HL Deb 17 March 1998 vol 587 cc640-57

7.43 p.m.

Lord Avebury rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their programme of work for the UN Human Rights Commission.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful to the House for this opportunity of reviewing the Government's proposals for this session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission which began yesterday in Geneva.

This year, occupying the presidency of the European Union, we have a particularly heavy responsibility, having to co-ordinate and, where possible, harmonise the views of the 15 on the initiatives that we shall be taking on their behalf and agreeing the drafts of the statements which are to be made. We are all extremely grateful to the officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who have been working so hard in the run-up period to achieve the necessary agreements on the resolutions which we shall be sponsoring, the presidential statements that we hope to negotiate, and on issues to do with the reorganisation of the Centre for Human Rights under the leadership of Mrs. Mary Robinson to whom I am sure your Lordships would wish to extend best wishes for a successful and effective term of office and also best wishes in relation to her visit to China, which I believe has now been agreed. Perhaps the noble Baroness will confirm that.

I do not propose to talk about individual country issues but about the way in which the commission carries out its work and how it could be improved. First, unfortunately, the work of the Human Rights Commission and its special procedures—the rapporteurs and the working groups that it appoints—are not well known in member states. One of our priorities should be to put that right. Those procedures should be able to rely on the support and active encouragement of an informed public and there should be regular discussion of the issues arising in the legislatures of member states. I hope that the promised annual report of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will make a start, but more is needed.

Debates in government time before every session of the commission on the main questions that were due to arise would be useful. But by far the best solution would be a Select Committee on human rights, as was proposed again last week by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn in another place. It was good to see that the Leader of the House then reaffirmed the Government's commitment to establish a parliamentary committee with human rights functions and that in answer to a supplementary question put by my honourable friend Mr. Simon Hughes, she did not rule out the idea of a joint committee of both Houses. I hope that the Government will settle on such a joint committee because the expertise and experience of your Lordships in human rights matters could make a significant contribution to the work of such a body.

Another reason why the commission's work is not as widely publicised as we should like is that it has never been properly funded. For example, it took the commission much longer than the UN headquarters in New York to get its website under way because of budgetary constraints. Rapporteurs have sometimes had to postpone missions because there is no money left in the kitty to pay for air fares and accommodation.

I know that the United Kingdom has helped to establish the centre on a proper footing from a budgetary and accounting point of view. That is important. I hope that, as a result of that work, it will be possible, ultimately, for us to see how much is being spent on each of the special procedures—how much on administration, how much on the meetings of the commission and sub-commission and so on. Last time I looked at the figures, it was not possible to split up the expenditure into useful functional headings. I ask the noble Baroness whether that work on budgetary reorganisation has been completed and where one can see the results. The accounts of the centre are not readily available and certainly I could not find them on any of the occasions when I have looked for them on the commission's website.

However good the accounting is, there is still a problem if the centre has inefficient funding to do the jobs assigned to it. Growth in demand may be assessed roughly from the number of reports submitted to the commission year by year. I looked at the years 1994 and 1997. I found that in 1994 there were 110 reports and in 1997, there were 150. Therefore, the tasks are increasing inexorably year on year but the money allocated to the centre is not being increased in proportion to the workload. Are the Government, and the European Union, for which Britain will be speaking, determined to see that human rights receive a proper share of UN resources? What proposals do we have to make to the commission in Geneva in that regard?

The commission appoints country rapporteurs to look at states where there are exceptionally serious human rights problems; for example, Myanmar, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Cuba or Sudan. It appoints thematic rapporteurs to examine phenomena such as torture, extra-judicial executions, religious intolerance, freedom of expression and so on. In previous years, all these rapporteurs on thematic issues have reported well in advance of the commission's annual session so that delegates have been able to consider their findings when they prepare their speeches and decide what measures by the commission they will support.

This year, not a single report has appeared. I believe that this is due to an edict of the General Assembly providing that no report shall be published until it has been translated into all the working languages of the UN. When I asked the noble Baroness about this recently, she said that changes in procedures involving the UN's official languages would be resisted by member states, but what has happened is that a change has been made which disadvantages everybody. If the General Assembly's decision must stand, then either the rapporteurs must complete their work roughly four weeks earlier, or the commission's meeting should be deferred until mid-April, so that all the reports of the rapporteurs and the working groups will be available before the session begins.

All the statements that we make on behalf of the EU will already have been drafted, and this has been done without the benefit of advice from any of the special rapporteurs or working groups. I hope that the Minister will agree that this must severely impair the credibility of the process and must never be allowed to happen again in future years.

