David Alton: Listen to the House of Lords Podcast: “fighting for change”.

Apr 3, 2021 | Featured parliamentary activity

House of Lords Podcastfighting for change: Click here to hear the audio:

https://www.parliament.uk/business/lords/house-of-lords-podcast/house-of-lords-podcast-human-rights-and-support-for-victims/

Matt Purvis:

Lord Alton, welcome to the podcast.

Lord Alton:

Thank you.

Matt Purvis:

David, maybe we could start by asking you about your human rights work, which sees you raising complaints of people across the world from Myanmar to Tigray, Hong Kong to North Korea. What brought about your focus on human rights around the world? What got you started on that?

Lord Alton:

Well, I think some of it is in my DNA, Matt. I didn’t have a political upbringing. I’m the typical kid off the council estate. My dad had been a Desert Rat and had that served in North Africa in the Italian campaign. And his father had been in the trenches. And then with [Allande 00:00:39] in the Middle East. And when he was dying, he gave me his photographs and mementos, which included memorabilia of the Armenians who’d been executed in Jerusalem by the Ottoman Turks.

Lord Alton:

My mother was a native Irish speaker and brought up her own perspective about injustices and especially about the subjugation of minorities, in the conversations we have around the table. And then at grammar school, I got involved in campaigns about the war in Biafra, protested against the war in Vietnam and organized petitions after Soviet tanks trundled into Prague during Dubček’s Czech Spring.

Lord Alton:

And I joined a political youth group and then went to college in Liverpool, the centre of the universe, many would regard it as. Certainly, the whole world in one city. And where in the student union, I made my first public speech, which was on the subject of apartheid in South Africa. And then in my final year as a student, I was elected, at 21, to the Liverpool City Council to the Low Hill Ward, where in 1896 at Hengler’s Circus, two years before his death, William Ewart Gladstone, the son of Liverpool and prime minister four times, at the age of 86 gave his final speech. The Liverpool Daily Post said that the whole city had come out to hear him.

Lord Alton:

At his home in North Wales, he’d met two Armenians, who had described to him what he called the sickening horrors of the massacres and killings that were already underway. And he said in that speech, that, ‘the powers of language, hardly sufficed to describe what had been done.’ And he said, ‘it would be an exaggeration if we were ever so much disposed to say that we have the power of language to describe the enormities.’ He said, ‘We’re not dealing with a common and ordinary question of abuse of government, but dealing with something that goes far deeper. Four awful words, plunder, murder, rape, and torture.’

Lord Alton:

The failure to act on his warnings and far worse to come would lead, less than 20 years later, to the Armenian genocide, one of the first genocides of the 20th century as over a million men, women and children were killed as the Ottoman Turks sought to erase entirely the Armenian identity from Eastern Turkey. The belief that no one really cares, is what always encourages a tyrant and it leads to a culture of impunity. Hitler believed he could invade Poland and do so with impunity and said, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’

Lord Alton:

And that same rationale, a culture of impunity, led to the industrialized murders of the concentration camps. It’s what led to genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, both of which I visited, or against the Yazidis in Northern Iraq, where I was a few months ago. The Rohingya, and now, the Uighurs.

Lord Alton:

So they’re all the things that are in my DNA and why I care so passionately about human rights, and believe that anyone who has the privilege of serving in our Parliament, as I’ve done for more than 40 years, has a duty, not just a privilege, but a duty to use that platform to speak for others, for whom no one else will speak.

Matt Purvis:

Clearly – thank you for that – clearly, you speak with such passion on the subject. And, obviously, you feel your role there is, as you say, for speaking up for people. We certainly in the Lords administration get a lot of responses to these topics online, when the subjects are debated in the Lords. How would you think the Lords compares with other parliaments in considering them? Do you think the Lords has a particularly special role?

