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: – 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.

Meeting at the House of Lords with Mr.Justice Michael Kirby’s Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Abuses in North Korea.


Human Rights

Motion to Take Note

11.37 am

Moved by

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.

11.52 am

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”.

11.58 am

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.

12.04 pm

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?

12.09 pm

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.

12.14 pm

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?

12.18 pm

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.

12.25 pm

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?

12.30 pm

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.

12.34 pm

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.

12.41 pm

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.

12.46 pm

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?

12.51 pm

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.

12.56 pm

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.

1.03 pm

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.

1.08 pm

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.

1.13 pm

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.

1.18 pm

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.

1.23 pm

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.

1.27 pm

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.

1.32 pm

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.

1.38 pm

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.

1.45 pm

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.

1.50 pm

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.

1.55 pm

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.

2.36 pm

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.

2.27 pm

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.

Motion agreed.



North Korea Freedom Week – New book was launched at House of Lords on May 21st and published on May 24th

Shin Dong Hyok featured in Ooberfuse song marking North Korea Freedom Week

Shin Dong Hyok featured in Ooberfuse song marking North Korea Freedom Week

Listen to Vanish The Night by Ooberfuse (featuring the voice of Shin Dong Hyok who was born in Camp 14 and witnessed the execution of his mother and brothers):
See also:

At the Houses of Parliament - where "Building Bridges - Is there hope for North Korea" - published by Lion - will be launched later this month.

At the Houses of Parliament – where “Building Bridges – Is there hope for North Korea” – published by Lion – will be launched later this month.

To order, use your local bookshop or Amazon:

Op-Ed article for The Catholic Herald April 2013

Last month I was in Burma. In the past I had entered the country illegally but this time I had a visa. This time I was able to meet freely with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with Government Ministers, and to speak at an open air meeting of the National League for Democracy. This time I was able to meet with members of the country’s ethnic minorities, some still at war with the regime. This time I was able to travel freely and see the first signs of Burma’s Spring.

Eighteen months ago none of this would have been possible. My visit reminded me how quickly things can change and it made me wonder whether there are lessons in Burma for another isolated rogue State: North Korea.

There are considerable differences between the two countries – not least the absence of a Daw Suu – and in many respects North Korea is simply sui generis. But for decades both have been isolated from their neighbours; both have been dominated by military cliques; both have squandered natural resources while their Command Economies stagnate and their populations suffer; both have had a contempt for democracy and human rights. Both have to live with a powerful neighbour: China.

In North Korea nearly sixty years of austerity, failed self-reliance and famine have left its people suffering in unimaginable ways. There is malnutrition and hunger and earlier this year there were unverified reports of cannibalism.

But, from Burma to the Berlin Wall, the ending of apartheid, Northern Ireland’s Peace Process, and reform in China, unexpected changes can occur quite rapidly.

South of Korea’s De-Militarised Zone there has also been dramatic change.

Kim Dae-jung, the Catholic Opposition leader, who survived assassination attempts and spent six years in prison, saw off military dictatorship and became the country’s democratically elected President and a Nobel Laureate.

At the time, the highly acclaimed Cardinal Archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Stephen Kim, called for “great courage” in opposing “the long dark tunnel of dictatorship” and his cathedral became a place of sanctuary for those who ushered in today’s vibrant democracy and social market economy.

Now it is North Korea which stands at a crossroads.

Will its leaders, like the poet, Robert Frost, take the road less travelled by, the one which would make all the difference. Or, instead of a road leading to peace, prosperity and re-unification, will they continue with the near farcical but dangerous bellicosity which has taken the world to the brink of a new Korean war?

Too often North Korea has been like the boy who cried wolf – with all the dangers and risks of miscalculation implied. Specialising in diplomatic blackmail, it uses brinkmanship to remind the world that it’s still there.

Its leadership uses missile movements and threats of war as a distraction from the internal challenges which it faces.

This is replete with dangers and is accompanied by a power struggle involving the young Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Sung-Taek, and his aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui (now a four star general); the removal, disappearance and killing of top military figures (from an army of more than one million men); and the danger of a Sarajevo moment where a stray bullet or missile precipitates a full scale response and conflagration.

Creating a crisis with the world beyond their borders is designed to intensify the country’s siege mentality and to unite it behind the Kim family; and to show its disdain for the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2094, supported by Russia and, even more tellingly, by China.

China’s new President, Xi Jin Ping, said “No country should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.” However, during March, China simultaneously doubled her oil exports to North Korea .

If Xi is serious about his “ China Dream” he will need to match words with actions and might begin by opening China’s 800 mile border letting refugees cross freely instead of being shot dead as they try to wade the River Yalu or River Tumen – which I visited last September and where fleeing Koreans are routinely murdered.

I have been in North Korea four times. At Panmunjom, where, in 1953, the now suspended Armistice was signed after the deaths of 3 million people, I wrote that : “It’s better for men to build bridges than to build walls.”

Walls require less creative genius and few engineering skill. Bridges, by contrast, are more complex – though they do have the disadvantage of being walked over. The international community should discount that disadvantage and begin a process of critical engagement – with the objective of a Peace Conference that finally ends the war.

Dialogue and engagement should not be an excuse for appeasement or for timidity in speaking truthfully about the nature of the regime, its ideology, and its policies.

We who share a common belief in human rights, human dignity and freedom must be fearless in confronting brutality and ruthlessness but the on-off policies of the past sixty years, designed to counter North Korean belligerence, have been based on the same “military first” ideology as the policies practiced in North Korea.

For both sides, it has largely been a case of military first, second and third. In this Korean version of the Cold War the acronym MAD ( Mutually Assured Destruction) seems peculiarly appropriate. A military conflict between the North and South would simply lead to colossal loss of life: overwhelmingly Korean lives.

To avert such scenarios we will need a more reasoned and nuanced approach than mutually assured destruction. Such a strategy would –as the Helsinki Process did in the 1980s – take as its starting point the assumption that force will always be met by force but with both sides categorically eschewing territorial ambitions and renouncing the use of military firepower to secure such ambitions. The simultaneous objective would be a calibrated peace process to achieve, in the long term, the complete de-nuclearisation of the peninsula and the reunification of Korea.

In engaging with North Korea we must enter into its psychology – which was shaped by humiliating and cruel occupation by Japan, by a ferocious war, by a genuine fear of foreigners, and by sixty years of paranoia and violent Stalinism – complete with its network of gulags, purges, and a control of citizens and their minds which Stalin would have envied.

North Korea is, in many ways, the victim-turned-perpetrator of systematised abuse – and we need to comprehend this if we are to help it take the less travelled road to reform and reunification.

The West miscalculates when it assumes that North Korea’s leadership can be induced to commit political suicide. It also miscalculates when it assumes that the accoutrements of capitalism – from fashion wear to decent cars, to South Korean music tapes and DVDs – will be enough, by themselves, to assuage the cultivated fear of the world beyond its borders.

As North Korea stands at the crossroads, it must take the same small steps which Burma has taken. What is needed now is a painstaking and patient bridge building strategy, one which cajoles and coaxes, but does not appease.

David Alton (Lord Alton of Liverpool) is Chairman of the All Party Group on North Korea. His book, “Building Bridges: Is There Hope for North Korea?”, co-authored with Rob Chidley and published by Lion, is published next month and may be ordered in advance from Amazon.

Kim Dae Jung Library - his prison Bible and Rosary

Kim Dae Jung Library – his prison Bible and Rosary

Kim Dae Jung Library - his prison uniform

Kim Dae Jung Library – his prison uniform

Kim Dae Jung Library - some of the letters he wrote from his prison cell during the military dictatorship of South Korea

Kim Dae Jung Library – some of the letters he wrote from his prison cell during the military dictatorship of South Korea

At the Tumen River border with North Korea in North East China, September 2012, where border guards shoot North Koreans trying to leave their country

At the Tumen River border with North Korea in North East China, September 2012, where border guards shoot North Koreans trying to leave their country

North_Korea Cambridge 2011ShinDongHyuk-200x200north_korea_mapKim Dae-jung, JPII

 Jang Jin-sung at Westminster

Jang Jin-sung at Westminster

Food Should Never Be Used As A Weapon Of War

Food Should Never Be Used As A Weapon Of War

Around 2 million died during the last famine in North Korea.

