I beg to move,
That this House
has considered International Human Rights Day 2022.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting today’s debate to mark International Human Rights Day, which this year falls on Saturday
Given the continued prevalence of authoritarian regimes and Governments who commit, facilitate or turn a blind eye to serious human rights violations, and of abuses committed by non-state actors such as terrorist entities and criminal groups, it remains as necessary as ever to highlight the universal applicability of fundamental rights—political, civil, economic, social and cultural—to everyone everywhere in the world.
We can sometimes take our rights for granted, or underestimate the impact of human rights abuses on communities, families and individuals, the vast majority of whom are peaceful and simply wish to live a life free from fear. When I hear about people arbitrarily detained, harassed, persecuted, brutally tortured or disappeared for trying to exercise their right to free speech, to protest or to join a trade union, or who are being discriminated against because of their ethnicity or religion, I wonder: what if that had been me, a member of my family, a colleague or a friend?
I want to support this debate, although I have a British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly meeting that will prevent me from contributing further. May I, through the hon. Lady, recommend that people go to the Upper Waiting Hall to see the display by PEN and Amnesty, and to learn about the journalists who were arrested and herded up 21 years ago in Eritrea? There, Members can see an illustration of how we cannot know what is going on in some countries, because those who could tell us—trade unionists, journalists, people in opposition and people in the Government who object to what is going on—cannot have a voice. We have to be a voice for them and watch out for them.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will mention that display later.
There are those languishing in a crowded, filthy prison after an unfair trial, those being prosecuted simply for peacefully protesting about Government policy, and those who have had someone close to them killed for their political or social activism. I want them to be offered the same help, support and solidarity that I would fight to have provided to someone close to me. Today, I hope that we can, using the parliamentary platform that we are privileged to have, provide some support to victims, and to human rights defenders across the world, who often risk their personal safety to champion the rights of their community. I want to take this opportunity to express my concern about the human rights situation in a number of countries on which I have been focused for some time—countries in the middle east and north Africa, as well as Zimbabwe.
The situation in a number of Gulf Co-operation Council member states and Iran remains challenging. As I am sure colleagues are aware, I remain very concerned about serious human rights violations in Saudi Arabia by the state, which, according to the latest annual report from Human Rights Watch,
“relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.”
I remain unconvinced by Saudi Arabia’s recent attempts to project a more modern and progressive image, including through glossy advertisements that try to entice tourists to holiday there. Most recently, since
I am glad that the hon. Lady mentioned Saudi so early in her speech. Would she agree that one of the problems with taking action on Saudi is that the Government adopt double standards here? There was a perfect example of that last week. Responding to Hilary Benn on the case of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, David Rutley, said:
“clearly torture was used. We find that abhorrent.”—[This section has been corrected on
That is not a ministerial correction; that is tailoring one’s words to suit a barbaric regime.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. We have to be strong when we speak out against human rights abuses; there is no doubt about it. The Government say that they speak privately with nations all over the world.
I could not have put it better. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We should not allow Governments other than the UK Government to say what the right response is. I thank him for the intervention.
Over 50% of those executed were convicted on the basis of their participation in pro-democracy demonstrations back in March. As executions are confirmed only once the death sentence has been carried out, we do not know how many people are on death row in Saudi Arabia. That is also the case in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Egypt and Iran. I will speak about the latter two shortly.
I understand that between 500 and 600 people have been executed in Iran in the past year, so if there is a country that is top of the league, and really has to be brought to book, Iran is that country.
I will come on to speak about Iran; the figures that we hear are shocking.
I say this to the Saudi regime: the world is watching, and will continue to call it out on these executions, particularly when the offences are considered not to be the most serious, or are non-violent or involve juveniles, and when the sentence follows a manifestly unfair prosecution. This is, of course, a violation of the most fundamental right: the right to life.
That brings me to the Saudi criminal justice system, which remains opaque. We know that international fair trial standards are not generally upheld there, and there are credible allegations that some of the accused are tortured to make them sign confessions. Of course, we must not forget the brutal and brazen killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, which US intelligence concluded, with a medium to high degree of certainty, had been carried out on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I truly hope that one day, there will be real accountability for that heinous murder.
Lastly on Saudi Arabia, I highlight the case of imprisoned human rights defender Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is reportedly being kept incommunicado after his family filed a complaint about attacks on him by inmates. Al-Qahtani is a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which was dissolved in 2013. That year, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly providing false information to outside sources, including UN human rights mechanisms.
Like Saudi Arabia, Iran continues to be one of the world’s leading implementers of the death penalty, as we heard from Jim Shannon. The death penalty is used for such acts as insulting the Prophet, apostasy, same-sex relations, adultery, drinking alcohol and certain non-violent drug-related offences, although some drug-related offences are now meant to be exempt. Iranian courts, particularly revolutionary courts, regularly fall far short of providing fair trials, and use confessions likely obtained under torture as evidence in court.
I am sure other colleagues will speak to my next point, so I will limit my remarks about the widespread protests in Iran, following the death in September of Jina Mahsa Amini in detention. She was arrested by Iran’s so-called morality police for not wearing her hijab properly. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that Iranian security forces,
“notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij forces have used live ammunition, birdshot and other metal pellets, teargas and batons” against protesters. An estimated 300 people were killed and 15,000 arrested.
Turning to human rights defenders at risk, imprisoned human rights defender Arash Sadeghi has been jailed on multiple occasions for his activities in defence of human rights, and was arrested again on
I will continue with this focus on the middle east, but move on to Bahrain. In common with many others, I remain open to constructive engagement with the relevant Bahraini authorities and those in Bahraini civil society, who work under very difficult conditions. However, I am worried that in the longer term, the country’s stability will be undermined by increasing polarisation, due at least in part to multiple allegations of human rights violations, including against those widely deemed to be political prisoners. I remain concerned that despite some welcome releases under the alternative sentences law, a number of political prisoners, such as Hassan Mushaima, Dr Abduljalil al-Singace and Sheikh Ali Salman, remain in Jau prison. Quite simply, they should not be in jail, and I join calls for their immediate release.
I urge the UK Government to play a more positive role that is not limited to giving support to oversight bodies in Bahrain, but that instead extends to encouraging and assisting the Bahraini Government in taking such confidence-building measures as, in particular, the release of political prisoners and the initiation of meaningful political dialogue.
I also highlight the exploitative practices against migrant workers, which has come under the spotlight with the building of infrastructure for the World cup in Qatar. The kafala system is the framework that defines the legal status of most migrant workers in the Gulf region, Jordan and Lebanon. Workers are often recruited on time-limited contracts to work for a specific employer. Although there have been welcome changes to the conditions applicable to migrant workers in most Gulf Co-operation Council countries, such as a move to allowing workers to change employers more easily, these reforms can be hard to enforce, and worker protests may result in deportation.
Workers also often still face poor working and living conditions, overt racism and debt bondage. Difficulties continue to beset many migrant domestic workers, who may not benefit from labour laws, including in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Lebanon. They can reportedly face the most abuse, and can be victims of sexual violence. Many women choose not to report these serious violations for fear of losing their job or even being charged with a crime; some women have been prosecuted for having extramarital sex, even in cases of alleged rape.
I am aware that my time is limited, so although I could speak about the middle east all afternoon, I will now briefly highlight concerns in north Africa, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. Egypt is sadly yet another country where the death penalty is carried out, often after manifestly unfair trials, and many people are arbitrarily detained, often in very poor conditions. There was some media coverage of that in the run-up to COP27.
I make a special plea to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to do all it can to secure the release of British-Egyptian dual national, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, as well as his lawyer, Mohamed el-Baqer, who are among thousands unjustly imprisoned in that country. I can only agree with Amnesty International that Egypt’s adoption of a national human rights strategy is completely disconnected from the reality on the ground. I trust that no one will be taken in by that cynical propaganda exercise.
Turning to the country that was pivotal to what, at the time, was referred to as the Arab spring, it is very sad to see the democratic backsliding that we have witnessed in Tunisia in the last 18 months. It follows what was effectively a coup by President Saied, who suspended Parliament, removed the immunity of parliamentarians, dismissed the Prime Minister, removed other high-level officials from their positions and assumed oversight of the office of the public prosecutor.
Although there had been political deadlock in Parliament and a deteriorating economic situation, which has not since improved, the way forward for Tunisia cannot be a return to authoritarianism, and President Saied cannot be viewed as the country’s saviour. According to the presidential road map, there are to be parliamentary elections next week, but they are very unlikely to be free and fair, the President having been given wide-ranging powers before, during and after the vote. It is feared that Parliament will be reduced to a consultative body at best, and will be there to effectively rubber-stamp decisions by the Executive.
In addition, the Tunisian Parliament is going backwards when it comes to female representation. Whereas it had been a beacon for gender equity in the region, a new law introduced in September strips gender parity provisions from a previous electoral law aimed at ensuring more gender equality in elected assemblies.
Finally, I come to the situation in Zimbabwe. I ask that the UK Government pay special attention to it in the run-up and aftermath of the elections that are due to be held next year, given that past elections have been the catalyst for violence and serious abuses. I continue to urge accountability for the assaults, mistreatment and ongoing persecution of three Opposition politicians from the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance: Cecilia Chimbiri, Netsai Marova, and Member of Parliament Joana Mamombe. They were abducted from police custody by suspected state agents for taking part in a protest in Harare, and are being prosecuted, unbelievably, for making false reports about their abduction. That is another case featured in Amnesty’s “Write for Rights” campaign 2022. Joana’s case has been taken up by the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, which in 2021 dealt with the cases of more than 600 MPs from 44 countries whose rights had been violated.
Though I have focused on the challenges we continue to face in ensuring respect for human rights globally, I would also like to take the time to highlight the positive impact on the ground of human rights defenders, whom the PHRG is privileged to meet regularly, and organisations such as the UN. Recently, we have been delighted to host the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor; the Council of Europe; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Peace Brigades International; Reprieve; and Redress, among many others. Their work, and our work here, truly does make a difference. The arbitrarily detained, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and other dual nationals in Iran, are released; those at risk are better protected; and miscarriages of justice are overturned.
One of my small victories this year was the release on humanitarian grounds of a British national in a United Arab Emirates prison. He remained in detention even though he had received a pardon from the King and had served his original sentence. The resilience of this man is unparalleled, and his ability to remain optimistic despite all he went through during his detention is inspiring. I was delighted to finally meet him in person here in London following his release. It was a real reminder of why continued work in this space is so essential, and of the impact that can be had. That work would not have been possible without the help and support of Nicole Piché, secretariat for the PHRG, and the FCDO. That man is now fighting for better medical care for other foreign prisoners in the UAE, to give those he had to leave behind much support that is not otherwise available. I follow his work as he continues with this fight, and feel immensely grateful for the fact that, owing to his release, he is now able to lend his voice to the voiceless.