Lord Alton:

I think one of the extraordinary things about the House of Lords is the expertise that it brings to the table. You can rub shoulders on the same day with former members of the Supreme Court, former Clerks to the House of Commons, former ambassadors in far-flung places and people who’ve run Great Departments of State, as well as former Secretaries of State and members of the other place, the House of Commons. You have an opportunity to draw down on people’s expertise and people aren’t there usually for ambitious reasons. They’ve done all that, they’ve left it behind them. And, you’re more likely, therefore, to be able to get them to embrace causes and, I think, you become less interested in left and right, and more interested, as it were, in right and wrong. So it isn’t unusual to sit down with someone who starts talking to you about someone like Raphael Lemkin, the extraordinary Polish Jewish lawyer, who saw 49 of his relatives murdered in the Holocaust and who’d studied the Armenians’ and the Syrian genocide.

Lord Alton:

He coined the word ‘genocide’ and was father of the 1948 Convention on the crime of genocide. And then you start talking to someone like David Hope, Lord Hope of Craighead, who then gives you a brilliant analysis with all the things that should have been done to build on that Convention, and why the law simply doesn’t match the ambitions from 1948. So, we then, who have that chance to change things, owe it to the memory of men like Lemkin, but also the victims of these terrible atrocity crimes to do far more. To predict, prevent, protect, and punish. All requirements laid upon countries like our own, which is a signatory to the Genocide Convention. And to do far more than repeat the words, ‘never again,’ when we don’t show the political will to make a reality of that mantra. So I think the House of Lords is an extraordinary place, and yes, it does do far more to delve much more deeply into these questions, than practically an elected house can do.

Lord Alton:

I served 18 years in the House of Commons. It’s a wonderful place. It is the democratically elected House of Parliament and ultimately always should, and will, get its way on issues. But, it also needs a second opinion sometimes. It needs to be chivvied and it needs to have things laid before it, to give further reflection to … And, for instance, the Trade Bill is a very good example of that, because it didn’t consider the issue of trading with genocidal states when the bill was before the House of Commons, and it’s taken the House of Lords to get it to think about that seriously.

Matt Purvis:

Do you have many conversations with parliamentarians in other countries about human rights issues? Is that part of Lord Alton’s week?

Lord Alton:

It can be. And not just parliamentarians. This week, for instance … I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea with my colleague Fiona Bruce in the House of Commons. And we spoke at length, for over an hour, with the special rapporteur at the United Nations, Thomas Quintana, about the situation in North Korea, building on the 2014 report that was laid before the United Nations, which said it was a state without parallel, concerning the atrocities and the criminality, the crimes against humanity that it identified in that report. And being able to speak to the man who is now charged with the responsibility to take forward that report is incredibly important.

Lord Alton:

Or, two weeks ago, I jointly chaired a session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pakistan minorities. And we had on that call, not only victims of terrible atrocities, including the mothers of girls who had been abducted, forcibly married at the age of 12. Forcibly converted. We also had on the call, the senior police figure in Pakistan, who has been charged with the duty to try and sort this out. And so you cannot just make a noise about things. You can engage with people and try and take things forward.

Lord Alton:

I’m very fortunate at the moment to be serving on our House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence. And took part in the big inquiry we did a few months ago, into Sub-Saharan Africa, then the one on Afghanistan, and currently the one on China. You are given the opportunity to talk to people in this country, but overseas as well, about their experiences and to draw down on that, and then sometimes to make your own alliances. And yes, I have friends in other parliaments.

Lord Alton:

And in an age when we’ve become more xenophobic and detached from international relationships, I think it’s really important to keep those friendships going and do it through networks. Isn’t it wonderful that we’re part of the Commonwealth? Isn’t it great that we’re part of Five Eyes, we’re part of NATO? We have so many opportunities to build relationships. And I freely admit that I’m saddened when we break relationships of that kind.

Matt Purvis:

Turning to how you build support for issues in the Lords, you mentioned rubbing shoulders with different experts, and you’ve mentioned the APPG and the Select Committee work you do. How do you go about bringing people on board for issues that you want people to support you on?

