International Human Rights Abuses: UK Response — [Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:28 am on 24 January 2024.

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[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North 2:30, 24 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the UK response to international human rights abuses.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I would like to start by thanking the many remarkable charities and non-governmental organisations that are working fiercely to protect the lives of oppressed people around the world. From Amnesty International to the British Red Cross, from Human Rights Watch to Islamic Relief: thank you. This is brave work in the face of terrifying opposition from terrorists, from oppositional Governments and, sadly, sometimes from Members on the Conservative Benches.

Last week in the Chamber, one hon. Member slandered judges in the European Court of Human Rights by calling them

“non-lawyers…guided by non-governmental organisations”—[Official Report, 17 January 2024;
Vol. 743, c. 900], as though the work of NGOs were a scandal to be associated with. Far from it: on behalf of those on my side of the House, I wanted to begin this debate by paying tribute to them. It is our duty in this place to work towards a world in which their services are no longer needed. Sadly, that is far from being a reality.

This week, we will mark Holocaust Memorial Day in Parliament and in our constituencies. It is a sacred and solemn moment in the year, when we consider the depths of evil that can be reached by people in power. The regime of oppression against the Jewish people, as well as other minority communities, did not begin with the holocaust and it did not end there either. It is apt that, alongside our commemorations, we consider ways in which we can intervene in present-day attacks on human rights, particularly through a proactive, fair and—importantly—consistent foreign policy.

Human rights abuses are far and away the topic on which I receive the most correspondence from my constituents. My constituents rightly care about the most vulnerable people in our town, but also across the world. I have received thousands of emails regarding the Gaza situation alone, so that is where I would like to begin.

We cannot allow the tragedies happening each day and night in the middle east to fade from our mind. While rightfully condemning the brutal attacks launched by Hamas on 7 October that killed and injured thousands of civilians in Israel, our Government were shamefully slow to oppose the counter-attack that followed, in which violations of international law were plain to see. Does the Minister regret his Department’s hesitation to intervene when the Israeli Defence Forces were known to be withholding food, water and other essential supplies from desperate Palestinians?

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. I recently put in a question to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to make sure that it is constantly checking on Israel’s engagement in the middle east when it comes to Gaza, to ensure that it is complying with international humanitarian law. Does the hon. Member agree that the Foreign Office has to be looking at this matter day in, day out, because many of our constituents across the country care about it deeply?

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

I wholeheartedly agree. I just wish that we had a Foreign Secretary who could actually be questioned by Members of Parliament face to face, rather than what we have currently, particularly in the volatile situation that the world is in.

To follow on from my questions to the Minister, aid routes were being blocked, hospitals were running out of fuel to treat victims, including babies, and requests to open the Rafah crossing were denied—all actions that were in direct contravention of international law. I would be interested to hear what corrections the Government would make to their approach, because it is not too late to learn from their mistakes. I strongly urge the Department to do so. As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, we deserve answers to these serious questions.

What does the Minister have to say about the horrific ITV News footage that shows a man who was waving a white flag in a supposed safe zone being shot and killed? Will Ministers be taking this up with their Israeli counterparts? When?

The human rights of Palestinians have been systematically violated for decades, from the creeping annexations on the west bank, and settler violence, to the 15-year-long blockade, which shows no signs of weakening, but 2023 saw a deadly escalation in violence and a deterioration in the standard of human rights in the region. The latest figures from Amnesty International tell us that some 24,000 Palestinians have now been killed in Gaza. Given that half of Gaza’s population are children, we can therefore estimate that well over 10,000 children have been victims of this conflict. This is a gravely conservative estimate.

Much debate has taken place about whether the Israeli Defence Forces’ actions have amounted to war crimes. I have made my views clear. We have seen collective punishment and arbitrary arrests. Amnesty reports evidence of illegal airstrikes against churches and refugee camps. UN human rights experts warned in November of signs of genocide. As we speak, South Africa is mounting a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice, which must be heard without prejudice and taken extremely seriously.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Labour, Manchester, Gorton

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech in this very important debate. I find it shocking that when we look at all the facts of what has happened on the ground in Gaza, it seems that almost every rule of international relations and humanitarianism has been broken. A genocide case is being heard at the ICJ, yet our Government cannot even call for a ceasefire. Is that acceptable?

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. I asked the Minister whether he had regrets about his Department’s approach in the earlier stages of the most recent conflict. How long will it take for contrition to set in over the Government’s stubborn refusal to call for a ceasefire on all sides? How long can this Government ignore all the warning signs of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? When will the self-reflection begin regarding our continued supply of arms to Israel? There is far more within our power to influence Netanyahu’s Government than Ministers are currently doing. We must also do what we can to encourage the release of hostages on both sides of this conflict and to lessen the number of Palestinian and Israeli civilian casualties.

Our approach to Israel must be in line with how we treat other countries. If a Government say that they are committed to human rights, they cannot pick and choose which humans’ rights we stand up for and which ones we do not. We should not overlook breaches of international law by holding some countries to a lower standard. We have imposed sanctions on Russia and China to address their abuses of human rights, and our Government have also rightly sanctioned suppliers of arms to the Myanmar military; I would appreciate it if the Minister could divulge whether consideration has been given to similar action for the Israeli Government. Consistency should be key in our foreign policy, but consistency is what we are lacking.

I will move on to some other areas that I am sure colleagues agree deserve scrutiny. The people of Jammu and Kashmir continue their painful struggle for statehood. This is another area of international human rights that is close to the hearts of constituents in Luton North.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

With regard to Kashmir, many of my Slough constituents continue to be concerned about the safety, security and wellbeing of their family and friends. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on both the Indian Government and the Pakistani Government to ensure that the human rights of all Kashmiris are protected, and that there finally needs to be a resolution to this long-standing issue that has the wishes, hopes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people at its very heart?

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What happens in Kashmir is felt on the streets of Slough, on the streets of Luton and in all our constituencies.

Since having their independent status revoked by India in 2019, the population of Jammu and Kashmir have experienced an intensive crackdown on their rights. I have heard countless shocking first-hand testimonies of arrests, of abuses and of violence against women and girls. Kashmiris deserve the freedom, safety and self-determination that was promised to them over 75 years ago, as set out in UN resolution 47. Instead, they have been deprived of their rights of expression, their internet access is tightly controlled, they are arbitrarily detained, the Indian police force kills without accountability, and Amnesty reports that it looks likely that there will be demolitions of homes in Jammu and Kashmir. The people of Jammu and Kashmir live in one of the most heavily militarised areas on the planet. Will the Minister please tell us what dialogue, if any, is happening with the Indian authorities to address the abuses of Kashmiris? Why have this Government decided to include Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir on their safe list?

