HC Deb 05 March 2003 vol 400 cc311-8WH

4.8 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

The people of Iran have now suffered some 40 years of tyranny. In 1963, the Shah undertook what was called the white revolution, clamping down on the people. Ever since, the people have been under tyranny. The Shah was regarded as a friend of ours and we tolerated him. In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in overthrowing the Shah. The tyranny continued, and the Ayatollah was our enemy. He died in 1989 and the current Ayatollah, or supreme leader, is Ayatollah Khamenei, who was previously the president.

In 1997, after Rafsanjani had been president, Ayatollah Khatami became president. People in the United Kingdom, and perhaps in the whole of the western world, almost breathed a sigh of relief because he had a reputation for being a moderate. As a result, in September 1998, at the General Assembly of the United Nations, the current Leader of the House▀×then Foreign Secretary—made a deal with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Kharrazi, to restart a relationship. In May 1999 that resulted in full diplomatic relations being restored.

President Khatami was seen as a man who espoused reform, was moderate and wanted change. The United Kingdom hoped that by contacting Iran we would help the reform process. That was summed up by the current Secretary of State for Defence—then a junior Minister in the Foreign Office—at a speech, appropriately enough, at Sandhurst, on 14 July 1999. He said: We still have important concerns over Iranian policy, particularly over support for terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and human rights. But we believe the current Iranian Government is making good progress in the right direction, and we are resolved to support that. That sums up British policy in a nutshell. Since then, Foreign Minister Kharrazi has made two visits to the United Kingdom, in 2001 and earlier this year. The present Foreign Secretary has made two visits to Iran, and several other Government Ministers—Cabinet and non-Cabinet have visited Tehran during those years.

The European Union takes a similar view. The External Affairs Commissioner, Chris Patten, in response to a US attack on Iran had this to say: There is more to be said for trying to engage and draw these societies into the international community than to cut them off. The United Kingdom and the European Union were as one in trying to create a dialogue involving both trade and human rights issues. The United States, however, remained totally unconvinced of President Khatami's ability to deliver the reform agenda. In February 2002, US Secretary of State Colin Powell posed the following questions, which were published in theFinancial Times on 13 February: How can we ignore the fact that this country continues to barrel straight ahead trying to achieve a nuclear capability? He added: How can we ignore the fact that they are complicit in shipping arms of a very escalatory nature in the Middle East? He also stated: Iran sponsors terrorist organisations. Should we hold back from pointing this out? The EU and UK, and the US have two quite diverse and different views.

What does the record tell us during the last few years? Huge amounts of material are available. There is a very useful House of Commons Library brief on Iran. The Foreign Office publishes human rights reports. There are reports from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, United States Departments, the UN rapporteur on human rights, and a host of other groups with an interest in human rights and the situation in Iran, including the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the Iranian Women's Association in the UK, the Iranian Civil Rights Committee and the International Committee against Stoning. There are many more. What do those sources reveal about the progress being made in Iran through the process of engagement by the UK Government? The Foreign Office report of 2000 states: Iran's reformers have made some progress over the last year. But there have been many setbacks too. The human rights situation … has on balance deteriorated over the past year despite the support of the reformers by an overwhelming majority of the Iranian people. The 2001 report continues in much the same vein: The pace of progress has slowed since he was first elected in 1997 mostly as a result of the continuing struggle between the reformists and conservatives. The conservative-dominated judiciary has closed down over 50 publications in the past two years… and imprisoned a number of journalists and editors … A number of members of the Majles have been given prison sentences, mainly for critical remarks made in the Majles"— let us hope that that is not taken up here, Mr. Deputy Speaker— although only one, Hoseyn Loqmanian, was actually imprisoned… His pardon by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, defused the short-term confrontation, but the underlying issue of Parliamentary immunity remains in doubt". There is one small bright spark on the horizon. We note that there has been some improvement in the situation of the Baha'is over the past year, and that none are now under sentence of death just for being of that faith. The Human Rights Watch report of 2003 paints much the same picture: Despite landslide electoral victories in every major election from 1997 to 2002, the reformers were unable to dislodge repressive policies favored by the clerical leadership, including far-reaching restrictions on freedom of expression, association and political participation. The Guardian Council repeatedly blocked bills passed by the Parliament in such areas as women's rights, family law, the prevention of torture, and electoral reform. The judiciary … undermined the rule of law with arbitrary closures of newspapers and imprisonment of political activists … Any pretence that legal principles would be observed in regulating the press disappeared. Iran's press courts acted as a law unto themselves, issuing closure orders by decree without legal basis". The picture is not good. Executions, floggings, stonings, maimings and arbitrary arrests all continue at a high level. The National Council for Resistance of Iran, which monitors the official press, reported that 474 sentences of execution were granted last year and many of them were carried out. That is 50 per cent. up on 2001. In reply to my written question it was pointed out that 139 executions were recorded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or whoever takes down such information.

