Publications on the internet
Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 22 May 2012
Richard Ottaway (Chair)
Mr Bob Ainsworth
Sir Menzies Campbell
Mr Frank Roy
Sir John Stanley
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Jeremy Croft, Head of Policy and Government Affairs, Amnesty International UK, and David Mepham, UK Director, Human Rights Watch, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: I welcome members of the public to this session of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. It is the first of two evidence sessions for the Committee’s inquiry into the FCO’s human rights work in 2011. I am delighted to welcome our two witnesses today. Mr Jeremy Croft is Head of Policy and Government Affairs at Amnesty International UK, and Mr David Mepham is the UK Director of Human Rights Watch. I welcome you both. Would you like to say anything by way of opening statements?
David Mepham: I am happy to kick off.
Chair: In these sessions, just bounce off each other. There is no formal routine for answering questions.
David Mepham: Thank you, Mr Chairman, for this opportunity to address the Committee and to have a dialogue with you about human rights policy. All I want to say by way of introduction is that Human Rights Watch and, no doubt, Amnesty welcome the fact that this Government, like its predecessor, produces an annual report on human rights and democracy. We think that is a positive contribution to the debate about what this country is doing around the world to better protect and promote human rights.
I am responsible for Human Rights Watch’s work on human rights here in the UK. I have equivalents to me in Paris, Berlin and many other capitals around the world, and there is genuine envy about the level of parliamentary interest in human rights in this country, as opposed to that in some other countries around the world. It is very much to the credit of this Government, its predecessor and you and your Committee that you have taken time to have a serious discussion about what this Government is doing to protect and promote human rights around the world. Although we disagree with some of the things contained in the report-no doubt, we will come to those in the session-we have a basis for a very good dialogue and discussion.
Chair: Thank you. We take it very seriously on this Committee.
Jeremy Croft: I certainly echo what David has said in relation to the reporting process. I suppose my opening comment would be to say that this is an opportunity to look at human rights in their entirety across the world. One of the things that are apparent at the moment is that a lot of the old certainties have been swept away, but we do not know what will take their place. That is an opportunity, but it is also a threat. Certainly, one of the things that we are looking for is how the UK Government will approach those opportunities, use them and ward off the threat.
Q2 Chair: Thank you. You will have seen the report. It seems to be getting bigger and bigger; does that mean it is getting any better? Do you have any general observations about the way in which the Foreign Office is presenting this?
Jeremy Croft: Yes. It’s a very comprehensive report. It is longer than the last one, and that is good. I find that, in parts, the treatment is uneven. Some sections are extremely strong. Some of the country sections are probably the best I have seen in four or five years of looking at these documents.
We said last year that the issue that was uppermost in our minds was the fact this was a report of activities, not outcomes. We see evidence now that it is trying to set objectives in each area, but they are very general objectives that can be strengthened. We would keep pushing, as the Committee did last year, for more evidence of what your activities are achieving. Where that comes through in the report, the report will be that much more useful for all of us.
David Mepham: I think we had three comments on the content and format of the report that would be useful to share with the Committee. The first is on the very important section of the report that is about countries of concern. It seems to us that the question of the criterion for which countries are included and excluded remains pretty vague and unconvincing. The report does set out in a paragraph the kinds of things that are taken into account when making decisions about who is included and excluded. Interestingly, it says that if it will help to stimulate a debate in the country concerned, that might be a reason for including it.
This year, we have seen Fiji added, so it pushes up the numbers a little bit, but we at Human Rights Watch are still very concerned that countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bahrain and Egypt-countries in which the UK has a significant presence and over which it has some real potential leverage-are not designated as being countries of concern. The Foreign Office has made some concession, possibly in response to pressure that we have brought to bear over the past 12 months, and it has little case study boxes on Bahrain, Ethiopian and Rwanda. You could say that that is an improvement, but they are still not described as being countries of concern, despite the fact that there are serious human rights concerns in relation to each of them.
Q3 Chair: We will come to countries of concern shortly, but we just want your general overview.
David Mepham: Can I make one other comment about the format of the report? To echo what Jeremy said, I still think there is a tendency in the report to be pretty discursive and to say, "We did X. We met the Foreign Minister. We supported this particular project." Some of that information is useful, but what we and, no doubt, the Committee want to know in terms of real accountability is: what were you trying to change in Uzbekistan, China, Ethiopia, or wherever it may have been, and how much progress did you make against your change objectives? It still tends to be a bit of a list of activities rather than benchmarks against change objectives for which it can be held accountable.
Q4 Chair: Do you think that the report should still have been published in hard copy, or would you be happy if it were just on the internet?
David Mepham: Personally, I quite like the hard copy, but perhaps I am a bit of a Luddite-I like something to hold and read. It is also useful to have the online reporting. That is an innovation, and they are updating it on a quarterly basis, which is useful.
Q5 Chair: Online?
David Mepham: Yes.
Jeremy Croft: I would echo the point. It is important that it is available as a hard copy, but the one improvement they have made is making it available online and doing the quarterly updates. It is more of a living document now than it was. Obviously, this is a report on activities in 2011, but now you can trace through how those things progress as the year goes on.
Q6 Ann Clwyd: The last time you gave evidence, I suggested that the Advisory Group might be yet another talking shop. Kate Allen, who was giving evidence at the time, said that it would be possible to give an answer one year on. Well, we are one year on. Has the Advisory Group worked? How often does it meet? What Ministers do you meet? Can you give us some assessment?
David Mepham: Shall I kick off on that, because I have attended two of the group’s meetings? I joined Human Rights Watch just over a year ago. In fact, I attended this Committee about three weeks into my job, so it was a bit of a baptism of fire. I have attended two meetings of the Foreign Secretary’s Advisory Group on Human Rights. It meets twice a year-every six months. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens; but, basically, it is a two-hour session with the Foreign Secretary, and senior advisers are present. The 15-I think it is-members of the Advisory Group, including me and Kate Allen from Amnesty International, have an opportunity to raise issues of concern, to raise questions and to make points to the Foreign Secretary, and he has been genuinely, I think, very interested and engaged when we have had that opportunity to meet with him.
I think in a sense it is almost a question to put back to the Minister or to the Foreign Office in terms of what they want to get out of it. Certainly, from my perspective as a representative of a human rights NGO, it is very nice to have two hours to make your case to the Foreign Secretary. I suspect there are many other people, other organisations, that would be very jealous of that opportunity. But it is a good question to ask two years into this Government: is it time for a stocktake in terms of what this group is for? Is it a sounding board? Is it a place where they hear concerns? Is it a place where they try out new ideas? I have to say I’m not entirely clear on what, from their perspective, they think the point of the group is, but certainly for me and no doubt for Amnesty, it is a very good opportunity to make our concerns known to the Foreign Secretary.
Jeremy Croft: Obviously, Kate Allen is a member, and she’s a member because she’s the director of Amnesty International UK, but she is not Amnesty International UK’s representative on the Advisory Group, so there is a slight difference in role there and therefore a slight distance between the work that the organisation does with the Foreign Office and her participation in the Advisory Group. Therefore, we do not look on this as an operational forum where we might be pursuing our agenda. The Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office keep quite a tight rein on the agenda-I think that is fair to say-but it is also quite useful to have that more discursive moment as they are developing some of their longer-term plans and strategies. Some of the discussions that take place, because they happen in the presence of the Foreign Secretary, probably give some of those human rights strategies more status within the Foreign Office than they might have otherwise. That is to be welcomed.
The group is underpinned, of course, by three sub-groups, two of which previously existed and all of which we participate in at a more expert level. You get more hands-on activity there, an opportunity to pursue in more detail and depth proper plans and, in some cases, a lot of working together-for example, on the death penalty, where our interests definitely coincide and we have the same objective, which is to eradicate the death penalty across the world.
Q7 Ann Clwyd: Can you point to any concrete example of where the discussions in the Advisory Group have had an impact on Foreign Office thinking or human rights policy? Although I accept it is very nice to be able to talk to the Foreign Secretary, what impact is your presence there having?
David Mepham: I don’t know whether it is because we have had these two-hour meetings with the Foreign Secretary, but I certainly think that this report-the fact that they have made this concession and have these boxes now on Bahrain, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Egypt-is probably a result of the pressure that we have brought to bear collectively over the last 12 months. I think that is an example of advocacy impact. We have said, "Look, it is not acceptable for Britain, which has such a close relationship with these countries, not to say anything about their human rights performance in your annual report." They have kind of made a concession on that. Whether that was a result of the meetings that we had with the Foreign Secretary in his Advisory Group, I don’t know, but it is obviously one opportunity to make those arguments. That is a concrete example that I would give of where I think our advocacy through that channel-but through other channels, too-appears to have had some impact on what they say in this report and also on policy.
