Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Human Rights Watch


  Human Rights Watch thanks the FAC for providing it once again with the opportunity to comment on the FCO's 2007 annual report on human rights. As in previous years Human Rights Watch welcomes the FCO's report which for the most part provides workmanlike analysis of the most serious and significant human rights crises and themes around the world. The report sets a useful standard against which groups like Human Rights Watch can measure the British government's performance in addressing these abuses through the various policy instruments at its disposal.

  The report is also potentially a useful means of ensuring that officials and policy makers in the FCO and in other relevant parts of government (eg DFID, MOD, BERR, etc) are aware of the UK's position on important human rights issues. It is therefore welcome that this 2007 edition, while shorter than some previous editions, is more clearly structured and easier to use.

  This submission starts with three general points about the report before going into a more detailed commentary on some of the chapters and sections where Human Rights Watch takes issue with the analysis provided by the FCO.

Three preliminary points

  First, the report does not always deal with abuses and abusers with the clarity of analysis and disapproval which they warrant. This report is not supposed to be comprehensive and there will always be quibbles over things that have been left out. But there are some particularly striking omissions, and some issues which are raised in the report are misrepresented or glossed over. These weaknesses in the report are addressed in more detail in the text below. The main examples include: absence of any reference to torture perpetrated by the governments of Jordan, Libya, Egypt and other key strategic allies; absence of any mention of the role of Ethiopia in Somalia and the abuses perpetrated by its forces there; very weak handling of US counter terrorism policy including Guantanamo and the military commissions, and the CIA's programme of abduction and secret detention; an overly upbeat assessment of the human rights situation in Iraq.

  Secondly, the report highlights an important contrast between the FCO's analysis and HMG's policy response. Notwithstanding the points made in the preceding paragraph, much of the analysis provided in the report is sound and based on an accurate assessment of facts on the ground. However, in many cases the policy response of HMG is too weak. This submission provides further detail below on this contrast between analysis and action. Two good examples include: the failure to address the issue of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia at a high enough level in bilateral dialogue between London and Riyadh, particularly during the state visit of King Abdullah in 2007; on China the UK government's determination to use the Beijing Olympics to promote the London Olympics, and to avoid offending the Chinese government, has led the UK to largely ignore those who are trying to use the Games as a way of drawing attention to China's dismal record on human rights.

  The two points raised above underlie a third more general point which is of relevance to this report, namely that wherever important UK interests are at stake, or are seen to be at stake, the government often seems to struggle to align those interests with a principled approach to tyranny and repression. Because the report clearly sets out the human rights dimensions of the FCO's four new policy goals, it helpfully highlights some of the dilemmas and countervailing interests faced by ministers when they seek to reconcile UK efforts to promote human rights with the pursuit of other important UK interests. In the case of torture and counter terrorism, the report explicitly elaborates and analyses one such dilemma. Human Rights Watch believes that it would be useful to extend this approach to other areas where respect for and promotion of human rights are somehow seen as being in conflict with UK interests, for example energy security, development, commercial relations and conflict resolution. Many of these dilemmas are real. But it is only by setting out them out clearly that one can deal with them and devise strategies to align interests more closely with ethics.


Counter Terrorism and weapons proliferation

  Human Rights Watch welcomes the statement in the report that "the counter terrorism programme requires the consideration of human rights whenever projects are deployed". However this approach should be extended beyond "projects funded by us" to all aspects of HMG's policies on counter terrorism.

US counter terrorism policy

  The UK's attitude, as revealed in this report, towards US counter terrorism policies and practices indicates a failure to face up to the seriousness of US abuses.

  For example, on the detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the report welcomes Bush's "commitment to close the facility". But in fact, President Bush has now stated that he will not do so, and that he will leave Guantanamo for the next president to deal with. The FAC should encourage the FCO to press the US to take concrete steps to end detention at Guantanamo Bay, a policy that Secretary of State Rice, Secretary of Defense Gates, and numerous former diplomats have all supported. The UK should offer assistance in resettling Guantanamo inmates in the EU.

  The report discusses "improvements" in camp conditions, but neglects to mention that the majority of the detainees are being housed in maximum security units, locked in their cells 22-23 hours a day, with almost no opportunity to communicate with anyone other than the prison guards. Those housed in these units, which are modelled on those used to house the most dangerous convicted criminals in the US, include detainees who have long been cleared for release and remain in Guantanamo only because they cannot be returned to their home country. As is to be expected, the extreme isolation is reportedly having a negative psychological effect on many of the detainees, which will only make it even harder to resettle and reintegrate them in the future.

  On US torture policy, the report commends President Bush's statements that the US does not practice torture, without mentioning that the US has now conceded that it has water-boarded three detainees in its custody, and that while water-boarding is not currently approved for use it is not off the table for the future. President Bush's statements on torture need to be considered in the light of the memoranda from his legal advisers that re-defined torture so narrowly as to make the prohibition virtually meaningless.

  Furthermore, the Bush administration has vetoed legislation which would have prohibited abusive interrogation techniques by all government agencies including the CIA. In vetoing the legislation, the President insisted that the CIA and other non-military interrogators needed the flexibility to use additional interrogation techniques. These additional techniques reportedly include extreme sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and use of painful stress positions—all of which violate the prohibition on inhumane treatment. Although the actual veto came after this report went to press, the administration had long made its position and intentions clear.

