On November 22nd 2013 the House of Lords debated the following Motion on Human Rights Violations. The link takes you to the recording of the parliamentary debate and the text of the debate appears below.
Video of the debate can be found here: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14207 – the Human Rights debate follows the Questions. Scroll ahead to 11.38.
Meeting at the House of Lords with Mr.Justice Michael Kirby’s Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Abuses in North Korea.
Motion to Take Note
Lord Alton of Liverpool
That this House takes note of Her Majesty’s Government’s policy towards countries responsible for violations of human rights.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, in just under three weeks’ time, we will mark the 65th anniversary of the adoption of a declaration which asserted 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”.
It is as much a declaration of human dignity as a declaration of human rights. I hope that those words and the declaration’s 30 articles will serve as the architecture for today’s debate. These rights are universal and not available for selective enforcement according to culture, tradition or convenience.
Every year, the Foreign Office publishes a comprehensive report on human rights violations. It clearly should be followed by an annual debate in both Houses, the appetite for which is underlined by the distinguished list of speakers who will contribute today, albeit in speeches far too constrained by time limits. We eagerly await four maiden speeches: those of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, whose grandfather, Dr Alfred Wiener, dedicated much of his life to documenting anti-Semitism and racism in Germany, and whose first wife, Margarethe, died shortly after being released from Bergen-Belsen.
It was in the aftermath of those horrific events that the 1948 declaration was promulgated, the United Nations established, and the Nuremberg trials commenced. During today’s debate, I hope that we will reflect on whether the Security Council, the General Assembly, the United Nations Human Rights Council, which replaced the discredited Commission on Human Rights in 2006, and the International Criminal Court, established by the Rome Statute in 2002, have been effective guarantors of the high ideals of that declaration.
It is just 10 days since China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Cuba and Vietnam were all elected to the Human Rights Council despite concerns about their own human rights records and their decision to exclude United Nations monitors from their jurisdictions. Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations General-Secretary, has said:
“All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action”.
But will they be able to do so with any certainty in the future? I shall be interested to hear whether the noble Baroness believes that international bodies charged with upholding human rights should be wholly independent of national governments who violate them.
China, in particular, has huge diplomatic, political, economic and military influence, and its attitude will determine the shape of global attitudes to human rights. Through the Opium Wars to the Rape of Nanking and the horrors of Mao Zedong, China has itself suffered gross human rights violations. The protection and promotion of human rights should not only be seen as a moral cause, but it can never be in a nation’s self-interest to see universal freedoms and values trampled upon.
In today’s debate, we will hear about the situation in many countries and we will hear many themes, from female genital mutilation and the use of rape as a weapon of war to the killing of human rights monitors—in Colombia 37 have been murdered already this year—from human trafficking and repression arising from sexual orientation to the caste system, which inflicts such misery on Dalit people. Sometimes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is seen as an à la carte menu from which we may pick and choose. But these rights stand together. None should be emasculated; they are there for a reason.
Let me give one example. In a report by Members of your Lordships’ House, Article 18 was dubbed an “orphaned right”. Sidelining a right which upholds the right to belief, or indeed the right not to believe, is a serious error and the failure to uphold this orphaned right is leading to appalling consequences. As the noble Baroness the Minister rightly warned at Georgetown University last week, there is a need to “build political will” and to actively uphold the Human Rights Council resolutions on the treatment of minorities and tolerance towards other faiths. She said that in large parts of the world Christians “face extinction” and that senior politicians in countries like Pakistan have a “duty” to denounce persecution and to set a standard for tolerance. The noble Baroness is right and she is to be commended for leading by her own formidable example.
There are growing restrictions on freedom of conscience that range from the suffering of the Ahmadiyya Muslim communities in Pakistan and Indonesia to the plight of the Baha’is in Iran and Egypt; from the Rohingyas and other Muslims in Burma to Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in China, and of course Christians in these countries as well as in countries as diverse as Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, India, Eritrea and Cuba. But I stress that it is not only people of religion who suffer from violations of Article 18. In Indonesia a young man, Alexander Aan, has been jailed because he declared himself an atheist. For that, he is serving a two and a half year sentence in a remote prison in west Sumatra. Whatever our beliefs, the defence of Article 18 is therefore something which all of us should champion.
Among the organisations mandated to defend human rights that needs urgently to be strengthened is the International Criminal Court. It is mandated to prosecute individuals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, but it has been wholly inadequate in its mechanisms of enforcement. Let us take the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. Last week I met Dr. Kasereka Jo Lusi, a remarkable surgeon who works in Goma in eastern Congo. He told me that an average of 48 women are raped every single hour in the DRC. Twenty different militias carry out these horrors with impunity. Why is no one brought to justice and what can we do to promote a paradigm shift in attitudes and beliefs towards women and girls? In confronting impunity, why is it that Joseph Kony, who created the LRA killing machine responsible for terrible atrocities and indicted by the ICC, has not been brought to justice? Why does the indicted Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, remain at large? Bashir has been hosted by signatories of the Rome Statute, which stipulates that they have a duty to co-operate with arrest warrants. What have we done to seek compliance?
Within the past month, I have made speeches in this House about Egypt and Sudan. Can the Minister give us her latest assessment of the continued aerial bombardment of civilian populations in Darfur and the Nuba mountains? There is also the plight of Copts. We saw the murder of two little girls at a recent Coptic wedding and the orgy of violence which I have described as Egypt’s Kristallnacht.
In May, I raised human rights abuses in Pakistan. If the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Cabinet Minister, who was well known to the Minister and who was charged with upholding the rights of minorities, remains unsolved, what faith can ordinary citizens have in the justice system? Why should potential attackers fear the law? What progress is being made in bringing his murderers to justice?
Last week, the Minister replied to my Written Question about the discovery of two mass graves in Sadad, in Syria. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch issued a new report on the 45 people killed there by the Islamist militias of al-Nusra Front and Daash. Are we any closer to verifying those accounts or to bringing to justice those who have used chemical weapons and those responsible for the daily violations of human rights using conventional weapons?
On Tuesday, I visited the protesters who, for 10 weeks, have been on hunger strike outside the American embassy in London, protesting about the massacre of Iranian democracy activists shot at close range at Camp Liberty in Iraq in September and who are highlighting the execution of 120,000 political prisoners, including women, in Iran since 1979. I hope the Minister will respond to the account of Tahar Boumedra, the former head of UNAMI, about the massacre in Camp Liberty, which my noble friend Lady Boothroyd, the noble Lords, Lord Carlile and Lord Waddington, I and others sent to William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday. Can she tell us when we last raised these issues with Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq? How did human rights violations figure in this month’s decision to upgrade our diplomatic relations with Iran?
As the Prime Minister discovered last week at CHOGM in Colombo, the judgments we make about when and how to engage on human rights questions can derail delicate relationships and even threaten the cohesion of admirable organisations such as the Commonwealth. What balance do we strike as we consider the complex questions of engagement?
I will conclude with the example of North Korea, which, with 2-300,000 people in its gulags and egregious violation of human rights, is sui generis—in a class of its own. Almost all of the rights set out in the Universal Declaration are denied. Only yesterday, the United Nations General Assembly’s human rights committee unanimously adopted a resolution citing the “systematic, widespread and grave” human rights violations in North Korea, including torture, the death penalty for political and religious reasons, and the network of political prison camps.
I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which, at evidence-gathering sessions, has regularly heard from escapees. Earlier this year, I published some of those accounts and, last month, I gave evidence to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I have advocated the need for such an investigation for many years and pay tribute to Her Majesty’s Government and other Governments for working to secure its establishment. The inquiry has heard accounts of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, slave labour, rape, summary execution, forced abortion and medical experimentation. It has heard how three generations of a family can be dispatched to North Korea’s vast gulag system for such “crimes” as criticising the political leadership. It heard of a mother forced to drown her own baby in a bucket, of prisoners scavenging through excrement for morsels of food, of inmates forced to live on rodents, grasshoppers, lizards and grass, and of an inmate watching the public execution of his mother and brother. Mr Justice Kirby, the Supreme Court judge from Australia who chairs the commission of inquiry, said he wept on hearing many of these accounts.
I have visited North Korea four times, three times with my noble friend Lady Cox. On each occasion we have confronted the North Korean regime with its appalling human rights record. Precisely because of its isolation, I have long proposed a policy of constructive, but critical, engagement with North Korea, what I have termed, “Helsinki with a Korean face”, following the model of our approach to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in the Helsinki process—a robust stand on security and a critical stand on human rights but a willingness to put those issues on the table and talk face-to-face with the regime.
Only a week ago, the Times reported that the regime carried out 80 public executions in seven cities on one day—3 November—for alleged crimes of watching South Korean television dramas or owning Bibles. The Times said that they were allegedly tied to stakes, hooded and killed by machine gun. In the 1990s, 2 million people died of starvation in a country which puts its resources into a nuclear capability and one of the world’s largest standing armies. In January the Sunday Times reported that in two provinces, North Hwanghae and South Hwanghae, as many as 10,000 people had died of starvation and that the starving had resorted to cannibalism. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether we have raised these reports with the regime through our ambassador in Pyongyang, and describe our engagement with the United Nations commission of inquiry.
In March I had the opportunity to meet Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi in Burma. She famously said:
“Please use your liberty to promote ours”.
Perhaps that is the purpose of a debate such as this and of our being Members of your Lordships’ House. She told me that the BBC’s Burmese Service made a major contribution to the process of opening up Burma. There is much that can be learnt from this and applied to North Korea. Burma is an example of a country where the right combination of international pressure, the flow of information and critical engagement has led to progress.
More than 12%—one report says it is as high as 27%—of those who have escaped from North Korea say that they have heard broadcasts from outside the country. The BBC World Service should make broadcasts to the Korean peninsula a priority. This would help to break the information blockade in the north and promote democracy, human rights and the English language. A popular campaign has been launched by young South Koreans calling for this. To facilitate BBC broadcasts from Korean soil, changes to South Korean law would be necessary. Was that discussed with President Park during her recent state visit? The Government have expressed sympathy for the proposal. Are we taking the idea forward?
In confronting each of the challenges that I have described, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides us with a map and with a compass. I think that today’s debate will mirror the FCO’s six human rights priorities: women’s rights; torture prevention; abolition of the death penalty; freedom of religious belief; business and human rights; and freedom of expression on the internet. Many will doubtless concur with the Foreign Secretary’s view that human rights must be “at the heart” of British foreign policy.
We need to do far more to ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is less honoured in its breach, and I hope that today’s debate will demonstrate the determination of this free Parliament to insist on the centrality of the declaration to our approach to foreign affairs while also providing a voice for voiceless people. I beg to move.
Lord Selkirk of Douglas (Con):
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on a wide-ranging and comprehensive speech, as well as on raising this debate at a very relevant time. Abuse of human rights takes a great many different forms, but it is on the often savage hostility currently being shown towards religious minorities in many countries that I wish to concentrate.
It was alarming to hear from the Minister only last week that, given the available evidence, Christianity is now in danger of extinction in some nations of the Middle East, which were the very birthplace of the Christian faith. She said:
“There are huge advantages to having pluralistic societies”,
and went on,
“we all have an interest in making sure that Christian communities do continue to feel that they belong and are not persecuted in the places where this religion was born”.
Indeed, the loss of religious freedom has a profound effect on not just the political arrangements in a country but the cultural, social and economic situation that exists there. The right to religious freedom is one of the fundamental promises about human rights made to people in some of the great declarations and finest speeches proclaimed down the years.
On 5 March 1946, while visiting Westminster College in the small Missouri town of Fulton, Sir Winston Churchill famously observed that an iron curtain had descended across Europe. It was less than a year since the war had ended and, with President Truman at his side, Sir Winston said:
“We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man”.
Five years previously, in his State of the Union address, the United States President, Franklin Roosevelt, had spoken eloquently of the four great freedoms which must be fought for and upheld. He listed them as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. While composing the speech, the President let three of his advisers into the secret of the imperishable soundbite that he was about to deliver. The famous “four freedoms” paragraphs were not included until they had been dictated by the President one night in his White House study and taken down in longhand by his aides to be added to the fourth draft. He ended his speech by saying:
“Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them”.
These four freedoms were later enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the new world authority in 1948.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, Article 18 promises freedom of religious worship, and among those who voted in favour were Iran, Egypt and Syria. It is clear that when this freedom of worship is abused, the other freedoms singled out by President Roosevelt are in jeopardy, too. This is because fear grips communities where extremism and violence rule, and want stalks the lives of refugees fleeing from persecution.
Democratic Governments who believe in human rights upheld by the rule of law must have the presence of mind and the will to raise such matters wherever religious minorities are being hounded and abused, whether by Governments or by other religious groupings. I must ask the Minister to give an assurance that the Government will have the continuing will and boldness to raise such sensitive issues in the countries under criticism. After all, if the Prime Minister could give a lead in relentlessly pursuing such matters in Sri Lanka last week, surely it is not too much to ask that other Ministers continue to speak out whenever they are dealing with those Governments who commit intolerable abuses of human rights.
