Civil Society Space — [Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:29 pm on 26th January 2017.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Minister of State 3:29 pm, 26th January 2017

I do not cover Hong Kong—I cover the other half of the world, which keeps me quite busy —but I note what my hon. Friend said. I will ask the relevant Minister to write to her with a specific reference to Hong Kong. Our ambassadors and high commissioners frequently stand shoulder to shoulder with those who seek to defend the values in which we believe, including the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and the right to live without discrimination of any kind.

At the multilateral level we play a leading role in defending the rights of civil society. We support the accreditation of legitimate and serious NGOs to take part in the workings of the United Nations, including the Economic and Social Council. Knowing the keen interest of the hon. Member for Strangford in the freedom of religion and belief, I am sure that he will appreciate our continued strong support for the efforts of Christian Solidarity Worldwide to be so accredited. The UK plays a leading role at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the struggle to keep open civil society space. This year, we are proud to chair the Human Dimension Committee of the OSCE and are developing a work plan that reflects the importance of civil society to human rights, security and prosperity.

Let me turn to some of the very important points that have been made in the debate, in order to give a proper and thorough answer. The hon. Member for Strangford emphasised the importance of freedom of religion and belief, as I mentioned. Freedom of religion promotes prosperity and security and is also an important part of countering violent extremism, so we always urge our international partners to allow freedom of religion and belief, and to end all forms of discrimination on religious grounds.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of freedom of religion in Pakistan. The Government have urged Pakistan to uphold religious freedom and the rule of law. During the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Pakistan in November last year, he raised the issue of religious tolerance and the importance of safeguarding the rights of all Pakistan’s citizens. The hon. Gentleman also raised the case of Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh. We are aware of the apparent detention of Shahidul Alam in Dhaka this morning. The British high commission is monitoring the situation very closely and will diligently follow that up.

Although Tom Brake has left the Chamber, he raised some specific points, so it is only fair that I should answer them—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton also raised the question of Egypt. It is no secret that we want to see more political freedoms and space for civil society in Egypt. The Prime Minister raised the ongoing foreign funding NGO case with President Sisi when they met in New York in September at the United Nations General Assembly. Restrictions on civil society take Egypt further away from implementing the freedoms that are in the 2014 constitution. I can also confirm to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that we have raised the issue of discrimination against the Baha’i with the Government of Iran, and the arrest of Nabeel Rajab with the Government of Bahrain.

I join the hon. Member for Glasgow North in praising the excellent work of our ambassador to Colombia. I have seen at first hand the work of our diplomats overseas who work with human rights defenders, often in very difficult environments. I am sure everyone here joins me in recognising their work.