Universal Declaration of Human Rights Debate

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Lord Harries of Pentregarth

Main Page: Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench - Life peer)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Monday 11th December 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.