It is a pleasure to speak for the first time with you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. As you are a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in your own right, I can think of no one more appropriate to chair this debate.
The Committee has published its report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2010-11 human rights report. I am delighted that we have the chance to debate it today. Human rights are under the spotlight around the globe, so nothing else could be more important to debate. I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench, having seen him in other incarnations today; he is obviously having a busy day. I pat the Foreign Office on the back for its decision to honour its election pledge to continue publishing its annual report on human rights, albeit in a more cost-effective form.
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee was not here for the earlier debate on India, which lasted for one and a half hours. Apparently, we now have only one and a half hours to debate human rights. Will he use his good offices as Chairman to ensure that, in future years, we have a full day’s debate on international human rights? It is simply not good enough for the British Parliament to spend one and a half hours a year on international human rights.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I suspect that that point may be made by other hon. Members today, and I agree completely with the sentiment. For that reason, I do not intend to speak for too long, to allow others to speak.
I welcome the fact that the Government are still publishing human rights reports, although in a more modest form than in the past. I am delighted that Amnesty International welcomes that as well and has said:
“It is something that we value enormously…we have real respect for this report”.
I also welcome the fact that the Government continue to update the list of countries of concern online on a quarterly basis and that they have established an advisory group on human rights that includes practising lawyers, academics and representatives of non-governmental organisations, many of whom have eminent positions in the human rights system. Again, Amnesty welcomes that, for the obvious reason that, if experts talk to the FCO, it can produce a more informed report.
The report was based mainly on the period from January to December 2010. Much has happened since then in the human rights field, with the Arab spring, Bahrain, Syria, Russia and numerous other important events. On the Arab spring, the Foreign Affairs Committee will go to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in two or three weeks’ time. The role of the Foreign Office in recognising and promoting human rights there will be a part of our inquiry as it develops.
I will touch on a couple of countries of concern. The first is Bahrain, about which I suspect we may hear more and where there have been many developments. I will not go through them now, as colleagues will be well aware of them, but it was our view that Bahrain should have been included in the report’s list of countries of concern. In response to the Select Committee’s requests for an update on the situation in Bahrain, the Secretary of State wrote to me saying:
“We do not hesitate to express disagreement with the Bahraini authorities. Although we do not agree on everything, Bahrain is a key ally of the UK and this close relationship allows us to have the frank discussions that often are necessary. We have, therefore, made it clear to the Bahraini Government that the civil rights of peaceful opposition figures, along with the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, must be respected.”
I support that approach. I recognise the Bahraini regime’s dignified response and its establishment of the independent commission of inquiry, but I encourage the Foreign Office to keep on the button as far as Bahrain is concerned, to follow through on the commission’s work and to ensure that the Bahraini Government implement the necessary reforms.
The second area of concern is Libya. Again, I need not remind the House of the developments there, but it is worth quoting the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who addressed the UN Security Council recently. She raised concerns about the detainees being held by revolutionary forces, saying that some 8,500 prisoners were being held in about 60 centres. She said:
“The lack of oversight by the central authority creates an environment conducive to torture and ill treatment.”
The Minister responded by confirming that the Government
“do not lose sight of the victims of this conflict. The conditions of those in detention have been raised by Ministers on visits, and directly with the Libyan Government.”—[Hansard, 17 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 609.]
The situation at the moment is pretty dire. Militias are free to roam around, and unlimited weapons are available. We need basic adherence to the fundamental human rights that we consider important. Again, the Committee will consider that.
However, it is not all bad news. Across the globe in Burma, distinct improvements have been made. I like to think that that is a result of pressure by the international community. Changes have been made to the electoral law that allow Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to register for the forthcoming by-elections, political prisoners have been released and moves have been made towards greater media freedom, all of which are important human rights advances that we recognise, welcome and accept. We must work to secure more critical resolutions in the UN and make our concerns known at the highest level with Burma’s neighbours, as well as our expectation that continuing pressure will be kept on the country. I urge the Foreign Office to remain vigilant and press for further reform, but we should recognise that the improvements have come about partly as a result of the Government’s influence.
The next report will consider some cross-cutting issues, subject to the Committee’s agreement. We will be considering involvement in rendition, and we welcome the fact that the UK has examined its own human rights practices in that area. We are looking forward to hearing in more detail why the detainee inquiry chaired by Sir Peter Gibson has been brought to an end. From what I hear, it was clearly the right decision, and I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has kept open the intention to hold an independent, judge-led inquiry after all police investigations have been concluded. That is obviously the right way forward. I hope that the Minister can confirm that.
The Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for soft power, wrote to us in November to say that Ministers have commissioned further work on the strategy and that a final version of the paper has still to be published, but did not include a date. Can the Minister update us on what is causing the delay and what exactly will be published? We touched in our report on the public diplomacy aspects of the Olympic games, so our dialogue with the Foreign Office on that matter has been ongoing.
I shall briefly touch on programme funding and official development assistance for human rights. There seems to be a bit of a dichotomy in that one has to be eligible for ODA funding to qualify for a human rights funding programme. It is conceivable that a country that at first sight may not qualify for ODA funding—the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development has gone now—has a human rights aspect that needs funding. That seems a little odd.
In conclusion, I should like to raise the fact that the World Service is being jammed by Iran and that there are problems with the BBC Persian TV output, which is particularly important in this area. Independent research shows that, in that part of the word, the service is the most trusted, impartial and objective international radio programme, which is probably why the regime is jamming it. I understand that Iran is a member of the International Telecommunication Union, which is a United Nations body. As such, it has committed itself to the free exchange of information and data for the benefit of all. Iran is therefore in breach of its obligations under that treaty. Again, I hope that the Foreign Office can take that up with the regimes.
I will now leave it to other hon. Members to express a view on our report, which we think is particularly important. We will publish another such report this year. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other colleagues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, although I suspect it is a case of poacher turned gamekeeper. You are normally on the Foreign Affairs Committee along with us, and I am sure that you would have made a contribution to this debate if you were not chairing it.
I acknowledge the importance of the annual report, which was an initiative of the previous Government. I am glad that this Government have carried it on. As chair of the all-party group on human rights, I must say that the report provides a useful tool by which to understand the FCO’s stated positions on particular issues, as well as for parliamentarians and civil society to challenge and measure the Government against those ambitions and principles.
