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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

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.