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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Human Rights debate

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Human Rights Annual Report 2006 was produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and subsequently commented on by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Both publications were debated in Westminster Hall on the 11th October. Meg, in her capacity as Foreign Office Minister, closed the session - her contribution is given below.

 

The complete account of the session is available at:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm071011/halltext/71011h0001.htm#07101138000002

 

The Human Rights Annual Report 2006 is available at: http://www.fco.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename=OpenMarket/Xcelerate/ShowPage&c=Page&cid=1159199103169

 

 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): It is an honour to take part in this debate. In my last ministerial role, I took through Parliament the Equality Act 2006, which set up the first institutional body of its kind in this country—the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which opened its doors this month to provide such support in this country. As has been said very clearly by many Members, human rights are basic rights and freedoms and belong to everyone in the world. That is what we are here to discuss today.


The Foreign Affairs Committee has demonstrated its positive and constructive engagement with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on our work to promote human rights. I am grateful for the many positive comments made about this report, which, as Members have said, has been put together in great detail by dedicated staff within the FCO, and which owes its inception to the late Robin Cook, who would be proud to hear today’s debate and the range of issues raised.

 

We value the work of the Select Committee and its comments on our work. Its report is very important. There are many ways in which we can improve what we do and better demonstrate our strong commitment to promoting human rights internationally. The promotion of human rights throughout the world will remain at the heart of our foreign policy. In his recent speech in Bournemouth, the Prime Minister emphasised the role of human rights and our shared humanity when he declared unambiguously that human rights are universal. The Foreign Secretary said recently that “every citizen of every nation deserves the freedom and equal rights of a true democracy.”

 

He made it clear that countries from Burma to Zimbabwe should play by the rules, rather than ignore them. Those rules must be the shared values and obligations to which we have all signed up—most fundamentally on human rights. He underlined the importance of our building strong and democratic societies in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 

In its report, the Committee noted the strong personal commitment of the then Minister with responsibility for this matter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who had hoped to join us this afternoon but was unable to do so because of other parliamentary business. The Committee recommended that it should be made more explicit for all Ministers that work on human rights is fully integrated into our work across the UK’s 10 international strategic priorities.

 

Since the Committee reported, we have adjusted ministerial portfolios, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). The overall responsibility for human rights issues falls to Lord Malloch-Brown, but my presence here today is evidence of the extent to which other Ministers and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary himself, are active in promoting human rights issues in our areas of responsibility. We take every appropriate opportunity to raise human rights concerns in our meetings and contacts, and I can testify to that in my personal experience as a new Minister in the FCO. That thread runs through all our work.

 

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) mentioned the importance of our contacts in dealing with such matters—not just international bodies, but our bilateral relationships. Let me give him a specific example. In September, I visited Mexico and while I was there, I discussed the major human rights issues that it faces with a range of contacts, specifically civil society and Mexican non-governmental organisations. We discussed the need to modernise the judicial system in order to end impunity and to tackle corruption. I heard also about the excellent work on justice reform that we have been able to carry out with the Mexican authorities through the Foreign Office’s global opportunities fund. Such support is being given to a range of countries around the world.


Jeremy Corbyn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Mexico. During her visit, was she able to raise the issue of migrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras who are harassed routinely while trying to travel through Mexico, the problems of the appalling treatment of some women in the states bordering the United States, and the disappearances that occur because of that? I know that human rights groups in Mexico often take up that matter.

 

Meg Munn: I met a Mexican foreign affairs Minister and discussed a range of issues, including ones such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend.

 

Mike Gapes: The Minister mentioned the global opportunities fund. In the light of the statement on the comprehensive spending review, can she assure us that the FCO will maintain its support for the fund, and particularly for human rights work?

 

Meg Munn: As I have just outlined, the global opportunities fund is extremely important in supporting such work. My hon. Friend was doubtless present for the statement earlier this week, as I was. We have just had that settlement, but how it will impact on the various areas of the Foreign Office has yet to be determined. However, I am sure that we will be in touch with his Committee with those details, and that he will want to return to that issue. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me. I have a lot of points to make and I would like to cover as many of the issues raised by hon. Members as possible.