Around 2 million died during the last famine in North Korea.

 Jang Jin-sung at BBC World

Jang Jin-sung at BBC World

Burma – Plight of Rohingyas and Kachin Raised In Parliamentary Debate June 5th 2013 and

Question: June 5th 2013 – Followed by Question for Short Debate3.14 pm

Asked by Lord Alton of LiverpoolTo ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of ethnic tensions and progress towards democracy in Burma.

The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): My Lords, we have seen positive steps to end ethnic conflict and strengthen democracy. We welcome the agreement in Kachin to work to end hostilities and to establish political dialogue. However, concerns remain, including recent attacks against minority religions, especially in Rakhine state, where we support humanitarian work, and have called for accountability for the violence there and for citizenship for the Rohingya.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, having seen for myself quite recently the spread of violence against the Rohingya to other parts of Burma and following last week’s violence in Lashio, in Shan state, and this week’s reports of the escalating exodus of people from the Rakhine state into neighbouring countries, what pressure is being put on the authorities in Burma to prevent such violence, to bring the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice, to ensure the rule of law and to resolve the Rohingya’s demands for full citizenship and constitutional rights, which after all lie at the heart of the problem?

Baroness Warsi: The noble Lord always comes to these matters hugely informed, usually having just travelled back from the place that we are speaking about, and I am grateful for that. I think the noble Lord is aware that the United Kingdom has been one of the most front-footed and vocal critics of the violence within Rakhine state. Concerns have been raised by the Prime Minister to the President and by the Foreign Secretary to the Foreign Minister; and Huge Swire, the Minister with responsibility for Burma, and I raised these issues specifically with two Ministers, the Minister responsible for ethnic reconciliation in the President’s office and the Minister with specific responsibility for Rakhine state. We discussed, among other issues, the long-term settlement of citizenship. There has been some progress, but I completely share my noble friend’s concerns about the violence that is spreading beyond Rakhine state.

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Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the recent human rights report on Burma concluded that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have taken place against the Rohingya? In view of those views, does she agree with the conclusions? A simple yes or no answer will suffice and will tell us all we need to know.
Baroness Warsi: I think the noble Baroness will be aware from her own experience as a Minister at the Foreign Office that it would be inappropriate for me to give a simple yes or no answer to a report that clearly needs to be supported by further independent investigative work. I am, of course, hugely concerned about the concerns raised in that report, and our ambassador has already raised them with the Burmese.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the broader problem in the transition to democracy in Burma is that the legal, security and police forces have not come to terms with the idea that Burma is now a multilingual, multireligious and multiethnic state? In advance of the 2015 elections, what are the British Government doing to assist in bringing about reforms in those areas, particularly if that involves training and practical assistance?
Baroness Warsi: I can inform my noble friend that we are doing specific work on police reform. There have been a number of visits both ways to try to progress that work. We are also working on reconciliation after conflict. Burmese Ministers have visited Northern Ireland, colleagues from Northern Ireland have visited Burma, and officials on both sides have been in touch. We are clearly focused on this area.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as a result of the Burmese army’s continuing offensives and violations of human rights in Rakhine and Shan states and still in Kachin state, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced and are living in destitution? I have visited many of them and witnessed their suffering. What representations are being made by Her Majesty’s Government to the Burmese Government to allow access by international aid organisations to all people in need in Burma?
Baroness Warsi: Noble Lords may be aware that there will be a full debate on Burma during the dinner hour later today, so this is very much an opener; we will have the full course later on. I will be able to give the noble Baroness a lot of detail later about that issue, and about the work that the human rights and refugee commissioner is doing.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the discussion in the European Union has focused in recent weeks on whether sanctions were lifted too early. I want to be clear that I have not formed a view as to whether that is the case. What have the United Kingdom Government said in EU foreign service circles about that matter, and what course do they plan to take?
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Baroness Warsi: The noble Lord will be aware that the sanctions were first suspended, and that every member state had to agree to those sanctions remaining in that suspended state. If a single member state had agreed to those sanctions not remaining, the whole regime would have failed. We felt that we needed to put our energies into getting agreement across member states to make sure that the arms embargo remained in place.

Baroness Nye: After President Obama’s visit to Burma last year, the Burmese Government agreed to allow the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to open an office. What representations have the British Government made on this matter to try to speed things along?
Baroness Warsi: We continue to make representations on this matter. We, too, felt hopeful when President Thein Sein said that he would allow this office to be opened. He reiterated that commitment when he met President Obama, and we continue to press him to make real that commitment.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, all these concerns about Burma/Myanmar are very welcome and reflect very well on noble Lords and Members of this House who are concerned about these things. However, could we also add the thought that it is something of a miracle that the country of Burma/Myanmar is now moving towards rejoining the comity of nations? In the longer term, if we work positively and closely with the authorities and face their terrific and very difficult concerns, we will bring them to the democratic pattern that we all admire and maybe even to being members of the Commonwealth. Will the Minister recognise this positive side of our work with Burma for the future?

Baroness Warsi: I absolutely recognise the comments made by my noble friend, whether those concerns relate to prisoner release, freedom of the press or political participation. Of course, we must recognise and congratulate the Burmese for moving in the right direction.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Empey and I had the privilege of being invited to speak with representatives of the Government of Myanmar and, subsequently, with the opposition caucus. They wanted to look at lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland, although the sizes of those countries have very little in common: 1.8 million against 57 million. The one thing missing is a Senator George Mitchell, someone who can be picked, I suggest, from Australia, New Zealand or somewhere in that region and who will act as the honourable broker in resolution. That is something that we as a Government should be committed to.

Baroness Warsi: Clearly, the noble Lord comes to this matter with expertise and experience. We can take heart from the fact that out of the 11 disputes in Burma, 10 ceasefires have been signed and a reconciliation process has started. The challenge is now whether the
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Burmese Government have the political will to see through into real action the commitments that they have made in these reconciliation agreements, but I take the noble Lord’s points.

