Mark arguing for human rights improvements around the world

October 11, 2007 2:30 PM
By Mark Hunter

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I applaud the Select Committee for producing this robust and detailed annual report and its Chairman for his succinct presentation of its contents today. The Select Committee ought to be congratulated on what is self-evidently a thorough job of work.

I start with an issue close to my heart and, from what I have heard, to the hearts of many of us: cluster munitions. A total ban on cluster munitions has been a campaign issue for many of us for a long time, and although we are pleased that the Government have signed up to the Oslo declaration to ban indiscriminate or dumb cluster bombs, it is still, in the opinion of many, not good enough.

The problem with banning only dumb cluster bombs is that the definitions of "smart" and "dumb" are not set in stone. All cluster munitions are indiscriminate, ineffective and devastating to civilians. They are militarily unnecessary and totally immoral. Few of them go off when and where they are supposed to, and even smart munitions have a significant failure rate, as we have heard. If the Government are to fulfil the commitment they made in Oslo, all cluster munitions should be banned, not just the ones that they term dumb. Britain should be taking a lead on the issue. We should be at the forefront, helping to ban the use, manufacture and sale of all cluster munitions, but how can we do so unless we set an example ourselves?

I can at least thank the Government for their clarification, in their response to the annual report, of what cluster munitions are still retained by the UK-namely, the 155 mm L20A1 artillery round-but surely I am not the only person present who finds that admission deeply depressing. The Government stand accused by Oxfam, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Landmine Action and many others of simply renaming one of their two remaining cluster munitions to get around the worldwide ban expected next year. Is it not damning that despite all the evidence of the horrific and indiscriminate damage caused by such weapons, the British Government say that they will continue to retain them in service until the middle of the next decade? Is that not the most damning indictment of Government policy, and should we not be ashamed of it?

The annual report into human rights abuses around the world raises many issues that remain deeply troubling. As hon. Members have said, it is impossible to comment on all regions and all issues in the time available. Like others, I shall highlight some of what I consider to be the very worst situations, beginning with Iraq.

The increasing number of executions, the use of questionable trial procedures and the alleged use of torture to extract confessions are deeply worrying developments. Sectarian and political violence have escalated throughout the year, with allegations that Iraqi security forces themselves are linked to some of the armed groups accused of involvement in civilian killings and torture. In particular, the situation of women in Iraq has deteriorated greatly. Violence has increased, including so-called honour killings by male relatives. In addition, the UN estimates that more than 34,000 civilians were killed in Iraq during the past year alone. Although the true number of civilian casualties can never be known, 2 million are internally displaced and a further 2 million are refugees in neighbouring countries.

The aftermath of the conflict has been truly dreadful. Not only must the Government do as much as possible to encourage the Iraqi Government to promote the rule of law and protect human rights, questions must still be asked about why a full exit and post-fighting strategy was not developed before we entered the arena in the first place. In their response to the report, the Government say that they continue to work with the Iraqi Government on human rights issues. I ask the Minister what progress has been achieved and how often liaison has occurred on the subject.

Another topic in which many other Members have an active interest is the current situation in Burma. The whole world has watched in horror as events in Burma have unfolded during the past months-events that come in the context of Burma's deteriorating human rights record of pre-trial detention and keeping political and ethnic prisoners in jails and labour camps, as well as credible reports of torture. The news has been filled with stories of mass arrests, of police breaking up peaceful protests using live bullets as well as teargas, and of police and paramilitary forces beating protesters-all of which has resulted in many being injured or killed. Only 10 deaths have been officially acknowledged by the Burmese Government, but it is feared that the death toll is considerably higher.

We are all acutely concerned about the stories coming from foreign journalists under cover in Burma. In one case, a BBC reporter heard reports of bodies of monks being hidden and burned in a local crematorium. As a first course of action, all detained prisoners should be accounted for and released. Although I am pleased to see that the junta has appointed a go-between to liaise with Aung San Suu Kyi, I am concerned that no timeline has been accepted for the negotiation process. Will the Minister tell us whether any progress has been made, whether the meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi has taken place, and whether the Burmese Government have been pressed by the British Government to create a timeline for those meetings?

The role of China and India is crucial in bringing pressure to bear on the junta. Has the Minister recently discussed Burma with representatives of China or India and, if so, what was the nature of those discussions? In the past, United Nations resolutions on Burma have been blocked by Russia and China; although I am pleased to see that investigations by the special rapporteur on human rights will take place, the UN Security Council also needs to take decisive and tough action and to tighten up international sanctions.

I have spoken on human rights abuses in China before in this Chamber. Once again, I place on record that I share the Committee's concerns that changes to the legal system and commitments to other countries are not being followed up. The number of capital offences is still unacceptably high-although for most of us, any capital offence would be one too many.

One of the many issues that need urgently to be addressed is that of the re-education through labour programme. These camps are still being used to detain political and religious dissidents in an attempt to silence them. I understand that new legislation is being pushed through to change the modus operandi of the camps; but it is their nature and not the practical details that are the real problem. The detention of those convicted of crimes must be within the scope of criminal law, subject to appeal and in line with international law and precedents on human rights.

Hopes have been raised that, with the coming Olympics, the Chinese Government will see the necessity of cleaning up their human rights act before it comes under the scrutiny of the world's foreign press and other Governments. However, as we see from the report, the pace of change is glacial. I agree with the Committee's conclusion that unless benchmarks and a timetable are developed, progress will continue to be agonisingly slow. Pressure needs to be applied, and there is no better time than now; with China relying on the publicity that the Olympics games can bring, we will never have a better lever on which to insist on improvements to human rights in that country.

I am pleased that foreign press restrictions during the Olympics are to be lifted, but does not the Minister think that the issue of permanent and free access to foreign journalists should be pressed at this time? How can we properly assess the human rights situation in China if foreign press, including local journalists, and human rights groups are to be restricted and censored? The complete media freedom promised by the Chinese during the Olympics needs to become a reality, and pressure needs to be applied for it to remain so.

I join the Foreign Affairs Committee in concluding that halting the inquiry into the al-Yamamah arms deal may have caused severe damage to the reputation of the Government and UK plc in the fight against corruption. Indeed, I would go further and say that I believe it has already done so. I also join Human Rights Watch in its statement on page 18 of the report that the decision to drop the investigation sends a very negative message to those countries that we are encouraging to become more accountable and transparent. As a country, we rightly promote the message that no one is above the law, but the Government are apparently not willing to let an independent investigation take place. On behalf of my party, I again urge the Government to reconsider their decision to abandon the Serious Fraud Office investigation.

I wish to touch on one other issue before I conclude and it is that of Zimbabwe. So often, political action seems to depend on the fluctuations of the news. After the actions earlier this year that gripped the public's attention, there is again a danger that Zimbabwe will become a forgotten conflict. As the report said, the Government need to maintain the pressure on South Africa and other members of the Southern African Development Community, especially as the Mugabe regime is now beginning to crack. Does the Minister remain optimistic that the planned 2008 election will be fair, free and democratic? Will she also update us on the forthcoming EU-African summit and, given the absence of the Prime Minister, confirm who will be representing the Government?

Finally, I take this opportunity congratulate the Minister and her Department for their work on the special court for Sierra Leone. I have spoken before on that issue in this Chamber, so I shall keep my remarks short. However, I believe that Britain's role in agreeing to imprison Charles Taylor, should he be convicted, will be an important step in publicising the enforcement of human rights. We will be sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that those who violate human rights will be tried and, if found guilty, punished. I can only hope that this message is heard in many of the countries of which we have spoken today.

Once again, I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for such a thorough, detailed and thought-provoking report.

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