Human Rights, including Sri Lanka, Syria, Egypt

Mike Gapes spoke out passionately about the situation in Syria in the debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Human rights in Parliament on Thursday 23 January.

"The international community has failed the democratic, peaceful activists, women and men, who were calling for change just three years ago. We have failed them. Non-intervention also has consequences; it does not mean that Syria is nothing to do with us. All we can do is say, “We did not help you at your time of need when you were calling for help in 2011.” As a result of that non-intervention, the situation is now much, much worse."

He  also referred specifically to a number of other countries including Sri Lanka,  and Egypt.  

Here is what he said 

2.11 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). The universal values of the 1948 universal declaration of human rights are under attack and are being eroded. That is partly due to some issues and conflicts that have already been touched upon, but, unfortunately, it is also due to the shift of economic and political power and influence in the world, which is moving away from the transatlantic agenda of those who wrote the declaration towards other regions of the world with different political histories and traditions. We will have a big fight in this century to maintain those universalist human rights values. It is important, however, that we recognise that there are countries in south and east Asia that are democratic and pluralistic and hold to those values. Such countries include the Republic of Korea and Taiwan, which I recently visited, where people believe in democracy, pluralism and human rights. It is important that we recognise the fact that we have friends in that part of the world and work with them.

I want to make three points. Mention has already been made of Sri Lanka. Members will know that for a long time I have taken an interest in what happened at the end of the civil war there. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), has already referred to some of the issues, so I will not repeat his comments, but it is clear that the Commonwealth did not confront the situation in Sri Lanka in a good way. The question now is whether or not, by March, the Government of Sri Lanka will come forward with credible proposals, as called for by the Prime Minister. If not, the British Government have said that they will refer the matter to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The council has not always had a good record, although the Human Rights Watch report that I saw yesterday refers to an improvement, which I think reflects recent changes to its membership. However, several authoritarian friends of the Rajapaksa family sit on the council, so I am not necessarily convinced that that route will get the solution we want.

Will the Minister could address the issue of Sri Lanka in his reply and let us know what is going to happen if its Government do not come forward with a credible, independent inquiry into the events of 2009? Many countries around the world have been calling for such an inquiry, not just the Tamil diaspora. Another mass grave was discovered in a place called Mannar in December. I understand that so far 31 skulls have been discovered, placed on top of each other. Another mass grave was discovered in the centre of Sri Lanka a year ago. It is quite clear that there are questions to be answered about the firing in the so-called no fire zone and the deaths of 40,000 people there in early 2009, just five years ago.

My friend, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, touched on the other issue that will confront us perhaps for decades: the turmoil in the Muslim world. I do not mean just the Arab world, but the wider Muslim world. Iran is, of course, an important contributor to the debate in terms not just of its influence in Bahrain, but its role in supporting Hezbollah, which fights on behalf of Assad in Syria. So far in Syria, 125,000 people have died. Millions are internally displaced, and millions more are refugees. We know what the situation is and we all bear responsibility. The international community has failed the democratic, peaceful activists, women and men, who were calling for change just three years ago. We have failed them. Non-intervention also has consequences; it does not mean that Syria is nothing to do with us. All we can do is say, “We did not help you at your time of need when you were calling for help in 2011.” As a result of that non-intervention, the situation is now much, much worse.

We used to talk about the Arab spring; we are not talking about it anymore. We have probably entered a period of turmoil and unrest that will have inconceivable consequences. Let us look at Egypt. Human Rights Watch has produced an interesting report in which it uses the phrase “abusive majoritarianism.” That is a very interesting concept. The report says, quite rightly, that the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi Government behaved in a sectarian, undemocratic manner towards women and civil society groups in Egypt. However, the military then used the pretext of the mass protests against that regime in order to stage a coup. The British Government do not use the term “coup”—at least, I am not sure that they do; the American Administration certainly does not—but we must be absolutely clear that that is what happened. The regime that is now in charge has killed many more people than were killed in the worst periods under the Mubarak regime. There is terrible violence, but there is also terrorism against police officers and others in Egypt, coming from the Islamist extremists. Egypt, a large country with lots of neighbours, is potentially in a very dangerous position.

In 2012, I went to Egypt with the Foreign Affairs Committee. I was fortunate to be able to go from Egypt to Tunisia. Tunisia has had its difficulties, but it has shown how the transition and internal issues can be dealt with in a peaceful, pluralistic way. There are lessons there and there are alternatives.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP) rose—

Mike Gapes: I am afraid that I will not give way because of the time. I want to conclude my remarks in order to be fair to others who wish to speak.

Finally, I want to say that the Government and all parties in the House can be proud that we human rights issues internationally. However, I find it disconcerting when there are regimes in Russia and elsewhere, and certain countries in Africa, which are able to quote back at us part of our domestic debate as a way to justify their own bad behaviour. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley touched on that issue, and it is right that she did so. Some of our politicians need to be a little more internationalist in the way they approach some of our debates about refugees, economic migrants and people from different communities living together in harmony, because sometimes words may be taken out of context and used by authoritarian people around the world to justify their own behaviour.

In his response concerning Sri Lanka Foreign Office Minister  Mark  Simmonds said. 

I want to ensure that the House understands that if a credible domestic process has not properly begun by March 2014, we will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and call for an international investigation. We will play an active role in building international support for that approach ahead of the March meeting. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is right, however, that we face an uphill struggle to secure the passage of an appropriately robust resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, but I assure him that the FCO network is already hard at work with the resolution’s main sponsor, the United States, to mobilise opinion and the necessary majority, and that our campaign at the Human Rights Council will be led at ministerial level.

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