Question for Short Debate
7.28 pm
Asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress being made in Burma to end ethnic tensions and to secure democracy.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, just over a year ago on 21 June, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addressed both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. There was an understandable sense of euphoria and a sense of “problem solved”. Daw Suu now sits in the Burmese Parliament rather than under house arrest. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released and ceasefires have been agreed with most of the country’s ethnic groups. Space for media, civil society and political actors has increased significantly, and in two years’ time Burma will have elections. Sanctions have been lifted, and Burma’s President, Thein Sein, is travelling the world, feted by world leaders. Only this week the BBC World Service became the first international
5 Jun 2013 : Column 1233
media organisation to deliver news on a mobile platform in Burma, where it has some 8.4 million listeners. Does this not imply that the problem is solved? Is it not time to move on and focus on the world’s other problems?
During a recent visit to Burma it became clear to me that the euphoria is premature, misplaced and profoundly dangerous, a point I made at Question Time earlier today. During that visit, Daw Suu told me—I shall quote her exact words—that some countries are,
“going overboard with optimism, making the government think that it is getting everything right”.
She said that we must be less euphoric and more realistic, and that nations such as ours must get their response right. This should include a rather better and sympathetic understanding of the constraints which are still being placed upon Daw Suu herself.
To explore those issues, I tabled today’s Oral Question and this Question for Short Debate, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who are participating tonight. The focus is on ethnic tensions and the limitations of recent developments. The immediacy of those challenges was underlined by the anti-Muslim violence last week in Lashio in Shan state, which also involved attacks on journalists trying to document what occurred. Mosques, schools and shops had been burnt down, and violence took place in more than 18 townships hundreds of kilometres apart from one another.
As I saw during my visit, partly facilitated by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and from its reports and those of Human Rights Watch, if the challenges posed by ethnic violence are not addressed, they have the capacity to derail Burma’s evolution from military dictatorship into a plural, federal democracy. I met representatives of the Rohingya and the Kachin, whose home states are the two of the bloodiest theatres of ethnic violence. Over the past year, some 192 people have been killed and 140,000 displaced in Arakan state.
The plight of the Muslim Rohingya people is well documented, most recently by Human Rights Watch in its chilling 150-page report, All You Can Do is Pray. It details mass graves from violence that swept Arakan state in June and October last year. At a meeting on 21 May, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Burma considered that report, along with the first-hand account of Rushanara Ali, the Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow, who had recently been in Arakan state.
The Rohingya are among the most persecuted and marginalised people in the world, and they are now facing an intensified campaign of ethnic cleansing. This week, Channel 4 highlighted the plight of thousands of displaced Rohingya who have been forced to flee to Thailand, where they are held in deplorable conditions in detention centres. When the Minister comes to reply, I would be grateful if she could tell us what representations have been made specifically arising out of that report by Channel 4.
I first raised the plight of the Rohingya in your Lordships’ House on 17 July 2006, when I urged the Government to co-ordinate an approach to the United Nations, and I asked that that should be done particularly with Islamic countries to raise the plight of the Rohingya and the deplorable conditions in the refugee camps.
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They are the perfect breeding ground for nurturing a generation of alienated and hostile jihadists. I have repeatedly urged the Government to take action: five parliamentary interventions in 2010, twice more in 2011, again in 2012—and on 28 February this year, I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, whether she would,
“confirm that since 2012, around 5,000 Rohingya Muslim people have been murdered and that many thousands have disappeared”.—[
Official Report
, 28/2/13; col. 1157.]
I also urged her to mediate a visit by the United Nations special rapporteur on religious liberty to the Arakan state. She and I agreed that the Rohingya are living in a system of 21st century apartheid with their citizenship rights having been formally stripped from the constitution. The years, the months and the weeks have passed by, but there has been very little sense of urgency among or a coherent, determined response from the international community.
Six weeks ago, through five further Parliamentary Questions, I again raised the conditions in the camps. I asked about the core issue, the question of the Rohingya claim to citizenship. The Government of Burma need to repeal the 1982 citizenship laws which stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, rendering them stateless. They need to introduce a new citizenship law in line with international norms. They should also be challenged for trying to impose a two child policy on the Rohingya, which in the past seven days Daw Suu has described as, “illegal and against human rights”. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether the Government would be willing to encourage the establishment of two independent inquiries: one through the United Nations to investigate the violence in Arakan state last year and to assess whether crimes against humanity have been committed, a phrase that was used in your Lordships’ Chamber earlier today by the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock; and the other perhaps consisting of independent academics and other experts to assess the historical basis for the claims of the Rohingya in order fully and conclusively to address the claims of the Government of Burma and many in Burmese society that the Rohingya are, as they put it, illegal Bengali immigrants. Years of misinformation about the Rohingya in Burma need to be countered with a full, comprehensive and independent assessment of the history and the facts, if the suffering of the Rohingyas is ever to end.
Similarly, as part of a serious peace process, Thein Sein’s Government must end the Burmese army’s offensive against the Kachin people. While it is to be welcomed that the Government of Burma have agreed ceasefires with many of the ethnic armed groups, over the past two years they have inflicted a very serious offensive against the Kachin people in north Burma. Last week, Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the agreement reached between the Government of Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Organisation, calling it a first step towards reconciliation in the country. Perhaps the Minister can share with us the details of the seven-point agreement and her assessment of its durability.
Over the past 18 months, a number of fragile preliminary ceasefires have been agreed. However, there is a need not only for a ceasefire, but for a peace process. As one Karen put it, “A ceasefire is simply pressing the pause button, and we need to find a way to press the stop button”. That can be achieved only
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through a peace process that involves a meaningful political dialogue with the ethnic nationalities to find a political solution to decades of war.
The military campaign which began two years ago has led to the displacement of 100,000 Kachin civilians, at least 200 villages being burnt to the ground, and 66 churches destroyed. Grave human rights violations have included rape, torture and killings. A recent report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide detailed the story of one Kachin who had been jailed for a year. During his interrogation, he was hung upside down for a day and a night, beaten severely, mutilated with hot knives, and a grenade was shoved into his mouth, his torturers threatening to pull the pin. One Kachin has said that, “The impact of the war this time has been enormous. Many have lost land, plantations, livelihoods … people are living in the middle of nowhere, hopeless, desperate, suffering”. What are the Government doing to encourage the Government of Burma to develop a serious political dialogue with the ethnic minorities? Those nationalities comprise 40% of the population, inhabit 60% of the land, and live predominantly along the country’s borders in some of the most resource-rich areas that lie along the major trade routes. It is therefore in Burma’s own interests, and those of the international community, to see decades of war end and peace and stability established. That can be achieved only through real political dialogue. So far, the changes on the ground in Burma, welcome though they are, amount primarily to a change of atmosphere rather than a change of system.
I want to end by returning to the recent and shocking rise in religious intolerance, hatred and violence. During my recent visit, I visited a Muslim community in a village called Ayela, two miles from Naypyidaw, which is the new capital. I arrived just three days after a large mob of Buddhists from another area had attacked the village. In this particular case no one was injured or killed, but only because they were able to escape. In many other places, notably Meiktila and Oakkan, there has been appalling loss of life. The tragedy is that, previously, the Buddhists and Muslims had lived together for 200 years. However, someone said to me, “We don’t even dare greet each other in the street”. There are various theories about why this wave of anti-Muslim violence has erupted. I would be interested to know what role the Minister thinks that the militant group known as “969” has played.
I end by saying this. I have made three earlier visits to Burma, the first 15 years ago, illegally into Karen state. I am honorary president of the charity, Karenaid. That I can now visit legally and meet ethnic leaders and democracy activists is a small but welcome harbinger of change. However, the international community has a responsibility to do all it can to help in the effort to bring about fundamental change.
7.38 pm
Lord Patten: My Lords, Burma is at grave risk of joining the list of permanent world trouble spots as a failing state. On present trends, it is sinking fast into a terrible cesspit of racial violence and ethnic cleansing, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has just portrayed so
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graphically; he knows much more about it than I do. I believe that Burma desperately needs three things. First, it needs enlightened and outspoken healing democratic leadership; secondly, it needs a miraculous outbreak—I believe in miracles—of religious understanding and human decency between Buddhist, Muslim and Christian alike; and, thirdly, its people need to recognise that unless they bring about stability, they will fail to hoist themselves out of poverty through economic development, something that is achievable within a generation.
On the first point, with hindsight it seems much easier in Burma, as elsewhere, to foment change out of a repressive regime than to embed the further necessary changes thereafter. Remember the soundbite delights of the so-called Arab spring a couple of years back. Tell that to the Copts in Egypt or the Christians in Iraq or Iran alike. Where are the outright and immediate appeals to human decency from the heroines and heroes of recent political change in Burma? They are sadly but understandably muted so far.
