Queen’s Speech


2nd Day of Debate

26 May 2010 : Column 77

6.30 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I have always been extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for his tremendous encouragement and support when I have raised various issues in your Lordships’ House, particularly at Question Time, and to the noble Lords, Lord Astor and Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I therefore join others in welcoming them to the posts that they now hold. I know that they bring invaluable experience and great weight to those offices. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock of Holyhead, for her terrific support, not least on issues connected with Africa, especially Sudan.

Recently, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, gave weighty support to a proposal, which I placed before the Chairman of Committees-the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara-that a House of Lords Select Committee on international affairs should be established. I hope that that will continue to enjoy the support of the noble Lord, Lord Howell. Today’s debate once again underlines the phenomenal experience that such a Select Committee will be able to harness. Happily, such a reform will not require an Act of Parliament, or indeed a referendum.

In judging the new coalition Government, we might do worse than bear in mind the response of Zhou Enlai, who was once asked whether he thought that the French Revolution of 1789 had been a success. He said that it was far too soon to say. The jury is still out on the coalition Government, of course, and will be for a long time to come, but all of us who have spoken in the debate today have made it clear that we wish the new Administration well. We do not underestimate the sacrifices that both parts of the coalition will need to make if it is to succeed and endure.

I hope that among the priorities that the new Administration will ensure will be the upholding of human rights, including the rights of free speech and religious belief, and I hope that they will become a central characteristic of our international policy. They could do far worse than implement the excellent recommendations of the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission, including the appointment of a special envoy, with a mandate to uphold the right to freedom of belief that is enshrined in Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Foreign Office, with its vast team of officials, has only one person in its human rights team who is responsible for religious liberties issues. That might explain the unfortunate and shallow remarks made by Foreign Office officials about the forthcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Religious diversity and tolerance should be stable-mates in a democratic and open society. The struggle for religious freedom is concomitant with the struggle for democracy itself. Equally, contempt for religious faith and ignorance of its tenets can, as we know, have calamitous consequences all over the world.

The main part of my remarks follows the penultimate comment by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about North Korea. I want to talk particularly about North Korea in the context of our relationship with China. It may be appropriate to mention this issue today-the day on which the new Chinese ambassador has presented his credentials to Her Majesty the Queen. Clearly, engaging China in the struggle for human rights and freedom in countries such as North Korea, Burma and elsewhere will be central. China is well aware that its international reputation suffers when atrocities occur in countries such as Burma and North Korea. It is well aware that its reputation suffers when there are

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demonstrations about the treatment of dissidents, the imprisonment of bishops, or Tibet. Last September, after pressing for some time, I was impressed when the Chinese authorities allowed me to organise a visit to Tibet. I was accompanied by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and two Members of another place. I hope that the new Ministers will study our recommendations closely. Our initiative had the approval of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. If a political settlement on Tibet is not reached during his lifetime, it could leave a very dangerous vacuum.

Surely most pressing of all in seeking China’s involvement is the need to deal with the deteriorating position on the Korean peninsula. The sinking in March of the South Korean naval vessel the “Cheonan”, with a loss of 46 lives, was a shocking and tragic development. China is right to have urged restraint, but it needs to be more outspoken and insist that those responsible will be brought to justice. China was right to describe North Korea’s decision to test a nuclear weapon as “brazen”, but this is of a similar order. Both our countries must stand with the victim and condemn the aggressor. A common front could transform the situation in North Korea and deliver reform and hope for its beleaguered people.

North Korea has experienced enforced disappearances, executions, arbitrary detentions, a lack of religious freedom, a lack of freedom of movement both domestically and internationally, a lack of labour rights, the non-implementation of legal codes, a lack of judicial oversight of detention facilities, the severe mistreatment of repatriated persons, violence against women in detention facilities, a lack of freedom for enterprise especially for farmers and food merchants, the lack of a fair trial, a lack of press freedom and a lack of the right to food for persons in prisons and labour camps. There is a need for economic and health care, a need for more women in public affairs, a need for more access by the World Food Programme, the need for a national human rights commission, and so much more.

Tony Blair recently said:

“The biggest scandal in progressive politics is that you do not have people with placards out in the street on North Korea … The people are kept in a form of slavery, 23 million of them, and no one protests!”.

There are 3 million to 4 million North American Koreans, and there is a small Korean diaspora in the United Kingdom. Just as the Jewish community galvanised international opinion about life in the Soviet Gulags, the Korean diaspora needs to catch our collective imagination and create a worldwide movement for change-a process in which we should assist.

China still refuses to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the border areas, in violation of Article XVI of the 1995 China-UNHCR treaty and in opposition to the recommendations of the UN special rapporteur on North Korea, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, who incidentally will address a meeting on 21 June of an all-party group in your Lordships’ House which I chair. The harrowing plight of refugees, which Professor Muntarbhorn has regularly raised, is graphically caught in a perceptive and insightful new book called Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. Demick weaves together a narrative that gets beyond the statistics-the 2 million people who died in the famine during the 1990s, and the 300,000 people who are estimated to be in the Gulags today. Statistics and figures can be numbing, but the personal stories that the statistics represent are of a different order.

China knows that if the North Korean regime went into free fall, there would be an enormous influx of refugees. China might well decide to intervene militarily, with potentially disastrous consequences for the Korean peninsula. There has always been an assumption in North Korea that it would be the Americans, with perhaps as many as 28,500 troops on the peninsula, who would intervene militarily, but in reality it is China that has the most to lose from North Korea and it is losing patience. There is even open talk of the annexation of North Korea by China.

Some circumstances are unique to North Korea, but the underlying Helsinki principles of critical engagement, dialogue and the insistence of respect for human rights should be paramount. I hope that the Minister will tell us this evening whether the Government will place the sinking of the “Cheonan” before the United Nations Security Council, whether they will call for the establishment of a United Nations commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity, whether they will press for an evaluation of the egregious violations of human rights in North Korea, and whether they are in direct discussions with China and Japan on these matters. As I end my remarks, it is worth reminding your Lordships’ House that it is 60 years this year since the beginning of the 1950-53 war on the Korean peninsula. Two million to 3 million people died in that war, including 1,000 British servicemen. We all have a great stake in ensuring that history does not repeat itself.