I welcome the FCO’s initiative to release quarterly electronic updates on the countries of concern listed in the report. However, it is critical that the report continues to be annual and comprehensive and that it is released publicly in a paper format. I agree with others: it is a pity that a debate of this kind is being squeezed into a very short period. Such a debate should be held on the Floor of the House, not in Westminster Hall.
The Foreign Secretary states in his foreword to the 2010 report that human rights are part of the FCO’s “irreducible core” and that the promotion of human rights is
“indivisible from our foreign policy objectives”.
Those are very worthy statements and, of course, I welcome them. In April last year, I sent a written question to the FCO seeking to ascertain the number of identifiable human rights officers posted to British embassies and missions overseas, which is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. The Government say that they support human rights as a general principle, and I am sure they would acknowledge the importance of bilateral defence relations and country-to-country trade. British embassies around the world have identifiable personnel who are responsible for ensuring that British positions on defence, trade and investment are heard and, we hope, acted upon. It seems to be perfectly reasonable, therefore, to ask how many human rights officers operate and in which countries.
In the response—not from this Minister; it was on a particularly busy day—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Bellingham, said that all staff at all locations had human rights as a top priority and that
“For operational and security reasons we cannot give further details of staff deployments and activity levels”.
I asked that question again when the FCO Minister responsible for human rights appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and I was given a similarly implausible answer. I say implausible because, in answer to a written question in the other place on
Today, the Committee received a letter from the Foreign Secretary in which he, again, does not answer the question. He obscures the issue by raising security and operational concerns, so I still have not got an answer. However, he did promise to come back to the Committee with an estimate of the scale of resources devoted to human rights work across the network. I look forward to that and hope it will be more enlightening than the answers that I have received from FCO Ministers to date. Someone with clout must be identifiably responsible for human rights—monitoring and reporting, meeting civil society and advocating British positions with academics and Government officials, gathering data on the ground and producing expert information on political, social, economic and legislative developments that have worrying consequences for human rights in a given trouble spot. That is precisely the kind of human intelligence we need to understand emerging problems and, where possible, prevent them.
I should like to refer to striking the balance between trade and human rights. What the Arab spring has shown is that the UK has been much too lax in the monitoring of the sales of arms and dual-use equipment to Governments in the middle east and elsewhere. That applies to the previous Government as much as it does to this one. Although we have applauded popular calls for democracy in the middle east, we have frequently seen those calls answered with British-made weaponry and surveillance equipment. The licensing of a wide variety of weaponry and components to countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen has been misguided. Licences must be rejected when there is a substantial risk of arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
Let us consider, for example, the case of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Through summer and autumn last year, very credible human rights non-governmental organisations were documenting severe human rights abuses by the Bahraini security services—those allegations have since been backed up by the King-appointed independent commission of inquiry—and Saudi troops were being sent into Bahrain. Yet in September last year, both the Bahraini and Saudi authorities were invited to attend the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair here in London. For those of us concerned by human rights and the momentum of the Arab spring, it seemed completely absurd for our Government at one moment to wring their hands over the situation in Bahrain and say that they were doing all they could, while simultaneously the self-same Government were invited to London and encouraged to buy more weaponry. How can the Government be regarded as credible among civil society and the populations of the middle east when they seem intent on undermining that credibility with those kind of inconsistencies?
On a matter related to human rights credibility and the arms fair that I mentioned a moment ago, I serve on the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which has been hearing some alarming information about the trade fair. That is important with regard to our discussions, because the former Defence Secretary, Dr Fox, gave a speech at the trade fair and said:
“defence and security exports play a key role in promoting our foreign policy objectives.”
At the same trade fair, it was discovered by campaigners that two Pakistani exhibitors were displaying promotional material for cluster munitions, which of course are banned by international law. That is not the first time that DSEI has been involved in controversy over exhibitors promoting banned equipment. Both the organisers and the Government should, by now, have a clear and robust compliance procedure to ensure that the UK is not a safe haven for the promotion of weaponry and equipment that is otherwise banned. It should not be left to NGOs and activists to police events that a Defence Secretary endorses as having a key role in promoting our foreign policy objectives.
I am recovering from flu, Mr Rosindell, and getting a bit croaky, so I shall wind-up quickly.
I urge the Government to reassert their diplomatic influence at the UN in 2012 to press for a comprehensive global arms trade treaty that will have a genuine impact on poverty and armed conflict in some of the most fragile societies. In recent evidence provided to the Committees on Arms Export Controls, the UK working group on arms—a coalition of NGOs, including Amnesty and Oxfam—told us that
“other supportive states (including major UK allies) have been telling us at the UN that their impression is that the UK has ‘rolled back’ in its leadership and activity on the ATT. Comments tend to focus on UK interventions at the ATT being notably much less substantial than in previous years, a reduction of political profile, and an absence of senior official activity”.
The Minister is vigorously shaking his head.
The working group also questioned whether the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Ministry of Defence were allocating sufficient resources to ensure a meaningful treaty. Given that the UK Government—both this one and the previous one—have pressed so hard for a global comprehensive arms trade treaty, would not it be a monumental defeat for British diplomacy if we failed to engage all our resources at the last hurdle and ended up with a weak, ineffective treaty?
The examples that I have given do not suggest that the Government are neglecting human rights; it would not be fair to say that. Excellent work is being done both here in London and in embassies around the world. The Government need to consider whether all their actions genuinely reflect the statements that they make on the importance of human rights and whether we sometimes undermine the excellent work done on the ground by FCO staff.
Can we welcome Bahraini princes to Downing street and be taken seriously when we say that we are deeply concerned about human rights there? Are we undermining our position on the global arms trade by not setting the highest standards for Government-endorsed arms trade fairs?
Human rights are not just for the FCO; they must be reflected in the work of the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and, not least, in Downing street. I urge the FCO to work with those other arms of government to establish how they can ensure that human rights are not placed in a box at the FCO. I suggest that the FCO deliver a report next year that takes into account all the Government’s external relations activities, including those beyond the FCO, so that we can judge the efforts of the whole Government, not just one of their arms, in furthering the cause of international human rights.