Secondly, there is no evidence at all of an outbreak of religious understanding in the face of Burmese, Burman and Buddhist persecution of Muslims and Christians, increasingly led—surprisingly, as they are religious—by some gung-ho Saffron Revolutionary Monks, such as the Venerable Wirathu, who said after last week’s burnings and killings, which spread on 29 and 30 May to the north-eastern town of Lashio, to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has already referred:
“The Rohingya there burned down their own houses so that they could live easily in the refugee camps”.
He then went on to say that the burnings and killings by Buddhist mobs in Meiktila was “forgivable”. The story is similar for the poor Baptists and others in Kachin, who look as though they will face the fate of the Kurds in ever more repressive Turkey, as we have seen in recent days in that country. To an outsider like me, it looks as if the lessons of these recent changes in Burma simply express that it is best not to be a minority of any kind at all. The world community and the Minister need to show a lead in this.
Thirdly, one can only hope that economic change can ride to the rescue as the majority of hard-working, decent Burmese of all religions realise that this increasing endemic violence will prevent their experiencing the rapid advances out of poverty that an Indonesia or a Thailand managed so quickly in a couple of decades. The Burmese could grow their economy by four or five times over the next 25 years with all the inward investment that is needed to build a new deep-water port at Dawei or roads into Thailand. It is a country that I read may soon experience the delights of having a Coca-Cola bottling plant, but it will be among pitiful poverty, with hardly an ATM in sight and hardly any mobile phones or the other things that increasingly power democracy through the messages that they send.
Maybe, in the end, the realisation that they can lift themselves out of poverty will produce that national miracle where there is, as yet, neither much uplifting political leadership or an outbreak of human decency among majority and minority groups. It could well be the engine of social cohesion and national salvation for Burma—something I never thought I would say of economic growth.
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7.43 pm
Baroness Nye: My Lords, I declare an interest as a board member of the Burma Campaign UK and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for arranging this timely debate and for his tour de force on the situation in Burma now.
As the recent McKinsey Global Institute report says, Burma is an unusual country in that it,
“remains an underdeveloped agrarian economy in the heart of the world’s fastest growing regional economy … one of the few remaining largely untapped markets in the world”.
It has many potential drivers of growth and areas that foreign investors can target, but foreign investment will succeed only if there is a politically stable environment in which to do business. That means that human rights cannot be ignored in the rush to be in at the beginning of an expanding economy.
Following some initial positive steps by the Burmese Government in April 2012, the EU decided to suspend economic sanctions, which had gradually been introduced over the past 20 years. However, the EU specified four human rights benchmarks that would need to be met as a way of marking progress before it would consider lifting sanctions entirely. But two months ago the EU did lift sanctions entirely, seemingly without any regard to those benchmarks at all, as most human rights organisations report that the situation has deteriorated. I hope the Minister will agree tonight to publish any review of the benchmarks the Government have conducted which showed that they had been met, and explain why the Government did not support proportionality or a gradual suspension as and when those criteria had been met.
Take the issue of political prisoners, which is being kept under constant review by the Burma Campaign UK. The release of political prisoners has been used repeatedly by President Thein Sein to coincide with a foreign visit to show that reform is ongoing. None of those released prisoners has received any kind of medical care, compensation or acknowledgement that they should not have been in jail in the first place. They still have criminal records with their sentences suspended and no full pardons, not the unconditional release referred to in the EU benchmark statement. Those released are still subject to restrictions on their freedom, including on travel and future political activity. The repressive laws that sent them to jail in the first place are still in place so, as the already incarcerated are released, more are arrested. The UN special rapporteur, after his visit in February, highlighted not only the ongoing detention of political prisoners but the increasing reports of the use of torture.
The Burmese Government have set up a review committee but questions remain about its composition, mandate, timing and lack of independent international experts. Will the Minister update us on whether the Government have confidence that this committee will finally resolve the issue of political prisoners in Burma? I fear the families of the remaining and the newly arrested political prisoners would beg to differ.
The second benchmark was to end conflict but throughout last year, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the conflict in Kachin deteriorated, with the Burmese army using air strikes on civilians and rape
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and sexual violence as weapons of terror. With the signing of the seven-point agreement in recent days, there appears to be the basis of a genuine process of reconciliation in Kachin, which is to be welcomed. However, those 75,000 displaced people in Kachin still urgently need humanitarian assistance, which brings us to the third benchmark.
Agencies are still reporting difficulties in gaining access to the IDP camps in Rakhine, and to Kachin and Shan. The situation will get worse for the people in those camps in the low-lying areas during the approaching rainy season. However, as noble Lords have said, the most disturbing development last year was the violence against the Muslim and Rohingya communities. Indeed, on the very day that sanctions were lifted due to the satisfactory progress that the EU decided had been made, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report which documented crimes against humanity and the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
After the violence in Rahkine, the President called for the “illegal Rohingya” to be sent to third countries and transferred civilian power to the military in a state of emergency that was extended last month. The recent news that the 1994 ban on Rohingya having more than two children is being enforced again is a clear violation of their human rights. Does the Minister accept the evidence of the Human Rights Watch report that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity are happening in Burma?
Concentrating on the economic opportunities that Burma offers, without parallel regard to human rights issues, means that progress on reform can stall. The exit of Vodafone from bidding to become Burma’s first foreign mobile phone company after seeing the final licence conditions shows the perils of companies trying to do business before the country relaxes its controls on access to information and freedom of expression.
In a recent debate on Europe in this House the Minister applauded,
“the intelligent use of sanctions, which in the case of Burma have been attributed as one of the most effective levers in encouraging the regime to implement democratic change”.—[Official Report, 31/1/13; col. 1695.]
I therefore look forward to hearing from the Minister about what changed her and the Government’s mind about the effectiveness of those levers? As an editorial in the Daily Telegraph—not a newspaper I usually agree with—said, on the day that sanctions were lifted:
“Mr Hague and his EU colleagues have now cast aside all their sticks, leaving themselves with no option but to rely on the regime’s goodwill”.
In the absence of those sanctions, what is the policy of the British Government towards the achievement of human rights in Burma?
7.48 pm
Lord Williams of Baglan: My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate and commend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating it and also for his long-standing interest in human rights in Burma. I first visited Burma in 1988, a few months after the suppression of the student revolt, which left many thousands of students killed. Brave students—braver than me—whom I met faced subsequent harassment and in many cases imprisonment. I worked then for Amnesty International.
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I have visited Burma many times since, most recently in 2008, following Cyclone Nargis, which ravished the country and claimed more than 140,000 lives. Terrible though that tragedy was, it may well have been a turning point in modern Burmese history, forcing a reluctant and harsh regime to recognise that it could not cope with the scale of the disaster.
When I last visited, 12 months ago, I found a county much changed, despite the continuing human rights violations that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others have addressed this evening. That transformation is, I believe, the most significant in Southeast Asia since the ousting of President Suharto of Indonesia in 1998. Over the past 18 months, we have seen significant progress, although it remains one of the poorest countries in the region and one with a human rights record which, to say the least, needs to be addressed and improved greatly. There has been dialogue between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. The sweeping victories of the opposition National League for Democracy in by-elections last April were described by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as,
“a dramatic demonstration of popular will”.
Two weeks ago, in the White House, President Obama received President Thein Sein. As President Obama recognised, the scale of the challenge facing Burma, in a difficult transition to more representative governance, is enormous. The country and its Government need all the international assistance, as well as pressure, that they can receive.
I commend our Government for the support that they have given to Myanmar and its people. In that regard, I believe that Prime Minister Cameron’s visit in 2012 was critically important and I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, has any news of a return visit by President Thein Sein, when many of the issues that have been brought up here this evening could be addressed. I commend the Government for what they are doing; in particular, DfID’s support in assisting the process of ethnic reconciliation. Can the noble Baroness also say more in that regard? I believe that the UK can, and should, play an important role and am especially pleased by the current visit of the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards. I hope that that visit will lead soon to the appointment of a British military attaché in Yangon. Any news on that would be welcome. The Burmese Government have agreed to many ceasefires—or, more appropriately, cessation of hostilities—over the years but they lack the will and the capability to transform those tenuous agreements into lasting political accords.
Several days ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, the Government and the Kachin Independence Organisation agreed a seven-point peace pact. For the first time, in a striking development, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Mr Vijay Nambiar, was present during that meeting. I hope that that is perhaps an indication of a greater involvement by the UN in helping Burma in this difficult task of ethnic reconciliation. The most difficult aspect of that at the moment, as has been rightly addressed, is the situation affecting the Muslim population of Rakhine state. The UK must follow that situation closely, and guard against further substantial breaches of human rights,