A deliberate attempt is being made to engage in religious cleansing in certain communities which are seeking to force into extinction Christianity and a number of other minority religions. If rational discussion fails to produce results, we should seriously consider withholding overseas aid or other forms of economic assistance to those countries until such time as they are prepared to conform to civilised norms. I can see great merit in the suggestion made in another place by my right honourable friend Tony Baldry that the Government should consider appointing a special envoy for freedom of religion and belief who, working with other UN and US emissaries, could co-ordinate the United Kingdom’s diplomatic efforts in this field and shine a relentless spotlight on abuses.
I end with the words of the former Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, quoting the eminent historian, Lord Acton. He said:
“The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities”.
Lord Parekh (Lab):
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on securing this debate and thank him for introducing it with such passion and wisdom. We are right to concentrate on the promotion of human rights rather than on the promotion of democracy, which has been in the air for quite some time. The rights are easy to identify and monitor, and there is greater international agreement on what rights are worth preserving and what rights are human rights. There is also greater international pressure for implementing those rights as opposed to the promotion of democracy, because democracy can mean many different things in many different contexts. Therefore, I particularly welcome our discussion of violation of human rights rather than violation of democratic norms.
It is also right to point out that we cannot deal with violations of human rights in the whole world; we have to be selective. In that context, it is important for us to concentrate on those countries with which we have close ties, and where we can make an impact. In that context I particularly thank the Prime Minister for the stand he took at CHOGM in Sri Lanka. He was right to go. I think that the Prime Minister of India was not right not to go. Our Prime Minister was right to visit Jaffna, commiserate with the Tamils, condemn the army operations which killed thousands of Tamils, demand an investigation into what actually happened during the war and afterwards, and meet the representatives of the Tamil group.
An equally sensible attitude is increasingly being taken with reference to Gujarat, the Indian state from which I come, where genocide took place in February 2002, when a large number of Muslims were killed with the complicity of the state. The American Government denied a visa to the Chief Minister but the British Government took a very sensible view and said nothing. Increasingly, the British Government began to recognise that we had no conclusive evidence that the Chief Minister had been directly and actively involved in what had gone on; after all, he had been in power for only four months. Nor did we ignore the fact that this sort of thing had happened in other parts of India, and therefore we could not single out one state alone. About 18 months ago, or perhaps a little less, the British Government asked the British high commissioner to India, Sir James Bevan, to visit Mr Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat. More recently, the Foreign Office Minister, Mr Hugo Swire, visited the place. In Kolkata recently, the Prime Minister said that he would be more than happy to meet any elected leader. This is not to exonerate the leader of his responsibility but simply to indicate that not talking to people is not the answer.
I wish to make three general points. First, as we cannot promote all kinds of human rights we obviously have to prioritise. Of the six priorities listed by the Government there is not much reference to the rights of trade unions, which in my view have played, and continue to play, an extremely important role. Business rights are fine but they are not supposed to include trade union rights. During the Arab spring, trade unions were the vehicle through which important radical change was achieved. Minority rights are also important. Generally, the standard definition of human rights concentrates on individual rights and tends to ignore minority rights.
Secondly, while we are right to condemn violations of human rights, we sometimes tend to ignore our own complicity in these violations. Large corporations based in our country sometimes engage in practices abroad that violate human rights or lead indirectly to violations of human rights. We ought to tighten up the monitoring of our corporations. Many violations take place during civil wars. We are sometimes complicit in instigating or tolerating civil wars in other countries, which can result in gross violations of human rights.
Thirdly, we tend to be selective about where we condemn violations of human rights and where we do not. Violations of human rights in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia are by and large ignored, whereas we tend to concentrate on them in countries such as China. This sometimes gives the impression that we are unprincipled and that we are using human rights discourse or issues to promote a particular political agenda. We need to ensure that we are principled when we condemn violations of human rights.
Baroness Northover (LD):
My Lords, I gently remind noble Lords that this is a time-limited debate. When the Clock hits five, speakers have had their five minutes. We want to ensure that we have enough time for our maiden speeches, the Minister’s winding-up speech and for the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to respond at the end.
Baroness Hollins (CB):
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on securing and introducing this important debate. It has been said that wartime rape is as old as war itself. Women’s lives and bodies have been unacknowledged casualties of war for too long, but now greater media awareness and reporting, probably in part because of the exceptional women journalists covering conflict, have brought wider knowledge of the extent to which rape is occurring. The consequences of rape are also better understood. Five years ago, a United Nations resolution described rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security.
Rape is used as a punishment for men as well as women, by forcing men to watch as their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters are raped. Victims of rape are left emotionally traumatised, physically damaged and at risk of potentially fatal sexually transmitted diseases. Rape humiliates, dominates, instils fear and disperses communities. The after-effects of rape are felt for generations, as women bear their rapists’ children, and face shame and revulsion. Surely it is time to draw a line, and time for the international community to take rape as seriously as it does the use of other weapons. As my noble friend mentioned, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the Congo. Reports of rape have also emerged from the current conflict in Syria. When will women’s human rights be recognised and acted upon?
Rape is always an abuse of power. In the case of rape, it is an abuse of physical power. When communities are under threat, it is the weak and vulnerable who suffer the most. People with disabilities are subjected to more violence in any country, but more so in a country in turmoil, where people are concerned for their own lives and livelihoods and may not have the resources to look after the most vulnerable people in their communities. It may be as obvious as someone with physical disabilities being unable to flee rebel attacks, or as insidious as someone with a disability being last in the queue for food and water. Disabled women and girls are also raped.
The Human Rights Watch report of an investigation in Uganda in April and May 2010, which looked at the treatment of people with disabilities during conflict, was called As if We Weren’t Human. It was sobering reading indeed. Over one-third of the 64 women and girls with disabilities interviewed by Human Rights Watch had experienced sexual violence. Charity, a Ugandan woman with a physical disability, described how, in the camp,
“people told me: ‘You are useless. You are a waste of food.’ People told me I should just die so others can eat the food”.
Women reported being abused by aggressors because of their disabilities. A partially blind woman had her eyes removed because she had not seen where her husband kept his gun. A girl with learning disabilities was beaten and raped because she did not understand the questions she was being asked.
It is unusual for victims of rape and sexual violence in times of conflict to seek help, but when they do, those with disabilities are at a further disadvantage. Health centres and police stations are far away and victims rely on others to take them there, leaving them at greater risk of the untreated physical complications of rape. Police stations and courts do not have the resources to facilitate communication with those who have difficulties, such as the deaf and people with learning disabilities. Many girls and women with disabilities are illiterate and rely on their families for communication. Families will often not support a woman or girl in reporting a rape because of the additional stigma that rape brings to a family already stigmatised by disability.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises the specific vulnerabilities of those with disabilities and requires its signatories to take appropriate measures to protect such persons from exploitation, violence and abuse. We signed the CRPD in 2008, but what is our policy on those countries that do not comply with it? What is our policy on those that allow such human rights abuses to be carried out on women and girls? The G8 this year declared rape to be a war crime. Will the Minister explain to the House what the British Government are doing about it?
The Lord Bishop of Derby:
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate, and I also associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk.
Many of the pictures painted are dramatic and challenging, and I invite the House to think a little about the context that we are in and how we might approach some of these huge issues. The Government have identified six key priority areas, including women and freedom of religion, and those are the two things that I will look at in particular. We are in a world where we have ideals and fall short of them, and need to negotiate between the two.
In my own language, I start by inviting us all to look at the motes in our own eyes. I am embarrassed that my church has legislation in place to discriminate against women, as much religion still does. We are moving towards tackling these things, and the prime movers have been women themselves. One point that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made is that the victims need to be listened to so that they can help us understand what changes are required. It is not legislation but the stories of the victims that need to come first.
We as a church have been criticised, rightly, for the long and tortuous path of giving women full access to leadership in our institution. It is very easy for society to think that we have already done that: we have sex equality legislation and human rights legislation. Noble Lords will know that next Monday is White Ribbon Day, when in this country we remember the increasing levels of violence against women in our society. That is part of the context.
Just yesterday I was involved in a debate for Parliament Week—where the theme, as we know, is “Women in Democracy: Women in Society”—about lads’ mags and the fact that companies such as Tesco sell these magazines along with cheese and cornflakes. They objectify women and normalise the offensive attitude of making women commodities. We give large companies such as Tesco the freedom to degrade the women in our midst. That is the context in which we come to this debate: the motes in our own eyes.
I will suggest a way in which we might move forward. I think that the Government already have some line on this: the Foreign Secretary talks about engaging with complexity and the Minister talks about being pragmatic. We need to be pragmatic in negotiating between ideals and reality. As a trustee of Christian Aid, I know that women are key to development, with new voices and new perspectives, but I also know through my work with Christian Aid that the human trafficking of women and girls is increasing exponentially. Therefore, the ideals and the practice are in enormous tension.
I turn briefly to my specific point. The 2012 list of countries about which we have particular concern does not include India. My diocese works with churches in north India and is especially involved with Christian Dalit peoples—the lowest caste. In the past week, I have been in touch with a colleague in Delhi who worked with Christian Dalit women. She told me about Lakshmi, who works on a construction site from six in the morning till six at night and has to sign a register saying that she is getting the minimum daily wage, although in fact she is paid less than half of it. She also told me about a girl called Anjum, who was put into a brothel at the age of 15 and, last week, was rescued by the churches. She had found herself in that position because she was a Dalit woman in that culture.
The Prime Minister has just visited India and is talking about a special business relationship with that country. We need that: it will be good. However, what can we put into that relationship that will lead these issues to be taken seriously? In your Lordships’ House earlier this year, we made a decisive intervention during the passage of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill about Dalits in our own country. First, how can we take that learning and that experience into our work with business in India to help people aim for a similar result?
Secondly, how can we maintain concern for women and girls caught up in the ever-expanding criminal work of human trafficking? Thirdly, how can we look at the motes in our own eyes and challenge the right of large companies such as Tesco to degrade women in the midst of selling cheese and cornflakes and make it normative? As has already been asked, how can we better play a role in the UN? Finally, I guess that I and my colleagues on these Benches need to go back to our own institution and ask how women can play a more constructive and creative role among us so that we have more integrity in contributing to this debate.
Lord Finkelstein (Con):
My Lords, at the moment I took the oath in the House I was filled with wonder and gratitude. There was gratitude to be given the privilege to sit among your Lordships and to contribute to your deliberations. There was gratitude to my supporting Peers, the noble Lords, Lord Owen and Lord Coe, the latter having forgiven me for defeating him in an egg and spoon race. What can I say? He can run but he dropped the egg. There also was gratitude to all the officials of the House. They have helped me to overcome every practical issue related to having a peerage, save the one that still vexes me; namely, how, in a suburban house containing three children and six guitars, do my wife and I fit a two-foot, red leather box with a large wax seal? I now understand the strategy of barons since the time of King John, which is to get a castle first and only then acquire a peerage.
Finally, there was gratitude that as the son of refugees I live in peace in this extraordinary country with its respect for human rights. It is therefore fitting that human rights should be the subject of my maiden speech. My mother is a survivor of Belsen concentration camp and my father was an exile in a Siberian prison village. Pinner is nicer. People often bemoan the absence of big ideas in British politics. I always reply that big ideas drove my family from their home and their country, murdered my grandmother, starved my mother, imprisoned my father and stole our property. So I like pragmatic, small British ideas, our quiet suburbs and our stable institutions. My politics were never better summarised than by my paternal grandmother saying, “While the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, I am safe in Hendon Central”.
My necessarily brief contribution to this debate is that we in this country have a special understanding of the value of allowing people to live their life in peace as they see fit, to enjoy their privacy and never having to fear what they are because they fear their neighbours or the state. For that reason, because of the respect for that fundamental human right, we have become a leader in extending to gay people the freedom, equality and respect that should rightfully be theirs.
However, with that leadership comes a responsibility. Last year, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights identified 76 countries which criminalise private, consensual same-sex relationships. Even where homosexuality is not illegal, all over the world lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are subject to arbitrary arrest, violence and torture. When they are the victims of crime, they cannot turn to the police or the authorities because it is they who will be arrested. They are left defenceless. In Iran, there are secret executions; in Cameroon, there is torture and imprisonment; and, in Belarus, there is police intimidation and confiscated passports.
The only complaint that these countries can make is: why pick on them? The disrespect that they show to fundamental human rights, and the way in which they defy international law, is not theirs alone. It is common. I recognise—we all do—that there are limits to what we can do and I know that much of what we can do we are doing. It is right to pursue a policy of active diplomacy; right to link aid to the Commonwealth to the question of gay rights; and right to use bilateral diplomacy to, for instance, raise Russia’s discrimination against gay people. Perhaps, as the Foreign Office reviews its priorities in its human rights policies, which I am sure it does from time to time, it might consider whether the rights of LGBT people should be among them. After all, internationally, if it is not us, who is it?
Baroness Falkner of Margravine (LD):
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for that extraordinary tour de force that describes the parlous state of human rights in the world today. We are grateful to him because he is dogged in his determination to continue to raise these issues and to make our consciences awake. I am delighted to be speaking here today but I cannot continue without congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, on his extraordinarily witty and elegant speech, which was serious too in subject matter. We wholeheartedly support his views on LGBT rights.
The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, and I have two things in common. We are both alumni of the London School of Economics, that hotbed of political radicalism. We both started political life as members of the Social Democratic Party—less of a hotbed of political radicalism. But it is well known that the noble Lord could not really contemplate a future with the Liberals or indeed the Lib Dems when the merger between the SDP and the Liberals happened and he made his way to the Conservative Party. But as with all things in life, what goes around comes around and we are both now happily united under the wonderful umbrella of coalition government. I am sure that I echo the sentiments of the whole House when I say how delighted we are to have such a distinguished journalist among our ranks and we look forward to his witty, elegant and thoughtful contributions.
