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22 Jun 2006 : Column 532WH—continued

4.12 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton, and I welcome the Minister. I hope that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) will not think me patronising when I say that that was the best speech that I have ever heard him make in the House. It was very thoughtful. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) gave a great account of his visit to North Korea, which also added hugely to the debate. In previous debates he described a visit to Uzbekistan. He may have ambitions to become a Foreign Office Minister, but I have to tell him that if he is not careful, given the way in which he is carrying on at the moment, he is heading for a job as a permanent rapporteur to one of these dastardly regimes.

Mr. Browne: Secretary-General of the United Nations may be an appropriate role for him in due course.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: In due course, I am sure—though other candidates are emerging by the day. I also pay tribute to my neighbour, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) who, as always, has done his homework, and made a well-informed speech. I have never previously met the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), and I have some regrets concerning her speech. Although the world’s biggest superpower, the United States, does not always get everything right—far from it—the world would generally be a much less safe place without its actions. The hon. Member for Taunton was right not to give such a dastardly and dreadful regime the name by which it is commonly known, and to call it North Korea instead, and it is a total travesty for the hon. Lady to try to draw the comparison that she did.

We have heard much this afternoon about human rights abuses, and I shall describe some myself. However,
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one aspect that has not been mentioned at all is the relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang. It is really sad that the Korean peninsula is divided in the way that it is, and any methods by which the world community can help Seoul and South Korea in its dialogue and dealings with North Korea must be a good thing. Therefore, it was a sad quote that I gave in my earlier intervention about the spurning of food aid from South Korea. The people of North Korea will suffer. Through aid and dialogue should come some understanding and improvement, we hope, in the longer term of the regime in North Korea.

I believe that the Minister is going to say something about the recent missile crisis in his reply to the debate. I hope that you will allow me a little forbearance, Mr. Benton, if I briefly describe what is going on, as I understand it from the news today. North Korea has been steadily moving towards the test launch of the Taepodong-2 missile, which intercontinental ballistic missile has a range of up to 9,000 miles, as verified by satellite photographs, enough to reach Hawaii or Alaska. Satellite intelligence has revealed that Pyongyang has loaded booster rockets on to the launch pad in Musudan-ri in North Hamkyong province, in north-east Korea, and moved fuel tanks in preparation for fuellings. These are dark times.

I agree with the sentiments of President Bush, who stated that people should be nervous when non-transparent regimes that have announced that they have nuclear warheads fire missiles. That is one of the things that we are watching closely in Iran, which has the missiles, but not yet the technology to put nuclear warheads on the missiles. When the Iranians manage to get the two together, that becomes very dangerous indeed.

In the debate we are asked to concentrate on human rights. We need to pay attention to the 22 million people who live under North Korea’s dreadful regime of extreme illiberalism and cruelty. The issue of food among the poorest North Koreans is well documented. However, I would like to explore where the British Government can do more to help through sanctions, multilateral organisations and coalitions with our partners.

The debate today is timely, not only because of the emerging missile crisis and the human rights abuses, but, as the Minister made clear, because this week was the first meeting of the new UN Human Rights Council. It would be interesting to hear a report from the Minister on that council. In the debate on human rights last week he said that he would give us a full report—perhaps not today, but maybe in a written statement to the House or a report next week.

Mr. McCartney rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will give way to the Minister in a second, but I will just make one other comment that he might like, in turn, to respond to.

The hon. Member for Taunton amplified the problem of the 21 nations voting against the resolution. I wonder how many of those 21 nations are members of the Human Rights Council. It is all very well asking for verification from neighbouring states, but it is no good getting countries with bad human rights records to
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peer-review another country with a bad human rights record. One of the criticisms that I made of the Human Rights Council last week was that there did not seem to be tough enough controls on who could become a member. Do members of that council have to have, or should they have, good human rights records themselves?

Mr. McCartney: I will be reporting appropriately to the House and to the Select Committee. There will be two stages, following this week’s proceedings. Further discussions are being carried on and there will be another two meetings of the council between now and the end of the year. We hope that, by that time, there will be a full programme of work and an agreement on how universal peer reviews will be operated in an effective way, and we hope that the council will be more effective than the organisation that it has replaced.