  The report makes no mention of the CIA detention program for terrorism suspects, whose existence the US government has acknowledged. The report should have condemned the incommunicado and secret detention of terrorist suspects by its ally, which is a violation of international law. Failure to do so gives a dangerous impression that the UK condones such action or is complicit in it.

  There is no mention in the report of the fact that the military commissions set up to try terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo explicitly authorise the use of evidence obtained through cruel, inhuman, and degrading interrogations, so long as the evidence was obtained prior to December 2005 and a judge finds the information "reliable". The rules governing the commissions also give the prosecution wide latitude to withhold sources and methods of interrogations from both the defendant and his counsel. As a result, it will be extremely difficult for defendants to establish that evidence was obtained through torture or other coercive interrogation methods. When coupled with the lax hearsay rules, this means that defendants could be convicted based on affidavit summaries of evidence obtained through abuse, without any opportunity to confront this accuser or to establish that the statement was the product of abuse and therefore unreliable. Unless military commission judges are extremely vigilant, the prohibition on evidence obtained through torture could be become virtually meaningless.

  Contrary to what the report states, the military commissions are back up and running, albeit fitfully. The US Supreme Court decision expected in 2008 should address detainees' right to habeas corpus; but it will not consider the legality of the new military commissions.

  Again contrary to what the report says, the US has failed to provide proper protections to ensure that Guantanamo detainees are not transferred to face abuse or torture elsewhere. Detainees have no meaningful opportunity to raise an individualised fear of torture upon repatriation, and the US, like the UK, relies on unenforceable promises of humane treatment to transfer detainees to countries with poor records on torture. Human Rights Watch has documented the torture and ill-treatment of several Russian and Tunisian detainees returned home based on promises of humane treatment.

Deporting foreign nationals from the UK

  As in recent years, the report provides a defence of the UK's misguided policy on deporting terrorism suspects to their countries of origin in spite of the risk of torture. Human Rights Watch's arguments against this policy are well known and have been laid out clearly at Four points are worth highlighting:

  First, the report states: "The government takes its obligations under the CAT [UN Convention Against Torture] very seriously and is fully committed to upholding this principle, known as the principle of nonrefoulement. The government is equally committed to upholding similar international human rights obligations to which the UK is party, including article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights". However in Saadi v Italy at the European Court of Human Rights, the UK was the lead intervener (sending more lawyers than Italy, which was actually defending the case), arguing that the principle of non-deportation where there is substantial risk of torture should be "balanced" in cases where there was an alleged threat to national security. This argument was rejected by the ECtHR. In the light of this, Human Rights Watch recommends that the FAC ask the FCO if it now accepts that the Art 3 CAT and Art 3 ECHR duties of nonrefoulement are absolute and there should never be a balancing exercise where there is a risk of torture.

  Secondly, it is disingenuous for the report to cite a 2004 report by the former Special Rapporteur on Torture Theo van Boven to support the UK's policy on deporting terrorism suspects on the basis of diplomatic assurances. Mr van Boven has since made clear his opposition to diplomatic assurances from countries where torture is a serious problem. It is peculiar to say the least that on the same page as a cite of Mr van Boven, the report uses a photo of the current Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak. Mr Nowak's vocal and unequivocal opposition to diplomatic assurances in general and specifically to the UK's policy on deportations with assurances is well-known.

  Thirdly, the UK policy hangs in part on the effectiveness of mechanisms established to monitor whether or not deported terrorism suspects will be tortured when they return to their home countries. The report appears to justify its efforts on monitoring mechanisms by referring to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. But this Protocol provides for monitoring of all places of detention in a country on a universal and non-selective basis and does not in any way contemplate the type of individual monitoring based on diplomatic assurances provided for in the Memoranda of Understanding which the UK has now negotiated with three Arab states.

  Finally, the report makes no mention of the decision of the Special Immigration Appeal Commission (SIAC) in relation to Libya permitting the appeal against deportation based on DAs. Nor does it mention the credible reports of ill-treatment of Algerians sent back in reliance on DAs. In the light of the recent rulings in April 2008 by the Court of Appeal against the government's policy on deportations under diplomatic assurance, Human Rights Watch urges the FAC to encourage the government to abandon this policy.


  The report states that the UK government has "not approved and will not approve a policy of facilitating the transfer of individuals through the UK to places where there are substantial grounds to believe they would face a real risk of torture". However, the real problem (underscored by the Diego Garcia case) is that the UK does not have sufficient safeguards in place to prevent renditions from being carried out through UK airspace and territory. The key question therefore is not just does the UK approve of renditions to torture. It is whether the UK does anything meaningful to stop such renditions from taking place.

  Following the admission by the Secretary of State in Parliament about rendition flights passing through Diego, Human Rights Watch recommends that the FAC support calls for a full independent public inquiry into all rendition flights over UK airspace or through UK territory, including follow-up on the fates of the two men who have been acknowledged as victims of rendition through UK territory. Through the APPG on renditions there have already been proposals in parliament to address the current deficiencies in UK law and policy regarding use of UK airspace/territory for rendition flights but so far they have been ignored by the government.

Cluster munitions

  While UK policy on cluster munitions has evolved in a positive fashion, and it has taken some important steps at the national level, there is still reason for serious concern about the UK's commitment to the Oslo Process aimed at a prohibition on cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

  The UK has not been among the nations leading the way toward a treaty that will have the greatest humanitarian impact. Rather, it has been a leader in a group of states—mostly European nations with significant stockpiles of cluster munitions—that have promoted provisions that would weaken the future treaty.

