I beg to move,
That this House
takes note of European Union Documents No. 18635/11, relating to the Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council on Human rights and democracy at the heart of EU external action-towards a more effective approach, together with an unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum dated
notes the Commission document on the Progress on Equality Between Women and Men in 2011;
endorses the Government’s intention to support the draft Decision on the EU Special Representative for Human Rights;
and welcomes the Government’s work to provide for enhanced Member State oversight of the Special Representative’s activities in Articles 10 and 11 of the draft mandate.
The motion deals with a number of European Union documents. As the House will appreciate, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is responsible for those documents dealing with the EU’s human rights strategy and the proposed appointment of a human rights special representative. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for other documents included in the bundle, and I acknowledge the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly, in that connection.
Two years ago, almost to the day, the House debated the creation of the European External Action Service, an institution set up by the Lisbon treaty. The Government took the view that, whatever opinions the two parties in the coalition had about the creation of the EAS, now that it existed as the creation of the Lisbon treaty, we wanted the new institutional arrangement to complement our own strong commitment to an active British foreign policy and to use the EAS to help to deliver the diplomatic objectives of the United Kingdom. Our judgment is that the EU’s new human rights strategy is an example of how the EAS can be used to complement and amplify the UK’s own human rights policy.
This afternoon, I want to address some of the concerns expressed by the European Scrutiny Committee and others about the implications of the measures before us. I have singled out three matters in particular.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to address the concerns of the Scrutiny Committee, but does he accept that there is some concern in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, particularly about how the two jurisdictions of the special representative and the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe will overlap and interweave, whether this will be duplication or a takeover, and whether it all makes sense?
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s point. I said that I wanted to address the concerns expressed by the European Scrutiny Committee and others.
The three issues I have in mind are: first, the need to maintain the rights of member states to determine their foreign policies and to avoid any scope for competence creep towards the EU institutions; secondly, concerns about the balance of responsibilities between the EU institutions themselves and, in particular, the role of the European Parliament; and thirdly—this goes straight to my hon. Friend’s point—the relationship between the EU special representative on human rights and the work of the Council of Europe, particularly its human rights commissioner.
Let me deal first with the question of competence and the rights of member states to determine their foreign policy. Democratic freedoms, universal human rights and respect for the rule of law are at the heart of British diplomacy and policy. I believe that the new EU human rights strategy and in particular the EU special representative on human rights will help us to deliver our national foreign policy objectives better through the EU, by providing a strong and visible face for its external action on human rights.
The EU’s external human rights policy flows from the common defence and security policy, which will provide the operating framework for the special representative. Declaration 13, annexed to the treaties, provides confirmation that the CFSP does
“not affect the responsibilities of the Member States… for the formulation and conduct of their foreign policy”.
Therefore, the new human rights package will not affect our ability to formulate and conduct our own national foreign policy. Furthermore, decisions at European level on CFSP require unanimous approval by the Council, with agreement by every member state. No EU position on external human rights policy or any other aspect of common foreign and security policy can be agreed without the approval of the British Minister or other representative in the room, and of course the same right of veto applies to every other member state. There is no suggestion in these documents or elsewhere that there should be any change to those arrangements.
The Government’s view remains firmly that the EU must act only where it has the competence to do so under the European Union treaties. We will remain vigilant against any threat of competence creep through the actions of the External Action Service. It is essential that the EAS continues to complement and support, not replace, national diplomatic services. That is why, for example, we have been so resolute on the principle that the EAS should have no front-line role in consular services, which would go beyond the supporting role for member states provided for in the treaties.
So far the EAS has delivered best when it has worked closely with member states and capitalised on the resources of member states and EU institutions. I will quickly highlight what I think are a number of genuine achievements from the past year where the EAS has worked well and, in doing so, has helped to deliver important British foreign policy objectives. First, there was the review of the European neighbourhood policy, which has produced an ambitious framework for the EU’s approach to the emerging democracies of north Africa and the middle east. That is now starting to have a practical impact through structures such as the EU-Tunisia taskforce.
Secondly, the EAS and Baroness Ashton personally have worked closely with the E3 plus 3 to engage Iran over its nuclear programme, and the EU recently agreed to the most far-reaching sanctions ever imposed on any other country, working in that case closely and efficiently with the Governments of the individual member states. Thirdly, the sanctions already in place against the Syrian regime—16 rounds already agreed—are still under consideration and may be strengthened further.
The proposed EU special representative will allow us to deliver more such examples of successful EU external action. The role is granted in article 33 of the treaty on European Union, which provides:
“The Council may, on a proposal from the High Representative …appoint a special representative with a mandate in relation to particular policy issues.”
The way in which the mandate is implemented will be critical, and I am glad that the European Scrutiny Committee noted the United Kingdom’s successful efforts to secure an additional layer of member state oversight of the special representative’s activities, in order to guard against any unwelcome or unwarranted expansion of their responsibilities. Article 11 of the mandate provides that
“the EUSR shall work in coordination with the Member states.”
Article 10 requires that he or she
“shall also report to the competent Council working parties”, and article 4 states that the Council’s
“Political and Security Committee shall maintain a privileged link with the EUSR”.
The last provision is common to all EUSR mandates. In practice, that “privileged link” means that the special representative will be able to communicate directly with the Council, bringing together the representatives of the 27 member states, rather than having to go through the High Representative or through other structures. The mandate also ensures that the Political and Security Committee will
“provide the EU special representative with strategic guidance and political direction.”
Given those safeguards, I am confident that the United Kingdom is well placed to play a leading part in giving that direction and guidance to the EUSR and in holding the special representative to account for his or her actions.
The appointment of a special representative will in no way affect the United Kingdom’s ability to speak, as now, on its own behalf in international organisations, including the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. As is the case now, the European Union may speak on our behalf only if there is a shared position to which the United Kingdom has signed up, and which requires unanimity. On the basis of those safeguards, I seek the House’s approval for the establishment of the role.
Having attended many meetings of the UN Human Rights Council, I was consistently disappointed when the member state representative said nothing and left it all to the EU representative. I am pleased that increasingly the UK representative speaks independently, particularly about the death penalty, but can the Minister assure the House that we will continue to have an independent voice at the UN Human Rights Council and will resort to the EU representative to speak on our behalf only in a case of absolute unanimity?