I am delighted to follow Ann Clwyd, who makes such a conspicuous contribution to human rights in this House. Like others, I am very glad that we have finally got this debate. The House may not appreciate that notwithstanding the admirable decision by the late Robin Cook to produce, for the first time, a Foreign Office statement in full written form on human rights, this is the first debate that we have had on the Foreign Office annual report since
At the outset, let me say to the Minister that I welcome the fact that the Foreign Office has, deservedly, devoted substantial resources to producing this 355-page written document. That is an admirable use of resources. It is invaluable to have it and I strongly support the point that has been made by the Chairman and other right hon. and hon. Members that this must continue in a sensible portable form—in written and published form.
I want to start by referring to a recent document that has come out following the Foreign Office’s annual report and our own report on that. It is “Human Rights Guidance,” which the Government have recently published in relation to overseas security and justice assistance. I wish to highlight two points in relation to that. First, in his foreword to “Human Rights Guidance”—I very much welcome this—the Foreign Secretary says:
“It is of fundamental importance that HMG work on security and justice overseas is based on British values, including human rights and democracy, and this guidance is designed to support that.”
Given the fact that the Foreign Secretary says that, I find it surprising and disappointing that when we get to paragraph 13, where the Government list the human rights that must be upheld when security and justice assistance is provided, the list fails to include any specific mention of women’s rights. It includes, entirely rightly, violations of the rights of the child, but there is absolutely no reference whatsoever to violence against women or women’s rights. I hope that the Government, like me, will regard that as a very serious omission. It is an even more striking omission when the letter that the Foreign Secretary sent to the Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend Richard Ottaway, yesterday, rightly includes women’s rights among the five global human rights priorities that the Government have set. Why is there no reference to women’s rights in this very important human rights document? I hope that the Minister will reflect on that.
There is a further, equally surprising omission, which I wish to highlight in my capacity as Chairman of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. This security assistance refers to assisting in particular what are described as “security institutions overseas”. Those institutions are defined in the guidance. It states:
“The institutions typically (but not exclusively) of relevance in this context are: armed forces, police, gendarmeries, paramilitary forces, presidential guards, intelligence and security services (military and civilian)”.
In other words, they are organisations that feature armed personnel in overseas countries. My question for the Minister is why, in that document, which includes checklists for officials here and overseas in our embassies to follow, there is no reference anywhere to the requirement under the EU and UK “Consolidated Criteria” in relation to arms exports to follow those criteria, which, critically, include no sales of weapons, ammunition and so on that could be used for internal repression. Why is the document 100% silent on that crucial requirement? That is a further question that I put to the Minister.
There is another important sentence in the Foreign Secretary’s foreword. He says:
“It is in police stations, detention centres and court houses that the state exerts its greatest powers over individuals and so where fairness, human dignity, liberty and justice are most critical.”
I regard that sentence as 100% right and I am very glad that the Foreign Secretary has highlighted the critical point that autocratic dictatorships down the ages have always said to themselves, “If we can get those who oppose us locked up behind bars, we can do with them what we like.” That is where human rights are most vulnerable. I am glad that the Foreign Secretary highlighted that. I shall return to that sentence in relation to a particular country later.
I shall now deal with a number of individual countries, starting with Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I am glad that those are again rightly listed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office among the countries of concern. As the House knows, one of the most important human rights organisations, if not the most important—it is important to stress this; it is a Jewish human rights organisation—is called in English the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. In Israel, it is called B’Tselem. As I am sure right hon. and hon. Members know, B’Tselem is loathed in many sections of the Israeli community and particularly in parts of the Israeli Government. That reflects most eloquently the extremely important and invaluable job that B’Tselem does in highlighting human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Last year, I tabled a written question that the Minister himself answered. I asked what had been the Foreign Office’s financial support for B’Tselem during the past five years. I was delighted to receive the Minister’s written answer on
I urge the Government to continue to give support to B’Tselem for the extraordinarily important work that it does in trying to highlight and expose the human rights abuses that are taking place in the face of the continuing relentless and, indeed, I have to say ruthless policy that the Israeli Government have followed for many years of bringing about illegally the de facto annexation of East Jerusalem and the water-bearing parts of the west bank.
I now turn to Bahrain, as other speakers have done. Like others, I have noted that at the time the 2010 human rights report was prepared Bahrain was not listed among the countries of concern, and—again, like others—I found that a somewhat surprising omission, given that for years now the Sunni, autocratic Government of Bahrain have engaged in consistent and serious discrimination against the Shi’a majority in the country. I certainly hope that Bahrain will be included among the countries of concern when the Government produce their next human rights report.
Of course, I appreciate that Bahrain is strategically of great importance. I know, as we all do, that it is the home of the US fifth fleet and that we face a sensitive and delicate situation in the strait of Hormuz. I also know that Bahrain provides a port for other NATO naval vessels, including our own. However, that is not sufficient grounds for going soft towards the leadership in Bahrain over the gross abuses of human rights that occurred in the country in the wake of the Arab spring against unarmed civilian demonstrators and, as we know, even against doctors and nurses who were performing their professional medical duties, as they were bound to do.
I note the Foreign Secretary’s statement in his letter to the Select Committee Chairman on
If there is one country in the Arab spring firmament in which the leadership most deserves to be brought before the International Criminal Court in the Hague, it is Syria. I know that that will not happen to President Assad and those around him, for the simple reason that it would be blocked by the Russians who, of course, have a very important naval facility in Syria. Notwithstanding that, there is a real opportunity for the British Government to take the initiative. It looks as if the Arab League effort to try to stop the violence in Syria may now be in some considerable disarray and I hope that the Foreign Office is asking itself intensively what steps Britain and other countries can take to try to exert further pressure and to develop further policies that will stop the violence in Syria, and to help the move from autocracy to democracy in Syria that is urgently needed.
Like other right hon. and hon. Members who listened to the “Today” programme this morning, I was considerably moved by the broadcast from Syria, particularly hearing the crowd in a suburb of Damascus shouting, “Freedom, freedom, freedom”, in the background. I earnestly hope that the British Government will not be deaf to the cries for freedom emanating from the thousands of very brave people who are seeking freedom in Syria.
