HL Deb 13 May 2003 vol 648 cc123-5
Baroness Greengross

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to ensure that the terms of United Nations Resolution 1325 for broad participation of women in peace-building and post-conflict Iraq are being met.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to Resolution 1325. Our military on the ground and secondees in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance—ORHA—are aware of their responsibilities under the resolution.

My right honourable friend the Minister for Women has met and will continue to meet Iraqi women from a variety of different political and civic groups in this country. A gender expert from the Women and Equality Unit is being seconded to ORHA, and the new UK-funded TV channel in Iraq will shortly begin broadcasting programmes to encourage women to participate in civic and political life in Iraq.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very full reply. In recognising the difficulty of meeting the demands of women while ensuring that Iraqis themselves determine their own future, will the conference that I believe is proposed be representative of all groups? In particular, will it include widows, whose numbers have greatly increased due to the Saddam regime and the recent conflict?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is a point very well taken. The statistics show an abnormal disproportion of women to men in Iraq. Statistics vary somewhat, but 55 per cent of the Iraqi population are women. We believe that that is due to the deaths of men during the Iran-Iraq war, and to killings, executions and disappearances. Of course, many women have also been subject to terrible atrocities.

The noble Baroness is looking forward to the possibility of a conference in Iraq. We are looking at that. Our UK special representative, John Sawers, has emphasised the importance of women being an integral part of Iraq's political process. I assure the noble Baroness that we shall keep a very particular eye on what happens about widows.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated that the people of Iraq have a right to decide their own future. Can the Minister clarify what would be the position of Her Majesty's Government if a regime—for example, a clerical regime—came to power and abused women's rights? How would the UK respond?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is an excellent question, and one that I have asked colleagues. I absolutely see the inherent dilemma of self-determination on one hand, and the possibility of such an outcome—it is very much not to be wished for—on the other. The answer is that human rights are fundamental rights, as recognised by the United Nations. We recognise women as having those rights as much as men, and we would expect any regime in Iraq to recognise the rights of women, too.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the participation of men is essential in bringing women into full political power in Iraq? What efforts have the Government made, and what efforts can they make, to sound out the key male players in the Iraqi political situation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course it is important that men are part of the process.

Noble Lords


Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am trying to work out why that was amusing. My colleague Mike O'Brien has twice raised the issue of women's representation, including at the central Iraq conference in Baghdad. Although there were 250 Iraqi participants at the conference, I very much regret to say that only six of them were women. If I may say so, the problem at the moment is not so much bringing men into the dialogue, but making sure that women are part of that dialogue as well.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, is there any intention to set up a gender sub-committee, as has been done in Sri Lanka following the ceasefire, to advise the negotiating process on gender issues? Does the Minister agree that there are plenty of women, both inside and outside Iraq, who could play a part in such a committee? Can she tell me how far the proposal for a women's tent meeting has got? It was put forward by the Iraqi Women for Peace and Democracy in this country, and its intention was to bring a lot of women together and begin the process of equipping them to take part in the discussions on the constitution, the rule of law and so on that lie ahead.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the meeting to which the noble Baroness refers is under active discussion, but I cannot give her any details about it at the moment. As we have already discussed, the security situation in Iraq does not permit that. However, I am sure that as soon as my right honourable friend the Minister for Women has anything to announce on the issue, she will do so. She is meeting a group of Iraqi women again in London tomorrow.

As for setting up a sub-committee, the FCO Iraq policy unit has forwarded a gender equality policy brief to ORHA in Iraq, which explains the importance of working out detailed ways to promote the involvement of women in all aspects of the reconstruction of Iraq. I very much hope that the secondee that we are sending, who is an expert in the field, will also be able to add to the range of options that might be open for furthering the interests of women.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, despite the repression in the previous Iraqi regime, many women had access to education and healthcare and were able to play a part in public life? If some of the returning clerics have their way, those rights will disappear, and women could well face a Taliban-like regime. What is being done to prevent that, given that, as she rightly said, human rights are women's rights and vice versa?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the most effective way to deal with the matter is to continue to reiterate the point, again eloquently put by my noble friend, concerning the importance of women's rights being part of human rights. And, yes, my noble friend is right; Iraqi women score highest of all Arab women on the United Nations measure of gender empowerment, largely because of their relatively high rate of political participation. It is true that women held almost one-fifth of the seats in the former Iraqi parliament, whereas the average in the Middle East is 3.5 per cent.

However, in saying that, I do not believe that my noble friend should overlook the terrible human rights abuses which were also part and parcel of the Saddam regime; a regime which in 1990 declared that male relatives could kill a female relative in the name of honour without any punishment. Let us remember that although there was a certain amount of empowerment, there were also some terrible abuses of women.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the subject might well be worth discussing further with both the Turks and the Egyptians, as in both constitutions women are described as being equal to men?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, indeed, that is right. I am also aware that many other parts of the Arab world take a different view about women and human rights. We have some good examples, as we regard them, of the ways in which women are treated and some others which we would find more questionable.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, pointed out to the House, there is a real dilemma. We must face up to it when dealing with our friends in the Arab world about the ways in which they treat women. It is one which in my view we should not back away from and I believe that that is very much the view of the Government.

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