Foreign Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 267

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 11 June 2013

Members present:

Richard Ottaway (Chair)

Mr John Baron

Ann Clwyd

Mike Gapes

Sandra Osborne

Mr Frank Roy

Sir John Stanley


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK, and David Mepham, UK Director, Human Rights Watch, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Can I welcome members of the public to this evidence session of the Committee’s inquiry into the Foreign Office’s human rights work in 2012? It is important to bear in mind that this is our critique of the FCO’s report on human rights, rather than a wide-ranging report on human rights.

To assist us in assessing the effectiveness of this report, I am delighted to welcome back Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, and David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch. A warm welcome to you both. It’s good to see you here again. Is there anything that you want to say by way of an opening statement?

Kate Allen: Just to thank you very much for inviting us to talk about the report, to say how important we find both the report and this scrutiny of it and to highlight, in case we do not talk about it during this sitting, our appreciation of the UK Government’s support on the arms trade treaty, which was a major event during the year where we did something brilliant in the world and where the UK Government played a great role. We are often critical-I am sure that we will be critical during the session-but the treaty is very special.

David Mepham: I echo Kate’s thanks to you and the Committee for having this sitting and for us to have the opportunity to speak before you. Perhaps I could add two brief points. The first is to draw the Committee’s attention if you have not already seen it-it may well be very much on your radar screen-to the report of the UN Committee Against Torture that came out some 10 days or two weeks ago. A group of human rights experts associated with the UN Committee Against Torture assessed the UK’s performance in respect of the treaty, of which the UK is of course a signatory. While some elements of the report are positive about the UK’s record, there are also some quite telling criticisms of UK performance. If you have not had an opportunity to look at it, I would suggest and encourage you to do so, because it is quite an important document that will play into your inquiry.

I wanted to make this second point because I am not sure where it would come up otherwise, but it is relevant and may be the kind of thing that you could put to the Human Rights Minister when she appears before you. You should ask her about the impact on her international human rights diplomacy of the fact that we have Cabinet Ministers and other prominent people in the Government who are regularly attacking the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act and disparaging to some extent the concept of human rights. What impact does that have on our capacity through foreign policy to persuade other Governments around the world, not least in Europe, to uphold human rights principles? We see that as having a negative impact, but it might be a question that you could put to the Minister when she appears before you.

Q2 Chair: Good point. It is straying dangerously close to a political argument, but it is a point well made.

Can I start with a fairly general question? As you are aware, the criteria for establishing countries of concern have changed. Do the new criteria have your support?

Kate Allen: We have had consultations on that, which have been good and important. David will come on to mention a few countries that we would have probably jointly have expected to have seen in the report given the new criteria.

Thinking again about the criteria and about where they might go in future, one thing that we might like to add is something about aspiring powers and the fact that the UK Government have strong relationships and new developing relationships and trade relationships with countries such as Mexico, Malaysia, Indonesia and Nigeria. Perhaps there is something about aspiring powers that could come into the criteria in future, but I will leave David to talk about the particular countries that we would both have expected to have seen within the countries of concern.

Q3 Chair: So, by and large, you go along with the new criteria.

Kate Allen: I think they are an effective set of criteria, but we should always keep them under some scrutiny or review and that is why we make our suggestions.

David Mepham: As you say, Chairman, there has been this review of the criteria and new criteria were issued some months ago. At one level, if you read the criteria, it is hard to disagree with the principles set out about the gravity of human rights abuse, the regional impact of abuse in a particular country, the UK’s influence and so on. Our concern at Human Rights Watch is that, despite the new criteria, you have some very important countries, which in our judgment should fall inside the criteria and that are consistent with the criteria, that are not included in the countries of concern section in the most recent human rights and democracy report. Those four would be Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bahrain and Egypt.

Q4 Chair: Sorry. Ethiopia, Rwanda-

David Mepham: Bahrain and Egypt. I believe that your Committee last year said that Bahrain should be included as a country of concern. We would make the case strongly for Ethiopia and Rwanda to be included, given the gravity of the human rights abuses that are taking place in both countries. I think they would fall within the grave human rights abuses criterion. I am just slightly puzzled and bemused that the UK has a lot of influence with both of those countries in terms of diplomatic, security and development relationships.

In the case of Rwanda, for example, just in November of last year, the UK Government-both DFID and the Foreign Office-took the decision that Rwanda’s support for human rights abuses in eastern Congo, particularly its support for the M23, was such that they would change quite fundamentally their policy in terms of ending general budget support for the Government of Rwanda, to send a clear signal to Rwanda that what it was doing was unacceptable, but that did not read across to Rwanda being included in the countries of concern section of the report. That is just puzzling, and I think it is an issue to put to the Minister. On objective grounds, in terms of the graveness of the abuses, but also in terms of UK influence, those four countries that I have mentioned should be included.

Chair: That is very helpful. I want to come back to you about some terrorism points, but on something that Kate Allen just said, Sir John Stanley wants to ask a question.

Q5 Sir John Stanley: I am very glad to hear what you said about the signing of the international arms trade treaty. You will be fully aware that there is all the difference in the world between getting treaties signed and getting them into force, which requires the signatures of the requisite number of countries by way of accession. The arms trade treaty requires accession by 50 countries in order to be brought into force. Can you tell us what you think the British Government should do to achieve the accession to the treaty of 50 countries in the minimum length of time?

Kate Allen: On 3 June in New York, 67 countries signed the treaty, so I think that was a very good start. Among that 67 were the UK-it was good to see the UK there on the day-France and Germany, some of the major arms exporting countries. The US has said that it will be signing shortly, so I think that we have a good head of wind with the signatures. You are right: the ratifications need to take place. It would be good for the UK Government to provide support to many of the smaller countries of the world that supported the arms trade treaty in what they will legislatively have to do within their own countries to get things into place to be able to enforce the arms trade treaty. I know, from discussions with Minister Burt, that there is some work there, but it would be good to be very clear about how much is being invested in that by the Foreign Office, because there is a great promise with the arms trade treaty. But you are absolutely right: we need to have those ratifications and the implementation globally.

Q6 Chair: Moving on, the Foreign Secretary made a big speech at RUSI about combating terrorism. There were proposals to form networks and closer relationships and to share intelligence with a number of countries. It is an area that we are taking a close interest in, anyway. There is, however, a concern that there could be a conflict of human rights in these countries. It is described as "co-operating by sharing information while developing local capacity in adherence to human rights." Do you think that that is the right approach?

David Mepham: Obviously, I have the speech in front of me and I read it in anticipation that it would be raised by the Committee today. There are a number of things that were said in the speech that it would be hard to disagree with. Right at the outset, the Foreign Secretary talks about the importance of situating what we do in terms of the counter-terrorism agenda very much within the framework of the rule of law, human rights, good governance and so on. The concern is when that then translates into some of these practical initiatives and practical measures. As you know, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have been very concerned about the deportation with assurances policy that we could perhaps come on to.

Chair: We are coming to that in a second.

David Mepham: In terms of the practical issues, of course the United Kingdom will be engaging with lots of countries around the world and discussing these kinds of issues. What is essential is that it should do so with human rights at the forefront. We should not be doing anything that might involve us in complicity in torture or abuse, and we need to ensure that those principles surround any kind of new initiative or any co-operation we have with particular countries. The ban on torture is an absolute prohibition. It is an absolutely clear and categorical imperative that this Government has as a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture.

No one disagrees with co-operation and engagement and so on. The test will be whether the UK and its relationship with a particular country is ensuring that human rights and the rule of law are protected and upheld and that we are not doing anything that in any way involves us in torture and abuse. One may need to look at an individual case to make that judgment, but that is the test that should be applied when we come to broad discussions about anti-terrorism.