I want to close by thanking both former and present FCDO Ministers and officials for their positive engagement with the PHRG, and their representations and action on human rights cases. They will be all too familiar with our regular correspondence on various cases, but there is always more that can be done, including on the many issues that I have raised today. I ask the Government to resume publishing their annual human rights report and releasing their human rights updates, as the last one appears to have been published in July last year. The reports provide a useful summary of the action undertaken by the FCDO and are a demonstration of the UK Government’s ongoing commitment to the international human rights framework.
I have only spoken about a small number of countries with worrying human rights records. So many people across the globe—both those whose names we know, and those whose names we do not yet know—are relying on the support of those of us who have the freedom to speak out on their behalf.
I want to add one further example, although we could add many: human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which are getting worse every year, particularly through state-sanctioned settler violence. I pay tribute to Yachad and B’Tselem, which brought an exhibition on that issue to Parliament this week. Occupation adds another level of illegality and abuse to human rights, and it is right that it be called out. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that the Government have to publish their findings more regularly if people are to be held to account.
I attended that drop-in, and it was shocking. I advise all Members to look at the report.
Every person, Member of Parliament, Government Minister and member of the public alike can take some form of action, be it by writing letters for campaigns such as Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights”, or just by raising awareness within our own social circles. I strongly encourage every person listening today to use their voice, so that those without can be heard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. Today, as we mark Human Rights Day, I want to focus initially on article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which states that everyone should have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.
Right across the world, people are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, land, families, freedom, access to justice and even life itself simply on account of what they believe. People are being discriminated against, threatened, marginalised, beaten, tortured and killed, too often by their own Governments—the very Governments who have a duty to protect people’s freedom of religion or belief. That freedom is important, not least because it is so closely connected to other rights such as the right to life, assembly and expression as well as other social, economic and cultural rights.
No one should face discrimination, hatred or violence simply because of what they believe, yet, in the 21st century, millions do. They include Zhang Zhan, a young woman and Christian citizen journalist from China. She is a human rights defender who in 2019 bravely attempted to report the truth during the early days of the covid-19 pandemic. She travelled to Wuhan while everyone else fled, and posted articles on social media. She spoke up against the authorities’ abuse of human rights and was arrested in May 2020. Prior to her court hearing in December of that year, she was reportedly force-fed, tortured and put in a tiger chair, and her health dramatically deteriorated. She was sentenced to four years in prison, having been charged with picking quarrels and provoking trouble—a charge regularly levelled at Chinese lawyers, activists and journalists.
Zhang’s lawyer visited her and recounted her words at the time of her trial. She said:
“I want to stand firm in my faith and do what I believe to be right before God. I cannot accept lies nor deceit and I’m even more unwilling to coexist with darkness.”
I often think about Zhang Zhan’s suffering in a Chinese prison, because she was sentenced in the same week that I was appointed by the Prime Minister as the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief.
Another prisoner, who has suffered for years, is Shamil Khakimov. He is at the other end of his life, at 71. He is a Jehovah’s Witness in Tajikistan. In 2019, as a result of the peaceful exercise of his religious beliefs, he was convicted of inciting religious hatred and sentenced to seven and a half years in a strict regime prison. He was ill when he entered prison. He now suffers from heart and eye problems, and has gangrene in his leg and other health problems. There is a real danger that his term of imprisonment will effectively become a death sentence.
“ensure, without delay, that Mr. Khakimov receives adequate medical treatment”.
This November, the 42 countries that form the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I have the privilege of chairing, took up his case. I am very pleased to say that he has now been given three hearings, including one in which the prisoner doctor testified that the prison cannot give him the care that he needs. Let us hope that that joint advocacy secures for him the treatment he needs, and that he will be moved before it is too late. It is joint advocacy that is so effective in such cases.
Another concerning case is that of a 24-year-old young woman, Hanna Abdirahman Abdimalik. She was sentenced in August this year to five years’ imprisonment simply for becoming a Christian and was reported to the authorities by her own family. The specific charges were insulting Islam, disturbing religious functions and public incitement. Her lawyer was not even informed of when the verdict would be issued, and therefore was not present in court. Once again the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, alongside other multilateral organisations, has taken up her case, and I am pleased to say that an appeal against her sentence was heard just last week, on
Where they still exist, offences related to blasphemy or apostasy can result in significant prosecution, either by states or communities. Concerted advocacy across the human rights family is needed to change that. In 2022, there are still 12 countries with criminal blasphemy laws for which a person can be sentenced to death. Countries including Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia have the death penalty for blasphemy—individuals defying or simply criticising the prevailing religion of their country. Our alliance has been supporting the efforts at the UN General Assembly of two of our member countries, Australia and Costa Rica, to call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for these offences. It is hoped that that may pave the way for global abolition. I urge all those listening to support those endeavours, and I trust that the UK Government will do all they can to support the relevant resolutions at the forthcoming UNGA plenary session.
Tragic cases such as the following should not occur in the 21st century. Mubarak Bala, about whom we have spoken in this Chamber before, is an atheist and president of the Nigerian Humanist Association. This year, he was imprisoned for 24 years for charges in relation to blaspheming Islam. Let us hope his appeal succeeds. The couple Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel were kept on death row in Pakistan for six years until this year. They were accused of sending blasphemous texts via a SIM card that had been obtained by someone using a duplicate of Kausar’s national identity card. Thanks to international advocacy, they were ultimately released, but only because the courts finally accepted that they could not possibly have sent the text messages because neither of them can read or write.
Consider the situation of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu. He is a young Nigerian Sufi musician—a singer. He was imprisoned in northern Nigeria under Kano state’s blasphemy law, the penalty for which is death by hanging. He is appealing his criminal case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. I will go into a little more detail about his situation because I am urging all who can to join our international alliance and other advocates to urge the Kano state government to drop this unjust prosecution, for the international human rights community to speak out on behalf of Sharif-Aminu and for Nigeria to repeal its blasphemy laws.
The case is very important. The Supreme Court issued a filing number this week, so we await the hearing date. Sharif-Aminu was first arrested and charged with blasphemy in March 2020. He was convicted in an upper sharia court, despite not having legal representation at the time of his trial. He had shared audio messages on WhatsApp that some people thought were blasphemous to the Prophet Mohammed because they elevated another person above the Prophet. As I said, the Kano state sharia penal code codifies blasphemy, which in this case is defined as insulting the Koran or any Muslim prophet, as an offence with the penalty of death.
Sharif-Aminu is arguing that his case should be dismissed because the blasphemy law is unconstitutional. In August this year, the Court of Appeal upheld the constitutionality of the blasphemy law. That is why he has appealed to the Supreme Court. He argues that his situation and the Kano state law violate not only international law in terms of freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression but the Nigerian constitution, which on paper protects both of those rights. He would welcome international advocacy highlighting his case, which is a very important one. It is the first time the Nigerian Supreme Court will hear a constitutional challenge to the northern states’ laws on death penalties for blasphemy. A positive ruling in such a case offers the possibility of abolishing them.
I turn now to persecution in the most egregious form: genocide, the crime of crimes. In 2016, I tabled a motion on genocide against the Yazidis, Christians and other religious groups at the hands of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Some in the Chamber today will recall that there was a passionate debate in the House. The House spoke with one voice and voted unanimously to recognise these atrocities as genocide. Over the following years, we have seen more cases where the elements of the definition of genocide have been there, including the atrocities specifically targeting religious groups: the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, Christians in Nigeria and Hazaras in Afghanistan.
In the case of the Uyghur Muslims, the House made the determination that the atrocities against them constituted genocide. One million Uyghurs, some estimate many more, are detained in concentration camps in Xinjiang. An independent tribunal has found that to be genocide. I join colleagues from both Houses in calling it that. I know that we must be careful about the words that we use, but where the elements are there, we should call out atrocities for what they are. It is time that our Government found ways to engage effectively on the issue of genocide.
In 2019, the Bishop of Truro published the Truro review, which I have the responsibility for taking forward to implementation as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. In recommendation 7, the bishop called upon the UK Government to ensure that,
“there are mechanisms in place to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide through activities such as setting up early warning mechanisms to identify countries at risk of atrocities, diplomacy to help de-escalate tensions and resolve disputes, and developing support to help with upstream prevention work.”
We must ask ourselves what else we can do to ensure that we implement that recommendation fully and meaningfully. In April this year, the independent expert review of progress on the Truro review found that recommendation 7 has not yet been delivered.
At this time of profound global uncertainty and insecurity, we must be more vigilant than ever to shine a light on human rights abuses. In particular, we must be alert to early warning signs of atrocities. We must work together. I hope I have shown in some of my examples that together we can make a difference to promote and protect fundamental human rights for the vulnerable and the exploited, and for the good of us all.
It is a delight to take part in this debate, not least because my biggest anxiety about the world is that it is becoming more, not less, authoritarian. More Governments have given up on democracy and moved towards dictatorship than we thought possible. We always thought that progress would mean people enjoying greater freedoms as the world moved forward. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many people around the world.
I am struck by the number of countries that retain the death penalty. It is obviously shocking that so many states in the United States of America retain it. I am conscious that there are many countries in the world where people can be executed solely for their sexuality, including Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Many of those countries would say that they do not use the death penalty as there have been no executions. None the less, people are sentenced to death and then have to live in a sort of limbo land, thinking that they may be executed at any point.
On Saudi Arabia, I will simply say that it was quite shocking earlier in the year when Elizabeth Truss came to the Foreign Affairs Committee as Foreign Secretary. I asked her about when she had raised human rights concerns with Gulf states. There was just silence in the room. She tried to suggest that she had done it several times—or it had been done several times—but she could not come up with a single occasion on which the British Government had raised human rights abuses with Saudi Arabia.
I understand why the Government want to turn away from relying on gas and oil from authoritarian states such as Russia, but it is not much good if we then just simply turn to another set of authoritarian states in the middle east, and are not prepared to ask the questions that we now feel able to ask of Russia. For instance, it is truly shocking that the British Government have still not said that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the deliberate instigation of the Saudi Government, and dismembered on Saudi territory. That does not do anybody any favours. It is shocking that the British Government do not seem to have complained to Saudi Arabia about the 81 executions that happened on a single day earlier this year, or that there are now more than 100 people on death row, potentially awaiting execution at any point.
We have to continue to ask those questions. I do not think that anybody respects us when they know what we think, but we refuse to say it. It just means that we are weak, and people rely on our weakness. I find it shocking, too, that a country such as Indonesia has just introduced a new law that outlaws sexual activity of any kind outside marriage. I am not sure how that will aid the tourism trade in Indonesia. The country is only just getting back on its feet. Those kinds of repressive measures are simply backward, and do nobody any favours.