I also want to mention how much we are looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Suttie. She will bring a formidable knowledge of foreign affairs and the European Union to our deliberations, as I am sure we will hear before too long in this debate. For myself, given the limited time that we have today, I want to talk of just one situation—the most egregious human rights violation currently under way, namely; the civil war in Syria and the failure of the international community to do anything to end those atrocities.
In the two and a half years of this war, we have had talk of arming the opposition to change the balance of power in the early stages. Then there was talk of a no-fly zone to enable a humanitarian corridor to be established. Finally, there was the failed resolution of 29 August this year, which was an attempt on the part of some United Nations Security Council members to live up to their promises on responsibility to protect—namely, to act collectively to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
During all this time, the cost of the tragedy in Syria has risen. We have 150,000 dead, 7 million people displaced—2 million in neighbouring countries. Moreover, we have seen the hopelessness of getting even basic medical assistance to the victims of violence. It is estimated that of the original fleet of 500 ambulances in Syria, only 40 or so are still operating. More than 16,000 doctors have fled and at least 36 paramedics in uniform have been killed.
Let me turn to the record of the United Kingdom Government. Yes, we have been generous—some half a billion pounds in humanitarian assistance and countless visits to refugee camps by luminaries to publicise the state of those camps. But when genocide is under way, with jihadi groups singling out not just Alawite but all Shia as infidels, and ethnic cleansing through killing or displacement is rife, it is legitimate to ask when the international community will act.
So let me turn to the concrete question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, only last Tuesday regarding the creation of a humanitarian corridor. My noble friend Lady Northover, who I am delighted to see is in her place today, explained how difficult it would be to get all sides to the conflict to sign up to a ceasefire at the same time. While I can see the difficulties on the ground, it is also evident that when there is a will on the part of the Russians—the main obstruction in this case—a solution can be found. The chemical weapons inspectors were given safe passage only a few weeks ago.
What discussions has my noble friend been having with Russia and Iran regarding their leverage with the regime to gain the co-operation of the Syrian military and with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the compliance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—a rather neutral-sounding name for the al-Nusra Front and all its barbarism? What discussions have the United Kingdom had with the leaders of the Free Syrian Army?
While we accept that there are several hundred groups fighting on the ground, we can all agree that most have external powers whose support keeps them going. So let me turn briefly to the United Nations Security Council. The current composition provides an opportunity. If Russia co-operates with permanent members, as it did over chemical weapons, then we also have a further three Commonwealth member states plus an EU state. With the impending replacement of Saudi Arabia by Jordan, the necessary majority for a fresh United Nations resolution should surely be attainable. I hope that my noble friend will be able to tell the House what efforts the Government are making to secure the United Nations Security Council resolution to provide some sort of humanitarian corridor in Syria.
Human rights protections derive from the inalienable and pre-political rights of individuals. It is a collective responsibility of all to uphold them.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal (Lab):
My Lords, first, I, too, commend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this debate. When I saw that each of us had about four minutes to make our contribution, I was concerned whether we would be able to have a debate in depth and breadth which would touch on many of the issues about which I feel passionately. I should have had greater confidence in your Lordships’ House, because each speech before mine has ticked off a number of the issues that I wanted to touch on, whether religion or human rights for gay people and women. To the fine maiden speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, I feel able to say “amen”.
I would like to take my few minutes to concentrate on issues relating to women. The recent discourse within the Commonwealth has shown us the importance of human rights and the way in which they impact on all our people, but the rights of women is a matter which the Foreign Office has rightly highlighted as a key issue which we as a global community should communicate. I absolutely agree with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, about the impact of rape. According to the World Health Organisation, domestic violence affects one in three women across the world. It is now of pandemic proportions. It is the greatest cause of morbidity in women and girls worldwide. If it was any other form of disease, there would be a global outcry that so many women and girls are dying and being seriously injured by such a vicious and pernicious form of assault on their human rights, their dignity and their right to live.
The report demonstrates that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. It goes on to make it clear that, globally, as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. Globally, 7% of women had been sexually assaulted by someone other than their partner. The scale and enormity of the abuse of women must be seen to be believed. Ban Ki-Moon was right when he said:
“There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable”.
I commend the Minister, in particular, and Her Majesty’s Government for what they have sought in policy in relation to women and girls, but does she think that it is right that Foreign Office policy should restrict its purview to violence against women in areas of conflict, bearing in mind that violence against women in and out of conflict is a fundamental breach of their human rights which needs to be addressed? Will the Foreign Office consider expanding that role?
I commend the Government on signing the Istanbul convention last year, but when are they likely to ratify it, so that we can become one of the first 10 nations to enable that convention to come into operation? If we are to continue to have our position of prominence in raising the issue of human rights for women and girls, it is incumbent on our Government to use their best endeavours to make sure that we are among those 10. I have to tell the Minister that if the previous Government were still in being, I very much hoped that we would be the first to sign and ratify and would not risk coming not even in the first 10.
This is something that we can choose to address. If we wish to make violence against women something of the past, it will take all of us to raise our voice. Will the Minister tell us a little bit about the strategy that the Government intend to operate and deliver in order to make that a reality?
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB):
My Lords, I am grateful to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this important debate. Manipulation of religious sentiment to persecute those of other faiths is a sad feature of human rights abuse in much of the world. I would like to take this opportunity to give a Sikh perspective on possible ways to a fairer and more tolerant society.
When we talk of human rights abuse, we immediately think of countries such as Syria, North Korea and Iran. We rightly condemn their abuses of human rights, but we look more benignly at countries with which we have close political alliances or trade links—as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, perceptively observed. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby reminded us, we should look to the mote in our own eye. If we were consistent, the UN report of a government massacre of some 40,000 men, women and children from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and evidence of continuing human rights abuses would have led to that country’s immediate suspension from the Commonwealth pending an investigation.
I will give another example of this less than even-handed approach to human rights. Next year sees the 30th anniversary of the Indian army attack on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar and the subsequent massacre of tens of thousands of Sikhs throughout India. An independent inquiry headed by a former Chief Justice of India found overwhelming evidence of top Congress Party involvement. Yet our Government’s response to this attack on a minority faith was total silence. When I raised the matter with a then Cabinet Minister, I received the reply, “Indarjit, we know exactly what’s going on, but we are walking on a tightrope. We have already lost one important contract”. He was referring to the Westland helicopter contract.
We rightly condemn the use of sarin gas in Syria but were silent over America’s use of Agent Orange in Vietnam—which, even today, is causing horrendous birth defects half a century after its use. The same country’s use of drones to fly over sovereign territory to kill and maim those it does not like and, in the process, kill many innocent civilians sets a dangerous precedent.
I have spoken about our country’s selective approach to human rights only as an example. Other world powers, including India, China, the USA and Russia, behave in exactly the same way, making any co-ordinated approach on human rights virtually impossible. It was the great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov who said that there will be little progress in our universal yearning for peace and justice unless we are even-handed in our approach to human rights.
My hope is that Her Majesty’s Government will take the lead in working for a world in which principle always transcends the interests of trade and power-bloc politics. I firmly believe that our country is best placed to give a lead in this wider view of human rights.
Baroness Kennedy of Cradley (Lab):
My Lords, I am very proud and honoured to stand here today as a Member of this House and make my maiden speech. I begin by thanking noble Lords on all sides of the House for the warm welcome that I have received. They will know that I am preceded here by my husband, my noble friend Lord Kennedy, but I also know that noble Lords will be familiar with the quote that begins, “Behind every great man …”.
I also thank all the staff for the help they have given me. One day when I was looking particularly confused, one staff member asked, “Would it help, my Lady, if I pointed out which the way Lord Kennedy went?”. I was impressed by how skilfully he gave me the option of going in the opposite direction. I need to give particular thanks to the doorkeepers. Some noble Lords may have noted that when I and my noble friend Lord Kennedy were introduced, the galleries were rather packed. I would like to thank the doorkeepers and assure them that there are currently no other Kennedys working for the Labour Party on the way to this noble House.
I also thank my supporters, my noble friends Lady McDonagh and Lord Collins, and my mentor, my noble friend Lady Gould, for all their advice and support. My final thank you is to my friend Margaret Bradley, a local Cradley historian whose research helped me with this speech.
I was delighted when it was agreed that I could use Cradley as my territorial title. It is a town rich in history. For hundreds of years, ironwork—nail-making and chain-making—was the staple industry of Cradley and its surrounding towns. Right up until I went to university, I lived in Cradley, in the same house and in the same street—and it is where my father still lives today. Since at least 1830, my ancestors’ livelihoods relied on the nail and chain industries in Cradley and the surrounding towns.
Noble Lords may be wondering why the history of my home town is relevant to today’s debate on human rights. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for initiating this crucial debate. It is relevant because it reminds us of the evils of child labour. In Cradley, children were born, reared, worked and died in the chain shops. It was not unusual to see baby baskets swinging from iron poles so that women could hammer iron and rock their baby at the same time. By the age of eight, children were experienced chain makers.
Thankfully, the dominance of child labour in Cradley is a distant memory. However, this is not the case in many other parts of the world, where child labour exists on a colossal scale. Millions of children younger than the basic minimum working age are deprived of their childhood and work in appalling conditions that damage their physical and mental well-being. The ILO estimates that across the world, instead of going to school, 168 million children aged five to 17 are child labourers. Every child has the right to a childhood, and every child has the right to an education. Child labour is a violation of a child’s human rights.
Today, I want to highlight two areas of child labour that particularly affect girls: mining and domestic work. Across the world there are more than 85 million children engaged in hazardous work, the most menacing of which is the plight of child miners. Children as young as six and seven are handling explosives, exposed to toxic air and carrying heavy loads. The physical and psychological effects are traumatic for both boys and girls. However, girls bear a double burden as they also have to carry out domestic chores at home for the family. There is no time for rest, and no time for school.
Another area where girls are particularly vulnerable is when they work behind closed doors as domestic workers. Some 11.5 million children, mainly girls, work dawn to dusk taking care of domestic chores in other people’s homes. They live with their employer. They are under the control of their employer. They are isolated and trapped. Many suffer verbal abuse or, even worse, physical abuse. Girls are suffering in silence. It is slavery by anyone’s definition.
We must work with each other and everyone involved in our civil society to alleviate global poverty, achieve universal primary education and eliminate child labour. We know we can all do more. There are many charities in the UK that work to alleviate poverty. I declare an interest as I am a trustee of one such charity, APT—Action on Poverty. APT fights poverty by giving people the means to feed their families all year round and forever. It works with local partners on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia to build lasting livelihoods for the most vulnerable.
We know that child labour is directly linked to poverty, which is why charities like APT are vital. When a person knows that they can feed their family not just today but every day in the future, they can fully embrace education, not employment, for their child. If children fail to get an education, they fail to get the skills needed for their own growth as well as their country’s economic growth. The poor of today remain the poor of tomorrow. Sadly, child labour is not just an issue for developing countries. Studies have shown that children here in the UK have been found in forced labour. That is why I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to bring forward a modern Slavery Bill, which I hope is still due in December. I hope that it will pay particular attention to child labour here and across the world.
Government must do more to work with international businesses to encourage them to address the issue of child labour in their operations and supply chains. Businesses should not just demand that child labour stops but should help influence national Governments and employers in countries around the world, encourage better working conditions, mobilise communities around education, support social protection programmes, and invest more in education and in modernising agricultural production in poor rural communities where child labour is rife.
I will make one final plea. The next World Day Against Child Labour is on Thursday 12 June 2014. Let us all commit now to join together on that day and encourage other organisations to join with us. Children need to be learners, not labourers. Children should no longer be denied a childhood, an education or the most basic of human rights: a future.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB):
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this very important debate, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, for her very clear and powerful speech. It is particularly important that she mentioned something that has not been mentioned so far in this debate, namely the way that children are still exploited in so many parts of the world. We look forward to hearing her clear and powerful voice on subsequent occasions.
When future historians look back on the immediate post-World War II period, they will judge that one of the greatest achievements of that time was the UN declaration of human rights and the ensuing conventions. Those affirmed in law the unique worth of every single individual. They are, in the words of the late Ronald Dworkin, “trumps”, which cannot be overridden by any raison d’état. Of course the trouble, as we know, is that it is so easy to be deeply depressed at the massive way in which human rights are violated in so many countries in the world. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave us a long list at the beginning, although he did not mention some of them. It is very easy to get depressed by that, and it is difficult to know what to focus on in this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us, it is important that we should not be selective. However, when we get depressed, we need to go back to the fact that we still have a benchmark in the UN declaration. It is a question of being as persistent in the pursuit of that as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has been in setting us a very good example in his wide-ranging and persistent concern for human rights.
