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6.25 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, spoke about the opportunities which are presented by our presidency. Every noble Lord who has followed him has suggested ways in which we could exercise the opportunities of our presidency to make maximum use of it. The one exception was the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, whose policy of extreme faineantisme did not commend itself to noble Lords on his side of the House. He should have looked at the expression on the face of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, as he was speaking. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, was in splendid isolation not only from the House as a whole but also from noble Lords who have spoken on his own side, every one of whom addressed the positive opportunities of which the noble Lord, Lord Wright, spoke in his initial speech.

There have been so many suggestions that if the Government took them all up, there would need to be a presidency of six years rather than six months. I wish that we had that opportunity. However, let us see what we can do within the six months. I wish to make a couple of extremely modest suggestions in connection with the work of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the next session of which begins in Geneva on 16th March. I have been in contact with the noble Baroness about both the suggestions that I intend to make.

My first suggestion concerns the work of the UN rapporteurs. There are two categories of rapporteur. First, there are the country rapporteurs; and secondly, there are the thematic rapporteurs who deal with individual human rights violations such as extra-judicial executions, freedom of expression, religious intolerance and so on.

In the case of the country rapporteurs, whether or not they receive an invitation from the state to which they are assigned, they produce reports which are presented to the human rights commission. But the thematic rapporteurs must wait to be issued with an invitation by the state concerned. Sometimes that can take a great many years. For example, in the case of India, the rapporteur on extra-judicial, arbitrary and summary executions has been waiting since 1993 to be invited to India in spite of the fact that in November 1995, the Indians said that there is no objection to his visit and that the necessary arrangements would be made in due course.

There was one case in the last session of the human rights commission where thematic rapporteurs looked into the state of affairs of a country; namely, Nigeria. The two rapporteurs on extra-judicial executions and the independence of judges and lawyers conducted a joint study and made a report in consequence of a decision of the 52nd session of the commission. That shows that it is not necessary and is not a sine qua non for the state concerned to agree to such an investigation.

It has been suggested to Mrs. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that the special rapporteurs and working groups should have the power to conduct such investigations in urgent country situations suo moto, whether or not the state concerned

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is willing to facilitate the arrangements for a visit. If we did that, that would enable them to make an analysis of material which is already published in the media by international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, together with any evidence which they could obtain from exiles or even, in some case, informants within the country and then to report their findings to the following meeting of the commission.

In particular, that would enable the commission, when it meets next on March 16th, to have an evaluation of the appalling massacres in Algeria, which have already been mentioned. M. Pierre Sane, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, felt that the situation there was so serious that he asked for a special session of the human rights commission to examine the massacres, but this may not have been feasible for practical reasons. The next best thing would be to ensure that when the commission does meet on March 16th it has before it an analysis by the special rapporteur.

Such an extension of the mandate of the special rapporteurs and working groups would, if it takes place, have resource implications which would have to be considered. They are very difficult to predict in advance when we know that all special rapporteurs and working groups are already operating at full stretch. It is important that the budgetary problems of the US Centre for Human Rights are relieved, and that its accounting system is improved--and I know that the Government have been helping in that respect--so as to show clearly how much is spent by each of the special procedures.

In recent years, new mandates have been created without any corresponding increase in the total budget of the centre, and the result has been that some of the mechanisms, the working group on arbitrary detentions, have been unable to look in detail at human rights abuses drawn to their attention. If all the countries which have been requested to issue invitations were suddenly to comply, the centre would be unable to deal with the workload. Therefore, one important goal that I suggest the Government should adopt during our presidency would be to put the centre on a sound management and financial basis. That is a modest goal which should be accomplished within six months.

I mention that many countries did not respond to the request for invitations, but no composite list is published by the UN Centre for Human Rights at the beginning of each session to show when requests were made for visits and how long they have been outstanding. It is extremely difficult to gain such information. Indeed, I tabled a Question which the Minister was unable to answer. If such information were to be published, it would be an incentive to the countries to comply with the request. It would focus attention on the ones that are not co-operating with the mechanisms and would enable the commission to look at the list at the beginning of every session.

