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I wish briefly to mention a number of individual countries referred to in the report, although not all of them, as the agenda is inevitably selective. In a report that we published earlier this year, we examined in depth the human rights and political situation in Iran. That is also mentioned in our human rights report. From recent discussions that I have had with representatives of the Baha’i community, I understand that human rights issues are getting worse for them, with more persecution and more arrests.

Iran has the most executions in the world except for China, and I believe the highest of all per capita. There is also hanging by strangulation, public stoning, flogging and amputation, which are not just part of the criminal code but were justified to us when we met Mr. Larijani, the head of the Iranian Government’s human rights commission. Since 2006, there have been a number of high-profile cases, including the punishment of same-sex relationships by death and discrimination and violence against women. Human rights in Iran should not be treated as a secondary issue. Although it is important to emphasise the continuing breach of the non-proliferation treaty through the Iranians’ enrichment programme and other nuclear-related matters, it is important that we recognise that the human rights situation is very poor for many millions of Iranians.

We touched also on the human rights situation in Burma. When we produced our report, there had recently been the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and the inadequate initial response by the Burmese Government authorities. We know that the British Government have tried hard to get the issue on the UN Security Council agenda and found it difficult because of the attitudes of some other countries. I would be grateful for an update on what action might be taken under the broad agenda of our responsibility to protect and the appalling human rights situation in Burma.

On China, our report was published just before the Beijing Olympics and there was inevitably a focus on that. We had an evidence session with the Dalai Lama, which was very well received by British people but did not go down so well with the Chinese Government. I would be grateful for an update on the Government’s position on what is happening in Tibet and the fact that the talks, which were renewed around the time of the Olympics, seemed to hit a brick wall in September. The Dalai Lama’s call not for independence but for a third way of genuine autonomy has been blocked and rejected by the Chinese authorities.

I know that the Minister expects me to ask about the Government’s recent change of position in respect of Tibet and their statement that we would no longer use the word “suzerainty”. That has caused concern among some lobby groups and non-governmental organisations, who interpret it as a change of approach to Tibet. I would be grateful for a clarification of what it means in practice in respect of human rights concerns and our support for autonomy within Tibet.

Mr. Davey: On that point, is the hon. Gentleman aware of any concessions that the British Government have secured from the Chinese Government for the change in their position?

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Mike Gapes: No, I am not. Perhaps the Minister could respond to that question when she winds up.

I have mentioned the Government’s statement on Iraq. We raised concerns about the people who were employees of the British Government in Iraq and who at present are required to become refugees outside Iraq before they can apply for the gateway programme to get into the UK. Many people have had to flee Iraq and may be in Syria or Jordan. There is the question of whether we are doing enough to assist people who have worked closely with us—not just interpreters, but others. The lives of some of those brave individuals were, and probably still are, threatened by some of the extreme radical Sadrist or Ba’athist groups which remain in Iraq, despite the welcome political progress that has been made.

I welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement about the timetable for withdrawal. I am still convinced that it was right to liberate Iraq from the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein, but there are issues that need to be addressed, and I hope that the Government will do so.

The report touches on human rights in Russia. Last year, we published a major report, “Global Security: Russia”. Clearly, there are human rights concerns in respect of that country. When he took office, President Medvedev talked about having a law-based system, but there does not seem to be much evidence of change in some important respects.

The UK has concerns about human rights matters that have affected British citizens and Russians alike. This is not the time to go into the outstanding disputes over the British Council, the murder on London streets of a British citizen, Mr. Litvinenko, by polonium, or other issues, but it is important that we register the fact that there are important human rights issues in respect of Russia.

The regular six-monthly European Union-Russia human rights consultation took place in October. I would be grateful for clarification of the outcome of it, where we are today, and whether there has been any progress at all. The EU has just announced that it is opening negotiations with Russia on a renewed partnership and co-operation agreement. The Committee was rather sceptical in its 2007 report about whether it was worth the candle because of all the outstanding difficulties, but the British and Swedish Governments made a joint statement and the position changed. Clearly, it is important that we do not just have the noble Lord Mandelson going to Moscow to talk about improved trade. We also need the Foreign Office Ministers responsible for human rights to go there to talk about human rights matters. It is important that we can keep human rights issues in Russia high on the agenda.

On Saudi Arabia, I have to say that I am disappointed by the Government’s response to our report. Saudi Arabia may be a major partner and ally, there may be the two kingdoms dialogue, we may have lots of exports to Saudi Arabia, and the western world may rely on its oil, but let us be frank: its treatment of women is deplorable. It has an appalling human rights record—one of the worst in the world—and there is no point in beating about the bush. Progress is incredibly slow on such matters.

The Foreign Office told the Committee that the Saudis executed 158 people in 2007, and Amnesty International told us that most executions are done in public, including
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that of a 15-year-old boy who was executed in 2007, and that the country even carries out executions for witchcraft. Saudi Arabia seems to be 600 or 700 years—or perhaps 400 years—behind the rest of the world in some respects. Frankly, if we have global human rights standards, we need to be more outspoken.