Lastly, I come to China, which brings me back to what I said about the Foreign Secretary’s statement in his foreword to “Human Rights Guidance” about human rights being in most danger when the state exerts power against individuals
“in police stations, detention centres and court houses”, and other parts of the criminal justice system. No country in the world uses its state power more ruthlessly and more consistently than China against those who wish, entirely peacefully, to take a different view from that one-party, authoritarian state about how their country should be governed, a power that is used ruthlessly to imprison anyone who takes a different view, using the terrible, catch-all criminal offence of subversion against the state. As the House knows, in China in just the last few weeks, there has been a spate of arrests with sentences of some 10 years meted out to people such as Li Tie, Chen Wei and Chen Xi, to name but a few.
The Foreign Affairs Committee recently asked the Foreign Secretary how the Government’s human rights work fits with the promotion of trade, an issue which the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley has also raised. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary replied to the Committee’s Chairman in his letter of
“We do see our trade promotion and human rights work as mutually reinforcing”.
That line is convenient for the Government, and nationally self-serving, but in my view it is an illusion. The determined prosecution of human rights, and the determined prosecution of trade are not, in my view, mutually reinforcing; they are inescapably mutually conflicting.
The uncomfortable reality for Ministers—I accept that it is uncomfortable for them—is that they have a hard choice to make in relation to China and other countries around the world. Do they stand up straight and firm on human rights, or do they basically say that they will go through the motions on human rights and give first priority to our country’s commercial interests? In my view, on the evidence to date, this Government have made the same choice as the previous Government, and have said that they will give top priority to trade. We will pursue that issue in the arms export area with Ministers and in the report that is currently under consideration.
In conclusion, I find the Government’s position on human rights somewhat mixed. Much of the wording, but not all of it, is right, but in translating the words into hard action, in some countries at least, the action falls significantly short of the words. I am sure that the Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to have its scrutiny of the Government’s human rights policy very high indeed on the Committee’s agenda.
It is a pleasure, Mr Rosindell, to speak under your chairmanship. I congratulate Sir John Stanley on touching on so many areas in the Select Committee’s report and the Government’s response. That makes it easier for me not to have to go into some of them. I agree about the importance of having an extensive debate. During the previous Parliament, we had from 2.30 to 5.30 pm in this Chamber to discuss Select Committee reports, such as that on human rights. I hope that in future we can have longer for such discussion. Having said that, I congratulate the Committee’s Chairman on obtaining a slot from the Liaison Committee, because it is not always easy to do so when there are competing demands.
I want to touch on a few countries, and then to make a substantive point. A few weeks ago, we had a debate in this Chamber on Iran. Richard Ottaway mentioned the jamming of the BBC’s Persian service. The Minister was also present at that debate, and I had an exchange with him about the Iranian Government’s propaganda channel, Press TV. Although it is not the British Government’s decision, I want to put on record my satisfaction that Ofcom has made the right decision on that.
The wider question of human rights in Iran needs to be highlighted. As we move into this sanctions period and the tensions that will undoubtedly arise in the coming weeks, it is important that we do not forget those millions of people who demonstrated for democracy and freedom against the repression and the rigged election in 2009.
We also need to highlight some other countries. Our Committee did not highlight Nigeria, and the Government do not regard it as a country that warrants concern. None the less, the situation there has deteriorated remarkably quickly in recent weeks. Human rights is not just about what Governments do but about what non-state actors— insurgent groups, criminal organisations and terrorist organisations—do to abuse the rights of women, religious and cultural minorities and to carry out appalling human rights abuses against people because they have a different faith, clan, name, orientation or political belief. That is what is happening in Nigeria today and it is very worrying. I hope that we can get some update from the Government about that. Nigeria is an extremely important country in Africa and in the world as a whole. It is one of the largest and most significant African countries.
Similarly, we have ongoing issues in Pakistan, which were highlighted in our report. We have talked about the appalling murder of the Christian political figure, Salman Taseer, and the repression and the human rights abuses. Terrible crimes are being carried out by groups over which the Pakistan Government have no control. Given that more than 1 million people of British-Pakistani heritage have a close association with Pakistan, we need to keep our eye very closely focused on the country. Whatever we are doing with regard to withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan, we cannot withdraw our interest in the region as it is inextricably linked with our internal political dynamic relating to our British-Pakistani association.
Concerns have been expressed about the position of human rights in Colombia. I understand that the situation there is improving, but there are still reports of deaths and disappearances of political human rights activists and trade unionists. I know that the President of Colombia was here recently and that there have been some improvements and political change, but we need, none the less, to remind the Colombian Government that they still have some way to go before they fully meet the aspirations that they should have for human rights and trade union rights.
The European Court of Human Rights has just made an important judgment in which it upheld the idea of the memorandum of understanding and the removal, with assurances, of individuals from this country to Jordan. At the same time, it rejected the decision to remove the terrorist Abu Qatada from this country. I believe that that was regrettable and that the decision should be contested. None the less, it is important to understand that that judgment means that in general we can carry this process forward. We mentioned that issue in our report and it was referred to in the Government response. Will the Minister update us on where we are on that issue generally without necessarily commenting on the specific case?
Finally, I want to raise the more substantive problem of Sri Lanka. We as a Committee made some firm recommendations in which we commended Channel 4 for its documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, which showed the horrific scenes of the crimes carried out in the early part of 2009, at the end of the awful Sri Lankan civil war, between the Tamil Tigers and the forces of the Sri Lankan Government, both of whom carried out appalling human rights abuses.
We reaffirmed our view that an independent international war crimes inquiry should be held to investigate the allegations of atrocities carried out by both sides. The Government said in their response that they would await the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Sri Lankan Government. As many of us predicted, that commission did not carry out the kind of investigation or produce the kind of report necessary to deal with the issues adequately.
The report was published towards the end of last year. The Government have now commented on it, as have numerous other countries. The British Government said that, on the whole, they are disappointed by the report’s findings and recommendations, and that there are gaps and unanswered questions. The US Administration expressed concerns that the report does not fully address the allegations of serious human rights violations. The Canadians have also been critical, and India has called for an independent and credible mechanism to investigate the issues.
