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Mike Gapes: I am grateful to the Minister for making it clear that we have a different view from the United States, but will she go a step further and say that we therefore do not accept the assurances that the United States does not use torture?
Gillian Merron: I think that it would probably be appropriate to say that the use of torture and what is defined as torture continues to be a matter of important debate between the US and the UK. I can assure my hon. Friend that that will not change.
The Guardian articles referring to allegations of UK complicity in the mistreatment in British nationals detained in Pakistan have been mentioned. We have taken them seriously, and I can tell the House that the Security Service has checked for any relevant information in light of the allegations, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been informed that there is nothing to suggest that torture in Pakistan was supported. I restate the important point that we abide by our commitments under international law and expect all other countries to comply with their international obligations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) mentioned the Durban review conference. I can do no more than restate that the UK of course opposes language singling out Israel and the treatment of anti-Semitism that restricts the right to freedom of expression on historical issues. There is no doubt that what happened previously in the process was unacceptable, as has been put on the record many times. There has been no change and no move away from that view. However, I can confirm that there will be a further round of negotiations in January 2009. After that, the Government will decide whether to remain in the process. It is right that we make every effort to use every forum that we can to move forward on combating racism wherever it takes place. We do not flinch from that.
Mr. Dismore: I am grateful for the Ministers assurances. May we take it that soon after the review meeting in January, the Government will make a clear statement one way or the other about the conference, and that if the red lines are not met, we will withdraw from it?
Gillian Merron: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will make a statement as soon as possible afterwards. Of course, the UK delegation has been active in proposing more positive language and making clear our objections to what we have deemed unacceptable at the preparatory committee. As I said, we will not flinch from that.
I shall mention as many individual countries as I can, starting with Somalia, which my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South, and for Islington, North, mentioned. On human rights abuses by Ethiopian troops, the Ethiopian Government have of course announced that their troops will withdraw from Somalia in the near future. Until they do so, we urge the Ethiopians to use only appropriate means and that they should and must adhere to international humanitarian law and respect human rights. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown raised the issue of human rights in Somalia with the Ethiopian Prime Minister in late January 2008, and I
assure the House that the 2008 FCO human rights report will go into much more depth about Somalia, as has been called for in the debate.
On Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, just last month on his visit there the Foreign Secretary delivered some clear messages in his meetings with Israeli leaders. The UK has serious concerns about Israeli restrictions on Gaza and their impact, much of which has been well rehearsed and described. We have consistently called for Israel to dismantle its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, which are illegal, and those messages were pressed home. There is also no doubt that we recognise Israels general security concerns, as right hon. and hon. Members have in the debate and at other times. Ministers and officials regularly press the Government of Israel about human rights abuses, and I am in no doubt about the manner in which messages are delivered.
On Iraq, perhaps it will help right hon. and hon. Members if I remind them that the FCO and the Ministry of Defence will open and close a full debate on 14 January on the future strategic relationship with Iraq. It will allow a wide-ranging discussion of issues including human rights. I believe that Iraq has made significant progress during 2008. There have been marked improvements in security and the economy, and some improvements in human rights. Iraq has shown itself to be a functioning democracy, for example in the parliamentary process that led to the recent security agreement with the United States.
The UKs human rights work in Iraq is focused on helping to build its institutions and develop the security forces. We strongly supported the passage last month of legislation to set up the new national human rights commission, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that the FCO, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence continue to support the authorities in building an effective and accountable police service, and particularly in developing Iraqi forensics capability. The reason for that, of course, is that confession-based evidence can lead to abuse. We hope that a move to a basis of scientific evidence will be of assistance.
It is true that there is much violence in Iraq, and of course extremist violence remains the single biggest threat to Iraqis everyday security and well-being. Religious persecution was mentioned, and we remain very concerned about the treatment of Christians in Iraq. My fellow Foreign Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), made it clear during a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday that although progress is being made and Christians are being able to return to their homes, there is a lot more to do. In the end, the fundamental solution is for the Government of Iraq to ensure that the writ of its constitution is carried forward in respect of the Christians in the country.
