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Westminster Hall

Thursday 23 January 2014

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Human Rights

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, The FCO’s Human Rights Work in 2012, HC 267, and the Government Response, Cm 8762.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Simmonds.)

1.30 pm

Sir Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Chope. Last October, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published its annual critique of the human rights work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Office responded in December, and I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate the report.

In today’s unpredictable world, striking the right balance between protecting our national interests and holding true to our values, on domestic shores as well as abroad, is a tough call, but what is certain is that we live in an age of unparalleled transparency and instant global dissemination of news and analysis. To win an argument credibly in this fast-paced environment, consistency is key. The Foreign Secretary’s speech to the Royal United Services Institute on human rights and counter-terrorism last year sums up that dichotomy. He talked of sharing intelligence with countries that do not always share our values, to keep our citizens safe, but added that Britain must build a series of

“justice and human rights partnerships”

with such countries. That is a better alternative than boycotting regimes that are on a very different page where human rights and law enforcement are concerned.

We must not underestimate Ministers’ accountability to Parliament and the wider public. That is particularly true in the case of deportation with assurances, when we collaborate with countries that have little regard for human rights. Human rights organisations have raised concerns that assurances from countries where torture is widespread are inherently unreliable. David Mepham of Human Rights Watch, which published an excellent report this week providing summaries of principal human rights concerns in more than 90 countries worldwide, described the system as “lacking in credibility”.

We think that the provisions for monitoring the welfare of those returned under deportation with assurances, or DWA, arrangements could be strengthened. Some of the bodies supposed to be carrying out that monitoring do not instil universal confidence, such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The UK Court of Appeal found that it could not be trusted to report deliberate breaches by the Ethiopian Government, yet the Foreign Office says in its response that it is satisfied that the commission is fit for purpose. With regard to other countries, our agreement with Algeria makes no provision for formal post-return monitoring; British embassy staff do it. We want to be sure that embassy staff have the training that they need, and I am pleased that the Government have given that reassurance in their response.

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We risk the accusation of double standards if we allow UK commercial interests to proceed without restraint in developing and exporting equipment that has the capacity to inhibit free speech on the internet. Two years ago, Amnesty International highlighted credible allegations that businesses were supplying technology to countries that were stifling free speech, including Egypt, Libya, China and Iran. We welcome the Government’s response, which confirms that they are working towards an internationally agreed and implemented list of controlled equipment and guidance for officials in carrying out due diligence when developing Government-led commercial and security relationships overseas. Working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Foreign Office should be ready to intervene by controlling exports if there is obvious potential for abuse by end users.

In that spirit of greater accountability, we welcome the Foreign Office’s decision to define more clearly the criteria for countries of concern. Its authoritative analysis of conditions in those countries is to be congratulated, but the Committee questions why the extent of our engagement in a particular country, or the impact of the human rights situation there on our interests, should be regarded as factors in evaluating human rights standards.

Our report considers more closely three countries on the list: Sri Lanka, Burma and Russia. Sri Lanka courted particular controversy as the venue for the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary attended, as well as His Royal Highness Prince Charles. The Committee felt that the previous Government displayed a striking lack of consistency in 2009 by objecting to the proposal that Sri Lanka might host the 2011 meetings on human rights grounds but not to the proposal that it might host the 2013 meetings. That appears timid.

The Foreign Office should have taken a more principled stance in 2009 and, to be fair to my Opposition colleagues, a more robust stand after 2011. However, in the circumstances, I believe that the Prime Minister was right to attend, but only on the condition that he press the authorities relentlessly on human rights and seek assurances that people who spoke out on human rights were not harassed by security forces. Will the Minister confirm that assurances were indeed given and observed?

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Having spoken about Sri Lanka, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to reflect a little on the situation in Burma?

Sir Richard Ottaway: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will come to Burma shortly.

More disappointing was the Government’s answer to the question whether they still hold the view that there is no substantiated evidence of Sri Lankans returned home from the UK being tortured or maltreated. Simply stating that the Foreign Office is not aware of any new evidence since the original answer was submitted ducks the issue. Will the Minister clarify what is meant by “the original answer”? Can he give us an assurance about cases that occurred before that time?

I turn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). Burma, like Sri Lanka, attracted widespread media coverage following the historic visit of Aung San Suu Kyi in summer 2012. We believe that the EU’s decision to lift economic

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sanctions the following year was the right one, given the remarkable progress made in that country. However, that comes with a caveat.

The UK should not hesitate to advocate the reimposition of sanctions if undertakings on human rights are not followed through. Serious reservations remain about the continued incarceration of political prisoners and the failure to bring those responsible for intercommunal violence to justice. Will the Minister update us on the release of political prisoners and accountability for the shocking crimes in Rakhine state?

On Russia, with less than a month to go before the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, the Committee, which did not support a boycott, hopes that the UK will use the occasion as a platform for voicing concerns about human rights abuses. The recent release of high-profile prisoners in Russia, including Pussy Riot, the Greenpeace activists and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, suggests that Russia is receptive—cynically, perhaps—to cases that damage its reputation internationally. Khodorkovsky said himself that his release could not symbolise that there were no political prisoners left in Russia, as much of the Government’s crackdown on human rights continues unabated. I welcome the decision this morning to release Platon Lebedev, but the financial claim of 17.5 million roubles against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev effectively blocks their return to Russia.

It is clear to us, from Russia’s example in particular, that public opinion matters, and public opinion is informed largely by the media through broadcasts and the internet. As we on the Committee have pointed out several times, the BBC World Service makes a huge contribution to the projection of the UK’s values and strengths around the globe, which is why the evidence presented to us about levels of disruption of media freedom not seen since the cold war is extremely worrying.

Of the 47 countries examined by Freedom House in its survey on internet freedom, 20 had experienced a negative trajectory since January 2011. Bahrain, Pakistan and Ethiopia showed the greatest declines, but the countries making the most comprehensive efforts to frustrate the BBC World Service’s overseas broadcasts were Iran and China. We believe that it would be astonishing if the services were to be diminished because of a lack of resources to protect broadcasts from interference. The BBC says that it will review the plans once the licence fee funding begins.

Providers of satellite services also have an interest: if they cannot provide a service to the broadcaster they risk losing out financially. In our opinion, satellite providers, and not only those directly affected by jamming, should invest in the necessary technology. Given that national interests are at stake, the Government should be encouraging them to do so.

I would like to end on a high note. The championing of women’s rights across the globe is a major success story for the British Government. We join others in commending the Foreign Secretary for driving the prevention of sexual violence in conflict initiative and for committing millions to fund human rights projects last year. We strongly welcome the team of UK experts ready to be deployed in conflict areas. We support their work in helping to build national capacity in investigating allegations of sexual violence and gathering evidence to

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help victims. We are pleased that the Government say they will encourage other countries to contribute personnel and funding as demand increases.

However, legislation in Afghanistan outlawing violence against women is not a big step forward if it is not implemented. As a Committee, we are not as optimistic as the Foreign Office that progress will be made once international security assistance force troops have withdrawn. We believe that a reversal is possible. The emphasis should now be on ensuring that the gains made are not reversed.

Safeguarding democracy and human rights is a thread that runs through every aspect of this country’s external relations, whether political, humanitarian, commercial, or security-based. The Foreign Office is doing an excellent job in trying circumstances, whether it is communicating its values through the media, standing up for women’s rights internationally or ensuring that UK companies incorporate human rights into their deals.

However, with every step that the Foreign Office makes in the right direction, increasingly sophisticated threats are pushing the other way. Just like viruses that become resistant to antibiotics, terrorists are constantly finding ways to undermine safeguards that we put in place to keep our people from harm. As the challenges grow tougher, the Foreign Office would do well to remember the sentiment expressed by our Foreign Secretary in his RUSI address: through the good times and the bad times, we must never lose sight of our values.

1.43 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) on his speech and on his work as Chair of our Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I agree with him on some things and, as he will not be surprised to hear, disagree on others.

I chair the all-party parliamentary human rights group, which closely monitors and works with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on a number of related issues. I welcome the many programmes and policies that the FCO continues to undertake around the world to protect and promote human rights, including fundamental political and civil rights, good governance, the rule of law and accountability for violations, as well as the protection of women’s rights, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, and minority rights.

The first thing I would like to say is that despite the FCO’s having previously agreed with the Foreign Affairs Committee that evaluation is important, the 2012 FCO human rights report does not appear to reflect a more analytical approach. Overall, I feel that human rights reports are too focused on detailing activities being undertaken or funded by the FCO in the field of human rights and reciting current priorities, without going that step further. I would particularly like to see more evaluation of what has worked in terms of policies and programmes, and of how and why they have worked.

For instance, the FCO details its capacity-building programme in countries and with Government institutions whose human rights records are wanting—for example, in relation to police training in Afghanistan; police training in Baghdad to develop a more effective police response to incidents involving violence against women; the multi-year UK-led programme to strengthen capacity

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to tackle terrorism through the criminal justice system in Pakistan; and the police and prison reform project in Uzbekistan. It would be useful to know what precise impact those projects have had in those countries.

I would also like the FCO to do more to explain what policies and measures it is adopting to prevent potential future crises, particularly in countries where there are long-standing human rights violations that are not being addressed. Many are particularly concerned about the situation in Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, central Asia and Eritrea becoming much worse. I think the FCO should, in the first instance, look at whether lessons can be learned from the fall-out from the Arab spring and explore whether transition and consolidation activities and strategies are sufficiently incorporated in country business plans. Are there any lessons to be learned from the Arab spring about how the UK deals with authoritarian regimes more generally?

I would also like there to be further analysis of how competing foreign policy interests are prioritised and when they can and cannot be reconciled. The FCO seems to believe that human rights, geopolitical and strategic considerations, energy security and trade promotion can all be pursued simultaneously, maintaining that

“We cannot achieve long-term security and prosperity unless we uphold our values”,

when that quite clearly is not always the case.

That is even reflected in the FCO human rights report. Although the chapter on Saudi Arabia was beefed up in comparison with the previous year’s report, it still contains numerous qualifications to tone criticism down, such as references to “cultural sensitivities”, which are mentioned nowhere else in the report. It is also incomprehensible to me why no mention is made of the complete lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Saudi; such a lack is mentioned in the chapter on Iran. If the FCO wants to take a more conciliatory approach in the report in relation to some countries, it should explain why.

Rory Stewart: I am interested in the observation that it is very difficult to square the circle and simultaneously do security, human rights and economic development. Nevertheless, there is clearly an issue there. Does the right hon. Lady have her own way of expressing that? Perhaps she has a better formulation that she would prefer the Foreign Office to have to square that circle. Is there some other way of describing foreign policy, other than in those terms?

Ann Clwyd: Mr Chope, will you explain whether, when somebody makes an intervention, that is taken off the speaking time? I see that the clock kept running.

Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): There is no time limit, other than the self-restraint that I know hon. Members will exercise, recognising that a lot of people want to participate in the debate. Although there is no requirement that the debate must finish after one and a half hours, I hope that it will, so that we have an equal amount of time for the second debate. I hope that that helps the right hon. Lady.

Ann Clwyd: Thank you, Mr Chope.

