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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 4:34 pm on 13th October 2008.

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

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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