Lord Alton:

All-Party Parliamentary Groups are often called the parallel parliament, an alternative parliament. They are of, course, an important part of the mixture in Parliament, because they are bicameral. They bring people together across both houses and, of course, across different political traditions. And I found them a very good place in which to really kick off issues. But also, outside of Parliament, to create coalitions. I helped create The Coalition for Genocide Response, and that sponsored a webinar just this week on what is happening currently in Tigray. But, I was then able to bring to that webinar, Baroness Chalker, Lynda Chalker who herself has huge knowledge about Africa and is a former Overseas and Development Minister. And, I also brought Lord Boateng, Paul Boateng, who was born in Africa, was our High Commissioner in South Africa, and was a senior minister in both the Home Office and Foreign Office.

Lord Alton:

So, these were experienced voices, able to speak into the crack. And that creates the coalition. And next week, some of those people will come together with others to re-form an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea, so that we have more credibility when we take our arguments to government ministers. It’s more difficult for them to ignore an All-Party Parliamentary Group, or people who have given a lot of their own time, unpaid, as it were, to do this. It’s not part of the day job. And to develop a deeper interest in either a subject or a country. So I think that’s one good way of doing it.

Lord Alton:

I’m a former chief whip, of course, and in my time in the Commons had responsibility for not just colleagues, but also bringing together two political parties, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party in the Alliance. And I’m a big believer in alliances. I think you create far more together, and it’s wonderful to make friendships as well. And to draw down on previous friendships.

Lord Alton:

During the consideration of my recent genocide amendment, it was a delight to be able to work with conservatives like Michael Forsyth, Patrick Cormack, David Blencathra and Lord Polack. And Labour Peers, like Ray Collins, Helena Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, Andrew Adonis. And Lib Dems, like Judy Smith, Jeremy Purvis and Lindsay Northover, as well as amazing crossbenchers like my colleague, Lord Hope of Craighead, David Hope, and Baroness D’Souza, a former Lord Speaker. And my very good friend Baroness Cox, Caroline Cox, with whom I’ve traveled to various parts of the world. And so you create friendships, you create alliances. And in doing that, you can create momentum around a particular issue. And when you have stood together once, you’re more inclined to do it a second time. You build up trust in one another and I think when you all come to believe that the cause is more important than the individual, that’s when you can start making some real progress.

Matt Purvis:

You mentioned that you were, of course, an MP for many years. And I think it’s helpful for our listeners to get a sense of the contrast. When you’re trying to build coalitions in the Lords, would you say that’s easier than it was when you were an MP?

Lord Alton:

Yes, I would say it’s easier to build coalitions in the Lords than in the Commons for one obvious reason, because we’re less partisan. We don’t have such heavy whipping systems. People are more willing to say that they’ll stand up on a principle, rather than what W.S. Gilbert said about ‘always voting with their parties call and never ever thinking for themselves at all.’ There is a lot less of that, thank goodness, in the Lords where people will vote on the merits of the argument. But, again, if you take the genocide amendment as an example, that hasn’t stopped people in the Commons from voting for that amendment from the government benches, but it’s much harder to get them to do so.

Lord Alton:

And I’ve been extraordinarily well-supported by the former Leader of the Conservative Party Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who has embraced that amendment and encouraged colleagues to vote for it. And given that the government has a majority of over 80 in the House of Commons and expects just on the party principle to win on everything, they came within 11 votes of losing in the House of Commons on this issue. So it is harder, but not impossible, to create relationships. The House of Lords should never seek to become another House of Commons. And having had the privilege of serving both, I believe our second chamber should never seek to use the powers of the elected house. It’s there to scrutinize, to chivvy, to take a second look and sometimes to initiate a deeper and longer-term analysis than is ever possible when you’re wrestling with the day-to-day and immediate concerns of your constituents.

Lord Alton:

I guess one of the most important pieces of legislation in the last parliament, was the Modern-Day Slavery Act, initiated by Theresa May. That was bipartisan and bicameral, and significantly, was improved in the Lords. I serve as a trustee of Arise, an anti-trafficking charity, and we’ve seen the difference the legislation has made. But we’re also grateful that Peers continue to point out that supply-chain transparency still needs to be dealt with, not least as we buy products made by slave labour in Xinjiang, an issue that I raised during the course of the Telecommunications Bill. In the 19th century, Richard Cobden, the great free trader, opposed both the slave trade and the opium trade. He knew that there were limitations on who you should trade with. And as the Lords now considers the integrated review and the prominence being given to trade with countries like China, we should bear that in mind. And I think the House of Lords does have that role, of getting people to think more deeply and more broadly about issues.

