2011 Parliamentary Debate on Human Rights


Human Rights Debate

11.37 am

Moved by Lord Alton of Liverpool

To call attention to human rights abuses worldwide and to the recommendations of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission on how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pursues human rights questions; and to move for papers.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, perhaps I may first thank my noble friends on the Cross Benches for providing time today for this debate, which focuses on human rights abuses worldwide and looks at the thoughtful recommendations put forward on this important question by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

It is self-evident from the list of speakers that our debate will be enriched by huge and varied experience. In particular, I know that we will await with eager anticipation the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Hollins.

It is also self-evident that, in too many countries around the world, people are denied basic human rights to which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts they are entitled. From Burma and North Korea to Iran and Saudi Arabia, from Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Cuba, Colombia and many other parts of the world, people face the risk of imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, forced labour—which is modern day slavery—displacement or disappearance if they attempt to express their views openly or to practise their religion freely, or even, in some cases, if they mistakenly say or wear the wrong thing or are in the wrong place.

Terror, ideology, caste, ethnic superiority, systematic abuse of women and children and the brutal violation of minority rights in countless situations and places disfigure humanity. For Jews and Christians, with a belief that each person is made in the image of God, imago Dei, and for secular humanists, who insist on upholding the innate dignity of every human being, there is common ground.

At this time of Chanukah, the festival of lights—we will greatly look forward to hearing later from my noble friend Lord Sacks—it is worth remarking that, earlier this year, 52 rabbis, as part of the Yom HaShoah, the annual commemoration of the Holocaust, wrote that continuing atrocities and conflict in the Congo,

“has produced a terrible humanitarian crisis … This is a moral outrage which the international community must act to help put right”.

An estimated 6 million people have died in the DRC, a country which I have visited. The situation in neighbouring Southern Sudan, where last year more people died even than in Darfur, is equally perilous.

Two nights ago, in a Committee Room of your Lordships’ House, I hosted a meeting attended by Mende Nazer, a young Sudanese woman abducted from her home in the Nuba Mountains and turned into a slave. Her story was movingly re-enacted by Feelgood Theatre Productions. After seven years, she was passed to a London family and escaped, only to face a new struggle for political asylum. Women like Mende Nazer look to us, who enjoy democratic liberties and freedom of speech, to ensure that their stories are told and their rights defended.

Modern human rights discourse is rooted in our fearsome experiences of the 20th century. The horrors and degradations of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen gave birth to the rich language of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts that,

“disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”.

The first three articles of the declaration make it clear that human rights are not subject to territoriality. Article 1 unequivocally states that:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Article 2 states that:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction … or … any other limitation of sovereignty”.

Article 3 insists that:

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

These articles and the 27 articles that follow remain the basis for our discourse on human rights today.

During the Cold War years which followed that declaration, it would once again be the plight of European Jews—Russia’s refuseniks—and the Helsinki Final Act, promulgated in 1975, which began to challenge consciences and rouse nations. Points 7 and 8 of the Act bound the 35 states that signed it to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, and equal rights and self-determination of peoples. According to the Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis, the Helsinki accords,

“gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement … What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems—at least the more courageous—could claim official permission to say what they thought”.

In every generation, the challenge is to consider how best to turn those great declarations into policies and initiatives and to give hope to benighted people whose human rights are violated daily, to create as William Hague, our Foreign Secretary, has put it, a foreign policy with a conscience, an approach one might anticipate from the biographer of William Wilberforce.

In opening this debate, I want to explore some principles and practices that should commend themselves to the Government and to give two examples of countries where those principles and practices might be applied—North Korea and Sudan—both of which I have visited in the past three months. Let me refer to the excellent proposals developed during the five years preceding the 2010 general election by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. My noble friend Lord Hannay of Chiswick, who cannot be present today, has particularly asked me to commend the United Nations Association of the UK for the work which it undertook in assisting that commission. It produced some incisive reports, complete with recommendations for policies to address sexual violence as a weapon of war, the implementation of the United Nations’ “responsibility to protect” mechanism, child soldiers, press freedom, religious freedom and reform of the United Nations. The reports contain practical and worthwhile mechanisms for putting an aspiration into effect. I am conscious that many members of the previous Government, not least the former Africa Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, have a long and distinguished record of championing human rights, and it seems to me that this is therefore an approach around which political consensus can be created.

Let me illustrate this by highlighting the commission’s recommendations for how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s institutional capability to address human rights can be strengthened and, in doing so, I ask the Minister to share with the House the stage of implementation or consideration that these proposals have reached. The most important recommendation made by the commission was for the appointment of a Minister of State for International Human Rights within the FCO with an ability to focus solely or primarily on human rights. Currently, the Minister responsible also has several other responsibilities besides human rights, including south-east Asia, the Far East, the Caribbean, Central/South America, Australasia and Pacific, consular, migration, drugs and international crime, public diplomacy and the Olympics. The commission proposed that a Minister of State for International Human Rights would be able to give human rights concerns greater attention if they could focus solely, or at least primarily, on human rights.

The commission also suggested that a Minister for Human Rights should be invited to attend relevant Cabinet meetings and security and foreign policy Cabinet committees to co-ordinate policy with other appropriate Ministers and departments. The commission proposed that the Minister could be supported by an ambassador-at-large for international human rights, with responsibility for co-ordinating the work of embassies and the Diplomatic Service on human rights issues. This could either be an experienced diplomat with a proven commitment to human rights or a human rights expert with an understanding of international foreign policy and diplomacy. In turn, the ambassador-at-large could oversee a number of thematic portfolios—special representatives or special envoys responsible for issues such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, religious freedom and women’s rights. The United States has an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and several special envoys for thematic human rights issues. France and the Netherlands have made similar appointments.

The commission proposed that the ambassador-at-large and the special envoys could work in a strengthened human rights and democracy unit, which would oversee the continued publication of the annual report on human rights, which I hope the Government will today assure the House will continue. Interest in today’s debate underlines the appetite for this, as do repeated all-party calls for the establishment of a House of Lords Foreign Affairs Committee, a proposal supported, I know, by the Minister. Simply shining a light into dark places and reminding perpetrators that one day they may be made to answer for their actions, as in the case of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, or Slobodan Milosevic, challenges a culture of impunity.

The commission also recommended that the Government provide time in both Chambers for an annual debate on the international human rights situation and the findings of the FCO annual report. Religious freedom is one such vital basic human right, enshrined in Article 18, which underpins and intersects with other freedoms: freedom of speech and assembly, to name just two. It is estimated that more than 200 million Christians in over 60 countries face some degree of restriction, discrimination or persecution while Baha’is in Iran, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the Ahmadi Muslim community in Pakistan, Sufi Muslims from the Sunni tradition in Somalia and Tibetan Buddhists, among many others, all face serious violations of human rights.

The commission recommends, and I endorse this proposal, that the current FCO freedom of religion panel should be expanded, made permanent, and convened regularly, and that reporting of religious freedom violations be given greater prominence, either in the annual human rights report or indeed, as in the United States, in a separate report. I commended this recommendation during the debate on the Queen’s Speech in May and I wonder whether we are any closer to doing it. I also wonder whether it is still the case that the FCO, which the Minister inherited in May, with its vast team of officials, has only one person in its human rights team who is responsible for religious liberties issues. While in some parts of the globe religious liberty is suppressed, elsewhere—in a country such as Iran, for instance—theocracy executes, amputates, tortures and imprisons. The struggle for religious freedom and democratic freedoms are stable-mates, and contempt for either can have calamitous consequences.

The final set of recommendations to which I draw the attention of the Minister and the House are these proposals: that Foreign Office staff receive training in understanding the key human rights issues in countries on which they are working; that a code of conduct should be drafted setting out the expectations and requirements with regard to human rights promotion for each ambassador, for all key embassy staff, including consular staff and visa application officials, and for London-based heads of section and country desk officials; and that diplomats who display outstanding commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights should be recognised and rewarded. By championing in-country the cause of brave dissidents as, for instance, we have consistently done in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, and by marking key anniversaries, such as the international Human Rights Day on 10 December, we can make it clear that British foreign policy truly has a conscience.

In the few moments that remain, perhaps I may refer to two countries which I have visited recently: North Korea and Sudan. I declare a non-financial interest as chairman of the All Party-Group on North Korea and as an officer of the All-Party Group on Sudan. During my visit to North Korea with my noble friend Lady Cox, who at the moment is returning from the Burma border, we were accompanied by Mr Ben Rogers, who is vice-chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and kindly acted as secretariat. We have documented our visit and recommendations in a report, Building Bridges, Not Walls: The Case for Constructive, Critical Engagement with North Korea, which is available on the web. In that report, we suggest that, as well as raising security issues, which has been a one-track approach during the six-party talks, it is imperative that we adopt, as it were, Helsinki but with a Korean face. We also put firmly on to the agenda human rights questions in North Korea, where the United Nations estimates that as many as 300,000 people are currently languishing in its camps. We desperately need a new peace conference to bring an end to a 60-year war which is neither a war nor a peace, merely an armistice. The events on the Korean peninsula last week underlined how often we are simply waiting for a Sarajevo moment to occur, sucking us all into the vortex which 60 years ago this year claimed nearly 3 million lives. We have to engage constructively but critically with North Korea, and the approach adopted during the Helsinki years—the Cold War—is the one that we should be adopting in North Korea today. The Minister has seen the report and I hope that, when he comes to reply, he will be able to respond to that.

Perhaps I may also briefly mention the situation in Sudan. In just a few weeks’ time, in January, there will be a referendum there to determine its future. I was surprised to find that Mr Henry Bellingham, the Minister from the Foreign Office who led a trade delegation to Khartoum, recently said:

“We want to see more UK banks taking a positive view towards Sudan”,

adding that it would be “wrong” for Britain,

“not to encourage the trade”.

Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, is indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges. Anyone who has visited Darfur, as I have, where 200,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced, will wonder why we would be conducting business as usual.

All of this points, as do many situations in other parts of the world, to the need for Britain to have a clearer policy and approach to human rights. One size never fits all but over-reaching principles are crucial: adumbrating our own nation’s belief in the articles that form the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and attempting to live up to them; patiently engaging, cajoling and constructively criticising where necessary; and linking development and key foreign policy objectives to human rights goals. These are the things that we must do. I beg to move.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, this is a very popular debate with 19 speakers in two and a half hours. I ask noble Lords to bear in mind that, when the clock says six minutes, they are into their seventh minute.

11.52 am

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, such is my admiration for the noble Lord, increased by today’s debate, that he has persuaded me to read a number of the Conservative Human Rights Commission reports, which I found very valuable. My only comment is that those recommendations did not come from year zero; the previous Government made a substantial contribution to human rights, and there is a case for going ahead on the basis of consensus, as the noble Lord said. They are extremely useful recommendations. My only criticism of the commission report is its failure to mention, for example, the work of the Council of Europe in the human rights field, particularly in respect of the European convention and the Commission on Human Rights for the 47 countries, and the Conservative commission’s curious reluctance to mention the European Union, save in its criticism of its role in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

I hope the Minister will agree that it is important that there are conditionality clauses in EU association agreements, that these clauses are implemented, and that there is collective action so that individual countries such as Denmark cannot be picked off. Collective action is far more valuable. There is a potential role for the European External Action Service, which was inaugurated yesterday. I hope the Government will insist that there is a human rights dimension, including in the Cabinet of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and that that is not neglected by the EEAS.