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I turn to the criteria for designating countries of concern, which perhaps in part will answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). I am pleased that the FCO has provided the criteria it uses to make its designations in the 2012 human rights report. I remain baffled, however, that Bahrain, given the continuing serious violations that were committed during the period that the report covers, was not added as a country of concern. I reiterate the recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Committee:

“If there is no significant progress by the start of 2014, the Government should designate Bahrain as a ‘country of concern’”.

Let us hope that the meeting held last week between Bahrain’s Crown Prince and the main opposition leaders signals the willingness of the Bahraini Government and the opposition to engage in meaningful negotiations, leading to meaningful political reform, greater political openness, fairer representation and the end of discrimination. If it does not, I suggest that it is time to get much tougher with Bahrain.

The Foreign Affairs Committee Chair mentioned deportation with assurances, which is a very important point, because the FCO seems satisfied with existing arrangements and has rejected suggestions made by our Committee to strengthen the monitoring process for people returned under those arrangements, including to Ethiopia and Algeria. I urge the FCO to look at the matter again, and remind it that a DWA agreement was also concluded with Libya during the time of Colonel Gaddafi and was seen at the time as perfectly fine. I doubt, for instance, that, as the Chair said, a domestic human rights institution in Ethiopia that is widely known to be ineffective can be trusted to monitor the well-being of those returned to Ethiopia under the agreement.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be much more careful about deporting people to countries that are not signatories to the convention on torture, as a way of protecting them against that and protecting our own legal position?

Ann Clwyd: Yes, I absolutely agree with that observation. Indeed, I think that these arrangements are of political significance and warrant some form of parliamentary control. The non-statutory nature of the memorandums of understanding involved does not prevent parliamentary scrutiny. I would also welcome the FCO’s reporting back to Parliament annually on how effective the monitoring arrangements have been and whether any allegations of abuse have been reported to it.

Like many of my colleagues, I look forward to receiving the findings of the independent investigation being undertaken by David Anderson QC into this policy, although I wonder why it has taken so long to get that investigation off the ground.

The Foreign Affairs Committee Chair also mentioned women’s rights. I join him in commending the Foreign Secretary for taking a lead with the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, but I would like to know whether and how the FCO will involve more UK parliamentarians, particularly in the light of the conference to be held in London in June this year. Women’s organisations are also questioning how the preventing

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sexual violence initiative and the conference can galvanise support for grass-roots women’s organisations in countries of concern.

Further to the women’s rights agenda, I think that we all need to focus on how to help to support women, including women MPs and civil society more generally, in Afghanistan during and after the NATO withdrawal. Sadly, I do not believe that it is “mission accomplished”. The real gains made for women in the past decade are fragile, and women are likely to become increasingly exposed in coming years. I have seen what has happened in Iraq. I criticise the lack of ongoing support for women in Iraq who are exercising their mandates as Members of Parliament with considerable difficulties. I would like to know what precisely we are continuing to do in Iraq before we start making promises about what we will continue to do in Afghanistan.

I would like to conclude with two points. The first is my concern about growing restrictions in many countries around the world on non-violent civil society activity, including, as Amnesty highlighted recently, the proliferation of “national security” and “public order” legislation aimed at restricting the space in which civil society operates. I would like to know whether the FCO has or is planning to put in place a strategy to counter those negative developments and to provide even more support to beleaguered civil societies in a number of countries. Without a thriving and diverse civil society, democracy is very unlikely to take root.

Similarly, I would like to reiterate concerns expressed by Human Rights Watch about Governments who adopt a feigned democracy, championing elections but rejecting basic principles: that laws apply to those in power and that Governments should respect free speech and uphold the rights of unpopular minorities in their countries.

Secondly, I must take issue with what the FCO report says about promoting “our” values, because what we are doing is promoting universal values. In this connection, I must stress how unhelpful the negative domestic discourse about human rights and universal values is. The UK does not exist in a bubble; what we do and say on human rights is seen not only by those in the UK, but by the rest of the world.

How can we take Russia to task, for example, for not respecting international human rights when we seem only too willing to disparage “universal values” and the rules-based international system when they do not suit us? The “Do as we say, not as we do” approach is unlikely to be very persuasive with others and is very likely to harm us all in the longer term. Without greater respect for human rights worldwide, we are likely to have to deal with more instability, more humanitarian crises, more radicalism and a less secure environment for UK business.

1.56 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) who, as we know, has made such a signal contribution to the advancement of human rights.

As we know, Mao Tse-tung, who was one of history’s worst human rights abusers, enjoined his followers to carry around his little red book. My personal alternative

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to the little red book, although I do not always manage to carry it around with me, is the Vienna declaration on human rights, which was made on 25 June 1993 and subsequently endorsed by the UN General Assembly in UN resolution 48/121.

For me, the most critical article in the declaration is article 5, which states the key principle of the universality of human rights overriding religious, cultural and ethnic traditions. The article reads:

“All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

In the decades since the end of world war two, we have made significant advances around the world in establishing the principle of the universality of human rights, but it seems to me that we are now in danger of standing still or perhaps even going backwards. When one looks around the world and sees the degree of conflict still taking place between religions and within religions, and on an ethnic and tribal basis, when one sees parts of the world—for example, parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan—where women’s and girl’s rights are now going backwards, and when there are so many countries in the world in which women’s and girl’s rights barely exist, if they exist at all, one wonders whether the principle of universality is being reversed. The first question I would like to ask the Minister is whether the British Government, and in particular the Foreign Secretary, who has lead responsibility, will create a new initiative with as many countries as possible to stand up for the key principle that the universality of human rights should override all other considerations.

I turn to what I consider to be one of the most important aspects of human rights policy: the British Government’s policy on giving export licence approval to military goods, and dual-use civil and military goods, that can be used for internal repression and the suppression of human rights. Until the week before last, the Government’s policy appeared to be soundly based. The Foreign Secretary told the Committees on Arms Export Controls on 7 February 2012:

“We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”

There were therefore two controls. The first—a very limited control—was to establish a clear risk, which is endlessly debatable. The second—a much wider, more substantive and more embracing control—was to determine whether a given export might be used to facilitate repression. That approach faithfully followed the key policy of the previous Government, which was set out in a written answer on 26 October 2000 by the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain).

Much to the surprise of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, however, the Foreign Secretary’s oral evidence of 8 January substantially reinterpreted the policy statement that he gave in February 2012. He told the Committees that the limited clear-risk policy applied to all aspects of the policy. In effect, therefore, he was saying that the much more substantial and all-embracing

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control of whether an export might be used to facilitate internal repression would be governed by clear risk—and would, I believe, be rendered more or less null and void. The question for the House, from a human rights standpoint, is how satisfactory or otherwise it is for the Government to rely solely on a clear-risk control for exports that could be used for internal repression.

I want to put that to the test in an area that has been the subject of much concern, namely the export of dual-use chemicals to Syria. Such exports have taken place since 2004 under the previous Government and the present Government, but I want to focus on the most contentious of all: the export of sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride to Syria in January 2012, which was well after the outbreak of the civil war. When we raised our concerns about that with the Business Secretary in December, he replied, much to our surprise:

“in this case I think we are talking about bog-standard chemicals, which the officials had absolutely no reason whatever to believe had any connection with chemical weapons or were likely to be used in that capacity.”

That comment was made against the following background: first, those chemicals are well known from open sources to be precursor chemicals for the manufacture of sarin; secondly, Syria was and is known to be a major holder of chemical weapons; thirdly, Syria was a known non-signatory of the chemical weapons convention; and, fourthly, at the time at which those export licences were approved, a major and most brutal civil war was taking place in Syria. I would add a fifth point: the Prime Minister subsequently revealed in his statement last August, following the appalling sarin attack on 21 August, that there had been 14 previous uses of sarin in Syria, dating back to 2012. The Business Secretary says even now that those were simply bog-standard chemicals that it was perfectly reasonable to export to Syria. I have to say that if that is how the clear-risk policy operates, it is hardly worth the paper it is written on. I am sure that the Committees on Arms Export Controls will return to that issue, which has profound human rights dimensions.

I want to refer to Bahrain, which the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley mentioned. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), and I had a meeting with the Bahraini Opposition earlier this week. I believe that Bahrain is at a tipping point. It could go downhill into the serious internal civil strife that we have seen in too many other parts of the middle east, focusing on Sunni and Shi’a. Equally—I still believe that this is a real possibility—it could become a standard bearer in the middle east for the peaceful resolution of such issues and the establishment of an inclusive, fully engaged political process in which all major sectarian groups can participate.

The climate for bringing about the second outcome, which we all wish to see achieved, will take place in a headwind, because over the past year or more in the middle east, we have seen an ever-increasing degeneration into strife between Sunni and Shi’a. Sunnis have become more and more fearful and paranoid about sharing power with Shi’as, and Shi’as have become ever more fearful and paranoid about sharing power with Sunnis. I suggest that the only counter to that will be for the friends of Bahrain, which certainly include Britain, to give fresh impetus and new support to all parties in

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Bahrain on reaching a peaceful outcome and finding a settlement that is fair and reasonable to all parties. I urge the British Government to play a full role in achieving that.

I turn briefly to children’s rights. I have no pecuniary interest to declare, but I am an unpaid adviser to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s report recommended

“that the Foreign Secretary appoint a child rights expert to his Advisory Group on Human Rights”.

In their response, the Government effectively rejected that recommendation on the grounds that

“many—if not all—of the group’s members are familiar”,


“with child rights issues.”

I consider that to be a disappointingly superficial and facile reply to the Committee’s recommendation. The disturbing but inescapable reality is that, in this electronic age, criminals facilitating child abuse are adopting ever more sophisticated means of making money through corrupting and abusing children, and they are doing so ahead of the steps that the prosecution services and law enforcement agencies can take against them.

The Prime Minister has rightly seen fit to appoint a special adviser on child protection issues—my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry). She has done outstanding work on the issue and continues to do so. I hope that the Minister will convey to the Foreign Secretary that he would be well advised to follow in the Prime Minister’s footsteps.

I am delighted that the present Government are continuing the practice started by the previous Government —most commendably by the late Robin Cook, when he was Foreign Secretary—of producing an annual report on human rights. It is essential work. I appreciate the fact that it involves a lot of work for officials, for which I thank them, but such a report is key to maintaining the credibility of the British Government on human rights issues, both in this country and worldwide. Human rights are the universal entitlement of every man, woman and child on this planet.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. Before I call Mike Gapes, may I say that we shall start the Front-Bench speeches at around 2.40 pm?

2.11 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). The universal values of the 1948 universal declaration of human rights are under attack and are being eroded. That is partly due to some issues and conflicts that have already been touched upon, but, unfortunately, it is also due to the shift of economic and political power and influence in the world, which is moving away from the transatlantic agenda of those who wrote the declaration towards other regions of the world with different political histories and traditions. We will have a big fight in this century to maintain those universalist human rights values. It is important, however, that we recognise that there are countries in south and east Asia that are

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democratic and pluralistic and hold to those values. Such countries include the Republic of Korea and Taiwan, which I recently visited, where people believe in democracy, pluralism and human rights. It is important that we recognise the fact that we have friends in that part of the world and work with them.