I worry about our Government for two reasons. First, as mentioned by Margaret Ferrier, we have not had an annual report on human rights since
I was going to come to that point. The right hon. Gentleman has made it for me, which is great. Another point is that the European convention on human rights was written by a Conservative Member of Parliament. It was drafted, on the back of the second world war, to say that we did not want the human rights abuses that happened in Italy and Germany to happen on our continent again. Yes, there are all sorts of complications with the way that the Court operates, but if the British Government keep on rattling the cage about leaving the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention, we would automatically no longer be a member of the Council of Europe. We would join Belarus and Russia as the countries in Europe that no longer subscribe, which would be a terrible shame.
One of the things that we have got terribly wrong over the last 12 years in our foreign policy is that we have kept trying to appease authoritarian dictatorships around the world rather than stand up for what we genuinely believe. Sometimes we have relied too much on the United States, which is sometimes a wonderful ally and sometimes not very reliable, depending on who the President is. Who knows what may happen in two or three years? If Donald Trump were in the White House now, what would we be saying in relation to Ukraine? Far too often we vacillate on China. Fiona Bruce was right to refer to the situation facing the Uyghurs in China. Our Government have flip-flopped endlessly on whether to be robust on that policy, which is a terrible shame.
My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter spoke about the Minister withdrawing his comment. He was not correcting the record; he was withdrawing his comment on Saudi Arabia and whether the gentleman concerned had been tortured, which all the evidence shows he was. All that points to a Government who are uncertain about whether human rights really matter in the way in which we define ourselves as a country around the world. That will pay poor dividends in the long term for the UK and the values we believe in.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point on the supposed correction of the record. Surely if the Foreign Office now has evidence that shows that what the Minister said then is incorrect, there is a mechanism for him to come to the House and explain why the mistake was made. Surely that would be a more appropriate way to proceed.
If the Minister wanted to, he could publish a written ministerial statement that made the whole situation clearer, but I fear that basically the Government have been told off by the Saudi Government, and have decided that the Saudi Government have more say in the matter than we do. I guess the Saudis must be laughing their way to the end of the week.
In some countries, there are phenomenal people with bravery we do not even dream of in British politics, where we rely on the democratic system. I will talk first about Colombia, which I know my friends, Jeremy Corbyn and Patrick Grady, know quite a lot about. It has one of the largest numbers of displaced people anywhere in the world, and the longest sustained internal warfare or civil war—however we want to determine it. Many of us have been desperate for the peace accord to be properly instituted, which would mean that people would have the land that was stolen from them restored.
Last year, there were another 52,880 forced displacements in Colombia. The war is still ongoing. Repeated Governments have failed to deal with it; let us hope that the new Government will be able to make advances. This year, 169 human rights defenders have been killed, often by paramilitaries and people acting on behalf of hard-right organisations, and there have been 92 massacres. Lots of children aged between 10 and 17 have been forcibly recruited to carry guns. That is just wrong, and I hope the British Government will do literally everything they can to help bring about a proper peace accord with the restitution of stolen land. There are six armed conflicts still ongoing in Colombia.
I want to refer to a few individuals I think are absolutely magnificent. Sasha Skochilenko, who is in Russia, fills her life with art and music. She plays all sorts of musical instruments. On
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is a self-taught black Cuban artist. He loves to paint, dance and wear the colour pink—it doesn’t do any good for me. On
Let me turn to the Magnitsky sanctions. As the Minister knows—I think she is wearing a jacket from my family clan, the MacLeods; I am not sure whether she has the right to wear it, but it is a human right that is extended now to all. [Interruption.] But not MacLeod.
I care passionately that one of the things that the Government have done that is good in the past few years is to introduce the Magnitsky sanctions, after a lot of brow-beating by some Conservative and Labour colleagues. The former leader of the Conservative party, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Magnitsky sanctions. To date, the UK has made only 108 designations under the Magnitsky sanction regime, accounting for 14% of all Magnitsky sanctions imposed globally. Some 69% of sanctions imposed by our allies in the United States of America, the European Union and Canada have not been replicated by the UK, and I simply do not understand why there is such an enormous lacuna. Only 2% of UK sanctions target perpetrators in states considered to be allies of the UK, all of which relate to Pakistan. Is that just because we have decided that if a Government are an ally, we will not impose any sanctions, even on individuals who are manifestly abusing human rights? If so, that is a problem.
The potential consequences of the UK’s failure to co-ordinate with its allies has been exposed this week. Al-Jazeera has reported that, last Human Rights Day, the UK decided at the last minute not to join the US in imposing sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh, which is the security force responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. It is often referred to as the death squad.
It has also been reported that last year, after the US had imposed sanctions, high-ranking members of the Rapid Action Battalion travelled to the UK to receive training on, among other things, mass surveillance technology. The UK should not be involved in that. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that this is categorically untrue, and that she looks to her notes to reply on that matter later. This case demonstrates the significant consequences of the UK failing to act in response to such egregious human rights abuses, and failing to co-ordinate or multilateralise its sanctions. It has not only undermined the potential effectiveness of the US sanctions, but led to the UK potentially being complicit in the human rights abuses taking place.
Finally, I pay phenomenal tribute to the women of Iran. There is no greater courage to be seen in the world today—and people have been killed today in Iran—than that which we have seen from the women there. Women lead where often men need to follow.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I congratulate Margaret Ferrier most warmly on her success in obtaining the debate, which is timely in so many different ways. Sadly, of course, debates that expose human rights abuses around the world always seem to be timely; there always seems to be something we need to say about what is happening in some part of the world.
I pay warm tribute to the variety of non-governmental organisations and campaign groups that operate in this area. I am privileged to have worked with many over the years; Amnesty International and Reprieve would be the most obvious. I have been privileged to work recently with the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, and with B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence in relation to activities in Palestine. I have also worked with the World Uyghur Congress and Hong Kong Watch, of which I am a patron.
I will highlight concerns about just a few areas, because we have a good range of interests and I do not want to take up too much time. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West spoke about her concerns with Bahrain; I will not repeat them, but I very much share them. I was present recently when BIRD and Human Rights Watch published a joint report on the use of the death penalty in Bahrain. Since the end of the moratorium in Bahrain there have been six executions, and there are a further 26 men on death row who could be executed at any time. It is particularly relevant for us to speak about what is going on in Bahrain, because we are, of course, significant funders of the Gulf strategy fund—in fact, we have the Gulf strategy fund, which goes significantly to Bahrain. I wonder how many of our constituents would be content to know that we as a country—our taxpayers—are funding a situation in a place where the human rights of its people only get worse?
Like the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, I am always happy to engage in and encourage progress but, where we see no progress coming—as seems to be the case with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and others, sadly—it is difficult to see the justification for continuing the supply of taxpayers’ money to a country such as Bahrain, which is not exactly on the world’s poor list in the first place. It begins to look pretty much like rewarding bad behaviour. I would like to tell hon. Members the comparable figure for the uses of the death penalty in China, but unfortunately none of us knows. Chris Bryant said earlier from a sedentary position that it topped the league. I do not think that there is any doubt on the part of any of us about that; the difficulty we all face is that we do not know just how high above the rest of the players in that league it happens to be.
In particular, I have had concerns in recent years about the position of people in Hong Kong, but I will focus on the position of those who live under what has now been determined by an independent tribunal to be a genocide, featuring crimes against humanity, in Xinjiang province. Yesterday, I was privileged to meet the Government in exile of East Turkestan with Rodney Dixon KC, who is working very creatively to bring a case to the International Criminal Court. There are different ways in which cases can be brought. The first is by reference from the Security Council. Well, for as long as China is a member of the Security Council, we know there will not be a case brought against China through that route for what is happening in Xinjiang province. The second way is the route that Ukraine is taking against Russia, through a state reference. Again, that will not happen.
Rodney Dixon KC is pursuing a line of argument regarding cross-border international crimes that would be sufficient to fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC. It is essentially a question for the chief prosecutor Karim Khan KC—also a distinguished British legal practitioner —as to whether the jurisdiction will be accepted. The ICC is an independent body, and, like all courts, we must respect its judicial independence, as we would anywhere else in our domestic system. Of course, the prosecution brings with it quasi-political aspects and functions.
My ask of the Minister is that our Government do everything they can to support the case being brought by Rodney Dixon KC, but also to offer every support to the chief prosecutor. In the event that he is persuaded on the grounds of the evidence made available to him to accept jurisdiction and pursue the case, our Government, as a party to the ICC, should be prepared to put some money where their mouth is and ensure that a well-funded and properly resourced case is brought to the ICC with regard to what is going on in Xinjiang.
We have to be realistic about what we can achieve, even through the ICC. The refusal of the Chinese Government to allow any outside observers from the United Nations or anywhere else into the region surely makes it clear that there will not be a great deal of co-operation and, ultimately, it is difficult to see where a case might go. But it is like water on a stone: we have to take every opportunity to bring the world’s attention to what is happening there.
Sir Geoffrey Nice KC in his independent—albeit essentially self-constituted—tribunal concluded that the evidence exists that there have been crimes against humanity and that a systematic genocide is being perpetrated against the Uyghur population. There is already substantial evidence, but we have to get it into every legal forum possible. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to look at the case being brought by Rodney Dixon KC and, with her officials, to explore every way we can possibly support it, if it is something that sits entirely comfortably with the stated policy of His Majesty’s Government at the present time.
My final point on Xinjiang and what we can do with regard to it relates to the continuation of doing business with those companies that have been responsible for the infrastructure around which the genocide has been perpetrated. Fiona Bruce spoke about that in relation to the noble Lord Alton’s Bill in the other place, but there is so much we could do without necessarily having the compulsitor of Lord Alton’s Bill in legislation.
Hikvision built the most incredibly intrusive infrastructure that was used to oppress the Uyghur population, and the company now operates widely in this country. Earlier this year I spent a day on Papa Westray in the Orkneys doing my constituency rounds. I held a surgery and went into the shop and post office. I still had some time at the end of the day, so I popped in, as is occasionally my wont, to spend a little bit of time in St Boniface Kirk, an ancient church in Papa Westray, where I was horrified to find a Hikvision CCTV camera. I can say to the Minister that, beyond any shadow of a doubt, if Hikvision has now got to St Boniface Kirk in Papa Westray, it is pretty well everywhere, and that is something to which we need to attend, because, as with so many other technological developments, we have no idea where the data could get to through the back door.
I congratulate Margaret Ferrier on securing today’s debate and on the speech that she made earlier and her remarks about the parliamentary human rights group, which I have been a member of since I was first elected. It is a genuinely independent human rights group and has done a fantastic amount of work over the years. Long may it continue.
