Orders of the Day — International Covenants of Human Rights

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st February 1972.

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11.41 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Rowley Regis and Tipton

Adjournment debates are not usually great parliamentary occasions, but I venture to hope that this debate will not be without its modest influence on Government policy. It is one incident in a long process, a process from international anarchy, from the unfettered licence of national Governments to tyrannise over their subjects with impunity, from the neolithic stage in political responsibility, to the ultimate establishment of international law and order, to the recognition that even national Governments are not above responsibility for what they do to men and women.

In 1945, the world had seen the consequencies of the abdication by the international community of responsibility for human rights, and those who gathered at San Francisco determined that never again should such tyranny be left unrestrained. On 10th December, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document set out all that was best in man's political aspirations, but it had no teeth; it provided no remedy for an infringement of its provisions.

This was intentional, for it was intended to be supplemented by a convention which would remedy those defects. At that stage, however, the subject became a shuttlecock in the international power politics, and for more than a decade any further progress was made by regional arrangements. The European Convention on Human Rights was an important step, which has afforded a measure of protection to a number of individuals, and it has registered an effect on the standards of Governments in Western Europe. But it was no substitute for a universal system.

For the next step, the world had to wait until 1966, when, largely by reason of an initiative by the United Kingdom Government, the United Nations adopted the two Covenants which are the subject of this evening's debate.

The implementation of the rights set out in the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural rights must depend on the economic stage which a country has reached, and all that the Covenant could require is that Governments should make periodical reports on their progress. But the rights under the Civil and Political Covenant, rights like freedom of expression, freedom from arrest and freedom of association, are within the reach of all Governments of good will. This Covenant provides for the establishment of an international committee on human rights which will investigate infringements. It does not command an international police force. It has no system of international bailiffs. In the last resort, it can do no more than report to the international community.

Perhaps our grandchildren will take for granted the existence of an international court of human rights, an institution which, I may say, was regarded in 1948 as a practical possibility in the not-too-distant future. But, until then, the human rights committee provided for in the Civil and Political Covenant, will be the forum where infringements of human rights can be subjected to the focus of international opinion.

The Covenants are expressed to take effect when they have been ratified by 35 member States. To date, 15 States have ratified each of the covenants. The United Kingdom has not. I accept that it is the United Kingdom Government's practice not to undertake international obligations until they are sure they can comply with them, and that is time-honoured and wholly commendable. But it can become the occasion for endless consultation and delay.

Replying to a parliamentary Question I asked on 24th January, the Under-Secretary spoke of the difficulties arising from the concept of privacy. It is true that Article 17 of the Civil and Political Covenant provides that no one shall be subject to arbitrary or unlawful interference, inter alia, with his privacy. But Article 2 of the Covenant says only that the Government concerned shall: take the necessary steps in accordance with its constitutional processes and the provisions of this Covenant to adopt such legislative or other measures as may be necessary to give effect to the rights recognised in this Covenant. So it does not mean we must delay ratification until every section of every Statute is on the book. I hope we may hear from the Under-Secretary tonight the Government's view of this and I hope he will not say that it is not possible to ratify these Covenants until a Royal Commission has sat on every obligation contained in each of them.

It will not come as a surprise to the Government to learn that there has been some speculation as to the reasons why they are so reluctant to ratify. A possible explanation is that they are not anxious to invite international attention to their conduct of affairs in Northern Ireland. If that is so, it displays a singular lack of confidence in their case. The Civil and Political Covenant is not a very demanding document, certainly not im- possibly demanding. Article 4 of that Covenant states that: In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties hereto may take measures derogating from their obligations under this Covenant … with certain provisos.

I tried to understand the case advanced by the Secretary of State on 17th and 25th November. I would not indicate my unqualified assent to it but if that were the case he wished to advance, there would be nothing within the framework of this Covenant to prevent him advancing it to the international community. I appreciate also that there is a problem where the Government are answerable internationally for measures which are within the control of a subordinate Government, as at Stormont. Equally, they are answerable in international law for a situation over which they have no effective control, for example in Rhodesia. The international community is not oblivious to the realities if they are stated honestly. But obviously if a Government insist that these are internal matters within their own exclusive jurisdiction and decline to respond to any international inquiries relating to them they cannot at the same time argue that they are not responsible because they are not effectively in control.

If this is the problem, I hope that the Under-Secretary will indicate the Government's attitude, and I hope he will find that the House is not wholly unresponsive and unprepared to make allowances. Meanwhile, many of us are concerned that the United Kingdom, which enjoys an international reputation for leading opinion in human rights matters, may permit that opinion to seep away during the incumbency of the present Government by sheer inaction. Of course, the Under-Secretary will not be oblivious to the terms of Early Day Motion No. 153 Failure to ratify the Human Rights Covenants which is subscribed to by over 100 hon. Members.