I want to make three points. Mention has already been made of Sri Lanka. Members will know that for a long time I have taken an interest in what happened at the end of the civil war there. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), has already referred to some of the issues, so I will not repeat his comments, but it is clear that the Commonwealth did not confront the situation in Sri Lanka in a good way. The question now is whether or not, by March, the Government of Sri Lanka will come forward with credible proposals, as called for by the Prime Minister. If not, the British Government have said that they will refer the matter to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The council has not always had a good record, although the Human Rights Watch report that I saw yesterday refers to an improvement, which I think reflects recent changes to its membership. However, several authoritarian friends of the Rajapaksa family sit on the council, so I am not necessarily convinced that that route will get the solution we want.

Will the Minister address the issue of Sri Lanka in his reply and let us know what is going to happen if its Government do not come forward with a credible, independent inquiry into the events of 2009? Many countries around the world have been calling for such an inquiry, not just the Tamil diaspora. Another mass grave was discovered in a place called Mannar in December. I understand that so far 31 skulls have been discovered, placed on top of each other. Another mass grave was discovered in the centre of Sri Lanka a year ago. It is quite clear that there are questions to be answered about the firing in the so-called no fire zone and the deaths of 40,000 people there in early 2009, just five years ago.

My friend, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, touched on the other issue that will confront us perhaps for decades: the turmoil in the Muslim world. I do not mean just the Arab world, but the wider Muslim world. Iran is, of course, an important contributor to the debate in terms not just of its influence in Bahrain, but its role in supporting Hezbollah, which fights on behalf of Assad in Syria. So far in Syria, 125,000 people have died. Millions are internally displaced, and millions more are refugees. We know what the situation is and we all bear responsibility. The international community has failed the democratic, peaceful activists, women and men, who were calling for change just three years ago. We have failed them. Non-intervention also has consequences; it does not mean that Syria is nothing to do with us. All we can do is say, “We did not help you at your time of need when you were calling for help in 2011.” As a result of that non-intervention, the situation is now much, much worse.

We used to talk about the Arab spring; we are not talking about it anymore. We have probably entered a period of turmoil and unrest that will have inconceivable consequences. Let us look at Egypt. Human Rights Watch has produced an interesting report in which it

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uses the phrase “abusive majoritarianism.” That is a very interesting concept. The report says, quite rightly, that the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi Government behaved in a sectarian, undemocratic manner towards women and civil society groups in Egypt. However, the military then used the pretext of the mass protests against that regime in order to stage a coup. The British Government do not use the term “coup”—at least, I am not sure that they do; the American Administration certainly do not—but we must be absolutely clear that that is what happened. The regime that is now in charge has killed many more people than were killed in the worst periods under the Mubarak regime. There is terrible violence, but there is also terrorism against police officers and others in Egypt, coming from the Islamist extremists. Egypt, a large country with lots of neighbours, is potentially in a very dangerous position.

In 2012, I went to Egypt with the Foreign Affairs Committee. I was fortunate to be able to go from Egypt to Tunisia. Tunisia has had its difficulties, but it has shown how the transition and internal issues can be dealt with in a peaceful, pluralistic way. There are lessons there and there are alternatives.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP) rose—

Mike Gapes: I am afraid that I will not give way because of the time. I want to conclude my remarks in order to be fair to others who wish to speak.

Finally, I want to say that the Government and all parties in the House can be proud that we raise human rights issues internationally. However, I find it disconcerting when there are regimes in Russia and elsewhere, and certain countries in Africa, which are able to quote back at us part of our domestic debate as a way to justify their own bad behaviour. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley touched on that issue, and it is right that she did so. Some of our politicians need to be a little more internationalist in the way they approach some of our debates about refugees, economic migrants and people from different communities living together in harmony, because sometimes words may be taken out of context and used by authoritarian people around the world to justify their own behaviour.

2.20 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), the former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. However, he knows everything there is to know about foreign affairs, so I hesitate to follow him.

I begin by strongly supporting the Committee’s recommendation that the extent of the UK’s engagement in a particular country, or the impact of the human rights situation in that country on wider UK interests, should no longer be included in the criteria used to identify countries to be placed on the list of countries of concern. I can see no case for a country’s inclusion being dependent on whether the UK can—as Baroness Warsi, the Senior Minister of State, said in her evidence to the Committee—“make a difference”. Apart from anything else, many of the countries already on the list have seen little or no improvement despite being categorised as a

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country of concern and therefore presumably having been pressed further by the UK to improve human rights.

No one pretends that it is easy to effect change in brutal regimes that are strangers to the concept of basic human rights, but bringing UK interests into the equation, in the way that that is being done, devalues our own commitment as a country to the need to uphold universal human rights. For example, Bahrain has already been mentioned by several colleagues and I have had strong representations from constituents who believe that it should be rated as a country of concern because of human rights abuses. However, they also believe that that is not being done because of the UK’s interests in selling military equipment to Bahrain. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how that can be classified as an objective evaluation, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office says is the case in the criteria for countries of concern. There seems to be inconsistency; some countries that are left off the list are just as bad as some of the countries that are on it.

Of course, one tactic for making a difference and influencing countries of concern is to refuse to allow them international status by holding major events. I personally regret that the Prime Minister chose to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo. In the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on the Commonwealth, which was published in November 2012, the Committee took the view that the Prime Minister:

“should publicly state his unwillingness to attend CHOGM unless he receives convincing and independently verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights in Sri Lanka”.

No such evidence was forthcoming. In fact, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International took the view that the opposite was the case. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister decided to go to CHOGM and stated that he would “shine a light” on the situation in Sri Lanka. To be fair, he did so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has said, the Prime Minister also called for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes if no credible domestic investigations are carried out by March 2014.

The human rights situation in Sri Lanka will come before the UN Human Rights Council next at its 25th session, which is to be held from 3 to 28 March 2014. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will present a comprehensive report on the implementation of Human Rights Council resolution 22/1 on Sri Lanka of March 2013.

Will the Government follow up on the Prime Minister’s commitment by working with others to obtain agreement for the establishment of an international investigation into allegations of crimes under international law by all sides in Sri Lanka? Also, what action will the Government take to keep up the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government about ongoing human rights abuses?

As the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Committee, has said, of particular concern to the Committee are instances where allegations have been made of the torture of Sri Lankan Tamils who had been returned from the UK as failed asylum seekers. The Government previously maintained that they had no substantiated evidence that people returned by the UK immigration

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authorities to Sri Lanka had been maltreated. It is very important that we hear from the Minister whether the Government still stand by that opinion. It is not repeated in the FCO’s 2012 report and we did not get a straight answer from Baroness Warsi, who appeared before the Committee, when she was asked about it. Can we have a straight answer from the Minister who is here today when he responds to the debate?

I turn now to the prevention of sexual violence against women in conflict. The Committee rightly welcomed the initiative by the Foreign Secretary on this issue. Having worked on the issue of violence against women for more than 30 years—in fact, I still chair my local Women’s Aid group—I can honestly say that that initiative is one of the most positive steps that we have seen internationally for years.

Although we all know that violence against women persists in this country and that much more still needs to be done to prevent it, the prevalence of violence towards women in conflict situations throughout the globe—the nature and extent of the problem—has come increasingly to the fore, after being swept under the carpet for years. Rape as a weapon of war is one of the most heinous abuses of human rights of our time, and it is right that concentration is given to tackling the impunity to it that all too often exists. However, in doing so, it must be remembered that protection of victims and prevention of violence must also be taken into account.

The declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict, which has been signed by 137 countries to date, is a fantastic achievement. I agree with the response to our report by the FCO, which emphasises that in addition to encouraging other countries to contribute personnel to the teams of experts providing support, we should also build national capacities. As well as being practical, we know that the only way that there will be an end to violence against women is by changing attitudes to women and promoting equality.

As one of the co-chairs of the all-party group on Afghanistan, I am particularly concerned that we do not abandon the women of Afghanistan when international security assistance force troops are withdrawn from the country. The campaign in Afghanistan has been a long one, but I think that most people would agree that one of the successes of the last decade in the country has been the advancement of women’s rights. The women and girls of Afghanistan are now protected by law from rape within marriage; they can seek justice and support if they are sexually abused; and millions of girls now have access to education. However, these transformative changes are variable, fragile and at risk, as other colleagues have said. Also, as we say in our report, the act of passing legislation outlawing violence against women is not a “big step forward” if that legislation is not implemented.

The recent suggestion that public stoning for adultery should be reintroduced in Afghanistan may well be a sign of things to come. Although I recognise that President Karzai has publicly stated that public stoning will not be reintroduced, it beggars belief that we have come full circle and are still discussing the very practices that existed under the Taliban’s brutality. President Karzai will come under ever more pressure to abandon the women of Afghanistan. As western forces leave, he will need the support of conservative hard-liners to strengthen his increasingly vulnerable Government, and he may be

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tempted to offer abandonment of women’s rights as a concession to the Taliban as part of a deal to end the war.

I welcome the advocacy work that the UK Government have done with the Afghan authorities to ensure that women’s rights were included in the Tokyo mutual accountability framework—the accountability agreement between the Government of Afghanistan and the international community—and the financial support for civil society organisations that has been delivered through the Department for International Development.

It is especially welcome that there has been success in incorporating benchmarks on tackling violence against women in Afghanistan. However, the agreed benchmarks have yet to be reached. The Government of Afghanistan agreed to release a province-by-province report of investigated cases of violence against women and girls by 3 July 2013, but that report has not yet materialised. I hope that our Government will continue to press the authorities in Afghanistan, in the strongest possible terms, to meet their commitments, particularly on women’s rights.

With that, I will conclude, so that other Members can speak.

2.29 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I will take five minutes, Mr Chope, to allow my colleagues to speak; I think that fits the arithmetic.

I will put on record the fact that I have raised with the Leader of the House the issue about the conduct of this debate, its timing and the opportunity for it, and I will continue to do so. It is wholly inadequate that we have 90 minutes to discuss the human rights of the whole world, on the back of a serious report by the Foreign Office, the Select Committee’s response to that report and the Government’s response to the Committee’s report. It is incumbent on all of us to put pressure on the relevant channels to ensure that we get a much longer debate on the Floor of the House or a three-hour debate here—something much better than this.

I want to deal with a couple of thematic issues. I attend the United Nations Human Rights Council as often as I can. I find it interesting. It is a great improvement on the Commission on Human Rights, in that there is a more transparent election process for membership of the council, and the universal periodic review process means that every country is put under a microscope at some point. That has to be a good thing. We are now coming to the end of the period for the first reviews in the UPR process. This is beginning to be the problem area. Where a UPR has come up with significant human rights concerns about a particular country—there are many of them—and a report comes back that is inadequate or has responded insufficiently to the Human Rights Council, the question is, how assertive is the Council prepared to be in future? There are no simple answers to this and it is a matter of involving people in debate and negotiation.

