The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, not just for his tabling of this very important debate but, as several noble Lords have mentioned, for his dedication and devotion to human rights over many years. That is a priority on which we often joke in private that I am hugely challenged by his scrutiny and expertise, but, rightly, I am also accountable as the government spokesman and, indeed, Minister for Human Rights. As the noble Lord knows, I very much appreciate his insight and expertise on a range of issues covering human rights across the world.
I also acknowledge a point made by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, about—I was going to say “the irony” but actually it goes stronger than that—the perverseness of the countersanctions that have been applied by the Chinese. We have applied sanctions on Chinese authorities and individuals, and I will come on to those in a moment, but the perverse response to those who have spoken out strongly, as we have heard again today, on the issue of human rights and the rights of all communities in China, particularly the Uighurs, has been that they have sought to challenge those voices and silence them. However, as we have heard today in the contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, they will not succeed. I assure your Lordships’ House that the Government, and indeed I, with my responsibilities as Minister for Human Rights, stand very firmly with them on that important principle.
I recognise that the debate was also occasioned somewhat by the media report in question, which relates to a private meeting held by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary more than a year ago. Noble Lords will not be surprised when I respond to the various comments that have been made simply by saying that I am not going to comment on private meetings that have taken place between Ministers and officials. However, noting what the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, summarised, I will seek to provide clarity on the Government’s position on the various areas that the noble Lord highlighted, which other noble Lords asked for. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked specifically what the Government’s position is. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me say that our clear stated policy remains the policy of successive British Governments.
We have heard various references made to the fact that it is not for Governments or, indeed, non-judicial bodies to make determinations in relation to genocide, but I was very taken with the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, who rightly articulated that whatever labels we may apply should not deter us from action. I hope I will allay some of the concerns that have been raised by noble Lords in that respect.
I respect greatly the insights provided by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Particularly in my role as Minister for the United Nations, I recognise the various challenges of diplomacy that often occur but, equally, the inability, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, of international mechanisms, including any referral by the ICC—of course China is not a state party to the Rome statute—which can be superseded only by a referral by the UN Security Council, and we also know that will not happen.
Nevertheless, I totally agree with the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Hannay, and others that genocide is a crime and there must be no impunity for it. As with any other crimes, judgment should be made after all available evidence has been considered by a competent court, but the policy that I have restated today does not detract from the Government’s resolve to address the egregious human rights violations and the abuses against Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, that we continue to focus on what can be done diplomatically but also on what specific actions can be taken in this respect.
I turn to the current situation. We heard very telling examples from, among others, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Loan and Lady Kennedy, about the situation in Xinjiang, which, frankly and candidly put, to my mind is one of the worst human rights crises that the world is facing today. I accept, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, mentioned, that as time moves on attention is taken away by the media being engaged in the ongoing Afghanistan crisis; we all know how true that is. It is therefore right that we have debates of this kind in your Lordships’ House and, indeed, in the other place to keep the focus of both the Government and the world community on this issue, which continues to concern and requires further action.
The extrajudicial detention of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims and other minorities in so-called political re-education camps is well known to all of us. Systematic restrictions on trying to dilute and, indeed, eradicate the Uighur culture and the practice of Islam altogether, the banning of headscarves and of beards and the extensive and intensive surveillance of minorities have continued. New research continues to reveal disturbing details about the repressive policies enforced in Xinjiang. This includes credible evidence of invasive surveillance technology—the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, drew attention to this—along with forced labour and the forced suppression of births, which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, alluded to. In that regard, to address some of the concerns, I assure noble Lords that we have taken robust action.
I respect the noble Lord, Lord Desai, greatly but I do not agree with his assessment in this case. I believe that by acting not just as the United Kingdom but with key partners—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins—we can effect change. We should never give up hope that we can effect change; otherwise, what is the point of anything? We must work together and collaborate on important priorities. In that regard, the UK has led international efforts to hold China to account.
I assure my noble friends Lord Cormack, Lord Polak and Lord Shinkwin that we are focused on this and we want to ensure that we work collaboratively and collectively, and I will come on to that in a moment. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that we are working closely with our US partners. I have recently returned from a visit to Washington to discuss these very matters.