Last year’s Supreme Court decision, which recommended the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, was welcomed by charities and NGOs in the human rights space, and rightly so. I am sure the Minister agrees that such an initiative could be powerful in bringing peace as well as oversight to the region. Will he commit to promoting it to Ministers’ Indian counterparts?

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Labour, Manchester, Gorton

My hon. Friend mentioned the horrific human rights abuses that have taken place in Palestine; she talked about Kashmir as well. There is also the brutal genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar and the abuses against the Uyghurs by the Chinese Government. The one thing that all those examples have in common is that the abuses have largely been committed against Muslims for their Muslimness. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is the worst manifestation of Islamophobia and a prime example of what happens when Governments are not held to account for their demonisation of Muslims?

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

I thank my hon. Friend not just for his intervention, but for the work he does in this space to champion and fight for recognition of a definition of Islamophobia in this country. This is not just about holding our country and our Government to a standard, but about fighting against and tackling state-sanctioned Islamophobia across the world.

Last week, along with many colleagues, I attended an event held by Open Doors UK to highlight areas around the world where Christians are persecuted for their faith. One of the top 10 countries was Nigeria. Last year, the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief published a report warning that treatment of Christians was near-genocidal. Sadly, other minority groups are also at risk of torture and death. One of my own constituents was forced to flee Nigeria after months of being on the run because of his sexuality. After he managed to escape, the Nigerian authorities killed his brother for assisting him, and then they killed another family member when they would not reveal where he was. One would have hoped that his arrival to the UK would bring an end this trauma, but sadly, following his substantive interview, he had to wait more than a year for his asylum claim to be granted.

Another country on the Open Doors watchlist for the persecution of Christians was China. I welcome our country’s leading voice in condemning the horrors that the Chinese Government have imposed on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. We have been persistent in our opposition to the slave labour of the Uyghurs, alongside other atrocities amounting to ethnic cleansing. It was unfortunate that the UK’s resolution at the Human Rights Council narrowly failed, but I ask the Minister and his Department to continue their efforts to pursue independent mechanisms to investigate human rights crimes through the HRC.

Jimmy Lai, a British citizen currently on trial under Beijing’s national security law, could face life imprisonment for distributing a pro-democracy newspaper. Hong Kong Watch advises that his trial is partly based on the testimony of a witness who underwent torture while imprisoned in mainland China. I join Hong Kong Watch in calling on the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to raise Mr Lai’s case and call for his immediate release.

Hongkongers are not safe from the oppressive regime of the Chinese Communist party either at home or abroad. We have Hongkongers seeking safety in the UK, with bounties on their head, who Ministers were reluctant to even meet. Here in the UK, we know of interference in our universities, violence outside embassies and intimidation of Hongkongers who speak out against Chinese state policies. I know that the Minister will share my view that any infiltration from Chinese state agents in our public institutions and political establishment must be dealt with robustly, but we have a responsibility to protect the safety and rights of private Hongkongers who have made our country their home.

We also have a duty to ensure that proposed changes to our domestic law do not negatively impact our levers of influence. I am deeply concerned that the Government are failing to hear the Uyghur groups’ warnings that the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will limit their own campaigns for justice.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I want to raise the case of two of my friends and colleagues in Hong Kong who have been detained for quite a while now. They are members of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, with whom we have worked over the years in different disputes. The first is the chair, Carol Ng Man-yee, a British Airways cabin crew worker we worked with in major disputes out there who founded the British Airways Hong Kong cabin crew union; the other is Lee Cheuk-yan, the general secretary of the confederation. They are both serving time simply for being trade unionists and representing their members. It is important that we ask the Government to maintain the pressure on the Chinese authorities for their release.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

I wholeheartedly agree. We need to ensure that it is safe for people to speak up for democracy, workers’ rights and human rights, and that we continue to voice their struggle when they are voiceless.

This is the tip of the iceberg internationally. If we were to cover the true state of human rights across the globe, we would be here all week, but I want to end closer to home, because we are far from perfect.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there are 14.5 million people living in poverty in the UK. More than 4 million of them are children. It is not just standards of health and living that are failing; basic rights such as the right to protest are being eroded. The Government are seeking to override our own courts, as we have seen with the Rwanda Bill that was voted down in the other place this week. It is not just the Government’s action that is weakening our reputation for human rights on the world stage, but their inaction: there has been cross-party condemnation of the Government’s weak response to China, and shock at the lack of acknowledgment of human rights abuses in India during trade talks. Tory MPs are even calling for the reinstatement of Donald Trump, the ex-President arrested on charges of plotting to overturn an election result.

We may look from afar at the humanitarian horrors that we see on the screens in our hands, but we must be able to answer the younger and future generations who ask, “What did you do?”, and we must not turn a blind eye to the erosion of human rights that is happening in front of our eyes at home. From Luton to Lagos, from Gaza to Kabul, from Kabul to Kashmir, when people know about human rights abuses, they care about them. The peace, stability and safety of all are worth striving for, and we can only do that together.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

Order. I remind hon. Members that they should bob if they wish to speak in the debate. Given the number of people on my list, Members will have seven to eight minutes to speak. I call Debbie Abrahams.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 2:47, 24 January 2024

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sarah Owen on her absolutely superb speech, which was so broad ranging. It really was fantastic.

I want to focus on human rights abuses in Palestine and Kashmir. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group, and vice-chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group. My focus in both groups has been on human rights and our common dignity and humanity. We are all born free and equal in dignity and rights.

I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories back in 2014, when I was a relatively new MP. Quite frankly, I was absolutely horrified by what I saw and heard: healthcare being withheld from Palestinians, the destruction of Palestinian homes and schools on the west bank, the physical exclusion of Palestinians from their own farmland and the arbitrary application of law. By that, I mean that children who were picked up for throwing stones at cars and soldiers had the full force of an adult criminal justice system thrown at them, and were often detained without trial. It really was quite horrendous and draconian. All those actions are clear contraventions of rights associated with articles of the universal declaration of human rights.

I have campaigned for a two-state solution ever since, including by supporting the work of the Saddleworth Palestine Women’s Scholarship Fund, which has funded Palestinian women in Gaza and the west bank through education. We had a presentation from somebody from the fund who visited Gaza in the summer to see how the women we had been supporting were doing. Back in November, she reported that, unfortunately, a number of the students we had supported had been killed in attacks. I cannot describe the sense of loss.

Since the heinous attacks of 7 October and the abduction of the hostages, there have been attacks on Gazan civilians by Israeli forces, with over 25,000 deaths, three quarters of which were women and children, over 60,000 injured, and many thousands missing. That seems to me to be disproportionate and collective punishment of innocent people. Human rights and the rule of law must apply to all, and at all times, not just when it is convenient, whether for the UK or its allies. Those deaths must be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Similarly, I await the judgment from the International Court of Justice on the potential genocide of Palestinian people.