I should be interested to hear the Minister’s views on the direction of travel in this regard, because the Human Rights Council provides an opportunity to embarrass the human rights abusers and an opportunity for non-governmental organisations to make their views known, as

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well. I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed that, in any discussions about the future structure of the Human Rights Council, which Britain is now a member of, the Government will continue to press for one of the basic principles of the United Nations organisation and agencies, which is the opportunity for civil society to be able to speak at the Human Rights Council, and at other agencies. However, I am more concerned about the Human Rights Council, because it provides an expatriate non-governmental organisation, for example, or an NGO in a country with a fairly repressive regime, the one opportunity to embarrass their Government and raise issues of torture and human rights abuse. That is a precious right. I hope that the Government are prepared to support that.

I should also like the Minister to respond, if he could, on the question about Britain’s attitude to the European convention on human rights. I support the convention and guess that every hon. Member in this Chamber does. I support the European Court of Human Rights, in the sense that it exists and is an important process and helps set a benchmark. Many hon. Members have expressed concern, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), my party’s Front-Bench spokesperson, about the treatment of Pussy Riot in Russia and the abuse of human rights there. The European Court of Human Rights process has been quite an important tool for human rights defenders in Russia and in other countries, including Ukraine, Hungary, Turkey and many other places, allowing them to raise such issues. If they think that the British Government’s sole policy is to continually denigrate and attack the European Court of Human Rights, and withdraw from the convention and that human rights process, that has two effects. First, it reduces our moral authority to say anything about anything and, secondly, it is a signal to many other countries that they, too, could follow the same path if life became embarrassing for them. The point of a convention, and of a transnational court, is that it has authority and has an effect on national policies.

There are many countries that I want to mention, but there is not time to do so. I just want to draw attention to the report’s contents concerning Iran, the points about Bahrain made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), and the interesting section on Saudi Arabia, to which attention has been drawn by hon. Members. I ask the Foreign Office and the Committee to persist with Saudi Arabia, particularly on migrant workers, and with regard to the lack of rights for migrant workers all over the Gulf region. The abuse of their human rights and their civil and political rights is a time bomb ticking away.

2.34 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on its report and I appreciate much of the Government’s response. There are rarely quick fixes with regard to human rights. Much of the work is painstaking and involves like-minded countries trying to help bring international pressure to bear, to tackle human rights abuses. I wish to raise a few points in the short time that I have.

I fear that President Putin may be attempting to trivialise the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Russia. I ask that all means are used—all

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channels of Government communication—to bring as much international pressure as possible to bear on Russia, to stop the repression and recognise full LGBT rights. Once the Sochi Olympic games are over, there is a danger that the issue will slip from view.

The UK is not in the Schengen area, so it is technically correct that it does not have influence on countries within that area. However, these are partner EU countries with which we have frequent interaction, so I find the Government’s answer in the report a little weak. We have clear expectations of other countries that want to form closer relationships with the EU and there could be much broader collaboration with EU colleagues, specifically on putting pressure on Russia in this matter. Perhaps the Minister will mention that.

On Burma, I support the comments of the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Committee Chair. Although we were all delighted at the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and with her visit to Parliament, that is certainly not the whole story. Renewed efforts are needed to tackle the Government in Burma on the continued repression, recent arrests of political activists, and issues relating to Rakhine state.

On sexual violence, I concur with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne). I support the UK’s initiatives in challenging the use of sexual violence in conflict and in the difficult task of trying to change attitudes, to try to stop the collusion in and cover-up of such crimes and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The Government response makes exhortations about approaching other countries to provide expert teams for the painstaking and challenging work involved in tackling the use of sexual violence in conflict, and it mentions the statement made by the Foreign Secretary on 28 November, saying likewise. What progress is being made on involving other countries and providing teams for this work? Although the initiative has been taken, in some ways, by this country, the area is so huge that we need as much help as we can possibly get.

2.37 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the Committee and the Foreign Office on their reports. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn): this is my third time responding to this debate and every year we make the same point, which is that we really cannot do justice to the depth and scope of the report in 90 minutes. I hope that whatever mechanisms are available are put in place to ensure that there is a full debate on the Floor of the House, perhaps when the next report is published later this year.

I will not, because of the short time available, dwell on points made powerfully by hon. Friends and other hon. Members: the valid point about why Bahrain is listed as a country of concern; the praise for the preventing sexual violence initiative; concerns about women in Afghanistan; concerns about the arms export regime; and points made about restrictions on freedom of expression, which is a growing trend, with increased use of the internet and surveillance in that regard. Another valid point was the support for the principle of the universality of human rights, which we see echoed time and again in our debates on this issue and which is important for us to defend.

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Given my limited time, I will focus on the countries singled out by the Committee. First, the UK was right to object in 2009 to Sri Lanka’s hosting CHOGM in 2011. As Baroness Warsi noted in her evidence, we also raised concerns then about the prospect of 2013. That was regarded as something that ought to be kept under review, if there was no improvement in the human rights situation.

It is disappointing that a more robust position was not taken in 2011. It is well known that the Opposition disagreed with the Government’s decision to send the highest possible delegation to CHOGM and we still do not understand why the Government felt it necessary to confirm who would attend six months before the event. That removed a powerful lever that they could have used on Sri Lanka in the intervening period, to get it to try to improve its human rights situation.

The FCO states that the Government

“used the run-up to the Summit to urge Sri Lanka to make progress on human rights concerns”,

about implementing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and to allow unrestricted media and NGO access. Of course, the latter did not materialise, as the likes of Channel 4 news attest to.

It is interesting that the list of subjects raised before the summit does not include an independent and credible investigation into alleged violations of international law. The Prime Minister’s call at CHOGM for an investigation was too little, too late. Reports from Sri Lanka indicate that the President is no more inclined to meet the request for an inquiry than he was before CHOGM.

I urge the Foreign Office to start talks with its international counterparts now. Doing nothing until the March deadline will leave it too late to agree terms of reference for or the composition of an international inquiry at the Human Rights Council in March, thereby leaving the Sri Lankan people waiting still longer for justice and reconciliation. As the Foreign Office’s update this month disappointingly confirms, there has been no improvement in human rights since CHOGM and little commitment to addressing sexual violence. Sri Lanka has still not signed up to the preventing sexual violence initiative, although the Foreign Secretary has said that he is still hopeful that it will.

Given the concern about ongoing violations, I would appreciate an update on the safety of the human rights defenders whom the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary met during their visits. I echo the point about the deportation of Sri Lankan nationals. In light of the severity of the torture allegations, it is disturbing that that issue was taken out of the FCO’s latest human rights report and that Baroness Warsi

“declined to give a direct answer”

to the Committee. I hope the Minister agrees that the Foreign Office cannot be silent on such allegations and that he will commit to working with the Home Office and organisations such as Freedom from Torture and to upholding article 3 of the UN convention against torture.

I welcome the Committee’s reminder that, although Burma has come a long way, there is still a long way to go. It is important that the lifting of EU sanctions should be used as leverage to press for more concerted action on human rights. The opportunity that provides for economic development and greater inward investment in Burma could in turn promote further democratic

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reforms. We welcome the EU’s continued involvement and the confirmation of an EU-Burma human rights dialogue.

We also welcome the decision of the President of Burma to release political prisoners but, as the Committee’s report highlights, there are worrying restrictions on the definition of “political prisoner” and troubling conditions were imposed on the release of prisoners in the past. We urge the Government to renew their efforts to secure the unconditional release of all those unjustly detained and to press for the necessary legal and judicial reforms to end arbitrary or politically motivated detention.

The ongoing tensions in Rakhine state, the discrimination suffered by the Rohingya and the conflict in Kachin state must remain on the international agenda, as is recognised in the latest country of concern update. The Rakhine investigation commission was not sufficient, the irregularities in Burma’s 1982 citizenship law are unresolved and the prejudice against the Rohingya community remains.

Finally, it is important that the UK should continue to press Burma on the role and powers of the military, particularly in light of the British Army’s involvement with the Burmese army. Constitutional reforms are also paramount to removing the obstacles to free, fair and inclusive elections next year, including the barrier to Aung San Suu Kyi’s standing for President.

Next, the Committee was right to focus on Russia. The “foreign agents” law was among the most disturbing indications of Russia’s attempts to stifle civil society and dissent and to shield the Government from scrutiny, along with other restrictions on the freedoms of assembly and expression, including a new blasphemy law and increased internet regulation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said. It is disappointing that Baroness Warsi did not fully engage with the Committee’s discussions on using the Schengen negotiations as leverage and that her letter to the Chair told the Committee “remarkably little”. I hope Ministers are considering all tools at their disposal.

On LGBT rights, there is little surprise that Russia was ranked the worst of 48 countries in ILGA-Europe’s index of legal and human rights for gay people. Conversely, the UK was ranked first, of which we should be proud—that also gives us a special status in pressing for gay rights on the international front.

The spotlight provided by the winter Olympics no doubt contributed to President Putin’s amnesty and the release of the Arctic 30, Nadya and Masha from Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky among others. It is important that that pressure and trend should be maintained after the spotlight of Sochi has dimmed. As Mr Khodorkovsky highlighted on his release, many more political prisoners remain in detention. We must also consider Human Rights Watch’s warning that Sochi means that Russian authorities have intensified the harassment and intimidation of campaigners; other Governments and the International Olympic Committee should take note. Given that Russia is due to host the 2018 football World cup, FIFA should also be taking a close interest.

Human rights dialogue with Russia provides a welcome opportunity to focus on the UK’s serious concerns but, as the Committee and Baroness Warsi noted, such dialogue does not necessarily achieve a great deal. I hope

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the FCO will give particular consideration to Human Rights Watch’s recommendation for a more collaborative and united approach from the EU. Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe provides another forum for the UK to raise our objections, especially given that Conservative and United Russia MPs are members of the same group, as does Russia’s return to membership of the Human Rights Council.

The broader issue of LGBT rights was not explicitly addressed in the FAC report. I have mentioned Russia, but we have to look further afield and particularly to the Commonwealth, three quarters of which still criminalises homosexuality. Concerns remain about the situations in Uganda and Cameroon, for example, and about the recent repressive legislation passed by Nigeria. We must be unequivocal that such criminalisation breaches the core values set out in the Commonwealth charter.

I join the Committee in welcoming the long-awaited publication of the Government’s business and human rights strategy. It remains a concern, however, that Ministers, when considering opportunities to promote British companies and investment abroad, are willing to overlook human rights. The Chancellor and the Mayor of London certainly gave the impression that they were reluctant to raise China’s human rights record when they visited last year. The Treasury declined to answer my question on whether the Chancellor had discussed human rights in China and the action plan on business and human rights with the Foreign Office before or after he went. Indeed, the answer to that question was delegated to a junior Treasury Minister who did not even go on the trip. I tabled named day questions to the Prime Minister in advance of his visit to China, but the answer I received several weeks later was, frankly, worthless. It did not tell me anything.

We value a strong bilateral relationship with China, but that cannot be confined just to trade and financial matters. We need political engagement across the spectrum, and it is disappointing that some Ministers seem to view discussions on human rights as a box-ticking exercise so that they can give parliamentary answers to shadow Ministers saying “nothing was off limits” without revealing any more information.

I press the Minister to ensure that implementing the business and human rights action plan is a priority for his colleagues, who need to be fully briefed, for instance, on the reason for the FCO’s designation of a particular state as a country of concern. I am not talking about just Foreign Office Ministers and Treasury Ministers but Ministers across the piste.