 

Human rights are being addressed across Departments. Last Friday, a joint statement was issued in which Lord Malloch-Brown and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), expressed deep disappointment following the announcement that elections in Nepal had been postponed. Human rights work is important and is a priority in its own right.

We believe also that the realisation of human rights throughout the world is a basis for our own security and prosperity, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury said. Human rights, therefore, are integral to our foreign policy and dealings with other countries.

 

We have continued to embed human rights more explicitly in our approach to all our international priorities, including counter-terrorism and conflict prevention and resolution. The content and format of the next annual report on human rights should help to make that clear. I refer Members to our response. In paragraph 4, we set out how the next report will appear. I know that Members had some concerns about the way in which the report appears, and I hope that as we develop the report in the years to come, we will continue to make improvements that respond to concerns.

 

I shall move on to specific issues, and I, too, start with the UN Human Rights Council. It is just over one year old, and much of its first year has been spent completing its own establishment in order to get fully up and running. Securing UK objectives in an environment in which we and our like-minded partners are in a voting minority continues to be a challenge. I understand the reasons for the criticism from the hon. Member for Aylesbury about some of those issues, but in multilateral bodies, it is important that we try to secure the outcomes that we want. However, we are not always able to do so, and sometimes we must compromise our position. We will none the less continue to work to develop a Human Rights Council that meets the objectives of everybody in this Chamber.

 

The council has shown that it can be effective in the face of urgent situations involving human rights abuse. The 2 October session on Burma, which the European Union called for, sent a strong, clear and united signal from the international community to the Burmese regime. Countries throughout the world, including some Association of South East Asian Nations countries, which are very close to Burma, made strong statements—much stronger than previously. Members must recognise that as a positive development. The council has also taken other encouraging steps, including beginning to address the tragic situation in Darfur. On thematic human rights issues, the UK led a successful initiative at last month’s session to create a new UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, thereby improving the UN’s ability to address that abhorrent practice.

 

However, we have been disappointed by some of the council’s work, including, as Members have said, the disproportionate and unbalanced focus during its early months on the situation in the Middle East, while other situations were comparatively neglected. It is clear that the council is not yet all that we would like it to be, but we continue to have ambitious goals, and it has the potential to develop much further. We are committed to supporting a strong, balanced and effective body.

 

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned the involvement of civil society, and I shall certainly raise the issue with Lord Malloch-Brown in order to take it forward. We welcome the establishment of the universal periodic system to review every UN member’s human rights work. It should lead to greater fairness, balance and transparency in the consideration of individual countries. I note that Members have some reservations about how that process might operate, but what is important is that we move forward with it and improve it, while recognising that it is still a new body.

 

Mr. Lidington: Does the Minister agree that if the Human Rights Council is to have credibility, it must be able to take the initiative and call for a special report on cases where there is a flagrant abuse of human rights, and not simply defer the matter until that country’s turn comes round next in the four-year cycle?

 

Meg Munn: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It should not be a mechanism by which situations are avoided, but one that seeks to recognise that all countries need such external scrutiny. The mechanism will enable the council to achieve a wider analysis and a greater balance.

 

I turn to the issue of cluster munitions, which several Members raised. The Government share the humanitarian concerns that cluster munitions raise. Our policy is to secure a legally binding instrument that prohibits the use, development, transfer and production of certain types of cluster munitions. We want to achieve the result that saves the most lives. Our objective is to ensure that we get the best possible humanitarian outcome from any international action on cluster munitions.


Mark Hunter: In my contribution, I referred to a statement by a number of bodies—including Landmine Action, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam—pointing out that the Government had involved themselves in an exercise to rename cluster munitions, simply to avoid the expected worldwide ban next year. Will the Minister respond to that serious charge? Does she refute it? I should like some kind of response from her on that central point.

 

Meg Munn: I certainly do. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is referring to weapons systems involving valid and legitimate weapons that will be used only in strict compliance with international humanitarian law and the UK’s own rigorous targeting guidelines.