Kate Allen: Absolutely; that’s the test. The Foreign Secretary’s speech identified absolutely some of the key dilemmas, but there were some missing elements. Things that we would highlight as additional areas that could be looked at include the role of the UN and the existing mechanisms and rapporteurs. For example, if Jordan was allowing regular access to those special mechanisms and rapporteurs were looking at detention facilities and records of torture, and seeing that improve, and if the UK Government were supporting that vocally, you could start to see those UN mechanisms playing their role as they should do and somewhere like Jordan and its human rights record improve, with transparency and accountability about that.

The other missing thing in the speech is not looking at some of the lessons over the years, but of course the independent inquiry into where things have gone wrong has not taken place, so that sort of external view-

Chair: We have questions on the detainee inquiry as well.

Kate Allen: Sure, but there is no real sense of an external look at what has gone wrong, and therefore what needs to be put right. As David said, the position of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch in terms of returning people to places where they might be tortured or sending evidence to places that could lead to people being tortured is a red line for us. Amnesty would see those two contributions as something that could help to strengthen the ability to ensure human rights compliance by countries.

Chair: Flagging up a caution, basically.

Q7 Mr Baron: If you don’t mind, may I stick with the detainee inquiry or, better still, its successor? It has had a tortuous path, perhaps understandably, and it is now held in abeyance. We have had a promise of a report on the preparatory work, and we have also been assured that there will be a successor to the inquiry. This Committee recommended last year that "the Government and human rights organisations should start to explore ways of finding a mutually acceptable basis on which the successor inquiry to the Detainee Inquiry can proceed." Have Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch held any discussions with the Government on the form and process of the successor inquiry?

Kate Allen: No, we haven’t had those discussions, and we would welcome them because it would be very timely to do that, so that when criminal proceedings have taken place and an inquiry can take place, it is ready and able to move quickly. We could learn and talk about why Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and others could not endorse the Gibson inquiry and its inadequacies in terms of its openness and ability to demand that people come before it with documentation, and the fact that the Government would decide what could be revealed and what could not. There is a lot that can be learned there.

David mentioned the UN Committee Against Torture and its report a few days ago. It, too, asked these questions and why, when the report from the Gibson inquiry was delivered in July last year, it has not yet been made public because I would expect there to be quite a bit in it that we could be getting our teeth into in terms of its successor inquiry. Those are all points we would make, and we would very much welcome conversations with the Government about what that successor inquiry might look like.

David Mepham: Briefly, I would agree with everything that Kate has said. I think the recommendation your Committee made a year ago was a very good one, and it is disappointing that there has been no attempt on the Government’s part to reach out to organisations like ours that are interested in these issues and have some expertise in them to say what happened, what went wrong with the last inquiry and how can we make sure that, when inquiry No. 2 is instituted, we make a success of it.

In so far as the Government have expressed a view about it, it is not clear to me that they have learned the lessons from the failure of the first inquiry. If you look at how it is described in the report, there is no acknowledgement that organisations like ours were very concerned about the lack of adequate powers being invested in the inquiry or the lack of appropriate independence. They were our two principal concerns: the inquiry’s powers and its independence from the Government. I do not think they have learned those lessons, but it is an issue that you should certainly push with the Minister.

Q8 Mr Baron: Can I be clear? We as a Committee have made a recommendation. The initial preparatory report has been with the Prime Minister since June of last year. What overtures have you made to the Government, and what has been the Government’s response? You have talked about the independence, which is important. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Could you also address how you feel classified evidence should be handled to get that balance right between openness and transparency and obviously the security and safety of the individuals and perhaps at times the wider public?

David Mepham: Over the last year, it has been raised on a number of occasions with the human rights advisory group that we were concerned about this issue. There was a meeting just last week in which it was raised again. The UN Committee Against Torture has raised the issue in its very recent publication that it is a concern to them that the Gibson inquiry report that was handed over to Ministers a year ago has not yet been published, or the majority of it has not yet been published, and that there has not been any prompt move by the Government to put in place a new inquiry.

Q9 Mr Baron: I am sorry; can I pin you down, David? All these reports are fine, but has anybody knocked on the door and got a response from the Government as to why there is the delay?

David Mepham: We have not had a letter or any kind of communication from the Government that explains-it is not explained in the most recent report that we are discussing today-why there is this delay.

Q10 Mr Baron: Might it be worth asking the question?

David Mepham: It is a good point to make, but it is also a point for your Committee to make to the Minister.

Q11 Chair: We asked it last year, and I am pretty sure that we will ask it this year.

Mr Baron: I think that the charities themselves should ask the question.

David Mepham: I think it is a fair point that we should press them harder on why there is this delay and what the explanation for it is and to what extent they have learned the lessons from the failure of the previous Gibson inquiry.

Q12 Mr Baron: Okay, can you address the issue, very briefly, on how you handle classified evidence? How do we get the right balance?

David Mepham: This to some extent strays into the discussion which we may or may not have about the Justice and Security Act. I do not know whether you are proposing to touch on that. We at Human Rights Watch are concerned about-

Chair: No, if you have a point to make, make it now.

David Mepham: We are concerned about this increasing trend to have secret court sessions-closed material procedures, as they are described. If there are allegations of abuse involving people working for the British Government, as indeed there are in this case that are of relevance to the Gibson inquiry, then they ought to be properly looked at and the people responsible for those abuses need to be held to account. This Committee needs to be very clear about what is involved here. On the basis of the available evidence, we have instances in which people working for the UK Government were involved in rendering people back to Gaddafi’s Libya, where they were tortured.

This is very serious stuff, which is why we are disappointed with the failure thus far for anyone to be held accountable for that. Again, it is a question to be put to them. We would be very concerned if these allegations of Britain’s involvement in torture and rendition are held behind closed doors. We actually think that that material needs to be in the public domain. Judges representing their clients can make their argument, but we would be very concerned if the totality of that trial is held in secret and there is not an opportunity for people who may have been abused to have their case heard in public.

Q13 Chair: Mr Mepham, this is quite a serious point you are making here. You famously produced the document-was it one or two years ago?

David Mepham: 2011.

Q14 Chair: It is two years ago. You just said that Mr Belhaj went back to Libya and was tortured. Do you mean tortured or allegedly tortured?

David Mepham: He claims he was tortured, and I think the evidence we have is pretty powerful that he was so tortured, but that obviously is for a process to determine. As you know, in the two individual cases, compensation has been given to one individual-not Mr Belhaj but Mr Sami al-Saadi. Mr Belhaj has asked for an apology from the British Government and there is a criminal process under way in relation to his case. We will see where that criminal process takes us, but he makes very serious allegations against people working for the British Government.

Q15 Chair: One of your team famously just stumbled over this evidence. Have they stumbled over any more evidence?

David Mepham: I think we discussed that at last year’s session. No, not specifically in relation to this. There is no additional information that we have managed to glean in the last 12 months that we did not discuss 12 months ago in terms of Britain’s involvement in this process. I think the allegations and the material that we have are sufficiently serious to warrant the kind of inquiry that we are talking about.

Q16 Mr Baron: Sorry, can I press you one more time? I think I got half an answer. On classified evidence, is it your view that it should be all out in the open? Where do you stand on this? Where is the right balance?

David Mepham: Obviously, there are bits of information that one cannot put into the public domain, but even before the Justice and Security Act became law very recently, there were processes in this country for dealing properly with such matters-for example, public interest immunity. We do not see any justification for the additional step that has been taken to have a greater frequency of cases in which closed material proceedings are used. We had existing mechanisms that could have been exploited for dealing with the kind of classified material that you describe within the legal process without that additional step.

