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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I wish the noble Baroness would just agree to take the matter away, reflect on what has been said and come back on Report. That is what seems essential. If she is to go on defending the provisions, she will do nothing to allay the anxieties.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: The noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, must surely accept that for me to determine what I should do, it is also important not only for noble Lords who are here but also for noble Lords who might be interested to understand whence this clause came and what we are seeking to do. It may be extremely disturbing for the noble Lord, but other noble Lords have been interested in what I have been trying to put across. I shall finish by being as brief as I can.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: The eloquent argument put by my noble friend Lady Miller and the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, as I understand it, is that if this measure were passed, it would be an unprecedented granting of powers to a quango by Parliament. I certainly understand where she is coming from and the argument that she has advanced, but all we wish to know at this stage, before we reflect on it at later stages, is whether she accepts that this would be an unprecedented granting of powers to a quango by Parliament.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I thought that I had already read, in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, regarding the constitutional power, that the clause does not confer any powers. Its purpose is to set the context.

I wish to address the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, because the matter is important. First, the noble Earl was unable to amend the heading, which is an issue about which he feels strongly because it is set out in a particular context. We will, of course, look at that, as the noble Earl has asked. In fact, it is included in the Companion to the Standing Orders on page 106, so the noble Earl was unable to amend it. But I am perfectly comfortable to re-examine those words.

Perhaps I may conclude my remarks, having set out the context—

Lord Slynn of Hadley: Would not much of the difficulty that has been raised be solved if instead of the words,

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the Bill read something like,

What followed would then seem acceptable to most people. We should take away "creation" and insert "recognising the importance of".

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: When I reach the end of my speech, I think that the noble and learned Lord will, perhaps, be more reassured. I was about to say that I recognised the strength of feeling behind the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, which changes "creation of" to "encouraging". That is important and is not very different from what the noble Earl said.

I was going to propose that I took away the noble Earl's amendment, to consider with parliamentary counsel what we might do. In the broader context, and I make no apology for setting out where we are and what the clause does and does not do, I shall look again, not only with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, but with those who have been involved in drafting the clause, and see how we might strengthen it in the right way.

I should be clear—the clause does not confer powers. That is not its purpose—it sets the context. I must ensure that that is more explicit in the Bill. That might be achieved by simply changing the heading from "Fundamental duty", as the noble Earl indicated. I do not know. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, as we have discussed, we are not lawyers—we are lay people. Thank goodness for that, I sometimes say to myself. But because of that, it is important that we work closely with those who have drafted the Bill.

This is a context clause and does not establish an unprecedented power. That is absolutely not what we would do. We fully agree with that. We are looking to see how we can make the Bill better, so that noble Lords will feel more comfortable, while not losing its essence—that it is "law plus" which will make a difference. On that basis, I hope that noble Lords will feel comfortable about withdrawing their amendments.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I thank the Minister for her comments and all noble Lords who have supported me, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn, for his suggestion. The bottom line is that I understand exactly what the Minister is saying—that it is not the Government's intention to do this, that or the other. What matters is what the clause actually says and what an ordinary person looking at it thinks it means. I stand by that and I still think that what I said is what it probably means. But in view of the noble Baroness' comments, and bearing in mind that she knows how strongly I feel about the matter, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
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[Amendment No. 58 not moved.]

Earl Ferrers: Would it be convenient for us quickly to consider Amendments Nos. 59 and 60?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I suggest that the Committee does not begin again before 8.45 pm. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Iraq: Minorities

7.45 pm

Lord Hylton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, what steps they will take to protect the legitimate interests of the Chaldo-Assyrians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who will take part in this short debate. I shall concentrate on the Chaldo-Assyrians, leaving other speakers to raise issues about the larger and smaller minorities. In asking this Question, I do not wish to repeat what was said in another place on this subject, on 8 December 2004. I do, however, need to put the Chaldo-Assyrians into their historic and geographic context.

Some 800,000 members of this minority have lived in Iraq since early Old Testament times. They are a three- fold minority—ethnic, religious, and cultural. They are a distinct ethnic group, different from their Arab, Kurdish and Turcoman neighbours. They speak Syriac, a form of the Aramaic language that they used when they became Christians in the first and second centuries. Religiously, many of them are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. They make up some 95 per cent or so of all Iraqi Christians.

