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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 13th October 2008.

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[Relevant document: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office Departmental Report 2007-08, Cm 7398.]

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe) 4:34 pm, 13th October 2008

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of promoting democracy and human rights.

Foreign policy has traditionally been associated with the peace, security and prosperity of this country. It is about all those things, but the title of today's debate reminds us that it is also about people. Much of the work done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, our partners in foreign policy, is about improving the lot of people, wherever they are in the world. Our work to promote democracy and to further human rights goes to the heart of that. It is quite a challenge. We need to change the minds and behaviour of other Governments, and we need to challenge the most intimate political relationship—that between a state and its people.

We do this because a democratic rules-based world will benefit Britain and British people as they go about their daily lives, whether in business, on holiday or simply as taxpayers financing our contributions to military and development missions abroad. We can do that work bilaterally, and we do. In many cases, our human rights work is fundamental to achieving our departmental priority, whether it is climate security or stopping arms proliferation, but—and this is unique in today's era—we also have the ability to work with international partners, so a crucial part of our strategy is to make international institutions work better.

As Minister for Europe, I want to start with the European Union. I know that my predecessor, along with many other Members, has spent months thinking about the institutional questions facing the European Union. I hope that, during my time as Europe Minister, we can move on from that to concentrate on how the European Union can improve not just the lives of its own citizens, but those of the many millions on the borders of the EU who do not yet enjoy the standards, rules and rights—the simple democracy—that we have here.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Does the Minister think it is democratic for Ministers to meet behind closed doors and agree laws that are then binding on the House, and for the House to have no right to amend or negate them?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I think that one aspect of the Lisbon treaty is how it improves the role of Parliaments in playing a constructive part in the laws that support all of us who live in the European Union. I think that part of our task is to ensure that those accountability networks work well, that there is more transparency and, of course, that people, in whichever EU country they reside, understand the added value—on top of our national endeavours—that supports their needs.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I entirely agree with what the Minister is saying. Does she think that it is now a good idea for us to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, so that we have full transparency in this country?

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M

Hear, hear!

Submitted by Marty York

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I believe that the Lisbon treaty is good for the United Kingdom and good for Europe. This Parliament approved the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008, which implements the Lisbon treaty in UK law, after detailed debates that took place over 25 days. Twenty-three countries have now completed their parliamentary approval of Lisbon. I know that there is more to be done, but in the meantime there is much relating to democracy and human rights on which we continue to work and make progress.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I will give way once more on this point. I should like the debate to be about more than just the Lisbon treaty. I give way—

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Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

The Minister is absolutely right to say that there needs to be more accountability and transparency on the part of the European Union, but does she not agree that part of the problem is the way in which Members of the European Parliament are elected, under the proportional representation system? The fact that they look after huge regions makes them less relevant and less accountable to their constituents.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

The task of all elected representatives—councillors, Members of Parliament and MEPs—is to find different ways to connect with their constituents and electorate. That is something that we must work towards. However, part of what we can also achieve is ensuring that the institutions of the European Union are simpler and more streamlined. I believe that that will help all of us who represent constituents in one way or another to make a better case for many of the achievements with which the European Union is enabling us to make progress for the families and individuals whom we represent.

For all the scrutiny and pressure that we rightly put on the EU to deliver, we should not forget that we are lucky to live in a political space that routinely respects our human rights and welcomes our diversity. We take Europe's rule of law, its thriving civil society and the accountability of its Governments for granted, but many millions around the world do not. People on the edges of the EU are clamouring to get in.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I will make a little progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

In countries further afield, people can see the attraction of the EU: a rich, prosperous area where states' powers are controlled, people can live their lives freely and people's rights are respected. I think that the EU is a powerful illustration of the fact that life is better in a democracy.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The Minister will be aware that the Lisbon treaty proposes that, instead of having one commissioner in charge of foreign affairs and another in charge of international development, there should be only one commissioner, dealing with both foreign affairs and international development. Does she not agree that that will subordinate the interests of international development, because whenever there is a crisis, the one commissioner will give preference to international and foreign affairs, rather than the international humanitarian need

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I said that I did not want this debate to be dominated by the Lisbon treaty, given the many hours that the House and the other place have spent on it. However, I would say this in response to his point. As I have said, the Lisbon treaty provides a simpler, more streamlined EU. There will also be a new system of voting that is more strongly based on population size, and the UK's share of votes in the Council of Ministers will increase by 50 per cent. As we develop in respect of enlargement, of course we have to look at the different structures and at how they operate, but I think that the Lisbon treaty takes us some steps forward.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Most Governments in the world want something out of the EU: better access to the world's largest market, or a bigger slice of the world's largest development budget. Those can be powerful levers to start a human rights dialogue. The EU's flagship policy to promote democracy is enlargement, which holds the perhaps unique distinction of being the only EU policy that the House has consistently supported. I hope and am confident that that support will remain. The EU is the only international organisation with the ability to transform its own neighbourhood. I would like to highlight some successes of enlargement.

The House is well aware that enlargement has been an economic success, creating more jobs and high growth in both old and new member countries. Enlargement has increased our weight in the world and helps us to deal with the challenges of globalisation, from climate change to the current economic crisis. Enlargement is our most powerful tool for supporting democracy and respect for human rights across Europe. The Mediterranean accessions in the 1980s successfully anchored then fragile democracies in Greece, Spain and Portugal. The last enlargement reunited a Europe that had been divided by the cold war, and supported the growth of democracy from the ashes of totalitarian states, some with a truly dreadful human rights record. Today, the prospect of enlargement is a powerful incentive to improve human rights and governance in those countries that want to join the EU.

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On the point about post-Soviet states, can she reassure the House that the brutal regime of President Lukashenko in Belarus will not be rewarded for an election that has yet again not returned any opposition member of parliament, and that there will be a clear and unequivocal message from Her Majesty's Government that bad behaviour in Belarus will not be rewarded?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I will come to Belarus later in my speech. I will deal with that point then, if I may.

As I said, the prospect of enlargement is a powerful incentive. Turkey is making progress. The death penalty has been abolished. Access to Kurdish language media has improved, including programming by the state broadcaster. Concerns over freedom of expression have started to be addressed by reform of the penal code. A zero-tolerance approach to torture has been adopted,. The number of women in the Turkish Parliament doubled in the 2007 elections.

Thanks to EU pressure, the victims of Srebrenica have finally seen Radovan Karadzic arrive in The Hague, with the UK at the forefront of those who called for progress on accession to be linked to co-operation with the international tribunal.

Of course challenges remain in the Balkans and in Turkey. In Turkey, the EU has made it clear that reforms are still needed to consolidate progress on basic freedoms such as freedom of expression as well as minority, ethnic and religious rights, but those issues will be addressed because those Governments know that there is a real prospect of EU membership.

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Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

The Minister cites the improved human rights record of countries such as Turkey and other countries in eastern Europe. Does she not acknowledge that much of that improvement stems from their membership of the Council of Europe and that the prospects of their joining the EU in the foreseeable future are pretty slim? On enlargement, does she agree that the Council of Europe's neighbourhood policy is the most effective way of monitoring the human rights record of applicant countries, not anything done in Brussels?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I respect what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I shall refer to the Council of Europe later. I commend it on its work—particularly, to cite one example, regarding the abolition of the death penalty in many countries. I hope that he agrees that this is not a competition with other organisations, but is about how we can best work together from our own vantage point to get the best value possible out of promoting a democratic and human rights agenda. He is absolutely right to commend the Council of Europe, but there are other organisations that also play their role.

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Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

My friend has been speaking about Turkey. There are 44 majority-Muslim countries in the world, and yet only a handful—maybe three or four—are functioning democracies as we would understand that term. Why is that the case?

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M

Can't he resist a dig at muslims? Any excuse!

Submitted by Mohammad Hussain

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

There are many different reasons, as my hon. Friend is aware. All I have to say in response is that we make sure these issues are raised with each and every individual country with which we engage on human rights, and we look for different ways in which we can influence those countries to make progress. There is no one blueprint; we have to acknowledge the situations we find ourselves in with these countries, and their alliances, but importantly we never give up on trying further to progress a human rights agenda. That is at the heart of what we do; it is not an add-on or an either/or in the work we carry out.

Progress on Turkey's EU accession is also highly dependent on progress on a Cyprus settlement. I was therefore delighted to be able to signal the UK's commitment to a united and indivisible Cyprus by visiting the island in my first few days in this job last week, and to encourage both leaders to make progress. I have heard this afternoon—I am not making any claims on this—that, as well as agreeing a helpfully ambitious timetable for the next round of talks, both leaders have announced the cancellation of the regular military exercises and parades that were due to take place later this month and in November. I hope that the House will agree that this is a very positive development that shows what can be achieved through trust and co-operation. I encourage the leaders to continue to conduct their negotiations in the same constructive manner.

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n

Can Caroline tell us exactly how long she spent in Northern Cyprus. Also how many Turkish Cypriots she spoke to during her time there.

Submitted by neil Regan

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Turkey is the only member of the Council of Europe where crimes of honour—forced marriages and so forth—take place within the indigenous community? In all the other Council of Europe member states, they usually take place within immigrant communities. Will she talk about the eradication of forced marriages and other crimes of honour in this country?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I commend my hon. Friend on the work she has done in relation to forced marriages and crimes of honour. I am keen to look at all these areas in my post as Minister for Europe, and also to address them with my other colleagues who work in these important areas. There are different examples of progress having been made, such as the understanding by our postings overseas of how important these issues are. As well as looking to domestic policy, we must look at our opportunities on the global stage to deal with such actions, which go against the basic human rights that women in particular should have access to.

In July, the EU launched an initiative for a union of the Mediterranean to strengthen our support for reform in the region, and last month the European Council recognised that, in response to recent events, the EU needed to step up its relations with our eastern neighbours. Throughout the region, people share our values and aspire to our model of democracy. Ukraine is making the fastest progress. The traditions of democracy are building strong roots with every election. As the Foreign Secretary set out in August in Kiev, we believe Ukraine should be able to become a full member of the EU when it meets the criteria, but we also need to embed, outside elections, democratic processes in the fullest sense.

This autumn, the Commission will make recommendations for a new eastern partnership. We want that to be ambitious and to recognise the European aspirations of our neighbours, and to strengthen our practical support for democratic and economic reform. These actions are a sign that the EU is becoming less preoccupied with its own structures and more interested in the outside world—a stance the UK has shaped and supported.

The EU is also supporting new democracies and helping to construct civil societies in countries that have little tradition of dialogue. In Georgia, EU monitors have been deployed to support the peace agreement, and the Russian troops have moved back. Many EU missions help develop the rule of law, which is vital for sustainable security and economic growth. In Kosovo, the EU has more than 2,000 experts working with local police, customs and justice professionals.

The neighbourhood is the first step, but not the only one. The EU's foreign policy is what we can make it. For example, in the past year we have pushed the EU to take strong stances against the repressive regimes in Zimbabwe and Burma. I want it to be more decisive, able to act more quickly and more proactive in spotting potential human rights concerns before they become full-scale problems.

Of course, we should not forget the impact that the EU can have on the world's development through trade. The crippling slowness of the Doha round is preventing many of the world's citizens from gaining access to global markets and the benefits that that can bring their development. The EU, the world's largest trading bloc, must push to break the deadlock and secure an ambitious outcome to the talks.

The EU has at its heart a commitment to democracy and human rights. I hope that we will have the scope and opportunity in the House and in Brussels to debate the EU's role as a champion of human rights and to encourage stronger action in that direction. However, the EU is not the only international organisation. The 60th anniversary of the United Nations declaration of human rights will take place in December. It is a reminder that some values and aspirations are universal and that states can come together and agree a set of common standards. Those standards, in turn, have been codified into a series of legally binding obligations. "Obligation" is a serious word, meaning something more than an aim or aspiration. The older UN texts, such as the convention on torture and the international human rights covenants, and the newer texts are binding on the states that have ratified them. That means that all of us, the UK included, must respect them.

Of course, it is tempting to set out in this debate the large raft of legislation flowing from our international commitments that is before us in the UK at any one time, but this is a debate on foreign policy so I shall stick to the rest of the world. Another hugely significant aspect of the legal framework set out in the UN and other places is that it opens each of us to the scrutiny of other states party to the treaties. Without that scrutiny, the many pages of promises would be worthless. We in the UK support more action to monitor countries' performance on human rights, for example in the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. Unfortunately, that work can be undermined if it is seen simply as a process of recrimination and of putting country X in the dock. Sometimes that may be necessary, but rarely. The vast bulk of countries, the UK included, benefit from discussion about the merits of their domestic legislation and, importantly, their actions.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

May I be the first Labour Member to welcome my right hon. Friend to her post? She referred to the UN Human Rights Council. Does she agree that progress in that organisation has been very disappointing? A bloc of countries seems to be operating as an "axis of sovereignty", as some people have called it, and blocking the universal implementation of the international human rights standards. In the 60th anniversary year of the universal declaration, it is deplorable that a number of countries, including some democratic countries, are not prepared to adopt those universal standards.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I take this opportunity to commend my hon. Friend for his work on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. The United Nations does a great deal that is good, but it must also be open to scrutiny and reform. That is why the monitoring and scrutiny of individual countries, including our own, in relation to the conventions and treaties that we sign up to, is an important part of maintaining pressure to turn signatures into action. That commends the organisation and gives it a lease of life in the 21st century that is appropriate to the challenges and difficulties that we face today.

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Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

Mike Gapes made an important point, to which the Minister has not fully responded, about the performance of the new UN Human Rights Council. It was supposed to be a fresh start for the UN in tackling human rights abuses, but so far it has shown all the signs of replicating the bad old ways of the old UN Commission on Human Rights. What can the Minister say to reassure the House that she has some clear ideas about how to improve the effectiveness of that new UN body?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

A week into the job, I am on a learning and listening exercise, but we are committed to enabling the Human Rights Council to work well. We are one of its 47 members, and we are active in all other areas of the UN that deal with human rights. We welcome the appointment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and we actively support such work, but we have to look at how this works in practice. The UN and the EU are different organisations, and I and other Ministers will continue to look at them to see how best we can make sure that the various structures work as well as they possibly can.

We often need to remember that human rights work involves more than the few very badly performing states; it is as important to focus on the countries that are in transition and committed to the rule of law, but which need assistance to get there. Building democracy is a slow, painstaking process, but we have had some successes. In Bangladesh, for example, the Department for International Development contributed to a project to create a state-of-the-art register for 80 million people, complete with photos and fingerprints. We did that in just 15 months, so I say well done to all those involved. The result is that in August, there were peaceful and successful local elections with a turnout of some 80 per cent; importantly, that included a high turnout of women and minorities within the community.

The frameworks, conventions and declarations on human rights therefore form the backbone of the international system. It is the responsibility of our generation to ensure that they are more than pieces of paper, and that they are genuine commitments backed up with action—a point reflected in the interventions today. We also need to ensure that the UN General Assembly is more than a talking shop. When the UN works it is a powerful instrument for good, as the recent success on the arms trade shows—how many lives will be saved because of this piece of paper?—but these successes must become more frequent and more assured. We want to reform the international system to ensure that the words are matched with actions.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Does the Minister agree that although it is one thing to bring about more democracy in countries that require it, it is also important that we concentrate on those that might start going backwards? We should consider the recent example in Kenya. We have to be vigilant and ensure that, where the torch of democracy is lit, it does not die away.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The fact is that democracy and human rights are an issue that is never over. As well as the countries that are often pointed out as the worst examples regarding a lack of democratic institutions and the infringement of human rights, there are many that are perhaps in between—in a state of transition—and where, when progress is made, things happen that put it back. I am afraid that human rights and democracy are not an issue on which we can tick the box and say, "Job done". This is a continuing engagement that will task the minds of all of us here today, and of generations to come.

Mention was made of other organisations. The Council of Europe, in the UN vein, produces human rights norms for the whole of Europe. As I said earlier, more than any other actor it has succeeded in eradicating the death penalty in Europe. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is another important part of Europe's human rights architecture, particularly in its election monitoring. The European Court of Human Rights, by giving individuals the power to petition the Court directly, holds Governments directly to account, but it is increasingly becoming the victim of its own success. As its case load has grown, so have the delays in making judgments. That problem must be addressed.

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Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee

Does the Minister not acknowledge the difficulties that some people have in petitioning the court because of obstruction in their own countries? For example, some of those whom many of us would regard as political prisoners in Russia are finding it increasingly difficult to get justice there or to take their case to the ECHR; sometimes, their lawyers are even murdered, or are intimidated and will not take the case forward. What is the UK doing to try to help the Council of Europe resist such manipulation?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

We are a positive and strong supporter of the Court and we would seek in whatever ways we can to support the implementation of its powers, but where we can we do raise in different ways with different countries issues associated with human rights and individuals. This is about making sure that these institutions work for the purposes they were set up for, but I am happy to look into the point that the right hon. Gentleman has made in order to see what else we are doing, and to write to him.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

First, will the Minister undertake to give personal attention to the question of resourcing the ECHR in view of the work load, which, as she said, is rising exponentially? Secondly, given that President Medvedev has indicated a wish to rebuild where some recent difficulties have occurred in bilateral and multilateral relations, can she put all possible pressure on him to encourage the state Duma to ratify protocol 14, so that we can get a better process in the Court and get the backlog tackled?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I note the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I shall look into those matters. We clearly want to ensure that we can build relations with Russia. Recent actions, in many respects, isolate Russia. We do not want to isolate Russia; we very much want to build our relationship with that country.

