HC Deb 24 March 1983 vol 39 cc1170-8 2.25 am
Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

This week marks the launch of a world-wide campaign by Amnesty International called "Murder by Governments". This was launched in Britain last Wednesday by a conference in County Hall, London. The subject matter is a horrifying and gruesome tale of denial of the most fundamental human right of all—denial of the right to live. It is an absolute violation of human rights. Murder is the most serious criminal offence of all and its prohibition is the sixth commandment of the Christian church. It is a crime in all countries in the world and transcends domestic legal jurisdiction in so far as it is indictable in this country even if committed abroad.

It assumes a greater magnitude of obloquy when it is committed by a Government both because it offends the absolute principle that Governments must protect their citizens against arbitrary deprivation of life and because a Government cannot be accused of the crime in the domestic courts.

Such murder is extra judicial in two senses. It is not justiciable in the courts and it is perpetrated against individuals without due legal process.

The killings on which the campaign will focus have the following characteristics. First, they are carried out for political reasons in that the victims are killed because of their real or imputed political beliefs or activities, religion, other conscientiously held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, colour or language. Secondly, the Government are believed to have ordered, or are otherwise implicated in, the killings and have consistently failed to investigate or to take steps to stop them. Thirdly, the killings are unlawful and deliberate in that they are committed outside the judicial process and in violation of national laws and international legal standards which provide that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her life.

Consequently, excluded from this campaign are killings in self defence, non-political killings, accidental killings, killings within the framework of legitimate use of law enforcement, killings in war not forbidden under international humanitarian law, executions pursuant to the judicial death penalty, ordinary murders, killings by Government agents in violation of an enforced Government policy, and killings by non-governmental entities such as Opposition groups.

The concern of this House is manifested in an early-day motion to be tabled which reads That this House being appalled at the unlawful and deliberate killing of men, women and children carried out for political reasons by order of Governments or with their complicity in countries such El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, India, Chile and Iran, and at least seventeen other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and offering its support for Amnesty International's campaign against 'Murder by Governments', urgently calls upon Her Majesty's Government to raise its concern to representatives of offending governments in every appropriate forum. A Government can bear responsibility both by commission and omission, either directly or by illegally taking the lives of the citizens targeted for elimination or for failing to investigate and prevent such killings. The monarch crying Who will free me from this turbulent priest? and a Government, such as that in Libya, who officially sanction the murder of political opponents in exile by declaring them to be legitimate targets for death squads roving the world, are equally responsible for the actions carried out following such exhortations.

A failure to investigate political killings and bring offenders to book also implies a tacit condonation even though the Government may not bear direct responsibility for a killing for which no orders have been issued despite the fact that the perpetrators may be Government personnel.

Amnesty International in its report entitled "Political Killings by Governments", published on 23 March 1983, sets out a chronicle of individual and general cases of murder by Governments in various countries throughout the world. It describes how the facts about many of these cases are distorted or hidden by those responsible. The official cover-up can take many forms—concealing the killing by making prisoners disappear, blaming killings on opposition forces or independent armed groups, or passing off unlawful killings of defenceless individuals as the result of armed encounters or escape attempts.

Despite the amount of evidence that thousands of people, who are believed to have been victims of political killings by the Government of El Salvador since the military coup of October 1979, have been executed by agencies such as regular military forces, special security forces such as the national guards, the national police and the treasury police, the authorities have claimed that any atrocities perpetrated by para-military groups in the countryside are carried out by independent extremist groups or "death squads" out of its control.

This explanation is advanced despite the reports indicating that the so called "death squads" are in fact members of Orden, a nominally civilian para-military unit, or other off-duty or plain-clothed security personnel.

In the Philippines the authorities have commonly responded to allegations of human rights violations by claiming that they are the result of armed conflict and that people reported to have disappeared are described as having gone underground. Those killed by military personnel are said to have been killed in combat. To the commission set up to investigate such killings, witnesses testified that two victims had been taken from their homes by soldiers and the autopsy reports showed that they had sustained several gun shots and stab wounds and that one of them had been strangled. Yet the officer in charge of the particular constabulary unit claimed that they had been killed in an encounter with armed Communists. Evidence from eye witneses obtained by Amnesty and other investigating bodies indicates that a number of victims shot dead in Andhra Pradesh, India, had been arrested and tortured before execution notwithstanding the official explanation that their deaths were a sequel to armed attacks launched on the police.