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but I believe that, equally and at the same time, we must tread a difficult path and support Burma’s leadership —Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein—in the very difficult path along which they are trying to advance their country.
7.53 pm
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this important debate and pay tribute to his active interest in, and commitment to, the cause of freedom and human rights around the world, including in Burma.
I make no claim to any expertise on this specific subject, but I declare an interest for four reasons. First, I hope to visit Burma next month with the All-Party Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health—unless of course my visa is refused as a result of my contribution to this debate. Secondly, I co-chaired the Conservative Friends of International Development. I recognise that Burma is a major recipient of British aid but it is in need of even more humanitarian assistance. Thirdly, I am contributing to this debate having met and talked to Benedict Rogers, deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a well known Burma specialist, who has visited Burma many times, most recently with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in March. Fourthly, last summer I put my name to a letter to the Daily Telegraph, along with noble Lords from across the Chamber, expressing concern about the desperate plight of the Rohingya people. We called for emergency aid to all the victims of violence in Rakhine state, pressure on Bangladesh to allow refugees fleeing persecution across its borders, pressure on the Government of Burma to stop the violence, a serious effort to revise, or repeal, the 1982 citizenship law, which stripped the Rohingyas of citizenship, and a new citizenship law in line with international human rights norms. I repeat those calls today.
I echo many of the points already raised in this debate. Although it is indeed absolutely right to recognise the extraordinary and welcome changes taking place in Burma, to encourage further reform and to open a hand of friendship to the people of Burma as the country opens up and moves towards freedom, it is also essential that we recognise that Burma is just at the very beginning of change, that the early signs of increasing freedom are fragile and that there are many grave challenges still to be addressed.
In the time available, I wish to focus my remarks on a couple of these challenges. First, as others have already noted in depth, the recent anti-Muslim violence is of serious concern. Clearly, there are attitudes within parts of Burmese society that are deeply troubling and need to be addressed through public education and inter-religious dialogue. Such efforts must be encouraged at grass-roots levels, as well as at a national level. However, more urgently, it must be a priority for the international community to urge the President and his Government to end the climate of impunity and to ensure that the security forces act swiftly, effectively and fairly to prevent violence, stop violence when it is occurring, protect vulnerable communities and bring the perpetrators of hatred and violence to justice. Can my noble friend give her assessment of the Burmese
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Government’s response to these crises and say what concrete steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to address these serious concerns with the Burmese Government?
Secondly, I am very pleased that Britain has continued to increase aid to Burma and has been the largest single donor to the country. That is a record to be proud of. I am also pleased that, as part of our aid to Burma, Britain has provided humanitarian assistance to displaced people within the country and along the borders. However, as my noble friend will know, there are two areas which are in particular need of further and urgent assistance: Kachin state and Rakhine state. The war in Kachin state has displaced at least 100,000 people and left more than 200 villages destroyed. In Rakhine state, more than 130,000 people, mainly Rohingyas, have been displaced and are living in camps which the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, described six months ago as “dire”. Will my noble friend tell the House what efforts Her Majesty’s Government are making to secure unrestricted access for international humanitarian aid to all displaced peoples in Kachin and Rakhine states, including those outside government-controlled territory, and what contribution Britain is making to the needs of displaced people in these areas?
I wish to end with one of the most serious challenges in Burma and an issue that should be at the centre of Her Majesty’s Government’s focus on the country, given that it is a personal priority of the Foreign Secretary: sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war. Over the past decade, hundreds of cases of rape and sexual violence have been documented by women’s organisations in six different states. Of the cases of rape that have been documented, almost half are women who were raped and also killed. In Kachin state, many women have been raped during the conflict over the past two years. According to an article in the Guardian in February, Muslim Rohingya women, including teenagers, were raped. Will my noble friend tell the House what plans the Government have to ensure that Burma is included in the Foreign Secretary’s preventing sexual violence initiative?
7.59 pm
Baroness Cox: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on his tireless work for oppressed people and his commitment to obtain first-hand evidence, enabling him to introduce this debate with characteristic authority, knowledge and concern. I will focus on my experience of recent visits to the Shan and Kachin peoples and meetings with representatives of the Rohingya, Karen and Karenni ethnic nationals. Of course I also welcome reforms, including the freedom of the iconic democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the release of several hundred political prisoners, although hundreds more remain in prison. But all ethnic national peoples share fears that reforms may be used by the Burmese Government to further their own agenda, including more exploitation of their resource-rich lands. When I was in Shan state with my NGO, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, or HART, one of the Shan leaders said:
“When the lights went on in Rangoon, all the world rushed to Rangoon; no-one stopped to see us in the darkness”.
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The UN Human Rights Council resolution on Burma passed in March highlighted many aspects of the darkness, including,
“arbitrary detention, forced displacement, land confiscations, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as violations of international humanitarian law”.
These violations of human rights and military offensives against civilians have forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic nationals to flee their homes to live in destitution as IDPs or into exile in neighbouring lands. I appreciate the visit by Minister Hugo Swire to the Rohingya people in Rakhine state but, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Alton and other noble Lords, their plight remains dire with an increase in anti-Muslim propaganda, attacks on communities and the destruction of mosques, homes and businesses. The condition of those who have had to flee into camps is desperate, with many dying from lack of medical care or other essentials.
In Kachin state in June 2011 the Burmese Army broke a 17-year-long ceasefire with military offensives, including aerial bombardment of civilians and widespread violations of human rights such as extra-judicial killings, rape and torture. We in HART visited Kachin state in February and we saw the suffering of the people, 100,000 of whom have had to flee from aerial bombardment and ground defences. We visited some of them living in destitution in makeshift camps along the border with China and we heard gruesome accounts of brutality inflicted on civilians. In Shan state fighting continues in the north and the Burmese Government continue exploitation of this resource-rich land. During our last visit to Shan state we met civilians who had to flee their lands because of military offensives by the Burmese army or expropriation of their land by deals made by the Burmese Government with foreign investors, such as the pipeline being built from India to China which has driven countless Shan civilians off their lands with derisory or no compensation. We met one lady in a camp for Shan IDPs who had lost absolutely everything. All she had left were the ragged clothes she was wearing, and she was one of many.
Given the gravity of the suffering of these ethnic national peoples, there is widespread concern over the Burmese Government’s refusal to allow access to international aid organisations, a point that has been raised by other noble Lords. Other ethnic national peoples who have signed cease-fire agreements, such as the Karen, emphasise that those ceasefires are used by the Burmese Government to extend roads into their lands, for possible future hostile military activities or to increase the expropriation of their natural resources, such as teak and other forms of timber. Although the Kachin leadership and the Government have resumed talks, as has been mentioned by other noble Lords, this is also simply seen as a precursor to a ceasefire and not real peace. The Burmese Government have a sorry record of brokering and breaking ceasefires.
Following the lifting of EU sanctions, what specific tools, mechanisms and leverage do the EU and the UK have to encourage and pressure the Government of Burma to address these grave concerns of the ethnic national peoples and to establish a genuine lasting peace process leading to a political agreement enshrining
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justice and equality for all peoples of Burma? Finally, what progress is there in encouraging the Government of Burma to sign and ratify the international covenant on civil and political rights, and will the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief visit Burma with an assurance of unhindered access to all parts?
I conclude by referring back to the words of the Shan leader:
“When the lights went on in Rangoon, all the world rushed to Rangoon; no-one stopped to see us in the darkness”.
I hope the Minister’s replies tonight will prove that the UK Government have stopped to visit them in the darkness and will do all in their power to prevail on the Burmese Government to bring them into the light of genuine peace, freedom, justice and equality as citizens of Burma.
8.04 pm
Baroness Berridge: My Lords, when faced with such expert eye witnesses to the tragic facts on the ground in Burma as those of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, it is hard to know what to add. But for outside observers I suspect the abiding image is the satellite photo from late last year that so clearly showed the destruction in Rakhine state. A picture does indeed speak more than 1,000 words. I will concentrate on the proposed international and domestic actions which could assist in bringing to an end the ethnic and religious intolerance against the Rohingya people. I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on International Religious Freedom.