If the reports had been available, I was going to suggest that the commission be asked to prepare a summary of the instances where a rapporteur had requested an invitation and the state concerned had refused, failed to reply, or prevaricated. Then it would be possible for other member states, NGOs and journalists to identify at a glance which states were being unto-operative. I asked the Government by way of a Question for such a summary but was referred to the Library of the House on the grounds that there was too much work involved in the preparation of such a study. However, the Library staff also found the task beyond them. If the commission knew that it was required to produce that list, it would be a simple matter of copying the relevant paragraphs from the reports of each of the rapporteurs and working groups as they were being keyed in. Then, at the beginning of the session, we would have a full summary of the states which were not being co-operative with the procedures of the commission.

In the 53rd session of the commission last year, there was only one report by thematic rapporteurs on a country which had refused to invite them, and that was the study on Nigeria conducted by the rapporteurs on extrajudicial execution and on the independence of judges and lawyers. This means that the consent of a state is not a sine qua non for these investigations, but that the power is very rarely used. I did suggest to Mrs. Robinson, when she was here last November, that it should be the normal practice to go ahead with planned investigations, whether or not the state concerned issues an invitation. Otherwise, there is an incentive for a state which does violate human rights to withhold invitations in the expectation that, by doing so, it will avoid the detailed scrutiny that accompanies any mission. If, on the other hand, the states concerned knew that the rapporteur would report anyway, relying on the evidence which he or she could obtain from journalists, local NGOs, from international human rights organisations, from exiles or lawyers, they would have nothing to gain by refusing to issue the invitation. Indeed, that is the procedure which is followed by the country rapporteurs such as the distinguished rapporteur on Iraq, Mr. Max van der Stoel. I suggest that we encourage the Human Rights Centre to follow the same procedure with regard to the thematic rapporteurs.

I want to mention briefly the work of the Secretary-General's representative on internally displaced persons, Dr. Francis Deng. I do so because internally displaced people are a phenomenon which accompanies many of the conflict situations we see around the world today. Almost certainly those people are internally displaced because of the human rights violations which are occurring in their countries. In his 1997 report, Dr. Deng pointed out that the problem, is of great magnitude and global dimension, involving some 35 to 40 countries".

One could add that, in every one of those countries, the displacements have been accompanied by gross human rights violations.

Dr. Deng wrote to me in June 1994 saying that he was, confronting a monumental task with minimal capacity".

In his 1997 report he still says that, there is a serious lack of resources at the Centre to meet this challenge".

Dr. Deng is a part-time volunteer and has no senior staff member to assist him in managing his mandate; nor does he have, as he would like, a co-ordinator to promote collaboration on issues of internal displacement with intergovernmental agencies and NGOs. Regrettably, the scale of internal displacements has increased since the mandate was created, and the trend seems likely to continue.

The Foreign Secretary told me that the Government welcomed the initiative of Dr. Deng to develop a strategy for dealing with such problems and assured me that the Government would carefully consider his recommendations, which are presumably to be laid before the commission this year. Humanitarian aspects are dealt with by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, formerly the DHA, which incidentally operates an extremely useful web site offering regular updates on 15 "complex emergencies", as they are termed. The commission's task is to develop a normative framework for addressing the needs of the internally displaced and for preventing internal displacements and the promotion of effective institutional arrangements for protection and help. I hope that the Government will continue to take a close interest in this work and will see to it that Dr. Deng is provided with the resources he needs, minute as they are in relation to the size of the problem.

Finally, I want to mention a subject which has not been tackled at all by the commission and to suggest that it is important enough to justify the creation of a new mandate. This is the human rights effect of large projects by first world companies in the third world. The World Bank already recognises that the projects it finances could have an adverse effect on the lives of people living at or near the sites concerned and has developed a set of guidelines which are to be applied particularly when there is compulsory displacement of people in the neighbourhood of those sites. That is one aspect of the problem. Another is that when resource developers undertake operations in third world countries, the host state often provides them with protective forces which then commit human rights violations. Indeed, one has the examples of Shell in Ogoniland, BP in Casanare, Total in Burma with the Yadana pipeline or RTZ in Indonesia. In none of those cases has it been suggested—and I am not so suggesting this evening—that the companies either violate the rights of the indigenous people or encourage the state to commit abuses on their behalf. Yet there is a cause and effect relationship between the presence of large resource developers and human rights abuses. Several companies, including Shell and now RTZ, have recognised that implicitly by developing their own codes of practice.

A third strand of the problem is the purchase by western companies of goods manufactured in the third world under conditions which may constitute an abuse of the human rights of the workers. Here, again, some initiatives have been taken by the companies to develop codes of conduct; for example, prohibiting the employment of young children by their suppliers. I should like to mention the initiative of the British Toy and Hobby Makers Federation, announced some time ago, in adopting a code which it is hoped the suppliers of goods from south China will observe.