The international community must do better, and we must do better. I have been working with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on both Kashmir and, more recently, Gaza. I am also involved with the Global Compassion Coalition, trying to spread the message of the International Association of Parliamentarians for Peace. We all collectively want to see actions to support a ceasefire. Once again, I call for an immediate ceasefire, the safe return of each and every hostage, the delivery of unrestricted humanitarian aid, and the end of the total siege on the Gaza strip. As I mentioned to the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister yesterday, the partner of one of my constituents is still awaiting evacuation from southern Gaza. If the Minister has any news, I would be very grateful. I mentioned yesterday that he was attacked over the weekend, suffered a broken leg and has not received any healthcare.

I turn to Kashmir. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has done some excellent work. Many Members here will be familiar with the reports it produced in 2018 and 2019 on human rights abuses in both Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The UN reports raised concerns about women’s rights in particular, and reported the use of gender-based violence in Jammu and Kashmir in Indian-administered Kashmir. There are also considerable concerns about the detention without trial of Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist—we still have not had any news about his release—and the unsafe conviction of Yasin Malik. Those are just two examples about which a range of human rights agencies—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, as I mentioned, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—have raised concerns. They have advocated for the repeal of the public safety act and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which contravene international humanitarian law. As the UN has stated:

“There are deep inter-connections between ending such blatant violations of those rights, providing freedom from fear, and the right to security, dignity, equality and justice.”

I want to talk about the case of Yasin Malik in more detail. The Supreme Court of India is awaiting a decision on whether his life sentence will be changed to a death penalty. That is imminent. It seems absolutely at odds with the fact that India is a signatory to the UN convention. I would very much appreciate a response from the Minister on that point.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Labour, Manchester, Gorton

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent work on the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group, of which I am a vice-chair. She makes a powerful point about Mohammad Yasin Malik, who has the threat of a death sentence hanging over him. However, there are many other political people in prison in Kashmir. Political life has been stifled in Kashmir. As we approach 5 February, which is Kashmir Solidarity Day, it is important to make progress on this. Our Government have many reasons for being more engaged, and not complacent about getting the issue resolved. Remember that three nuclear powers are involved in this dispute, and the risk they pose to world peace is incredible.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I totally agree. As we have seen, we were asleep at the wheel on Israel and Gaza. A few years ago when we visited Pakistan, we were warned by the high commissioner that Kashmir, at a geopolitical level, is the most significant concern for stability and safety. We cannot go on ignoring Kashmir; as my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, we must get resolution, together with the Kashmiri people, who are right at the heart of this.

I will not try your patience any more, Dame Maria. Human rights apply to every single one of us, wherever we are and at all times. We cannot dip in and out of them when it suits our purpose.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North 2:56, 24 January 2024

I congratulate Sarah Owen on securing the debate, which is an important opportunity to raise very challenging situations around the world. She is right that it is even more appropriate to emphasise them in the week when we mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

I also pay tribute to the late Sir Tony Lloyd. He was a regular contributor to debates like this in Westminster Hall. In fact, some of us had the privilege of taking part in what turned out to be his last debate, on 7 December, which marked the 75th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights and the UN convention on genocide. His commitment to human rights around the world was unwavering, and it was an honour and an inspiration to take part in any event or debate at which he was present. I got to know him particularly through his work on Colombia; I may say a bit more about that later. When Tony spoke out about the importance of protecting fundamental human rights, he did so—as all of us do—not just out of personal interest, or even as a result of witnessing such abuses at first hand or meeting people who had experienced them, but, as the hon. Member for Luton North said, on behalf of the people he represented and we represent in our constituencies.

Glasgow North, like Luton North, is home to a number of very active campaign groups—Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, Global Justice Now—and many more people who belong to such organisations, even if they do not attend meetings, as well as thousands of others who take an interest in these issues and want to play their part as good global citizens. I hear from them regularly on many of the issues and country situations that have been raised today: the persecution of Christians in Nigeria; the brutal treatment of Uyghurs and other minority groups in China; violence against Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis and Christians in Pakistan; forced detention of protesters in Iran; and, of course, the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and in Israel and Gaza. The UK Government have a role to play in all those situations.

In Nigeria, journalists and digital activists continue to face harassment, threats and attacks by the state, simply for expressing critical opinions. Boko Haram continues to act with impunity in many areas, and continues to kill, abduct or displace thousands of Christians and other minorities each year. What are the UK Government doing to raise these concerns with their counterparts in Nigeria? What support are they providing to agencies on the ground, both to protect people at risk of violence and to support improvements to governance and political participation?

Likewise, in their relationship with Pakistan, how are the UK Government using the long and historic links with that country to call out persecution, and to encourage the authorities to respect diversity and plurality and live up to their international obligations on freedom of religion and belief?

The situation in China has been addressed many times, and I continue to hear from constituents with ongoing concerns about its treatment of Tibet, its persecution of Buddhists, the interference with the leadership of that community, the education of children there, and the denial of rights to those who want to peacefully practice Falun Gong and Falun Dafa. The UK Government need to continue to work with international partners, including through the UN Human Rights Council, to ensure that the Chinese Government are held to account.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

The hon. Gentleman is giving a great speech, and he mentioned a long list of places with human rights abuses. He mentioned the UN Human Rights Council. I know that he, like me, has a great interest in West Papua. Over half a million people have been killed since the Indonesian occupation of West Papua, and 70,000 are internally displaced. The Indonesians have agreed a UN Commission on Human Rights visit to West Papua, but it has not happened; it has been blocked. Should the Government not once more press Indonesia and the UN for that visit to take place?

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Those international bodies must have a purpose. If countries such as the United Kingdom will not show a lead, who will? I fully support and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work on behalf of the people of West Papua.

Coming back to the situation in China, we also have a role to play. As individuals, we have a responsibility to consider where some of the cheap consumer goods we take for granted and order online have really come from. Whose hands have made them? Market forces can play a part in driving change, if consumers, including all of us here today, are prepared to ask and pay for fairly traded, sustainably sourced products.

On the middle east, the consensus among residents of Glasgow North is clear: there must be an immediate ceasefire on both sides in Israel and Gaza, with the release of hostages, the opening of humanitarian corridors to let aid in and people who want to leave out, and the beginning of the process to negotiate a lasting, peaceful, just and democratic settlement.

Condemnation and speaking out against these situations is important and symbolic, but there is more that the Government can and must do. They have given themselves powers to impose Magnitsky sanctions on individuals who commit gross human rights violations, and they should not be afraid to use those powers. They are negotiating trade deals and disbursing aid funds, and respect for human rights should be at the centre of policymaking in both those areas.