Jeremy Croft: And of course I think I can give you one concrete example. When they were discussing drafts of the strategy on freedom of religion and belief, certainly a point that Amnesty was making in that context was to point out they were not looking at the issue of freedom of religion and competing claims-the impact that religious views can have on women and LGBT communities. I feel that the final version of the strategy was strengthened because of that dialogue we had in the Advisory Group and outside that.
Q8 Ann Clwyd: Does the Foreign Secretary attend each of the meetings?
David Mepham: He attends his Advisory Group, but as Jeremy was saying, there are these sub-groups, which are normally attended-I think I’m right in saying-by Jeremy Browne, the Minister for Human Rights. He tends to be in attendance at the sub-groups, and the Foreign Secretary at the main Advisory Group meeting.
Q9 Ann Clwyd: So is twice a year enough for an Advisory Group, or should it meet more often?
David Mepham: I’d like to spend as much time as possible in front of Ministers to make my case and the case for the organisation that I represent, but there might be a case for having some more focused discussion on a particular country or set of countries or on a particular issue, as opposed to what we have at the moment, which is a fairly wide-ranging "whatever we want to put on the table, we can put on the table" discussion. For example, we might come in the course of this morning’s session to the torture inquiry and what ought to happen with that post-Gibson. There might be an argument for saying, "Let’s have some serious time with some people who know about these issues and with the Foreign Secretary to work that through, put our point across, and offer our perspective."
Q10 Sir John Stanley: Mr Croft, you heard Mr Mepham in his opening statement refer to four countries that, in his view, should have been included among the countries of concern. He referred to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bahrain and Egypt. Do you have any additional countries that you believe the Foreign Office should have included in the countries of concern?
Jeremy Croft: I think we would agree with David and what Human Rights Watch have said in relation to those four countries. I am not actually looking to expand the range of countries of concern unnecessarily. To be realistic, it is probably better that the UK has a strong focus on countries where there are real issues of concern and where the UK has an opportunity and the means to influence them. It cannot do what Amnesty does. We will publish an annual report shortly that will cover 155 countries and territories. That would be ridiculous; you can’t emulate the US State Department’s approach. I don’t think we would advocate that on the part of the UK Government. I would certainly endorse the four that David has mentioned, but I would not be looking to add others. That is a big pool of countries, and we may well come to discuss some of them today, where we know there are issues. Whether they need to be identified as a country of concern on a sort of annual basis and then tracked through on that arrangement I am not sure.
Q11 Sir John Stanley: In the preliminary paragraphs to listing the countries of concern, that is as far as the Foreign Office goes in indicating the criteria that it is using. Are there any specific ways in which you would like to see those preliminary paragraphs expanded or made more specific? Do you have any specific criteria that you think should be stated in the text of this report, making it clearer as to the basis on which the Foreign Office selects individual countries to be included as a country of concern?
David Mepham: I’ve got a suggestion on that. Arguably the most important criterion will not just be the gravity or seriousness of the human rights abuse that is taking place in the country-perhaps that’s No. 1. The second criterion is whether the UK is in a position to influence that. Do we have leverage? It is curious that the question of our leverage, linked to our diplomatic, development and security relationships, which we have with Bahrain, Ethiopia, Rwanda and so on, is not listed as part of the criteria. There are three criteria that are given-I don’t have them in front of me-and that is not one of them. It strikes me to be quite sensible that one of the factors you ought to take into account is, are we in a position as a country to exert some leverage over this country whose human rights situation we are concerned about?
Interestingly, Chad is one of the countries listed among the 28, and I think in paragraph 3 of the Chad section, it kind of acknowledges that Britain doesn’t have very much interest in Chad, and hence we don’t have very much leverage there. It might beg the question, why have we included Chad then, if we do not have the interest or any leverage, but excluded Ethiopia, where potentially we have huge amounts of leverage? We give Ethiopia more than £300 million of development aid every year, and there are hundreds of British embassy and DFID staff on the ground and military attachés and everything else, no doubt, in Addis Ababa, talking to the Ethiopians on a daily basis. Why is that not regarded as a relevant criterion for inclusion?
Jeremy Croft: It is not entirely clear to us the criteria that the Foreign Office is using. It is a question that we would be very happy if the Committee was to put to the Minister. Certainly, it seems to be a more formal process than under the previous Government. It seems to be very much linked in to treating these countries in a different way that human rights will figure more prominently in their considerations of issues relating to those countries, which is all to the good.
I think there is a disincentive to listing some countries as countries of concern, and Bahrain might be the best example of that, where other considerations come into play. It is perhaps where they want a more all-embracing relationship with that country that human rights becomes an additional problem in relation to what may be the main agenda that the Foreign Office has been pursuing up to that point. That seems to be why there is this drag factor and why they are quite reluctant. We get this situation where Bahrain is not a country of concern, but now it is a case study and it is on a path to becoming a country of concern. Why it was not a country of concern from the outset is a question that only they can answer.
Q12 Sir John Stanley: Just one last question: I will just come back to what Mr Mepham said. I read it rather differently from how you read it. There are two specific references in these introductory paragraphs that make it clear that one of the criteria being used for selecting a country of concern was the ability of the UK to take specific action. The second paragraph reads: "we considered whether the UK had been particularly active on human rights issues in each country". Down at the bottom of the same page, it states: "This year we have aimed to make clearer which countries are a particular focus of UK action". To me that seems to suggest that the Foreign Office is doing what I think you were saying should be done.
David Mepham: I read it slightly differently. Where it says, "Along with a country’s overall human rights performance during 2011, we considered whether the UK had been particularly active", why were they not more active in Bahrain, Ethiopia and Rwanda? Why were those not included? It is sort of a justification for why they have chosen the countries that they have, as opposed to saying, "There are some countries with some serious human rights concerns, like Ethiopia and Bahrain, and we have some leverage over them, because we have long-standing diplomatic, trade, development and security relations. As a result of that, we ought to include them, because we are better placed to effect change in Ethiopia than we are in Cuba, which is also listed." I am not sure how much leverage the UK Government has over Cuba or Chad, which are both listed. I agree with Jeremy: it is worth going back to the Minister and saying, "What is the rationale for who is in and who is out, because it does not appear to be very coherent?"
Q13 Ann Clwyd: Some of us have been very concerned about what has been going on in Bahrain since last year. We have had several meetings with the then ambassador and the new ambassador, as well as Sir Nigel Rodley, who was a member of the commission and who gave us some useful details. While everyone welcomed the King setting up the commission, the implementation of the recommendations has been so slow that it will take about 20 years to implement them. I wonder why you think that the FCO is dragging its feet on this. I am sure that we all have some answers, but I am sure that you will have, too.
David Mepham: I am happy to kick off. I think it is for the reasons that Jeremy gave a moment or two ago, which is that there are lots of other interests in play when it comes to Bahrain. There is the Saudi factor and the whole geopolitics of the region, which makes them more inhibited about saying what they ought to say, which is to be quite outspoken about the serious human rights situation in Bahrain. We, like Amnesty no doubt, are very concerned about the human rights abuses that have taken place in Bahrain over the past 15 months. There were some before that, too. You are right.
You drew attention to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which included people such as Nigel Rodley, who is a distinguished human rights expert. It wrote a very good report, which documented lots of abuses that had happened in Bahrain, particularly in the early part of last year, but the problem has been that the Bahraini royal family is not implementing those recommendations. We continue, as Human Rights Watch, to document abuses that are taking place. There are a very large number of people being held in detention. The trials on which people were being sentenced for long periods, sometimes for life sentences, were profoundly flawed.
If you read the section on Bahrain-I say section, but it is a box of about five paragraphs-it is incredibly upbeat about what is going on in Bahrain. It says that things are changing and that we are supporting the Bahrainis in implementing this, but we see very little evidence that Bahrain is implementing what the BICI called for. Indeed, there are two specific references in the box. One is to this independent national commission that was set up, which is supposed to be ensuring that the recommendations of the international commission inquiry are implemented. It is not independent, because King Hamad picked everybody who is on it, so I do not know on what basis it is described as independent. Then it talks about that National Human Rights Commission-again, in favourable terms-but to the best of our knowledge that body has done nothing since it was established. The tone is upbeat and wants to describe progress, which of course we all want to see, but there is little evidence for it. Sadly, things remain pretty bad in Bahrain.
Jeremy Croft: I think I would agree with everything David just said. Our positions are very similar. For me, I feel that the Foreign Office are very quick to emphasise the progress that has been made in relation to Bahrain and slower to take account of the enormity of what is going on there. Obviously, the inquiry was a good thing to have established, but it is not being seen through. That is one of the biggest problems.