  Most notably, the UK has been insisting that its helicopter-launched CRV-7 cluster munition rockets be exempted from the prohibitions on use, production, transfer and stockpiling. The cluster rocket itself is not guided, nor are the individual sub-munitions it contains. The sub-munitions do not have self-destruct devices or any other fail safe mechanisms. We note that annual report states that the UK withdrew from service the BL-755 and M26 cluster munitions because "Neither system has target discrimination capability nor a self-destruction, self-neutralisation or self-deactivation capability". The same is true of the CRV-7.

  The UK has also supported the deletion or the gutting of the draft treaty's provision that prohibits assistance with any banned act, in essence indicating that it would be permissible for the UK to assist the United States with use of cluster munitions during a joint military operation. This would completely undermine the integrity of the treaty and the effort to stigmatise the weapon.

  Finally, while the annual report cites the UK's substantial contributions to clearance of explosive remnants of war in order to provide relief to civilian populations, the UK has also indicated that it opposes the provisions in the draft treaty text that would require states parties to provide victim assistance and that assign special responsibility for clearance of existing contaminated areas to those who used the weapons.

Promote a low carbon high growth global economy

Human Rights and Business

  Human Rights Watch welcomes the FCO's efforts to promote voluntary corporate responsibility efforts. However the FCO should go further by examining ways it could develop and support stronger mechanisms to ensure corporations respect human rights. Human Rights Watch also urges the government to play a productive role in developing meaningful human rights standards for some of the initiatives that it does support, such as the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. An effort is underway to strengthen this initiative and we hope that the FCO will support meaningful standards intended to improve human rights.

Human Rights, Development and poverty reduction

  Human Rights Watch welcomes the government's recognition that sustainable development is underpinned by human rights and democracy and notes the contribution to the debate on this issue by DFID in its 2007 policy paper Governance, Development and Democratic Politics. However the FCO report on human rights should have gone beyond the generalities of its work on promoting the key social and economic rights, including the rights to education, water, health and food, to address the dilemmas HMG faces when governments that are in receipt of UK taxpayers' money in development assistance engage in serious human rights violations or corruption which in turn can fuel rights abuses. Examples include Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Nigeria.

Conflict Prevention

  The UK government should be commended for its leading role in catalyzing international efforts on conflict prevention, especially in Africa, and for its championship of the concept of an international responsibility to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. However Human Rights Watch would like to draw the attention of the Foreign Affairs Committee to the report's poor coverage of two conflicts.


  Human Rights Watch criticised the FCO's 2006 report on human rights for its biased assessment of the 2006 Lebanon/Israel war. That report rightly mentioned the violations of international humanitarian law by Hezbollah as well as the number of Israeli civilian casualties from Hezbollah's attacks. However it failed to mention Israeli violations and the far higher number of Lebanese civilian casualties. The FCO described this omission as an oversight and committed itself to correcting the record in the 2007 report, which it has done, citing Human Rights Watch as a source.

  However, even if it is strictly true to state that "during the conflict, the UK consistently urged Israel both publicly and privately to act proportionately, to conform to international law and to do more to avoid civilian death and suffering" (p 39), that diplomatic action, if it took place, needs to be seen in the context of the UK also providing diplomatic support at the UN and in the EU for an Israeli military campaign in which serious violations of IHL took place.

Somalia and Ethiopia

  On pp 31-32 the report addresses the linked conflicts in Somalia and the Ogaden. The report's characterisation of these conflicts is misleading and inaccurate. For example in its description of the serious escalation of the Somalia conflict in 2007 (in which Human Rights Watch has documented serious violations of IHL amounting to war crimes by all sides) the report does not even mention the intervention of Ethiopian forces and their leading role in the fighting in Mogadishu let alone grave abuses they have committed.

  The description of the conflict in the Ogaden, the Somali region of Ethiopia, is entirely one-sided. The report says that the cause of the conflict is the conflict in Somalia—with no reference to the equally important internal causes of the Ogaden conflict. And it blames the conflict entirely on the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which it does not mention by name but merely describes as a terrorist group. It further says that the UK "fully recognises Ethiopia's need to counter the threat posed by these terrorist elements ..". p 32. There is no mention of the grave and well documented abuses published by Human Rights Watch and others perpetrated against the Ogaden civilian population by Ethiopian forces. The report's treatment of the Ogaden and Somalia conflicts amount to a whitewash of Ethiopia's very grave abuses.

Israel Palestinian conflict

  The principle shortcoming of the discussion of what the report refers to as the Middle East Peace Process is that is does not note the failure of the Quartet to identify, either in its statements or its practices, respect for human rights and international humanitarian law as an essential component in any effort to resolve this conflict, which is fraught with serious abuses by all parties.

Peacekeeping and human rights

  The introduction to the section on conflict prevention states: "It is a UK priority to ensure that mandates for UN and other peacekeeping missions include the promotion and protection of human rights" (p 29). This point is deemed important enough to be highlighted in the introduction to the report itself which states: "Peacekeeping missions have an important role in protecting human rights" (p 8).

  These statements seem to be in marked contrast to what FCO lawyers have been arguing in the various cases at the ECtHR in which the UK has been taking the lead in intervening to try and limit the application of human rights law in peacekeeping.