The noble Lord also mentioned the excellent speech by the Foreign Secretary at Lincoln’s Inn. My only fear is that, rather like Robin Cook’s ethical dimension, which the Daily Mail called a moral foreign policy, there are potential hostages to fortune. There is an abiding temptation in foreign policy to be strong against the weak, such as Burma, and weak against the strong, such as China. The Government have already responded to at least one of the recommendations: the convening of an advisory group on human rights that brings in key NGOs, which is to meet regularly. There is, of course, already a panel concerned with religious freedom, which was set up by the previous Government, but I did criticise them for not allowing the body to meet sufficiently regularly. The point is also made about debates on the Foreign Office annual human rights report in which I played a little role when I chaired the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, as it was the response to one of the recommendations made in our first report.

The commission is also right to point out the need for a more effective UN Human Rights Council. All too often there is a blocking group, which responds by omitting Iran from monitoring, for example, and which is, of course, overtly anti-Israel and pro-Arab. So there is a basis on which it is hoped we can all agree in the field of human rights.

I raise only one part of the vineyard because it is, as the noble Lord has illustrated, a very extensive field and hardly any Governments are not subject to criticism. I think it was Gareth Evans, the former Foreign Minister of Australia, who said, “How can we plausibly talk about human rights, we Australians, if we are bad to our Aborigines?”. We should also ensure that we look into our own practices so that we can be a model, a lighthouse, in our position abroad. So I join the noble Lord in asking the Minister also to respond to various other recommendations made in the commission’s report, including training for our foreign service personnel and special envoys, whom he listed.

My specific point relates not just broadly to freedom of religion but to the freedom to change one’s religion. I commend the Christian Solidarity Worldwide booklet, No Place to Call Home, which sets out the various obligations, which are very clear indeed. First, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—I stress “universal”—states, among other things, that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

Equally, Article 18 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”.

There is also, of course, the 1981 declaration. The booklet goes through the various international—indeed universal—obligations which some Islamic countries have sought to qualify but which in my judgment are extremely clear.

Practices in certain countries against apostates are set out very clearly in the report. Those countries include, alas, a number from the Commonwealth such as Malaysia. In most states in Malaysia, apostasy is punishable by fines, imprisonment and lashes, and in some states by death. In general, the ways in which apostates are treated include extrajudicial killings by state agents or mobs, honour killings, detention, imprisonment, torture, denial of access to judicial and social security, and the withdrawal of employment and education rights. Such experiences are blatantly at odds with international obligations.

I end with a final thought. Yesterday’s edition of Libération mentioned the case of the Afghan, Musa Sayed, who has been in prison for six months for apostasy. It is said that western diplomats have tried, not always successfully, to visit him. I hope that those diplomats include those from the UK. We shall wait to see whether the Government honour their welcome promises and whether there is any difference in practice. I hope that in the debate we can create and build on a consensus in the very important field of human rights.

Noon

Lord Avebury: My Lords, in my three minutes’ worth in Tuesday’s debate on Iran I gave notice of two issues for today. The first was the advice given by the UN rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, on how to improve the special procedures’ system of communication, a matter that I do not think was dealt with by the Conservative Party commission. I mentioned then his proposal for dealing with countries with consistently poor levels of co-operation or meaningful engagement, to which I added an alternative on which I would like an answer from the Minister today.

Mr Alston made five other proposals, including an examination of the effectiveness of the communications system, better integration of the work of the SPs and modernisation of their technology of communication. There is not time to mention them all but they are all worth consideration. Can we urge the Equality and Human Rights Commission to pick them up and, now that Mr Alston has ended his six-year stint as special rapporteur, to put him on a list of potential candidates to carry out the work? How else does my noble friend think that we might go about improving the sclerotic and byzantine edifice of the special procedures?

The second issue that I left for today was that of Iran’s minorities. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, concentrated on some aspects of the treatment of minorities. The Kurds have always suffered extreme persecution in Iran, as in other parts of the region. Agents of the regime assassinated their great leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou at a meeting to discuss peace in Vienna in 1988, and then his successor Dr Sadegh Sharafkandi was killed at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 2001. In September I asked the Minister, Alistair Burt, if he would press the Austrians to release the files on Ghassemlou’s murder, as the Germans did in the case of Sharafkandi. I would be grateful if my noble friend could tell me what progress is being made on that issue.

Regarding the situation of the Kurds, there are Iranian 21 Kurds on death row today, including a woman, Miss Zeinab Jalalian, who was convicted of “mobarabeh”—“enmity against God”. The Kurdish Human Rights Project—I declare an interest as president of that organisation—says that after her arrest in 2008 she was held incommunicado in a Ministry of Detention facility for eight months before being sentenced to death by the Kermanshah Revolutionary Court. During her brief trial, which lasted for only a few minutes, she was barred from access to her lawyer and was told to “shut up” by the sentencing judge after making a plea to say goodbye to her family.

On the Baha’is, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote personally to the Iranian authorities asking for an explanation of the circumstances in which seven members have been held on trumped-up charges from May 2008. They have now been sentenced in totally irregular court proceedings to 10 years’ imprisonment, in effect for being members of the Baha’i faith. I declare an interest as acting chair of the Baha’i All-Party Parliamentary Group.

In another case, of many, three Baha’is have recently begun a fourth year in detention for the “crime” of their participation in an education programme for underprivileged children in Shiraz. They were sentenced despite a report by an inspector of the Office of the Representative of the Supreme Leader that pointed to their innocence. They have been held for three years so far, not in a regular prison but in the holding cells of the Shiraz office of the Ministry of Intelligence where they have no windows, beds or chairs and have only recently been given mattresses. All three have injuries for which they have received inadequate medical attention.

Minorities in Pakistan are having an extremely hard time also. The Parliamentary Human Rights Group has just published a report on the situation of Ahmadis in Pakistan, which presents a stark picture of the discrimination against that community and the lack of protection from the state against their enemies, the extremist Khatme Nabuwwat, an organisation that openly incites religious hatred, creating an atmosphere that leads to assassination and even to well organised massacres of Ahmadis at Friday prayers in their mosques.

Bodies such as the Sipah-e Sahaba and Lashkar-e Jhangvi are violent anti-Shia organisations that were banned by Musharraf in 2002 but are still freely operating in Pakistan, in spite of their known associations with al-Qaeda. They relentlessly target minorities such as the Hazaras, a small Shia minority in Baluchistan, in killings and suicide bombings. An estimated 400 of the Hazaras have been killed and 1,000 injured in the last few years. Thousands more have abandoned their homes and businesses and sought asylum abroad in places such as Canada and Australia.

In Karachi, too, there is a wave of violence, directed against the Ahmadis, Christians, Shia and the MQM, a political party representing the descendants of those who crossed over from India at the time of partition. Nobody is ever arrested for these crimes. We need to know whether the Government, the European Union, the UN or, better still, all of them, will persuade President Zardari and the federal Government to act firmly on the impunity that has been enjoyed by terrorist groups and their extremist ideological allies.

12.06 pm

Lord Sacks: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this important debate, which touches the very core of our humanity, transcending all differences of colour, culture, class or creed and sets moral limits to the use of power. It took great crises to make people aware of human rights. The wars of religion in the seventeenth century which led Milton and Locke to formulate the doctrine of the rights of man proclaimed, in the next century, the American and French revolutions. It was sustained reflection on the Holocaust and on the Nazi programme to eliminate whole classes of humanity—the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, Roma and Sinti, and Jews—that led to the great 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a way of saying that what happened in the Holocaust should never happen again, and that those who died should not have died in vain.

It remains a testament to the human spirit that, at that time of Cold War and tense conflict in the Middle East, the nations of the world were none the less able to come together in collective affirmation, whether through religious faith or human reason, of the inherent dignity, and the equal and inalienable rights, of all members of the human family. That remains—despite the genocides and abuses that have happened since, of which we have heard so powerfully today—a signal of hope and a template of aspiration that must continue to protect us against cynicism and despair.

On this vast subject I wish to make just one point. Rights depend not only on declarations but on education. Rights are lost when one group within a society, usually the dominant group, sees another group as a threat to its freedom and its own dominance. Threat becomes fear, fear becomes hate, and hate becomes dehumanisation. The Nazis called Jews vermin and lice. The Hutus of Rwanda called the Tutsis inyenzi, or cockroaches. When this happens—when we dehumanise the other—evil follows, as night follows day. The only way to stop this is through education. I am deeply concerned at the teaching of hate that exists in some parts of the world and among some groups today. That teaching is poisoning the minds of young children and other vulnerable individuals, condemning them to a future of conflict and hostility from which they themselves will lose. Hate harms the hater no less than the hated; and when I diminish others, I am myself diminished.

Article 26 of the universal declaration covers education. Paragraph (2) states that it should,

“promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups”.

How good it would be if we could find ways to make that a reality and not just a pious hope. Today, as the noble Lord has mentioned, is the first day of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah—the anniversary of the time 22 centuries ago when Jews fought and won their right to religious freedom. Shall we not work together—Jews, Christians, Muslims and those of all faiths—to teach the world’s children to see God’s image in people who are not in their image, whose colour is not theirs, whose language is not theirs, whose face is not theirs? The principle is shared, if differently expressed, by secular humanists of all kinds, for human rights begin with the way in which we teach our children to recognise the humanity of others and the dignity of difference. The rights of tomorrow are born in the education of today.

12.11 pm

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord and to join in the debate. My noble friend has chosen an interesting subject, but in a sense it is a non-story. No one should be surprised that the Conservative Party is engaged with human rights—but it has taken some time. When I was at school and my father was a Suez rebel in Parliament, you did not interfere with other countries unless you had invaded or colonised them and they were coloured red on the map. Fortunately, the US got us out of the Suez Canal and eventually blew both political parties toward the winds of change of the early 1960s. After that, our entry into Europe helped to define our legal commitment to fundamental human rights, which has now become a sine qua non of foreign policy. It is a way of thinking about foreign policy.

We still think we know better. We even have the right to interfere now under various UN and EU conventions. In the 1991 Harare Declaration, the Commonwealth emphasised fundamental human rights and the equality of women. However, since then it has stepped back from grand statements and seems more content with quiet diplomacy, aid, trade and education. I know that the Minister agrees with that approach. I welcome the latest statements of the Foreign Secretary and look forward to many initiatives in future.

