BBC World Service

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Tuesday 12th March 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Portrait Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The BBC World Service is funded in two ways: there is money from the Foreign Office and money from the licence fee, and that is settled and fixed until the end of this coming financial year. It is basically one-third from the Foreign Office and two-thirds from the licence fee, which is a pretty fair way of doing things. Obviously the funding review of the BBC is under way and the charter review of the BBC is coming up, so this is a good time to have that conversation. To be fair, the Government have put our money where our mouth is: in the integrated review refresh we gave an extra £20 million to the World Service.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on what further representations HMG have made to the Iranian authorities about the harassment, prosecutions and convictions meted out to journalists working for the BBC Persian service, including the harassment of London-based staff and their families back in Iran?

Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Portrait Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Documents published online suggest that 10 BBC Persian staff have been tried in Iran in absentia and convicted of propaganda against the Islamic Republic. That is completely unacceptable behaviour. We raise these issues with our Iranian counterparts. When I last met the Iranian Foreign Minister, I raised the fact that Iran was paying thugs to try to murder Iranian journalists providing free and independent information for Iran TV in Britain. On both counts, in my view, it is guilty.

Latin America

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Thursday 7th December 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, Latin America is often overlooked or underestimated in its relevance and importance to the UK. The recent White Paper on international development, for example, contains only a tiny handful of specific references to this vast continent, despite prioritising some strategic themes of central concern within Latin America, in which the UK has a critical mutual interest and an established global leadership that could be leveraged more proactively, such as on human rights and business responsibility.

I am going to confine my remarks today to an issue of urgent concern in Peru and Colombia, where the UK is in a unique position to take the right initiatives to prevent further harm and redress existing problems. This is the impact of mining on the rights of indigenous populations and the environment. I declare my interests as a past president of the Peru Support Group and my involvement in another human rights NGO, ABColombia, under whose auspices I visited Colombia to evaluate progress in implementing the peace accord of 2016. I am grateful to both organisations for their excellent briefings and valuable work.

Mentioning the peace accord brings me to the first point of why the UK has such responsibility and influence in this matter: we are of course the penholder in the Security Council for the Colombian peace process. Added to which, we were—and I hope, remain—a leading voice at the UN in support of the principles of business and human rights, known as the Ruggie principles.

The third strand of UK interest is that the main mining company currently responsible for controversial activity, Glencore plc, is listed on the London Stock Exchange and receives funding and investment from UK financial institutions. A group of Peruvian and Colombian environmental and human rights defenders were in the UK only last week. Many of us met them and heard about the existential threats they are up against to preserve their land, way of life, food, water and health in the face of mining developments by Glencore.

The Cerrejón mine in La Guajira, Colombia, is wholly owned by Glencore and is one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world. Its expansion over four decades has led to environmental degradation and serious human rights impacts. Studies show air pollution in excess of WHO recommended limits and in breach of limits imposed by the Colombian courts, raising the risk of cancer, DNA damage and chromosomal instability for those living in the region. The mine also consumes and contaminates significant quantities of water. The Ranchería River has unsafe levels of harmful metals, including mercury and lead, as a result of liquid waste being dumped in it, resulting in water scarcity, food scarcity, illness and disease.

Guajira is the ancestral land of the Wayuu people and many of their communities have been displaced to make way for the mine. Afro-Colombian and campesino communities have also been displaced, with evictions sometimes being carried out with armed guards, tear gas and metal projectiles. In 2016, bulldozers were used to destroy an Afro-Colombian village.

In Peru, where the UK is the largest foreign direct investor, it is a similar story. A recent report examined Glencore’s mining activities in the Espinar region, the ancestral territory of the Quechua and K’ana indigenous peoples, who are being exposed to levels of heavy metals, including mercury and arsenic, beyond what is permissible under international standards.

Water is contaminated and proposed further expansion is set to exacerbate fragmentation of communities and loss of territory, in breach of ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, including by paying inadequate attention to consulting those affected in order to obtain free, prior and informed consent before entire communities are displaced.

Also common to both countries is the acute vulnerability of environmental and human rights defenders. In recent years the number killed in Colombia has been unprecedented and only last week in Peru an indigenous leader was gunned down after a meeting about defending land against illegal loggers and cocaine producers.

Colombia’s constitutional court has ruled that Glencore should not pursue further expansion, saying that large-scale mining puts the environment and health at risk. Glencore’s response has been to sue the Colombian Government, using the investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanism, the ISDS, which forms part of the Colombia-UK bilateral investment treaty, the BIT. The ISDS process is secretive and therefore undemocratic and places enforceable obligations only on states, meaning that investors, such as Glencore, can win cases even if they have violated domestic law or international standards. Awards can run into millions of dollars and have led to several countries, including Australia and Brazil, omitting ISDS mechanisms from their trade agreements. Indeed, between 2017 and 2021, only one-third of trade agreements contained ISDS clauses and other countries such as Canada and the US are qualifying their use.