Chair: Thank you.

Q17 Ann Clwyd: I wonder whether you feel that the treaty recently concluded with Jordan gives sufficient assurances for people deported to Jordan under UK immigration laws.

Kate Allen: No, we don’t. I think that it takes diplomatic assurances a further small step, in that there would be some parliamentary scrutiny, but I think that the whole approach-whether it is diplomatic assurances or the recent agreement with Jordan-which singles out a particular individual and builds something around them is basically flawed. Jordan fails to uphold human rights standards in the way that it detains and in terms of its record on torturing. What is needed is a systematic approach to dealing with those failures within that country and by that Government, not picking out one individual and setting up a whole special scheme.

We also have severe doubts that those schemes for named individuals can be robust enough and can work. There are all sorts of ways in which people can be influenced. We have our worries about that. Fundamentally, it is a way of working around international law and UN conventions, rather than making sure that they are implemented for everybody.

David Mepham: I echo that, essentially. Like Amnesty, we are very sceptical about deportation with assurances. Essentially, this is a policy which is about sending people back to a place known to torture people on the basis of a bit of paper from that Government saying that they will not torture them. It lacks credibility. That Government is known to torture. In the case of Jordan, torture is very widespread in their detention facilities. We have documented that, and I know that Amnesty has, too. Why would you take their assurance in this particular case that that person will not be tortured? We are very sceptical, and we think the obligation to ensure that no one deported from our shores is then tortured at the other end is very strong, and that we should not do it in that case.

Q18 Ann Clwyd: Do you think it makes much difference whether it is a treaty of understanding or an MOU?

David Mepham: No.

Kate Allen: No. I think the issues are basically the same.

David Mepham: I agree with that.

Q19 Ann Clwyd: I wonder if you can comment on what follow-up monitoring is being done to ensure that the terms of the MOUs with Algeria, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Morocco are being adhered to. Have you any evidence on the follow-up to those?

David Mepham: It is a good question. I am not sure what follow-up monitoring has been done. One of the countries that you mentioned in terms of MOUs is Ethiopia. Earlier in the session, I flagged our concerns about the human rights situation there and what happens to some people in Ethiopian detention centres and facilities. I don’t know. It is a good question, what kind of monitoring is done, but given the nature of Ethiopia’s human rights record, I would be very concerned about people who might have been sent back from this country to Ethiopia. Again, I think it is a question to put to the Minister.

Kate Allen: Perhaps we could also take that away and see if we could get back to you with anything that our colleagues may have.

Q20 Ann Clwyd: You sit on an advisory committee, but you don’t sound very happy with the way it is working. Would there come a point when you left it because nobody was taking your advice?

Kate Allen: Each of us can talk about our experience. It is not a question of being unhappy about it at all. It is an advisory committee that the Foreign Secretary consults; he asks for views, and he listens. We may disagree or agree at the end of that process about how things get taken forward. I certainly value it as an opportunity to make our views known and engage in a conversation, so I have no intention of resigning and will continue to put our views as Amnesty into that process.

David Mepham: I also would not want the Committee to be given the impression that we are unhappy with that advisory group. Like Kate, we very much value the opportunity to sit down with the Foreign Secretary a couple of times a year and discuss our issues. I think it is quite a useful mechanism and we have enjoyed that opportunity to express our views and concerns. Of course, he is the Foreign Secretary and they are the Government; they make their decisions and we are just offering our views and perspectives. That is entirely as it should be, but it is valuable to have the opportunity to feed in our perspectives and our areas of concern.

Q21 Ann Clwyd: Can we turn to Uzbekistan? David, you describe the EU’s position on human rights in Uzbekistan as disappointingly weak. What scope does the EU have, given its links with NATO, to actually influence anything?

David Mepham: Thank you for raising Uzbekistan, because that country is probably not on many people’s radar screen. I know that you have taken an interest in it. Some of the countries in Central Asia rarely get debate and discussion in the British Parliament, but their human rights record is really bad, and Uzbekistan’s is absolutely abysmal. As an organisation, we rarely rank countries, but I do not think it is unreasonable to say that Uzbekistan has one of the worst human rights records in the world, with systematic torture, terrible abuses and terrible crackdown on civil society.

The EU’s policy has been weak, but actually I think the UK’s policy has been weak. Again, that is an issue that British Ministers should be pressed on. One example that we have cited in recent months is that, despite the fact that Uzbekistan has this terribly repressive policy and is cracking down and practising torture on a wide scale, the decision was taken in February by the Defence Secretary to gift some British military equipment to the authorities in Uzbekistan, as part of a deal, one assumes, to facilitate the draw-down of British military forces from Afghanistan. We are not naive about geopolitics, but I think the British and the EU could have driven a harder bargain with Mr Karimov about that.

The Government in Uzbekistan, despite its dreadful human rights record, does crave better access to the EU, stronger trading relationships and recognition from the wider international community. It appears we have made this decision to gift them quite a lot of military equipment, but we have not been pushing them hard enough on the very serious human rights abuses that continue in that country.

Q22 Ann Clwyd: Do you think that there is a danger it might misuse military equipment gifted to it?

David Mepham: I had not particularly focused on that. That may be the case, yes. I have not looked particularly into the kinds of equipment that we are selling or gifting, but just given the nature of the abuse and the repression in Uzbekistan, it is odd that we did not look into the question you have raised-not only what we are gifting him, but whether it is appropriate to be gifting him any kind of military equipment, given the nature of the human rights situation there. They are both good points that we ought to give more priority to.

Q23 Ann Clwyd: We would hope that the use of such equipment would be monitored.

David Mepham: Yes. Again, because we do less work on the conventional arms trade, I do not know whether the gifting of military equipment has to comply with any criteria. I suspect it does, still.

Kate Allen: Yes, absolutely.

David Mepham: You mentioned the EU right at the beginning. Obviously, the UK in the EU could be pushing more to get Uzbekistan as an issue for discussion, and an EU common position through the Foreign Affairs Council. That has not happened for a number of years. Back in 2005, some Committee members may recall there was this massacre in Andijan in Uzbekistan, where literally hundreds of people were shot dead. At the time, the EU imposed sanctions; more recently, it has decided to lift the sanctions, even though no progress has been made in improving the human rights situation there. I think both the UK and the EU are falling below the kind of statements that they make on human rights.

Q24 Sandra Osborne: Can I ask you about the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, which seems to have gone done well? The Foreign Secretary has been vocal about it, which is to be welcomed. Can you suggest any pointers on how this initiative might develop? Do you agree with some others, for example, that there has been more emphasis put on combating impunity at the moment, rather than preventing sexual violence?

Kate Allen: I think that the preventing sexual violence initiative is a good one. It has obviously had huge personal support of the Foreign Secretary and there was a Wilton Park conference at an early stage that brought in experts from all over to be part of developing some of the thinking here. So it feels like a strong initiative that has been well grounded.

What we have from the G8 so far is that political commitment that sexual violence in conflict is a war crime and a contravention of the Geneva Conventions. So often, though, it simply does not get dealt with. Look back at what happened in Bosnia, with tens of thousands of rapes; since that time there have been only 40 prosecutions. That is the thing that the G8 declaration was about changing. Obviously it needs to go further than the G8, so it would be interesting to hear about the plans to take the initiative into the UN and get systematic backing for it at UN level. The holding to account is hugely important because that is part of how you change behaviour.

Some of the other good things in the initiative are that it is grounded in working with local NGOs, so the support for Women Human Rights Defenders and civil society and NGOs is within the initiative. I think that that, done well and supported at UN level and getting that kind of backing, could be part of prevention as well as holding to account. It is a good initiative. It is very early days. It has had real political support, which is what has got it as far as it has gone so far.

