Westminster Hall: Women Human Rights Defenders

Mark responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate called by Catherine West MP regarding the celebrating the work of women human rights defenders globally. Mark's response to the debate is pasted below and can be viewed in the above clip. You can find the debate in its entirety here.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate. She mentioned the scourge of the misuse of social media and the internet, and a further report by Amnesty International identifies that those most at risk of being abused on social media—whether Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere—tend to be women, because it is used as a way of trying to silence them. We heard about the unacceptable situation faced by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). She is by no means unique, but the sheer volume of that abuse could be the focus of a further long debate. We all have concerns about the idea of regulating, or introducing too much compliance to, the internet, and we believe that free speech is an element of a free society, but, equally, the shocking level of abuse has, unfortunately, cautioned so much political debate, and it will continue to do so unless some sort of code—whether voluntary or otherwise—is introduced. That is probably an issue for further debate, but it reflects the challenges faced by human rights defenders, especially women.

I am grateful for the contributions by other hon. Members, who eloquently described the impact of women human rights defenders locally, nationally and internationally, and I will begin with a quote from a human rights defender that goes to the heart of this debate. Sara Landeros is one of a number of women human rights defenders the Foreign and Commonwealth Office profiled on social media last year to mark the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders and to give them a platform to talk about their work. Ms Landeros’s organisation provides legal representation for persecuted human rights defenders in Mexico. She said:

“As a defender, you don’t have the right to give up. When you are defending victims, you have to be strong. If they, as victims, have not stopped, then you have to keep going too, for them.”

That kind of selfless commitment and dedication lies behind everything that human rights defenders do day in, day out, as they work tirelessly to defend the rights of others who are often voiceless in society.

Human rights defenders often operate in the most difficult environments, and by exposing issues that the powerful would prefer to keep hidden, their work puts them in constant danger. They or their families could face discrimination, violence or, at the very worst, death. That is what happened to Berta Cáceres, who bravely stood up for the rights of an indigenous group in Honduras against a proposed hydroelectric dam project. She paid for that with her life, and it has taken five years for those responsible to be held to account. Tragically, Berta’s murder is by no means unique, and many others have been killed for standing up to those in power. Many others face similar threats.

In some cases, the threats that women face are the same as those faced by their male counterparts, including surveillance, false accusations and physical arrest. For example—this was raised by the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Hornsey and Wood Green—we are deeply concerned about Saudi women activists who have been detained. The British Government, including the Prime Minister, have lobbied consistently on behalf of women human ​rights defenders who are currently in detention in Saudi Arabia, and asked for them to be given due process, for allegations of torture to be properly, fully, publicly and independently investigated, and for those responsible for any alleged abuse to be prosecuted. British Embassy officials have continued to request to observe each and every trial session and have unfailingly, quietly behind the scenes, advocated the importance of the right to freedom of speech and a fair trial. Sadly, however, many of those women remain in jail facing unclear charges.

Women are also exposed to particular risks by virtue of being women. Those range from sexual abuse and harassment—several Members have raised that issue—to domestic abuse and hostility in the workplace. In such circumstances, it takes even more courage, strength and resilience to stand up to the powerful.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)

What is the proposed action if Saudi Arabia does not comply with the discussions through the back channels? Such discussions are correct and part of diplomacy, but we are facing a crisis. What could be done differently to promote a just solution for not just women but all those facing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia—a country with which we do so much business?

Mark Field

If I may, I will say a little more about that later. I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that the Floor of the Chamber is probably not the right place for me to make up policy on the hoof, but there are clearly grave concerns, and perhaps I can write to her in due course to explain some of the steps we intend to take in that regard.

We are all proud of those women who stand up day after day, proving time and again that their words and work have a real impact in righting wrongs and creating a more equal and just society. It is therefore right to honour them in this debate, and the Government—indeed, I am sure, all Members of the House—unequivocally support them.

Protecting and promoting human rights is a cornerstone of our work in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although it often means engaging in difficult conversations, both publicly and privately, with a variety of Governments with whom we have strong diplomatic relationships. We are fortunate to work with and support courageous women, such as Rebeca Gyumi, who succeeded in raising the legal age of marriage for boys and girls in Tanzania. In recognition for her work, she was awarded the UN human rights prize. She is still hard at work in Tanzania and working with the British high commission there.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, we used our Chevening alumni programme fund to raise awareness among young people about sexual harassment. The project implementer is a former Chevening scholar, who is now a prominent human rights defender and lawyer focusing particularly on gender and equality. She and tens of thousands of other women human rights defenders around the world dedicate their time, efforts and energy to helping others; they deserve our gratitude and support.

Throughout 2019, the UK will increase the transparency of our support for such human rights champions. We will work with like-minded partners—Governments, NGOs and others—around the globe to support and uphold human rights.

Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

We all have concerns about how Saudi Arabia treats women and human rights defenders. Given that we are aware of the barbarity of the Saudi regime—notably, that it appears to have no qualms about bombing innocent civilians in Yemen—is the Minister comfortable with the UK continuing to sell arms to such a blood-thirsty regime?

Mark Field

The situation in Yemen is far more complicated than the hon. Lady puts it. I could rehearse the issues that have resulted in the civil war in Yemen. As she is aware, there are the most rigorous arms control codes in place, which have been adhered to by all UK Governments for the last 20 years. All Ministers take the issue extremely seriously. I can assure her that there are opportunities, challenges and responsibilities in signing off any arms sales, and there are strict criteria, in UK and international law, to which we adhere.

