Monday 11th December 2023

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question for Short Debate
Asked by
Baroness Anelay of St Johns Portrait Baroness Anelay of St Johns
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns Portrait Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Con)
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My Lords, the final draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations by the Haitian delegate Emile Saint-Lot, a descendant of slaves. It was a late-night session on 10 December 1948. Monsieur Saint-Lot said it was

“the greatest effort yet made by mankind to give society new legal and moral foundations”.

It was a watershed moment reflecting the determination of members of the United Nations General Assembly, first, to prevent a repetition of the horrors inflicted during World War II, when millions were massacred and deliberately worked and starved to death, the Holocaust being the most abhorrent manifestation of such dehumanisation; secondly, to affirm the inherent dignity of every individual; and, thirdly, to establish a solid foundation for peace, justice and freedom in the world.

The UDHR is founded on the principle of universality, applying to everyone everywhere. Article 1 proclaims that:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

The declaration set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be protected universally. It was the precursor to more than 80 human rights conventions and treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which was agreed just two years later. It provided the basis for our current international human rights framework.

The 30 articles listed in the declaration became the cornerstone of international, regional and national law. For example, they encompass: the right to life, liberty and a fair trial; freedom of religion, expression, assembly and association; the right to marriage and family; the right to work, including equal pay for work; and the right to education. They also encompass the prohibition of slavery, torture, arbitrary arrest, detention and exile.

Today, UDHR rights are at the heart of the United Nations sustainable development goals, which seek to create a better world by 2030 by, inter alia, ending poverty and hunger, but one has to question whether such a declaration would be achievable today. Multilateralism is under attack from those who want to redraw the international order to their own individual advantage. Russia and China often block human rights-related motions in the United Nations. Russia seeks imperial expansion of its territory. China seeks economic domination. Both countries seem to have scant regard for human rights.

The 75th anniversary of the UDHR gives us the opportunity to consider how far the world has come, while acknowledging that there is still a long way to go, with many continuing to suffer appalling human rights violations. We should call out flagrant violations and actively push back against those who seek to sow doubt about the universality or relevance of human rights. It is important to demonstrate solidarity with those being persecuted or punished for trying to exercise their rights, and to do all we can to recognise the work of human rights defenders, some of whom face considerable personal risk and death.

When I was the Minister for human rights at the FCDO, and the then Prime Ministers Cameron and May’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, I had the privilege of meeting many brave people who were victims of human rights abuses, and many who were valiant human rights defenders. When I listened to accounts of their lived experience, whether it was in south-east Asia, central or South America, Africa, the Middle East or the western Balkans, the theme was the same throughout. There was a lack of bitterness; there was dignity, and the impassioned request that the UK take action internationally to ensure that others might not suffer as they had and as their children so often had.

As parliamentarians, we have a key role in promoting the UDHR, its principles and the rights enshrined within it by ensuring, of course, our own Government’s compliance and holding them to account if standards slip, and by helping to generate the necessary political will to bring about positive change, both at home and overseas.

Can my noble friend the Minister update the House today on how the Government have recently challenged, both publicly and privately, serious violations committed by state and non-state actors? Can she tell the House what more the FCDO will do to ensure that the promotion and protection of rights is embedded in their decision-making processes for bilateral and multilateral trading agreements, so that the UK cannot be complicit in serious human rights abuses—for example, when engaging in security partnerships? For example, what action do they take on a cross-departmental basis to monitor the export of surveillance equipment to ensure that it cannot be diverted by authoritarian Governments to target dissidents and human rights defenders?

I note that the human rights guidance in the FCDO’s document Overseas Security and Justice Assistance has not been updated since 2017, when I left my ministerial role at the Foreign Office and went to DExEU instead. Will the Minister consider updating that guidance soon, and does she agree with me that a review of its provisions should involve meaningful consultation with stakeholders, including civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations?

I have a final request: will my noble friend ensure that the FCDO does more to support human rights defenders overseas, including environmental, land and indigenous rights defenders, who may so often face criminalisation, enforced disappearance and sexual violence?

Earlier this month, the UK made a joint statement with Denmark to the ministerial council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The statement recognised that although “great strides” had been made in recent decades to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms, it had

“become more evident than ever that the fight for freedom, gender equality, justice and democracy is far from over, and that their defence requires our ongoing vigilance and principled action”.

I agree.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, I am so grateful to the powers that be for allowing me the enormous privilege of following the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns. I congratulate her on bringing to the House such an important debate on the near anniversary of perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of international statecraft. I also congratulate her on a career rich with similar ambition for the

“inherent dignity and … the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”


“the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

She continues to do enormous credit to the tradition of Churchill and Maxwell Fyfe, to her party, to her country and to your Lordships’ House.

Sadly, I cannot continue my short remarks in quite such a positive vein while knowing how some of the most senior members of His Majesty’s current Government will have spent the actual 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A frantic phone-around to shore up petty performative political legislation, designed not so much to stop the boats as to undermine the courts in their vital role of safeguarding rights at home and internationally, is hardly the best way to promote the values in the declaration, still less to show the United Kingdom as a continuing force for upholding rights, freedoms and the rule of law in our shrinking, interconnected and troubled world.