Three men and three women were stoned to death in 1997; two or possibly three women in 2001; and three stoning sentences were passed on women in 2002. The National Council for Resistance reports that 26 stoning sentences have been passed since 1997. This year 50 executions have been reported up to 5 February. Ninety prisoners have received nearly 5,000 lashes—this is just in January—and there have been four cross-amputations: one leg and one arm cut off on alternate sides of the body. A woman's eyes were gauged out. The situation is not pretty.

Many of the mullahs maintain that they have banned stoning, but there is no evidence that that is so. A Bill to abolish stoning is said to have been proposed, but an MP says that that is a lie and no proposal for the abolition of stoning has been presented to the Majles. An official in south-east Iran told the BBC in December that he had received no written or official instructions from the judiciary to cancel sentences of stoning. The situation is bleak.

For the first time in seven years a UN rapporteur has been allowed into Iran. In a report on the jails in Iran published at the end of February this year, the team reported: Iranians suffer large-scale arbitrary detentions and some prisons operate outside the control of the judicial system". They were given full co-operation, but it was the first time the working group has been faced with such a practice on such a scale". So the situation is not good in Iran's jails either. It is vital that within the European Union the UK makes sure that at the general assembly of the European Commission on Human Rights later this month a censure motion on human rights abuses in Iran is passed and the human rights rapporteur is reinstated, because last year for the first time in many years that motion failed by one vote. We must make sure that it happens.

It is not surprising for such a country to be the suicide capital of the world. It certainly has one of the highest rates of suicide. Some 75 per cent. of all suicides are women, and more than 80 per cent. of those are women between the ages of 15 and 31. The picture is not pretty.

We should consider the other areas of concern. The United States believes that Iran is the most active sponsor of terrorism and that it helps Hezbollah and Islamic jihad. Although it has condemned the 11 September atrocities and has sent some al-Qaeda people back to Europe for trial, early in January a boatload of arms was captured on its way to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran's nuclear plans are also a cause for concern. The National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed in August that the Iranians were working on new nuclear facilities for enriched uranium in heavy water, which would provide the opportunity to build weapons. Iran is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, but it nevertheless failed to report those new works to the International Atomic Energy Agency. I am not sure whether Mohammed el-Baradei has had a chance to go to Iran to check the situation, but he has expressed concern and intends to see what is going on.

The CIA national intelligence estimates reckon that Iran could have a nuclear weapon by 2015, but if it receives foreign assistance it could be a lot sooner. Its biological and chemical weapons programmes are recognised by the United States. It has a ballistic missile that can already reach 800 miles. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reports that the country is working on longer-range missiles, and the United States thinks that the country may have an intercontinental missile within the next decade, which is of grave concern.

I hope that our Government will do much more than carry on a dialogue. There have been recent local government elections in Iran. In Tehran, only 12 per cent. turned out. One of President Khatami's supporters said that that was an indication that the people had lost hope of achieving democratic change through the ballot box. That must be a serious warning of what might happen in Iran.

There was so much hope when Khatami came to power. There was a large turnout of 80 per cent. plus for his first election, but that is all turning to dust. On every front, the Government of Iran, instead of getting better, are getting worse. President Khatami seems to have been the fig leaf for the tyranny of Ayatollah Khamenei. The Majles has no power of its own and everything that it does must be approved by the Guardian Council. The country may want reform, but President Khatami has his legs manacled and one arm tied behind his back while being in the ring with Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis—that is the measure of the struggle that the country faces. It is true that the people want change; they showed that by electing Khatami, a potential reformer. Reports in the western press coming out of Tehran also indicate that there is an underground desire for change. However, there is not much hope of it happening. Ayatollah Khamenei, the Guardian Council and the judiciary do not want change. People are certainly talking to them, but Ayatollah Khamenei is not listening. Many exiles, who live in countries around the world including the United Kingdom, fled from the tyranny of the mullahs and want to return to a democratic, free and tolerant state. They must recognise that those objectives are also our objectives.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

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The Minister for Europe(Mr. Denis MacShane)

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. Perhaps I should explain to the Chamber that 30-minute debates are essentially between a Member and the Minister, unless prior arrangements have been made and passed on to the Chair.

