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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 13th October 2008.

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

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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