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; she is being very generous. She mentioned dialogue with other countries. What dialogue has been held with the Government of India following the murderous events of the past two or three weeks in the state of Orissa? Although India might be the world's largest democracy, what has happened over the past few weeks is not necessarily a sign that it is the world's most mature democracy. Allowing freedom of speech and freedom of religion is a sign of maturity, and I hope that the Minister will send the strongest signal to India that this sort of behaviour in respect of religious minorities is not acceptable.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important contribution. We welcome the Indian Prime Minister's unequivocal statements condemning the continued violence against Christians in Orissa, the most recent of which was made on 29 September, following the EU-India summit. We urge the Government of India to uphold the right to freedom of religion and to bring to justice those responsible for attacks against people of all religions in India. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with any more detail that I can provide on that issue.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I thank the Minister for giving way on this particular point, because the right of individuals to petition the European Court of Human Rights is very important. In the past couple of months, I have been contacted by the Advice on Individual Rights in Europe—AIRE—centre, which assists people from England and the United Kingdom generally in going to the ECHR. The AIRE centre was concerned that the paperwork necessary for people to petition the European Court was not being provided—I am talking about family law, which the Minister will not be surprised to learn is one of my interests. Is there someone in the Government who would assist a petitioner who is being refused their documentation and thereby being prevented from going to the European Court?

Secondly, although it has signed it, the UK is one of the few countries not to have ratified protocol 4 to the European convention on human rights. That protocol means that one cannot take somebody's passport off them. Is there a reason why the UK continually fails to ratify that protocol? Does the Minister feel that it is acceptable that somebody is banned from leaving the country in that way?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me; I am happy to write to him shortly on those two rather detailed points. It is important that we discuss these issues and that any constituents' concerns can be followed up.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of our other partners, such as the Commonwealth, which promotes human rights standards across its membership, and non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Those organisations demonstrate that work to promote democracy and to protect human rights goes on at two levels; it addresses the need to change a Government's policy, and the need to protect individuals. Our bilateral action on human rights is a combination of those two approaches. The internal legal framework is the foundation of all our bilateral work on human rights. We feel that we have a legitimate right to encourage countries to sign up to these texts and a legitimate right to be concerned when they fail to meet their international obligations. Although the rights themselves are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, there are many different routes towards honouring the commitments.

Some lessons stand out. Conflict situations put pressure on human rights. That is equally true for countries trying to protect their citizens from terrorism as for countries in the grip of a civil war, but there is no one hard and fast rule to address every human rights issue relating to conflict and counter-terrorism. For example, the conflict in Sudan—the site of whole-scale atrocities, gender-based violence, child soldiers and displacement—is different in nature from the lethal violence employed in the Palestinian dispute or from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. What those issues have in common is that we are engaged on them all, trying to figure out the best route to achieve our aims. In the US, we have had serious discussions with the Administration on all aspects of counter-terrorism and human rights issues, including rendition, Guantanamo Bay and the handling of detainees. The US is well aware of our views on water-boarding, for example, and has actively engaged in a dialogue with us on the issues. That frank approach helped secure the release in 2004 and 2005 of all nine of the British nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay as well as four individuals who had formerly resided lawfully in the UK. Continued close co-operation with the US is critical to our ability to counter the threat posed to the UK by global terrorism. Dialogue on the importance of human rights to our counter-terrorism efforts is a critical part of that.

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Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

The Minister mentioned Sudan, and we have debated the humanitarian situation in Darfur for a long time now. The Prime Minister promised us an initiative on the matter in the UN some six months ago, yet I see little progress. I visited the camps in Darfur, and the situation there is one of the most appalling that I have ever seen around the world. Will the Minister say whether a Minister in her Government has recently met the President of Sudan to tackle him directly over those barbaric atrocities?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I will provide the hon. Gentleman with details about who has met whom and where. In Sudan, aside from the considerable humanitarian support that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge is offered by DFID, we see that the best route to success lies in a permanent peace settlement. That will not come about because the UK says so, so we need to work within the UN to achieve it. That can be frustrating, and I hear that in his remarks. It can be slow, but it is the way most likely to end not only the conflict but human rights abuses.

The middle east peace process has for a long time been at the top of UN agendas, but the EU is also playing an important role, particularly on security sector reform. The EU, for example, leads on building capacity for the Palestinian civil police.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

Before we move on from Sudan, let me point out that Darfur shows the fragility of the international community's ability to support the emerging norm of the international community's responsibility to protect. The matter is not just about the failure of the Security Council to enforce that; the international community does not have the military lift capacity to do so either. We are hoping that things in Darfur will not get worse and that something will turn up. There is no UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, effectively, and there is no real process in Darfur. The responsibility to protect is just being forgotten.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

It is not forgotten. I acknowledge how frustrating and difficult the process is. In answer to the earlier intervention by Daniel Kawczynski I can say that the Foreign Secretary told Sudanese Vice-President Taha in New York on 27 September that the Sudanese Government should co-operate with the International Criminal Court over crimes committed in Darfur and should take bolder and more ambitious action to bring peace in Darfur. The process is difficult, slow and frustrating, but the UK Government are doing all we can on a number of different fronts, through our development funds and our engagement on every level, to try to support a peaceful resolution in Sudan.

Human rights work is not simply about exposing abuse. It is about changing mindsets, and so our work across the globe, whether in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe or Iraq, is targeted and pragmatic. The end point is not necessarily to humiliate a Government, but to get them to change and to reach a point where there are no longer 7,500 people on death row in Pakistan, where the Afghan Government do not execute 15 people in the middle of the night, where Zimbabwe has free elections and where women are no longer, as my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer mentioned earlier, the victims of so-called honour crimes in northern Iraq.

Before I finish my remarks, I want to return to my original theme.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

I deliberately waited to see whether the Minister was concluding her speech. It is striking that in a debate that is intended to show the Government's approach to promoting democracy and human rights, the Minister has so far concentrated entirely on soft power, not hard power. She will be aware that she is a member of a Government that for their first 10 years, under Tony Blair, made a virtue of arguing that military means would have to be used from time to time, such as in Kosovo and Iraq, either to promote democracy or for regime change. Should the House interpret the absence of even the slightest reference to that in her speech as she approaches her concluding remarks as meaning that the Government, under the new Prime Minister, no longer believe in that approach and are unlikely to pursue it in the way that we saw during the first 10 years of this Labour Government?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I should not like the right hon. and learned Gentleman or anyone else to interpret anything that I have not said. I mentioned that our work in the Foreign Office is closely linked to the work of DFID and the Ministry of Defence, and there clearly have been situations, as no doubt there will be in future, where our military capacity will play a contribution, but they have to be determined case by case. Last week, for example, it was interesting for me to meet British soldiers in Cyprus who are part of the UN peacekeeping forces trying to make sure that hostilities do not erupt in the island. Some of the British soldiers whom I met were from south Yorkshire, where my constituency is, and they had just come from Darfur and other places around the world where they daily witness violence and the death of civilians. I do not want anyone to intimate that we do not think carefully about the issue, but today's debate is intended to look particularly at what the Foreign Office does in relation to human rights and democracy in the world.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

May I pursue the intervention that was just made? It raises issues that at least need to be mentioned. I refer particularly to voices from the United States that, reflecting frustration with the international community, talk of the need for a league of democracies that can do the kind of things that were said to be necessary a few years ago. Is such a proposal, with its intention to bypass the frustrations of international organisations in achieving certain democratic objectives, one to which the Government are attached?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I understand that some of that debate arises from the US presidential campaign, so I am not sure that it is appropriate for me to comment. One thing is clear, however: there will be a new President in the months to come, so there will be opportunities to think about our relationship with the US on the international stage, as well as the relationship between the European Union and the US. That will be interesting and will, I hope, build on our constructive relationship with the US and offer new opportunities.

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Europe)

I want to make some progress.

As Europe Minister, I thoroughly support the EU policy to promote and protect human rights defenders. They may be lawyers or politicians, they may be housewives or soldiers, but they share one thing—they are on the front line of human rights and, more than any policy document, they provide a short sharp glimpse into the world's trouble spots.

It is brave for one individual to challenge a state, especially on its human rights record, so such people need our support and I conclude my speech by paying tribute to some of them: Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist shot dead outside her home in 2007, and the many supporters of the "One Million Signatures" campaign in Iran, men and women calling for an end to discriminatory laws against women, many of whom have been harassed, detained, interrogated, and in some cases even prosecuted for crimes against national security, simply because of their efforts to support equality.

At present, attention is focused on the Nobel peace prize, awarded to Martti Ahtisaari for his efforts over three decades to resolve international conflicts. I also support other prize-winning human rights activists: Gege Katana, who has stood against sexual violence in Congo, winning the Front Line award, and who was guest of honour at a reception at the British embassy in Kinshasa, and Sudanese human rights lawyer Salih Mahmoud Osman, winner of the European Parliament's Freedom of Thought prize.

Many human rights defenders are in jail or under house arrest. The most prominent is Aung San Suu Kyi, who provides a reminder to the people of Burma that there is an alternative to military repression. In China, Chen Guangcheng received a sentence of four years and three months for obstructing traffic and damaging public property. He, too, is a human rights defender. British embassy monitoring helped to secure EU pressure for the release of Umida Niyazova from an Uzbekh prison. On the EU's doorstep, Viktor Gonchav, Anatoly Krasovsky, Yury Zakharenko and Dmitry Zaradsky opposed the Belarusian authorities. They disappeared during 1999 and 2000. There has been no independent investigation. However, to come back to an earlier intervention, I welcome the recent release of the last three political prisoners in Belarus. For the first time in a decade, that country has no political prisoners, and that is a positive step. Our reactions to that have to be tempered by the fact that we must continue to encourage engagement, while recognising that, in some instances, sanctions of different kinds continue to have a purpose as progress is made.

Finally, let us remember Gift Tandare and the many other victims of Robert Mugabe's repression in Zimbabwe. Violence and the threat of violence have long been the chosen political tools of Mugabe and his party. When the then Opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was beaten last year, Mugabe's response was that he deserved to be "bashed"; he told the police to "beat him a lot". A positive future in Zimbabwe depends on the violence of the past never being repeated.

The people whom I mentioned have fought for the causes they believe in. They have been unfairly imprisoned and have suffered. Part of our policy on human rights must be to fight their corner, just as we must tackle their Governments. Above all, we must build an international community that ensures that our universal human rights are universally promoted, respected and protected.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:15 pm, 13th October 2008

First, may I welcome the Minister for Europe to her first foreign affairs debate in the House? I congratulate her on what I understand to be her imminent appointment to the Privy Council.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I apologise; I am delighted to be able to welcome and congratulate the right hon. Lady. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Gillian Merron, who will wind up the debate on behalf of the Government.

This afternoon's debate is, as I understand it, something of a last-minute arrangement. My hands were almost wet with black ink this morning as I read the Government's response to the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on human rights—a response that seemed to have been rushed off the presses in double quick time, as neither the Table Office nor Amnesty International had a copy as recently as last Thursday. However, it is welcome, particularly as this December we mark the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. That declaration was full of confidence and hope. It was drawn up by men and women who knew what they were talking about, because they had experienced the horrors of the second world war, and the destruction of human liberty and dignity that it entailed.

The declaration was not conceived as a treaty or a list of legal obligations, but rather as a set of universal principles to protect and enrich the lives of all humanity, and to guide and inspire the policies and actions of all nations. Sixty years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting commission, urged the General Assembly of the United Nations to support the universal declaration as a first step towards a world in which the dignity, autonomy and freedom of every human being was properly respected. She spoke of work to turn the words of the declaration into practical, concrete policies as

"the unfinished task which lies before us."

If we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that the task is still far from complete, and that millions of our fellow men and women still live in the shadow of war, oppression and persecution.

Such a breadth of issues are covered by the title of today's debate, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's annual report on human rights and by the Select Committee's comments on it that my remarks will inevitably be selective. I agree with the Minister that we should conduct our foreign policy in a manner that strengthens and supports our values and our commitment to democracy and human rights. We have to be honest with ourselves: it is true that the management of international affairs will always be tempered by realism. We have to work in the world as it exists. Human rights are not the only consideration when framing this country's foreign policy; nor have they ever been the only consideration when framing policy for any Government of any political party.

Whoever serves as Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary must take account of factors such as trade, terrorism, cross-border crime and energy security. Sometimes efforts to end a civil war or to resolve an ethnic or religious conflict may involve contradictory pressures. Do we make our first priority the duty to bring to justice those responsible for barbarous and criminal acts of persecution, or is the priority to bring about an end to the conflict and suffering, even if that means that a tyrant is let off the hook and can retire in comfort? Those dilemmas are real, and that point was acknowledged by Human Rights Watch in its written evidence to the Select Committee about the 2007 report.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I am sure that my hon. Friend will have had a chance to study the European convention on human rights, which is a pellucid document. Does he not agree that all those derogations or qualifications of the undiluted human rights mixture—for example, the needs for national security, terrorism and, indeed, the clashing of rights—are explicitly allowed for? It is the conditions under which those derogations operate that may be of interest.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth quoting the comments of Human Rights Watch, which begins by congratulating the Government:

"In the case of torture and counter terrorism, the report"— the Foreign Office report on human rights—

"explicitly elaborates and analyses one such dilemma. Human Rights Watch believes that it would be useful to extend this approach to other areas where respect for and promotion of human rights are somehow seen as being in conflict with UK interests, for example energy security, development, commercial relations and conflict resolution. Many of these dilemmas are real. But it is only by setting them out clearly that one can deal with them and devise strategies to align interests more closely with ethics."

I agree with those comments, and when I read them, I thought that they were a constructive criticism. I hope that the Government will accept them in that spirit and act accordingly.

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I am so glad that my hon. Friend started off with setting priorities, because I am sure that he will share my shock and dismay that, when one looks on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website at strategic priorities and policy goals, particularly inward visits from foreign Members of Parliament and Ministers, one finds no reference to human rights whatsoever. Of all the inward visits that I have seen for the past month, the vast majority have been to do with climate change exchanges—not one single inward visit has been to do with human rights.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I very much hope that when Foreign Office Ministers meet their counterparts from whichever country, the promotion of human rights is part of the agenda for discussion.

Having made those qualifications, the principle remains true: if we pursue our national interest while neglecting our policy's human rights implications, we will fail. Not only do we have a moral imperative to act when human rights violations occur; it is in our national interest to see human rights advanced and protected worldwide. A world in which those values prevail is one that is more secure, more stable and more prosperous than the world we have today. Our foreign policy should reflect, in our conduct abroad, the values that we cherish at home.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I shall give way in a moment.

The promotion of human rights should not be seen as an add-on, but as an integral part of our thinking, incorporated in, for example, our national security strategy and our policies on international development. For instance, I should like us to build plans for the reduction and eradication of human trafficking into our poverty reduction programmes, and to find a way in which to integrate our concern for human rights into the pursuit of millennium development goals.

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Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon PPS (Jim Knight, Minister of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families

The hon. Gentleman has gone on to make the point that I wanted to make about the involvement of not only our foreign policy but our international development policies. However, does he agree that to a large extent our focus has to be, and is, on education, in respect of how we inculcate our values? In part, our values have been demonstrated through our insistence on education. I am thinking particularly of education for girls and our insistence on raising the status of women throughout the world.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Lady has made a good point, and I completely concur. Education—particularly the education of women and primary education—is an absolutely vital tool in a successful international development policy, including in those elements of the policy that focus on encouraging pluralism and respect for the civil rights of others.

Of course, we cannot simply reorder the world as we choose. We do not have the power to do so and, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind hinted earlier, soldiers can remove a tyrant but find it difficult to build a functioning democratic system to take over. If the events of recent years have taught us anything, it is surely that if democracy and human rights are to take root, they need to grow in a way that is sensitive to each nation's history, culture and tradition. If we think about the history of Europe since 1989, it is striking that democracy and civil rights have flourished most quickly and richly in countries whose political cultures already had elements of pluralism within them and in which some people at least had a memory of how a democratic system of government and democratic and pluralist institutions ought to function.

However, there are things that we can and should do. As the Minister discussed, one is to give practical support for building and sustaining democracy. I agreed with her point that membership of the European Union has helped to strengthen new and fragile democracies in Spain, Portugal, Greece and, more recently, in eastern and central Europe. I agree, too, with her tributes to the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

This country has a good track record of contributing what one might term "democratic know-how" to new democracies. I had better declare that I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy; I do so because I want to pay tribute to Hugh Bayley and his predecessors as chairmen of the WFD, which has contributed hugely, in a largely unsung and unglamorous way, to the strengthening of democratic institutions in eastern and central Europe and now also in other parts of the world.