We recommended that the Government’s current policy of assisting with gradual reform is inadequate and that the two kingdoms dialogue should explicitly address matters such as the death penalty. We recommended that measurable, time-limited objectives should be part of the dialogue. We suggested that the Foreign Secretary could write to us in confidence on the matter if he wished to give us information that he did not wish to make public for diplomatic reasons. The Government have rejected all those recommendations, and I am very disappointed.

We were concerned that the Government’s report failed to pay sufficient attention to the appalling human rights crisis in Somalia. I am pleased that the Government have accepted our recommendation and that next year’s report will have a significant section on Somalia. Clearly, we need to address not just the situation in Somalia itself but also the regional impact, and the fact that there are still Ethiopian troops in Somalia two years later. I was told by the Ethiopian ambassador when they first went in that they would be there for only six weeks. Clearly, there is now a serious situation in that country.

On our recent visit to the UN, we were told that there are still insufficient helicopters and engineering resources for the UN peacekeeping force in Sudan, and we hope that the Government will look again at assisting in that area. We are disappointed that so far there does not appear to be a stronger commitment in material terms. This is perhaps not an issue for the Foreign Office; it is more a question for the Ministry of Defence. Nevertheless, we could be doing more to help the African Union hybrid force in that area, and the people in Sudan and Darfur. Sudan is a major country with the potential to have an impact on conflicts around its borders.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will my hon. Friend’s Committee be able to deal in some depth with the situation in the Congo in next year’s report, particularly as two of the themes appear to be the treatment of women and the treatment of children, both of which are of massive importance, particularly in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo?

Mike Gapes: I accept that our Committee did not cover the Congo. We tend to comment on the FCO’s report. We look at the areas that it deals with and then mention other areas that it did not cover for future consideration. I hope that the Congo will be pushed up the international agenda by our Committee and by the FCO.

Clearly, we are concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe, which has become much worse since our report was published and since the Government’s response was published in September. There is a crisis in that country. Many people have had to leave to go to South Africa and elsewhere, and there is a catastrophic cholera outbreak which, of course, is no longer happening, according to Robert Mugabe.

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We all know that the real solution is that the democratically elected Government should be able to take power, but that requires South Africa in particular and also other countries in the region to be more active and to apply more pressure. The international community as a whole must help to deal with that appalling situation, and with the humanitarian disaster that is occurring in that once peaceful, prosperous and agriculturally productive country.

I should like briefly to mention three countries that we did not refer to in the report, but I flag these up because there is concern about them and we in the UK need to consider that. All three countries are Commonwealth countries and former British colonies in Asia. The first is Sri Lanka, although because there is an Adjournment debate on the situation there in the main Chamber later, I will not speak about it in detail now.

Many Sri Lankans—mainly, but not only, Tamils—live in this country. There is deep concern about what is currently happening in Sri Lanka in respect of the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the central Government. Clearly, the Government view is that they can have a military victory, but there will be consequences as a result of that. As well as the appalling human rights abuses that have been carried out by the LTTE, including using child soldiers in the past, bombing by the Sri Lankan Government has hit schools and medical facilities. Many people have been forced to flee as a result of the military actions taking place in the north of Sri Lanka at this moment.

There is deep concern among the people of Sri Lankan origin in this country. I declare an interest, in this sense, because a large number of Tamils live in my constituency, and whenever I visit the Hindu temple serving that community, people tell me about the appalling situation and show me photographs. There is no doubt that there is not one bad and one good side in that situation. The Sri Lankan Government would argue, no doubt, that they are combating an organisation that carries out terrorist attacks, including blowing up buses and assassinations, which is all true; nevertheless, some appalling things are happening in Sri Lanka.

Secondly, we need to recognise that human rights include the right to freedom of worship. People in Hindu communities in Malaysia are suffering as their temples are being destroyed. The Malaysian Government need to recognise that, although we do not regard Malaysia as a great human rights abuser, there is concern around the world about the situation there. Hopefully, they can take steps to redress that problem.

Thirdly, human rights, women’s rights—a topical issue because of the high-profile case of the young trainee doctor—and religious minorities’ rights in Bangladesh need to be looked at. A military coup in Bangladesh led to the abolition of what might have been a dysfunctional democratic system, but although large numbers of lawyers and political party activists are being locked up—far more than were locked up by Musharraf in Pakistan—this country does not have a focus on what is happening in Bangladesh. Our Government need to raise the profile of Bangladesh. I hope that we can consider that issue in the coming year.

I am conscious that I cannot speak for the whole of the time available, much as I would like to, so I conclude by making a general point. I have already mentioned
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that this is the 60th anniversary year of the universal declaration of human rights. I believe that there is a real threat to the universal values and the universal system established when the United Nations organisation was first set up before the end of the second world war, with early meetings in 1942 and 1943, meetings in London and San Fransisco, and the setting up of the institutions of the international order 60 years ago.

