Universal Declaration of Human Rights Debate

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Lord Alton of Liverpool

Main Page: Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench - Life peer)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Lord Alton of Liverpool Excerpts
Monday 11th December 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.