It is wonderful to have a debate here in Westminster Hall on a Thursday afternoon, but why is the debate not on the Floor of the House? Why is it not in Government time? Why is there not a Foreign Office report on human rights, as there was every year from 2003 onwards? It is simply unacceptable that a Government who claim to fully adhere to all UN human rights protocols cannot do a report on our own activities and views on issues facing different countries around the world—things that are extremely important.
We have to put this debate within the framework of the human rights law that we have. We put into law the Human Rights Act 1998, which then put into UK case law the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the European convention on human rights, which was already recognised and, as Chris Bryant pointed out, was written by UK barristers and judges in 1948.
The Government have constantly objected to the European Court of Human Rights—its administration and its judgments—and got very excited about an interim judgment that prevented an unnamed asylum seeker being removed to Rwanda, where he had never sought to go, anyway. That was then used to start a huge campaign about why we should withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights. As the hon. Member for Rhondda correctly pointed out, if we withdraw from those, we then withdraw from the Council of Europe because there is no basis for being in it.
The function of the Council of Europe relates fundamentally to human rights. It monitors the election of judges to the court. Everyone accepts there are inefficiencies within that legal system—I am sure there is no part of the British legal system that has any inefficiency in it whatever. The important point is that we are adherents to the European Court and the European convention on human rights.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman, from my own years in legal practice, that if he wants to find inefficiencies in a legal system, he does not have to go all the way to Strasbourg to find them. The point is that the Human Rights Act did all the things that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, but it did more than that, or we have subsequently used it to do more than that. We have hardwired it into the devolution settlement for Scotland and Wales, and also into the Good Friday agreement and the devolution set-up for Northern Ireland. How can that hardwiring be undone without damaging the institutions that are protected when the Human Rights Act is invoked?
The right hon. Gentleman’s points are absolutely correct. The 1998 Act enshrined the laws I have mentioned, but it also created a culture of human rights that has developed in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland through foreign policy and in many other attitudes. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope she will make it very clear that there is no question of a British Bill of Rights or a Bill of Rights that undermines the principles of the United Nations’ universal declaration of human rights, the European convention on human rights or the European Court of Human Rights. If we go away from that, then what future is there for human rights in this country? Who are we to lecture anybody, anywhere around the world, on abuses of human rights if we have walked away from the very conventions that we are supposed to be adhering to in the first place?
The arguments used to oppose the interim judgment made by the European Court of Human Rights was that the asylum seekers were “illegal”. Let me be absolutely clear and put it on record that there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. The legal right to seek asylum is set out in international law and in UK law, as we should understand and respect.
Yesterday, I was at the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons of the Council of Europe. It was a lengthy but fascinating meeting that was very well attended by people from all over the member states of the Council of Europe. There were two significant reports, one of which was about the situation facing refugees from Afghanistan. It looked at problems with Afghan refugees settling around Europe, the poverty in which they are living, the numbers now being pushed back from trying to enter Greece or other European countries—I will come to that in a moment— and the desperate poverty of people in Afghanistan.
There have been 21 years of war in Afghanistan. Billions of pounds and dollars have been spent on that particular war. We have left behind the chaos of a lack of human rights and respect for people, along with desperate poverty and hunger. I know it is not central to this debate, but we can do a lot better by the people of Afghanistan than ignoring the situation. Whatever one’s views on the Afghan war, we have responsibilities to those people and the poverty in which they have been left.
We also had a very interesting report from the International Committee of the Red Cross on the question of asylum seekers. It put forward six policy recommendations, which I will refer to quickly because I am conscious that colleagues wish to speak. They are:
“National authorities and regional bodies should: Acknowledge the tragedy of missing migrants and address the problems their families face as a result of this situation. Put in place preventive measures such as ensuring that the respective legal frameworks are compatible with international law and adequately address the main humanitarian problems. Integrate the missing migrant issue into continental, regional and national policy and cooperation frameworks. Strengthen bilateral and multilateral cooperation in search efforts, including humanitarian rescue activities if migrants are in distress…Establish clear pathways to be followed in searching and identifying persons missing in the context of migration…Respond to the various needs of families and ensure institutional and legal frameworks that allow for an individual specific assessment and response.”
Those policy recommendations were important because the number of missing people around the world is increasing very fast. I was astonished to hear that far fewer than 20% of those who die in the Mediterranean or other seas around Europe are ever identified. That is life for some people. They live in poverty, under oppression, seek asylum somewhere else and die, unnamed in an ocean, while trying to get to a place of safety. On International Human Rights Day, of all days, can we not have a sense of humanity in our approach towards these people and the desperate situation in which they are forced to live at the present time?
Pushbacks, which I believe to be not just illegal but immoral, are practised in a number of countries, and the argument often put forward, particularly by Conservative politicians, is that we should have almost a military response to people trying to cross the English channel. These are desperate people trying to get to a place of safety. We should bring them to a place of safety and look after them after that—let them contribute to our society. The cause of people seeking asylum has to be examined, because we cannot look at human rights in the abstract. The reality is that it is driven by war and the appalling invasion of Ukraine. Millions of people have sought refuge, and there has been a terrible loss of life, both of people in Ukraine and of conscripted Russian soldiers. Russian peace activists have also been arrested. Hopefully, there will be some kind of process to bring about a cessation of the fighting and a long-term solution to the issues that have led to the war in Ukraine.
There are so many other wars that I would go on for far too long if I tried to mention all of them. I have already referred to Afghanistan, but the situation in Iraq is far from perfect. I still meet people who have sought asylum from Iraq, and I meet people from Libya who have sought asylum from that country. What is the connection between those three countries? All have had UK military involvement in their conflicts. The war in Yemen, to which Chris Bryant and others referred, is largely occasioned by huge supplies of American and British weaponry to Saudi Arabia, which uses them to oppress the people of Yemen.
Then we have the occupations, which are always wrong in any context. They include the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the colonialisation of the West Bank through the settlement policy. Again, that leads people seeking safety to go somewhere else. The consequences of our inaction, or positive action in supplying arms to the aggressor in many cases, often lead to the problems that we are now concerned with and complaining about.
Africa is often not mentioned in many debates, yet the reality of war in the Congo and other places is that it leads to huge displacements of people. It is occasioned by huge quantities of often small arms and lighter arms being sold to fuel those conflicts, and they are often funded by mineral interests and those who seek to gain land or power. We have to look very seriously at those issues.
My friend the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned the situation in Colombia. I was in Colombia for the first round of the presidential election—I had been there before—and I talked to a lot of human rights groups, farmers groups, trade unions and academic groups. I did a seminar at the Catholic University while I was there. To the credit of President Petro, his new Government and Vice President Francia Márquez, they have started peace talks with the other guerrilla groups. They are trying to bring about a total peace accord, and they are proposing substantial land reform legislation. It is going to be very difficult, because there is an awful lot of opposition to what they are achieving from very powerful vested interests, and we have to wish them well in that process.
I hope that in this debate and future debates we look to our own culpability in all this. I have mentioned the wars, but we also need to think about the huge volume of arms sales that we are promoting and the way in which our embassies around the world have been turned into commercial operations for British companies in order to improve British exports. I can understand the need for that, but not at the expense of taking away the human rights advisers or, indeed, of no longer continuing the former policy, both within the EU and nationally, of having a human rights agenda in our overseas trade arrangements.
Sometimes, however, one gets good news in a difficult situation, and yesterday there was a very interesting judgment in a court in Oaxaca, Mexico. I have been quite involved in supporting the case. A young woman called Claudia Uruchurtu was arrested while she took part in a demonstration in Oaxaca against the corruption of the mayor of her town. The mayor of the town of Nochixtlán was deemed to be corrupt, and she was part of the opposition to what the mayor was doing. At the end of the demonstration, she disappeared. Her body has never been found. She has never been located. Her family, who live in the UK, were obviously desperately worried about her.
After a lot of action by good people in Mexico, including the British embassy and others, who did a great deal to support the family, the case was brought to court yesterday and the mayor was found guilty in the case of the disappearance of Claudia. The sentencing has not yet happened—we await that next week—but it is significant that in this one case of somebody’s disappearance under duress pressure, the perpetrator has been found guilty. That will give some hope to the families of the many, many others who disappeared in Mexico, of which there are at least 100,000 in recent years.
While one obviously condemns the disappearances and the abuse of human rights, one should pay tribute to the Government of President López Obrador for taking on these cases. It is creating a culture of respect for human rights and empowering the Ministry of the Interior to investigate historic abuses of human rights, including the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students some years ago.
There was news today that the Al Jazeera broadcasting channel is referring the case of the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh to the International Criminal Court. I wish the channel well in doing that. Shireen was shot in cold blood for no other reason than that she was filming Israeli soldiers oppressing Palestinian people. She is one of many journalists who have been injured or shot not only in the conflict in Palestine but in many other places around the world. We should recognise that there are all sorts of human rights defenders and they come in all shades. They can be journalists just as much as human rights defenders from voluntary human rights organisations. We should be doing all we can to speak up for them.
The issues abound in many other countries that I could refer to today. Briefly, I obviously concur with the remarks made about the women of Iran and their bravery in demanding human rights themselves, and there are others who want to see human rights throughout Iran. The British Government are also supporting people such as Mehran Raoof, who is a workers’ rights representative. We have to keep on demanding their release.
Nazanin’s release was excellent news, but she was sadly one of a number. Human rights have to be universal. They do not mean going to war with somebody. They do mean engagement to try to achieve better human rights. The case of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is still in prison in Egypt, was taken up during COP27. COP27 is over, the greenwashing is finished, they have all left town and people have stopped talking about his case. He has family in this country. He deserves to be freed, and we should support his release.
I have a very multicultural constituency, which I am very proud to represent in Parliament. It includes many people who come from all parts of Kurdistan—from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. The conditions facing Kurdish people in northern Syria are appalling, and the bombing that is now taking place against the Kurdistan Democratic party forces in Iran and Iraq and the problems that are going on in Turkey have to be recognised. Surely at the centre of all this is a failure to recognise the rights of people to their own self-determination and self-expression. The Kurdish people demand and deserve those rights. It is not good enough for us all just to go to Nowruz celebrations in March. We have to act all year round to ensure the Kurdish people get their place of safety.
Rights are universal. Rights of workers are universal. The International Labour Organisation confirms that. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that Britain is no longer going ahead with legislation that will be inimical to the International Labour Organisation and the various pieces of human rights legislation we have around the world that we should abide by. Workers’ rights are human rights, just as much as anybody else’s.