Companies doing business abroad should be fully briefed, too. I understand that 130 representatives went to China with the Prime Minister; it would have been a good idea to sit down with them before the trip to discuss the business and human rights action plan so that they had some understanding of the context.

The Committee warns:

“The FCO should not simply allow UK commercial interests to proceed without restraint”.

Indeed, following concerns raised in last year’s debate, the Committees on Arms Export Controls reported on the overlap between arms export licences and countries of concern, as was flagged up by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). I hope

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the Minister will update us on how the FCO is working on that with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and UK Trade & Investment.

Finally, I welcome the UK’s return to the Human Rights Council, which provides another avenue for the Government to pursue the concerns we have discussed this afternoon. I hope that next year’s debate will allow us to focus on more successful examples of how the UK has exercised influence in the international sphere.

2.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mark Simmonds): I am delighted to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. The debate has been stimulating, well informed and productive. We have heard significant contributions, none more so than that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who in a detailed and articulate speech highlighted several of the key aspects of the FCO and FAC reports on the important subject of human rights. He was also right to put those in the context of some of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks. The Foreign Office has listened carefully to the Committee’s constructive suggestions.

I will try to reply to the many issues about which hon. Members spoke, if they will bear with me. I apologise if I do not deal with everything that was raised, but I shall ensure that hon. Members’ important points are followed up in writing so that all who participated in the debate receive specific responses.

My right hon. Friend and others raised the important matter of deportation with assurances arrangements. I put on record that DWA is entirely consistent with our human rights obligations under international law and our policy of working to prevent torture overseas. The Government will not deport someone if there are substantive grounds for believing that they face a real risk of torture or other cruel, degrading treatment in their host country. DWA enables the UK to reduce the threat from terrorism while meeting domestic and international human rights obligations.

My right hon. Friend and others were right to mention Burma and the plight of the Rohingya. The Government are highly vocal in expressing concern about that plight. When President Thein Sein visited the United Kingdom in July last year, the situation in Rakhine state was at the heart of discussions between him and the Government. In December 2013, our ambassador in Burma visited Rakhine state and discussed human rights with authorities. We have been clear with the Burmese Government that people must be held accountable when serious crimes have been committed. We continue to lobby the Burmese Government that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights be allowed to open an office in the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), who is the Minister of State at the FCO with responsibility for Burma, is engaged with human rights issues in that country.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South also highlighted the interruption of broadcasting. The UK Government strongly support an open internet that is accountable to all, providing not only access to information, but mechanisms for individuals to communicate. We strongly condemn deliberate interference,

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and the Government support work to encourage satellite providers to adopt technology that counters uplink jamming.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) was absolutely right to refer to the importance of more analysis and evaluation. The content of the report that is made public is inevitably only the tip of the iceberg of the thorough and detailed analysis and assessment. It is underpinned by an FCO-wide analysis, which the Government have further strengthened through the network of expert human rights advisory groups on thematic issues, which are chaired by the Foreign Secretary and Baroness Warsi.

The right hon. Lady was also right to highlight the importance of the evaluation of programmes and focusing on outcomes. We carry out extensive, in-country evaluations on all projects that we fund through the human rights and democracy programme to ensure that lessons are learned and applied in future programmes. We are about to launch the 2014 bidding round and have made several improvements to the process in the light of the evaluation of previous years. I emphasise the importance that all Ministers in the FCO attach to civil society, which was an important point of hers. I assure her that as my ministerial colleagues and I travel around the globe we insist on meeting civil society organisations and representatives of civil society not only to provide them with moral and sometimes financial support, but so that we can lobby host Governments in an informed manner.

The right hon. Lady and others were quite right to state the importance of the preventing sexual violence initiative. We are keen to engage with all hon. Members, not just those on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and we desire expert and enthusiastic engagement. I urge the right hon. Lady to request official information about the summit in June, which will hopefully be a watershed moment that lifts the stigma from victims and pins it on the perpetrators, ending the atmosphere of impunity that has lasted for far too long. I assure her that the summit will be open to all who are interested, passionate and enthusiastic about this agenda.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) was right in his outline of the universality of human rights. I assure him that that will be our guiding light as we take up our seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council this year and the common factor—the golden thread—in all the initiatives that we take there. He has a particular knowledge of and interest in export licensing architecture and arrangements. In response to his point, the United Kingdom has one of the most stringent arms export control systems in the world. The export licence applications for everything, including in the Syria chemicals case that he raised, were properly assessed against the consolidated criteria, taking into account all relevant information. There was no evidence of a link to a chemical weapons programme and we have seen no subsequent information to suggest that the goods were diverted to such a programme.

My right hon. Friend also referred to the important issue of Bahrain. We continue to have concerns about human rights, but improvements made since 2011 should be noted, especially progress in judicial and security sector reform. I acknowledge and accept, however, that more needs to be done. We regularly raise our concerns both publicly and in private with the Bahraini Government.

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My right hon. Friend also mentioned children’s rights. It is correct that the advisory group’s membership should remain limited for practical reasons that he will understand. That should not, however, be interpreted as underlying evidence that the protection and promotion of children’s rights do not form an integral part of the FCO’s wider human rights agenda, because they do. The FCO provides financial support to programmes in this area and works to ensure that international commitments on child rights are fully implemented. Our embassies and high commissioners have a responsibility to monitor and raise human rights issues including, importantly, children’s rights. Only this week, I held a meeting with representatives of the NGO community with a particular interest and expertise in children’s rights, including on preventing sexual violence against children and children serving in armed forces—whether state or non-state—to find out what more the Government, NGOs and wider civil society can do to try to make even faster progress in conjunction with multilateral institutions such as the UN.

I want quickly to address the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South and others about Sri Lanka. When launching the human rights report in Westminster earlier this week, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch said that the Prime Minister was right to go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka and commended the Government’s determination to secure a tough resolution at the March UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, which included a mechanism for an international inquiry. I want to ensure that the House understands that if a credible domestic process has not properly begun by March 2014, we will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the United

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Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and call for an international investigation. We will play an active role in building international support for that approach ahead of the March meeting. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is right, however, that we face an uphill struggle to secure the passage of an appropriately robust resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, but I assure him that the FCO network is already hard at work with the resolution’s main sponsor, the United States, to mobilise opinion and the necessary majority, and that our campaign at the Human Rights Council will be led at ministerial level.

There are many other aspects that I could cover in response to the speeches of right hon. and hon. Members, but I want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne). I want to assure those hon. Members who still harbour worries that the criteria for selecting countries of concern have become subjective. They have not; they remain objective. We continue to prioritise our efforts on the basis of our influence, not our interest, and that will remain the case.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made some good points but, if I may, I will respond to him in writing, given the time pressure that we are under. Some of what he said about the universal periodic review of rights is absolutely on the right lines. I will also respond to the hon. Members who made points about Russia and elsewhere.

2.59 pm

Sir Richard Ottaway: I am obliged to you, Mr Chope, for presiding over such an orderly debate. I am grateful to my colleagues, and we look forward to getting the Minister’s written responses to the points he has not covered.

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Violence Against Women and Girls

[Annette Brooke in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: Second Report of the International Development Committee, Violence Against Women and Girls, HC 107, and the Government Response, HC 624.]

3 pm

Sir Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate my Committee’s report on violence against women and girls. I am delighted, with the change of Chair, to be under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.

I welcome my colleague, the Minister, to her place. I appreciate her role as a champion for women and her campaigning enthusiasm for that. I know she shares with me and the Committee the recognition that the status and role of women is absolutely central to development policy.

Violence is of widespread concern. When we published our report in June, I said:

“Violence against women expresses a deep-seated contempt that, regrettably, persists in some countries towards women and girls. It has been the ‘forgotten Millennium Development Goal’. The way in which any nation treats its women holds the key to its social and economic advancement. When you treat women as chattels - when you mutilate them, abuse them, force them to marry early, lock them out of school or stop them entering the workforce – you fail to function as a society.”

It is that fundamental. I will not rehearse the statistics, but in many quarters they are shocking.

When we published the report, we made a number of recommendations, and I ask for an update on the Government’s progress on them. We know where the Government have agreed with us.

3.2 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.13 pm

On resuming

Sir Malcolm Bruce: The interruption came at a natural break in my speech, because I was about to summarise some of the things the Committee welcomes that have happened since our report. I will then ask a few questions to clarify the progress being made, with a final couple of remarks about the situation in Afghanistan.

Commendably, the Foreign Secretary has maintained the cross-departmental prevention of sexual violence in conflict initiative, which has been widely welcomed and supported. The declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict has been signed by 113 countries. The UK hosted a high-level event on violence against women and girls in humanitarian crises in November and plans a summit on ending sexual violence in conflict in June this year.

The Department for International Development specifically has made progress with its £35 million fund to end female genital mutilation within a generation, to which the Minister is extremely committed, and she will want to speak about when she replies to the debate. DFID has also launched a new £3 million programme

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on access to justice for women and girls suffering violence in Afghanistan. We welcome these initiatives by the Government.

May I address some of the issues arising from our recommendations? First, we acknowledge the “Theory of Change” initiative underlying the Government and Department approach. May we have more specifics on how theory becomes practice? What in particular is being done in those countries where violence is especially prevalent, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia—which is not to say that there are not other countries where it is a serious problem? Will violence against women and girls be prioritised specifically in the programmes in those countries?

We had a specific concern with water and sanitation, which I accept that the Government acknowledged immediately, because there was no particular focus on violence against women and girls. Everyone knows that this is a prime example of where women and girls are especially vulnerable, either when they are going to collect water or are using sanitary facilities—they become vulnerable to attack. We welcome the Government agreeing that they should update the guidance. Will the Minister report on the progress made? They gave us 12 months’ notice, so we are halfway through that period.

Last week at the Liaison Committee, I also raised the subject of female genital mutilation with the Prime Minister. The International Development Committee was concerned that it was also an issue within the United Kingdom. It is not as prevalent here as it is in some countries, thank God, but many women living in this country have nevertheless suffered from it, and an estimated 20,000 girls are at risk.

We are aware, first, that female genital mutilation happens in this country, and yet there have been no prosecutions. Sometimes, too, girls are shipped out to have it done abroad and then brought back. Thirdly, the Select Committee was told, women who are British citizens and brought up here may go back to the country of their family’s origin where they are at risk, and yet the extent of our ability to protect them as British citizens is limited.

We are interested in finding out from the Minister how the DFID fund will deal with such issues and, in particular, whether there is any update on the possibility of prosecutions. There have been investigations, but no case has been brought to trial. As the Prime Minister said, getting people to testify and give evidence is the problem, but our view is that prosecutions would underline and demonstrate the strength of feeling.

DFID is a big player in the development sector and in engaging with multilateral agencies. The Committee hopes that when the Government engage with such agencies they will ensure that the issue of violence against women and girls is prioritised in their programmes. We are interested to know what steps the Government have taken to ensure that that is so. We are aware that the Secretary of State champions the issue in the World Bank, but the Government engage with other multilateral agencies where how the issue is being taken forward is not so apparent.