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill dishonours the great work of the generation that established the declaration and the subsequent treaties, to which the noble Baroness referred, that were always intended to protect its values with binding law. It is not so much the elephant in the room as the woolly mammoth in your Lordships’ Chamber. It is a post-fact instrument of post-truth politics, literally seeking to alter an evidential reality unanimously found by our highest court: that Rwanda is not currently safe for asylum seekers and refugees. It attempts domestically to disapply treaties designed to implement UDHR values to which we are bound internationally, demonstrating bad faith on the world stage. It breaches the European convention that was the legacy of those seeking to rebuild our continent after World War II. Accordingly, it imperils the Good Friday agreement and our new relationship with the European Union, and it abrogates even the rule of law on which human rights depend in seeking to attack judicial scrutiny by putting Ministers above the reach of the courts.

As I speak, Members in the other place will still be hunkered down in tortuous media spinning of a document that would have the principal drafters of the post-war settlement spinning in their graves.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the UK’s national equality and human rights body. I will make some remarks in a personal capacity, but first I will speak for a moment or two about the work of the EHRC. Before I do, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, in expressing gratitude that in this House today we have somebody of the stature of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, to lead and open this debate for us; we are fortunate indeed.

We are frequently reminded that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document in the world. We know that it attempts to set a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations, the most basic of which is life, liberty and security for all. However, too many countries do not observe the basic, fundamental aspirations of the universal declaration. The EHRC plays an active role in holding the Government’s feet to the fire. Having said that, I do not intend to go into the many different areas that parliamentarians who receive our legislative briefings will be well aware of. On the back of Covid and the difficulties of continuity of data across our national institutions and research bodies, we are very pleased to have produced the Equality and Human Rights Monitor, which is a comprehensive account looking at five to 10 years of data on the state of equality and human rights in Britain. We found both progress and challenges in compiling that. I urge noble Lords to review it. It is a reference tool. It is not something you will read or use only today; it covers the whole ground of protected characteristics as they have progressed or regressed over this period. I hope it will continue to inform debates over the next few years.

I want now to share some personal reflections, not so much about the universal declaration itself but about the composition and structure of the Human Rights Council. It is a relatively newly formed council—we have to remember that it was formed only in 2006, in response to the General Assembly’s acceptance that the previous body, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was not working as effectively as it might. This was an attempt by the General Assembly to achieve some sort of coherence in having more regular elections, staggered elections and elections by region, to get 47 places on the council.

Over the intervening two decades, we have come to know that elections to the council are dogged by controversy every year, as a third of places come up. The world is divided by the council into regional blocs, replicating the UN system itself. While the EU and NATO no longer split Europe, for example, into eastern and western Europe, the UN still does, giving us the possibility, on a regular basis, of electing Russia into the eastern Europe category. This year was a near miss, as Albania managed to get on with Bulgaria, but Russia did garner a significant number of votes. Asia gives us such joys as Kyrgyzstan—again, not a standout respecter of human rights—following in Russia’s wake in most of its rulings. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the region is now represented by Cuba, where standards of freedom bear only a passing relationship with any conception of human rights. Then we have the “western Europe and others” grouping—such a bizarre way to express countries with differences as significant as those between Luxembourg and the US. But such differences are only differences of scale, whereas the election of China is truly perverse. China, as ever, is able to buy its way on to the council, mainly through the use of threats, coercion, soft loans, hard loans—through its so-called development strategy of belt and road—and so on.

Surely now, 75 years later, we need to recognise that we will never achieve the aims of the universal declaration when we allow for the most egregious violators of human rights to hold sway over the decisions of our only international body meant to uphold standards. Has the United Kingdom or the FCDO given any thought to what comes next? Seventy-five years in, what are we looking for? If members are still violating the treaty of Westphalia several hundred years later, or the strictures of the Congress of Vienna, by invading other sovereign countries, surely we must pause to reflect on trying to deliver a better kind of system. It is not universal. It does not deliver human rights. Above all, it lets down the people in countries where the most egregious violations take place.

Lord Bishop of Durham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Durham
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My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for securing this debate, and for the way in which she has stood for these issues for many years.

The United Nation’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a milestone in the history of our world. It marked a global commitment to put human beings above conflict, above the politics of division and above economic gain, granting each individual dignity without discrimination. Though we are 75 years on, promoting the human rights laid out in the declaration remains as vital today as it was in 1948.

The principles and values of human rights lie in the conviction that each human being is unique, made in the image of God and loved by God. Each person is valuable for who they are, not what they are able to do. Thus it applies to every infant and child, and to every frail elderly person, as much as to those who are regarded as wholly fit and able.

In the first place, if we are to promote human rights globally, it is essential that we uphold them in our own nation. Article 16 of the UN declaration states:

“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”.

As raised in the debate last Friday in this Chamber, brought by my friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, family is crucial to our flourishing as humans. However, this is regrettably not reflected in all our Government’s policies. The two-child limit, for example, continues to push families into poverty, withholding support for children due simply to the number of siblings they have.

