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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I do not think it is for the Government to comment on any theological view of the identity of God, but there should be complete freedom in our world for people to practise their religion and to do so without threat or restraint.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, we welcome the efforts of Her Majesty's Government in support of the charges against Mr Rahman being droppedwe rejoice in his releasebut does the
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Minister agree that there will continue to be a problem regarding the incompatibility between the Sharia code and some human rights norms? In addition, do the Government agree that the solution to this may be longer-term education? What are HMG doing to advance educational programmes in Afghanistan, in particular human rights programmes?
Lord Triesman: My Lords, extensive human rights programmes are funded by the United Kingdom Government in Afghanistan. I believe that I am right in saying that we are among the largest bilateral donors to those programmes. I shall not comment on the issues regarding the interpretation of Sharia lawit is not the place of any Minister in a government to do sobut I think that we should encourage Afghanistan to ensure that the provisions of its law and constitution ensure that the implementation of Sharia law accords in legal code terms with the international obligations to human rights law to which that country has signed up. That would be the basis on which proper progress can be made.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the debate about Sharia law needs to be held when people face execution not just in Afghanistan, but elsewhere? Every man and woman has the right to hold the religious beliefs, or no beliefs, of their choice, as well as the right to change them if they so wish. In that respect, does not the Minister strongly welcome the sensitive debate initiated by the Prince of Wales recently in Cairo? Will he try to facilitate a dialogue between scholars in this country and from other western democracies with scholars from Islamic countries to explore the legitimate parameters of religious belief and the right of people to change their beliefs?
Lord Triesman: My Lords, in a recent debate in the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and I welcomed the statements of the Prince of Wales. I thought his words were timely and wise. Of course, we are root and branch opposed to capital punishment and the use of cruel and extreme punishments of all kinds. I shall not go through the full extent of some of those horrific punishments in this answer. It is an obligation on all of us to discuss them under whichever penal code they come up.
Perhaps I may make this point to the House: of course, capital punishment comes up where Islamic law is concerned, but it also comes up where the United States is concerned. If we are against it, we are against it.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that this stems from an interpretation of Sharia law and, even more important, that the problem is not confined to Afghanistan? Discrimination against apostasy can be found in most Muslim countries. Can we
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hope that the Minister is ready to make similar representations to other countries, including Pakistan and Iran, where Christians and others who convert from Islam face discrimination and penalties? Those countries are clearly in breach of the relevant provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which most if not all of them have signed.
Lord Triesman: My Lords, in preparing for the Question I asked for details of all the countries in which we had made such representations. I have to confess that it is a depressingly long list, but we do make those representations. I am cautious about saying anything about the interpretations of apostasy under Sharia law. Obviously, we are concerned that people should not be persecuted because they have changed their religion. I understand that there is an active debate within Islam about whether apostasy is a matter dealt with in this world or in the next. I do not know that I have any greater wisdom to bring to the issue.
Lord Elton: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the release of Mr Abdul Rahman is not the end of his story? Can he tell us what protection has been given to him and whether he is remaining in a country where many hundreds of thousands of men think it is their duty to kill him?
Lord Triesman: My Lords, I said in an earlier response that I had heard a number of stories, some of them conflicting, about where and in what circumstances Mr Rahman is now. I am sure that the House will agree that it would be preferable if I did not speculate. The last thing that I want to do is make the situation worse.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I think I detected in his tone a note of well justified self-satisfactionI do not mean that pejorativelyover the case? Would he expect governments in Afghanistan or other Muslim countries similarly to welcome it if those who chose to convert to the Muslim religion in this country escaped punishment only on the ground that they were declared to be insane?
Lord Triesman: My Lords, there is no self-satisfaction in this matter. When people are in danger because their fundamental human rights are being breached, there is an obligation on a government of our kindit is true of governments of all kinds in recent British historyto intervene as best they can to protect that individual. I would like to believe that there would be no question in this country of anybody being put into any jeopardy because they chose Islam over Judaism or Christianity or any other religion. That is not our society or our culture. I am very thankful that that is the case.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the British Council and DfID recently sponsored a study by the Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria into women's rights and Sharia law?
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Therefore, he need not be so diffident about engaging in the general question that my noble friend put to him concerning the compatibility of the Sharia law with universal human rights. Would the Foreign Office engage in further studies of the kind that it has already conducted on women's rights in Nigeria?
Lord Triesman: My Lords, yes. My point is not that there should never be a discussion of Sharia or any other form of law, just that the fundamental obligations into which every nation enters when it signs up to international law on human rights form the fundamental basis on which they should conduct their legal processes. That is the only way in which there is a set of universal values about people's rights in all respects, including their religious rights. If we base ourselves on that foundationset out, after all, in the charter of the United Nationswe will probably not go wrong.
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, we on these Benches agree with the Minister, and we welcome the dismissal of Abdul Rahman's case, saving his life. Have Her Majesty's Government made any assessment of honour killings that occur as a result of changes to an individual's religion?
Lord Triesman: My Lords, we are alert to the risks of honour killings. They are risks that do not occur only outside the United Kingdom. A good deal of work has been done between the Foreign Office and the Home Office on forced marriages and the violence attendant on forced marriages, because it appears that at least some honour killings occur when people try to escape from the compulsion of a forced marriage. There is now a joint unit between the Foreign Office and the Home Office. We rescueI use that word deliberatelybetween 200 and 250 people a year, worldwide, from those circumstances. It is a fundamental issue.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many people will be quite surprised that British troops are in Afghanistan risking their lives to defend a system that goes back to the Dark Ages? Do we not have the right to make serious representations to the Afghan Government to see that this sort of thing does not happen again?
Lord Triesman: My Lords, the troops from the United Kingdom and from other countries are there to secure a democratic society in which people can freely live under a constitution that is committed to international law. Everybody in the international community is entitled to say, where they see human rights being breached, that they are opposed to it and to argue that, irrespective of whether they have troops in the country.
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