Secondly, we can speak out; we have the freedom to speak without fear of retribution. It therefore becomes our duty to lend a voice to the millions of people who are denied that right. I want to touch on one or two countries for which that duty is pressing. I should like to consider the case of Burma first. At the beginning of this year, I thought that the record of the Burmese Government could have plunged no lower. However, even those of us who believed that we were inured to the horror that is government in Burma were shocked by the ruthless brutality of a military junta who were prepared to obstruct efforts to bring help to the dying and destitute in the wake of cyclone Nargis.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is due to visit Burma this December, and that is welcome. However, I hope that the Government agree that the time has come to bring to an end the apparently open-ended and inconclusive diplomatic exchanges with the regime. Do the Government agree that it is now time to set clear benchmarks for the Burmese junta and deadlines for meeting them? I hope that they will press for such an approach at the United Nations Security Council and in their bilateral exchanges with the Secretary-General. The very first step should be the release of political prisoners in Burma—something that was demanded by the Security Council a year ago and on which no action has yet been taken by those who rule Burma.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I welcome my hon. Friend's reasonable and nuanced speech. As chairman of the all-party group for democracy in Burma, I pay tribute to what he just said. Does he agree that as the regime is unquestionably one of the most bestial oppressors in the world, and that as we in this country have no vested interest in turning a blind eye, we should press robustly for a binding Security Council resolution against the regime and support pro-democracy organisations in that country?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Minister's particular responsibilities at the Foreign Office are to do with Europe, and I hope that she will go back from this debate determined to ensure that Burma is high on the agenda of meetings of European Foreign Ministers. An EU Heads of Government summit is due this week and an Asia-Europe meeting is due on 24 October. I hope that at the latter meeting in particular the British Government will ensure that the issue of Burma is brought to the fore.

This is not only to do with China or India but with Burma's neighbours—Malaysia, Indonesia and all the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which have it in their power and influence to affect the survival and the manner of government of the Burmese junta. I hope that every bit of diplomatic weight that the United Kingdom can bring to bear will be used to determine a European approach to those discussions and to put the maximum pressure on our Asian friends in order to secure a measure of greater liberty and common decency for the people of Burma, who have suffered for far too long.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. May I put to him another reason why it is important that this must be done at EU level? It strikes me, as vice-chairman of the all-party China group, that one of the difficulties that we have in situations to do with countries such as China or India is that we are simultaneously trying to promote trade and talking about human rights. It is often difficult for individual countries to do that in the same conversation, whereas if the EU as a whole brings pressure to bear on China or India on an issue such as Burma, we are making it clear that, irrespective of our separate interests, our concern about human rights is paramount and overwhelming.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My hon. Friend, who is Chairman of the International Development Committee, makes a powerful point, and I completely agree with him.

European action is necessary in respect not only of Burma but of Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, the fragile power-sharing agreement looks as if it is on the verge of collapse. Mugabe seems determined to wriggle out of sharing power and to inflict yet further hardship on his wretched and long-suffering people. I hope that during the concluding stages of this debate the Government will be prepared to say clearly that if that power-sharing deal does indeed break down the United Kingdom will not hesitate in pressing in the European Union and at the United Nations for further action, particularly for further targeted sanctions directed against Mugabe and his henchmen, who run that despotic regime.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for touching on Zimbabwe, because the Minister did so only in passing and without intervention. Surely this is the saddest example of the diminution of British power overseas. With one third of the population displaced and an evil tyrant who has taken away any democratic rights, Britain is almost powerless to do anything. What is my hon. Friend's view of the growing influence of China in southern Africa, particularly in Zimbabwe, given that China seems to be propping up that brutal regime?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

We should be using our contact with China—both our bilateral contacts and our discussions within the forum of EU-China relations—to bring pressure to bear so that it sees that its growing role as a powerful player in international diplomacy and economic affairs carries with it a responsibility to use that influence for the good of the people of the countries with which it trades. I do not despair of China's reaction because we have seen, particularly in respect of North Korea, to some extent with Darfur, and even—on some details—in relation to Zimbabwe, a shift on the part of the Chinese Government. China is not yet pursuing a course where it gives priority to civil rights and democracy in Zimbabwe or any other country, which I wish to see, but that should be a key element in the dealings of the British Government with China now and in the future.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is exceptionally generous, as I know because he is a constituency neighbour of mine. Does he think that Mugabe fears the International Criminal Court, or is the man capable only of greed, violence, hatred and megalomania?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

There are grounds for believing that Mugabe does fear the International Criminal Court, and it is one sanction that we should not take off the table. We should be prepared to contemplate it. Mugabe has had the opportunity in the agreement brokered by Thabo Mbeki to leave office or cede power with what I suppose in his eyes is a degree of honour. He seems to be determined to reject that opportunity, and to cling on to the last vestiges of power for as long as possible. It should be made clear to him that serious consequences could flow from that decision.

I want to say a few words about a broader challenge to human rights that is not restricted to one particular country: persecution on grounds of religion. Article 18 of the universal declaration asserts the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Too often, that freedom is denied—sometimes by Governments and sometimes by extremist groups operating within a particular state. One could cite the persecution of the Bahai's in Iran, attacks on Christians in parts of Pakistan or the destruction of churches and the displacement of 50,000 refugees in the state of Orissa in India, but what should give us in Britain particular cause for concern is the discrimination against religious minorities, particularly Christians, in countries where British troops are serving to sustain democracy and human rights.

Afghanistan still seems, if certain high-profile cases are correctly reported, to have a legal system that condemns apostasy as a criminal act and will provide for the death penalty if someone is convicted of apostasy. In Iraq, there are persistent reports from the Nineveh plain—I appreciate that that is not the area where British troops have served—that there is little effective security, and that illegal annexation of land is taking place. What seems certain is that thousands of families of Christian belief have been displaced from their ancestral homes in that part of Iraq.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Briefly, on the point my hon. Friend made on Zimbabwe, will he join me in congratulating the President of Botswana and the late President of Zambia, who showed courage and integrity in their public condemnation of Mugabe?

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

My hon. Friend touched on the subject of apostasy. Does he share my concern that, never mind what is going on over there, people here in this country who choose, or choose to turn away from, particular faiths are being threatened with death? Will he put on record our Front Benchers' view on such a scenario in this country?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Any threats of that nature would seem, prima facie, to be a breach of criminal law in England, and I would like to see robust action taken against the perpetrators of any such threats. We are rightly proud of our tradition of religious toleration in this country. It took us many years of struggle, debate and difficulty to reach it, and it is a prize on to which we need to hold fast.

It is not enough to speak about abuses of human rights in other countries. As has already been mentioned, if we are to be taken seriously in the world, we must be ready to acknowledge when we—or one of our allies—gets things wrong. There is no doubt in my mind that allegations of prisoner abuse or of rendition leading to torture, however isolated, have done a great deal of damage to the moral authority of the western world. Our words will carry weight only if they are supported by efforts to adhere to the high standards that we preach.

I welcome the thorough analysis of the claims about rendition that was conducted earlier this year by the Government and by the United States Department of State. I was pleased that firm assurances have now been given that rendition involving this country will not be permitted unless it is undertaken strictly in compliance with our country's laws. However, there is a loose end to the rendition question that needs to be tied up, and I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with this point in her response to the debate.

In December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the international covenant for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, and Britain was active in promoting that covenant. However, we have not yet signed it. In a written answer on 14 November 2007, Lord Malloch-Brown acknowledged that there had been a delay. In a debate on 17 July this year, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether the continuing delay was due to genuine worries about security, or simply to internal delays in the Foreign Office. The right hon. Gentleman said that he would write to me

"with details of where in the Foreign Office's pending tray the issue lies."—[ Hansard, 17 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 499.]

Three months on, I am still waiting for that promised response. I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary has had other matters on his mind during the summer recess. However, perhaps he now finds himself with more time on his hands than he had anticipated a few weeks ago. A response is overdue on this significant question in the context of our concern over rendition and detention, and I hope that the Government will not delay further in giving Parliament a proper response.

In pursuing our policy objectives, we also need to support effective treaties and institutions to defend and enlarge human rights. I am happy to reiterate my party's support for the negotiations to secure an arms trade treaty and for the United Nations programme of action on the small arms trade. My hon. Friend Tony Baldry referred earlier to the responsibility to protect. We want to see the United Nations work, but, as he said, Darfur surely shows that at the moment neither the United Nations peacekeeping arrangements nor those that exist at regional level through the African Union are anything like adequate or effective.

We would also like to see the UN Human Rights Council work effectively, but I agreed with Mike Gapes when he said that its performance had been disappointing so far. If we look at the table on pages 54 and 55 of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights, we see listed the voting on key resolutions—those that the FCO decided were the most important. Of those 10 resolutions debated by the UN Human Rights Council, the UK voted against seven and abstained on the other three. One has to ask what is going wrong with that institution when our Government find themselves unable to support any of the 10 most important resolutions.

Clearly, a number of things are going wrong with that UN body. It is surely not right that a country can be elected to the Human Rights Council without even signing up to basic international treaties such as the international covenant on civil and political rights. Surely the process of universal periodic review—the questioning and testing of each country's human rights record—needs to take place in such a way that the countries serving on the Human Rights Council have their records examined first. One should surely expect at the very minimum that the examinations of the records of members of the HRC would have been concluded before the half way mark of the term of sitting. Something is clearly going wrong when, in the universal periodic review sessions earlier this year, we find that Algeria had a great deal of critical comment to make about the Czech Republic and, indeed, the United Kingdom—as I made clear earlier, however, I am not afraid of our being self-critical—but had little to say about its own record. Nor, sadly, did many countries from outside the developed west challenge nations such as Algeria and Tunisia about their human rights records when their turn for examination came.

Next year, the Human Rights Council faces a very big test with the planned conference in Geneva, which follows up the world conference against racism held in Durban in 2001. Let us be honest about it: Durban was a travesty, with Israel singled out for attack and the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, walking out in protest. Let me make this clear: I have criticised Israel in the past and I will continue to do so over its settlement policy, the route of the security barrier and its treatment of Palestinians, but the notion that Israel—and Israel above all—should be singled out is to deny the reality of what is happening on human rights in the world today.

It is the reputation of the United Nations, and in particular the Human Rights Council, that will be at stake in Geneva next year, and I have to say that the omens are not good. The chairman of the conference planning committee is from Libya, the vice-chairman is from Iran and the rapporteur is from Cuba. Will the ministerial team tell us during this debate whether Her Majesty's Government plan to send Ministers to attend the conference in Geneva or have they already, like Canada, written it off as a bad job? Will the Government fund non-governmental organisations to attend the conference? I think that we deserve some straight answers on those points.

People who have glimpsed freedom—whether it be through books, television, the internet or travel—will never be content until they have secured it for themselves. As Eleanor Roosevelt said 60 years ago:

"People who continue to be denied the respect to which they are entitled as human beings will not acquiesce forever in such denial".

The ideas embodied in the universal declaration of human rights were then and remain now a beacon of hope and optimism to those who endure tyranny and oppression. All of us here, from whichever party or political tradition we come, have a duty to cherish and uphold those ideas today.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South 5:49 pm, 13th October 2008

I am delighted with the subject of the debate. There are many hon. Members here who directly participate in the promotion of democracy throughout the world as Members of Parliament. We are in a Chamber—not this one, exactly—that fought hard and resisted for a long time the process of democracy, denying ordinary working people and women the right to vote. The franchise was pathetically small, but because of external pressures—the Birmingham Political Union of 1832, the Chartists and the suffragettes—as well as other pressures from within our political system and, in many ways, from within our legislature, we evolved, painfully slowly, into a formidable democracy.

Complacency then set in, and there was a rude awakening a few years ago when we realised that not everybody who could vote was imbued with the tradition, which had been laid down for over a century, of one person, one vote. Instead, there was one person, multiple voting. John Hemming knows a great deal about that, as do others from Birmingham.

I am delighted that the action taken by the Government, the Electoral Commission and the wonderful judge of great literary competence who produced the report on Birmingham has helped to recreate the culture of elections whereby international standards, as well as British standards, are adhered to.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I am pretty certain that the right hon. Gentleman and I do not disagree on this. I would like to highlight the fact that the difference was that Birmingham took action to deal with election fraud, not that it happened only in Birmingham.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

The hon. Gentleman was accused of being a very bad witness, but he was right in that he identified the substantial fraud in Birmingham. It scarred a number of political parties, not least my own, but I have traced the evolution of democracy in detail and seen how election petitions originated. In the 19th century, Members of Parliament judged people who had complained about elections, which was almost like Mao Tse Tung's determining the nature of democracy. Members of Parliament were ill equipped to comment on other people's frauds because they were themselves the beneficiaries of fraud. It was only when Parliament and the Government transferred to the senior judiciary the function of addressing election petitions against fraud that the problem was largely solved.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon PPS (Jim Knight, Minister of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I take my right hon. Friend's point about the evolution of democracy—we cannot just click our fingers for it to emerge in a certain country—but does he agree that we are attempting to make big changes through the Global Opportunities Fund, in particular in China, where we are working at different levels with the legislature, the judiciary, law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organisations and academics so that democracy and human rights are gradually inculcated into the systems and form part of their thinking? It should not be denied that we are helping to move the process forward.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

That will save me five minutes of my speech. I emphasised our own backyard to point out—I hope quite forcefully—that before we start to lecture others on democracy and free and fair elections, we should put our house in order. I believe that we are largely doing that as a result of the scandals in a number of cities and towns in this country.

There are many definitions of "democracy", although I shall not go into them. I am an avid reader of The Economist and the output of the Economist Intelligence Unit. It has taken a good approach to what constitutes a democracy, using a scoring system that puts the UK—I do not think this is right—23rd out of about 30 democracies, although I am consoled by the fact that the French are 24th. There are also other ways by which one can evaluate whether a country meets democratic standards.

My point is that not more than a fifth or a sixth of countries can be designated "democratic". Many purport to be democratic and many have not the slightest interest in becoming democratic, but some are struggling to do so. We took a long time to achieve democracy—comparatively speaking, we were a wealthy nation in the 19th century—so one has to have a degree of tolerance towards other countries that want to be more democratic, but are in the early part of the process.

Some people mocked Islamic countries in this regard, but in fairness I must point out that a number of countries are trying to be more democratic, such as Albania, which does not have much of a record of democracy. We have done a great deal in the international community in relation to Kosovo and Bosnia. I am a great supporter of Turkey, whose Islamic Government are far better at achieving and maintaining democracy than their ostensibly secular predecessors. They are certainly far less corrupt.

Other examples are Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco, which are trying hard. Algeria is fighting a war against terrorism and is also trying hard. I have visited Kuwait and other Gulf states, and I head a small non-governmental organisation that is helping capacity-build in the second Chamber of the Omani Parliament. I merely make the point that it is difficult for an Islamic country quickly to move towards western-style democracy, even if it is not from a standing start. Perhaps such countries will not adopt western-style democracy, but I am confident that a number of countries are progressing in the right direction at a pace they can cope with.

We are progressing and the UK's record in promoting democracy is good, but it amuses me to look at the annual report produced by the Department for International Development, whose record in promoting democracy is excellent. In the index to the report, the only reference to democracy, as with the Foreign Office annual report, is to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This country is trying hard and succeeding well in promoting democracy, not forcing it down people's throats or saying, "Look, we can tell you how to do it." There is an exchange of experience. Therefore, I hope that future annual reports at least pay lip service to the fact that both those great institutions of our state are promoting democracy. Why do they appear embarrassed to admit that we are promoting democracy? Why are they hiding behind terms such as "human rights", which the Government are promoting and appears in the reports, and "good governance"? Those are weasel words, albeit important words, and I feel embarrassed that those institutions are not prepared to say them.

On democracy promotion, I do not want to give a checklist. I am not one of the greatest admirers of the United Nations, and many of the problems that we heard about earlier are the result of countries with little democratic tradition such as China and Russia—previously the Soviet Union—doing all they can to prop up Governments as illicit and authoritarian as their own.

Security Council decisions can easily be vetoed, so it is not at all surprising that democracy is hardly as high on the agenda as it ought to be. However, it is quite high. The record on what is being done by the political and electoral assistance divisions, and by other parts of the UN, is good. What was virtually the founding document of the UN extolled the virtues of free elections as an essential element of any society in the world. The UN's record is far from bad; it is good and deserves more praise. I am saying that not because I am going there in January, but because the record is not as bad as some people purport it to be.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Given that both the Government of Burma and the Government of Sudan continue to be guilty of the most egregious human rights abuses, that neither of those regimes is improving, and that both are propped up by what I would call the amorality of the Chinese, how does the right hon. Gentleman think that the Chinese can be persuaded to behave in a more responsible and moral fashion, in their own interest?

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

One would hope that as a result of the inexorable process of democratisation, the more the population are educated and the more—dare I say it?—bourgeois they become, the more they will not be prepared to acquiesce to a decision-making process emanating from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. One would hope, therefore, that the Chinese would reach a point that we and most, or at least many, other countries have reached. Russia has not reached that point, I am afraid, because its progress in the rather anarchic democracy of Yeltsin has been deleted. We may not quite be returning to the Soviet era, but we are certainly heading towards an era in which sovereign democracy is as plausible a concept of democracy as were the people's democracies in eastern and central Europe from the 1940s onwards.

I should like to say that the United Nations is doing a good job. Other international organisations are certainly doing a good job—including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, although the Russians can veto any decision made in the OSCE. I am not the foremost devotee of the European Union system, but I have been back and forth quite frequently exploring the EU's role in promoting democracy, and it is formidable. We should note how well it functions in observing elections. It is now probably almost as good as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which I consider to be the jewel in the OSCE's crown and to represent the gold standard for election observation.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee

The right hon. Gentleman is making a good point, and he is right to mention those organisations, but, given the problem that we have with Russia, does he think it entirely helpful to the credibility of this country—and, indeed, to the Council of Europe—for an alliance of British Conservatives and Russian supporters or Putinites to operate as a single political unit in the Council's Parliamentary Assembly?