We need to educate our young people not to see the Human Rights Act as a problem or something to make a light-hearted joke about on the radio or television or in newspaper attacks—“Somebody’s abusing the Human Rights Act”. It is there only because of the bravery of human rights defenders in this country and around the world. If we walk away from the European convention and human rights legislation, we will leave a terrible legacy for future generations. The hon. Member for Rhondda is right when he says that there has been a pushback against human rights around the world. Let us not be part of it; let us go in the opposite direction by defending and extending human rights. The next generation will thank us for that and benefit from it.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I am pleased to be called in this debate to mark Human Rights Day 2022. I congratulate Margaret Ferrier on her excellent opening speech, and I thank other Members for their very powerful speeches.
I am a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group, and I want to thank all the human rights defenders and organisations that it engages with. I also thank the Barrow Cadbury Trust for the support it gives to the APPG, and Nichole Piche for all her work and her excellent briefings to Members.
I was prompted to speak in this debate after I saw a very disturbing post on social media last week. It was of a woman in Afghanistan who was fully covered. She was on the floor in the street, and she was being beaten by a Taliban man. I assume that there had been some infringement of the Taliban rules. It was sickening and brutal, and it was clearly a misogynistic attack.
As Jeremy Corbyn just said, the situation in Afghanistan is alarming, and I am concerned that it appears to have largely fallen off the radar. The UN has deemed it one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The country is entering its third consecutive year of drought-like conditions and its second year of crippling economic decline, all the while still reeling from the after-effects of decades of conflict and recurrent natural disasters. The fast-approaching winter spells more hardship for the Afghan people, with food insecurity and malnutrition set to rise even further.
The Taliban de facto authorities regularly and flagrantly violate the fundamental rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, and their actions possibly even amount to genocide persecution, which is a crime against humanity. In the images on social media and generally in the media, we see men with beards and guns terrorising women and girls on the streets of Afghanistan. Girls of secondary school age are denied schooling. It is the only country in the world where that is the case. Women are not allowed to go to the park or the gym, and women protesters and activists are being silenced. They are sometimes imprisoned and even disappeared.
I want to highlight the case of the activist Zarifa Yaqoubi and the four men who were detained with her following a press conference in early November, which was disrupted. The arrest and detention in early November of the women’s human rights activists Farhat Popalzai and Humaira Yusuf have been highlighted, and I echo the calls for their immediate release.
Although the pressing humanitarian needs of the Afghan people must be addressed as a matter of urgency, and the Taliban must be urged to allow unfettered access to humanitarian organisations to all those in need, we cannot forget that women and girls are among those suffering the most in the country. We need to find some way to help to alleviate that suffering, and I want to highlight something that the UK Government could do to provide more help.
It has been reported that Afghan nationals promised resettlement in the UK, including women at risk, continue to await a response from the relevant officials, with not one person accepted and evacuated from Afghanistan under the Home Office’s Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. That scheme was apparently intended to help Afghans who assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law, as well as vulnerable people, which obviously includes women and girls at risk.
It has also been reported that only between five and eight members of staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—the Department administering the scheme—are working on it, compared with so many more who worked on the Ukraine schemes earlier this year. I ask the Minister to respond to those reports today, or to write to me with further details, to provide reassurance that the Government will ensure that more Afghans who are at risk, and at least the 20,000 who they have committed to resettle in the coming years, will benefit from the scheme.
To carry on the theme of women, I will refer to Iran. I express my solidarity with the very brave women of Iran; the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West talked passionately about those women who have been protesting after the death in September of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini, following her arrest by Iran’s so-called morality police for not wearing her hijab properly. We have been told of the widespread scenes of women waving their headscarves in the air and setting them on fire, and their demand for the end of compulsory dress codes and other discrimination against them.
A population law passed in Iran last November provides incentives for early marriage, such as an interest-free loan to those who marry at 25 or younger. The Iranian Government’s own reports show that child marriage is on the rise, and Iran’s civil code provides that girls can marry at 13 and boys at 15, and even at a younger age if authorised by a judge. After marriage, Iran’s laws grant husbands significant control over their wives’ lives, including where they can live and the jobs they can take. Even though the Iranian attorney general appeared to indicate that the morality police would be disbanded, he also stressed that the judiciary would continue to
“monitor behavioural actions at the community level.”
Courageous protesters remain hugely at risk.
I also want to say something about Ethiopia, which has been raised with me by some of my constituents. It is, of course, good news that the African Union has recently brokered a cessation of hostilities agreement between the Ethiopian Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front; however, the many victims of serious human rights violations want and deserve to see justice done. I must emphasise that all parties to the armed conflict, including military forces from Eritrea, have been responsible for atrocities, and diverse communities have experienced—and may still be experiencing—serious violations that may even amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Specifically on the violation of the rights of women and girls, it has been noted that gender-based violence in Ethiopia was already endemic before the outbreak of war in 2020, but the conflict has exacerbated the problem. These women and girls need to be better supported and protected, and their perpetrators held to account. There is also concern that so far, women appear to be largely excluded from the peace process. That is something that has to be urgently remedied.
Colombia has been mentioned many times in the Chamber this afternoon, and I know there is a great deal of experience and knowledge about Colombia among Members present. I have had the privilege of meeting many brave and highly effective human rights defenders from Colombia over the years, and have visited the country twice. Being a human rights defender in Colombia continues to be very dangerous: despite the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian Government and the FARC rebel group, at least 150 human rights defenders and social leaders have been killed in Colombia during the first nine months of this year. The truth commission published its report earlier this year, and the APPG was pleased to be able to host one of the truth commissioners with the support of the FCDO. That report’s recommendations need to be actioned, and the international community should provide the necessary support for that to be done.
It is also vital that women whose rights were violated, including as victims of sexual violence, can hold their perpetrators to account. Many of them have been incredibly brave and have spoken out, and they are at the forefront of trying to ensure accountability. Although there is no amnesty for perpetrators of sexual violence, it is not something to which any of the parties to the conflict wish to admit. A lot of work has gone into preparing national cases, referred to as “macro-cases”, on sexual violence, but I understand that the judicial system needs more resources to move forward on them. That is something that the international community could assist with, and the United Kingdom Government has a special role to play, as they hold the pen on Colombia at the UN Security Council.
I also want to highlight the ongoing serious violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which have, again, been brought to my attention again by constituents—in this instance members of the Banyamulenge community. The situation in eastern DRC in particular continues to be very worrying for many communities; state security forces and the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO—the United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—are finding it challenging to keep the peace between groups that are often competing for land, other natural resources and power, and nursing deep-seated grievances. Those communities can suffer from persecution, forced displacement and even targeted killings. Many also require ongoing humanitarian assistance. I am aware that the FCDO has provided some support to civilians at risk, but it would be helpful to know whether a joint analysis of conflict and stability, and an assessment through an atrocity prevention lens, has recently been carried out to identify specific groups at risk of further violations and atrocity crimes.
I want to raise the issue of cuts to UK aid. The needs of people in the world appear to be increasing as a result of conflict, growing authoritarianism, ethnic and religious persecution, climate change and so on, yet our aid budget is decreasing. We obviously cannot do more with less. As a constituency MP for Hull, I understand that the needs of this country are also growing and acute, particularly given the cost of living crisis, which is badly affecting so many of our constituents.
It is, however, short-sighted to believe that cutting the assistance provided to individuals and countries globally is a helpful response. We should push back against dictatorship, support human rights defenders and peacebuilders, prevent and promote accountability for atrocities and sexual violence, and uphold the international human rights framework at home and abroad, not only on moral grounds but because they are smart things to do—particularly in terms of our own security, better trading opportunities and enhanced international co-operation on terrorism, organised crime and climate change.
As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, I know only too well that a failure to offer support upstream in countries means that problems will eventually come closer to home—as, for example, with the flow of small boats crossing the English channel with people from Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan and many other places. There is more that the FCDO could do and should do, and that requires access to further resources.
I started with my concerns about women’s human rights in Afghanistan, and have also spoken about women in other countries. I end by reminding hon. Members of a famous quote from Hillary Clinton that
“human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”
Human rights are hard won. They rise and fall together, and never must advances for some come at the expense of the human rights that others have struggled to win. That is true here in the UK and everywhere around the world where oppression holds back progress and freedom for all.
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I thank Margaret Ferrier for securing this important debate. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. Fiona Bruce is not in her place at the moment, but I commend her on her contribution. Mine will have a similar focus. What a pleasure it is to follow Dame Diana Johnson. I agree wholeheartedly with her comments. I asked a question in business questions today on Afghanistan and the very public, grotesque, violent, criminal and disturbing execution that was carried out, just yesterday. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right on that, and in highlighting the issue of women judges from Afghanistan.
We welcome those judges to the UK. I commend them. They were at the forefront of pro-democracy efforts in Afghanistan, and were some of those most at risk from the Taliban. They have been in the UK now for more than a year and are still stuck in temporary hotel accommodation. They are professional people who will be able to make a massive contribution to society. I am quite disturbed that we have not yet moved them on. I am not sure whether that is the Minister’s direct responsibility, but I would be grateful if he would pass that issue to the right Minister for reply. These are people who have risked their lives. They are here, and we welcome them, and that is great news, but we have to give them some vision for the future and some hope that they can make a contribution in their new homeland, where they want to live. I commend the right hon. Lady on her comments; that issue was in my mind already before we came here today.
Today, we mark International Human Rights Day. The theme this year is dignity, freedom and justice for all. All Members who have spoken have referred to that theme. Since the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights in 1948, it has served as a foundation for an expanding system of human rights protection across the globe. That is something that every country should aim for. However, the protections that human rights offer have never been under greater threat. The rise of authoritarianism, which Chris Bryant referred to—he is absolutely right—the global financial crisis, climate change, the covid-19 pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, escalating attacks against minorities and restrictions in civil society have led to a sustained assault on those fundamental rights in recent years.
For me it is clear—I have said it before, and will say it again. Human rights and freedom of religious belief walk hand in hand. They complement each other in the focus that they bring and the issues they target. When I think of Ukraine, I am minded from my chairmanship of the APPG of the 400 Baptist churches that have been destroyed across eastern Ukraine. I think of the pastors of those churches, who have gone missing, and in many cases have not been found—we do not know where they are at this time. Other people have referred to the displaced, and those pastors are some of the displaced. Their congregations were dispersed, probably to western Ukraine, but some elements are left in eastern Ukraine under Russian control. We think of them as well.
As this year’s theme for the day is dignity, freedom and justice for all, I want to talk about a right that is often overlooked internationally but has been prioritised by this House and by this Government, and that is the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. That right is a cornerstone for many. Faith is deeply personal and impacts every area of a person’s life. Despite that, it is often overlooked in the greater sphere of life.
Freedom of religion or belief was excluded from the sustainable development goals, which it should have been part of; it is seldom considered in humanitarian aid or international development. It should be, and must be, and we have asked for that in nearly every debate we have had on the subject. I hope the Minister can give us some indication of whether that would be the Government’s intention.