I suggest that the commission needs to monitor those developments with a view to identifying best practice and perhaps helping to draft model codes. A rapporteur could be assigned the task of collecting and analysing the measures taken by companies, trade associations and lenders to ensure that their operations overseas were conducted so as to avoid the risk of human rights violations. He or she might also explore the possibility of collectively monitoring the codes of practice—always a problematic area for commercial firms which have no locus to ask for rights of inspection.

The commission will only be effective if it has the support and respect of all member states and of their parliaments as well. It can become even more effective if, with the approval of an informed public, it is properly resourced, if states co-operate fully with its procedures, and if, where they are unhelpful, the spotlight on their activities is turned up. I hope that while Britain occupies the presidency of the European Union, and particularly during the session of the commission which is just beginning, we shall do as much as possible to achieve those objectives.

7.59 p.m.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, whose work on human rights is known internationally and whose leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights was for a long time the dominating feature of its intensive investigations into global-wide breaches of human rights. I am particularly fortunate to sit on the same Benches as the noble Lord and to learn from much of his work.

Indeed at the far end of Westminster Hall this evening in the Grand Committee room a group is meeting with which he is involved. He is the honorary president of a new group, the Kurdish Human Rights Project. That is just one small example of the unremitting work that the noble Lord does on behalf of people in many parts of the world. The Kurdish Human Rights Project is one of many organisations which exist in such profusion in the United Kingdom, which has a longstanding commitment to human rights. People of many backgrounds who have suffered many miseries are free to express their unhappinesses and their views and to work to try to free their peoples. I commend the Kurdish Human Rights Project to your Lordships.

It is typical of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to have chosen this opportunity to mention the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and to call attention to the important role of Her Majesty's Government in bringing forward a programme of action for Mary Robinson to examine. About 10 days ago I heard Mary Robinson speak at the Africa Centre in London. In that speech she concentrated upon human rights in Africa. She gave the hopeful message that, new changes are taking place in Africa, fuelled by Africans, led by Africans and aimed at securing lasting peace, based on democracy, human rights and sustainable development". She reminded us that Secretary-General Kofi Annan called this "Africa's third wave" in his statement to the Heads of State and Government of Africa in Harare last June. That was a challenging speech by Mary Robinson on the tremendous progress that is being made in Africa on matters affecting human rights.

I wish to raise a particular concern of mine which centres on prisoners held without trial. Somehow that has always seemed to me to be the bleakest of all situations. Those prisoners have not had an opportunity to prove their point or had a chance to say whether or not they have done the things of which they are accused. They have been flung in gaol with no opportunity at all to speak to their peer group or to put their point of view. It is a case of summary and inhuman justice. Frequently those who suffer from it in many parts of the world are subject to torture.

In recent weeks the Minister has told us a great deal about the current situation in Iraq and has conveyed to us much knowledge. Tonight I remind the House of a small group of people imprisoned in Iraq who I believe suffer gravely and who need our care and attention, even though we are at present unable to release them. I speak of the Kuwaiti prisoners of war. I remind your Lordships that in 1991 Iraq released 5,772 Kuwaiti prisoners of war as a result of the tripartite allied committee's pressure with the backing of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. However, Kuwait knows that Iraq still holds a large number of Kuwaitis in prison and—as the Kuwaitis themselves say—a large number of non-Kuwaitis too. I know of several thousand Iranian prisoners of war who were imprisoned 15 years earlier. When I visited Kuwait I saw the paperwork that the Kuwaiti Government had supplied to the international committee. It contained a list of names and the complete files of the 605 prisoners still held in Iraq. Kuwait has demanded, and continues to demand, that Iraq should release them all now if they are still alive—as we hope and pray they are—or should return their bodies if they are dead. I have had the opportunity to meet some of the families of those missing prisoners. Some were soldiers but others were civilians. Young people, older people, men and women were all scooped up and taken. I am sad to say that Iraq has misled the international committee, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It has deliberately misled Kuwaiti families and the Kuwaiti Government, the Amir and his Ministers. Iraq has suggested that 126 files could be found out of 605. I believe that that is incorrect. I think that Iraq was merely dangling a hope in front of the Kuwaiti families. A paucity of information was provided that was far too insignificant to be able to identify where any prisoner was held.

The Iraqi Government admitted arresting 119 Kuwaitis but they suggest that, as a result of the uprising in 1991 after the allies had departed, they cannot locate them. Iraq has admitted that seven are dead and it has returned only one body, that of a Mr. Al Mutairi. Iraq has refused to give any information on the burial site of the other six whom it admits it has killed. Iraq has said nothing about the remainder. This is a deeply tragic situation. In the weeks and months ahead, when I fear we shall continue to wonder about these prisoners, I beg noble Lords to remember them and pity them in their trouble because it does not seem possible at the moment to get them released.