4.24 pm
Mr. MacShane

That clarification is helpful, because last week there was a half-hour Adjournment debate in which five hon. Members spoke. I was happy to leave room for the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman), but your clarification of House practice is helpful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) on securing the debate. The Government share many of his concerns about Iran, which is why I believe that we are right to pursue a policy of constructive and, where necessary, critical engagement. That allows us to support reform in Iran while maintaining a robust dialogue on issues of concern. Those issues include Iranian support to terrorist groups involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict—my hon. Friend has put the facts about that support before the House—Iran's reported development of weapons of mass destruction and aspects of its human rights record.

We continue to engage Iran on a wide range of issues of common interest, including bi-lateral co-operation in the fight against drugs, which is a matter of great concern for many of our constituents, and international support for reconstruction and the interim Administration in Afghanistan. For many years, Iran has hosted more than 2 million refugees from both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Department for International Development has provided substantial support—more than £4.3 million since 1999–2000—for refugee programmes in Iran and has agreed to fund several United Nations agency and non-governmental organisation projects. We regularly discuss Iraq with our Iranian counterparts. Like the UK, Iran is committed to the maintenance of Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its current borders.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for misunderstanding the convention. Has the Minister any evidence that the violent, barbaric punishments and executions in Iran are subsiding? Will he confirm that it is false to assert, as the regime has done, that there is a moratorium on stoning?

Mr. MacShane

I hope to cover those points in the rest of my remarks.

Our policy of engagement enables us better to put forward our views and concerns, which has only been made possible by the changes that have taken place in Iran since President Khatami was first elected in May 1997. The UK supports President Khatami's stated objective of a civil society based on the rule of law. We welcomed his re-election in June 2001 with an increased share of the vote, which demonstrated the Iranian people's clear will for reform and gave him a strong mandate. Unfortunately, owing to the complex political situation in Iran, to which my hon. Friend referred, President Khatami has had many problems in implementing his policies of political and economic reform.

Naturally, the Government share many of my hon. Friend's concerns about human rights in Iran, which we and our EU partners have addressed through dialogue, UN resolutions and practical projects. We and our EU partners regularly make clear to the Iranian authorities, at all levels, our concerns about human rights. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did so most recently in his meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister on 6 February. We use a wide range of independent sources to assess the situation. Our embassy in Tehran also gathers information from its sources and colleagues at other like-minded embassies.

We welcome the efforts that the Iranian Government and Parliament have made towards seeking to improve the human rights situation in Iran, but we regret that because of the political stand-off between reformers and their conservative opponents, who include members of the judiciary, there is still a long way to go. The people and elected Government of Iran want an improvement in the human rights situation. The Iranian Parliament has drafted a number of Bills on important issues, such as the prohibition of torture, which have been rejected by the Guardian Council as incompatible with religious teachings: that is, despite the fact that the Iranian constitution prohibits torture. The Iranian Parliament is determined to make progress on the issue, and we hope that it succeeds.

The United Kingdom and European Union believe that one way of expressing their concerns is to sponsor resolutions on human rights in Iran at the UN General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights, as has been done for many years. We were disappointed that the Commission on Human Rights failed, by just one vote, to adopt the resolution on Iran in April last year. As my hon. Friend noted, that also meant the end of the mandate of the special representative. In practice, the special representative has not been allowed to visit Iran since 1996, but his reports on the human rights situation provided valuable detail on the human rights problems in Iran, and he was active in pursuing cases with the Iranian Government.

All EU partners are concerned about the human rights situation in Iran, and we are currently consulting on the most effective way in which to encourage positive change. A resolution is one of a number of tools currently under consideration.

