Diana Johnson – 2022 Speech on International Human Rights Day

The speech made by Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 8 December 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I am pleased to be called in this debate to mark Human Rights Day 2022. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on her excellent opening speech, and I thank other Members for their very powerful speeches.

I am a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary human rights group, and I want to thank all the human rights defenders and organisations that it engages with. I also thank the Barrow Cadbury Trust for the support it gives to the APPG, and Nichole Piche for all her work and her excellent briefings to Members.

I was prompted to speak in this debate after I saw a very disturbing post on social media last week. It was of a woman in Afghanistan who was fully covered. She was on the floor in the street, and she was being beaten by a Taliban man. I assume that there had been some infringement of the Taliban rules. It was sickening and brutal, and it was clearly a misogynistic attack.

As the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) just said, the situation in Afghanistan is alarming, and I am concerned that it appears to have largely fallen off the radar. The UN has deemed it one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The country is entering its third consecutive year of drought-like conditions and its second year of crippling economic decline, all the while still reeling from the after-effects of decades of conflict and recurrent natural disasters. The fast-approaching winter spells more hardship for the Afghan people, with food insecurity and malnutrition set to rise even further.

The Taliban de facto authorities regularly and flagrantly violate the fundamental rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, and their actions possibly even amount to genocide persecution, which is a crime against humanity. In the images on social media and generally in the media, we see men with beards and guns terrorising women and girls on the streets of Afghanistan. Girls of secondary school age are denied schooling. It is the only country in the world where that is the case. Women are not allowed to go to the park or the gym, and women protesters and activists are being silenced. They are sometimes imprisoned and even disappeared.

I want to highlight the case of the activist Zarifa Yaqoubi and the four men who were detained with her following a press conference in early November, which was disrupted. The arrest and detention in early November of the women’s human rights activists Farhat Popalzai and Humaira Yusuf have been highlighted, and I echo the calls for their immediate release.

Although the pressing humanitarian needs of the Afghan people must be addressed as a matter of urgency, and the Taliban must be urged to allow unfettered access to humanitarian organisations to all those in need, we cannot forget that women and girls are among those suffering the most in the country. We need to find some way to help to alleviate that suffering, and I want to highlight something that the UK Government could do to provide more help.

It has been reported that Afghan nationals promised resettlement in the UK, including women at risk, continue to await a response from the relevant officials, with not one person accepted and evacuated from Afghanistan under the Home Office’s Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. That scheme was apparently intended to help Afghans who assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law, as well as vulnerable people, which obviously includes women and girls at risk.

It has also been reported that only between five and eight members of staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—the Department administering the scheme—are working on it, compared with so many more who worked on the Ukraine schemes earlier this year. I ask the Minister to respond to those reports today, or to write to me with further details, to provide reassurance that the Government will ensure that more Afghans who are at risk, and at least the 20,000 who they have committed to resettle in the coming years, will benefit from the scheme.

To carry on the theme of women, I will refer to Iran. I express my solidarity with the very brave women of Iran; the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West talked passionately about those women who have been protesting after the death in September of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini, following her arrest by Iran’s so-called morality police for not wearing her hijab properly. We have been told of the widespread scenes of women waving their headscarves in the air and setting them on fire, and their demand for the end of compulsory dress codes and other discrimination against them.

A population law passed in Iran last November provides incentives for early marriage, such as an interest-free loan to those who marry at 25 or younger. The Iranian Government’s own reports show that child marriage is on the rise, and Iran’s civil code provides that girls can marry at 13 and boys at 15, and even at a younger age if authorised by a judge. After marriage, Iran’s laws grant husbands significant control over their wives’ lives, including where they can live and the jobs they can take. Even though the Iranian attorney general appeared to indicate that the morality police would be disbanded, he also stressed that the judiciary would continue to

“monitor behavioural actions at the community level.”

Courageous protesters remain hugely at risk.