I can give the hon. Gentleman two assurances. We are members of the UN Human Rights Council in our own right. When there is no unanimously agreed common foreign and security policy position, the United Kingdom’s representative will speak on behalf of the United Kingdom Government’s position. When there is a unanimously agreed CFSP position, normally that will be represented by the European Union’s representative, but member states do speak—particularly if the occasion is sufficiently important—in support of the EU representative’s view, giving extra weight to the views expressed on behalf of all 27 members. It is best left to judge on a case-by-case basis exactly what tactic will be the most effective in delivering the outcome we want, but I take to heart the hon. Gentleman’s point about wanting to hear the vigorous expression of British policy objectives, whether on our own or in support of a unanimously agreed EU position.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way in a second debate this afternoon.
If there is not a unanimously agreed position, can the EU representative speak at all, or do they have to remain silent?
If there is no unanimously agreed position, there is no locus for the EU representative to speak at all; they have a right to express a view only when there is an agreed European Union position. As hon. Members on both sides will probably recall, there have been occasions when, regrettably, European Union member states have split two or three different ways on a particular issue before the Human Rights Council.
Baroness Ashton is an office holder, in accordance with the treaties, as both vice-president of the Commission and High Representative of the European Union. She can speak out on foreign policy issues in that capacity; what she cannot legitimately do is express a view purporting to be the commonly agreed policy of the European Union, and therefore on behalf of all 27 member states, unless the decision to adopt a common position has been taken by those member states.
In practice, what happens is that a common foreign and security policy position is adopted. An incident may then occur—another outrage in Syria, for example. Nobody quarrels with the idea that Baroness Ashton would comment on that, just as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would; the test is whether the statements are in line with the foreign policy position that has been unanimously agreed. In my experience, Baroness Ashton has observed very well the requirements of the treaty and the importance of unanimity for a commonly agreed position.
Is the Minister aware of the widespread concern among Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe? We already have a perfectly good commissioner for human rights. Given that the Government’s rhetoric is all about avoiding competence creep by the EU and that we already have a perfectly good person doing a perfectly good job on behalf of nation states throughout Europe, we cannot understand why we are going along with the measure. The Minister has to reassure us further that in no way will it go against British national policy.
I have explained why the measure does not cut across British national policy, but I will come in greater detail to the relationship between the EU special representative and the Council of Europe.
I turn to the action plan. The European Scrutiny Committee noted that it is a comprehensive text and suggested that it constitutes a departure from the approach outlined in the previous joint communication. The High Representative has described human rights as
“a silver thread that runs through everything that we do in external relations.”
That is very much how the Government see human rights, too. In 2010, early in the Government’s life, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that
“values are part of our national DNA and will be woven deeply into the decision-making processes of our foreign policy at every stage.”
The action plan is comprehensive, because integrating a human rights perspective across all areas of the EU’s external action is the best way to ensure that the European Union maximises its influence on these issues.
We did not just agree to the action plan on the nod. We conducted a line-by-line assessment of the items, and we are content that what is proposed is in line with our policy objectives and does not pose a risk of competence creep. In addition, the Council has formally agreed that the action plan will fully respect the existing division of competencies. Although it is a comprehensive document, it both builds on the original joint communication and has been examined closely by the Government on precisely the question of competence that concerns my hon. Friend.
It is also true that the Minister is at the Dispatch Box and has a responsibility to answer these questions. There are four pages under the headings of outcome, action, timing and responsibility. Is he seriously suggesting that in every single respect, given the general nature of all these things and the fact that the legal consequences will ultimately end up in some court or other, he is right in making such a general assertion?
Yes, of course the action plan is expressed in general terms, because the intention is that those general principles should be applied to the European Union’s human rights activity across the range of EU dossiers and areas of external policy action.
On the common foreign and security policy—CFSP—the freedom of the EU special representative or the High Representative to express a view and develop a policy on behalf of the EU collectively will depend on whether a CFSP position has been unanimously agreed for a particular country, region or crisis. The action plan describes in general terms how the EU and its High Representative and special representative should determine their priorities for action, but we cannot sit down in
July 2012 and write down in detail which countries and crises will be involved and in what manner such work should be undertaken. Foreign Ministers in the Foreign Affairs Council and national representatives in the Political and Security Committee will consider these matters case by case.
The European Parliament saw a role for itself on the CFSP following the Lisbon treaty, and we were equally clear that the CFSP would remain intergovernmental. The High Representative has made a gesture to the Parliament in a non-binding declaration on political accountability, which says that she will seek the views—nothing more than that—of the European Parliament on CFSP matters. As one would expect, the European Parliament has taken a keen interest in the new human rights package. In accordance with article 36 of the treaty on the European Union, the mandate for the special representative provides that he or she
“may be involved in briefing the European Parliament.”
However, such briefings may take place only in a committee or sub-committee configuration and never in plenary debates, in which only the High Representative may participate. This reflects the arrangement, which we firmly support and uphold, that on issues pertaining to the CFSP the High Representative may be replaced in plenary only by a Minister of a member state.
I want to move on to the possible overlap with the Council of Europe, which concerns several Members. I start by acknowledging the important work that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House play as Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I recall the very pleasurable visits that I made to the Parliamentary Assembly during the United Kingdom’s six-month presidency of the Council of Europe. It is clearly important that there be effective, mutually trusting co-ordination between the Council of Europe, particularly its human rights commissioner, and the EU’s new special representative on human rights. That is reflected in the wording of the mandate, which I will describe shortly.
I note that the two roles have distinct responsibilities. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner is mandated to promote awareness of and respect for human rights within the member states of the Council of Europe. The EU special representative’s role is different; it is to promote human rights globally as part of the EU’s unanimously agreed CFSP. Both office holders will be involved in work on promoting respect for human rights in states of the Council of Europe that are not EU member states. To avoid any risk of unhelpful overlap and duplication, article 11(3) of the EUSR’s mandate expressly requires him or her to
“liaise and seek complementarity and synergies with other international and regional actors”.
