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Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, on initiating this timely debate and on her contribution to the campaign against torture, together with the work on redress to which she has made so great a contribution. It is literally beyond measure, because not only has it transformed the lives of some who are scarred by torture, but its value lies in the number of those who might have become victims but were spared that fate.

The Government have a respectable record in domestic legislation and international initiatives in opposing torture. The differences that may appear in the debate are not of basic principles. The danger is that the devil creeps unnoticed into the detail and we need a ready supply of long spoons. Today the constraints on time limit me to one example, which has already been referred to by my noble friend. I chose it because it may help to prevent what would be a sadly mistaken state before the situation is unamendable.

The anxiety is not that our Government would perpetrate torture but that they may turn their backs on the victims of torture perpetrated by others. The offence of the priest and the Levite on the Jericho road was not that they inflicted the injuries that the victim suffered but that they were indifferent to his sufferings. Often for many reasons the victim of torture cannot obtain redress in the courts of the country where it took place. International tribunals are remote and not always user friendly. If he can reach the United Kingdom he may hope to obtain redress here.

The machinery is now in place to facilitate criminal sanctions in this country against those who perpetrate torture in other jurisdictions. However, as my noble friend said, civil reparations are a different matter. It is tempting to say that compensation is less important
 
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than punishing the wrongdoer, but it may be equally effective as a deterrent, and for the victim it may go some way towards mitigating the harm he has suffered as well as re-empowering him and helping to restore the dignity of which he has been robbed.

As my noble and learned friend may know, Redress has pressed for that remedy to be provided in this jurisdiction. It is no academic point; even recently British nationals have complained of being subjected to torture in Saudi Arabia. The principal obstacle is the doctrine of state immunity—that the government of one state are immune from the domestic jurisdiction of another. It was established in the Pinochet case that in criminal proceedings for torture that objection cannot be sustained because torture, which is a crime in international law, can never qualify as an act performed by a head of state in the exercise of his functions. However, the position in civil proceedings is far from clear. When the convention on jurisdictional immunity, to which my noble friend referred, was being discussed and drafted, a number of anxieties were expressed that it might actually make the situation worse. I could elaborate on that but the clock, I fear, has spared your Lordships a lecture on the subject from me. No doubt my noble and learned friend and I can discuss it later.

It is not the occasion to discuss the introduction of protocols and reservations but I hope that the Government will not ratify the convention until there has been an opportunity for a full debate on that subject. Of course I understand that parliamentary time does not lie wholly in the gift of my noble and learned friend, but the timing of the ratification is in the gift of the Foreign Office. I ask my noble and learned friend for an assurance that there will be no further irrevocable steps without a debate. I ask on behalf not of lawyers or academics or even of Redress but of victims and potential victims of torture whose hopes rest on this country.

7.42 pm

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, we owe the noble Baroness much gratitude for initiating this important debate. The convention against torture to which this country is a signatory provides that no state party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing he would be in danger of being submitted to torture. Relevant considerations include, where applicable, the existence in the state concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violation of human rights. Zimbabwe by the UN's own judgment in the recent report of the UN Special Envoy is such a state. It has never signed up to the convention yet it sits on the UN's Commission on Human Rights. The AU's Commission on Human Rights denounced Zimbabwe's record as long as 2002.

The UN envoy reported that,


 
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She said that the constrained humanitarian base has led some NGOs to leave the country entirely. Many described a climate of fear which has led both national and international NGOs to exercise "self-censorship" to avoid being closed down or evicted. The police detained a staff member of Action Aid for seven hours after she took pictures of aid being distributed by another NGO at Caledonia Farm. Several NGOs expressed fears of retribution following their testimonies to the UN mission. National NGOs fear taking any action which may provoke the Government, which has prevented them providing shelter and basic services to the thousands among the displaced population.

This is the country to which, despite the passionate warning of Archbishop Ncube of Bulawayo that death will often await them, HMG are forcibly returning failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers. They are returned in handcuffs, accompanied by guards who hold their papers and who hand them over to the Zimbabwe authorities at the airport; that is, to the CIO. The very fact that they fled to Britain makes them enemies of the state.

The Minister of State in the Home Office has told me that the British Embassy in Harare, working with those NGOs operating within the country, follows up allegations of ill treatment. The NGOs are already under serious threat of expulsion or closure thanks to the impending charity law. Is it likely that they will put their whole operation at risk and testify for a lone failed asylum seeker who, simply because he fled to the UK, is automatically labelled a Blair spy? How, in any case, is he to find such an NGO? In the present pervasive climate of fear and intimidation his first thought, if he is ever freed, will be to hide. The NGOs are unlikely to hear that he exists.

