My Lords, I begin my apologising to your Lordships for my delays and technical faults. The joys of virtual participation meant that, for some reason, I had been linked into a rather interesting debate in the Chamber, as opposed to the Committee. Nevertheless, I am delighted to join noble Lords and I heard a major part of the debate. I start, as have others, by acknowledging and recognising the role of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion and belief, inter-faith relations and human rights. In his opening remarks, he again reflected on the importance of these principles in the wider context of human rights.
I also welcome, as ever, a robust, open and challenging debate, which I am accustomed to on the broader issue of human rights. Today, we have heard various insights presented and questions rightly asked about our relationship with a standing partner and friend, the Republic of India. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and my noble friend Lady Verma, among others, on the importance of our strong relationship with India—bilaterally, as a Commonwealth partner and in the multilateral sphere. As the Minister responsible for our relations with India, as well as human rights, I assure noble Lords that our relationship is strong, which allows for a candid and measured exchange on important issues. That relationship with India goes both ways: for India in asking the United Kingdom, which my noble friend Lady Verma alluded to, and equally for us to raise important issues of human rights, as we continue to do.
As was pointed out by a number of noble Lords, Indian citizens are rightly proud of their history of inclusive government. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the history of inclusive government. Let us not forget the secular constitution, which protects the rights of all communities, including minority communities, within India. It guarantees equality before the law, which we are proud of in our own democracy in the UK.
Our shared values and vibrant democracy sit at the heart of the transformational relationship between the United Kingdom and India and the comprehensive strategic partnership we work towards, launched at the virtual summit between Prime Minister Johnson and Prime Minister Modi in May. In June, at the G7 summit and in the 2021 Open Societies Statement, both Prime Ministers again highlighted our countries’ shared belief in the importance of human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. They recognised the role of human rights defenders in promoting fundamental freedoms and our rejection of discrimination. We all recognise—and, again, my noble friend Lady Verma alluded to this—that human rights is never a job done. We have to be constantly vigilant, both at home and abroad, about this important agenda. I assure noble Lords that this remains a central priority of my work within the FCDO.
Along with G7 partners, we committed to co-operation to strengthen open societies globally, including by tackling all forms of discrimination. Media freedom was a key component of the statement and communiqué issued by the G7. As the integrated review made clear, open societies and human rights remain a priority for the UK. This month, as was acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, among others, we published the Human Rights & Democracy report.
It has been a challenging year. As several noble Lords mentioned, Covid-19 remains a challenge in its erosion of human rights and democracy and has amplified existing hardships and inequalities. In response, I assure noble Lords that the UK stepped up its efforts as a force for good in the world, championing those core values we hold so dear. We very much stepped up in our close collaboration with India, when it came to Covid-19, in supporting the supply of oxygen mini-factories to places such as those in Rajasthan to ensure that, in its time of need, we stood with India, as India stood with us during the early Covid-19 challenges.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, specifically asked about the human rights report. Just because a country is not mentioned within that report—and specific criteria go behind the inclusion of a particular country—it does not mean that we do not raise human rights issues with countries across the world.
I turn to human rights in India specifically. The UK Government engage on a range of human rights matters. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Kashmir; I assure him that we continue to raise issues, including the detention of leaders in Kashmir. We were heartened by the fact that Prime Minister Modi invited some leaders from the state to join him in Delhi. We believe it is very much a first step towards progress in Kashmir. Whether it was the internet being suspended or the release of those held in political detention, we continue to monitor and work with the Government of India in ensuring early resolutions. Through our high commission and network of deputy high commissions, we work with the union Government and, importantly, state Governments and NGOs to build capacity and share expertise.
I have visited India twice since my appointment as the Minister for India, and I assure noble Lords that human rights have formed a regular part of my direct engagement with Indian counterparts in Delhi. We look towards the Indian Government to continue to uphold the freedoms and rights guaranteed by India’s constitution and the international instruments to which it is a signatory.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned human rights defenders and Father Swamy. I assure noble Lords that his passing is a point of deep regret for us all; I mentioned it in a statement I put out at that time. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we raised this matter directly with the Indian authorities.
It is thanks to our deepening relationship that we have been able to engage on such sensitive matters with Indian counterparts on a regular basis and as sovereign equals. The Government of India also raise direct concerns with us. To give noble Lords some insight, in December the Foreign Secretary discussed a number of human rights issues, including those relating to Kashmir, with Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr Jaishankar, on 5 January our acting high commissioner in New Delhi spoke with officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs about minority communities in India and on 15 March, while I was visiting India, I discussed the situation for different religious communities, including Christians and Muslims, as well as the situation in Kashmir, with India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kishan Reddy. These were both productive and constructive engagements.
In October and December last year I raised concerns with the high commission about NGOs. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, rightly raised Amnesty International and the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. I have requested that all Amnesty International accounts be unfrozen while the investigation is ongoing and have stressed the important role that organisations such as Amnesty International play in any democracy. I meet quite regularly with representatives of Amnesty International here at the FCDO.
In my capacity as Minister for South Asia and Minister for Human Rights, I regularly have frank discussions on the topic with the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and the Indian high commission in London. Most recently, this month we also had discussions about this during my visit to New York with the Indian Permanent Representative to the UN in New York.
As noble Lords will be aware, in our human rights work key priorities for the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and me are freedom of religion or belief and promoting respect between different religious communities. The British high commission regularly meets representatives of all faiths to understand their perspectives. The excellent team on the ground undertakes a variety of projects to promote interfaith dialogue. For example, in 2020 we hosted a virtual round table with leaders from faith communities.
This year, the British high commission hosted a multifaith virtual iftar during Ramadan. I was very pleased to speak at that event, which included leaders from across India’s Muslim community and the wider religious tapestry that makes up modern India today. We continue to support interfaith leadership programmes for a cohort of emerging Indian faith leaders, creating a dialogue—I know the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, will appreciate this—to tackle shared challenges and promote not just tolerance but respect.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Singh and Lord Alton, raised the situation with the Dalit community. Our recent project work with the Dalits has included the provision of legal training for over 2,000 Dalit women to combat domestic violence and the creation of the first ever network of Dalit women human rights defenders trained as paralegals. We will continue our support in this respect. The British high commission also held an event on empowering Muslim youth, which saw over 100 educational institutions participating in six three-day workshops.
I turn to academic and journalists’ freedom, raised by my noble friend Lady Verma, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that academia and a free media are two further elements of a successful democratic society. Here again, India and the United Kingdom share fundamental values. We regularly engage with the Indian media, which promotes lively debate—[Inaudible]—directly during my visit by members of the Indian media fraternity.
The annual South Asia Journalism Fellowship programme, under our flagship Chevening brand, is central to our activity in this regard and has been since 2012. We also engage with India’s academic community, as expanding academic co-operation is among the principal aims of the 2030 road map, which was agreed between the two Prime Ministers. I regularly speak at universities; indeed, on one of my earlier visits to India, I spoke at a Muslim university.
To conclude this debate, I assure noble Lords that we will continue to engage with India across a series of areas, including on issues of trade. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and others have said about the issue of human rights within the context of our future trade agreements. I assure them that human rights remain central to our thinking, as we negotiate trade agreements around the world.
We will also continue to work with the Government of India to ensure that the rights of all minorities, as according to their constitution, continue to be upheld in the rich tradition of religious inclusivity, which I know full well from my family’s experiences remains alive and well. Indeed, during my last visit to India, I convened a round table of religious leaders in Punjab.
I give noble Lords the further assurance that was sought: we will continue to monitor human rights directly though our high commission in New Delhi. We have a strong relationship with India and a relationship of being partners and friends with it. When we have concerns, I assure noble Lords that we will continue to raise them. On occasion, as I have said before, we do so privately because we believe that that is the right thing to do. Where there are more general issues of concern we will continue to raise them, not just in the context of our relationship with India but further afield.
When it comes to human rights, our principle is clear. It is central to our thinking and we remain steadfast in our opposition to any form of discrimination, for it is our common values, shared by India, and our common belief in international rules and norms that will continue to govern our growing and strengthening partnership with India.
My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. We have just been debating in Grand Committee matters relating to the democratic state of India—a country of 1.4 billion people and a far cry from what brings us together now.