What we need to see now is that next stage. We need to see the way in which experts are deployed. Experts are being deployed at the moment in Syria, and there is a list of other countries. It is vital that those experts work alongside the UN mechanisms, that they work alongside local NGOs and that we can see this initiative placed within the broader way in which Resolution 1325-the support for women being part of peace processes-can be delivered, so that it is part of that whole approach to conflict and to women’s role in determining peace and the way in which peace is implemented. So it is a good initiative. We were very pleased to be part of framing it.

Q25 Sandra Osborne: I was going to ask you about the team of experts. Do you feel their criteria are right? Are there countries that you feel are currently missing out?

Kate Allen: It is early days. I think I am right that experts have only been deployed to Syria so far, but that there are plans for Southern Sudan, Eastern DRC, Bosnia, Mali and Libya. If you look across the world at the moment to where particular issues are, either they are very immediate-in Mali, for example-or as in Bosnia, where it is absolutely important that that legacy is addressed. It has not gone away. It still affects the way in which communities live and the way in which women can continue their lives, the way in which families behave. The whole thing absolutely infects all of that. There is work that needs to be done there. It is an interesting range of countries and initiatives. When there is a bit more experience of the way the experts work, it will be a good opportunity in a year or so to have a look back and see in retrospect whether those were the right places. But it looks good to me for now.

David Mepham: I agree with everything that Kate has said. I agree that the Foreign Secretary’s sexual violence initiative is important and welcome. One country that has not been mentioned that we certainly pushed for inclusion is Somalia. The Foreign Secretary has rightly put a lot of attention on Somalia. It has been a big priority for the UK Government. There have been two conferences now in London to try to assist the new Government of Somalia to move forward, but Somalia has a big, big problem of sexual violence. From memory-I haven’t got the thing in front of me-Somalia is down there as a third tier. We will have some investigation at some point, perhaps next year.

I think there is an argument for Somalia to be given more priority, in view of the emphasis that has been given to Somalia generally. I know it featured in the recent London conference. There was discussion of sexual violence but there was a particular case which Committee members may recall from the press back in January this year where a woman claimed that she had been raped by some members of the Somali security forces. She was imprisoned for bringing forward the claim that she had been raped, and a journalist who tried to report the case was then imprisoned. We and others weighed in and said "This is a bit of a test case for your initiative. You have a country like Somalia with a new president and a woman is imprisoned for claiming she was raped by the security forces, and the journalist who tries to report on it is imprisoned." That woman and the journalist have now been released, thankfully, but I think Somalia would be a good test case for a Government who are receptive to Britain’s influence and Britain’s support trying to be more focused on taking practical measures to address this kind of problem.

Q26 Sandra Osborne: David, could I ask you about the implementation of the Family Violence Bill in the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq? I believe that Human Rights Watch has described implementation of that as poor. Why have you come to that assessment?

David Mepham: We have come to that assessment because very little has been done to take forward that legislation. It is dangerous to make generalisations, but in the Kurdish region of Iraq I think there is a big problem of FGM; female genital mutilation is widely practised. In Kurdistan, there is a sense that it is acceptable and traditional. We have been pushing, along with other human rights organisations, including local ones, to try to address that problem.

While the legislation sounds fine in principle, our assessment is that not enough has been done to drive that forward and implement the kind of measures that are necessary to protect women and girls from that abuse. I can provide more information to the Committee on that, because I am not an expert on that particular issue.

Q27 Sandra Osborne: So the regional government do not see it as a priority?

David Mepham: No, it’s not seen as a sufficient priority. The influence that Britain has both over Iraqi Kurdistan and over Iraq may be questionable, but I think we do have some influence and that is the kind of issue that we should prioritise and press, because sexual violence is a very important issue for this Government and Foreign Secretary. I hope that he and his officials are pressing the issue very strongly.

Q28 Sandra Osborne: Similarly with the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women in Afghanistan, I am aware that there is huge concern among women in Afghanistan about that. I am co-chair of the all-party group. What do you think the FCO could do to ensure that the law is more strictly enforced?

Kate Allen: I think there is a range of ways in which the UK could support women and women’s organisations in Afghanistan, in terms of that law and more generally. It is an important law but it is not being implemented. We are in a climate at the moment where the international forces withdraw by the end of 2014. As Amnesty, we have worked closely with women’s organisations over the past couple of years in Afghanistan. I was there about a year ago and met many women’s organisations. We have met and worked with the Afghan Women’s Network, which has surveyed 300 women leaders over eight provinces. The result of that survey was women saying that there is no meaningful involvement in the planning for transition, and that there is a complete failure in what is happening for women. I was told exactly the same thing a year ago by everybody-women politicians, Ministers, NGOs and civil society.

There needs to be a greater focus by the UK Government, not just on how that law gets implemented, important as it is, but how women get supported and how those gains that have been made over the past 11 years are held on to. Everybody at the moment feels that they are slipping away. When you have a situation where only nine out of the 70 members of the Jirga council are women, and that is the forum in which discussions with the Taliban are taking place. It is very difficult. When I was there, the Ulema council announced a range of prescripts about women, including an announcement that women were secondary and that their rights were completely secondary. President Karzai signed up to that. There is absolutely not enough pressure on him from the UK Government and others saying that that is not acceptable and that women’s roles and rights are important.

Women I spoke to felt marginalised in the political processes. They felt that their voices were not heard. They felt that when politicians were visiting from other countries, they were involved on the sidelines not at the centre. There are ways in which the UK Government could have an impact. There is a budget of £70 million from the UK over 2015-17 on supporting the security services of army and police-1% of the police are women. We would like to see that £70 million used and directed towards increasing the level at which women are in the security services. Without that, women simply have nowhere to go to-they cannot talk to men about some of the issues that we would be concerned about. So there is a range of ways in which the UK Government could start to think, in a very practical sense, about how they could support women before the withdrawal of forces at the end of next year.

David Mepham: I do not want to repeat all of that, because I agree with it, but a brief addition is that it is very important to think longer term as well. At the Chicago meeting on Afghanistan last year, there was a lot of discussion about a 10-year commitment by western countries to help with security reform, security sector reform and so on. That’s fair enough, I would not want to disagree with that-but no comparable 10-year commitment was made to strengthening and supporting women’s rights. That is the kind of thing that the UK Government should be championing-not just what we are going to do in the next 12 months, in the context of the international forces being withdrawn, but what our commitment is in terms of development and diplomatic assistance to cement the advances that have been made in recent years and to ensure that they are not whittled away in the context of changes that are likely to happen.

One practical thing is that back in 2001, there were apparently almost no shelters in Afghanistan for women fleeing domestic violence. There are now shelters. I am not aware if the UK is funding any of those, but that might be a practical thing you could raise with the Minister-whether there ought to be more practical, financial support for women fleeing violence of that kind.

Kate Allen: There are only 20 shelters, and they are very difficult to access. The levels of violence are quite extraordinary. I have never really seen anything like it, in terms of the stories that I was hearing when we spent a day in one of the shelters. I totally agree with David that a 10-year plan would be a wonderful thing to have.

Q29 Ann Clwyd: I have a particular interest in Iraq and in Iraqi Kurdistan. I have seen women’s shelters there, I have asked the same questions as you have asked and the promises have been made, but again it seems that there is then no proper monitoring of the promises made or money given to enable some of those promises actually to be undertaken. I have great concern for Afghanistan, because the same promises have been made to women there as were made in Iraq and Kurdistan, and the reality is very far away from those promises. There is a complete lack of proper evaluation of what is being done on the ground. On FGM, we do not do very well in this country-I put a Bill through Parliament on tightening the law on FGM in this country, but there have been no prosecutions-so we cannot show the way on that, because we have not achieved very much, except warm words.

