HL Deb 21 October 2002 vol 639 cc1068-70

2.53 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take in relation to the report from the National Council of Resistance of Iran which alleges serious breaches of human rights, such as public executions, stonings and gouging of eyes.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we have serious concerns about human rights in Iran which we and our EU partners address through dialogue, UN resolutions and practical projects. We use a wide range of independent sources to assess the situation. But we do not rely on the often inaccurate reports of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which undertakes fundraising and propaganda activities on behalf of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a terrorist organisation proscribed in the United Kingdom.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. I recognise, as I am sure do many noble Lords, that there are practical reasons—so called "realpolitik"—for encouraging the positive elements in Iran and developing links with an important country as regards the Middle East crisis and the Gulf crisis. However, is the noble Baroness aware that there have been 292 public executions this year alone, endless instances of stoning to death, eye gouging, amputations and other horrific barbarities? Will she therefore ensure that no opportunity is lost in the future, whether through her visits or those of the Foreign Secretary or other Ministers, to tell Iran that those are intolerable practices which are completely incompatible with a serious and civilised role for Iran in global affairs?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is not just a question of realpolitik. The United Kingdom Government recognise the efforts of the Iranian Government and Parliament towards improving the human rights situation in Iran. We believe that those efforts have been genuine. However, as the noble Lord pointed out—and we also very much regret this—not least because of the political stand-off between the reformists and their conservative opponents, including, of course, the opponents in the judiciary, there has recently been a deterioration in the human rights situation. The figures that I have are deplorable. I refer to the number of people under sentence of death and those who have been subjected to public execution. However, they are not as dramatic as the figures which the noble Lord indicated. I should be happy to talk to the noble Lord about the figures that I have. It is important that we place some of the NCRI material in the right context. Some of it is exaggerated and is not borne out by reports from those on the ground.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, is critical engagement still the basis of the Government's approach to Iran? We are all conscious that there are many different elements within the current Iranian regime, some a great deal more reactionary than others, while others are trying to bring Iran into a much more open relationship with the rest of the world. Is critical engagement the way forward?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we hope that the EU/Iran human rights dialogue will go ahead. There are no preconditions on either side. There may, indeed, be a United Nations resolution to follow. It is important to recognise that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has on three occasions visited the country in the past year. On all occasions he raised human rights issues. The special rapporteur on violence against women of the UN Commission on Human Rights is due to visit Iran soon which we welcome. We also welcome the invitation by the Iranian Government to the EU and Australia to establish a dialogue on human rights. These are not solutions in themselves but they are indications of a willingness to engage on the issue.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I remind the House that I chair a committee on freedom in Iran. Has the Minister seen reports in the state-controlled press in Tehran that 20 public hangings and death sentences were passed in a recent three-day period? Although I welcome what the noble Baroness said about the Government's serious concern about the human rights situation in Iran, will she make clear what position the United Kingdom is taking today in discussions among EU foreign ministers about the tabling of a resolution for the UN General Assembly condemning the worsening abuse of human rights in that country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have indeed noted a high number of death sentences in recent days. As my noble friend knows, we do not ever support the death penalty. However, I point out that the individuals concerned have almost without exception been found guilty of serious crimes such as murder or rape. I do not believe that we have evidence of quite the high number that my noble friend suggests. I have evidence before me of about 15 such sentences. I accept that they are deplorable but I do not have the same figure as my noble friend.

My right honourable friend will engage with our colleagues in Europe as regards a UN resolution. The Foreign Secretary favours launching an Iran/EU human rights dialogue but at the moment there is some hesitation over sponsoring a resolution at this autumn's General Assembly.

Lord Russell-Johnston

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in her initial response to the noble Lord who tabled the Question she referred to the National Council of Resistance of Iran as a terrorist organisation and apparently produced as justification for that the fact that it is proscribed in this country? Does she agree that that proscription is contested?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord may possibly have misheard me. I said that the National Council of Resistance of Iran undertakes fundraising and propaganda activities on behalf of the Mojahedin-e Khalq—the MeK—and that the MeK is a terrorist organisation proscribed in the UK. We believe that it is proscribed for very good reasons: it publicly acknowledges its responsibility for terrorist actions against government buildings in Iran and carried out a series of mortar bomb attacks in central Tehran in 2000, which resulted in death and injury. It is not the NCRI but the MeK that is proscribed.

Forward to