I intend to broaden the debate. I fear that President Putin will not be persuaded by the question before us. Free and fair elections in Belarus would be followed by an increasing call for free and fair elections in Russia, presenting existential threats to the personal survival of both leaders. While it is to be applauded, therefore, I fear that the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is mission impossible in the short-term. However, he has presented us with a helpful opportunity for a road map in the longer term. The challenge was articulated in an interesting recent piece in the Financial Times, which said:
“Nationalist autocrats need enemies abroad to justify political repression at home, and the Russian president has long found his in the west.”
If perceived wisdom is correct, Moscow is targeting de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia. The situation in Belarus has now become, therefore, a test of autocracy over democracy, tyranny over decency, and self-preservation. The Kremlin’s gameplay of taking control of Belarusian security institutions—the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the armed forces—is, in addition to the aim of ensuring that Lukashenko retains power, demobilising the protest movement through mass repression.
Messaging from Minsk or Moscow about constitutional changes and new elections will only ever be on Moscow’s terms. Any proposed constitutional changes will only ever be paving the way for greater economic integration with Russia, with the omnipresent risk of invasion—either under cover of darkness, or, more radically, in order to discourage all such countries from moving geopolitically westward.
How, therefore, can we support the people of Belarus while managing the relationship with President Putin’s Russia—recognising that the ploy of disruption is Kremlin gameplay, but still responding to it with a tough approach on ground and sea, not just with words? The recent Black Sea right of passage exercise is clearly a starter for things to come, as part of a grand strategy. We must be prepared to stand up for what we believe in, beating the drum with parallel savvy engineering and diplomacy. The principle of critical dialogue must on all accounts be maintained. We must be consistent, and address the fundamental lack of trust on both sides.
President Macron and Chancellor Merkel—with her somewhat conflicting messaging—suggest that a culture of automatically blaming Russia for everything is wide of the mark, and a consequence of the current relationship. They are making heavy weather of it. News today that the United States and Germany have reached a truce over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has sent shock waves through energy security concerns. This could conceivably put Ukraine back on a journey into the Russian fold, notwithstanding a surety from Berlin to impose sanctions on Russia if Moscow threatens Ukraine on energy security. If I were President Putin, I would see this as a potential chink in the armour, with the West undermining its position.
I do not profess an immediate solution to the desperate Belarusian issue, other than to publicly urge President Putin to support ideals built on decency and accountability, which could be turned into a quick win for Russia and lead to a more constructive relationship throughout.
Global leaders must learn from history. The time has come to understand what has happened to put us in the situation in which we now find ourselves, based on the many examples that exist—Myanmar being just one current example—and to devise whatever channels that, with strict conditionality, could be best made to work, including, if necessary, a surety of freedom from prosecution in return for free elections.
The international community should then enact a “citizens first” global charter with a courts-based system to adjudicate when leaders clearly demonstrate failure to uphold their responsibilities to their people. We must not give up on this, but the time has come for like-minded actors to up their game and to be more smart—but not Machiavellian—about it. A fundamental reset is required. Now is the time for a new world order, supported by actions, not words. Let Belarus be the test. Failure will spell trouble.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for securing this debate. He made an extremely interesting contribution, based on long experience. But here we are, out of the EU, trying to engage over a problem in our neighbourhood. So I first ask the Minister: are there any plans yet for a formalised structure so that we can co-operate and gain support from the whole of the EU on foreign affairs, or are we doomed to have to make individual approaches to one country after another, in the middle of the many other issues that we have to deal with? We know that the EU would have been happy to have such an arrangement. I am glad that we now recognise the EU ambassador as such; I commend the Minister for any efforts he made in that regard.
We have the challenge of the elections in Belarus. Such outcomes are not unknown, of course, but then we have the absolutely extraordinary situation of, in effect, the state-sponsored hijacking of a European commercial airliner. On its way from Athens to Vilnius, it was diverted by military planes and forced to land and hand over two of its passengers, who were then taken into detention and later showed signs of abuse. This was in our neighbourhood. Dealing with this is indeed immensely challenging. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said about engaging with Russia, but I also note what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said about individually supporting prisoners of conscience in Belarus so that they feel less alone.
On the election, in September 2020, 17 countries—including the UK, the US and France, as members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—invoked the “Moscow mechanism” to investigate possible human rights abuses in Belarus at the time of the election. The Moscow mechanism rapporteur presented his report in November 2020, concluding that
“allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed.”
He stated that new elections should be organised according to international standards. We know that this has not happened and that the President makes no moves to do so, despite widespread protest in his country. Opposition leaders have been arrested or have fled.
In May 2021, this was followed by the hijacking of the Ryanair plane and the arrest of Roman Protasevich, along with his girlfriend. Mr Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, which sought to promulgate news even when the Government were imposing blackouts. Sanctions have been imposed by both the EU and the UK. Can the Minister tell us what effect these may be having and whether the Government are considering further action? In response to the arrest, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described it as a “domestic affair of Belarus”. I note the polling evidence from Belarus, cited by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on what relationship people wish to see with both the EU and Russia.
On 8 June 2021, the EU delegation to Belarus, together with the embassies of the UK, the US, Switzerland and Japan, issued a joint statement after meeting the Belarusian Foreign Minister. They called on Belarus to halt the persecution of all those engaged in pro-democracy movements, independent media and civil society, and to start a credible and inclusive political process resulting in free and fair elections. Can the Minister tell us what the response was, if any?
The Foreign Secretary has expressed concerns about Belarus becoming even more of a client state of Russia. Can the Minister comment on the implications of those concerns? Do the Government see merit in what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said? What further action does the Minister feel can be taken? This is an unstable and concerning situation right on EU borders. It certainly needs European countries to co-operate and strategically work out how best to put pressure on the current leadership in Belarus.
It is difficult not to see Putin’s leadership in Russia as a major block even if he is seeking to defend himself against the West, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said. Putin’s interests in destabilising the West and the pumping out of disinformation and dissent, whether about vaccines or other matters—they can so easily be spread through social media—serve as a warning, as the integrated review emphasised. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, made the point well: autocrats traditionally find enemies without in order to shore themselves up at home.
Clearly, we need to work closely with our EU partners, as well as the USA, on this matter. This crisis, like others around the world, is unresolved when we have so many issues on which we need to work together, not least in tackling climate change.
I am sure that the Minister is looking forward to his summer holiday. Who knows what foreign affairs crises may emerge during that time? That said, I wish him a peaceful and hopefully enjoyable summer. I thank him and his team for their engagement. I also wish the same to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the other noble Lords here, as we conclude the last debate in Grand Committee before the Summer Recess.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Balfe for tabling this debate and all noble Lords for their valuable contributions. The Government share the many concerns that have been raised in today’s debate about the situation in Belarus. I hope that my comments and responses to the questions asked provide further clarity on many of the salient points that were made.
As noble Lords acknowledged, it has been almost 12 months since the presidential election in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities manipulated that process for the sole purpose of ensuring that Alexander Lukashenko retained his grip on the structures of power he has held since 1994. To be frank, there was nothing democratic, free or fair about those elections. Such was Lukashenko’s fear of a genuine, open, contested popular presidential election that other candidates and their supporters were jailed during the campaign. Others were prevented even from registering as potential candidates. As a consequence, I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and his consistent raising of such issues. I will come on to political prisoners, in a moment.
We saw tens of thousands courageous Belarusians take to the streets in peaceful protest, whose voices were suppressed simply because they called out their right to determine how they are governed. Lukashenko’s regime has flatly refused to listen to them. Instead, it launched a brutal and sustained crackdown against peaceful protesters, democratic opposition leaders and supporters, as well as independent media, journalists and civil society. It has been a devastating assault on democratic principles and the rule of law, and it continues to this day.
The consequences for the Belarusian people have been extraordinary and the scale of the brutality is truly shocking. Just reflect on what has happened since: more than 35,000 people arbitrarily detained, more than 550 people imprisoned on politically motivated charges, the forced expulsion of opposition leaders and countless credible reports of physical mistreatment and torture by security forces, which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in her report to the Human Rights Council in February 2021.
As noted by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, this shameful charge sheet existed before we even consider the forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 on 23 May and the subsequent arrest of journalist Roman Protasevič and his partner or the raids on human rights organisations. I know the noble Lord, Lord Collins, feels passionately about the role of civil society organisations, and rightly so. Sadly and tragically, those raids included the detention of members of the internationally respected NGO Viasna.