The Chaldo-Assyrians have suffered severely throughout the 20th century. It is little known that many thousands died during the genocidal massacres of Armenians in 1915–16. The army of newly independent Iraq, in 1933, bombarded Chaldo-Assyrian towns and villages, killing some 4,000 people, mainly women, children and the elderly. Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of 200 of their villages, including historic churches and monasteries. In 1984, three leaders of the Assyrian Democratic Movement were hanged.

I should state that I have been a strong friend and supporter of the Kurdish people, ever since Saddam Hussein's gas attack on Hallabjah in 1987 and the subsequent Anfal ethnic clearance. It is impossible, however, to defend the behaviour of the Kurdish authorities, and the Kurdish Democratic Party in particular, towards the Chaldo-Assyrians after the end of the first Gulf war. Amnesty International reported on that in June 1994. At least five named people are known to have been murdered, before and after that date. Others were assaulted or kidnapped, sometimes
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for the purpose of forced marriage and conversion to Islam. It seems that no one has ever been brought to justice for those crimes.

I have with me, and have provided to the Foreign Office, details of 58 confiscations and encroachments on Chaldo-Assyrian land and property in the provinces of Dohuk and Nineveh. Nearly all of these happened since 1991, usually with the approval or connivance of the Kurdish authorities. No redress or compensation has been offered. More worrying are the attacks that the Chaldo-Assyrian community has suffered, after the fall of the Ba'athist tyranny. Over 100 deaths, some followed by decapitation, have been recorded since then, and probably still more woundings and injuries. I have details with me, for the period from April 2003 to November 2004.

Concerted bomb attacks were made on some 15 Christian churches, and at least two schools, between June and December of last year. Christian bishops in Mosul and Amadyah have experienced threats of violence, as have students at Mosul University and individual Christian schools. The headquarters of the Assyrian Democratic Movement were attacked by mortars in August 2004.

I emphasise that these are not just my facts and figures; they are confirmed by independent sources in Iraq, Britain and the United States. Given the black record of murder and mayhem, it is hardly surprising that some 40,000 or more Chaldo-Assyrians have fled into Syria and Jordan. From there it is likely that many have already moved on to America or Australia. It is vitally important that as many as possible should be enabled to return. I shall say more on that later. Meanwhile, one can easily understand the fears that the Chaldo-Assyrians face regarding complete extinction as a community. They live among old Ba'athist enemies, unsympathetic neighbours, and militant Islamists, whether indigenous or infiltrating from the world outside. Most of those neighbours are heavily armed.

Therefore, I ask the Government what their response is to the three requests made by the Assyrian Democratic Movement on behalf of its people. It asked for an autonomous administrative region in the plans of Nineveh and in Dohuk province or, at minimum, a separate governerate, which would include some Yezidi and Shabak; that is, other minorities living close by. Such separate or autonomous arrangements would assure the survival of the Chaldo-Assyrians' unique language and culture in their historic homeland. The request was based on Article 53(D) of the transitional administrative law, which stated very clearly,

Your Lordships will note that the Turkomen have powerful protectors of their interests, who share a common frontier. The Chaldo-Assyrians, who were specifically mentioned, deserve the protection of the allied powers and of the United Nations. At the very least they should be able to have primary schools with teaching in their own language.
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The second request was for the return of land and villages, illegally misappropriated or suffering wrongful encroachment. The third request was for a fair and reasonable share of funds, both external and Iraqi, ear-marked for reconstruction. Such finds have either not been paid to the Chaldo-Assyrian or have been diverted to the benefit of the Kurdish regional government. I suggest that these three requests are not unreasonable. It seems to me that they are legitimate interests, as suggested in the text of my Question. They should do much to encourage the return of Christian émigrés and exiles, who could form one of the best educated, professional and politically moderate elements in the whole of Iraq.

I must ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have studied the final declaration of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian General Conference of October 2003, held in Baghdad. How have they replied to the letter sent to our Prime Minister, dated 20 May 2005, from Mr Yonadam Kanna, Secretary-General of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, who is also a member of the Iraqi National Assembly? That letter set out the three requests already mentioned. It is worth noting that Mr Kanna is the only independent Chaldo-Assyrian in the Iraqi Constituent Assembly and he stood on a platform of regional autonomy. If we take together the two documents just mentioned, it is clear that the request for autonomy comes from the people themselves. It was irresponsible of a Foreign Office Minister to suggest otherwise, when speaking last year.

I conclude by urging the Government to use their utmost efforts to ensure that freedoms of thought, conscience and religion are enshrined in the future constitution of Iraq. These are the bare, necessary essentials for a very plural society and would give expression to Iraq's obligations under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

7.55 pm

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