In some cases, evidence is fabricated. In Colombia, an army patrol entered a ranch in April 1981, dragged the ranch owner and two others from the house and took them into the nearby hills. Their bodies were discovered the next day and bore signs of severe torture. There are reports that the bodies were then placed in a clearing with items which were meant to indicate that they had been guerrillas. An army press bulletin subsequently declared that the men had abushed an army patrol and had been killed in an exchange of fire. In Argentina, Ana Lia Delfina Magliaro was taken from her home and held in a federal police station in Buenos Aires. Her family were then told that she had been transferred by the military police to the city of Mar del Plata and the family filed a petition for habeas corpus. Two days later they were notified by the local police that she had been "killed in combat" in Mar del Plata. Yet at no time had the girl's family been told that she had been released from custody. The official account of her death is extremely improbable.

In other cases, political killings by Governments can be announced by the authorities as executions. In Ethiopia, for example, it was announced in November 1974 that 60 prominent political prisoners had been executed by firing squad, although one of them had, in fact, been killed in a gun battle. The other 59 political detainees were shot without trial.

Political killings by Governments have been committed in most, if not all, regions of the world and they are not confined to any political system or ideology. 'The tragic examples are legion and the victims, both individuals and whole groups, come from all walks of life, many political persuasions and religious faiths. They may be young or old, judges and journalists, government employees and trade unionists, teachers, students and school children, religious workers, lawyers and peasants. All have suffered death in this appalling manner. Their memorial must be our insistence on publicising this barbarity wherever it is found, and demanding that those responsible be brought to justice or, where no justice for such offences can be found, on the condemnation of international public opinion.

If such killings, which now appear to be on the increase, are to be reduced and, hopefully eliminated altogether in the fullness of a civilised regime throughout the world, the burden rests on us, in countries where people are free and not subject to such a denial of human rights, to mount a massive campaign of public pressure to render such activity unacceptable.

Although there are many sad examples, murder by Governments is difficult to document, not only for the reasons that I have advanced but because independent investigation is often hampered in one way or another. There is also the terrible facility with which Governments can do away with people and yet leave the activity uncertain of proof. Indeed, it is the easiest thing to do. It is far easier to kill and remove people from the face of the earth altogether than to he financially fraudulent and corrupt.

Unfortunately, we in this country, who have such religious freedom, cannot fully comprehend either religious persecution or religious fervour and the preparedness of so many people to die for their religious beliefs. Our lack of comprehension often leads to a failure to react in the necessary manner to persecution and death that is motivated by religious fervour in other countries.

I have received correspondence from the Baha'i community in my constituency and have been distressed to learn from them and from the media of the apparent attempt to eliminate all Baha'is in Iran. I can only hope that where we fail in concentrating on these matters the fight will be taken up increasingly by His Holiness the Pope, who has recently demonstrated such courage and understanding in his visit to central America.

Opportunity here does not admit of mentioning all the certain cases of extra-judicial executions which have occurred around the world. Many of them have been documented by Amnesty International. On 31 January 1983 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights published a report by a special rapporteur, Mr. Wako, entitled "Summary or Arbitrary Executions". That document is a very comprehensive study although it covers a far wider area than extra-judicial executions.

This problem is not new to the United Nations. The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has for a long time reported on this subject under the item "Disappearances and Summary Executions". A study of the Sub-Commission's work over the years shows increasing reports of instances of summary executions. The General Assembly at its 35th session adopted on 15 December 1980 its resolution 35/172 entitled "Arbitrary or Summary Executions". In that resolution the General Assembly, alarmed at the incidence of summary executions and arbitrary executions in different parts of the world and also concerned by the occurrence of executions which are widely regarded as politically motivated, requested the Secretary General that he use his best endeavours in cases where the minimum standard of legal safeguards appeared not to be respected and also to seek from member states, specialized agencies, regional inter-governmental organisations and concerned non-governmental organisations in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council their observations concerning the problem of arbitrary executions and summary executions. The sixth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, meeting in Caracas from 25 August to 5 September 1981, adopted a resolution entitled "Extra-Legal Executions", which deplores, condemns and affirms as a particularly abhorrent crime the practice of killing and executing political opponents or suspected offenders carried out by armed forces, law enforcement or other governmental agencies or by para military or political groups acting with the tacit or other support of such forces or agencies. It also called upon all Governments to take effective measures to prevent such acts.