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

That is another three minutes of my speech gone, but I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said, although I believe that those to whom he refers have at long last extricated themselves from the process. It should be pointed out that while it is not possible to pick and choose members in the OSCE, it is possible to do so in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. It can appoint and it can throw out—and if a country's human rights record is as bad as that of Russia, and getting worse, I feel that that country should be a suitable case for rustication.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

Without descending to party politics, which could be discussed on another occasion, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is sensible that the Council of Europe has resolved to conduct a full investigation of the circumstances involving the recent war between Russia and Georgia before jumping to a conclusion, and has indicated in pretty clear terms that consequences will follow if a conclusion is reached that is adverse to either or both parties?

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

I am delighted. I hope that a Russian rapporteur is not involved. If I had the time, which I do not, I could list all Russia's failures—

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

It is all there, it is all there. I could list all its failures—fraudulent elections, preventing candidates from contesting elections, what it has done to non-governmental organisations, the unfortunate disappearance of heads of NGOs and journalists and so forth, without even mentioning what it is doing in relation to foreign affairs and defence. I only hope that the declaration issued half an hour ago that Russia was, if not repenting—that would be the wrong word—reconsidering is correct. At this point in time, however, Russia is becoming rather more obstreperous, and we need to be more and more careful.

I have mentioned the important role of international organisations, but national Governments also have an important role. We know what is being done by the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, and, in the United States, by the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, but the same can be said of almost every country. I spent a good deal of time conducting a survey of 30 countries, 25 of which responded. I have just sent off a reminder to the others. I examined the way in which national Governments fund their own NGOs as well as international organisations such as the UN and the OSCE, and what international NGOs are doing. It is rather ironic that the United States, which has a rather low reputation at the moment, has such an incredible number of first-rate NGOs. We know of most of them, including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the Eurasia Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Let me issue a plea for excellent NGOs in democratisation and human rights that are desperately in need of funding. Oh yes, we fund them initially, but subsequently we rely on the private sector to do so. Some countries are hanging on to democracy by their fingertips. Civil society and NGOs are the essential link between foreign countries that seek a greater expansion of democracy. In whatever capacity I can do so, I plead with our own Government to fund more and better organisations. That does not just mean giving four million quid to the Westminster Foundation, chaired by my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley, excellent though that organisation is; there is more to be done, even by the Foreign Office and DFID, to help to sustain countries that seek to be democratic.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Liberal Democrat, Winchester

The right hon. Gentleman lists organisations that are doing great work in promoting democracy. Perhaps he will say a word about the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, two organisations that do a great deal to try to help in this context.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

I can only apologise on the grounds that I am writing a book on the subject, which will include a chapter on what Parliaments and inter-parliamentary assemblies are doing. I agree that what the IPU and the CPA are doing is truly extraordinary. Members of a delegation from Botswana who are in the House today are guests of the CPA. The whole network of international organisations, national Governments and Parliaments, NGOs, universities and individuals plays an enormous role in establishing and sustaining democratisation.

In the final three or four minutes of my speech, I wish to raise an issue that causes me great concern. I have headed 18 short-term missions to observe elections—for instance, the sequence of rose revolution elections in Georgia and orange revolution elections in Ukraine. The Russians are convinced that I am an employee of the CIA, MI5 or MI6. What they cannot recognise is that their mates in those countries ran totally corrupt elections. It was not only that we declared that those elections failed to meet international standards; our findings merely verified what the populations were thinking. We did not deliberately spark something. We were not there to create a peaceful revolution. It was people in those countries who said "Enough is enough. Thank you for confirming what we already know—that our Government are a bunch of crooks who are cheating at elections."

Election observation is a vital element of the promotion and sustenance of democracy. There are so many wonderful organisations, domestic and otherwise. Some of the best that I have seen are in developing countries such as Kenya. I am on the board of one in Kazakhstan. We must pay tribute to the countries that are sustaining democracy through election observation and democracy projects albeit that they are not natural democracies. My great anxiety is that election observation by ODIHR is under considerable threat. It is hard enough observing elections and producing, hopefully, correct reports based on evidence, but there are two hurdles, obstacles or mountains that ODIHR must surmount.

There is, for example, the opposition of Russia, which does not wish ODIHR to go there and, inevitably, say "These elections fall well short of international standards." Russia and the other "great democracies" in the Commonwealth of Independent States such as Uzbekistan and Belarus are ganging up on ODIHR. They are trying hard, throughout the OSCE, to get ODIHR busted or, worse, reduced to the standards in the CIS. That would be the end of legitimate, intelligent, professional election observation. If anyone has the stomach to read some of the things I have written on the matter, I would be delighted if they wrote to me.

We would expect the Russians to do that. We would not expect a fellow OSCE institution, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, to collude with the Russians in order deeply to damage ODIHR, which, as I said, is the jewel in the crown of the OSCE system and the gold standard of election observation. A part of the OSCE system wishes to supplant ODIHR as the principle election monitoring organisation, or, if that is not possible, to set itself up as an independent election observation body. I have the evidence. A lot of brown envelopes are heading my way on what it is doing.

I hope that this debate will have an impact on the Foreign Office and on DFID, which obviously had a part in instigating it, and that hon. Members will say, "You are doing a good job, but there is a lot more to be done." I congratulate the Electoral Commission, which is doing a very good job not only in following what is going on internationally but in helping to ensure, with those in government and Parliament who are on the same wavelength, that we put our own house in order.

There is nothing more embarrassing to me than going to countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia as an international observer, giving a beating around the head to countries that held fraudulent elections and then having, at conferences where I have spoken, my own words thrown back at me. For example, people have said, "I understand what you are saying, Mr. George, but why don't you allow domestic or international observers to observe your own elections?" That is a legitimate point and it is irrefutable. Thankfully, legislation has amended that, and I hope that planeloads of Belarusians and Kazakhs will head to our elections when they are held, just to show that, even though we may be prepared to advise them about their elections, we at long last have put our own house in order.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the Electoral Commission. I join him in congratulating the commission on its work, but it has expressed publicly its frustration at its lack of teeth in forcing the Government to implement certain of its recommendations. Does he agree that more powers need to be given to the commission to force those changes through?

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

I think so. The organisation has been going now for eight or nine years. I wish that I had applied to be head of it. It is a part-time job with a salary of £150,000. By God, I would have been out of here in a flash, but I would probably be tainted by my political views. It is an excellent organisation, but it is going to undergo substantial change. A report has been written by another organisation. I hope that it will be subjected to the same scrutiny as it gave the Electoral Commission, which does a great job but has to remind us constantly that corruption is a problem—albeit not a major one—and that the major problem we, the United States and almost every democracy face is raising money to fight elections. I was going to mention Iceland, but it does not have any money any more—it had most of ours. The sad thing is that, in whichever country we are talking about, legislation is passed, only for it to be ignored.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon PPS (Jim Knight, Minister of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families

Does my right hon. Friend accept that one can monitor an election and find it to be fair or reasonably fair, but that unless the people who are elected have the skills to promote democracy and human rights, voice their opposition and know how to use the system to promote the human rights issues that we would like to be taken forward, it does not work? A group of women parliamentarians from the Labour Benches went to Pakistan, where we met groups of women who were elected to their local councils. They were told by the men, "You have been elected but now you do not have to do anything. You can stay at home, or you have to do what we tell you." DFID has invested in training for those women, which will help to promote that democracy.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

I agree, as a converted male chauvinist pig. Having been beaten around the head for 25 years, I have succumbed to the pressures. The role of women in Parliament is undervalued. Including our illustrious official, there are four or five women in the Chamber, which is a low proportion. That is not enough. It is not good enough.

Some countries are amenable to influence, want NGOs and Governments to help and want embassies to fund democratisation programmes. They are prepared to allow George Soros and the National Endowment for Democracy to give them money. They are almost easy, until we say, "Are you serious? Despite all the assistance we are giving, this Parliament is almost as supine as it was". At that point, perhaps we should put our money into countries that are listening and that do wish to democratise. There are difficult countries; we should not give up on them.

The index in DFID's annual report and in the Foreign Office annual report show that they are doing a very good job, but it is not enough. If only a fifth or sixth of countries in the world can be classified as democracies, we realise how many more resources we need to put in. I wonder what the effect will be. We know what happened to struggling democracies after the Wall street crash following the first world war, and what happened to them after the second world war. Many went under. If there is a cataclysm—I hope there will not be—I hope that it will not result in fascist, Nazi, extremist-type parties putting all the blame on democracies and sweeping them aside. That is one of the great anxieties, but I am pleased with what is being done. There is consensus between Government and Opposition, but we should refine our processes to ensure that we are more successful, because the work to be done is almost limitless and there is no scope for complacency.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 6:18 pm, 13th October 2008

I too welcome the Minister to her new position. I look forward to our exchanges both here and in Westminster Hall, although I hope not to spend quite so much time with her as I did with her predecessor now that the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 is on the statute book.

It is an important time to have this debate. As has been mentioned, this year, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. The global values of equality, justice and the rule of law are as essential now as they were in 1948 when the horrors of world war two were fresh in people's memories.

Despite the strides forward that we seen over the past six years, the catalogue of human rights abuses that are going on across the world hangs like a badge of shame around the world community's neck. This will be, and has already been, a wide-ranging debate so it is impossible to cover everything, but first, picking up the point made by Mr. George, I want to talk about the importance of promoting democracy and human rights within the UK. I also want to discuss the role of women within human rights and then talk about the position in various countries.

Like many hon. Members, I am a member of Amnesty International, and I find that when its magazine drops through the letter box every couple of months, I need to be in the right mindset and have a strong stomach to open the pages and to read what is inside. However, it is important that we do that, and do not turn a blind eye to the horrendous crimes that are being committed across the world. Not only is that daunting, but there are so many dreadful and appalling practices taking place in so many countries that it can be difficult for one individual to feel that they can make a difference—perhaps it is somewhat easier for us as Members of Parliament to feel that we can make part of a difference than it is for our constituents. However, it is important to remember the values of organisations such as Amnesty, who say that when people join together it is possible to achieve improvements in human rights, and also to remember the well-documented impact that the letters received by prisoners of conscience around the world have on their day-to-day ability to get up and continue going through their dreadful existence.

Obviously, if we in the UK are going to lecture on, promote or encourage democracy and human rights, we must first be careful to ensure that our own house is in order, otherwise we will lose any authority we have on the world stage on these issues. There is sometimes a danger of that, particularly when our liberties here at home are being eroded. I therefore very much welcome the fact that the UK was one of the first countries to undertake the United Nations Human Rights Council universal periodic review, and that it did so in a constructive way to try to act as a benchmark to encourage other countries to embrace it positively as well. The way in which the UK dealt with that was picked up. A variety of recommendations were made.

Reading through the report, I was interested by the fact that listed in brackets after the recommendations are the countries that suggested them. I particularly liked the one that suggested having a strategic body to tackle violence against women. I have raised that with the former Prime Minister and other Ministers on various occasions in the House, and the End Violence Against Women coalition is calling for that. Topically this week, another recommendation was that we should consider the legality of corporal punishment against children. Sadly, last week we did not have the opportunity to discuss the amendment to the relevant Bill, but I am sure that that subject will come up at a future date.

I was also interested in the recommendation that we should have strict time limits on pre-charge detention. Interestingly, that was suggested by Russia. When Russia is giving us good advice on human rights, it is time to worry. I wish to take the House back to 1 July 2004. At around the time when Robert Mugabe had extended detention without charge to 28 days in his Public Order and Security Act, the then Foreign Secretary said:

"The Zimbabwean authorities also continue to devise new powers to stamp out legitimate opposition, such as detention for up to a month without trial, which could be used to suppress dissent and protest."—[ Hansard, 1 July 2004; Vol. 423, c. 454.]

I think we should— [Interruption.] Yes, only a month. We should muse on that: there are countries that are not where we might want them to be on human rights, but we have been criticising them for doing things that we have later done ourselves. This subject is, of course, topical today, with the other place considering the issue of detention for 42 days. We will see what the result of the vote is, although there is a great deal of hope among some Members, certainly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, that that proposal will be turned down by the House of Lords—and if reports in the media are to be believed, that might be accepted by the Government.

I could go on, as there are a range of other issues on which I think we should be putting our own house in order. The ambitious ID cards database goes far beyond what any other country is doing. Given the confidence that the public have at present in databases and the protection of their liberties, that idea should be thought through again. There is also the DNA database: 3.4 million people are on our database—a proportion five times greater than the proportion of the population on a DNA database in any other country in the world. That figure includes 25,000 children who have never been charged with any offence. The Government might want to learn from Scotland, where the DNA of innocent individuals cannot be held indefinitely.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

As a fellow Scottish MP, the hon. Lady will know that one of the biggest democratic debacles we have witnessed in the past few years was the Scottish parliamentary election in 2007. Will she support the calls made only last week in the Scottish Parliament to have those elections repatriated to the Scottish Parliament so that we never get in such a mess again?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

Absolutely. When the right hon. Member for Walsall, South was saying how wonderful the Electoral Commission was, I had last May's elections in Scotland in mind, which were not excellent, and I believe that one of the recommendations made in the aftermath of those elections that the Government should take up is the suggestion that it should be up to the Scottish Parliament to look after its own elections.

On democracy, it has been 18 months since this House discussed House of Lords reform and voted overwhelmingly for an all elected upper House, yet it has taken more than a year to get to White Paper stage, and the Government seem to be dragging their feet.

Therefore, although I will focus the rest of my remarks on human rights and democracy abroad, there is no room for complacency on these issues at home either, and if we were to assume that we had it all sussed, that could be perceived as arrogant, and be counter-productive in international negotiations on this topic.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Before my hon. Friend moves on to discuss specific countries abroad, will she agree that one of the things we can do is build up the organisations based in the UK that allow a reciprocal exchange of best practice? The British Council does that, as do the World Service and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Many places are willing to exchange staff, young politicians of the future and Clerks from Parliaments, and they are not just new democracies, but countries that have become democracies and are still learning the ways but are very willing to share their experiences—countries such as Ukraine, which is going through difficult times, but which is clearly determined to get this right.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I agree with my hon. Friend. Through the exchange of individuals—whether parliamentarians or staff such as Clerks—we can all learn from each other. I am thinking now of the occasions when I have been abroad; I went to Sierra Leone with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I hope I added value to that country and the parliamentarians I met there. I certainly came back from that experience with a much better understanding and much more knowledge about the situation there, which I have found useful since. Such exchanges are, therefore, valuable.

The role of women has not been much mentioned so far today. Far too often, women are forgotten when discussing human rights and democracy, even though many of the worst human rights abuses perpetrated are against women, and despite the fact that in situations of conflict it is often women and children who suffer the most. I am particularly concerned about the fact that women are often not involved in the resolution of conflict and the post-conflict rebuilding of countries. Earlier this year I visited Kosovo, and one of the people I met was Igballe Rovoga, the director of the Kosova Women's Network. Talking to her about her experiences after the conflict was illuminating. All the men were gathered into a room to discuss what to do next, and somebody from the UN came in and after a bit of nudging—from some people from Britain, I think—it was asked, "Hang on, we don't have any women here. What are we going to do?" Eventually Igballe and a couple of others were summoned along to be the token women in the discussions. In fact, they ended up being very influential as they prepared exactly what they were going to say and asked the questions that they wanted to ask. That is an example from within Europe, but this issue is often forgotten about.

Another anniversary is coming up on 31 October this year. On that date in 2000, UN Security Council resolution 1325 was passed, which requires parties in conflict to respect women's rights, and to support their participation in peace negotiations and post-conflict resolution. Sadly however, eight years later there are still almost no women at the top levels in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction. I hope the Minister will consider what action the Government might be able to take to strengthen resolution 1325. Is a stronger resolution with more teeth required, and should we be arguing for that at the UN?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am listening with interest and respect to the hon. Lady's speech. I very much welcome what she says about women's rights and involvement. Of course, we cannot change the world overnight, but on the principle that he who pays the piper calls the tune, surely we can exert some influence? Does the hon. Lady share my horror—which was certainly shared by Malcolm Bruce—that when the International Development Committee has visited some women's projects in a number of African countries over the past few years, we have been taken aback by the fact that the speeches have invariably been delivered by the men, while women, including highly qualified graduates and masters graduates, were left serving the tea? We were paying for those projects, so surely we can do something about that?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes a salient point, and I hope it will be taken up by those planning the visits and those running the projects. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman—and my right hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce—will not have let such experiences go unnoted at the time.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee

I concur with my hon. Friend's concerns on that matter. Does she accept our disappointment that in the past year, nearly all the women Ministers in Afghanistan have been removed from the Government? The only woman left in the Government is the Minister for women's affairs, which they did not feel would be appropriately done by a man. Is that not a regrettable indication that the commitment to resolution 1325 and to women is superficial in many countries?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I wholeheartedly endorse what my right hon. Friend says, and in fact I was about to talk about Afghanistan. The position of women under the Taliban was well documented. They had no access to education, they were treated like second-class citizens and there were draconian controls on their movement and freedoms. As an aside, I wholeheartedly recommend to the House "A Thousand Splendid Suns", a novel based on fact, which I read over the summer. It is about the position of women in Afghanistan and demonstrates how terrible the situation had become.