The ISDS is effectively a barrier to the proper implementation of the Colombian peace accord, delaying action on climate change and human rights, and legislation to protect health. The UK therefore, as UN penholder, has a special responsibility to act to mitigate this damage and I ask the Minister whether the Government will look seriously and urgently at terminating the UK-Colombia bilateral investment treaty, whose initial term expires in October 2024, but with automatic renewal for an indefinite period.

The Minister will know that if it is terminated unilaterally, a sunset clause of 15 years would protect existing investments and cause untold further damage to communities and the environment, not to mention the success of the peace accord, which should be being strengthened by President Petro’s “Total Peace” policy, not undermined by a British-listed mining company operating in defiance of Colombian law. An end to the BIT by mutual consent would neutralise the sunset clause, so I urge the noble Lord to initiate negotiations with this objective. This would be a major practical step, demonstrating the UK’s commitment to its responsibility as penholder. We have already helped the Colombian Government achieve an expansion of the UN mission of verification to include monitoring of the ELN peace process, and the Government deserve credit and congratulations for that. I hope the Minister will now build on that by acting as I have suggested on the BIT.

On Peru, I ask the noble Lord to raise with his opposite numbers in Peru the case for halting Glencore’s proposed mining expansion until it has produced a genuine environmental impact assessment and an opportunity for communities to give informed consent.

Finally, I ask the Minister if he will now support new legislation to mandate due diligence in supply chains and to hold commercial organisations accountable for their impacts on human rights and the environment. This would be in line with our commitment to the Ruggie principles and demonstrate on the international stage that the UK can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will agree to seek government support for the Private Member’s Bill introduced last week by my noble friend Lady Young of Hornsey, which would enact these much-needed provisions. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the issues and questions I have raised, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for the opportunity to raise them.

Taliban Relations and Afghan Refugees

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Tuesday 5th December 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Portrait Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

From what I have seen in the last three weeks, I know that my noble friend is incredibly active in his travels, particularly around the Middle East, north Africa and much of the Muslim world. He is an incredibly effective spokesman for the Government in trying to make a change on these issues. One of the things that is necessary is to make sure that those states which often privately speak very frankly about these things make it part of their public narrative. The work we do on that will be really essential.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, now that the Government have helpfully dropped their requirement that suitable housing in the UK be secured before Afghans may travel from Pakistan to the UK, and returning to what the Foreign Secretary described as his number one priority, how many UK visas have been issued since the policy was reversed on housing requirements to those Afghans trapped in Pakistan who qualify under one of the two main schemes that we initiated?

Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Portrait Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I do not have the figures since that change, but the overall figures are that ARAP has seen 12,200 people repatriated and the ACRS has a capacity of 20,000. Perhaps I can keep her and the House up to date about the figures as they progress. We are doing everything we can to contact those people on the Pakistan-Afghan border, but at the same time it is important to make it clear to the Pakistan Government that it would be unacceptable for them to deport anybody who has the right to come here.

Afghanistan: Aid for Women

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Monday 11th September 2023

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, recognising the important work the noble Baroness has done in this respect, I think I speak for everyone in saying that what is happening in respect of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan is abhorrent. It is against the very traditions of the faith that the Taliban claim to follow; it is not right, it is simply wrong. That is why we are working with key partners within the Islamic world—for them to seize back the narrative on empowerment of women and girls’ rights and education. On our specific support, we are working with key agencies. I have already alluded to the figures but—just to share with the noble Baroness—we are supporting 4.2 million people with food assistance, of whom 2 million are women and girls. The issue of nutrition is high on our agenda, as well as empowering them through education.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many Afghan interpreters who have been relocated to the UK have wives still awaiting security clearance in Afghanistan so that they can join their husbands here, as they are entitled to do? They are very likely to be living in vulnerable situations while they wait; even living in hiding. Perhaps the Minister could write to me if he does not have this figure to hand today.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that I keep abreast of figures on a weekly basis, but I do not go into specific details at the Dispatch Box for the sole reason of protecting those vulnerable individuals. We have seen a large number of interpreters arrive in the UK and there is an issue about supporting family members. Where I can, I will share the specifics with the noble Baroness.