To turn that jargon into English, it means that the special representative should maintain a regular dialogue with the commissioner to avoid duplication. The secretariat of the Council of Europe has expressed no concern to us about the creation of this role. Indeed, subject to proper co-ordination, it welcomes an increased focus on human rights within the EU’s external action.
During the UK’s presidency, I discussed with Secretary-General Jagland the relationship between the Council of Europe and the European Union. I was pleased to learn from him and other senior officials in the Council of Europe that, over the past year or so, there had been a distinct improvement in the quality of liaison and co-operation between the two organisations. There was a feeling, certainly among the secretariat, that there was no longer the pressure from the EU that there had been for its institutions to take over the work of the Council of Europe; rather, efforts were being made on both sides to agree the areas where each was likely to be the most effective actor.
That may be the view of officials at the Council of Europe, but it is certainly not the view of the members of the Parliamentary Assembly. In a debate at the last part-session, members from all political parties and from right across the 47 member states expressed grave concern about the duplication and the additional cost involved in this project. Why are we spending money on this project in an age of austerity?
The budget for the special representative and his or her office and team has to be found from within the existing budget of the External Action Service. It will therefore have to be found at the expense of other potential items of expenditure. I have no doubt that some people will argue that, given the creation of the role, a bigger budget is needed, as with any EU special representative role, but we do not accept that. We continually resist calls for increases in annual and multi-annual budgets and seek to bear down on the costs of, and to secure better value for money in, individual special representatives’ missions and common security and defence missions more generally. I do not want my hon. Friend to think that this will lead to a vast new bill.
Some members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have a different view from Mr Chope. Some of us hope that the fundamental focus of the Council of Europe on human rights might reinfect the body politic of the European Union and add human rights to some of the agreed trade policies that have ignored human rights.
My concern is that the Council of Europe includes large and important countries such as Russia and Turkey. At the moment, those countries seem to be taking a constructive approach to the implementation of court judgments, criticisms and so on. There seems to be an improving picture. The Russians recently gave evidence to the committee on legal affairs and human rights about what they are doing. There is a great difference between being criticised and having a constructive approach within an organisation that one is part of and having another organisation that one is not part of shouting from the sidelines. Does my right hon. Friend understand that the 27 lecturing the others is not going to work and that we must avoid it?
If this is going to work to the benefit of the EU and its member states, it is important that it does not turn into the EU lecturing other countries, as my hon. Friend describes it. However, let us consider the situation in countries that are in the Council of Europe and not the EU. I repeat that a great deal is going on in EU relations with countries beyond Europe that are important but do not touch on the Council of Europe’s responsibilities.
For instance, let us take Ukraine. The problems of human rights there are quite properly being dealt with through Council of Europe mechanisms. In particular, individuals can take specific grievances about alleged abuses of human rights to the European Court of Human Rights and have them tested by judges. However, the European Union has important relationships with Ukraine in its own right. Ukraine is part of the EU’s eastern partnership and has been negotiating with the EU an association agreement and a deepened comprehensive free trade agreement, which include clauses on human rights and political reform.
The special representative for human rights can add value by giving extra coherence and force to aspects of specifically EU external policy that touch upon human rights matters. It is important that the two organisations respect each other’s important and complementary roles. I would be concerned if I thought that the EU had an appetite to take over what the Council of Europe was properly doing, but all I can say is that that is not what I am hearing from senior officials at the Council of Europe or from the High Representative and her senior team.
I turn briefly to the other documents in the bundle, although they are not the direct responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The first is the Commission’s 2011 report on the application of the European Union charter of fundamental rights. The European Scrutiny Committee questioned whether the annual report served as a tool to effectively and systematically monitor the implementation of the charter and how the effective implementation of the charter by member states would be measured in future.
It is important to note that the report is not an enforcement tool. It sets out a number of mechanisms that the EU institutions are developing to review EU legislation as it is drafted, to ensure that the rights and principles listed in the charter are respected. Although the charter is primarily directed at EU institutions and at member states only when they are implementing European law, the Government will consider any Commission proposal on how the actions of member states in that area might also be assessed.
The final text before us is the Commission’s report on progress on equality between women and men. This is the first time that the document has been included with the report on the application of the charter, and the Government consider that the two reports sit well together. The Government believe that the UK has a good story to tell on gender equality. Our priority is to support women in employment, whether through the provision of quality, affordable child care or by providing mentors for aspiring business women. The Commission’s report rightly reflects the fact that progress is being made but warns us against being at all complacent about gender equality.
In working with our EU partners on human rights issues, our objective throughout is to ensure that the EU institutions act to advance the prosperity, security and values of the UK by complementing and supplementing, not replacing, the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other arms of the UK Government. We consider that a new EU special representative for human rights will help us deliver our national diplomatic objectives through the EU by providing a strong, visible face for European external action on human rights. I therefore seek the House’s approval for the establishment of that role and commend the motion to the House.
I welcome this second opportunity to discuss a European motion, this time on the EU’s role in promoting human rights and democracy and the EU’s external policy. In the context of the Arab spring and with the ongoing crisis in Syria, those issues are highly relevant and the EU’s role is more important than ever.
Three subjects are central to the motion: the new EU human rights strategy; the corresponding action plan; and the appointment of an EU special representative on human rights. The Opposition agree with the Government that the EU should use its collective weight to maximise its influence in promoting human rights and democracy around the world, and that the EU’s new human rights strategy will serve as a multiplier of the UK’s voice. The size of the European economy and the fact that the EU is the world’s largest provider of development aid gives it significant influence and leverage in the promotion of human rights.
We also agree with Baroness Ashton that human rights must be the silver thread running through the EU’s external strategy. For the first time, one document summarises all aspects of EU human rights work. The strategy emphasises the universality of human rights and the importance of making them central to the EU’s external policies. It is vital that promoting and protecting human rights is not considered an add-on to the EU’s external policies, so we welcome the fact that they will be mainstreamed into all EU external policies.
We welcome the strategy’s commitment to include human rights considerations in trade, investment, technology, telecommunications, internet, energy, environment, corporate social responsibility and development policy. The mainstreaming of human rights is further strengthened by the commitment for the geographical working groups in the Council to have responsibility also to fulfil the action plan. The EU will increase its support for freedom of expression, association and assembly. That is important, because, as the strategy says,
“democracy cannot exist without these rights”.