The General Assembly at its 36th session strongly deplored the increasing number of summary executions as well as the continued incidence of arbitrary executions in different parts of the world, and noted with concern the occurrence of executions that were widely regarded as being politically motivated. Despite these resolutions, the killing goes on, and we in this country must play our part in endeavouring to bring it to a halt.

Compiling the special rapporteur's report involved requests for information being sent to all Governments, specialised agencies and inter-governmental organisations in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council and processing all the replies—a mammoth task. The right to life is the most important and basic of human rights and is given prominence in all international human rights instruments. It is the fountain from which all human rights spring, and if it is infringed the effects are irreversible. By article 14(91) of the international covenant on civil and political rights everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law". That same article provides that everyone has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law at criminal trials and that the right of appeal before a higher court, on conviction and sentence, is guaranteed to everyone. It is disturbing to find so many instances of this article violated in the imperfect world in which we live. Even though executions are carried out after certain proceedings, the court procedures themselves are so curtailed or distorted that the procedural safeguards are not observed and the information received by the special rapporteur has disclosed the following general patterns. The death sentence is delivered often in the special court, special military tribunal or revolutionary court, which are not bound by any procedural regulations. Executions are carried out without allowing time to appeal to a higher court or to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence. Trials are held in secret in many cases, even without allowing close family members to attend. The accused person is not given any opportunity to defend himself in trials, nor is he represented by his legal attorney.

There are reports of people who are killed outside the country by agents sent by governments after they were tried and sentenced to death in absentia. Persons are not given an opportunity to consult their legal attorney before trial, and in some countries lawyers hired by their friends or families are not allowed to see them. Courts lack qualified judges to preside over trials and are not independent, and mass public rallies are utilised as trials to deliver the death sentence, which is often delivered for acts or ommissions that did not constitute a capital or criminal offence at the time of their commission.

Those were the categories of summary executions identified by the special rapporteur. The evidence he received also provided alarming information about arbitrary executions. The phenomenon of deaths in detention is widespread. Many Governments attributed the deaths in detention or custody in many cases to suicides, attempts to escape, armed resistance, accidents or natural causes. Obviously, the true circumstances are difficult to verify. There is deliberate killing of targeted individuals, massacres of groups of individuals such as at political demonstrations, and the systematic killing over a period of time of specific categories of persons, such as members of political parties, ethnic or religious groups, social classes or trade unions.

There was no response by Argentina to the request for information. According to the testimony of those who escaped from secret detention camps, it is alleged that the victims were abducted by military and federal police, tortured in camps and then transferred after being given injections of a powerful sedative. It is alleged that in some instances those transferred were thrown out to sea towards the south and thrown out of aeroplanes alive. Some dead bodies have been washed ashore. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights examined unmarked graves at La Plata cemetery, found that most of those buried in them were aged between 20 and 30 and that the cause of death was given as destruction of the brain by firearm projectile. In October 1982 a mass grave was discovered in the Aran Bourg cemetery where allegedly up to 400 bodies are buried. In south-east Asia it was acknowledged by the former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary of the Khmer Rouge Government in August 1981 that it was official policy to liquidate the people accused of opposing the regime, and this involved whole sections of populations and families being wiped out. In December 1982, the graveyard was found of 3,000 victims of Pol Pot's regime allegedly herded from the capital of Phnom Penh between mid 1977 and 1978 and hacked to death.

