Amendment 19

Part of Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 1:45 pm on 14 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 1:45, 14 February 2024

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 30 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Cashman and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. I am grateful to them for their support and to Redress and RAMP for their help, and I refer here to my interests in the register.

This amendment would mean that Clause 2(1) and related subsections concerning the treatment of Rwanda as a safe country would not apply where

“torture … has taken place in Rwanda in the two years prior”,

or where the person concerned

“is themselves a survivor of torture”.

As such, it seeks to minimise the risk of torture arising from the Bill and to safeguard those who are survivors of torture.

The prohibition of torture is guaranteed by the UK through its ratification of various international and regional human rights instruments, particularly the 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As a JCHR report on the Bill explains, UNCAT

“provides that a person cannot be removed to a State where there are substantial grounds for believing they would be in danger of being subjected to torture”.

The JCHR emphasis that this is

“a core principle of international law, to which the UK has committed itself on numerous occasions over the past 70 years”.

The existential significance of torture is underlined by a former UN special rapporteur on torture and professor of law, Juan E Méndez, who is himself a torture survivor. He says:

“Torture aims to dehumanise survivors through calculated acts of cruelty to remove the survivors’ dignity and make them powerless. It is a very serious human rights violation and an international crime. It is also a crime under UK national law, no matter where the torture was committed. Torture is forbidden under all circumstances and can never be justified”.

He is saying that this prohibition on torture is absolute and non-derogable, meaning that it cannot be suspended or restricted in any circumstances. This prohibition includes a ban on sending someone to a country where they are at risk of torture or where there is a possibility that they will be sent on to another third country where such a risk may exist. The amendment simply attempts to ensure that the first of these does not happen, while protecting those who have already been subjected to torture.

My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton referred to the issue of torture in the context of refoulement on Monday. However, this amendment concerns torture in Rwanda itself. Redress asked me to table this amendment because of consistent reports of torture being used in Rwanda by the military and the police. According to Human Rights Watch’s submission to the International Agreements Committee, serious human rights abuses continue to occur in Rwanda, including repression of free speech, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture by Rwandan authorities.

Despite Rwanda being a party to the UN convention on torture, Human Rights Watch argues that unlawful detention and torture are rampant, particularly in unofficial detention facilities known as “safe houses”. It states that it regularly receives

“credible information from former prisoners about torture and ill-treatment”.

It notes that, in 2017, the UN subcommittee on the prevention of torture was forced to suspend and later, for the first time ever, cancel its visit to Rwanda, citing obstruction by the authorities and fear of reprisals against interviewees. Rwanda has also failed to submit its third periodic state report to the Committee Against Torture, which was due in December 2021. The Supreme Court judgment noted that, at the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review of Rwanda in January of that year, the UK Government criticised Rwanda for

“extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture”.

The submission maintains that the Rwandan Government consistently fail to conduct effective investigations into allegations of torture and other human rights abuses, and is critical of the failures of the National Commission for Human Rights, which the UK Government pray in aid.

Just last month, Human Rights Watch, in an article, called for the release of a journalist and for the investigation of the serious torture allegations he has made. Its most recent World Report on Rwanda provided further evidence of torture and threats to Rwandan refugees and members of the diaspora. The US State Department 2022 country report on Rwanda cites significant human rights issues, including

“credible reports of … torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment”.

It went on to say that although the Government did take some steps to prosecute or punish members of the security services responsible for such actions, impunity remained a problem.

I am sorry; I realise that I have left out a section of my notes. It is not the logical order, but I will go back and read it now.

It is important to remember that all too many of those seeking asylum have experienced torture. Clearly, this increases their vulnerability, and thus I was surprised to read in a Written Answer from the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, the other week that to provide information on the number of asylum seekers in detention who have claimed to be victims of torture could be done only at “disproportionate cost”. This is information that one would expect the Home Office to have, under the rules that detention centres follow concerning vulnerable detainees. Could the Minister explain why this information is not held routinely?

According to Redress, estimates suggest that between 27% and 44% of refugees and asylum seekers in countries such as the UK will have experienced torture. It is surely unconscionable to externalise our responsibilities to asylum seekers who have suffered torture, and to do so to a country that, despite what the Bill says, has been deemed not to be safe by the Supreme Court and many observers, as other noble Lords have underlined— I have already given the evidence about torture. This would be an extreme case of the UK failing in its responsibility to share, rather than shift, the burden of protecting asylum seekers—a failure deplored by the UNHCR. The challenges faced by torture survivors in the UK are great enough, including difficulties accessing specialist support and services. I fear that they will be that much greater in Rwanda.

What investigations have the Government undertaken as to the support that asylum seekers can expect in Rwanda? I may have missed it, but I can see no explicit mention of support for torture survivors in the agreement. I bear in mind here that, on Monday, speaking from direct experience of Rwanda, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln said that

“the institutions of civil society remain substantially undeveloped”.—[Official Report, 12/2/24; col. 85]

Such institutions play a crucial role in the UK in supporting torture survivors.

A recent article in the Big Issue by a torture survivor, supported by Freedom from Torture, gives us some idea of what it must feel like to have the threat of removal to Rwanda hanging over one’s head. The author, King, writes:

“For the whole of 2023, I’ve lived with the terror of being sent to live again in a land that displays human rights abuses. The constant threat of being deported to Rwanda has brought shockwaves to my mind and body … the Rwanda Bill has really left me in a total state of anguish”.

The UK cannot connive in the slightest possibility of torture. This amendment would reduce the risk of it doing so, and I therefore hope that the Minister will consider it seriously, in line with the assurance given to the JCHR that the Government continue to recognise the binding nature of their international obligations and their commitment to respecting them.