  In the case of Behrami and Behrami v France last year, on the application of human rights law (ECHR) to France with regard to its forces that formed part of KFOR in Kosovo, the UK led a series of states intervening aggressively (and unfortunately successfully) to say that the European Convention could not apply to states sending forces on UN peacekeeping missions.

  In its intervention (paragraph 13) the UK stated: "It follows from the terms of resolution 1244 (1999) that KFOR had no powers of administration over Kosovo and its inhabitants and had neither the legal responsibility, nor the capacity, to secure human rights and freedoms to those inhabitants. Still less did any one of the States which contributed forces to KFOR have such responsibility or capacity".

  Since KFOR has significantly greater powers to impose security than almost any other peacekeeping force, the UK's argument would suggest that it believes its peacekeeping forces will never have the power or the capacity to secure human rights for the inhabitants of countries to which they are deployed.

  Another question is whether human rights law applies to military personnel serving in multinational stabilisation forces overseas. This issue has arisen in the Saramati case, which was joined with the Behrami case at the ECtHR, and in the various cases within the UK with regard to the conduct of UK forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The government's general legal argument in these cases has been that human rights law should not apply to its forces.

  Two questions therefore arise which we recommend that the FAC should pursue with the government. First, given the statement in the FCO's report on human rights, does the UK believe its peacekeeping forces are under a duty to secure human rights to the inhabitants of the territories they are in? And second does the UK believe that peacekeeping forces should comply with human rights law? If the answer to the questions is yes, then Human Rights Watch recommends that the FAC should welcome the change of position from the government's previous legal arguments. If the answer is no, then the government should be pushed to resolve the inconsistency or to admit publicly that the statement in the report is misleading and that in fact the government's position is that their peacekeeping forces do not need to protect human rights and can violate them at will.

Develop Effective International Institutions

Human Rights at the United Nations

  Human Rights Watch commends the FCO for its work at the UN Human Rights Council where in the first two years of the Council's existence the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to make sure the Council does not fail but can develop the institutional teeth it needs to act as an effective mechanism to improve and promote respect for human rights among UN member states. This is of course a difficult task as several of the UN member states on the Council, and many who are not currently represented, appear determined to prevent the Council from becoming an effective body.

  Human Rights Watch would like to draw the Committee's attention to several issues on which the UK needs to redouble its efforts at the council.

  On Burma there is need for continued pressure at the HRC. There were good resolutions in October and December but the Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro has not been able to return to the country because of government obstruction. The Council should not allow Burma to be allowed to obstruct the work of its Special Rapporteur in this way.

  Since the report went to press the Council has decided to terminate the mandate for an expert on DR Congo. Human Rights Watch sees this as unjustified and believes that the EU compromised too much allowing for the abolition of this mandate in return only for a discussion on the DR Congo in March 2009. The EU should have stuck to principle and voted against the decision.

  More generally the Council has failed to take meaningful action on a number of situations that deserve its attention including: Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Tibet, Uzbekistan and others.

  The last eight months have seen concerted attempts by some member to undermine the institution-building package that was agreed by the Council last June. In particular this has impacted on the appointment procedure for the special procedures. This could usefully have been mentioned in the report as could the efforts of some HRC members to undermine the independence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

European Union

  The report states that the EU is a "driving force on human rights". Human Rights Watch agrees that the EU indeed has been such a force in the enlargement area, accession to the EU being a powerful stimulus for improvement on human rights. However outside of the enlargement area the picture is much more mixed. Indeed Human Rights Watch believes that the consensus rule combined with a non transparent decision process often means that the EU tends to adopt a lowest common denominator approach to human rights.

  For example the European Neighbourhood Policy has failed to use the EU's considerable leverage to win concrete improvements in the human rights situation in Egypt, Libya and other North African countries. In the case of Libya where the EU is developing a new economic and political relationship, this is particularly disappointing, and the UK appears to be among those EU member states willing to downgrade human rights in favour of developing business, security and counter-immigration ties with Tripoli. Human Rights Watch would also question the assessment of the report that "Jordan has put in a good performance on human rights reform" especially as there is no mention of the continuing and pervasive problem of torture in Jordan.

  Another example is the EU's relationship with Central Asia. The UK's approach to human rights in Central Asia has been among the best of all EU member states. However its principled attitude towards human rights violators and violations in the region is diluted in EU policy terms by the efforts of Germany and others to prioritise strategic and economic concerns above the promotion of human rights.

  The UK has been in the lead when it comes to stronger EU measures against those responsible for serious human rights violations in Burma and Darfur. It is critically important that the UK continues its leadership in this regard and that in does so in a very open and public manner.

  With the likely coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty in January 2009, the EU will establish a new and enhanced diplomatic service on foreign and security policy primarily consisting of diplomats seconded from the 27 member states to the Council secretariat. It is critically important that such a new service will include experts on regional priorities of the EU as well as on human rights, including child and gender specific aspects of these rights, and International Justice—all stated EU priorities. The UK should ensure that such experts will be among the new diplomatic service and should offer to second human rights experts for the service.


  Human Rights Watch has on numerous occasions applauded the UK government for its work on various cross cutting human rights themes. Comments on this section are limited to the rule of law.