I hope that noble Lords will excuse me if, as chairman of the All-Party Group on Dalits, I focus very briefly on them. I do so first because of the sheer scale of the problem that affects them: there are something like 260 million Dalits in the world, mainly in India and other south-east Asian countries. Secondly, although all human rights violations are appalling—torture, religious persecution and so on—there is something particularly humiliating and degrading about the way in which Dalits are totally rejected by the surrounding culture in which so many of them live and every area of their lives is affected. If anyone doubts the sheer horror of this I would recommend the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. The “fine balance” of the title is the balance between hope and despair. I have huge admiration for the poor of India, for their sheer resilience, hope and even joy, despite everything. However, the problems are huge. In almost every area of exploitation the Dalits will be found at the bottom, more exploited than anybody else.
I am glad to say that we will hear more over the next months about different forms of trafficking. Noble Lords will not be surprised to know that because the Dalits are the most vulnerable of all groups, they are found in all forms of trafficking and at a much higher percentage than other groups. Trafficking takes the form of bonded labour. It also takes the form of the Sumangali system for the payment of dowries. Although that system has been officially abolished in India since 1961, it still goes on. However, the sex trade is perhaps the most shocking of all. As Dalit Solidarity Network UK puts it,
“Most girls and women in India’s urban brothels come from Dalit, lower-caste, tribal, or minority communities”.
Much of that has its origin in religiously sanctioned prostitution. It has been reckoned that some 250,000 women in India fall into this category, many of them enslaved unknowingly when they were still young children. Dalit Freedom Network has said that almost all women trapped in ritualised prostitution are Dalits.
When the concept of human rights was first formulated after World War II, the particular concern was the way in which individuals need to be protected against their states. There is a particular complication, of course, with the kind of discrimination the Dalits experience, because it is so deeply embedded in cultures. Therefore, I very much hope that the Government, when they raise their general concerns about human rights in India and other south-east Asian countries, will continue to bring this issue before those Governments.
Lord Patten (Con):
My Lords, like the words “location, location, location” in a very different context, “consistency, consistency, consistency” should be the key to our Government’s attitude to countries that violate human rights. Our foreign policy must be realistic—of course I recognise that. I am in favour of our trading nation having the commercial foreign policy that we are developing. However, I am also in favour of the motif once used so effectively by the late Robin Cook: the need for an ethical foreign policy. The two are not at odds and indeed both trade and aid can be used as powerful levers to bring about change over the years in delinquent countries. To illustrate this I will compare and contrast our attitude in this context, particularly in relation to religious freedoms, on Iran and on Turkey, where there are dominant Governments.
I turn first to Iran. While all are hopeful that Mr Rouhani, the new President, may make things better for persecuted minorities, we should all recall that instant warm words of welcome in the media for apparent, new liberal change around the world often have to be eaten pretty quickly, as the plight of the poor Copts in Egypt, highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, shows us at the moment. They are clearly the most up-to-date victims of religious clearances in Africa. In Iran, all religious groups other than orthodox Muslims are now in the religious cleansing firing line under Mr Rouhani’s new presidency. There is no or little freedom and much persecution of all those who are not Muslims, from Sufi dervishes to evangelical Christians, from the poor Baha’is, who are so persecuted, to those Armenian and Assyrian churches who happen to conduct their services in Farsi, which is thought not to be acceptable. Some of those churches are still being closed down under the new liberal presidency of Mr Rouhani.
There has been little visible change and a bit of hope, and the Government have been very robust in trying to do what they can to help and to condemn such persecution in Iran. Good. Strangely, however, the Government seem—although perhaps I am misguided—to pull their punches a bit on Turkey, a country which is always described as “mildly Islamist” in polite diplomatic discourse. Bad. Is it mildly Islamist for Turkey to suppress the ancient Greek monastery on Halki island, or to restrict the freedoms of worship of the Alevis in Turkey? Is it “mildly Islamist” to make it impossible for Christians to have public places of worship established in the seaside holiday-making areas of coastal Turkey? One Anglican clergyman has told me that they have to flit from house to house underground to have underground services, as if they were living in some kind of penal times—and actually they are living in some kind of penal times.
I am very glad that some of our leading western Christian leaders have got off their knees at long last to say that this anti-Christian trend must be resisted. I hasten to add that I recognise that being on their knees is part of the day job of right reverend Prelates, and others, as they pray for us in need of their prayers. But I am glad that they have shown this leadership. A few years ago, I took part in a debate in this place with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which highlighted the apparent onset of Christian clearances in Iraq. It is a bit late now, as those clearances are more or less complete. Turkey next? I do not know—I hope not—but I do know that it is not “mildly Islamist” to disperse with such terrifying violence peaceful demonstrations in Gezi Park in central Istanbul, where I have walked, rightly condemned by Amnesty International for its “large-scale human rights violations”. Is it indeed respectful of freedom of expression for so-called “mildly Islamist” Turkey to have in its prisons more journalists than any other country on earth, including China? Only three days ago, on Monday, it was reported that the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr Bulent Arinc, is calling for the former Christian basilica of Hagia Sophia, presently a secular museum, to be opened up for prayer—I guess Muslim prayer.
In my noble friend’s wind-up, could she find a moment or two just to explain to your Lordships what exactly is meant by the phrase “mildly Islamist”, or do we turn a blind eye to what is going on in Turkey?
Baroness Suttie (LD):
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this timely and important debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Finkelstein on his excellent and deeply amusing maiden speech. In the month since my introduction, I am grateful to noble Lords from all sides of this House for having made me feel so welcome. I am hugely grateful, too, for the helpful advice from ever-patient members of staff who have dealt with my numerous questions with good humour and tolerance. In particular, I would like to thank Black Rod and his department for their excellent induction course.
I also thank my two supporters. My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market and I have been friends since getting to know each other in Brussels, when she was serving on the Committee of the Regions and I was working in the European Parliament. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope is in some ways responsible for getting me involved in politics in the first place. As my excellent constituency MP in Hawick in the Scottish borders, I used to write to him on a regular basis from Hawick High School with a variety of obscure and occasionally precocious inquiries. We subsequently worked together on two separate occasions over several years in the other place. As a very dear friend and colleague, he has also been a constant source of sunny optimism.
Exactly 25 years ago, I was studying in Voronezh State University in southern Russia in the Soviet Union. I was there as part of a three-month Russian language exchange programme from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. It was there that I not only learnt the beautiful Russian language but learnt to appreciate Russian art and culture as well as the very generous and at times overflowing Russian hospitality. It was the era of Glasnost and Perestroika which by then, in 1988, had even reached the provincial city of Voronezh. It was a time when culture flourished, banned novels were published, and, as British students, we were able to discuss issues such as politics and humans rights, which in the darker days under Brezhnev would have been unimaginable.
After graduation, I returned to work in St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it still was then, from December 1990 to spring 1991, as an English teacher. By this stage, the Soviet Union was in a state of evident collapse. I survived thanks to the kindness of my Russian friends, as food was rationed and the shelves were completely bare. The August putsch took place later that year and, by the end of December, the Soviet Union was dissolved.
During my regular visits to Russia in the 1990s, I saw the gradual transfer to a free market Russian style of capitalism but, sadly, this has not been matched by a move towards parliamentary democracy, independent institutions, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Indeed, since the parliamentary elections at the end of 2011, which many observers regarded as fraudulent, and the presidential elections to re-elect Vladimir Putin in the spring of 2012, we have witnessed a considerable backwards step in terms of parliamentary democracy and human rights. Journalists and businesspeople, in particular, have faced threats and serious intimidation, or worse, when they have challenged the Kremlin’s line.
I am relieved, as I am sure are all noble Lords, that the British freelance journalist Kieron Bryan was granted bail yesterday, but the case of the Greenpeace 30 more than ever illustrates the need for thorough judicial reform in Russia. I hope that the Government will continue to press the Kremlin for a speedy, transparent, proportionate and fair conclusion.
In March this year, I did some political training work in Chisinau, in the Republic of Moldova. The politicians I spoke to told me of their fears of having such a heavy dependency on Russian energy supplies. In the run up to the Vilnius summit next week, as they prepare to sign association agreements with the EU, they are understandably worried. Russian Deputy Premier Dmitry Rogozin’s chilling remarks to Moldova that he hoped that they, “Wouldn’t freeze this winter”, are perhaps sadly typical of the current neo-colonial state of mind in the Kremlin.
In the run up to the Sochi Olympic Games, when Russia is very much in the public eye, we must use every opportunity to continue to push for real institutional reform in Russia, as well as an independent judiciary and for the creation of genuine parliamentary democracy.
The Earl of Sandwich (CB):
My Lords, it is a considerable honour to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. She is a proud daughter of Hawick, a historic town, which I know. She has told us of her experience of international development and human rights, especially in Russia and eastern Europe. I know that she has spent many years in Westminster and has gathered that kind of political experience, not least in managing two senior Liberal Democrat politicians, including the Deputy Prime Minister. That must be a test of endurance. We look forward to hearing her many times in future.
I also have the exhortation of the new noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, ringing in my ears—that we know we can all do more. That will take a lot of living up to, because human rights is an essential issue in foreign affairs. My noble friend Lord Alton has raised it with a skill nurtured over many years in Westminster, and he has given me and others a lot of encouragement. I have joined him often in debates, especially on Sudan, where human rights violations continue daily. He mentioned the Nuba mountains and the bombing there, and I agree with him about strengthening the ICC. But today I shall be in Asia, for a change.
The Commonwealth summit, or CHOGM, has again tested the nerves of diplomats all over the world in the past week, which is largely down to our own Prime Minister and the initiative that he has taken. I have seen the Channel 4 documentary; there can be little doubt of the shelling and abuses of human rights against fleeing Tamils in the last stages of the civil war. President Rajapaksa has a hard shell but, with India and Canada keeping away, he has received a strong message of disapproval. I am sure that the UK was correct to stay with the Commonwealth meeting and influence it from within. At the same time, we must not forget the atrocities of the Tamil Tigers during the war; nor can we ignore the strength of feeling on both sides.
There comes a point where outsiders without such recent experience cannot really fathom the depth of prejudice and discrimination that continues beneath the surface, long after the world has turned away. I am thinking of the EU candidate countries mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, in the Balkans, where the European External Action Service is still pushing through its hardest tests of good government, not always with success, against the relatively recent background of ethnic genocide. Politicians cannot behave like leaders of human rights NGOs, whose stamina we all applaud. Political parties have to be selective; picking from what my noble friend called an à la carte menu, they turn continually to other subjects, and for this reason are always open to charges of hypocrisy.
We can learn a lot from our recent debate on China—another Conservative initiative, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. His understandable concern was with our business and trade with China, and whether our relationship would be affected by too much emphasis on human rights, such as our preoccupation with Tibet and China’s attitude to the Uighurs in Xinjiang province, where the conflict has been no less violent. The noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, said in that debate that,
“it is perfectly possible … to exert quiet and helpful influence, to encourage moves towards greater openness while avoiding explicit criticism or confrontation … not through lecturing or preaching but through the sharing of best practice with partners representing a very ancient civilisation”.—[Official Report, 7/11/13; col. 349.]
That seems to sum things up very well.
The Dalai Lama told a journalist recently that trust develops gradually, even with an animal,
“if you show genuine affection”,
but that if you are,
“always showing bad face and beating, how can you develop friendship?”.
The same might be said of many other situations in which we have to do business with tyrants or bring humanitarian aid to victims of brutality.
In Nepal there are unresolved human rights cases left over from the 10-year civil war—more than half of them at the hands of the army or the state. According to the agency INSEC, more than 3,500 violations took place in one year alone, 2012, including much violence against women, but there has been no single prosecution in the seven years since the end of the conflict, owing to the political turmoil. This is why I am particularly asking the Minister if she will make every effort to encourage Nepal to re-establish the independent human rights commission, which has never been quite independent and needs more support from outside. This is where I fundamentally disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, who seems to think that every country can fend for itself. We must reassert the international solidarity that is so important in these situations.
Human rights in the Commonwealth and elsewhere will elude us as long as governance, the rule of law and other principles of democracy remain unaddressed. We have to keep banging the drum and not get too frustrated when no one listens.
The Lord Bishop of Wakefield:
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate. It follows on very helpfully from a short debate that I secured two weeks ago on the situation with regard to religious freedom following the events of the Arab spring.
The all-party parliamentary group’s recent report on international religious freedom, Article 18: An Orphaned Right, to which a number of us in this Chamber contributed, accurately shows that over the past decade every region in the world has seen marked declines with regard to religious freedom. Christians in Egypt and Syria, Baha’is in Iran, Shi’ite Muslims in Indonesia, and Sunni Muslims in Thailand and Burma face serious threats to their viability and even survival. We have heard other examples today, including comments by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, on the situation in Turkey.
If freedom of religion and belief is a primary barometer of the social health of a nation, the palpable decline in recent years in respect of this most fundamental right suggests a worrying state of affairs regarding the health of the global common good. Despite this trend, Governments the world over—ours included, I fear—still assign it too low a priority than the scale of the crisis at present requires.
Part of this reluctance, I imagine, is that Governments and opinion-makers are hesitant, perhaps even reluctant, to acknowledge the connection between levels of religious freedom and the basic health and well-being of societies. This is not about protecting the rights of one religious community over another but about providing for the human flourishing of all, irrespective of whether they have a religious belief—as was hinted at by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. It is about being confident of one’s core values in our society, so that a variety of different communities may prosper.
Like other noble Lords, I applaud the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for the careful attention she has devoted to this issue. I noted in an earlier debate that she is a near neighbour to me in Wakefield; there is solidarity in West Yorkshire. Her speech last week to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington DC was but the latest example of the forthright engagement that we have come to expect from her.
