Business Not Quite As Usual

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UK Houses of Parliament (Credit: Long Road Photography)

In her Statement, in the aftermath of the attack at Westminster, the Prime Minister defiantly insisted that parliamentary business would today continue as usual. During the morning sittings in both Houses, there was a united and wholly unambiguous message that those who would destroy our democracy and fundamental freedoms will not succeed.

But in the sombre atmosphere that inevitably prevailed, it wasn’t quite business as usual. And we always need to remind ourselves that this is not the first, and will not be the last attack on Westminster – both on the buildings and on the values which are its foundation stones.

Nearly forty years ago, on March 30th 1979, on the day after I was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election, Airey Neave was murdered by the Irish National Liberation Army, blown up just yards from where P.C. Keith Palmer – a father-of-two and a member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Squad – was yesterday murdered by an Islamist terrorist.

Keith had worked at Westminster for fifteen years and he was one of our gallant band of men and women who protect us and every day greet us, and endless visitors, with great courtesy but who also know that Westminster is far more than a tourist attraction. It is an iconic building that stands for democracy and freedom and is therefore bound to be a target for those who wish to destroy those things and impose hate driven ideologies.

P.C.Palmer’s body lay just yards from the entrance to Westminster Hall – which was subjected to Nazi bombs at the height of World War Two. In 1940 a high explosive bomb fell into Old Palace Yard. In 1941 an incendiary hit the Victoria Tower and a police sergeant showed great courage when he climbed the scaffold and extinguished the burning magnesium with a sandbag. Then the western courtyard was hit and two auxiliary policemen were killed.

Next, the Commons Chamber was hit along with Westminster Hall – built by William Rufus in 1097. As the Commons burnt, firemen with axes broke down the doors of the Hall and as the medieval rafters burnt they pumped in water from the Thames to save the Hall.

P.C.Palmer stands in a long and heroic tradition of extraordinary bravery placed at the service of their country.

If the walls of Westminster Hall could speak they could tell this nation’s history – of its struggles for political and religious freedom, its belief in human rights and its belief in the rule of law. From its construction in 1097, and the first meeting of Parliament in 1265, to the trials of William Wallace in 1305, of St.Thomas More in 1535, and Charles I in 1649, to the lying in State of Kings, Queens and Prime Ministers, there is little that this Hall could not tell us about who we are and what we stand for as a nation.

My first visit to Westminster Hall was as in 1965, as a school boy, when we came to pay our respects to Sir Winston Churchill whose body had been brought to the Hall – and whose leadership saw this country through its darkest hours.

Yesterday, after being locked down for several hours in Central Lobby many of us were taken into the Hall – where hundreds of people waited as events continued to unfold. Here were Peers, MPs, secretaries, researchers, ancillary and catering staff and visitors to the House– the complete diverse mix that makes up the Westminster community on any working day. I wondered what some of the school children, who had been singing songs to keep up their spirits, would make of this their first visit to Westminster. Beyond the tragedy I hope they will be inspired and realise that in every generation the baton must pass to the one which follows.

As the attack was taking place I was meeting with the Egyptian Coptic Bishop, Angaelos. A few months ago he had spoken in Westminster Hall at the annual parliamentary prayer breakfast. During our meeting we had been talking about recent attacks on his church community – many driven out by ISIS killers from the Sinai Peninsula. We talked about the Copts who had been murdered by ISIS in Libya – who went to their deaths refusing to renounce their faith. We were recalling that the last time we had been together was to stand outside Westminster Abbey at a service of remembrance to mark the deaths of 25 people at Cairo’s Cathedral of St.Mark.

Then, one of our Doorkeepers urgently asked us to follow him – and he took us to Central Lobby. Among many we spoke to there was Lord Tebbit – who had survived the Brighton bomb and whose dear wife Margaret had been paralysed by the attack. Bishop Angaelos and I spent five hours in the lockdown in Central Lobby and Westminster Hall. Horrible but nothing in comparison with what happened to those who were killed, maimed or wounded.

At 4.00pm I had been due to chair a meeting on North Korea and I still don’t know if anyone hoping to come into the House for that hearing was hurt but I do know that South Koreans were among the casualties on Westminster Bridge. The intended speaker, who had escaped from North Korea, and his translator, sent me a text to say that they had got safely away.