Even now, of course, you are still seeing the protests and the crackdown on protests. You have trials of health professionals coming up next month. They are being charged with-apparently-terrorism offences, but basically for speaking out against the impact of the protests and for the people they treated. They could face excessively long jail sentences. That is a continuing process. Obviously, it is good that they see that the Foreign Office is recognising that now, to some degree, in the reporting process. Okay, it is a case study-it will now be reported on online-and you feel they are stepping up their attention, but there seems to be a drag factor, and I am sure it is because of those other considerations that David mentioned.
Q14 Ann Clwyd: Physicians for Human Rights brought out a very good report on Bahrain. They gave me a copy of it. It details, in extraordinary detail, what has happened in particular to the health professionals and what is continuing to happen to them. They have now been transferred from a military to a civil court. In fact, most people believe that the charges against them should have been dropped altogether and they should have been released.
David Mepham: I haven’t seen that particular report by Physicians for Human Rights, but I will look out for it. They are a strong organisation with a good track record. We similarly did a report in February or March of last year-perhaps it was a bit later-on attacks on the medical profession in Bahrain, which, as you have just described, were really pretty gruesome. People who were going to tend the sick and the injured from the demonstrations were then attacked themselves. The Bahraini military went into the Salmaniya medical complex in the middle of the capital and arrested people and dragged them off. People were held incommunicado in detention for weeks and sometimes months.
You referred to the military court. A lot of people were tried by the military courts. They have now transitioned to so-called civilian courts, but their civilian courts rarely meet any kind of international standard. People do not have opportunities for legal defence, or some of the evidence produced against them in a court process is tainted evidence, because it has been obtained through torture. Like you, we are very concerned both by the attacks on the medical profession, but more generally about the situation there.
Jeremy Croft: I would agree with that. There have been credible allegations of torture in these cases. If they are convicted, Amnesty has an "urgent action" saying that we would treat them as prisoners of conscience.
Q15 Chair: In our report last year, we recommended that Bahrain should be on the list of countries of concern. Do you think that there is a specific reason why that advice was not accepted?
David Mepham: I don’t know. It is a really good question to ask the Minister when you see him in a few weeks’ time. He would say, "We’ve got a box now." In addition to the box, there are various places throughout the 450-page report where Bahrain is mentioned. It is interesting; I was looking at it again yesterday. There is also some incoherence in tone. Sometimes, it is quite upbeat, and on other occasions, it says there is a lot more to do. It is almost as if they cannot quite get the story about Bahrain consistent even in the report. Is the glass half empty or half full? How much change is actually happening? That is a real question to put to them.
We would like Bahrain to be included. We would also very strongly make the case for Rwanda, Ethiopia and Egypt to be included, and I hope that we might be able to talk about those. I think it is about geopolitics. It is just too embarrassing to be critical of the Bahraini royal family when we need the Bahrainis for what is going on in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East, or in terms of the security relationship. I think it is a question to put to them, because we obviously very much want it to be included.
Jeremy Croft: I have nothing to add.
Q16 Chair: Going back to your criteria, we do have strong contacts with Bahrain.
David Mepham: Of course. We meet the King and the King comes to the palace and all the rest of it.
Q17 Sir Menzies Campbell: Just arising out of that exchange in the last moment or two, let me make it clear that I am as critical of what has happened in Bahrain as anyone. There may well be occasions when you have to make a strategic judgment as to whether you are more likely to achieve progress by being critical or by being encouraging. You may persuade a regime to advance along the course that we would all support. It is difficult to lay down criteria for that, but in the end I suppose it is a question for the judgment of the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary in particular. Would you agree with that? Can you think of any cases where the issue of encouragement is in the debate? Myanmar is an interesting illustration. Are we more likely to get progress by continuing sanctions and being critical, or by welcoming even those marginal changes that have been made?
David Mepham: It is interesting the way you have put the question, and I will come to that. The question is often put in terms of private as opposed to public pressure. I think the question came up at a session a year ago. People were saying, "Shouldn’t you just be quiet about it, rather than broadcasting it from the rooftops?"
Your point is very valid about the balance between encouragement and pressure. Our response would be that you should be doing both and there are opportunities to do both. In the case of Bahrain, I have no problem; in fact, I am strongly supportive of the UK Government offering practical assistance to the Government of Bahrain, to say, "If you want to reform your legal system, we can help you do that." That can’t surely mean that we turn a blind eye if these abuses continue. I think it is possible to do both: to be supportive and offer practical capacity-building assistance or whatever it may be, to try to address some of these issues, but that has to be linked to, and to some extent conditional on, a serious intent on the part of the Government in question-of Bahrain-to address these problems.
If they are just going through the motions and saying that they are serious about implementing the BICI when they are not, that puts the UK Government and the Foreign Office in a very difficult position, because you are offering capacity support, but they are not changing anything; they are continuing to abuse people. This is obviously what diplomacy is all about, but there is a way to balance those two things, between support and pressure. Our view in relation to Bahrain is that there have been quite a lot of offers of support but not enough pressure, given that, on the ground, things are not really improving to an appreciable extent.
Q18 Sir Menzies Campbell: Well, we’ll ask the Minister to give us chapter and verse in that regard.
Jeremy Croft: I would say the point is that there is a need to be consistent. The human rights violation is the same wherever it occurs, whether it is in a country you have a multiplicity of relationships with or you are just focused on that issue. It is very much then a matter of where do human rights sit in the conception of foreign policy.
Obviously, British foreign policy is predicated on national interest, security, prosperity. Those are things that come through very strongly, and human rights as values underpinning them, in part with them. But there are clearly times and places in the world where you feel that policy is being driven by the agenda in the first two cases: security and prosperity, and less so by human rights. Maybe Bahrain falls in that category.
Burma is perhaps an example of a country where it was entirely public condemnation and that was the only element you might say that was in there. Then there has clearly been something very carefully choreographed involving the UK and a host of other countries and regional powers that has seen some progress being made. Whether that was made because of the public pressure or the private discussion, we are not privy to. I would say that it is very wary if you start to make judgment calls on the human rights issue by the nature of the relationship you have with the country. Obviously, for an organisation such as Amnesty International, we could not work that way.
Q19 Sir Menzies Campbell: Well, that is not part of your constitution. It is without fear or favour, isn’t it, when it comes to these issues?
Jeremy Croft: Absolutely.
Q20 Ann Clwyd: May I just ask a question on the back of that? We are still selling arms to Bahrain. Do you have any evidence that any of the arms previously sold to the country were used in suppressing the protests?
Jeremy Croft: I don’t have information; I can go back and check on that. We certainly were concerned about when Saudi Arabia supported Bahrain. Certainly, some of the equipment that they seemed to be using we thought could be traced back to licences issued under the UK. I will have to check about Bahrain itself and come back to you.
David Mepham: I don’t know anything about that.
Q21 Sir Menzies Campbell: Perhaps we could move on to the question of torture. I think you are well aware of the FCO 16-page strategy for the prevention of torture. I have no doubt you have studied that strategy with great care. Do you think there are any significant omissions from the list of what are described as torture-prevention activities that ought to be part of the strategy?
David Mepham: I think it is less about omissions from the strategy. To some extent, the strategy is fairly comprehensive and touches all the right bases. Our concerns about the Foreign Office’s policy on torture are threefold. The first is that it is clear to us and many other people that over the past decade there have been instances where some people working for the UK Government in the security services and so on have, to varying degrees, been complicit in and involved in torture. We think that there needs to be a very thorough investigation into that. There was the criminal investigation that is now under way into these cases in Libya, where people may have been rendered back to Libya and subsequently tortured by Gaddafi. To have a torture strategy on the one hand that says all the right things, but then to have this big problem here that has not been properly resolved strikes us as a problem. After the criminal investigation into these two Libyan cases, we are very strongly in favour of there being a new inquiry-a kind of post-Gibson inquiry-that looks into the policy failures that may have led to some people working for the UK Government thinking it was okay to be involved to some extent in people being rendered to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya and other abuses that may have taken place elsewhere. We may come back to that later.
The other thing that we are very concerned about is deportation with assurances, which is a policy that the UK Government not only pursues itself, but actively promotes around the world, as you know. This is the idea that if you have a terrorism suspect and you want to send him back to country X, but country X is known to practise torture or has a record for practising torture, like Jordan, you get an assurance from that Government on a bit of paper saying, "We won’t torture him when he comes back." It is on that basis that you are prepared to send them back to that country, and, of course, we have the Abu Qatada case that we are all very familiar with. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty are very concerned about deportation with assurances, because we think taking a paper promise from a Government known to practise torture does not really stack up and is not really worth the paper that it is written on. I think that that was an expression that you used at the time, Sir Ming, when it was introduced some years back. We remain concerned about deportation with assurances.