Amy Green:

What do you think the UK is doing well for human rights globally?

Lord Alton:

Amy, I think we do a lot of things well. We say we’re ‘global Britain’. I think we have to do rather more to actually live up to that slogan. But think about the BBC World Service. It’s a badge of honour for me that it’s just been banned by the Chinese Communist Party for broadcasting the unheard accounts of Uighur women, some of whom had been publicly raped, and terrible things have been done to them in Xinjiang. It’s listened to by millions in countries like Burma, who are now demonstrating on the streets, where a military coup has taken place. Mikhail Gorbachev once said he listened to the BBC World Service, because it was the one place where he could hear the truth. Or think of the British Council. Think of the Commonwealth. Think of the role of Five Eyes, especially in terms of what the Five Eyes countries are doing about the removal of democratic rights in Hong Kong.

Lord Alton:

I’m vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong and I monitored the elections there in 2019. It breaks my heart to see people like Joshua Wong, for whom I chaired a meeting in parliament, now in prison for being part of the pro-democracy movement. Nathan Law, the youngest member of the LegCo has had to come into exile in the United Kingdom, because he will otherwise be put in prison. In fact, all the leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong are now in prison or under arrest or in exile. And I’m proud of the fact that our Secretary of State, our Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, spoke up at the Human Rights Council, where paradoxically China is now a member of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. And, Dominic Raab said that what is happening in Xinjiang is on an industrial scale, what is happening in Hong Kong is deplorable and reminded China of its obligations under international law.

Lord Alton:

We’ve also done well on things like Article 18 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s the Article which insists on the right to believe, not to believe, or to change your belief. It led to Jeremy Hunt initiating the review by the Bishop of Truro, into violations of Article 18 worldwide, and which found that 200 million Christians worldwide have their human rights violated because of their beliefs. But, similarly, Uighurs, Rohingya Muslims have their rights violated because of their beliefs. Or think of the Yazidis in Iraq and many others. We do well speaking out on those things.

Lord Alton:

We do well on Article 19, which is the right of the flow of information. And we speak up for people in the media and journalists. And we’re right to promote a greater awareness as applied to women and girls. And I’ve been meeting recently with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who does a terrific job on these issues. And I’ve given him some of the evidence we’ve been taking in the inquiry I’ve been chairing into the forced abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion of Pakistan girls. This country, Pakistan is a member of the Commonwealth. It’s also now a member of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, and it’s the biggest bilateral recipient of British aid. We must use that for leverage. We must use it for change.

Lord Alton:

And I think we increasingly see the need to be effective in the ways that we do that. I’m sad that our overall commitment to overseas aid, 0.7%, which was the target we were given in 1970. As long ago as that, in I think it was Resolution 2626, to find 0.7% of our GNI as a contribution to development aid. I think it’s tragic that we’ve had to reduce that to 0.5%. I hope that we will restore it very rapidly, because that helps to make a huge difference in the world, right across the spectrum, from the point of view of human rights and humanitarian needs. And, I’m proud of our country when it does good things like that. It can make a difference, and we shouldn’t be obsessed about pulling down statues. We should be far more obsessed about doing the right thing in the world.

Amy Green:

You mentioned earlier the genocide amendment, which was the change that you proposed to the new law on trade agreements, that would restrict trade with countries accused of genocide. What influence do you think our trade deals can have on human rights?

Lord Alton:

The Integrated Review has just been published and it places great prominence on the role of trade in our relationships with other countries. And that is nothing new, it’s always been the case. But in the 19th century, Richard Cobden, the great free trader, opposed both the slave trade and the opium trade. He knew that there were limitations on who you should trade with. And as the Lords now considers the integrated review and the prominence being given to trade with countries like China, we should bear that in mind. And the House of Commons is about to come to vote again on the amendment that has been passed by the Lords, supported overwhelmingly by a majority of over 100, and sent to the Commons, which says you should not be trading with a genocidal state.