Noble Lords are aware of the role of Russia, which was alluded to by my noble friend Lord Balfe in his opening remarks. Russia and Belarus have close historical, cultural and economic ties, and Russia has been one of the few countries to continue to back Lukashenko. Putin was one of the first leaders to congratulate him on his alleged electoral victory. He also continues to host visits from Lukashenko and has provided more than $1.5 billion of loans, amid talk of closer economic integration. Clearly, Russia has influence on Lukashenko, but we do not foresee Putin using his influence constructively—as alluded to by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley—to resolve any human rights issues in Belarus peacefully or to address the injustices around last year’s flawed election.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raised the specific issue of those who are prisoners and have been imprisoned in Belarus simply for exercising their right to peaceful expression. He mentioned the case of Stepan Latypov and the recent charges and sentences imposed against political prisoners. They are indeed tragic examples of the repressive actions of the Belarusian authorities, which are criminalising opposition voices for the sole purpose of protecting Lukashenko’s regime. I assure all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the Government continue to call on the authorities to release all those wrongfully imprisoned and bring an end to the crisis through peaceful and inclusive dialogue.
The UK equally supports new elections that are free and fair. We welcome the important work of my noble friend Lord Blencathra, who has undertaken it as the rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; we appreciate its work on the need for widespread and achievable electoral reform in Belarus. To support this objective, we are implementing sanctions, which I will come on to in a moment. However, on the specific question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on Mr Latypov and others, I assure the noble Lord that, through our embassy, we have made repeated requests for access to him and the other prisoners being held. I will ensure that I keep the noble Lord updated on any progress in this regard.
My noble friend Lord Balfe and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised the issue of Russia. Notwithstanding our differences, it is important that we continue to engage in dialogue. We do so: we have raised the situation in Belarus in our discussions with Russia. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary did so with Foreign Minister Lavrov on 17 June. The Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas also discussed Belarus during her visit to Moscow last November and in her recent discussions with the Russian ambassador on 5 July.
The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, also talked about partnership and joint working, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. The UK has responded to events in Belarus swiftly, robustly and in lockstep with our international allies and partners, particularly France, Germany and the United States. It was the UK, on behalf of 17 participating states, that invoked the independent investigation under the OSCE Moscow mechanism.
It was no surprise that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, spoke of the need for international collaboration, not least with our closest neighbours in the European Union; she has been a long-term advocate, and I pay tribute to her in this respect. We continue to work in a co-ordinated fashion with our colleagues and friends in the EU. Indeed, earlier today, we saw how concerted action has also taken place in response to the other challenges we face. On the broad issue of human rights, we have acted in concert with both NATO and EU colleagues, as well as the United States and other like-minded partners.
The independent report produced by the OSCE Moscow mechanism has also shown and produced a series of recommendations, which provide a pathway to peaceful resolution and free and fair elections. To deliver on the report’s recommendation of a mechanism for a long-term investigation into the human rights violations, we are also working closely with Denmark and Germany to bring together a consortium of international NGOs to form the International Accountability Platform for Belarus. I can share with noble Lords that this platform now has the support of more than 20 states.
We have also worked very closely with the wider international community, co-sponsoring a new mandate to investigate human rights violations and acts of torture at the UN Human Rights Council in March, with a view to assisting accountability. That area was raised specifically by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in terms of continued multilateral action.
The Belarusian authorities believe they can operate in an environment of impunity, but accountability is clear: perpetrators of violations will be held responsible. As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others have noted, we have already implemented sanctions—indeed, over 100 sanction designations in response to human rights violations and the suppression of democracy in Belarus. We have done so hand in glove with our closest international partners.
The UK, in co-ordination with Canada, was the first country to implement sanctions against the leadership in Belarus, including Lukashenko himself, during the immediate fallout from the election. Most recently, we implemented further sanctions on 21 June in co-ordination with Canada, the European Union and the US, following the diversion of flight FR4978 and the arrest of Roman Protasevich and his partner.
It is important that we continue to speak out on the international stage and shine a spotlight on what is happening in Belarus. That is why, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has noted, we initiated a G7 statement on Belarus, and, as co-chair of the Media Freedom Coalition, led 47 nations in the condemnation of attacks against journalists and the independent media in Belarus, as well as rightly honouring the Belarusian Association of Journalists for its continued courage, advocacy and work. The democratic opposition have also been courageous, fearlessly continuing their peaceful struggle for a democratic future.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of civil society. We have increased our financial support for civil society and independent media organisations to help develop and protect specific democratic ideals. We are very much looking forward to the forthcoming visit to the UK of prominent opposition activist, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The UK supports all those in Belarus who seek democratic change.
We call on the Belarusian authorities to cease their repressive campaign and enter into negotiations that can pave the way to electoral change. We want to see a reformed Belarus that has a good relationship with Russia and other European partners. We will continue to work with our partners to further urge Russia to impress on the Belarusian authorities the need to create space for political dialogue, including mediation by the OSCE. However, I fear there is unlikely to be a change in Russia’s stance towards Belarus any time soon, but our efforts and co-ordinated actions on this will remain.
I finally acknowledge and thank all noble Lords for their continued engagement and participation on this important issue. In responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I thank them for their continued support and direct engagement, as key voices for their respective parties in your Lordships’ House. I also thank all colleagues, across all Benches of your Lordships’ House, for engaging on the important and broader agenda of the policies, programmes and initiatives within my work, as the Minister of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
I reciprocate the best wishes for a restful, peaceful summer. We have all become used to being stars of the House of Lords on screens big and small, but I am sure we all very much look forward to some degree of resuming business as usual. I look forward to seeing colleagues—may I say friends?—in your Lordships’ House, once the Summer Recess has ended. Until that time, you have my best wishes for the summer.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for tabling this debate. He can be assured that, as the Minister responsible for, among other things, human rights, I not only have listened to the sentiments expressed by noble Lords in this excellent debate but will reflect on them and take them back to ensure that they get due consideration.
From the outset, I express what I am sure are the sentiments of all: accountability for genocide and, indeed, all atrocities, is an important and impassioned issue. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, knows my great and deep respect for him personally and for his strong advocacy for human rights across the world over many years. So it is absolutely right that the Government continue to respond to debates such as these and to calls to lead the charge for accountability for perpetrators of serious international crimes. I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that we are focused on the important issue of atrocity prevention. I will come to that in a moment or two.
The pursuit of international criminal justice and accountability remains at the heart of our foreign policy. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the human rights report; that was a timely reminder, as it is currently coming across my desk. I hope that the noble Lord appreciates my personal commitment to ensuring that human rights remain very much at the heart of the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and of the Government. The Government remain committed to the principle that there should be no impunity for those who perpetrate the most serious crimes of international concern, and we remain at the forefront of efforts to hold perpetrators of such crimes to account.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, put forward four important points. I will pick up on just one: the veto. I have heard the sentiments of others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on this. We should certainly lead by action. The United Kingdom has not exercised its veto and it is right that, through our actions, we now have a determination to influence others in this respect. However, as I have directly experienced as Minister for the UN, the ability of the five member nations to exercise the veto remains a real challenge, particularly on some of the issues discussed previously, including the situation in Myanmar.
The UK policy remains, as has been said by a number of noble Lords, that the determination of genocide should be made by competent courts, not non-judicial bodies. This includes international courts, such as the ICC, and, indeed, national criminal courts that meet international standards. I hope that noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Forsyth, while not perhaps being fully content with my response, will appreciate that while the determination of genocide remains for the courts, and it is important they consider all the available evidence, we do not stand and wait for that determination. We act, as our approach to global human rights has shown, with the introduction of our own independent sanctions regime.
It is important to stress, however, that our approach in no way undermines the UK’s commitment to the principle that there should be no impunity for perpetrators of the most serious crimes, as illustrated by the various situations in countries highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Let me assure her and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we remain true and will uphold our obligations under the genocide convention. When atrocities occur, our approach is to seek an end to them and prevent further escalations, irrespective of whether they fit the definition of a specific international crime.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Goudie, my noble friend Lord Forsyth, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly raised the progress being made to create the promised mechanism of a parliamentary committee to examine allegations of genocide. The provisions relating to trade agreements and genocide within the Trade Act will commence from 30 June 2021. The relevant commencement order has now been made. I will write to noble Lords, in the interest of time, on what the processes will be thereafter.