Yesterday, London had a glimpse of the brutality and unforgiving hatred that fuels a global ideology. But, as Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reminded us when we assembled in the House later in the morning, hatred need not win. Westminster has withstood far worse, and in displaying traditional British stoicism and resilience, Parliament must also inspire and encourage beleaguered communities, the world over, by displaying leadership and determination in resisting those who would destroy the values for which P.C.Palmer gave his life.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

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Opinion: Actions, not words, will help North Korea’s refugees

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James Burt, Special Adviser to the APPG, & Lord Alton, Co-Chair of the APPG |  Credit: Human Atlas

*This article was originally published in the Korea JoongAng Daily on February 6th 2017.

Displacement and suffering have shaped the human landscape of the Korean peninsula. Annexed in 1910 and occupied until 1945 by the Empire of Japan, between four and six million Koreans were forced into slavery as labourers and up to 200,000 Korean women served as sexual slaves. Come 1945, twenty percent of the Korean population had been displaced and nearly half a million had been killed.

This legacy of loss and dislocation continued throughout the Korean War and forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to migrate between the newly formed North and South Koreas. For the people of South Korea, memories of these times are still raw. The ongoing struggles over Japanese apologies, compensation, and how to deal with North Korea all point to wounds that have yet to heal.

But for North Koreans, memories of displacement and brutalisation cannot be confined to the historical record ─ for they are also the reality of life today. A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry established that extermination; enslavement; torture; rape; forced abortions; sexual violence; and persecution on political, religious, racial, and gender grounds are all prevalent in North Korea.

That such abuses continue is surely one of the greatest failures of the modern era’s collective response to atrocities.

One consequence of this failure has been the creation of a North Korean refugee crisis. Since the late 1990s, when significant numbers of North Koreans began to flee their homeland following severe famine, it is estimated that over 200,000 have fled to China. In that time, just 30,000 North Koreans have successfully reached the safety of South Korea, while around 2000 have settled in North America and Europe, including close to 1000 in the United Kingdom.

In theory, the Government of China should accept North Koreans as asylum seekers and extend the many protections granted by the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. It should allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to screen, determine the status, and protect those in need. And it should not practice refoulement — the forcible return of North Koreans to a country where they risk persecution.

Despite this, plus many other international obligations (namely the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), China deports up to 6000 North Koreans every year. Upon their repatriation, North Koreans, of which around seventy percent are women and girls, face torture, sexual violence, imprisonment, and even execution.

What can the world do to end this illegal situation? The international community have long called upon the Government of China to put a stop to the arrest and deportation of North Koreans, while numerous United Nations speeches and resolutions have called upon the Government of North Korea to respect fundamental human rights. The final report of the former United Nations General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon, noted, “the Secretary-General remains concerned that women who seek to leave or have left [North Korea] are subject to trafficking and sexual abuse…serious human rights violations, including torture and ill-treatment”.

That our words and concerns have failed to protect North Korean escapees is clear. Sitting thousands of miles from North East Asia, and facing the might of the Government of China, it would be easy to see desperate and fleeing North Koreans as a responsibility for someone else. But the issue of North Korean refugees is, ethically and legally, a global responsibility. Where vulnerable escapees face journeys that risk imprisonment or death, we are compelled to provide our support.

The Government of North Korea is the cause of the refugee crisis and should be our long-term target, but engaging the Government of China may provide a more feasible short-term solution. Clearly, Beijing does not want North Korean refugees on its territory, so conscientious states should begin to quietly offer an alternative to China: namely, that their embassies and consulates would, without publicity or fanfare, take custody of captured North Koreans from Chinese authorities and aid their travels to safe havens ─ such as South Korea or Europe. In return, China would gain further leverage over North Korea, end years of negative publicity, and put a foot on the right side of history.

This recommendation may appear improbable or unrealistic. But as Nelson Mandela frequently told us, the most arduous challenges seem impossible until they are conquered. That China would welcome a solution to an internal refugee crisis should not surprise us. Instead, it should encourage us to formulate new solutions. A day will come when all North Koreans are free. Until that day, we must do what we can to help refugees that fall within our grasp.

Authors: Lord Alton of Liverpool (Co-Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea) & James Burt (Special Adviser All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea; Director of Research at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea).

Lord Alton: BBC World Service and North Korea

As Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, I welcome today’s announcement by the BBC of a Korean-language World Service. The announcement follows many years of work by the APPG and others, and we congratulate the BBC and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on making the correct decision for the people of North Korea.

