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18 Dec 2008 : Column 171WH—continued

For example, a number of right hon. and hon. Members cited China, and I very much want to see Britain develop a strong relationship with the People’s Republic of China, as it assumes an increasingly important role
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on the world stage. The reality is that there will be fewer and fewer global problems in the 21st century that will be capable of being solved without the active participation and partnership of China in seeking and implementing solutions to them.

In general terms, the greater China’s global interest and global reach, the greater a stake China will have in global stability. However, a strong and healthy relationship with China is not one in which we take some vow of silence when we talk to Chinese leaders about human rights abuses in their country or about issues such as Tibet. I would welcome an assessment from the Minister of the state of affairs in Tibet and in the ethnic Tibetan areas of neighbouring provinces.

I have said privately and publicly that I believe that it is in the interests of China, if China wishes us to accept what it says about the state of affairs in that part of the People’s Republic of China, that it once again allows access to human rights organisations and to foreign journalists, so that they can travel and report freely on what is going on in that region. I hope that the British Government have been pressing for such access to be granted and I would be grateful to learn from the Minister whether we have been successful in ensuring that diplomats from our embassy in Beijing gain access to Tibet or to the neighbouring provinces that were affected by the disturbances in Tibet earlier this year.

The same principle applies in our approach to Russia. In the long run, Britain’s interests in a constructive relationship with Russia will not be well served by turning a blind eye to oppression within Prime Minister Putin’s Russia or to human rights abuses in Chechnya or beyond Russia’s borders.

Perhaps it is most clearly in Zimbabwe today that the issues of human rights come into the starkest relief. A few days ago, the European Council agreed to add 11 further names to the list of people in the Mugabe regime whose assets in Europe would be frozen and who would be made subject to a visa and travel ban, to stop them coming to European Union member states. That joint measure is welcome and I do not think that there is any quarrel across the House about supporting it. However, I question whether it is enough.

We now have a Government in Harare who seem intent on using both starvation and disease as weapons against their people to try to secure their own hold on power in the face of rejection at the hands of the electorate earlier this year. Do the Government support the call from Ministers in Botswana for a ban on fuel supplies to the Zimbabwean army and police and, if so, have our diplomats been pressing Zimbabwe’s neighbouring states, in particular South Africa, to implement such a ban?

Furthermore, what is the Government’s approach to the proposal that was first put forward this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) that either the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal established by Security Council resolution should be invoked so that Mugabe and his henchmen know that there is a real prospect of them being brought to account for their crimes, and that it would be in their interests to quit power sooner rather than later?

Also, what is the Government’s response to the desperate plea from the World Food Programme for international action to alleviate the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe
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in the face of the decision by their Government to restrict access to basic foodstuffs? The WFP has appealed for $140 million in aid, but it says that only $60 million has been pledged so far. Consequently, it is now talking about having to cut back on the rations that are distributed to the people in Zimbabwe who are dependent on UN food aid, despite the fact that on every forecast the number of people expected to become dependent on such assistance is set to grow, and grow significantly, in 2009. How much have our Government committed to that aid programme? What are we saying to other developed countries around the world about our common responsibility to alleviate this dreadful suffering and this appalling and shocking abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe?

I am conscious that both the Foreign Office’s report and the Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry are so broad in scope that I shall inevitably have to pick and choose which themes and which countries I refer to. However, Iraq is important, intrinsically so because of what is happening there and more particularly so because the state of affairs in Iraq is to some extent the responsibility of this country.

I have two questions to put to the Minister about Iraq. The first concerns Iraqi interpreters, which is another subject that my right hon. Friend raised. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said earlier today in response to the Prime Minister’s statement, we have a duty not only to offer our thanks to the Iraqis who have served the British authorities and armed forces at great risk to themselves and their families, but to offer our sanctuary when their lives are threatened as a consequence of helping us. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that by the time our troops are withdrawn from Iraq, in the middle of next year, all the cases of people who have worked for our forces or for the British authorities and who seek either financial assistance or relocation will have been properly dealt with? It would be a betrayal to withdraw from Iraq leaving completely unprotected people who have put their personal safety at risk in the service of our forces.

Will the Minister comment on the rules of the scheme that the Government operate? I hope that I am mistaken, but they appear to exclude people who, although they worked for the British authorities for the requisite period of time, worked for Ministry of Defence contractors rather than directly for the armed services. In some such cases, Iraqi interpreters and other workers were subject even to military discipline, and it would be a scandal if those Iraqis were excluded from our offer of sanctuary simply because the MOD contracted out certain functions, rather than carrying them out directly, while their counterparts who worked directly for the forces in almost identical circumstances were given protection.