It is time to return to the Human Rights Council to push the issue up the agenda again. I know that last time there was a blockage, the HRC, disgracefully, commended the Sri Lankan Government on their behaviour and refused to hold an international inquiry. I know that it would be difficult to take the Security Council route, because China and probably Russia would block it and the non-permanent members, including India, probably would not be supportive either, as they were last time.
Interestingly, last time, among the opposing countries in the HRC was Mubarak’s Egypt. Things have moved on since then. Maybe, given developments in the Arab world, it might be time for us to go back and see whether there is now more international support to raise the issues again in order to get a UN inquiry. Ban Ki-moon clearly tried to push for one. He went as far on the issue as he could as Secretary-General, because he could not get the institutions to go with him. He set up a United Nations panel of experts, who said that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission
“fails to satisfy key international standards of independence and impartiality, as it is compromised by its composition and deep-seated conflicts of interest of some of its members.”
That is clear. The Sri Lankan Government must understand that setting up an internal process that does not have the confidence of the international community or the Tamil population will not lead to the necessary reconciliation within the country. People are still in detention or are not being allowed to go back to their homes. There are issues involving settlement and what is regarded as an attempt to change the demographics in the north of the island, and there are serious concerns about individual human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The Government are all-powerful, the constitution gives the President great control and the Opposition—not just the Tamil Opposition but others—are intimidated or inhibited in many ways from doing what is needed internally. They need international support and solidarity. That is why it is important that the British Government speak out loudly, clearly and unambiguously, using whatever channels they can—the UN, the HRC and the Commonwealth—to raise those issues continuously.
I praise Richard Ottaway for initiating this debate. It is a pleasure to follow Mike Gapes and other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, especially Sir John Stanley, who gave an eloquent declaration in defence of human rights and some well-made points about the rights of women and the valuable work of organisations such as B’Tselem, which I am happy to endorse.
While I am heaping praise on people, I would not mind praising Conservative Ministers—from the other side of the coalition, I guess—not only for producing human rights reports, which is the easy part of the process, but for the frequent declarations that I have heard in the House by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, who ishere today, and by the Foreign Secretary, making clear Britain’s absolute commitment to human rights in a wide range of contexts.
As a Liberal Democrat in the coalition, human rights are central to my political beliefs. I date human rights policy back to a Liberal campaign—the Midlothian campaign—by possibly the greatest Liberal, William Gladstone, who in 1880 explicitly balanced the national strategic interest with the rights of people who were not even British citizens at the time. In many ways, that was the origin of international human rights policy. I am proud and humbled to stand in that tradition. For that reason, I welcome many of the recommendations, some of them quite tough, in the Select Committee report.
I particularly like recommendation 3, which states that
“failing to take a stronger and more consistent stance against human rights violations by overseas regimes can carry risks for the UK. In particular, any suggestion that the FCO downplays criticism of human rights abuses in countries with which the UK has close political and commercial links is damaging to the UK’s reputation, and undermines the department’s overall work in promoting human rights overseas.”
The report relates that to north Africa and the middle east, but it applies worldwide, although it was the Arab spring, as Ann Clwyd said, which highlighted in some areas of policy, such as arms control, the weakness of some of our human rights checks on Government policy—not just this Government, but certainly the previous one, from whom we inherited the system. For instance, it appeared that, instead of a human rights check being carried out to consider the potential for arms to be used for internal repression, checks were made in respect of whether they were being used for repression at that moment, which effectively excused every regime in north Africa and the middle east, many of which had the most appalling human rights records. The report’s recommendations relating to that are well made.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to include Bahrain in the next human rights report and their response to the situation in respect of the Arab spring, which included cancelling more than 160 arms export licences, some clear declarations in the House of Commons and the declaration, in response to the Committee’s report, that more work by Government was needed in this area.
First, in connection with the international arms trade treaty, we may possibly have some international collaboration that may contribute to some solution to that issue. What is the current state of negotiations on the international arms trade treaty? Does the Minister think that that could enable us to address human rights matters in the context of international arms sales? Secondly, if the Government have concluded that further work between BIS and the FCO is needed on this matter, is not it about time for them to agree on how that should be done and get on with doing it in some form? Thirdly, and finally, the Committee’s specific recommendation that we review arms sales to Saudi Arabia is well made. That is potentially a lucrative market that is valuable in respect of growth, and so on, but it is morally unacceptable to sell arms to repressive dictatorships, which may use them on their own people and may already have used military matériel in helping to suppress dissent in a neighbour’s territory.
I shall resist the temptation to do a world tour of human rights and will focus on Russia and China, two big, influential powers with domestic human rights issues, which are also major international players and permanent members of the Security Council and are therefore important in that respect.
In the case of Russia, I want to focus, first, on the appalling case of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009. There is a campaign to bring his persecutors to justice but there is a sense among some of those who are campaigning on his behalf that Britain is perhaps a little behind other states in taking firm action on this case, despite the fact that Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer working for a British company and Bill Browder, who is spearheading the campaign to bring Magnitsky’s persecutors to justice, is a British citizen.
In the US, the Netherlands and Switzerland, we have seen sanctions or progress towards sanctions, in the form of targeted visa bans or the freezing of assets, against the individuals implicated in the Magnitsky case. Moreover, because the Netherlands and Switzerland are part of the Schengen agreement, their action could close off most of Europe to those individuals. Nevertheless, I want to hear from the Minister if the Government are considering whether Britain should take similar action.
Then there are the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, who are now widely acknowledged by many people as political prisoners. Khodorkovsky has never seen his granddaughter. When representatives of the media or other third parties visit him in prison, those visits are taken away from the number of visits that he is allowed to receive from his own family, so he is suffering considerably.
There also ought to be honourable mention of Vasily Aleksanyan, who was a legal counsellor to Khodorkovsky’s company, Yukos. He died in prison last year, having turned down the offer of what was in effect a plea bargain, whereby he would perhaps have incriminated Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. He turned that offer down and it probably cost him his life.