That is just one most miserable example of prisoners kept without trial. When the Minister reports to the United Nations and whenever Britain speaks on these important matters in which we have the high moral ground, I believe it is important that we should also consider the European Union in particular and make absolutely sure that in our countries we are doing all we can to conquer any human rights deficiencies that we have either inherited as a government or have not perhaps had time completely to analyse and to sort out. Although we examine other countries, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights is responsible for the human rights situation in each and every country in the world. The main function of its committees is to monitor the implementation of various treaties under which reviewing state reports are submitted. Those treaties are broad and deep. I have no doubt at all that the United Kingdom has been instrumental in much of the drafting.

However, Britain and Europe should perhaps examine more closely our own record in son-le respects. I am concerned, for example, about the position of children in Greece who at an early age experience truly devastating working conditions. In the other place I was a member of the Select Committee on Employment and I was sorry indeed that that committee was unable to adopt part of an EU directive which I believe would have lightened those children's burdens. Under the previous government the committee was unable to accept that provision because it did not wish to limit the hours of work of school-age children delivering newspapers and other things during the school week. Therefore the Greek children who are much younger, some of whom work in had conditions, suffer. When considering directives, it is important to understand the beneficial impact for the poorer parts of the European Union. We should consider how we as a strong, powerful, integral member of the European Union can help them.

It may not be improper for us to consider that some issues in the United Kingdom breach human rights. I am concerned about the situation inherited by the Government from the previous government. I refer to asylum seekers. Like other prisoners to whom I have referred, they are imprisoned without trial. I raise a difficult point here. Of course it is true that the physical detention in which those asylum seekers find themselves in the United Kingdom is completely different from that of most prisoners in many parts of the world. Nonetheless, the principle is there. If one criticises other nations for breaches of human rights, it is surely right that we should be prepared to examine our own record.

In that context, I welcome the report, which I believe the Government will soon publish, by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, on the imprisonment of those asylum seekers in the United Kingdom in places such as Campsfield. I know that Her Majesty's Government will wish to give the report the fullest possible attention. I applaud them in that attitude. I speak as a former Member of Parliament who was forbidden access to any prison in the United Kingdom after I visited the detention centre and felt concerned about the plight of those inside. Although I made no public statement, the Minister for Prisons forbade me to visit any prison, even the prison at Dartmoor, then within my constituency. Transparency and the capacity for parliamentarians to look at these matters is vital. I know that the new Government regard these matters with a proper sense of respect for the individuals; namely, the asylum seekers.

I speak with partiality as a British citizen and as a European Union citizen. I do not believe that throughout the EU any situation reflects even partially the horrors about which we speak with regard to Kuwaiti prisoners of war, and the many devastating places that my noble friend Lord Avebury has visited and knows, and for whose people he fights tirelessly. Nonetheless, I ask that the universality of human rights should always remain in our minds. We should address our own problems with as much celerity as we address the problems of others.

Finally, I quote the wise words of someone who must today be the most famous ex-prisoner of all, President Nelson Mandela. He said: When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be tree, the rights not to he oppressed … The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning". Although Mary Robinson has a small budget, I know that Her Majesty's Government will wish her work well and will do everything they possibly can to assist her in that high task.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on securing this timely opportunity to raise some pressing issues and to seek some satisfactory answers from the Minister on the question of the Government's human rights policy and the work of the UN Human Rights Commission. Today is only the second day of the annual session of the commission. During the next six weeks, it will endeavour to review the state of human rights around the world as part of the UN's founding mandate to promote respect for human rights and human dignity as the, foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world". The 53 member countries of the commission have a delicate and difficult task ahead. They have attracted criticism for their failure both to press a resolution criticising China this year and to investigate the massacres in Algeria. The commission must confound those allegations of politicisation if the UN is to retain its international gold standard of human rights advocacy.

I intend to concentrate on the Government's approach to the cases of Algeria and China in this session of the commission. It is an approach which goes right to the heart of the Government's ethical foreign policy, a policy that has been tested in recent months by the tragedy of Algeria and in recent days by the question of China's human rights record and a policy that is increasingly infused by the scent of creeping hypocrisy.

I start with Algeria whose people continue to dwell in the shadow of the evil face of terrorism. The world has been shocked and revolted by the scale of savagery and the crude brutality witnessed there. An estimated 65,000 to 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict began six years ago. Over 1,000 men, women and children have been killed this year alone.