Religious minorities are often disproportionately affected by the impact of climate change, poverty and terror attacks. I want to talk about Nigeria, a country where human rights and freedom of religion or belief are abused. The north-east and middle states of Nigeria have seen atrocities on a horrendous scale. It is the most populated country in all of Africa. It is potentially a powder keg for Africa. We hope that next year’s elections go well and that Nigeria can resume some sort of normality, although I am not entirely convinced that that is possible. In the north, Christians, Shi’a Muslims and members of traditional African religions have been targeted by Boko Haram and Daesh; and in the middle belt, Fulani herders have attacked primarily Christian communities. In the last 10 years, nearly 40,000 people have been killed in Nigeria. That is an incredible number. It is the population of my town of Newtownards back home, and I can just imagine what it would mean with nobody living in that town. What does it mean for other hon. Members here who can visualise what 40,000 deaths would mean in their constituency? In the last two years alone—I will cite the figure that is put about—at least 7,520 Christians have been killed in Nigeria.
In addition to those deaths, Nigeria has more than 3 million internally displaced persons living in camps and informal settlements. In May of this year, we visited Nigeria through the APPG. Brendan O’Hara and I were in the deputation together and we saw the situation at first hand. Some of those displaced people have been in camps for seven and a half years. It is depressing to know that they have been there for that length of time and have not moved on—they have not had the opportunity.
There are things that perhaps Nigeria could do and the UN could do as well. Perhaps the UK could also be part of that. For example, there is some land available in Nigeria. There, these farmers—Christian farmers—could have land and cultivate it and play a physical, practical role in building a future and looking after their families. These are things that could happen.
Religious minorities are often excluded from larger camps due to discrimination or fears of additional attacks. That leads to traumatised groups unable to access humanitarian aid and being denied access to development programmes. Much of the funding for those programmes comes from UK aid. We should have a responsibility to ensure that aid does not discriminate against Christian or Shi’a groups unable to access it through larger IDP camps.
The figures for this situation are really disturbing. The scale of it is colossal and hard to picture, so let me share just two stories from our trip. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute will remember these. He will remember many, because we all remember many, but I am going to give two examples, if I may, of the horror that Nigeria is for those people of ethnic and religious belief.
In one village that was attacked, we heard a story of a young mother and her six-year-old daughter. They had tried to run away, and she was surrounded and caught by the attackers. The attackers then turned their machetes on the mother and said, “Your girl would like to suck your finger,” and proceeded to cut off her forefinger. Of course, the lady passed out through the pain and the horror, but once she came to some time later, she found that her six-year-old girl was dead beside her, with her mother’s fingers stuck in her mouth. That is the horror of Nigeria today for those of a Christian belief and those of another ethnic minority belief. In another attack, there was an elderly lady to whom the attackers said, “Oh grandma, you look cold,” and then they threw her into a burning home, where she died. This is the horrible brutality, violence and criminality of those in Nigeria.
A few weeks ago, it was Red Wednesday and we had a photograph done. Mr Paisley, I think you were there; indeed, I know that many here were also there. I met Bishop Jude of Ondo. He visited Parliament and told the story of the attack on St Francis Xavier Catholic church in Ondo state on Pentecost this year in which terrorists killed 51 worshippers. Bishop Jude highlighted the fact that in the short term the effects of violence against Christian communities are the loss of life and the spreading of terror and displacement, and that in the medium to long term these attacks are devastating communities, who lose access to healthcare, education and jobs, all of which ultimately makes it impossible for many communities to survive.
In 2019, the all-party group published a report that highlighted the issues, titled “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?” The question was important, as the report documented genocidal activities happening in the country—not just the deliberate killings of Christians and Shi’as but the vast scale of the killings, the destruction of settlements and places of worship, which forced those groups out of parts of Nigeria, and the targeting and abduction of children with the intent of transferring them out of those communities. More work is needed from the international community to fully investigate those crimes and to answer the important questions of intent, and whether it is a deliberate, systematic approach to eradicate certain communities from parts of Nigeria.
We had opportunities to meet those in different Departments. The APPG believes that His Majesty’s Government need to put pressure on the Nigerian authorities to stop such attacks happening. They can do it. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and I well recall an attack that was carried out in a village in eastern Nigeria. The army camp was no more than a few hundred yards away. Those in the camp made no effort whatever to stop the killing, murder, violence and abuse of women and girls that took place, within shouting distance of them, which tells us that they could do better. We must do everything that we can to bring the perpetrators of terrorist violence and killings to account.
Particular attention is needed to protect those who are most vulnerable to abduction, particularly women and girls. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North referred to that, and it is important that it is addressed. Provision also needs to be established to help to restore and rebuild those communities, and we need to ensure that UK aid does not indirectly discriminate against them. Aid must reach all those who need it the most. The hon. Members for Congleton and for Rhondda referred to China, which received £68.4 million in aid last year, yet is guilty of some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. I would not give it aid, and I encourage our Government not to do so. From 2016 to 2020, India received £1.9 billion in aid, yet its abuse and persecution of those in that country of the Christian or Muslim faith is outrageous. It is time that we looked at where aid goes and make countries accountable. Others referred to where aid could be better used. It could be used in countries where human rights mean something, and freedom of religious belief means something.
Actions to prevent, protect, prosecute and restore, alongside ensuring that our foreign policy and international aid is FORB-literate, provide a model for protecting the rights of religious minorities. That is relevant to not just Nigeria but some of the worst human rights abusers across the world. We have heard about many of them. They include Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and many others. Apart from being morally right, protecting FORB has many benefits. Countries that do so are more stable and have lower levels of corruption and higher levels of economic output. Conversely, countries that start scapegoating or attacking religious minorities are often taking their first steps to a more authoritarian Government, paving the way for broader human rights abuses against free speech, freedom of assembly and the fundamental rights of all our citizens.
I am pleased to speak in the debate, and hope that the Minister will be able to give us some encouragement and succour on how aid can be better used. We are privileged and honoured to be Members of Parliament, but I believe, as I know others do, that we have to be a voice for the voiceless. Today, this House has been just that.
I congratulate Margaret Ferrier on securing such an important and valuable debate, and on her long-standing commitment to these issues. I will probably end up echoing much of what others have already said, but that demonstrates the cross-party consensus that exists on these issues, and the importance of the Government paying attention to them. On the issue of ministerial corrections and the exchange on Saudi Arabia, the Procedure Committee is currently looking into how the record is corrected appropriately. We will make a point of drawing that particular correction to the attention of the inquiry.
As others have said, Saturday marks Human Rights Day and the beginning of a year of activism and activity, culminating in the 75th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights on
This issue is of huge concern to constituents in Glasgow North. I am proud to represent one of the biggest and most active Amnesty International groups in the country, based in Glasgow’s west end. I congratulate the group on its ongoing work. Many of those constituents will be taking part in Amnesty’s “Write for Rights” campaign at this time of year. I have vivid memories of first attending an Amnesty talk as a young person. It was about prisoners of conscience and the significant impact that writing to detained people and Governments to support their freedom can have. In some ways, it is a real privilege to be able to put those points directly to the UK Government years later.
I echo the cases highlighted by Chris Bryant, particularly Aleksandra Skochilenko in Russia and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara in Cuba. We heard about both of those significant cases in the Jubilee Room earlier this week. I echo the calls of my constituents and other Members here today for the UK Government to make representations to their counterparts in those countries, asking for justice and the release of those prisoners. Equally, I echo calls for efforts to secure the return of UK nationals arbitrarily detained abroad, including Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof in Iran, Alaa Abd El-Fattah in Egypt and Jagtar Singh Johal in India.
Another regular topic in my constituency inbox is the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Yesterday, some of us had the opportunity to witness some of the tragic acts of settler violence that take place there on a daily basis, using virtual reality technology brought to a room in Portcullis House by Yachad and B’Tselem, Both organisations should be congratulated for their efforts to work across communities in the Holy Land to bring about a peaceful political resolution to the conflict. It is interesting how this technology is being used to help us understand human rights abuses around the world. A few weeks ago, I, my hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara and no doubt many others also used it to better understand the experience of the Yazidis, who Fiona Bruce spoke about so powerfully.
I also hear from constituents, including some with direct personal experience, about the importance of supporting campaigners who support women, life and freedom in Iran. The decision of the Iranian regime to execute dozens or more protesters stands in contrast to the inspiring and determined action of the ordinary citizens standing up against brutality and dictatorship. I have already written to the Foreign Secretary about these matters on behalf of my constituents, but perhaps the Minister could say a bit more about how the Government are continuing to support the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on human rights violations in Iran, and what steps they are taking to ensure that people associated with the actions of the Iranian regime here in the UK are not afforded any kind of sanctuary, protection or impunity.
The Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, mentioned the exhibition in Upper Waiting Hall that has drawn attention this week to the journalists and activists in Eritrea who were rounded up by their country’s regime in 2001 and have never been heard from since. We were fortunate to welcome the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Dr Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, to the Jubilee Room earlier this week and to hear directly from him about the ongoing efforts to document the terrible human rights abuses in Eritrea and the steps being taken to hold that Government to account. Eritreans make up one of the largest populations of refugees in this country—indeed, that is the case in many countries—because their claims to asylum are so clear and so many of them have to flee for their lives.
A recent Westminster Hall debate focused on Ethiopia, particularly the situation in Tigray. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to keep the pressure up on the Ethiopian Government to ensure that human rights observers from the United Nations Human Rights Council have absolutely unfettered access to all parts of the country?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Sadly, many of those observers do not have the access they require and to which they have a right under an international mandate.
In Scotland, we welcome refugees and are proud to have them in our communities, but people should not have to flee oppression and brutality, so more must be done to call out the practices of the Eritrean regime and, indeed, other regimes in that part of the world. On top of all that, the horn of Africa in East Africa is undergoing a severe food crisis. Right now, more than 19 million people are directly affected by chronic food shortages, but the right to adequate food, water, sanitation and clothing is declared under article 25 of the universal declaration of human rights. Several of us have been to see Save the Children today, its Christmas jumper day, on which it is raising awareness of food insecurity overseas and, sadly, increasingly in the United Kingdom. Also, as Dame Diana Johnson has said, the UK Government’s massive cuts to the aid budget are sadly making it much more difficult to respond adequately to the food crisis in the horn of Africa, in a way that might have been possible in the past.
As others have said, there is some irony in the fact that we are using these debates to ask the UK Government to take action on human rights abuses around the world at a time when the legal framework on human rights in this country seems to be under threat. I have heard from a significant number of constituents who are deeply concerned about the so-called Bill of Rights, which is technically before this House, although there is no clear timetable for Second Reading or any further stages. The Bill as published would diminish the rights of those seeking sanctuary here in the UK. It would remove obligations on some public authorities to respect existing rights and make it much more difficult to seek recourse from the courts when rights are threatened. The best thing the Government could do with this Bill is bin it, leave it in the legislative doldrums and let it disappear at the end of the Session.
