Human Rights Speech


Greg Pope MP’s Speech to Debate on Human Rights, House of Commons 5.6.03

First, I welcome the Foreign Office annual report on human rights, which is well written and fairly comprehensive. We should sometimes say thank you to the officials who have worked on it. Much hard work has gone into that useful document, and it shows the importance that the Government place on human rights. That is to be welcomed. That said, I have some criticisms to make of it, some of which will be familiar to the Minister.

There is some strength in taking a thematic approach to the layout of the report, but it is difficult for readers coming to the report for the first time. For example, Turkey—a country in which I have an interest—is covered on 12 separate pages scattered throughout the report. It is covered in "Challenges and progress", "Human rights, economy and society", "Women's and child rights" and so on, so it is difficult to get a grip on what is happening in a particular country and what the Government's approach is. It would be worth the Minister reflecting again on the layout of the report. He said that he would, but I do not think that he has reflected a great deal because he has repeated what we have already heard, which is that it would be too expensive to produce a country-by-country report and that it would duplicate work done elsewhere. I do not accept that, nor do I think do most members of the Select Committee. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will say that he will reflect further on the layout for next year's report.

Hon. Members have widely criticised the Iraq dossier on human rights. Many saw it as a cynical document produced simply to justify the war. I do not share that criticism. I thought that it was a useful contribution to the debate. It was important to outline the abuses taking place in Saddam's regime, and I am glad that the Government did that. However, the Government undermine their own case by not being prepared to produce some of the documents relating to other countries. In their response to the report, the Government said that they had "no current plans" to produce dossiers on other countries. It seems extraordinary that we can produce a dossier on only one country. The Government are undermining their own case.

I suggest that other countries are a cause for concern. It would be helpful if the Government were to produce a document on human rights abuses on countries that pretend to be friends of ours. Both Members who have spoken mentioned Saudi Arabia. That country tortures not only its own people but ours. British citizens were tortured there only last year. Five British citizens and one Canadian were subject to sleep deprivation, were shackled and then hung upside down and beaten. Frankly, it is astonishing that the Government cannot produce a dossier on human rights abuses in what the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) would probably call our "no good, crummy allies".

I want to consider a couple of other countries. I have already mentioned Turkey, and I am pleased that its human rights record is improving. Part of that is due to the pressure of being an applicant member of the European Union, but it is due also to British foreign policy. Some of the things done there by the Foreign Office are to be commended. The police training being undertaken jointly by the Foreign Office and the Home Office is a good and important initiative. I am pleased not only that the torture reporting handbook has been translated into Turkish, but that 2,000 copies have been distributed there. However, we should accept that there is a long way to go. In 2001, the European Court of Human Rights made 160 judgments against Turkey, and I am still concerned about the widespread use of torture in prisons and police cells. I urge the Minister to keep up the pressure on Turkey, because it is having some effect.

The other country in which British foreign policy is making a real difference is Iran. Our policy of constructive engagement with the regime in Tehran is having an effect. Some credit ought to go to the Foreign Secretary, who has taken a personal interest in Iran and has visited it two or three times. Also to be welcomed is the new EU-Iranian dialogue on human rights. We hear people say that, in our foreign policy, Britain is merely a poodle of America. The lie to that is given by our approach to Iran, which is completely different to that of the Bush Administration. President Bush says that Iran is part of the axis of evil. I think that he is wrong; more important, however, the Government seem to think that he is wrong. We are making a difference with our policy of constructive engagement.

Constructive engagement may be making a difference and paying dividends in some countries, as it is in Iran, but I am at a loss as to why we persist in such activities in countries where they make no difference. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), the Committee Chairman, mentioned Uzbekistan. I have a longstanding interest in that country, but I cannot understand why a country with a human rights record as bad as Uzbekistan's should have been rewarded by being asked to host meetings of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development only last month.

We should bear it in mind not only that Britain attended those meetings, but that British Ministers chaired them. It is a disgrace that we should have done so in a country that has such a poor human rights records. I note that one of those who chaired the meetings was the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who was a Minister at the time. She is good at parading her conscience before Parliament and, given that country's human rights record, I find it amazing that she felt able to go to Tashkent. The Foreign Office admits in the report that there has been no improvement in Uzbekistan's worrying human rights record. I wonder what on earth we were doing there.

I shall briefly turn to Zimbabwe. I deeply deplore the fact that President Mugabe was invited to and went to Paris in mid-February. In deeply deploring that action I am doing a lot more than the British Government managed. The Government's silence on the issue was worrying. Perhaps, it had something to do with timing—Mugabe was in Paris on 16 and 17 of February, and the EU sanctions regime was due for renewal on 18 February. Perhaps I am being naive and there was a quid pro quo: we soft-pedalled our criticism of President Chirac's invitation in return for Chirac not vetoing the renewal of EU sanctions against Zimbabwe. If that is the case, I find that pretty grubby.

I would have been much happier if the Government had stood up and said loudly and clearly what they really believed, which is that it is a disgrace that Mugabe was invited to Paris. We were treated to the spectacle of Mrs. Mugabe shopping on the boulevard St. Germain and the Champs Elysées while millions of Zimbabweans starve. The Government should have said that that was a disgrace.

I reach the same conclusion that the Select Committee reached in its report on the FCO report:

"it is vital that the United Kingdom sets the highest possible standards of respect for human rights . . . if its work in promoting such rights overseas is to reach its full potential".

We cannot possibly press for human rights improvements in other countries if we cannot be proud of our own record.

Our record—to put it mildly—is undermined by our acquiescence in what is taking place in Guantanamo bay, which has been going on for too long. Most reasonable people could accept that suspects might be detained in Guantanamo bay in the immediate aftermath of the war against the Taliban. I thought it was reasonable, as I am sure did many other hon. Members. It is now many months later and we should be in a position to press our American allies to either release people or bring them to trial. In the United States, it has been possible to bring other people to trial for terrorist offences committed elsewhere; the same should be possible for those being held in Guantanamo bay. While we acquiesce in what is going on there, our case for promoting human rights worldwide is undermined.

Nevertheless, I give a warm welcome to the report, which is an important contribution.

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