I now raise my concerns regarding the recent decision by the Government to override their commitments to global human rights agreements. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not totally legally binding, it is a declaration of the core values that underpin the human rights agreements that the UK has since committed to in a range of international agreements and in the foundations of many of our laws.

Rwanda is a country that is close to my heart. I have visited it 20 times since 1997. It has a deeply painful history of suffering, yet I have observed at first hand how, as a nation, it has rebuilt itself in the past 30 years, bringing those who violated the human rights of others in the past to justice. It demonstrated to the world a remarkable way of handling this, at all levels of society, through its Gacaca courts. However, given reports from Human Rights Watch, as well as the United States Government, on the violation of human rights within Rwanda in recent years, questions are now being raised that our Government can simply rule that the country is indeed safe for refugees and asylum seekers to be sent to.

On the face of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill lies a declaration from the Home Secretary that he is unable to state whether the Bill is compatible with the UK’s human rights obligations. In producing such a Bill, we are disregarding the humanity of asylum seekers as fellow human beings—fellow human beings who are equal in dignity and possess the same freedoms as ourselves.

I remind the House that this is not an issue of boats; it is an issue of people. As a nation, we have a proud history of upholding and promoting human rights across the globe. Rightly, these human rights apply no matter the nationality a person is born to, no matter their method of travel or entry to a country, and no matter how many siblings they have.

Human rights also always imply human responsibility for one another. If we each want these rights, then we also each must defend them for others. We cannot decide to remove rights from others without diminishing ourselves and accepting that we thus remove those rights from ourselves. We have been at the forefront since 1948 of promoting human rights. Will His Majesty’s Government commit to continuing to lead the way, rather than, as currently appears, stepping backwards from that leading role?

Baroness Helic Portrait Baroness Helic (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Anelay for securing this debate. It is my honour to follow her and the other speakers, who know much more about human rights and who are experts in this area. In particular, I thank my noble friend for all the work she has done on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative and for speaking so generously about the survivors. They never express bitterness—just a desire for respect, dignity and some element of justice, which I hope we can help secure. I am also grateful to my noble friend for reminding us of the basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is down to each generation not only to uphold but to improve and push the boundaries in securing our common humanity. Yet we often fall short in defending even the basics. We see the universal declaration’s principles receiving lip service from those who transgress them, but also from those who believe themselves to be their defenders—sometimes our closest allies. Human rights should be more than mere rhetoric in speeches and interviews; they ought to form the very essence of our policies, both domestically and internationally. When we neglect these principles, we not only neglect those who are suffering, by failing to speak and act in support of them, but we also compromise our own standing, security and moral authority. Human rights protect us all; there is no point protecting only here but not over there.

Consider just one example: our rightful support for Ukraine. It is there that the ideals of a free and stable Europe are defended: the supremacy of sovereignty; the protection of borders; and the fundamental idea of human rights. However, we are often challenged that we apply one rule in Ukraine and another elsewhere. We rightly support and show solidarity to our Ukrainian friends and allies, but we have not shown remotely similar support for the people of Tigray or Sudan, or for Palestinian civilians. When we abandon Afghanistan and those who fought shoulder to shoulder with us, disregard atrocities in Darfur, or offer uncritical support to our friend and ally Israel, our commitment to human rights is questioned. Let us be candid with ourselves: do we champion human rights consistently or only when it aligns with our short-term interests?

In some cases, the accusation is that we do not care. In the face of atrocities or human rights violations, inaction is unacceptable. Back in August, the Minister of State for International Development noted the

“growing body of evidence of serious atrocities against civilians being committed in Sudan”.

Despite recognising this, four months on, collectively we have little to show by way of concrete action or concerted diplomacy to try and prevent further atrocities. Similarly, the contrast between our warm welcome to Ukrainians and our hostility towards refugees from other parts of the world has been striking.

It is sometimes suggested that worrying about our standing and the appearance of consistency is self-indulgent or naive, or both, or that those who believe and stand up for human rights have been captured by the wokerati. It is true that foreign policy is often about trade-offs and finding the least bad solution. But when we ignore our commitments, it gives other countries cover to do the same. Persuasion and alliance building are crucial aspects of foreign policy. It is certainly the case that the appearance of double standards has weakened our ability to make the case for supporting Ukraine to many countries.

There is a wider relevance as well. Many global challenges rely on trust if they are to be solved. Negotiations at COP, for example, rely on trust between countries that we will keep our word and that we will act in the interests of our own but also the wider good. The appearance of double standards undermines that trust and our ability to find solutions to some of the most pressing challenges we face.

Values upheld domestically ought to extend beyond our shores. Human rights must be an inseparable part of our Government’s policy, woven through every strand of our diplomacy, including support for international institutions and treaties, which very often have been drafted by British legal experts. This is a moral duty. It is also a route to a safer and more stable world, and it is in our national interest too.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, few people in your Lordships’ House have had such personal experience of the consequences of when human rights are violated as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic. It is always a privilege to participate in debates in which she is involved. It is also a privilege to speak in a debate initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, which she introduced with her characteristic knowledge but also showing how long-standing her commitment has been to international affairs and human rights.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, this 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a watershed moment. It was also this weekend 75 years ago that the new United Nations promulgated the convention on the crime of genocide. My fifth Private Member’s Bill on the genocide convention was given a First Reading last Monday. I hope that this time the Government will give it time to proceed. The genocide convention and universal declaration are inextricably linked, but it was the UDHR that provided the benchmarks—the tell-tale signs—that disrespect for human rights, especially of minorities, could morph so easily into atrocity crimes and genocide.

