HL Deb 20 May 1999 vol 601 cc401-4

3.9 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will increase their endeavours to promote the abolition of slavery in those countries where it persists.

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

My Lords, slavery is outlawed by a substantial body of international law. Her Majesty's Government urge all countries to ratify the relevant instruments and to wipe out all forms of slavery.

At a practical level, we work to address this issue in international forums such as the UN and the International Labour Organisation—for example, in support of the ILO's International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour—with EU partners, especially on Sudan, and in our bilateral relationships.

We strongly support the efforts of certain countries to eliminate the practice of slavery. We also provide practical help to tackle the poverty which breeds abusive labour practices.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that reply, which contains some cause for hope, I should like to ask her whether this Government, who are committed to a foreign policy which takes account of human rights, are adequately addressing the scale of slavery in the modern world. For example, in addition to the evidence in the recent excellent report by Anti-Slavery International, we in Christian Solidarity Worldwide have freed more than 1,200 slaves in Sudan but we estimate that there are still tens of thousands of people enslaved in Sudan. I have just returned from Burma where I had the privilege of being with the Karen and the Kareni people, many of whom have been forced into labour in such harsh conditions that they are dying. Therefore, will the Minister give an assurance that this Government will follow in the tradition of William Wilberforce and make increased efforts to try to achieve an end to this abominable practice before we move into the next millennium?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I may express the Government's appreciation of all the noble Baroness's valuable work on this issue and on a number of other wider human rights issues. Her Majesty's Government do not just proceed by exhortation on this issue, although we urge other countries to sign up to their international legal obligations. We also try to tackle these issues through the way in which we tackle poverty in different parts of the world.

The noble Baroness mentioned Sudan and Burma. Since our useful debate in your Lordships' House in December last year, there has been a constructive resolution on Sudan which was agreed by consensus—that consensus included Sudan itself—at the UN Commission on Human Rights which took place in Geneva in April. That calls among other things for investigations into the practice of forced labour and means to eradicate that practice. We shall be working closely with our EU partners on the follow-up to that resolution.

The noble Baroness also mentioned Burma. The ILO report last year made recommendations for implementation by the ruling State Police and Development Council. We are working, again with our partners, to co-ordinate action through the ILO on the Burmese regime's response. Recently, the SPDC responded to that pressure by announcing the suspension of certain legal provisions governing the use of forced labour.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, have the Government considered imposing an import ban on artefacts known to have been manufactured wholly or partly by slave labour, or at least introducing a compulsory labelling scheme?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord raises a difficult point because the whole system of bonded labour, particularly the use of children in that way, is repellent and repugnant. But we have felt that the proper way to address this matter is through the focus that the Foreign Office and DflD endeavour to put on ending such labour practices as slavery and bonded labour. The Department for International Development is providing support for the ILO's programme for the elimination of child labour both in terms of the core funding and in terms of funding the south Asia regional and India country programmes. We are also providing £750,000 over the three-year period 1997–2000 for a programme run by the Save the Children Fund in Pakistan to tackle child labour, including the issue of bonded labour.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, will the Government take into the account the importance of the abolition of slavery when negotiating trade agreements with countries that have questionable human rights records?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that the Government already do that. It is extremely important that we do not lose sight of such humanitarian considerations. It is the Government's belief that trade is very important. Trade may very often help the economic position of those who are most disadvantaged in certain countries. But the noble Lord is quite right: a balanced view has to be taken where we are certain that there are practices of slavery or bonded labour.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, bearing in mind the Government's principled position on an ethical foreign policy and on human rights, will the noble Baroness try to encourage governments in countries like Sudan, Pakistan and India which have laws against slavery to enforce those laws and to free all those people who are enslaved?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government certainly pursue these issues. I was able to detail the issue of Sudan to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, a moment or two ago. The Government also pursue such issues with Pakistan, India and a number of other countries where we are concerned about their labour practices. It is extremely important that such issues are tackled not only by urging those countries to stop such practices but also by tackling the underlying poverty that gives rise to the practices in the first place. One of the most important ways in which we can do so is through the money that we are able to give in aid, particularly for the purpose of the education of women.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, in addition to the ILO work outlined by the Minister, what priority are the Government giving to the need to combat one of the most pernicious and odious forms of slavery today, the trafficking in women and girls, which has become one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, given that it is estimated that between 1 million and 2 million women and girls annually are forcibly moved around the world, usually for the purpose of forced labour, domestic servitude or sexual exploitation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. Sexual slavery, including forced prostitution and forced marriage, is abhorrent. It is a violation of women's human rights and it limits women's autonomy, their freedom of movement and their right to decide for themselves on the pattern of their own sexual activity. The statute of the International Criminal Court includes sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, rape and certain other serious sex Jai crimes as crimes against humanity when they are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations. However, it is important also to recognise that much of the exploitation of women has its roots in poverty and the exploitation of that poverty. Women are particularly vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. In all our development programmes we work with host governments and other departments to make gender considerations an integral part of development poi icy and planning. We provide direct support to women's groups. We concentrate on women's education, on health, on sanitation, on sexual education and on the education of their children.