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That was recognised 60 years ago when the international community came together in an unprecedented way to affirm that whatever national, ideological or cultural differences and interests divided the world, those divisions were superseded by a deep common interest in providing the conditions for human freedom to flourish, and so emerged the universal declaration, about which a number of hon. Members have already spoken.

Anyone who has spent any time considering the UN’s performance in defending those principles will question whether there is anything substantial to celebrate at the 60th anniversary of the signing of the declaration. For example, anyone who has examined the track record of the ludicrous UN Commission on Human Rights, the body that was supposed to take a lead on some of these issues, will know that it became a safe haven for tyrants and dictators. It was finally wound up two years ago. Depressingly, so far, the replacement UN Human Rights Council shows too many signs of repeating the bad old ways of its predecessor body.

Amnesty International’s 2008 report states:

The responsibility to protect was one recent attempt by the international community to address the question of how we could realistically and practically defend the interests of those who are suffering from gross, systematic human rights abuses. As has already been discussed, at the heart of the matter is whether states have complete unconditional sovereignty over their own affairs, or whether the international community has the right to intervene militarily in a country for humanitarian purposes. It is three years since the doctrine of the responsibility to protect was first enunciated, and it has yet to be invoked. Time and again the international community has flinched and found a justification for inaction, in exactly the same way as it did 14 years ago when the world stood by as a brutal genocide was perpetrated in Rwanda.

Earlier this year, there was a strong case for intervention under the responsibility to protect after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, with resulting humanitarian disaster. The Burmese Government deliberately withheld aid from its citizens, thereby turning a natural disaster into a man-made genocidal disaster.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman mentions Burma. Does he agree that the generals in Burma, who are guilty of the egregious crimes against humanity that he so vividly describes, should be referred to the International Criminal Court?

Mr. Crabb: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he has a deep personal interest in these issues. The truth is that when it comes to real war crimes, real genocide and mass bloodshed, the international community would rather skirt around the issue, and bury its head in international relations theory, than find a real practical response and help those who desperately need it. We saw that once again in Darfur. Amnesty International describes Darfur as

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From Rwanda to Darfur and Burma, as many people have said, it seems to be a case of “never again, all over again”. However, as an international community, we cannot retreat from our responsibility to protect. Now that that doctrine has been formulated, it is our duty to press forward and work out practical ways in which that will make a difference in the world in which we live. The UK Government must show commitment to translating the responsibility to protect into willingness to act in instances in which states clearly fail to protect their populations from genocide, gross war crimes, ethnic cleansing and serious crimes against humanity.

I shall briefly touch on the issue of religious freedom, which a couple of Members have mentioned. Article 18 seeks to protect religious freedom, and protects

Across the world, however, that fundamental universal human right is being denied, eroded, curtailed and chipped away.

We have heard mention of what happened in Orissa in India, and I do not wish to go over that ground in too much detail, other than to say that I have received reports from members of the Indian diaspora in the UK and from non-governmental organisations. The Indian Government’s commitment to upholding the principle of religious freedom is not in doubt, but what is in doubt is the effectiveness of their police and justice mechanisms quickly to tackle instances of inter-religious conflict and attacks on Christian, Muslim or Buddhist communities by other faith groups. I encourage Ministers to discuss that sensitively and maturely with the Indian Government, who are sensitive about other countries prying into what they regard as internal affairs. However, there has been huge global interest in the appalling acts of violence in recent months, and I encourage the Government to use their influence with the Indian Government and offer what support we can to ensure that the violence is ended and the perpetrators brought to justice.

In the past few days in Iraq, according to CNN last night, 13 Christians have been killed, and nearly 1,000 Christian families displaced in and around Mosul, where radical Muslim groups have threatened the local Christian community: either they must convert to Islam, leave the city or face death. The Interior Ministry has rightly condemned that, but it is worth pointing out that we have troops who are fighting for a democratic, liberal future for Iraq, so we must offer the Iraqi Government whatever support we can to ensure that the curtailment of religious freedom, whatever group is responsible for the attacks, is nipped in the bud and that we uphold the best principles of religious freedom.