It is of course true that a great deal of work is being done in relation to freedom of religion and belief. However, this work is not necessarily focused on ensuring that everyone is able to exercise that right in peace and security. So the question, it seems to me, is how we move on from the essentially negative strategies that have been rooted in combating discrimination, intolerance, hate speech and incitement. Of course these things are important, but they work only once there is a clear commitment to the underlying value of the freedom of religion or belief. Core values need to be supported by proactive policies. Other noble Lords have hinted at such policies; indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, talked about the independent human rights commission. Is it not now time for the Government to shift their attention to a more positive approach to religious freedom and to recognise the wider societal benefits that it brings?
How might this be achieved? Some suggestions have already been put forward during this debate. Certainly the appointment of an ambassador at large or a special representative for religious freedom would help enhance the voice of the UK as the champion of an inclusive approach to freedom of religion or belief. A number of us have been pressing for this recently.
The head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights and democracy department is indeed an impressive figure. However, the incumbent of that post on her own is unable to give this matter the attention it rightly deserves because of competing priorities and pressures on her department’s time. We need to look again at strengthening the machinery of government in this area. It is to be hoped that when the Foreign Affairs Select Committee looks at its work programme for the next year, it will take upon itself the task of examining this issue with its usual forensic attention. I have been assured in a letter by the committee’s chair that this will be taken into account.
In concluding, I note only that unless we are prepared to give this issue the urgent attention it requires, we cannot be surprised if respect for religious freedom continues to decline markedly. The existing strategy across our world is not working, and it is time to think again.
Baroness Berridge (Con):
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord for securing today’s debate, particularly as I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief. We specifically added “or Belief” when the British Humanist Association became one of the stakeholders. The issue has for too long been viewed as global identity politics. Christians seemingly speak up only when Christians are persecuted, Sikhs for Sikhs, and Baha’is for Baha’is, and this has contributed to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights not being treated as a universal human right. The issue needs careful nuance and although some commentators, especially some on the centre right, want neat analyses, the following cursory around-the-world tour reveals that to be too simplistic.
On 28 August 2013 in the southern Iranian city of Bandar Abbas, Mr Ataollah Rezvani, a well known Baha’i, was murdered. He had come under pressure from agents of the ministry of intelligence who were intimidating him. On 17 November at around 9.30 in the morning, Pastor Zhang Xiaojie, who leads the Nanle county Christian church, a Three-Self state sanctioned church in China, was detained. Currently the pastor and 20 other members of the church are still being detained without arrest or charge. As has already been mentioned, Alexander Aan, an atheist, is in prison in Indonesia. Interestingly, Papua New Guinea has recently launched a consultation to prohibit non-Christian worship. If you are a Hindu in Pakistan, the law does not allow you to marry. Also, in November 2012, Ummad Farooq, whose father is president of the Ahmadiyya Muslims in his local community, was shot in head. Ummad is being treated in Birmingham and I am proud to say that he is claiming asylum here in the United Kingdom.
In Colombia, two pastors were killed in 2012 and about 300 indigenous Christians were displaced from their homes. Pagan indigenous populations receive material support from paramilitary organisations to organise the persecution of local Christians. The Rohingya Muslims in Burma, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, the Coptic Christians in Egypt and, of course, all followers of whatever religion or belief in North Korea are being persecuted. However, not all persecution is far from our shores as anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews and Jewish places of worship have re-emerged in Europe, particularly in Hungary and Greece.
All the studies point to a simple fact: the persecution of people of faith or no faith on the basis of their belief is rapidly increasing. I warmly congratulate the Government on the fact that this is a human rights priority for them, but given the trend I have just outlined, does it not merit its own sub-group of the Human Rights Advisory Group? Most if not all of the other priorities do so. Moreover, does it not justify more than a part-time, unpaid special rapporteur as its main resource at the international level? The Prime Minister is to visit China next month, so will Her Majesty’s Government raise the case I have outlined, as well as the plight of Falun Gong followers who are tortured and imprisoned for their belief?
I was heartened to read in the Minister’s recent speech delivered at Georgetown University in America the assertion of the freedom to change one’s religion. This is the reason the APPG’s first report focused on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as it is the international instrument that states this unambiguously. Globalisation and the internet on smartphones means increasing exposure to different beliefs around the world. While traditionally where you were born and the community you were from perhaps dictated what you believed, individuals are increasingly able to make such decisions for themselves. There is a global trend of religious conversion and the emergence of new religious movements. This positive empowerment is, however, often met by harsh responses from many Governments around the world. For instance, as other noble Lords have mentioned, while diplomatic developments with Iran are promising, dozens of Muslims who have become Christians, along with Baha’is who are seen as apostates, remain in prison because of their faith. Can my noble friend please comment on our policy towards religious freedom in Iran?
A truly worrying example in this context are the recent reports that the Arab League is developing a regional blasphemy law that will criminalise any expression of opinion that is deemed a blasphemy, even when such opinions are expressed outside the jurisdiction of a particular country. If such a proposal ultimately is put into law by Arab League states, it will be in full breach of international human rights standards. Have Her Majesty’s Government made representations to the United Nations and the Arab league on this proposed blasphemy law?
I hope that protecting the freedom to convert will be on the agenda of the January summit on Article 18 that my noble friend is planning. The United Kingdom should be at the forefront of preserving the freedoms that have been opened up to this Twitter generation.
Lord Mendelsohn (Lab):
My Lords, I congratulate and pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for securing this debate. The noble Lord is well known for his commitment to these issues and I can recall listening, in the late 1980s, to a passionate defence of the rights of Jews being persecuted in the Soviet Union that was made by the noble Lord. Today, I possess a great sense of gratitude for the warm welcome that I have received from all sides of the House. I have been truly struck by the sincerity and good will of all. I would also like to thank the staff of the House for their unfailing courtesy and useful advice. Their help is hugely appreciated. I am also grateful to my noble friends Lord Levy and Lord Janner of Braunstone, who supported me at my Introduction. Together with my mentor, my noble friend Lord Mitchell, they embody the best of this Chamber. I am sure that I will learn more from them and, indeed, from the whole House than I will ever be able to contribute. This is also a very special debate as I find myself in the company of good friends and colleagues who have made really outstanding maiden speeches.
I grew up with friends and family scarred by and in the shadow of the Holocaust. I appreciated the universal lessons that were drawn from those terrible events. Also around that time we saw the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the establishment and operation of the murderous and brutal regime known as Democratic Kampuchea. As a young school pupil, I remember participating in the work of a TV appeal to bring relief to the Cambodian people. These events have had a lasting impact on me, and in many ways they have guided my life. The events of the Holocaust and the end of the Second World War gave rise, of course, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
International systems, conventions, treaties and courts may not be perfect, but it is essential that they exist rather than not. I congratulate the Government on their successful election to the Human Rights Council. This reminds us how broad the role is that Government can play, and in this regard I would like to make a few suggestions and offer some thoughts on what the Government can consider. First, we need to remind ourselves that our work defending, protecting and advocating human rights protects not only those who face the denial of those rights, but also our own way of life. This is a dangerous period and the erosion of human rights can be an early sign of a broader attack on liberty. If our role in the world is to stand for anything, it is not just about adhering to the universal declaration, it is surely to protect our liberal values and way of life and extending the same rights and freedoms to others. We should do this by making the world more stable, increasing economic inclusion, making government outcomes more fair, less corrupt and more effective, and giving more people a stake in successful democracies. We should cement all of that in place through stable, equitable free trade and a growing economic interdependence that binds us together.
Secondly, this is a vast task with many actors. Human rights and democracy are frequently challenged. They are still very young in most countries and under pressure, particularly where education and the checks on elected Governments and corruption are weak, as well as where there is little appreciation that violence and discrimination against women is perhaps the greatest bar to a nation’s progress. Human rights must be part of a long-term strategy across a range of government departments, international institutions, parliamentary initiatives and an active, thriving international NGO and civil society sector.
The Government are well placed to achieve a lot and their influence depends on the level of international engagement. I am encouraged by the work of this and many previous Governments to extend our reach, and I add my support to these efforts. But I would encourage the Government to look more closely at whether we are using all the tools we have as effectively as possible. Surely it is worth considering whether development aid can do more to support a strategy of long-term political development as part of a wider strategy across government departments.
My final point is this. We need to address the economic dimensions that influence the attainment of human rights. There is a need to understand that the factors which curb human rights go beyond the traditional notions of corrupt regimes—rather, it is the fact that terribly uneven societies endure and the extractive capabilities of nations continue to be plundered while the prosperity and well-being of their citizens are ignored that causes great forms of repression. Creating the right market conditions, promoting growth, values and responsibility in the private sector is certainly part of it, but there is some merit in the argument that we should be vigilant. We must try to ensure that we do not allow societies to reach the tipping point where a population feels that the diminution of their and their children’s long-term economic prospects and a fundamental lack of hope adds to instability and conflict and a further erosion of their human rights.
I thank all noble Lords once again for the warmest of welcomes.
Baroness Howells of St Davids (Lab):
My Lords, I feel privileged to follow my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn. I read that when he was introduced into the House, he said, “If, over my service, I can make even a fraction of the contribution to public life of my introducers, I will achieve a great deal”. My noble friend has a long history of working towards justice, both in the UK and in the Middle East. He is deeply involved in, and dedicated to, his work in the north London Jewish community. After today’s excellent, enlightened and thought-provoking maiden speech, I am sure that his presence in this House will be greatly appreciated. The presence of my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn on our Benches along with my noble friend Lord Bach will be music to the ears of all sides of the House. I am sure they will bring great harmony.
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on giving us the opportunity to speak on this issue, which has been so pertinent to our values and is the foundation on which the principles of our Commonwealth are built. Following the Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka, there cannot be a more appropriate time for this House to deliberate on how these values and principles translate into action beyond our immediate environment, into the Commonwealth and extending into the international domain.
As has been said, during the UK’s successful bid to join the UN Human Rights Council, a point of collaboration was made. We all agree that collaboration and international unity are paramount to how the Government are able to respond to violations of human rights. The point committed our Government to working more effectively with international partners and emphasised constructive association with both Commonwealth and EU partners to share best practice and expertise. With this newly acquired position, we furthered our ability. I need not point out to this House that with ability comes obligation.
The Government have made reference to the steps they have taken to promote human rights in Sri Lanka, through bilateral and supranational funding and through sharing experiences and expertise. My concerns are twofold and I would like to hear the Minister’s response on the following points. What efforts are being extended to other Commonwealth countries, and how do the Government intend to utilise the merits of the Commonwealth charter to promote human rights internationally? Further to that, as the Government are keen to replace the Human Rights Act 1998, what assessment, if any, have they made of their proposed British Bill of Rights and how it would compromise our own ambitions to work internationally?
I will not delay the House any longer, as most of the questions that I want to raise will come up later.
Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick (CB):
My Lords, we are all immensely grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton not only for introducing this debate but for his long persistence and faithfulness on these issues over, one dares to say, a generation. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for introducing in his excellent maiden speech the responsibilities of business and the corporate sector. I want to focus on that in some of my remarks.
We are all conscious of the UN human rights responsibilities as they were laid out in the 1940s, but they were updated in 2011 by the guiding principles on the responsibilities of business. The new principles and burdens which fall on business, in essence, oblige businesses to sign up to the Human Rights Council guiding principles. They require organisations such as my own, KPMG, to:
“Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur”—
“Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services”.
This is a golden opportunity to bring the corporate sector into line with the responsibilities of public authorities. It is a chance for corporations, which have long held in private their own concerns about whether they have witnessed, for example, trafficking of individuals, unfair discrimination or employment procedures in other companies that were unacceptable, to take a stand alongside public duties.
On 16 October, there was an interesting report in the Guardian on a new assessment survey rating called “Tomorrow’s Value Rating”, set up by an organisation that seeks to assess the way in which companies are living up to the guiding principles on business and human rights. It found some interesting points of note. For example, although a vast majority of companies, such as my own, are signatories to the UN Global Compact, only a third of those that said they were devoted to human rights had a policy in place or a mechanism for measurement. It also found that in the oil and gas sector only three of the 10 companies covered had a stand-alone human rights policy and that management of human rights often appears to be reactive rather than proactive.
One does not want unduly to punish companies that are in the early stages of assessing their human rights responsibilities, but this is a chance not just for a debate in this House but to look at the way in which the Government think about future legislation for the UK alongside our partner countries, to set a tone of expectation in the corporate world as well as in the political sphere. In 2013, a long list of obligations relating to the principles of human rights for companies was set out by the Institute for Business and Human Rights in the UK. Point 6 of its 10 points of emphasis is titled:
“Renewing efforts to protect lives in the work-place”.
I want to draw attention to a specific example with a positive outcome, and I hope that we will see companies acting in this way in future.
None of us will forget the events in April surrounding the collapse of a building in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. We will all recall the loss of life—1,200 individuals—the maiming, in particular, of many women and the loss of livelihoods. However, I am immensely grateful to be able to report to this House and for the benefit of public understanding that many of the companies involved, including ABF—Associated British Foods—the owner of Primark, decided that they would take their responsibilities immensely seriously. They would not only pay out for those who had lost livelihoods but stand together to take a responsible position on building requirements, regulations and standards for the future. Not only was this a dreadful affair that saw the unjust loss of multitudes of lives but it has been a golden opportunity for corporations to take their duties seriously. I am very grateful for the leadership of George Weston, the chief executive of ABF, and for his stand in its annual report, published on 5 November.