We do not agree with one central premise—and I am sure that other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Browne, will share this view—that we should act only when there has been a determination of genocide. Today’s debate has demonstrated the importance of early intervention. The United Kingdom, notwithstanding the challenges I have heard today, has been at the forefront of calling out crimes and, indeed, strengthening international action. We have demonstrated this, as my noble friend Lord Polak acknowledged, against the unspeakable actions of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and also in calling out the appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang, among other areas.
Turning to the situation in Xinjiang, we led the first two UN statements on this issue. I know from personal experience because I led on one them. An increased number of countries now support us, but I will be clear that the challenge remains very real. Sadly and tragically, when it comes to the biggest internment of the Muslim community anywhere in the world, there are many across the world, including a large part of the Muslim world, who remain silent. We must therefore persevere in our actions to ensure broader support. In answering the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, let me assure her that we work directly with our partners to strengthen an international alliance of the willing to speak out against human rights abuses and in the case of China’s human right violations, to increase pressure on China to change its behaviour.
As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have, as I have already said, put in place national sanctions to back our actions and words. The sanctions regime calls out serious violations and human rights abuses. On 22 March, under our global human rights sanctions regime, the UK imposed asset freezes and travel bans for the first time on four senior Chinese government officials and an asset freeze on one further entity. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly asked about the Modern Slavery Act and tightening supply chains. That is under way, and I have previously given a commitment that colleagues from the Home Office and the Home Secretary will be leading in that respect. On 12 January—which was the preamble to that action—the Foreign Secretary announced measures to help ensure that British businesses are not complicit in human rights violations or abuses in Xinjiang.
Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned various live situations of concern about human rights abuses around the world. I know that recently there has been much correspondence about Ethiopia’s Tigray region and what is happening there. As I assured the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in the Queen’s Speech debate, I am taking forward specific responsibilities in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence by sending a team now, not after, to ensure that evidence can start being collected according to international standards. I can also share that I have had a summary report. Nick Dyer, who is our special envoy on humanitarian issues and famine relief, has just returned from the Tigray region.
The UK continues to support the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on her efforts in Tigray and, as noble Lords will be aware, particularly in ensuring access to areas such as Xinjiang. We continue to lobby further support in that respect.
The UK has also been a strong supporter of accountability mechanisms. We have contributed nearly £2 million so far to the team operating to investigate Daesh in Iraq. The Government have also been clear that there must be accountability for the actions of the Burmese military and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community that has taken place. On 1 April, we announced a funding boost of £500,000 to the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. Our autonomous Myanmar (Sanctions) Regulations prohibit the provision of military-related services, including the provision of technical assistance, that benefit the military regime. Support for international justice remains at the heart of our approach in this regard.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others, raised the action of the Gambia at the ICJ. We are supportive of that. There are various dates, including the right of Myanmar to respond to the initial report. I assure noble Lords that we continue to consider where we would consider, at the appropriate time, the formal support of a UK intervention in this respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, talked about the International Criminal Court as a read-across to certain situations, including those of Israel. We have been clear that any international court must ensure that its mandate and its jurisdiction are upheld; it is our view that the ICC does not have jurisdiction in this case. However, we of course support the independence of the ICC and its officials. The noble Lord quoted the US position, and the UK position is clear: we provide political, financial, and practical support for the International Criminal Court. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords regarding the excellent Joanna Korner being elected as a judge recently, backed further by our success in ensuring the first ever election of a prosecutor who is also British, Karim Khan QC.
Regarding situations elsewhere in the world and bringing perpetrators to account, my noble friend Lord Shinkwin rightly raised issues of justice and time. But we should be heartened that in 2016, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found Radovan Karadzic guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war, committed during the conflict in and around Bosnia and Herzegovina. This conviction brought accountability for some of the horrors of the Yugoslav wars and, following a request to the UK from the successor body to the tribunal, Radovan Karadzic will be transferred to a prison in the UK to serve his sentence. I hope that this underlines that no matter when such a crime takes place, we will continue to pursue international criminals, uphold the rule of law and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
I also accept the premise rightly raised by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Polak, on Rwanda and those who seek to be or are currently in the UK. While that case is under way, it would be remiss of me to comment too deeply, but I assure my noble friend that this was the direct purpose of a conversation that I had with President Kagame while I was in Rwanda, to give him the assurance that he needed of our commitment to ensuring that all perpetrators are held to account.
The issue of preventing atrocities was raised by the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Shinkwin and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. I assure all noble Lords that we work quite systematically on this important agenda, from early warning mechanisms to diplomatic engagement and development programme support, as well as defence: we use all those to strengthen the international system. They are all part of our approach to ensure that it is not just waiting; it is about acting early and quickly. As set out in our integrated review, we are committed to a more integrated approach to our work on conflict and instability, placing greater emphasis on addressing the underlying causes and strengthening the resilience, particularly of fragile countries, to external influence.
I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that, both through our trade and, indeed, our arms export licences, we remain consistent to our obligations under international law. We remain consistent in terms of the regimes in which we operate, and certainly I, as Minister for Human Rights, remain very much committed to ensuring that the issue of human rights is at the centre of our thinking, both when it comes to issues of trade and issues of arms sales. That is a case we continue to make and I know my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is cognisant of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised various matters and asked specific questions. I will write to him. I have mentioned the Modern Slavery Act, but I will write to him, if I may, on specific dates and timelines. I noted the commitment and the passion, and I assure noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to ensuring accountability and justice; within that, we work with communities on the ground to support reconciliation on the ground as well. We will demonstrate this through our political, financial and practical support to international justice and accountability mechanisms, including those of prevention, to ensure not just that the suffering of those communities around the world can be lessened but that we can prevent future atrocities from occurring.
I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to work with our international partners to ensure that, where we can, we end atrocities and that, where we can, we prevent atrocities and ultimately alleviate the suffering of those being impacted. We will never wait for the determinations of specific international crimes before taking action. It is early days on our global human rights sanctions regime, but through the 70-odd sanctions that we have currently levelled and our partnerships—we are working with key partners such as the United States, Canada, and our partners in the European Union—we have demonstrated the importance of working together with the like-minded. I hope that that provides a degree of assurance to all noble Lords who have participated in this important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the importance of partnerships, of working and listening to your Lordships’ House and our colleagues in the other place, and I assure the noble Lord of my commitment in that respect.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, had the first word and, in my summing up, he should have the last word. He quoted, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt, and there is one particular quotation of hers that really stays with me:
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
We must ensure that those who suffer at the hands of others never lose sight of their dreams. Let us help build those dreams.
My Lords, at the risk of repeating myself, as I have said, yes, I accept the premise of the noble Baroness’s question about the delays caused by Covid, but equally the report needs a measured response. I assure the noble Baroness and all noble Lords that we are looking at it very carefully.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that, very often, when Governments—I put it in the plural because it is not just this Government—sit on reports, that has a disproportionate effect on the febrile imagination of people looking on, because they assume that something is being hidden? Even more important in this case are the victims. We have heard of their pain and suffering, and it is quite possible that some of those victims will die before they get compensation. Is that an aspect of the speed of this that worries the Minister, and how is he going to address it?
My Lords, my noble friend is right to raise the issue of the UN World Food Programme, which has provided food assistance for 2.9 million people. He will be pleased to hear that, thanks to this being a priority issue for us, we now have an envoy, Nick Dyer, who covers humanitarian issues, conflict and famine, and who has visited Ethiopia to determine what the current priorities are. As I said to noble Lords in answer to previous questions, the situation in Tigray itself remains very fluid. A lot of the details are unknown, which is why we will continue to press, as the first priority, for unfettered humanitarian access to the region.
My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the committee for this excellent report, which shines a spotlight on the relationship between the UK and the Pacific Alliance. If I may, I want to look at that relationship in the context of the current global pandemic, which has made the whole agenda of water, sanitation and hygiene—an issue of considerable concern to the countries of the Pacific Alliance—that much more important. It presents a real opportunity to strengthen and deepen the relationship between the UK and the Pacific Alliance.