Rule of Law

  Human Rights Watch welcomes the UK's international work on enforced disappearance, the death penalty, prison reform, torture, and law enforcement. Human Rights Watch notes the reasons given in the report for not signing the convention on enforced disappearances and urges the government to move swiftly towards signing and ratifying the treaty.

  On torture Human Rights Watch notes with great concern that there is no mention of the problem of torture in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. In several of those countries torture is enough of a problem that (taken together with other concerns) it warrants including them in the FCO's list of countries of concern. At the very least concerns about torture in those countries should have been mentioned in the section on torture.


  The list of countries chosen this year is broadly the right one and there is useful material in each of the country sections. Human Rights Watch particularly welcomes the inclusion in this report of Pakistan. The FAC may wish to consider that the FCO includes one or two further countries in next years' report. Possible contenders include Libya and Egypt. We have not commented on all the countries listed in the report as countries of concern.


  As a major military, diplomatic and development player in Afghanistan it is of great importance that the UK keeps human rights and the rule of law at the forefront of its strategic thinking on dealing with the challenges in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch is therefore encouraged that the report addresses Afghanistan's human rights situation. However Human Rights Watch notes with concern that the report fails to reflect the gravity of the human rights situation in Afghanistan, and even the fact that UK forces are involved in an armed conflict in the country.

  It is not noted for example that 2007 was the most violent year in Afghanistan since the US led invasion in 2001. Furthermore the report does not attempt to examine the reasons for this violence, beyond blaming "Taleban and other insurgent groups". It is true that anti-government forces routinely target civilians in indiscriminate attacks, including suicide bombing. It is also true that they violate the laws of war by launching attacks from civilian areas, knowingly drawing return fire. But it is also the case that NATO and US led coalition forces, including UK military personnel, killed at least 300 civilians in 2007—though the real figure is likely much higher given the inherent difficulty of distinguishing between civilians and combatants in this kind of war and the extensive use of airpower.

  The report also fails to provide adequate analysis of government abuses and the extent to which warlords and criminals responsible for egregious crimes in the past continue to exercise power and influence over the parliament and government and continue to protect their position through intimidation and violence. None of this is reflected in the report's coverage of what it understatedly calls the "controversial" Amnesty Bill through which the warlords sought to institutionalise impunity in Afghanistan. Nor is there any mention of the nexus between human rights abuses, warlordism and opium cultivation. Efforts of international actors in Afghanistan to address the wider problem of impunity in Afghanistan are hampered by the excessive focus of energy and attention on the conflict with the Taleban. But defeat of the Taleban depends not only on military action, but political action, including ending impunity for powerful warlords and war criminals.

  On the issue of detention, it is commendable that UK is monitoring detention facilities in Afghanistan and supporting the Afghan law enforcement institutions to improve prison and detention conditions. However it should be noted that there is no central control over prisons and detention facilities. This leads to a situation where it is practically impossible to monitor and control all the various legal and quasi-legal prisons and detention facilities, operated by institutions (such as the NDI—national intelligence service) which do not keep to the minimum standards. Furthermore there is no mention in the report of the fact that the US forces, operating in Afghanistan without an adequate legal framework, continue to detain hundreds of Afghans without adequate legal process. In a single remarkable exception to an otherwise poor record of accountability a US federal court in February 2007 found one CIA contractor guilty of assault in the beating to death of an Afghan detainee in 2003.

  In its coverage of women's rights the report also fails to note that according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) violence against women, domestic violence, forced marriage, self-immolation, access to justice have all deteriorated in 2007.

  Another omission in the report is the dire situation of the judiciary in Afghanistan, which suffers from a serious lack of professional and qualified judges and resources. As a result basic rights to due process and rule of law are under threat for Afghans who either are brought before the justice system or seek justice through it. In most southern provinces the formal justice system is totally dysfunctional and traditional customary systems are filling the vacuum.

  There is also no mention of the situation of children in Afghanistan. The achievements of the past six years, mainly in the field of education, have come under threat in the past 18 months. The number of school attacks has increased and accordingly the enrolment and attendance rate of primary schools in the Southern provinces of Afghanistan have decreased, in some districts no girls are registered for primary school attendance at all.


  Human Rights Watch commends the UK government for its role in ensuring that Belarus was not elected to the Human Rights Council. The report's section on Belarus makes it clear why Belarus would have made a terrible HRC member. However there are some important omissions in the report.

  The report mentions the harassment against several members of the political opposition, but fails to explain the grounds. Authorities in Belarus require political opposition groups to register, but registration is frequently denied for arbitrary and unfounded reasons. Consequently, many people who participate in opposition activities are detained and harassed for acting on behalf of unregistered organisations. Students linked to opposition groups have been expelled from schools.

  In the section about independent media, the report omits information about the Internet, which is tightly controlled by the government. All Internet access passes through the state-owned operator Beltelecom, and the State Center for Information Security responsible for protecting state secrets and for running the country's top domain is supervised by President Lukashenka.

  The report does not mention religious freedom. In theory the Belarusian constitution provides for freedom of religion, but authorities make it difficult for adherents of religions other than those affiliated with the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Religious leaders have been threatened, detained and fined, for holding religious services in "unauthorised" spaces, even though it is very difficult for adherents of some faiths to secure authorisation and registration. More than 25 foreign Catholic and Protestant clergy were expelled from Belarus between the summers of 2006 and 2007 for allegedly "posing a threat to national security".