In many situations where people’s rights are not being fully respected, it is the behaviour not necessarily of Governments but of large multinational businesses that is responsible. I hear from many constituents who support legislation to hold companies and corporations to account. I mentioned Colombia earlier, and large extractive companies or agricultural conglomerates in many parts of that country are displacing whole communities to make way for gold mines or palm oil plantations, even where those communities are refused democratic consent or where displacement would destroy traditional ways of life or make a wider area unhabitable because of the pollution these activities bring.

The Government should work here in the UK and with international partners to put the Ruggie principles on business and human rights on an enforceable legislative footing. Many of these companies are listed on the UK stock market or are based here, so they should be subject to a rigorous compliance regime. A wide coalition of charities and NGOs are working hard on this issue, which should rightly be a consideration not just for the Government but for the official Opposition and for all of us who are preparing manifestos in this election year.

As will be clear from those who have spoken and those who will go on to speak, and as is clear from my mailbox, voters across the country care passionately about the human rights of everyone who lives on this planet. As many of us have said before, if one person’s rights are disrespected, in some respects all our collective human dignity is diminished.

The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party are clear that, with independence, respect for human rights would be at the heart of Scotland’s written constitution—with equal justice, equal opportunity and equal dignity for everyone who lives in Scotland—and the foundation of Scotland’s role on the world stage as a good global citizen.

In the meantime, there are clear practical steps that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and all of us as individuals and voters can take, to call out human rights abuses, to seek justice and restoration, and to prevent abuses from happening in the future. That should be at the forefront of all our minds in the months to come, thorough the general election and beyond.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 3:03, 24 January 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Sarah Owen on securing this debate. I am secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, and I want to place on the agenda the way journalists have become targets, particularly in Gaza, although this has been going on for a while.

In 2022, I attended the memorial event for Shireen Abu Akleh, a young al-Jazeera journalist. She had a reputation that was respected across the middle east for professional journalistic practice and for her courage. Although Palestinian, she was an American citizen. She was involved in an action covering a raid by the Israeli Defence Forces in Jenin. During that raid, there was no firing of weapons or engagement in the immediate area, according to various investigations that took place, but she was shot with an Israeli bullet. That indicated to many people that, although there exist specific protections in international law for journalists covering wartime disputes, they were being ignored by the Israel Defence Forces at that time.

According to the independent Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 83 journalists have been killed since then, during the recent activities of the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza, but others put the figure significantly higher. The International Federation of Journalists—the international trade union grouping for journalists—has called for an independent inquiry into the targeting of journalists by the Israel Defence Forces. There is a view now that the Israeli Government have not just turned a blind eye to this, but that there has been a specific policy of targeting journalists to prevent the truth from coming out of Gaza.

Thank God for the professionalism and courage of journalists there, as we witness the tragic scenes of human suffering taking place. Over the last few weeks, that human suffering has been best exemplified by what has happened to al-Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, Wael al-Dahdouh. He has lost his wife, three children and his grandson, and his son, who was a journalist, was killed by an Israeli drone two weeks ago. Virtually his whole family has been destroyed. This goes beyond the debate about the abuse of human rights and, as far as I am concerned, well into war crimes taking place. That is specifically because of the protection that there is in international law for journalists to enable them to report from wars.

I urge the UK Government to look at the evidence in front of us about what is happening specifically to journalists in Gaza and to consider whether that is right or acceptable. In the past, they were part and parcel of establishing the very laws that were meant to protect journalists. Figures show that more journalists have died in this conflict than in every conflict since the second world war. For me, that is evidence that the Israel Defence Forces are targeting journalists, so they should be held to account.

I would like the UK Government to raise this issue with the Israeli Government, to work towards an independent investigation and to work with international agencies such as the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists to establish the truth and, just as importantly, to establish accountability for the perpetrators of what I believe is a war crime.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham 3:08, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I thank my hon. Friend Sarah Owen for securing this important debate.

The debate is wide-ranging, but I would like to focus on the situation in Palestine. Like my hon. Friend, I voted for a ceasefire in November last year, because my constituents asked me to. I shared their concerns, and I still do. In addition, hundreds of non-governmental organisations, the United Nations and the Pope all called for a ceasefire.

On that note, something happened before Christmas to reinforce my view that a ceasefire was absolutely necessary: two Roman Catholic women, a mother and a daughter, were shot dead inside the Holy Family parish church in Gaza. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said:

“They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the parish”.

Pope Francis condemned the attack, as did the Archbishop of Westminster. Cardinal Vincent made a point we should all reflect on:

“the people in Gaza and the Cardinal Archbishop of Jerusalem, they’re not given to tell lies”.

The cardinal was absolutely right. The Palestinian people are not liars and they deserve to be listened to.

I raised the issue with the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Mr Mitchell, earlier this month, when he said:

“We are not clear about the full facts of what happened.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2024;
Vol. 743, c. 46.]

I wonder whether, two weeks on, the Government are now clear about the full facts. Those two women did not deserve to die. They were in a place of worship—something that is recognised under international humanitarian law and the Geneva convention. I am no expert, but like so many people outside this place, I know that what happened at the Holy Family parish church was wrong. Those women deserve justice, as does everyone else who has suffered.

The United Nations has described the situation in Gaza as “a living hell”, and the under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs said:

“Famine is around the corner…For children in particular, the past 12 weeks have been traumatic: No food. No water. No school. Nothing but the terrifying sounds of war, day in and day out.”

The last time I checked, the death toll in Gaza was over 25,000—it may be more by the end of this debate. According to the United Nations, it is estimated that 70% of those killed are women and children. Two mothers are killed every hour, close to 3,000 women have been widowed, and 1 million women and girls have been displaced. To add another layer of misery, caesarean sections are performed without anaesthetic, and women and girls have little or no access to period products. My constituent, Dr Thomas Butts, who teaches development neurobiology in the School of Medicine at the University of Sunderland, told me:

“The extent and severity of trauma-related psychiatric illness in Gazan children’s future will be horrific and will get worse the longer that the bombardment continues.”

What are the Government doing to relieve the pain that so many Gazans are experiencing? Cynics say, “What will a vote in a Parliament, thousands of miles away from Palestine, do for Palestinians?” For one, Britain is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council—we have enormous influence on the world stage. More importantly, it would give those innocent Gazans, whose lives have been torn apart, a glimmer of hope that the world has not forgotten them. I repeat today the call for a ceasefire, in the earnest hope that the Minister will reconsider his position.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South 3:13, 24 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sarah Owen on securing this important debate.