We have voiced our concerns over Xinjiang directly with the Chinese authorities. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, that I have recently had an exchange with the Chinese ambassador specifically on human rights, and I hope to meet him. In advance of that, I look forward to insights from your Lordships’ House on that meeting. Equally, just last month my right honourable friend the Prime Minister raised the topic of the Uighurs in a conversation with President Xi, as did my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in her introductory call with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
We continue to work with our international partners on this very important issue. Noble Lords will recall the second element beyond direct diplomacy: multilateral action. We led the first formal joint statement on Xinjiang at the UN, which was supported by 23 countries. Since then, we have used our diplomatic network to increase the pressure on China to change its behaviour in Xinjiang. Last month, there was a global diplomatic effort to secure the support of 43 countries for a joint statement at the United Nations. This reiterated our serious concerns about human rights violations in Xinjiang. It also demonstrated positively in what is a very challenging situation—several noble Lords referred to the powerful role of China on the world stage—that we have seen increasing numbers supporting the statement that we have championed, and partner countries have come on board. For example—the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has raised this issue with me before—it attracted support for the first time from countries from the OIC, such as Turkey. We also saw support from Eswatini and Liberia. We have consistently used our national statements at the UN to underline our serious concerns and did so most recently in September. On the G7 and leadership on the world stage, we convened world leaders and Foreign Ministers under the G7 presidency to signal our grave and collective concern.
On the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Hastings and Lord Collins, we have consistently and repeatedly called on China to give UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet unfettered access to the region, and I am engaged directly on that issue with the high commissioner. We have also welcomed UN plans to publish an assessment of the human rights situation in Xinjiang based on all available information.
There is also a harder-edged element to our actions. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to sanctions policy. Since its inception a year and a half or so ago, the sanctions policy has seen us calling out egregious abuses of human rights. It is something I have believed in for a very long time, and I was delighted that we brought forward such instruments. I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to work with international partners to hold China to account for its gross human rights violations in Xinjiang. However, it is not enough simply to exert diplomatic pressure, and in March we announced sanctions against perpetrators of gross human rights violations against Uighurs and other minorities. We imposed asset freezes and travel bans against four Chinese government officials as well as Xinjiang security bodies.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, as he will be aware, we co-ordinated our sanctions policy and its application with our key partners; namely, the United States, Canada and the European Union. This had an impact and sent a clear message to the Chinese Government that the international community will not turn a blind eye to their serious and systematic violation of human rights. As the Minister for sanctions as well as human rights, I can say that future sanctions policy remains very active in my inbox list, but I cannot comment further on designations we may make in future.
It speaks for itself that while 30 countries united in sanctioning those responsible for these violations, China’s response, as I said in my introductory remarks, targeted parliamentarians in our Parliament as well as others in the UK. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it clear that Chinese attempts to silence those who highlight human rights violations, including MPs and Peers in the United Kingdom, are unwarranted and totally and utterly unacceptable.
We also announced strong domestic measures last January to help ensure that no UK organisations are complicit in human rights violations through their supply chains, and we are now implementing those measures across government. We are also funding research on international supply chains to understand how they contribute to the situation in Xinjiang.
We have funded a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which was published last month, on how China is implementing its repressive policies in Xinjiang, and the Rights Practice released a report in June, funded by the FCDO, which analysed the legal tools used to enforce China’s policies in the region. It is crucial that we listen to compelling and well-researched reports, and we will do so, and that we listen to the Uighur community. In this regard, I reassure noble Lords that on several occasions I have had the honour of meeting incredible and courageous survivors of that persecution who continue to be challenged by the persecution and detention of family members in Xinjiang. As we speak, a range of stakeholders from the diaspora community continues to inform government policy to ensure that those voices are central to our response.
Some specific questions were raised. Understandably, there were various contributions on the Winter Olympics. I am grateful for the contributions of my noble friend Lord Polak and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and for the insight and expertise provided by my noble friend Lord Moynihan. The right reverend Prelate also spoke quite passionately about the importance of what the UK Government should be doing, and how, as did my noble friend Lord Cormack. I highlight particularly the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. It is not often that we have a chance to acknowledge an incredible Olympic medallist in our midst. She spoke with great insight and personal expertise on this issue.