“Human rights” means different things and we have to be careful how we influence other countries in this field. Human rights work can be very dangerous for the individuals and aid organisations concerned. I hope that my noble friend agrees that it is not just a matter of applying the universal declaration: every state will interpret rights in its own setting and background. In India and Nepal, for instance, there is a strong tradition of NGOs campaigning with impunity. This is not the case in Sri Lanka, Burma or Zimbabwe. However, reformers in those countries have been encouraged by outside pressure and sanctions, and this can be a justification for those sanctions.

Human rights can be seen as a mirror that is held up, rather than as a policy. The Minister said this week that lecturing will do no good. I assume that he was referring to Governments. Obviously, Beijing does not take kindly to our complaints about its treatment of Uighurs, any more than New Delhi enjoys our protests against its failure to protect the Dalits. Both countries are in a formal annual intergovernment dialogue with the European Union on human rights—occasions at which nothing happens to improve the plight of the Uighurs or Dalits. It is left largely to campaigners.

Perhaps the most effective dialogue is through different channels such as trade and economic relations. One obvious example from China is the continued existence of Hong Kong as a refuge and as a beacon of international norms. In the case of India, there is great potential, for example, for more corporate responsibility in large international companies.

The Conservative Party lost some of its pre-election momentum with the scrapping of its plans to repeal the Human Rights Act—a clear casualty of the coalition. Its human rights commission is still in business and has just published a first-rate report proposing reforms to the UN Human Rights Council, a body whose membership and credibility has been questioned for some time, as has been said.

Let us be clear: we will continue to use human rights when it suits us. Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and his fellow combatant Paul Kagame in Rwanda were both supported for many years by the British aid programme at a time when they ignored opposition and the needs of their large minorities. Those two men have been very effective leaders but I hope that we will never give up cajoling them—often through aid conditionality—into better governance and human rights. Sudan, which was mentioned by my noble friend, is currently a good example of our foreign policy. I congratulate the FCO and DfID on putting so much effort into this with the help of at least three former ambassadors in Sudan and Egypt, so there can be no doubt about our commitment.

As the referendum goes through we have to be very cautious about our relations with Khartoum. The US made bad mistakes in the past about terrorism in Sudan when Osama Bin Laden was training there. It is now rightly pressing the north to support a peaceful transition in the south. Human rights have certainly become an issue. Unlike my noble friend I support the Government’s new emphasis on trade and improving commercial relations, which have been at a low level for much too long. If we see human rights in the context of sticks and carrots—let us face it, most of it is in that form—it may not please the purer forms of campaigners but it will be more effective diplomacy which could achieve a better result in the long run. At least, that is how the real world looks to me.

12.16 pm

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. In my maiden speech in this House I spoke on the United Nations doctrine of responsibility to protect. As the debate proceeded, it was clear that human rights stand at the centre but never in an individualist sense of that word. In other words, we are talking about not my rights but rather the rights of all humankind seen in social solidarity.

Some 15 years ago, with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, I remember looking with others for ways of safeguarding entire communities at the height of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. That is, of course, still a part of the world where these tensions remain latent. More recently, in September I delivered to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a letter addressed to the Prime Minister and signed by a coalition of some 30 Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, and by Jewish rabbis. The initiative was taken by Vava Tampa and the Save the Congo Campaign. Those of us with long memories will know that the Congo has been a human disaster area for more than half a century—ever since independence. The situation in the Congo amounts to a permanent state of crisis with ever renewed spates of atrocity. It requires concerted international effort to counter this.

In the light of those issues, and particularly with the comments of the Foreign Secretary on a foreign policy with conscience, this debate is timely. That concept of a policy with conscience has a long history, under different names. It brings into focus both national enlightened self-interest and a concern that the more powerful nations have a responsibility to defend those who are weaker, especially when human rights are flagrantly ignored or even despised. In his recent book reviewing a selection of British Foreign Secretaries in the past 200 years, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, pointed to two contrasting approaches. The first was rather more swashbuckling and interventionist and the second was more reactive or responsive. My instinct is that in the context of this debate we are looking for a responsive approach, tempered by both conscience and a proper political pragmatism. It echoes that stamp of Christian realism established by the American theologian and political theorist Reinhold Niebuhr.

The Congo focuses that dilemma most sharply at present. In his reply to the coalition of religious leaders that I led recently to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Prime Minister stated unequivocally that,

“human rights abuses, sexual violence and impunity continue to threaten civilians on a daily basis in the DRC”.

He outlined some of the efforts that Her Majesty’s Government are making at present. These crucial efforts have, happily, continued throughout both the present and previous Administrations in Britain.

This debate also follows closely on from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, focusing world attention on the endemic levels of rape and violence against women in the Congo. The use of rape to punish, displace or destroy women and communities in times of conflict has been well documented in recent conflicts around the world. The catastrophic abuse of an individual’s body is used to discipline or consistently undermine the social body. Fear produces control. The rape of women allows for the rape of a country and the taking of its easily appropriable natural resources by destroying the social fabric. The question is one of education and of teaching people to lay hold of their rights. Women human rights defenders are, as the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s recent report Supporting Women Human Rights Defenders says, some of the most effective campaigners, and they need our support.

I welcome the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s recommendations based on the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. It is a responsibility placed not only on Governments and international bodies but requiring something from every one of us. It is a common responsibility based on a common humanity.

None of this is easy, of course. Indeed, it can be transformed immediately into a foreign policy which is both effective in combating brutality, human rights abuses and genocide without direct military intervention. Earlier I referred to a responsive approach tempered by both conscience and a proper political pragmatism. This will require initially intelligent and politically targeted diplomacy. It will also mean similarly targeted approaches to aid.

The situation in the Congo makes it only too plain that the continuing catastrophe is made worse by the collusion, and even intervention, of some neighbouring states. Her Majesty’s Government are clearly aware of this and I would press for an even greater recognition of the need to put pressure on other states. I am glad to pick up the image used by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich—that of stick and carrot. The stick will, I hope, be diplomacy and not military intervention; the carrot will be careful placing of aid programmes. Ultimately, there may tragically be the need for a military intervention, but that can happen only when it is prosecuted by an internationally legitimate authority. In most cases this will be the United Nations following through its responsibility to protect—the place from which I began.

Looking back to the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson reflected:

“During the late war I had an infallible rule for deciding what”,

Great Britain,

“would do on every occasion. It was to consider what they ought to do, and to take the reverse of that as what they would assuredly do, and I can say with truth that I was never deceived”.

I hope that is not a comment that a statesman should ever make of Britain today.

12.23 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for drawing attention to the Conservative Human Rights Commission. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, I was particularly interested in its report, Supporting Women Human Rights Defenders. If human rights defenders are front-line people in the fight against the kind of abuses that noble Lords have referred to today, then women human rights defenders are doubly under threat. If people are recognised as human rights defenders they are already pledged to be non-violent, and yet they face violence, torture and death for trying to defend the rights of their communities. Of course men face those issues, too, but, as the right reverend Prelate said, women also face the challenge of rape. They are often the primary carers of their children and, as such, have to worry about them at the same time as standing up for rights. That all occurs in a society whose status quo means that women are not heard, and sometimes not seen, too. Therefore, it is very hard to be a female human rights defender in such a society.

I declare an interest as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary British-Latin America Group, and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bolivia. I shall concentrate my remarks on that region of the world. In doing so, I pay particular tribute to four organisations that have acted as my ears and eyes on the ground in Central and South America in between my visits there. Peace Brigades International is a network of international observers of the work of human rights defenders, thereby ensuring—it hopes—that they survive another day to carry out their work. It is an incredible organisation and I know that it talks to other parliamentarians about what is happening on the ground. Without that organisation, it would be much harder to know what is going on.

The Latin American Mining Monitoring Programme is a small charity dedicated to supporting Latin American women and their communities in their campaigns for human rights. It is particularly involved, as is the London Mining Network, in what the right reverend Prelate referred to as the rape of resources—that is, mining. Mining so often constitutes the front-line abuse of human rights—the right to land, to your home and to being able to grow food for your family. The Central America Women’s Network gathers together women from countries across that region to share effective measures, best practice and their stories and passes on that information to us so that we may take action.

Between them, those organisations have introduced me to a breathtakingly brave network of women who face daily threats to themselves and to their families, which, in many ways, is much harder. The Conservative Party’s report, at page 31, gives an example of a woman we will never meet as she was shot when she was eight months pregnant. Her two year-old child was shot at the same time.

Mining companies have a particular duty to do something about human rights, and I accept that some of them may be trying to do so. However, as consumers and shareholders, we also have a responsibility in this area. We cannot ignore that fact. Many noble Lords will have attended the recent event hosted by the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, at which George Soros talked of what we could do about this matter. We could enact the same legislation as the United States did in July this year. That legislation included a landmark provision requiring oil, gas and mining companies registered with the US Securities and Exchange Commission to publish how much they pay to foreign countries. It is known as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. If we are serious about human rights, we need to introduce a similar provision As long as Governments can receive unknown amounts of money for the rights that we are discussing, corruption can, and does, follow. The communities affected cannot even know what compensation they might reasonably be entitled to. Just before Congress voted this measure through, President Obama said:

“We know that countries are more likely to prosper when governments are accountable to their people. So we are leading a global effort to combat corruption—which in many places is the single greatest barrier to prosperity, and which is a profound violation of human rights”.

If we are to take any action as a result of today’s debate, let us press for our own form of this legislation for companies registered here.

12.29 pm

Baroness Hollins: My Lords, it is a privilege to be able to address your Lordships on the subject of human rights, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton for initiating this very timely debate. But first I would like to thank everyone, especially the staff, who have been so welcoming and so patient in showing me the ropes, making my first weeks in this House such a positive experience. With this marvellous support, and the collective expertise of noble Lords, I anticipate a stimulating and enjoyable membership of this House.

Today I will share my concerns about the rights of people of all ages who live with learning disabilities, previously known perhaps as mental handicap: people who are seen as different, and whose humanity is often not recognised. I know that many Members of this House, including my noble friend Lord Rix, became powerful advocates for people with learning disabilities because of their own family experience. I am grateful to them for the leadership and the inspiration that they have shown.

Much of my life’s work has been informed by family experience. I grew up in Yorkshire watching my father cope with the consequences of war injuries, injuries which eventually caused his death 50 years after D-day. And while this experience set me on a medical career, it is the experience of my son’s learning disability which has inspired me to try to make a difference in the lives of people with learning disabilities. My family experience has had a strong influence on my clinical work, my research and my teaching at St George’s University of London, where for more than 30 years we have been trying to ensure that, at least in the practice of medicine, people with learning disabilities receive appropriate and equal treatment.

I know that my concerns are shared by many parliamentarians, as shown powerfully in the 2008 report on learning disabilities, A Life Like Any Other ?, published by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. This report painted a shocking picture of the denial of fundamental human rights to adults living with learning disabilities in the United Kingdom.

