Universal Declaration of Human Rights Debate

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Lord Thomas of Gresford

Main Page: Lord Thomas of Gresford (Liberal Democrat - Life peer)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Lord Thomas of Gresford Excerpts
Monday 11th December 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.