The third issue that we think is not really addressed in the torture strategy, but ought to be, is whether the behaviour of the British armed forces outside of Europe is bound by the European convention on human rights. There have been instances, as we all know, and the most high-profile case is that of Baha Mousa, who was terribly beaten and died as a result of his beating in Iraq. There has been a big debate about whether international humanitarian law and the European convention on human rights apply to the operations of the British armed forces in this instance. We would argue strongly that they should, and UK Government lawyers-it is perhaps more the MOD and Foreign Office lawyers-have argued with us about that, but we strongly believe that everybody who acts on the behalf of the British Government overseas ought to be bound by the European convention on human rights. That is not really reflected in the torture strategy in the way that we think it ought to be.
Q22 Sir Menzies Campbell: That could be an issue if you are operating in joint operations with other countries that aren’t signatories.
David Mepham: Yes.
Q23 Sir Menzies Campbell: But that, I suppose, is a tactical, rather than strategic, consideration.
You referred with some favour to the fact that access to the Foreign Secretary, for example, was better in this country than it was in others. Can we just take that comparison a little further? How far do you think the UK’s torture prevention work compares to that of any other European state, particularly those who are signatories to the European convention on human rights?
David Mepham: I am not sure that I can give you a comparative perspective as to how the UK fares as opposed to France or Germany.
Sir Menzies Campbell: By the pricking of your thumbs.
David Mepham: The UK has been a strong supporter of OPCAT-the optional protocol to the convention against torture-and it is the centrepiece of its strategy of what it says in here. The UK is pushing that and says that one of the most important things that it is doing to try to prevent torture around the world is to encourage countries to sign up to and ratify it. As Committee members may know, one of the things that countries are obliged to do if they ratify OPCAT is actually allow independent external investigation of their detention facilities. It is very good that the UK is doing that, and a number of other countries around Europe are also supporters of OPCAT, but there is a bit of conflict between, on the one hand, pushing that in such a high-profile way, while being such a champion, as the UK and the Foreign Office are, of deportation with assurances, which means sending people back to countries that do not sign up to OPCAT and that are known to practise torture. There is a serious incoherence and inconsistency there that undermines the UK’s standing on torture.
Q24 Sir Menzies Campbell: Do you have a solution to that inconsistency?
David Mepham: Jeremy may want to come in, but if people are guilty of terrorism offences, they ought to be prosecuted through UK courts. The argument that comes back is that sometimes we do not have enough evidence to prosecute, but if you believe in a society governed by the rule of law and if you do not have enough evidence to prosecute somebody, maybe that is a reason for not prosecuting them and not sending them to prison.
However, there may be ways that you could bring about a successful prosecution through the use of intercept evidence. I think I am right in saying that the UK and Ireland are the only countries in western Europe that do not allow the use of intercept evidence in court cases. The United States also uses intercept evidence. This perhaps goes beyond the boundaries of this Committee, but that is perhaps something that the UK Government need to look at as a way of addressing some of these problems, rather than continuing with this line of pushing people back to countries that are known to practise torture on the basis of a bit of paper that says "We won’t torture them."
Q25 Sir Menzies Campbell: It is an issue that the Chairman and I have some small acquaintance with.
Jeremy Croft: I will not reiterate all the points David has made in relation to things such as diplomatic assurances. These are common ground for both organisations. I would just like to focus a little bit on the torture prevention strategy and the guidance that they are producing about torture, and to say that it is very welcome that this is being done. We do have technical disagreements with them in terms of whether they are using the right definition of torture, and whether it is the one that you will find in the convention against torture. We certainly have questions in our mind because we can see a process here whereby civil servants and officers will take action-what they should do if they suspect that something is going wrong in whatever they are dealing with-and then it comes to ministerial decision and then these documents go silent on what happens. That would certainly be an area on which we would be very interested to hear from the Minister how that discretion will be exercised. What does the Minister do if he receives this sort of information? The guidance and the strategy are silent on that.
The other point I would like to make is that these documents are being produced because of a set of circumstances of what has gone before. Certainly, the coalition Government, when they came in, said, "Very well, we will investigate and we will have accountability for what has happened before. We will get to the bottom of that and, more to the point, it will not happen-if it has happened-in future." That is what these documents are trying to set up: processes whereby there would be no reoccurrence and no suspicion of what has gone before. That is to be welcomed-but it does seem that, little by little, that very firm commitment that was made in 2010 is being whittled away by the continuation of the diplomatic assurance policy, by the problems they have hit trying to run the detainee inquiry and by allegations that rendition may still be occurring post-2010 under the new system. There is an awful lot here that has not yet been resolved, which is why it is such a big focus for both our organisations.
Q26 Sir Menzies Campbell: To turn to something a little more factual, rather than philosophical or judgmental, can you tell us a little bit more about the circumstances in which the documents were found in Musa Kusa’s office in Tripoli? What was the attitude of the Libyans towards these discoveries?
David Mepham: To describe the context, Human Rights Watch has had people in Libya for many years; we have been documenting human rights abuses committed by Gaddafi. We had people there, obviously, at the start of the conflict and we followed the conflict very closely. We monitored abuses committed by Gaddafi’s people but also by the anti-Gaddafi forces.
The circumstances in which those documents were found were literally that one of my colleagues was walking around Tripoli with a group of journalists, and they came across-it is probably hard to miss-the intelligence agency building in Tripoli, which was abandoned. There was no security around it and the doors were open and, as journalists and human rights activists do, they wandered in and had a look. Pretty easily-it did not require a great deal of searching-they discovered a whole series of documents, including ones that related to the relationship between MI6, the CIA and the Libyan intelligence agency. My colleague photographed some of them, and the journalists were also in there looking at them. Nothing was removed from the scene, because that would not have been appropriate.
This obviously got quite a lot of media pick-up because of the suggestion from those documents that there was a very close, intimate-we would say improperly close-relationship between MI6 and the Libyan intelligence agency. They also seem to suggest-this is the basis of the criminal investigation-that Britain was involved to some extent in the rendition of two Libyan guys, Sami al-Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and their families back to Libya, where they claim that they were tortured by Gaddafi’s people. We basically found the documents and we photographed them. The journalists were there. It became a media story because of the closeness it revealed between MI6 and the Libyan intelligence agencies.
This is relevant to the post-Gibson inquiry, which we might come to, because I am pretty convinced that had we not discovered those documents and had the media not covered them in the way that it did, it is not at all clear that those documents would have gone to the Gibson inquiry, as it then was. The Government were forced on the defensive and it was all very embarrassing, and the Prime Minister came to the House and said, "Of course these documents will be looked at by the Gibson inquiry." One of the concerns that we had about Gibson was whether he was getting all the documents and whether he would be able to access all the material that was relevant. The documents that were discovered in the Libyan intelligence agency building are very relevant in describing the relationship that existed 10 years ago between British intelligence and the Libyan intelligence agencies, which we think gives grave grounds for concern.
Q27 Sir Menzies Campbell: If you talk informally to any of the people who were members of the Gibson inquiry as it was originally constituted, they will tell you that there was no shortage of documents. Your point about which documents they were going to get, of course, is not affected by that.
Q28 Chair: Can I come back to your answer to Sir Menzies about how this document was found? Someone was wandering along and said, "Ah, here’s the intelligence office. Oh, the door is open. Ah, this must be Musa Kusa’s office. Oh, it’s unlocked. There’s a filing cabinet inside. My, it’s unlocked." It is slightly straining credibility to say that your people just stumbled across these documents.
David Mepham: I assure you, Mr Chairman, nobody broke in.
Q29 Chair: I was just wondering if someone was led to the documents.
David Mepham: No. I do not believe that was the case. No. No one was led to the documents.
Q30 Chair: So of all the documents that could have been found in Tripoli, your guys just stumbled across the one that revealed that apparent rendition-
David Mepham: I am happy to check, but to the best of my knowledge it was an extraordinarily well structured and organised filing system. It was actually relatively easy to find correspondence between different countries and different Departments. They did not spend a huge amount of time in there, but they managed to discover these-
Q31 Chair: The building was empty?
David Mepham: The building was empty, yes. There was no Libyan officialdom in place at the time. These guys had abandoned. This was the middle-the height-of the conflict. We are talking about August-September last year. The Libyan officials had left the building. It was deserted. There was no security on the door and so on.
Q32 Chair: Did you say that your people were accompanied by journalists?
David Mepham: There were some journalists there as well. Yes.
Q33 Chair: Just by chance?
David Mepham: The journalists were covering the conflict, as you would expect, and the human rights researchers were trying to investigate what was happening in terms of human rights abuses. They were on the scene in this particular instance and discovered these documents. I think there is a public interest in bringing to the attention of the public that this is the relationship that existed between MI6 and the Libyan intelligence agencies.
Q34 Chair: I think that there is a huge interest and Human Rights Watch is to be congratulated for getting them out. I am just slightly probing the extraordinary set of coincidences that led to them being in the public domain.