Following the failure of the resolution last year, Iran made a number of gestures, including inviting the EU to engage in a dialogue on human rights. After an internal debate, the EU decided to take up the offer and the first round of the dialogue took place in mid-December. The next round will take place later this month, which will give us an opportunity to assess progress before the next Commission on Human Rights begins its work on 17 March. Discussions in December were frank, and the EU made it clear to the Iranians that they need to be able to show results to get agreement for the talks to continue. Initial impressions have been positive, although change, as ever, is likely to be slow. The EU delegation handed over a list of cases on which answers were sought, and those issues will be followed up this month. My hon. Friend quoted Commissioner Chris Patten. When Chris Patten visited Tehran in February he said that it was not enough just to talk about human rights and that we needed to see progress. Of course, he was right.

In a further development following the failure of the resolution last year, there has been an open invitation to UN Human Rights Commission inspectors to visit Iran. The UN working group on arbitrary detentions was the first to take up the invitation, and completed an inspection in February. The group has still to make a full report.

Together with our EU partners, we have repeatedly expressed concern about stonings, which is a subject on which reformers, and especially women's groups, in Iran have been campaigning for years. We welcomed the announcement at the end of last year by the head of the Supreme Administrative Court that the practice has been suspended. We have also been informed that, of the four women who were sentenced to death by stoning last year, three have been given alternative sentences and the fourth is awaiting the outcome of her appeal. We are monitoring the situation closely, because that barbaric practice is not acceptable to any decent human being anywhere in the world.

We are considering other ways of developing practical co-operation on human rights issues. We have supported a number of projects through the Foreign Office's human rights projects fund. The projects include technical assistance on specific issues relating to the rule of law and work by Penal Reform International, a highly regarded worldwide organisation, which was initially approached by the Iranian prison authorities, who are keen to reform their prisons. Other projects have included specialised training for judges working with juveniles, through UNICEF; strengthening the capacities of the Islamic Human Rights Commission; human rights training courses for young adults; and a familiarisation visit by five Iranian judges to the UK, which took place last March.

I accept the point that hon. Members have made about progress remaining slow. There is a steady, drip-by-drip attempt to show Iranian officials that an alternative system is possible. We noted at least 111 executions last year, some of which took place in public. The Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, and we urge all states to abolish it.

We regularly raise with the Iranian authorities our serious concerns about the treatment of the Baha'is. Persecution of individuals on religious grounds is unacceptable. Although no Baha'is remain under sentence of death, they continue to suffer harassment and discrimination in areas such as education, employment, housing and travel.

Despite moves to improve the situation of women, such as amending the divorce law to make it easier for women to initiate the divorce, there is continuing discrimination against women in the courts and in society generally. However, Iran has many women MPs and a woman Minister. Women are pursuing those matters and debating them with senior clerics, some of whom support their case. An increasing number of Iranian women go on to higher education and participate in politics, and that can only help them in their efforts to improve their status.

Freedom of speech remains under threat, particularly the freedom to speak out. However, there is lively debate in public and in the media on a wide range of subjects, and we acknowledge that Iran is a country of great culture and education. The Iranians want nothing more than to be able to enjoy the freedoms normally enjoyed by those who live in democracies. None the less, 90 newspapers and other similar publications have been closed during the past three years. Journalists and editors have been jailed, and lawyers have been jailed for speaking out on behalf of clients who claim that they have been tortured. Students have been imprisoned for taking part in demonstrations.

We take every opportunity to press the Iranian authorities on their approach to the middle east peace process. Peace in the middle east is in everyone's interests, including those of Iran. The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary have discussed the matter with the Iranian Foreign Minister. We believe that Iranians should be more constructive in their attitude to the middle east process, and that they should support efforts to resolve the differences between those involved.

I am concerned, as is my hon. Friend, about Iranian resources being used by Palestinian groups to carry out atrocious and unacceptable attacks on civilians in Israel. We might argue about the definition of terrorism, but attacks on civilians can never be justified, whether in Israel or Palestine—or by terrorist groups in Iran.

We continue to press the director general of the International Atomic Energy Authority to investigate allegations that Iran has weapons of mass destruction. We have encouraged Iran to be transparent about its nuclear activities in order to dispel concerns about the nature and purpose of those activities. The situations in Iran and Iraq are worrying. They cannot be ignored, and we seek a peaceful resolution to both.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I assure him that the Foreign Office and the Government take seriously human rights and other political developments in Iran.

It being twenty-two minutes to Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.