I want Ministers not only to continue raising the cases of Magnitsky, Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and others, and consider imposing visa bans, but to reflect on some of the language that we are using about the European Court of Human Rights. Although I completely agree with the Government that the ECHR needs reform—the backlog of thousands of cases is clearly unsustainable and there are real problems with the Court being used much too freely—the campaigners for these Russian human rights defenders have expressed concern that the type of language and rhetoric that we are using about the ECHR is remarkably similar to that being used in Russia. We must guard against giving domestic Governments too much power to decide which cases go forward to the ECHR, because we may actually see cases such as those of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev being caught in that trap. Those cases are in that queue of thousands of cases that are waiting to be heard at the ECHR.
I will very briefly discuss human rights in China, as I can see, Mr Rosindell, that you are getting a little impatient. I want to draw attention to the situation in Tibet, and the three deaths and the continuing disturbances there. They have resulted from what seems to be an increasing denial of human rights, particularly religious rights, in that part of China. It is very unhelpful for the Chinese Government routinely to condemn secessionist groups, because the current elected administration-in-exile of Tibet is not actually calling for secession any more but looking for peaceful dialogue, and that opportunity should not be lost.
In the case of both China and Russia, however, there are some hopeful signs. Both countries are now more open societies than they were in the past. In the case of China, it is maintaining the “one country, two systems” approach to Hong Kong and actually tolerating a very free society there, but it has a myopia about human rights worldwide and is implicated in supporting some fairly unpleasant regimes around the world. Also, although China and Russia went along with action on Libya, their failure to support a firm UN resolution on Syria does neither country any justice.
There are many brave human rights defenders around the world who look to the British Government for leadership. I hope that we will continue to provide leadership and that we will perhaps even go further, as the Select Committee has recommended.
I have four minutes in which to deal with the world’s human rights, so I will do my best. There is a message in that comment—this situation is ludicrous. Allowing one and a half hours to discuss the human rights of the whole planet, in what is apparently the first debate on this subject since 2008, is ludicrous. I appeal to the powers that be to ensure that something changes in that regard.
Very quickly, there are several points that I want to make. The first is about participation in the UN Human Rights Council. Britain is a full participant in that council, which I frequently attend on behalf of a non-governmental organisation called Liberation. The council has greatly reformed its ways, and the in-country peer group review that takes place every three years is a valuable tool, which we should use to the full. The British Government appear to have broken with the tradition of allowing the European Union to represent us at the council, and they make regular contributions, particularly on the death penalty. I hope that that extremely important new tradition continues. If we allowed ourselves to be represented solely through the
European Union, an awful lot of cases would simply never be raised, such as the treatment of Roma people in Hungary and other places, so it is important to maintain an independent representation.
My first point is about human rights in Europe. I was present, along with my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd, who presided over it, at the launch of Human Rights Watch’s “World Report 2012”. In the report is a fascinating essay by Benjamin Ward of that organisation, part of which states:
“At first glance, the idea of a human rights crisis in Europe might seem farfetched. But scratch beneath the surface and the trends are truly worrying. Four developments stand out: the rollback of civil liberties in state responses to terrorist attacks; the debate around the place of minorities and migrants in Europe, a debate too often laced with xenophobia; the rise of populist extremist parties and their baleful influence on public policy; and the diminishing effectiveness of traditional human rights institutions and tools. Unless governments wake up to the scale of the threat, the next generation of Europeans may see human rights as an optional extra instead of a core value.”
Those are very tough words, and very well put.
The narrative that has been developed by the popular press of constant attack on the European Court of Human Rights and its processes and potential judgments, is very unfortunate and misplaced, and it is damaging and dangerous to our own human rights. I regret the way in which the Prime Minister decided to go to the Court, and how it has been presented as an inefficient, incompetent organisation. Yes, there is a very large number of outstanding cases. Most of them are inadmissible. The issue, however, is one of resources for the court rather than of criticism of it. The Chagos islanders have a case before the Court’s grand jury, and I look forward to the result. I hope that the Government accept and abide by whatever decision the court takes, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm that they will.
We attack the institutions of human rights at our peril, and I hope that the Minister will say that the British Government intend to continue their participation in the European Court of Human Rights, and to continue with their acceptance of the European convention on human rights and its place in British law. The convention is an instrument of defence. Roma people in Hungary, and Travellers in other countries, have nowhere else to go, and victims of racist attacks across Europe are in part protected by the judgments made. We do well to state our strong view that we believe in human rights, and in the UN and European conventions. We should be proud of that, not afraid of it, frightened by it or intimidated by it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the Members present on their contributions. I, too, will not attempt a world tour of human rights, but I pay tribute to the Members who have talked in detail about the situation in countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Colombia and Sri Lanka. It is not possible for me to canter through those countries, but there were some very well made points.
I entirely endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn among others, about one and a half hours not being sufficient time for a debate of this nature. There is inevitably a time lag with such reports, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since this report was compiled, with developments in countries such as Bahrain and Syria. I hope that next year’s report is given the full justice of a debate in the Chamber, and a full-length one too.
Of course, Labour Members share the Committee’s belief that all Departments need to provide a clear, consistent and robust message on the fundamental importance of human rights. I note that the Committee’s report expressed concern about the delay in the Government’s strategy on the use of soft power, which has been mentioned. I hope that the Minister will take that back to the other Departments and urge them to do all that they can, and particularly to use the opportunities presented by forthcoming events such as the Olympics, to promote the Government’s human rights message.
More troubling was the conclusion by the Committee that the Government had failed to take
“a stronger and more consistent stance”.
Obviously, the Government have to be nuanced in the manner in which they respond to individual cases and to take into account the likely impact of private or public condemnation. Although I note that the Department’s official response was that the Government
“will not downplay criticism of human rights abuses”, perhaps the Minister could respond in more detail on the Committee’s concerns and some of the concerns expressed by hon. Members today, particularly in relation to Saudi Arabia, Syria and Bahrain, and respond to the concern of Human Rights Watch that the UK may create an impression of double standards.
Throughout the report, a common theme is the greater emphasis under the current Government on the Foreign Office’s role in promoting the UK’s commercial interests. Of course, it is very important that we develop strong trade links with other countries, particularly at a time when the domestic economy is faring so badly, but there is always a balance to be struck, not least if the Foreign Secretary is to achieve his stated aim of a foreign policy that always has
“consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core”.
The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has asserted that the UK must place
“our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy.”
