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Yesterday the House of Commons debated democracy and human rights. A number of Conservative MPs made interesting contributions.

Tony Baldry, chairman of the International Development select committee, highlighted the desperate situation in Sudan:

"Before we move on from Sudan, let me point out that Darfur shows the fragility of the international community’s ability to support the emerging norm of the international community’s responsibility to protect. The matter is not just about the failure of the Security Council to enforce that; the international community does not have the military lift capacity to do so either. We are hoping that things in Darfur will not get worse and that something will turn up. There is no UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, effectively, and there is no real process in Darfur. The responsibility to protect is just being forgotten."

David Lidington, part of the Shadow Foreign Affairs team, indicated his determination to make the promotion of human rights a central plank of foreign policy:

"The promotion of human rights should not be seen as an add-on, but as an integral part of our thinking, incorporated in, for example, our national security strategy and our policies on international development. For instance, I should like us to build plans for the reduction and eradication of human trafficking into our poverty reduction programmes, and to find a way in which to integrate our concern for human rights into the pursuit of millennium development goals."

Later he was asked by Philip Hollobone to consider China’s influence in southern Africa, and especially Zimbabwe. David responded:

"We should be using our contact with China—both our bilateral contacts and our discussions within the forum of EU-China relations—to bring pressure to bear so that it sees that its growing role as a powerful player in international diplomacy and economic affairs carries with it a responsibility to use that influence for the good of the people of the countries with which it trades. I do not despair of China’s reaction because we have seen, particularly in respect of North Korea, to some extent with Darfur, and even—on some details—in relation to Zimbabwe, a shift on the part of the Chinese Government. China is not yet pursuing a course where it gives priority to civil rights and democracy in Zimbabwe or any other country, which I wish to see, but that should be a key element in the dealings of the British Government with China now and in the future."

Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind has been much criticised for his policy on the former Yugoslavia, and so the following remarks were noteworthy:

"I declare my position in a simple and straightforward fashion: I have always believed that almost without exception it is a gross and foolish mistake to intervene in a military way in the internal affairs of another state. I argue that case not on some theoretical ground of national sovereignty—it is often alleged that people who take the view that I take have an objection to breaching national sovereignty even when there is the most serious abuse of human rights. That is not my position. It is the position of the Russian Government and of the Chinese Government, but it is not my view, which is simple: almost without exception, intervention in the internal affairs of another country, using military might, creates more harm than good. It ends up creating more problems than it solves and people will live to regret that fact.

The issue is not about humanitarian intervention. When the Conservative Government were in power, I was responsible as Defence Secretary for the humanitarian intervention in Bosnia. We sent many thousands of British troops to help to provide food supplies and aid for people who would otherwise have starved. What we refused to do was intervene on one side or another, in a military sense, in the war being conducted at the time. We were criticised for that, but in light of the present Government’s experience, both in Kosovo and in Bosnia, the arguments are profound."

Stephen Crabb took an admirable swipe at UN hypocrisy:

"[A]nyone who has examined the track record of the ludicrous UN Commission on Human Rights, the body that was supposed to take a lead on some of these issues, will know that it became a safe haven for tyrants and dictators. It was finally wound up two years ago. Depressingly, so far, the replacement UN Human Rights Council shows too many signs of repeating the bad old ways of its predecessor body."

Keith Simpson wound up for the Conservatives, resolutely defending civilised behaviour:

"As many Members have said, it is not easy to get a balance between the practical objectives of a national foreign policy and human rights; indeed, the two things may sometimes be contradictory. It appears that the balance of human rights is sometimes tipped in favour of those who commit violence and deny human rights to others. Ultimately, it is the nature of democracies often to have to carry out wars against terrorists in the full glare of publicity and in the view of their own people, and sometimes they have to deny themselves the kind of actions that might be pressed on them by the military and the security forces. Sadly, as all the reports point out, there are many examples in countries throughout the world of both security forces and terrorists resorting to torture. In the past, our own country has been arraigned on that account on occasions when it has fought counter-insurgency. As a historian, the lesson that I draw is that torture is not only counter-productive but a corrosive element within any counter-insurgency forces, which invariably hands a valuable weapon to the other side, even if they are terrorists. We judge these matters through the prism of democracy: free elections, the election of democratic Governments, an independent judiciary, an independent media, political control of the armed forces and police, total transparency and adherence to international law."

It is pleasing to see Conservative MPs taking such a sincere interest in these matters. And there’s plenty of stuff to get your teeth into in the Comments section below!

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