I would like to talk about the Government’s response to Israel’s violations of international law in Gaza and about revelations that I believe should be a major news story but that, as far as I am aware, have been covered by only one mainstream outlet. They relate to recently released court documents that reveal that, from very early on in the war, the Foreign Office had major doubts about Israel’s compliance with international law—a fact the Government have hidden.

The documents show that, on 10 November, just a month into the war, the Foreign Office had made an internal assessment of Israel’s compliance with international law and judged that

“the volume of strikes, total death toll as proportion of those who are children, raise serious concerns.”

It went on to say that His Majesty’s Government’s

“inability to come to a clear assessment on Israel’s record of compliance with IHL poses significant policy risks.”

However, those serious concerns were kept secret from Parliament and the public.

Instead, Ministers continued to give reassurances about Israel’s commitment to international law. For example, just four days after that assessment was made, I asked the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, in the main Chamber whether Israel had used British-made weapons for war crimes in Gaza. He replied that

“the President of Israel…has made it clear that his country will abide by international humanitarian law.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2023;
Vol. 740, c. 523.]

That was despite the fact that, as shown by these documents, his Department doubted the Israeli President’s words.

The documents reveal that another assessment was made by the Foreign Office on 8 December, expressing “concerns regarding” Israel’s

“commitment to comply with the obligation not to arbitrarily deny access to humanitarian assistance” and saying that it was “possible Israel’s actions” in relation to the provision of humanitarian relief

“were a breach of International Humanitarian Law.”

Those damning judgments were, again, not made public. Instead, Government Ministers continued to reassure the public about Israel’s commitment to international law, and they continue to do that.

The documents show that, a few days after that assessment, the Foreign Secretary

“decided he was satisfied there was good evidence to support a judgment that Israel is committed to comply with International Humanitarian Law.”

On that basis, he continued allowing arms sales to Israel, despite the fact that, according to our Government’s policy and international law, arms export licences should not be granted if there is a clear risk that they could be used in violation of international law. That recommendation was accepted by the Business Secretary on 18 December, and arms sales to Israel were allowed to continue.

When questioned about these matters at the Foreign Affairs Committee this month, the Foreign Secretary failed to disclose the fact that his Department had carried out a formal review of Israel’s compliance with international law, and he denied that he had made a ministerial decision about allowing arms sales to continue. Members will be unsurprised to learn that the Chair of that Committee is writing to the Foreign Secretary to ask him to clarify his comments.

What does this tell us? First, it tells us that, early on in the war, the Foreign Office had serious concerns about Israel’s breaches of international law. Secondly, it tells us that Ministers hid that fact, pretending in Parliament and in the media that they had confidence in Israel’s commitment to international law. Thirdly, it tells us that we should have absolutely no confidence in the Government’s arms export licensing regime, which Ministers boast consists of

“the toughest regulations anywhere in the world”—[Official Report, 27 November 2023;
Vol. 741, c. 565.]

but which are clearly grossly inadequate.

To finish, I would like to ask some questions of the Minister. Why did Foreign Office Ministers not reveal that their Department had serious concerns about Israel’s behaviour from as early as 10 November? Was that because they wanted to give Israel the green light for its bombardment of Gaza and they thought that revealing this assessment would simply make that too hard? Why did the Foreign Secretary recommend continuing with arms sales to Israel even though his Department had those concerns? Was it because this Government are too cowardly to stand up for international law, or is it because they do not care about international law when it does not suit them? Finally, will the Government comply with their own rules and with international law and the basic humanity at the heart of it and stop arming Israeli war crimes?

Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (EU Accession) 3:18, 24 January 2024

You bounced me out of writing my speech, Dame Maria. [Laughter.] It is a pleasure to wind up for the SNP in this important debate. I congratulate Sarah Owen on securing the debate; it is a very timely discussion, and a pretty bleak one for those of us who believe in international co-operation and the rules-based international order.

This is close to the SNP’s heart. Our objective as a party is for Scotland to be an independent state. In order to be a global citizen, there is a need to look after our folks at home but also to be a voice for internationalism, progress, multilateralism, co-operation and the rule of law in the world. As a party, we are heavily invested in making the rules-based international order function. We believe in an international community—not global governance, but an international community and structured permanent co-operation—and we believe that that architecture should operate to a series of values that are universally applied against our friends and others.

This debate is close to our hearts. It is a bleak time that we find ourselves living through. It is important to remember a bit of historical context to this. As an SNP Member and an out and proud nationalist for Scotland, I would say that the UK has a good story to tell on the creation of the international human rights architecture. It was English and Scots lawyers who were absolutely integral to the creation of the Council of Europe’s human rights framework and the international court in Strasbourg. UK lawyers have been instrumental in helping to promote the case of human rights worldwide, particularly through the Commonwealth mechanisms, such as they are; we could improve on them, but they do exist and they have made progress. The UK has a good story to tell on this, and I want to see the UK do better than it has done lately.

I will come back to some concrete suggestions, but the fact that the original genesis of human rights—the idea that an individual should be empowered against their Government with rights, which should be protected by an international community—is a genius idea of international co-operation, which we should all cherish and aspire to. This has been adopted, of course, by the EU and the international NGOs, particularly the UN. Human rights have not been universally applied, but that is something that we should aspire to as an international community.

As an aspiring member of the international community as an independent Scotland and part of the international community as part of the UK, I want to see all of us do better. I want to work across borders. I will work with anybody to those ends from any political perspective because the baddies are organised; the baddies are working well. Those on the right side of that ledger—I would include all in this room in that—need to co-operate better, focus more and apply international law wherever we find it being infringed.

It is a bleak time. The SNP was very proudly part of the coalition in support of UK Government policy. We had questions, but we did support UK Government policy on Ukraine, because Ukraine suffered a grievous invasion from a foreign power and the rights of the people of Ukraine have been grievously infringed and continue to be infringed daily. I am sure the SNP is part of the coalition in defence of Ukraine’s liberty and the rights of the Ukrainian people to live without fear from their neighbours.

It would be difficult to say that the UK has been so active in the case of Israel and Palestine. If human rights are to be applied everywhere, they need to be applied universally—against our friends as well as everybody else. So, I strongly support the South African referral of the actions of the State of Israel to the international frameworks. There is a case to answer. I do not believe that individual politicians should use words like “genocide” lightly. I think there should be proper investigations and it should be proper authorities making such decisions, but there is surely cause for concern; surely the evidence that we have seen coming out of Israel and Gaza and Palestine should give us all cause for concern that there is a case to answer—that the State of Israel has committed war crimes, and that must have consequences—so I strongly support the referral by the South Africans to the international framework.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, I think, puts it best:

“The Human Rights System is Under Threat”

—worldwide. There is not a continent where human rights are not being infringed, either by the state, by non-state actors, or in various places by proxy actors. It’s a messy world out there. I think it was Adlai Stevenson who said that to every question there is an answer that is clear, easy to understand and entirely wrong. I do not expect the UK to be the world’s policeman. I do not expect our Minister to be responsible for solving all these problems, but an international coalition needs to be put together to work on them. The UK could do rather more than we have seen to date in those efforts.