I hope, too, that we shall hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts) the official attitude of the Opposition Front Bench on the matter. Many of us are very grateful for the deep personal concern he displayed for the subject when he was the Minister responsible, and I am personally grateful to him for the encouragement he has given me in these pursuits.

One aspiration that brought some of us into politics was the dream of an international community, resolving its differences by peaceful and lawful means, co-operating in the tasks of peace, caring for the interests of individuals, and protesting when men and women were threatened with tyranny. In the realisation of that aspiration, the running has been made not by national Governments but by non-governmental organisations, such as Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the International League for the Rights of Man and the Anti-Slavery Society. They have complained from time to time that Governments have dragged their feet. If the United Kingdom Government remain inactive on this matter, they will be condemned not only by those whose rights they may themselves have infringed, but by those elsewhere in the world who will complain to history of their indifference, and their indictment will be: We were sick and in prison, and ye visited us not.

11.51 p.m.

Photo of Mr Goronwy Roberts Mr Goronwy Roberts , Caernarvon

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer), in an excellent speech, based on a lifetime's devoted service to the cause of international co-operation, has raised a matter of fundamental importance, and also of fundamental difficulty. It is one thing to obtain the acceptance of a declaration of human rights and, important as that step is, quite another to secure the acceptance of the procedures and sanctions that alone can convert a declaration into a convention.

I intervene very briefly not only to indicate strong approval of the objectives so eloquently described by my hon. and learned Friend but also to put a specific point to the Minister. The Declaration of Human Rights has been generally accepted. It took a great deal of time and effort to achieve that, and it may well take even longer and even more devoted effort to secure its general implementation. While we should in no way relax our efforts to secure universal implementation, is not it clear that a good deal can be done on a regional basis? The European Convention on Human Rights provides a clear example. Here we have a number of countries in a fairly homogeneous area which have found it possible to adopt universal standards for regional application. It is at once an experiment and an example. Cannot it provide an impetus to other regions—South America, South-East Asia, possibly Africa? There have been proposals for such regional conventions on the European analogy.

I hope that the Minister can assure us that it remains the Government's policy—bi-partisan consensus has existed on this, and I hope that it will survive—to promote regional arrangements, not as a compromise with the universal objective we all share but as a step towards the world-wide rule of law which my hon. and learned Friend has for so long, and particularly tonight, argued so eloquently.

11.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud

The hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer) has for a long time taken an interest in human rights and has become our authority on them, which does him much credit and for which the House is in his debt. I am very grateful to him for what he said. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts), who has held high office and responsibility in these matters, for being present tonight and for saying a few words.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were adopted by the General Assembly in December, 1966. There was also an Optional Protocol dealing with the right of individual petition, in particular, which is far-reaching and to which the hon. and learned Member made no specific reference, so I will not go into it in detail. These Covenants seek to make binding in law the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 upon those states which ratify them.

The United Kingdom played a prominent part in drawing up these Covenants, though, like other nations, we had to accept some phrases and phraseology which we thought were not entirely suitable. We signed the Covenants, though not the protocol, in September, 1968. Our obligation is, pending ratification, not to act so as to defeat the purposes of the Covenants, and it is therefore necessary for us to examine them very carefully to ensure that our legislation and that of our dependent territories is in line with the Covenants. Therefore, we have been studying them in an inter-departmental working party, and we have found a number of technical difficulties.

For example, Article 17, dealing with arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, present a difficulty. Our law knows no right to privacy as such expressed in those terms. The Younger Committee is sitting to decide about these things and to make a report about privacy, as I told the hon. and learned Gentleman in answer to a parliamentary Question. I hope that the Committee will report in the next few months. We might be able to see our way more clearly when its report is before us.

Article 20, which also presents difficulty, states: Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law. Our criminal law does not prohibit propaganda of this sort; it is an entirely novel concept. We have had representations from very worthy bodies which are anxious about the ambit of this Article. We have had representations from the International Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists, whose letter dated June last year I have here. The Federation has urged governments that this Article might put editors and journalists in difficulty in certain circumstances of international tension. It has cited the case of Munich in 1938, and of Hungary and Czechoslovakia when its members might have written in such a way that they could have been held to be advocating war. It has asked us therefore not to dream of signing the Article without further consultation with it. It is noticeable that the Swedish Government have reserved their position com- pletely on this Article. I suppose that some of our more fiery friends in the House might be in a difficulty regarding their advice as to what we should do about South African and Rhodesian problems in this regard.