Constituents are also concerned that there might be attempts to change provisions and protections for certain minority groups in the Equality Act 2010, despite there being no particularly clear need for that to happen. I share the concerns about the ever-growing drumbeat on the Tory Back Benches, and even within the Cabinet, for withdrawal from the European convention on human rights, as Jeremy Corbyn said. Indeed, as Mr Carmichael said, that may well have an impact on the ability of the devolved legislatures and Governments to exercise their statutory rights and obligations under the terms of their founding Acts. That leads me to the same question that the right hon. Member for Islington North asked: how can such actions by the UK Government lend them any kind of international credibility when they are attempting to speak out against human rights abuses elsewhere in the world?
If the Government really want to legislate in the area of human rights, perhaps they could consider proposals for a new UK supply chain regulation: a business, human rights and environment Act that would require companies to take reasonable measures to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for the actual and potential impacts of their activities on people and the environment. In Brazil, Colombia, which the hon. Member for Rhondda referred to, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many other resource and mineral-rich countries, too many people are forced to work in almost slave-like conditions or are having their land seized for mining and monocropping to provide consumer goods for those of us who already live in comfort and plenty.
As other Members have said, many of the issues that we have discussed today are the focus of a range of all-party parliamentary groups, particularly the all-party parliamentary human rights group. Unlike some APPGs, these are often supported by volunteers, charitable groups and Members’ staff, who are effectively donating their time on a pro bono basis. They provide valuable information for debates such as this, and for those of us who are active members. We thank them sincerely for their work. They help us to hold the Government to account and to make sure, as I hope the Minister will confirm, that the Government will remain committed to protecting and enhancing fundamental human rights, both around the world and here at home.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. This afternoon’s debate marks United Nations Human Rights Day, which, as we have heard, is on the theme of dignity, freedom and justice for all. I, too, congratulate Margaret Ferrier for securing the debate, and I congratulate all Members on their many thoughtful and challenging contributions.
As we have heard,
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West opened the debate by encouraging us in this place to use our platform to help survivors of human rights abuses, and to ensure that we never adopt a two-tier system, turning a blind eye to what friends, allies or potential trade partners may do and treating them differently from countries or non-state actors that we regard as enemies or that regard us as hostile. She was absolutely right to do so.
I was pleased that Fiona Bruce, who unfortunately is no longer in her place, reminded us—as we all knew she would—that freedom of religion or belief is a basic, fundamental human right that cannot, and must not, be separated from any discussions we have on human rights. I am also glad that she brought the issue of genocide to the debate; it is something we have talked about, and I will return to it later in my speech. I, too, thoroughly recommend Lord Alton and Dr Ewelina Ochab’s excellent book on the subject.
Chris Bryant highlighted that the UK Government have yet to formally condemn the Saudi regime for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, despite the overwhelming evidence that they committed it. The Government would do well to reflect on what the hon. Member said: no one will respect us when they know what we think but also that we are too afraid to say what we think.
Mr Carmichael talked about the human rights situation in Bahrain, and I join him in paying tribute to the work of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which campaigns tirelessly on behalf of political prisoners in that country. I share—and indeed have put on record alongside him—the serious concerns he expressed about UK taxpayers funding the Bahrain regime through the Gulf strategy fund.
Jeremy Corbyn rightly asked why a debate as important as this is taking place in Westminster Hall on a Thursday afternoon. Why is it not on the Floor of the main Chamber, and why is it not in Government time? He was also right to ask where the Government’s human rights report is, and I thank him for his wise words on the plight of asylum seekers and the dismal response that we all too often have to that subject.
Dame Diana Johnson raised the issue of women in Afghanistan—which I will come back to—and I met representatives of the Hazara community just yesterday. The right hon. Member is right that anyone who saw that awful video of a woman being beaten savagely by a man will know that—as we all suspected—the Taliban have not changed one iota. I am also pleased that she brought up the appalling sexual violence that we increasingly hear is being perpetrated by all sides in the conflict in Tigray.
A moment of panic ran through the Chamber at 29 minutes past the hour, when Jim Shannon was not in his place and we thought we would have to suspend proceedings and send out a search party, so I am happy that he is here. He is always in his place to amplify the message that human rights and freedom of religion or belief walk hand in hand, and he is right. I was privileged to join him on a visit to Nigeria earlier this year, and what we saw was an impoverished, fast-growing, young population coupled with a deeply corrupt federal Government, which is sowing the seeds for radical Islam. The UK Government must understand the powder keg that is Nigeria, as the hon. Gentleman described it, and I urge them to do everything they possibly can.
Patrick Grady was absolutely right to say that an attack on anyone’s human rights is an attack on everyone’s human rights. I was delighted that he raised the plight of the Palestinian communities and the suffering they face every single day. I also echo his words that Scotland welcomes refugees; I am pleased that our Government are doing their duty by those fleeing oppression and violence.
It has been a depressing look back through my calendar over the last 12 months and at the people I have met. That tells me that the situation is getting worse and worse. I have met indigenous people from Colombia, whose land and rivers are being stolen by multinational companies. Human rights defenders there are also being killed at an appalling rate. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Yazidis, I speak frequently to the Yazidi community—yet, after the defeat of Daesh, 2,700 women and girls are still missing and have been sold into sexual slavery. I met representatives of Palestinian civic society, who are appalled at how the expansion of illegal settlements in the west bank is driving Palestinian communities from their homes.
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, I am in constant contact with the FCDO about the situation in Bahrain and the widespread use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. Just yesterday, I met Dr May Homira Rezai, the chair of the Hazara Committee in UK, to hear about the situation of women at the hands of the Taliban. Along with many others, I have met representatives of the Hong Kong community to hear how the fundamental rights they were promised are being undermined and dismantled by the Chinese state. Just two weeks ago, I chaired a meeting with the Tigrayan community here to hear first-hand testimonies from survivors about unimaginable sexual violence. Yesterday I met the Ukrainian ambassador, who told us that 12,000 Ukrainian children had been kidnapped and transported out of the country and have now been adopted by Russian families. That is a heinous crime, reminiscent of what Daesh did to Yazidi children.
I am running rapidly out of time, but I wish to again thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and all those who have made such valuable contributions to the debate. I hope the Government have listened to what has been said.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank Margaret Ferrier for securing such an important debate to mark Human Rights Day. I think we would all agree that we have had an excellent, thoughtful and illuminating debate. On
As has been mentioned, parliamentary colleagues and I attended the Amnesty International UK drop-in on Tuesday, where we heard about four cases of individuals that highlighted human rights abuses. We heard about the case of Hong Kong human rights lawyer and activist Chow Hang-tung, who is serving 22 months in prison for daring to encourage people on social media to light candles to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. We heard about the case of Dorgelesse Nguessan, a hairdresser from Cameroon who was arrested on her first ever protest in September 2020 for voicing her concerns about the Cameroonian Government’s handling of the economy. Her peaceful protest resulted in her arrest and charges of insurrection, assembly, meetings and public demonstration, which resulted in a five-year sentence. My hon. Friend Chris Bryant highlighted the other two cases: that of the Russian artist Sasha Skochilenko, who was arrested and is being held without charge for protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that of the Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who was arrested for posting that he wanted to attend a big demonstration in Cuba.
There are two other Russians we ought to acknowledge—these are high-profile cases, and have regularly been spoken about in the House, although they can sometimes get ignored. One is Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is in prison in Russia, and the other is Alexei Navalny, who seems to have been imprisoned for being poisoned by the Russian state. These are people of phenomenal courage, and we should not forget them.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight those cases, and he is right that we should never forget them.
My right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson highlighted the case of Zarifa Yaqoubi and her four colleagues, who were arrested at the inauguration of the Afghan Women’s Movement for Equality by the Taliban, which is obviously trying to suppress women’s freedom in Afghanistan. We would very much support their instant release from detention for protesting for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
As the shadow Minister for the middle east and north Africa, I have raised numerous cases of concern about human rights abuses in the region, ranging from those of democracy advocates in Tunisia and Bahrain and those of people facing execution in Saudi Arabia, to those of Palestinians evicted from their homes in the occupied territories and facing attacks from settlers. I too attended the B’Tselem and Yachad event yesterday, where social media allowed us to witness what Palestinians facing settler violence experienced.
Today I want to focus particularly on Iran, where none of us can fail to be moved by the bravery of the protesters—women and girls who are fighting back against the repressive regime that seeks to limit their basic freedoms in every aspect of their lives. Serious human rights violations at the hands of the Iranian authorities have been documented time and again. Unlawful killings following the unwarranted use of lethal force, as well as mass arbitrary arrests and detentions, forced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, have all been documented. The protesters have been extraordinary. Their courage in facing a regime that is willing to use extreme violence against protesters and that has sentenced some protesters to death is truly inspiring, and I was horrified to learn today that the first protester condemned to death has been executed, which is deeply worrying. We cannot just pay tribute to their courage; we must stand with them by supporting access to free media. BBC Persian Radio, which is under threat, must be able to continue reporting. True solidarity means supporting Iranian civil society. The UK Government must do more to speak up for those who stand up for human rights in Iran.
Turning to Egypt, I have been privileged to meet the family of Alaa Abd el-Fattah. Alaa is a British-Egyptian human rights defender and an activist who has been in prison for his belief that all Egyptians deserve to have their human rights respected by their Government. Alaa is a prisoner of conscience and had until very recently been on hunger strike for over 200 days. His spirit and endless commitment to the values of freedom, human rights and democracy should inspire us all. Alaa needs our solidarity and the backing of our Government, yet his family have said that the UK Government have failed to act with sufficient urgency.
The UK must ensure that all UK nationals have a right to consular assistance when detained abroad. I am proud that that is a Labour policy, but it is also something that the Government can and should deliver. It should not be a party political issue. The Prime Minister raised Alaa’s case directly with President Sisi, yet there has been no progress since. Consular access to a British citizen is still being denied, and Alaa is no closer to being released. Will the Minister tell me what meaningful steps the Government are taking to gain access to Alaa and to help secure his release?
We live in a world where homosexuality is a criminal offence in 71 countries and is punishable by death in 11 of those, and where sex outside marriage and criticism of the king are criminal offences. We also live in a world where girls are banned from going to school in some countries. I wish to put on the record my support for the Education Cannot Wait campaign, which tries to get children in conflict zones into school, and it works incredibly hard to do that.