I have a few concrete suggestions. I am about to make some criticism of some UK Government Ministers. I would specifically exempt the Minister present from that criticism; I have not heard him put a foot wrong on these matters, and I do believe that he deeply shares these values. But where we see UK Government Ministers talking about breaking international law in a “limited and specific way” with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol, that is just not how serious Government Ministers and serious Governments talk. That is not how we should be discussing these things. Where we see leading Members of the Government party talking about “unelected foreign judges” in Strasbourg—somehow unqualified judges, as well—as if our judges are elected and as if the members of the court in Strasbourg or Luxembourg are not deeply qualified individuals, it is just not how serious countries talk. The reputational damage to the UK—I am an SNP member, so I should be enjoying this, but I am not. The UK needs to do better with this. We know it is loose talk from loose cannons, but the very worst people worldwide are taking the very worst lessons from this and that should give us all pause.

We are also seeing, as a matter of Government policy, the Rwanda Bill, which has deep implications for international law, yet breaking international obligations to some of the most vulnerable people in the world is being trumpeted as if it was a mere bagatelle. It is a deeply significant piece of legislation and it gives the very worst example to the baddies in the world, who are looking to undermine this international structure that we are all surely invested in.

Speaking of investment, I appreciate that all budgets everywhere at this time are difficult, but we still need to see greater investment from the UK, not only in international aid and development but specifically in the international human rights architecture. That is supporting NGOs in the field; I echo all colleagues who have specifically praised international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many others that are active in this space.

We also need to see specific funding for NGOs that are working on investigations and accountability mechanisms, greater support for UN mechanisms for accountability and support for journalists, who have been mentioned by a number of colleagues today. If we do not know what is going on, we will not be able to hold the baddies to account; journalists have a privileged and special place in law, so we need to see that being applied by the international community. The UK really is in a position to have much more influence in that respect.

We also need to see prioritisation of human rights in trade policy. One of the oft-stated advantages of leaving the European Union is that the UK has an independent trade policy, so let us see human rights being put far higher up that agenda than we have seen so far.

I remember that during my time in the European Parliament there was always a human rights component of all EU trade deals. My group almost always voted against trade deals on the basis that the human rights component of such deals was not strong enough. We were not against the trade deals; we just thought that the EU could do more to nudge partner countries in a better direction. The UK really has not prioritised human rights in trade deals at all and we must see much better efforts in that respect. So far, we have seen too little progress.

We also need to apply the values that we all support equally, whether it is difficult to do so or not. We are very vocal about the infringement of the rights of the Ukrainian people, but we have been posted missing on the infringement of the rights of the Palestinian people. We need to do so much better than we are doing currently. However, where there is an international coalition that will work in that direction—I believe that, on balance, the UK has a better story to tell than many other countries—I will be part of that coalition. I believe in working across borders and across parties, because there is an international architecture that is fragile and under attack from all sides; and I believe that those of us who are on the right side of this discussion need to work more closely together to promote these ends.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 3:27, 24 January 2024

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria, and I must say to Alyn Smith that if his speech was a half-written one, it was a remarkably good one.

I thank my hon. Friend Sarah Owen for securing this debate. Like many colleagues, she has rightly exposed the depths of the horrors being inflicted in our world today, which include the abuses of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Hongkongers here in the UK having bounties put on their heads, and the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where the people have lived for far too long in a limbo of injustice and insecurity.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of people around the world being persecuted for their faith, which I will address in tomorrow’s Westminster Hall debate on religious persecution, and I am keen to hear privately more details about the constituency case that she mentioned regarding Nigeria.

All these issues are worth so much more consideration than I can give them in 10 minutes. Consequently, if hon. Members will forgive me, I will focus on those suffering in Sudan and give them a voice, because the conflict there is not being given the attention that it rightly deserves.

Before I do so, however, I will talk about Gaza. What is happening in Gaza is an intolerable horror and a disgrace to humanity, and it must end. In Gaza, 85% of the population have been forcibly displaced, but nowhere is safe for them. Hundreds of thousands of people are living without shelter in cold weather, with precious little access to food, water and healthcare. Famine and disease epidemics are way too close now. Humanitarian access is being limited in a way that even Ministers here are clear is completely and utterly unjustified.

The siege must end. None of this is compatible with the universal human rights that all our faiths and all our traditions hold dear, which are rights that we, in turn, see as a foundation for our own peace and security. We need an immediate halt to the violence in Gaza, with a sustained ceasefire; we need a genuine process to bring about a fair and just two-state peace; and we need accountability through the independent international system, within which the same rules apply to all.

Many of these calls apply equally to Sudan, where tens of thousands have been killed and 7.6 million people have been forcibly displaced since the conflict began last April. If hon. Members will forgive me, I want to spell out some of the conclusions from the recent report of the UN panel of experts on Darfur. The report details some of the absolute horrors that the Sudanese people have been subjected to over the past months, because of a conflict between two generals.

Last summer, we raised the alarm about what was happening in the city of El Geneina in Darfur: targeted massacres; the burning of refugee camps; women and girls raped because of their ethnicity, as a weapon of war; and families deliberately trapped, and shot if they tried to flee. It had the obvious and terrible echoes of the acts of genocide alleged in Darfur 20 years ago.

The new report states that the death toll in that small city alone is likely to have been between 10,000 and 15,000 people. A girls’ boarding school and its neighbouring school were sheltering 4,500 civilian families. They were bombed with heavy artillery. Every hospital in the city was looted and destroyed. A convoy of thousands of women and children, injured elderly people and animals fleeing the city was attacked indiscriminately when it reached a bridge. An estimated 1,000 people were killed in that attack alone, and 100 are reported to have drowned in an attempt to flee the attacks on the bridge. Human rights monitors were killed while reporting on the atrocities taking place.

The report sets out some very clear details and assessments of where the weapons used in those attacks came from. Although I know that the Government will not comment on ongoing sanctions work, I would like an assurance that the evidence from this report is being taken extremely seriously, because we need to see further action in response to these atrocities.

I also say gently to the Government that we need a more concerted and consistent approach to the atrocities being committed in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, too. That conflict is an open wound. Young children are being subjected to brutal violence of all kinds by armed groups, including rape, and are recruited as soldiers in their hundreds. Some 720,000 people have fled their homes just since October, adding to almost 7 million local refugees. More than 11 million people are going hungry in just the three most affected provinces.