At international institutional level in the UN and the OIC there has been much debate around international religious freedom as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, the events in Burma bring sharply into focus the distinction between protecting individuals’ human rights, which is what Article 18 enshrines, and protecting religions—in this case Buddhism—which is not what Article 18 protects. The UN and member states need to show in this situation that they can use soft power, institutional mechanisms and financial pressure to protect the Rohingya Muslim population. I had the privilege of accompanying the Minister on a trip to Srebrenica in 2009. Of course there is a different dynamic for the UN when you are actually physically present as an atrocity such as Srebrenica occurs. But bearing in mind the situation in Syria, I sense that there is a particular need for the international institutions, especially the UN, to show that they can effectively protect a Muslim population like the Rohingyas. Can the Minister tell this House whether there is a danger of extremists influencing Burma’s Muslims from neighbouring nations if the UN fails to act to protect the Rohingya people? Also, could she outline, due to her role in the Department for Communities and Local Government, whether she has received representations from British Muslims on this issue? Nowadays there are very few international issues that do not have a potential domestic dimension.
Although ethnic and religious issues are not always separable, it is clear from the propaganda of the Buddhist monk Wirathu and the 969 campaign that there is a religious dimension to these atrocities. It is
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sad to note that with the Rohingya people there is almost certainly a racial dimension as well. There is mention made in news reports such as in the
in April 2013 that Wirathu’s teachings have large followings on YouTube and Facebook, but does the Minister know if these followings are in Burma as well? I join with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in congratulating the BBC World Service for being the first international news service to broadcast from a mobile platform in Burma where there are now estimated to be 4 million mobile phone subscribers. But highly developed states struggle with the issue of the boundaries of freedom of expression on new technology. How are the Burmese Government coping with this issue and might some simple assistance with monitoring and removing footage have a huge effect and assist long-term peaceful co-existence between Burma’s religious communities?
I would particularly value my noble friend’s assurance that Her Majesty’s Government will request an urgent visit by the UN special rapporteur on international religious freedom, not just to report on the current violations but to look at how a long-term strategy can be developed so that all Burmese people are respected as equal human beings, enjoy citizenship and live under the rule of law. Perhaps also the UN special rapporteur could be asked to look at the use of new technology in promoting religious hatred. There is much that can be done by the UK Government. Between 2011 and 2015 £187 million of UK taxpayers’ money will be spent on aid, according to DfID’s operational plan for Burma. In that plan there is a section entitled “Alignment to DfID and wider UK Government priorities” and the Minister has been prioritising the work on international religious freedom and Article 18. This alignment section does not mention her priorities and as it is clear that there are violations of Article 18 on the ground in Burma, should this not be reflected in DfID’s plan? DfID support is given not to the Burmese Government but only through United Nations organisations and trusted international and local NGOs. Is Her Majesty’s Government ensuring that the UN and these NGOs which are spending UK aid are funding work that assists the understanding of religious freedom at community level with Burmese citizens?
No one expects overnight transformation in Burma. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not a miracle worker and mature institutions of a democratic state take decades, even centuries, to form. But I do not believe with all the plaudits the world has given to the Burmese leaders and the aid and the investment that is now flowing in that asking them not to oversee or even assist in the annihilation of certain religious and racial communities is too much to ask.
8.10 pm
Lord Triesman: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. This debate takes place at a point where it is hard to make completely clear judgments because the evidence has not, as yet, pointed conclusively in any one direction. I found the latest report by the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar particularly helpful. I know it is unedited, but it was published on 6 March and is therefore very recent. It is an attempt at a balanced review, occasioned,
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it appears to me, by a wish to give encouragement to former prisoners of conscience and to sustain, and even increase, their remarkable and brave efforts.
When Aung San Suu Kyi visited our Parliament, the admiration felt for her was evident. The facts that she was no longer a prisoner, she was active in political life in Burma and that she was able to speak and publish very widely were all powerful signs of progress. Her measured optimism was an encouragement and from what I heard of what she said, I conclude that she was not overoptimistic. She is plainly wholly seized of the massive issues in democratic life, the continued violence against opponents of the Government, their military leadership’s actions, the deadly assaults that still continue and the cultural subjugation of minority peoples. In part because of what she had to say and in part because of the changes that we can observe, we have also tended to add qualified encouragement. Earlier today the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, invited the Government to recognise the progress that has been made, and in a way, he is right, as is the noble Lord, Lord Williams, tonight. I know they are both far too wise to believe that things are now okay or may not go into reverse. None the less, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said this evening, ceasefires, prisoner releases and so on are welcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, invites us to ask whether it is reasonable enough for us to look at both sides of this balance sheet rather more acutely and without any euphoria. Uncritical optimism is not a policy. Last September, the President of Burma said that changes are irreversible. Is that true? Eight amnesties have freed about 850 prisoners of conscience, but there are certainly in excess of 250 still in prison, and it is unclear to me why any kind of special committee is needed to oversee the process of their release. Does the Minister know the rationale? How have representations made by the Government about medical help for current and past prisoners or those who are in the revolving door of repeated arrests been received? Do the Government think that the Burmese authorities will ratify CAT and OPCAT and, if so, when? Do the Government regard this, as I would, as a benchmark test for eradicating the torture of detainees and others? How have the Burmese Government reacted to representations that we have made on the impropriety of imprisoning peaceful demonstrators? I know there have been improvements in this area, but there have also been significant lurches backwards.
Have the Government made representations on illegal land seizures and, if so, with what response? How much progress does the Minister believe has been made by the national planning authority on the pledge that has been made to halve the rate of poverty? My noble friend Lady Nye and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, have illustrated the economic potential, if it were to be grasped. Does the Minister have an estimate, which has been recommended several times in the past by the UN Commission on Human Rights, of when universal education for younger children—their human right, if I can put it that way—might be achieved?
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, this evening for her report on her recent visit and also to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for her proposals.
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The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, made a very powerful statement on this. I, too, note with deep apprehension the reports of every kind of vile atrocity suffered by ethnic minorities in Burma. The announcement in the joint statement of work on de-escalation between the authorities and the KIO on 6 February is an important step, and China is to be thanked for the constructive hosting of the talks on Kachin state.
The crisis in Rakhine state raises the same deep apprehensions. Blame is attributed by both sides to each other. The offer by the UN of an independent investigation is welcome, but removal of the violent assaults and killings in the wider Rohingya community is surely the starting point before there is any prospect of a serious discussion on a federal outcome. I am with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and my noble friend Lady Nye in asking this question—I hope I am not putting words in their mouth. Does the Minister agree that we are witnessing, in the words that they carefully chose to use, ethnic cleansing?
I appreciate the typically thoughtful statement by Hugo Swire MP, the Minister responsible for Burma. He is right to emphasise that our Government’s action must go beyond lobbying. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, called for a much wider and more active UK role. Policy will, as Mr Swire said, evolve, but I urge a process somewhat faster than evolution, which is a slow process. Let us include active sponsorship of ethnic reconciliation, no impunity and closer co-operation with China on these matters. Their roles, alongside the bravery of the opposition, should be at the forefront of all our involvement. Finally, if progress stalls, will we press for the reinstatement of sanctions?
8.16 pm
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for once again calling a timely and important debate. Burma is going through a complex political and economic reform process. It will take time and requires scrutiny, support and guidance from the UK and like-minded partners in the international community to realise the full benefits of what Burma can become. It is not simply a matter of relying on evolution, which the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, referred to; it is about going further and using every opportunity to make sure that Burma is heading in the right direction.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has visited the country, described horrific incidents, but he noted the progress that is being made. Perhaps the most visible is the growth in freedom of expression, including for NGOs and civil society. People are now able to buy a wide selection of newspapers, and civil society is active. We provide funding to support this, which includes a number of initiatives that strengthen civil society. For example, later this month, we will be hosting prominent former political prisoners from the 88 Generation who are coming to the United Kingdom.
Moves have been made to bring about an end to the internal conflict that has blighted the country since independence. The Burmese Government have signed ceasefires with eight of the 11 ethnic armed groups. We welcome last week’s potentially significant agreement