  The chapter on Burma is good. But Human Rights Watch has three concerns. First, while it is right to endorse the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) mechanism on reporting cases of forced labour, there should be some acknowledgement of the limitations of the mechanism. Even the ILO admits it will not stamp out forced labour in the countryside, where egregious and widespread use of forced labour continues. Second, any discussion of the humanitarian crisis in Burma and DFID's work in addressing the crisis needs to underline the level of restrictions experienced by UN agencies and relief agencies in the country. Third, while it is positive that the UK is supporting the efforts of Mr Gambari, a more balanced assessment of his work could have been presented. In truth the Burmese government has made few, if any, real changes in response to Mr Gambari's work: no political prisoners have been released, no military offensives have been halted, and no participatory progress on democratic freedoms has been achieved.


  The section on China is generally sound. The report also notes that "as the 2008 Beijing Olympics draw closer, the world's attention is increasingly focused on China's human rights record". However neither this report, nor any other statement in recent months by the British government, has articulated how and why the UK should use the opportunity of the Beijing Olympics to press for improvements in human rights China.

  Recent weeks have demonstrated the lack of a coherent UK strategy towards the Beijing games. In China as the Games approach the government is cracking down ever harder on dissent and protest not only in Tibet but around the country. Meanwhile the UK government is tying itself to the Chinese position of pretending that the Games should have nothing to do with human rights. The Prime Minister Gordon Brown not only took part in the disastrous torch relay ceremony in London (without mentioning human rights) he has also committed himself unconditionally to attend the Games in August.

  The UK government seems to want to use the Beijing Olympics to promote the London Games in 2012 and to avoid offending the Chinese government. In so doing it is turning its back on those Chinese groups inside and outside of China who are using the Beijing Games to draw attention to the dismal human rights situation in China. The UK government needs quickly to rethink this unprincipled position. The Prime Minister should at the very least make his presence at the closing ceremony of the Games conditional on genuine improvements in key aspects of the human rights situation, including the Chinese government honouring the commitments on human rights it made as part of its bid for the Games.


  The report's coverage of Colombia is sound. However Human Rights Watch believes that in the light of the serious human rights situation in Colombia, and especially in light of the high rate of extrajudicial executions by the military, the UK should either suspend military assistance to Colombia or attach strong human rights conditions to it. The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in her annual report that extrajudicial executions continue to be a problem, and Human Rights Watch has also documented several cases from last year (12 from just one small town). The Office of the Inspector General of Colombia has 650 investigations open into such executions, all from the last few years. The US Congress has already moved to freeze some US military aid to Colombia. Human Rights Watch respectfully suggests to the FAC that it recommend that the UK government suspends military aid or at least make its continuance conditional on substantive improvements.


  Given the UK government's prominent role in Iraq it is perhaps inevitable that the report's coverage of human rights in Iraq pulls its punches. The report rightly notes the existence of a "culture of abuse" within the Iraqi security forces. It also notes that elements of the Iraqi police and military have committed grave human rights violations, including the torture by police of detainees at secret jails in Baghdad. The report cites UK efforts to institute human rights training in police units established with British supervision, and points to the disbanding of two units in the south as evidence of commitment to identify and seek accountability for such abuses.

  However, the report ignores the degree to which security forces in Basra, generally established under the supervision of British forces, have been infiltrated by militias and other armed elements which are themselves reported to have committed abuses. The report also fails to draw any link between the dreadful human rights situation in Iraq and strategic and policy mistakes made by the UK and the US.

  Most tellingly the report fails to make any reference to instances of abuse of Iraqi civilians and detainees by British forces, nor to instances of abuse of Iraqi civilians by US forces and/or private security outfits contracted to the US government and MNF bodies.

  Furthermore the report makes no reference to the high level of civilian casualties of US-led MNF operations.

  The report also paints far too rosy a picture of the UK's efforts to address the Iraqi refugee crisis. According to the report the UK has provided £125 million for humanitarian action in Iraq since 2003. Included in that sum is UK money spent addressing the refugee and internal displacement crisis. This is a small sum compared to the billions spent on military operations in Iraq and highlights the need for solutions to the Iraq crisis which focus much more on human security and the needs of Iraqi people.

  Human Rights Watch also notes that the government had to be pressured by the campaigning of groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the Refugee Council and the media not to abandon those Iraqis (translators and interpreters for the most part) who were at grave risk because of their employment by the British government in Iraq. And six months after it announced a package of support to these Iraqis many have not received any help at all but are still struggling to survive as fugitives from death squads in Iraq or as refugees in Syria and Jordan.

Israel and OPT

  The survey of human rights concerns in the OPT is generally comprehensive and accurate. However, in referring to Israel's blockade of movement of persons or goods into or out of Gaza after the Hamas takeover in June 2007, the report fails to observe that this constituted a policy of protracted collective punishment, a serious violation of international humanitarian law. The report should also have noted that the Israeli-led blockade had in fact been imposed earlier, in part in response to Hamas forming a government after winning free and fair elections in early 2006. The measures implemented in June 2007 represented only an intensification of a long-standing policy that initially was tacitly or openly supported by the UK and other Israeli allies. The UK itself participated in an economic embargo of the Palestinian Authority (PA) which exacerbated the effects of the blockade in the period between the formation of a Hamas-led PA in March 2006 until President Abbas' June 2007 dismissal of the Hamas-led government. Also, to attribute the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian security coordination to Hamas's takeover ignores the serious lack of coordination in preceding years as a consequence of the policies of both Israel and the PA.

