HL Deb 14 May 1998 vol 589 cc1169-72

3.14 p.m.

Lord Avebury

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to persuade the government of Algeria to accept visits from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights special rapporteurs on summary, arbitrary and extrajudicial executions and on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

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

My Lords, we maintain a broad-based dialogue with Algeria at both political and senior official levels. This process offers the best chance of contributing to an improvement in the situation there. In our regular contacts, we encourage the Algerians to fulfil the obligations of UN human rights mechanisms, of which a visit by special rapporteurs would form an important element. We are disappointed that they have not yet done so.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we welcome the forthright statement made at the Commission by Ambassador Audrey Glover on behalf of the European Union, in particular the statement on 22nd April under agenda item 3 on the necessity of compliance with United Nations mechanisms directed at Algeria? What happens if a state persists in its defiance of the United Nations and permanently declines to comply with the requests for visits by rapporteurs?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, as EU president, we co-ordinated its discussions within the UNCHR to try to promote rapporteur visits to Algeria. We regret that that was not agreed with the Algerians. The EU's disappointment was made clear in a statement delivered at the UNCHR in Geneva on 22nd April. As that statement made clear, the EU will be watching closely developments in Algeria to ensure that there is progress. It will consider its position carefully at the UN General Assembly and the 1999 UN Commission on Human Rights if there has been no progress. We shall continue to raise this with the Algerians.

There is a way for special rapporteurs to compile reports without visiting the countries. Perhaps that is the point to which the noble Lord refers. Special rapporteurs can draw on that information. But direct information is more valuable than second-hand reports.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, do the severe loss of life, possibly the greatest in recent years in any single country, and the refugee flows coming from Algeria, indicate that there is an interest in all outside powers achieving non-violence within Algeria?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords; I could not agree more. There must be that interest. I think we have all heard with increasing horror the reports of the violence. I remind noble Lords that the EU troika mission went to Algeria earlier this year, as did a group of MEPs. Our ambassador in Algeria has made a point of keeping us informed of what is happening and of looking at the sites of the alleged massacres. We continue to keep a close eye on what is happening.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government enter into consultations with other governments about how far policies which send large numbers of refugees, often destitute, into territories of other countries, should properly be regarded as internal affairs within the meaning of Article 2 of the UN Charter?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the point that the noble Earl raises does not apply solely to the problems in Algeria. We could cite similar problems. The example of Burma springs to mind. The noble Earl raises an interesting point. I shall consult my colleagues responsible for policy on these issues and write to him after I have done so.

Lord Rea

My Lords, the Minister made the point that UN rapporteurs should be able to conduct inquiries from outside Algeria, or other countries, if those countries refuse an entry. Will Her Majesty's Government suggest that United Nations rapporteurs do that?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, at present we are continuing to encourage the Algerians to change their mind. There seems to be a very strong view in Algeria, not merely confined to the governing party. When I met a group of Algerian women MPs earlier this year, it was not only those from the governing party but from opposition parties, too, who were very hostile to the idea of the UN rapporteurs. The matter must be pursued in the ways that I have described in answering the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. However, the noble Lord is right to return to my other point; namely, it is possible to do this without visiting the country. However, I think that we would all agree that the best way to do so at present is by visiting Algeria.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, what is the Minister's response to the accusation of Amnesty International that the international community has failed to take action to break the cycle of violence in Algeria; and to its criticism of the United Kingdom—not least in its presidency of the European Union—for failing to table a specific new resolution on Algeria calling for the appointment of the UN special rapporteur at the recent annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, those criticisms were not very fair at all, given the stance that the United Kingdom has taken, particularly during its presidency: my honourable friend Mr. Fatchett has led the troika mission; we have not only kept in touch, but have received regular reports from our ambassador, on which I have reported previously to this House; and we have encouraged groups of MEPs to visit that country. I mentioned the visit from the Algerian women MPs. A group of MPs from the United Kingdom will visit Algeria later this year. We hope that, through that sort of dialogue, we shall persuade the Algerians that a UN rapporteur is necessary in their country.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, of the women MPs who came to this country, those from the opposition side took a different line when they were away from their colleagues on the government Benches in relation to the visit by UN rapporteurs. Does she agree that there has to be a time-limit within which Algeria must comply with this process; and that it would be a good idea if the inquiry by the special rapporteurs from outside the country, which I was pleased to hear the Minister mention, could be initiated at some point in the future if an invitation has not been given by the Algerian Government at that date?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am extremely interested in the noble Lord's remark about the women MPs and their reactions when they were away from the others. There was, I know, one woman MP who did not agree with her colleagues. If there were more, I should be grateful to receive further information from the noble Lord. The noble Lord asked whether, if that does not work, we shall return to the idea of UN rapporteurs from sources outside that country? We really do want to pursue with the Algerians the idea of getting rapporteurs into the country. The problem with the noble Lord's suggestion is that, were we to go down that path, we should almost certainly sell the pass about not getting rapporteurs into Algeria. I can see the noble Lord nodding, I hope in agreement.