that might be needed to the Geneva conventions, we have also tried to indicate that this is not a simple question, because people who are caught up in a conflict but do not wear uniforms and are not part of a state’s army pose difficult challenges to the international legal regime. The whole world must consider the issue, and not just say that it is the responsibility of the United States. We, as Europeans, can make a bigger contribution than we currently make to assist in the closure of Guantanamo Bay.

An article published in the International Herald Tribune on 5 December pointed out that even when Guantanamo Bay is closed, there will still be the question of how the world deals with radical jihadist terrorists. Those individuals will still exist and they will need to be dealt with in some legal detention regime, otherwise they will continue to pose a threat to many societies in many countries. As we have seen from the recent events in Mumbai, the bombings in Islamabad, Bali, Tunisia and various European capitals, including London and Madrid, and the attacks elsewhere in the world, this is a global threat and a global challenge, affecting people on all continents, in all communities and of all faiths.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Surely it is not Europe’s responsibility to close down Guantanamo Bay, but solely a decision that the United States must take. The people in Guantanamo Bay could not face
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trial under any European standard, simply because any evidence that they offered would have been completely contaminated by the length of time that they had been there, and extracted under torture, anyway.

Mike Gapes: I said that we need to give assistance—to help. In fact, paragraph 77 of the Committee’s report states:

It is a US decision, but, from my own visit to Guantanamo in 2006, I know that there were people there whom the US wished to send back to certain countries, and that many countries were not prepared to take them. If those Uighurs had been sent back to China, they would certainly not have been treated very well, and they probably would have been executed. Some of them ended up in Albania, and, therefore, the question is what we do with the people who are released, some of whom will not safely be able to return to their country of origin.

We also expressed a lot of concern about torture, and we welcomed the fact that the Foreign Secretary made it clear that he considers, and therefore the Government consider, water-boarding to be torture. But that, of course, is not the current US Administration’s view. We therefore concluded that US assurances that it does not torture “cannot be relied upon”, and recommended that the Government analyse whether the US uses additional techniques that might be considered to be torture. In the Government’s response, they declined to do so, saying that such an analysis “would not be meaningful”. I should be grateful for clarification as to whether the Government still regard water-boarding to be a form of torture and, if so, what representations we are making both to the US about torture by its current Administration, and, in other contexts, internationally.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): My hon. Friend might like also to pray in aid the evidence that the then Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), gave to my Committee, when he made it absolutely clear that, as far as he was concerned, water-boarding was torture.

Mike Gapes: I accept that various Ministers have said that water-boarding is torture, and the logical corollary is, therefore, that the United States practises a form of torture. If it does, assurances that it does not are questionable, at least, and, as we have said, probably “cannot be relied upon”. That is an issue for the Government, and we hope that the matter can be resolved through the change in Administration in the United States, but, until such change happens, there will be a problem.

The Select Committee also addressed our Government’s record on the question of torture, and, although I shall not have time to go into the issue, we commented on the practice of seeking diplomatic assurances from countries to which the Government seek to return individuals. The Government recently suffered two court case defeats on the matter, one in relation to Abu Qatada, and another in relation to two Libyan men. We commented also on the fact that the Government intervened in and
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lost the case of Saadi v. Italy, which was before the European Court of Human Rights. The Government argued that the risk of harm to the individuals should have been balanced against the danger that they posed, but the court came down on the other side. We, as a Committee, were critical and questioned whether the Government’s position in that case amounted to trying to water down the anti-torture commitments that the UK has rightly held for many years.

Our report also addressed concerns about the claims that interrogation techniques were being outsourced to other countries, and we considered allegations relating to British nationals detained in Pakistan. Although the Government denied that they outsource torture, they undertook in their response to investigate the allegations. Our report recommended that there be clarification of the consular and non-consular access that is provided to people known as mono-nationals or dual nationals in Pakistani custody, because some people detained in Pakistan have both British and Pakistani nationality, and it complicates the situation somewhat. The Government reply stated that, in Pakistan, consular access is sought for all mono-national British citizens, but not for dual UK-Pakistan nationals, other than when there are “special humanitarian reasons”. Clearly, that could cover many cases, and it might be helpful to clarify the circumstances in which humanitarian reasons would be invoked to seek access to people who have both British and Pakistani nationality. The Government have commented neither on that issue nor on whether the evidence that the Pakistani authorities garner will be used for further investigations or charges in the UK.