Conservative estimates would put the known victims of summary or arbitrary executions to be at least 2 million persons in the past 15 years and, most probably, many more. These outrages are most prevalent in areas where there are internal disturbances and where political tension exists. The practice is clearly in breach of international law, of human rights and international humanitarian law but, although in most states it is also clearly against municipal law, the Governments have committed summary or arbitrary executions irrespective of the provisions of their own laws and even of their own constitutions.

I hope that Her Majesty's Government will concentrate their best endeavours in seeking to curtail extra-judicial executions. The history of such matters in countries must be taken into account when negotiating over trade or establishing or continuing diplomatic relations. We must encourage national Governments not only to ratify international instruments on human rights and in particular the international covenant on civil and political rights and the Geneva convention and the protocols but to ensure that they are followed and enforced in their countries. We must continue to publicise the scandal of extra-judicial executions wherever they occur and press for minimum standards of investigation to be laid down to show whether a Government have genuinely investigated the case reported to them and that those responsible are fully accountable. Our country, which is still held in high esteem throughout the world, is ideally placed to draw attention to these matters to the international community and to make a valuable contribution towards their cessation. It is no good merely condemning these activities here unless Her Majesty's Government are prepared to demonstrate to the world at large that they are in the forefront of our relations with other countries.

In conclusion, I believe that the basis of a stable society is one in which there is the rule of law. Most civilised countries have an internal rule of law. We desperately need a more comprehensive and enforceable rule of law for the international scene. In the absence of enforceable world law we have international anarchy where the rule is not of law but of force of arms, victory of the strong over the weak and a mad scramble for more armaments either for the purposes of territorial aggression or greater world influence through threat of aggression or else for defence from it.

This can be no way to govern our planet. Within the past 12 months our country has been to war because there is international anarchy and an absence of enforceable world order which should prevent armed aggression. Ultimately, we have to have a rule of international law for world order and the settlement of disputes through arbitrament in international tribunals rather than by recourse to force of arms. Inevitably, that will mean an international criminal code that will enable a process of law to be instituted against individuals in Government who have been culpable of a breach of that code by perpetrating individual murders or genocide. This, of course, is no new proposal. Ideas of this nature were promulgated and espoused by well-respected and senior statesmen after the last world war. Surely we do not need another to convince us of the essential truth of such views. Until such time as this comes about, however, we must rely on our own Government to press for safeguards for the life and dignity of those who are not in a position to do it for themselves and to ensure that the weakening of the rule of law, which is inherent in the crime of extra-judicial execution, is not only arrested but reversed.

3.38 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the debate.

This debate has been a useful opportunity for the House to express its concern and views on this appalling phenomena. It is appropriate, too, that we should have an opportunity to discuss this so soon after Amnesty International launched its campaign against "Murder by Governments" on Wednesday 23 March.

The Government have recently made clear their concern about any human rights violations wherever they occur, and human rights violations are not, unfortunately, the prerogative of any one region in the world or any one political system. It has now become generally accepted that human rights are a legitimate matter for international concern. This is a relatively recent development and is not a view that is publicly endorsed by all states yet. Indeed, it is opposed by some. However, successive British Governments together with other Western countries have consistently worked to get this view more widely accepted. The practice of the United Nations, particularly over the past 10 years, has supported our view, and the United Nations has increasingly expressed concern and tried to take action on countries where there are sustained and severe violations of human rights.

The right to life is a fundamental human right. Extrajudicial killing, or murder, by Governments is a particularly flagrant and breathtaking violation of one of man's most basic rights. The question remains how we can best use our influence to persuade Governments to put an end to this terrible practice. We believe that it is best in this case to work through the United Nations, since it is important that the international community as a whole should be involved, that its authority should be invoked, and that it should be seen to act. If the international community acts together, this is more likely to achieve the right result than if the task is left to a few, generally Western, countries to express their concern.