In framing the UDHR, Eleanor Roosevelt, René Cassin, Charles Malik and others, some notably from smaller and less powerful nations, were a determined group of enlightened people who drew on many cultures, beliefs and faiths. Peng-chun Chang, the vice-chair of the drafting commission was deeply influenced by traditional Confucian Chinese concepts of human dignity, saying the task was to “subdue people with goodness”. This led to “a spirit of brotherhood” being added to Article 1.

The Chinese Communist Party might reflect on Chang’s insistence that the UDHR has universal application, not least as China has ignored at least 11 of the 30 articles in the UDHR in relation to Hong Kong. The CCP is also accused of genocide in Xinjiang—I refer to my non-financial interests in the register—while, perversely, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, touched on, taking a place on the United Nations Human Rights Council. China’s blocking of a UN debate on the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report on the situation in Xinjiang is a disgrace. Now that the FCDO has accepted a decision by a German court that a genocide took place against the Yazidis in 2015, does this mean it will now accept determinations made by other competent courts in the case of Uighurs, for instance?

In 1948, the principle of universality was agreed with no dissenting voices, although the Soviet bloc joined Saudi Arabia and apartheid South Africa in abstaining. Although in today’s world, with its dangerous axis of authoritarians and dictators, that consensus has been smashed to smithereens, the dictators—Xi, Putin, Kim, Khamenei and the rest—will not necessarily have the last word. The universal declaration has been and can be a touchstone for the sorts of grass-roots movements that toppled totalitarianism in eastern Europe, saw off apartheid, emboldened the civil rights movement of Dr Martin Luther King and, in much of the world, replaced colonialism with independence.

The UDHR also spurred religious leaders to reassess their place in a plural society with, for instance, the historic Catholic promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae in 1965, the 2016 Islamic Marrakesh declaration of more than 250 Muslim religious leaders, Heads of State and scholars, and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama. Today’s Article 18 of the UDHR, about the right to believe, not to believe or to change your belief, was framed against the backdrop of the Holocaust, and religious persecution is systematically honoured in the breach to this day, notwithstanding that declaration. Think, for instance, of the Uighur Muslims, Rohingya Muslims, Nigerian Christians, Iranian Baha’is, Falun Gong, Hazaras, Yazidis and other minorities. Think of the denial of rights to Afghan girls and women, the rape and violation of women in Sudan and Tigray—touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Helic—and the bleak denial of justice in so many places.

Let me put some specific questions that, following the debate, perhaps the Minister can ensure receive answers. In the case of the Uighurs, will we join the French in trying to have the Security Council veto removed when recommendations for referral of atrocity crimes are laid before it? In the first instance, perhaps the UK should secure support in the General Assembly. Ten years ago, a commission of inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea found crimes against humanity, but fear of a Chinese or Russian veto has prevented a referral to the ICC. Meanwhile, in breach of the 1951 refugee convention, China forcibly repatriates hundreds of North Korean escapees; incarcerates in jail Zhang Zhan, the young woman journalist who asked the right questions about the origins of Covid-19; and holds in prison the British citizen Jimmy Lai and 1,200 pro-democracy prisoners in Hong Kong. Why has the Foreign Secretary not called for their release?

Perhaps the FCDO could also tell us why in August it mysteriously removed from its website the listing of Darfur among the previous genocides. I have recently raised questions concerning Afghanistan, Tigray and Nigeria, and I would be grateful if the Minister could ensure that they receive replies. Cases such as these demonstrate why the UDHR matters so much and why we need to breathe new life into it on behalf of those whose rights are violated.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I too welcome the aspiration of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, to use the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to rejuvenate and promote its principles. However, this task faces some contemporary challenges.

One of the main legacies of the declaration is that human rights discourse is now so ubiquitous that it is possibly losing any meaning. In one recent school debate I was involved in on whether mobile phones should be banned in classrooms, the outraged pupils claimed that it breached their human rights to be denied access to social media. More seriously, we have an expansive transnational human rights industry with an endless array of lawyers, NGOs, commissions, consultants et cetera who certainly talk the talk. But my first concern is the danger that this ever-growing body of experts is discrediting human rights ideals among many voters by their disdain for democratic decision-making.

Because human rights claim to embody universal human dignity per se, they are often treated as sacrosanct and unchallengeable. Their adherents assume a high-handed, self-righteous, imperious manner, disdainful of the views, wishes and demands of national populations. In the UK we have seen legitimate attempts at changing how the country manages its asylum system run into the unyielding moral high ground of human rights walls, used to constrain elected legislators and limit the scope of the country’s political policy. But when human rights are used to undermine voters and national sovereignty, does that not betray the UDHR’s original 48 aims, conceived at a time in which self-governance of all sovereign nation states was itself embodied in principles of non-intervention and universal equality?

