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18 Dec 2008 : Column 159WH—continued

So it goes on. A journalist whom I know well, Sener Levent, was jailed in the north for things that he had
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written, and faces dozens of criminal charges. We see in northern Cyprus the same sort of oppression as we see in Turkey.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will my hon. Friend say anything about Cypriot missing persons since the invasion in 1974 who were apparently imprisoned in Turkey? The fate of a substantial number of them remains unknown.

Robert Key (in the Chair): Order. No, the hon. Gentleman will not venture there. I am being very generous already. We are considering the 2007 human rights annual report and the Government’s response, neither of which mentions Turkey or Cyprus. The Minister need not feel obliged to respond to those points, important and entrancing though the speech is.

Mr. Dismore: I do not wish to criticise your ruling, Mr. Key, but I refer you to paragraph 80 of the human rights annual report, which refers to Council of Europe matters. It does not deal specifically with Cyprus, but with some Council of Europe rulings on such matters. The European Court of Human Rights is part of the Council of Europe. I refer to these matters in the context of ECHR cases, which are an appropriate part of today’s debate.

Robert Key (in the Chair): But we are not debating that report this afternoon.

Mr. Dismore: The Committee’s report refers to the Government’s report, which has been endorsed. In that context, I hope that you will allow me, Mr. Key, to refer to some of those ECHR cases. I shall refer more generally to those points, because those cases raise important issues, in relation to property and the missing persons in Cyprus.

The Loizidou case was the leading case in this matter, but more recently, in the case of Arestes, Turkey has failed to execute the judgment ordered by the ECHR. The role of Turkey is referred to in full in the Government document and cross-referred to in the Committee’s report. The Arestes case deals with the so-called Turkish Cypriot Property Commission. Eight cases have been designated as test cases by the ECHR to examine the effectiveness of the property commission remedy, and 32 other cases have been declared admissible, one to the value of £130 million. The issue is that the commission does not award restitution, without which there is no remedy, as far as the European convention on human rights is concerned.

The Sofi case—I am not referring to one side of the argument only—concerns a Turkish Cypriot who is challenging the guardianship law in the republic, and the ECHR is allowing a hearing on the republic courts. Only today we saw the recommendation of the ECHR advocate-general on the Orams case, which concerns the purchase by a British national of a property in northern Cyprus built on Greek Cypriot land where the Greek Cypriot has been able to obtain a judgment in the courts of the republic, which should now be enforced in the UK courts on the basis of a reference from our courts to the ECHR. I hope that we will see an end to that case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to missing persons, on whom the ECHR leading case is that of Varnavas in Turkey, which has been rumbling on for about 18 years. On 19 November, a full Grand Chamber hearing looked
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into the lack of an investigation into the deaths of nine missing persons—eight soldiers and one civilian—and, on behalf of three of their families, allegations of inhuman treatment. The Committee on Missing Persons cannot provide an effective investigation because it is not in its role to do so. The Cyprus courts are also involved. A Turkish Cypriot has applied to the Supreme Court of Cyprus for a judicial review on the lack of investigation of a death in the Republic.

In another case, the Pasha family are suing the Republic of Cyprus for not telling them that their missing relative—a reservist who had been collected by the National Guard truck in the ceasefire in 1974—had in fact been buried on the Greek Cypriot side. Many such cases seriously breach human rights and come within the context of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, and they need to be resolved.

On a positive note, the Committee on Missing Persons, which is part of the United Nations—my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred to the United Nations in his opening remarks—is functioning well, but it cannot look at the cause of death or attribute responsibility. It is working on a bicommunal basis, which is one of the positive things in Cyprus. It has exhumed 450 bodies so far, out of a total of 1,996 missing people on both sides. It has been able to identify and return 107 sets of remains—31 Turkish Cypriots and 76 Greek Cypriots—and investigated 224 sites. It needs $3 million to run, and is funded year by year only. Does my hon. Friend the Minister think that the Government will consider putting their hand in their pocket to ensure that such vital work continues, because it has at least another two years’ worth of work to do?

In relation to demining, to which both reports referred, another €4 million is needed to clear the rest of the buffer zone. Both communities and the UN have put money into demining, but it remains a significant problem to conclude. I hope that the Minister can respond to those important human rights points.

I should like to turn now to the question of Sri Lanka, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred. It is a very serious issue on which we must focus. I regret the fact that the ceasefire ended earlier in the year because without it there can be no military solution to the conflict. We should all like to see self-determination and a fair and just solution to the problems in the north. The human rights crisis is grave, with reports of disappearances, extra-judicial killings and violence against the media.