We welcome the increased emphasis on supporting the fair and impartial administration of justice—another important way of promoting the independence of the judiciary. More generally, there is an encouraging emphasis in both the strategy and the action plan on the need for the EU to evaluate the impact of its human rights policies. The EU’s annual human rights report will now evaluate the EU’s progress in meeting its objective as well as the human rights record of third countries. That is welcome in terms of increasing both transparency and accountability. Another positive development is the commitment to develop indicators for human rights dialogues.
The action plan further acknowledges the division of competence between the EU and member states on human rights and recognises that the role of the EU is to complement the work done by member states. Finally, both the strategy and the action plan underline the importance of the EU working even more closely with civil society in its human rights work.
The role of the new EU special representative on human rights will enhance the EU’s effectiveness and visibility in protecting and promoting human rights—this special representative will be the first to have a thematic role. Whoever is appointed will have a broader remit and a more flexible mandate than the existing EU special representatives. We agree with the Government that the person chosen to be representative should have
“an established track record and international experience in human rights” and that he or she
“should have an excellent ability to maintain diplomatic relations at a senior level”.
The motion refers to the charter of fundamental rights and the Commission’s 2011 report on the application of the charter. The report underlines that progress has been made in ensuring that all EU institutions, bodies and agencies comply with the charter. It also contains a number of observations and recommendations. It notes that positive steps have been taken on, for example, disability rights, child protection and preventing human trafficking.
On disability rights, the EU has joined the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which is a welcome development. On child protection, the EU has adopted an agenda on the rights of the child, which is a prelude to developing new rules on combating the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography.
The report details the EU directive on the prevention and combating of trafficking human beings and protecting its victims, which came into force in 2011. As the report recounts, the directive took a human rights and gender-specific approach and sought to achieve more effective prosecution of human traffickers by national authorities across borders. The Commission also appointed an EU anti-trafficking co-ordinator.
The report highlighted areas for improvement, namely on gender equality, and to this end the Council of Ministers adopted a European pact for gender equality calling for equal participation of women in decision making and repeating the importance of integrating a gender perspective into all policies, including in the external actions of the EU. Progress has certainly been made, but there remains much to do.
It is important to consider the role of human rights not only in the EU’s external policies but inside EU member states. In that context, I would like to ask the Minister about the situation in Hungary. Last year, the Commission used its legal powers to raise concerns with the Hungarian Government about media law, because the Commission had serious concerns that the law would severely restrict freedom of expression. Fortunately, the Hungarian Government were persuaded to agree to a raft of changes to ensure that those concerns were addressed.
Nevertheless, there remain ongoing concerns about the actions of the Hungarian Government, in particular over the introduction of the new fundamental law, which came into force at the start of the year and replaced the constitution that had transformed Hungary from communist dictatorship to liberal democracy.
I appreciate what my hon. Friend says about the media laws in Hungary, but does she also share my concern about the disgraceful systematic treatment of the Roma in Hungary and the many cases reported at a very high level to human rights organisations? There is a case for the strongest possible statements to be made by both the EU and the Council of Europe.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the protection of the human rights of the Roma community is incredibly important and that those rights are at risk in Hungary. Their human rights have been threatened in other member states, too—I will not mention a former President of the French Republic and some of the things he said about that community.
The fundamental law extends the Hungarian Government’s control over various bodies that should be independent, such as the central bank and the courts. In particular, there are concerns about the independence of the judiciary. We believe that an independent judiciary is a vital safeguard of human rights. The European Parliament and the Commission have raised concerns about democracy and the accountability of the Hungarian Government, and it is clear that human rights must be protected within the EU and its member states, if the EU is to have an authoritative voice on human rights in external countries. I would appreciate it, therefore, if the Minister could shed some light on these matters by answering the following questions: does he think that the situation in Hungary weakens the EU’s voice on democracy and human rights in third countries; and will he update the House on what discussions he and his colleagues, including the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, have had with the Hungarian and other EU Governments about the new Hungarian fundamental law and its the implications for the human rights of the Hungarian people?
Is the hon. Lady aware of the enormous majority that the President, Prime Minister and Government of Hungary have as a result of free and proper elections? Does she think it the right and duty of the EU or the Venice Commission to tell a member state how it should behave, when it has such a massive democratic mandate? This is a very serious question.
I agree only that it is a very serious question. The EU must promote and protect human rights within its member states, regardless of the majority that a President or Government have received from the electorate. We should not tolerate the judiciary, the media or other such institutions being under the control of whatever Government in whatever member state. Labour Members are proud of our record on human rights while in government. We passed the Human Rights Act and prioritised the promotion of human rights in our external policies, particularly our development policy. Further back in history, the UK was one of the leading architects of the European convention on human rights. We remain proud that the UK is a signatory to that convention, and we are a full and active member of the Council of Europe.
Although we welcome the Government’s position on the documents before the House, it seems that the Government are not always entirely consistent in their commitment to human rights. The Minister has said positive things today, but his Conservative MEPs in Brussels say and vote entirely differently. Regrettably, they sit with a rag-bag of anti-Semites, holocaust deniers and homophobes.
I do not think it is rubbish at all.
We need a Government who will consistently champion human rights in the UK, in Brussels and around the world. The new EU strategy, the action plan and the appointment of a special representative for human rights will hopefully make the EU’s promotion of human rights and democracy more effective. We therefore support the motion.
Order. A number of colleagues wish to participate, but I should remind the House that the debate is time limited, and we wish to leave some time for the Minister to respond.
I have listened to Emma Reynolds, and my concern about this whole debate is that it seems that, somehow or other, there is a universality about human rights, without reference to democracy in individual countries. The question I have to ask is: how do we define what a human right is?
It is not so simple. I believe in human rights; I believe in the manner in which we legislate. However, we are already having a massive debate in the House of Commons about the Human Rights Act 1998, and also about the commission that has been set up as a result of the coalition agreement. There are also massive questions being raised about the manner in which our judiciary is interpreting human rights—in relation to extradition, deportation, Abu Qatada, and so on. I have even noticed some Opposition Members showing an increased interest in whether human rights can be regarded as entirely generic and universal, when it is actually up to individual member states and individual Parliaments, based on the votes cast in general elections, to decide whether a particular human right is or has been contravened.
