Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

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.