My questions for the Minister arise, therefore, from the SDGs, including our commitments in that regard and the extent to which we are working with the Pacific Alliance to promote them—particularly SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation, which is linked to SDG 5 on gender equality, which was a focus of the International Relations Committee’s report. Access to clean water and safe sanitation contributes to gender equality through its impact on women’s dignity, health and access to education and opportunities for economic empowerment.
SDG 6 will be met only if there is concerted investment in and, importantly, real focus on the part of finance Ministers and health, water and sanitation Ministers on this issue. The UK has been doing some excellent work in this regard through Sanitation and Water for All, an international alliance of those concerned to promote SDG 6. My first question is this: can the Minister assure us that SDG 6 and the FCDO’s focus on it will not be weakened as a result of the cuts that have occurred in government spending on ODA?
Secondly, can he tell us what assessment the Government have made of recent progress toward the SDGs, particularly SDG 6, in terms of the Pacific Alliance countries? What more can we do with them to take forward our work in this area? I ask that not least because, in December last year, Asian and Pacific finance Ministers met to address this very issue, which is, for understandable reasons, of particular concern to the countries of the Pacific Alliance. They have seen a rapid increase in urban populations and the need for sustainable city responses to the water, sanitation and hygiene agenda in that context, and face very real problems in relation to the pandemic. Here, I ask the Minister to give us a sense of how we are working with Mexico—a fellow G20 member—to address and take forward the commitment made in the 2020 communiqué by G20 finance Ministers to redouble efforts and support for low-income countries. Mexico stands as one of the few Latin American members of the G20. How will it work with other members of the Pacific Alliance and with us to take the SDGs forward?
I say something in support of the committee’s recommendations on achieving scholarships. My experience as a Minister and, more significantly, as Head of Mission when I was High Commissioner to South Africa, taught me that, over the years, few UK Government programmes have been more beneficial—in terms of deepening and strengthening the personal relationships that underpin national relationships—than the Chevening scholarships. Chevening alumni can always be relied on as good friends of the United Kingdom, so we ought in fact to be investing more in such scholarships. I hope that the Minister can tell us that we intend to do so in taking forward our relationship as a country with the Pacific Alliance.
Also, I would argue that we ought to focus to a greater degree on using the Chevening scholarships as a way of promoting the SDGs. Water, sanitation and hygiene rely, if you are going to have sustainable responses to the challenge that they present, on research and development. The cause relies on a relationship between the private sector, academia, governments and regulators if we are to advance it. We can use Chevening scholarships in that regard. Importantly, hopefully the Minister will be able to tell us not only that we are going to invest more in those scholarships but that his new department will utilise higher education more in terms of UK foreign and development policy. Many members of your Lordships’ House are, like me, chancellors of universities. We know what the university sector can offer in this regard. If only we had a little more support from central government and the departments—that is, a cross-departmental initiative from central government, not least utilising ODA.
Finally, can the Minister tell us how he intends to spread the word about the value of UK higher education across the Pacific Alliance, whose member states are looking to develop their higher education capacity and advance their knowledge economies? We can assist in that regard.
There is much to do. This important report makes a real contribution to strengthening and deepening the relationship. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a positive response to the questions that he has been asked in the course of this debate.
My Lords, the Victorian commentator on the constitution, Walter Bagehot, said in 1867 that the committees of the House of Lords, as is well known, do a great deal of work and do it very well. I think we would all agree that this is still true, over 150 years later. However, I wondered whether it was true that there might have been a quicker response in Bagehot’s day from the Government, and the House authorities as a whole, to acting on the reports of committees. I share very much the frustrations expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Not having been a member of the International Relations Committee, I was most surprised to see that its report had come out in June 2019. I was also amazed that the Government’s response took over a year. Why was this? The report is not long. It covers policy areas where the Government already had a stated policy approach. I cannot understand at all why, even in challenging circumstances, such a huge delay came about. We have to think about much tighter time limits for responses from the Government and the House authorities in finding time to debate committees’ reports.
Serendipitously, however, the report has coincided with the Government’s approach to the CPTPP, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, pointed out. There is therefore a timeliness to this debate, but by accident rather than design. I very much welcome that approach by the Government and wish them success in that venture, although some of the coverage in the newspapers yesterday struck me as ridiculously overhyped or jingoistic. It was the Express which said
“Boris Toasts Another Big Brexit Bonus … As the EU tears itself apart, Global Britain powers on”.
In fact, as we know, in most cases we are talking about continuity arrangements with these countries. The coverage also somehow perpetuated the myth that we were unable to trade with these countries while in the EU. Yet if we look at the export figures from Germany to the countries concerned, for example, we can see that they are very considerable. Germany has at least 10 times the surplus of trade that we have with them. We need to have a sense of reality when we look at these issues.
The report was very good, but I would like to follow up on one question, which I think my noble friend Lord Hain asked earlier, about the consequences of recent government cuts to aid and changes in aid policy. Have the Government assessed what the effect of recent changes will be on the countries that this report covers? I also endorse strongly the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, whose work in this area has been really interesting and impressive, while I will be interested in the response to the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Grocott on trade envoys.
Finally, I will refer briefly to Colombia. A few years ago I went to Colombia for the first time. I was rather wary of going, because of its reputation for drugs and criminality, but was bowled over by the country’s potential and particularly by its wonderful flora and fauna. I therefore ask the Government: what is happening with their partnership for sustainable growth, which they signed with Colombia last year? Will they follow up with the City of London Corporation on the evidence that it gave to the committee about the importance of green finance? Also, what progress has been made on the mutual recognition of degrees and on co-operation with Colombia in tackling crime and supporting the rule of law and judicial independence?
My Lords, it was a pleasure to serve on the committee so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. When introducing the debate this afternoon, which has been so well attended, he gave an indication of the work of other members of the committee. It was a pleasure serving alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Grocott. I too pay tribute, as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, just did, to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. In many respects, it was because of her persistence and insistence that we took on looking at an area which a parliamentary committee report had not considered: our relationship with the Pacific Alliance. Her eloquent contribution to this debate, which I will touch on in a moment, is also testimony to her work on the committee.
There has rightly been reference to the delay in our debating this report; indeed, there is somewhat of a backlog on the reports of what is now our International Relations and Defence Committee. Now that I am no longer on the committee, after serving on it for three years, I look forward to our debating—soon, I hope—sub-Saharan Africa and some of our other reports. I know that the Minister will want us to debate them because the Government respond substantially to our recommendations.
Next year will be the 10th year of the Pacific Alliance, which we viewed in three ways. One was our long historical relationship and whether we are utilising that well—as the noble Lord, Lord Hague, indicated to us, and as other noble Lords referred to. The second was the potential of a closer relationship to build on trading and cultural relations, and the third how the UK can interact with a consensus and co-operation alliance, such as the Pacific Alliance. In this last regard, we noted that while we had observer status Canada, and now others—Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, which are, interestingly, Commonwealth countries, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, said—are seeking and will develop closer ties still with associate membership. What does the UK intend regarding our ambition for associate membership?
Returning first to our historical depth, this is an area little recognised across the UK but important in global relations. I had the pleasure of visiting Peru as part of an IPU delegation in 2017. As proof of the UK’s historical links, the very British Airways plane on which we landed was being prepared and turned around to return the Princess Royal from her third visit to Peru. As part of that, she visited the International Potato Center, which has close connections with Scotland’s significant seed potato industry—so harmed recently by the TCA with the EU. We cannot compete with the more than 3,000 types of potato that Peru has; it is one area where, unfortunately, Peru may have a competitive advantage in trade with the European Union over what we now have as a result of the TCA.