My next point on Iraq is more general. The Prime Minister rightly drew attention today to the improvement in the security situation in at least parts of Iraq in recent months. I hope, however, that the Foreign Office and the Select Committee will continue to look closely at what is happening in that country, particularly at the position of religious minorities.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said, in a report published only this week, that

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including Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans and others—

The report also said that religious minorities had been subject to

but that

since 2003. That should rightly be on our conscience and should be a concern that affects our continuing relationship with the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and Irbil. It should also be a key aspect on the agenda whenever British Ministers or officials meet their Iraqi counterparts.

That leads me to a more general point about religious persecution. Throughout its report, the Select Committee highlights examples in country after country in which the human right to freedom of belief and of worship is at best abused and at worst deliberately persecuted. There are references to the plight of the Baha’is in Iran, to the prohibition in Saudi Arabia of the practice of any religion other than Islam, and to the persecution of pretty much every religion in North Korea. Also mentioned are the insistence of the Chinese Government on a system of approval or licensing if particular religious organisations are to be tolerated, and the anti-conversion laws in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those are all cases in which the denial of freedom of religion has come about by a deliberate act of policy by the Government concerned.

In other countries, people of certain religions—particularly, but not exclusively Christians, I am afraid—are persecuted not by Governments but by other groups in society. The problem in such countries is that their Governments are either unwilling or unable to introduce adequate safeguards and to stop that abuse or persecution. The Chairman of the Select Committee talked about the position of Hindus in parts of Malaysia. In the past year I have received letters about the difficulties faced by Ahmadi Muslims in Indonesia. Of course, everyone in the House will be aware of the appalling attacks on Christians in the Indian state of Orissa in recent months. Those matters should all be on the agendas of our Foreign Office Ministers. I hope that they will not only look at individual cases, but examine whether the Government and the Foreign Office could do more, institutionally, to highlight abuses of the right to religious belief and worship throughout the world, and to bring those issues to public attention.

The Foreign Office has a panel on freedom of religion, but I understand that it comprises more than 60 religious organisations in the UK and that it meets irregularly. Is there a case for making such a panel permanent and for its meetings to be regular? Might the Foreign Secretary consider appointing a special representative to focus entirely on freedom of religion, belief and worship? That is a common theme across many countries. As I have said, the US has a statutory commission with the job of monitoring and holding inquiries into alleged abuses of religious freedom around the world, taking evidence and making reports. Is there a case for the UK Government not to copy exactly what is done in Washington, but to focus their efforts more carefully?

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I conclude by discussing the Durban conference, on which I agreed completely with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). The conference, in 2001, was a parody of concern for human rights. I remind the Minister that when we last debated human rights in the Chamber, on 13 October, she said that she would review the UK’s position shortly after the debate. In fairness to her, she was absolutely clear in denouncing what had happened in Durban, and I do not question the principle of her comments. She said that

We are now two months hence, and the Government are still, apparently, engaged in those negotiations. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was being very generous to the Minister when he said that he accepted that there was a while to go yet, and that we had to see whether further concessions might be available. I question the point of the United Kingdom continuing to participate in the preparations for that conference. On the basis of what I have seen and read so far, there is little evidence to suggest that it will be anything other than the charade that we saw in 2001, and, if it turns into that, it will be an event in which the Government of the United Kingdom should take no part.

The Government’s own human rights report said:

I agree. It is precisely because the United Nations’ reputation will be besmirched if there is any repetition of Durban that the Government should make it very clear that they want no part in any repetition of what happened that year.

Robert Key (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I gently remind her of the tradition that, if the Committee Chairman so wishes, and by leave of the Chamber, he may have a few moments to give a winding-up speech before we close.

5.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): Thank you, Mr. Key. This has been an important and welcome debate. I am happy to take part in it no matter what day, or time of day, it is. Perhaps it is appropriate if, first, I join with others in wishing you, Mr. Key, the staff of the House and right hon. and hon. Members all the compliments of the season, but, for me, today is as good a day as any to discuss the matter before us.

The United Kingdom promotes human rights and democracy not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in our interests to do so. I think that right hon. and hon. Members will happily share in that argument with me, because this is a world where, if human rights are more fully realised, people are treated with respect for their inherent dignity and worth, and democracy and rule of law prevail, that will also be good for our prosperity and security in the United Kingdom.