Sri Lanka is ranked 165th out of 173 countries in the 2008 world press freedom index published recently by Reporters without Borders. It lags behind Somalia and Iraq, and is only just ahead of Iran and China. Journalists have been murdered, attacked and intimidated, especially in war areas. In a response to a parliamentary question, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), estimated that, after the latest surge in fighting, the number of displaced Sri Lankans has risen from 75,000 in July to between 200,000 and 250,000 now. Most of them are Tamils, and two thirds of them are likely to be women and children. There was no humanitarian access to assess the figures properly. Those people are trapped without any assistance. I am pleased that the Government have committed a further £2.5 million
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in humanitarian relief to international agencies. The total estimate of internally displaced people is around half a million.

The Government are correct when they say that there must be inclusive political negotiations for a just settlement in Sri Lanka that can satisfy the legitimate aspirations of all communities and help to promote democracy. I am not surprised that the Sri Lankan Government were not re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council earlier in the year. There is no doubt that Sri Lanka has failed to honour its commitments to uphold human rights and co-operate with the UN since it became a member two years ago.

Recently, I have been raising questions on Sri Lanka’s beneficial trade position with the UN and the general system of preference plus, which was due for review recently. Will my hon. Friend say what attitude the Government took in the final part of those negotiations, in particular whether that beneficial position for Sri Lanka has now been ended? Such a position cannot be justified at a time of such huge and horrible human rights abuses.

The Sri Lankan air force drops bombs indiscriminately in northern Sri Lanka, causing civilian casualties. Last year, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Louise Arbour, visited Sri Lanka, and confirmed that there were a large number of abductions, disappearances and killings. She called for an international human rights monitoring mission to Sri Lanka.

Only this week, we have seen a huge upsurge in military violence. Both sides say they kill scores of each other’s fighters, but independent reporters are banned from the war zone. Inevitably, we are reliant on the views and accounts put forward by each side. I heard a particularly disturbing account from Wednesday’s fighting. A five-month-old child was killed and 13 other refugees, including three children, were wounded when Sri Lankan air force jets bombed refugee settlements in Vaddakkachchi four times. The Sri Lankan army has also intensified artillery attacks, targeting civilian settlements in Vaddakkachchi, Oddisuddaan and Mutiyava’lai. On Monday, artillery shells hit Mullaiththeevu general hospital, causing injuries to two patients.

Mr. Davey: I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on the situation in Sri Lanka. Is he aware of the allegations that the Sri Lankan army has been using cluster munitions in some of its attacks against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, thus endangering yet more civilians?

Mr. Dismore: I was not aware of that, but the hon. Gentleman has made a very important and valid point.

Let me turn to the reports from international non-governmental organisations. A few weeks ago, Amnesty said that the Sri Lankan Government must end their policy of blocking the humanitarian aid that is needed by the displaced people in the Wanni region. It called on both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE to allow in international monitors to assess the needs of the thousands of the people trapped in the Wanni, and to ensure proper distribution of food and other resources.

The Sri Lankan Government lack the capacity to uphold international human rights standards and to ensure that support is provided to protect the lives of
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thousands—whether it be through shelter, sanitation or food. Criticism should not be targeted just at the Sri Lankan Government. The LTTE must also bear its share of the responsibility for the human rights abuses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South said. Tamil Tigers are subjecting ethnic Tamils in the Wanni to forced recruitment, forced labour and restrictions on movement that place their lives at risk. They have prohibited the movement out of Wanni except for some medical emergencies. Only about 1,000 people have been able to escape from the region since March. The LTTE has trapped hundreds of thousands of people in a dangerous war zone, according to Human Rights Watch. It has also stepped up child recruitment. It is encouraging youngsters aged between 14 and 18 to join up. It has undoubtedly killed large numbers of civilians, committed political assassinations and carried out suicide bombings, thus eliminating most of the political opposition within the Tamil community. It is responsible for killing journalists and rival organisation members as well. This is a terrible conflict, with human rights abuses on both sides. The answer has to be a political settlement one way or the other.

I should like to refer to part 3 of the report, which is the interface between the human rights work of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the report of my own Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I do that with approbation because it has done an excellent job on the issue of rendition, with its views very much coinciding with ours. When it comes to rendition, there is a real difficulty in finding evidence of what is going on. With all the circumstantial evidence and allegations, it is very difficult to establish what is really happening.

We agree with the recommendation of the Committee concerning the question of water-boarding, which I dealt with when I intervened on my hon. Friend’s speech. We also agree with the point about UK officials and torture. The Committee refers to the Guardian reports of April 2008 in which allegations are made relating to torture and the conduct of UK officials in Pakistan. We plan to follow that up ourselves with an evidence session in February in which the Guardian journalist who has being carrying out these detailed investigations will be questioned.

The report also refers to the issue of diplomatic assurances. We very much concur with what the report says. The Joint Committee has published its own report on those assurances, in particular on memorandums of understanding. We cross-examined the Home Secretary on that, and the position that was advanced was peculiar. To summarise, the position seemed to be that it was all right to ill-treat people if the ill-treatment fell short of torture. However, the prohibition relates not only to torture, but to inhuman treatment, which could be at a low level. There is no line drawn in human rights law between inhumane treatment and torture, as the Court of Appeal rightly found when it ruled on the matter. My Committee was embarrassed by the argument that the Government advanced in the case of Saadi v. Italy, which, as the report says, was soundly rejected by the European Court of Human Rights. The Foreign Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are singing from the same hymn sheet on such issues, although we approach them from different directions.