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Lord Alton of Liverpool (Credit: Human Atlas)

In July 2014, I initiated a wide-ranging House of Lords debate on the BBC World Service. In that speech, my colleague, Lord Eames, stated:

‘I visited North Korea…From a most unlikely source, there was a remark that will live with me for a very long time. Obviously, I cannot disclose the complete circumstances, but the words speak for themselves. “Where”, he said to me, “is the BBC?”. If you knew the person who said that, the circumstances and the position that he held, it would set the balance right of many of the impressions that we have of what is going on in North Korea. Those words speak louder than statistics, transmission problems and the facilities needed, and I convey them to the House with great feeling’.

North Korea is a country where access to foreign media is prohibited and accessing such media is punishable by barbaric sentences. Today, the BBC and the United Kingdom Government have taken a stand against the censorship and repression practiced by the North Korean Government. Free speech, objective news, and voices from the outside world will now travel from London to the darkest corners of North Korea.

Over the past decade, the APPG has listened to many calls from exiled North Koreans to send information to their compatriots north of the 38th parallel. This call has now been heard. A mistake which has often been made is to believe that to engage with North Koreans, one must deal with the North Korean Government. Our approach at the APPG has differed. We have instead listened to the knowledge and stories of the 30,000 North Koreans who have escaped their homeland. Some of these exiles have bravely addressed our group in Parliament and their stories have undoubtedly inspired today’s BBC service and will go on to challenge a sixty year old status-quo on the Korean peninsula.

The work of the APPG has long-established the increasing desire of North Koreans to know what is happening in the world outside. Escapees say that significant numbers risk imprisonment and even execution to consume foreign media. But try as they may, the North Korean Government has been unable to put the information genie back in the bottle.

In 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Justice Michael Kirby, detailed ‘an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought’ as well as ‘the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association’ in North Korea. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists that citizens have a right to access news and information.

For the people of North Korea, I am pleased that breaking their information blockade and upholding their given rights is to become a central pillar of UK foreign policy and BBC practice. From the Soviet Union to Burma, the BBC has shown that broadcasting can inspire and broaden the horizons of the repressed.

Facing the challenge of North Korea is an urgent diplomatic and political problem, but it is also a moral obligation. A BBC World Service in the Korean-language should come as a sledgehammer to the North Korean Government’s information blockade and inspire those who will one day lead a new North Korea into the light.

Lord Alton: An assessment of the security and human rights challenges on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea’s recent nuclear test

The following speech was delivered in the House of Lords on January 21st 2016:

Lord Alton

My Lords, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean peninsula. That division was the prelude to the 1950-53 war, which led to the deaths of about 3 million people, including 1,000 British servicemen.

Throughout the intervening seven decades, the danger of a repetition of that carnage has hung like a pall over the region. For more than 10 years, during which I have chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, that group has tried to shine a light on security threats and the day-to-day egregious violations of human rights. These are themes of the Question before your Lordships today. I am particularly indebted to all noble Lords who will participate.

North Korea’s failure to make constructive moves on these questions was thrown into sharp relief by the unverifiable claim in North Korean state media on 6 January that it had conducted its first hydrogen bomb—thermonuclear weapon—test. Ban Ki-moon described these actions—this fourth nuclear test—as “a grave contravention”.

When the Minister replies, I hope that she will give us her own assessment of the test which has taken place, and perhaps say how long she thinks it will be before we know whether this was fusion rather than fission and whether hydrogen isotopes were used in the nuclear chain reaction. Also, how far away do we think North Korea is from miniaturising a nuclear weapon and from utilising its submarines to launch nuclear attacks? These have obvious security implications for the United States of America and Europe, as well, of course, for North Korea’s regional neighbours.

What we do know is that Chinese citizens living in the neighbouring Jilin province, which I visited, felt the buildings shake and residents feared an earthquake. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty Organization reported seismic signatures with a magnitude of 4.85, consistent with previous North Korean nuclear tests. Whether a hydrogen bomb or not, this action is yet another road block in securing a lasting peace and it represents a serious international security threat and destabilises the region. In addition, it is in flagrant violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087 and 2094. I should be interested to know from the noble Baroness what more the Security Council will be saying about this.