My second concern is the pick-and-mix approach to which human rights principles matter. I will give a couple of examples. When I first read the Online Safety Bill and realised that so much of it threatened free speech, I assumed the Chamber would be full of the usual human rights experts queueing up to cite Article 19, which states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of … expression; this right includes freedom to … seek, receive and impart information and ideas”

of all kinds, either orally, in writing or print, or “through any media” of his choice. In the event, there was a resounding silence and empty Benches, even though the legislation tears up Article 19 as a principle. Similarly, the year before, when a mere handful of noble Lords raised problems with the assault on civil liberties associated with many lockdown regulations, with citizens confined to their homes and the elderly, disabled, sick and dying denied access to families et cetera, I assumed that the human rights industry would be up in arms. No. Zilch. More silence.

Such silence speaks volumes, none more shocking than in response to the 7 October anti-Jewish pogrom in Israel. This was particularly tragic and ironic as the UN declaration was precisely conceived in the shadow of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were annihilated because they were Jews—a fact worth stating as polling reveals that a fifth of the young think the Holocaust a myth. Now that “never again” is now, you would expect the human rights community to leap into leading denunciations of the worst display of anti-Jewish bloodlust since the Nazi regime. But despite filmed evidence of Jews raped, beheaded, burned alive and worse, the UN human rights organisations stayed silent for almost two whole months before condemning Hamas’s gruesome butchery, and they remain tight-lipped about the remaining 130 hostages.

A few weeks ago there was a cartoon in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper depicting an Israeli woman in bloody and torn clothes, saying “Me too”, while a panel of three UN women were shown—one covering her ears, one her eyes, another her mouth. Shameful. Conversely, we must ask why the UN human rights organisations have been anything but silent about Israel’s alleged human rights violations in relation to Gaza, labelling the undoubted brutality and suffering caused by war—arguably a just war—as genocide of Palestinians, which is a misnomer. In doing so, human rights advocates relativise the specific meaning of genocide, reducing it to a meme, a placard, a slogan—too often deployed by western activists as an anti-Semitic slur against our Jewish fellow citizens.

How can we defend the UN human rights leadership, which only this year appointed the UN ambassador for the Islamic Republic of Iran to chair a UN conference on human rights, representing a country whose morality police violently assault and lock up brave Iranian women who dare show their hair in public? It is a country where you can be hanged for insulting the Prophet Muhammad and belittling the Koran. It is a brutal regime that, in the immediate aftermath of 7 October, celebrated the Hamas terrorist atrocities.

I am afraid that such selective double standards in terms of whose human rights deserve attention and whose we ignore undermine the principles of the UDHR. Some of the problem lies at the heart of the human rights industry. I suggest to the Minister that for the principles of the declaration to be promoted genuinely we must stop looking the other way when human rights are reduced to partisan weapons for politicised ends, and human rights advocates are sometimes the problem.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by the UN Assembly was a remarkable achievement. It is right that we should mark its 75th anniversary and I am so glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has given us a chance to do so. The original agreement was signed by 48 nations, and now all 192 member states of the UN have signed in agreement with it. Despite terrible failures in implementation, it shows that there are human aspirations in common across political and cultural boundaries.

It is fashionable in some quarters to espouse different types of moral relativism, to think that values simply reflect a particular group, and in particular the power of that group in a world of perpetual conflict. But the UN declaration disabuses that. At its heart is the value of the individual and therefore the need to protect the life and liberty of every person, whoever they are, not least from the state. Although there was hugely significant input into the declaration from Church leaders and Christian sources, there was also influence from Confucian and other sources. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, emphasised, a feature of this is the declaration’s universality. There is something to be celebrated still today because of having this universal standard and benchmark.

Against that, of course, we have to point out that the failures of implementation of this universal standard are massive. In far too many countries, as sketched out by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has been indefatigable in pursuing these issues, there are ghastly human rights violations—as so many debates in this House reveal.

What steps, as the noble Baroness puts it, are His Majesty’s Government taking to address this? First, I suggest that the Government should continue to draw attention to violations whenever and wherever they occur. Whatever the pressures of realpolitik, and whatever the necessity to continue trading with countries that have repressive regimes, they should not be allowed to forget their heinous crimes. It may not always be possible to build this into a trade agreement, although we should certainly try to do so—but at least to the country with which we trade it should be made quite clear what our view is.

More specifically, we should continue to support the International Criminal Court. Individuals, especially Heads of State and warlords, need to know that there is a body which will in the end hold them accountable. Connected with that, we should continue to pursue the regime of sanctions where it is justified, not least in relation to Russia, and where appropriate in response to the Magnitsky Act.

Furthermore, we should continue to support the universal periodic review, in which member states are given the opportunity to have their human rights record reviewed by their peers. Of course, this is taken up only by those states which take human rights seriously in the first place, but it is important for every country to show willingness. If you show such willingness, at least you are trying to indicate that you yourself might be blind to certain violations of human rights in your own culture. From the point of view of the authenticity and reality of our commitment, we need to do this, not least in relation to our own country.

