HL Deb 11 November 2003 vol 654 cc1212-4

2.51 p.m.

Lord Aveburyasked Her Majesty's Government:

What reports they have received this year about the state of human rights in Uzbekistan.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we receive regular reporting on human rights in Uzbekistan from our embassy in Tashkent. The embassy closely monitors the human rights situation and is in regular contact with independent human rights organisations and international non-governmental organisations. The Foreign Office's recently published human rights report details our concern about Ubzekistan's human rights record.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, while congratulating the noble Baroness on the human rights report and, in particular, on the excellent speech made by our ambassador in Tashkent about a year ago, does she not think that we now need to reinforce our capacity to monitor the numerous allegations of violations of human rights by the regime that have appeared since that speech? What steps have been taken to reinforce that capacity since the loss of two members of staff at the Tashkent embassy? Will she take this opportunity to reaffirm not only the full confidence of the Foreign Office and of the Foreign Secretary in our ambassador in Tashkent but that of the Prime Minister?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, on that last point, we expect Her Majesty's ambassador to Tashkent to return to Tashkent this coming weekend. That fully answers the noble Lord's point.

He asked what more we can do to promote the development of human rights in Uzbekistan. He is right: there is a sorry position there. We can do so in two principal ways: we can monitor reform and exert pressure. We can set benchmarks against which political and economic reforms will be measured, agreed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development strategy for Uzbekistan, which will be reviewed by the EBRD later this year. Secondly, the UN Special Rapporteur's report on torture in Uzbekistan referred to torture as "systematic". It behoves us all to continue to press the Uzbek authorities to implement the recommendations in that report.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, what representations did Her Majesty's Government receive from the US State Department about the ambassador's human rights activities—in particular, his speech, which is so helpfully printed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report on page 254? If representations were made, how did the Government deal with them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I know of no formal representations made to Her Majesty's Government on that issue. The fact that the speech is reproduced in full on page 254 of the report clearly conveys that the Government agree with it. As for what else we can do, the issues have of course been raised with the Uzbeks by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mr Bill Rammell, and by his predecessor, Mr Mike O'Brien.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, there are more than 6,000 political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. Rather than impose sanctions or speak out against the regime—as successive British Governments rightly did in Iraq—the Prime Minister has chosen the opposite approach. Can the Minister confirm that Uzbekistan was granted an open licence to import whatever weapons it wanted from the UK and that when Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan recently spoke out against abuses, he was withdrawn?

In February, the Prime Minister rightly said of Saddam Hussein: Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity. It is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane". Does not the Minister agree that when Britain does not apply a consistent approach we undermine our ability to deal with dictators?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I fear that I must take issue with the premise of the noble Baroness's question. We have spoken out on the issue. As I made clear in previous answers, not only has the current Minister responsible spoken out on the issue, so did his predecessor. If the noble Baroness cares to read our human rights report, she will find no fewer than 13 individual cases specified there. I am sorry to take issue with the noble Baroness, but the fundamental premise of her question is wrong. As for exports, the fact is that Uzbekistan has not been a traditional market for UK defence exporters— primarily because of its human rights record.

Lord Judd

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us congratulate the Government on standing firm on human rights issues in Uzbekistan? Does she accept that it is not simply a matter of individual rights, but that, if there is to be any hope of stability in that incredibly volatile and dangerous region, it would be absurd to become directly or indirectly implicated with policies of regimes that are abusing human rights, causing dissent and building political pressure?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I broadly agree with what my noble friend said. He is right: this is not just about what is happening to individuals. For example, there are no independent political parties in Uzbekistan; the press is muzzled; religious activity is controlled by the state; and the judiciary is compromised. The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said that there were 6,000 political prisoners; I am informed that there are between 7,000 and 10,000. Torture is practised in prisons. There have been some appalling deaths in custody—the most notorious of which resulted from individuals being subjected to boiling water.

Those are all terrible indictments of human rights in Uzbekistan, but we must engage with that country. Hence, we have an ambassador there who can do what he is doing—speaking out on those issues. We must proceed with the Government's policy of critical engagement; it is through such dialogue that we hope to bring Uzbekistan to a better understanding of its obligations.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, how do human rights in Uzbekistan today compare with human rights when it was part of the Soviet Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not know whether we can answer that question. Although I have been able to refer your Lordships several times to the report in which we detail individual cases, we can do that because Uzbekistan is now at least more accessible to the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights and to embassies—not only our own but those of the EU—which can help to monitor human rights. It would be difficult to give the noble Lord a realistic answer, because such information is unlikely to have been available under the previous, entirely closed regime.