One might have expected the situation to be much improved since the fall of the Taliban. Some girls in Afghanistan do have access to education now, but the situation is still dire. I was intrigued by the list that the Minister read out towards the end of her speech, of individuals who have made a particular contribution to fighting for human rights. I have another to add to the list: Malalai Joya, who is the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament.

Malalai Joya was in London last Monday to be awarded the Anna Politkovskaya award for her courage and dedication in trying to protect human rights in her country. Afterwards, Malalai came to Westminster and I was fortunate enough to meet her and interview her for Women's Parliamentary Radio. Her bravery was inspirational, and the experience was humbling. What she faces on a day-to-day basis makes what we do as MPs in this country pale into insignificance. For the crime of speaking up and suggesting that crimes against women should be punished, that those who are now in positions of power but used to be warlords on the rampage, raping and killing, should be brought to justice, and that the Parliament is not being strong enough on the matter, she has been suspended from Parliament. Where is the freedom of speech in that?

When Malalai Joya was in Parliament, she had bottles thrown at her and abuse and death threats hurled at her. There have been four assassination attempts against her, and she has to sleep in a different house every night. She is continually at risk. Such individuals are a fabulous inspiration, but it is sad that there are not enough people such as her speaking up, and that it is still necessary to do so in a country in which we are investing so much. We ought to have more influence, so that we can prevent such things from happening. She showed me a video in which a 12-year-old girl who had been gang-raped was spoken to. Of course, the perpetrators had not been punished. That is not a one-off horrific situation, it is what happens day in, day out.

It is not just women who are suffering in Afghanistan. The whole country is on a knife edge, and if we fail to secure lasting peace and security there it will have major implications for our ability to promote democracy and human rights worldwide. There are well-documented claims that our military are overstretched by fighting on both fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently, the Iraqi Prime Minister has said that it is time for the UK troops to go, and I hope that the Government will do what Liberal Democrat Members have argued for for some time, and withdraw the troops from Iraq so that there can be more focus on Afghanistan. It is vital that we succeed in our objectives there.

Our experience in Iraq has been disastrous for our credibility in promoting democracy and human rights abroad. When I visited the UN earlier this year and spoke to various diplomats, the feeling was that it undermines what we are trying to do elsewhere. It is ironic in some ways that improving the humanitarian situation in Iraq was often quoted, albeit after the event, as one reason for our intervention there. The lack of planning for rebuilding the Iraqi state after the military action was entirely unforgivable. It was a great mistake, and it has been responsible for some of the appalling violations of human rights in Iraq since 2003. The figures speak volumes: since 2003, we have spent £6.6 billion in Iraq on the war and £125 million on humanitarian assistance. That shows where the priorities lie, and they need to change.

I have one further point on Iraq. It is nearly 18 months since five British men were seized at the Finance Ministry in Iraq and taken hostage. One can only begin to imagine the agony that their families have faced in the past year and a half, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that every effort is being made in the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of those men as soon as possible.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I wish to reinforce the fact that if we go to war without UN authority and pass laws to detain people without trial, we are prevented from going to countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and arguing that they must protect human rights. We have ceased to be credible, and what we do at home has a direct effect on our ability to influence such things in other countries.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently, and he is quite right.

I wish to mention a few other countries. We have heard about the difficulties over the summer involving Russia and Georgia, and there are wide-ranging implications for human rights not just in Georgia but in the other vulnerable states in the region. The deterioration of our relationship with Russia is a great cause for concern, and it will not necessarily be easy to rebuild it and put it right. A strong unified EU response is vital. Mr. Lidington was right to call for strong EU pressure on Asian countries on the subject of Burma—a subject on which I echo many of his comments. We have seen the fabulous work of John Bercow in the all-party group on democracy in Burma. The dreadful situation there was particularly evident in the response to the natural disaster earlier this year.

The lack of democracy in China is well documented. I visited China earlier this year on a Select Committee trip, and in the entire trip we had two hours off to explore Beijing. I went to Tiananmen square and the forbidden garden and tried to engage my guide in a political discussion. I asked her what she thought about Chairman Mao, and it was like coming up against a wall. She had good English, so she understood the question, but she did not understand the concept that one might have an opinion about a political leader, and especially that it might be a critical opinion.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

On the subject of Tiananmen square, is the hon. Lady aware that someone using the Google internet site in China and typing in "Tiananmen square" gets very different results from someone doing the same here in the UK? What does she think that says about China's approach to controlling modern forms of communication and its commitment to freedom of communication and speech?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I think it says that China is determined to put huge resources into trying to control the internet. I understand that it has 50,000 individuals shutting down internet sites, but I do not believe that that will be sustainable in the long run. One of the wonders and joys of the internet is that it will be a great vehicle for improving democracy and showing people that things are different in the world outside, and that they, too, could and should have human rights.

I was on holiday this year in Cuba, where the situation is similar. A foreigner is allowed to use the internet, but its use is greatly restricted for locals. Even foreigners have internet rationing. Cuba does not have the same resources to block sites as China, but following some political news still proved slightly difficult. However, the internet will be a mechanism to promote freedom. China will try to restrict it, but it will be like trying to empty the Atlantic with a teaspoon, or whatever the correct analogy is. It will ultimately not be successful.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon PPS (Jim Knight, Minister of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families

Has the hon. Lady had the opportunity to read Mark Leonard's excellent book, "What Does China Think?", which demonstrates that there is huge debate across China? In fact, there are more think tanks considering different political methods and ways of moving the country forward politically than there are in this country. It can sometimes be simplistic to think that there is no debate taking place in China. It is just that the debate is not taking place in a form that we would understand.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Lady is right. Clearly, people in China have to be very careful about what they say and where they say it, but that does not necessarily mean that they are not thinking about these things. I am sure that Members will be interested to look at the book that she mentions. She has made a very good point.

I am sure that dismay is felt across the House at the events that we have seen take place in Zimbabwe over the weekend with Mugabe's power grab. There was that little chink of optimism with the signing of the agreement on 15 September, but it is beginning to look like nothing more than a delaying tactic on Mugabe's part. Last Tuesday, during Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, the Foreign Secretary said:

"Mr. Tsvangirai is ready to work with Mr. Mugabe on the distribution of Cabinet portfolios, and that is the key test now."—[ Hansard, 7 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 128.]

Clearly, Mugabe has failed that test. I hope that the Minister will say in summing up what action the Government are taking to increase the international pressure on him to reverse this weekend's power grab, and whether they still believe that the current system is sustainable in trying to get the result that we want, or whether we will have to bring in a new mediator to achieve any progress.

We also need some consistency from the Government on Zimbabwe. The Foreign Office has been very good at urging the promotion of human rights, at trying to stop the torture and bloodshed and in condemning the actions of Mugabe, and I am sure that they have been pursuing all the diplomatic channels to try to get movement in that country. However, at the same time the Home Office is having legal arguments to try to send back asylum seekers who are fleeing the very torture that the Foreign Office is condemning, and some failed refugees have been in detention centres in this country for two years. Is that really the kind of human rights position that we want to promote? Is that really going to give us the moral authority to criticise Zimbabwe's attitude to human rights? How can the Government possibly have a clear conscience in this matter? Surely Zimbabweans here must be allowed to work to support themselves while this situation persists.

The United States of America proves that democracy is no guarantee of human rights. I welcome the Minister's strong condemnation of water-boarding—one of the torture methods apparently sanctioned by the US. Not only is that country condoning torture, but it uses the death penalty, including on some young men and women, and it has the illegal and immoral stain of Guantanamo Bay on its conscience. The Government did finally secure the release of the UK citizens, although I note that one UK resident is still up for one of these military commissions, or kangaroo courts, which certainly does not conform to the standards of justice that we would hope for and expect. It took the Government far too long to act on Guantanamo, and that was shocking. I remember Ministers referring to it as an anomaly, refusing to condemn it or to say that it should be closed. We always welcome a sinner who repents, but it took too long. I suppose that it is some cause for optimism that both candidates for the US presidency have talked about closing Guantanamo Bay. It must be the top priority for the next US President if that person is to have any moral authority on democracy and human rights on the world stage.

Before I conclude, I should like to apologise to the House. A prior commitment clashes with this debate, and because the debate was delayed because of the earlier statement, I will not be able to stay to hear the next two speakers. However, I intend to come back as soon as I can to hear the rest of the debate.

Effective international institutions are of course very important to the aim of improving human rights—through the EU, the UN, NATO, the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth and beyond. Closer co-operation across Government with our foreign counterparts is crucial to the security of this country. It is important that respect for human rights and the liberty of the individual is not undermined in the name of security. The UK must play a role on the international stage to promote human rights and encourage democracy. The challenges are huge, and sadly, the UK's position has been undermined by our actions in Iraq. None the less, we must redouble our efforts, and I hope that the mooted supposed Government U-turn on 42 days that may come shortly is a sign that they, too, are keen to safeguard human rights in the UK. That would indeed be a step in the right direction to give us back the authority to be a positive influence for democracy and human rights in the rest of the world.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 6:44 pm, 13th October 2008

I reiterate my welcome to my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint and my hon. Friend Gillian Merron to their positions on the Front Bench. I look forward to scrutinising their work closely through the Foreign Affairs Committee over the coming months and years.

I spent last week with the Committee at the United Nations in New York, and I want to share with the House some impressions that are pertinent to this debate. There seems to be a great expectation throughout the UN system—among the people who work in the UN full time, the permanent representatives of many countries and the non-governmental organisations—that, as has been mentioned, Guantanamo Bay will be closed, although there does not seem to be much discussion on the lines set out in a previous Foreign Affairs Committee report, about how we in the rest of the world can contribute to that closure. Some very dangerous people who are detained there will still have to be dealt with. It is easy glibly to say, "Shut the place". The decision also has to be taken on what to do with 100 to 150 hardened terrorists who are a great danger to many people.

We have expectations that the attitude of the United States will change, becoming more multilateral and less unilateral. Of course, we have already seen the malign influence, which has gone from the UN system, of the unlamented John Bolton. His successor, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was ambassador in Afghanistan and in Iraq, is doing a much better job in assuaging people's concerns. In his urbane style, he is able to act as an antidote to the provocative and inflammatory work of his predecessor.

However, we should not exaggerate what will happen with the change of the US presidency. Whoever is the next President, the United States will still have national interests, global interests and economic interests. It is a little naïve to think that the personality of the President will lead to a change in the policies of a country in which there is a separation of powers, and where there will be, as result of the economic crisis that we face today, less of a focus on trying to intervene in democracy and human rights issues worldwide, and more of a focus on coping with the economic consequences of the financial catastrophe that has hit the US harder than the rest of the world. I fear that there may be protectionist pressures in the US. I fear that there may be moves toward inward-looking behaviour.

An interesting opinion poll was reported to a seminar that took place during the Democratic national convention in Denver a few weeks ago, which I had the privilege to attend. It showed that there has been a significant shift among American public opinion away from involvement in the rest of the world, and a greater shift among Democrat voters than among Republicans. We need to bear that in mind, because whether it is President Obama, as I hope it will be, or President McCain, there will be domestic pressures on them, which may mean that we have some uncomfortable responses to deal with. There will be demands on the rest of the world, as well as a more multilateralist approach.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The hon. Gentleman is right to introduce a note of hard-headed realism into the debate, and I can see the sense of what he says about what might happen under an Obama presidency. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with me, however, that notwithstanding the pressure to support protectionism and those in America who benefit from it, what we really need to see if there is a President Obama is his assertion of his optimistic side and idealistic self? Most people do not get the chance to be President; if he gets there, he should pursue the noble goals, multilaterally and internationally, in which he believes.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

There is a chance of that; all I am saying is that there will be other pressures on that presidency. If Mr. Obama appoints people such as Susan Rice, Tony Lake and others, some of whom served in the Clinton Administration and are well known in Europe, we can feel reasonably confident. Even a McCain presidency would be a significant improvement, in many respects, on what we had to deal with under President Bush. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Mr. Drew says that that would not be difficult. I do not want to go into that; I want to discuss the future.

I wish to discuss a concern that has been touched on in the reference to the league of democracies. John McCain has surrounded himself with advisers, including Fred Kagan, who advocate a position of saying, in effect, that the United States, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan, and perhaps some other countries, should set themselves up outside the UN system and just go ahead as a kind of coalition of the willing on a grand scale. That is extremely dangerous, as such an approach would set back the cause of democracy. If the world's largest democracy, India, would not be part of that—I am sure that it would not be—and if the largest and most diverse country in democratic terms in Africa, South Africa, which, on paper, has the most pluralistic guarantees of human rights and civil liberties of any country in the world, was not part of it either, that would damage the call made so eloquently by Eleanor Roosevelt and the people of the United States when they played such a key role in establishing the United Nations system in the 1940s.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Liberal Democrat, Winchester

On that point, would not an important step and at least the minimum we should expect from whoever becomes the next President of the USA be that that country signs up to the International Criminal Court?

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I hope so. I think that there is considerable support in the Democratic party for that approach. I spoke at a seminar in Chicago in 2005, organised by the university of Chicago, for which some people were brought over from Europe to argue for the US to join the ICC; the university of Chicago is, of course, in Barack Obama's home city. There is a body of opinion for that view and I hope there will be US support for signing up to the ICC. However, in United States politics there remains a view of American exceptionalism, whereby the international rules do not apply to the United States, and we must recognise that we will still have to do a persuasion job to emphasise the importance of this matter. The American support for referring the Sudanese Government to the ICC over Darfur was an important sign, because the Security Council is needed to make such a reference and the move was not blocked. That was a positive sign, even under President Bush. So all is not lost, but we need to maintain the pressure on that issue.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Much as I would like to go down the route of discussing Sudan, because I have significant interest in that matter, I shall stick to talking about the ICC, about which there is a complete contradiction in American policy. The Americans have been implicitly supporting the ICC over the indictment of al-Bashir, but are not willing to see that they must sign up wholesale. It would not be difficult to improve on the Bush Administration, but to be fair to the Americans, they have been quite good on their involvement in Africa. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it would be a retrograde step if America were to pull back, became isolationist and lost its influence in Africa.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I do not think that that is possible; one thing that we discovered in last week's Security Council discussions was that 70 per cent. of its agenda is dominated by discussions of Africa. The issues discussed include: the crisis in Sudan; Somalia, which is a failed state, with terrible consequences for the region; Zimbabwe; the Congo; poverty; HIV/AIDS; and malaria. So many issues have an impact, particularly on sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, there is the question of what happens in north Africa and in the Arab world. Many African countries are Arab countries, and that has an enormous impact not only on potential migration resulting from climate change, but on radicalism, extremism and terrorism. There is a huge agenda, but there is also an irony in respect of the African countries, many of which have weak Governments and need the kind of excellent assistance that is given by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley, who succeeded me as the chair of the board and is now passing on the baton to somebody else after three years. I know how hard he has worked to build up the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and make it such an effective organisation in a number of countries, and he will be missed.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Of course it is true to say that the United States has been good, in some respects, in denouncing violence in parts of Africa, but it has been conspicuously bad at fostering improved trade in Africa, notably, for example, in west Africa. Given that Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad depend for between 30 and 40 per cent. of their export earnings on cotton, but the US gives $3 billion to $4 billion a year to subsidise 25,000 extremely inefficient American cotton producers, on a scale of one to 10 what does the hon. Gentleman think are the chances of a new American president taking some account of extreme poverty in those African countries getting calculatedly worse as a result of current American policy?

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I am tempted to refer the hon. Gentleman to Lord Mandelson of Hartlepool. [Hon. Members: "And Foy."] And wherever.

There are lessons to be learned from the failure of the Doha round talks. I am thinking not only of the responsibility of the US lobbies. European agricultural producers—tobacco producers and others—have had a serious impact on many developing countries. One issue that we need to assess is the trade consequences, which are very important for the issues of human rights, democracy and governance. If we move to bilateral regional trading blocs, foreign assistance arrangements or treaty arrangements on a bilateral basis, many small countries—many of the poorest countries—which do not have resources and do not have something that bigger countries want, will get missed out in the process and will not get the protections and support that they need.

Although there is a certain amount of optimism in the UN, there are also some worries. In this cataclysmic week or month—or perhaps 17 months—there has been a recognition of something that we all knew was coming, although perhaps it is coming far more quickly than we thought. The economic power templates in the world are moving, but will political changes also result? China is already playing a much more engaged role in international institutions. In general, its role in the international community is a positive one, rather than a negative one.

Interestingly, China has not sided with Russia in all issues internationally over recent months and years. Even over Georgia recently, the Russians failed to get support through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on their position regarding the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, there are worries about what might develop out of the embryonic SCO. Some people see it as the precursor to an axis of sovereignty: a group of countries that oppose any concept of the internationalisation of domestic issues. Some people see it as a potential rival to NATO and a bloc that, in time, could become far more important than it is now. Only time will tell, but clearly there is a debate to be had about where the UN system goes and where the universalist values of the 1948 declaration of human rights go in the future.