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The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has continued to offer recommendations, criticism and, I am glad to say, praise, where merited, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its work to promote and protect human rights throughout the globe. Right hon. and hon. Members have done likewise today. I welcome the scrutiny as well as the support, and I welcome the guidance that is always given freely and in good heart, because it is a very important contribution not only to our policy making but to the actions that we take.

This is our report’s 10th edition, and FCO staff in London and overseas work hard to ensure that it is thorough and insightful guide to our policies and activities. I welcome the Committee’s comments that the latest edition is an advance on our previous efforts, and I assure the House that we will try to improve yet again with our 2008 report, which will be issued in spring 2009, giving us much of 2009 in which to debate it.

I shall turn to the points that have been made in the debate. I share many of the sentiments, much of the outrage and, mostly and importantly, the need to recommit ourselves today to the spirit and the reality of the universal declaration of human rights, as we rightly celebrate its 60th year. I shall endeavour to do justice to the many points that have been made, but, of course, where I am not able to, I shall follow them up in writing or, where appropriate, raise them with ministerial colleagues if the issues fall into their domain.

I shall begin by addressing the broader issues and then turn to individual countries. First, to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Committee Chairman, and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), I can of course confirm that women’s rights and good governance will remain a vital part of the Government’s work, and that we will seek better to explain how the issues have been factored into the Government’s overall strategy, as the Committee asked us to. That work will include annual reports on countries of concern, too. We very much agree with the recommendation to bring out in our next report the important role of free trade unions and free media, and I certainly concur with the many comments about that today.

Issues about international organisations have rightly peppered the debate, and we are committed to ensuring that international institutions are effective and fit for purpose, because the UN and other, regional, organisations are the primary mechanisms through which we promote, and exert pressure for, the implementation and further development of individual human rights standards. Such organisations are also where action is taken against human rights abuses, and we work constantly to strengthen the effectiveness of the system, because we believe that it is fundamental to all that we do so. As a member of a number of multilateral institutions, whether they be the UN, the European Union or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, we are committed to implementing human rights fully at home and to promoting them abroad.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to the Human Rights Council, and I believe that it can and does contribute towards the protection and promotion of human rights globally. However, it is also true to say that it is not perfect—for some of the reasons that we have heard today. Out of the Human Rights Council, I
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am glad that we now have the universal periodic review process, which, for the first time in the United Nations’ history, will ensure that the human rights situation in every single UN country is regularly examined. Earlier this month, the council held a special session to review the worsening human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a matter of extreme concern which has been raised in today’s debate and among the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North rightly raised the issue of the voice and the influence of non-governmental organisations, and I agree about the need for their participation at the United Nations, in other international organisations and, indeed, in-country. The voice and influence of NGOs is crucial if we are to see governance improve and change, transparency, and Governments taking action in the interests of their people. To provide some assurance, I should say that the UK has argued hard for NGOs to provide input into the new universal periodic review process, and they are able to input substantively on every country under the new process. Issues were raised about China, Cuba and Russia, and, importantly, with those countries up for review next year, that is no small opportunity for NGOs. The House will want to know that, interestingly, FCO staff who work on human rights meet a wide range of NGOs before and after every session of the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly Third Committee, giving us a chance to benefit from their experience and expertise, and the NGOs a chance to provide input into the organisations’ policy. We will continue to progress that work.

On the issue of human rights for women, right hon. and hon. Members rightly talked about the fundamental need to improve the lot of women and children. I shall refer to the rights of women, and to protection against the abuse of women’s human rights. The issue of violence was raised today, and I shall focus on that, because words are not enough; we need, without any shadow of a doubt, action. The fact is that, for social, cultural, religious or other reasons, many states remain resistant to promoting the protection of women’s human rights, so what has the UK done to combat violence against women? I am glad that we played a major part in the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1820, which established for the first time a link between sexual violence in conflict and international peace and security. It also improved the reporting requirements on the impact of women in conflict. I believe that that is how we should go forward. We have also worked in the EU to develop guidelines on combating violence against women. That is not just words, because from now on the EU will conduct systematic lobbying and reporting on the issue, and EU funding will be used to tackle it. I am not just hopeful but intent that those things will make a real difference.

The Government never use torture, including water-boarding, which has been mentioned, for any purpose. Nor do we encourage or assist others to do so. We consider water-boarding to be torture, and as I have said, we are quite clear that we unreservedly condemn its use. The other reality is that we have different legal views from the United States on a number of counter-terrorism issues, but both the UK and the EU will continue to discuss those matters with the US.

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