The high-level panel co-chaired by the Prime Minister made a welcome specific reference to target goals on gender equality, with one section on targeting violence

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against women and girls and another on child marriage, about which the Select Committee was particularly concerned. The recommendation is now going through a working party. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to ensure that the recommendation comes out at the other end and is not lost or diluted in any way?

Some people have said, for example, that we cannot have a target of zero violence, but once we start to quantify things the feeling is that we are in effect diluting the commitment to achieve measurable transformational change in the sector. I guess that the challenge to our Government is whether they will continue to insist on a target of eliminating violence against women internationally as a key priority, to ensure that the post-2015 development agenda specifically and explicitly highlights that as essential to delivering progress.

When we visited Ethiopia to support the programme we visited a project on child marriage supported by the Department, which the Minister has also visited. I do not often do commercials, but I think there is still something about it on our website. An interesting thing was that although the funding came from DFID and the leader of the project was UK-based everyone else on the programme was Ethiopian. They worked with the community, but they did not arrive with a pre-determined objective. They sat down with members of the community to discuss how child marriage affects communities, and led them to realise how damaging it is. The participants went from thinking that it was in the girls’ best interest to understanding that it is not. We heard some powerful testimony from a young girl who had been divorced at 13; another who said she had been married—and she meant married—at seven; a mother who had married off her elder daughter and then realised she was wrong, and became determined not to do that to her younger daughter; and a young priest who championed the case against child marriage. He pointed out that it increased the poverty of the village. That was powerful evidence of what can be done.

A slight concern arose with respect to the campaign on female genital mutilation. I know that the Minister has visited the project in Senegal, and has praised it. It was believed to be effective, but we were concerned that it might become the blueprint for what would happen in every country. I hope the Minister will agree—I am fairly certain that she will—that the work must be done according to each country’s social norms, so that people can come to their own conclusion that female genital mutilation is not the thing to do. It is after all not in just low-income countries that it happens. The biggest country where it is practised is Egypt, where about 90% of the women have been subjected to it. Indeed, they accept it. There is a huge amount of work to do. Another sad statistic was from Ethiopia, where 70% of women thought that it was perfectly all right to be beaten by their husbands—that they had a right to do it. There are huge cultural challenges involved in turning things around. I had a strong engagement with President Karzai on the issue during a previous visit, and he came out second best.

As to Afghanistan, we recommended in a separate report that DFID should sharpen up its commitment to its programmes specifically on women. We said that

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women’s status after the military departure—we will stay there for development purposes—will be the test of whether our intervention made a transformation. The statistics are extremely worrying. A UN report shows that although there has been a 28% increase in violence against women in Afghanistan there has been only a 2% increase in prosecutions. Laws have been changed to disadvantage women. For example, family members are not allowed to give evidence, which makes prosecution extremely difficult. President Karzai proposed to support the reintroduction of the stoning of women for adultery. That is a shocking indictment of a country that we tried to support, and for which our men and women died. The values we are concerned about are not cultural; they are absolute. We are entitled to speak out without compromise and say, “I don’t care what your religion or social norms are; if violence by one sex against another goes unchallenged, that will demean and diminish your society. It is just wrong and should not be tolerated.”

We are glad that the Minister champions the issue, and that the Secretary of State is leading a global campaign. There is a huge amount to be done, but I hope that the Minister can give us some up-to-date sense of how the Government are taking things forward.

Several hon. Members rose

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order. I shall call the winding-up speeches at 4.20 pm. Six hon. Members want to speak, so I shall leave them to do the arithmetic, for now.

3.24 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce). There were many interesting facts from his experience and visits that I had not heard before, and I thank him. I congratulate the Select Committee on the report, and the Government on their efforts to tackle the problem.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has described violence against women and girls as one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world. It is both endemic and epidemic. It limits self-esteem, life chances, economic opportunity and development. Gender-based violence reinforces women’s inequality. As to the rate and frequency of violence against women, there is no one particular country or cultural tradition that it is confined to. This country suffers from it too. In Colombia for example, a woman is killed by a current or former partner every six days. In Somalia, 98% of women have undergone female genital mutilation. In Amhara, Ethiopia, 50% of girls are married by the time they are 15 years old.

Today I want to highlight two tragedies connected to the plight of women. The first is forced and child marriage, which is practiced in too many parts of the world, including the UK. Those affected may become vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation, early pregnancy, with a high risk of maternal mortality and morbidity, and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Teen pregnancy is the No. 1 cause of mortality for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 and nearly 10% of all adolescent girls in low and middle-income countries are mothers before they are 16.

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Taking action against early and forced marriage will ensure that more young women and girls can continue their education, act with agency and make independent decisions about their futures. I commend the work that DFID is doing and the references to the subject in the Select Committee report, but the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health, of which I am a member, has also produced a report. “A Childhood Lost”, about child marriages in the UK and abroad, was published a year ago. The report says that it is estimated that every year 5,000 to 8,000 people, including many young girls, are at risk of forced marriage in England. The chair of the all-party group has tabled amendments to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which is currently being debated in the other House, to safeguard 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK, who are currently able to marry with parental consent. I want to repeat the comments made in the Select Committee report, about FGM in the UK, with reference to this topic: while it is beyond my remit to comment on domestic policy in this debate, I believe

“that—as it stands—the UK’s credibility in calling to end the practice overseas is undermined by the failure to tackle the problem at home.”

I shall follow the debate in the other House with interest and I hope the Government will agree to safeguard young girls. That will send a strong message to practising communities at home and abroad.

The second issue to do with violence against women that I want to talk about is often ignored. It is one on which the UK has the potential to assert global leadership. That is the denial of abortion to girls and women who are raped in situations of armed conflict, in violation of their rights under international humanitarian law. The Select Committee report has a chapter entitled “Abortions for women raped in conflict”. Currently, the major providers of medical humanitarian services, including those funded by DFID, routinely exclude the option of abortion to girls and women raped in armed conflict. That forces the majority of rape victims—including young girls whose bodies are unprepared for motherhood —to endure unwanted, dangerous, and life-threatening pregnancies and childbirths. Denying rape victims access to safe abortion in humanitarian medical settings leads to further inhumane treatment of people already brutalised by war, because it compounds the physical injuries and psychological devastation of the rape itself.

Studies have shown that for girls and women who become pregnant from rape in armed conflict, maternal mortality is heightened owing to both the physical injuries from rape and the difficult conditions imposed by war. Girls impregnated by war rape are especially vulnerable, as

“when their bodies are not yet mature,”

pregnancy and childbearing

“can result in the rupture of the uterus and death of both the mother and the child.”

If both survive, there are also the emotional and practical difficulties of raising a child that frequently is unwanted, in a war zone—especially when the society is one that ostracizes victims of rape, and children conceived in rape.

Sky News has just reported the story of a 16-year-old girl who was impregnated by rape in the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic, and forced to bear a

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child in dangerous circumstances. After being raped she was kicked out of her home and left alone to struggle with her pregnancy in the midst of war. This month she gave birth in a local hospital, which was facing a shortage of drugs to treat any complications she might develop. As the Sky News correspondent who witnessed the delivery reported:

“It was a brutal birth to a baby boy she never wanted, into a dangerously chaotic and unstable country.”

Her story is one of the countless and uncounted stories of girls and women forced by rape, as well as humanitarian aid policies, to endure dangerous and unwanted pregnancies in war zones.

As was referred to in the International Development Committee report, girls and women raped in situations of armed conflict are considered “the wounded and sick” under the Geneva conventions, with inalienable rights to comprehensive, non-discriminatory medical care. To further protect those rights, the Geneva conventions require that doctors treating war victims make medical decisions based solely on the best interests of the patient, and mandate that they are immune from prosecution under domestic laws, including laws prohibiting abortion. Accordingly, women and girls who are impregnated by rape in armed conflict have an absolute right to any and all medical treatments, including abortion, that could restore them to the highest level of physical and mental health.

Let me give some examples. Approximately 500,000 women suffered violence during the genocide in Rwanda. Many more were victimised during the aftermath of the 2010 flooding in Pakistan. Lack of access to reproductive health care in disaster and conflict zones is harming women and girls around the world. As is often the case, the world’s poorest are suffering the most. Every year 47,000 women die from unsafe abortions, and millions more suffer serious life-threatening injuries.

Let us be clear on unsafe abortions. Denying a woman access to abortion in situations of rape, of incest and of endangerment of the mother’s life is an act that coerces a woman to continue a pregnancy against her will, infringing her dignity and autonomy by severely restricting decision making in respect of her sexual and reproductive health. That pattern of coercive control over women’s rights to health and autonomy can result in physical and psychological harm, and can amount to a state-sanctioned pattern of gender-based violence.

As such, I wish to highlight the concern that overall investment and commitments to eradicate unsafe abortion are being diluted and diverted in light of misinterpretation of guidelines from the United States Agency for International Development, with disastrous and often fatal consequences for women and children. DFID has recently said:

“On access to abortion services, UK policy is clear: the UK development budget can be used, without exception, to provide safe abortion care where necessary, and to the extent allowed by national laws.”

That clarity is to be commended. Will the Government now give guarantees that they will tackle the matter head on and ask the US to lift the practice of banning funding for abortion services?

I wish to draw attention to the commendable work of many non-governmental organisations—including the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie

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Stopes International—that are working with displaced populations in conflict areas to provide training and support on the provision of abortion services. That includes work to improve access to information and to sexual and reproductive health services for communities in humanitarian settings, initially throughout the Asia-Pacific region, where 3,900 professionals have been trained in 18 countries and 76 in-house trainings have been rolled out. In addition to training professionals working in crisis and post-crisis situations, that work also co-ordinates key health and relief agencies, providing regional and national level advocacy to politicians and policy makers, and provides technical assistance and dissemination of information to professionals in humanitarian settings. In light of its success, regional training is also being rolled out in Africa and the middle east and north African region, in partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the UK Family Planning Association.

The United Nations Security Council and Secretary-General agree that victims of rape in armed conflict must be provided with the option of abortion. On October 18 2013, the Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2122, a groundbreaking resolution supporting abortion services for girls and women impregnated by war rape. Although the Security Council does not use the term abortion in resolution 2122, its language makes clear that member states and the UN must ensure that all options are given to women impregnated by war rape, stating that it notes

“the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination”.

That provision directly responds to the Secretary-General’s recommendation to the Security Council in September 2013 that girls and women raped in armed conflict must be ensured access to

“services for safe termination of pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination and in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law.”

That language reaffirms that medical care for girls and women raped in war is governed by the Geneva conventions rather than national or local abortion laws.

I will finish there, so that other Members have the chance to join in the debate.

3.35 pm

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne).

This important debate about violence against women and girls follows the publication of the International Development Committee’s report, the contents of which the Chair of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), has outlined. Violence against women and girls is a wide-reaching issue. Globally, one in three women will experience one type of gender-based violence or another in their lifetime. Although such violence is first and foremost an abuse of basic human rights, and, in some cases, even child abuse, it has other more wide-ranging societal implications, which the Department for International Development should address when apportioning aid.

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One of the most shocking forms of violence committed against women worldwide, already mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee, is undoubtedly female genital mutilation. Globally, up to 140 million girls have been subjected to the practice. The issue is all the more concerning when we consider that FGM is a culturally institutionalised practice and in some countries is endemic; the percentage of girls having undergone the procedure in Somalia and Kurdistan stands at 98% and 70% respectively. It is practised in about 28 countries worldwide.

