Debate on the Address (Second Day) - 17 Nov 1994

House of Lords Debate (Hansard, vol. 559, cols. 111-115)

(This intervention may be related to Scientology's quarrel with the German Government.)

8.50 p.m.

Lord McNair: My Lords, I regret that I was not able to get together with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, before the debate since we both visited the Sudan this year; the noble Baroness was able to do so more extensively than I did during my stay there. In what I shall say about the Sudan, I do not mean to deny, or necessarily contradict, all that she said about that country. Your Lordships know only too well her dedication to and support for oppressed and persecuted people everywhere. What I shall say is in addition to what she said. I travelled in September from Kadugli to Dilling by night in a convoy of three vehicles. The only security presence that we saw was a few simple checkpoints at the roadside. It may be that we did not travel through the area where the situation that the noble Baroness described exists. However, that was my experience.

I shall be speaking about two areas of the world, each geographically distinct; but the issues at which I wish to look are connected. They concern the new fracture line in international affairs and its implications for human rights and world harmony. The areas on which I wish to focus are the Sudan and Germany.

With the end of the Cold War - I bear in mind the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Park - and the reduction in the reach and power of the countries making up the former Soviet Union, a more real division has opened up as the ice floes of the Cold War break up and realign.

It is clear that the most important international question concerning and confronting the West is the resurgence and increasing self confidence of the many different nations where Islam is the dominant religion and culture. Coupled with that is the increase in migration which followed the colonial era resulting in significant racial and religious minority populations in many of the industrialised countries irrespective of whether or not they were significant colonial powers.

Islamic countries vary enormously in their political institutions, social customs and outlook on the world. Historically, from the time of the Crusades, through the 19th century to the present day there has been conflict and misunderstanding, between the Moslem and the Christian cultures. As the world of Islam reasserts its right to order its societies according to its own precepts, the western world is becoming increasingly nervous about where that may lead. Primary western concerns are, as always, oil supplies and export markets.

It is true that Iran, for example, operates a foreign policy that is actively hostile to the West. Other countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have set their face against Islamic resurgence and have been well rewarded by the West for so doing.

It is particularly important that the West should realise that for Moslems the Sharia is a way of life that prescribes both personal conduct and the system of justice which operates in the courts and judicial system. I visited the Sudan recently as a guest of the Sudanese Government. While there I asked one highly placed official how he would define Sharia. He thought for a moment and then told me, "Sharia is a path to God". There seem to be as many interpretations of Sharia as there are Islamic nations. In some it seems to be used as an instrument of state repression. In others, the draconian punishments often cited are rarely used. Whichever is the case in a particular country, it is important to realise the extreme sensitivity with which the Sharia is regarded by Moslems. I am not saying that this sensitivity should override fundamental human rights issues. But what I am saying is that since according to the teachings of Islam the Sharia is the word of God, the West would do well to take that into account in public pronouncements.

An example is the comment of the United Nations special rapporteur on the Sudan, Gaspar Biro, when he referred to the Sharia in critical terms by saying "...whoever the author". I can well understand that there may be genuine human rights considerations about some aspects of the Sharia and the way in which it is applied. But that reference had the equivalent impact on a Moslem that a non-Christian questioning the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection in the same sentence, and then some, would have on a devout Christian.

The nations of the Islamic world are watching us see how we live up to the principles that we seek to impose on them and how we confront the playing out of religious and racial diversity in post-colonial societies. Remember also, my Lords, that in many countries there are now significant Moslem minorities. Since it is a fact that most Moslems are not white caucasians, those living in western countries may be in double jeopardy on account of their religion and their race. In a violent world, which is the greater evil - to be stabbed to death at a bus-stop because you are black; or to suffer the amputation of a hand following established judicial procedures? I make no judgment. I only ask the question.

It pains me that the West's attitude to human rights observance too often tends to be distorted by perceived foreign policy interests. For example, the human rights records of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are rather bad. Egypt is said by Amnesty International to have 20,000 political prisoners and the Egyptian Government admit to 12,000. I do not think that anyone is suggesting that the Sudan currently has more than a relative few by comparison. Yet Her Majesty's Government, the USA and some other European countries have decided to make an example of the Sudan. Because it stayed neutral in the Gulf War, the USA has added the Sudan to its list of states sponsoring terrorism. However, despite repeated requests. for specifics by the Sudan, the American Government have failed to supply any evidence.

That policy may well be counter productive. The Sudan is well regarded in much of Africa for standing up to what is seen as bullying by the West. It is also taking a regional leadership role and exporting its culture to neighbouring countries. The West seems to be having difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that certain countries are ordering their societies on the basis of religious or spiritual values. That is seen as something dangerously unpredictable and radical.

The attitude of the British Government to the Government of the Sudan has echoes of the old colonial mentality. I was quite appalled at the arrogance and insensitivity which I witnessed and heard about and not at all convinced that in September when. I visited the Sudan the human rights situation was as bad as was made out. For example, a member of the Government was perfectly at liberty to go to the British embassy and complain about the Government of which he was a member. That seemed to me to be quite remarkable.

