Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting: Human Rights — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:05 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 3:05 pm, 17th November 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to take to raise human rights issues at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

My Lords, Ministers will seek opportunities at CHOGM for constructive dialogue, while avoiding an approach that exposes divisions and entrenches positions. The UK remains absolutely committed to universal human rights. The Government are committed to combatting discrimination and violence and to promoting efforts to address human rights abuses throughout the Commonwealth more generally.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. One important addition in many nations across the Commonwealth has been the development of national human rights institutions based on models akin to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The chairmanship of the Commonwealth forum for those institutions is passing to the Northern Ireland commission. Will the Minister outline whether there are plans to give additional resources to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission so that it can perform its important convening role across the Commonwealth?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

My Lords, the answer to my noble friend’s question is yes. I am pleased to confirm that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is making contributions from programme funds to allow the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to take on its role as chair of the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions with an agreed fund.

Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in December 2012, the Commonwealth charter was adopted. Under the heading “Human Rights”, it states:

“We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.

Yet almost three years later, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative report, Civil Society and the Commonwealth, found that the Commonwealth is not living up to its core values and is losing relevance to the international community. Will the Government therefore press at the Malta CHOGM for a Commonwealth ministerial action group on human rights abuses, particularly the use of obsolete 19th-century laws to prosecute homosexuality and other gender issues in this, the 21st century?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

The noble Lord is absolutely right in highlighting the charter. We agree with him that we must push hard for the Commonwealth to meet those commitments under the charter. All forms of discrimination are unacceptable and we will do our bit at CHOGM to raise those questions with the countries that continue to abuse the charter.

Photo of Lord Singh of Wimbledon Lord Singh of Wimbledon Crossbench

My Lords, will Her Majesty’s Government use the opportunity of the summit to ensure a greater commitment to human rights within the Commonwealth by suggesting, on the lines already mentioned, the creation of a human rights task force within the secretariat to monitor and tackle human rights abuse wherever it occurs within this unique and important group of countries?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

The noble Lord reiterates what the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, said. The important thing is that there is a charter and we should ask all countries within the Commonwealth to uphold that charter. We need to push hard. It is not about creating more task forces; it is about pushing and working together to make sure that the Commonwealth is relevant in today’s world. In doing that, I hope that a new Secretary-General will, as part of their commitment and role, push hard for countries within the Commonwealth to adhere to the rules and regulations of the Commonwealth.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

Will the Government take the opportunity to make representations to the Government of Bangladesh about the assassination of humanists and others because they do not profess a religion?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

The noble Baroness raises some important points. We have to make sure that no space is created where freedom of speech is not allowed. The UK Government raise this issue regularly as a matter of course. Wherever we can, we will make sure that all countries, including Bangladesh, that are closing the space for freedom of speech address these issues so that the Commonwealth meets its commitment to the Commonwealth charter.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Labour

My Lords, the criminalisation of homosexuality is a relic of our colonial past. Forty out of 53 Commonwealth countries criminalise homo- sexuality. At CHOGM, will the Government advocate and promote the decriminalisation of homosexuality within the Commonwealth, support those countries that have already done so and express regret for the UK’s historic role in the global criminalisation of homosexuality?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his post on the Front Bench and I look forward to working with him, particularly in this area. At CHOGM, I will be chairing the round table on LGBT issues. It is absolutely unacceptable in the 21st century that we are still looking at these issues, but we have to do it with sensitivity. We have to work with countries where these are sensitive issues and make sure that we continue to raise them while also working locally on the ground, with grass-roots organisations, to offer help and support.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, will my noble friend try to ensure that it is made plain to the new Government in Burma—or Myanmar, as it is sometimes called—that they would be most welcome in the Commonwealth?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

My noble friend is right to raise the issue of the Burma elections, which allow us an opportunity to make some real progress with the reforms process that started in 2011. We look forward to working with Burma.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, these are sensitive issues, but is it not true that all these Governments have signed the Commonwealth charter? Is the Government not distressed that, among the list of the worst offenders in, for example, the persecution of Christians are several Commonwealth countries, notably in south-east Asia? If the Commonwealth is serious, should it not have some means of monitoring or peer-reviewing how countries are performing in relation to their commitments under the charter?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

Again, the noble Lord raises an important issue. We regularly urge Governments to protect the right to practise religious belief free from persecution and discrimination. We shall continue to do so.