[Robert Key in the Chair] — Human Rights

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 18th December 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 2:30 pm, 18th December 2008

I accept that our Committee did not cover the Congo. We tend to comment on the FCO's report. We look at the areas that it deals with and then mention other areas that it did not cover for future consideration. I hope that the Congo will be pushed up the international agenda by our Committee and by the FCO.

Clearly, we are concerned about the situation in Zimbabwe, which has become much worse since our report was published and since the Government's response was published in September. There is a crisis in that country. Many people have had to leave to go to South Africa and elsewhere, and there is a catastrophic cholera outbreak which, of course, is no longer happening, according to Robert Mugabe.

We all know that the real solution is that the democratically elected Government should be able to take power, but that requires South Africa in particular and also other countries in the region to be more active and to apply more pressure. The international community as a whole must help to deal with that appalling situation, and with the humanitarian disaster that is occurring in that once peaceful, prosperous and agriculturally productive country.

I should like briefly to mention three countries that we did not refer to in the report, but I flag these up because there is concern about them and we in the UK need to consider that. All three countries are Commonwealth countries and former British colonies in Asia. The first is Sri Lanka, although because there is an Adjournment debate on the situation there in the main Chamber later, I will not speak about it in detail now.

Many Sri Lankans—mainly, but not only, Tamils—live in this country. There is deep concern about what is currently happening in Sri Lanka in respect of the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the central Government. Clearly, the Government view is that they can have a military victory, but there will be consequences as a result of that. As well as the appalling human rights abuses that have been carried out by the LTTE, including using child soldiers in the past, bombing by the Sri Lankan Government has hit schools and medical facilities. Many people have been forced to flee as a result of the military actions taking place in the north of Sri Lanka at this moment.

There is deep concern among the people of Sri Lankan origin in this country. I declare an interest, in this sense, because a large number of Tamils live in my constituency, and whenever I visit the Hindu temple serving that community, people tell me about the appalling situation and show me photographs. There is no doubt that there is not one bad and one good side in that situation. The Sri Lankan Government would argue, no doubt, that they are combating an organisation that carries out terrorist attacks, including blowing up buses and assassinations, which is all true; nevertheless, some appalling things are happening in Sri Lanka.

Secondly, we need to recognise that human rights include the right to freedom of worship. People in Hindu communities in Malaysia are suffering as their temples are being destroyed. The Malaysian Government need to recognise that, although we do not regard Malaysia as a great human rights abuser, there is concern around the world about the situation there. Hopefully, they can take steps to redress that problem.

Thirdly, human rights, women's rights—a topical issue because of the high-profile case of the young trainee doctor—and religious minorities' rights in Bangladesh need to be looked at. A military coup in Bangladesh led to the abolition of what might have been a dysfunctional democratic system, but although large numbers of lawyers and political party activists are being locked up—far more than were locked up by Musharraf in Pakistan—this country does not have a focus on what is happening in Bangladesh. Our Government need to raise the profile of Bangladesh. I hope that we can consider that issue in the coming year.

I am conscious that I cannot speak for the whole of the time available, much as I would like to, so I conclude by making a general point. I have already mentioned that this is the 60th anniversary year of the universal declaration of human rights. I believe that there is a real threat to the universal values and the universal system established when the United Nations organisation was first set up before the end of the second world war, with early meetings in 1942 and 1943, meetings in London and San Fransisco, and the setting up of the institutions of the international order 60 years ago.

The world's focus, economically and politically, is shifting from Europe and north America to Asia. Many of the countries that are growing in economic and political importance in this century do not necessarily share the universal human rights approach that was established in the 1940s, when Eleanor Roosevelt and others played such an important role. We need to be vigilant and we must emphasise the importance of those universal human rights values. Whether it is China or Saudi Arabia, or any other country with an important economic weight in the global system, countries have to understand that we will not pull our punches on human rights. Human rights are universal. A young woman in Jedda and a young woman in Shanghai should have the same rights and respect as a young woman in Berlin, London or Chicago. We need to recognise that those universalist values should continue to be at the forefront of our agenda. That is why the human rights annual report from the FCO, initiated by the late Robin Cook in 1997, is welcome and why the Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to monitor the Government's work and press them to do more on these issues. Although we recognise that they do quite a lot, unfortunately not everything that we would wish to see is contained in the response. Perhaps next year they will do better.