Also during her visit, the Princess Royal unveiled a statue of Martin Guise, born in Gloucestershire, a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar and then commander of the Peruvian fleet. My noble friend Lord Wallace referred to Lord Cochrane, a remarkable and equally colourful character, from Lanarkshire, who was significant in the Peruvian and the Chilean navies. In 2018, the Princess Royal visited Chile during the bicentennial of its navy to unveil a statue of him, too. It is worth telling the Committee what the chief admiral of its navy said at the unveiling of the statue. Significantly, Admiral Leiva said:
“when we are celebrating the Bicentennial of the Navy, we render a deserved and necessary recognition to the figure of Admiral Cochrane. It is not enough that one of our most important ships bears his name. Today it becomes necessary for all citizens to know and appreciate the scope they had in the process of consolidating our republic and the formation of our naval power, which is so relevant today for our country”
and its development. I hope the Minister will respond to my noble friend Lord Wallace’s question on the strategic links in today’s defence environment.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, we have current areas of interest and opportunity. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, we had a round table with all the ambassadors—the first time, I think, that they came together as a group for a Lords committee. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, also referred to that and I pay tribute, as have others, to her work within the region. She was on the IPU visit that I attended. We did not have royalty on our visit, but by having her join us in the region we had the next best thing.
Because the Pacific Alliance is a consensus and co-operation alliance, as I said, our discussions with the ambassadors looked at ways of joint working to address the deep-seated challenges of the region: on the economy, transport links, cross-border crime and astonishingly high levels of displaced people—increasingly so, with the Venezuelan crisis—and peacebuilding, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Alderdice and others today. The scope for the UK to offer technical assistance through UK business, as well as government relations, is significant. Although the total sum of trade is limited compared to our near neighbours in the European trading environment, I support moves towards an economic partnership agreement with the wider alliance, building on the bilateral relationship that we have with the rollover agreements, on the EU-Mercosur agreement and on the CPTPP.
However, we have barriers to trading with the region, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and others said—she mentioned her work on visas, in particular. The UK has an insulting position on visas for Colombia and, in particular, Peru. She and I welcomed a senior Peruvian MP to Westminster, who told us of the great difficulties he had had in securing a visa for the United Kingdom to visit its Parliament. If we are to have deepening and further trading relationships, visa-free access for business travel should be obvious. I hope the Minister can finally indicate how the Government will move on this area. I should be grateful if he can also say how our transport links might improve. The only direct air link from the UK to Peru flew between April and October. on a dedicated Boeing 747 from Gatwick. As the planes have been decommissioned and BA closes flights from Gatwick, how will our national flag carrier represent us on that route? As all noble Lords have said in the debate, if we are to benefit from this relationship when out of the Covid crisis, we need these global air links to be significant. At the moment, there are significant question marks over them.
Our report recommended trade facilitation and language skills. I regret, as others have indicated, the declines in those areas. In going forward on trade, which has remained broadly stable over the past decade—with the exception of growth in exports to Mexico—we may have the rolled-over agreements, but the EU recently modernised its Mexico agreement and the Chile agreement is being renegotiated. We need to move fast, as our trading arrangements are already out of date, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said the press promotion of the application for CPTPP seems to be of greater importance to the Government. It is of greater importance that we make sure that the agreements we have are updated and facilitated, rather than applying for new and, in many ways, weaker agreements.
Finally, I return to the extraordinarily long time it has taken to debate this report, as referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others. It is perhaps somewhat telling that the central theme we sought to address in it—that the Pacific Alliance should move to the front of our minds—has taken 18 months to be debated within the House. This may give us an opportunity, however, to do some post-scrutiny review. Have the Government met the indications they gave us in their response to our report? We bemoaned the fact that there had been few ministerial visits and that, as has been referred to, officials attended PA summits. How many ministerial visits have there been, is there a growth trend in them and will the Government commit to Ministers attending Pacific Alliance summits, rather than officials? Given that next year is the 10th anniversary, a good way to mark it would be for the UK to seek associate membership. If the Minister for reassuring replies can reassure me on this point, I will be most obliged.
My Lords, if I may, I will respond to the noble Lord in writing once I understand the full context of his question. However, as I have already articulated, we are working with key P5 partners—including the key European partner in this respect, the French.
My Lords, suffice to say that I agree with the noble Lord. I add that we have already taken quite specific actions, both through multilateral organisations such as the OPCW and specifically on issues of sanctions related directly to the Novichok poisoning of Mr Navalny. We will continue to work with partners and see what further steps we can take. As those come to bear, I will of course share them with your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for their welcome of the provisions that have been announced. I also reassure them that, as they will have seen, earlier today I was engaging with one of the key NGOs that I speak to on a regular basis on issues of human rights, with a specific focus on Xinjiang.
It is worth just taking a step back. I pay tribute to many in your Lordships’ House and in the other place, as well as other advocates around the world, in seeing where we have got to on this important issue, even over the last three years. There was a time where the issue of Xinjiang and the situation of the Uighurs was not often debated. However, because of the advocacy from across your Lordships’ House and in the other place, there is a real strength and a real momentum behind the actions we have seen in international action, with the United Kingdom working with key partners. We have also had rich debates on various Bills, as well as more generally as we are doing today on specific matters relating to the situation in Xinjiang. I pay tribute to all noble Lords and Members in the other place for their continued not just interest but strong advocacy, for that is what is required.
Picking up on some of the specific questions, first, on the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on guidance and working with businesses, from my own experience of the private sector over 20 years I think that the approach of successive Governments, because of the nature of the environment we work in, has always been to work with business and to offer guidance and structure so businesses can act. This new robust and detailed guidance to UK business sets out quite specific risks faced by companies with links to Xinjiang, underlining the challenges of effective due diligence—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, as well. There will be a Minister-led campaign of business engagement—which was a point the noble Lord, Lord Collins, again raised—led by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary with an organised forum called the Business Against Slavery Forum made up of businesses, which I understand my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will also attend.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised sanctions and further designations, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. I have to be consistent with what I said before: we keep the situation under review, across the world, because it is important in the new regime introduced by this Government that we continue to monitor abuses of human rights. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to act.
Answering a point that the noble Baroness raised about acting with key partners, we have carefully noted the action taken by the United States. We worked closely with the European Union during the transition period and, as we have come to the end of that, we will build a new engagement and relationship. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, we want to be the closest ally and friend to the European Union, and we will work together on our shared values agenda.
As I have said—and I stand by this, as it is important for sanctions policy—there is sometimes no necessity for institutional frameworks, as we have seen and demonstrated in our relationships with Australia, Canada and the US. But it is important for relationships to be strengthened further. We will continue to work with all our allies, including the European Union, as we bring forward sanctions, across the world, to ensure that those who abuse human rights are held to account and suffer as a consequence.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked of new legislation and confirmation through the affirmative procedure for some of the changes proposed to the Modern Slavery Act. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will shortly bring forward details of those changes; these will be discussed through the usual channels. They will include further intent to impose financial penalties on businesses that do not comply with their transparency obligations in this respect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, both raised this issue. I go back to 2015, when my right honourable friend the Member for Maidenhead, Theresa May, was Home Secretary. I remember working directly with her on this ground- breaking Act, when we were spurred on by what was happening in the UK. This was well supported across all parts of your Lordships’ House. It set the premise and basis for actions that we can take today. Other countries, such as Australia, have followed the United Kingdom’s lead. Yes, more work needs to be done and more actions need to be brought, but the steps we are taking on Xinjiang underline our commitment to further strengthening the Modern Slavery Act. It was set up to ensure that we stop supply chains that abuse people’s human rights. We will make full use of and, where necessary, strengthen the provisions of that Act.
I also assure the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that the Government will provide guidance and extend provisions to support all UK public bodies to use public procurement rules to exclude suppliers where there is sufficient evidence of human rights violations in supply chains. Compliance will be mandatory for central government, non-departmental bodies and executive agencies. We expect this to increase public sector bodies’ ability and willingness to exclude specific suppliers, and we expect increased scrutiny to drive up standards and due diligence. Again, the noble Baroness raised this point on companies supplying the Government.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness raised international co-operation and continued advocacy. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly raised action within the context of UN institutions, particularly the Human Rights Council. I look forward to engaging with him and the noble Baroness on this, as we look forward to the next Human Rights Council. The United Kingdom returns as a member, but it is also notable to see China returning. I assure your Lordships that we will focus on our agenda. As at the previous Human Rights Council, for the second time, our item 4 statement will be specifically on Xinjiang and Hong Kong. We will continue to retain focus and build momentum. We have seen success, as all noble Lords know, in the UN third committee, where 39 members, building on the 28 in June, supported our statement on the situation in both Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
On the G7 agenda, which was raised by both the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, obviously we are working through the importance of the agenda. The Prime Minister recently announced that he himself will be hosting the G7 leaders in Cornwall, and of course the Foreign Secretary will be convening a meeting of G7 Foreign Ministers. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, the importance of the values agenda and of defending human rights will very much be factored into our thinking. As we are able to share some of the specifics of that agenda, I will of course do so.