  The survey's attention to the continuing Israeli policy of administrative detention without trial is welcome. However, the report does not mention that while administrative detention can be imposed for periods up to six months, these periods can be renewed indefinitely and many administrative detainees have been imprisoned for years. Furthermore, the report omits that when Israel transfers Palestinian administrative detainees to prisons inside Israel it does so in flagrant breach of international law which prohibits the transfer of detainees outside of occupied territory. Furthermore, this section, states that the majority of Palestinian prisoners have received court trials, without noting that these trials are in Israeli military courts operating under procedures that do not meet international fair trial standards.

  The survey refers to the closure of the Erez border between Gaza and Israel since June 2007, but fails to mention the disastrous consequences of this closure, including the denial of passage to urgent Palestinian medical cases (which has resulted in tens of deaths, according to the World Health Organisation and human rights organisations) and to hundreds of Gazan students who are unable to continue their higher education outside Gaza.

  Finally, Human Rights Watch welcomes the inclusion of a discussion on the rights of Israel's Bedouin citizens in the Negev region. Human Rights Watch has just published a major report documenting the systematic discrimination in planning, land allocation and land access against Bedouin citizens and the intentional state policies which led to the confiscation of Bedouin land and the de-legalisation of long standing Bedouin villages. The report also documents the often unlawful way in which the state demolishes Bedouin homes, more than 200 in 2007 alone. Human Rights Watch recommends that the FAC requests that the FCO raise the issue of accountability for human rights violations perpetuated against the Bedouin population.


  Given the seriousness of the human rights problems in Pakistan Human Rights Watch welcomes the inclusion of Pakistan in the list of countries of concern in this year's report. However some serious shortcomings in the report's coverage of Pakistan should be noted.

  Pakistan is referred to as one of the UK's "most important partners" in counter terrorism efforts which according to the report includes "operational co-operation". The report argues that the UK's training and wider counter terrorism assistance to Pakistan "promote human rights compliance, based on international human rights standards". This is a misrepresentation of the UK's counter terrorism cooperation with Pakistan. The report remains notably silent on the hundreds of disappearances of terrorism suspects in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch's research indicates that the UK has itself been complicit in the illegal detention, forcible transfer to the UK and and torture of some terrorism suspects. These have included Salahuddin Amin and Rangzeib Ahmed in recent years. By failing to criticise Pakistan's well-documented human rights abuses in relation to the arrest and interrogation of terrorism suspects, this report actually fuels the allegations of UK tolerance of and complicity in such acts.

  Another shortcoming of the report is that although it notes that the UK has continued to "argue for an independent judicial process in Pakistan", it omits to call for the restoration of the deposed judiciary and even fails to mention that the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was held in illegal detention for almost five months along with his family, including his children—a teenage daughter and a seven-year-old son.


  The section on Russia covers most of the important dimensions of the multi-faceted crisis of human rights in Russia, including the particularly dismal situation in the North Caucasus. However the report overlooks two important areas of concern for Human Rights Watch: ongoing abuses in the army and migrants' rights.

  In places the language seems to reflect the caution with which the UK and the EU community in general have treated Russia recently. For example, the report says that although the EU regrets that in the run up to the recent presidential elections there were many allegations of media restrictions and harassment of opposition parties, "the EU welcomes the fact that elections took place in an orderly and organised fashion". Given the security clampdown in the main urban centers during the election it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. Although it does address many of the immediate problems surrounding the elections, the report does not note the tight controls put into place over several years, through which the government has severely compromised the possibility of free and fair elections. Likewise, while the report mentions the specific obstacles put in the way of NGOs and civil society it fails to note the broad hostile environment in which NGOs struggle to operate thanks to the policies of President Vladimir Putin.

Saudi Arabia

  Human Rights Watch welcomes the inclusion of Saudi Arabia as a country of concern and is appreciative of the assistance of the British government in securing authorisation from the Saudi government to visit Saudi Arabia at the end of 2006. For the record, it should be noted that this was not Human Rights Watch's first official visit, as stated in the report, but its first official research visit. Also Human Rights Watch researchers did not visit four prisons, as stated in the report, but one prison, one shelter for runaway domestic workers, one juvenile detention facility for boys, and one juvenile detention facility for girls and young women. In the last two no private interviews were allowed.

  The report's characterisation of the human rights environment in Saudi Arabia is largely accurate. But Human Rights Watch takes issue with the statement that "the pace of reform will need to be acceptable to the Saudi government, its citizens and powerful religious leaders". This is tantamount to saying that reform must be at the pace of the most repressive and conservative elements of Saudi society. Would the UK government declare that change in Zimbabwe has to come at a pace that is acceptable to Zanu-PF?

  The UK needs to speak up much more clearly on human rights in Saudi Arabia and should have avoided sweeping human rights under the carpet during the state visit of King Abdullah to London in October 2007.


  The report's coverage of Syria is generally sound. However it is important that human rights should be at the forefront of the UK and EU's strategy towards Syria, as well as the issue of Syria's regional role with respect to Iraq, Lebanon and Israel/OPT. While Human Rights Watch accepts that UK leverage over Syria is limited (and vastly reduced because of mistakes in Iraq) nonetheless it should be a guiding principle of UK policy towards Syria that Damascus will only be able to play a stabilising role in the region if Syrians within Syria are allowed the political space to express their political opinions without fear of arrest, torture and imprisonment. There is a concern that if Syria starts to cooperate with the UK, the EU and the US on the regional politics then external pressure for improvements on the internal political front will diminish—as it has in Libya and Egypt.