When the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr Browne, gave evidence to the Committee, he said that the Government saw no inherent contradiction in those two statements, although he acknowledged that they could give rise to “short-term tensions”, so perhaps this Minister could elaborate on how the Department manages those short-term tensions. To what degree do we tolerate human rights abuses by a company that we are trying to secure a greater trading relationship with and to what extent do we use the trading relationship as a means of putting pressure on the other country to deal with those human rights abuses? I think that people will share my concern that in some instances the commercial relationship is deemed far more important than dealing with the human rights abuses.
The Foreign Affairs Committee emphasised the need for human rights to feature more prominently across the Government, so will the Minister tell us what progress the Foreign Office is making with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, UKTI and UK Export Finance in particular? Let me single out one country in relation to which there is particular tension. The Committee highlighted that as a particular concern. I am referring to China. It is notable that the Chancellor of the Exchequer chose Asia for his first international visit of 2012. Obviously, Asia is a continent of great economic importance for us, but there is a careful balance to be struck. Will the Minister tell us whether officials were present during the Chancellor’s visit to raise the UK Government’s concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in that country and to make clear that, regardless of the purpose of the visit—whether it is primarily about economic matters or about other matters—human rights issues must always be on the agenda while such abuses exist?
The Committee noted its concern about the Prime Minister’s decision to visit the middle east to promote UK arms suppliers during the early stages of the Arab spring. It now seems that the UK continued to export between July and September last year to Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I would appreciate the Minister’s response to the conclusion of the Campaign Against Arms Trade that
“While the Government promotes arms exports to repressive regimes, it is pure hypocrisy for it to talk about supporting human rights and democracy.”
Sir John Stanley mentioned that there does not seem to be a reference in the report to what is regarded as the cornerstone of our arms export policy—that we do not export to countries that may use those arms for internal repression or external aggression. I would be pleased to get the reassurance from the Minister that that remains the Government’s objective when it comes to arms sales.
I share the concern of my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd about the attempts to promote cluster munitions sales at the arms fair in the UK, which I know she raised at the Human Rights Watch report launch the other day. I would appreciate a reply from the Minister on that.
I will just skim over some of the other points. The delay in the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010 is another matter of concern to us, as is the postponement—cancelation—of the Gibson inquiry. I appreciate entirely why the Government have had to do that while a criminal investigation is ongoing, but can the Minister assure us that a future inquiry will be established on the basis that has the respect of NGOs, former detainees and the international community?
I shall just mention one of the countries specifically dealt with in the report, because the issues surrounding it are very much current. My hon. Friend Mike Gapes talked about Sri Lanka. We have recently had the report published by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. I hope that, at some point over the next few weeks, we will find time for a full debate on that in the House, because there are many question marks over the report, in relation to the terms of reference of the commission and its recommendations. I know that I am asking the Minister a lot of questions, but it would be helpful if he could he say whether there will be an opportunity for further debate on that, because there was only a written statement from the Government.
Finally, I would like to raise the decision to exclude countries not eligible for overseas development assistance from the human rights and democracy programmes. That runs the risk of excluding countries that could benefit from human rights projects. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is concerned that such an approach will limit the choice of which countries it works with. Will the Minister update us on that and clarify the support available to countries that are not eligible for overseas development assistance? What assessment is being made in the Department of the impact of that decision?
Through their contributions, all colleagues have made as clear a practical demand for more time to debate the subject as ever I could. Kerry McCarthy has done so in the past couple of minutes—I think there were 20 questions in 90 seconds. I am not the powers that be in relation to scheduling, as colleagues know, but I entirely take the point. Again, as most colleagues know me reasonably well, they will know that, if I could, I would spend an hour answering all the questions. I will certainly take the matters raised back to the Department. I am stepping in for the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend Mr Browne, today as he has another engagement, but I am sure that both of us feel the same.
Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. You have presided over yet another excellent debate, in which colleagues from all parties have demonstrated a common commitment. As was said by my hon. Friend Richard Ottaway— I thank him for securing the debate and for how he has led it—the Government share the concerns raised. I appreciate the generous remarks made about the Government’s commitment to the matter, which were, perfectly properly, interspersed with demands for us to do more. That is the right of the House and of individual colleagues. There is an underlying sense of our commitment to the matter—Government in, Government out. That is very important and is a benevolent ratchet that the House applies to try to get us to do even more.
As is clearly the case, I cannot possibly answer all the questions. I will do my best to answer some, but I will also note all the colleagues who are present and ensure that a letter goes to them covering the particular issues I do not mention. Everyone here will then have a record. As I know of your personal interest in these matters, Mr Rosindell, I will perhaps copy you in on that letter, so that you are also aware of it.
I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for its positive and constructive engagement with the FCO in our work to promote human rights. I add to that a thanks to all those who are engaged in this work overseas, often in dangerous places—not just the NGOs, but the journalists.
They do an extraordinary job at great risk to themselves in bringing us much of the information on which we have to rely and take a view.
The Government take a positive, activist approach to human rights around the world. As Ministers have consistently said since taking office, Britain will continue to stand for democratic freedom, universal human rights and the rule of law. Our values are essential to and indivisible from our foreign policy, and we will raise human rights concerns wherever and whenever they occur. All FCO Ministers take an active interest in human rights, and I am proud to be involved in this work. Indeed, reference has been made to the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group, which has met three times since its formation in December 2010. It has challenged us to raise our game on business and human rights, an issue raised by a number of colleagues, and on promoting freedom of religion and belief.
We are not over-idealistic. We are interested in achieving results. We take a realistic and practical approach, working with the grain in countries throughout the world. We consistently raise human rights issues, including with major powers such as China, but we seek to do so in a way that we judge will have the most impact. The 2010 Command Paper that we are discussing today highlights 26 countries of concern in many regions of the world. They are those that have the most serious and wide-ranging human rights concerns. We also take account of the level of UK engagement, and consider where we can have an influence, and where there is potential for a broader, positive impact on a country or region.
The FCO has continued to fund projects around the world that make a real difference, including through a dedicated human rights and democracy fund. FCO-funded projects have helped to overturn death sentences in Africa, and in Uganda and Kenya alone that has resulted in hundreds of death sentences being overturned. Work that began in Mexico to increase the protection offered to journalists by the state was taken up throughout central America. We have made a tangible difference to the lives of some 60 million to 70 million disabled people in India by improving their access to polling stations, Government websites, and state television news.