David Mepham: On your specific point about whether they were led to the documents, I have no reason to believe that they were led by anybody to the documents and someone said, "You need to have a look at these. They’re just round the corner." I have no reason to believe that that was the case.
Q35 Chair: If you photographed that document, presumably the entire records of the Libyan intelligence agencies are there. Have they been photographed as well?
David Mepham: We certainly did not photograph that. I cannot speak for what the other journalists did. I very much doubt that they managed to photograph all of it, because there are thousands and thousands of documents. We managed to photograph some of the documents that related to the relationship between MI6, the CIA, which was also of interest, and Libyan intelligence. Some of those documents were photographed, but obviously there are a vast number of documents that were not recorded or photographed in any way.
Q36 Chair: Were your people looking for the Belhaj file?
David Mepham: Not particularly, no.
Q37 Chair: Did they know about Belhaj?
David Mepham: To the best of my knowledge, I do not think that at that point we had an inkling that- We did not know that MI6 was as closely involved as it appears to have been in the rendition of Mr Belhaj to Libya as now appears to be the case as a result of those documents.
Q38 Chair: If you did not know about it, you must have discovered it by reading it.
David Mepham: Yes, it was in the documents.
Q39 Chair: Fine, but you must have had to read- How long were your people in there for? How much time did they spend reading all these documents?
David Mepham: Most of them were photographed and then read later, so it was not as if they were sitting, perusing a library and saying, "Oh, that sounds interesting, I’ll take a picture of that." They copied some documents that we thought were relevant and important. I do not know the precise number of hours that they were in there. It was a matter of hours, clearly not days. They were in the building for several hours.
Q40 Chair: Have you discussed these documents with the current Government?
David Mepham: As you know, a criminal investigation is about to start-it has not yet started-into this.
Q41 Chair: Not the UK Government; the Libyan Government.
David Mepham: Have we discussed these documents? I believe that we have, yes.
Q42 Chair: And what is their reaction?
David Mepham: I think that they would- Are you talking about Mr Belhaj specifically?
David Mepham: He is obviously part of the Government. Mr Belhaj, as you know-and this goes a bit beyond what I ought to be saying-is taking a civil case against the British Government, as well as there being a criminal investigation, so it is very much for him and his lawyers to explain why he is doing that and so on. I sense that they will be quite interested in public transparency about what the relationship was between the British Government at the time and the Libyan Government at the time of Gaddafi.
Chair: That is very helpful.
Sir Menzies Campbell: I am glad you mentioned the legal involvement. I think we must all accept, must we not, that although there is a criminal investigation taking place, one of the pillars of our democracy and our human rights is the presumption of innocence until sufficient proof can be achieved beyond reasonable doubt? On the question of civil action, there is an onus based on the balance of probabilities.
Q43 Chair: Ann, did you want to come in on this point?
Ann Clwyd: I just wanted to say that something very similar happened in Iraq.
Chair: They just found a file by chance?
Ann Clwyd: They went into the intelligence agency headquarters. They found lots of documents. Many people abandoned buildings in a hurry, and I don’t find this remarkable at all.
Sir Menzies Campbell: It is as well there were no shredding machines.
Chair: It is a remarkable story.
Q44 Mr Roy: On a more general issue, in relation to the Gibson inquiry, why did your organisations boycott it? Do you think your boycott helped the inquiry get to the truth?
Jeremy Croft: We certainly spent a long time engaging with the secretariat in terms of the form of inquiry we would like to see. We brought over international experts to assist in that process, and there was a very clear dialogue going on, but the terms under which the inquiry was set up quite clearly fell short of international standards. The inquiry lacked powers; the Government control over public disclosure of information-that it would be in the hands of a Minister, not in the hands of a judge-was wrong; and the inquiry did not allow for meaningful participation by those people most directly affected. Without their participation, you would say, "What would the inquiry be able to deliver or achieve?" So on that basis, we had many discussions-not just Amnesty and Human Rights Watch but many other organisations. The time came when we took the collective decision-
Q45 Mr Roy: The question was do you think that helped them get to the truth-the fact that you decided to boycott it. Did it help?
David Mepham: I think the concern is, for the reasons that Jeremy has given, that we did not think-not just Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, but a wide range of organisations-that the way that the Gibson inquiry had been set up would actually get to the truth. If you are going to have an inquiry and spend an awful lot of money on it and invest time in it, it should make sense to have an inquiry that is sufficiently empowered and sufficiently independent that it is going to get to the truth. Our genuine view was that the inquiry, in the way it had been established, would not do that. Hence we did not feel it was appropriate for us to participate.
Q46 Mr Roy: So, to return to my original question, did the boycott help it get to the truth?
David Mepham: I think the boycott helped the Government to reach the conclusion that this thing needed to be scrapped, and to be replaced with something else, so we are fairly positive about the fact that an inquiry that was seriously deficient, in our judgment, has now been abandoned, and that the Government have said-in this document and elsewhere-that once the criminal investigations into the Libyan cases are concluded, they will then hold a new inquiry that will look at the policy failures and the broader context that relate to Britain’s potential involvement in rendition, torture and so on. We welcome that, but what is incredibly important is that the next time round-the next time they establish an inquiry-they get it right. They clearly didn’t last time. I hope they will listen rather more than they have done in the past.
Q47 Mr Roy: What discussions have you had in relation to the next inquiry?
David Mepham: We have not had discussions. We have not been asked-I certainly haven’t.
Jeremy Croft: No, we have had no discussions in relation to a future inquiry, and I doubt very much that our unwillingness to co-operate with the inquiry was the reason why it was stopped. That, very clearly, was because of the criminal investigations and the time that they will take. I think they thought it through and realised that they would probably be two years down the road before they could reconstitute an inquiry.
Q48 Mr Roy: Do you expect to have discussions?
Jeremy Croft: Yes. Once the criminal investigation process has played itself out, we would expect, again, to resume our discussions; and we will probably be in a very similar position-the Government not proposing to set up an inquiry that we feel will fully meet the requirements.
Q49 Mr Roy: Do you accept the statement in the report that the FCO’s approach on deportation with assurances has been endorsed by UK courts and has been compliant with the European convention on human rights?
David Mepham: Which bit are you referring to? Page 85?
Mr Roy: Page 87.
David Mepham: I cannot quite see the bit you are referring to, but obviously I heard your point. What is the case is that fairly recently the European Court, in the case of Abu Qatada, said that the deportation with assurances policy that had been reached with the Government of Jordan was not a reason for not sending him back to Jordan, but it blocked his deportation on the grounds that some of the material that might have been used against him in a court case was obtained under torture. Those were the grounds on which it was refused.
Human Rights Watch and, I suspect, Amnesty, are in disagreement on that. For the reasons I gave earlier, we continue to oppose the deportation with assurances policy strongly.
Q50 Sir Menzies Campbell: In all circumstances?
David Mepham: I think this is relevant-if I may say this in response to this question, and then come back to you. There is a very interesting paragraph on the top of page 86 that says, after dealing with the DWA arrangements more generally: "We will continue to seek new DWA arrangements in 2012, including considering DWA cases without an overarching framework arrangement". That is both very ambiguous and very concerning. What does that mean? Even beyond the existing DWA arrangements they have with places like Ethiopia and Jordan, they are now suggesting that, in 2012, they will be having new deportation agreements with countries outside of any kind of overarching framework. Then curiously, after the comma, is tagged on: "and conduct an independent review." We would be in favour of that, but an independent review of what-how it has worked to date? That is a very ambiguous sentence that it would be worth while to raise with the Minister when you see him in a few weeks.
Jeremy Croft: And-usefully, perhaps-I could provide the answer to that question, because the reference to not having an overarching framework is the reference to probably the next set of cases that will be brought forward in relation to seven Algerians. I think that those cases will come to the Supreme Court this year. In terms of returning people to Algeria, it is Government practice not to have a written agreement in that sense-they are negotiated case by case. So, yes, there is this sort of extension. Amnesty does not in any way condone or argue for the use of diplomatic assurances, but it is actually worse to try to negotiate without them. "Don’t do it, but don’t even do it in this way," I suppose, is what we would be saying.
Q51 Mr Roy: Do you two differ on that at all?
David Mepham: No.
Q52 Sir Menzies Campbell: Forgive my intervention, but are you opposed to the policy of DWA in all circumstances, or are there any circumstances in which you would regard it as a legitimate exercise by the Government?
David Mepham: We certainly do not necessarily have a problem with terrorism suspects in the UK being sent back to a country to stand trial. The question is: where are they sent back to? If it is to countries that are known to practise torture and that have a systemic problem of torture, as is the case in Jordan, we have big concerns about that. The whole DWA policy has been designed to deal with that problem. It has been designed to say, "We know these guys torture, but we’ll get an agreement with them that they won’t torture this particular individual, if we send him back." We just do not think-I think for the reasons that you made some years ago when this policy was first introduced-that that stands up. To take the assurance of a Government who are known to torture that they will not torture is an incoherent position.