May I conclude on the issue of child soldiers, which has been mentioned in passing times several times in our debate? It is obscene that the UN should say that there are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in active service today—a shocking indictment of the international community’s failure to tackle the problem. Again, Burma—so often it is Burma—has the highest proportion of child soldiers of any army on earth, but there are
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child soldiers in Chad, Sudan and many other countries. We have also heard reports from Gaza and Iraq of children being used or trained as terrorists and suicide bombers. Ministers in the Department for International Development recently worked on initiatives, but Ministers in the Foreign Office should see what collaborative action should be undertaken, both intergovernmentally and with the NGO sector, which remains extremely concerned about the issue, to see whether things can be progressed.

9.24 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I am afraid that I have only six minutes, so I shall curtail my speech.

May I begin by paying tribute to the chairman of the Shrewsbury branch of Amnesty International, Mr. Martin Beardwell, a long-standing Liberal Democrat councillor who does a tremendous job in chairing that important organisation? I recently attended one of its meetings, and was interested to see my constituents’ dedication and commitment to promoting human rights around the world.

I will make just two major points. The Minister started her speech by referring to the European Union. In my view, the EU is totally unaccountable because it uses the proportional representation system for electing Members of the European Parliament. Three years ago, I started saying at large public meetings in my constituency that I would give anybody £100 if they could name our region’s seven Members of the European Parliament—needless to say, I did not lose a penny. I now ask people to name two, and I have still not lost a penny. Nobody knows who the MEPs representing Shropshire are because none of them lives, works, has offices or holds surgeries there. Clearly, the gap between those elected and their constituents has widened vastly, and it is more and more difficult to hold those politicians to account. I am passionately against that; it is why I am chairman of the all-party group for the continuation of first past the post. I truly believe that that system is the only way of holding politicians directly accountable to their electorates.

I am also very against the Government’s current policy of merging elections. They realise that very few people want to turn out to vote in European elections, so they throw in a few other elections on the same day. In Shrewsbury in June, we will now have three elections on the same day: the European elections, the elections for the new unitary authority that the Government have imposed on us and elections for the town council. Furthermore, there will be a general election if the Prime Minister so wishes—potentially, there will be four different elections in Shrewsbury on the same day. I have written to the Secretary of State of the responsible Department about the issue, expressing my concern at how the Government are mismanaging the election diary. We have seen what chaos there was in Scotland when there were various elections there on the same day, and I am concerned that that will happen in England.

The Minister referred to the Commonwealth only once, and very briefly. For me, the Commonwealth is the most important organisation of which we are part. I believe that its members are part of the same family, and Commonwealth countries mean far more to me
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and our history as a country than do members of the European Union. I pay tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Mr. Andrew Tuggey and the workers at the House of Commons for their tremendous work in bringing Members from this Chamber to Commonwealth countries to interact directly with people and talk about important issues.

This debate has been very general, but I shall give the Minister one specific example of an issue; my office sent her a copy of the relevant article today in the post. The article is from the 4 September 2008 edition of the New Statesman, pages 24 and 29. A citizen of Cameroon, a Commonwealth country, has claimed asylum in the United Kingdom. She claimed political abuse and said that she would feel threatened if she returned to her home country. I ask the Minister to look into the issue and give me a reply. I have tried to get in touch with the British high commission in Cameroon and I have spoken to the Cameroon high commission here in London about the case. It is extremely important that Ministers interact with Commonwealth countries if their citizens seek asylum in this country. We should hold Commonwealth countries to the same standards as apply in our own country and the European Union. There should be more scrutiny and analysis of what is going on in Cameroon, given that its own citizens are claiming political persecution and coming to the UK to seek refuge. I hope that I will get a reply from the Minister.

Finally, I turn to Georgia. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee spoke about the conflict between Georgia and Russia. I was concerned by his comments, because I believe that the Russians behaved absolutely outrageously in attacking that relatively small and defenceless country. I pay tribute to the political leaders of various Baltic countries, Poland and other European countries who went to Tbilisi during the summer to show solidarity with the President of Georgia.

The Russians always show aggression when they see the Atlantic relationship as being weak. When the British Prime Minister and the American President have not had a very close working relationship—for example, in the case of Jimmy Carter and Callaghan—that is when the Russians smell and sense weakness, and that is when they pounce. Unfortunately, the current Prime Minister is a foreign affairs novice who does not get on very well with President Bush, and that is why the Russians behaved so outrageously.