I have talked about our bilateral work, but we also work multilaterally through the UN. The UK is working with partners to strengthen the resolve of the international community to support women human rights defenders. A year ago, we committed £1.6 million to support efforts to get more women participating in peace processes, as mediators and peace builders, across the Commonwealth. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) is right that that is an important part of the process. The UN is continually aware of the issue through Security Council resolution 1325. It is trying to raise interest across the globe and to create female advocates, who will make a real difference.

Working with partners means continuing to work with the many thousands of non-governmental organisations that share our human rights values and objectives, a number of whom have been referred to during the debate. They are the experts; it is their expertise and passion, alongside that of Governments, that helps to deliver change. They also support the human rights defenders on the frontline of human rights.

We are actively supporting women’s political participation because we recognise that political empowerment gives women the opportunity to share their views, to challenge the status quo and to make informed decisions. That is why women’s empowerment is at the heart of the Department for International Development’s latest “Strategic Vision for Gender Equality”, which was launched last year. That strategic vision aims to build gender equality from the ground up through the education, employment and empowerment of women and girls, including in conflict, crises and humanitarian emergencies.

Let me touch on the specific points that were brought up in the debate. I hope Members will forgive me if I do not fully answer all of them, and I will respond in writing if necessary. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked when the Government intend to publish the UK guidelines on working with human rights defenders. The guidelines are an internal document to help diplomatic staff in our embassies and high commissions to support human rights defenders. We have worked with NGOs to update the guidelines, and Lord Ahmad agreed in December to make UK support for human rights defenders more transparent. We intend to publish a document setting out UK support for human rights defenders in 2019, in consultation with NGOs. We hope to have something published within the next few months, but I am sure the hon. Member for ​Heywood and Middleton will remind me about it later in the year if we have not had a final publication. We will be as transparent as we can be, but Members will appreciate that parts of the toolkit involve sensitive discussion, and it would not be wise to publish the rules and regulations in their entirety.

I will be facing the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) again tomorrow, at the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) about West Papua. I know the subject is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart, and I would not wish to belittle it; he has been passionate about it since his pre-parliamentary days, as he has made clear. I hope that debate will give us the opportunity to cover the situation in depth. He made some powerful points about particular female human rights defenders in West Papua.

I must confess I have nothing specific to say in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I think she recognised that her concerns were more of an issue for the Home Office, so I will pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration and try to get that sorted out. On a personal note, the hon. Lady may be aware that one of my great British political heroes is Andrew Bonar Law, who was Member for Glasgow Central in the days when it was a safe Conservative seat—I think the business folk had something to do with that. Ironically, during his time in the House, just over 100 years ago, the great debate was about women’s rights to vote. He was quite a liberal on that matter, although he went on to be a Conservative Prime Minister. I think he would have been proud that the hon. Lady is the first female Member of Parliament—the first of many, I am sure—for that historic seat in the centre of that great Scottish city.

I promised the hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green and for North Ayrshire and Arran that I would mention Saudi Arabia, and I will write to them if there are more specific points I can address. They asked what actions the Government are taking in regard to the continued detention of women human rights defenders. We are concerned about that situation in Saudi Arabia, and we are monitoring it closely. Concerns are consistently raised by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary when they deal with the Saudi authorities at the highest level. I will make similar representations. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green may be aware, I am also interim Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, so I will endeavour to raise these issues in future conversations with the Saudi ambassador to London.

Concerns have also been raised through the UN. The UK was a signatory to the joint statement published at the UN Human Rights Council on 7 March, which expressed significant concerns about the situation. We are deeply concerned about the allegations of torture and have raised that directly with the Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, particularly because of the death penalty, its restrictions and clampdowns on women’s rights, and broader issues about freedom of expression, of assembly and of religion and belief.

The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton asked about business and human rights, and what we are doing to better human rights practices. We are committed to focusing on business and human rights through the ​promotion of the UN guiding principles. She is quite right to identify the importance that we rightly attach to issues around sustainable development goals 5 and 16. We also wish to utilise as many diplomatic skills as we can in relation to legislative and non-legislative measures to protect against, and provide remedies for, human rights abuses by business. The UK was proud to be the first country in the world to produce a national action plan responding to the UN guiding principles on this matter. We have since encouraged other states to draft their own national action plans. We were also the first country to produce an update to that plan, in 2016. We regard those guiding principles as the authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing the risks of adverse human rights impacts on business. We will continue to promote those principles.

Thank you for giving me a little leeway on time, Mr Evans. We have had a little time on our hands, and it is fair to say that, while the debate will not fully take up its 90 minutes, there is no lack of passion from those who are here. As the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton pointed out, the debate is on the first day back after a break, when people are making their way back to London, and that has affected the quantity of debate, if not its quality.

We have heard practical examples of the ways in which women human rights defenders can and do transform lives. That is why we should all be proud that the UK remains committed to helping women all over the world to feel safe and protected in the work they do, so that they can speak freely and be part of the change we all want. I speak for not just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but, I hope, everyone in Parliament when I say that we want a world in which all people are treated with fairness and dignity, and in which those fighting to improve human rights can do so without fear of discrimination, violence or retaliation. Let us take all our inspiration from women such as Sara Landeros. If she is determined to keep fighting on for that better world, we must do the same. The Government and, I am sure, Parliament are committed to doing that.