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Finally, I should like to comment briefly on the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, and in particular to commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s speech last week to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission reception. It was a powerful defence of human rights at home and abroad. He said that liberty, democracy and justice are rights that all human beings are born with, no matter where they come from; that we should all campaign for Roosevelt’s four freedoms at home and abroad; that liberty and fairness are as relevant as they ever have been; and that the universal declaration of human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 are a shield and safeguard for all of us.

Any 60th anniversary is a seminal moment, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South was right to draw attention to the threat posed by some of the regimes around the world that are becoming more influential to those basic, fundamental principles. The values are universal and, in my view, timeless. They have their roots in centuries of our history, but they are for the world as a whole. It would be an absolute disgrace is there was any resiling from those basic values, which all in the House stand to defend.

4.12 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to be taking part in the debate, although I am slightly surprised at the timing—it is a Thursday afternoon, immediately before the Christmas recess. I know that you are not responsible for these decisions, Mr. Key, and I do not know who is, but it possibly suggests that some people are not awfully keen on debating human rights. I am sure that I am not referring to any hon. Members present.

Mike Gapes: May I help my hon. Friend? I do not think that it is anybody’s fault. There were two slots for a debate in Westminster Hall, and the Foreign Affairs Committee will be away on the second. Therefore, our only alternatives were no debate, or a debate today. I am sure that it will be a debate of quality, considering the excellent contributions that we have already had.

Jeremy Corbyn: I bow to that wisdom, and I am happy to take part in the debate, as I am sure all other hon. Members are. I wish you a happy Christmas, Mr. Key, if that helps.

The principle of the debate is very important. Clearly, the work that Robin Cook did to ensure that the Foreign Office produced an annual human rights report was a good step forward. Of course, that encourages the Foreign Affairs Committee to produce a report, and for the Government to respond, all of which is welcome and important. I rather liked how the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), introduced the debate by saying that the Government had apparently promised to explain their views better next year. I am not quite sure what that means, but I look forward to that better explanation.

I should like to address the thematic issues that are dealt with at the beginning of the report, because they are an important part of it. The United Nations was set up after the second world war, and the universal declaration of human rights was written in 1948. A great many things stem from it, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, which was formerly called the United
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Nations Human Rights Commission. I was interested in what the Committee said about it. I have attended quite a lot of sessions of the commission and, latterly, the council, and they are valuable, important institutions. However, they are not terribly efficient in going about their business. There is a difficult balance to strike between being supportive of the principles of their work, and expressing concern about the speed with which they work and the lengthy sessions that they hold.

There is a growing tendency, which runs wider in the UN system, of excluding, as far as possible, the work of non-governmental organisations. Clearly, when the UN was set up, a role for civil society organisations was envisaged—it is enshrined in every UN conference and agency. NGOs attend the sessions but, in Geneva, I have seen them get less and less time, and more objections are made to individual organisations. I am not saying that there should be no right of objection—in some cases it is legitimate—but I am concerned about the general diminishing of the role of civil society organisations.

In an open, democratic society, civil society organisations can make their points of view known to their Governments, international forums and other places. However, where there is no open, civil society, and no easy opportunity for human rights defenders to approach a Government or other authority to demand justice for people, access to an international body such as the UNHRC is the only avenue. I would be grateful if the Minister could say what our representatives in Geneva are doing to ensure and guarantee civil society organisations a place and facilities, so that they can have a voice and a presence, and take action.

I notice the problem especially when there is a peer group review of human rights on the basis of a report from each country, which is a welcome process. Some countries—I have observed this—show enormous reluctance even to acknowledge the objections made by civil society organisations. In some cases, there is an abject refusal of any other Government to take up the cause of human rights in another country for all kinds of commercial, military and other reasons. The voice of civil society is important, and I hope that the Foreign Office understands the points that I have made on it.

I could talk about a lot of things in this debate, but I should like to deal with the thematic concerns about human rights abuses around the world. In the report and the response, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Government respectively correctly say that the thematic approach of looking at the treatment of, say, women and children is important. However, today is international migration day. No group of people is treated worse, reported and recognised less, and exploited more, than migrant workers, or people who are trying to lead lives in countries other than their own. In effect, they are paperless individuals.

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has made a statement today, in which he talks initially about the value of migration. Clearly, every society benefits from migration, including ours. Skilled and unskilled workers move from one place to another and make an enormous contribution to their societies. Many people have left this country for
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other places to better themselves. It has always happened and it will continue. Mr. Guterres rightly makes that point, and goes on to say:

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