A very interesting pamphlet has just been published by the European Council on Foreign Relations entitled, "A global force for human rights? An audit of European power at the UN". I recommend it, because it contains some interesting and pessimistic conclusions. It basically says that the European Union, over the last decade, has lost influence in the UN system and that our values—what the report calls liberal interventionist values—have been weakened. Reference has already been made to the Human Rights Council, but even in General Assembly votes and in the Security Council there has been a weakening of support for those values. Countries that the report describes as "swing states"—democracies such as South Africa and India—have sided with the authoritarians against the democrats on many issues, such as in the case of Burma. I hope that South Africa under its new temporary President and under the President elected next year will be truer to the democratic values of the liberation movement, the freedom charter and the constitution that they established and will bring in a much more engaged foreign policy rather than siding with those countries that are against intervention on foreign affairs.

Reference has been made to the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on human rights. This is not the occasion for a big debate on the subject—I hope that we can have such a debate with the Minister in Westminster Hall at some point—but I want to draw attention to some points. The first is the question of trade union rights. The matter has not yet been mentioned, but it is one reason why Colombia is the only country in Latin America to be highlighted in the Foreign Office's report on these issues. Our Committee is critical of the fact that although we give military aid and support to the counter-narcotics forces and human rights training to the Colombian armed forces, there seems to be an increase in the pressure on and deaths and intimidation of active trade unionists in that country.

President Uribe is one of our allies. He is a supposed partner of the United States and of this country, yet today I received a letter from somebody working for Thompsons, a solicitors firm that does a lot of work with trade unionists, pointing out another list of individuals—I will not go through the names—whose lives have been threatened. The Colombian Government are not prepared to provide them with protection when they are engaged in their trade union activities. That is unacceptable and the Government should be doing far more, both collectively through the EU and individually, to raise the issues of human rights, trade union rights and the protection of the brave men and women in the trade unions in Colombia.

Finally, I want to say something about Russia and Georgia. My right hon. Friend Mr. George might not agree with what I am about to say, because he has had close, warm relations with the nascent democratic movement in Georgia. We need to be very careful that we do not just take the view, which seems to emanate from some people in the United States, that there are no issues in the conflict for which the Georgians should be criticised. Yes, the Russians have behaved deplorably—they overreacted massively and their recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is totally wrong and unacceptable, and it cannot be agreed with or recognised—but Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, was reckless and irresponsible in August and he did what he did despite advice from the United States and from many other countries not to behave in such a way.

We need to be very clear that even though a country is a democracy, that does not mean that every action it takes will automatically be supported. Jo Swinson said that democracy is no guarantee of human rights, and she referred to the United States. That point also applies to Georgia. There was a worrying article in The New York Times last week about crackdowns on opposition to Saakashvili in Georgia. The point also applies in Sri Lanka. That island has a democratic Government, but the most appalling human rights abuses are also going on. Many are carried out by the Tamil Tigers, but many others are carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates is an example of a country that is not a democracy where there is the rule of law, a civil society and respect, within parameters. One of the two—democracy and human rights—does not necessarily lead to the other.

People such as President Bush who have the naive belief that if we get everywhere to have free and fair elections there will be no conflicts and no problems have a very dangerous world view. Unless the ethnic, tribal, religious and cultural differences in a society are resolved, and unless political structures and political space are created, even if there have been formal elections and changes of Government, the situation can end up like that in Georgia. Mr. Gamsakhurdia was followed by Mr. Shevardnadze, who was followed by Mr. Saakashvili, and none of them had total respect for the different minorities.

In Sri Lanka, a significant minority of people on the island feel discriminated against. Extremist groups feed on that and make the situation far worse. We need to be cautious when we talk about democracy and human rights. We need to be more sophisticated about it. One does not automatically follow the other. Human rights can exist in societies that are not necessarily entirely democratic, while there can be democracies that do not respect the human rights of either people in their society or of their neighbours.

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Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I am very disturbed that the hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has said that Georgia could in any way be culpable for what has happened. It is a tiny country trying to defend its sovereignty. Many European leaders went to Tbilisi to show solidarity with the leadership there, and I am astounded that he could be an apologist for the aggressive action of Russia.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that comment, as it is absolutely outrageous. I am not apologising for anybody. I am simply saying that the behaviour of the Georgian Government in August, when they were advised not to take the action that they did, played into the hands of Putin and allowed the pre-planned package of rapidly moving forces to annex those two areas in Georgia. We can go into the long history of the situation, but interestingly South Ossetia and Abkhazia had autonomy when the Soviet Union broke up. In 1991, the first President of Georgia, Gamsakhurdia, cancelled that autonomy. Since then, it has been a so-called frozen conflict. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers—some Russian, some Georgian—were there but made no real efforts to resolve the conflict, so it festered.

There are other frozen conflicts: Transnistria; the conflict between Nakichevan, Armenia and Azerbaijan; and, of course, Nagorno-Karabakh. Many conflicts, which could explode at any time, are consequences of the break-up of the former Soviet Union. We need to be aware of them, and as Europeans we need to be more active in doing something about them, especially as they border our continent or form part of it. The Russians need to be condemned and criticised and we ought not to pull our punches. If small countries decide to poke the bear and it lashes out, they should be told to be a little calmer, otherwise there will be consequences that are dangerous for the rest of the world and for the people in those countries.

We can have that discussion another time, but those of us in NATO and in the European Union should be cautious about taking simplistic positions and saying, "Once you're a democracy, you are automatically part of our family and regardless of what you do, or how you behave, there is an article 5 guarantee. We will sign up to defend you whatever you do." That is extremely dangerous and as Europeans on the western side of the continent we need to tell some of our fellow Europeans on the other side of the continent that although we understand their situation and are concerned about it, they should not behave in a short-sighted and dangerous way.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 7:10 pm, 13th October 2008

I very much agree with the final remarks of Mike Gapes, but when he deplores Russian recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia he should remember that the road to South Ossetia and Abkhazia began in Kosovo. There is a clear connection between those events, to which I shall return in a few moments.

May I say in what I hope is a non-partisan way that I think that there is a basic confusion at present in the Government's whole approach to the promotion of democracy and human rights? If there was one defining feature of the first 10 years of this Labour Government, especially under Tony Blair and the late Robin Cook, it was the belief not only that there should be ethical foreign policy but that there would be occasions—perhaps more than in the past—when the west had to show, not simply by soft power and diplomatic means, but by the use of military power, its willingness and determination to change the political situation in other countries: to use military power to intervene not simply to prevent aggression, but to advance human rights or ensure regime change.

That approach was very much associated with Tony Blair, but the point has been repeated by the current Foreign Secretary. He does not spend much time on it, but in some of his speeches he has emphasised the point that military intervention must be part of the Government's armoury as they seek to advance democracy and human rights. It was significant that the Minister for Europe, who opened the debate, said not a word about that. Indeed, even when I asked her views she had nothing to say of any significance as to whether that was the Government's position. I hope that we shall have a view about it.

I declare my position in a simple and straightforward fashion: I have always believed that almost without exception it is a gross and foolish mistake to intervene in a military way in the internal affairs of another state. I argue that case not on some theoretical ground of national sovereignty—it is often alleged that people who take the view that I take have an objection to breaching national sovereignty even when there is the most serious abuse of human rights. That is not my position. It is the position of the Russian Government and of the Chinese Government, but it is not my view, which is simple: almost without exception, intervention in the internal affairs of another country, using military might, creates more harm than good. It ends up creating more problems than it solves and people will live to regret that fact.

The issue is not about humanitarian intervention. When the Conservative Government were in power, I was responsible as Defence Secretary for the humanitarian intervention in Bosnia. We sent many thousands of British troops to help to provide food supplies and aid for people who would otherwise have starved. What we refused to do was intervene on one side or another, in a military sense, in the war being conducted at the time. We were criticised for that, but in light of the present Government's experience, both in Kosovo and in Bosnia, the arguments are profound.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I do not want to engage with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the lessons of the '90s in southern Europe, but does he accept that whatever his view about military intervention there is no excuse for a country to deny an international agency of reputation the right and duty to be present and observe what is going on and report back? For example, I understand that the Sri Lankan Government still do not allow the UN into Sri Lanka so that there can be objective reports from international observers about what is happening on the ground.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

I do not doubt that what the hon. Gentleman says is correct. I entirely agree, but I want to concentrate my comments on one specific aspect: the use of military power to deal with human rights abuse.

The two major areas where the British Government, the United States Government and a number of other countries have sought to implement such a policy are Iraq and Kosovo. The road to Baghdad began in Belgrade. Serious consequences arose from the situation in Kosovo that were never part of the Government's policy. They achieved two things by their intervention: they were able to take action that ultimately led to the downfall of Milosevic—indirectly—and they were able to reverse the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. However, when we look at the whole picture we find that although the Kosovar Albanians were repatriated, the Kosovar Serbs were ethnically cleansed and to this day remain exiles from their country. The Government have made no significant attempt to draw attention to that fact, yet it is part of the overall balance in the consequences of their policy. The ethnic cleansing of a minority is no more or less reprehensible than the ethnic cleansing of a majority.

The Government choose to ignore the fact that it was never part of their policy to advocate the independence of Kosovo—quite the opposite. Not only the British Government but all western Governments, as well as NATO itself, made it clear that the purpose of the intervention—or rather the war; it was not an intervention—was to ensure that Kosovo achieved autonomy. They said that they were against independence because of the fragmentation of the Balkans and the terrible example it would set for other parts of the world, including the Caucasus. That idea has had to be dropped and it is no longer part of British policy or that of the west as a whole.

When the NATO bombing of Belgrade began, NATO expected it to be only for several days. It was not; the bombing lasted for almost two and a half months and, in essence, involved a war on Serbia fought from the air. I have no time for the Serb Government of Milosevic—that is not the point at issue—but when people start wars, they lead to consequences far different from those that were intended. Those consequences can be serious both domestically and geopolitically.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

We are where we are, so given the history, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that after eight or nine years of fruitless negotiation and the rejection of the Ahtisaari plan by the Government of Serbia, there was little alternative but to go ahead and try to create a situation whereby Kosovo could have investment from abroad and try to normalise its situation? Whatever the history, the reality is that Belgrade's writ could never run in Pristina. We have to deal with reality.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

But the reality is that the human rights abuse in Kosovo, serious though it was, was no more serious than in many other parts of the world where we have not contemplated going to war. The reasons for military action in Kosovo had more to do with the role of NATO, and the importance of showing that it had a role, and with demonstrating western resolve than with the specific situation in Kosovo.

I shall explain briefly why I think it will almost always be the case that military intervention in the internal affairs of another country that has not attacked us will turn out to be disastrous. There are four reasons. First, when people go in, particularly with regime change in mind, they create a political vacuum. Once that happens, they cannot control what emerges. When we went into Iraq, it was no part of western, or coalition, policy that Shi'a and Sunni sectarianism would grow dramatically and become the dominant force in Iraqi politics, yet it should have been anticipated that if a political vacuum is created, the people of the country concerned will determine for themselves the political consequences that flow from it.

Secondly, intervention changes the political dynamic of the country that has been invaded. Until NATO took military action against Serbia, the vast majority of Kosovar Albanians, although they wanted independence, would have compromised on autonomy. They did not believe independence could be achieved, so they were willing to go for autonomy, which is what Rugova was arguing for and other Kosovar Albanians would have settled for at that stage. Once a group knows that NATO is on side, it has a historic opportunity that has never happened before and will probably never happen again. Every single Kosovar Albanian then said, "There is no question of autonomy or compromise; it is independence or nothing." That not only could have been predicted, but was predicted. However, it was ignored at the time, because it was inconvenient to do otherwise.

First, military intervention creates a political vacuum. Secondly, it changes the internal political dynamic. Thirdly, although we will win the conventional war—NATO will always win a conventional war, just as the coalition did in Iraq, and just as NATO did in Serbia—the consequence will be asymmetrical responses from those who know that they cannot beat the west or NATO in a conventional way. So it comes about that there are Shi'a and Sunni militias—and, in Afghanistan, the Taliban—operating in quite a different way from those taking part in conventional conflicts, but nevertheless making a mockery of what we set out to achieve.

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Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

My right hon. and learned Friend is making a powerful and compelling speech. How would he regard our action and intervention in Sierra Leone? Would he regard it as an exception to his argument, or does it fit with the general principles that he outlines?

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

Sierra Leone was quite different; we were invited in by the Government of that country. It was a small, self-contained operation, and we went there with consent. We did not invade a country against the wishes of its Government. There is therefore a clear distinction.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. As always, he is making a highly compelling speech. Circumspection and an insistence on considering each case on a case-by-case basis is one thing, but a blanket rejection of military intervention in human rights crises is a quite different matter. How does he reconcile the position that he is commending to the House, to which I confess I am instinctively rather averse, with the United Nations proclamation on the responsibility to protect? Humanitarian intervention often requires military intervention, and indeed regime change, if we are to achieve anything.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

I will come to that point, and will give my hon. Friend a direct answer in just a moment, if I may.

The fourth result of military intervention is, of course, the geopolitical consequences to which I referred in my opening comments. The independence of Kosovo, which was forced on the west against its wishes, unlocked a series of consequences. It has meant the fragmentation of parts of the Caucasus, and has led every small national minority in many states to believe that if it can only push us hard enough, it can create a further fragmentation of Europe and of the wider world. That has the serious consequences that we are now experiencing.

I now come to the point that my hon. Friend raised. Everything that I have said so far implies that one can somehow just ignore human rights abuses, however serious they are. I make one exception to my general principle, and that is in the case of real genocide. The word "genocide" has been used very widely. It has been used to talk about small massacres in towns, cities or villages, or against small numbers of people. Such events are terribly reprehensible, and I will come back to that issue. However, I entirely acknowledge, for a reason that I will explain, that if there is a genocide such as the holocaust, or such as that in Rwanda or Cambodia, in which a whole population is threatened with annihilation, of course the outside world cannot but intervene.

How do I rationalise that, given what I have just been saying? I do so in a very simple way. I have argued that whenever one intervenes militarily in the internal affairs of a state, one will create more harm than good. By definition, the one exception is genocide, because although military intervention will still create a political vacuum and change the political dynamic, and still lead to all sorts of consequences that were never intended, nothing can be as bad as the genocide that one has succeeded in stopping. In circumstances in which military intervention would prevent or stop a genocide—I mean genocide in its overall sense, not simply a massacre in a town or a village—the argument must point in the other direction.

That leaves the question: what does one do about lesser human rights abuses, in which people are persecuted and sometimes slaughtered? I refer to the Srebrenicas of this world—

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

And to Darfur, and so forth. In cases that my argument does not properly address, there is a spectrum of responses. Military intervention leading to regime change is at one end of the spectrum. There is a whole range of other options available. I do not just mean economic sanctions or diplomatic pressure, but options involving military means.

When I was in government, we imposed a no-fly zone on Iraq. We stopped Iraq persecuting the Kurds. We were able to stop it persecuting the Shi'a. Saddam Hussein had no control over his own airspace. He was emasculated as a power that could show aggression to its neighbours. However, we did not have to invade Iraq to achieve that, and therefore we did not suffer all the terrible consequences that there have been in the past five years. There are options available, but there has been a lack of imagination on the part of the Bush Administration and, I must say, the British Government. There has been a belief that either there should be military intervention involving regime change, or soft power should be used. That quite ignores the spectrum of alternatives available, some of which may involve the use of our military assets.

In the past 20 or 25 years, there has been a huge increase in democracy in the world. It is rightly often mentioned as a matter in which we should take huge pleasure. There has been such an increase in Latin America, central and eastern Europe and many countries of the far east, and that is marvellous. It is significant that all those changes—all these red, orange and purple revolutions—have almost entirely taken place without external intervention, as a result of the determination of the peoples of those countries.

In his book, "The Audacity of Hope", Barack Obama says that:

"there are few examples in history in which the freedom that men and women crave is delivered through outside intervention. In almost every successful social movement of the last century, from Gandhi's campaign against British rule to the Solidarity movement in Poland to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, democracy was the result of a local awakening."

I am not arguing that the outside world cannot influence events; of course it can. I am arguing against the ridiculous concept of the Bush doctrine and of the Blair Chicago speech—repeated by our current Foreign Secretary, although not with the same emphasis—which says that military intervention is the way in which one achieves internal democratic change in certain countries.

Finally, there is another, highly relevant reason why such intervention will not work—why the Americans cannot, by themselves, create democracy in Iraq. It is a simple question of their staying power. Britain helped to create democracy in India because the Indians knew that we were going to stay there for a very long time. We were in India for 200 years. If one is somewhere for 200 years, of course one changes the culture of a country, affects its options and has a powerful impact on its political development. If, however, as was the case in Afghanistan or Iraq, from the moment we arrive, our objective, supported by public opinion, is to get out as quickly as possible, the domestic population of the country knows it perfectly well. It knows that it has to tolerate us while we are there, but it is only too anxious to see us go, and will then determine its own political destiny.

That is not an argument against human rights or democracy—far from it. It is simply to recognise that we are talking about matters that, rightly, will be determined by the populations of the countries concerned. With the single exception of cases in which there is genocide, I believe that military intervention will do more harm than good. The examples of Kosovo and Iraq are evidence of that. Our Government may in practice have given up such a policy, but they continue to pay lip service to it. I hope that they will recognise that that is not a sustainable position, and will reverse it as soon as possible.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 7:28 pm, 13th October 2008

In a moment, I want to continue the argument and the conversation that Sir Malcolm Rifkind began. He took the debate into interesting and difficult territory that forces us to examine some rather large issues.