I also want to say something about Ethiopia, which has been raised with me by some of my constituents. It is, of course, good news that the African Union has recently brokered a cessation of hostilities agreement between the Ethiopian Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front; however, the many victims of serious human rights violations want and deserve to see justice done. I must emphasise that all parties to the armed conflict, including military forces from Eritrea, have been responsible for atrocities, and diverse communities have experienced—and may still be experiencing—serious violations that may even amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Specifically on the violation of the rights of women and girls, it has been noted that gender-based violence in Ethiopia was already endemic before the outbreak of war in 2020, but the conflict has exacerbated the problem. These women and girls need to be better supported and protected, and their perpetrators held to account. There is also concern that so far, women appear to be largely excluded from the peace process. That is something that has to be urgently remedied.

Colombia has been mentioned many times in the Chamber this afternoon, and I know there is a great deal of experience and knowledge about Colombia among Members present. I have had the privilege of meeting many brave and highly effective human rights defenders from Colombia over the years, and have visited the country twice. Being a human rights defender in Colombia continues to be very dangerous: despite the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian Government and the FARC rebel group, at least 150 human rights defenders and social leaders have been killed in Colombia during the first nine months of this year. The truth commission published its report earlier this year, and the APPG was pleased to be able to host one of the truth commissioners with the support of the FCDO. That report’s recommendations need to be actioned, and the international community should provide the necessary support for that to be done.

It is also vital that women whose rights were violated, including as victims of sexual violence, can hold their perpetrators to account. Many of them have been incredibly brave and have spoken out, and they are at the forefront of trying to ensure accountability. Although there is no amnesty for perpetrators of sexual violence, it is not something to which any of the parties to the conflict wish to admit. A lot of work has gone into preparing national cases, referred to as “macro-cases”, on sexual violence, but I understand that the judicial system needs more resources to move forward on them. That is something that the international community could assist with, and the United Kingdom Government has a special role to play, as they hold the pen on Colombia at the UN Security Council.

I also want to highlight the ongoing serious violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which have, again, been brought to my attention again by constituents—in this instance members of the Banyamulenge community. The situation in eastern DRC in particular continues to be very worrying for many communities; state security forces and the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO—the United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—are finding it challenging to keep the peace between groups that are often competing for land, other natural resources and power, and nursing deep-seated grievances. Those communities can suffer from persecution, forced displacement and even targeted killings. Many also require ongoing humanitarian assistance. I am aware that the FCDO has provided some support to civilians at risk, but it would be helpful to know whether a joint analysis of conflict and stability, and an assessment through an atrocity prevention lens, has recently been carried out to identify specific groups at risk of further violations and atrocity crimes.

I want to raise the issue of cuts to UK aid. The needs of people in the world appear to be increasing as a result of conflict, growing authoritarianism, ethnic and religious persecution, climate change and so on, yet our aid budget is decreasing. We obviously cannot do more with less. As a constituency MP for Hull, I understand that the needs of this country are also growing and acute, particularly given the cost of living crisis, which is badly affecting so many of our constituents.

It is, however, short-sighted to believe that cutting the assistance provided to individuals and countries globally is a helpful response. We should push back against dictatorship, support human rights defenders and peacebuilders, prevent and promote accountability for atrocities and sexual violence, and uphold the international human rights framework at home and abroad, not only on moral grounds but because they are smart things to do—particularly in terms of our own security, better trading opportunities and enhanced international co-operation on terrorism, organised crime and climate change.

As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, I know only too well that a failure to offer support upstream in countries means that problems will eventually come closer to home—as, for example, with the flow of small boats crossing the English channel with people from Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan and many other places. There is more that the FCDO could do and should do, and that requires access to further resources.

I started with my concerns about women’s human rights in Afghanistan, and have also spoken about women in other countries. I end by reminding hon. Members of a famous quote from Hillary Clinton that

“human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”

Human rights are hard won. They rise and fall together, and never must advances for some come at the expense of the human rights that others have struggled to win. That is true here in the UK and everywhere around the world where oppression holds back progress and freedom for all.