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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 6:18 pm on 13th October 2008.

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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.