I will happily give way to the hon. Lady, because I am getting increasingly fed up with these people who continually assert, with their political correctness, that they know what a human right is. It is down to
Parliament, based on what is decided by the voters in general elections, to determine those questions. It is a matter of law, not just some generic universality. I will be the first to fight for habeas corpus or trial by jury. What worries me is all these generic expressions—I will come to that in the middle of my speech—and this whole concept, which is promoting more and more generic human rights creep.
I sometimes wonder whether it is better not to encourage the hon. Gentleman, but I want to challenge him on universality, because I believe, as do many others, in the universality of human rights, as have been signed up to by our Government through the United Nations conventions. Does he really think that we in this country have no role in arguing and campaigning for changes abroad, and that if, for example, even a democratic country elsewhere in the world decided that it would persecute Christians—torturing them, and so on—just because of their beliefs, that should be of no concern to us whatever and that we should not try to change minds or persuade others to take action to change it?
No, I do not. As a matter of fact, I have been very much personally involved in the Jubilee campaign, standing up for the rights of people in other countries who are being persecuted. Indeed, as the hon. Lady will know, I have also promoted the issue by forming the all-party group on water and sanitation in the third world. I stand absolutely 100% behind people’s rights in that regard. What worries me is when the whole thing is codified—as it is in the papers before us and the strategic plan—and interwoven with the universality matrix, and then buttressed by legal requirements. Therefore, when I hear the Minister saying, “Well, we will exercise the veto as and when it is appropriate”—if I can put it in generic terms—I simply do not believe that to be a realistic way of dealing with the issue.
This is another example of the European Union engaging in European creep on a monumental scale. I am not against the individual defence of people in relation to human rights questions, and there are many things that crop up in the European strategic framework and action plan that I would strongly support in an individual context. What worries me is the universality, not only because of the panoramic view that is taken of all these matters, but because of the panoramic way in which it will be applied in practice, headed by the European representative. This is essentially a practical question.
Is it my hon. Friend’s assertion that, while he has no objection to a democratic country expressing strong views about abuses of human rights in other countries, democracies or otherwise, his real objection is that the European Union is seeking to take on this role without constituting a democracy in its own right?
That is exactly the point. This is almost a jurisprudential question. It is not about fancy philosophy; it is about how we make decisions relating to individual, practical instances. My hon. Friend is entirely right to make that point. It is difficult to imagine that we will be able to make a choice, once the machinery is moving forwards. I shall give the House an instance from among the wide range of activities in the many pages of the strategic framework and action plan that has been adopted by the EU Council. By engaging in this proposal, we are effectively endorsing European creep. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister says that that will not happen, and that we will have the opportunity to exercise the veto, but I just do not see this as a practical way of working.
The Council has adopted the measure, and we have demanded this debate on the matter for very good reasons. We want to examine exactly what the measure contains. There simply is not enough time, in the one and a half hours allotted to us, to go through the incredibly complex questions that arise from the matter or to deal with the interaction of the decisions and the impact that they will have on human rights law in this country or in others.
I shall give the House a flavour of what I am talking about. Anyone listening to or reading the debate might like to look at the range of matters in the action plan. I mentioned that it is divided into outcomes, actions, timings and responsibilities. It is divided into seven chapters, and it sets out a variety of external policy activities. This has been agreed by all member states. Seven headings cover 36 policy areas and 97 potential actions, and that deals with the matter only in the generic sense. When we reduce this to individual cases, we are effectively saying that the EU will have a supervisory responsibility, subject only to the caveat that we will be able to exercise the veto, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said. I do not see that happening, however, once the machinery has been set up.
This is very much like the External Action Service. Indeed, it is very much like the EU itself. I said in 1992, or whenever it was—it seems a very long time ago now—that once the Maastricht treaty had gone through, once the European governmental system had been created with all the qualified majority voting that went with it, once we had created the mechanism and endowed it with resources, and once we had increased and implemented its legislative capacities and functions, we would have constructed an enormous creature that was incapable of being restrained. That is exactly what has happened, with disastrous consequences.
To come back to the main issue, let me provide a few examples. In the first place, the action plan refers to
“Human rights and democracy throughout EU policy”.
For those who are interested, this is taken from a Library note dated
“Incorporate human rights in all Impact Assessment”, and to
“Insert human rights in Impact Assessment, as and when it is carried out for legislative and non-legislative proposals, implementing measures and trade agreements that have significant economic, social and environmental impacts, or define future policies.”
I would like to know what is not included in that, and what the opportunity would be for any restraint on the use of such provisions in the strategic plan.
The plan also refers to
“Genuine partnership with civil society”, and that
“Heads of EU Delegations, Heads of Mission of EU Member States, heads of civilian missions and operation commanders shall work closely with human rights NGOs active in the countries of their posting.”
I would be the first to support NGOs in their individual activities, but this is a mandatory requirement, going beyond what I would describe as voluntary activity. Then there is the need to
“Present EU performance in meeting the objectives of its human rights strategy in the annual report on human rights and democracy in the world.”
I would be on the side of all those campaigners when it comes to individual human rights matters. I see in his place Jeremy Corbyn, who knows that I campaigned with him on issues relating to the Chagos islanders. Going further back, I was also involved with the issue of aboriginal rights in Canada. I could provide a whole list to show that I have been as much at the forefront as anyone else when it comes to campaigning against abuses of human rights. Where I differ, and why I object to these arrangements, is in respect of this overarching determination to get away from specific campaigns into this idea of universality, whereby I think we miss the wood for the trees.
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s genuine support for human rights issues in many parts of the world and the fact that he campaigns on them. Does he agree with me, however, that the issue of the Chagos islanders is now before the European Court of Human Rights and that it will take a decision? Both the hon. Gentleman and I want it to go in the same direction. Is this not one possible way of bringing about justice for the people who were treated so abominably in 1982?