  The report's coverage of Thailand is mostly accurate. However Human Rights Watch believes that the report's account of the widespread and systematic human rights violations committed by Thai security forces and the separatist militants in the southern border provinces does not reflect the gravity of the situation.

  The report describes numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in military custody as "unsubstantiated". However during the 18 month period of military installed government, torture and ill-treatment of detainees by Thai security forces has been thoroughly documented by Human Rights Watch and other organisations. Nearly all detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups reported that they were tortured by the military.

  In spite of complaints to the government from Human Rights Watch, and promises to close down the main interrogation center in Pattani, there has been no improvement. The interrogation center remains operational under a different name, and the abuses continue at all levels of command. Furthermore, no one had been prosecuted in connection to the torture and ill-treatment or deaths of detainees in military custody.

  On the other side, the report also does not mention that the separatist militants have shown no respect for international legal and human rights principles. They are responsible for the majority of the 2,800 deaths and the many more injuries from January 2004 to 2007 in the southern border provinces. More than 90% of their victims are civilians, including both Buddhist Thais and ethnic Malay Muslims.


  The section on Turkmenistan focuses on the opening on the country during the first year of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's presidency but it fails to make a clear statement that the end of isolationism did not bring a genuine human rights reform. Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries in the world. No independent organisation has been able to do research on human rights abuses inside the country, and no agency, governmental or nongovernmental, has had access to detention facilities. Berdymukhamedov has made no public commitment for reform in the field of fundamental rights and freedoms.

  A striking omission in the FCO report is that it does not mention the hundreds of political prisoners who remain incarcerated (after unfair trials) from the Niazov era. Among them are three well-known political prisoners, Mukhametkuly Aymuratov, Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapurdurdy Khajiev. Another crucial issue is the continued de-facto prohibition of NGO and independent media activities. No independent NGO or media has been registered in 2007; at least six groups recently applied for but were denied the registration as NGOs.


  The coverage of Uzbekistan is generally sound apart from the statement that "the crackdown on civil society has subsided". This does not square with the evidence provided by the report itself. Perhaps the authors are referring to the apparent lull in new arrests and convictions of human rights defenders. But it should be pointed out that repressive regimes use different instruments of repression at different times to maintain control. Many human rights defenders remain in prison, others have been intimidated and threatened to the point they had to flee the country, and those who have most recently been released had to admit guilt and promise not to violate the law in the future.

  Human Rights Watch is concerned that the use of language suggesting a relaxation reflects a slipping of the international community's expectations. The suggestion is that things are now not quite as bad as they were in the year immediately following Andijan, so this is a sign of progress. In fact, the human rights community has been completely decimated and there is no longer a need for the Uzbek government to use the brutal tactics of late 2005 and 2006.

  The report states that the UK will "continue to support the maintenance of sanctions as an appropriate EU policy response until there is an improvement in Uzbekistan's human rights record". It is important that the UK continues to support sanctions, but the criteria for the lifting of sanctions are much more specific than simply an improvement in Uzbekistan's human rights record. Human Rights Watch expects the UK to take a leading role internationally and in Europe in supporting and actively pushing for the maintenance of sanctions until the criteria set by the EU have been fully realised.


  Human Rights Watch welcomes the report's coverage of human rights abuses in Vietnam and agrees with much of the analysis and reporting. However, on the issue of religious freedom progress should not be measured (as in the report) by the number of registered congregations. Churches and denominations that do not choose to join one of the officially-authorised religious organisations, whose governing boards are under the control of the government, continue to be officially banned or considered illegal. For many churches that have been approved, registration limits them to certain "specific activities", enabling government officials to use the registration process to monitor and control religious activities.

  The report's assessment that media freedoms have gradually improved is questionable. As the report notes, all media continues to come under the control of the Vietnamese government. The report points to media coverage of corruption cases as an indicator of improvement. But this is nothing new: it has long been the practice that certain newspapers are allowed to criticise certain corrupt officials.

  There is no mention of suppression of freedom of assembly, such as legal restrictions on public gatherings and arrests of peaceful demonstrators, such as Khmer Krom Buddhist monks who participated in non-violent protests in the Mekong Delta in February 2007.

  The report also overlooks labour violations, such as restrictions on workers who participate in "illegal" strikes not approved by the government controlled union confederation and the arrest and imprisonment of members of independent trade unions.

  In addition to noting the national security provisions of Vietnam's penal code that criminalise dissent, it is important to note that Vietnamese law continues to authorise arbitrary detention without trial under Ordinance 44, which authorises placing people suspected of threatening national security under house arrest or in detention without trial in Social Protection Centers, rehabilitation camps or mental hospitals.

  Finally Human Rights Watch urges the FCO to include in future reports, and the prisoner lists it submits to the Vietnamese government, the 350 ethnic minority Christians from the Central Highlands ("Montagnards") imprisoned since 2001 for peaceful expression of their political or religious views, or attempting to seek asylum in Cambodia.

  Human Rights Watch thanks the Chairman and Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee's for their interest in these matters.

April 2008

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