I am pleased that DFID has recognised the need to step into the breach, as international donor support has been low, and that it has dedicated £35 million, along with programming, to

“end female genital mutilation in one generation.”

I am also encouraged by how DFID aims to do that. The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the project we saw in Ethiopia—a powerful project about village empowerment to educate people against such practices. We saw that in action. Only by teaching communities about female genital mutilation and the complications it causes can they be made aware of the true brutality of the practice. I believe that in patriarchal societies such as those we have mentioned, such education should be focused on men and boys, especially village elders and religious leaders, as well as women and girls.

Alarmingly, however, FGM is not confined to far-away countries. Figures in a recent report showed that, as those who have been working for up to 30 years to stop the practice in Britain know, the incidence of FGM here has increased considerably over recent years. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that last year 70 women sought treatment for injuries sustained during the procedure and illnesses associated with the practice. Some cases even led to death.

Of course, those figures are not entirely representative of the true extent of the problem, as many women fear the consequences of telling the authorities. That makes it difficult for the police and prosecutors to identify cases of FGM, and to date there has never been a prosecution under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 here in Britain. That situation presents law enforcement authorities with something of a problem, and I would welcome mandatory reporting by doctors, nurses and other health professionals, and teachers who feel that their pupils are in danger of either having the cutting done here or of being taken back to their home community to have it done.

It is important that public bodies are taught that FGM is not a culturally sensitive issue but a crime that needs to be reported to protect the girls whom it affects. It is child abuse, and until there has been a prosecution the practice will continue unabated. It is against British law and punishable in the courts. Why are the safeguarding boards not shouting from the roof tops about the issue? All those entrusted with protecting children, young people and women need to start taking a much more robust approach.

I am sorry to say that France’s record is much better than ours. It has had around 100 prosecutions to date and is setting a good example. We should look at what it has done and how, and then do the same. It is shocking that some French girls are sent here to be mutilated in

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this country. Why do we not change the law to prosecute the parents of girls who have been cut? The children are supposed to be under their protection, but the parents allow that to happen. They have been complicit, even when they have not done the cutting themselves. When a few parents have been prosecuted, more will think twice about the practice.

I pay tribute to the work of the previous chairman of the all-party group on genital mutilation, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who is now a Health Minister and is following up every avenue she can. I have taken her place, and will be working with communities here in the UK to make progress on this issue.

Forced marriage, which was not mentioned in this report, is another area where fear of offending cultural sensibilities is seriously affecting the rights of young women. For some time now, I have been involved with a charity, Karma Nirvana in Derby, which runs a helpline service for men and women affected by the practice. It is run by Jasvinder Sanghera, who was herself a victim of forced marriage. Every year, Karma Nirvana writes to schools throughout the country to circulate information and literature promoting awareness of the issue, but to date only nine schools have responded to the initiative.

When Karma Nirvana launched its new poster campaign earlier this year, only two schools signed up. Some head teachers have torn them down from notice boards for fear of upsetting cultural sensibilities. Again, this is child abuse, and despite the disappointing figures, it is essential that schools take some responsibility in combating forced marriages because they know their pupils and should highlight possible victims. Some 35% of victims are school-age children.

I am aware that the offence of forcing someone into marriage against their will is set to enter the statute book later this year, but schools, other public agencies and the media are turning a blind eye to the problem. When a teacher and a white female pupil ran away to France last year, the media reported it every day for more than a week until they were found. There may be hundreds of Asian girls going missing every year, but that is not reported in the news. Those girls are British but not white. Is that the difference? If so, could we not blame the media for racial discrimination?

Shafilea Ahmed was murdered by her parents in 2003 after refusing to enter into an arranged marriage. She told five separate organisations that she was at risk, but all failed to act on her warnings. The police even attempted to provide mediation between her and her parents, who later took her life. It is clear that cultural sensitivity overrode the need to protect that young girl. Could that be called honour-based violence? Where is the honour in murdering your own child?

Jasvinder Sanghera’s sister poured petrol over herself and set herself alight, burning herself to death after being forced to marry a man she did not want to be with. There are countless similar stories, but time prevents me from going through them.

It is essential that the Committee should lend its support nationally and internationally to stamping out this social evil. A recent report by Demos praised the Department for International Development for its work in providing assistance and aid for victims of forced marriage, but there is so much more to be done. Greater

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co-ordination between in-country DFID representatives and Foreign and Commonwealth Office consular staff is paramount in promoting the regional presence of the forced marriage unit, allowing girls who are forcibly taken abroad to marry to be brought back safely to the UK. Perhaps there should be similar units in countries that practise FGM so that they can act when they suspect that a child has been taken to a country for the specific reason of cutting.

It is important to raise the issue of future funding for Karma Nirvana. It has taken 30,000 calls since 2008, but it is unsure whether its funding stream from the Ministry of Justice will be in place after September. It is the only charity providing hotline support for those experiencing honour-based abuse and forced marriage. It is obvious that forced marriage is not a small problem, and when the law against it comes into force it follows logically that the demand for support services will increase. I urge the Minister to make representations to the Minister with the relevant responsibility to ensure continued funding.

The Committee’s report makes important recommendations for ending barbaric practices such as FGM. I am pleased that it suggests doing that through education. I understand that DFID is undertaking initiatives to eradicate forced marriage, but it is important for the Committee to have further discussions on the issue to evaluate how we can further encourage efforts at home and abroad.

Several hon. Members rose

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order. We are down to about nine minutes per speech.

3.45 pm

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Mrs Brooke, to serve under your chairmanship and to follow such an informative speech from the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham). I congratulate the Select Committee on International Development on its report on violence against women and girls and the Government on their continued efforts to tackle the problem internationally, as well as nationally.

I served on the International Development Committee a few years ago when we went to Nigeria, Bangladesh and other places. We witnessed violence against women, child abuse, forced marriage, under-age marriage and poor education, especially for girls, with lack of water and sanitation in girls’ schools, which was provided in other schools. We witnessed that discrimination. I miss the work of the Committee, and I will certainly try to return to it so that I can contribute to its work.

After today’s news that a 20-year-old woman was tied to a tree and gang-raped in India, allegedly on the orders of village elders, the issue of violence against women and girls is particularly poignant; the utmost importance of addressing this critical issue has been highlighted again. As a member of the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health, I want to draw attention to the importance of family planning and sexual and reproductive health and rights when tackling violence against women and girls.

Violence against women has been called the most pervasive yet least recognised human rights abuse in the world. As many as one in three women in the world

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have suffered some form of abuse, most often by someone she knows, including her husband or another male family member. Any such abuse can leave deep psychological scars and damage the health of women and girls, especially their reproductive and sexual health, and sometime results in death or leaves them permanently disabled, ruining their lives.

The effects of violence on a woman’s reproductive health can be profound, from unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions to complications from frequent, high-risk pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Gender-based violence is sustained by a culture of silence and a denial of the seriousness of the health consequences of abuse. In addition to individual harm, those consequences exact a social toll and place a heavy burden on health services. Gender-based violence is sustained by silence, so women’s voices must be heard and every effort must be made to enable women to speak out against it, and to get help when they are victims of it.

The Government should be congratulated on hosting the family planning summit in July 2012. Global leaders united and pledged $2.6 billion to provide 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries with access to contraception by 2020, and the UK announced £500 million in aid.

Currently, more than 200 million women and girls in developing countries do not have access to modern methods of contraception. The inability to choose and access family planning will cost many of those women their lives. I urge the Government to ensure that part of their pledge is dedicated to making emergency contraception available to victims of sexual violence to alleviate some of the suffering and SRHR problems it causes.

Access to modern contraceptives can help prevent an estimated 600,000 neonatal deaths. In 2012, an estimated 291,000 women and girls in low and middle-income countries died from pregnancy-related causes; 104,000 of those pregnancies were unintended. Investing in SRHR is cost-effective. Money spent on modern contraception helps save more in maternal and newborn health care and is a strong tool for moving towards gender equality and female empowerment. It helps tackle violence against women and girls and its devastating effects.

As well as ensuring access to family planning and SRHR, I urge the Government to strengthen advocacy on gender-based violence in all our country programmes in conjunction with other United Nations partners and non-governmental organisations. We must integrate messages on the prevention of gender-based violence into information, education and communication projects and conduct more research on gender-based violence.

Lastly and most importantly, I appeal to the Government to call for the new millennium development goals framework to include a target on universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights and a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment. The matters that we are discussing are of great urgency. We have a moral duty to defend the vulnerable and to ensure that human rights for all are protected.

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3.52 pm

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I pay tribute to those who spoke before me, and I will comment particularly on the powerful message from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) about the need to stand up against things happening in this country that must be exposed and not hidden away—female genital mutilation, and early and forced marriage.

I very much—perhaps “enjoyed” is the wrong word—appreciated being part of the inquiry by the International Development Committee. I confess that I had not given enough thought to this issue over the years, and the process opened my eyes to the extent of violence against women and girls, not only in the developing world but, as we have heard, in the developed world. I am pleased that the Government have made the issue a focus of their work, led by the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development, and by Ministers in the Department for International Development, including the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien), and the current Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who has rightly championed the issue and made it a focus of her work.

The issue was particularly brought home to me by three students who approached me from King Edward VI school in Stafford, in my constituency. Those three girls—Maya Lucey, Amy Mace and Chloe Taylor—wrote to me saying that they would like to speak with me about it. I had not spoken to them about it before, but what they had heard in the press and elsewhere had made them concerned about female genital mutilation in the UK. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to them last Friday, or rather of listening to what they had to say. I was profoundly impressed not only by the extent of their knowledge, but by their commitment to stopping FGM in this country. I pledged that I would do what I could to raise the matter in this debate and to supporting all the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire and others continue to do in Parliament. I pay tribute to the girls’ teacher, Mrs Jo Bentham, who ensured that they were supported in talking about an issue that is particularly difficult for some people of their age to raise.

Members have already discussed the statistics on FGM prevalence rates. They are as high as 98% in Somalia and 94% in Sierra Leone; I will mention Sierra Leone a bit later. An estimated 3.3 million girls a year globally are still at risk from the practice. A study conducted in 2007 by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the City university midwifery department, using modelled estimates, concluded that 66,000 women resident in England and Wales had undergone FGM, and that 23,000 girls under the age of 15 were at risk of it. This matter is of great importance not just in countries in the remit of the Department for International Development, but right here on our doorstep. I welcome the work being done by DFID. We understand that, in March 2013, it dedicated £35 million to ending FGM in one generation. Part of that money will fund social change, communications and research. The goal is ambitious and worthy, and I congratulate DFID on its commitment.

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In the time remaining to me, I will concentrate on the vital matter of changing social norms. I well remember living in Tanzania and having a good friend from an area where FGM was the norm—everybody allowed their young daughters to be subjected to it. He was determined that that should not be the case for his daughters, and instead of taking a negative or critical approach, he stood up and said, “We’re not going to allow our daughters to go through this. We are setting an example.” That comes back to a point made by previous speakers: it is vital that we engage communities, not just lecture them. We must work with women’s groups, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire said, and with men and boys, to say that FGM is completely unacceptable.