Finally, there are many countries in the world where human beings are denied their basic rights, with ghastly things happening at the moment in Iran, and in China, which is a surveillance state, as well as in Russia and so on. But I end by mentioning one which sadly is not on the world’s agenda, but where there are massive violations: the occupation of West Papua by Indonesia. Why does not the world know about this? It is, quite simply, because Indonesia does not allow any NGOs or any press to go in—yet Indonesia has occupied that country for three or four decades, and massive human rights violations are going on in it about which the world does not yet know fully. Will His Majesty’s Government press the Indonesian Government to allow access to the UN commissioner for human rights to visit that country? The world needs to know what is happening there.

We celebrate this Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which needs to be reaffirmed in every generation, and lament the fact that there are still so many countries in the world that are in gross violation of it.

Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the passion of the noble and right reverend Lord, and to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on securing this debate. It is a particular pleasure to recall that we were appointed to this place by Sir John Major some 27 years ago, and we are still fighting our corner.

On the day when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris, the world was in turmoil. In China, the civil war was coming to an end as the United States began to waver in its support of Chiang Kai-shek. The communists won decisively the following year. The Cold War was in full swing, with the Berlin airlift on a clear day carrying 60,000 tonnes of material over the Iron Curtain. There was talk of a western union and of the creation of a European assembly. The North Atlantic pact was being negotiated. Palestine, following a war with Egypt, was in flames; a year earlier, following the end of the British mandate, the UK had abstained on the United Nations resolution for partition and a two-state solution. Only the Liberals were in favour.

It was the Liberal Member of Parliament, Frank Byers, on the return of Parliament after the Christmas Recess in 1949, who asked Mr Attlee what changes the Government proposed to make to bring British legislation into line with the declaration’s principles. Mr Attlee said that the declaration was an aspirational statement and not a legally binding covenant—but that

“at home and in the British Commonwealth we approach more nearly to reaching these ideals than does any other country in the world”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/1/1949; col. 17.]

Lord Byers, as he became, was Leader of the Liberal Party in this House for many years. I remember him well, and his forthright Liberal principles can be heard today in the speeches of his grand-daughter, Lisa Nandy MP. In March 1949, subsequently, the Liberal Party assembly at Hastings passed a resolution endorsing and promoting the universal declaration, and it was the cornerstone of our manifesto in the 1950 general election.

While not creating international law in itself, the universal declaration became the basis of a number of legally binding conventions, including the European covenant of human rights. Perhaps the most apposite on this day, today, is the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The introductory note to the convention states in terms:

“Grounded in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of human rights 1948, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951, is the centrepiece of international refugee protection today”.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights simply states:

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.

The very first recital to the refugee convention reads as follows:

“Considering that the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved on 10 December 1948 by the General Assembly have affirmed the principle that human beings shall enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination”.

There in that first recital is a full statement of the position. Article 16 of the convention proclaims:

“A refugee shall have free access to the courts of law on the territory of all Contracting States”


“the same treatment as a national in matters pertaining to access to the Courts, including legal assistance”.

Article 32 states:

“The expulsion of … a refugee shall be only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with due process of law … the refugee shall be allowed to submit evidence to clear himself, and to appeal to and be represented for the purpose before competent authority”.

That is what the convention says. However, this Government would argue that the people coming over in boats are asylum seekers and not refugees—and they think that, if they act quickly enough, as this current Bill envisages, or if the hearing of asylum applications can be delayed for months or even years, asylum seekers can be parcelled off to another country before they get the protected status of refugees. Are these human beings enjoying fundamental rights and freedoms? I do not think so.

The legality of the Rwanda proposals is for a later date—and no doubt I shall enjoy sharing that debate with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. But let us consider the morality of it. Is it compatible with the spirit of the universal declaration? Is it compatible with the long-held values of this country? I assert that the answer is a resounding no. On the 75th anniversary of the signing of the universal declaration, its fundamental principles are being violated in front of our eyes—and for what? Is it just an attempt to keep a failed Government in office? It is un-British—or, as they say in my part of the world, it is out of order—and this 75th anniversary reminds us why.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on marking Human Rights Day and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; it is really good that this Chamber has the opportunity to mark these important events. The declaration makes it clear that universal human rights are part of what it means to be human, not gifts granted by the state. As we have heard, the declaration is not formally binding on UN member states, but it did inspire the European Convention on Human Rights and, let us not forget, our own Human Rights Act. My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti and other noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, are absolutely right to draw attention to the contradictions and tensions inherent in saying one thing and then doing something else.

It is important to understand that the UN, despite all its faults and all the problems, is an important part of our multilateral system. It deserves to be recognised as the place where we can raise our concerns about human rights violations and abuses. As we have heard, we are a member of the UN Human Rights Council, but there are other important forums where human rights can be raised, not least the General Assembly, ECOSOC and the Security Council, with all their imperfections, but also the UN Commission on the Status of Women. These are vital in terms of hearing voices in the international forums that are not necessarily heard. I pay tribute to the Government for leading debates at the HRC, and for raising issues and tabling resolutions concerning Syria, Sudan, South Sudan—the noble Baroness played a prominent part in those—and of course Sri Lanka. They have been incredibly important in tabling and voting on resolutions and in building a difficult consensus. It has not been easy, but we have been leading on that, including on Ukraine, Russia, Afghanistan and Iran.