I have just returned from Romania, where, as chair of the steering group, I was invited to introduce the Bucharest declaration and action plan at a WHO Europe high-level conference. The declaration is called Better Health, Better Lives, and is about improving the health and well-being of children with learning disabilities and their families. It was co-signed by the regional director of WHO, the regional director of UNICEF and the Romanian Minister of Health on behalf of Ministers of Health from across the WHO region, which comprises 53 countries. The iconic image, which will remain with all of the participants, is of six people with learning disabilities standing and waving the easy-read illustrated version of the declaration after their own presentation to the conference and saying, “We want things to change now”.

In many ways, this declaration was an unlikely occurrence. Noble Lords will have heard about the terrible conditions in which thousands of abandoned babies, disabled children and young people live. Noble Lords may also have seen pictures of children being kept in caged beds, in buildings which are little more than warehouses for abandoned children. Media attention in recent years has focused particularly on Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, but these countries are not the only ones that are failing children.

There is still poor practice in many parts of our region. As many as a third of a million disabled children and young people still experience discrimination, neglect and abuse in institutions in Europe as well as in other countries throughout the world. Most disabled children, young people and their families are poor, with little formal support being provided for them. Negative attitudes and stereotypes are the norm, and they experience barriers in gaining access to healthcare. These are human rights issues.

The first priority of the Bucharest declaration—to protect children from harm and abuse—recommends that legislation should be reviewed to ensure that it meets human rights standards, especially those set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations convention on the rights of disabled persons, both of which this Parliament has ratified. I do not have time today, nor would it be appropriate in a maiden speech, to share the other priorities or the detailed action plan which accompanies the declaration, but these are available on the WHO website.

I am pleased to report that our Government were represented at the Bucharest conference by Dr Roger Banks, a senior psychiatrist working in learning disability services. The UK’s progress in planning for and meeting the needs of these children and their families offers some important lessons for elsewhere in Europe. Take, for example, the 2001 English White Paper, Valuing People, about the needs of people with learning disabilities, and the independent inquiry, of which I was a member, that the Secretary of State set up at the instigation of MENCAP, to examine whether and why people with learning disabilities are discriminated against in our hospitals. Two important monitoring projects have also been established: a confidential inquiry into avoidable deaths and a learning disabilities observatory to collect monitoring data.

I am encouraged that the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, has convened an advisory group on human rights challenges to inform his work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I sincerely hope that this group will have regard to the human rights abuses affecting disabled children and young people in many parts of the world. I should like to ask him to convene a round table to discuss how expertise in this country can best be used to improve the human rights of children and young people with intellectual disabilities internationally.

I conclude my comments with the following aphorism. If we can get it right for people with learning disabilities, we can get it right for other citizens. I hope noble Lords will join me in promoting policy that makes a real difference in people’s lives, by putting disabled people at the centre of the human rights debate. Thank you.

12.36 pm

Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: My Lords, it is a huge privilege and honour to be able to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and to congratulate her on her very powerful maiden speech. She began her great life of compassion and commitment before she went as a VSO volunteer to Nigeria in the mid-1960s to work as head of science in a girls’ secondary school. Her litany of responsibilities, duties, commitments, committees and professional obligations make absolutely the embodiment of the big society and allow us in this House to receive her wisdom, which she will give to us over many years. She has continued in those roles while being a school governor of many London schools and, in her professional expertise, while sitting on committees that have brought her to the place of being a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and now a professor of psychiatry and disability at St George’s, University of London.

We should also note that she is a prolific author, as I discovered from her CV. She has had published 200 books, chapters and articles on learning disabilities. This is an issue on which she cares deeply, emotionally, practically and professionally. For that we are deeply grateful. That is why, if I may say so, we need quality people such as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on the Cross Benches and in this House.

I move on to the subject of this debate. I want to respond to the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Sacks, who rightly pointed out that we need to go beyond declarations into education. Perhaps I may add another “E” and move beyond education into enforcement.

For a poor person in the developing world, the struggle for human rights is not an abstract fight over political freedom or over the prosecution of large-scale war crimes, but a matter of daily survival. It is the struggle to avoid extortion or abuse by local police, the struggle against being forced into slavery or having land stolen, or the struggle to avoid being thrown arbitrarily into an overcrowded, disease-ridden jail with little or no prospect of a fair trial. For women and children, it is the struggle not to be assaulted, raped, molested, or forced into the commercial sex trade.

Efforts by the modern human rights movement over the past 60 years have contributed to the criminalisation of these abuses in nearly every country in the world. However, the problem for the poor, however, is that those laws are rarely, if ever, significantly enforced. At the same time, this state of functional lawlessness allows corrupt officials and local criminals to block or steal many of the crucial goods and services provided by the international development community. These abuses are both a moral tragedy and wholly counterproductive to the foreign aid programmes of countries in the developed world. Helping construct effective public justice systems in the developing world, therefore, must become the new mandate of the human rights movement in the 21st century.

In June 2008, a report was published by the United Nations that estimated that 4 billion people live outside the protection of the rule of law. As the report concluded,

“most poor people do not live under the shelter of the law”.

Instead, they inhabit a world in which the perpetrators of abuse and violence are unrestrained by the fear of punishment. In this world, virtually every component of the public justice system—police, defence lawyers, prosecutors and courts—works against, not with, the poor in providing the protections of the law. Take, for example, the police. For most of the world’s poor, the local police force is their primary contact with the public justice system. The average poor person in the developing world has probably never met a police officer who is not at best corrupt, or at worst gratuitously brutal. In fact, the most pervasive criminal presence for the global poor is frequently their own police force. A 2006 study in Kenya, for example, revealed that 65 per cent of those citizens polled reported difficulty obtaining help from the police, and 29 per cent said they had had to make “extraordinary efforts” to avoid problems with the police in the past year. According to a 1999 World Bank study, poor people in the developing world view the police as a group of “vigilantes and criminals” who actively harass, oppress and brutalise them. Many countries in the developing world do not recognise a right to indigent legal representation, leaving those who cannot afford a lawyer to navigate the legal process without an advocate.

If the first stage of the modern human rights movement was largely intellectual, the second has become political. During the past 25 to 30 years, the movement for human rights has embedded the growing body of international norms into national law, and for that we should be profoundly grateful, but two generations of global human rights efforts have been predicated, consciously or unconsciously, on assumptions about the effectiveness of the public justice systems in the developing world. Those systems clearly lack effective enforcement tools. As a result, the great legal reforms of the human rights movement often deliver only empty parchment promises to the poorest people on our planet. In large part, the human rights community, which includes various UN bodies and agencies, government offices, non-governmental organisations and individual jurists and scholars, exists to defend the victimised, particularly where more powerful actors have little incentive to act on their behalf. Yet throughout the history of the modern human rights movement, this community has largely neglected the task of helping to build public justice systems in the developing world that work for the poor.

In conclusion, I advocate that if we add to education, let us also add the right of enforcement.

12.44 pm

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on obtaining this debate. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on her maiden speech. My contribution will focus on an institution that ought to be a major engine for the promotion of human rights: the United Nations Human Rights Council.

We should start by acknowledging that the United Nations, through its original human rights commission, started with an impressive human rights record—the universal declaration and the subsequent charters, covenants and mechanisms which require that member states commit to some level of respect for the human rights of their citizens. However, the human rights commission was eventually captured by abusers in order to shield themselves from the enforcement of the standards embodied in the mechanisms I have mentioned. Reform became necessary, and that resulted in the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006-07. However, as the Conservative Human Rights Commission observed in its 2008 report, Globalising Human Rights :

“Far from being a fresh start, the New Human Rights Council continues to be beset by problems relating to the size and structures of its membership and evidence from its early sessions, suggests that it is aping some of the worst characteristics of its predecessor”.

In September 2009, Freedom House published what it called a report card for the two-year period beginning with the conclusion of the Human Rights Council’s institution-building process in June 2007 through to the end of the 11th session in June 2009. Its primary finding was that a small but active group of countries with very poor human rights records had succeeded in limiting the council’s ability to protect human rights. I give two extracts from the report to illustrate this. The first is:

“The Council’s ability to pass strong resolutions that address either country-specific human rights violations or global human rights issues has been dismal. In the past two years, the Council has managed to issue condemnatory resolutions on just a handful of countries: Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, North Korea, Somalia, and Israel. Council resolutions regarding massive and ongoing human rights violations in Sudan and following the conflict in Sri Lanka were weak and in both cases actually praised governments for their actions. No resolutions were passed condemning the governments of Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or Zimbabwe, which rank at the very bottom of Freedom House’s list of Not Free countries and which systematically deny their citizens fundamental political rights and civil liberties”.

The second is:

“On Darfur, the Council attempted to take various actions—including the creation of a high-level mission to visit Sudan and later a resolution establishing an experts group of special procedures mandate holders—but these efforts were thwarted primarily by the Africa Group under Egypt’s leadership. Resolutions adopted at the 6th and 7th sessions actually praised Sudan’s efforts to improve the human rights situation”.

The report card that Freedom House published in September this year was to the same effect. One of the points that caught my eye was:

“’Deeply Flawed Elections: Elections to the Council have seen a decrease in the number of candidates with strong human rights records each year since the first ballot in 2006. A significant number of democracies continue to vote for repressive countries, including even those with the world’s worst human rights records, such as Libya”.

Over that period, according to Freedom House’s classification, not free countries have been roughly level-pegging at about 20 per cent of the council; the percentage of partly free countries has gone from the high 20s to the high 30s; and the percentage of free countries has dropped from just over 50 per cent to just over 40 per cent. That is not a trend that one would like.

The other point that I take from this year’s report card relates to NGO accreditation:

“The Committee on Non-governmental Organizations, which oversees the accreditation process for NGOs, has become increasingly politicized and is dominated by some of the world’s most aggressive opponents of universal standards on human rights. Latin America, the region with the second largest number of Free countries and electoral democracies according to Freedom in the World, has allowed three of its four seats to be occupied by some of its worst performers on human rights and civic participation. The committee”—

that is, the Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations—

“should be replaced with a professional bureau that would evaluate organizations on a purely technical basis”.

In its annual report for 2008, the Conservative Human Rights Commission proposed reforms which I summarise as follows: potential members to have ratified a core list of human rights treaties; potential members should have their record independently reviewed by experts; the universal periodic review should be strengthened; and membership of the council should be reduced further. I think that something more radical is needed. The problem will continue because major abusers can organise the election of states that will protect abusers and organise or buy the election of such states. This leads to the view that elections must either be cleaned up or curtailed and more weight placed on professional elements in this matter.

In his Lincoln’s Inn speech, which was mentioned with approval earlier in this debate, the Foreign Secretary set the goal of United Nations reform and included,

“a more effective UN Human Rights Council”.

I am delighted to see that that is one of the goals, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister can say on this point in reply.