Many armed guards have been identified as responsible for the atrocities, but I believe that it is important to highlight the M23 militia, because it has clearly played the biggest role in the violence over the last two years. Time and again, credible reports from the UN and human rights organisations have assessed that elements within the Rwandan armed forces and intelligence services are responsible for materially supporting M23. Our closest allies have noted that, too. They have noted, equally, the Government’s apparent reticence to play our part and to follow their suit.

Understandably, there is a suspicion that the reason for our inconsistency and inaction on this issue is the Rwanda migration deal, Tory infighting, and foreign policy that is effectively being run from the Home Office. This massively damages our relationship with the DRC, which is really an important partner across so many issues. Equally, how can we say that the UK is genuinely supporting the human rights of all when we are being seen as utterly inconsistent on this issue? I believe we need a Government who can more effectively support human rights abroad.

I will not pretend that any of this is easy. I know that our influence is limited and that sometimes symbolic acts of rejection and disengagement do more harm than good—I honestly get that, but I believe that we need to rebuild our connections with countries around the world and recognise how the world is changing. If we do not, our actions in support of human rights will have precious little impact. We will be shouting into a void while being heard by no one.

I know that we are not solely responsible for righting all the wrongs of the world, but surely we must do our part. The Opposition believe that if we are smarter, more strategic and more consistent in our engagement around the world, we can have greater impact within our partnerships, but that requires our words and actions to be aligned in support of human rights.

On arms exports, for example, a Labour Government would reform the system so that it is transparent and committed to upholding international law. The criteria say that licences should not be granted where there are clear risks of UK arms being used for internal oppression or violations of international humanitarian laws, but the Minister will recognise that just having those criteria is not enough. The judgments that are made when applying the criteria need to be clear and accountable, and they need to be credible.

It is frankly difficult to believe that the criteria could have been applied robustly in some cases. Israel has faced very serious allegations from bodies including the United Nations and is the subject of ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court. That raises very serious questions about how licences could be granted to Israel. It is not just about the quality of judgments being made in some cases; it is about the quality of the assessments available to inform these judgments. In a number of cases, whether it is Myanmar, Ethiopia or Sudan, I believe that there have been clear weaknesses in our foreign policy—because we simply have not been monitoring the warning signs well enough, or we do not have joined-up policy structures that can respond quickly and effectively, or we have not had the capacity to map the perpetrators and the sources of atrocity risks and have not identified their lines of support, shut them down and held them to account.

The international development White Paper pointed in the right direction, and we welcome that. We want to build on it, should we win the next election. But frankly, only a smart, strategic, cross-Government approach can truly help to prevent atrocities, systematic abuses of human rights, and the dire, sickening, shameful consequences of those abuses, which we are seeing in so many places around the world—in Sudan, in DRC and in Gaza.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:38, 24 January 2024

It is an honour to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. We have known each other a long time, but I do not think I have had the chance to say “Dame Maria” in public, so that made me feel good.

I am very grateful to Sarah Owen, and I congratulate her on securing this really important debate. Some who have participated have recognised the important contribution of Tony Lloyd on this subject and many others. His passing is a very sad loss.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government on these very important issues, which have been raised with passion and conviction. That was very clear. I will seek to respond to as many points I can, but I cannot promise to respond to every single one. This is probably one of the most wide-ranging debates I have ever been involved in, for understandable reasons, and that in itself is a concern.

The Government believe, as the House believes, that human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This was clearly enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights 75 years ago. The UK has long championed its importance, and as we marked its anniversary last month, we renewed our steadfast commitment to protect and promote the rights that it enshrines. We demonstrated the depth of our commitment to that around the world by making five human rights pledges, which we submitted to the United Nations as part of its anniversary celebrations in December. We used the opportunity to highlight our long-standing and ongoing support for human rights defenders, and for equal rights for women and girls, disabled people and LGBT+ persons. We also cemented our commitment to defending freedom of religion or belief, combating modern slavery, and raising the standards of public and private security organisations.

My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who is the Minister responsible for human rights, also hosted an event last month to celebrate Human Rights Day, where the Foreign Secretary outlined three ways in which we can help deliver those five pledges. First, the UK will continue to stand up for the rights of all, including by holding human rights abusers and violators to account, offering support and sanctuary to victims, and defending the open international order. Secondly, we will champion the open societies that guarantee those rights in the first place. Thirdly, we will stand together with allies, friends and partners—old and new—to realise the universal declaration of human rights.

As the Foreign Secretary underlined, if we show international strength and unity, there is no reason why we cannot prevail in the fight for human rights around the world. That theme has resonated across both sides of this debate. I heard it from the hon. Members for West Ham (Ms Brown) and for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who both made important contributions to the debate.

As we strive towards that aim, we must overcome horrific global challenges, including humanitarian crises, conflicts and fierce opposition to human rights. They have all been catalogued today. Patrick Grady mentioned Colombia. In my brief, the Americas, I have seen at first hand the devastating impact that human rights abuses and violations can have on individuals, particularly women, in times of conflict, and on communities, democracy and freedom. These cruel injustices serve only to strengthen the UK’s resolve to promote and protect human rights in every corner of the world.

One theme that has come out of this debate loud and clear is freedom of religion or belief. I will not spend a huge amount of time on that because we will cover it in a three-hour debate tomorrow, but I will just highlight the excellent report and presentation last week from Open Doors UK about the plight of Christians in Nigeria and Pakistan, which has been touched on today. We have also heard about the persecution of Muslims, Buddhists, the Baha’is—the list goes on. There must be more tolerance in the world, and we need to work hard for that. John McDonnell talked about the importance of freedom of expression and a free press. I will not go on; he is no longer in his place, but I think we all understand the importance of that.

The UK will remain one of the most active and influential states on the international stage when it comes to human rights, including within the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. At the UN Human Rights Council last October, the UK led resolutions on Sudan—a point that was raised earlier—Somalia, and the importance of girls’ education. We also strongly supported resolutions to renew the mandate of the special rapporteurs on Russia and on Afghanistan.

We have also made important strides on sanctions. In December, linked to the 75th anniversary and the five pledges that I talked about, we announced 46 sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, against individuals and entities linked to human rights abuses around the world. We targeted individuals linked to authorities in Belarus, Haiti, Iran and Syria for their repressive activity against civilian populations.