The situation in Algeria demands a concerted and immediate international response. Yet so far that response has comprised a show of hand wringing and verbal condemnation by the Foreign Secretary and a brief and bungled diplomatic troika mission. I should be grateful if the Minister will update the House on the outcome of that mission which apparently succeeded in, [opening] up the current political dialogue between the EU and the Algerian Government". Has a date been set for the Algerian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Attaf, to visit London to continue that dialogue?

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has stated that the scope for international action is limited and that this is an internal problem. Given the Government's ethical foreign policy, I should therefore like to ask the Minister whether she agrees with Mary Robinson when she said, I cannot and do not consider [the situation in Algeria] to be an internal situation", and that human rights have "no borders" when such violations occur and that the international community has a "responsibility to end such violence."

Amnesty International reports that not a single allegation of torture, "disappearance" or extra-judicial execution has been the subject of a thorough, independent and public investigation since the conflict began. Yet the Algerian Government have refused to set a date to allow the UN special rapporteur into the country, insisting that this is a question which can only be resolved at the current session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

I ask the Minister what the Government are doing to encourage the Algerian Government to accept the special rapporteur and, as EU president, what initiative they have taken to ensure that other governments do the same in Geneva? Furthermore, what lead will the Government take during the UK presidency if, over the next few weeks, Algeria continues to rebuff UN suggestions that the Commission on Human Rights has a role and continues to refuse to admit the UN rapporteur on extra-judicial, arbitrary and summary executions even after the current session of the UN Commission on Human Rights?

Given their ethical foreign policy, have the Government made any contingency plans to consider conditionality in the context of their economic and social relationships with Algeria to encourage the Algerian Government to be more forthcoming in their co-operation should no progress be made at the UN commission?

I now turn to China where the Government's new policy has caused amazement, disbelief and increasing cynicism among human rights campaigners and politicians of all hues because, for the first time in the nine years since the censure motion was introduced after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the United Kingdom will not support the annual resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to draw attention to China's record on human rights. Given the Government's previous much publicised commitment to a so-called ethical foreign policy, and the importance they have attached to UN resolutions pertaining to Iraq, it is not surprising that many have concluded that the Government have bowed to the politics of expedience and as a result have reneged on their loudly proclaimed ethical promises and gone soft on human rights violations.

It is even less surprising that the Government have given two very different reasons for that decision: first, that the resolutions did not work. We have been told that over eight years the attempts to secure resolutions repeatedly failed to work and, as a result, in practical terms very little was achieved for human rights in China. In contrast, the Government's policy of constructive dialogue, supported by practical assistance, is already bearing fruits and is more likely to continue to do so than the censure approach.

It is true, as the noble Baroness pointed out last week, that there have been some improvements in China's human rights record. Yet Amnesty International, to which I pay tribute for its work in China, has said: 1997 was yet again a year in which many people in China suffered gross human rights violations, despite some high profile human rights initiatives by the Government. The past year saw the arbitrary detention of possibly thousands of protesters and suspected government opponents, the continued imprisonment of thousands of political prisoners, grossly unfair trials, widespread torture and ill-treatment in police cells, prisons and labour camps and the extensive use of the death penalty", and although, the Chinese authorities have responded to international criticism [and] while these steps are welcome, little has changed in practice. There is no reason for complacency on the part of the international community and no excuse for relaxing pressure on the Chinese authorities". By failing to support the resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights, that is precisely what the Government have done. The Government's decision is no timely defeat for hollow symbolism. The resolution ensured that, despite efforts on China's part to suppress such debate, China's human rights record was discussed in a very public forum, and there is no doubt that the widespread international criticism of a permanent member of the UN Security Council caused its leaders embarrassment.

Nor was the resolution subject to the vicissitudes and expediency of the "human rights democracy" sometimes practised by China's leaders; that is, concessions on human rights, which, far from being sincere attempts to entrench democracy in China, in fact reflect tactical manoeuvring when the issue of human rights threatens to become an obstacle in China's conduct of diplomacy with the West. Instead, the resolution reflected an absolute international standard of respect for human rights and democracy which could not be compromised. That is what the Government have failed to support.

The second reason the Government have given for failing to support the resolution is because it is essential for the European Union to speak with a single voice on human rights and not to appear "deeply divided" in its efforts to press China to improve its record. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary, in his capacity as President of the Council of Ministers General Affairs Council, said: there is a broad recognition within the European Union that at last year's meeting of the Commission on Human Rights we did not do the best possible service to human rights in China by showing a European Union that was deeply divided. We have therefore resolved on a new approach on which we are going to put our priority and pressure on human rights in China through dialogue with China". However, there is also broad recognition that France's intransigence in 1997, far from being the result of a sudden conversion to the carrot-and-stick school of diplomacy as opposed to the censure approach, was rooted in the irresistible draw of commercial realpolitik, given that France was on the verge of signing a £1.25 billion Airbus Industrie deal with Beijing.