My Lords, my noble friend said a few moments ago that he had to be consistent with what he said before. I would like to raise with him the issue, which is being discussed now in the other place, of the determination of the crime of genocide. He has always said that that is a matter for the courts, yet Ministers and the Government are now arguing that it would be quite wrong for the High Court in this country, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has made clear is perfectly competent, to do that. So how can it be right to say that it is a matter for a court, which my noble friend has already indicated would be subject to a veto, but not right for the High Court here to determine behaviour such as we are seeing in Xinjiang as being genocide?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise this issue. One of the specific announcements that we made was that, while there were obligations on the private sector within the context of existing legislation, there was a notable omission in the guidance issued to UK public bodies. We have used the proposal to further detail what we expect. That guidance for all the agencies that I have already listed will be shared with all departmental bodies and executive agencies, and it will increase public bodies’ ability and willingness to exclude specific suppliers. I think the sharing of evidence of where those specific suppliers are will also be helpful, particularly when you are talking about various departmental bodies. We also believe it will increase scrutiny to drive up standards and the due diligence that public sector bodies themselves apply when supplying to the Government. When we have the full details of that, I will be happy to share them with the noble Lord and put a copy in the Library.
My Lords, in his previous response, the Minister pointed out that the advice given to the public sector was not the same as that given to the private sector. Can he reassure the House that public sector procurement has not included PPE or other imports from slave labour? The House and the rest of the United Kingdom really needs that reassurance.
My Lords, when it comes to Xinjiang, no one can say that we did not know. I welcome the Statement and, in particular, the transparency requirements for companies. In a liberal democracy, however, it is important to show that it is not just the Government who object to this but also the people of the British Isles. Will the Minister make it obvious when companies are not complying with the transparency requirements and encourage retailers, such as Marks & Spencer, which have made it clear that they will stop trading in cotton and garments that result from slave labour? We, as consumers, should be clear that we should not purchase any of these products.
I totally agree with my noble friend that we need to consider and show leadership on resolutions against repressive regimes. He is right to raise the issue of the Human Rights Council and item 7. We have seen an incremental change and I feel very strongly on a personal level that resolutions, particularly those of a technical nature, need to be looked at. This is not just about creating bureaucracy; it is about creating effective change on the ground. We must hold regimes, wherever they are in the world, that are repressive towards human rights to account and make sure that the perpetrators of crimes are brought to justice.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, for their comments. I also thank them for making time last week, in calls that I and colleagues made, to discuss their obvious concerns about this cut, some of which they have articulated today.
I say at the outset in responding to both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary mentioned specifically in his Statement, the decision was taken given the effects of the global pandemic on the economy and, as a result, the public finances, but it was taken with deep regret. It was felt that at the moment we cannot meet our target of spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA next year. The Statement was very up front, setting out the Government’s intent. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in the Statement, it is our intention to return to that target as soon as the fiscal situation and the challenges permit. As I am sure the noble Lord and the noble Baroness acknowledge, those challenges are immense.
They both mentioned the manifesto commitment. Like many in your Lordships’ House and in the other place, and like many people across the country, we are proud that the Conservative Government enshrined the 0.7% target in law. Equally, the commitment in the manifesto at the time of the election did not for a moment predict—I do not think that anyone could have done so—the challenge not just to the UK but to the world of a health pandemic, coupled with the challenges to the economy that we face.
I shall pick up, first, on some of the specific points made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Rightly, he talked about the impact on aid. I do not deny that if you have a reduced pot of money, you will spend less on many of the important causes that we are currently engaged in around the world. I have seen for myself the importance and strength of those contributions. Our development spend brings about stability in countries, ensures that peace agreements are sustained and, importantly, empowers communities around the world.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, mentioned the importance of transparency. I do not agree with her on that. As someone who started his life in the Foreign Office as a Minister of State, was then a double-hatted Minister across both departments and is now a Minister at the FCDO, I have seen in my portfolio, and have direct experience of, the benefits of bringing together the important tools of diplomacy and development. In ensuring that decisions are expedited, we can make more efficient decisions, and the focus of those decisions can more readily be seen in the different parts of the world with most need.
In particular, I emphasise to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we remain absolutely committed to helping the world’s poorest. The measures that the Government have announced will ensure that every penny that we spend goes as far as possible towards sustaining our position as a world-leading development power, notwithstanding the cut that has been announced. The noble Baroness acknowledged where we stand.
I have always felt that the importance of any spend lies in its effective delivery on the ground. We stand with pride in comparison with many of our G20 and G7 partners, and it is important to recognise that we have seen some real benefits from our spend over many years. In particular, we will continue to spend over £10 billion on many of the key priorities which I know are close to the hearts of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan.
The strategic framework on ODA spend that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is setting up—the double lock, which he announced with my right honourable friend the Chancellor—will ensure that the money spent is targeted on achieving many of the key goals highlighted by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, including being at the forefront of meeting the challenge of the Covid pandemic. In that regard, I am proud that when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister returned to work following his own challenge from Covid, one of the first events in which he participated and led on was the Gavi summit. That raised over $8 billion—far in excess of the estimate.
Equally, the Gavi summit ensured that the vaccines and the support that they will give to many vulnerable communities, including those that I often see on my own patch—I give the specific example of polio eradication in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan—are sustained at a time of great challenge for people across the world. Specifically on the Covid-19 pandemic, we have also been at the forefront of the COVAX Facility. I believe we all welcomed the news this morning about the further progress that has been made on developing vaccines.
I also assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that, as these vaccines come on line, including the important Oxford-AstraZeneca one, we are committed to ensuring a scaling up of vaccine production. Indeed, the FCDO has been instrumental in facilitating the agreement reached between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India for that very purpose—to scale up production of a vaccine that, through the COVAX Facility, as well as through direct distribution, will allow vulnerable communities to be reached as quickly as possible.
In addition, the noble Lord, rightly raised our chairmanship of the G7 and the important leadership that we are showing as president-elect of COP 26 in Glasgow next year. I have a personal interest in this, in that I was the one who stood up at the UN and declared the £11.6 billion of climate financing. We will stand by that over the five-year period. It is important that we show leadership on these issues.
We remain very committed to the SDGs as the basis of our aid. There are many challenges, but arguably the biggest two international challenges in the area of development are the Covid-19 pandemic and facing the climate emergency. The United Kingdom continues not just to lead the narrative but to provide support through direct financing for both initiatives, to ensure that the most vulnerable communities and developing states benefit from our continuing support.
The noble Baroness mentioned the 0.7% target. As I have mentioned to her previously, and as I believe I said in responding to a Question last week, our spend this year will meet the target of 0.7% of GNI. She also raised the issue of scrutiny of ODA spend. The fact that I appear before your Lordships’ House today, as do colleagues in the other place, and the fact that we continue to have discussions and debates about this, shows that scrutiny takes place. I fully acknowledge and respect that. During my discussions last week, I talked directly to the commissioner of ICAI, not only to reassure her about our commitment to our development programmes but to gain a sense from her of what this means for the independent assessments that ICAI is able to make. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have committed to ensuring that ICAI retains its role in making sure that our development spend is appropriately scrutinised.
Finally, I come to the important point that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, raised about the importance of legislation. Again, I fully understand why that was mentioned, and it was raised also by noble Lords in other discussions. At this juncture, I acknowledge not only what the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said but the important work done by my noble friend—not just my noble friend but my very good friend—and colleague Lady Sugg in the development sphere. She will be missed at the FCDO. It is often said in the context of your Lordships’ House that it is much more welcome to have two hands on the pump rather than just one. I will personally miss her insights, experience and friendship, but I respect the decision that she took. Equally, I acknowledge the work of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in enshrining in law the 0.7% target.
It is right that noble Lords ask questions about the Government’s recognition of their statutory obligations. As I said only last week, we are cognisant of our duties to Parliament. Under the 2015 Act, the Secretary of State is under an ongoing legal duty to ensure that that 0.7% target is met. However, as has been acknowledged by noble Lords, the framework of the Act envisages that 0.7% may not be met in certain circumstances, including by reference to economic and fiscal circumstances.