I hope that she will tell us what response the Foreign and Commonwealth office received from the North Korean ambassador when he was summoned to the Foreign Office on 7 January, and what the Foreign Secretary had in mind when he told the House of Commons that North Korea will “face increasing isolation and further action by the international community”.

I wonder whether the Foreign Office sees this test as an act of defiance by Kim Jong-un and an attempt to bolster his authority. What does it make of the continuing systematic executions, including members of his family? In 2013 his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was seen as reform-minded and close to China, was executed. Jang had questioned an ideology which has paralysed economic development and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of citizens, which has conferred pariah status on the country. He was close to China and admiring of its reform programme. His death was followed by the execution of around 70 officials in the last year. North Korea’s Defence Minister, Hyon Yong-chol, was shot with an anti-aircraft gun from close range in April. It was then reported that North Korea’s vice-premier Choe Yong-gon was executed by firing squad this year, after showing discontent with Kim Jong-un’s policies.

Kim Jong-un knew these men well, but this did not save their lives. In this reign of terror, killing those who are not part of your circle is even less of an issue. The purges, the reign of terror, the falsifying of history, the show trials, the network of gulags—where an estimated 200,000 people are incarcerated—the 400,000 said to have died in the prison camps in the last 30 years, and the attempts to obliterate religious belief and all political dissent bear all the hallmarks of a regime that has carefully studied, admires and imitates the visceral brutality of Joseph Stalin. The authoritarian dynastic regime in North Korea ruthlessly crushes dissent, and through its policy of guilt by association, collective punishment and the execution of men like Jang is trying to ensure that there is no Kim Dae-jung, Lech Walesa or Dow Aung San Suu Kyi able to become a focal point for opposition.

We can see these killings either as a display of strength or the actions of a weak regime, paranoically trying to cling to power at all costs. Of course, the creation of mass fear is a time-honoured technique of dictators from Nero and Caligula to Ceausescu and Stalin. But China’s role in all this is surely crucial. I wonder how the Minister evaluates the extent of China’s influence on the regime. It previously described North Korea’s actions as “brazen”, but notwithstanding the presence of a senior Chinese emissary at last year’s Workers’ Party anniversary celebrations, what do we make of China’s relationship with North Korea today? Will China’s irritation be reflected in energy assistance to North Korea, or will she be dissuaded through fear of regime collapse and the flow of refugees across its 800-mile border with North Korea?

If North Korea is in total contempt of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and by its refusal to permit full access by the International Atomic Energy Agency, its contempt for human rights puts it in a league of its own. The publication of the United Nation’s Commission of Inquiry report into human rights violations in North Korea, described by the commission as “without parallel”, was a defining moment. In that 400-page report, it said that North Korea’s crimes against humanity are sui generis. It stated: “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

It is in breach of pretty well all of the 30 articles in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Hea Woo, a Christian who escaped from one of the camps, gave graphic and powerful evidence at one of our Westminster hearings. She described routine torture and beatings and how prisoners were so hungry that they were reduced to eating rats and snakes or even searching for grains in cow dung.

I ask the noble Baroness how we have taken forward the Commission of Inquiry report and its call for the prosecution of those responsible? Why, of the 2016-17 FCO fund for human rights and democracy, which has been doubled to £10.6 million, has just £4,261 been spent in Pyongyang in nearly two and a half years? Can she also say what we have done to raise the plight of the more than 50,000 North Korean workers sent overseas to around 20 nations, where they are treated as virtual slave labour but earning the regime $300 million annually? What action are we taking on companies, third-party banks and countries which are breaking sanctions and providing revenues to this regime? Crucial to transforming North Korea will be the breaking of the information blockade. I applaud the decision of the BBC to commence broadcasts to the peninsula and hope that we will be given an update on this important development.

Does the Minister accept that hand-outs can bolster this regime? Although food should never be used as a weapon of war, it is worth saying that North Korea’s food gap could be closed for something in the order of $8 million to $19 million. That is less than 0.2% of its national income, most of which is currently being used on military programmes.

Last year, following an influx of food aid, the regime sent groups of students around to destroy private agricultural plots. The regime’s opposition to reform has led to starvation and death. People suffer while the regime spent more than $1 billion on the launching of two rockets in 2012 and 2013, $200 million on Kim family celebrations, and $300 million on luxury facilities, including ski resorts and riding grounds.