12.50 pm

Lord Browne of Ladyton: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate. He promised us an interesting and engaging debate and it has been both of those thus far. On the subject of interesting, engaging and educative, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on her maiden speech and I look forward to her contributions in future. It is perfectly clear that a substantial part of our community now has a very eloquent advocate in the House. I am sure that she will talk knowledgably and interestingly on many other subjects.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, on using his comparatively short time in a characteristically valuable way. I have had recent experience of the organisation that he speaks of and I share a lot of his observations in practice, particularly in relation to Sri Lanka. While I am addressing contributions, because I found them all valuable, I shall express a prejudice to the argument that the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, put before your Lordships’ House. From my experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I might find some opportunity in future to show where the international community has failed in doing just what the noble Lord described in conflict resolution.

I do not envy the Minister in responding to this debate, given its diversity and the interesting nature of the speeches that have been made so far. There are more to come and while I have no intention of adding to his challenges, I intend to draw him on the coalition Government’s policy and proposed actions on the continuing human rights challenges faced by the people of Sri Lanka in particular.

I do not think that this is a declaration of interest but I remind the House that I was the special envoy of the previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to Sri Lanka. I was privileged to hold that job from early 2009, when more than 100,000 people were trapped at the height of the end of the conflict, until the general election. I suppose that I do not need also to remind the House that, as has been recorded, my appointment, although initially agreed to by the Government of Sri Lanka, shortly became an issue of division within their coalition Government, resulting in a lamentable lack of public co-operation with me in that role. Privately, however, I had numerous meetings with representatives of the Government and their emissaries. I do not consider the public posture that they adopted to me to be in any sense personal, because they have adopted that posture to a significant number of emissaries, including most recently the three-person panel of experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General.

Despite the vanquishing of the LTTE and the apparent end to 30 years of the most atrocious violence and abuses by all sides to the conflict in that beautiful island of Sri Lanka, despite the renewed and increased electoral mandate that the Government of President Rajapaksa enjoys, which was gained on a manifesto of reconciliation and respect for minority rights, among many other arguments that he put forward, despite a personal commitment that he gave to the United Nations Secretary-General in May 2009 that he would take measures to address possible violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, and, despite the repeated but often rebuffed efforts of the international community to support an agenda of reconciliation and respect, there are in Sri Lanka, as Alistair Burt, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, told the other place on 16 June:

“widespread and persistent allegations of”,

continuing,

“human rights abuses by both state and non-state actors”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/6/10; col. 166WH.]

My observation on the pervasive propaganda of the media in Sri Lanka is that there are, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, identified, the beginnings if not the developing evidence of a culture of hate there against the Tamil minority, which will lead inevitably to just the sort of consequences that we have seen all too often around the world.

Reports of the Government of Sri Lanka and their agents committing arbitrary and unlawful killings, including credible reports of the police and other security forces killing detained suspects, are all-pervasive. I remind the House that successive commissions of inquiry under the warrant of the President have all run into the sand and lack credibility. There have been disappearances, many of which can be brought to the door of paramilitary groups operating on behalf of government military forces. Civil society groups and former prisoners report several torture cases, involving beatings with bars or bats, electric shocks, suspending victims in contorted positions, asphyxiation and many other horrible acts. Yet because of restricted access for humanitarian organisations, the evidence of that sort of behaviour is very difficult to find.

I could go on but I am conscious of the time. The point I wish to make is that there has been no lack of engagement by the international community or by successive Governments, including this Government, in trying to deal with the issues on that island which is, I remind your Lordships, a holiday island for many of our fellow citizens. There have been many assurances and substantial rhetoric from the Government of Sri Lanka but very little evidence of any improvement. In the debate that I referred to in the other place the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, a Minister for whom I have the enormous respect, assured that House that this Government were convinced that the present Government of Sri Lanka intend to deal with those issues. That assertion, in my view, is denied by the facts that are known more broadly.

On a note which is slightly inconsistent with the rest of this debate, I say to the Minister that I regret the fact that during the visit of the President of that country over the past few days, the Secretary of State for Defence chose to meet him in a private capacity. I anticipated that the meeting would be used for propaganda purposes and, this morning, I see on the front page of the Government of Sri Lanka’s website them doing just that. I encourage Ministers to meet members of the Government of Sri Lanka but I would much prefer that it was done openly and reported in a very transparent fashion. I thank noble Lords for listening with respect to my observations.

12.57 pm

Baroness O’Loan: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has served this House well in seeking today’s debate on human rights abuses worldwide. I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on her powerful maiden speech and I look forward to further interventions.

Much has been achieved in the United Kingdom through its actions to protect human rights. However, much remains to be done both domestically and internationally. Parents are often told that children learn effectively from the behaviour of their parents and that one should model the behaviour which one seeks to secure. That adage, it seems to me, is equally applicable to the role of governments internationally and in particular to the British Government, who have exercised such a prominent position on the international stage for centuries. However, so many issues cause concern.

I think, for example, of the issue of the UK making arrangements to allow the United States to store cluster bombs here on a “temporary” basis, despite the UK’s ratification of the international convention on cluster bombs. Cluster bombs, as we all know, have the potential to cause massive injury to the civilian population. In all our actions, that which we do privately must be consistent with that which we do publicly. Otherwise, in this modern information age, we will be rightly shamed and our reputation damaged.

The Conservative Party commission on human rights refers to mistakes made in the past and says that,

“it is by questioning the humanitarian contradictions and misguided motivations behind events, like the Iraq war and Afghanistan, that we learn from our shortcomings”.

We have much to learn from the experiences of armed conflict over the past 50 years—conflict in which we have been directly engaged and conflict in which we have adopted the role of negotiator, mediator, peacemaker, peacebuilder or peacekeeper—but sometimes it has seemed to me that each generation and group needs to be reminded of our history and of global history. I associate myself with the remarks of various noble Lords, in particular those of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, on the protection of the right of freedom of religion.

I shall allude first to the difficult issue of the methods used by countries fighting what is generally referred to as the war against terrorism. We saw the decision by the Government just two weeks ago to pay compensation to 12 men who alleged that the UK was involved in their transfer to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, in which they were interrogated and tortured. This is not the first time that a claim of UK government complicity in torture has been raised. The Prime Minister rightly contradicted the recent claim by President Bush that controversial interrogation techniques had protected the UK from further terrorist attacks. The experience in Northern Ireland and across the world is that the use of such techniques creates hostility to the Government and increased recruitment to terrorist organisations.

During the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a number of techniques were used by state interrogators to secure information from detainees. Five of those techniques—wall-standing, hooding, noise, sleep deprivation, and food and drink deprivation—were routinely used. Until 1975, officials denied that these techniques, described by detainees, were used, referring to the allegations of torture as IRA propaganda. However, they were not propaganda. Ultimately, the European Court, although not finding torture, announced that the techniques,

“undoubtedly amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment”,

in breach of Article 3 of the European convention. On 8 February 1977, the UK announced to the European Court:

“The Government … have considered the question of the use of the ‘five techniques’ with very great care and with particular regard to Article 3 … of the Convention. They now give this unqualified undertaking, that the ‘five techniques’ will not in any circumstances be reintroduced as an aid to interrogation”.

However, in March 2007, the judge presiding over the court martial of seven UK military personnel charged in connection with the torture and death in September 2003 of Baha Mousa and the treatment of eight Iraqi civilians arrested and detained in a UK military base in Basra stated that hooding detainees, keeping them in stress positions and depriving them of sleep had become standard operating procedures within the battalion responsible for detaining the men. Following a number of court hearings, the then Defence Secretary admitted substantive breaches of the European convention and the Armed Forces Minister apologised. The Government paid £2.83 million in compensation.

As we contemplate the announcement last month of the payment of damages for further alleged breaches of human rights, it is obviously profoundly important that the Government ensure that in all their dealings with other states in connection with any of their international activities in conflict zones there is a clear understanding that such techniques will not be used. Equally, it is fundamentally important that British personnel serving abroad, whether in a military or a peacekeeping capacity, are reminded of their obligations to adhere to all the relevant standards of behaviour. There must be a commitment to punish those who act in breach of particular codes of conduct and, in particular, in breach of the criminal law of the host country. The United Kingdom should use its influence to ensure the regulation of the activities of international peacekeeping forces.

I want to contemplate also what the United Kingdom can do to enhance the position of women caught in conflict and, in particular, to enhance their roles as peacemakers and negotiators, because without peace there can be no effective protection of human rights. Many women caught in conflict work for peace long before the international peacemakers arrive. In a context of seeing their children taken as child soldiers, of experiencing rape used as a tool of war, of being displaced and of being forced to flee as refugees, there will be women who strive for peace. Their primary need is for security, which is more important even than food and water. Notwithstanding that, women will get together in small groups and begin to try to find a way to peace. They will care for each other’s children, mind the market stalls and share their few goods with each other. They will need help from the very beginning, and government can assist in these matters. Thus will human rights be protected.

The process of nationbuilding/peacebuilding is one in which women have a minimal role in most cases. In many instances we are not able to achieve sustainable peace agreements, and I suppose my question is whether the absence of women at the peace table is a factor and whether their presence would enable such agreements to be achieved. In this context, I think that the UK must ensure that it does all it can to put women at the heart of any peace process in which it is involved. Failure to do so will mean that our calls for the involvement of women will be rejected.

I have run out of time but I should like also to call for enhanced articulation of the United Kingdom’s opposition to the death penalty and to draw attention, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, did, to the issue of slavery.

1.05 pm

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate, and it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. As we have heard, she is a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and I know that the House will be greatly helped by her long and very distinguished career in the field of learning disabilities and mental health.

I am also very pleased to note the report of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and I very strongly support what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said about its recommendations.

I am of course aware that this debate has already covered a wide range of human rights issues, in all of which your Lordships will have a proper concern because human rights are indivisible. If I had time, I would certainly mention a good number, not least the increasingly tense situation in West Papua, where human rights are being ever more violated. Just recently there was a film on television of an indigenous West Papuan being brutally tortured. However, because of time, I am going to focus on only one concern—the situation of the Dalits in the world, and I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group.

Recently I claimed that the struggle to support the rights of Dalits was comparable with the struggle to end apartheid in a previous generation, and I was publicly challenged over that comparison. I am glad to be challenged because it enables us to think more clearly about the exact nature of this issue, and of course it is a great help to be forced to think more clearly.

The struggle to support the rights of Dalits is not like apartheid in one respect, in the sense that the Indian constitution, to take one example, is in principle admirable, respecting the rights of all peoples, whereas apartheid was of course a state system. However, I suggest that the oppression of the Dalits is worse than apartheid in a number of respects. The first is the sheer scale of the problem. It has been reckoned that there are 250 million Dalits in the world—one in 40 of the world’s population—and their oppression is a blight that affects not just India but surrounding countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, and sadly even the Asian diaspora in this country. Secondly, it is difficult to imagine any form of social rejection more degrading or humiliating than that experienced by the Dalits. The caste system is complex but the point about the Dalits—the former untouchables—is that they are outside it altogether. They have no assured place and are regarded as less than human, so that those of so-called higher castes are unwilling to be touched by them, to have any social intercourse with them or even, for example, to touch a dog that has been touched by a Dalit. They are relegated to jobs such as manual scavenging—that is, clearing out human excreta by hand from dry latrines.