Colombia: National Liberation Army

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Thursday 22nd June 2023

(11 months, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the noble Lord for raising the broader issue, and I will certainly take his suggestion back to the appropriate Minister. Although we are not directly supporting the Colombian Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, which he mentioned, we are supporting it indirectly through the trust funds that I mentioned earlier, to which we are, I believe, still the second-largest UN donor. This is a priority for us in our relationship with Colombia. Of course we want the process to succeed; it matters to the whole world that it does.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, the peace accord with the FARC included a no-amnesty policy for conflict-related sexual violence. What can the UK, as penholder at the UN, do to ensure that a similar commitment forms part of the talks and any final agreement with the National Liberation Army?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The UK continues to provide support to help Colombia tackle the legacy of sexual violence and impunity for perpetrators from this long conflict. During his most recent visit to Colombia, Minister Rutley discussed the UK PSVI—preventing sexual violence initiative—with the Foreign Minister and met countless victims of sexual violence, many of whom receive direct support from UK-funded projects. This is very high on the radar in our bilateral relationship.

Kosovo and the Western Balkans Region

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Tuesday 6th June 2023

(1 year ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I believe I speak for the whole House when I join my noble friend in paying tribute to the incredible work done across the world by both NATO troops and those deployed through key missions. The situation in Kosovo is of course very alarming, although the latest report I have is that it is calmer. There is direct engagement by our key partners; we are working closely with the EU and the United States in this respect. Their representatives are on the ground speaking to both sides. We have also called for a four-step de-escalation.

Both sides have a role to play. Kosovo should perhaps now enable its mayors to work from locations outside municipal offices until such time as these issues can be resolved. Importantly, Serbia needs to reverse its decision to raise the level of readiness of its armed forces. The read-across to Bosnia-Herzegovina is very clear. Of course, I know that my noble friend engages consistently and extensively in that area. The UK fully supports EUFOR and KFOR in Kosovo; my right honourable friend the Minister for Armed Forces recently announced our continuing commitment to KFOR in Kosovo.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, one recommendation from the inquiry into the western Balkans by the International Relations Committee was that the UK should actively help to preserve the large amount of evidence held by EULEX on conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo. Witnesses suggested that it would be better safeguarded by the UN, or its loss would feed the continuing culture of impunity. Can the Minister say what has happened to safeguard this evidence and, in the current circumstances, what is being done to prevent further conflict crimes of sexual violence?

British-Iranian Relations

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Thursday 23rd February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I endorse everything that my noble friend Lord Alton said in opening this debate about the treatment of protesters in Iran, especially women and girls. I shall use my time to support and re-emphasise what has already been said so forcefully by other noble Lords about the importance of preserving the BBC Persian radio service and the need to step up our intervention in order to stop the threats, persecution and violence being experienced by its staff in London and their families in Iran.

I know that the Minister has heard it all before—not least from me—but I make no apology for repeating a little of what I said in our debate on the World Service in December because, first, things have got significantly worse and, secondly, there is an immediate window of opportunity to do the right thing and reverse the decision to scrap the BBC Persian radio service on 26 March. I get the overall case for going digital but there are situations in which digital-only cannot be right, and surely this is one of them. The latest review of the BBC World Service asserted that it would

“serve audiences during moments of jeopardy”

and ensure

“access to vital news services, using appropriate broadcast and distribution platforms.”

Jeopardy in Iran includes the internet being restricted or blocked, so reliance on old-school radio may be the best or only way to provide access to those vital news services.

We know from the most recent data that 1.6 million people a week get their news from the Persian radio service—around 8% of its total audience. However, the impact of that service is far more significant than those superficially modest figures suggest because it is the morning radio output that feeds the TV and digital news content. Closing the radio service would mean BBC Persian TV not having any scheduled live news programming for 17 hours a day, creating the space for other, less balanced outlets with rather less palatable values and interests to fill the gap.

As others have asked, why hand the Iranian authorities a gift on a plate? Closing down BBC coverage of what is going on in Iran is exactly what they want. It would be a victory for them but the tragic loss of a lifeline of information and hope to the millions of Iranians who suffer under their regime—and all for the cost saving of only £800,000 a year. Will the Minister commit today to three clear actions: reversing the decision to close the radio service; funding the shortfall; and stepping up the diplomatic measures and the hard measures to protect Persian service staff in London and their families in Iran? This would give the Iranian resistance what they—and, ultimately, we—need and value.

Execution of Alireza Akbari

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Wednesday 18th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend and I could not express my abhorrence of this in clearer terms than those he has outlined. What is becoming increasingly clear is that these abhorrent executions take place on trumped-up charges, often relating to people who are perhaps seeking through their own good will to provide hope for Iran and to bring some semblance of normality to the future of Iranian communities and the Iranian people. Shockingly, this goes from bad to worse.