The world’s focus, economically and politically, is shifting from Europe and north America to Asia. Many of the countries that are growing in economic and political importance in this century do not necessarily share the universal human rights approach that was established in the 1940s, when Eleanor Roosevelt and others played such an important role. We need to be vigilant and we must emphasise the importance of those universal human rights values. Whether it is China or Saudi Arabia, or any other country with an important economic weight in the global system, countries have to understand that we will not pull our punches on human rights. Human rights are universal. A young woman in Jedda and a young woman in Shanghai should have the same rights and respect as a young woman in Berlin, London or Chicago. We need to recognise that those universalist values should continue to be at the forefront of our agenda. That is why the human rights annual report from the FCO, initiated by the late Robin Cook in 1997, is welcome and why the Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to monitor the Government’s work and press them to do more on these issues. Although we recognise that they do quite a lot, unfortunately not everything that we would wish to see is contained in the response. Perhaps next year they will do better.

3.16 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I warmly endorse the final point made by the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). I entirely agree with him and share his concern that the deep fundamental principle of the universality of human rights is being threatened in many parts of the world. It is incumbent on the international community—Governments in particular—to stand up for that principle of universality: the principle that human rights do not have national frontiers.

The 2007 annual report on human rights from the Foreign Office lists a total of 21 countries under the heading “Major countries of concern”. As was the case with the Committee Chairman’s contribution, I must be necessarily selective. I want to focus on three particular countries, all of which feature in the FCO’s list of countries of major concern. I shall start with Zimbabwe. I begin where I finished my remarks on Zimbabwe in the equivalent debate just over a year ago, on 11 October 2007, when I said:

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There is no doubt that, from a human rights standpoint, the current ambit of international criminal law is seriously deficient. International criminal law, such as it is, is also being applied in an anomalous and inconsistent way. I should like to compare, for example, Mr. Mugabe with Mr. Milosevic. Mr. Mugabe and his regime, like Mr. Milosevic and his regime, have been responsible for an unknown number of unlawful killings. Mr. Mugabe and his regime, like Mr. Milosevic and his regime, have been responsible for police brutality and torture and now we see a wave of abductions. Mr. Mugabe and his regime, like Mr. Milosevic and his regime, have been responsible for removing huge numbers of the citizens for whom they are responsible from their homes and turning them, in huge numbers, into refugees obliged to flee from their country.

Mr. Mugabe, in this case unlike Mr. Milosevic, has been responsible for destroying his country’s economy and the value of his country’s currency, inflicting destitution and the total breakdown of public services, including education and health, and allowing wholly preventable diseases to occur. Contrary to what Mr. Mugabe is claiming, it is evident that, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva this week, nearly 1,000 people have died of cholera in Zimbabwe, and there are nearly 20,000 suspected cases. The contrast is that Milosevic was indicted and taken to The Hague, and he stood trial for crimes against humanity, yet Mugabe has got off scot-free so far and has avoided any international criminal proceedings.

I was delighted that the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, in his recent excellent article in The Observer headed “It’s time to topple the tyrant Mugabe”, concluded:

Mr. Dismore: The right hon. Gentleman said that when he spoke about the matter last year, the case against Mugabe was not at the level of a crime against humanity. Does he agree that the powerful case that he is now advancing suggests that it has reached that level? It has been suggested that because Mugabe is approaching his 85th birthday, the International Criminal Court may cease to have jurisdiction. Does he know whether that is so? If it is, will my hon. Friend the Minister respond to that, because it would be news to me. The real issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said, is the role of South Africa in bringing Mugabe to justice.

Sir John Stanley: I am not aware of any age cut-off for criminal proceedings by the International Criminal Court.

As I said last year, there is a serious requirement to consider the ambit of international criminal law. The situation in Zimbabwe has worsened hugely since our previous debate, just over a year ago. What steps will the Government take, with other Governments, to ensure that Mr. Mugabe is indicted and brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague?

I come now to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. In the debate last year, I referred to the situation in Gaza and the occupied territories, and I have no compunction about doing so again. It is deeply
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regrettable that, as in Zimbabwe, the situation is no better, and is markedly worse than a year ago. Gaza is effectively a giant prison in which 1.25 million Palestinians are imprisoned by the Israelis. Indeed, it is worse than any modern, properly run prison, because it is a prison where power supplies may be, and have been, cut off. It is a prison where food supplies may be, and have been, cut off. It is a prison where job opportunities are vanishing almost to the point at which they no longer exist. It is a prison where basic services, such as health and education, are breaking down. It is no good the Israeli Government saying that that is justified on security grounds. That justification does not wash on moral, legal or effective policy grounds. An indisputable historical fact is that no terrorist action or movement has ever been stopped or overcome by a general system of reprisals against the surrounding civilian community. That has never succeeded, and will not succeed in this case.

To make my position clear, I condemn, as strongly as anyone, terrorist action out of Gaza towards the Israeli settlements in southern Israel. It is indefensible, I condemn it utterly, and I fully support the Israeli Government in dealing with it, but terrorism must be countered by targeting the terrorists. Terrorism cannot be countered by a system of reprisals against the general civilian population.

The situation in the west bank is little better, and was extraordinarily well set out in the 2008 report “The State of Human Rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories”, which, to its great credit, was produced by the Israeli organisation, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. An opening paragraph encapsulates absolutely what is going on in the west bank, and states:

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