We live in a world where gender-based violence still occurs and where freedom of expression and freedom of religious belief are curtailed. We heard from the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about where that has resulted in genocide on occasions. Again, that is truly appalling and something we need to stand up against and challenge.
We have heard about how we live in a world where press freedom is curtailed and workers are exploited. Again, we need to stand up and speak up for the right to press freedom and workers’ rights, which are also part of the universal declaration of human rights.
The universal declaration of human rights remains a document that inspires activists and human rights defenders across the world. It is a shining example of what the international community can achieve when we come together with a clear aspiration for a fairer future. More than ever, the simple idea of inviolable rights that allow each of us to live in decency and dignity must be at the forefront of our democracy. Human rights are violated across the world, yet the courage of human rights defenders reminds us that the ideal of the fundamental dignity of all human beings is not lost. We must always defend it.
It is a shame that, even in the UK, there has been some curtailing of the long-standing fundamental right to protest. Protests can be inconvenient, but that is the point. We all have the right to freedom of expression and to freedom of assembly, and restricting those rights restricts citizens’ rights to express our discontent with the Government. The restriction of such fundamental liberties is of grave concern. The right hon. Member for Islington North said that we cannot lecture the world on human rights when the UK is watering down its own rights.
We must not forget article 14: everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. Seeking asylum is not a crime and must never be treated as such. We have a human duty to respect the fundamental human rights of asylum seekers, and all migrants, wherever they come from. Respect for human rights must be the fundamental starting point for any Government. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the UK Government’s report on human rights, which many right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. We need to know when that report will be published, because it is long overdue.
We in the Labour party are clear in our commitments to respect human rights and international law. We should be proud of international institutions and NGOs that highlight the human rights abuses that still go on today. We need to ensure that the UK Government call out human rights abuses, wherever they occur, and that they hold to account those committing those abuses. The need to stand up for human rights is more important today than ever before.
I thank Margaret Ferrier for securing this important debate. The shared passion across this House for protecting and promoting human rights is clear, warranted and, of course, warmly welcomed. Where I am not able to answer the questions raised by colleagues, I commit to writing to them with more detail as soon as possible.
As Patrick Grady noted, this weekend we mark International Human Rights Day just as the United Nations launches a year-long campaign to promote the 75th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. The UK has a long-standing commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for human rights at the FCDO, will host an event at the FCDO to shine a light on those issues. I pay tribute to him for his continuing commitment in this area.
As the Prime Minister set out recently, our approach is anchored by our enduring belief in freedom, openness and the rule of law. We are committed to being a force for good in the world, with human rights, open societies, democracy and the international rule of law acting as our guiding lights. We put human rights at the heart of what we do, which is why we established the UK’s global human rights sanctions regime; why we led efforts to refer the shocking activities against human rights in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court; why we lead on UN Human Rights Council resolutions, including on the situation in Syria and South Sudan; and why we have made a joint statement on Xinjiang.
We pursue three broad strands of work to promote and protect human rights globally. First, we work through multilateral bodies. Secondly, we work directly with states to encourage and support them in upholding their human rights obligations. Thirdly, we have concerted campaigns to drive forward action on issues of particular concern.
I will speak first about our multilateral work. The international rules-based system is critical to protecting and realising the human rights and freedoms of people all over the world. We work through the multilateral system to encourage all states to uphold their international human rights obligations, and to hold to account those who violate human rights.
In September, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad spoke at the United Nations and urged the international community to hold Iran accountable for systemically targeting members of minority communities; to press Afghanistan to protect minorities who are targeted for their beliefs; to challenge the discriminatory provisions in Myanmar’s citizenship laws; and to hold China to account for its egregious human rights violations in Xinjiang. In November, we supported a successful UN Human Rights Council resolution to establish a UN investigation of the Iranian regime’s appalling human rights violations during recent protests.
Turning to our bilateral work, we are strengthening our economic, diplomatic and security ties, and building a network of partnerships with countries united by the values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Mr Carmichael raised concerns about the FCDO Gulf strategy fund. I hope I can reassure him that projects in Bahrain focus on a variety of capacity-building programmes, including programmes supporting the implementation of juvenile justice law, and on human rights and diplomacy training.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West raised the issue of political representation in Bahrain. While challenges remain, there has been significant progress over a number of years. With UK support, recent elections saw some positive progress on female representation; eight out of 40 elected politicians are now female.
FCDO Ministers and officials continue to raise concerns with Governments who have a poor track record on upholding human rights. Many colleagues raised concerns about Saudi Arabia’s death penalty policy. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad regularly raises our concerns with Saudi authorities, and he raised specific cases just two weeks ago with the ambassador. We have been clear that the appalling murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible crime, and we have imposed sanctions on 20 Saudis involved in it.
In Ukraine, harrowing reports of atrocities by Vladimir Putin’s forces continue to emerge. The Government will continue to stand with Ukraine in its fight for freedom, and will continue to hold Russia to account. We have committed £220 million of humanitarian support since February, which makes us the third largest bilateral donor. We have also created the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, alongside our allies from the European Union and the United States.
Obviously, I agree with a lot of what the Minister is saying, but several Members have asked when the next Government human rights annual report will be produced, because we have not had one for nearly 18 months.
I do not disagree.
In China, there are continuing reports of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities. There has also been increasing pressure on media freedom and growing assaults on Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom. We raise our concerns at the highest levels with the Chinese Government. We have imposed sanctions, provided guidance to businesses, introduced enhanced export controls and announced penalties under the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
I referred to the aid that the UK gives China—£64.6 million in the past year. Why are we giving China aid when it totally ignores human rights and persecution issues? Forgive me for being so direct, but I think it is time we stopped it.
I do not have the data to hand, but I signed off a parliamentary question to another colleague that set out clearly that none of that funding goes to the Chinese Government. It is mostly for working with them on third-country issues and climate change, but I will ensure that the breakdown is sent to the hon. Gentleman, because it is important that we are clear that that is not how we are spending the money. We are working together where we can to tackle some of those wider issues. I will ensure that the detail is sent to him.
We are also working in our international fora to continue to shine a spotlight on violations and to hold China to account. We are not shy of being a critical friend where we need to be. In October, our global diplomatic effort helped to secure the support of 50 countries for a further joint statement on Xinjiang at the UN General Assembly.
Under the Magnitsky sanctions, the UK announced new sanctions against four Chinese Government officials and an entity responsible for enforcing the repressive security policies across Xinjiang. We will continue to act in concert with our likeminded partners to ensure that those responsible for gross human rights violations are brought to account.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will be reassured to hear that on
The Taliban continues to repress viciously the rights of Afghans, particularly women and girls and others from marginalised groups. Dame Diana Johnson set out vividly some of the appalling human rights abuses being inflicted by the Taliban.
Obviously, I concur with the Minister’s view about the abuse of human rights in Afghanistan—I am sure we all agree about that—but the reality is that Afghanistan is desperately poor, and people are literally starving. What can the Government do to ensure that there is some kind of operation getting food into Afghanistan? Obviously, that would require some degree of co-operation, one way or another, with the de facto Government.
I do not have the exact figures to hand, but we work closely with international groups such as the World Food Programme to find tools to address those incredibly urgent and difficult issues. I will ensure that the right hon. Gentleman gets the details, which I do not have to hand.
The challenge quite rightly set by many colleagues today is that it is difficult to have direct interventions with the Taliban at the moment. However, our UK officials, including the excellent chargé d’affaires of the UK mission to Afghanistan, regularly raise human rights concerns, alongside colleagues in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, with the Taliban. That includes concerns about breaches of women’s rights, particularly regarding girls’ education, where there is an appalling gap for the whole country that will have such a long tail. We also regularly raise the issue of freedom of expression for members of minority groups. The Government have repeatedly condemned the Taliban’s decision to restrict the rights of women and girls, including through our public statements, through the UN Security Council, and through Human Rights Council resolutions —most recently on
Let me respond to the question about Egypt and Alaa Abd El-Fattah raised by the shadow Minister, Bambos Charalambous. The UK Government are providing consular support to Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s family, and the Foreign Secretary spoke to the family on
The Government continue to advance a range of wider human rights priority issues. Our annual human rights and democracy reports are an important part of that work, and colleagues will be pleased to know that we will publish the 2021 report imminently.
I am sorry, Mr Paisley; it was just too tempting.
At the end of November, the Foreign Secretary hosted an international ministerial conference on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. We brought together survivors and representatives of civil society and countries to share learning and drive a stronger global response that will prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict. We have also published a new three-year strategy, which is backed up by a £12.5 million funding pool.
In October, the UK co-led a landmark joint statement at the UN that commits to protecting and promoting sexual and reproductive health, rights and bodily autonomy, and 71 countries signed the statement.
Now that we have had one victory this afternoon, will the Minister explain why the UK has sanctioned some people who ran the Evin prison in Iran but not others, and why we have yet to sanction the Iranian revolutionary guard corps?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we do not discuss sanctions policy because it would risk reducing our ability to bring in the sanctions that we want, but his comments are noted. I am thankful to him for his continuing leadership on the issue across the House. He genuinely has been an important ally in helping us to move forwards.
Earlier in the year, we hosted an international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. I put on record my—and I am sure all colleagues’—thanks to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, who speaks with such wisdom and care as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. The conference brought together over 800 faith and belief leaders with human rights experts and 100 Government delegations to agree action to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief. New funding has also been committed to provide legal expertise and support for defenders of freedom of religion or belief.
Mr Paisley, you were not here earlier—Dame Maria was in the Chair—but I know that you would agree with the incredibly generous comments of Chris Bryant, which were followed up by others, about the young women of Iran. They are standing up for a better future that is free of repression, and they deserve our unerring and loud support. On
As a long-standing champion of human rights and freedoms, the United Kingdom Government have not only a duty but a deep commitment to continuing to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect both at home and abroad. The passionate commitment of all colleagues who spoke today is a critical part of the UK’s leadership and determination to defend and champion human rights across the world, working with friends and like-minded Governments and alongside campaign groups and individuals. The UK Government will continue to work will all those voices to advocate for human rights everywhere.
I think we would all agree that we have had a very good debate. Next year, on
It is a shame that after so many years, we still need to highlight human rights abuses around the world, but it is absolutely imperative that we continue to do so. I had written a list of the countries that everybody mentioned, but it is too long for me to go through. I got to 29, and I probably missed some. I conclude by reflecting on this year’s theme, which other Members have mentioned: dignity, freedom and justice for all. Those six short words summarise what we are fighting for, together with so many others across the world.
I thank every hon. and right hon. Member who has taken part, including the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), the Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, and the right hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and for Islington North. Finally, I thank the Minister for her considered reply to the points raised. I hope that by next December we will have made more strides forward, and will have something to celebrate on the 75th anniversary.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered International Human Rights Day 2022.