Lord Alton:

And as recently as this week, I put that question to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, when he appeared before the House of Lords Select Committee looking at China and he refused to draw a line. He simply said, ‘I don’t think we have enough evidence. I don’t think we’ve seen enough.’ Yesterday, on the floor of the House of Lords, I pointed out that a week ago, a 25,000-page report was published by more than 50 international lawyers saying that what is happening in Xinjiang is a genocide. I pointed out that the Canadian parliament, the Dutch parliament, the US administrations, both the outgoing one and the incoming one, have all said that what is happening in Xinjiang is a genocide.

Lord Alton:

And yet our minister simply gets up on the floor, both in the Lords and the Commons and says, ‘This is a matter for the court,’ knowing that this is a fiction, because there is no competent court in United Kingdom capable of saying that this is a genocide. And, knowing that the International Criminal Court cannot consider whether there’s a genocide, unless it’s told to do so by the Security Council.

Lord Alton:

And the Security Council has on it, of course, both Russia and China, and China would use its veto to prevent that from happening. So, of course, what the all-party genocide amendment sent to the Commons seeks to do, is to give a competent court in the United Kingdom, the chance to decide on whether this is a genocide. And the revised version of that says, well, if you won’t accept that, then at least accept a judicial committee made up of former judges, who sit in the House of Lords, and give them the chance to evaluate whether there’s a prima facie case to say that this is a genocide, which is underway.

Lord Alton:

And, of course, once you accept that there is a genocide underway, once you’ve predicted that this is what’s happening, that lays upon you the duties in the Genocide Convention to both prevent, to protect and then finally to punish those who are responsible, none of which we do at the moment. We’re derelict in our duties and we should be ashamed of that.

Amy Green:

So when we’re talking about the Trade Bill, that’s obviously one that has recently been going back and forth between the Commons and the Lords for consideration of amendments or ping-pong, as it’s also known. When we’re in that stage, when that’s going on, is everything happening on the floor of the two houses? Or is there actually a lot going on behind the scenes?

Lord Alton:

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. And always, that’s where you’re going to make movement, if you’re going to get any concessions. So, on the Trade Bill, I’ve been working very closely with Alistair Carmichael from the Lib Dems, Stephen Kinnock from the Labour Party and Nus Ghani from the Conservative Party and principally with Iain Duncan Smith, the former Leader of the Conservative Party. And they have been negotiating with the government, at their end of the building, and obviously they are in a position to press the government behind the scenes far more effectively than I am, though, I have had discussions over the years with Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon about this in the Foreign Office, and more recently with Lord Wolfson in the Justice Department.

Lord Alton:

And correspondence. Constantly sending letters saying, ‘Well, what about doing this or that, if you don’t like what we proposed? What about this solution?’ And that comes also from conversations with your own colleagues. So, they won’t mind me saying I’m sure, that both Lord Hope of Craighead, as a former Supreme Court judge and Lord Lisvane, as a former Clerk to the House of Commons, who’ve given me invaluable advice on what is achievable and what is possible, even if you have to make a compromise. And, although, I don’t like the watering down of the original proposal, nevertheless, so long as it takes us forward, then it can be justified purely on incremental grounds.

Lord Alton:

The disappointment for me is often that the government just sticks to its position, rather than saying, ‘Well, let’s talk about this.’ Recognize that there is a real desire in both houses of parliament for there to be a change. And instead of coming forward to you and saying, ‘What if we were to do X, Y, and Z?’ they just slap something down and then you have to then respond to that.

Lord Alton:

So I think in a more mature democracy, we would have much more genuine negotiation than perhaps ping-pong allows. But, we’re within our rights, constitutionally under the Salisbury Convention, to send things back and to keep on asking, there comes a point, and that point certainly has been reached with the genocide amendment, where you have to take whatever progress you’ve made and accept that, but be willing to come back again, and say, ‘Well, that’s enough for this time round, but don’t think that’s the end of the argument.’ And, in my experience, you just have to keep persevering and show that you’re not going to go away. So ping-pong is an odd phase of a parliamentary bill, but it is often the best chance you have of making some small progress on an issue you care about.