I would rather have the hon. Gentleman leading the campaign for the Chagos islanders than the EU representative who is being appointed under these documents. It is the individual commitment that counts. If I may say so, it is rather like John Bright, who campaigned for people’s rights throughout the world—in our colonies and our empire—in the 19th century. It is the individual passion and determination to stand up for people that I look towards. That is what Wilberforce was all about. I doubt whether William Wilberforce would have been deeply impressed by the manner in which this is being done. I really have to ask that question, because in my judgment, it is not desirable to end up creating this universal approach.
The second chapter is
“Promoting the universality of human rights”.
With the outcome of “universal adherence”, it specifies the action:
“Intensify the promotion of ratification and effective implementation of key international human rights treaties, including regional human rights instruments”— and so it goes on and on, page after page, and I am reading from a tightly compressed printed version. In an intervention, I think I mentioned four pages, but there are seven pages of this. All I need to say is this: is this really the right way to go? Baroness Ashton and the entire External Action Service are, I believe, simply another manifestation of the problem. On the very day we have been told that we are to examine all the workings of the European Union in relation to the United Kingdom —all its competences—the central question is being lost, and a globalising, universal approach is being taken to something that will have to form part of the review announced by the Foreign Secretary.
On the very day we have advocated an analysis of the manner in which the European Union functions, we seem to be effectively endorsing a strategy that goes in exactly the opposite direction to the views of all those Members who support not only the review, but the repatriation of powers and the resolution of the human rights questions that are so bedevilling the relationship between Parliament and the judiciary and the whole question of extradition, the whole question of immigration policy, and the whole question of the application of law in this country on matters pertaining to human rights.
I view this development with grave concern. I do not refer to its individual application to individual cases; I refer to the attempt, through what I consider to be European federalisation or European creep, to convey the concept of a European Union that is acting on behalf of all of us. If a country such as Hungary has made a decision in its own Parliament, I think that that should be respected. Through their electors, through general elections and the democratic will of their own people, individual nation states, or member states, should be allowed to decide these matters, rather than having their decisions overridden by universality of the kind that these documents represent.
I will be brief, so that the remaining Members who wish to speak can do so before the debate has to end.
I support the motion, but I acknowledge what has been said by Mr Cash. Human rights changes are achieved because people are prepared, very bravely, to stand up for them. We should spare a thought for the role played by human rights defenders throughout the world who often put themselves at huge risk to speak up for other people. Many of them are assassinated or murdered as a result, and they are the ones whom we do not hear about.
Anything we can do to improve the general atmosphere and narrative of human rights is very important. We should not be over-sensitive when we are criticised by people outside this country, for we are not perfect when it comes to human rights. We make many mistakes. For instance, we imprison far too many young people, and I think that our treatment of asylum seekers is highly questionable. We impoverish many people who are legitimately seeking the right of asylum here.
I spent many years campaigning for the rights of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, who were wrongly accused of bombings and murder in this country and were eventually released. I was very pleased by the open declarations of support that were made by many people around the world, including people in Australia and the United States of America. I did not see that reaction as an interference in the political system or rights in this country; I saw it as a legitimate and helpful element of political debate.
What I find slightly odd is that we should end up confusing support for human rights with treaty obligations. Every time any country signs a treaty and ratifies it through its own system, it gives up some of its sovereignty.
That is what a treaty is about: it gives a country international obligations. When we sign a document such as the universal declaration of human rights, the European convention on human rights or any other convention and incorporate it into UK law, of course that changes things, and of course it limits what we can do in our national law. I think that is fair enough; we should enter into agreements with an open mind, and if we do not agree with certain aspects of them, we should try to change them later. Although I support the Government motion, only a week ago we were debating with great intensity in this House the alleged interference in British law of the operation of article 8 of the European convention on human rights, and the right to family life in the context of the new immigration rules introduced on Monday, which are limited and damaged in that respect. We must be more consistent in such matters, therefore.
Earlier, I intervened on my hon. Friend Emma Reynolds about the situation in Hungary. I hope that all the member states of both the Council of Europe and the EU will be prepared to stand up and say something about the loss of rights of free expression that is going on and the abominable treatment of the Roma people in Hungary—the systematic discrimination and the brutality against them. During a visit to Brussels, I met a MEP from Hungary who shared my views on that. The people in Hungary who are trying to stand up for the rights of minorities in that country need open declarations of support. They need to know that others are watching what is going on, and that we support them in their efforts.
I would like the Minister to say whether the EU human rights strategy will include generic human rights that are not necessarily specific to any one country. I am thinking about migrant peoples, migrant workers and itinerant asylum seekers across Europe. We are facing a human rights crisis in many parts of the world. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are dying trying to flee to a place of political, military or economic safety: those who die trying to cross from the west African coast to the Canary islands; those who try to cross the Mediterranean to Greece, Spain, Sicily or elsewhere; and those who die in transit. Many of these people will have paid a great deal of very hard-earned money in order to try to get to a place of economic security, yet they die in the process or are subsequently grossly exploited by industrialists, farmers and others all across Europe. Throughout Europe, there is an entire underclass of people who are leading a twilight existence. That is an abuse of their human rights.
Sadly, there is a growing narrative of far-right racist parties across Europe that are prepared to attack these people at every turn, and we need to say that these people deserve, and should get, protection from national and international laws. Worldwide, there are even more such people, such as the poor people who recently died trying to get from Indonesia to Australia. They are the ones we have heard about; there are many others whom we do not hear about at all. I would like to know, therefore, whether there will be a systematic approach to such human rights issues.
Turning to the abuse of human rights in Russia, the decisions on two cases that were before the European Court of Human Rights were announced yesterday. One was that there had been brutal treatment of an individual, which was a welcome decision. The other decision, however, was more than slightly surprising, as it found that it was within Russia’s national competence to suppress demonstrations in the run-up to the recent elections. Without having had the benefit of reading the entire judgment, I have to say I find that more than a little surprising. I would have thought that we, and the European Court of Human Rights, would respect the right to demonstrate peacefully in any circumstances, and that we would agree that to curtail that right is clearly an infringement.
Turkey has had the presidency of the Council of Europe and is bound by the European convention on human rights and decisions of the European Court. There are still significant problems, however. Political parties have to achieve a threshold of 10% of the national vote to be represented in the Turkish Parliament, and there are serious concerns about the conduct of trials of Kurdish people in Diyarbakir and other places in the south-east of Turkey. Although I suppose pretty well everyone in this country supports the Turkish application to be a member of the EU, I hope that there will be some recognition of the fact that there are problems in the treatment of Kurdish people in Turkey.