In conclusion, we have an opportunity in the corporate sector as new markets increasingly emerge where many of the pressure points that my noble friend Lord Alton and others have mentioned are brought to bear. If we can bring about a process for better common working practices between corporations and public authorities, we could see companies taking a greater lead in preventing human rights abuses.
Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab):
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who I much admire, on his commitment and his courage, often in joint harness with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I will make three brief points.
First, I recall in the early 1980s going to a south Asian country and saying to our ambassador, “What are you doing about human rights?”. His answer was, “Oh, that’s a job for my first secretary”. That would no longer be allowed. Indeed, there has been an immeasurable improvement in the overseas department’s links and attitude to human rights. I think, for example, of changes in the structure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the human rights and democracy department; the human rights report, which, happily, came from a recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which I chaired at that time, which has certainly been refined and improved; the human rights and democracy programme; and also the much improved links with non-governmental organisations.
My second point is about the interlink between the domestic and the foreign. I recall the former Foreign Minister of Australia, Senator Gareth Evans, saying, “How can we Australians be taken seriously on human rights representations abroad if we maltreat our Aborigines”—being Australian, he actually said “Abos”—“at home”. That shows that there is a linkage between what we do at home and the strength of our representations abroad. That obviously relates to our immigration policy, our counterterrorism policy and our attitudes to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Looking at our international organisations, I am delighted that we are now on the Human Rights Council, which is an enormous improvement on its predecessor, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which could reach agreement only on attacks on Israel. I look forward to reports during our two-year tenure, starting in January. I think also of the Commonwealth and the Council of Europe, included in the second priority in the 2012 human rights report.
On the Commonwealth, of course we think of CHOGM and whether or not the Prime Minister should have attended the Sri Lankan summit. Yes, there is a time for engagement but I am troubled by the question of cui bono—who actually benefited most from the Prime Minister’s attendance? I fear that the answer may well be the President of Sri Lanka. The Commonwealth charter is a magnificent document but in practice, if one looks at the 60% of Commonwealth countries that still have capital punishment and attitudes towards the criminalisation of homosexuality, there is much work for our Government to do in persuading our Commonwealth colleagues of the importance of human rights.
On the Council of Europe, there is a danger of the Government making a major error in defying the European Court of Human Rights in respect of prisoners’ rights. I do not talk about the subject of the question but the danger of defiance. The Prime Minister unwisely said that,
“no one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/12; col. 923.]
I saw the embarrassment of the Attorney-General when he appeared before the Joint Committee earlier this month. It would be a disastrous precedent in respect of Russia, Turkey and other defaulters, if we—pioneers of the system in the Council of Europe—were to defy it. There is a way out. Clearly the court will grant a wide margin of appreciation. It is insisting only that there is no blanket ban.
Finally, there has to be a balance in any matter of human rights. Sometimes it is best to do things in a low voice and behind the scenes. I was a member of the human rights mission to China that was led extremely ably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, in which we were effective because we made quiet representations to the Chinese authorities. I concede also that there is a temptation to be strong on the weak and weak on the strong.
Of the six FCO priorities, freedom of religion is key. This has been the leitmotif of so many speeches in this debate. It is very important indeed that the Government consider seriously the recommendation of the excellent report of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and others, Article 18: An Orphaned Right, which includes the right to change one’s religion, which was omitted from the final communiqué of CHOGM—I wonder why. The Government should look carefully at the case for a special envoy or ambassador and I hope that they will come back with a positive response to that.
Baroness Cox (CB):
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on his tenacious commitment to justice and the protection of human rights. From a vast array of concerns, I will focus today on Burma and Nigeria.
The widely celebrated reforms in Burma are welcome but while western political leaders, investors and aid agencies flock to Rangoon, many ethnic national peoples suffer military offensives, gross violations of human rights by the Burmese army and exploitation of their natural resources by the Burmese Government.
The Muslim Rohingya people suffer systematic oppression, with 140,000 forced to live in dire conditions in camps in Rakhine state and thousands more forced to flee to Bangladesh or in precarious boats to other countries. Human Rights Watch describes the situation as “ethnic cleansing”. Will Her Majesty’s Government support calls for an independent international inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity?
My small NGO, HART, works with partners in Shan, Kachin, Karen and Karenni states. We have visited them to witness the plight of their people, which has not been reported by the media. In Kachin and Shan states, the Burmese army continues military offensives, driving hundreds of thousands of civilians to camps for the displaced. We have seen their destitution and heard heartbreaking stories of atrocities perpetrated by the army, including the recent rape of girls aged eight and 15.
Land confiscation and environmental degradation from investment projects are increasing, as in northern Shan state, with China’s oil and gas pipelines. Indeed, people in Shan state are asking what sort of peace this is, when they are losing more and more of their lands and livelihoods.
In Karen state, the cessation of fighting is welcome, but the ceasefire allows the Burmese army to build more, larger camps along the Salween river and the Burmese Government to exploit, destroy or confiscate natural resources, with no compensation. Human rights violations by the Burmese army, including sexual violence against women, continue with impunity.
Burma’s ethnic national peoples share many concerns; for example, that the 2008 constitution, which does not recognise the rights of ethnic national peoples or allow for the development of a federal union, will become the accepted political road map for Burma, and that ethnic national people, who retain their armies for protection from Burmese military aggression, will be seen as rebel groups with rebel armies.
Their situation is best expressed in the words of their own local leaders. I quote a leader of the Shan people:
“The Burmese Government has conceded just enough credibility to achieve everything it wants from the international community: investment, aid and hosting international events”.
A senior officer in the Shan state army said:
“When the lights went on in Rangoon, everyone rushed there—and nobody stopped to visit us in the darkness”.
A healthcare worker helping displaced people in the jungles of Karen and Karenni states said:
“They are playing a game like Chess: take one piece at a time. While they sign a ceasefire with the Karen, they launch major offensives in Kachin State. They wear a beautiful mask, but the original face, which is brutal, is hidden”.
Will Her Majesty’s Government make much stronger representations to the Burmese Government to desist immediately from military offensives against civilians in Kachin and Shan states; to increase humanitarian assistance to displaced people in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states and allow unhindered access for international aid and human rights organisations; to call the Burmese army to account for violations of human rights, including murder, torture and rape; to ensure that concessions granted to the Burmese Government in recognition of recent reforms do not promote exploitative investment; and to allow ethnic national people to participate in discussions and agreements concerning the extraction of resources from their own lands—and the future of Burma?
I turn very briefly to the disturbing situation in Nigeria’s northern and central belt regions. The escalation of violence in the past two years by the Islamist Boko Haram movement follows two decades of violence in which thousands of Christians have been killed and hundreds of churches destroyed. Although Christian communities may have resorted to self-defence, the instigation of violence has been consistently asymmetrical, and now Boko Haram has stated its commitment to drive all Christians out of northern Nigeria.
We work with partners in Plateau, Kano and Bauchi states. These states are generally not visited, for security reasons—which is why we have gone there—and we have seen the suffering of local communities, as well as initiatives by local leaders, such as the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi, and the Anglican Bishop of Bauchi, to promote reconciliation between the different faith communities. Given Boko Haram’s escalating violence against Christians and its equally brutal killings of Muslims who do not support it, will Her Majesty’s Government do more to support these initiatives, in addition to the already well supported programmes in Kaduna state?
I conclude by expressing gratitude for the opportunity to highlight situations that we encounter working with victims of oppression, who are often trapped behind closed borders or off the radar screen for security reasons. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some reassurance to some of these hidden victims of violations of human rights in our world today.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead (Lab):
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for giving us the opportunity to have this timely and important debate. I also thank him for his tireless efforts, in this House and outside, to expose the persecution and ill treatment of people. My comments could apply equally to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. They are an example of why this House exists and why we have to take an interest in other people’s affairs.
This debate is timely because there are currently seven people on a hunger strike here in London. A group of very brave people are calling for the release of seven hostages taken by Iraqi forces at the behest of the mullahs in Tehran. Many Members of this House will be aware of the hostage situation in Iraq. The tragedy of the hostage-taking is quite easily traced back to the evil regime in Tehran. This House is indebted to the persistence and determination our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, who cannot be with us today but who keeps members aware of what is happening to those seven hostages. His efforts are in stark contrast to those of our own Government, who appear to be quite laid back about latest outrage and abuse of human rights in Iran.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending a meeting in this House on the human rights situation in North Korea—another meeting arranged by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. We heard from Mr Michael Kirby, the chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. We heard a report on the situation in North Korea. My remarks today will concentrate on the dreadful situation in Iran, but at the meeting on North Korea I heard a quote from a Mr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of you will know of Dietrich Bonheoffer; I did not—I put that down to my obvious lack of education. The quote stuck in my mind; I wrote it down straightaway. Mr Bonheoffer said:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil”.
I must confess that I did not know anything about him, but now I know much more. He was hung by the Nazis just 23 days before the German surrender. I am confident that that brave Lutheran pastor, who opposed the Nazis, would be with us in this debate today, not being silent but speaking out about what is going on.
While we remain silent, the evil regime in Tehran and the hearts of those wicked people grow stronger. It is almost 30 years since I first became involved in protests about human rights abuses in Iran. Over the three decades, I have seen evidence of the torture wrought upon innocent people: gouging of eyes, lashings and stoning of women. Many other things have gone on that are too evil to talk about, but in my locker in this House I have the video evidence of how those wicked people have treated their own people.
I think of those poor people of Ashraf camp, where they put loudspeakers right the way round, bombarding them 24 hours a day and driving them mad with the incessant noise. In recent years, we have seen unprovoked attacks on the residents of Ashraf. On 1 December, 52 people were killed—52 lives extinguished by these wicked people. Those victims had been promised protected person status when the Americans and British left Iraq. Our Government promised that we would look after those people in Ashraf, but they quickly abandoned all attempts to give them some guarantee of freedom. All they get is ever more pressure, ever more torture and ever more violence against them.
I also recall with great sadness the murder of Faezeh Rajabi. Faezeh was a 19 year-old girl who communicated with us by a telephone link, and I had the pleasure of talking to her. She died among her friends in the massacre of 8 April 2011. I also think about the 16 year-old girl who appeared in court having been raped and assaulted by a man. The judge said to her, “You’re responsible for this immorality”. She had the temerity to argue with the judge and he ordered, “Take her out” and she was hung. She was a 16 year-old girl. When people talk about the “moderate” Mr Rouhani, I would suggest that if you are going to parley with him, you should take a very long spoon. There is not time to tell this House about his pedigree, but I recommend that all those who want to know what this so-called moderate is all about should read about him. I deplore him and the people he represents. Maybe we should remember those voices that are silent now, of Lord Corbett, of Lord Slynn, of Lord King of West Bromwich and Lord Archer of Sandwell. They called over the years for our Government to do something stronger about what is going on Iran and I echo their sentiments today.
Lord Cormack (Con):
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead. I pay my tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has been an indefatigable campaigner. He gave a very fine keynote speech today and it is a privilege to take part in this debate. It is a privilege also to follow four very distinguished, and I might say distinguishable, maiden speakers, each one of whom brought a particular quality to our deliberations.
In a brief debate, I want to highlight one or two things. First, we must always be persistent—the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, did right to quote the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think back to those in our own country who struggled for what we now take for granted but what, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, pointed out, is certainly not taken for granted in many parts of the world. I think of Wilberforce and his campaign against slavery, and Shaftesbury, who rescued children. We have a great deal to be proud of—which does not mean that we have great deal to be complacent about. We must also remember that persistence pays off.
I want to relate two, very brief stories to the House from my own experience. I do it in the light of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, who talked about Russia as it is today—and certainly there is a great deal of imperfection. When I came into Parliament some 43 years ago, I immediately became a great friend of the noble Lord, Lord Janner. We decided to form a campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry. He thought that it was right that I should chair it, as a Christian, and he was a very tireless secretary. I am sorry that he is not in his place at the moment, because I pay tribute to him. At that time, it was impossible to get a visa to go to Moscow to argue our case. It was impossible to get religious books accepted in the Soviet Union. I remember we sent one, signed by all the party leaders, to a dissident called Slepak’s son for his bar mitzvah. It was sent back. Twenty years later, as a member of an international commission on human rights, I took part in an epiphany service in the Kremlin in a place where the leaders of the Soviet bloc countries had gone in the past and Christian worship would never have been permitted. At that service, handed to Mr Gorbachev’s special representative and chef de cabinet, Andrei Grachev, was a volume of the Scriptures which was symbolic of a million Bibles being accepted into the Soviet Union. That was true progress.
I relate just one other incident. Two years later, in 1972-73, we were in Vienna receiving some who had come out and been given visas. There was one young lady who spoke the most perfect English. I joked with her and said, “You must have been top of all your classes” and she said, “Well, actually, I was, until the day after my parents were granted the visa, when I was summoned to the vice-chancellor’s office and told that I had been the victim of a mistake and I had failed everything”. Twenty-one years later, I stood in that vice-chancellor’s or chancellor’s office in the University of Tartu in Estonia, a country by then a member of the European Community and of NATO, and rejoiced at the freedoms that had come.