I asked the Government whether, in view of the violence in Algeria, and the disappearance of an estimated quarter of a million people in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, they would call for a special meeting of the human rights commission, as

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suggested by Pierre Sane, and whether, given the fact that human rights and humanitarian emergencies arise regularly throughout the world, they would propose that the commission meet twice a year. The noble Baroness replied on 3rd November last, saying:

    "We have no plans to call for a special session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, nor do we intend to propose that the Commission routinely meet twice a year".--[Official Report, 3/11/97; col. WA 270.]

However, the noble Baroness then went on to remind me that the commission retains the option to meet exceptionally between its regular sessions.

Since then, we have had a number of phenomena of which I shall give your Lordships just a few examples. There has been the recurrence of mass murder in Rwanda and allegations of the extrajudicial killing of at least 800 people in Iraq. Moreover, in Indian-held Kashmir, only the other day, it was reported that 23 Pandits, including women and children, were slaughtered by masked gunmen in a constituency of the Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah on India's Republic Day, and in Columbia there was a massacre at La Horqueta in November, which was reportedly the work of a paramilitary group. Obviously the rapporteur cannot be in all those places at once, and yet the extent of mass murder throughout the world, and the invariable violations of other human rights which accompany those situations, cannot be left in the in-tray, sometimes for years. If we are in earnest about the Mission Statement of the Foreign Office; namely:

    "We shall work through our international forums and bilateral relationships to spread the values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy which we demand for ourselves",
then our first priority must be to strengthen and extend the capacity of the UN Human Rights Centre to conduct investigations, preferably on site, but if necessary without the co-operation of the governments concerned, and bring the results promptly to the attention of the international community through the human rights commission.

6.35 p.m.

Lord Shaughnessy: My Lords, it is indeed timely that we should today be considering the implications of ongoing Commonwealth and foreign policy as the United Kingdom assumes the presidency of the European Union. The possible development of further political and economic integration during the ensuing six months is more than likely to alter, I suggest, the complexion of this country's political and economic relationships within the Commonwealth to some degree and perhaps in the broader global international arena.

In March 1996, the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, after considering the future of the Commonwealth, concluded:

    "The Commonwealth is acquiring a new significance in a rapidly transforming world and United Kingdom policymakers should bring this major change to the forefront of their thinking ... From the United Kingdom's point of view, this transformation offers potential which it is essential that we exploit with vigour and imagination".

However, parallel to the expansion and evolution of the Commonwealth, the involvement of North American commitments both politically and economically in

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Europe has continued in the post-World War Two era. The establishment of NATO in 1949 can, I think, be fairly considered to have been a precursor of the European Union, comprising, as it did originally, nine Western European nations in addition to the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

Since that time, the US and Canada have been continuously involved in European affairs. For 28 years, from 1964 to 1992, Canadian troops kept the peace in Cyprus between Turkish and Greek elements in that Mediterranean island. Indeed, Canada is the only member of the United Nations to have participated in every UN peacekeeping effort since then. In fact, Canada still maintains a peacekeeping force of 1200 troops in the Bosnian sector south-west of what used to be Yugoslavia. Further, Canada, in mutual support with the United Kingdom, spearheaded the international treaty to abolish anti-personnel landmines, following what has become known as the "Ottawa Process".

Time does not permit the recitation of United States involvement in Europe since the inauguration of the Marshall Plan, but suffice it to assert that US support to Europe in peace and in war cannot be described as wanting in times of crisis. As the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, said, the main danger in our relations with America is not opposition but lack of interest.

Despite the reservations expressed by my noble friend Lord Wright--who introduced this debate in an exemplary fashion-- concerning what I might term the "poodle factor", I have cited these instances of North American involvement in Europe now, and at the outset of the UK leadership of the European Union, in the fervent hope that the focus on increasingly defined shared economic, political and cultural interests with the Trans-Atlantic community will be given a high priority.

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