On that basis, it is permissible to depart from the duty where the fiscal and economic circumstances justify doing so, reporting to Parliament under the Act. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked me specifically about this issue. I assure noble Lords that we are considering legislation in the context of the projected long-term fiscal circumstances and the need to plan over successive years. That kind of long-term planning is not easy to square with Parliament’s intention as set out in the framework of the Act, and therefore I believe it is right in the context of that planning to ensure that we engage further with Parliament by bringing forward legislation.
The noble Lord and noble Baroness asked me specifically about timing. All I can say is that we intend to bring forward legislation in due course because, at the current time, it is difficult to predict the end date and this 0.5% figure moving back to 0.7% in light of the fiscal circumstances. It is right that we look carefully at that. As I said, we are considering the issue and will bring forward legislation in due course. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, know—and I look forward to hearing from other noble Lords on this issue—I understand the strength not just of the sentiment but of the principle behind 0.7% and its value in establishing the UK as both a respected partner and a development power in the world.
Regarding the merger and the bringing together of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the noble Baroness talked about defence spend. Earlier today we had a Question on the importance of women, peace and security. That is why the integrated review, on which further announcements will be made earlier in the new year, brings together all the key strands of our diplomacy and defence to ensure that the UK has been, is and will continue to strengthen its position as global Britain on the world stage.
My Lords, does my noble friend share my concern about the whole principle of hypothecation of revenues being spent on particular areas of public spending? Why should overseas aid be so deserving rather than health, education or any other area? Surely this seriously inhibits the ability of the Chancellor to deal with crises, such as the one that we are facing now in the finances of this country, if money is hypothecated for certain causes? Secondly, does my noble friend welcome the fact that the British people are some of the most generous when it comes to giving their money to good causes that they choose? That is not the same thing as government Ministers using other people’s money to spend on causes that the Government choose.
My Lords, we will continue to support the work of the International Criminal Court and international tribunals to tackle any war crimes that have been committed. We are looking carefully at Genocide Watch’s report and will continue to work with all our international partners to ensure that anybody who commits war crimes or other atrocities is properly investigated and prosecuted and, if appropriate, punished.
My Lords, of course we fully support the Commonwealth charter and we are working closely to make sure that we are seeing progress in this area. I join my noble friend in paying tribute to the brave organisations that are working across the world. These are exactly the kind of organisations that we are supporting through the Commonwealth Equality Network. They work tirelessly to protect the rights of fellow citizens and ensure that LGBT people can live free from discrimination and violence.
My Lords, I am grateful for the full support of the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. It is a powerful statement of solidarity for the people of Belarus. Like both of them, I am appalled at the arbitrary detention and abuse of protesters that we have seen.
The noble Lord highlights the importance of international co-operation. The UK is working very closely in the OSCE and the UN Security Council and with our Five Eyes partners and our European allies to make sure that we have a common approach. He also asked about sanctions. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in the other place, we will join the EU in adopting targeted sanctions against those responsible for violence, repression and vote-rigging in Belarus—although, as the noble Lord highlighted, the EU process has been delayed. Given that delay and Lukashenko’s fraudulent inauguration, the Foreign Secretary has directed the FCDO sanction team to prepare Magnitsky sanctions for those responsible, and we are co-ordinating very closely with the US and Canada to prepare appropriate listings as a matter of urgency.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about corruption. As they highlighted, corruption is not currently covered by the Magnitsky sanctions; they deal with a slew of the most serious human rights violations and cover those who profit from human rights abuses, but the Foreign Secretary is looking very carefully at how we can extend the next step of the Magnitsky sanctions to corruption and similar types of offences. He will say more on that in due course, but I am afraid I do not have a date at the moment.
The noble Lord highlighted our close working with the French and the Germans. The UK hosted an E3 meeting recently where we discussed this important matter and the imposition of sanctions. When the Foreign Secretary was in the US last week, he discussed the matter with Secretary of State Pompeo.
The noble Lord spoke about the trade unions and highlighted the Foreign Secretary’s words about them yesterday in the other place. The trade union movement has been closely aligned with the human rights movement and the cause of liberty for many years. We have doubled our support for civil society organisations and are working closely in Belarus with people on the ground to decide exactly how best to distribute that money, including with academics, trade unions and civil society.
Like the noble Baroness, I pay tribute to the brave women who have played such a prominent role in the opposition to Lukashenko’s fraudulent election. They have led an incredibly effective and unified opposition campaign in really trying circumstances. There have been first-hand accounts, witness reports and statements by the UN OHCHR stating that women have been detained and subject to beatings and the threat of rape. That is never acceptable. Of course we will recognise the abuse of women as we prepare our sanctions and will continue to lead the way with our work on preventing sexual violence in conflict. We are very pleased to be co-hosting the action coalition on gender-based violence for the following year, where we will do more work on this.
The noble Baroness also highlighted the importance of cracking down on illegal finance activities. Of course, criminals, from Belarus and elsewhere, should not be able to profit from their illegal activities in any circumstances. Banks should be, and have been, taking steps to ensure that this is not happening on their watch. The UK is internationally recognised as having one of the strongest systems to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing and to bring justice to those who seek to use or hide the proceeds of crime, as found by the Financial Action Task Force. We will continue to crack down hard on dirty money through our world-leading legislation, unexplained wealth orders and the measures in our economic crime and asset recovery plans.
The noble Baroness also asked about exports to Belarus. The UK currently implements EU sanctions on Belarus, which include an arms embargo and the ban on exporting equipment which might be used for internal repression. We will continue to observe those restrictions through our autonomous Belarus sanctions regime after the transition period has ended. The noble Baroness also highlighted the importance of media freedom; as she will know, the FCDO supports the BBC World Service. I agree with her that it does incredibly important work, both to ensure fair reporting and to support other independent journalists who are having such a difficult time in Belarus at the moment.
My Lords, in welcoming this important Statement of support for the people of Belarus and help for those who have been targeted by their Government’s attack on media freedom, I first ask my noble friend whether that help will also cover members of the arts and culture community who have been affected. Secondly, do the Government plan to appoint another UK special envoy on media freedom now that Amal Clooney has resigned?
My Lords, we do not yet know whether the OSCE investigation will be able to access Belarus. We very much hope that it will, in order to be able to fulfil its independent investigation. The UN rapporteur has not been allowed access to the country, but we hope that they will be allowed access and will report back soon. My noble friend highlights the importance of parliamentary support, and I pay tribute to his and others’ work, which shows such good solidarity with the people of Belarus. I share his desire to see a binding and meaningful dialogue, and we will do all we can to help bring that about.
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, we will continue to call for a full investigation to hold the perpetrators to account, and to implement long-term solutions, particularly, as the noble Lord mentioned, in relation to people in the south-east of the country. On Dr Obadiah Mailafia, the deputy governor of the central bank, we have already touched on media freedom, and it is vital that we stand up for the importance of individual media freedom. When freedom of expression is restricted or under threat, human rights are generally challenged. I assure the noble Lord that we will continue to engage on this case and others like it.
My Lords, the Foreign Secretary explained in letters to the Select Committees and placed in the Libraries of both Houses the priorities on how these decisions were made. We remain firmly committed to transparency in our aid spending. I hope noble Lords will welcome the announcement that we will continue in the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.
On the prioritisation decisions, at a minimum our DevTracker website is being updated at the end of every month. If, by the end of August, amended programmes and projects have been uploaded on to that, provisional international development statistics will be published in the usual way. Then, of course, the final international development statistics in autumn next year will include country-level data.
We do not know what the current GNI figure is, so this is an iterative process as we go, but we are absolutely determined to ensure that we are using the aid money that we have to deal with the many issues that the world faces.
My Lords, our record shows that we are taking a leading role in this. The Prime Minister has consistently called on world leaders to work together to rapidly develop a vaccine and make it available to all, including at the Coronavirus Global Response pledging conference, which the UK co-led, and at the recent Global Citizen summit. The UK also hosted the Gavi summit, which raised over £6.9 billion for Gavi to sustain its immunisation coverage and bolster the primary healthcare systems needed to tackle Covid-19. We will continue to play this leading international role.