Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con):
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns). On 4 July 2001, if memory
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serves me correctly, he delivered his maiden speech. On that occasion, too, I had the pleasure of following him. I congratulated him on an excellent speech that day, and I am delighted to congratulate him on an excellent and balanced speech on foreign affairs again today.
The Gracious Speech makes no reference to the promotion of human rights around the world, but it does focus on the need to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Equally important is its underlining of the need to work with the international community to strengthen the United Nations.
From November 2003 until September 2004 I was privileged to serve as shadow Secretary of State for International Development, and I shall always be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for giving me that opportunity. The observations that I shall make now are very much based on, and drawn from, my experience of visiting and studying a number of countries whose behaviour deeply perturbed me. I want to reflect on that behaviour, and to talk about the way in which the international community is or, as the case may be, is not addressing it; and about how we might improve public policy, both nationally and multilaterally, for the betterment of people around the world.
Let me begin with Burma. I visited the Thai-Burmese border earlier this year, and was immediately consciousas, of course, one could be as a result of studying booksof the wanton and savage violation of human rights that takes place every day of the week. In respect of Burmaas with Darfur in western Sudan and North Korea, with which I shall deal shortlythere are many chronicles of that abuse of human rights. I think it safe to say that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have done, and continue to do, a magnificent service in identifying the nature and extent of the abuse. It is certainly very clear in the case of Burma, particularly the violence that is visited on members of ethnic national groups in that beleaguered and failing state.
What we know is taking place in Burma is truly bestial conduct on the part of the so-called State Peace and Development Councilrenamed on the advice of an American public relations company, but originally and more accurately known as the State Law and Order Restoration Councilon the one hand, and the Burma armyotherwise known as the Tatmadawon the other. What does it comprise? The use of rape as a weapon of war; compulsory relocation; forced labour; the use of child soldiers on a scale greater proportionately than in any other country in the world; the use of human minesweepers; water torture; and the continued incarceration of no fewer than 1,400 political prisoners, including the ongoing detention under house arrest of Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The situation is extraordinarily serious.
That is one factor in the equation: the ongoing abuse of human rights. The other factor is the Burmese Government's devotion of an enormous amount of resourcesas we see in authoritarian and totalitarian regimesto the military: 50 per cent. of public expenditure. I think I am right in saying that, by contrast, the Government spend 19p per person per year on health, notwithstanding the UN's recommended bare minimum of £10. It is also important to note that
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according to the verdict of the Monterey institute, a United States-based organisation, Burma probably has chemical and biological weapons. It is only the absence of television cameras from that country that causes the world's news media to pay such disproportionately small attention to it. That is a tragic state of affairs, not least for the blighted population, who have endured privations on an horrific scale for far too long.
What is the international community's response concerning Burma? The United Statesof which there has been much criticism in this debate and a number of othershas actually taken the lead. It has imposed a ban on investment, imports and trade in financial services. It has taken its responsibilities seriously in respect of a country that is showing no regard at all for human rights.
What might be said of the United Nations' attitude? Its General Assembly issues an annual statement in which it laments the plight of Burma's population and the difficulties faced by the refugees on the Thai-Burmese border, and demands improvements. Better than that we have yet to see.
Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's giving way so graciously. I am following his argument, which I share, very carefully. He pays tribute to the United States and has mentioned North Korea and Sudan, among other nations. Does he agree that the real tragedy is that other Security Council members have not exercised their responsibility to advance world peace and understanding, and that they have often covered up the problems in those countries and supported Governments who continue to oppress their own people?
Mr. Bercow: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Of course, Burma is never a minuted item on the agenda of Security Council meetings, principally because of a suspicionno doubt well foundedthat China will get in the way. It will always be an obstacle and will invariably say no to any effective action against that regime. Notwithstanding China's calculated and wilful obstructionism, we in the international community should continue to raise the plight of the people of Burma, and it is right in itself to do so. The State Peace and Development Council fears international attention and exposure and, to put it very politely, it has minimal skill in the field of international public relations.
Mr. Kilfoyle: The hon. Gentleman paints an accurate and harrowing picture of life in Burma and mentions the blocking of Security Council discussion. Does he know how many times Uzbekistanan ally of the United States with a human rights record as horrendous as Burma'shas been discussed?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I am happy to acknowledge it. I want to make it clear that I do not regard this as a contest to see which country gets the lesser or greater attention. I shall say
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something in due course about our relations with other states and the great importance of operating on an ethical basis now, not only because to do so is right in itself, but for fear of what might otherwise subsequently transpire for the security of our country.
The International Labour Organisation has highlighted the use of forced labour in Burma, and it has called for a review of the situation and for the identification of that activity as a crime against humanity that deserves the United Nations' attention and response. I am sorry to say that the Security Council has completely ignored that respected body's recommendation, so, frankly, the UN is not being effective.
What is the European Union doing? Well, there is a visa ban. It has to be said that it does not affect most members of the State Peace and Development Council, for the simple reason that most of the time, they are not greatly interested in travelling to EU countries. In the event that they have to do so for an international political gathering, the EU's pathetically limp-wristed response is to waive the ban in any case. So we can see that what is taking place is purely gesture politics.
The EU has imposed an asset freeze, which has thus far frozen £4,000 across the whole of the European Union. In any case, that freeze applies only to individuals and has no impact whatever on business activities, including the enormous military and industrial conglomerates that are wreaking such havoc in the country. That is pretty unsatisfactory, too. It is true that there is an EU arms embargo, but Amnesty International is concerned that a German firm is effectively circumventing it by routing weapons to Burma through the Ukraine. Once again, that is a very real concern. No substantial sanctions are being adopted at all.
Action has recently been taken against the pineapple juice sector, because there is a military-controlled pineapple juice operation in Burma. Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Burma Campaign have always been under the rather strong impression that it was not pineapple juice that was driving the militaristic, fascistic and sadistic behaviour of the regime. We thought, in fact, that it was the oil, gas, telecommunications, gems and timber sectors instead. It would be good to think that the international community would be prepared to adopt a robust programme of sanctions to do something about it.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is detailing, in his usual eloquent fashion, the suffering that is happening in Burma as well as in a number of other countries. Does he agree that the impotence among the international community is now having a real effect at home, with more of our constituents asking us why there has been such a lack of action to deal with this endless suffering? It has lasted not just for a few years but, in many countries, for decades.