It would be far better to invest some of that resource, time and effort into really trying to work with Jordan to reform its legal system and to improve its practice. Countries do change, and countries have. Tunisia is a very interesting example. Just in the past year or so, it has markedly and measurably improved its performance in relation to torture issues. There was a problem with torture in the past; things have changed a lot. This is not a static situation where countries never develop, reform or improve. We should be spending our time and effort actually trying to help countries to reform their legal systems and their practice, rather than concocting an elaborate arrangement to send people back to torturing countries on the basis that they will not torture the individual we send back.
Jeremy Croft: And you could get into incredibly convoluted relationships. You wonder why the UK Government would venture on to such a dangerous policy in some ways, with the risks of things going wrong. In the Abu Qatada case, they are negotiating additional assurances against the point that witnesses who were producing evidence in his trial were tortured. They are now seeking assurances from Jordan that, basically, what is being offered is that they will pardon those witnesses and then interview them again to give fresh evidence-this time not obtained under torture-and that there will be a constitutional change in Jordanian law to bar the use of torture evidence. This is not the first time that that will have been said. Yes, they will give the guarantees that there will be civilian trials. All those things are very hard for the UK to guarantee will happen.
To come back to the original point, of course you may deport someone who poses a risk or threat to this country, but when that person goes to a country where there is a real, direct risk of torture, the UK’s obligations kick in and clearly the thing to do is to put them on trial here, where you have the fair trial guarantees.
Q53 Mr Ainsworth: Can we move on to the issue of sanctions? Are you both aware of a statement made to us by Jeremy Browne last year about sanctions? He effectively said that, as a tool for exerting pressure on countries with poor human rights records, they were getting harder to sustain and may well be past their peak. What are your views on that statement, and on the efficacy of sanctions?
Jeremy Croft: We are probably both in the same position on this one. It is very unusual for Amnesty International to endorse or to call for sanctions, but we retain the right to do so. We also retain the right to oppose sanctions in many cases, so this is not something that we often advocate. If sanctions are pursued, clearly we would say that they must be effective, and that we would like them to be targeted, so we would not favour anything in the indiscriminate bracket.
Are sanctions effective? That is highly questionable. Are there areas that you can point to and say that something was delivered because we took out an asset freeze, or brought in other measures-particularly travel bans and things like that? They are part of a graduated response, and one of the tools in the inventory of Governments to signify their displeasure, and to add weight to issues. When they are done collectively-obviously, through the United Nations Security Council-they can carry real weight. If you include arms embargoes within the bracket of sanctions, you can see that they will have a direct benefit-that is really strong.
It is very rare that we would advocate something like that, so I understand where the Minister is coming from. Although there have been EU sanctions against Burma for quite some time, as part of the process that has been going on in the last few months, those sanctions were frozen. They were a tool within that process. Certainly, at the moment, Amnesty is calling for, among other measures in relation to Syria, an asset freeze on members of the Assad regime. Again, that would signify-not through one measure alone, but with referral to the International Criminal Court thrown in with other much more powerful measures-that there is something wrong there. I understand why the Minister might be saying that, by themselves, they are not an effective tool, but I would not rule them out altogether.
David Mepham: I agree with a lot of that. I reread what the Minister said last year in the session with you, and I looked at what was said about sanctions in the report. Again, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect, because the report is positive-ish about sanctions-as Jeremy described, it says that sanctions are one of the policy instruments that Governments should use-but the Minister seemed to be saying last year that he was less convinced of that.
We take the view that there are circumstances in which sanctions are a useful policy instrument, and it is obviously incredibly important that they are targeted and smart. Many of the sanction regimes of the past were a bit too blunt, and had big humanitarian consequences. In places like Syria, and Libya previously, we are interested in getting to the people who are responsible for the abuse through travel bans, asset freezes, financial sanctions and so on. There are circumstances in which that is entirely appropriate as a way of trying to bring pressure to bear on rights abusers to get them to change their policy.
Q54 Mr Ainsworth: There is a real dilemma, isn’t there? It is easy to accept in principle that because some other countries, some of whom are members of the Security Council, do not necessarily share our values or our desire to put sanction regimes in place, they will not be effective. But that can lead to an excuse for doing nothing, and the attitude that if we, and we alone, are prepared to take action it will not be effective, so let’s just roll along with the Chinese and Russian view. How can we square that off? We surely cannot abandon sanctions. I accept what you say about smart sanctions as a tool for bringing pressure to bear on such regimes, but we really must find new ways of justifying them, and arguing for them.
David Mepham: I agree with what you are saying, and I think one of the things we need to do is to persuade countries such as Russia and China, which tend to be obstacles to the imposition of sanctions, why they are appropriate. Syria is obviously a case that we are all familiar with and where Russia particularly, and to a lesser extent China, have blocked international action through the Security Council, including sanctions, but other measures that were called for in relation to the ICC. I am not suggesting it is easy, but we must keep making the argument to Russia and China.
We are straying a little bit into Syria, but Russia is isolating itself hugely in the Middle East. The Arab League is coming out in favour of sanctions, and actually has announced some sanctions on Syria, most of which, to the best of our knowledge, have not been implemented. They have been announced with a great fanfare, but the implementation problem is still there, and Russia is sort of standing out, along with China, and refusing to sign up to that. It is a wider political, diplomatic argument about their isolation in the region, but I think sanctions, as you say, are one instrument which is sometimes appropriate for bringing pressure to bear on rights-abusing Governments, and we should not exclude that or ignore it. If that is what Jeremy Browne was suggesting last year, we disagree with him, but maybe he has a more elaborate position that he will share with you in two weeks’ time.
Q55 Mr Ainsworth: What about sports boycotts? That is very topical at the moment. We have just had the grand prix in Bahrain. We have already talked about the intractable problem that we have there-our seeming lack of desire to bring pressure to bear.
David Mepham: I think Jeremy and I are probably in a similar position on this one. Human Rights Watch does not have a policy; we have a policy of not calling, generally, for cultural and sporting boycotts. We generally do not say that the Formula 1 should not happen or the football championship should not happen in Ukraine. The reason for that is that we, basically, use the opportunity of those events to bring pressure to bear and to draw public attention to the abuses that are taking place there.
In the context of the Formula 1 in Bahrain a few weeks ago, we did a huge amount of advocacy and media work to try to expose the ongoing human rights abuses in Bahrain that we talked about earlier on this morning. Actually, the issue got a lot of coverage because the Formula 1 was there. Similarly, in the case of Ukraine, we are very concerned about the treatment of Miss Yulia Tymoshenko and so on. The fact that the football championships may or may not happen in that country draws attention to her plight and the wider human rights situation in the country.
The other example which, again, we have all become quite familiar with in terms of media coverage in the last few weeks, is the Azerbaijan Eurovision. Azerbaijan is a country which has a very poor record on human rights, particularly on freedom of expression. The contest is not my cup of tea, but I think it is happening in a couple of days’ time. We will get a huge amount of interest and coverage and actually, perhaps for the first time, in a very sustained way the media spotlight is on Azerbaijan and allows organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty to say, "Yes, but some very serious human rights abuses are happening here and Governments ought to take more notice of them."
Jeremy Croft: I agree with that entirely. We do not call for boycotts of sporting events or other events, because we just do not believe that will achieve human rights change. In a way, we probably had this internal discussion most thoroughly at the time of the China Olympics, in which case you looked at it and thought, "This is obviously a very big, substantial decision to make". But we thought that the additional attention being brought then on China was actually more important. The fact that China did have to make some concessions to improve its human rights record, and that some of those moves have stuck, is really important.
In the same way, we do not call for a boycott of the London Olympics, but we will use it as an opportunity to highlight some issues. For example, in relation to Dow, which is sponsoring the wrap around the stadium, it is obviously a moment when we can say, "Well, that’s a very interesting choice that you have made, given its responsibilities that it’s inherited from taking over Union Carbide and what happened in Bhopal." Again, there is a very clear moment when you can raise the profile of an issue and, as a campaigning organisation, we will do that. On actually calling for a boycott-no, we do not think that that will actually produce what we are seeking: a genuine change in human rights.
Q56 Mr Ainsworth: That sounded pretty close to an absolute. We all remember-for some of us it was our formative years-the apartheid regime and the sanctions that were wanted and, surely, brought change in that country. This attitude towards sporting boycotts and sanctions cannot be absolute, can it?
David Mepham: We have just articulated the position that the two organisations have taken. Whether it is an absolute or not is a good question. You are right about South Africa. An awful lot of people thought that sporting boycotts, cultural boycotts and sanctions were the way to bring about change in South Africa, and I suspect that they played a part in bringing about that change.