The psychological effects of that, together with the economic and political implications, are not difficult to imagine. As Christian Solidarity Worldwide has put it, the impact of the caste system on the Dalits is,

“connected with almost all human rights concerns in India”.

One issue with which another organisation, the Dalit Freedom Network, is particularly concerned is the trafficking of Dalits, whose marginal and vulnerable position in society makes them the main victims of all forms of trafficking, leading to bonded labour, sex trafficking and ritualised prostitution. As we know, women and, in particular, children are especially at risk in these areas.

The Dalit issue raises one very fundamental aspect of human rights—the role of the wider society in economic, civic and social aspects. Human rights, when first formulated after World War II, were primarily concerned to protect the rights of the individual against the state, and that remains fundamental, as we have heard on many occasions this morning. However, the position of the Dalits highlights that society as a whole has a role and a responsibility in ensuring that basic human rights are recognised. For example, British foreign aid to India does, I understand, recognise the oppressed position of the Dalits and ensures that aid is significantly directed towards bettering their position, but what about the employment practices of DfID offices, embassies and other government agencies working in India and other parts of the world? Do they make provision for the employment of a fair percentage of Dalit personnel? Do they monitor their employment practices with a view to that end? I should particularly like to pose that question to the Minister. Then there are the employment practices of British companies working in that part of the world.

Finally, when it comes to this country, some of us were greatly surprised and shocked to learn that discrimination against Dalits had travelled here with the Asian diaspora. That is why we sought to put a clause in the Equality Bill which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of caste. In the event, the Government decided to introduce an order-making power, pending evidence of discrimination in the areas of employment, education and the provision of goods and services. I know for a fact that there is such discrimination, but we are still awaiting a report commissioned by the Government on this issue. Again, I look to the Minister to see when that report is going to be produced.

The position of the Dalits is a scandal in the modern world. It is one that needs to be addressed in different ways by all elements in society—by the Government, of course, but also by companies, civic leaders and religious leaders.

1.11 pm

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, this is an important moment in the development of what the Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend William Hague, has termed “foreign policy with a conscience”. I pay tribute to noble Lords, Members of another place, the Diplomatic Service, NGOs and all women and men who are working tirelessly and with deep commitment to advance human rights in remote corners of the earth, and who keep human rights abuses on the agenda of Her Majesty’s Government. In this respect, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on her maiden speech and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on his dedication and passion in standing up for the oppressed and dispossessed. I, too, am full of admiration for the noble Lord, and I thank him for giving us the opportunity to debate these vital issues today. Lastly, I pay tribute to my party’s human rights commission on its excellent work.

For the purpose of this debate, I declare my interests as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, vice-chairman of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group and a trustee of UNICEF UK. I will focus my remarks on two areas in which I have a particular interest and where the plight of the people should make us all stop and think. They are the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gaza. These two places face very different conditions, but each tells a tale of the crushing of human spirit and the waste of human potential. Each requires immediate, collective and effective measures by the humanitarian community and major aid donors.

The situation of women in the DRC, which was recently described as the rape capital of the world, is dire. From the start of the war, Congolese women and young girls have been systematically targeted by all parties to the conflict. It is so bad that Vava Tampa, the founding director of Save the Congo, has said that every woman is a rape victim in waiting. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield stated so powerfully, the use of rape to punish, displace or destroy women and communities in times of conflict is well documented. However, what makes the raping of women and girls, and sometimes of men and baby boys, in the Congo most tragic is its blood-chilling scale, its effect on the social fabric of Congolese society, and the disastrous consequences for the Congo and the Great Lakes region for many years to come. I hope my noble friend the Minister can tell us what we are doing to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are put in place to end the growing culture of impunity that lies behind the cycle of atrocities in the Congo.

John Ging, a most inspirational man and director of operations in Gaza for the UN Relief and Works Agency, said recently:

“We have run out of words to describe how bad it is here”.

A month ago, I returned from a trip to Gaza. I was enormously moved by the plight of the people, and three things I saw have made a lasting impression. The first was a visit to the al-Shifa hospital, where vital medical equipment lies idle because of a lack of spare parts, and where we met patients denied permission to leave Gaza for life-saving treatment, often without any explanation given as to why that permission had been denied. I implore the Government to use all the diplomacy at their disposal to ensure that the medical needs of the people of Gaza are met.

The second visit to make a lasting impression was to an UNRWA food distribution centre where proud, well-educated men and women were queuing for their quarterly rations of food. Eighty per cent of the population of Gaza receives food aid, yet there has been no flood, no failure of crops and no earthquake, just a shutdown of the system that denies the people the chance to work because there are no jobs, and there are no jobs because they cannot import materials, they cannot manufacture goods and they cannot export. Nor can they travel to Israel any more to the jobs they used to enjoy. I have to tell your Lordships that I felt deep shame, and I pay tribute to the decency, good humour and enormous resilience of the Palestinian people, who wish to be good neighbours to Israel and who have so much to offer to the world.

Finally, I visited a human rights class in an UNRWA school in the Beach refugee camp. There, despite their circumstances, the 15 year-old girls were beautifully dressed. They were attentive, clever and articulate, and their grasp of human rights and the attendant responsibilities to people of all backgrounds and all religions or none would put most grown-ups in the western world to shame, and would have gladdened the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. At the end of the lesson I was asked by one of the girls whether I thought they had a future to look forward to. I hope I was right when I said yes.

1.17 pm

Lord Luce: My Lords, I, too, have great admiration for my noble friend Lord Alton for the way in which he most vigorously, consistently and courageously pursues human rights issues in the world. We owe him a lot for that. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hollins on her excellent maiden speech and for the distinctive role that she clearly has to play in this House. We also owe gratitude to my noble friend Lord Alton for the fact that so much attention has been drawn to the Conservative Party today for its work on human rights. As a result, I have read two of its commission’s documents, which were produced this year and which are of excellent quality and make a major contribution to the debate on human rights.

I wish to make three points, of which the last is the most distinctive. First, in dealing with human rights, we need to be pragmatic. We need to use our influence in whichever ways are the most sensible for each country. How we deal with Russia, China, Burma, Zimbabwe—or indeed Sri Lanka, which we have heard about this afternoon— must vary according to our level of influence, our interests and our general relationship. We can pursue these issues bilaterally or multilaterally. As an example of the latter, I cite the Commonwealth as one of the best because we are all committed as members of it to respect for human rights, democracy, a free press and the rule of law. There is also a practical way of moving things forward through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which intervenes when there is evidence of serious abuses in Commonwealth countries.

Secondly, we need to be concerned about how we exert our influence on human rights. I am glad to say that this has not happened in today’s debate, but very often we still have from a lot of people, although not from this House, a rather patronising and lecturing approach towards other countries. That is something that we really must do away with once and for all. The Empire ended a long time ago, and we need a continuous dialogue with other countries about how and why we see respect for human rights as the best way to move to a more civilised way of life.

My third point is about making sure that our own house is in order when we talk about human rights in other countries. Whether we are dealing with the management of democracy or the rights of the individual, we cannot really stand up and talk to other people about these issues unless we are credible at home. I shall highlight that with one illustration only, which is the way in which we have treated one small group of people in the Indian Ocean. The Chagossians were expelled from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s by the then Labour Government. To my mind, that was a gross injustice. While it was perfectly reasonable to set up a naval base for the United States in Diego Garcia, that should not have been at the expense of those islanders, who were dispatched to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Now, surprisingly, many of them are living nearby in Crawley. No Government since, including the one of which I was a member, have rectified this injustice.

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

“No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”.

There have been endless court cases and judgments in the past few years on the question of the Chagossians and I will not weary the House with the details. At the moment, the Chagossians are appealing to the European Court of Human Rights for their right of return to be restored. There are many related issues. There is now a marine protection area in the Indian Ocean around the islands. I strongly support that—it is an excellent idea—but it should not be at the expense of the Chagossians playing a part and having jobs relating to those environmental issues.

Like others, I have no doubt that the Foreign Secretary is strongly committed to human rights. When he was in opposition, he called for a fair and just settlement to this issue. In September this year, in setting up the advisory body to identify human rights abuses, he said:

“we will not apply double standards … where problems have arisen that have affected the UK’s … standing we will deal with them patiently and clearly”.

My appeal to the Government is to work out—over the next four or five years, not in the immediate future—a strategy to find a solution to this. That must be done in conjunction with Mauritius, as we have agreed that Mauritius has the right to restore its sovereignty over that territory once it is no longer needed for military purposes. I am not expecting the Minister to give a response today and I very much respect the fact that the Government are trying to find a way forward. We need to look at this in a longer-term way.

The 1966 exchange of letters between Britain and the United States led to the present arrangements, which are due to be reviewed by 2014, prior to the renewal of the exchange of letters for another 20 years after 2016. This seems to be the opportunity for the British Government to work out a strategy and find a way to do justice to these people, who have been extremely badly treated. It will involve working out with the Mauritians some compromise proposals for the outer isles, which are well away from Diego Garcia and where problems of security can be overcome in discussion with the United States. In terms of the economy, we need to work out how we can deal with the resettlement of the probably not many people who want to live and work in the area. Prime Minister Ramgoolam of Mauritius told me this summer that he looks forward to working constructively with the British Government for a fair solution. I appeal to the Minister and his colleagues to look at this seriously in the lead-up to the review of the exchange of letters and to find an answer that will do justice to these people and enable us as a nation to hold our head just a little higher when we are talking with other countries about human rights.

1.24 pm

Lord Bates: I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for giving us the opportunity for this debate. He is a rare champion for human rights, on which he has been consistent and persistent. In the role that he performs in this House, he is remarkably similar to Gary Streeter, my honourable friend in another place, who was the first chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission, set up in 2005 by William Hague. He, too, speaks up on these matters and has been a quiet and persistent voice representing the conscience of the Conservative Party and Parliament more widely. The commission’s work is to be approved and built on.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, it is no surprise that the Foreign Secretary should, as William Wilberforce’s biographer, find inspiration in Wilberforce—I know that my right honourable friend was moved by researching his life. My right honourable friend had the vision to ask what Britain can do that is similarly ambitious. He arrived at the area of human rights, about which he feels deeply passionate. When we as parliamentarians talk about the effect of Wilberforce, I am always mindful of the story that, although after many attempts he got the abolition of slavery through this House, it required policing by the Royal Navy to uphold the legislation. I think I am right in saying that that is still the most costly campaign that the Royal Navy has ever undertaken. Upholding the law is critical to our declarations of human rights, which are otherwise mere aspiration—there is no rigour to them.

It was not by accident, perhaps, that the Foreign Secretary should choose Lincoln’s Inn as the place in which to espouse his vision of a new impetus in the push for human rights. He said:

“The law is central to our values and is also the product of the same steady process of accumulation. The principles of due process and of no punishment without the law are both found in Magna Carta. The law is the ultimate guarantor of the rights of individuals”.