I want briefly to address the question of early marriage, and one problem that it brings and to which FGM contributes: fistulas. When I was in Sierra Leone at the end of last year, I visited the Aberdeen Women’s Centre in Freetown, which has been equipped through generous donations from Scotland, in particular, and from Ann Gloag. We saw women there, some of them very young, whose lives were being transformed by the repair of their fistulas, which had developed largely as a result of their being married and giving birth at an early age. It made an enormous difference to them. Without it, they would have been almost outcast and ashamed to be in society.

We have heard about the critical matter of water and sanitation. While I was living in Tanzania and my wife was running a public health programme there, one key thing that she wanted was for shallow wells to be drilled in every village to enable women and girls to get water locally, rather than having to travel 5 km, 6 km or 7 km for it. Such travelling not only meant that they could not receive education, but put them and their mothers at risk of violence. The project made a big difference, especially as the community was involved in not only raising the money for the wells and pumps in the first place, but maintaining them. One could see that when a community was committed to the well-being of the girls and women in their midst, it was quick to raise the necessary money.

I conclude by again commending the Government’s work in this area. We must ensure that it continues and is not a theme for only a year. It has to be a theme for this Government and many Governments—and for many generations. That is so obvious, yet it sometimes seems to escape our notice.

4 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Like most hon. Members, I want to focus on one aspect of violence against women and girls: female genital mutilation. I believe that our concern reflects that of the public, and that was brought home to me when I was asked to do several media interviews following the publication of our Committee’s report, because every one of them focused on concern about FGM in this country. I believe that once people become aware of the issue, they want resources allocated to address it. I welcome the prioritisation that DFID is giving FGM by providing £35 million towards the ambitious aspiration of ending it in a generation. I want to touch on the practice here and abroad, and to update Members on one or two statistics that have been published since the Committee published its report. I will finish by asking the Minister some questions.

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As we have heard, a terrifying number of girls are affected—140 million. According to UNICEF, 98% of women and girls in Somalia are affected. In Guinea, 96% are affected; in Egypt, 91%; in Eritrea, 89%; in Sierra Leone, 88%; in Ethiopia, 74%; in Sudan, 88%; in Gambia, 76%; and in Burkina Faso, 76%. The practice also occurs in many countries outside Africa, so it is a truly global problem. In recent decades, the practice has grown significantly among the migrant communities of north America, Scandinavia, Europe and the UK.

Our Committee was shocked to receive statistics for this country from the Department of Health. A 2007 report indicated that about 66,000 women and girls in the UK had undergone FGM and that more than 20,000 girls aged under 15 were at risk. However, those figures may well have been a gross underestimate. I had the privilege of sponsoring the launch in the House this week of a report from the New Culture Forum. That report extrapolated figures from the 2011 census data, whereas the figures that I cited were from the 2001 census. The number of women and girls living with FGM from migrant communities is highly likely to have increased over those years. It is now estimated that the figures could be about three times those that the Committee received, meaning that about 170,000 could have undergone FGM, and about 65,000 girls aged 13 and under could be at risk of mutilation.

The New Culture Forum report also includes thought-provoking comments, one of which is the frequently made statement that it is now almost 30 years since legislation was enacted to outlaw the practice—the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985—yet

“not a single successful prosecution has been brought against FGM practitioners.”

It is interesting to note that we are behind Kenya in that respect, as it has brought at least three successful prosecutions. As has been mentioned, France has brought many more. However, it is not only 30 years since legislation prohibiting the practice was enacted, because legislation relevant to it actually goes back as far as 1861, as what is happening is grievous bodily harm. It is child sexual abuse of the worst possible nature, so we really must do all that we can to break down what the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has called a “wall of silence” that is inhibiting prosecutions in this country.

We need to ensure that professionals in the field, including criminal prosecutors and health care practitioners, receive adequate training, and that there is engagement and education within FGM-practising communities. As many Members have said, FGM is a cultural practice that has to be changed.

There is a difficultly with compiling evidence. Only this week, we heard that hospitals are failing to report FGM as they should, because

“161 hospitals that responded to a Freedom of Information request, 83 said that they did not formally record FGM cases.”

That has to change. This week we heard that the chief inspector of constabulary, Tom Winsor, was reported as saying:

“Police are never called by certain minority communities because they administer their own justice even in cases as serious as…sexual assaults on children.”

That also has to change.

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The most important factor in inhibiting action is excessive cultural sensitivity, which is simply a reluctance to combat the practice of FGM for fear of appearing reactionary or prejudiced. The profound irony is that that perspective generates a discrimination of its own as the victims remain unprotected precisely because of their race. It is interesting that the Council of Europe has clearly dismissed arguments of political correctness, stating:

“It is a matter of urgency to make a distinction between the need to tolerate and protect minority cultures and turning a blind eye to customs that amount to torture and inhuman or barbaric treatment”

of this type.

As a French lawyer said at the event that I was privileged to sponsor this week, “You cannot use the excuse, ‘It’s their culture.’ Torture is not culture.”

In most cases, parents and/or grandparents—the very people a child would expect to provide them with protection—are present at the act, and it is often conducted at their instigation. It is heart-rending to hear some of the recordings of a child crying out, “Mummy, Mummy” during the act. This is not only about all the physical damage that we have heard of today, as the psychological and mental damage that the children—they are often aged between six and 12—suffer cannot be calculated.

I turn to several questions to which I would like the Minister to respond. First, although our Committee welcomes DFID’s announcement of £35 million for a programme to end FGM in a generation, if that aspiration is to be met, the funding needs to be invested sensitively and carefully. I remind the Minister of the Committee’s recommendation of adopting a “phased and flexible” approach to ensure that evidence-based programming is conducted. Will she update us on progress with regard to the use of that £35 million to tackle FGM worldwide?

Secondly, will the Minister confirm reports of how the Metropolitan police are approaching the issue? I understand that they have reopened some FGM cases. How confident is the Minister that that will lead to a prosecution in this country? It is clear that we need to put aside political correctness and adopt a far more robust, cross-agency approach in which the police proactively track girls at risk. Our Committee has recommended the publication of an up-to-date, binding document requiring all health service providers, the Department of Health, the Department for Education, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, the Government Equalities Office, the police, the Ministry of Justice and the Crown Prosecution Service to play their part. Will she look again at that? Is it not the case that unless we have joined-up working, we will not be able to tackle FGM in this country? Even more so, unless we have international joined-up working, and learn from good practice and success in other countries, we will not achieve our global aspiration. This massive challenge requires joint working by as many agencies as possible.

The Committee noted that the Government disagreed with our report’s recommendation that a cross-Whitehall strategy for tackling FGM should be published, as they said that they already had an action plan in place. Why, as the Prime Minister himself admitted earlier this month, do we therefore still lack results on stamping

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out this practice in the UK? During our inquiry, we discovered that there was no consistent data collection on FGM in the NHS. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will start collecting information routinely about at-risk babies and girls, and that that information will be used to take action?

We welcome the action already taken by DFID and its financial commitment. However, we highlight in particular that although robust action must be taken, it needs to be culturally applicable and there has to be joint working, both within and outside the UK.

4.10 pm

Dame Angela Watkinson (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I shall keep a close eye on the clock.

I speak as a delegate of the Council of Europe, which has 47 member countries across geographical Europe—it is much larger than the European Union. Its purpose is to uphold three things: democracy, the rule of law and human rights. All those categories come within the subject of this debate, but none more so than human rights. We are going on our first quarterly visit next week, but on our last visit we happened to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where we were reminded that it was set up to prevent gross abuses of human rights, rather than to address some of the trivial things that it is asked to decide on these days. We were interested to find that 97% of the applications to it from the United Kingdom are rejected on the grounds that they are inadmissible or inappropriate. The sort of gross abuses that took place during the second world war, for example, gave rise to the body’s creation.

I wish to speak briefly about the horror of the use of rape as a weapon of war. The results of that are not just the psychological, emotional and physical damage that sufferers live with for the rest of their lives, but the cultural rejection that comes with it. Victims often have no means of earning a living and are condemned to a life of extreme poverty and isolation.

However, I want to focus mainly on the subject that almost every other speaker has spoken about: female genital mutilation. That most grotesque, barbaric practice amounts to torture. It is illegal in this country and is a gross breach of human rights. It was probably during my first Parliament that I served on the Committee that considered the Bill that made it illegal to remove girls from this country and take them abroad to undergo this practice. Another member of that Committee was the then Liberal Democrat Member, Dr Jenny Tonge. We all agreed before our proceedings started—hon. Members on both sides of the Committee were of the same mind—that there was no need to enter into any graphic descriptions, but Jenny Tonge, as a doctor, did embark on the most graphic descriptions of what happens to victims. I will not name the male colleague who was with me, but he was so affected by that that he went very pale and almost passed out in his chair.

The Bill’s purpose was to stop the practice happening, but of course it has not, given the extreme difficulty of enforcement and of finding anyone who is willing to provide evidence. There is often collusion among older women in the cultural groups that still uphold this practice, which is often carried out in unsterile conditions.

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The victims suffer infection, chronic health problems for the rest of their lives, and real trauma during marriage and childbirth.

We must try to deal with this practice in many ways, including through diplomacy between countries and Governments, and do whatever we can to bring it to an end. It involves the most appalling subjugation of women. An estimated 140 million women in Africa and the middle east, and 66,000 women living in this country, have suffered FGM. A further 20,000 girls in this country are estimated to be at risk. However, it is extremely difficult to obtain evidence about what happens, and then it is only after the event, although even that has a purpose. If we could just secure some convictions, it would help to deter further instances of this practice, break the cultural habit and make people realise that FGM is illegal in this country.

One hundred years ago, women in this country rose up to demand their human rights. Women in other countries need to do that, and we need to do whatever we can to find strong women in the countries in which the practice prevails and to help them to speak out and rise up there, because that will be the most effective way of getting this dreadful practice stopped.

4.15 pm

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. There have been many well informed speeches today. I welcome the broad approach of the Government in making this a strategic issue in the work of the Department for International Development, but it is also right to raise some of the concerns flagged up in the Select Committee report.

Violence against women is a violation that cannot be justified by any political, religious or cultural claim. Around the world, violence against women and girls takes many grotesque forms, a lot of which have been raised in this debate. One in three women will face violence in their lifetimes: that is 1 billion women and girls—1 billion stories of violence against women. However, that is not a stagnant statistic; there are a number of situations happening now, globally, that should spur our focus on this issue.

There is the vulnerable situation faced by women and girls in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Early reports indicated that the collapse in law and order, the widespread displacement of people and the distress, disruption and sheer desperation following a disaster of that magnitude had put more than 65,000 women and girls at risk of sexual abuse and trafficking. There were the 4,000 incidents of violence against women documented in just six months by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Those incidents included maiming and amputation of body parts, acid attacks, kickings, beating with a wire, pulling out of hair and burning, rape, prostitution and forced abortion. That highlights the precarious situation of women on the eve of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is the worsening situation undoubtedly faced by women and girls in the Central African Republic, in Syria and in South Sudan as violence in those fragile states escalates.