I pay tribute to a brave individual I met in Peru, Quinto Inuma Alvarado, who was tragically murdered after I had the honour of meeting him and other human rights defenders in that country. He talked passionately about his work to protect the Amazon, but he was not allowed to continue taking those views forward, and his life was tragically cut short. My thoughts and prayers continue to be with him and his family. There is too much of this violence in the world.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

The Minister has yet to come to the topic of what is happening in Gaza, but I repeat the question that I asked: why did Foreign Office Ministers not reveal the fact that their Government had concerns about Israel’s compliance with international law as early as 10 November? I want to hear a response to that specific question.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I will come on to Israel and Gaza, and I will not be long. I will get there very quickly.

The issue of Ukraine is important for all of us, and I am grateful for the support across the House on it. We are nearly two years on from the illegal invasion, and Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General has recorded more than 120,000 incidents of alleged war crimes, murder, rape and the deportation of children. Those are matters of international humanitarian law, which is separate and distinct from the legal obligations that regulate armed conflict. We will continue to hold Russia to account. I want also to mention some of the persecution that goes on within Russia, including the imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza for his opposition to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. We have constantly called for his release since his initial arrest and will regularly raise his imprisonment with Russian authorities and in multilateral fora.

Gaza is a hot subject, and I am not going to duck the issue. There are strong opinions on both sides. My hon. Friend—I will call her that, but I should probably call her the hon. Member for West Ham—talked about the need for a ceasefire. We want a sustainable ceasefire, and we are working hard towards it.

Zarah Sultana raised important points. What I can say at this point—she will probably not be happy with the answer—is that Ministers review the advice they receive carefully and act consistently with that advice. We work hard and continue to call for international humanitarian law to be respected and for civilians to be protected. As the Foreign Secretary outlined, we assess that Israel has the capability and commitment to comply with international humanitarian law, but we are also deeply concerned about the impact on the civilian population in Gaza. Too many civilians have been killed.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

The Minister is being very generous with his time. If there are concerns in the Foreign Office, as per the internal assessment, why did the Foreign Secretary recommend continuing to allow arms sales to Israel? That goes against our current policy, which is that where there is a risk that human rights violations will take place, we should not continue selling arms licences to countries.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The Foreign Secretary outlined on 8 January that he has not received advice that Israel has breached international humanitarian law. On export licences, the UK supports Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism, provided that it is within the bounds of international humanitarian law. All our export licences are kept under careful and continual review, and we can amend, suspend or revoke extant licences or refuse new licence applications where they are inconsistent with the UK’s strategic export licensing criteria. It is important to note that, as I think hon. Members are aware, the regime is among the most rigorous and transparent in the world.

On the topic of Israel and Gaza, a number of people talked about South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice. The Government believe that this development is not helpful, and we do not support it. As previously stated, we recognise that Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas, and we do not believe that calling that genocide is the right approach. Ultimately, it is for the courts, not states, to decide on matters of genocide, and of course we will respect the role and independence of the ICJ.

Many other subjects were talked about, including Kashmir. Our long-standing position on Kashmir is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the long-standing and ongoing dispute. The UK recognises that there are human rights concerns in both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

The Minister is being generous with his time, but he has been asked a number of specific questions today—I myself asked specific questions about Gaza, Kashmir and China—and I know that with the limit on time, he is unlikely to get through them all. Could he please give a commitment that he will provide written answers to any questions left unanswered today?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I will do my best, but the questions that have been asked today are genuinely numerous and very wide-ranging. It is the hon. Member’s debate; if she would like to write separately and pick a number of questions to which she would like further answers, could she please get in touch, or can we talk afterwards and decide how best to take that forward. Would that be all right?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Let us move on to another important subject. Issues have been raised about Rwanda. The Home Secretary has made it clear that the legislation on Rwanda does not challenge the UK’s relationship with the European convention on human rights. We have a long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected and of abiding by the rule of law, both domestic and international. We are talking to the European Court about the interim measures issues that have come up, and the Court has proposed reforms to rule 39 that build on our constructive discussions. We look forward to the Court’s adopting amendments to that rule in line with this approach.

We have also talked about China today. Every day, people across China face violations of their human rights, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet, and rights and freedoms have also been eroded in Hong Kong. We consistently raise these matters at the highest levels with the Chinese authorities. We also conduct independent visits to areas of major concern wherever possible and support NGOs in exposing and responding to violations. We raise the reputational and diplomatic cost to China of its human rights violations regularly on the international stage. We were the first country to lead a joint statement on China’s human rights record in Xinjiang at the UN, and we have sustained pressure on China to change its behaviour.

As the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, made clear during yesterday’s debate—it has been a busy week on human rights issues—we urge the Chinese authorities to repeal the national security law in Hong Kong, which has had such a damaging impact on so many individuals and on the city. The Foreign Secretary has also called for Jimmy Lai’s release.

Iran has not come up so much in today’s debate—partly, I think, because there are so many areas to discuss. With one minute remaining, I would just like to highlight that we have witnessed a shocking repression of human rights in Iran, from oppressive hijab laws to the reprisals against women and human rights defenders. We have responded to these acts by sanctioning 94 individuals and entities for human rights violations. At the 78th UN General Assembly, we co-sponsored the Iran human rights resolution calling for an immediate moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. The UK will continue to work with partners to deter and challenge Iran’s human rights violations at all opportunities.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I want to mention the death penalty sought against Yasin Malik, who is a freedom-fighting activist. Why are we not talking about him?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

We abhor the use of the death penalty and we call it out wherever we can. I can talk separately about that case with the hon. Member.

The UK has not only a duty but a deep desire to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect around the world. We continue to stand with partners across the globe to uphold freedom, democracy and the sovereignty of nations, and to call out violations and abuses of people’s fundamental rights wherever they occur.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North 3:54, 24 January 2024

I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate for their thoughtful and heartfelt contributions. When it comes to people’s safety and security, things are getting worse, not better, at home and abroad. In some places, human rights are being eroded bit by bit; in others such as Gaza, they are being completely demolished. We all know where it ends when good people do and say nothing, so I am asking the Government to be brave and do good before—not in the very distant future—we have to remember the genocides of the Palestinians, the Uyghurs, the Rohingya, the Kashmiris and people of faith in various parts of the world. We know how to prevent that already. We have already learned those lessons. The time has come to act.

I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. I particularly thank my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams for her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group and for highlighting gender-based violence. Patrick Grady rightly reminded us of the importance of the Ukrainian fight against Putin. My hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy talked about how Palestinians are not just fighting a war, but now fighting famine.

My hon. Friend Zarah Sultana rightly highlighted the lack of scrutiny that we have as parliamentarians because the Foreign Secretary is in the Lords. Indeed, the Minister responsible for human rights is also in the Lords. It is a bizarre situation.

I thank both Opposition Front Benchers: Alyn Smith and particularly my hon. Friend Ms Brown, for her continued hard work and commitment to her constituents and for protecting the rights of vulnerable people across the world.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the UK response to international human rights abuses.