I also pay tribute to the Government for ensuring that the mandate of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity was renewed. That is very important. When the declaration was first signed, oppressing people because of their sexuality was very common. We made huge progress because we engaged in those forums, and we have led the way. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is absolutely right: one of the most important mechanisms of the HRC is the process of peer-led reviews. Universal periodic reviews help shine a light on those abuses. We live in an imperfect world and we cannot necessarily effect the change we want to effect; but shining a light and raising concerns, constantly reminding people of acting in bad faith, if you like, is very important.

Noble Lords have heard me say before that the ingredients of a healthy democracy are not limited to politicians and Parliaments: an active civil society is vital. When nations fail in their most important task of providing safety, security and freedom for their people, it is always civil society that leaps first to their defence. The Government’s integrated review committed to promote open societies and work with human rights defenders as a priority, but how is this priority being translated into action? July’s FCDO Human Rights and Democracy Report stressed the importance of civil society. I would like to know just how many Ministers have been involved in that recently; I hope the noble Baroness can tell us. How have Ministers engaged with civil society groups to support their role as guardians of human rights?

Another area I am always very disappointed about is the FCDO’s failure to even recognise the role of trade unions in defending human rights. They are vital not only in supporting changes in society, but also in protecting people. I certainly know that the previous Labour Government strongly supported trade unions’ international activities, and I hope the noble Baroness will respond on that.

Finally, I turn to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Last Friday marked British citizen Jimmy Lai’s 76th birthday, but also his spending 1,073 consecutive days in prison. Of course, he is one of the most important defenders of human rights in Hong Kong and one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese Communist Party. His trial may start next week, and I hope the noble Baroness can reassure this House that we will be closely monitoring it and making sure that a British citizen is not left alone.

Baroness Swinburne Portrait Baroness Swinburne (Con)
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My Lords, I have a large number of notes here, in the hope that I can do this debate justice by responding to as many noble Lords as possible. I thank my noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns for getting this debate on the schedule in such a timely manner, celebrating this 75th anniversary, and for her extensive work on human rights over many years, as many in the Chamber have acknowledged. I also thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation stone upon which we have built an enduring framework of rights and freedoms—a framework for freedom, equality, opportunity and justice that provides agreed benchmarks to hold all states to account. As reinforced by my noble friend Lord Ahmad in his intervention at the UN in Geneva today, the Government put promoting and protecting human rights at the heart of what we do. That means working with allied countries, institutions and civil society to protect and bolster the international human rights architecture and advance our human rights priorities. My noble friend Lord Ahmad met with a large number of civil rights individuals—150, I believe—on Thursday of last week at a celebration event for this 75th anniversary. This means taking action in public and in private when states fail to live up to their obligations. It also means making sure that our development work and broader diplomacy strengthens human rights in our contested and fast-evolving world.

We publish an annual Human Rights and Democracy Report, which sets out actions we have taken to tackle key concerns and to advance human rights, with a particular focus on our 32 priority countries. These countries are where we judge we can make a real difference through long-term, determined and sustained engagement.

On the UN Human Rights Council, we remain one of the most active and influential states working within the international human rights architecture. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, made an important point about some of the issues of some council members. We use our influence: for example, we have isolated Russia in the system of late, particularly with regard to elections for the HRC. As my noble friend Lady Anelay said in her opening remarks, as leading members of the UN Human Rights Council, we have taken robust action to hold Russia to account for its actions in Ukraine and for repression at home. I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, that we continue to call out wrongs. We have called out China for its treatment of Uighurs and democracy activists in Hong Kong, and we will continue to do so. Let me reassure my noble friend Lady Helic that we have led on resolutions establishing or removing UN accountability mechanisms for Syria, South Sudan and Sudan, among other states, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.

We have broadened our human rights sanctions regime to punish those responsible for human rights violations in a range of priority countries. Indeed, if I consider some of the actions taken, in part through the ongoing and long-serving work done by my noble friend Lady Anelay, we have embedded human rights in all our gender equality and development work. Our international development White Paper sets out how we will continue to work with countries to protect human rights through peacebuilding and supporting justice and strong institutions.

Gender equality is one of our priority issues that sits at the nexus of our diplomacy and development work. We are pursuing the three Es outlined in our international women and girls strategy: educating girls, empowering women and girls by championing their health and rights, and ending gender violence. In response to the attempted rollback of the rights of women, girls and LGBT+ people in many parts of the world, we have sanctioned 15 individuals and entities during the last year alone for gender-based violence and acts of sexual violence in conflict. We are also working with countries such as the United Arab Emirates to secure a UN Human Rights Council resolution on girls’ education and climate change.

Trade was raised by a number of noble Lords. We are increasing the debt and poverty partnerships to enable the UK to achieve positive human rights impacts. For example, seeking to establish and secure growing trade relationships increases the UK’s influence and facilitates open conversations. We therefore raise human rights concerns during these conversations to ensure that our trading agreements continue to promote and protect rights.