The issue is topical, given that we know that the people responsible for the terrorist outrages in Mumbai were based in Pakistan and associated with terrorist groups that have also carried out terrorist actions against the Pakistani Government and killed people in Islamabad and elsewhere. The Prime Minister in his statement earlier this week talked about the need for co-operation between the Indian and Pakistani Governments to combat terrorism, and the UK has offered to help both Governments. If we do so, we must know the basis on which people are interrogated, and the basis on which there is access for British or part-British—joint British-Pakistani—nationals who might be detained in that context. Those questions raise wide issues, and if we believe that 75 per cent. of all the terrorist plots in this country originate in Pakistan, they are clearly not minor questions and will be on the agenda for a considerable time.

The Committee dealt with a number of other general issues, one of which was our continuing pressure on the Government about the fact that despite the Green Paper published by my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary in 2002 when he was Foreign Secretary, and despite the support of the Committee and others for legislation to regulate private security firms, no such legislation has been forthcoming. I had hoped that the Queen’s Speech would include an announcement of it. I understand that the Foreign Office is very keen to have such legislation, and I suspect that the opposition to it is coming not from within the FCO but from the Ministry of Defence. I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister of whether the Government remain committed to legislating on private security companies, and whether it might be
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introduced as one of the “other measures” mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, even though it was not explicitly referred to.

I wish also to draw attention to the fact that there are ongoing allegations about how some private security firms, including the US firm Blackwater, operate in Iraq. The announcement has just been made of a pending British withdrawal from Iraq, but there will presumably be private security companies operating there, which will employ British citizens, who are not necessarily subject to regulation or control by any international law or regime, or perhaps to any status of forces agreement about residual UK or US presence in Iraq. I would be grateful for clarification of that, as it seems that there is a lacuna in the terms of control and regulation. Many of the individuals involved are ex-military or ex-special services, yet somehow we do not have a mechanism for dealing with them. They provide protection to businesses, high-ranking officials and sometimes embassies, and if there is no clarity about the control and regulation of their organisations, there is a real danger.

Mr. Davey: May I add to the hon. Gentleman’s powerful point by saying that the UK taxpayer has spent nearly £250 million on private military and security companies in Iraq and Afghanistan to date? The need for greater transparency and regulation is therefore even greater.

Mike Gapes: That is true; there is a public interest in that. There is also a Government commitment, through the Green Paper from 2002. Nearly seven years on, where is the legislation? We need to move on that.

There are some wider issues that I shall not go into in detail. We have just launched an inquiry on global security proliferation, and we are examining weapons issues. In the most recent report, we mention the arms trade treaty, arguing that conventional arms should be included and that the scope of the treaty should be as wide as possible. We were told that the Government would press for that, but that they would not necessarily deal with all the issues to do with conventional arms. I would be grateful for clarification of where the Government see the arms trade treaty as being at the moment, and we will return to the matter in the coming months when we produce our report on proliferation. We will visit Geneva and Vienna in January to consider those issues among others.

Another global matter that I wish to touch on briefly is the International Criminal Court, which is now functioning well. We have seen the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, from the Bosnian conflict, which was an important signal. However, there are still outstanding issues, such as the role of Mr. Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. There are also the complications with regard to President Bashir of Sudan and other people who might be referred to the ICC. One of the big problems is that although the US and the Security Council did not block the reference of Sudan to the ICC, the US and other countries are yet to accede to the Rome statute. There is a clear need for us to press that issue. Hopefully President-elect Obama, given his legal background and his knowledge of international law and international relations, will change the American approach on such things. I would be interested to know what our Government are doing to press those points.

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