North Korea is surrounded by three of the world’s largest economies, yet close to 70% of the population suffer from malnourishment. It persists with its vast and brutal network of concentration camps, and millions of women are subjected to unimaginable levels of sexual and other violence while children are indoctrinated and forced to endure manual labour.

Since 2000 we have had diplomatic relations with the DPRK and in that time the regime has conducted four nuclear tests, launched unprovoked military attacks on South Korean targets, has bolstered its standing army—one of the largest in the world—and has been condemned for the worst human rights record in the world. It is not unreasonable to ask how and in what ways we think we are making some kind of difference. I look forward to the debate that will follow and to the Minister’s reply.

United Nations Human Rights Office

A new United Nations field-based human rights office is to open in Seoul in the coming weeks. The establishment of the office follows a recommendation of the UN Commission of Inquiry, which stated:

“The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with full
support from the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, should establish
a structure to help to ensure accountability for human rights violations in the
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in particular where such violations amount to
crimes against humanity. The structure should build on the collection of evidence and
documentation work of the commission, and further expand its database. It should be
field-based, supported by adequate personnel deployed to the region so as to enjoy
sustained access to victims and witnesses. In addition to informing the work of human
rights reporting mechanisms and serving as a secure archive for information provided
by relevant stakeholders, the work of such a structure should facilitate United Nations
efforts to prosecute, or otherwise render accountable, those most responsible for
crimes against humanity.”

On 1st June, Lord UN Human Rights Office, SeoulAlton asked the UK Government “whether the proposed United Nations field office in South Korea will monitor human rights violations in North Korea.”

In response, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, noted that the UN field office should “enhance the engagement and capacity-building of various stakeholders and…maintain the visibility of the human rights situation in the DPRK.”

Refugee Week: North Korean Refugees in the UK

Prior to Refugee Week, Lord Alton, Co-Chair of the APPG on North Korea, asked the UK Government “what assessment they have made of the statement by the government of South Korea in a letter to the Secretary of State in 2010…that North Korean refugees must “desire to live in the Republic of Korea” before they can be considered South Korean nationals or be offered protection and settlement support.”

In response, Lord Bates noted that North Koreans who claim asylum in the UK must be able “to demonstrate that they have cooperated by seeking to establish whether they can avail themselves of protection from another State of which they may be a citizen.” UK Home Office guidance states that “North Korean citizens are also citizens of South Korea” and that North Korean applications for asylum in the UK are likely to be refused on that basis.

However, South Korean legislation confirms that North Koreans are not automatically entitled to ROK citizenship and, in practice, this is supported by the ROK government’s inability to extend consular, financial or legal protection to North Koreans fleeing through China.

The UK is currently home to over 600 North Korean refugees, the largest North Korean refugee community outside of South Korea and China. Many will have undertaken a perilous journey through China to Mongolia or South-East Asian states where they will have filed claims for asylum. In theory, DPRK law provides for the freedom of movement and the freedom for North Korean citizens to leave their country, but overwhelming evidence confirms that North Koreans are prevented from leaving and face persecution, incarceration and even execution upon their return.

Lord Alton: Statement on UK Policy Towards North Korea

Lord Alton
Lord Alton

For more than a decade I have chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea. When it comes to North Korea there is a battle for ideas and a need for a clear headed security strategy.

The DPRK is a country where, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry, there are 200,000 people incarcerated in its prison camps. Its brutality was recently underlined by the recent reported purge of North Korea’s Defence Minister, Hyon Yong-chol. The BBC reported that Kim Jong Un also ordered the execution of fifteen senior official and four members of Pyongyang’s Unhasu Orchestra.

Although North Korea is on the wrong side of history it is still in a position to cause untold human misery – and I would like the UK Government to be clear on their assessment of the current stability of the North Korean regime, what are our policy objectives in relation to breaking the information blockade, to implementing the COI recommendations on human rights, to tackling the security threats and what steer will be given to Mr Alastair Morgan, our new Ambassador to Pyongyang, who takes up his position later this year.

Whether it is on the Korean peninsula – where 1,000 British servicemen died in the cause of freedom – or whether it is in the Middle East, Britain needs to champion the cause of freedom and the rule of law.

It is sometimes suggested that Britain should retreat from the world and relinquish our international responsibilities. How right was Maximilian Kolbe, murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz, and who said that “The most deadly poison of our times is indifference.” Such indifference would be bad for Britain and bad for the world.