HC Deb 14 June 1989 vol 154 cc889-90
1. Mr. Atkinson

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he has received any recent representations about human rights abuses in Commonwealth member states; and whether he plans to raise the question of human rights at the forthcoming Commonwealth conference in Malaysia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Timothy Eggar)

We receive representations about human rights in many countries, including some Commonwealth members. Discussions between Commonwealth Heads of Government are confidential and wide-ranging. It is too early to say what issues my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will address in her interventions.

Mr. Atkinson

In view of the representations received over the years, can my hon. Friend confirm that basic human rights continue to be denied in at least one quarter to one third of Commonwealth member states, including Malaysia, where to convert from Islam to Christianity is punishable and may render the individual open to persecution? At the forthcoming conference in Malaysia, will my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary submit proposals for the establishment of a Commonwealth human rights commission along the lines of the United Nations Commission of Human Rights and the Helsinki process?

Mr. Eggar

My hon. Friend's reference to the state of affairs in Malaysia relates to the laws of the states rather than to federal laws. Within the Commonwealth secretariat there is already a special unit, established in early 1985, to deal with human rights issues. We believe that human rights are universal. Instead of creating another forum for debating them we should concentrate on strengthening the existing United Nations human rights bodies and mechanisms.

Mrs. Mahon

Is the Minister aware that three out of five Tamil refugees who were forcibly returned to Colombo in February 1988 have been tortured? What do the Government intend to do about that?

Mr. Eggar

I am sure that if the hon. Lady can substantiate her assertion we will draw it to the attention of the Sri Lankan Government.

Sir Jim Spicer

My hon. Friend the Minister has rightly said that human rights are universal, and we all accept that. Against that background, will he comment on the persecution, on a major scale, of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria? What representations—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Bulgaria is not in the Commonwealth.

Sir Jim Spicer

With respect, Mr. Speaker, my hon. hon. Friend's reply opened up the discussion by saying that human rights are universal. My question simply followed on from my hon. Friend's answer.

Mr. Eggar

The Government issued a statement this morning on the subject that my hon. Friend raised.

Mr. Anderson

Will the Government be trying to dissuade other Commonwealth premiers from raising the question of human rights in South Africa at the conference? The Government might be less en the defensive if we had joined the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers group and taken a high profile on human rights in South Africa. Will the Government raise the matter of the proposed judicial execution of the Upington 14 next week when the Prime Minister welcomes Mr. F. W. de Klerk to this country?

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that South Africa is no longer a member of the Commonwealth. I imagine that issues of that kind concerning South Africa will be raised at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, and certainly we shall do nothing to stop that. As to the Upington 14, it would be inappropriate to make any representations at this stage, when the normal legal processes can still be used.