That is a powerful point. We need a degree of humility here. If we want to espouse human rights, we also have to be prepared to subjugate ourselves to the law, particularly the international law set up and articulated in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. We have to say that we are subject to that law. We have to behave accordingly and respect those institutions. If not, you end up with a kind of Melian dialogue in which, as has been said, the great powers do as they will and the weak suffer as they must. That is no fair world, whatever the aspirations. We all have to be subject to the law. Following the law and institutions is critical in this.

I illustrate that by talking about an opportunity that is coming up, although it may seem tangential to this debate. I have been rattling on—without a great deal of support from my own side, it has to be said—about the campaign for the Olympic Truce. Why do I mention the Olympic Truce? I do so because it is backed by a United Nations resolution, which says that during the period of the Olympic Games, in London in 2012, all member states will take initiatives to pursue peace and reconciliation. The resolution is signed by all 193 member states, but there is no record of any Government or signatory taking any initiative for peace and reconciliation during any Olympic Games.

I know that there is a technical argument about General Assembly resolutions and Chapter VII United Nations Security Council resolutions but, be that as it may, my view is that the United Nations is our only hope for a rules-based international system. Therefore, we should take it seriously. When this Government, as the Government of the host nation, propose the resolution to the United Nations that we will pursue initiatives for peace and reconciliation, it behoves us to take that seriously. When we start taking seriously what we say in such fora, the message goes out and adds weight to the other excellent things that we are doing in the field of human rights and about which we have been talking.

1.29 pm

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I shall briefly pursue two themes in the short time that we have available to us in this debate. The first relates to North Korea. My noble friend Lord Alton of Liverpool called for a new peace conference to be jointly convened by Switzerland and Britain and held in Beijing to enable North and South Korea to conclude a formal peace treaty on the precedent of the Helsinki process. Having attended the Helsinki conference in 1976, I am as aware as anyone—although perhaps we were not all fully aware at the time—of the extent to which that conference was to lead to the collapse of the totalitarian system in the Soviet empire, ending much of the violation of human rights that went with those systems. My noble friend’s proposal is one that deserves serious and urgent consideration and support.

My second theme is to draw attention once again, as I have so often in this House, to the appalling abuse of the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza, in the occupied West Bank and in east Jerusalem. I submit that this is, in some ways, even more shocking than many of the human rights abuses to which noble Lords have drawn attention in this debate, since they are violations committed by the Government of a self-proclaimed democracy who pride themselves on the rule of law, and who should be ashamed, as many of their citizens and supporters are, to have their human rights record bracketed with the monstrous regime of North Korea. Leaving aside the illegality of the growing settlements in the West Bank, and the increasing violation of human rights to which various independent reports have drawn attention during the past year, there is continuing destruction of olive groves and other means of Palestinian livelihood in the West Bank, and the destruction and blockade of roads that enable West Bank Palestinians to move from the West Bank to Jerusalem. Then there is the treatment of children in Israeli military courts, the eviction of Palestinians and the demolition of their homes in East Jerusalem and the extension of the wall, which blocks access for Palestinians to their homes, to medical care, to their place of work and, often, to their schools, thereby depriving them of their right to education, to which the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, referred so eloquently. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government continue not only to protest to the Government of Mr Netanyahu about these violations, but will also join our European partners in drawing them to the attention of our American friends.

Only the United States Government have unique potential influence on the Israelis to stop these abuses, which represent a serious, and probably fatal, block on any progress towards a two-state settlement of this long-running dispute. Since this debate falls only a few days after the opening of the new European Delegation Office in Washington, I hope that this provides an opportunity for our embassy in Washington to work even more closely with our European partners to persuade the United States Administration to recognise that Israeli violation of human rights risks destroying any hope of achieving a situation whereby Israel and her Palestinian neighbour can live together in peace and mutual respect.

1.33 pm

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate today and attracting such a very impressive list of speakers. I offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on her maiden speech. It was a remarkably powerful and memorable maiden speech. She will be an enormous asset to this House.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment in his speech of 15 September at Lincoln’s Inn, when he said:

“There will be no downgrading of human rights under this government”.

I welcome his important acknowledgment that:

“Where human rights abuses go unchecked our security suffers”.

But I was sorry that he decided to repeat and misquote the speech by my late right honourable friend Robin Cook in 1997. In that speech, my late right honourable friend made points that were very similar to those made by the Foreign Secretary some 13 years later. He said:

“Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves”.

An ethical dimension to foreign policy is really not so very different from—as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, acknowledged, and as the Foreign Secretary says—foreign policy with a conscience.

I go to a point from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and her contention about the report in today’s Guardian concerning the story of cluster bombs on UK territory. It is inaccurate—and I think that examination of the leaked document itself shows that it is an inaccurate report.

Most of us have an inherent sense of what human beings are entitled to in terms of certain protections and freedoms. Clearly, our support for democracy and the freedom of expression that is an inalienable part of the democratic process is one of the bedrock principles. Whether it is the brutal suppression of protesters in Iran after the elections this year, the murder of human rights workers in Russia, the attacks on brave women who assert their rights on the streets of Sudan or Afghanistan, or the abuse of the rights of gay people in some African countries, we acknowledge that we have a duty to help and defend those who ask only for what we enjoy ourselves every day in this country.

On this side of the House we recognise the practical implications of such a position. For example, there is Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which supports such efforts in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, Uganda, Mozambique, Kenya and many other countries. Can the Minister explain why the foundation’s funding is to be cut by the coalition and how such a cut is comparable with the Foreign Secretary’s right-minded pledge to improve and strengthen the FCO’s work on human rights?

Noble Lords, in covering the ground that they have covered very ably today, have often gone into the details of human rights abuses themselves, notably the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his masterly overview in his opening remarks, as well as from the noble Lords, Lord Avebury, Lord Sacks, Lord Trimble, and many others. Like the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Luce, I found the papers from the Conservative commission very interesting and agreed with much that it recommended. But in looking for how its proposals fit in with the Government’s plans for the coming year, I was concerned about the practical steps that the Government might be able to take to bring them into effect. Debates and speeches, however well intentioned, have to be matched by policy in action. When we have the high principles that we espouse, we have to know how the Government intend to take that forward.

I shall concentrate in my remaining time on the mechanisms which we have that the Government might deploy in relation to human rights. Like the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer and Lady Morris of Bolton, I applaud much of the work done on human rights for women. The commission’s work on women’s human rights is in many ways admirable. Indeed, the annual report from the FCO on human rights sets out a comprehensive view on what has been done and what remains to be done. Can the Minister confirm that there are no plans to stop the work in producing this annual report each year, as it is such a very important and valuable guide to what is happening around the world?

Unfortunately, the only places where I could find any indication in the Government’s business plan on what was going to happen with human rights was in relation specifically to the Commonwealth and the Eminent Persons Group, in the section on so-called soft power. Indeed, I think that it was the fifth point of the fifth item of the fifth priority. That point made the assertion that the work has actually started. Can the Minister tell us what has been achieved so far?

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested, I turn to the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission report’s recommendations on how the Foreign Office should take matters forward. As the noble Lord said, an important recommendation is that of the appointment of a Minister for human rights within the FCO, who would be a sort of director with an overseeing role along with a group of human rights ambassadors. Surely such a Minister should also have a role in DfID and the MoD and, indeed, in UK Trade & Investment. As the noble Lord pointed out, trade can often make an uneasy bedfellow when considering human rights issues. Do the Government plan to create such a post? If so, when is that likely to happen?

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield raised an enormously important point about the responsibility to protect. I think that we can all agree that, when human rights abuses culminate in violence, peacemaking should be done, wherever possible, through dialogue, through peace treaties and through peace negotiations, as the report suggests. However, that point is axiomatic—in a sense, it is a very easy point to make—but what happens when we find that we are unable to act through the United Nations? What is a Government’s responsibility to protect in those circumstances, when such endeavours are blocked—as, for example, over Kosovo—by a clear and potentially catastrophic failure to reach agreement in the UN? Frankly, the Conservative commission sidesteps what we all know is the crucial question—which the coalition Government may have to answer—which is whether we should intervene to halt or avert human rights abuses when there is no agreement at the United Nations.

As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, mentioned, the report also makes recommendations on how the FCO should deal with the UN Human Rights Council meetings next year. That is an important issue, so I was glad that the noble Lord concentrated on it. Frankly, I agree with a great deal of the report’s recommendations on that, including on the universal periodic review, membership elections, bloc party politics, agenda setting and the way in which some allegations against Israel are dealt with. However, I find it hard to believe that any Government will be able to act on the recommendations in the near future.

Indeed, where I think that the report falls down is in its possibly laudable but quite unrealistic notion about taking politics out of the UN. Culturally, we are years away from doing that, even if it were desirable for human rights priorities. As yet, we are not at that ideal position. It is almost as if the Conservative commission’s members spoke only to academics and experts like themselves. I do not know whether the commission members have been to the West Bank or Gaza, as the noble Lady, Baroness Morris, has. I do not know whether the commission members have witnessed the visceral fury of the Palestinians at what they perceive—and which many agree—to be the systematic undermining of their human rights. I do not know whether the commission members have had direct contact with North Korea or engaged in discussions with Chinese officials about the pressure that could be exerted on that country. It is simply unrealistic to expect to be able to take politics out of human rights discussions at this stage in international relations.

Over the years, I have travelled and talked about human rights in many different parts of the world. I have talked in the US about capital punishment and the evidence of its use in that country on people of very restricted intellectual ability, including the pathetic case of a man who was saving the ice cream from his last meal until after he came back from the execution chamber. I have discussed prison conditions in Japan and women’s rights in the Arab world. However, all Governments—elected or unelected—react strongly and with great hostility to public criticism, whereas they can often be persuaded to shift their position through private persuasion. Progress is achieved not by the protocols and the mandatory measures that the commission advocates but by persuasive discussion in private and with honesty that returns to the same issue over and over again. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, was entirely right that we must be practical and choose the right route for each country.

My Lords, I will end on that note.

1.44 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, first, not only should we congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on initiating this fascinating and enormously wide-ranging debate but we can see that the House owes him a lot for his persistent work and the marvellous and tireless way in which he brings to the attention of your Lordships, and to the public, the worldwide problems of the human rights abuses that confront us today. Indeed, I notice that my brief refers to no fewer than 38 countries where there is immediate concern that human rights abuse is prevalent. Of course, if I tried to cover all of those, I would take far longer than the time available.

Secondly, I want to congratulate most warmly the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on her very instructive and interesting maiden speech on children’s rights and on their harrowing experiences in Romania, which we have read about but she has seen at first hand. Given her expertise in the field of children’s disabilities and the challenges that they face—which we must help them to overcome—we obviously hope to hear much more from her on those issues.