What is the Government's answer to critics who fear that Britain's, fresh start down a broad road … wide enough to develop relations on the many matters of common interest", promised by the Foreign Secretary, refers only to the protection of our trade interests rather than to our principled beliefs, and that the sole purpose of that "broad road", as he terms it, is to accommodate the inevitable traffic jams in the dash for a slice of China's lucrative markets?

Such critics include the prominent and highly respected dissident, Wei Jingsheng. He has said: what I am worried about is that the human rights movement will be sacrificed for the businessmen … feel pain knowing that western democracies are caught by the Chinese market economy's fishing hook". During his recent visit to London, he was outspoken and uncompromising in his criticism of the Foreign Secretary, whom he called a "coward" whose "soft pedalling" on human rights violations in China for the sake of commercial contracts he described as a "large and wrong-headed gamble". What weight do the Government give to criticisms emanating from such a quarter?

This new policy, entitled "zero tolerance of division in Europe", is indeed radical, with far-reaching and critical ramifications for the work of the Foreign Office. Clearly, it must have implications for the Government's policy towards Iraq, given the divisions that exist in Europe over the need to keep the military option open. The Government seem to have developed a little schizophrenia in the application and importance attached to UN resolutions. I should like the Minister to clarify why a UN resolution was so necessary in the case of Iraq, when there were clearly potentially damaging divisions within the Security Council, yet in the case of China a resolution is proscribed by the slightest hint of European divisions.

Does that mean that in future, British principles and policies must be sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism in a bid to avoid a divided Europe? Perhaps it is this, and not human rights, which is at the centre of the Government's foreign policy.

The Government have listed a number of benchmarks by which their new policy towards China will be judged. The Chinese leadership will have to honour its promise to "take seriously" a future visit by Mary Robinson; it will have to allow the Red Cross to resume prison visits; it will have to allow the release of dissidents on a joint EU-American list; and it will have to permit a totally independent European Union troika visit to Tibet. Could the Minister give the House some details as to how the Government intend to ensure that those criteria are honoured? Furthermore, what is the Government's minimum requirement for what must be agreed and achieved during that visit in order that it is deemed to have been "taken seriously"?

Yet it seems that, in the key litmus test of China, a paradox has been uncovered in the Government's ethical foreign policy. On the one hand, we have a Foreign Secretary who poses as "ethics man", yet on the other hand he could not find time to meet China's most eloquent defendant of democracy, Wei Jingsheng, during his visit to the UK in January, even though he was about to leave on a trip to Beijing. The result of that trip was a "warm, constructive and expansive" meeting with President Jiang Zemin, in which it is not clear that the Foreign Secretary raised the issue of the release of further dissidents at all. By contrast, Mr. Cook's subsequent meeting with Mr. Wei, who suffered almost two decades of imprisonment, torture and deprivation and attempts at "thought reform", was simply described as "friendly". The Foreign Office code is not hard to decipher.

On the one hand, we have a Government who claim to have put human rights at the heart of their foreign policy; yet, unlike the previous government, who insisted on a UN resolution as an absolute prerequisite to focus international attention "on the need for improvement in China's human rights situation", they have failed to sponsor the same UN resolution. On the one hand we have a government who claim to have taken "the lead in dialogue with China on human rights", yet human rights groups and dissidents alike have united to condemn the Government's policy while praising that of their predecessors.

When the Government announced their ethical foreign policy, amid much fanfare and ostentation, from these Benches I sought to elicit from the Government what exactly the "new" policy would mean and how it would differ from that of the previous government. Initially, there was no discernible change; no examples of stronger action towards perpetrators of human rights abuses, no case of greater penalties imposed on the countries concerned. In fact, there seemed to be a seamless transition of policy, indicating that the Government's "new" ethical credentials were no more than superficial rhetoric dressed up as policy.

But now, in their failure to renew sponsorship of the United Nations resolution on China, the Government have actually breached the ethical foreign policy established by the previous government. The Foreign Secretary's rhetoric of high principle has been uncovered as a sham and inevitable accusations of low comprise and double standards have followed. China is the litmus test for the Government, the litmus test that a true ethical foreign policy is judged by deeds, not words, by actions not rhetoric, and that a policy of true statesmanship will be judged by its results, not by the presentations used to launch it, not by the impressive but ultimately hollow rhetoric used to describe it.