Before I do that, let me say that one of the joys of a debate on democracy and human rights is that one can talk about almost anything one wants. I could not help but be struck by the headline of today's The Times; it was simply: "Banks nationalised". The idea that there would ever have been such a headline in The Times beggars belief. It immediately put me in mind of Sidney Webb's Fabian essays of 1889, in which he says:

"The inevitable outcome of Democracy"— with a capital "D", by the way—

"is the control by the people themselves, not only of their own political organisation, but, through that, also of the main instruments of wealth production".

Of course, that was the belief of many in my political tradition: democracy was not simply a set of political arrangements but a way in which the people could discipline private power. Indeed, that was the governing class's fear of democracy, and why it was resisted so furiously for so long. The worry was about not just people having a vote but about what the vote would do, and what people would want to do, armed with the vote, to private economic power. It is a nice symmetry, therefore, that today the banks are being nationalised, and I shall return to that at the end of my contribution.

When we talk about democracy, we use the term without defining it. We use it as a shorthand for free electoral competition, free expression, the rule of law, respect for differences and for minorities, and so on. We often prefix it with words such as "liberal" or "pluralistic" to show that we do not believe simply in majoritarianism, because, as my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested, it is possible to have majoritarian tyrannies. Human rights are properly attached to democracy as a qualifier, to show that we believe not in majoritarian tyrannies but in the kind of democracy that recognises that individual citizens possess rights that are to be protected, even against majorities.

That is why the link between democracy and human rights is important. It is a source of regret that in recent years the phrase "human rights" has begun to be used pejoratively by the Daily Mail and parts of the Conservative party. That profoundly damages the broader human rights cause, because it detaches us from a broad movement for human progress and the protection of individual freedoms. We must not allow such denunciation or criticism to enter our culture of human rights, and I hope that it no longer prevails.

I often think that there is a certain unreality to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Question Time. We tend to ask the Government to do things about places almost anywhere in the world. We have a roll call of places where things need to be done, and we ask Ministers what they are going to do. The realistic answer in almost all cases is, "There is nothing very much that we can do about those things on our own. All we can do is work with others to try to make some improvements." The mentality that we bring to proceedings, however, is that the gunboats are there, poised to be dispatched to whichever part of the world is causing difficulty. We need a dose of realism.

The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea gave us a dose of realism when he explained why intervention to do good almost always does harm, certainly if military means are used. He argued his case extremely powerfully, and I want to pursue it by briefly discussing two instances that have preoccupied the Commons in recent years: the Iraq adventure and Europe and the European treaty, which force us to think rather large thoughts about democracy and human rights.

I dissent somewhat from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as I believe that the tragedy of Iraq is that it stopped us thinking creatively about the doctrine of liberal intervention, because it seemed absolutely to validate the proposition that he advanced. So catastrophic was the failure that it persuaded people that it was not even worth thinking about how we can sometimes intervene to do good, even by military means, and I say that as someone who did not vote for the Iraq war. I wanted to believe the arguments. I wanted the then Prime Minister to tell me that this campaign was directed against the world's worst tyrant, and that we were going to ensure a little instalment of freedom, but he was careful not to say that. He said that, in fact, it was consistent with international principles: the objective was not regime change, it had been validated by the United Nations, and so on, but none of that persuaded me. Nor was I persuaded, to use the right hon. and learned Gentleman's test, that it would do more good than harm. I thought that the warnings about the acceleration of terrorism were probably justifiable, and that we should do things only if there was a good chance of their succeeding.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The former Prime Minister grounded his case principally on the miscellany of Security Council resolutions on the one hand and on the supposedly imminent threat to our security through weapons of mass destruction on the other. May I nevertheless tell the hon. Gentleman that, even with the passage of time and all that has gone wrong—I am not sorry or ashamed to say this—some of us voted for the Iraq war overwhelmingly on human rights grounds? I was never convinced of the weapons of mass destruction thesis, but I thought that there was a case on human rights grounds and in the name of regime change for going to war.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

We all wrestled with the arguments at that time. I wanted to believe them, and I would have signed up to a campaign simply to remove tyranny, because we had such an opportunity, and I thought, rightly or wrongly, that it would be worth doing. I was not persuaded, however, by the argument about its success, nor was I persuaded that it would not produce more terrorism, rather than diminish it. I was not persuaded, either, by the argument about the link between Iraq and previous terrorism. It was hard to sustain the argument, and I had doubts about the larger ideological prospectus attached to it.

Having said all that, I had huge respect for those who, like John Bercow, supported the decision on the right grounds, and I wanted it to succeed. I take no pleasure from the fact that it has proved so awful.

I return to where I began: unlike the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea, I do not want to cite this with relish as vindication of the argument that international attempts to sort out monstrous regimes inevitably fail. He said that he was not defending a tradition of national sovereignty, but that was his argument. I do not think that tyrants can do what they want simply by citing the doctrine of sovereignty. It is sensible to consider whether any action will do more harm than good. That approach argues for caution in many circumstances, but that does not mean that the development of the doctrine of liberal or humanitarian intervention should be junked, although many people have readily wanted to draw that conclusion from Iraq. If we say that, it does no service to people in the world who need us on their side. Although it is difficult, tricky and contentious, we must work inside international organisations to make sure that they better equip themselves to do the things that we want them to do.

This debate has been full of frustration with international organisations and the dangers posed by people who want to bypass them and do things directly through a coalition of the willing. We do not want that, but we do want to try to transform those organisations so that they can do things more effectively when they need to be done. They should not simply stand aside, with us swapping frustrations as horror follows horror, and every tyrant knowing that they will be protected because the international order says that they will be. Our concern for democracy forces us to explore such huge issues further.

My next point is to do with my own area of contention—Europe and the recent European treaty. I want to relate that to democracy because of a paradox, about which we have to be open and through which we have to try to work our way: that, to be effective in the world, we have to be more effective than we can be on our own. We have to be effective players in the big international blocs, and the big international bloc in our part of the world is the European Union. On issue after issue, we are asked to be effective at EU level. That is the reality; it does not matter what the issue is.

The ideological essence of democracy is that we have to go where the power is. We have to follow the power with the democratic disciplines, but that is precisely what we have not done in relation to the international financial system. We have allowed a globalised financial system to happen—I was going to say that we had "created" it, but that is probably not the word—but we have not put in place global regulation of the system. Domestically, we have thought it crucial to discipline private power in that way, but globally we have not.

It is no good saying that it is all the fault of the rotten bankers, although it no doubt is. There has been a failure of democratic imagination and will on a scale that is difficult for us and involves establishing the international mechanisms necessary to control the new sites of power in the world. That is what democracy is about. Europe is one of the mechanisms for securing leverage on the wider sources of power, which is why we have to be part of it.

We have to go upwards, to European and other international levels, to control those forces, but the more we go upwards, the more people feel removed from the sources of power that affect their lives. To be real, democracy usually has to be near and accessible. The paradox is that for democracy to be what it has to be—the mechanism that disciplines power for us—we have to go upwards ever more. That makes it difficult for people, small people in a big world, to understand how they can get democratic leverage and control.

That is why those who say that we do not have to be effectively engaged at the European level, or have institutions and treaties that enable us to do that, are wrong. They are right, however, to reflect anxieties about how we control such mechanisms. We have not yet begun to do that in any effective way. That is the challenge.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene?

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The hon. Gentleman was getting so carried away with his important point that the danger was that none of us could be spotted.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman absolutely. Some of us have supported the European Union because we realised that economic powers were international, money moved around and companies relocated, but that there was no political control so we needed a regional, continental level to exercise that. Is not the answer to the hon. Gentleman's paradox that one can do both? One can transfer upwards—give up power and share sovereignty at the continental, regional and international levels—and downwards, to the four countries of the United Kingdom and, within England, to the regions, and then down to the parish and community levels. Both transfers are possible, and both need urgently to happen.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

The hon. Gentleman has taken my concluding peroration; I shall have to do a bogus one now. He has given the answer to the paradox: that democracy has to operate at many different levels and we have to get the democratic forms appropriate to those levels. People could then understand that democracy is near to them and in a form that they can control, but that, for some issues, it will require different forms of control.

If we want democracy to do what is necessary—discipline power—we need mechanisms that link the local neighbourhood council to the new international regulatory mechanisms. We have not begun to explain how the paradox works. When we debate Europe some people call for a referendum because they say that Europe is not very democratic and the people must be allowed to speak. My response is that although people might say that, a referendum on the European issue would be the worst thing to do, because we would not know what people were voting for and against. We would not know which bits of the Lisbon treaty people liked and which they did not like, nor what the consequences would be. We need, instead, to argue for the democratisation of different levels of power.

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J

This 'gentleman' simply does not understand, that the people of Britain and particularly of England, do not want any of the 'bits' of the Lisbon Treaty. In fact they don't want the EU full stop. The EU have ruined our farming and industry, placed our utilities in foreign hands, hamstrung our security services, reduced our armed forces, run roughshod over what the people actually hold dear, and placed us in grave danger, while siphoning £billions from taxpayers contributions. He doesn't seem to understand exactly what democracy is as perceived by the voters, who have seen their own protections ripped apart by treacherous politicians over the last 100 years. Where is Cromwell when we need him? Parliament is a joke these days,...

Submitted by Jane Birkby Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am just ending; I shall not give way again.

Robin Cook, the late, great Labour Foreign Secretary, was right to enter Government saying that we wanted an ethical foreign policy, but along the way such foreign policies always hit realpolitik. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea was the authentic voice of realpolitik: "Things always go wrong. Ambitions are always vain. Don't give me all this ethical foreign policy stuff."

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not actually say that; I withdraw the last bit, because he did not mean that.

I would argue for ethical realpolitik. Yes, of course we have to be sensible and know that sometimes things go wrong. Of course we must not be reckless. However, we should not give up on the ethics, either. We have unfinished democratic business at home—and unfinished democratic business internationally, too.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East 7:47 pm, 13th October 2008

I should start by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of what Dr. Wright has just said in favour of democracy, so I shall delete that part from my speech.

It is a tremendous privilege to stand before the House today and have the opportunity to speak. I am only too well aware of the history of this place and of the number of highly respected Members who have represented my own beloved city of Glasgow and constituencies round about: some of them are here today. I thank the many Members who have warmly welcomed me to the House, and particularly Mr. Speaker for his help during the two months before I was sworn in; it is good to have a neighbouring Glasgow Member in such a key position. I was particularly keen to take part in this debate on democracy and human rights, but first I would like to make some opening remarks, as I believe is the custom.

The people of Glasgow, East elected me to send a message to the Prime Minister and now I am here to deliver it. That message is clear and simple: it is time for action to help hard-pressed households who, given soaring food and fuel bills, are struggling to make ends meet. During the by-election, Scottish National party pressure forced a U-turn on the 2p rise in road fuel duty. People are struggling to make ends meet, and an SNP success in Glenrothes would force more action over soaring household bills.

The swing that elected me to what was Labour's third safest seat shows that Labour's days of taking Scotland for granted are over. It is clear that people have had enough of the party's broken promises, and want a change for the better.

Less than four short months ago, I was happily taking part in debates in Glasgow city chambers, with the outlook of a quiet July and a holiday in prospect. However, as has been said,

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft agley."

We think that we have the future of ourselves, our economy and our country safely planned out, but events take a turn and we find ourselves not where we expected to be.

As I reflect on the past in this place, I particularly wish to mention my immediate predecessor, David Marshall. Although I had been a councillor in Glasgow for some 10 years, it was only when he became the Member for the newly created constituency of Glasgow, East in 2005 that our paths began to cross. I must say that in all my dealings with David Marshall I always found him to be helpful and courteous to me and to others, and I know that that was the experience of many who met him. Since my election, a number of constituents have approached me about a problem that David Marshall had been dealing with and asked me to take it up as well. I am more than happy to do that, particularly in the case of several asylum seekers whom David Marshall was helping and I seek to help as well.

Despite what is reputed to be the robust nature of Glasgow politics, many of the concerns of the two main parties there—the Scottish National party and Labour—are shared concerns. For example, in his maiden speech in June 1979, David Marshall referred to the poor state of many school buildings in the city. Twenty-nine years later, I am very much at one with him on that. He clearly believed that all children everywhere deserve a decent education in decent buildings, and I want to follow his example on that point. Just the other day, I received a letter from David Marshall wishing me well. That says a lot about him as a man. I am sure that the House would want to join me in wishing him a swift recovery from illness and a long and fulfilling retirement.

I understand that it is also customary on these occasions to mention one's constituency, and I would like to make a few points. I assume that a number of Members visited Glasgow, East in July—although I realise that some could not make it—and were able to see for themselves the success and the problems. It is certainly not an area of uniform devastation, as some have had us believe—in fact, it is a very mixed area, like so many others. Old heavy industry has largely gone, with some new manufacturing and service industries in its place, but still one sees the wide open spaces where the factories used to stand. We have to do something about that.

Much of the '50s and '60s housing has been refurbished or demolished, with new and better housing in its place. The Scottish Government are providing grant for new house building, which is very welcome, as are restrictions on the right to buy. However, our Government's powers are limited. We need to do something about that.

Some old schools have been combined and replaced with excellent modern facilities. However, there are still many popular schools with good educational attainment, despite the fact that inspector's report says that the buildings themselves are very poor. All that I hear from head teachers and their staff is that a modern building is a huge morale booster for teachers and pupils. Labour-controlled Glasgow city council has let the schools down for decades. We need to do something about that.

We look forward to the Commonwealth games coming to Glasgow, particularly to the east end, in 2014. Glasgow has done well in having many of the facilities in place already. It is encouraging that the Scottish Government and the city council, despite being of different political persuasions, are willing to work so closely together in having everything in place for the games. It would be even better if lottery funding could be released to fund a lasting legacy, as has happened with many similar events in England. However, I constantly hear complaints from youngsters about the lack of local affordable facilities, which they feel are too far away or too expensive. We need to do something about that.

In preparing this speech, I was encouraged to read some of those made by Members in the past. I was struck that in at least two I found concern about one of the main issues that concerns me today—the widening gap in our society between the rich and the poor. As I listened to Prime Minister's Questions last week, I noted the suggestion that things started to go seriously wrong in 1979. I will leave it to others to judge whether that is the case, but it seems to me that since that date some in our society have done incredibly well and some have done extremely badly, and that that trend has continued almost seamlessly no matter which party has been in power.

One maiden speech that I read referred to

"a Budget which took from the needy to give to the greedy and which made the rich richer and the poor poorer."—[ Hansard, 14 June 1979; Vol. 968, c. 699.]

That was from David Marshall in 1979. This is from another maiden speech:

"This is all because the Government's philosophy is that the rich must get richer by way of tax cuts and that the poor must become poorer to ensure true prosperity."—[ Hansard, 27 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 1241.]

That was from the then Member for Dunfermline, East in 1983. Both statements are criticisms with which I wholeheartedly agree. When a new measure is brought to this house by whatever Government in the coming years, that is the measure against which I will judge them. I will ask myself, "Does this measure narrow or widen the gap between rich and poor?" We are clearly in difficult economic times in this country and throughout the world. Yes, there may be a need for belt tightening by many of us, but if that does happen, it must be those who have least who tighten their belts least and those who have most who tighten their belts most.

Let me turn to the subject of the debate: democracy and human rights. I am the most recently elected member of this House, so I have been most recently subjected to the democratic process. I would not go so far as to say that that gives me the strongest mandate of any politician in Scotland, but it does say something about how people in Scotland are thinking at this time. A growing number of voters in Glasgow, East support independence, and, despite scaremongering in some quarters, they are not afraid to vote for the party of independence. For too long, Unionist parties have sought to instil fear in the people of Scotland if they dared even to think of independence, but those scare tactics work only for so long because people eventually see through them. In this by-election, many people broke with family tradition when they voted. No longer are the people of Glasgow, East looking backwards—rather, they are looking forward in hope.

The two countries where I have lived most to date have been Scotland and Nepal; whether England will overtake Nepal remains to be seen. In the 1980s, Nepal had a ruling monarch with elected representatives, but the latter had little power. Political parties were not even allowed, so every candidate was an independent—allegedly. However, party tensions still lay below the surface. I remember sitting in my flat in Kathmandu during an election when a random stone came flying through the window. Human rights there were clearly limited, not least in the religious field. It was against the law to change one's religion, and baptisms of new believers were generally carried out secretly at night. The most open I was able to be about my faith was at Christmas, when outdoor carol singing was allowed. However, I was still nervous that every time we went round a corner the police would be standing there. Clearly, other countries around the world have even less democracy and fewer human rights than Nepal. I am glad to say that the situation in Nepal has greatly improved over recent years, although that country still has its fair share of problems.

In Scotland we have a variety of voting systems for each of the four main levels of representation: Europe, Westminster, the national Government and local councils. While most of that will be familiar to Members here, it is the relatively new local council system that I want to bring to their attention and commend to them. It is a system of proportional representation by single transferable vote. It has been relatively well understood by the electorate, with very few spoiled papers. It is already used by some trade unions and pensions funds. It combines an emphasis on the individual candidate and on the political party—a balance that no other system is able to achieve. I want to commend the two parties in the previous Scottish coalition for combining to introduce that excellent system in my country. I hope that it can be extended elsewhere.

In conclusion, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your forbearance and Members of all parties for their warm welcome.

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J

A very good speech, I wish he represented me, and I hope all those fat cat MPs in this house take note of what he said, for he spoke a good truth about the wealth gap.