9.30 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): This has been a rather disrupted debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) reminded the House, this debate on the Government’s human rights report, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s reply and, hot off the press—it seems that the Government printers have been working overtime in the past 24 hours—the Government’s response to that, would usually take place in Westminster Hall on a Thursday afternoon. We should be grateful that because of the Government’s incompetence in managing their legislative programme they have had to use this debate as nothing more than a stocking filler for this afternoon. The Minister is frowning, but that is the fact of the matter. Despite that, we have had a very good, wide-ranging debate. I particularly enjoyed the way in
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which the Minister read her Foreign Office brief, which covered a less than broad range of issues, unlike what was said by many of her colleagues.

As many Members have said, it is not easy to get a balance between the practical objectives of a national foreign policy and human rights; indeed, the two things may sometimes be contradictory. It appears that the balance of human rights is sometimes tipped in favour of those who commit violence and deny human rights to others. Ultimately, it is in the nature of democracies often to have to carry out wars against terrorists in the full glare of publicity and in the view of their own people, and sometimes they have to deny themselves the kind of actions that might be pressed on them by the military and the security forces. Sadly, as all the reports point out, there are many examples in countries throughout the world of both security forces and terrorists resorting to torture. In the past, our own country has been arraigned on that account on occasions when it has fought counter-insurgency. As a historian, the lesson that I draw is that torture is not only counter-productive but a corrosive element within any counter-insurgency forces, which invariably hands a valuable weapon to the other side, even if they are terrorists. We judge these matters through the prism of democracy: free elections, the election of democratic Governments, an independent judiciary, an independent media, political control of the armed forces and police, total transparency and adherence to international law.

Several hon. Members rightly pointed to the role of British parliamentarians in promoting democracy. I would like to add my praise and congratulations to those at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has played a valuable role over many years. They are frequently unsung heroes and heroines in working not only with parliamentarians and others in this country but with those in countries out in the field. The Atlantic Council of the United States, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and, of course, our own Commonwealth Parliamentary Association have all carried out a valuable role involving many parliamentarians in all parts of the House.

Let me turn briefly to some of the interventions and speeches made during the debate. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), a former Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and a man who has carried out a vast amount of work for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, gave us a short history of parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom. He had a cup-half-full line that we are in danger of forgetting: however much we draw up lists of countries that are failing in their progress towards democracy and human rights, many are striving towards those aims. The list he gave ranged from Albania to Tunisia. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary will respond to his comments that both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development used weasel words in their annual reports about promoting democracy, but I hope she will take them on board, and say that both Departments should be proud of raising that particular issue.

Mr. Bruce George: Could the hon. Gentleman ask Hansard to delete “Tunisia” and insert “Morocco”?

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Mr. Simpson: The right hon. Gentleman would undoubtedly make a good editor for a magazine. I happily take his positive intervention.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, talked a great deal, and with much knowledge and experience, on women’s rights and representation, and gave many examples at home and abroad. I said to her beforehand that I would tease her on this matter: the Conservative party may, at times, be regarded as a very conservative party, but I remind the House that 160 years ago the leader of the Conservative party became the first Jewish Prime Minister, and a quarter of a century ago we elected the first woman to be a party leader, who then became Prime Minister. As yet, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have failed to do that. With regard to theory and practice, the Conservative party appears to be slightly ahead of those parties.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, made a wide-ranging speech on many issues, and he touched on the issue of the US Republican party’s idea of a league of democracies. That was touched on by other hon. Members, and perhaps we need to look at many of our international organisations—the United Nations, NATO and others—to see whether, in the words of a former Home Secretary, they are fit for purpose, judged against the criteria laid down in the report of the hon. Member for Ilford, South, or the challenges that we will face in future.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made a robust speech, claiming that the Government were confused in their approach to democracy and human rights, and he referred to the late Robin Cook’s desire to produce an ethical foreign policy in 1997. Of course, the most important point that my right hon. and learned Friend raised, which caused some disagreement, was that military intervention in areas involving democracy and human rights usually creates more problems than it resolves, which was touched on again almost immediately by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright).

The hon. Gentleman quoted Sidney Webb—that will have thrown a number of colleagues who do not know who Sidney Webb was—who spoke of democracy as a way of disciplining private power. The hon. Gentleman also emphasised the importance of links between democracy and human rights, defended liberal interventionism, and said that it was through membership of organisations such as the European Union that Britain could enhance its influence. I went along with his arguments some of the way, but in practice, sadly—this is not entirely the fault of successive British Governments—the EU, when trying to get political or military forces together in providing military aid, has not been dreadfully effective to date.

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