If I may, I missed a point that I wanted to raise with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about activities here in the UK. I know of a particular centre in Maida Vale into which the Charity Commission is working on an inquiry. We are working closely with the Home Office and across government on all these issues to ensure that, as I said, all the levers that we have in our hands are exercised effectively.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to the vulnerability of BBC Persian staff. What can be, and is being, done to support the family members of those staff, who have also been targeted with threats and violence—in particular, the family members of BBC staff who are London-based and, by definition, cannot offer their family members in Iran any personal or direct support?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, there are those who are based here in the UK and receive threats, including those who work for British interests and are receiving threats. When I say “British interests”, I mean British companies such as BBC Persian, in terms of the important work that it does on the ground in providing communication. Although the service is operationally and editorially independent, the support that we give it is important. We are providing both that support and the information that is needed.

Of course, as the noble Baroness pointed out, the threat goes much wider than Iran itself. We have an unprecedented situation—it is certainly unprecedented in my time in Parliament—where Members of both Houses have had to be directly advised about the nature of a threat from a foreign state actor, in this case Iran. That puts into context the gravity of the situation and the actions that the regime may resort to in order to cause further disruption, challenge and misery not just to its own citizens but elsewhere. We are clear in our stance on this, which is why it is important that we work closely with all departments across government and equally important that we work closely with our international partners as well.

United Nations Security Council

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Tuesday 17th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I do not want to contemplate a day when there is any break-up of the United Kingdom, and that is why we must stay united in ensuring that our United Kingdom—these four nations—is absolutely at one. The importance of the United Kingdom’s position on the world stage through our membership of the P5 and active membership of NATO and other multilateral organisations demonstrates that strength. We are better and stronger together.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on any progress there has been towards achieving a Security Council resolution on the protection of civilian interpreters working in conflict zones along the same lines as the resolution for the protection of journalists?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, first, I commend the noble Baroness on her long-standing campaigning in this regard. I assure her that we continue to campaign on the very basis that she has illustrated. It is important that, as we stand up for media freedom, we also recognise the important role that translators and interpreters play.

BBC World Service

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Thursday 1st December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, in 2017 the then International Relations Committee, of which I was a member, published a report of our inquiry into the Middle East, during which we held a round-table discussion with 30 young people from almost every country in that region. We asked them what they saw as the main positive British social and cultural influences. The BBC World Service was named overwhelmingly as one of the top three, the other two being Premier League football and Monty Python.

I endorse everything that my noble friend Lord Alton said about the importance of the World Service as a tool of soft power. One reason it is so effective is its extensive range of foreign language services, at the last count broadcasting in 43 languages. However, since 2012 these services have also been subject to various changes and cutbacks, driven in part by overall budget constraints and in part by strategic or operational decisions on what the most appropriate broadcasting format is for a particular language service, with a shift to digital being the prevailing change, as we have heard. In the latest strategic review, seven language services became digital only, with Persian and nine other languages having their radio service closed completely.

I get the overall case for digital but ask the BBC and His Majesty’s Government to think again about whether digital-only services are always the right way to go, especially in the light of another important aspect of the latest review, which said:

“The World Service will continue to serve audiences during moments of jeopardy and will ensure audiences in countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Afghanistan have access to vital news services, using appropriate broadcast and distribution platforms.”


Although not mentioned in that list of countries, Iran is currently a clear case for where digital services may not be the appropriate platform in moments of jeopardy. We know that internet access there is restricted or blocked, so reliance on old-school radio broadcasts may well be the best or only way to provide access to those vital news services. I hope that the World Service can find a way to be flexible within the parameters of its new strategy by accepting that in some places, at some times, language services by radio will be best suited to moments of jeopardy.

Such flexibility will undoubtedly not be cost-free. Can the Minister give an assurance that additional funding from the FCDO will be made available to enable the World Service to provide services on the most appropriate platform or media in challenging situations? Does he agree that when and if a new funding formula or business model for the BBC replaces the licence fee, a separate, dedicated impact assessment should be made of any new proposal’s impact on the World Service specifically, taking into account its soft power value?

Another indicator of how important and effective the World Service is and has been in Iran is the length that the Iranian authorities will go to in stopping people working for it, whether in Iran or London. Dual nationals especially, and their families, have been targeted with harassment, death threats, arrests and detention, simply because they work for the World Service. Since 2017, and reinforced in October this year, the Iranian Government have pursued criminal investigations into BBC Persian staff, alleging that their work constitutes a crime against Iran’s national security. Over 150 individuals, mostly dual nationals, are the subjects of an injunction to freeze their assets. Interrogation techniques have become more frightening and aggressive towards elderly parents, siblings and other family members. Female staff in London are being particularly targeted with online attacks, fake stories about rape and sexual harassment by male colleagues, and fake pornographic pictures posted on social media. Staff have been unable to return to or visit Iran to see sick or dying elderly relatives, for fear of detention or worse.

Can the Minister please update the House today on what further steps the Government can and will take to up the ante on their representations to the Iranian Government? The problem has not eased up; it has escalated, most notably since the World Service coverage of the protests since the death of Mahsa Amini.