Submitted by Jane Birkby

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 7:58 pm, 13th October 2008

I welcome John Mason to this House. He has made an accomplished maiden speech, and I know that we will be hearing a great deal from him over the weeks and months to come. I wish him well during his time in this House. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate what he said about his predecessor, David Marshall. I was on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch executive committee when David Marshall was its chairman, and I saw the passion and diligence with which he pursued Commonwealth interests and foreign policy concerns through the association.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, like many Members of my party, I paid a visit to Glasgow, East in July. I travelled by the National Express east coast rail service. National Express is an English company, with headquarters in my constituency, the City of York, and its services benefit both the Scottish economy and the English economy. In fact, it is one of those institutions that shows the interdependence of Scotland and England, and the benefits that links between those two parts of the United Kingdom bring to people in Scotland and in England.

In Glasgow, East I knocked on doors, I spoke to many constituents and I did all that I could legally, decently and honestly to prevent the hon. Gentleman from being elected, and I failed—but he should not think that I fail in every political challenge that I take on. I warmly congratulate him on his victory. Perhaps the fact that his party can mount a challenge and capture a Labour seat that was seen as so safe before the election is a compelling illustration of the vibrancy and the fundamental strength of democracy in this country. There cannot be a multi-party democracy without opposition parties. Opposition parties can be a big headache for a ruling party, but it would be a far bigger headache if we did not have viable opposition parties in this country.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind has now slipped out of the Chamber, but his speech raised the tone of the debate. I know that at this time of night, gastric pressures make people flee from the Chamber—they are affecting me, too. I wish that the right hon. and learned Gentleman were still in his place, but I hope that he will see how Members have responded to what he said. It is difficult to disagree with his conclusion on Iraq—that military intervention has done more harm than good. However, I would say to him something that the Select Committee on International Development said to the Government before the war, which was that at least as much attention ought to be paid to the task of post-war reconstruction as was paid to the task of the military campaign. The real catastrophe in Iraq has been a catastrophe of political mistakes being made in the post-war situation.

The convincing case that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made on Iraq does not, however, ring true when we go from the particular to the general. The arguments that he made on the Balkans ignore the harm that was caused by non-intervention. When he was Secretary of State for Defence, I remember going with a cross-party group of Members to NATO headquarters in Brussels to talk to people about whether there was a military response that could be made to the genocide—and I use that word, which he used in his speech—in Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia. A string of ambassadors, directors and officials told us that it was difficult to intervene militarily, that the Serbs were tough fighters who held down eight German divisions in the second world war, that it was difficult mountainous country and that there was not much we could do in military terms.

We were about to leave at the end of the day when a message came from Field Marshal Richard Vincent, who was the chairman of NATO's military committee at the time. He asked us to speak to him, and he told us a very different story. He obviously was not speaking on behalf of any Government, and he made the point that he had a NATO role at that time, not a role as a British Army officer. He said that sooner or later, Europe was going to have to take military action to stop what Serbs were doing in the former Yugoslavia, and that the longer we waited, the more battle-hardened and effective Serb regular and paramilitary troops would be. He told us a story: as a boy, he had been taken by his father to see the miracle of a Prime Minister flying back to Britain by aeroplane. He saw Chamberlain come off that aeroplane and wave that piece of paper, and he said that that was appeasement then, and he believed that not intervening militarily in Bosnia was appeasement too. [ Interruption. ] I see that I have got my marching orders from the Whip.

On Kosovo too, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that there was no genocide so we should not have intervened. At the time of military intervention, the majority of the Kosovar Albanian population had been driven out of their country, across the border into neighbouring countries. It was an unstable position, and I believe that non-intervention would have done more harm than good.

As my hon. Friend Dr. Wright said, people sometimes use the terms "democracy" and "human rights" almost as if they are interchangeable. The ideas are related, of course. Both concepts require rulers to cede power to the people. They both imply the accountability of those with power to a broader constituency, but they are not the same thing. It is possible to have some human rights, such as habeas corpus or the right to a fair trial, without living in a democracy, but democracy cannot exist without human rights. That is why the Council of Europe requires countries to meet human rights requirements before they can join. I believe that the Foreign Secretary is right to make democracy one of the key goals of British foreign policy, but promoting democracy internationally is not easy, and I believe that distinguishing between human rights and democracy helps to highlight how Governments can promote democracy effectively.

Western support for democracy has been tainted by the military interventions in Iraq, certainly, and in Afghanistan, to some extent. They make it clear that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. Democracy is a collective concept—without a thirst for democracy from the people, it cannot grow. It certainly cannot be imposed by military force. The best the military can do is to create conditions that allow security and the rule of law to flourish—in other words, to create human rights conditions that permit democracy to grow if there is a public thirst for it. Human rights are a precondition for democracy.

For the past three years, I have had the great privilege of chairing the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It was created when the Berlin wall fell, and over the years it has done extremely important work to support democrats, reformers and democratic political parties in the countries of central and eastern Europe when they were breaking free from Soviet control. It has done similar work in other parts of the world, such as Africa and the middle east. In the early years of this decade, it lost its way. My hon. Friend Mike Gapes, who was my predecessor, began to rebuild the organisation.

WFD is a Foreign Office sponsored, non-departmental public body. Shortly before I was appointed to the foundation's board, the Foreign Office commissioned an independent review of the organisation from River Path Associates. The review was highly critical. It proposed a number of options, including winding up the foundation, scaling down its operations or transferring its funding responsibilities from the Foreign Office to Parliament. Some of those criticisms were completely unreasonable, but there were some problems in the organisation, and I told the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw, that I was prepared to take on the appointment in order to lead a process of reform and renewal, but that if the Foreign Office wanted to close the organisation down, it should go ahead.

I was appointed on the basis of leading a process of reform in the organisation. The Foreign Office kept its side of the bargain, and I believe that WFD has kept its part of the deal and has emerged as a stronger, more relevant and more effective organisation. I should like to thank my fellow governors and members of the board—I see one in his place tonight, Mr. Dunne—and the chief executive and the staff of the foundation. I should also like to thank the staff of the political parties who implement the party-to-party foundation programmes, and the Foreign Office officials and Ministers who have supported the foundation during the three years for which I have been in the chair.

During those three years, we have put through quite a number of reforms. We have concentrated the foundation's resources so that it now has greater impact in fewer countries and fewer specialised fields of work. We have moved the foundation's focus from being a London-based grant giver funding one-off projects to being a manager of sustained programmes of work over several years. That has led us to move some of our permanent staff from working in London to working in the field. We have reduced the percentage of the budget being spent on administration, and taken the difficult decision to make some senior management posts redundant. We have also increased our overall funding without increasing administration—

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Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I am terribly short of time, because I believe that there is to be a ministerial statement soon. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I need to make some progress.

The foundation has written a new corporate strategy, which identifies three particular strengths or niche markets for the foundation: political party development, parliamentary capacity building and local governance. We have agreed a business plan to pursue those specialisms, and to increase the organisation's turnover and budget. We have sought to build alliances with other bodies based at Westminster and elsewhere in this country that also have an interest in democracy building. They include the National Audit Office, the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the British section of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Clerk's Department's Overseas Office, the House of Commons Library, the International Bar Association, the Reuters Foundation, certain universities, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. We have brought many of those organisations together to create a Westminster consortium.

We have also managed to broaden the foundation's funding base. We continue to receive grant in aid worth £4.1 million a year from the Foreign Office, but in addition, we have won tranches of money from the Foreign Office for programmes of work in other countries, including Ukraine, Egypt, Serbia and Macedonia, and from the Department for International Development for work in Sierra Leone. Recently, as part of the Westminster consortium, we won a £5 million contract from DFID for parliamentary capacity building in Uganda, Mozambique, Lebanon, Yemen, Ukraine and Georgia, and we are currently negotiating what I hope will be a $15 million to $20 million contract with the United Nations Development Programme for parliamentary capacity building work in Ethiopia.

During the past three years, the WFD has refocused its priorities and activities, and broadened its funding base. Over the next three years, the priority will be to deliver measurable impact—strengthening citizens' rights and democratic institutions—in the broader range of programmes that we have been commissioned to undertake, in order to strengthen the foundation's reputation and to enable it to continue to win contracts.

Sadly, I do not have time to say a great deal about the foundation's work, but I believe that it makes a huge difference. For example, DFID commissioned the foundation to do nine months' work with all the political parties in Sierra Leone in relation to its elections last year. We sought to help the parties to build policy platforms based on issues rather than on ethnic differences or regional loyalties. We persuaded the parties to set out their policies on pledge cards, and we persuaded Sierra Leone public radio to organise a version of "Any Questions?". The idea of African politicians having to answer questions about their policies from members of the public was quite an innovation.

We also supported a role-playing exercise, in which each party worked out in advance what they would do in their first day, their first week, their first month and their first three months of office if their party were elected. With the then President Kabbah, we went through the process to find out what he would do in those first days and weeks if he was not returned to office. When would he move out of the state house? When would he set up his office as leader of the opposition? What facilities would he expect to have in order to fulfil that role in Parliament? He was defeated in the election, and he did move out of the state house and become leader of the opposition.

In Africa, it is very unusual to have such a "revolving door", involving a genuine multi-party contest at an election in which the party that was in power is defeated and a party that was not in government is elected. In Sierra Leone, however, the door revolved, and the actors changed. I believe that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy had a real part to play in ensuring that that happened.

Having spent three years at the helm of the WFD, I have now decided to stand down. I believe that I have achieved the goals that the then Foreign Secretary set for me when I was appointed, and that a new chairman will bring new ideas and a fresh focus for the challenges ahead. I understand that the Foreign Secretary has been asked to appoint my hon. Friend Meg Munn to the WFD board, and I hope that the board will elect her to the chair. It would be a major asset to the foundation to have a former Foreign Office Minister, alongside my right hon. Friend Lord Foulkes, a former DFID Minister, on the board.

The WFD does a lot with the relatively limited assets at its disposal, but I believe that it could do much more to express the UK's soft power in emerging democracies. I hope that the Government will maintain the grant in aid, because without core funding, the foundation would have serious problems. I also hope that they will look for opportunities in other countries in which the foundation could play useful roles, and then fund the WFD to undertake them. The Foreign Office and DFID should both do this, and we should be encouraging multilateral bodies such as the European Union and the United Nations to do so as well. As chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, I worked with three Foreign Secretaries, and I thank them for their support. I urge the Government to keep supporting the foundation, as I believe that it is one of the best assets of the Foreign Office, the Government and the United Kingdom.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry 8:18 pm, 13th October 2008

It is a pleasure to follow Hugh Bayley. I listened to his remarks about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and I pay warm tribute to his contribution in leading it for the past three years. It is also a privilege for me to be the first Member on the Conservative Benches to congratulate John Mason on his maiden speech, which was graceful, gracious and informative about his constituency. We ask no more than that.

In a sense, this debate is a tribute to the power of democracy and to our ability to support each other even when we disagree with each other. I have found the insights that I have heard today fascinating and mutually reinforcing, from all the different aspects. I hope that the House will forgive me if my comments are a little more related to the legal side of human rights, because that is a personal interest and, as it happens, a familial interest of mine. I also have experience in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which I have found very stimulating and informative on this issue.

Looking back at the history of all this, we can see the roots in world war 2, going back as far as the Atlantic charter. It was signed by the two nations of Britain and America, which Churchill described as the great democracies. It was a reaction to absolutism, aggressive war and the holocaust. I think it was also an understanding of the need to temper the powers of the democratic state, which were exercised during wartime. It was also a celebration of the worth of every individual. It is about the respect we have for individuals and groups of people in our society.

I commend the European convention of human rights itself as a clear document that is well worth reading. It has a surprisingly strong emphasis on private autonomy, private life and private decision making. That is well instanced in article 8, which recognises the right to private life, but then says that it is subject to any overriding interest, whether it be of national security, public safety, economic well-being, concerns about disorder or crime, health or morals or, finally, the protection of the rights or freedoms of others. The default position in human rights law thus lies firmly with individual rights, and any derogations are defined only in strictly limited and specified circumstances. Bearing in mind the strong influence of British lawyers in the drafting, it expresses in codified principles the pragmatism of our common law, and it is in no sense a sanction for arbitrary acts by central Governments.

It is perhaps not without significance that the title of today's debate omits the third leg of the Council of Europe stool, which always refers to "democracy, human rights and the rule of law". Indeed, it is under the present Government that we have repatriated the convention and required Ministers to certify the compatibility of their legislation with the convention rights. Sometimes, they do not find it very happy when that is challenged.

Nobody has said in today's debate—but I shall—that there is sometimes a backlash against human rights, although not perhaps against the simple ones. We can all sign up to the fact that we do not want people to be maimed, tortured or subjected to arbitrary imprisonment. That is easy. The more difficult situations arise when there is a clash of rights or where we feel some sense that rights are being extended to persons who do not deserve them. That is not my view. Our problem is that we all enjoy implicit rights, but we dislike explicit rights being extended to people who do not suit—whether they be terrorists, paedophiles or even just foreigners. That argument can then turn up in the tabloid press, with a very unpleasant set of overtones.

As I just mentioned, those who drafted the European convention recognised from the start that there were limitations occasioned by public policy and that no absolute right was expressed in the convention. This rather difficult situation—the move from the easy rights to the complex rights—has, I think, been aggravated by a number of factors. This country has seen a huge growth in administrative law and judicial review. There has been a shift from concentration on individual rights—involving whether individuals are tortured or persecuted—to issues about group actions and groups of people, often fuelled by the media or by non-governmental organisations. The increase in challenges to authority is perhaps healthy. For example, whereas food rationing would have gone through on the nod as an administrative action during the war, if we started imposing a system of milk quotas now, that would nowadays immediately become subject to judicial review.

Where do we go now for human rights? The first and strongest point is that we need to be very careful about our own record. There is a wonderful phrase in the convention about the general principles of law being recognised by "civilised nations". I have an idea that the UK thinks of itself and defines itself as one of those nations. It is no longer any good, however, simply putting ourselves forward as a civilised nation, with the assumption that everything we do here is above reproach.

One really stimulating aspect of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is that it has 47 member countries—all in various stages of emerging democracy and with different traditional attitudes towards human rights. Whether Her Majesty's Government like it or not, those members can bite back at us. Critical reports were recently issued about the security of our postal voting system—already referred to earlier—and an outline report has been drafted on the 42-day detention proposals. That, of course, stresses the importance of process and safeguards. I am given to understand that the other place has taken a lively and, in my view, entirely commendable decision on that matter today—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] The concept is not confined to the Council of Europe, because some rights are universal under the UN convention, and they extend to other issues such as disabilities, the rights of children and so forth.

I am delighted to welcome the Minister for Europe to her new post and I am pleased to see in her place the Under-Secretary, who is going to wind up today's debate. I would like to provide them with a brief shopping list on human rights. I mentioned in an earlier intervention the importance of adequate resourcing for the Strasbourg Court and of following protocol 14 to improve process. I would like Ministers to look further into the whole business of Council of Europe conventions that we have signed but not ratified. A White Paper explaining why we have not ratified them—sometimes over many years—would be appropriate, even if some of them are no longer valid.

I would also like further work to be done on the responsibility to protect both the definition of the circumstances justifying intervention and the means of securing it. Given that Ministers are now a certifying body, I would like them, along with central and local government officials, to get better training in what the conventions mean. In domestic legislation, I would like greater use of principles clauses, which we used successfully in the Mental Capacity Act 2005. I would like to see greater awareness of the concept of human rights in education, notably in history and citizenship training. Better international exchanges between interested parties to promote a common understanding of the meaning of human rights under legal systems that formally differ from one another would also be helpful, as would more independent international monitoring of each other's practices. We have nothing to hide, so we should welcome that.

As the final item on my list of specific interventions, I would like further work to be done on preparing for intense immediate intervention in conflict and crisis situations. I pay tribute to the work done during recent conflicts in Georgia by the teams of the European Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammerberg. It is very important that we are able to send such people in, because human rights go by the board when there is warfare.

Today is a time for thinking about the big picture. On paper, we can have all the human rights we want, but we must have a human rights culture to accompany them. Perhaps the easiest bit is democracy, because we have been at that for many years, but we need to remind the general public that human rights are their rights, and that in a sense we will all need them at one time or another, whether for the purposes of anti-discrimination or for protection from arbitrary administrative action.

We have moved a long way. For example, I participated in consideration of legislation driven by the European Court of Human Rights to change the law on transgender people. Also, as today has shown, by adding the rule of law to complete the trio, we have made Ministers think. Sometimes, as today, we have stopped them dead in their tracks.

In the end, however, this will be a matter of attitudes. In the spirit of the conventions, whether European or United Nations, we need to start by leaving space—whether in Britain or worldwide; it does not matter where—for people to live and flourish without unwarranted interference. That is the respect side of human rights. We need proper discretion by Government—for example, over their storing of data. We need a sense of fairness between the parties that people have to deal with. If Government have to intervene, or are the provider of a public service, people using that service should be treated with decency.

If we can get Ministers—who are public servants, as they should be—and then their private counterparts to act in that spirit, the advances in human rights that we have made in the last half century in this country, in Europe and internationally will be secured, and we can use and extend those universal principles to improve the future functioning of this planet and, above all, of the people who live on it.

Debate interrupted.

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