David Mepham: I agree. I am not sure that I have that much to add. You are absolutely right that it is hugely important, and the UK Government need to be giving it much more priority in their relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan and with Iraq. You are right to say that the challenge is implementation; people can pass laws that all sound fine in theory, but prosecutions are very important, and they are not happening in the way that they should be. It is a bit like the conversation we were just having about the sexual violence issue: once you start getting some successful prosecutions and people know that they can be criminalised and held accountable for abuse, that can change a dynamic. Of course, changing deeply entrenched, traditional cultural practices is hard, and no one pretends that you can wave a magic wand and suddenly things are transformed, but the legal process and prosecutions are part of that. I would say that that is true in Iraqi Kurdistan as it is elsewhere.

Q30 Mike Gapes: May I take you to Sri Lanka? I have been pursuing, including in the debate in March, the question of the returns of people from the UK to Sri Lanka and of the activities of the UK Border Agency.

In October last year, the UK Border Agency said that acts of torture were being used to extract confessions in Sri Lanka, but that they were usually "random". It also did not accept that there should be any change in the policy of returning people to Sri Lanka. The Minister, Hugo Swire, wrote a letter to me recently about the case of those people who had been returned from 2002 onwards-there were subsequent strong allegations of them being tortured, and some of them came back to the UK-and he said: "Given the significant gaps in time between the return to Sri Lanka and ill-treatment in the cases referred to in the freedom of information request, it does not follow that simply being returned from the UK puts individuals at risk."

You in Human Rights Watch actually produced some of the original evidence about these particular individuals, but the Government, in their response, and the UK Border Agency, have said that you did not provide them with sufficient necessary detail. Why was that?

David Mepham: I will answer that question, but to put this in a wider context, I am really pleased that you have raised the issue of Sri Lanka, because we think that the Foreign Office and the Government generally are failing on Sri Lanka. We and others have documented clear evidence that some Tamils previously returned from the United Kingdom to Sri Lanka have been tortured on their return. That is a very serious allegation, but it is documented on the basis of the research that we and other organisations have done.

For some time, when we have made that allegation-we have been making it for a number of years-Foreign Office Ministers said in public, "We have seen no credible evidence that this is the case." They did not, interestingly, say that in the Sri Lanka chapter in this year’s human rights and democracy report. They did not do so because they cannot stand by it, because they have now recognised that our evidence is credible.

Mr Gapes, you referred to the freedom of information request that was put to the Home Office, and to its response. I will do this very briefly, but I think it is important. Basically, the Home Office, which has responsibility for the UK Border Agency, which is of course now being replaced, was asked in how many cases a Sri Lankan national who had previously been given asylum1 in the UK and had gone back to Sri Lanka, but made their way back to the UK, was given refugee status second time round. The answer was 15. It was asked in how many cases it was alleged that that person had suffered torture, and the answer was 15. It was asked in how many of those 15 cases the allegation of torture was found to be credible. It did not answer that question. It was then asked in how many of those 15 cases the individual was given refugee status, to which the answer was 15.

It is very interesting that, having denied for a number of years that these allegations are credible, we have a response to a freedom of information request to the Home Office of November last year that acknowledges that 15 people previously returned from the United Kingdom who had made their way back to Britain claimed that they were tortured at the hands of Sri Lankan forces and were given asylum status by the United Kingdom. Presumably, if their claims were completely bogus, they would not have been given such an asylum status.

Q31 Mike Gapes: Can I just question you on the figures? It is interesting. In the letter to me, Hugo Swire said that "the freedom of information case only concerned 13 people, of whom only 11 were returned to Sri Lanka from the UK, and nine of those were forcibly returned."

David Mepham: You are right that they have changed their mind. I was just quoting from the document. They have now changed the figures. I am very happy to share this document with the Committee if it is useful, because it is an FOI response.

Mike Gapes: This letter to me is dated 27 March.

Q32 Chair: Could you give it to us at the end?

David Mepham: Absolutely.

Q33 Mike Gapes: Clearly, there is some concern about the actual figures, but the essence of the point is that people have been returned to Sri Lanka by the UK Government, some of them forcibly, and they have then been tortured in Sri Lanka and they sought asylum again in the UK, which has been granted.

David Mepham: Yes.

Q34 Mike Gapes: Why then do the Government say that you have not provided them with sufficient information?

David Mepham: A very good question. I think the evidence is sufficient for them to want to change the policy. On the specific point about why, obviously a human rights organisation is not going to provide confidential information about clients. We are not going to put people who come to us with allegations of abuse in jeopardy or risk their identities. That is common practice across human rights organisations. In some ways, it is slightly odd, if that is the point that the Minister is making-that he expects Human Rights Watch to reveal the identities of individuals who have come to us with claims of abuse.

We, in our reports, and other organisations have documented sufficient evidence of abuse in our judgment for the UK to think again about its risk assessment guidelines for Tamils being deported to Sri Lanka. As it happens, an upper tribunal case is under way as we speak. It has been going on now for some months. It is due to conclude very soon. It relates to this issue about the risks facing Tamils returned to Sri Lanka. I suspect that the British Government are waiting for the conclusions of that tribunal before they make a decision. We believe that they should move more swiftly than that, and recognise the risks that face some Tamils who are returned to Sri Lanka.

Q35 Mike Gapes: Is that the same case as the one in which 30 Tamils are covered by an injunction to prevent their being returned or is that a different matter?

David Mepham: There are a number of cases, but the big one is in the immigration court. The upper tribunal is looking at a case in relation to the risks facing Tamils returned to Sri Lanka. It is due to report very soon, and if it reports in a way that is critical of Government policy, as we expect that it might, the British Government will be forced to change the risk assessment guidelines that relate to Tamils who might be deported back to Sri Lanka.

We think that the risk assessment guidelines should be broad. We are not saying that no Tamil could ever be deported back to Sri Lanka. That is not our position. We think that the risks facing Tamils, particularly those who have been involved in political activity on the streets of London, is greater than the Government acknowledge.

Q36 Mike Gapes: But your 2013 report says that 30 injunctions were granted to stop removals. I am just trying to clarify whether that is the same case.

David Mepham: It is a separate case, in addition to the case that is going before the Upper Tribunal and is being adjudicated on over the next few weeks. The fact was that, on the basis of the evidence of Human Rights Watch and other organisations some months ago-I forget the precise month, but you have it there in your figures-the court ruled that some of the people who had been put on a charter flight to go back to Sri Lanka had to be taken off the flight because the lawyers acting on their behalf were saying, "We think the risks facing you are so great that we will take you off the flight." The ruling of the courts was that those individuals should be removed from that particular flight.

Q37 Mike Gapes: Why then do you think the Government have decided that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are going to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka in November?

David Mepham: Do you want to add anything? I can come in on that as well, but perhaps you will come in on that particular point.

Kate Allen: We very much regret that decision. Having the Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka sends all the wrong signals to a Government who have a shocking human rights record, but it is going to take place, so the issues now are about how things are handled in the lead-up to, during and after that meeting. In the lead-up to the meeting, I think it is important that at the Human Rights Council in September there is an effort to get a conversation/resolution on Sri Lanka and its human rights.

Q38 Mike Gapes: That is the United Nations, not the Commonwealth?

Kate Allen: Yes. We need to be using all mechanisms between now and that meeting to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government in terms of its human rights record. When they are there, I think it is important for the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister to be meeting people from NGOs and civil society and hopefully to be travelling to parts of the country in the north and other places where they can be talking to people. And I think it is really important that that approach to Sri Lanka is maintained post-CHOGM, because the Sri Lankan Government are well known for being vindictive against those who stand up for human rights and who talk to others about them.