I turn to Sudan. Perhaps I can give some assurance to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) by putting the situation in some context. There is no doubt that UNAMID, the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, is one of the most difficult missions that the UN has ever undertaken. It is now at a total strength of something like 12,500 troops, police and civilians. However, I assure him that we have
lobbied extensively in support of the UN to find helicopters and engineers. We are exploring all options for helicopter provision and will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman will know that in March the Prime Minister announced UK funding of £4 million to train and equip African troop contributors, and that we continue to work closely with the UN, the African Union and international partners to help UNAMID to improve security, and that that will continue.
Tibet was discussed by the hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Kingston and Surbiton. Perhaps I could respond in this way: this is not a concession of any kind but a reflection of where we are. Perhaps by being clear on the issue of Chinese sovereignty, we can do more for human rights in Tibet than we could have with our previous position. It is true that Tibet has been under Chinese administration for many decades, but the Dalai Lama himself has made it clear that he is not seeking independence for Tibet. For us, this is about a means to promote human rights.
On Zimbabwe, several right hon. and hon. Members asked about trying Mugabe for crimes against humanity. There is absolutely no doubt that the Government of Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe have inflicted a severe, massive human toll on their own people and continue to do so. The future of Robert Mugabe will be for the people of Zimbabwe to decide. It is important to note that Zimbabwe has not ratified the Rome statute, so action by the International Criminal Court would require a UN Security Council resolution, which, in truth, is somewhat unlikely at present.
Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the current difficulties in the Security Council. Our priority, rightly, is to work for the people of Zimbabwe. The debate has raised several matters of immense concern to us which have required us to engage with the international community to respond to the crisis. We have upheld the EU targeted measures that restrict the movement of key figures, and we continue to work in the UN and, of course, the Security Council to raise Zimbabwe as a matter of urgency. We lobby South Africa and the regional elders to effect change, and we welcomed the report of the group of elders which directly linked the failure of social and economic policy with the current humanitarian crisis.
The UK is a major contributor to Zimbabwe. In the current financial year, we expect to have provided some £47 million in aid. The UK is the second-largest bilateral donor to Zimbabwe, and I can assure the House that our bilateral aid is channelled through the UN and non-governmental organisations, not the Government of Zimbabwe. We made a major contribution of £9 million to the UN world food programme appeal, and most recently provided a support package of £10 million to provide life-saving assistance and to respond to the escalation of cholera.
The final country that I will be able to refer to is Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South is right in referring to the worsening human rights record there. I can assure him of action over the past year. We have done what we can: we helped secure
unprecedented Security Council action and strong condemnation of the regime by the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, and we strengthened EU sanctions. We also raised Burma with those countries that are best placed to influence the regime, including China, India and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Ultimately, as we all know, the key to ending human rights abuses in Burma lies in a peaceful transition to civilian democratic rule, and we fully support and will continue to support the efforts of the UN Secretary-General to bring that about. Our embassy in Rangoon continues to press for that.
I am pleased to have participated in this debate and I know that right hon. and hon. Members are also pleased to have done so. Once again, I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for its ongoing scrutiny of our international rights policy. I know that that scrutiny will continue as we move into the next annual human rights report cycle.
What better way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights than to express our determination to do more, to do better and ensure that this landmark document is as powerful in practice as it is in aspiration? I thank hon. and right hon. Members here todayand those who could not be herefor their support in doing this.
I just want to respond briefly to two things mentioned during the debate. First, I assure the Minister and her officials that the Foreign Affairs Committee has already decided to write in response to a number of detailed points in the Governments response to the Committees human rights report. We will be pursuing a number of issues in writing over the next few
weeks and we look forward to receiving greater clarification on some of those issues than we have had today and in the Governments response so far.
Secondly, I thank you, Mr. Key, for being so tolerant in this debate and I look forward to speaking in debates on the reports from the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I hope that the Chairman of those debates is as tolerant as you have been.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for raising the question of migrant workers, which is an cross-cutting issue of human rights that is covered by a number of Committees in the House. We all have a duty to look at that in whatever way we can.
Finally, a number of areas were mentioned that were not included in the Foreign Affairs Committees human rights report. I did not have time, in my opening remarks, to mention all the things that were contained in the report, so I am grateful that my fellow Committee member, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), took up some of those. Other hon. Members have added to the debate in other areas.
We will be revisiting these questions. We look forward to the Governments report in the spring and to either this Minister, or the Minister in the other place, as was the case last year, coming to our Committee to answer our questions. We will, no doubt, probe a number of new issues as well as the ones that we have touched on today.