Amy Green:
Are changes proposed in the Lords different because it can take a longer view?

Lord Alton:

I think we are in a position where we can take a longer-term view. You don’t have to face an immediate election. You’re not always looking over your shoulder. But, there is a place for that too. I think it’s very important to be accountable to your constituents. I was elected in an inner city neighbourhood in Liverpool. I became the shortest-ever-lived MP. My by-election was held the day after a vote of no confidence in the Callaghan government. So I was elected for two-and-a half-days, made my maiden speech … It could have become an after dinner joke for the rest of my life. But, fortunately for me, the people of Liverpool reelected me, and then I went on to serve in the Commons for 18 years, before I stood down in 1997. And then like a prisoner escaping the penitentiary, I was given a life sentence for bad behaviour by John Major and had the extraordinary privilege of serving on the crossbenches.

Lord Alton:

And I have found, again and again, during the discussions I have with colleagues, but also on the floor of the House itself, that people are taking a much wider and longer-term view. And often drawing on their own extraordinary professional experiences and their previous political experiences. And that wisdom shouldn’t just be disregarded. And when people say, ‘Oh, it’s an appointed house.’ Yes, but the House of Commons is elected. And under the Salisbury Convention and under our constitutional arrangements will always ultimately get its way. One good example of how personally I was able to, on one specific issue, to get the Commons to think again, was on the issue of mesothelioma. This is something I was well aware of. It’s an asbestos-related disease, which takes the lives of thousands of people. It had affected constituents of mine who worked on the docks, who worked on building sites and had particularly in manual labour work, had contracted that disease.

Lord Alton:

And yet in the Criminal Justice Bill that came to the Lords, the right to legal aid was being removed from people who had mesothelioma, so that they would be denied the opportunity to demonstrate that they contracted this lethal disease as a consequence of exposure to asbestos in their working conditions. It hadn’t even been discussed during its stages in the House of Commons. I challenged that and immediately, I found that colleagues like Lord Giddens, for instance, on the Labour benches, Lord McNally on the Lib Dem benches, Lord Freyberg on the crossbenches, had all lost loved ones to this terrible disease.

Lord Alton:

And, ultimately, I found that the minister dealing with the issue had lost his father to mesothelioma as well. And so, a common purpose was created between us. And it went on ping-pong, maybe three times, backwards and forwards and, ultimately, the government withdrew the relevant clause. And the following year, thanks to Lord Freud, the minister who was involved, came forward with a full act of parliament to deal with mesothelioma.

Lord Alton:

And we didn’t just abandon it there. Myself and Lord Giddens and Lord Willis got together with others, and with the British Lung Foundation were able to attract funding for mesothelioma research. And the donation that was made by a particular individual was matched by the Treasury, allowing Imperial College to do extraordinary work, to try and track down the causes of this disease. So, that’s an example really of how the Lords can make a difference, but it’s not something to go on and on about. It’s part of what we are given the opportunity to do. It’s an opportunity we should always use.

Amy Green:

You’ve had a career across parliament spanning over 40 years. I was wondering if you have any favourable or, perhaps, most memorable moments from your time in the Lords?

Lord Alton:

Amy, there are so many things that you could say, ‘that was a memorable experience or what an extraordinary person.’ Wonderful people you have the opportunity to meet, that you wouldn’t have otherwise met perhaps. But perhaps there’s one incident that still amazes me. It was a phone call that I received one day from the office of my colleague Lady Cox. And a young researcher said, ‘Look, Lady Cox is out of London at the moment, and she was supposed to be meeting a North Korean escapee who’s coming in to parliament today with an interpreter. Would you be willing to see him instead?’ And I said to the researcher, ‘But I don’t know anything about North Korea.’ And he said, ‘That’s all right, no one does. You’ll find it very interesting.’ And I thought this was exactly the right response from a research assistant, and I agreed.