I tell these two very brief stories merely to illustrate that persistence can and does pay off. It is important that we maintain dialogue—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the Helsinki accords. It is important that we keep contact with those countries whose regimes we deplore, and it is important that we deplore them publicly so that there is pressure on the leaders of those countries to make them realise that they are not acting in isolation but are being looked at, and that their words and deeds are being monitored. Let us remember that in almost every country of which we are talking, be it Pakistan, Nigeria or Iran, a vast majority of ordinary, decent people are desperate to have the freedoms which we enjoy and which my noble friend Lord Finkelstein spoke so movingly about earlier in this debate. If we are going to be able to ensure that human rights really are universal, we must keep up both the public and the private pressure.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB):
My Lords, the debate we are having today on human rights violations and the Government’s response to them is of critical importance to our relations with a whole range of countries where those abuses have taken, or are taking, place. These are not simple judgments to make and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has done much to shine a spotlight of publicity on so many such countries, most particularly North Korea, deserves credit for insisting that we examine the dilemmas posed to our foreign policy.
It is easy enough to caricature the two extremes: a foreign policy based solely on realpolitik, aimed at securing the national interest as narrowly defined; and, on the other hand, what has been called an ethical foreign policy where human rights considerations override all others. However, it is also easy to dismiss either of those extremes. The real dilemmas are to be found in the foreign policy choices that lie between those two extremes, and they have to take account of the separate circumstances of individual countries. There is no single template for policy which can be applied worldwide.
This week the spotlight is very much on Sri Lanka, where the Commonwealth Heads of Government have been meeting, where massive abuses of human rights by both sides took place during the final phases of the civil war, and where the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights recently discerned a drift towards authoritarian rule, with pressure on an independent judiciary and free press. I trust that the Minister will give the House some idea of how the President of Sri Lanka responded to the Prime Minister’s representations. Will she also assure us that the Government will not slacken in their advocacy of an independent inquiry into the events at the end of the war? An inquiry is surely going to have to be international if it is to be truly independent. Will we also keep up the pressure on the need for reconciliation and genuinely even-handed treatment of all ethnic and religious groups in that country if the present very welcome peace there is to be consolidated and sustained?
In considering how Britain should respond to human rights abuses, I suggest that one mistake we need to avoid is looking at the issue principally, or even solely, in the context of our bilateral relationship with the country in question. However, Britain’s influence and leverage are unlikely to be decisive nowadays. All too often we have seen how easy it is for the country in question to punish us for our temerity and play us off against other countries which have been less assertive. We saw that over the Chinese reactions to the Prime Minister receiving the Dalai Lama, and the Russians are past masters at that game. A multilateral approach is not just a soft option and makes it more difficult for the country on the receiving end of the pressure or the sanctions to divide and rule. I give a few examples of where it has been very successful: the Commonwealth sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa; the wide-ranging international sanctions on the military regime in Burma; and the pressure the European Union is bringing to bear on Ukraine in the run-up to the Eastern Partnership summit later this month. This surely points to our making maximum use of the multilateral instruments and forums that exist for handling human rights. How effective are those instruments and what sort of shape are they in? As many other speakers have said, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights must surely remain the cornerstone of our activity, whether multilateral or bilateral. However, it contains no enforcement machinery and the UN Human Rights Council, established in 2006, has yet to prove itself fully, although its universal periodic review of every member state’s human rights record is an instrument of real value. We need to do what we can to strengthen the hand of the admirable High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Pillay, who visited London recently. In that context, I hope that the Minister will say what response the Government gave to Ms Pillay’s plea for an increase in our voluntary contribution to her office’s work to help reverse the recent reduction in resources at her disposal.
Then there is the Council of Europe, the convention and the court of human rights, which is so often intemperately denounced for excessive interference in our affairs. Do those critics ever stop to consider the work the council’s machinery does in a whole range of countries whose human rights record is well short of perfection? Any action we might take which weakens that machinery would inevitably reduce its effectiveness.
I conclude with a simple thought. The 20th century saw probably the most widespread, dramatic and repugnant abuses of human rights in recorded history. The challenge to us is to ensure that in the 21st century the world turns away decisively from that appalling inheritance and that Britain plays a prominent part in bringing that about.
Lord Triesman (Lab):
My Lords, I echo the congratulations given to the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and to my noble friends Lady Kennedy of Cradley and Lord Mendelsohn on their outstanding speeches and look forward to their future contributions. I was intrigued to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, has five guitars at home, as do I. It sounds to me as if we have a basis for at least some sort of discussion.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate, which centres on human tragedy and the stance that we should take to it, and for providing the architecture for it: that is, the 1948 universal declaration, and the need to construct foreign policy with Article 18 in mind. Indeed, that was enlarged on by my noble friend Lord Parekh. Her Majesty’s Government—in my view, rightly—have set out their six priorities and their decision to serve on the human rights global machinery. I support these priorities unreservedly, not least because they flow from the voices of victims. These priorities orientate us. However, I hope that we will also explore the contradictions which result from them, as did the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a few moments ago.
I have a similar objective to that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, which includes his point about multilateralism. I will focus on capital punishment as an example of a priority. Our strategy is to oppose the use of the death penalty because we promote human rights and democracy and because there are no circumstances in which we believe that it is appropriate or ethically justified. We want to influence people and dissuade them from using capital punishment, including those with whom we enjoy normal, peaceful diplomatic and trade relations, such as our traditional friends the United States, but also countries such as China or Iran. We are also clear about the imperative of developing relationships with those countries.
Iran, with whom we seek a renewed relationship, not least because we wish to reach an accord on nuclear enrichment and end conflict in Syria, has killed at least 120,000 people judicially and non-judicially since the overthrow of the Shah. It routinely executes minors, and nearly half of those suffering the death penalty are under 30. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Kennedy on her important intervention about children generally; the execution of children is part of that. There have been 59 United Nations General Assembly resolutions and countless reports by the human rights commission but they have had more or less no impact.
I support all that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said about the murders at Camp Liberty, North Korea, Joseph Kony, and much else. I also support what the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said about Burma, the analysis of Syria of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the remarks made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, about the suppression of people because of their caste. The United Kingdom’s priority is clear and right, yet “no relationship with Iran” is a position that it would be difficult to advocate or sustain in the world of real politics. We lobby at a high level, fund human rights and pro-democracy projects and take trenchant positions on all these issues. However, we cease diplomatic relations only exceptionally and unwillingly. That seems sensible and necessary in most circumstances.
The FCO has a priority to prevent torture and, a few moments ago, my noble friend Lord Clarke illustrated what this means in Iran. Again, the ethical priority cannot somehow mean that we cease to deal with states that employ torture, much as it is repugnant to us. That is not out of indifference or cynicism but because we need relationships to address a wide variety of global and regional problems. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke of the problem of dealing with tyrants. I can personally say that you may end up talking for days, as I did in Doha, with people who you would rather see hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, if only you could achieve that outcome.
The FCO also has a priority, which was rightly emphasised by my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland, to end violence against women and girls—a problem which is now frequently a weapon of war, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, so rightly said. We have a detailed policy that repays reading, as will study of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby has said today. Equally, the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, talked about gay people’s rights. We should prioritise all these issues, just as we prioritise the renewal of the push towards democracy. In this case, we apply few tests of who we will or will not deal with. There is no adequate litmus test available, and even when we hold our noses, we frequently have to prefer to talk.
Like the late Robin Cook, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Patten, also referred today, I ask myself what might guide us in these difficult times and give us a chance to set out a strategy that is neither naive nor bombastic about human rights. What guides the post-Cold War world, a world of multipolarity? There is a great instinct in general to hold nations directly or indirectly accountable for their actions. It is our current trajectory that I want to look at. Do we balance properly the ethical foreign policy that we should adopt, if we can, with the United Kingdom’s national interest and its commitment to human rights? There must be a new disposition between all these.
I conclude that there will never be an unbending standard to judge every circumstance and, equally, that no foreign policy can be humanity blind because it might happen to suit us on a particular day because of a particular commercial interest. If we were to do so it would give full scope to dictators, war criminals, illegal arms dealers and others. It would demand of us only that we looked after our own security and financial profitability. We would have intervened in Libya because it had armed the IRA and not because it was slaughtering its own people. These are the issues that we have to face. We would have turned our backs, in those circumstances, on the 1948 convention.
Does the Minister agree that the core guidelines, which we may need to behave more appropriately now, are perhaps these? First, our foreign policy in these areas should obviously protect our security and that of our allies, while promoting conditions in which we are least likely to be attacked at home or have our people attacked in other parts of the world—and we should do so with our allies in a multilateral way. Secondly, while our choice of means in such circumstances would almost always lead to peaceful means, we must acknowledge circumstances where, for the right and wholly disclosed reasons and with parliamentary consent, wherever possible, we should intervene as a last resort with proportionate steps and reasonable prospects of success. I labour this point because, aside from our own security—the paramount reason—we also have obligations to protect. They are part of our international obligations and often imply preventing, reacting and rebuilding after conflict. I find it hard to conceive of retaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, as I wish this country to do, if only the United Kingdom’s interests ever determined the judgments that we made.
My noble friend Lady Howells made the point that human rights must be matched by a responsibility to protect; she is absolutely right. I commend my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn and the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, on their comments in this regard. In my final few moments I will commend also the work of the Canadian Government, who have captured this thought. Their international commission on intervention judges the evidence of serious harm, including mass murder and starvation, and whether the state involved is unwilling, unable or opposed to averting such harm. If these conditions hold, the principle of non-intervention yields to the responsibility to protect—something that we should take very seriously. It was close to Robin Cook’s thinking, and I believe that it was close to Tony Blair’s in his speech to the Chicago press club.
In all these cases, what we may need is a realistic checklist that gets us through how we are to deal with despotic, murderous and antidemocratic regimes—regimes for whom war crimes are just a tool that they use from their toolkit—and at the same time oppose the behaviour that they espouse. I commend the Canadian approach as being among perhaps the best architecture that has been designed. It was somewhat lost in the aftermath of 9/11 and it is hardly known or studied in many circles, but it should be. It should also be fully debated and I hope that on some occasion, we may have the opportunity to do so in your Lordships’ House. Let us try to make sure that we are debating the fundamentals of how we proceed alongside the examples of egregious harm.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con):
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his tireless efforts to shine a light on the darker corners of humanity. He brings to our attention the plight of those suffering human rights abuses throughout the world, not just today but on a regular basis in your Lordships’ House. Secondly, I take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lady Suttie, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and my noble friend Lord Finkelstein on their maiden speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, mentioned the phrase “Behind every man” but did not complete it. I have a phrase of my own: behind every powerful woman there is usually a man who wakes up in the morning and says, “Darling, where are my socks?”. Given the in-depth knowledge of the area of human rights among the noble Lords who made their maiden speeches today, I very much look forward to hearing more from them on these issues.
This has been a wide-ranging debate and it is almost impossible for me to respond fully in 20 minutes, so I apologise if I do not address all concerns. As always, the interventions were thought-provoking and wide-ranging. It was incredibly interesting to hear from noble Lords such as my noble friend Lord Cormack, who can through his own experience recall changing situations around the world. I am also grateful for the incredibly thoughtful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, who eloquently detailed the challenges, conflicts, considerations, principles and pragmatisms that all play into our foreign policy—and, of course, human rights as a part of that.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights underpins what we do but, sadly, it is too often disregarded. We take our place in the international human rights community incredibly seriously. That is why we campaigned most recently for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. I am delighted to say that we were elected with 171 votes, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, for his kind congratulations. As the noble Lords know, the Human Rights Council was set up in 2006 and has addressed numerous rights-related situations in countries such as Burma, North Korea, Belarus, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Iran and Sri Lanka, to name a few. The United Nations Human Rights Council also addresses important thematic human rights issues such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and business and human rights.
A number of Human Rights Council resolutions, such as those on Libya, have led to vital action at the UN Security Council. When our term begins in January, we will bring this commitment and ambition, as well as our resources, to support and strengthening the council, and to uphold the independence and effectiveness of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—something that we believe is of paramount importance. Of course, we will be working alongside countries whose records on human rights give us cause for concern, too. But with membership comes responsibility and we will not shirk from reminding other states on the Human Rights Council of their responsibilities.
The universal periodic review process has played a critical role in facilitating the wider acceptance of international human rights scrutiny. The success of UPR is a priority for the UK; it is often the first time that a state has had the opportunity to carry out an open, self-critical review of its human rights commitments. The majority of states have engaged constructively, and the UPR looks likely to help facilitate wider acceptance of international human rights standards. It is therefore a crucial tool for implementing our human rights priorities. The UK works hard to ensure that other countries approach the UPR process in a transparent and constructive manner, and it is therefore important to us that we are able to demonstrate having taken the process seriously ourselves. The UK’s own UPR was successfully presented in 2012 by the Ministry of Justice, under the direction of my noble friend Lord McNally.
We have pledged to use the membership of the Human Rights Council to work for the protection of the most vulnerable in our societies, responding actively to global challenges and looking ahead to the future of universal human dignity, and to keep human rights at the core of the UN’s work. We will particularly press forward on the six global thematic priorities that the Government have set. Before I go through them, though, I acknowledge the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, of considering LGBT issues as a thematic priority. I will certainly consider that at the time of our review.
