Human Rights

Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Labour, Blaydon

What diplomatic steps his Department is taking to (a) promote and (b) support human rights internationally.

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As a fellow Lancastrian MP, may I add my congratulations to you, Mr Speaker?

The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. We do that through a mixture of bilateral and multilateral engagement and by working with and supporting civil society and others promoting respect for British values and democracy. The rule of law and human rights are and will remain a core part of our international diplomacy.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Labour, Blaydon

It is hard to talk about human rights when one of the most flagrant breaches of those rights, the genocidal violence against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar military, remains completely unpunished. What are the latest plans to seek the referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court?

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The UK has committed to finding a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis. We will continue to work in Myanmar and Bangladesh to ensure safe and dignified returns, and ensure that they are all voluntary. Through the European Union, we imposed sanctions on 14 individuals responsible for human rights violations during the 2017 Rohingya crisis. We will continue to work with the United Nations, the EU and other international actors to hold to account those responsible for these appalling atrocities.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

May I add the tributes of Kent to your speakership, Mr Speaker? May I also personally pay tribute to Ann Clwyd, who has spoken up on human rights issues in this House for 30 years and has not tired of arguing for people around the world whose rights are challenged? May I also thank her for what she has done over the past two years, when she has been on the Foreign Affairs Committee and been an amazing friend, counsel and adviser? The last report that she has played her part in is on the human rights of this country and how democracies can defend themselves against autocratic influence from around the world. Does the Minister agree that there is much more we can do to defend academic freedoms in this country from Chinese influence and democratic freedoms from Russian influence?

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The UK has a long tradition of protecting human rights domestically and fulfilling our international human rights obligations, but, as my hon. Friend the Chair of the FAC has just said, there are concerns about academic freedoms, particularly given the influence of China, and Russian interference. Those two issues are serious and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary pays close attention to them.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Yesterday’s Human Rights Watch report on Saudi Arabia revealed mass arrests of women’s rights activists in the past year and alleged that many of them had been sexually assaulted, whipped and tortured in detention. Does the Minister still think the Prime Minister was right to describe Crown Prince Salman two years ago as “a remarkable young man”?

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, particularly because of its use of the death penalty and its restrictions of women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religious belief. We have raised human rights concerns repeatedly with the Government of Saudi Arabia, with this most recently having been done by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence)

The true answer is that when it comes to Mohammed bin Salman, this Government are all too willing to look the other way. Can the Minister explain how it was possible that in July the Department for International Trade illegally authorised licences for exports of arms to the royal Saudi land forces, a full 41 days after the Foreign Office was told that those forces were operating inside Yemen?

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the International Trade Secretary apologised for any export licences that were issued in error. We are carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision making, and we will not grant any new licences for export to Saudi Arabia, or any other coalition partners, of any items that might be used in the conflict in Yemen.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

Mr Speaker, may I join all colleagues around the House in congratulating you on your elevation to Speaker of the House?

The key human right is article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and people being able to practise their religion openly and freely. May I pay a huge tribute to the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Hunt, for commissioning the Truro review on the persecution of Christians and the current Foreign Secretary for all the work that he and his team are doing in taking forward that review? Recommendation 10 requested the Foreign Secretary to write to key organisations such as the British Council, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Wilton Park, so may I thank him for writing that within 24 hours? Will he review this in 12 months to see how they are doing in taking forward freedom of religion and belief as part of that?

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

May I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he does and his recent appointment as the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief? As he says, huge numbers of Christians around the world are being persecuted—it is currently estimated that 125 million Christians experience high or extreme levels of persecution. The Government have accepted all the recommendations from the bishop’s report, but my hon. Friend’s suggestion of a review is a good idea.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

Congratulations to you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for his comments. I have very much enjoyed being a member of that Committee.

Will the Minister clarify what steps have been taken to review all sales of arms to Saudi Arabia? I can hardly bear to say the word “Yemen”, but there have been thousands of Saudi air attacks on civilians targets—including homes, markets, weddings, funerals, schools, hospitals and buses—that have killed thousands of civilians, including many children. Surely, that is in breach of international law. I hope that we are taking all the necessary steps to highlight the complicity of countries such as the UK in the alleged violations of international law.

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for her years of service to the House, particularly her years of service on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and for always keeping a laser-like focus on such issues. As she will be aware, we operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and take our licensing obligations seriously. When mistakes are made, things are investigated. As the Secretary of State for International Trade has said, the Government have apologised for the fact that export licences were issued in error, and we are investigating what happened.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

May I be the first Sussex Member of Parliament to be called in your speakership to congratulate you on your election to the Chair, Mr Speaker? In that county, I am privileged to represent probably the largest number of Chagos islanders anywhere in the world. I have no doubt about UK sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory; however, human rights have been neglected ever since the Wilson Administration forcibly evicted the Chagos islanders from their homeland in the late 1960s. Will the Minister assure me that, as we go forward, Chagos islands human rights will be better respected in terms of a right of return and nationality issues?

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for always doing all he can to speak up for his constituents. The United Kingdom Government have expressed sincere regret over this issue; however, in November 2016, the UK Government announced that the resettlement of Chagossians would not be supported on the grounds of feasibility, defence or security interests. The UK Government continue to the work with Chagossian communities to design a support package worth approximately £40 million, the intent of which is to support Chagossians here in the United Kingdom.