Lord Alton:

And this man came in to see me, and over tea he told me about his wife and two children who’d died as he tried to escape. And how he’d been going back into North Korea, helping others to escape. I didn’t know really what I could usefully say to him, other than, ‘I will try to raise your case and tell your story.’ And so, I tabled a motion for debate thinking, well, I’ve now done my job. It will never come up, but it came up Number One in the ballot three weeks later. In desperation, I rang the House of Lords Library and asked what material we had about North Korea, including previous debates. And the librarian came back to me not long after and said, ‘There haven’t been any previous debates in recent years, David, about North Korea, or in the Commons. But I’ll get you congressional debate and debates from other parliaments, but also some reading material.’

Lord Alton:

During the intervening three weeks, the North Koreans reactivated their nuclear reactor at Nyongbyon, and what was to have been a debate, just a small debate about security and human rights issues in North Korea became quite a big one. And a lot of significant former colleagues from the Commons who had been Secretaries of State or ministers participated. The BBC put it on Today In Parliament. And I received a call from the North Korean Ambassador, who had only recently taken up his post as their first ambassador to London, complaining about what I’d said.

Lord Alton:

I suggested he came in to see me. He said, yes, he would. And with Lady Cox, we met him. And I said, ‘Ambassador, you don’t allow anybody into your country, so how would I know whether what I was told was true or not?’ ‘Would you go?’ he said. And I wondered, ‘Would I come back?’ And Lady Cox nodded at me and I said, ‘Well, I think we would go if we could pay our own way, if we could raise human rights cases and if it wasn’t just a propaganda exercise.’ I said, ‘We now have an ambassador in Pyongyang. And if you use this for propaganda purposes, we’d denounce it. So it wouldn’t do any good from your point of view or ours.’ It actually led in my case to four visits to North Korea. I wrote a book about about it, and the formation of the All-Party North Korea Group, which I continue to chair with my colleague Fiona Bruce from the Commons.

Lord Alton:

And about four years ago, the then ambassador, new ambassador, came in to see me and to tell me … He was accompanied by an assistant … that the North Koreans were so angry with the cases I’d been raising and the issues I’d been raising in the House that they no longer wish to have any contact with me. In fact, he said to me, ‘So,’ he said, ‘To summarize, we hate you.’ And I said, ‘Ambassador, I love you, but I hate your ideology.’

Lord Alton:

As we were going down the steps. And I was showing him out, he turned around to see if his colleague was listening. And he shook me by the hand and said, ‘No hard feelings.’ He’d said what he’d been told to come in and say. But, the footnote to this story is the one that really is the one that I liked best. Just three weeks ago, as part of the current inquiry that the All-Party Group is doing into human rights violations in North Korea, we had a call with that man who had been the assistant. He would have been the Number Two in the North Korean Embassy, Mr. Thae. Mr. Thae subsequently defected in London, the highest ranking defector from any North Korean Embassy in the world. Mr. Thae has been elected to the South Korean National Assembly.

Lord Alton:

And in the call that we had with Mr. Thae, he said, ‘I was so inspired by the things I heard and saw at Westminster. It was the thing that motivated me to take my family, to walk out of that embassy and never to return. And now,’ he said, ‘I’m an elected member of the South Korean Assembly.’ And I thought, ‘Well, you may not change the entire world, but sometimes you can change a life here and there. And just because you can’t change everything is not the reason for not doing anything.’

Amy Green:

Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that with us. That was really interesting to hear that.

Lord Alton:

Pleasure, Amy.

Amy Green:

David, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been really interesting hearing your insights and, clearly, your passion for human rights issues globally. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lord Alton:

Thank you. It’s been a great pleasure to be with you.

Matt Purvis:
After we spoke to Lord Alton, the Commons considered his amendment once more.

In the Commons, the government repeated it couldn’t support the amendment because the government felt the creation of a parliamentary judicial blurred the distinction between the legislative and the judicial, and ran contrary to government policy that it is for competent courts to make determinations of genocide.

The Lords has now agreed the bill as it returned from the Commons. Speaking in response Lord Alton said the genocide debate on the bill may have ended but that the issue would not end there. So expect to hear more from Lord Alton on that. The bill is waiting for royal assent, the formal stage that makes a bill an act of parliament.

With the Dalai Lama during a visit to Liverpool hosted by David Alton. The Dalai Lama became a Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University and delivered a Roscoe Lecture.
Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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