Human Rights,Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nigeria, Colombia

I spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on Human Rights on Thursday 26 Jan 2012 and raised concerns about several countries including Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Pakistan,  Iran and Colombia

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure, Mr Rosindell, to speak under your chairmanship. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on touching on so many areas in the Select Committee’s report and the Government’s response. That makes it easier for me not to have to go into some of them. I agree about the importance of having an extensive debate. During the previous Parliament, we had from 2.30 to 5.30 pm in this Chamber to discuss Select Committee reports, such as that on human rights. I hope that in future we can have longer for such discussion. Having said that, I congratulate the Committee’s Chairman on obtaining a slot from the Liaison Committee, because it is not always easy to do so when there are competing demands.

I want to touch on a few countries, and then to make a substantive point. A few weeks ago, we had a debate in this Chamber on Iran. The hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) mentioned the jamming of the BBC’s Persian service. The Minister was also present at that debate, and I had an exchange with him about the Iranian Government’s propaganda channel, Press TV. Although it is not the British Government’s decision, I want to put on record my satisfaction that Ofcom has made the right decision on that.

The wider question of human rights in Iran needs to be highlighted. As we move into this sanctions period and the tensions that will undoubtedly arise in the coming weeks, it is important that we do not forget those millions of people who demonstrated for democracy and freedom against the repression and the rigged election in 2009.

We also need to highlight some other countries. Our Committee did not highlight Nigeria, and the Government do not regard it as a country that warrants concern. None the less, the situation there has deteriorated remarkably quickly in recent weeks. Human rights is not just about what Governments do but about what non-state actors— insurgent groups, criminal organisations and terrorist organisations—do to abuse the rights of women, religious and cultural minorities and to carry out appalling human rights abuses against people because they have a different faith, clan, name, orientation or political belief. That is what is happening in Nigeria today and it is very worrying. I hope that we can get some update from the Government about that. Nigeria is an extremely important country in Africa and in the world as a whole. It is one of the largest and most significant African countries.

Similarly, we have ongoing issues in Pakistan, which were highlighted in our report. We have talked about the appalling murder of the Christian political figure, Salman Taseer, and the repression and the human rights abuses. Terrible crimes are being carried out by groups over which the Pakistan Government have no control. Given that more than 1 million people of British-Pakistani heritage have a close association with Pakistan, we need to keep our eye very closely focused on the country. Whatever we are doing with regard to withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan, we cannot withdraw our interest in the region as it is inextricably linked with our internal political dynamic relating to our British-Pakistani association.

Concerns have been expressed about the position of human rights in Colombia. I understand that the situation there is improving, but there are still reports of deaths and disappearances of political human rights activists and trade unionists. I know that the President of Colombia was here recently and that there have been some improvements and political change, but we need, none the less, to remind the Colombian Government that they still have some way to go before they fully meet the aspirations that they should have for human rights and trade union rights.

The European Court of Human Rights has just made an important judgment in which it upheld the idea of the memorandum of understanding and the removal, with assurances, of individuals from this country to Jordan. At the same time, it rejected the decision to remove the terrorist Abu Qatada from this country. I believe that that was regrettable and that the decision should be contested. None the less, it is important to understand that that judgment means that in general we can carry this process forward. We mentioned that issue in our report and it was referred to in the Government response. Will the Minister update us on where we are on that issue generally without necessarily commenting on the specific case?

Finally, I want to raise the more substantive problem of Sri Lanka. We as a Committee made some firm recommendations in which we commended Channel 4 for its documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, which showed the horrific scenes of the crimes carried out in the early part of 2009, at the end of the awful Sri Lankan civil war, between the Tamil Tigers and the forces of the Sri Lankan Government, both of whom carried out appalling human rights abuses.

We reaffirmed our view that an independent international war crimes inquiry should be held to investigate the allegations of atrocities carried out by both sides. The Government said in their response that they would await the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Sri Lankan Government. As many of us predicted, that commission did not carry out the kind of investigation or produce the kind of report necessary to deal with the issues adequately.

The report was published towards the end of last year. The Government have now commented on it, as have numerous other countries. The British Government said that, on the whole, they are disappointed by the report’s findings and recommendations, and that there are gaps and unanswered questions. The US Administration expressed concerns that the report does not fully address the allegations of serious human rights violations. The Canadians have also been critical, and India has called for an independent and credible mechanism to investigate the issues.

It is time to return to the Human Rights Council to push the issue up the agenda again. I know that last time there was a blockage, the HRC, disgracefully, commended the Sri Lankan Government on their behaviour and refused to hold an international inquiry. I know that it would be difficult to take the Security Council route, because China and probably Russia would block it and the non-permanent members, including India, probably would not be supportive either, as they were last time.

Interestingly, last time, among the opposing countries in the HRC was Mubarak’s Egypt. Things have moved on since then. Maybe, given developments in the Arab world, it might be time for us to go back and see whether there is now more international support to raise the issues again in order to get a UN inquiry. Ban Ki-moon clearly tried to push for one. He went as far on the issue as he could as Secretary-General, because he could not get the institutions to go with him. He set up a United Nations panel of experts, who said that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission

“fails to satisfy key international standards of independence and impartiality, as it is compromised by its composition and deep-seated conflicts of interest of some of its members.”

That is clear. The Sri Lankan Government must understand that setting up an internal process that does not have the confidence of the international community or the Tamil population will not lead to the necessary reconciliation within the country. People are still in detention or are not being allowed to go back to their homes. There are issues involving settlement and what is regarded as an attempt to change the demographics in the north of the island, and there are serious concerns about individual human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The Government are all-powerful, the constitution gives the President great control and the Opposition—not just the Tamil Opposition but others—are intimidated or inhibited in many ways from doing what is needed internally. They need international support and solidarity. That is why it is important that the British Government speak out loudly, clearly and unambiguously, using whatever channels they can—the UN, the HRC and the Commonwealth—to raise those issues continuously.

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