We have to consider also the legislation of territories for which we are partially or wholly responsible—the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the 18 other dependent territories for which we have responsibility. There is no provision in the Covenants for the automatic exclusion of non-metropolitan territories. We can derogate in regard to certain aspects of the matter, but we are unwilling to do that unless it is absolutely necessary.

Some of these territories are in circumstances very different from our own and could have major difficulty trying to comply with this legislation, if we were to ratify it. For example, the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Covenant enjoins certain obligations about technical assistance which would be very difficult to apply to all territories; it also enjoins equal pay for equal work, not only in Government service, but in the private sector; insists on free primary education, general social security for all, general legal aid for all, a general ban on imprisonment for debt. Frankly, some territories simply could not face up to this standard at present.

The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned Northern Ireland. The legal position is that Stormont has legislative responsibility for certain matters and Her Majesty's Government have an obligation to satisfy themselves that such legislation does not conflict with any international instrument if we ratify it. The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned Article 4. In cases when a state of emergency has been declared one has the right to derogate, but that is not actually the position in Northern Ireland at present, and there would be a complication if we were to introduce it.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Rowley Regis and Tipton

Is the hon. Member saying that if we were to ratify the Covenant, the situation in Northern Ireland would constitute an infringement of our obligations?

Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud

No. What I am saying is that under Article 4 it is possible to make a derogation provided that a legal state of emergency has been declared, and a legal state of emergency has not been declared, and therefore Article 4 would not arise in relation to Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, since U.D.I. the United Kingdom has not been in a position to ensure that covenants are being honoured in Rhodesia and we have entered reservations in respect of Rhodesia when we have signed international instruments since then. On the whole, it is undesirable to sign a treaty or covenant while at the same time making a large number of, or important, derogations from it, if that can be avoided. These are some of the technical difficulties, which are genuine and well founded. I turn to a different aspect of the matter.

As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, 35 countries must ratify for the Covenants to enter into force and so far 15 have done so, including Bulgaria. Iraq. Libya and Syria, whose standard in these freedoms are not necessarily exactly the same as ours. The Covenants rightly insist upon freedom to form trade unions, to leave any country without hindrance, to engage in any scientific research or creative activity. Furthermore, the Civil and Political Rights Covenant includes provision for the establishment of a United Nations Human Rights Committee of 18 elected by the States parties to it whose duty it will be to receive reports from the various countries, to make comments upon them to E.C.O.S.O.C. and the General Assembly.

There is already in existence an almost exactly similar committee which has as its sphere the elimination of racial discrimination. It is called the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We are not at all satisfied with the performance of that committee. Far from being a body of experts, which it was hoped it would be, it has been a highly political and subjective body dominated until recently by the Communist bloc. It has indulged in unwarranted and ultra vires attacks on States not parties, such as the United States and Israel, while whitewashing its friends whose conduct in relation to the Covenant has been, to say the least, undesirable.

Our experience of this committee gives us no confidence that a similar committee for these covenants would be helpful. It would be far better—and this and previous Governments of this country have put this forward—to appoint a Commissioner for Human Rights who might, by gentle and unspectacular prodding behind the scenes, effect substantial improvements. So far, unfortunately, this project, which has been backed by Governments of both parties in this country, has been blocked and even filibustered in the United Nations. We have not been able to make any progress so far. The situation about the appointment of such a Commissioner does not look very hopeful.

The United Kingdom has taken the lead in human rights and has worked to make real, as opposed to illusory, progress. We are party to 12 international instruments dealing with human rights under the auspices of the United Nations and also to other conventions, not least to the European Convention mentioned by the right hon. Member for Caernarvon, which is certainly more precise than the United Nations covenants and has machinery, which is now activated, for legal enforcement.

We are not dragging our feet in these matters. We just want to get it right before we ratify.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Rowley Regis and Tipton

I understand what the Minister said about the technical difficulties—while not necessarily agreeing about them—and I endorse what the hon. Member said about the proposal for a United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, but is he saying that even when the technical difficulties are resolved our Government would not propose to ratify these Covenants?

Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud

Not at all. If the technical difficulties could be resolved and we saw that these Covenants would work in the way in which the original Covenant for Europe has worked, I have no doubt that we would wish to ratify them. We have signed and have given our general approval. All that we have to do is to iron out the details. They are important details, but they follow from our signature.

I know that we seem slow in ratifying. We take a lot of trouble about it. But we can reflect that although the price to be paid is that Britain sometimes incurs the approbrium of not having ratified conventions until long after they are made, at least we are spared the hypocrisy of adopting an international attitude before its implications have been accepted at home.

The hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to adopt those words, which he himself wrote in 1969.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.