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18 Dec 2008 : Column 166WH—continued

It gives me no pleasure to report that in this year alone several hundred people have died trying to cross to the Canary islands from west Africa, trying to cross to Italy, Malta and Greece, and trying to cross to the United States from various countries in central America. There is a legacy of people who have been exploited grossly at home in central America, who have sought economic salvation in the United States, but who have died on the way. I hope that in its future work, the Foreign Affairs Committee will consider the operation of the conventions on migrant peoples and on the rights of migrant workers to enjoy equivalent economic conditions to other workers. I hope that this twilight existence and this exploitation will be ended.

Mr. Davey: Why is Britain not a signatory to the international convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families? Does he agree that that should be a priority for the Government?

Jeremy Corbyn: I agree absolutely. Last year, I was a rapporteur of a joint conference of the International Labour Organisation and the Human Rights Council in Geneva which made the point that all countries should be signatories of exactly that convention. I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s point and believe that Britain should be a signatory.

It gives me no pleasure that there are people, even in this city, almost within sight of this building, who lead a twilight existence because they have no papers. I am one of many colleagues who support the Migrants into Citizens campaign to bring about legal justice for such people. There is a fourth world of 200 million people who move around because of disasters in their own societies, who contribute greatly to the living standards of the rest of us, but who are denied access to rights, benefits and justice. I hope that greater attention will be given to that in future years.

We have discussed a number of countries. No one Member is able to refer to every country mentioned in the debate or report. However, I emphasise the points made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) concerning Israel and Palestine and the treatment of people in Gaza. The Free Gaza movement emphasises that the encirclement of Gaza is dreadful, that the living standards of people in Gaza are dreadful, and that the lack of food, clean water, energy supplies, medicine and the right to travel to gain medical assistance is appalling. Those things are entirely
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politically counter-productive. If people are encircled like that and denied access to the benefits of society—if young people, particularly young men, are forced to lead their lives vicariously through computer screens, looking at the rest of the world that they can never travel to or see—it is small wonder that they end up holding views that nobody would want, like or agree with.

The need for justice for the Palestinian people must be recognised. That in itself would bring about a move towards security. Building security walls and erecting barbed wire entanglements and encirclements, taking water supplies, and denying people the right to travel, to free movement around their own society, and to access to particular roads is not a recipe for anything other than a fractured, dangerous and violent situation. That is the situation now.

I hope that we will be firm with Israel on its policies. I do not support or condone violence by anybody. That includes rocket attacks, attacks by F-16 jets and so on. I want to see peace and justice in the region and believe that that can come about only through a recognition of the rights and needs of the Palestinian people. I am interested and pleased that the Foreign Affairs Committee went there, looked into those issues and made clear statements concerning Gaza in its report. I commend it for that.

Like many colleagues, I have the pleasure of representing an inner-city constituency. There is a large Somali community there. The human rights of Somali people are raised in the report. It states:

I was pleased that in introducing the report, the Committee Chairman referred to that point. The situation in Somalia is disastrous. There is no effective national Government. To some extent, there are effective regional governments in Somaliland and to a lesser extent in the Puntland. There is no overarching Government who can effectively control the whole of Somalia. I suspect that there is still a presence of Ethiopian troops. Nobody can receive a full education, have access to health care or have any of the other things that we would want.

Another issue is the pirate ships off the coast of Somalia. It is a condemnation of the world’s media that it takes the hijacking of an oil tanker to draw attention to the situation in Somalia. The war that has been going on all these years and the massive killings have received hardly any attention. It says something about the values of the western media that they are more concerned about an oil tanker than the rights of so many people. I understand that more emphasis will be placed on the situation in Somalia in the 2009 report. I hope that that is the case.

Lastly, as I said in an intervention on the Committee Chairman, there is no mention of the Congo in the report. I am pleased that there will be a report on it next year. The situation in eastern Congo must be a priority within the theme of the rights of women and children. I have visited the Congo on a number of occasions and in April I visited the refugee camps in Goma. I met women who were victims of war, and of rape and sexual violence
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being used as weapons of war. There is a Department for International Development programme in the Congo and a Foreign Office representative in Goma who is trying to bring about a political peace process.