On Colombia, which Mike Gapes mentioned, human rights were a theme of the visits to the United Kingdom of President Santos in November 2011, and Vice-President Garzón whom I met on Monday. One example of what has been achieved in Colombia—I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman—is that the Prosecutor General has created new specialist units to deal with crimes of forced displacement and forced disappearance following on from the recommendations of a project funded by the embassy.
China has been mentioned. We supported Chinese officials conducting pilot independent monitoring of pre-trial detention facilities, carrying out prison reform, improving the treatment of those with mental health conditions in the criminal justice system, and supporting the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence in criminal trials. I cannot answer the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Bristol East, but I will write to her about the presence of officials with the Chancellor. She can certainly be assured that such matters are not neglected or forgotten when dealing with China.
In the immediate aftermath of the Arab spring, which my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mentioned when he opened the debate, Tunisia ratified the optional protocol to the convention against torture. We are funding early work through the Association for the Prevention of Torture to help Tunisia to implement the optional protocol, including by establishing an effective national preventive mechanism.
I am pleased to say that we have seen progress in human rights in some unexpected quarters. As was mentioned, the new Government in Burma have made some important political reforms in recent months, and released hundreds of political prisoners. Earlier this month, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Burma, and signalled to the President that we would support the Government in their efforts. The large release of political prisoners that followed his visit was a particularly welcome sign, but there is much to be done to repair the damage of the past, and the Select Committee can be assured that the Government are very alert to that.
Turning to some of the issues that colleagues have raised, I will do my best to deal with them. While we are on the Arab spring, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mentioned detainees in Libya. I was there just before Christmas, and the truth is that there is a Government there who are committed to principles that we regard as crucial, as set out by the national transitional council during the course of the conflict. But they are dealing with a system that, frankly, hardly exists. There is no structure for handling judicial cases in the manner that we would expect in relation to the detainees. There is concentration on doing the job. They know that the treatment of detainees is a key distinction between the new Government and the Gaddafi regime, so they want to get it right. There is a problem with capacity, and we must be understanding of the position in which they find themselves, after not just eight or nine months of conflict, but 40 years of a structure that is not conducive to the quality of justice and care of detainees that we would expect. We are working with them on that, and will continue to do so. They know how important it is. The transitional Government have acknowledged clearly that human rights abuses are taking place in prison, and they have promised to tackle that. We will also work with them on that.
My hon. Friend spoke about the problems relating to funding and the relationship with official development assistance. It is not the case that just because a country is not eligible for ODA funding that human rights support stops. We have some 12 programme funds, providing £139.5 million to support a wide-range of projects around the world, many of which include a human rights element. Such support is not consequent solely on the ODA criteria. The conflict pool and other funds are available, and we will continue to make them available. Indeed, some of the Arab partnership money is also being diverted to such projects as well.
Let me say to Ann Clwyd, whom I know well from her interest in this subject over such a long period, that I will do my best to help her out a little in relation to the human rights advisers. I do not think that we are far apart on this matter. There is no deliberate obfuscation here. She suggested that the letter of my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State, obscured the issue. Let me read the key paragraph.
“You”— the Committee—
“asked for details of the number of FCO staff engaged in human rights work across the world. Human rights represent an integral part of our Foreign Policy. It is therefore the case that all our Missions have a responsibility' to monitor and consider human rights. In order to give you a clearer sense of how much the FCO does, I have asked the department to do further work on estimating the scale of resource devoted to human rights work across the network, taking into account our wider policy not to provide full details of staffing numbers overseas for security and operational reasons. In Human Rights and Democracy Department (HRDD), we continue to have 25 permanent staff, plus one contracted Human Rights Adviser.”
In every post that I have visited over the past year, there are colleagues who are engaged in this work as part of what they do. The number of colleagues who will be engaged will vary according to what the circumstances are, but they are all engaged because it is a key principle of what we are involved in. The fact that there may not be a specific adviser in each post does not detract from the importance of the work, as, I trust, the compilation of the report and the commitment that we demonstrate might exemplify.
The reasons for being cautious about staffing numbers overseas for security and operational reasons has, I think, been explained to the Committee in private before, and there are good reasons for that. The matter of the defence attaché is different because it involves a different Department. Our caution is not designed to obscure a commitment to human rights. Our commitment is demonstrated by the work that we do and the fact that everybody is imbued with this sense of commitment, as opposed to numbers.
The right hon. Lady raised issues about arms exports and the like. This is a difficult area. If people are being clear cut, they would say that no one should sell arms; it is a very straightforward moral issue. As soon as we get into the position of saying, “Hold on, some countries have a legitimate right to defence and we are very good at supporting countries that might need to defend themselves,” then we get into the area of judgment. My right hon. Friend Sir John Stanley knows that well; his Committee scrutinises everything that we do in great detail. Our criteria are open. They include prohibition against weapons that would be used for internal repression or the continuation of a regional conflict. However, that does not mean that in each and every case where there might be human rights concerns about some aspect of domestic policy, it necessarily governs a decision on arms that might be needed to protect and defend a state from incursion by others. The number of licences that we revoked after the start of the conflicts during the Arab spring showed that we have a flexible system that takes account of changing conditions, which is what is wanted. I know that my right hon. Friend will be exploring this matter further with the Foreign Secretary during a Committee session shortly.
The arms trade treaty, which was mentioned, is very important to us. I was shaking my head vigorously because I do sign off the odd letter in relation to this. I get a bit cross when NGOs from outside suggest that we lack commitment to the ATT. The ATT is mine and it comes under my remit. I am very committed to it and we are working very hard to get it right. Please do not feel that there is lack of commitment to this. It will be hard to get an agreement, but our commitment is very strong and very real.
I could say so much more. The fact that so many colleagues have such a strong commitment to this area matters a lot to the Government. I hope they feel that we share that commitment. We could debate each of the areas mentioned—Sri Lanka, Israel, the occupied territories, Iran and Pakistan—and I suspect that we will in due course. I will be happy to respond to colleagues’ letters and to speak on these issues in time to come.
Question put and agreed to .