One of the things we would say is that the FCO does not sufficiently acknowledge how bad the Sri Lankan Government is, so I think that, having decided to go, there really needs to be a plan.

Q39 Mike Gapes: Do you think they shouldn’t go? Should they boycott it?

Kate Allen: I think the meeting shouldn’t take place there. I think pressure should have been exerted to move the meeting elsewhere.

Q40 Mike Gapes: Why was it chosen? What is the process? Could it have been stopped earlier?

Kate Allen: I am not sure of the answer to that question. It is probably one for the Minister. Given the record, given the current timing and given the inquiry that has taken place within Sri Lanka and has not been progressed, I think it is deeply unfortunate that the Commonwealth has chosen that as its location.

David Mepham: To add briefly to that, I agree with Kate that probably the best outcome for which the UK Government should have pressed was to have the CHOGM somewhere else. Of course, as people will recall, back in 2011 it was supposed to be in Sri Lanka and the decision was made not to hold it because of what happened in 2009. So there are precedents for CHOGMs being moved, and I think that would have been the best option. But given that it is going to be in Sri Lanka, we also regret that the British Government have decided to go at that level. We think some leverage could have been exerted, and of course that leverage has now gone because they have made this decision to go at prime ministerial level.

Given that they are going, it is very important that they should be pressing the Sri Lankans as strongly as possible on a whole range of human rights issues, not least-I do not believe the UK Government have done this publicly for some time-pressing for some kind of international mechanism to investigate the estimated 40,000 deaths in the early part of 2009 at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. That has never been properly investigated. Sri Lanka’s own domestic processes for looking at that are hopelessly inadequate, and the UK Government should put a lot of emphasis on that.

Q41 Mike Gapes: Let me take you to the issue that arises from that. We just did an inquiry on the Commonwealth and there was a lot of evidence suggesting that the Commonwealth was not a significantly important player on human rights and democracy. Despite the Harare declaration and all those things that the Commonwealth is supposedly about, in practice it is not. Is there any way that we could make the Commonwealth a more positive force for human rights, apart from moving the CHOGM to somewhere else, which is not going to happen?

Kate Allen: When 54 Governments get together it is always an opportunity to raise human rights issues. When you think about some of the opportunities in the Commonwealth, there are some very basic issues. For example, 41 out of the 54 Commonwealth countries still criminalise LGBT issues. That is terrible. Somewhere near 20 Governments still have the death penalty. There are some fundamentals that could be worked on over a prolonged period to try to change some of that and what that stands for, so you could start to see some incremental changes on both those issues. At the basic level of how Governments themselves behave, let alone their approach to the rest of the world, if a concerted effort was made over time, maybe we could start to see some change in those worrying figures.

David Mepham: I agree with that. A brief point to add is that the Commonwealth is unusual in being an international organisation that has in the past suspended the memberships of countries that have fallen foul, usually on democratic grounds. It expelled Nigeria and Pakistan.

Q42 Mike Gapes: And Fiji.

David Mepham: And Fiji. Such a mechanism does not exist in the UN. The Commonwealth is an organisation that has certain declared principles, and can say, "You are now falling foul of these principles. You are not allowed to be part of the club." I think that is something it should continue to use, because it is a form of leverage-obviously, the countries that are excluded do not like it-and it may be a way in which improvements in human rights and democratic governance can be affected.

Q43 Chair: Can I clarify one point, following on from Mr Gapes’ questions? We all regret that the conference is happening in Sri Lanka. But given that it is, you are prepared to live with the fact that the British Government are going, is that right? Or are you saying that they should be boycotting it?

David Mepham: No, I think they have now made the decision to go. In fact, it came up at the foreign affairs advisory group meeting last week. I don’t want to betray too many confidences, but the Foreign Secretary said that it was a difficult issue, and we are weighing our relationship with the Commonwealth against what is going on in Sri Lanka. Our concern now-I am sure the same is true for Amnesty-is to say that, given that they are now going at this level of seniority, with all those Governments present it is incredibly important that they press human rights very strongly and publicly. On thing they should do, for example, is make public statements on human rights while they are there. There would be nothing worse than for the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister to have a guided tour by the Sri Lankans, be taken to all the nice parts of the country and make nice remarks about Sri Lanka without identifying some of the real human rights issues that we are concerned about.

Kate Allen: It does not feel like there was any sense that other members of the Commonwealth were part of the conversation.

Q44 Chair: The Foreign Secretary said at the Dispatch Box that no one else wanted to move it, so they were faced with the choice of whether they should or should not go.

Kate Allen: And now it is about what to do.

Q45 Mr Roy: Can I move the focus to Burma? Last year, the European Union suspended economic sanctions for 12 months, and in April it decided to keep it going. Do you accept that the lifting of the sanctions is in Burma’s best interests?

Kate Allen: We have never traditionally taken a position in terms of either imposing or lifting sanctions. Our researchers on recent visits to Burma were told that sanctions did not cause Burma’s economic decline, but relieving them could help to build its economy. However, that is not normally something that we would take a view on. I do not know whether you are moving on to other issues in Burma, because we do have some views on the situation with the Rohingya Muslims and other questions.

David Mepham: We actually did come out publicly and said that we thought the decision of the EU to lift all the sanctions apart from the arms embargo was premature. Clearly, there have been some important reforms in Burma, and we acknowledge and recognise that, but they were lifted on the same day that we produced a report documenting ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Arakan state in Burma. It was the same week that the BBC had this dreadful video coverage of a Muslim man being burned alive in the middle of the country. It seemed like a very strange piece of timing that, at that point, the EU had decided that things had improved sufficiently in Burma to lift the sanctions, when, actually, the human rights situation in significant parts remains of concern.

Q46 Mr Roy: Aung San Suu Kyi, at the exact same time, was saying that this was the time to lift them, so that is why I wonder-

David Mepham: Yes. We took the view that it was premature. We said that publicaly: it would have been better to have waited for more progress on some of the issues that Thein Sein, the Burmese President, had previously talked about. There are still political prisoners behind bars. There has been some movement in terms of Aung San Suu Kyi and others being elected to the Parliament. But, in places like Arakan state, which we will perhaps come on to, there are very serious human rights abuses. They are a deep concern to us, and it seemed an unfortunate time to lift the sanctions when those terrible abuses were happening and continuing.

Q47 Mr Roy: Are there any levers that remain for the UK in Burma?

David Mepham: The UK Government still has leverage and influence with the Government of Burma, perhaps more than many other countries because of historic ties and so on, so that leverage should be used to best effect. We can come on and talk about that and the issues that the UK should push, but, again, to come back to the sanctions question. On leverage, the UK and the EU as a whole gave up quite an important source of leverage over the Government of Burma by lifting all the sanctions. It could have said, "We will lift some of them," or it could have phased them out or it could have calibrated it, but it said, "We will lift them all, apart from the arms embargo," at the very time when terrible ethnic violence was taking place in Arakan state.

Q48 Mr Roy: Do the international NGOs have a freedom of movement now in Burma? Is there any change at all?

Kate Allen: We visited three times last year, and those have been the first visits since 2003. So, yes, a big change, and from my colleagues there is a real sense that they have been able to talk to people and have the meetings that they want to have without people being endangered by those. The feeling between 2003 and now is very different. Obviously, there is still a long way to go-

Q49 Mr Roy: But there is movement in the right direction.

Kate Allen: Yes, exactly.