We are giving as much support as possible to women’s organisations in the Congo. Something that cheered me up—if anything can cheer one up in eastern Congo—was a women’s demonstration that took place in Goma a few weeks ago against the way in which the militias, the army and others act with impunity in their treatment of women. I urge the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Foreign Office to do everything that they can to promote a political peace process and to support the UN in trying to give the hope of peace and justice to the people of eastern Congo.

The Committee Chairman rightly mentioned that this year is the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. That is a remarkable document. The work and negotiations of Eleanor Roosevelt in bringing it about were very important. I have sat through many debates in many places in which that document has been condemned as a western instrument which fails to take account of cultural values around the world. Those who drew it up tried to take account of a wide variety of cultural differences and thought hard about that issue. I understand the view of some that it puts far too much emphasis on individual rights, individual liberties and individual justice. I would not argue that point, but that we often fail to pay attention to the other side of the document, which speaks of economic rights, rights of social justice, education, housing and the right to work.

The declaration makes it clear that we must be prepared to ensure that human rights defenders around the world are protected. If they cannot be protected, how can the human rights of those who are suffering be protected? We must therefore support improved human rights courts and regional human rights facilities, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Above all, we must show that we are serious about defending the human rights of people around the world by being prepared to condemn, without fear or favour, what goes on in particular countries.

I agree with the Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling and others about Saudi Arabia. Human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, although they are recognised, are not discussed in enormous detail, I suspect because Saudi Arabia has a vast amount of oil and buys vast amounts of arms from this country. That, quite simply, is what the equation is about.

If we believe in universal human rights and justice, they should apply all over the world. It is up to us to ensure that our foreign policies reflect that. We should recognise and celebrate that 60 years on, that seminal document written by Eleanor Roosevelt along with many others is well worth defending. Think of its successes. It has helped to save the lives of an awful lot of people who otherwise would have been killed by oppressive regimes.

4.30 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I congratulate the Committee on its examination of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report, and I commend the FCO for its work in producing that report. It creates a valuable context for our debates here. I would also like
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to mention the people who work in organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch: all the campaigners, activists and journalists in this country and around the world who are at the front line in ensuring that individuals’ and communities’ human rights are respected.

Particularly in this year, the 60th anniversary of the UN universal declaration of human rights, we should remember the achievements of such people as well as understand the challenges ahead of us. There are many. As we have heard, the UN Human Rights Council is far from optimal in how it does its business and promotes that work within the international community. We heard about the problems with the UN conference on racism at Durban, including the appalling approach to Israel and anti-Semitism. I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that as we prepare for the Geneva conference we should ensure that those documents to which he referred are properly amended.

When one thinks about the state of human rights development around the world, one cannot help but comment on how many Governments and dictatorships use the cloak of democracy to give themselves legitimacy and defend themselves against accusations of human rights abuses. There is a serious point about how we debate democracy when we see elections being abused and failures to understand the true nature of democracy or the importance of the rule of law in ensuring that democracy is meaningful.

I am thinking particularly of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sometimes I think that we have talked about democracy without remembering the critical element of the rule of law. That is why many people around the world do not understand why we are so committed to democracy. In its fullest sense, it is about defending the rights of individuals and minorities as well and ensuring that due process gives rights to communities.

In talking about the wider international apparatus of international law, one must hope that the new President Obama will ensure that the United States becomes a signatory to the treaty on the International Criminal Court. That would be a major step forward in the international framework. I hope that the Government, at least behind the scenes, are pressing him on that. However, I also hope that the Government’s approach to the ICC and its potential benefits to the international community will be a little more forceful. I was concerned to read that they want to invoke article 16 in respect of the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir. I understand some of the rationale behind that, but I think that it would be a retrograde step.

I would like the Government to go to the UN Security Council, get a resolution and push China and Russia hard to support the idea of making Zimbabwe effectively a signatory to the ICC treaty, as the Security Council is allowed to do. It could be used as a weapon against Mugabe and the ZANU-PF elite. That is how international law could be used to bring pressure to bear on such appalling people.

I congratulate the Government generally on some of their approaches to such matters. I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments in his speech on the 60th anniversary of the UN declaration, although some of the comments made by the Secretary of State for Justice with respect to the Human Rights Act in an interview with the Daily
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did not do him or the Government justice. The Government ought to defend the Human Rights Act as one of their best achievements. In the context of this debate, they should not be backsliding. That, among other reasons, is why my noble Friend Lord Lester, who was brought in as an adviser to the Government, felt that he could no longer continue in that role. It is a warning shot to the Government about how they behave on such issues.

