Human Rights — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 2nd December 2010.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 11:37 am, 2nd December 2010

My Lords, perhaps I may first thank my noble friends on the Cross Benches for providing time today for this debate, which focuses on human rights abuses worldwide and looks at the thoughtful recommendations put forward on this important question by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

It is self-evident from the list of speakers that our debate will be enriched by huge and varied experience. In particular, I know that we will await with eager anticipation the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Hollins.

It is also self-evident that, in too many countries around the world, people are denied basic human rights to which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts they are entitled. From Burma and North Korea to Iran and Saudi Arabia, from Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Cuba, Colombia and many other parts of the world, people face the risk of imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, forced labour-which is modern day slavery-displacement or disappearance if they attempt to express their views openly or to practise their religion freely, or even, in some cases, if they mistakenly say or wear the wrong thing or are in the wrong place.

Terror, ideology, caste, ethnic superiority, systematic abuse of women and children and the brutal violation of minority rights in countless situations and places disfigure humanity. For Jews and Christians, with a belief that each person is made in the image of God, imago Dei, and for secular humanists, who insist on upholding the innate dignity of every human being, there is common ground.

At this time of Chanukah, the festival of lights-we will greatly look forward to hearing later from my noble friend Lord Sacks-it is worth remarking that, earlier this year, 52 rabbis, as part of the Yom HaShoah, the annual commemoration of the Holocaust, wrote that continuing atrocities and conflict in the Congo,

"has produced a terrible humanitarian crisis ... This is a moral outrage which the international community must act to help put right".

An estimated 6 million people have died in the DRC, a country which I have visited. The situation in neighbouring Southern Sudan, where last year more people died even than in Darfur, is equally perilous.

Two nights ago, in a Committee Room of your Lordships' House, I hosted a meeting attended by Mende Nazer, a young Sudanese woman abducted from her home in the Nuba Mountains and turned into a slave. Her story was movingly re-enacted by Feelgood Theatre Productions. After seven years, she was passed to a London family and escaped, only to face a new struggle for political asylum. Women like Mende Nazer look to us, who enjoy democratic liberties and freedom of speech, to ensure that their stories are told and their rights defended.

Modern human rights discourse is rooted in our fearsome experiences of the 20th century. The horrors and degradations of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen gave birth to the rich language of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts that,

"disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want".

The first three articles of the declaration make it clear that human rights are not subject to territoriality. Article 1 unequivocally states that:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood".

Article 2 states that:

"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction ... or ... any other limitation of sovereignty".

Article 3 insists that:

"Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."

These articles and the 27 articles that follow remain the basis for our discourse on human rights today.

During the Cold War years which followed that declaration, it would once again be the plight of European Jews-Russia's refuseniks-and the Helsinki Final Act, promulgated in 1975, which began to challenge consciences and rouse nations. Points 7 and 8 of the Act bound the 35 states that signed it to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, and equal rights and self-determination of peoples. According to the Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis, the Helsinki accords,

"gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement ... What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems-at least the more courageous-could claim official permission to say what they thought".

In every generation, the challenge is to consider how best to turn those great declarations into policies and initiatives and to give hope to benighted people whose human rights are violated daily, to create as William Hague, our Foreign Secretary, has put it, a foreign policy with a conscience, an approach one might anticipate from the biographer of William Wilberforce.

In opening this debate, I want to explore some principles and practices that should commend themselves to the Government and to give two examples of countries where those principles and practices might be applied-North Korea and Sudan-both of which I have visited in the past three months. Let me refer to the excellent proposals developed during the five years preceding the 2010 general election by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. My noble friend Lord Hannay of Chiswick, who cannot be present today, has particularly asked me to commend the United Nations Association of the UK for the work which it undertook in assisting that commission. It produced some incisive reports, complete with recommendations for policies to address sexual violence as a weapon of war, the implementation of the United Nations' "responsibility to protect" mechanism, child soldiers, press freedom, religious freedom and reform of the United Nations. The reports contain practical and worthwhile mechanisms for putting an aspiration into effect. I am conscious that many members of the previous Government, not least the former Africa Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, have a long and distinguished record of championing human rights, and it seems to me that this is therefore an approach around which political consensus can be created.

Let me illustrate this by highlighting the commission's recommendations for how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's institutional capability to address human rights can be strengthened and, in doing so, I ask the Minister to share with the House the stage of implementation or consideration that these proposals have reached. The most important recommendation made by the commission was for the appointment of a Minister of State for International Human Rights within the FCO with an ability to focus solely or primarily on human rights. Currently, the Minister responsible also has several other responsibilities besides human rights, including south-east Asia, the Far East, the Caribbean, Central/South America, Australasia and Pacific, consular, migration, drugs and international crime, public diplomacy and the Olympics. The commission proposed that a Minister of State for International Human Rights would be able to give human rights concerns greater attention if they could focus solely, or at least primarily, on human rights.