The United Nations is seized of this problem, which it terms summary and arbitrary executions, and has had strong British support in trying to grapple with this question. When the United Nations Secretary-General last year asked Governments for their views on this problem, the British Government stated our views clearly in the following terms: United Kingdom believes that summary or arbitrary execution constitutes one of the gravest violations of humans rights, and that protection against such violations constitutes a fundamental obligation of States in the field of human rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for safeguards against summary or arbitrary execution in its Articles 6 and 9 as does Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to which the United Kingdom is also a party. The British Government went on to say: The United Kingdom also believes that where States fail to live up to this fundamental obligation on human rights.. the appropriate United Nations and other bodies should not hesitate to examine and deal with such abuses in accordance with the various relevant international instruments and United Nations Resolutions". The United Nations Economic and Social Council therefore last year passed a resolution with United Kingdom support which appointed a special rapporteu.r to examine the question of summary or arbitrary executions. My hon. Friend referred very eloquently to the rapporteur's conclusions. This report, prepared by Mr. Amos Wako, was discussed at the United Nation Human Rights Commission this year in Geneva. The commission adopted by consensus, a consensus which the British delegation strongly supported, a resolution which expressed its deep concern at the practice of summary executions and which extended the mandate of the special rapporteur for a further year. This grave violation of human rights will therefore continue to receive attention, and we shall have an opportunity at next year's commission meeting to consider what further steps can most usefully be taken within the United Nation machinery.

The practice of summary executions not only cuts across any sense of natural justice but is contrary to the universal declaration of human rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It is also contrary to the provisions of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which I mentioned earlier. This covenant, which the United Kingdom ratified in 1976, is a legally binding instrument. Unfortunately, only about half the membership of the United Nations have ratified this covenant, and some of those countries that have, act in flagrant violation of some of its provisions. We have, therefore, consistently urged more countries to consider ratifying the convention, and we have urged all countries that have ratified to observe its provisions. At the same time, we continue to seek to ensure that the machinery established by the United Nations to monitor the implementation of the covenant is as effective as possible.

United Nations action, particularly in the humanitarian field, can often provide the best results. For example, in 1980, largely as a result of a United Kingdom initiative, a five-man working group was set up to look into the question of "disappearances" and to examine individual cases. The group is currently chaired by Viscount Colville of Culross who sits in his personal capacity, although he is also the leader of the United Kingdom delegation to the Human Rights Commission. The work of the group has been solely inspired by humanitarian considerations; it aims to provide information for relatives about those who have disappeared and to encourage Governments to put an end to this practice. It has achieved better results than initially expected, and although difficult to quantify it has undoubtedly, by prompt action, also saved some lives. Governments can no longer indulge in this practice in the belief that no one outside the country will notice or care.

We hope that now that the United Nations is seized of the problem of summary executions, and that a report listing countries guilty of this practice has been produced, the Governments concerned will realise that people in the world at large do notice and care.

Outside the United Nations, the British Government also continue to try to find the right means of making known our concern in a way that will achieve improvements. There can be no one answer on how we do that, as the problems differ from country to country, as do our relationships with those countries. In some cases public pressure may be useful; in others it may be counterproductive. Very often when we judge it helpful to make representations these are best made privately, frequently in conjunction with our' partners in the Community. Whether the Government choose to make representations, publicly or privately, must, however, depend on the individual case and our assessment of the likely effect. After all, our aim is to achieve the right result, not to salve our consciences by public gestures if they are likely to have no, or possibly a bad effect.

My hon. Friend mentioned the representations that he had received from members of the Bahai faith in his constituency. I can understand their concern and that of my hon. Friend about some of the incidents that have taken place, involving the deaths and persecution of many of the Bahai community in Iran. Representatives of the Ten in the European Community have made three demarches to the Iranian authorities, most recently on 27 December, to express our concern at the human rights violations against the Bahais. We continue to believe that the best hope of persuading the Iranian Government to respect human rights is to take further action in the United Nations. We must hope that Ayatollah Khomeini's edict of 16 December 1982, calling for the correction of judicial abuses, is an indication that the Iranians will mend their ways.

In conclusion, we believe that publicity such as that generated in the United Nations or the publicity and information generated by Amnesty International is likely to help in bringing pressure to bear on Governments who are guilty of these basic violations of the human rights of their inhabitants. We shall continue to take whatever action we consider helpful to assist in bringing these dreadful practices to an end.

Mr. Ian Lang (Galloway)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withrawn.