Westminster Hall Debate: Consider International Human Rights Day

Mark responded on behalf of the government to a Westminster Hall debate which considered International Human Rights Day and the UK’s role in promoting human rights. You can find the full transcript of the debate on Hansard by clicking here.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I thank the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for initiating the debate and commend her for all her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights.

It is perhaps trite simply to observe that human rights matter, but they do matter, because they, and they alone, are guardians of fairness and opportunity for all. They reflect the widespread belief in freedom, non-discrimination and the innate dignity of each and every human being. Human rights are more than simply articles of international law, although that in itself would be reason enough to defend them. They also protect collective opportunities and freedoms that are the key to achieving long-term prosperity and security.

On the issue of the Rohingya, the right hon. Lady knows that as a Minister of six months’ standing, these matters are incredibly close to my heart, and they more or less give me sleepless nights. I want to work as far as I can with NGOs across the world to ensure that, as she rightly says, those who commit these crimes are not able to do so with impunity. As I said on the Floor of the House, we can be very proud of our humanitarian work, but if that work somehow crowds out the diplomatic and political work that needs to be done, we are simply ​saying to the next set of dictators who wish to rid themselves of an inconvenient minority within their own country that they can get away with it with impunity, if they look upon what has happened after August 2017 in Burma. I hope I will work closely with her and many others across the political divide and the world to ensure we have genuine progress and to make sure not only that there is justice in Burma for the Rohingya but, more importantly still, that we set a template for the future in this very important area of human rights.

My time is very limited, but I will say a little bit about the Government’s policy on human rights. We believe that this fight is central to foreign policy. I understand why the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) said what she did in her intervention. There are times when we seem to be compromised by elements of trade and trading relationships. I very much hope, at least in my role as a Minister in the Foreign Office, that we will put human rights at the top of the agenda. I will not pretend that there will not be moments when we feel slightly compromised. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley was correct when she said that Matthew Rycroft, our man at the UN—I have just come back from there on Friday and am going for two days in January—does a terrific job in addressing these issues and ensuring that our agenda is at the top.

We recognise that all rights set out in the UN declaration of human rights and in international law are of equal importance, but to achieve maximum impact, we prioritise certain issues. We want to tackle modern slavery, to defend freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, to end inequality and discrimination and to promote democracy. I would like to briefly give hon. Members a quick insight into some of the FCO’s work in each of those areas.

Modern slavery is one of the great human rights challenges of our time. It is appalling that it still exists in the 21st century. Eradicating it through concerted and co-ordinated global action is one of our top foreign policy priorities. Freedom of religion or belief matters because faith guides the daily life of more than 80% of the world’s population, whatever their faith may be. That freedom also applies to those who do not have a faith at all. The issue of apostasy is also something I wish to look at in my time as a Minister. Freedom of religion or belief also matters because promoting tolerance ​and respect for all helps us to have inclusive societies that are more stable, more prosperous and better able to resist extremism. We can be very proud of our record in the UK. It is not perfect, of course, but we have a pretty good record. I see a number of London MPs here. Our capital is a rich city of such diversity, and that sense of tolerance is something of which we can all be very proud.

We promote and defend those values in a variety of ways, including by directly lobbying Governments, as I do regularly when I see high commissioners and ambassadors. I do so privately sometimes, which is the right way. We always make the case repeatedly, and I never resist that, because the moment we do not mention human rights when talking about trade and other connections, the message is misconstrued that we somehow care a little less for it. That topic comes up in every conversation I have, but they will sometimes be private conversations, and I hope the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley understands that.

We need to maintain great consensus on the issue by working with international partners and by running a list of projects that promote understanding and respect and celebrate diversity. Many of those projects are run in co-operation with a range of civil society groups. The freedom of individuals and organisations to discuss, debate and criticise—to go through what we go through each and every day—or to hold their Governments rightly to account is an essential element of a successful society. That is why we believe it is another universal human right that we work very hard across the globe to uphold.

I could say so much more, but I fear my time is limited. The right hon. Lady understandably wanted to have her say, and she made heartfelt comments. In the 70th year since its adoption, the UN declaration of human rights remains the most powerful statement of hope and aspiration for us all. There has been tremendous progress in the past 69 years, but we know there is still so much more to do. This Government will continue to lead the way on promoting human rights, as they have always done, to ensure that human rights are truly enjoyed equally in every corner of the globe by the whole of humankind.