The last point I wanted to make relates to the international operation, outside both European Union and Council of Europe states, of the proposed new system of an EU human rights representative. The EU has trade agreements with a large number of countries, all of which include a human rights clause. Many of us have raised many times the issue of the human rights clause in the EU trade agreement with Israel and the detention of Palestinian people, including Palestinian parliamentarians and Palestinian children, and a number of associated issues. Is raising such issues going to become the duty of the EU representative? Will the representative be prepared to do so, or will they be bound by a sense of unanimity—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Stone—in raising questions on the ground?
The same things apply wit the EU trade arrangements with Morocco, which remains in occupation of the Western Sahara. The EU trade agreements with Morocco continue, but the fishery agreement has been suspended following an EU decision made, as I understand it, because the proceeds of fishing were not evenly spread, particularly among the people who ought to be able to live in the Western Sahara.
If we are to be effective, as the EU representatives sometimes can be, we should say so. I have visited Mexico on a number of occasions and was very impressed with the EU ambassadors working together—all 27 of them—and being prepared to put joint pressure on the Mexican Government to support the decisions of the inter-American human rights court. Such an approach is effective. Mark Menzies and I were part of a delegation when those issues were raised, and we acknowledged that that was an effective representation that made a difference which encourages the Mexican political system to acknowledge that Mexico, too, has responsibilities to the inter-American human rights court.
I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that the EU representative is prepared to be robust, particularly where EU trade interests are involved, given that it may sometimes be pointed out by the country concerned that trade relations with the EU are being damaged. We want to see people having the right to speak freely, to demonstrate freely, to organise themselves freely and to join trade unions freely. Just as much as we would want those things for ourselves, we would want them for other people around the world.
Having said that, we have to acknowledge the huge work done by voluntary sector organisations in this country—by Amnesty International, the Bar Human Rights Committee and so many others—in improving human rights around the world. In reality, what we legislate for has often come from the activities of very brave individuals and brave groups all around the world. What we are doing is acknowledging that in legislation by what we are trying to do today.
Order. With the proviso that I am going to interrupt proceedings at 6 pm, may I advise hon. Members to be conscious that if they want to give the Minister any time to wind up, they must take into account the fact that the Question must be put at 6.16 pm?
I rise to support the motion and the documents before us. It is worth remembering the origins of the European Union and its predecessor organisations in the aftermath of world war two. The original body was set up not only to promote peace and security across western Europe, but as a result of the appalling human rights violations seen in that war, with the aim of ensuring that such things could never happen again. Obviously, it has not always been successful, but the over the decades it has been a strong guardian of human rights through its role in international negotiations and through the incentive—the carrot—offered of potential EU membership, which has encouraged many countries to make progress and take steps to improve their human rights records. Of course more can always be done, and it is right to recognise that there are problems within EU member states. Indeed, as Jeremy Corbyn said, we in the UK should not be complacent but should maintain an ever-vigilant approach to improving human rights in this country, too.
Member states do a lot individually, but we can do even more with the strength of 27 nations acting together. That is why I support the historic opportunity to further the aims of UK foreign policy. The action plan and the creation of the special representative have already been approved by 26 member states and I urge the House to support the motion today, so that we can also do that.
The debate stood adjourned (
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
That, at this day’s sitting,
Question agreed to .
Main Question again proposed .
I very much welcome the strength of the language in the strategic framework, particularly the emphasis on the centrality and universality of human rights in EU foreign policy. Like Emma Reynolds, I think that the mainstreaming of this question across different policy areas is important, as it means that human rights are not dealt with in some sort of isolated box. The ability of the EU to take an active position—the special representative will certainly help in that regard—is incredibly important, particularly in the context of recent events during the Arab spring and in many countries around the world that still have grave human rights problems. The action plan is comprehensive and I will touch on a few specific areas.
Section 11, on trade, is helpful on the question of mainstreaming and includes in its list of actions one, (f), which states that we must:
“Work towards ensuring that solid human rights criteria are included in an international arms trade treaty.”
I know that Kerry McCarthy and my hon. Friend Martin Horwood were at the negotiations that are ongoing in New York. Indeed, I think we are soon to have an Adjournment debate on the topic—unfortunately, I am unable to stay, as I need to catch a train to get back to Scotland this evening. It would be helpful for the House to hear how those negotiations are progressing in the context of the human rights criteria that we so much want to be a strength of that treaty.
I also welcome sections 13 and 18 of the action plan on entrenching human rights in counter-terrorism activities and providing effective support to human rights defenders, which was an issue raised by the hon. Member for Islington North. In 2010, along with the noble Lord Judd, I visited Chechnya to see the human rights situation there. We were both struck, as the report we produced made very clear, by what we experienced and witnessed. We spoke to people who were victims of human rights abuses and heard about disappearances, assassinations, murders and violence where there was no proper judicial process—cases would be opened and not followed through, so people would not be brought to justice and the security forces would perpetrate the abuses. It was clear that that worsened the security situation and in some ways created a breeding ground for the terrorism that the security forces were trying to repress. Human rights defenders play an important role in bringing abuses to the attention of the wider community, and some of the points in the plan, particularly those on temporary havens for human rights defenders when they are under particular threat, are matters on which we could do more within the European Union.
I also warmly welcome section 16, which is about the death penalty and what is being done to work for its abolition in other countries. I particularly welcome the suggestion of targeted campaigns to try to get the retentionist countries to change their minds. Next year, we will have the world congress against the death penalty; it would be wonderful if some countries agreed at that point to abolish it. Can the Minister update us on any recent discussions? The Government always say that they raise the issue in discussions with other countries, and I am certain that that is true, but we also want to see action and some indication of whether progress is likely with some of our counterparts around the world.
On that point, I warmly welcome the recent decision that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has taken on export controls on the drug propofol, which can be used in executions in the United States. That comes on the back of a similar decision about sodium thiopental in 2010. If we are serious about opposing the death penalty, it is vital that we do not make it easy for other countries to implement it through our sales to them. Two years ago, the UK’s leadership ultimately led to a EU-wide ban, which shows how we are stronger working with all the states together.
