HL Deb 10 December 2003 vol 655 cc743-5

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the priorities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for human rights in 2004.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's strategy UK International Priorities, a parliamentary Command Paper, was published on 2nd December. It makes clear that promoting human rights, along with democracy and good governance, is a priority for next year and, indeed, for the next 10 years. The thematic areas identified by Ministers as being of particular importance are: combating torture, promoting the abolition of the death penalty, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, child rights and the rule of law.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply and the informative and well presented report on human rights by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which she mentioned. Does she not agree that it would be a fitting memorial to the late Sergio Vieira de Mello if the international community could create a fund in his memory to remedy the serious shortage of resources; faced by the Human Rights Commission? Will the Government also consider pruning the commission's mandate on subjects of little or no relevance to human rights, and for the remainder, proposing that states that fail to co-operate with the United Nations be named and shamed before each meeting of the commission and that the rapporteurs in question issue written reports for consideration by the commission?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for his kind remarks about the annual human rights report, which, noble Lords will know, has been published since 1997. The noble Lord has a wealth of experience of international institutions and their strengths and weaknesses. We recognise that the UN's response to human rights violations around the world needs to be further improved. We shall take on board, and look closely at, the areas for improvement that he has raised.

As the noble Lord knows, the UK is working to achieve improvement through practical support for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and substantial input to the Human Rights Commission. I agree with him that the UN human rights mechanisms play a vital role. Although I would not go so far as to say that the Government will take up his suggestions completely, I shall call on all member states fully to co-operate with the commission and mechanisms such as thematic rapporteurs and country rapporteurs. The UK will always agree to a visit by any rapporteur on those issues.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, has my noble friend noticed the paragraph in the annual report that refers to the overloading of the Human Rights Commission's agenda with topics that have very little to do with human rights, at a time when the commission is desperately short of resources? Does she agree, for example, that toxic waste, however important as a topic, does not really belong on the Human Rights Commission's agenda? Can We do anything to discourage that?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I think that UN members have agreed that the UN's work in this area must be reprioritised. That restructuring must happen with human rights and throughout the UN's work. The issue of toxic waste relates to sustainable development and ensuring that human rights exist in the future, for which sustainable development is very important.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, when human rights conflict with the need to find co-operation in the war against terrorism, which takes priority? In particular, will the Government take up with the Russian Government the OSCE criticisms of corruption and intimidation in the Russian elections?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord's last point, we have taken up with the Russian Government very robustly the previous election results and those of last weekend. We note the OSCE's preliminary findings on Sunday's parliamentary elections. We take those concerns very seriously and now await the detailed report of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. We hope that the Russian authorities will follow up any recommendations made in that report before the Russian presidential elections in 2004.

The war on terror is compatible with the protection of human rights. The United Kingdom Government remain fully committed to human rights. Measures by states to combat terrorism must be proportionate and justifiable. Promoting human rights, democracy, good governance and the rule of law is, in the long term, the best guarantee of our security.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the definition of human rights is so widely drawn that it implies a limitless use of resources? In Afghanistan, for example, where corruption comes into the ambit of human rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, mentioned, there is a very small commission with very limited resources. How will the Foreign Office give it such support, as it could go in any direction?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, as the noble Earl will know, the Foreign Office contributes regularly to the UN's human rights work. The human rights budget has increased over the past year. We will continue to try to focus that budget far better than in the past. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned Sergio Vieira de Mello's tragic and untimely death in Iraq earlier this year. Of course, he was starting to make the UN human rights system more focused and more efficient. It is important that we try to build on his good work.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is there not a danger of overlap in all these human rights initiatives? The UN Commission has already been mentioned, there is the Commonwealth Human Rights Fund, the EU human rights initiative, the Africa pool and the global pool. Is there not a danger that we are spreading our sources a little thinly?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we try to work as efficiently and effectively as we can with partners on the world stage to make the regime on human rights worldwide as protected as possible. From his great experience, the noble Lord will know that, since 11 th September, we live in a world where it is important to sustain human rights in the growing problems that all countries—democratic and otherwise—face as far as terrorism is concerned.