But, for the reasons that Jeremy and I have touched on, we do not generally-there may be exceptions-call for sporting and cultural boycotts, not least because it gives you an opportunity to engage with those countries and to exploit the moment when the media spotlight is on a particular country to bring public pressure to bear. That, if you like, is the tactic that we have adopted. It is not a philosophical issue; it is actually about saying, "We can use the opportunity of this media spotlight really to bring interest and public engagement into the human rights situation in this country."
Chair: A successful boycott would be self-defeating.
Q57 Ann Clwyd: Let me ask you about Burma, because there is some dispute over the levers of political prisoners who still remain in jail. The Minister told us in January that the lifting of EU sanctions was dependent on the release of political prisoners, and yet the National League for Democracy says that there are 330 still in jail and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners cites a figure of more than 900, but the Secretary of State told us that we are now at the stage of definitions of what constitutes a political prisoner. We and the opposition in the Burma may have a differing view from the Government there. Have you got any view on that?
David Mepham: I think it is very hard to get accurate numbers about how many political prisoners are still being detained in Burma. It is interesting, you talked about the criteria, and the British Government’s position is that they have given three reasons for the suspension of sanctions. First, political prisoners should be released. Secondly, there should be a fair by-election process, which we had a few weeks ago. Thirdly, there should be an end to the crackdown in Kachin state.
The by-elections did seem to go successfully, so we can give them a tick for that one, but actually the violence continues in Kachin state and certainly, despite the release of many hundreds of political prisoners, the best estimate that we have is that probably many hundreds are still being detained. Of course everyone welcomes the change that appears to be under way in Burma, but I think that there is a slight danger-as I said in the Human Rights Watch submission-that we can overstate it and let them say, "We have now made this wonderful transition and everything is fine." Actually, there are still some big-huge-human rights concerns in Burma, not least the political prisoners and the violence in places such as Kachin state. I am slightly worried that the EU and the UK have rushed a bit too quickly to say, "All the sanctions are now suspended and we are resuming normal relations," when there might be an argument for being a little bit more cautious. Let us set some benchmarks and let us see some progress before we lift all the leverage that we have over the military Government there.
Jeremy Croft: Clearly, the release has been very good news, and many of the people who Amnesty has worked for over the years have now been released, but a large number of people are still being held in Burma. There is a debate over whether they should or should not be released, and that is certainly ongoing. The Burmese authorities will be arguing that there are reasons of security, immigration or whatever that they should be held, and we will probably be arguing differently. There needs to be some process to resolve this, and that should be one of the things that is negotiated through now. It cannot be just domestic or just international; it should be a combination of both, and I would certainly like to see UN involvement in that process. Therefore, you will get a credible deliberation at the end of it, assuming that we are on a continuum of progress.
Once released, however, that is not the end of the story either. It is very easy for people who have been released then to find themselves back in jail for a whole range of apparent offences. One of the things that we would like to see to make some of this reform credible and lasting is repeal of something like section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which basically provides for long-term parole and under which you can have your freedom revoked for all manner of minor offences, which can be trumped up very easily. So it is a case of people not only being released but, once released, being able to resume and conduct the normal affairs of society, whether political or whatever.
Q58 Mr Frank Roy: May I ask you about the balance between trade and commerce and human rights, and about the emphasis of the FCO? Is there a case for it becoming a little less complacent about the possible conflict between the two sides?
Jeremy Croft: Perhaps the most obvious concrete example of where this comes into play is China, where there is this network shift that they talk about-the movement of staffing resources within the Foreign Office-and this is very much within that box, that pursuit of prosperity. The Foreign Office is quite happy to say that it is increasing the number of people in China by 50 posts, and that these will be pursuing a prosperity agenda and improving relationships with China. It is quite clear that, at the moment, one of the most significant drivers of the way in which the Foreign Office is approaching foreign policy is the pursuit of prosperity-trading relationships with other countries. That is quite unavowed. It is fascinating to hear the statement, if I can find it, that the Foreign Secretary gave in his speech to the CBI recently. He had the mandatory human rights sentence at the beginning: "Support for human rights is in our core national interest and deep in our DNA as a nation. But our ability to promote freedom and democracy is strengthened by a strong economy and a global role." I do not understand why that is a "but" and not an "and," because it just seems to suggest that, even from where they sit, there is some sort of tension here that they are recognising between their ability to conduct business and still to maintain the values of human rights that they say are central to foreign policy. So, the two are in tension.
Q59 Mr Roy: So what’s the new strategy there for? Is it a new build or just a new paint job?
David Mepham: Are you talking about the new business and human rights strategy?
Mr Roy: Yes.
Jeremy Croft: That’s more than a paint job, because the driver there is a recognition of the fact that British business abroad still carries some human rights with it. It’s the question of what is the UK Government’s responsibility for the actions of its companies abroad. This is not about how they can pursue profit as such; it is about where they get involved in their relationships. We are in different places here with the Government on this one. We would argue that they have concrete obligations for the way in which British companies function abroad. They would say that they do not and that they only have those obligations within their own territory.
Q60 Mr Roy: So what would you put in the new strategy?
Jeremy Croft: We are happy to see the fact that they are building on the UN principles that John Ruggie has obviously developed over time. They are very strong supporters of that. We would want to see a very credible sort of system. We are building towards wanting to see credible controls over the way in which business conducts itself. We are a long way from that yet, but we need a system whereby companies are made to be aware that they are accountable for how they act.
There could be controls or disincentives for companies of concern-I use the phrase because we can have countries of concern-in terms of their access to Government procurement opportunities and the investment support they might receive. If their actions are seen to constitute human rights violations-for example, the actions of someone like Vedanta in Orissa or somewhere like that-such an approach basically builds up into a sort of body of regulation over time. So we are talking about a combination. At the moment we are in guidance, but in future can we be in regulation? Can this be done through multi-stakeholder fora, rather than, as at the moment, a discussion somewhere within the building? Obviously, as prosperity is high on the agenda, that discourse outweighs this one. I do not think that it is window-dressing. I think it is sincere, but it is in its place. It is in a small box and there is a much bigger box somewhere else.
Q61 Ann Clwyd: 36 out of 58 countries that retain the death penalty are Commonwealth countries. Do you think that the FCO should have made more effort to reduce that number by now, given its influence in the Commonwealth?
David Mepham: I will talk very briefly on that because I know it has been a feature of your submission. Yes is the short answer. Obviously, we have an important role in the Commonwealth and if 36 out of 58 countries have retained the death penalty, that is obviously a big concern for a Government and a Foreign Office that have said that the death penalty is a big and high priority for them. So, yes, they should be more energetic about trying to raise these concerns-although, to their credit, they have a strong position and policy on the death penalty.
The only other thing I would say about the death penalty goes a bit beyond the Commonwealth but is relevant to the concerns of this Committee. I wonder whether the UK should be doing a bit more to raise death penalty issues in relation to some of the transition countries in the Middle East and north Africa. When people are crafting new constitutions, you have a moment to raise that issue more assertively. That goes a bit beyond the Commonwealth, but it is something else that we could be doing on the death penalty.
Jeremy Croft: Obviously, the Foreign Office has a new death penalty strategy. On balance, we are very comfortable and happy with that strategy. It is one we have worked with them on, and much of the work we do with the Foreign Office is collaborative. Certainly, they have been very, very strong supporters of the cause of eliminating the death penalty. Within that strategy, in a way, we are quite comfortable with our identified priority, which is to go after the countries that use executions most-China and Iran. The Commonwealth Caribbean countries also feature, which is very important because they do have direct influence there. Finally, there is the US and Belarus, which is obviously the last country in Europe still to use the death penalty.
We do not have problems with those priorities as such, but you are quite right that an awful lot of Commonwealth countries still maintain the right to use the death penalty. I think that three conducted executions last year-Singapore, Malaysia and Bangladesh-so, yes, this is an area where they do need to step up their game. They have laid out a fair number of measures in the report where they do that. They refer to raising the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and, as far as I am aware, that did not happen last year, so that is one thing they could certainly do. We would welcome it if the issue were elevated to that level.
Q62 Ann Clwyd: A question has been continually asked of the Foreign Office about the number of human rights officers who staff overseas posts. The Foreign Office has been very reluctant to give an answer, but page 27 of the Foreign Office’s report says that there are "approximately 240 full-time equivalent employees…working on human rights…in the UK and overseas." That does not answer the question, either.
I wonder whether you have any views on why they are so reluctant to answer the question, given that you can get exact data on how many defence attachés there are in each of our overseas posts. A colleague who asked a question along those lines got detailed answers about where they are positioned, but we cannot get that answer for these posts. Why do you think that is?