 

It is absolutely right that several Members should raise the appalling situation and ongoing brutality in Burma. There is probably no more vivid example of the trampling of a people’s basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the sight of monks and ordinary citizens being clubbed or shot on the streets is one that few of us will forget. The sense of revulsion is widely felt, and I, like many Members, am concerned that we do not know what is now happening in Burma. We are not receiving many pictures of the events there anymore, so we remain concerned.

 

However, there has been a strong response from the international community. Burma’s neighbours, the ASEAN nations, issued an unprecedented and clear statement expressing their revulsion at the regime’s violence. China also played an active role in helping to get the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, into the country, and it joined in the international consensus at the Human Rights Council.

 

Meanwhile, the European Union is discussing how to toughen sanctions, an issue on which the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked for more detail. We should continue with the targeted measures that impact on the regime, not on the ordinary people. If he will bear with me, I should prefer not to go into the details, precisely because they are subject to upcoming negotiations. It is important that we seek to achieve the best position that we can, with the majority of the EU in support of such pressure.

 

I was asked about our roles and discussions with China and India. The Foreign Secretary has had discussions with his opposite numbers from China and India, and I have regular discussions with the ASEAN nations about these issues. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) asked whether there are specific timelines. There are not at this point. We are seeking to make the Burmese regime recognise that it must enter into political reconciliation, stop the violence and talk through what should and must be the future of Burma in the modern world. We are making progress. It is slow progress, but we must keep the confidence of all involved.

 

There have been some positive steps, such as the appointment of a Liaison Minister, but we are not complacent about the situation and we do not at all say that everything is okay in Burma. Clearly, it is not, but we must work through the processes with the EU and the UN. It is also enormously important that people in the UK continue to raise the matter, keep it in the public’s mind and apply pressure internationally, in order to move to a situation that will relieve some of the long suffering of the Burmese people.

 

Members raised the issue of asylum cases. The Government’s policy is that individual cases are exactly that, and that each case should be considered on its individual merits. I have been assured by the Home Secretary that nobody has been deported to Burma in the past two months.

 

I shall move on to speak briefly about Zimbabwe. We remain deeply concerned by the rapid deterioration of human rights there. The Government of Zimbabwe continue their campaign of violence and intimidation against opposition figures, human rights activists and ordinary Zimbabweans. I am not optimistic about elections in 2008. There is a process taking place through the Southern African Development Community to seek free and fair elections in 2008, but the actions of President Mugabe to date do not give us confidence for that.

 

Hon. Members mentioned the EU-African summit. The Prime Minister made it clear that neither he nor any senior Government Minister will be attending. As to other representation and who will attend from the Zimbabwean side if President Mugabe does not, we are not at that stage. We shall consider the appropriate representation as we get nearer to the summit.

 

As I said on Tuesday, we are keeping President Mugabe’s knighthood under review. We agree that it is not appropriate that he has a knighthood, but it is not the most important or pressing issue on Zimbabwe.

 

Mr. Lidington: Will the Minister give way?

 

Meg Munn: No, I shall continue. It is not the most important or pressing issue, but the hon. Gentleman may have some news on it in the future.

 

The International Criminal Court was mentioned, and we believe that the matter is one for the court and for the Zimbabwean people. Zimbabwe has not ratified the Rome statute, so action by the International Criminal Court would require a UN Security Council resolution.

 

Sudan remains a top international priority for the UK. Respect for human rights in Sudan, and not just Darfur, is an integral part of our policy and we shall continue to work hard to improve the situation there. I was asked what support was being given in Darfur. The UK provides military and technical assistance in support of the north-south comprehensive peace agreement. We are focusing on the joint integrated units, which we want to create confidence between the armies of the north and south and secure the south, the transitional areas and Khartoum. Our training supports key peace-building activities including humanitarian work, de-mining, peacekeeping and English language training.

 

A number of hon. Members mentioned the situation in the Palestinian occupied territories. The Government’s view is that Israel should not respond to actions by violent extremists by causing suffering to innocent Palestinians. Israel has expressed its commitment to avoiding a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and we call on it to ensure that any response is in accordance with international law.