I often call your Lordships’ House a place of experts and of great wisdom, and one thing I think we should be doing when we move forward on the most sensitive issues is to leverage the expertise of your Lordships. I think we are well minded, and I will certainly be passing on my thoughts to the Sport Minister in this respect. Nevertheless, the Government have made it clear that no decisions have yet been made about government attendance at the Beijing Olympics. As noble Lords know, the participation of Team GB in the Olympics and Paralympics is a matter for the British Olympic Association and the British Paralympic Association. They operate independently of the Government, as required by the International Olympic Committee.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke again about an issue on which she and I have exchanged a lot of correspondence and had meetings. We have engaged extensively with the chair of the Uighur tribunal, Sir Geoffrey Nice, who I have met on several occasions. We have also attended various tribunal sessions. We welcome any initiative that is rigorous and balanced and, importantly, that raises awareness of the situation faced by the Uighurs and other minorities. We are following the work of the tribunal very closely and will study any resulting report.
The noble Baroness also spoke about Myanmar and the brutality against civilians as a read-across. I have just returned from Bangladesh. I have seen the continuing challenge faced by the Rohingya community in the camps, and I look forward to updating your Lordships’ House and the noble Baroness on some of the specifics of what I saw and on some of the further actions we are taking.
The noble Baroness also raised the ongoing issue of the World Health Organization. This is a bit of a continuing exchange. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, has also raised this. I have written to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord several times. I was informed that they did not have the report, so I got it together and sent them a copy. I met Sir Geoffrey Nice on this issue. I am hoping to visit Geneva very soon and not just the Covid pandemic but this issue will be part of my engagement with the World Health Organization.
My noble friend Lord Shinkwin made a point about the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report. As a member of the Conservative Party and the Human Rights Minister, I have seen that report and taken careful note of it. As a Government, we have produced our own human rights report and laid the interim human rights report in Parliament recently.
The noble Baroness also raised the issue of organ harvesting, as did the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. I have been clear that if this practice is systematic state-sponsored organ harvesting, it constitutes a serious violation of human rights. I look forward to hearing directly about some of the practical steps that can be taken. The noble Baroness and I have exchanged information on what other countries may do, based on their own systems. We need to challenge this practice and see how we can deter it. The challenge is clear, but I look forward to further practical discussions of the measures we can take in this respect.
The issue of co-operation with the United States on human rights in China was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. When I was in Washington, I met Uzra Zeya, the new Under Secretary of State for democracy and human rights. A democracy summit is being held, to which, incidentally, I believe Taiwan has also been invited. We are working very constructively: the AUKUS agreement demonstrates and underlines the importance of our working with key partners in challenging some of the Chinese influences in the region.
The UK continues to believe that the Taiwan issue can be settled peacefully on both sides. We are concerned about the activity that risks destabilising the status quo. Regarding specific UK actions as part of our G7 presidency, we and our G7 partners have recently restated the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
As an added point for noble Lords’ information, today we also announced the British investment initiative, which looked at the old CDC. In broader terms—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, alluded to this, as did other noble Lords—there is the question of what more we can do in the counteroffer of economic strength. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will know all too well what China does on the world stage. This is a positive offer to help plug the significant financing gap that developing countries face in terms of honest, responsible, open investment.
I am conscious of the time and the limits to my contribution as I reach the last minute. On the issue of trade, specifically pensions, if there are additional details, I will write to my noble friend.
We continue to take action against China, notwithstanding where we are and the challenge that is posed on the world stage. Human rights remain central to our thinking, demonstrably so in terms of our policy-making at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I assure noble Lords that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, as she has shown in recent statements, is committed to standing up for girls’ rights and particularly for the rights of women around the world who continue to be oppressed.
The list of actions I have outlined is not exhaustive and we continue to seek new avenues to increase pressure on Beijing. Last week, in our response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on Xinjiang, we committed to raising this matter with further international bodies, including UNESCO and the International Labour Organization. We also pledged further consultations with the Uighur community.
I hope I have brought a degree of clarity to the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Hastings. We will continue to work with our international partners. We will work with the Uighur people themselves to hold the Chinese authorities to account. In doing so, we will continue our long and proud history of protecting human rights and promoting our consistent human values, shared by so many around the world.
Finally, I am conscious of the point made by my noble friend Lord Polak. We celebrate diversity in our country. We respect human rights. We respect people’s rights to practise whatever faith or religion they choose to. On behalf of the Government and myself, may I take this opportunity, as Sunday approaches, to wish all Jewish friends and, indeed, the wider Jewish community, both home and abroad, chag sameach, happy Hanukkah.