8.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for initiating this timely debate as the commission opens its annual sessions. The noble Lord's exemplary record on human rights is well known not only in your Lordships' House and throughout this country but also, I venture to suggest, elsewhere in the world. We thank him for the very valuable work that he does.

The Government are fully committed to the promotion of human rights. It is a centrepiece of our foreign, as well as our domestic, policy. We are committed to the principle of universality of human rights. All human rights, economic, social, cultural, civil and political, are for all people regardless of sex, age, ethnic origin or where they live. And all human rights are interrelated and interdependent. People cannot fully realise their economic rights in countries where their civil rights are consistently violated. The right to vote is meaningless when people are starving.

We are strongly committed to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as a vital forum for promoting human rights. We are major supporters of the UN's human rights machinery. So far this year, we have already contributed over £4 million to the UN's human rights voluntary funds for field operations, technical co-operation and victims of torture.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right. As EU presidency this year, we have a special role to play at the commission. We are using it to make our views clear about human rights situations around the world. This year we shall be particularly working to ensure that the special concerns of women and of children are taken into account through all the work of the commission.

The UK will, throughout the commission, make a series of formal interventions on thematic and country issues. These will include interventions on children, democracy and development, women, racism, rule of law issues, advisory services, human rights defenders, and detention and advisory services. We shall also deliver a statement setting out our human rights concerns in countries around the world. We are still discussing with our partners the exact formulation of these interventions.

Her Majesty's Government are concerned at the increasing divisions in recent years within the commission between the EU and like-minded western countries and some G77 countries. We shall seek to use our presidency to reduce those divisions. When we can, we shall seek to engage countries in a constructive approach. But we shall not be deflected from highlighting human rights violations and refusal by countries to allow access to the commission's independent experts.

As noble Lords would expect, I have listened to the speakers this evening with considerable interest as they have dealt with not only the thematic issues around the world but also some of the country issues. I shall now try to address some of the specific points raised by noble Lords. If I am not able to cover them all, I shall do so by letter later.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was nothing if not trenchant in his criticisms of the Government in relation to China. He used very strong words, such as "hypocrisy", "sham", "double standards" and "expediency". Let me be clear with the noble Lord and other Members of your Lordships' House. We have raised at all levels with the Chinese Government our concerns over the continuing human rights violations within China. The Foreign Secretary made the Government's views clear during his visit to China in January. We shall continue to press the Chinese Government—as the Foreign Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister and my honourable friend Mr. Fatchett have done—to live up to these international standards.

However, we do not believe that yet another failed resolution on China at this year's commission is the best way to bring about real changes on the ground. EU Foreign Ministers therefore decided on 23rd February that neither the presidency nor member states should table or co-sponsor a draft resolution on China at the commission. We believe that the EU's dialogue-based policy, supported by practical assistance, is more likely to bring about real improvements to human rights on the ground in China than repeated failed resolutions.

Let us be clear. I do not doubt the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in supporting human rights in China, and I hope that he does not doubt mine or that of the rest of the Government. Where we differ is on the best means to pursue human rights in China. The noble Lord advocates a means used in the past eight years: to achieve a vote against China. In seven of the past eight years that resolution was not even voted upon. It is not, as the noble Lord said, that it did not work; it did not even get as far as a vote being taken. However, since October last year we have attempted to engage in dialogue with China. I can cite eight positive results of that dialogue: first, the signature of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; secondly, the release of Wei Jingsheng; thirdly, agreement to transmit Hong Kong reports under the UN covenants, which was one of our major goals; fourthly, an agreement of the EU technical co-operation package covering civil and political rights, as well as economic and social rights; fifthly, an invitation to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mrs. Robinson, to visit China; sixthly, a visit to China by the UN group on arbitrary detention; seventhly, an agreement to visit Tibet by EU troika embassies; eighthly, the EU-China legal affairs seminar, attended by legal experts, academics and government officials from both sides held on 23rd and 24th February.

The noble Lord again cites Mr. Wei. There is no doubt that Mr. Wei is a very brave man. But Her Majesty's Government have to do what they believe to be right in the sense of what can be achieved on the ground and in the sense of pursuing those eight improvements which we have seen since we began our dialogue with China. When Mr. Wei met the Foreign Secretary there was, of course, an exchange of views. There was not agreement on every point; no one would suggest that. But Mr. Wei recognised not only what had been done before 1st May last year but also what has been done since then. He recognised the continuing commitment of Her Majesty's Government to human rights in China and thanked my right honourable friend for everything he had done in order to secure his release.

Noble Lords will have noted the United States' announcement that, in the light of China's recent decision to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United States too has decided not to table or co-sponsor a resolution on China.