Thirdly, with the kind understanding of the Opposition, I undertook to say a word about a particular tragedy of human rights relating to a life denied—there could be no clearer abuse of human rights than that—on which my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made a Statement in the other place this morning. It concerned the investigation into the death of the British aid worker Linda Norgrove, who died during a US-led rescue operation on the night of 8 October. In fact, Her Majesty’s coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon is legally responsible for determining the cause of death, so any comment by my right honourable friend—or, indeed, by me—today must not in any way prejudice the course of those inquiries. However, let me just briefly share with your Lordships what has emerged.

On 8 October, a rescue attempt was launched by US forces after intensive efforts to locate Linda Norgrove. The soldiers came under attack as soon as they left their helicopter. A grenade was thrown by a member of the rescue team who feared for his own life and for those of his team. When the grenade was thrown, no member of the team had seen or heard Linda Norgrove; she was found by the soldiers later. The provisional post-mortem results conclude that Linda Norgrove died as a result of penetrating fragmentation injuries to the head and chest. After the investigation, it is clear that those injuries were caused by the grenade. The rescue attempt was an incredibly difficult operation that was carried out with the utmost courage by US elite forces, to whom we are very grateful. Either way, Linda Norgrove’s death was a terrible tragedy. Her parents have paid tribute to her inspiring devotion to the people of Afghanistan and to her love for the country, and have set up a foundation in their daughter’s name to fund projects that support education and health for Afghan women and children.

I am sure that noble Lords will want to join me not only in paying tribute to all those working to support the people of Afghanistan in extremely difficult circumstances, but in sending deep condolences to Linda Norgrove’s family as they come to terms with their irreparable loss. Her death is an example of the high price paid by brave people, particularly those who seek to uphold human rights and bring freedom around the world.

Turning to the debate, which has been of an excellent quality and very educative due to the experienced speeches that have been made, I acknowledge that the theme of the debate has been built around the Conservative Human Rights Commission report, which has recommended a number of measures to strengthen the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s institutional capability to address human rights. As that has been the central theme, that is what I will speak on mostly, although I will also seek to address a number of other issues raised by noble Lords.

In response, I want to reaffirm the Government’s view that human rights are essential to, and indivisible from, the UK’s foreign policy priorities, just as the Foreign Secretary said very clearly in his speech of 15 September, to which several noble Lords have referred. I can report that a number of the Conservative Party human rights commission’s institutional recommendations have indeed been taken up, which is what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly asked about. In particular, I refer to the Foreign Secretary’s decision that there should be an annual Foreign and Commonwealth Office Command Paper on human rights along with strengthened lines of reporting. That is the first issue that I was asked about. We have changed the annual report a bit, as it will now be published as a Command Paper—possibly, it will be a rather bigger and glossier document—and will come forward in that form. Also, and even more significantly, we have established the Foreign Secretary’s advisory group, which is holding its very first meeting this afternoon; indeed, it may be taking place while we talk.

Those are two areas in which we have taken up what the commission rightly suggested. There is in general an excellent story to tell about the way in which we have adopted the organisational approaches put forward in the commission’s proposals. We have not translated its proposals in every degree, but we have followed the pattern; for example, freedom of religion will be discussed by the Foreign Secretary’s advisory group rather than by the lower-level freedom of religion panel that existed under the previous Government. Reporting of religious freedom violations, to which several noble Lords alluded, will be covered appropriately in the new arrangements for human rights reporting. The Foreign Secretary and Foreign and Commonwealth Ministers, including me, champion human rights, which are mainstreamed throughout the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s work. An approach which integrates human rights across FCO priorities both in London and overseas is an effective way of focusing attention on the human rights aspects. That is an important point to make because there have been a number of suggestions that a Minister should somehow take charge of the whole issue. My experience in government—which has been patchy, and others may have more—is that if you assign a particular issue to a particular Minister, it does not necessarily enhance the issue. On the contrary, it can mean that it is put aside from all the concerns of other Ministers and departments and gets buried. We are dealing with human rights, which come into almost every aspect of government. They should be the concern of every Minister, not just of those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That is why we are not so keen on one of the commission’s ideas for ministerial commitment in the way that is described by some noble Lords. The same goes for ambassadors and special envoys. They are some people who do good work, but their efforts can get lost if we do not ensure that the human rights commitment is embedded in the work of all of government and all Ministers at all times.

I turn to the many fascinating issues that have been raised by noble Lords today. I shall not be able to cover everything. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, in a tremendous and magisterial speech which I cannot possibly emulate, raised his unease as to whether we were putting commercial trade before human rights concerns in Sudan. No, we are not; there is no question of that. Human rights issues have been raised again and again by Ministers, including my honourable friend Mr Bellingham when he was in Sudan the other day, and we will continue to press these matters extremely hard.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, talked interestingly of persecution of converts and apostasy. He raised the case of Musa Sayed, who is accused of Christian conversion. We are aware of this and are monitoring developments. We continue to remind the Afghan Government of their duty to abide by their national and international commitments on freedom of religion and beliefs. The noble Lord was quite right to raise that case; it is very much in our minds.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, spoke about a range of issues, in particular the persecution of the Baha’is, which has concerned me personally for many years. One has always been appalled at reports of endless persecution and worse of the Baha’i community. We have repeatedly expressed our concern at the shocking sentences of the seven Baha’i leaders in Iran to 20 years’ imprisonment. The Foreign Secretary said on 11 August that we find these sentences entirely unacceptable, and that we see them as a despicable attack on the Baha’i faith by the Iranian state.

The noble Lord spoke also about the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan. I am advised that my honourable friend Alistair Burt has spoken regularly on this subject to the Pakistan Minister for Minorities. He has also met the leadership of the Ahmadiyya community in the UK and outlined the UK’s concerns at ongoing discrimination in a debate in which he took part on 20 October.

The Dalits were raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries—the former Bishop of Oxford—and others. We are obviously concerned by reports of discrimination against Dalits and other minority communities in India. We discuss these issues with the state-level authorities, drawing their attention to British parliamentary and public concern. Those discussions will continue. In addition, minority rights, including those of Dalits, are among the issues raised via the EU-India human rights dialogue. There are many more things that we also do on this front, but I do not have time to enumerate them now. I think that I have demonstrated that we have this matter very much in our sights.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield turned to the sickening and horrific accounts of rape and torture in the Congo, as did my noble friend Lady Morris. One can only say that we continue trying to bring these things to a halt and to draw them to the attention of the world, so that these horrors somehow be contained. It is an unrewarding task, but we should never rest on it for one moment.

My noble friend Lady Miller talked about women’s rights. We support and fund projects run by Peace Brigades International. This is a central issue in our human rights work, as again my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear.

My noble friend Lord Trimble spoke about the undoubted weaknesses that we have seen in the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council. I am advised that there has been some improvement recently, but we shall want to keep pressing on this matter because it is clear that there were considerable weaknesses in the past and a failure to tackle the most glaring examples of human rights abuse.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, spoke with the great authority that he has gained from his experience. He mentioned Sri Lanka. We have raised, and continue to raise, our concerns with the Sri Lankans about the situation there. I do not want to elaborate on it now, but it is very unsatisfactory. I myself have had talks with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister recently and have not minced my words.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, mentioned cluster munitions. I joined with the previous Government—I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, was also involved—in getting rid of cluster munitions; we have done our work. This is an example of how the WikiLeaks are both going back into the past and, on the whole, covering a lot of irresponsible trivia. The whole exercise should be condemned, not only for the danger that it causes but also for the triviality which it injects into public debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Luce, kindly warned me that he would raise again the difficult question of the Chagos Islands. We continue to engage with the issues seriously. I cannot, at this stage, in the time available, go into all the aspects, but it is very much in our minds. Our policy continues as before, but our attitude to it and our determination to find ways forward is reinforced.

My noble friend Lady Morris and the noble Lord, Lord Wright, raised the very unsatisfactory situation in Gaza, where pressures must obviously be lifted to enable the abuse of human rights that goes on there to be eased. We are pressing the Government of Israel on that point all the time. I do not think that that benefits the Government of Israel. We want to see Israel and its existence secured as a nation, but that is not to be done by the path of the restrictions on Gaza that we have seen recently.

The shadow of North Korea came into our debates. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has reminded us again and again of the atrocities and abuses there, and has sought a commission. On the whole, we believe that the first task is to get the six-party talks going. Some interesting comments have come out of Beijing recently on its attitude to both the six-party talks and the whole future of the Korean peninsula. It may be that there just a chink of light is coming in an area which is otherwise very dark and worrying.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has committed the Government to improving and strengthening the UK’s human rights work, and has made clear that human rights will be woven deeply into our foreign policy decision-making at every stage. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, mentioned the Commonwealth. We see it as a valuable network to help to carry forward our human rights policy. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, asked about the current programme of Commonwealth reform. The current programme is led by the Eminent Persons Group. Our hope is that it will reinforce the potential of the Commonwealth in upholding core values. That is my personal hope, and I have great confidence that progress will be made.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have described a policy of practical promotion of human rights, where we work with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, as being the right way forward. They argue for adapting our approach for each context while pursuing our goals with determination.

There is no one model for promoting human rights in our foreign policy. Each context will demand a different approach. Promotion of human rights implies making robust commitments to the realisation of economic as well as social and political rights— including the rights of women, which are vital and central—and those of minorities and disabled people. It means commitment to enhancing the role of opposition political parties—always difficult for some countries to understand. It means commitment to devolving power to local and regional government, promoting substantive gender equity, addressing the rising tide of religious intolerance, championing efforts to democratise international institutions, and providing effective avenues to enhance the participation of youth. Those are the requirements.

I repeat that, in addressing those requirements, the Government will be guided by four themes. The first is dealing patiently and clearly with the problems that have arisen and that have affected the UK’s moral standing. The second is being candid—without hectoring—with countries that do not fully share our values or are violating their human rights obligations. The third is powerfully advocating British values, such as democracy, tolerance, and the upholding of human rights and the national responsibilities which go with them. The fourth is strengthening the rules-based international system.

I end by again thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for enabling us to express those sentiments and to have this debate. It has been a good debate and, I hope, has carried forward the ideas and values to which we all adhere.

2.04 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, anyone who doubts the purpose or point of your Lordships’ House would be well recommended to read the Hansard of today’s debate. There have been many thoughtful, powerful and insightful speeches made by noble Lords from all sides of the House. I thank everyone who has contributed, but particularly my noble friend Lady Hollins for her maiden speech today, which reminded us of the importance of not overlooking the human rights of people who are less advantaged than us—people with learning disabilities. I thank the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford—for the comprehensive way in which he dealt with what was inevitably a panoramic and wide-ranging debate.

I close the debate with just two quotations. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stated:

“While human rights are not the only consideration in forming a nation’s foreign policy, if we allow human rights to suffer while we pursue our legitimate national interest, we will in the long term have failed”.

He wrote those words in the foreword to the annual report of the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission in 2007. It is a high bar—a good bar against which to be judged. In conclusion, I give the last word to Aung San Suu Kyi, who said, “Please use your liberty to promote ours”. That is precisely what we have done in your Lordships’ House today. I beg leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion withdrawn.