It is true that political parties are banned. However, the feeling in the Sudan is that those parties have not served the country well in the past and that the country needs to break out of the cycle of multi-party government followed by military dictatorship with the pattern repeating over and again. The International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International have both arranged to Visit the Sudan this month by agreement with the Sudanese Government. I look forward to reading their reports.

The two themes which were emphasised most often when I was in that country were development and religious tolerance. It was a Friday when we visited the women's prison at Omdurman and prayers were in progress- one was a Christian meeting, the other a Moslem one. Both seemed fairly well attended. The women were free to attend whichever meeting they chose. Presbyterians were running the Christian meeting on that day. As well as religious subjects, such topics as hygiene and childcare were covered. The missionaries present: told us that on different days an Episcopalian minister and a Catholic sister also visited the prison. I understand that at the. beginning of October all the women, except six who had been sentenced for murder, were released under an amnesty. However, that was in Khartoum, in the Moslem north.

One of our two hosts for the visit was a Christian evangelist member of the Transitional National Assembly who had given up travelling the world to spread the Gospel and is now working with the Government. In the two southern states that we visited we found a spirit of co-operation between religions with members of all faiths represented in the state governments. It will be interesting to see the make up of the new state administrations after the elections which, I believe, are planned for March 1995.

I turn now to Germany. It is clear that recent events there give great cause for concern. In Germany under Chancellor Kohl there are chilling echoes of the Nazi era. Incidents of racial violence are increasing exponentially with the police seemingly powerless, or unwilling, to do much about them. The figures and some examples speak for themselves. In the year of unification, incidents of extremist violence totalled 375. The following year they totalled 1,275. In 1992 the total was 2,285.

Once again, Jews are the victims. In March this year a synagogue was firebombed; the first such attack since the war. That is not an isolated incident. The hate letters and death threats received by Jews in Germany are now signed, whereas in recent years they were anonymous. That shows the increasing acceptability of overtly racist behaviour and the confidence that the authorities will do nothing to help the victims.

Recently, a mob of Right-wing extremists attacked a group of five black Africans and destroyed a local restaurant owned by Turks. Of the 50 rioters arrested in broad daylight, the police released 49 immediately. However, they detained a Turkish waiter who had stabbed a rioter in defence of the African men.

Skinheads, however, are not the only perpetrators of violence. Despite the attempts of the German Government to convince the world that teenage skinheads are the sole perpetrators of violence, investigations by human rights groups have uncovered brutal treatment of minorities by the German authorities. Gunther Grass, Germany's leading novelist, said:

"The most dangerous thing is we have skins in the government. They are nicely dressed with beautiful hair, educated. They speak well. But they think the same way as the young kids who shave their heads and carry swastikas and demonstrate. They encourage these ideas and these brutal actions".
A typical incident reported by Amnesty International concerned a Sri Lankan who was stopped by two plainclothes police officers while cycling to work. He was accused of stealing the bicycle for which he had a receipt; he was handcuffed so roughly that his wrist was broken and he was imprisoned until the police realised that there was nothing with which they could charge him.

One entire law enforcement unit was disbanded when it was learnt that the members had been equipping themselves with wooden clubs which would deliver more punishing blows than the standard issue rubber truncheons. Twenty-seven police officers were recently suspended in one Hamburg precinct for beating gaoled foreigners, and the authorities announced that they would reopen investigations into 127 brutality complaints. The top law and order figure for Hamburg, the Interior Minister, Werner Hackman, was forced to resign following a public backlash against widespread police brutality.

Rather than confront the reality of Germany in the 1990s, the Kohl regime has chosen to sponsor an exhibition in Washington which puffs up the myth of German resistance to neutralise the media coverage in the United States which has focused on the rising violence and injustice in Germany. Chancellor Kohl and his colleagues perceive the reporting as unfavourable to Germany's carefully groomed public image.

The supporting literature for that exhibition abbreviates Jewish resistance to the Nazis to a single page and downgrades the Warsaw ghetto - that heroic symbol of World War II resistance - to one sentence. The Washington Post commented:

"The intended audience seems not to be the casual visitor, hut history itself-the version that will be passed on through teachers and textbooks. That's why it was so important to the Germans to place the exhibit in Washington".
Chancellor Kohl is still making excuses for the past rather than facing up to the present reality. It is quite clear that he lives in a fantasy world. That state of affairs is extremely dangerous. Just because my father's generation - and in fact many of your Lordships also - saw the horror and said, "Never again", it does not follow that the past will not be repeated in the not-too-distant future.

The familiar process, however, is beginning to unfold: first, a group is identified, targeted and stigmatised. That makes it acceptable to carry out acts of violence and to deny members of that group normal civil rights. The next stage is the economic strangulation and then the ghetto. I do not need to spell out the rest.

One tragic aspect of that situation is that Kohl has allowed his agenda to be dictated by a relatively few neo-Nazis. It is clear that most Germans are horrified by the slide into racial violence which is now hardly even reported in the German press. Racial violence has become so commonplace that in Germany today it is not even news. The neo-Nazis are driving down their ordinary, decent countrymen into apathetic acquiescence.

I urge Her Majesty's Government to confront what is really going on in Germany and to stand four-square with the great majority of the German people, firm and resolute against the destabilising momentum of far Right extremism.

Back to start

Last updated 15 May 1997

Page maintained by Martin Poulter (