I contend that HMG are in breach of the convention in this respect. Would a number of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers have gone on hunger strike—described by the Home Secretary as "not taking their meals"; would he have dared say that about the IRA hunger strikers?—if they had not been in mortal fear of being returned? Did we do this to refugees from Hungary or the Soviet Union?

The asylum decision-making and independent appeals process has contrived to reject the claims of such men as Crispen Kulinji who, as an active officer of the MDC was subjected to electric shocks which left him permanently scarred. He saw his mother and sister brutally attacked and was himself left for dead after interrogation. The leader of the MDC appealed to HMG not to deport him, but his status remains in suspense. After the recent judicial review, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal is looking at new evidence on conditions in Zimbabwe, and that is good.

Unless HMG takes immediate steps to improve the quality of the tribunals and of Home Office procedures, and to ensure that asylum seekers get good professional legal advice rather than leaving them to the mercy of unscrupulous Nigerian operators, it is virtually certain that we shall be sending innocent vulnerable people back to a brutal regime. It is ironic
 
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that despite the admirable UN report, two UN agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, have recently held a conference on food safety in Africa in Harare hosted by President Mugabe.

7.46 pm

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, and to those associated with the work that she has done over many years. I mention in that context some of the finest NGOs in this country, bodies such as Amnesty International, the Medical Foundation and the refugee legal council, which are marvellous examples of the very best that Britain has to offer.

There are three things terribly wrong with evidence based on torture. First, by the nature of the way in which it is received it is unreliable. We have very recent evidence—to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, referred—of the case of several British citizens who were profoundly tortured in Saudi Arabia and later admitted that they had agreed to all kinds of confessions of which they were not guilty for one moment.

Secondly, it is a deeply humiliating and demeaning process. Anyone who considers the change in attitudes among the Muslim community to the UK and US coalition in Iraq, following the events at Abu Ghraib and Bagram, will understand how deeply there bites into a community a sense of anger and fury about torture. It adds strongly to a feeling that we are not living according to our own values.

Thirdly, it seeps away at those very values. It begins to erode and destroy them. While I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, that at the present time we have a good record, it is also the case that in some areas that record is being vitiated by a growing ambiguity about what exactly is meant by subjecting people to torture.

That brings me to my fourth point; namely, that we have taken great pride recently in the European Union, of which the United Kingdom is an active member, in gradually persuading Turkey to drop torture as a common weapon of criminal justice. The pride that we take in the way in which the European Union has steadily extended the culture and belief in human rights is vitiated every time that we ourselves become ambiguous and uncertain about where we actually stand.

That brings me to my fifth point. A week ago the Home Secretary was in Washington discussing counter terrorism legislation. It is a matter of sadness to me that so often our Prime Minister identifies only with the Administration and not with some of the finest American traditions of belief in a rule of law and human rights. As many noble Lords will know, the Senate voted by 90 to nine, including 46 Republican senators, that there should in future be no demeaning or disgraceful system of punishment against anyone held in United States custody. That gives us a huge opportunity to redefine the limits and the guidelines of how we should behave.
 
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I turn finally to the two areas of profound ambiguity. The first of those concerns rendition, and I have to ask the Minister a direct question. Has the United Kingdom at any point taken part in the practice of rendition—under which one knowingly returns somebody to a country which is known to use torture as a method of state in order to receive their evidence, while being able to wash one's hands, like Pilate, of any responsibility for what has happened? Sweden sent two returned detainees back to Egypt on assurances given by the Egyptian government. Those assurances were broken within a matter of months.

The second area of ambiguity I want to refer to is comprehended partly by what the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, has already movingly said about deportations. It is simply appalling that we are now consistently sending people back knowingly to countries that practise torture and persecution—presumably for the reason of saving a bit of public expenditure—even when we could have rescued those people for a time from any fate of that kind. Then, in that association, there is the return of people to countries that promise or give diplomatic assurances that those people will not be tortured. Those diplomatic assurances are virtually worthless.

That brings me to my final question. If Her Majesty's Government accept diplomatic assurances from countries such as Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia about the way in which returned detainees will be treated, may we ask what steps are being taken to ensure that those assurances are inspected, monitored and upheld? Has Her Majesty's Government given any thought to the possibility of bodies such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent being involved in an independent inspection, or whether the promises are worth the paper that they are written on?

7.51 pm


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