I mentioned earlier in my intervention on Mr Cash the section on freedom of religious belief. We are lucky to enjoy a great degree of religious tolerance in our society. Given the tensions in South Sudan and Sudan, the persecution of Christians in Iraq, the Baha’i in Iran, the treatment of Sikhs in India, about which many of my constituents have expressed concern, and the host of other countries around the world where people do not have the freedom to hold the faith they choose and to worship in peace without fear of violence, that is a hugely important section in the plan.
I do not endorse the concerns that were raised about competence creep. The Minister has reassured us absolutely on that point. This is about enhancing UK influence, not reducing or constraining it. It is about 27 states agreeing on something and it therefore having the agreement of our Government and this place. An additional voice can only be a good thing. I warmly welcome the motion and the documents and I hope that the House will support them today.
It is important to put on the record that I supported giving the Minister a waiver so that he could go to the Council and support this document, rather than having to break the scrutiny reserve if he had to do so. The reason was that we were going to have a debate anyway, and in the document there is much to support. I want people outside who listen to this debate and who do not spend all their time reading European documents to know exactly what we are supporting.
The action plan sets out a wide variety of external policy activity agreed by all member states. The 97 potential actions have seven headings: human rights and democracy throughout EU policy; promoting the universality of human rights; pursuing coherent policy objectives; human rights in all EU external policies; implementing EU priorities on human rights; working with bilateral partners; and working the multilateral institutions. The last one is very important because the non-governmental organisations now feel that they have been invited in to the discussions in a way that they have not felt the EU institutions have dealt with them in the past.
The appointment of a human rights representative or envoy will be the first ever thematic envoy. There are many at the moment in parts of the world, but not on a theme such as human rights, and that will be fundamentally important.
The document assigns responsibility for each proposed action to the European External Action Service, member states, the Commission or a combination of two or more of them. It is clear that there is a commitment to consolidate consultations with civil society, which is fundamental.
I think that when these measures are combined with the decision of the EU to sign up to the convention on human rights, there has to be a fundamental rethink of how the EU carries out its policies. The director of Amnesty International’s European institutions office, Nicolas Beger, who was today debating with me in another place on this issue, said:
“We never thought we would see such a positive move forward”.
He commended Cathy Ashton, who has done so much in a way that people did not believe possible. As Hollande said to Sarkozy, “The reason you lost is you underestimated me.” We underestimated Cathy Ashton’s ability to deliver.
We have to ask the EU to look again at its trade agreements. If they are in breach of human rights, which are fundamental to the Council of Europe, the EU has to consider why it did not take on human rights conditions in Colombia, Israel, Peru and Sri Lanka, and it must look again at conditions in Turkey. All of them contain breaches of human rights. If this is going to work, the action plan and the envoy must speak up for human rights defenders before they are thrown into jail or killed by repressive regimes, and we must make sure that we do not sign trade agreements that allow continued breaches of human rights. That is what I see in this policy, and I hope that, by supporting it, we will see forward movement that we have not seen from the EU for some time.
May I first thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate? I say to Michael Connarty that the action plan clearly sets out the fact that part of the special representative’s role will be to act as an advocate for human rights concerns with both the Council, representing the member states, and the EU institutions because, as he will know, the Commission in particular will have a leading role in trade negotiations, for example. The purpose of the framework, with the strategy, the action plan and the special representative, is to ensure that human rights concerns cannot be overlooked or dismissed in any area of the EU’s external activity.
Emma Reynolds asked about Hungary. Our general approach to the Hungarian legal changes has been to support the European Commission in its approach to the Hungarian Government. As she acknowledged, the
Hungarian Government altered their proposed media law after conversations with the Commission, and the same was true of their proposed changes to the governance of the Hungarian central bank, which were later amended. I have had a number of conversations about these issues with my Hungarian opposite number over the past 18 months. I will write to the hon. Lady with a little more detail on the matters she raised.
Jeremy Corbyn asked about the scope of the action plan and the special representative’s role. Article 20 of the action plan relates to gender-based violence, article 14 deals with action against human trafficking, and article 9 covers trade agreements, so these generic issues are within scope. The particular issue of migration that he talked about can be covered in the action plan’s reference to the EU’s development instruments. My one word of caution is that this particular set of documents comes within the framework of the common foreign and security policy, whereas some of the questions he asked are really about the treatment by EU member states of migrant and minority populations within their own borders, and that is outwith the scope of the special representative, whose responsibilities pertain to the EU’s external policy only. It is probably best if I do not talk about the Russian cases he mentioned, because I have not read the judgments or been able to take a considered view on them. His point about human rights defenders was well made. Again, standing up for human rights defenders is listed explicitly as one of the items in the action programme.
I will write to my hon. Friend Jo Swinson on some of the detailed points she made, particularly those about the death penalty. As she said, the two issues that concern her—women’s rights and freedom of religion—form an important part of the action plan and will be within the scope of the special representative’s work. With regard to the arms trade treaty, the United Kingdom remains firmly of the view that we want an ATT that contains strong human rights and international humanitarian law provisions, and that is what British Ministers and officials will be pressing for in the forthcoming round of negotiations.
My hon. Friend Mr Cash raised the serious question of how we get the balance right between an acceptance that people everywhere are entitled to respect, dignity and what we would term human rights and the right of electors in a democracy to express their will and have it carried into effect by those whom they choose to govern them. That takes us a long way beyond the scope of the motion before us, but they are very important and profound questions with which countries throughout the world are grappling, and we accept that in the national sphere there should be constraints, legislative or constitutional, on the untrammelled freedom of a majority to act, which may be temporary, when that action might unfairly or unreasonably damage the interests of minorities.
The debate to which my hon. Friend was contributing was about the extent to which that principle should be adopted internationally, too, and I would just say this with regard to the EU. The EU is not just an economic club; it has always been a club for democracies. Spain could not get in until it established democracy, and the EU accession process is the most important driver of democratic, political and rule of law reform in eastern and central Europe today. I ask that the House support the motion before us.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 18635/11, relating to the Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council on Human rights and democracy at the heart of EU external action-towards a more effective approach, together with an unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum dated