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House of Commons

Wednesday 13 October 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Laos. [190355]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Laos has 1.9 million people living on less than $1 a day. This year we provided some £350,000 through the mine action group for de-mining in the Nonghet district of Laos. We funded a number of other non-governmental organisations working there and the British embassy in Bangkok runs a grant scheme. In addition, we provide some £2.7 million to help tackle poverty in Laos through our contributions to the World Bank, the European Community and other multilateral organisations.

Andrew George: I am grateful for that reply, but is the Minister aware of the alleged persecution of the Hmong people in Laos and, in particular, of the recent harrowing tape brought out of the country, which includes evidence of the rape and murder of four teenage girls? It was publicised on CNN and by the BBC last month. What assessment have the Government made of the veracity of the evidence about the persecution of the Hmong people and what assessment have they made—both within the UK and the EU—of the wider implications? If they have made such assessments—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Questions must be brief.

Mr. Thomas: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am aware of the report to which he refers. We continue to be concerned about human rights abuses in Laos in general. Our ambassador to Laos, who is based in Bangkok, visited in June to discuss the issue with the Laos authorities. We continue to monitor the situation carefully, but I will bring the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Coop): It is now almost 30 years since the end of the Vietnam war, during which the CIA sponsored a guerrilla army in Laos, the remnants of which are still active, but have been surrendering in recent months. Third parties have said that the brutal and repressive way in which the Vientiane regime is dealing with the problem is tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Does the Minister agree and does he think that we should treat the matter rather more seriously?

Mr. Thomas: As I said in response to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), we take any allegations of human rights abuses extremely seriously. That is why our ambassador visited Laos in June to discuss our concerns with the Laos authorities, and it is why we are continuing to monitor the position extremely carefully.


2. Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his Department's activities in Liberia. [190356]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Over the past year, DFID has contributed £3 million to the United Nations trust fund for disarming and reintegrating ex-soldiers in Liberia, and £1 million to UNICEF for education programmes for former child soldiers. We have also provided £10.6 million in humanitarian aid focusing on community-based services, including for the large number of internally displaced people and for refugees as they start to return. In addition, our share of the European Union's programme in Liberia is £7.5 million.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank my right hon. Friend for that excellent response, which shows that we do not abandon states that desperately need us. However, there are people in my constituency who have fled Liberia and have protected children there, whose main concern now is that the UN will not be capable of disarming the various counties by the accepted date of 31 October. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of that disarmament? Will he look again into the classification of Liberia as a safe state in order to ensure that if these people choose to return, it will be safe to do so?

Hilary Benn: The latest figures reveal that 87,000 ex-combatants have been disarmed and 25,000 weapons collected. The disarmament and reintegration process is organised on a regional rather than a county basis, and of the eight regional cantonment sites, four have completed their work and the UN is working hard to complete the rest of that process by the target date of the end of October, though there may be some slippage.

In order for a county to be declared as safe for return, the UN and the Government make an assessment of security, rule of law and basic services. To date, six of Liberia's 15 counties have been declared suitable for return and the UNHCR has started a strictly voluntary return programme to those counties.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that there is unlikely to be enduring stability
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in Liberia until Taylor is brought to trial and that it is disappointing that Nigeria is still giving him asylum? Can we do everything possible to impress on a fellow Commonwealth country and leading member of the New Partnership for Africa's Development that it really is time for Taylor to stand trial? He is wanted on a UN-backed warrant to stand trial in a war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone.

Hilary Benn: I share the hon. Gentleman's desire that Charles Taylor should face justice. The Government of Nigeria have said clearly that they will respond to a request from an elected Government in Liberia to return him. The British Government's position is very clear. We support the special court—and the hon. Gentleman will be only too well aware that we do so in very practical ways—and we think that he should return to face justice. However, we must also recognise that Nigeria played a part in getting him out of Liberia, and that that has partly contributed to the relative stability that now exists in that country.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh) (LD): The Secretary of State mentioned that six out of Liberia's 15 counties have been declared safe. He will know also that hundreds of thousands of refugees over the border in Guinea remain very reluctant to return because they consider Liberia unsafe. To have six safe counties out of 15 is not very good when the target date is the end of October. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his colleagues and counterparts to try to accelerate the process and to bring comfort and security to those refugees?

Hilary Benn: When I was in Geneva recently I met Ruud Lubbers and we discussed this matter. Progress will depend on the extent to which security, basic services and the rule of law are assessed to apply in those counties. I think that everyone wants to make further progress but, as the hon. Gentleman's question made clear, the situation is difficult and fragile. Liberia has suffered a great deal and the work of the UNHCR and other bodies, with our support, must be aimed at maximising the rate at which parts of the country can be rendered safe so that people will want to return. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to imply in his question that, in the end, the real assessment will be made by the refugees when they decide whether they feel that it is safe to return.

Former Soviet Union

3. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the Department's strategy of working with non-governmental organisations to support the development of civil society in the countries of the former Soviet Union. [190357]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The Department works with many NGOs in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union on a range of issues including improved governance, reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, land reform and delivering better
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public services. Our approach is to encourage civil society to work alongside Government and businesses in comprehensive national programmes to reduce poverty.

Mr. Marsden: In thanking my hon. Friend for that answer, may I emphasise how crucial I believe DFID's role to be in raising the level of civil society in the countries of the former Soviet Union? That is especially important in those countries that are covered by the new European near-neighbourhood policy. One of those countries is Armenia, and I hope to visit one of DFID's projects there next week. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Department will look closely at the operation of NGOs in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and that those bodies have a strategic plan to ensure that they are embedded locally? Success in those countries will be achieved only if we adopt a bottom-up approach to tackle matters such as corruption and the improvement of civil society.

Mr. Thomas: I wish my hon. Friend well on his visit to Armenia next week. He is right to say that civil society needs to develop much more in the countries of the former Soviet Union. That is one of the reasons why we are giving money to social development funds in Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine and Tadjikistan. Those funds support the development of NGOs in those countries, with the aim of getting communities better represented and more engaged with Government organisations.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): There is a distinct possibility that Turkey will join the EU in the short-to-medium term, and that means that bordering countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are set to be the EU's immediate neighbours. What specific projects is the Department supporting as part of the EU's near-neighbourhood policy to secure peace, prosperity and democracy in the south Caucasus?

Mr. Thomas: The EU is working in a variety of ways in the countries to which the hon. Gentleman referred. In Armenia, for example, it is supporting a regional development programme that is helping to develop the capacity of civil society, along the lines of what I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden). We are also working with the EU on support for the extractive industries transparency initiative in the region. The aim is to get more transparency about how the resources from the extractive industries are generated, and to help to prevent the possibility of corruption in those countries.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Freedom-loving people the world over will celebrate the growth of independent trade unions in central Asia. What support do the Government propose to give to those independent trade unions in the future?

Mr. Thomas: I congratulate my hon. Friend on continuing to raise the matter of trade unions in that part of the world. The social development funds in Armenia, Georgia and Moldova to which I have referred already also provide support to trade union activity in those countries. My hon. Friend is right to say that we need strong trade unions and other civil society
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organisations if communities in those countries are to be better represented, and better able to engage with Government.

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