David Mepham: Can I add one other point? Kate is absolutely right that it may be easier for organisations like ours to go into Burma than was the case before-previously, we would never ever get a visa into the country-but where there is a real access problem is in terms of humanitarian organisations. If you think about Arakan state and these 140,000 people who are living in camps, having been displaced as a result of this violence, the international humanitarian agencies are saying that it is really difficult to get to them to provide the kind of clean water, food, nutrition and so on that they need. There is an access problem there that is slightly different from the access problem that organisations like ours or journalists might have, but it is a very real one and something that is worth flagging.

Q50 Mr Roy: Earlier, you touched on ethnic cleansing in different areas in 2012. How useful is the Burmese Government’s Rakhine investigation commission’s report and its suggestions for a way forward in that state?

Kate Allen: The report has not been an effective one. It has talked about doubling security presences, without actually addressing what those security presences have already done. It is not addressing the Citizenship Act-the 1982 law-and the report itself talks about people as Bengalis; these are people who have lived there for many generations. So some of those fundamental issues are not being addressed by that commission at all. And, indeed, it has not addressed the fact of the huge number of arrests and the use of torture against young men, and people generally, within that state. It does not feel like it is addressing any of the issues. It is not getting to the fundamental issues of citizenship and discrimination at all.

Q51 Mr Roy: Does that disappoint you, or did you expect that?

Kate Allen: Obviously, there has been some real progress in Burma- seeing that progress and the release of political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi and the political activity that is taking place. What we are seeing with the Rohingya is hugely disappointing, and it is hugely disappointing that it does not have a greater focus from all political parties within Burma on that. So it is a disappointment.

Q52 Mr Roy: Do you think that the British Government should be putting more of an emphasis on disappointment?

Kate Allen: I think that that would be good-on all political actors as well.

David Mepham: Can I add to that? Human Rights Watch produced a report specifically on the situation in Arakan state, which is sometimes described as Rakhine state; those terms are used interchangeably. We documented both in June and October of last year what we described as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We are an organisation that-probably a bit like Amnesty-is full of lawyers, so we do not say things like that lightly. We documented these crimes, not just in terms of the scale of the abuse and the severity of the rights violations, but in terms of the fact that at the state level in particular there was involvement and complicity. This was premeditated; particularly in October, less so in June. In June, there was a degree of a spontaneous outbreak of violence, but certainly by October a lot of these attacks on individual villages in different parts of Arakan state were happening at the same time, which implied a degree of planning and preparation.

We produced that report; we have shared it widely. As I say, we launched it on the day that the EU lifted all its sanctions. Like Kate, we are disappointed with the conclusions of the internal commission of inquiry and the fact that-as you said-the nationality issues are not addressed, and so on, is deeply disappointing. Perhaps we are not surprised.

Perhaps our recommendation to your committee is to say that we think it is worth impressing on the Foreign Office and the British Government to be more cautious about Burma. Of course, everybody wants to see change and everybody recognises the change that has happened, but there are still lots of very serious human rights issues in Burma. I think there is a slight danger that we get swept away with the sort of romantic narrative that Burma is on an inexorable progress to democracy, freedom and pluralism, and Aung San Suu Kyi is going to be the president, and we are all slightly caught up with that. Yes, some of these changes are important, of course, and we should acknowledge them, but there are some very deep human rights issues in that country, not least the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, which deserves much more serious British attention.

Funnily enough, as we are meeting now and having this conversation, the Human Rights Council is taking place in Geneva and what was going to be the Burma resolution will now be called a presidential statement on Burma. It is being negotiated and discussed. At the moment, it is actually being promoted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Britain is sort of participating and supporting. At the moment, there is no specific recommendation for there to be an international investigation. The statement says a lot of the right things about how the Rohingya Muslims are being treated, but we have been arguing-just in terms of e-mails in the past few days-that it would be very important for the UK Government to say that this resolution or this statement, which is likely to be agreed on Thursday or Friday this week, should make some concrete commitment to investigate the kind of abuses that we have documented.

We are very clear about the veracity of the claims that we make. However, given that the Burmese Government are dismissing them, it would be important for there to be some kind of international mechanism. Interestingly, Hugo Swire was asked about this issue-I think it was either in a written question or an oral question-and he agreed that we had put forward some important evidence and that there needed to be an international process to check it and, if it was found to be accurate, to press the Burmese Government very hard on those issues.

Q53 Mr Roy: On this world tour, can I take you to Zimbabwe from Burma? However, I still want to speak about sanctions and preconditions that would be needed to suspend those sanctions. I know, David, that your group had mentioned in the newsletter that it has a certain opinion. Could you share your opinion on preconditions for the lifting of the sanctions?

David Mepham: I am happy to kick off because I was in Zimbabwe a couple of weeks ago. I talked to a whole range of people in the Government, but also to civil society actors and so on. As you know, basically the EU had these sanctions. They were kind of targeted sanctions-so, asset freezes and travel bans-on quite a lot of people in the ZANU-PF Government, in and around the Government, including Mugabe, of course, and other Cabinet members. The decision has been taken basically to lift almost all of them, apart from-I think-about six or seven that are still in place, including on Mugabe himself. However, almost all of them have been lifted on the basis that the constitutional referendum has been held, and been held successfully, in the sense that 95% of the Zimbabwean people voted in favour of it.

Again, we would have thought that it would have made more sense to wait until the Zimbabwean election has been held and to use the leverage to insist on a free and fair election-the election is likely to happen in the next couple of months-rather than to have lifted the sanctions in advance of it. From the meetings that I had in Zimbabwe, I certainly know that there is a lot of concern as to whether that election will be free and fair. There is lots of fiddling going on with the electoral roll, and there is still lots of intimidation of civil society and the political opposition. So we are deeply concerned.

Of course, Zimbabwe has a history of having cyclical violence; it tends to have violence around elections-2008, 2005, 2002 and 2000. Elections are when the serious violence happens. The election is due very soon, in the next couple of months, and we want the UK, the EU and the Southern African Development Community to use their influence. And I think the decision to lift the EU sanctions in advance of an election was again premature. It would have made more sense to use that leverage to press for a free and fair election.

Kate Allen: I will just add that that fear of violence in the build-up to the election is a very tangible one. We have an Amnesty presence in Zimbabwe. We have close relationships with NGOs and human rights defenders. We are seeing that crackdown happening now on those who are standing up for human rights. The worry about violence is that quite often, in the lead-up to that, you see human rights defenders and civil society organisations being intimidated and harassed, and we are seeing that at the moment. It is a very live worry.

Q54 Ann Clwyd: What kind of freedoms do your organisations have to operate in Russia?

Kate Allen: It is getting very difficult. In the last couple of months, we saw sweeping inspections of more than 200 civil society organisations and NGOs across Russia. We have also seen, at the same time, that many of those inspections have been televised by a TV channel, NTV, which is absolutely renowned for its smear tactics and smear reporting of civil society.

We are seeing the climate in which NGOs can operate becoming very difficult. The key election watchdog, Golos, which has had UK funding, has already been taken to court for failing to register as a foreign agent simply because of that small amount of funding. They have been fined $10,000, and we are expecting more NGOs to be brought in front of the courts and fined. Amnesty has had those inspections; we are waiting to hear the results.

One thing that we have absolutely seen among other NGOs is the fear that all of that implies, and therefore the natural tendency to self-censorship about what they are doing, how they are doing it and what they are saying. It is a climate for NGOs where the crackdown is quite massive. For an organisation like Amnesty with international solidarity, we are more able to resist that, but we are seeing those pressures.

David Mepham: From a Human Rights Watch perspective, we agree. We have said publicly, and our researchers in Russia have said, that the human rights climate in Russia is as bad as it has been at any point in the post-Soviet period. This is the lowest point since the downfall of the Soviet Union in terms of the human rights situation and the clampdown in civil society. Like Amnesty, we have had an inspection at our office. People have been to the office. There was no violence involved, but it was intimidatory. We had people going through the records and so on.

