Universal Declaration of Human Rights Debate

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Baroness Swinburne

Main Page: Baroness Swinburne (Conservative - Life peer)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Baroness Swinburne Excerpts
Monday 11th December 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.