We continue to work on our first priority, which is the abolition of the death penalty. We work with the all-party parliamentary group, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, to push forward the debate towards abolition in countries that retain the death penalty. We fund practical initiatives, such as training judges and lawyers and modernising penal codes, to reduce the use of the death penalty. We work for an increase in countries voting in favour of the UN’s biennial resolution against the death penalty, which will be run next in 2014. This demonstrates how, over time, the tide of global opinion is turning against the use of the death penalty.
Another priority is on initiatives to prevent torture. We are running a global campaign to encourage states to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and the optional protocol. The protocol compels states to establish intrusive mechanisms of inspection of places of detection, to shine a light on the treatment of people held by the state. We share the UK’s own experience of implementing the optional protocol through Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, and run projects to help states to set up their own systems to end the scourge of torture.
We use our membership of the HRC to push for more states to take action to implement the UN guiding principles on business and human rights—another thematic priority. This specifically references the principle of the effective abolition of child labour, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. The UK has done this through its own action plan, launched in September by the Foreign Office and the Business Secretary. The plan responds to the call for British business to help the principles flourish in every market, in a way that respects human rights and ensures proper remedy for those whose human rights are harmed by business activity. I hope that this is seen as the start of the Government setting the tone on expectations and standards, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Hastings.
On the specific issue of child labour, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, at the Human Rights Council in March this year the UK co-sponsored the resolution on the rights of children, which further calls upon all states to translate into concrete action their commitment to the progressive and effective elimination of child labour, which interferes with a child’s education and is harmful to a child’s health, both physical and mental, and to their moral and social development. The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, was right to reference in his maiden speech that market forces too must work for the benefit of the populations of countries that are rich in resources.
Another priority for the Foreign Office is working to ensure freedom of expression, both online and offline. Freedom of expression underpins democracy and is the gateway to many other rights and freedoms. In a networked world we need to ensure that people everywhere, including those not yet connected to the internet, can enjoy the economic and social benefits of a free, open internet, and can do so safely and securely. This is the vision that the Foreign Secretary set out on the London conference on cyberspace in 2011, which has since been taken forward by conferences in Budapest and Seoul, and which we will further pursue at the conference in 2015 in The Hague.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, detailed harrowing examples of the abuse of women. Women’s rights are another priority—tackling one of the greatest challenges of the century, to ensure that the full social, economic and political participation of women becomes commonplace. We work to end impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war and for wider violence against women and girls. We share our own experiences in tackling problems that the UK faces, along with many other countries, from how to get women on boards to ensuring that no girl has to endure the trauma of FGM or forced marriage.
I take on board what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, said about violence in a domestic situation. The Foreign Secretary, however, has focused his efforts on preventing sexual violence in conflict because he feels that accountability and justice is an area where there is the most glaring lack of political will, and where Governments can make the most difference. The PSVI initiative supports existing and extensive cross-government work on conflict prevention and violence against women and girls. The initiative has made excellent progress in securing great international commitment to tackling sexual violence in conflict. G8 Ministers agreed a historic declaration in April, and in June we secured the first Security Council resolution on this issue in years.
In September at the UN General Assembly, the Foreign Secretary launched the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which has so far been endorsed by 135 countries. The political campaigning has been underpinned by practical action that is already starting to take place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the DRC, Kosovo, Libya and Mali and on the Syrian borders. I commend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby for referring to the White Ribbon project, to which I was able to lend support only yesterday; it is an incredibly important initiative for men to speak out against violence directed at women.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, also spoke about the Istanbul convention. The UK is supportive of the principles underpinning that convention but there remain a number of areas that need further consideration before a final decision can be made on whether to sign—particularly the criminalisation of forced marriage and the extension of extraterritorial jurisdiction to the wide range of offences in scope of the convention. As part of this further consideration, the UK Government launched a consultation in December 2011 on whether to create, for example, a new offence of forced marriage. The Government are considering how these and other issues might be resolved, and will make a statement in due course. Should the final decision be that the UK signs the convention, primary legislation will need to be introduced to make sure that the UK law is compliant.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, raised the issue of the abuse of human rights of disabled members of our society. In 2012 we used our role as host nation of the Paralympic Games to highlight the power of sport to deliver the vision of the UN convention. The UK is proud to have welcomed the highest ever number of participating Paralympic teams at the Games, and disability rights were a core element of our joint communiqué on human rights.
The sixth thematic priority, and a personal priority of mine, is one that was raised by my noble friends Lord Selkirk and Lord Patten and the noble Lord, Lord Singh: the freedom of religion and belief. I shall explain what religious freedom means to me. It means the freedom to have a religion, to believe what one chooses to believe, to manifest those beliefs, to show them outwardly, to share them with others, to change your faith or to not have a faith, and to do so without fear of discrimination, attack or persecution. I echo the words of my noble friend Lady Berridge that we place emphasis on both religion and belief. We work in this area in many ways, including in multilateral organisations—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, is sometimes the most effective way.
Within that, we are committed to working with the United Nations Human Rights Council to implement Resolution 1618. This resolution lays the foundations for combating discrimination against people based on their religion throughout the world. Political consensus is crucial to achieving that. Therefore, in January this year I brought together in London Ministers and senior officials, from the Foreign Minister of Canada to the Foreign Minister of Indonesia and the OIC, to try to take forward a political track to the Istanbul process. A further meeting was held in New York during the UN General Assembly week.
We also engage on this issue through bilateral engagement. I have made freedom of religion a priority in the areas that I have responsibility for, but I also believe that every Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is and should be an ambassador for religious freedom. We saw that with the Prime Minister in Sri Lanka only days ago. Each and every one of us raises and promotes these issues in the countries for which we have responsibility.
Thirdly, we engage in project work with human rights and faith-based organisations around the world, particularly those that bridge sectarian divides and promote dialogue between religions.
Fourthly, given the key role that faith plays in our global politics today, we are equipping our diplomats with the understanding of the crucial role that religion plays in the world today. We are ensuring that experts on freedom of religion and belief sit on the Foreign Secretary’s Advisory Group on Human Rights. I am planning to hold a conference on freedom of religion and belief next year to bring the many strands of this work together.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield and others suggested the appointment of an ambassador for religious freedom. We keep this constantly under review, but we have also been looking at the experiences of other countries that have done this and we have seen that, disturbingly, these ambassadors are sometimes not given access to the countries, or indeed to individuals at the highest level in those countries, to raise these challenges. Therefore, it is important that we make sure that we work in the most effective way in this area.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, that we have greater credibility overseas if our record at home is good—a point made eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked me specifically about meeting Navi Pillay. I do not have an answer to that but I will certainly write to him with an update.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Parekh, Lord Anderson and Lord Hannay, spoke of CHOGM. There has of course been much debate about the Prime Minister’s decision to go to last week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka. I believe that the Prime Minister was right to go. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, not talking to people is never the answer. By going, the Prime Minister shone a spotlight on the situation there, and he was the first foreign leader to visit the north of the country since 1948. Because of his decision, journalists were granted access that would otherwise have been impossible to gain, and the local people—the families of the missing—were given an international voice.
The PM was bold and blunt in his views. He had a frank and tough meeting with the President, in which he clearly set out the need for Sri Lanka to make further progress in a number of areas, including a credible and transparent independent investigation into allegations of war crimes. If the Sri Lankan Government fail to do this, the UK will fully back an international investigation. The talks also covered a meaningful political settlement with the north, including demilitarisation, and proper implementation of the range of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommendations. However, I accept that more needs to be done, not just in Sri Lanka but to ensure that the principles of the Commonwealth charter are applied by the countries of the Commonwealth.
My noble friend Lady Falkner asked about Syria. We are deeply concerned about recent media reports of mass graves being discovered in Sadad. We have consistently made it clear that those who have committed these and other crimes during the conflict will be held to account. We have trained more than 60 Syrian activists to document human rights violations and abuses to assist in any future accountability process. We have consistently made it clear that those responsible for the most serious international crimes in Syria should be held to account, and we believe that the situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court. We will continue, publicly and privately, to make the case for ICC referral. We are pushing for a strong resolution on human rights and accountability to be adopted by the UN.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others raised the issue of Camp Liberty. We remain of the view that the Government of Iraq, as a sovereign Government, are responsible for the situation at the camp. We have called on the Government to take all necessary measures to locate missing residents and ensure the safety of the remaining residents at Camp Liberty.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also raised the issue of Sudan. We continue to make the case to the Government of Sudan and the international community that we expect compliance with arrest warrants for ICC indictees. We regularly lobby Governments and make public statements to this effect—for example, when President al-Bashir recently travelled to Nigeria.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, raised concerns relating to discrimination against the Dalit community. DfID has supported the Indian Government’s Education for All scheme, which has helped to bring the number of Dalit children in school proportionately in line with the general population. We have also supported measures in India’s 120 poorest districts to promote empowerment and access to benefits and services for excluded groups. Dalits have been a large part of that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, gave an incredibly interesting account of her experience in Russia. The promotion and protection of human rights continues to be a key priority in our bilateral relationship with Russia. The UK is unique among EU member states in holding annual bilateral meetings to allow formal discussions about human rights. In addition, we regularly meet human rights defenders and NGOs in Russia, and we fund projects run by Russian NGOs to promote progress in human rights.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, asked about the European Convention on Human Rights. We have agreed, in the context of the coalition agreement, that the obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights will continue to be enshrined in British law.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked about Burma. We are lobbying the Burmese Government for further action to address the humanitarian situation. We are providing £4.4 million in humanitarian aid—the largest amount of bilateral aid—for Rakhine state, and we are continuing to support Kachin state. In July, the Secretary of State for International Development announced a further £13.5 million of UK funding. Unfortunately, I shall not be able to address further questions on Burma and Nigeria.
The noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, spoke about Iran. The UK will continue to hold Iran to account for human rights abuses. To date, we have designated, under EU sanctions, more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations, and have helped to establish a UN special rapporteur. Last autumn, we lobbied for the support of a UN General Assembly resolution on Iran’s human rights, which was supported by an overwhelming majority. As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary said, increasing our bilateral engagement with Iran will enable the UK to have more detailed, regular and direct discussions on human rights.
I end by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for allowing us to discuss these important issues. Without respect for human rights, security cannot be guaranteed. Without peace and stability, economies will not grow, poverty will endure, the rule of law will crumble and the cycle of poverty, abuse and instability will perpetuate. Preventing this, breaking this cycle and upholding the fundamental rights to which every human is entitled are at the very core of every aspect of our diplomatic engagement, just as I know it is at the core of the work of this House. Once again, I am grateful for the contribution of all noble Lords to this cause.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
My Lords, it was suggested during Question Time today that your Lordships have no business spending time on non-domestic issues. Twenty-six powerful speeches, including the Front-Bench speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, illustrate why this House should spend time on these issues, why it should bring its insightful, intelligent, well informed and wise contributions to these questions, why we have a duty to use the hard-won freedoms gained over 800 years since the promulgation of Magna Carta, and why we should use our liberties and freedoms to speak for the women in the Congo, the dissidents in Iran, the 300,000 in the gulags in North Korea or the 44 young people who were murdered by Boko Haram while sleeping in a dormitory in northern Nigeria.
Anyone who doubts the relevance or purpose of your Lordships’ House should read today’s Hansard. During my time here, I have felt deeply privileged to be able to work with many of your Lordships who have spoken in today’s debate. In four remarkable maiden speeches, we have heard about the oppression of gay people, about Putin’s Russia, about the need for an overarching strategy on human rights and about child labour.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, reminded us that the welcome modern slavery Bill will appear later this year. More than 200 years ago, William Wilberforce and his friends believed that they had abolished slavery. Interestingly, he also said, “Now we must turn our attention to the Dalits and the caste system”. These old evils still need to be combated, even as new giants emerge. Perhaps in our generation we might make caste history. Wilberforce, whose biographer is our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, once remarked that, having seen the evidence, “we cannot turn away”. Today, there has been no shortage of evidence and, like Wilberforce, we cannot turn away.
During our debate, we heard mention of the assault on the right to belief. It was mentioned in many speeches, including those of the two right reverend Prelates. I agree with Timothy Shah, who said:
“When people lose their religious freedom, they lose more than their freedom to be religious. They lose their freedom to be human”.
Lest anyone doubts the evidence, let them read the 160-page report that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office publishes every year on human rights violations. If a Select Committee produced that report, there would be a mechanism to debate it. It should be a given that every year we should have a full-scale debate on that annual report in both Houses. It should not be left to the vagaries of a ballot. Given the vast experience in your Lordships’ House on all our Benches, it is patently absurd that there is not anInternational Affairs Select Committee, a Foreign Affairs Select Committee, where issues such those that we have been debating today can be examined in detail.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly said:
“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”.
We have seen remarkable change in our lifetime—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the beginnings of a peace process in Northern Ireland. Since coming to your Lordships’ House, I have been able to go to Burma on four occasions, three of them illegally. Eighteen months ago, I would not have believed that I would be able to address an open air meeting of the National League for Democracy in Yangon. It is a small beginning, a small start and a welcome change.
It was said by Benjamin Franklin that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” We have been vigilant today but, as so many have remarked, we must persist, persist and persist. We must use our freedoms on behalf of those whose freedoms are cruelly denied.