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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 6:44 pm, 13th October 2008

I am tempted to refer the hon. Gentleman to Lord Mandelson of Hartlepool. [Hon. Members: "And Foy."] And wherever.

There are lessons to be learned from the failure of the Doha round talks. I am thinking not only of the responsibility of the US lobbies. European agricultural producers—tobacco producers and others—have had a serious impact on many developing countries. One issue that we need to assess is the trade consequences, which are very important for the issues of human rights, democracy and governance. If we move to bilateral regional trading blocs, foreign assistance arrangements or treaty arrangements on a bilateral basis, many small countries—many of the poorest countries—which do not have resources and do not have something that bigger countries want, will get missed out in the process and will not get the protections and support that they need.

Although there is a certain amount of optimism in the UN, there are also some worries. In this cataclysmic week or month—or perhaps 17 months—there has been a recognition of something that we all knew was coming, although perhaps it is coming far more quickly than we thought. The economic power templates in the world are moving, but will political changes also result? China is already playing a much more engaged role in international institutions. In general, its role in the international community is a positive one, rather than a negative one.

Interestingly, China has not sided with Russia in all issues internationally over recent months and years. Even over Georgia recently, the Russians failed to get support through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on their position regarding the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, there are worries about what might develop out of the embryonic SCO. Some people see it as the precursor to an axis of sovereignty: a group of countries that oppose any concept of the internationalisation of domestic issues. Some people see it as a potential rival to NATO and a bloc that, in time, could become far more important than it is now. Only time will tell, but clearly there is a debate to be had about where the UN system goes and where the universalist values of the 1948 declaration of human rights go in the future.

A very interesting pamphlet has just been published by the European Council on Foreign Relations entitled, "A global force for human rights? An audit of European power at the UN". I recommend it, because it contains some interesting and pessimistic conclusions. It basically says that the European Union, over the last decade, has lost influence in the UN system and that our values—what the report calls liberal interventionist values—have been weakened. Reference has already been made to the Human Rights Council, but even in General Assembly votes and in the Security Council there has been a weakening of support for those values. Countries that the report describes as "swing states"—democracies such as South Africa and India—have sided with the authoritarians against the democrats on many issues, such as in the case of Burma. I hope that South Africa under its new temporary President and under the President elected next year will be truer to the democratic values of the liberation movement, the freedom charter and the constitution that they established and will bring in a much more engaged foreign policy rather than siding with those countries that are against intervention on foreign affairs.

Reference has been made to the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on human rights. This is not the occasion for a big debate on the subject—I hope that we can have such a debate with the Minister in Westminster Hall at some point—but I want to draw attention to some points. The first is the question of trade union rights. The matter has not yet been mentioned, but it is one reason why Colombia is the only country in Latin America to be highlighted in the Foreign Office's report on these issues. Our Committee is critical of the fact that although we give military aid and support to the counter-narcotics forces and human rights training to the Colombian armed forces, there seems to be an increase in the pressure on and deaths and intimidation of active trade unionists in that country.

President Uribe is one of our allies. He is a supposed partner of the United States and of this country, yet today I received a letter from somebody working for Thompsons, a solicitors firm that does a lot of work with trade unionists, pointing out another list of individuals—I will not go through the names—whose lives have been threatened. The Colombian Government are not prepared to provide them with protection when they are engaged in their trade union activities. That is unacceptable and the Government should be doing far more, both collectively through the EU and individually, to raise the issues of human rights, trade union rights and the protection of the brave men and women in the trade unions in Colombia.

Finally, I want to say something about Russia and Georgia. My right hon. Friend Mr. George might not agree with what I am about to say, because he has had close, warm relations with the nascent democratic movement in Georgia. We need to be very careful that we do not just take the view, which seems to emanate from some people in the United States, that there are no issues in the conflict for which the Georgians should be criticised. Yes, the Russians have behaved deplorably—they overreacted massively and their recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is totally wrong and unacceptable, and it cannot be agreed with or recognised—but Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, was reckless and irresponsible in August and he did what he did despite advice from the United States and from many other countries not to behave in such a way.

We need to be very clear that even though a country is a democracy, that does not mean that every action it takes will automatically be supported. Jo Swinson said that democracy is no guarantee of human rights, and she referred to the United States. That point also applies to Georgia. There was a worrying article in The New York Times last week about crackdowns on opposition to Saakashvili in Georgia. The point also applies in Sri Lanka. That island has a democratic Government, but the most appalling human rights abuses are also going on. Many are carried out by the Tamil Tigers, but many others are carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates is an example of a country that is not a democracy where there is the rule of law, a civil society and respect, within parameters. One of the two—democracy and human rights—does not necessarily lead to the other.

People such as President Bush who have the naive belief that if we get everywhere to have free and fair elections there will be no conflicts and no problems have a very dangerous world view. Unless the ethnic, tribal, religious and cultural differences in a society are resolved, and unless political structures and political space are created, even if there have been formal elections and changes of Government, the situation can end up like that in Georgia. Mr. Gamsakhurdia was followed by Mr. Shevardnadze, who was followed by Mr. Saakashvili, and none of them had total respect for the different minorities.

In Sri Lanka, a significant minority of people on the island feel discriminated against. Extremist groups feed on that and make the situation far worse. We need to be cautious when we talk about democracy and human rights. We need to be more sophisticated about it. One does not automatically follow the other. Human rights can exist in societies that are not necessarily entirely democratic, while there can be democracies that do not respect the human rights of either people in their society or of their neighbours.

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