HL Deb 10 March 1994 vol 552 cc1526-30

3.10 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have made representations to any foreign governments about condoning the use of torture and, if so, which ones.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, we make frequent representations to governments about abuses of human rights, including torture. We do so bilaterally, with our European Union partners, and in the United Nations and other international human rights bodies. We make our representations confidentially where that is more likely to produce results. There are many countries where publicity for our actions would be counter-productive.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will do all she can. But is she aware that on some governments those representations have about the same impact as a fly buzzing round an elephant? Far stronger action is needed against widespread and vicious torture. The United Nations Committee against Torture should warn the 100 or so governments who sustain and condone torture that both aid and trade will be reassessed and that provision will be made for the victims to claim compensation. Will the Government agree to recommend that?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I well understand the noble Lord's anxiety. I share with him the view that torture is a particularly pernicious form of human rights abuse because the victims' ability to continue normal lives and activities is permanently damaged as a result. Torture is prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This is spelt out in more detail, as perhaps the noble Lord knows, in the Convention against Torture which entered into force in 1987. That includes not only torture but other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

We have supported the work that is being undertaken by the UN Commission on Human Rights. We have supported the appointment of the special rapporteur on torture to investigate the allegations in all those countries. As the noble Lord may know, the new incumbent is a British national from Essex University. We believe that the work that is being done, the publicity which is given where it will do good and constant reminders to all governments in private are beginning to have an effect. We are seeing a better situation in some countries. I can assure the noble Lord that we will take all possible measures that are consistent with reducing the amount of torture. That is, I believe, what the noble Lord wants. It is what I want; and it is certainly what the Government want.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the particular protests which the Government have made to other governments should not be revealed, but can she give us some idea of the number of such protests made to other governments in, say,1993?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend the specific numbers in 1993; but at a rough guess, remembering the number of occasions on which I have been involved in such matters, there were certainly between 40 and 50. Many of those were made in private.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the noble Baroness take the opportunity of the visit by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of India which begins on Sunday to make representations to him about the widespread use of torture in Kashmir, as evidenced by Physicians for Human Rights, Asia Watch and others, and about the impunity enjoyed by the armed forces, no member of which has ever to our knowledge been prosecuted for those criminal offences? In particular will the Prime Minister be asked whether he will issue an invitation to Dr. Nigel Rodley to pay a visit to Kashmir and advise on measures that can be taken to stop those practices?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we shall most certainly, as we always have done, take the opportunity of the visit of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to raise such issues; and we shall not cease to do so after he goes back to India. We have always asked the Indian Government what is happening and have sought to encourage them to be more open and to admit observers, not only to Kashmir but to any other human rights problems that we have come across. Most recently, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State during his visit to India in November discussed the situation in Kashmir and overall human rights with both the Indian Prime Minister and the Indian Home Minister.

As regards a specific invitation to visit Kashmir, I certainly will consider that. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, knows, while we have been encouraged by the establishment last year of an Indian human rights commission, there is plenty of progress still to be made.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Baroness give an assurance that the Government will not extend a welcome into the European Community for a country which is guilty of torture?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am not aware that there has been any consideration of a country guilty of torture as a member by the European Union. I suspect that the noble Lord refers to Turkey, in regard to which, as he knows, we have widespread concern about human rights violations. We recognise that terrorists are active in certain areas of Turkey. We have repeatedly said that the Turkish Government must combat terrorism within the rule of law and with full respect for human rights. That is the view not only of the United Kingdom but of every country within the European Union.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a role for the voluntary sector in both identifying the practice of torture and its victims and in giving support to them and their families? Can she say whether that can be used in any way to increase the effectiveness of Her Majesty's Government's policy in that area? Are Her Majesty's Government able to give that sector support in this way?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as I believe my noble friend knows, just last year — perhaps it was two years ago— we were able to set up an entirely new human rights department in the Foreign Office, particularly to carry out work not only with other governments but also with those members of the NGO community who look into the abuse of human rights and problems of torture. Today, I read that a new non-governmental organisation, the Redress Trust, has recently come into being and is arguing for UK courts to assume jurisdiction for claims by UK nationals who allege that they have been tortured in third countries. We shall work with them and with other nongovernmental organisations. They certainly add to what governments can do. But, as I said in the beginning, sometimes we have to act in private; and that is not always something that a campaigning non-governmental organisation wishes to do.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, am I right in thinking that the noble Baroness would agree that the growth and spread of torture as an instrument of government are a blot on the history of this century? If I am right (as I believe I am), can she tell us whether there is any hope at all of international indignation spreading widely so that a real punch can be given to trying to reverse this process, reduce the incidence of torture and stop its gradual increase— which I believe she will agree has been a feature of the end of this century?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, for once I join with the noble Lord and say, yes, there has perhaps been an increase in this century in our knowledge of what is going on. But the most fundamental thing that has to be achieved is to get better government in those countries, and bring armed forces, where they are the perpetrators of torture, under the rule of law. One of the things that we have particularly tried to do through our Good Government Programme is to bring to countries where there is not proper respect for human rights a realisation of what has to be done and training for people to make sure that this is achieved.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me where one can conveniently obtain a list of those countries which so far have not adopted the convention against torture?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I do not have one in my file today but I shall see that one is sent to my noble and learned friend.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the representation that the Government are undoubtedly making to the countries that practise torture would be greatly strengthened if Her Majesty's Government at the same time resolutely declined to supply them with arms?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we cannot stand out against the United Nations convention where a country has the right to defend itself. The noble Lord knows full well that we are extremely careful about those countries to whom we sell arms and on all occasions, if we have any doubts, we seek to resist the application for an export licence for those arms. I shall certainly continue, as I have already been doing with my colleagues, to make sure that arms which are exported are exported only for defence purposes and not for purposes of aggression— certainly not for torture.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, following my noble friend's question on arms sales, would the Minister inform the House of the Government's latest policies on arms sales to Indonesia, particularly in the light of Indonesia's repressive policies towards the independence movement in East Timor?

Baroness Chal ker of Wallasey

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness is extremely interested in Indonesia but she goes very wide of the original Question. There are allegations that torture persists in Indonesia. Torture is banned by law in Indonesia. That is why we expect the Indonesian Government to investigate all allegations in whatever part of Indonesia such incidents are said to occur and to take appropriate action against offenders. With regard to sales of arms to Indonesia or any other country, we stand by the policy that we have declared. They have a right to defend themselves. We do not export arms which would be used for repression.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, does the Minister believe that the ban on torture in Indonesia is adhered to?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it is very difficult to say. We do not have people viewing what goes on in every corner of Indonesia. I believe that the Indonesian Government are very well aware of the international community's view, which is expressed to them frequently. But Indonesia is one country whose leadership reacts very violently to public comment from abroad. That does not help the potential victims of torture in that country. There are better ways to make the point go home.

Lord Braine of Wheatley

My Lords, would the Minister give an undertaking to look again at the information that torture is not permitted in Indonesia? Is she aware that New Zealand human rights organisations have complained about specific, named cases of cruel and oppressive torture in Indonesia?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am very well aware of my noble friend's long interest in the plight of the Indonesian people. I can only tell him what I have been told. I shall look into the detailed briefing behind the information that I was given earlier today. The Indonesian Government have been trying to make some progress. The position in Irian Jaya is one source of a number of reports. Things had improved there sufficiently for the International Committee of the Red Cross to close its offices there in 1993. But I believe that there is much more progress to be made and we shall do all that we can to see that such progress is made.