The commission also suggested that a Minister for Human Rights should be invited to attend relevant Cabinet meetings and security and foreign policy Cabinet committees to co-ordinate policy with other appropriate Ministers and departments. The commission proposed that the Minister could be supported by an ambassador-at-large for international human rights, with responsibility for co-ordinating the work of embassies and the Diplomatic Service on human rights issues. This could either be an experienced diplomat with a proven commitment to human rights or a human rights expert with an understanding of international foreign policy and diplomacy. In turn, the ambassador-at-large could oversee a number of thematic portfolios-special representatives or special envoys responsible for issues such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, religious freedom and women's rights. The United States has an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and several special envoys for thematic human rights issues. France and the Netherlands have made similar appointments.

The commission proposed that the ambassador-at-large and the special envoys could work in a strengthened human rights and democracy unit, which would oversee the continued publication of the annual report on human rights, which I hope the Government will today assure the House will continue. Interest in today's debate underlines the appetite for this, as do repeated all-party calls for the establishment of a House of Lords Foreign Affairs Committee, a proposal supported, I know, by the Minister. Simply shining a light into dark places and reminding perpetrators that one day they may be made to answer for their actions, as in the case of Liberia's Charles Taylor, or Slobodan Milosevic, challenges a culture of impunity.

The commission also recommended that the Government provide time in both Chambers for an annual debate on the international human rights situation and the findings of the FCO annual report. Religious freedom is one such vital basic human right, enshrined in Article 18, which underpins and intersects with other freedoms: freedom of speech and assembly, to name just two. It is estimated that more than 200 million Christians in over 60 countries face some degree of restriction, discrimination or persecution while Baha'is in Iran, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the Ahmadi Muslim community in Pakistan, Sufi Muslims from the Sunni tradition in Somalia and Tibetan Buddhists, among many others, all face serious violations of human rights.

The commission recommends, and I endorse this proposal, that the current FCO freedom of religion panel should be expanded, made permanent, and convened regularly, and that reporting of religious freedom violations be given greater prominence, either in the annual human rights report or indeed, as in the United States, in a separate report. I commended this recommendation during the debate on the Queen's Speech in May and I wonder whether we are any closer to doing it. I also wonder whether it is still the case that the FCO, which the Minister inherited in May, with its vast team of officials, has only one person in its human rights team who is responsible for religious liberties issues. While in some parts of the globe religious liberty is suppressed, elsewhere-in a country such as Iran, for instance-theocracy executes, amputates, tortures and imprisons. The struggle for religious freedom and democratic freedoms are stable-mates, and contempt for either can have calamitous consequences.

The final set of recommendations to which I draw the attention of the Minister and the House are these proposals: that Foreign Office staff receive training in understanding the key human rights issues in countries on which they are working; that a code of conduct should be drafted setting out the expectations and requirements with regard to human rights promotion for each ambassador, for all key embassy staff, including consular staff and visa application officials, and for London-based heads of section and country desk officials; and that diplomats who display outstanding commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights should be recognised and rewarded. By championing in-country the cause of brave dissidents as, for instance, we have consistently done in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, and by marking key anniversaries, such as the international Human Rights Day on 10 December, we can make it clear that British foreign policy truly has a conscience.

In the few moments that remain, perhaps I may refer to two countries which I have visited recently: North Korea and Sudan. I declare a non-financial interest as chairman of the All Party-Group on North Korea and as an officer of the All-Party Group on Sudan. During my visit to North Korea with my noble friend Lady Cox, who at the moment is returning from the Burma border, we were accompanied by Mr Ben Rogers, who is vice-chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and kindly acted as secretariat. We have documented our visit and recommendations in a report, Building Bridges, Not Walls: The Case for Constructive, Critical Engagement with North Korea, which is available on the web. In that report, we suggest that, as well as raising security issues, which has been a one-track approach during the six-party talks, it is imperative that we adopt, as it were, Helsinki but with a Korean face. We also put firmly on to the agenda human rights questions in North Korea, where the United Nations estimates that as many as 300,000 people are currently languishing in its camps. We desperately need a new peace conference to bring an end to a 60-year war which is neither a war nor a peace, merely an armistice. The events on the Korean peninsula last week underlined how often we are simply waiting for a Sarajevo moment to occur, sucking us all into the vortex which 60 years ago this year claimed nearly 3 million lives. We have to engage constructively but critically with North Korea, and the approach adopted during the Helsinki years-the Cold War-is the one that we should be adopting in North Korea today. The Minister has seen the report and I hope that, when he comes to reply, he will be able to respond to that.

Perhaps I may also briefly mention the situation in Sudan. In just a few weeks' time, in January, there will be a referendum there to determine its future. I was surprised to find that Mr Henry Bellingham, the Minister from the Foreign Office who led a trade delegation to Khartoum, recently said:

"We want to see more UK banks taking a positive view towards Sudan", adding that it would be "wrong" for Britain,

"not to encourage the trade".

Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, is indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges. Anyone who has visited Darfur, as I have, where 200,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced, will wonder why we would be conducting business as usual.

All of this points, as do many situations in other parts of the world, to the need for Britain to have a clearer policy and approach to human rights. One size never fits all but over-reaching principles are crucial: adumbrating our own nation's belief in the articles that form the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and attempting to live up to them; patiently engaging, cajoling and constructively criticising where necessary; and linking development and key foreign policy objectives to human rights goals. These are the things that we must do. I beg to move.