The European Union is critical to the fight for human rights. If we consider how enlargement and trade negotiations have worked, we see that the European Union is a major force in developing human rights. In countries such as Turkey, Croatia and Serbia, we can see how significant it is. In its work with other bodies such as the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, it is a force for good.

As others have done at greater length, I shall make a little tour of the world in my remaining minutes, starting with China, which has not been discussed fully. Obviously, it has major status as the world’s largest country. It has made some progress on human rights, but far too little. We have seen how China uses trade and its economic clout with other countries to get its way. Recently, it postponed the 11th EU-China summit because it was concerned that the Dalai Lama was visiting certain European capitals. Britain and the EU must stand up to such bullying. If we give way to the Chinese on that sort of thing, we will end up in a sorry state. That is why I am concerned about the change in Government policy with respect to China and Tibet and the move from the long-held policy of suzerainty to one of sovereignty. We are apparently gaining nothing in those negotiations. I hope that the Minister will address that, as several colleagues have mentioned it.

On Sudan, there are many issues one could talk about, but I have yet to hear from anyone in the Foreign Office why this Government, working with our colleagues, have failed to ensure that the helicopters needed by the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur are delivered. We understand why Britain itself does not have helicopters—because of our missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere—but there are many helicopters around the world that could be used if we had the guts and the political will to use the money set aside to obtain them. It is quite wrong. During my remarks to the Foreign Secretary in January this year, he agreed that the issue was urgent. Well, 12 months on, we have not done anything about it, so it was not that urgent for the FCO.

Other colleagues mentioned Sri Lanka. Last year’s Amnesty International report says:

I am afraid that in 2008, that situation has got even worse.

We must hold the Government of Sri Lanka to account. Of course the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have committed human rights abuses, with their terrorist outrages and some of the things that they have done involving child soldiers, but ultimately it is the Government of Sri Lanka who ought to meet higher standards. Their failure to allow the media spotlight to
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fall on that country and their rejection of humanitarian aid agencies are outrageous, and this Government should send a strong message to the Government of Sri Lanka that they must do better. As colleagues have said, the solution cannot be a military one; it must be political. The Sri Lankan Government should get round the table with the Tamil community and its leaders.

Neither Britain nor the European Union has sorted out a strategy for pressurising the Russian Government properly. We need to think of new ways to embarrass the Russian Government. I suggest to Ministers that they should start every meeting with the Russians by reading out the Russian constitution and asking how well the Putin-Medvedev Government are meeting its lofty principles.

Not surprisingly given the statement today, I will end on Iraq. There is no doubt that the situation in Iraq over the last six years has been appalling for most Iraqi citizens. As the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said, if one looks at the measures of freedom, security or safety I am afraid that it is not absolutely clear that things have improved as a result of the war in Iraq.

What was most disturbing about some of the comments on the Floor of the House today, particularly those by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party, is that, listening to those comments, one would have thought that we went to war on the basis of a desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made it very clear that that was not the basis of the war. The basis of the war was weapons of mass destruction. They have not been found, the cause of war has been exposed as being wrong and yet there was no apology today. Given the suffering of the people of Iraq, that was an absolute travesty.

4.40 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): First, I want to compliment the Foreign Affairs Committee, in particular its Chairman, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), on the very comprehensive and challenging report that it has presented. In the spirit of Christmas, I also express thanks to the Government for a voluminous human rights report, and that adjective is not meant as a criticism. The scope and the length of the annual report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office indicate how concern about human rights rightly affects every aspect of this country’s foreign policy.

It seems to me that the basic principle is that, as a nation, we should aim to conduct our foreign policy in a way that is true to our democratic and pluralist values. At the core of those values is surely a deeply held belief in the primacy and the inviolability of individual human rights. What that means in practice, at least in part, is being ready to express our concerns about human rights whenever they arise and in respect of all countries, and that that principle should apply whether we are talking to our oldest and staunchest allies, to authoritarian regimes that are hostile to this country or to emerging democracies.

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