 

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said that we are perhaps not saying enough about the humanitarian successes in Afghanistan. It remains a difficult environment. I have had the opportunity to meet one of its female MPs and noted that, while that is progress, those MPs face incredible danger at times and are incredibly brave. The right hon. Gentleman was right to identify the fact that more than 5.4 million children are in school, over a third of whom are girls, and that enrolment in higher education has increased from 4,000 in 2001 to more than 40,000 today, of whom 19 per cent. are women.

 

My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) raised the issue of Falun Gong. We are concerned about the harassment, detention and reported torture of Falun Gong practitioners, and continue to raise the matter with the Chinese Government.

 

On China in general, we commit considerable time and resources to our work on human rights there. We take a multi-layered approach, including high-level messaging to encourage progress at the top and project work to deliver more immediate results on the ground. We use the regular UK-China human rights dialogue to discuss in detail issues that are often difficult, including individual cases. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown visited China in August and emphasised the positive effect that ratification of the international covenant on civil and political rights would have on China’s international relations. It would reassure the international community that China is serious about improving human rights, and we have made representations to the Chinese Government both bilaterally and through the EU on a number of issues of concern, including individual cases.

 

Hon. Members raised the issue of meeting the Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss our engagement on human rights, and we regret that that has not been possible before now. I understand that in May, when he was a Foreign Office Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield met my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling to discuss Tibet, and we shall invite the Committee to a meeting shortly. That will provide an opportunity to discuss specific objectives and the time frames for them.

 

We continue to value the EU-China human rights dialogue and are working closely with our EU partners to make it more effective. Hon. Members mentioned freedom of expression. We have made strong representations to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs about a number of incidents and we believe that China should lift its restrictions on freedom of expression both before and after the Olympics, to protect the rights of its domestic media.

 

Guantanamo Bay was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope). The British Government believe that the circumstances in which detainees are currently held indefinitely are unacceptable and that the detention facility should be closed.

 

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling raised the important issue of The Hague convention. We are disappointed that that issue remains unresolved, but, unfortunately, negotiations proved to be more complex and lengthy than was originally anticipated. We are keen for the convention to come into force as quickly as possible, and we are working closely with the Spanish to find a solution that is acceptable to all parties. We will notify Parliament about that as soon as it is possible to do so.

 

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) talked about Russia. We have consistently voiced our concerns about restrictions on the legitimate work of NGOs in Russia, most recently raising our concerns at the EU-Russia human rights consultations on 23 May. Along with EU partners, we are actively monitoring implementation of the NGO law, and we repeatedly call on the Russian authorities to implement the NGO law in line with their international commitments.

 

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of Iran, whose poor human rights record is deteriorating. We are especially concerned about the increasing use of the death penalty, including its continued use against juvenile offenders, and about the growing restrictions that he outlined on freedom of expression and the rights of minorities. It is a long-standing policy of the UK and the EU to support reform in Iran and to stand up for the international human rights standards to which many Iranians aspire, and we have repeatedly called on Iran to abolish the death penalty. Most basic standards surrounding the use of capital punishment are absent, as my hon. Friend described graphically. Executions are often carried out in public and we have doubts as to whether all death sentences are the result of a fair trial.

 

My hon. Friend also discussed same-sex relationships. We are concerned about that issue and are monitoring it carefully. I note his concerns about the wording in the report and will look into that in more detail. I will also look into the issue of the Ahwazi Arabs.

 

I am quickly getting through a feast of paper here, which is probably just as well. Hon. Members also talked about India. The UK is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. On 7 November 2006, the EU made representations to the Indian Government against the death penalty. I note the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised about the Dalits and exploitation in work.

 

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for its constructive and challenging engagement on human rights policy. We look forward to continuing and furthering that relationship as we move towards the next annual human rights report cycle. The universal declaration on human rights and the UN treaties to which we are party set out agreed standards and reflect our shared values. We will continue to promote and protect those values not only in pursuit of our international strategic priorities, but because it is the right thing to do.


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