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with the Kachin Independence Organisation to begin political dialogue and work to cease hostilities. We continue to support the Government and the representatives of the ethnic groups to reach robust and sustainable peace agreements through a political process. Recently we hosted visits from ethnic leaders and the Burmese Government to share our experiences of peacemaking in Northern Ireland, but I take noble Lords’ points when they say that this has to move beyond peace agreements into real reconciliation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked specifically about political prisoners. There have been releases of large numbers of political prisoners, the establishment of a mechanism to review political prisoner cases and, for the first time in many years, the International Committee of the Red Cross now has access to Burma’s jails. The Foreign Secretary pressed the Burmese Foreign Minister in February to release all political prisoners. We note President Thein Sein’s statement on 4 June that all prisoners of conscience will be released soon. This is an optimistic statement and one that we will continue to monitor closely to ensure that progress is made. We particularly welcome his clear commitment not to enforce Section 401, under which released political prisoners can be returned to jail to serve the remainder of their original sentence. We have always emphasised that releases of political prisoners should be unconditional and we are pleased that the Burmese Government have publicly confirmed that they share that view. We will also continue to follow up on cases of reported abuse in Burma’s jails and we raise individual cases of political prisoners when we have the opportunity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, also raised the two-child policy. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that any enforcement of a two-child policy would be discriminatory and not in line with the upholding of human rights in Burma. The British embassy in Rangoon is raising our serious concerns with Burmese Government Ministers citing the human rights obligations to which the Burmese Government have signed up. A presidential spokesman said earlier this week that the central government did not announce the Rohingya two-child policy—this was something that was being done on a local level and they would be looking into it.
In relation to political reform, Aung San Suu Kyi has, of course, now taken a seat in Burma’s Parliament. It was an amazing moment when we all welcomed her at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. She is now building alliances across the political spectrum to drive reform forward. We welcome the announcement on 20 March that the Burmese Parliament will establish a committee to review the constitution. This is a crucial next phase in underpinning the wider political reforms. We are funding work to strengthen the capacity of the Burmese Parliament, an institution vital for deepening democratic politics. Over the past six months we have hosted Burmese parliamentarians from the Public Accounts Committee and the Bills Committee.
The issue of sanctions was raised by a number of noble Lords. I think I raised this matter in some detail in an Answer to noble Lords at Oral Questions earlier today. In the context of the ongoing political transition, on 22 April the EU lifted all sanctions on Burma
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except for the arms embargo which remains in place. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear at the time that our work in Burma is not remotely finished. The judgment of the UK and of all EU member states supported by Aung San Suu Kyi is that Burma’s remaining challenges are now best dealt with not through sanctions but through deeper engagement.
We will continue to be a constructive, supportive and critical partner to Burma, committed to supporting the reform efforts that have started. Our vision is for Burma to become a prosperous, stable, peaceful and more democratic country with respect for human rights and the dignity of all people. Without that respect for all people, this vision of Burma will not become a reality. Guided by these principles we remain concerned by a number of issues that the Government of Burma must address in order to sustain the momentum of the reform process.
Most specifically there is the issue of Rakhine state and the human rights abuses there, which were referred to by a number of noble Lords. We are extremely concerned by allegations of these abuses during the violence last year which was documented by Human Rights Watch and the UN special rapporteur. The Rakhine commission set up to investigate the causes of last year’s violence emphasised the importance of ensuring accountability and the president has endorsed this but these commitments now need to be translated into action. We continue to press the Burmese Government to bring to justice all those accused of having instigated, incited or carried out violence in Rakhine state. This accountability needs to be delivered in a way that is transparent, credible and in line with international standards. The EU-sponsored resolution at the March 2013 UN Human Rights Council mandated the special rapporteur to continue to report on human rights in Burma for another year. It drew specific attention to the need for accountability. OHCHR staff are currently on the ground in Rakhine state monitoring the human rights situation and we are lobbying the Burmese Government to open a country office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with a strong mandate which allows it to monitor the human rights situation in all parts of the country.
On the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, on whether ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity took place in Rakhine in 2012, further independent investigative work would be required for an informed assessment as to whether ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed.
My noble friend Lady Jenkin raised the issue of humanitarian aid and assistance. On humanitarian assistance, we have continued to call for unhindered access to conflict-affected areas at every opportunity. I raised this with Aung Min, the Minister for the President’s Office, when he visited the UK on 15 April. The Minister of State for Asia, Hugo Swire, raised with the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, when they met last week the need for improved humanitarian aid co-ordination. Ministers announced a further £4.4 million in aid to Rakhine on 15 May and we are giving £3.5 million to Kachin and have given £600,000 to support the Shan
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Women’s Action Network in Shan state. Our total commitment over the four years up to 2015 will amount to £187 million.
The issue of Rohingya citizenship was raised by a number of noble Lords. This remains fundamental to resolving their statelessness. We have consistently said that there needs to a sustainable solution to citizenship for the Rohingya community, consistent with ensuring their human rights. I pressed senior Burmese Ministers on this in April and will continue to make the point. The Rohingya community, most of whom have lived in Burma for many generations, should be entitled to citizenship in line with Burma’s current legal framework. Any further independent work into the origins of the Rohingya community could have value on the question of their citizenship. We are in close contact with the UN which is reviewing the 1982 citizenship law to assess whether it is consistent with international treaties to which Burma is a signatory. Noble Lords will be familiar with the arguments that are made against the granting of citizenship in relation to the length of stay in a country, the look apparently of the people and the minority religious background. The irony of that argument was lost in light of the fact that they were discussing the matter with me.
The wider violence against religious minorities, which has affected other parts of Burma, is also a serious concern. Attacks against the Muslim community in Meiktila and other areas have led to deaths and the destruction of mosques, madrassahs, businesses and homes. The violence in Shan state last week has shown that there is still much more to do to prevent further outbreaks. As is the case with the violence in Rakhine state, the Burmese Government must ensure, in line with statements made by the president, that those guilty of acts of violence are held accountable. We are this week sending out a mission to assess what help is needed to improve the capacity of the police force so that it can sensitively and effectively deal with civil unrest and better protect minority communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the issue of an impartial investigation. An international inquiry would be most effective if it had the support of all parties. The issue of Rakhine is under discussion at the moment at the current Human Rights Council and we are engaging with other countries as to whether this is something we could take forward. The noble Lord also raised the issue of the two-child policy. I think I dealt with that matter earlier. He also raised the issue of the militant group 969. There is evidence to show that the violence was organised. I do not have the information to attribute it to one group at this stage. The noble Lord referred to the Channel 4 report asking what representations we had made, I think, to the Thai Government. We have lobbied them and asked them to ensure that they adhere to international protocols governing the treatment of refugees. We have also asked them to ensure that full access to detained Rohingya refugees is given to international migration organisations and the UN. I am more familiar with the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who I visited on my last visit.
My noble friend Lord Patten raised the issue of trade. I agree with him. We have put responsible investment at the heart of our future commercial relationship with Burma. We want to encourage investment that
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will benefit local communities and respect the local environment. He is right that if we give some people a stake in what could be a more prosperous future for all it could help with some of these tensions.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the question of whether the president could visit the United Kingdom. We have asked President Thein Sein to visit the UK and we hope that it will be soon. That could be an opportunity again to raise these matters. The noble Lord also raised the issue of the visit by General Richards. I can tell the noble Lord that the UK now has a non-resident defence attaché who was appointed in February this year. A resident defence attaché will be in place, we hope, by November this year if it is agreed by the Burmese Government. That again could help with that relationship building.
My noble friend Lady Jenkin asked about PSVI. Over the summer the British embassy in Rangoon will be scoping options for increasing UK engagement and embedding PSVI approaches to tackle sexual violence in Burma.
My noble friend Lady Berridge specifically spoke of freedom of religion and belief. She asked a number of questions about which I will write to her in detail. To address the issue of radicalisation, we are concerned, both in relation to issues of radicalisation of the Burmese Muslim community, where the narrative has been fed in that they are a group that has been left to suffer in this way while other people stand by, and concerns among British Muslims and how the issue of the Rohingyas could be used as a recruiting sergeant by radicals and extremists in this country. It is something we are acutely aware of and in discussions with the Home Office about.
In conclusion, after almost half a century of repression, the past two years have seen Burma make rapid progress towards the goal of a freer and more democratic nation but there is still much more to do. In order to achieve greater democracy Burma must deal with the ethnic conflicts it faces and tackle discrimination against its minority groups. We will continue to engage with the Burmese Government to shape the process of this reform and we want the UK to contribute with meaningful and targeted assistance. Above all, we will ensure that human rights, preventing further violence and ethnic reconciliation remain high on the agenda and, to respond directly to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, we will not stop looking for, speaking of, or supporting those who are still left in the dark.

