HL Deb 13 December 1993 vol 550 cc1118-20

2.55 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they marked Human Rights Day on Friday 10th December by publicising human rights initiatives they have taken during the last year.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, no. A summary of UK policy on human rights is contained in Foreign Policy Document No. 215, which is available in both Libraries of the House.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although responsibility is frequently difficult to pinpoint, regrettably there is too much evidence of spreading abuse of human rights in the world? Does she agree that it would be helpful in demonstrating tangibly the Government's commitment to the support of human rights if each year they were to make available to Parliament a human rights report detailing the specific action they have taken to advance the cause of human rights, including foreign policy, aid policy, co-ordinated interdepartmental policy, awareness training for civil servants and liaison with appropriate non-governmental organisations?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, certainly agree with the noble Lord that there is far too much evidence of abuse. I rather like his idea and I shall look into the noble Lord's suggestion. Perhaps I may tell him that I can quickly give four examples: the mission of my noble and learned friend Lord Howe to China in December 1992; the recent visit of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, to Pakistan; my right honourable friend Mr. Goodlad receiving officials from Vietnam to help them learn how to organise their human rights policy; and also the lead we have taken in the European Union in making positive criticism at the CSCE Human Dimension meeting in Warsaw in September of the Turkish Government's abuse of the right to freedom of expression. All four are just some of the examples of the initiatives we have taken during the year; and we intend to take more.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is it not a fact that Her Majesty's Government have defended human rights in the Far East, in the Near East, in South Africa, in South America, in Northern Ireland and everywhere else? Is it not merely the Government's reluctance for publicity which has prevented these things from becoming better known? Should we not be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for this opportunity of drawing attention to them?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Indeed, Her Majesty's Government have taken action in all parts of the world on these issues. I am glad to report that, after working hard with our European Union partners in New York in the face of strong opposition, we have now agreed that a High Commissioner for Human Rights should be established. We are waiting to go to the General Assembly on that point.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we are most grateful to the Government for speaking out robustly at the CSCE human dimension review meeting in Warsaw on freedom of expression, especially on the violations of that right in Turkey? Is she further aware that on Human Rights Day itself the Turkish authorities raided all the offices of the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gündem in Istanbul and Diyarbakir and so on, closed down the newspaper, arrested all the staff and damaged the equipment, thus making it impossible for the newspaper to appear? Will the noble Baroness consider what further steps are available to us under the CSCE procedures for persuading the Turkish authorities to comply with their obligations under the freedom of expression provisions?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I heard this morning on my return from abroad of what had happened in Turkey on Friday. We are looking at what may be done in that respect.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, in addition to the action which the Government have taken and which all of us applaud, can the noble Baroness give an assurance that the British Government do not permit arms from this country to be sold to those countries which are guilty of abuse of human rights?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we shall certainly only enter into any arms contract where those arms are for defensive purposes and never where they are for offensive purposes. We are most careful in what we do in that respect.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that sometimes it is difficult to determine one from the other? From these Benches we have often asked about the supply of arms to Indonesia in view of the appalling breaches of human rights in East Timor. As I have been instrumental in asking such a critical Question, will the Minister accept from me our appreciation not only of the department of the Foreign Office which deals with human rights, but also the decision which she has taken that in the Assembly they will press for a human rights commissioner? That would be a great step forward.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. As regards East Timor, we remain gravely concerned about the human rights situation. With our European Union partners we have repeatedly made clear to the Indonesian Government the importance which we attach to respect for human rights. I can only echo what the noble Lord has said about the human rights unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the help which we have had from non-governmental organisations on human rights, whose members I meet on a six-monthly basis. We are working well together and that augurs well for our influence in the General Assembly debate.

Lord Judd

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the whole House is encouraged by her positive reply? Does she agree that the question asked by my noble friend Lord Cledwyn illustrates the importance of recognising that this is not just a Foreign Office matter but stretches across departments, with interdepartmental responsibility, and that that aspect could be covered in a report? Will the Minister also tell us what is being done by the Government to support the United Nations in its extended responsibilities following the Vienna conference last year?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I appreciate the point made in the noble Lord's first remark. We have been very active in the drafting group of the Third Committee of the General Assembly in agreeing terms for the creation of a High Commissioner for human rights. I am delighted that we are moving forward in that respect. It will be up to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to select a suitable person to fill the post. We shall make sure that all the information that comes our way is fed into that operation.