The noble Lord also raised the question of Algeria. We continue to be deeply concerned about the appalling massacres and the reports of widespread torture in Algeria. We are seeking to bring about improvements in the situation there through dialogue. We believe that that approach stands the best chance of achieving real improvements on the ground. That, after all, is what Her Majesty's Government's foreign policy on these issues is about—real achievements, not just clever exchanges over the Dispatch Box.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Derek Fatchett, led an EU mission to Algeria in January to continue the political dialogue established during the visit to Luxembourg in 1997 of the Algerian Foreign Minister, Mr. Attaf. We are in discussion with the Algerians about access for UN special rapporteurs, including on torture and extra-judicial killings.

I now turn to the some of the important points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The noble Lord raised the question of the High Commissioner's office. The Government fully support the Secretary-General's track-two reform proposals, which Her Majesty's Government believe will significantly enhance the role of the UN human rights machinery. We particularly support the strengthening of the High Commissioner's office in New York because we believe that this will play a key role in ensuring that human rights feature across the full range of the work of the United Nations.

The British Government funded a review by Price Waterhouse of the office of the High Commissioner. The review advised the High Commissioner on ways in which the office could be more effective. The review played an important role in the reorganisation of the office now being completed by the High Commissioner. The noble Lord is right; it is important that the High Commissioner's office is properly funded, both through the UN regular budget and through voluntary contributions. We are working to ensure that there is sufficient focus within the UN on that kind of regular budget.

The noble Lord also raised the question of thematic rapporteurs. Thematic rapporteurs of the Commission on Human Rights are independent experts and we strongly believe that they have to decide their own methods of work. But there is no reason why thematic rapporteurs cannot produce detailed reports of countries that they have not been allowed to visit. After all, it would be quite wrong if countries were to escape scrutiny by refusing access to those special rapporteurs. Many rapporteurs' reports contain reporting and analysis on countries which they have not been allowed to visit.

The noble Lord raised questions in relation to delays in the translation of UN documents. It would not be acceptable to many UN member states if documents were made available in some languages before others. For example, we could expect legitimate objections from Arab states if documents relating to them were in the public domain in English before they were made available in Arabic. Many reports to the Commission on Human Rights are available only once the commission has started. That often reflects the desire of the rapporteur to produce absolutely up-to-date work when producing the reports.

The noble Lord raised the question of internally displaced persons. Of course human rights apply as much to internally displaced persons as to anyone else. It is vital to tackle the root causes of internal displacement and we are therefore looking forward to Mr. Deng's special report to the current session of the Commission on Human Rights. We will study his proposals carefully before developing the framework in the protection of internally displaced persons, including the important resource issues which the noble Lord raised.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne, raised questions about Kuwaiti prisoners of war in Iraq. It is deplorable that there are still Kuwaiti prisoners of war in Iraq. We will be pushing for that to be a focus of our EU base resolution on Iraq at the Commission on Human Rights. The noble Baroness raised the issue of a number of other nationals who are also imprisoned in Iraq without trial. Those persons will also be the subject of our discussions.

The noble Baroness raised questions over the rights of the child. We will use the commission to emphasise the need for universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and EU support for a new ILO declaration on the most intolerable forms of child labour.

The noble Baroness raised questions about UK asylum procedures. We know that the system for dealing with asylum seekers has been expensive; it has been too slow. As she rightly said, it was a system that we inherited. But we are looking critically at all aspects of asylum law and procedures, including the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 to ensure that decisions are not only fair, but that they are swift.

I wish to return to some of what I felt were the most extraordinary criticisms from the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in relation to the attitude of Her Majesty's Government on human rights. I should like to run though some of the important points that have been secured by Her Majesty's Government since 1st May last year.

The noble Lord raised issues in relation to China on questions of the death penalty. The Government decided that the death penalty will now be challenged. We, with our EU partners, have made a series of démarches already on the use of the death penalty in countries where it is used. We are discussing with Italy the prospects of, in this year's session, calling for the abolition of the death penalty.

We have been engaged with the ILO in working for a new convention on unacceptable forms of child labour. We have a new policy for new and tougher criteria on the sales of arms. We are working for an EU code of conduct on arms sales. We will be barring and have barred the export of torture equipment. We have launched the human rights projects fund so that missions can back up the dialogue with real assistance on the ground. We are replacing the old military training programme by redirecting funds to the new ASSIST fund. We have close co-operation between the DfID and the FCO on a human rights-based approach to development. On many other issues of engagement the Government, in the past 10 months, have made considerable inroads on human rights issues.

I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the Government take concerns over human rights seriously. The 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a time for all countries to implement universal, international human rights standards. We wish the commission well and we wish Mrs. Robinson well with her work.