HL Deb 06 November 1995 vol 566 cc1571-3

2.47 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are aware of the intention of any member state to raise at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland the sentences passed by the Aziza tribunal in Nigeria.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am aware of no specific intention. However, Commonwealth leaders will discuss ways of taking forward work on the Harare Declaration. I have no doubt that the issue of military governments and the recent events in Nigeria will be discussed fully.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if the Prime Minister's suggestion, as reported in this morning's papers, is taken up—namely, that states which are not in compliance with the Harare Declaration or the rule of law should have to submit six-monthly reports to the Commonwealth Secretariat and to be on sufferance as members pending their compliance—will one of the conditions in respect of Nigeria be that the proceedings of the Aziza tribunal, which were a gross violation of the rule of law, would have to be quashed before the threat of suspension on Nigeria is lifted?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as the noble Lord will understand, prior to a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government which will address the issue of adherence to the Harare principles and the question of human rights in the Commonwealth, there are a number of speculative articles in our newspapers. I cannot tell the noble Lord from where this one came. We deplore the continued use of secret military tribunals such as the Aziza tribunal and the continued suspension of habeas corpus. That is the kind of matter which should come under scrutiny and no doubt by this time in two weeks we shall be a little wiser as to what the Commonwealth has decided.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, did the Minister have the opportunity last Thursday of seeing the documentary on Channel 4 on Delta Force, outlining the plight of the Ogoni people? Is she aware of the 115-page report of the prominent QC Michael Birnbaum, who reported that those tribunals breached both Nigerian and international law? Will she give the House some assurance that Her Majesty's Government will exert continued pressure for some protection for the Ogoni people of Nigeria?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I was not able to see the television documentary last Thursday, nor have I had a chance to see the video since. However, the Government are deeply concerned about Ogoni land and what has happened there. In case there should be any doubt, let me make it clear that the Shell Oil Company, which is frequently blamed for what happened, have had no operations in Ogoni land since 1993, though it still operates within the Delta. In relation to the report on Article 19, issued by Michael Birnbaum QC, we have a great deal of sympathy with what he wrote. We have been making our views firmly known about the way in which the so-called "trial" was conducted. As I said some moments ago, we will follow it up in every way, not only with the Commonwealth, but also with the European Union, the United States and other partners.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, how can we get more teeth into the Harare Commonwealth Declaration?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, by examining the dentures very closely in Auckland next week.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, can the Minister explain why export licences of CS gas and rubber bullets were issued for the Nigerian police in the summer? Does she not agree that, in the light of the report from the Commonwealth human rights initiative on the blatant disregard of human rights by the security services in Nigeria, those sales contravene the European Union's criteria on arms exports?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we have not granted any licences except where we have been satisfied that the use to which the equipment is to be put is for completely normal peacekeeping operations at a time when peace is threatened by civil disturbance. We and our European partners continue to reserve the right to consider new licences for equipment for the Nigerian police and its peacekeeping forces. The noble Baroness will know that it is not our practice to reveal details of individual licences or applications, but I can assure her that we have been absolutely rigorous in every aspect of that work.

The noble Baroness will be aware also that we are deeply concerned about human rights in Nigeria. I cannot say what will come out of the discussions in Auckland next week, but Nigeria must heal the divisions and promote reconciliation if it is to make any progress politically. So long as there is no political progress in Nigeria, there will be no economic progress, and the people of Nigeria badly need economic progress.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, why did the Government agree to see Mr. Shonekan when he was here recently, in contravention of the spirit of the European Union ban on ministerial contacts? Will the Government consider that the Commonwealth might turn up the heat on Nigeria by making it impossible, not only for Ministers, but also for their stooges, to travel abroad and meet their opposite numbers in democratic countries?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I must point out to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that Chief Shonekan is in no way a stooge of the Nigerian Government. That was an unworthy comment for him to make. Chief Shonekan came with a message from General Abacha following the efforts that our Prime Minister had been making to ensure that the sentences were commuted on those accused of coup plotting. That was the reason for the contact. It was arranged with the knowledge of our partners and was not at variance with our agreement with those partners.