David Mepham: I remember you raised a similar question last year, and I think the Foreign Office at the time were quite reluctant to come up with a figure. As you have said, they come up with a figure on page 27 of the report. That the figure is 240 full-time equivalent employees is intriguing. It would be worth asking the Minister what proportion of their time is spent on human rights and how that is defined, because it could be a slight repackaging of what they are already doing. Obviously, my sense is that there are probably quite a lot of people in the Foreign Office, both in London and elsewhere, who have human rights work as part of their job to some extent. I think it would be worth while to tease out of the Minister, the Foreign Secretary or the Foreign Office what that means and what amounts of time we are talking about. That figure does not tell us very much. The figure sounds large, and it might comfort us to think, "Okay, there is a very large cohort of people who are spending all their time thinking about human rights," but I am not sure whether that is necessarily the case. I do not know why the Foreign Office are reluctant, but you could certainly probe the Minister on what exactly that figure means and how much of a priority it is for certain people’s jobs.
Jeremy Croft: I agree. The figure is very hard to pin down. Those 240 full-time equivalents are spread across I have no idea how many people. You will not find dedicated human rights people in embassies, or whatever. I would compare that with the point I made earlier that they will add 50 posts in China to exploit commercial opportunities. That tells you where the Government’s priorities lie.
On a smaller scale, they have a well resourced, very dedicated human rights department here in London, but their second human rights adviser post has now been vacant for a year. We do not know whether that post will be filled. There are economies all across the board. We understand that, but human rights are clearly not immune from some of the cuts that have to be made.
David Mepham: Could I add two very quick points? To some extent everyone who works in the Foreign Office is exposed to human rights training, principles and so on, but we would hope that might happen more consistently. Some of that has happened-indeed, Amnesty has been involved with some of the training-but it would be good to press the Minister on whether all new people coming into the Foreign Office are subject to human rights training and have opportunities to get on top of the issues.
Alongside that, is there a case-I think you and I would agree on this-for sometimes deploying a human rights specialist, someone who has spent many years and has a real understanding of justice issues, women’s issues, or whatever it may be, to a particular country where the issue is very big? I am not clear from this whether they do that or whether the work is just added to someone’s existing job. There are certain occasions when it is an entirely appropriate response to say, "In the DRC embassy we need somebody who really understands sexual violence, because it is such a big issue in this country." Is that person in the embassy or not? At this point, I am not aware that they are.
Q63 Ann Clwyd: Would you say that there is a point in having a designated human rights officer in particular countries?
David Mepham: There may be a case in particular countries. I also take the point that if you have a designated person who does human rights, what do the rest of them do? It is a balance. We want everybody to have an understanding of human rights and for that to be an important part of their job, right up to the ambassador, who should also feel that his or her job is about human rights promotion. However, I think that some specialist expertise and skills on particular aspects of human rights may well be appropriate in particular cases, so I would be very supportive of that and I think it is worth raising with the Minister.
Jeremy Croft: And to see this awareness of human rights in all areas of the Foreign Office would be marvellous, yes, and really important. Amnesty was quite disturbed, in the context of the work that we do on Afghanistan and women’s rights, to find that in London, they have drafted an extremely good, revised national action plan for Security Council Resolution 1325 on women and armed conflict. That embraces a vast amount of work in Afghanistan in relation to women, but you could talk to people dealing with Afghanistan here in London, and in Afghanistan, and they have not heard of it. They are not aware of it and are not using it, so it is a paper strategy. It is not actually having an impact on the ground, and clearly you would want to see that improve.
Q64 Chair: The Lisbon Treaty provides that the EU should join the European convention on human rights. What are the implications of that? Talks have been going on for a couple of years now, but have you looked at the impact that this might have?
Jeremy Croft: I am very aware that the Government are looking at the impact that it might have. You are quite right that it is a requirement following the Lisbon Treaty, and the process has been under way now for some time. Two Governments stand out: one is France, although that may have changed since the election, and the other is the United Kingdom. The reasons that they are dragging their heels are quite hard to pin down; it depends on who you are talking to. Here, if you talk to Foreign Office officials, the inference is that if the European Union accedes, it will become a bloc and that will in some way be found awkward to other countries-maybe Russia, or other countries in eastern Europe. Talking to my colleagues who deal with these matters in Europe, they say that the concern of the UK seems to be most centred in the attitude it has to the convention at the moment, which obviously, for other reasons on the domestic agenda, has been quite negative.
Looking at how it would impact on the European Union, there seems to be a concern that somehow the European Court of Human Rights could rule on a matter of EU primary law and by doing so, require treaty change, which obviously would be quite a significant issue for them. I cannot give you an example of an issue, but it would be extraordinarily significant for them. Similarly, there is unease that, in the sense that the European Union conducts a common foreign policy-clearly, that is not yet entirely the case-those issues of extraterritoriality that have been argued out in relation to the United Kingdom and the actions of its forces in Iraq might somehow then extend. It seems that this is causing quite a stalling moment in negotiations in which the accession is being discussed and debated.
Q65 Chair: That is a fairly legitimate point if it is true, about the primacy of the convention over EU law and treaty change. It would be quite a substantial issue-do you think it is a fair point?
Jeremy Croft: I can see how it would be a substantial point for the Government, certainly.
Q66 Chair: On freedom of expression on the internet, Amnesty has expressed concern that businesses are supplying technology to certain countries that will inhibit that freedom of expression. Do you think that we should be exercising any leverage over those companies?
Jeremy Croft: Yes. I am not saying that these are British companies, but clearly, if you accept the importance of freedom of expression as a gateway right-and one of the places in which it is expressed most clearly now is in the digital world-this is a classic one where the law has to catch up with the technology, and the conception of how human rights should be realised has to catch up. Therefore we are quite pleased to see this as a feature and one of the issues that Jeremy Browne, the Minister for Human Rights, is focused on. He has set up his sub-group within the Advisory Group to look at this. That group is looking at some of the really tricky issues, which are basically about how you govern the internet, for example.
The strategy that they agreed under the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe, bringing on board a significant bloc in the world in that regard, was really important. But if you then compare and contrast that to what is happening in other parts of the world, then clearly it is one of the biggest threats out there, because repressive regimes want to control the ability of their populations to receive, impart, seek information and share views, and so on.
If the companies that produce the technology become involved in the processes of how that technology is controlled, then you are on this extraordinarily slippery slope, and we have seen that with companies-mainly American companies-and their actions in China, and the fact that Google eventually chose to pull out of China on account of the fact that it found its position not tenable. So it is a big emerging issue.
Q67 Chair: I agree. I think we are going to hear more about this one.
Finally, we have just finished our time as chair of the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe. How have we done, as far as human rights are concerned?
David Mepham: The UK has used its chairmanship almost exclusively, although not entirely, to push for reforms to the European Court of Human Rights. That is its big issue; it has dominated what it has done during its six months. Human Rights Watch and, I think, Amnesty similarly, had concerns. We are sympathetic to some of the proposals that came forward for trying to ensure implementation of previous judgments, but we had concerns about two of the big reform proposals that the UK was pushing, which were not accepted at the meeting in Brighton: they were in a sense giving more leeway to Governments and reducing the number of incidences in which it was appropriate to bring cases to the Court. We think they were not necessary. We think there was already a prioritisation process within the Court, which allowed the Court to make judgments about what were the most important cases for it to look at.
We are more generally concerned about the extent to which some Government Ministers and some elements of the press seek every opportunity to kind of knock the European Court of Human Rights and denigrate it in a way that is unhelpful to the Court. This is an institution that the UK, some decades ago, was very involved in setting up; it is an important instrument for justice for people across Europe.
The only two European countries that are not members of it are Belarus and one other. Most European countries are in this and most European Governments see the value of this as a way of advancing human rights. Actually, the backlog that is often talked about-those 150,000 cases-are primarily in places like Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The backlog is not a whole load of cases against the UK. It is probably fair to say-we could give you the figures or you could ask the Minister for them-that only a handful of cases have gone against the UK in the last couple of years. Yet it is built up as this institution that is constantly attacking the UK or overruling it.
I thought Ken Clarke put it quite well on the "Today" programme a few weeks ago, when he said that if you want to live in the kind of country where the courts never rule against the Government of the day, then you should move to Belarus. As part of the balance of power, occasionally judges come to conclusions that elected politicians don’t like, and that’s the price you pay for living in a society governed by the rule of law.
In general, although we occasionally disagree with those judgments, the European Court of Human Rights has been very good for human rights across Europe.
Q68 Chair: It works both ways. Sometimes the courts don’t like decisions that politicians make.
David Mepham: Of course. Indeed.
Q69 Chair: Thank you both very much indeed. It has been a really helpful session. We covered a lot of ground and heard a lot of useful information and evidence.