Meeting with Dr.Myo Myint one of Burma's education ministers.



: and Meeting with Dr.Myo Myint one of Burma’s education ministers.

With ben Rogers of CSW on the Highway to way to nowhere..Naypyidaw...Burma's surreal new capital

With Ben Rogers of CSW on the Highway to nowhere..Naypyidaw…Burma’s surreal new capital

Naypyidaw - a parliament miles from any people

Naypyidaw – a Parliament miles from any people

Report from Burma March 2013.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi endured almost twenty years of house arrest before finally being allowed to stand for election to the Burmese House of Representatives, the Pyithu Hluttaw,  where, in opposition, she now leads the National League for Democracy (the NLD).   The regime continues to dominate the Parliament having kept 80% of the seats.

  During her June 2012 visit to Westminster I had the opportunity to meet Daw Suu and just before Easter I was able to visit her in Burma and to ask her how she sees her own future and that of her country.

   That such an encounter was possible at all says something about the changes which have been occurring in Burma over the past 18 months.

  My first visits to Burma, fifteen years ago, were made illegally into the Karen State and my subsequent requests for visas were refused. During the intervening years I have had several bruising stand-offs with the military regime – particularly in relation to the treatment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s ethnic minorities.

  When Daw Suu’s husband, the Oxford academic, Dr.Michael Aris, was dying of cancer he was desperate  to visit his wife. With two other Peers I went to see the Burmese Ambassador and, on  compassionate grounds, appealed for a visa to be issued.   The Ambassador’s response told me everything I needed to know about the regime.

   No, he stated emphatically, her husband could not visit her but, with hardly concealed cynicism, she could visit him: knowing that the regime would then never allow her to return to Burma.

  Michael Aris was a Catholic, educated at Worth Abbey. Daw Suu told me she has many fond memories of visiting Worth with her late husband and hopes one day to visit the monks and the abbey again.

   If I experienced shock at the regime’s unwillingness to grant the request of a dying man for a visa to visit his wife left, it was nothing in comparison with the shock of witnessing  the harrowing conditions in which more than 100,000 refugees were living along Burma’s border.

    Despite some welcome changes in Burma those festering conditions remain and the failure to resolve the country’s long standing ethnic tensions could still be the rock on which the country’s reform process founders.

   While in Burma I met members of the ethnic nationalities and it was notable that they did not share the same sense of optimism of Burmese  democracy activists.

  The situation in the Kachin State is particularly acute – and although there has been some de-escalation of the violence,  and peace talks have resumed, earlier in the year the regime carried out air strikes on the civilian population.  Shells were fired into the Kachin town of Laiza, killing civilians including children.  One Kachin Catholic priest is insistent that “we are hungry for love, peace and tranquillity but nobody is feeding us. We invite the whole world to help us.”

   What is clear is that it is of no help to Burma  to repeatedly laud its progress whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the failure of the regime to find political solutions for the ethnic nationalities. Only dialogue and new forms of governance based on federalism, equal rights, full citizenship and what Daw Suu rightly insists must be the upholding of “the rule of law” will resolve those issues.

    If the situation remains tense in the refugee camps, and the disputed territories, it is probably at its worst in the Arakan State, where the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists are in a state of virtual civil war. I met with some Rohingya spokesmen who say “we are a people at the brink of extermination.”  

  The humanitarian organisation Medecines sans Frontieres have used the same expression to describe the desperate plight of the Rohingyas.  In Arakan mosques have been burned, homes destroyed, women raped and civilians killed. Their representatives told me that in the past few months  more than 1,000 have been killed; 52 women raped;  13,000 house burnt; 547 injured; 60 mosques and 50 schools destroyed. More than 20,000 had fled the country. They added that these events had been driving people into the hands of extremists , and had provided an opening for Jihadists.

   This communal violence has also been spilling over to other parts of the country.

   After visiting Naypyidaw, the surreal capital of Burma which the military junta built after seeking the advice of astrologers, and which is situated hundreds of miles from any major population centres (a Parliament designed to be kept as far away from the people as possible), I went to a small village called Ayela.

   Up until the night before, for two hundred years  the Muslims and Buddhists had peacefully co-existed in Ayela.  Tin Aung, the secretary to the mosque, showed me the charred remains of their madrassas and the damage which had been done to their village mosque. He said that hundreds of people had descended on the village, chanting derogatory slogans against the Muslims and had torched the buildings and terrorised the people. Just 15 Muslims remain at Ayela; the rest fled.

  It remains to be seen whether those responsible will be brought to justice. If they are not no-one will be able to believe that the rule of law protects Burma’s minorities; if they are not, then rebuilding trust and developing security will prove impossible.

   During my visit I also went to look at Insein Prison  – where the Catholic human rights activist, James Mawdsley, was held after being sentenced to 18 years imprisonment when he protested about the plight of ethnic minorities and the house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

    Although it is happily true that many political prisoners have now been freed, over two hundred  remain in jail; and some of those released have strict conditions and travel restrictions. There have also been reports of the use of torture against detainees.   Yet, as one man, who had spent six years in prison, told me, “we feel that gradually things are moving in the right direction.”  Much will depend on constitutional changes which, unless passed, would, for instance, prohibit Daw Suu from standing as a presidential candidate in 2015.

    Daw Suu is walking on a  tightrope – and not helped by commentators in the West for getting too close to the army and for not doing enough for the national minorities.    But it’s all too easy to do that from the comfort of a newspaper column.

  If Burma gets its transition right it could offer a model for change for other isolated countries, like North Korea.  Daw Suu needs our understanding and our patience as she tries to lead the country towards federalism and democracy. And, not surprisingly, her last words to me were a request that we should continue praying regularly for Burma.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Naypyidaw

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Naypyidaw


Taking evidence at Ayela

Taking evidence at Ayela

Meeting with Rohynga representatives in Rangoon

Meeting with Rohingya representatives in Rangoon

NLD Meeting at Rangoon's House of Memories

NLD Meeting at Rangoon’s House of Memories

Speaking at the NLD meeting at the House of Memories in Rangoon

Speaking at the NLD meeting at the House of Memories in Rangoon

Speaking on Human Rights at the NLD meeting at the House of Memories in Rangoon.

Speaking on Human Rights at the NLD meeting at the House of Memories in Rangoon.

Speaking at the Campion Institute Rangoon

Speaking at the Campion Institute Rangoon

Presenting community health awards at the Campion Institute, Rangoon

Presenting community health awards at the Campion Institute, Rangoon

Award winners at Campion Institute, Rangoon.

Award winners at Campion Institute, Rangoon.