In response to my noble friend Lady Anelay, the Government’s overseas security and justice assistance policy and guidance provide that rigorous assessment of whether UK engagement may contribute to a violation of human rights or international humanitarian law prior to any justice or security sector assistance being provided. I can reassure my noble friend that the guidance will be updated shortly and will reflect the views of a broad range of shareholders.

A number of noble Lords raised attacks on human rights in conflict zones. We have also prioritised support for accountability mechanisms. The UK-led referral of the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court was the largest in the court’s history. We are also supporting Ukrainian war crimes investigators, and we are working with the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court to prevent atrocities and hold perpetrators to account in Ukraine and elsewhere.

I shall try to answer some of the very diverse questions that noble Lords have put. My apologies if I do not reach all of them; if I do not, I pledge that we will write so that noble Lords can have the detailed answers that all the questions deserve.

I say first to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that the UK has a long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected, and of abiding by the rule of law, both domestically and internationally. We do not believe it is necessary to leave the ECHR in order to deliver on our major priorities, including tackling illegal immigration.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness’s flow, but I want to make it very clear and put on the record that I never advocated leaving. I suggested that the UK Government might consider what else they could do to expand the universality of human rights.

Baroness Swinburne Portrait Baroness Swinburne (Con)
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I certainly did not mean to mislead the House in any way over those comments. There is clear agreement that we believe the ECHR is delivering at this point in time, although there are always improvements that can be made.

On what the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said about Rwanda, I am sure that we will have a very long debate as soon as the Bill comes to this House and that those issues will be raised. In the interests of time, I do not have much I can go into tonight, but it is fair to say that it has always been important to both Rwanda and the UK that our rule of law partnership meets the highest standards of international law, and it places obligations on both the UK and Rwanda to act lawfully. It is really important that the Rwanda partnership and the Illegal Migration Act will deliver the changes necessary to take away the incentive for people to risk their lives through illegal crossings, while complying at all times with international obligations.

I defer to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham’s extensive knowledge of Rwanda, but the Box has prepared some remarks for me regarding the state that Rwanda is currently in. I can assure him that we are committed to upholding human rights everywhere, including in countries that we work closely with. Rwanda, of course, is deemed a safe and secure country with respect to the rule of law. It is a state party to the 1951 UN refugee convention and the seven core UN human rights conventions. The migration partnership fully complies with all national and international law, including the UN refugee convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. With all international partnerships we have thorough, ongoing dialogue in which we will raise concerns, including on topics such as human rights. Our close co-operation with Rwanda on a range of issues, including climate, development and the Commonwealth, enables us to raise these concerns at the highest levels.

I turn to the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, regarding human rights in China in particular. It is really important to stress that we have led international efforts to hold China to account on its human rights violations in Xinjiang. We were the first country to lead a joint statement on China’s human rights record there at the UN, and our leadership has sustained pressure on China to change its behaviour. There were a number of other questions from the noble Lord that we will follow up in detail in writing.

I will write to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, about Indonesia. There is nothing in my pack on it, and I am afraid we did not have a chance to respond in the time we had, but I appreciate him raising it in the House and we will certainly do what we can to follow up in writing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, raised the current situation in Gaza and Israel. I understand her frustration. Hamas can have no future in Gaza after its appalling terrorist attacks. It must release all hostages without delay, stop endangering the lives of Palestinians, and surrender them. Together with the US, the UK has targeted Hamas with a new tranche of sanctions in an effort to disrupt the group’s acts of terror. As the Prime Minister has said, we must work with our allies to provide the serious, practical and enduring support needed to bolster the Palestinian Authority.

On the other side of that coin, Israel, of course, has a right to defend herself. The Foreign Secretary has been clear that Israel’s actions must comply with international humanitarian law and that it must take every step to minimise harm to civilians. The Prime Minister has pressed Israel to ensure that its campaign is targeted against Hamas fighters and military objectives. The Foreign Secretary discussed this with the Israeli President during his recent visit.

There are, no doubt, some other questions that I have not got to, but I have 10 seconds to conclude. The 75th anniversary of the UN’s universal declaration falls at a significant juncture in the protection and promotion of human rights. After decades of progress, increased authoritarianism is a growing threat to human rights, and at a time when we face the greatest challenges in a decade, from ever more complex forms of conflict to far-reaching technological developments, the principles enshrined in the universal declaration—freedom, equality, opportunity and justice—provide the right path to navigate these new challenges, which is why the Government work relentlessly in support of human rights and remain as committed to the universal declaration today as our predecessors were on the day they signed it.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I am afraid I must insist on clarifying the remarks she has attributed to me. I intentionally did not go anywhere near the European Convention on Human Rights. I spoke only in broad terms about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—in other words, the UN’s founding document. I want to put it on the record that I said to the House—and I think Hansard will confirm it—that I was not going to get into current controversy. I want to make that very clear.

Baroness Swinburne Portrait Baroness Swinburne (Con)
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That is totally understood. I will make sure that the record reflects that.

House adjourned at 8.20 pm.