That is obviously happening to an awful lot of organisations across Russia, and there is this dangerous foreign agents law that people have to sign up as foreign agents, which is a very loaded term. It implies that they are involved in treasonous activity, whatever it is. We are very concerned about the impact on civil society, both internationally and locally in Russia.

Q55 Ann Clwyd: So the new legislation restricting civil liberties is actually being used for prosecutions.

Kate Allen: Yes.

David Mepham: Yes. I don’t know how many people have been prosecuted yet, but that is the danger and the risk: increasingly, organisations that fall foul of these highly restrictive rules will be fined, certainly, and then potentially put out of business. That is of great concern.

Kate Allen: Or simply bankrupted by the fines.

Q56 Ann Clwyd: So is there a great atmosphere of fear among those people who work as human rights defenders?

Kate Allen: Yes, definitely.

David Mepham: Yes. To make it very real, about four or five months ago, our senior researcher in Russia, who is Russian-she was actually pregnant at the time, but has now, thankfully, had her baby successfully in the States, and all is well-started receiving threatening e-mails and texts, which could only have come from somebody pretty senior in the Russian system, saying, "You need to look out for yourself. You need to be careful."

We made a decision as an organisation whether to be quiet about that or whether to be public about it. With her agreement, we did a press conference in Moscow. We said, "It is utterly unacceptable to intimidate in this fashion someone who is a human rights defender who is documenting what is going on in the country." Those kinds of threat are being made against people who work for us, let alone local organisations that have less protection and security than we do. It is very concerning.

Q57 Ann Clwyd: Does the so-called UK-Russia dialogue actually have any value at all?

Kate Allen: Dialogues are always important, but I think there is something about raising the issue of human rights further there. This comes into that conversation that we have regularly with the UK Government on different countries, such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, about issues around trade and security, and where human rights figure in relation to those other two key priorities. We would like to see human rights there at the same level with the same degree of concern. We know that there is a real emphasis on prosperity and on trade; it would be good to have the same ability to brief our Prime Minister as business does before some of the conversations or trips that take place between this Government and the Russian Government. It would be good to have human rights people on delegations that are full of business people talking about trade. It would be useful to lift the level at which human rights concerns are being brought into these sorts of discussions.

There are some real opportunities over the coming year. There is the UPR this year. In terms of Russia, there is the Winter Olympics next year. There is the UK-Russia cultural year of 2014. So, absolutely, there are lots of opportunities there to be talking about human rights and working with NGOs and civil society within Russia to raise some of those issues. Of course, in terms of Russia’s role within the world, the need to continue in whatever way we can to build international pressure on Russia, because of their blocking at the Security Council with regard to what is happening in Syria, is hugely important. It is a very important Government. It is having a really devastating impact in terms of the block for progress for Syria. In its own countries, there are a whole load of areas and a whole lot of opportunities over the next 12 months that the UK Government could take to raise issues of human rights alongside those of trade.

David Mepham: A brief addendum to that: this is also an issue where the UK could do more through the EU. If there was ever a country where the EU having a common position would be useful, it would be Russia. In the past, there has been a danger that Russia plays off different members of the European Union, according to who is more sympathetic or more critical. Our sense is that the UK is a bit in the middle of the pack: it is certainly not the worst offender in that it is concerned about human rights, but it could be more assertive in pressing for the EU as a whole to have a stronger position on Russia and then for the EU to speak with one voice on some of these issues. Clearly, the issues around trade and so on are important to Russia as well as to us. Like Kate, I think we need to see human rights being given more prominence in that relationship.

Q58 Chair: Do you have a view about the continuing detention of Mr Khodorkovsky in Russia? We know he was imprisoned once, then, while he was in prison, he was convicted a second time. He is due for release some time in the next few months. I read that he may face yet another trial to keep him in prison. Does this come across your desk at all?

Kate Allen: It has not come across mine, but we could get back to you on that.

David Mepham: I don’t want to come up with something off the cuff; I can check with my colleagues in Moscow as to what we have said about it.

Q59 Chair: If you pick up anything I would be interested.

Can I wrap up with a couple of miscellaneous items? One is about funding of particular projects. There are a number of ways in which these projects are funded, but we read of complaints that sometimes individual ambassadors in posts recommend funding for particular projects involving religion, sex or whatever in various countries. Is that the right way of going about it? Where do you think the initiative for funding of projects should come from? Should it be with the NGOs, the posts or back in Whitehall?

Kate Allen: It is a very important fund. It is small; it is only £6.5 million; it funds 71 projects. Over the past two years, Amnesty have advised on some of the human rights components of some of the projects: we are not involved in making decisions about who gets funding, but we give advice at that level. It is an FCO internal board that makes the decisions, and we feel it is quite a rigorous one. The issues that we have raised from time to time are about wanting to make sure that there is access to this fund for individual ambassadors across all missions-that there is an ability to make those recommendations. But it does feel that there needs to be a central way in which decisions are made.

We have met many of the organisations that have received the funding: they are small, brilliant organisations doing really good work in tough parts of the world. I remember meeting the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which was one that got funding a little while back. It is a small budget, well used, I think.

Q60 Chair: Have you picked up anything about Colombia, where the post in Bogota has been recommending that the women’s groups that they are funding work with the Government? As a result, the groups have come under pressure not to take the money as a protest against being asked to work with the Colombian Government.

David Mepham: That has not come across my desk.

Kate Allen: I don’t know about that, but we will ask and if we have anything, I will get back to you.

Q61 Chair: Very topical: surveillance of the internet. Last year, Amnesty drew attention to credible allegations that surveillance equipment was being exported and used by certain regimes. Do you have anything else on that?

Kate Allen: No, I don’t, but again, I will check with colleagues and get back to you if there is anything.

Q62 Chair: Has the export control regime been discussed in the freedom of expression on the internet group?

Kate Allen: Let me get back to you on that.

Q63 Chair: What should the UK’s policy be if a British organisation is complicit with human rights abuses? Should we be extending our territorial jurisdiction to take those crimes into account?

Kate Allen: Are you talking about corporations?

Chair: Yes.

Kate Allen: Then yes, absolutely. At Amnesty, we have argued that if a UK corporation is acting overseas and is complicit in human rights abuses, the UK Government should absolutely take action. The situation that you get is corporations working with countries that are desperate for the trade, investment and jobs and do not have the ability-they are too weak-to confront those companies. If it is a UK company, if the UK Government is not doing that, nobody is taking action about human rights abuses. For Amnesty, it is absolutely essential that the UK Government accepts that it has the responsibility and the ability to do that.

David Mepham: I have nothing specific to add to that, but for the Committee’s benefit, if you do not already know this, the Government are about to publish-before the summer, as I understand it-a new report on business and human rights. I believe that it is with Ministers now and is being looked at. It would be worth questioning the Minister about that, but perhaps that is something that your Committee will want to come back to. For the first time, the coalition Government will be putting in the public domain a document that sets out how they view the relationship between business and human rights and how the so-called Ruggie principles on human rights and business will be implemented. That is an important topic for you to question Ministers on.

Q64 Chair: Although we are talking about human rights, it is not specifically a human rights issue; this is a jurisprudence point.

David Mepham: Okay-oh, you mean your question. There are big human rights dimensions to it, of course.

Chair: Yes.

Thank you both very much indeed; it has been really helpful. You have been very open, frank and honest, and if you could get back to us on any outstanding loose ends, that would be much appreciated. Thank you very much.

[1] Note by witness: I meant go say “denied” not “given”

Prepared 15th October 2013