Issues relating to the 21 countries are varied. They claim that they are against the politics of passing condemnatory resolutions in principle. That is why what happened today and, hopefully, what will happen in the subsequent two meetings is so important. That block on doing positive, specific, practical things to deal with countries like North Korea has gone; we can now use the periodic review to put in place effective steps that everybody can co-operate with. The peer review is a review of all countries. No one is excluded from the review. It is not just a review of one or two regimes. Therefore, those 21 countries now have, if they wish to engage positively, a more proactive way of dealing with regimes that are effectively denying their citizens their human rights.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for that intervention; it was helpful. The Minister is rapidly gaining a reputation for being a Minister who is extremely helpful to the House, and I am grateful to him for that. I would only add that I hope that none of the countries that become members of the Human Rights Council will be immune to peer review. Indeed, I hope that some of those that apply to become members of the council will be some of the first to be reviewed, especially if there is any suspicion of denial of human rights.

Mr. McCartney: The reason why the periodic review is so fundamentally different is that no one will be excluded. A programme will be put in place after rigorous negotiations which will apply to all members of the council. By the way, that includes ourselves, difficult as that is. No one can argue that the council will be simply a stooge body to deal with a handful of countries. The reviews are about a sustainable, United Nations, global way of dealing, stage by stage, with the issue of human rights in both those countries that deny them and those that have been proved to have effective regimes that sustain people’s human rights. No country can argue that the periodic review is simply about them. It is about every nation, including those that are members of the council.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Again, that is a very helpful intervention, although perhaps not absolutely centred on the debate this afternoon. It is helpful to get those comments on record. I hope that a sequence of countries will be peer-reviewed, with no favouritism given to
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those that have good or bad human rights records, and that all countries will be reviewed on a regular basis. I am sure that that will be the case.

I was delighted to hear from the Minister that there has been an embassy in North Korea since 2001. I suppose that his answer to my question whether our ambassador and embassy know exactly what is going on in North Korea, is given by the UN publication on major countries of concern. On page 54, it reads:

It may well be that we do not know the full extent of the human rights abuses going on in that country, particularly as it is difficult for a free and fair press to get in there. This is a country with an appalling human rights mechanism.

There is no mechanism to allow a change in the leadership, according again to the UN document on major governments of concern. I am going to quote fairly extensively from one paragraph, which is headed “Particular concerns about the DPRK”, because it graphically states what is wrong with that country. It says:

—only for the elite, I would imagine. The document continues:

that has already been mentioned by a number of hon. Members—

That seems a bizarre way of terrorising the population. Even more bizarrely, the publication reports that

More shockingly still, the publication continues:

That is a pretty shocking record for any country.

Hon. Members have mentioned that there are up to 200,000 North Koreans on the Sino-North Korean
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border. The Minister gave one figure, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham gave another, higher one.

Information gathered from defectors also indicates that a system of forced labour camps is in operation. Conditions in those camps are extremely harsh and the mortality rate is high. A further type of camp focuses on rehabilitation, and the conditions are subsequently less harsh. The DPRK does not allow any independent domestic organisations to monitor human rights, and requests for visits by international human rights organisations have been largely ignored. One visit by Amnesty International was allowed in 1996. The report was regarded as hostile and Amnesty has not been allowed to visit again. The hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), when he was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, visited the country with some journalists, but the UK and other countries then tabled hostile resolutions at the UN, and the DPRK Government regarded that, too, as interference in the sovereign right to run their country.

One of the worst aspects of North Korea is how it deals with food. A number of colleagues have explained how, but considering the famine in the 1990s, when more than 1 million people were starved to death, it is very worrying that the North Korean Government have cancelled aid from the World Food Programme. As I said in an intervention, before the aid was cancelled, the South Korean Government sent last year 350,000 tonnes of fertiliser and 500,000 tonnes of rice to North Korea. The North Korean Government originally asked for the same amount this year, but the South Korean Government’s spokesman, Yang Chang-seok, said that if North Korea test-fires a missile, it will impact on rice and fertiliser aid. That is a deeply worrying development.

North Korea has a long history of providing food on a priority basis and according to the classifications that I have read out. It has fed the elite while discriminating against the so-called hostile class. If recent history is anything to go by, the Government will distribute food to preferred citizens, and only then to the general public through the public distribution system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said.

The PDS provides coupons for food and consumer goods to people through their places of work. During the food crisis of the 1990s, millions of people who depended on the PDS rations died from starvation. Many more died from severe malnutrition and hunger as the system broke down, and the crisis ended with massive amounts of international food aid. The tolerance of private markets was ameliorated by recent improved harvests, but one cannot expect them to continue.

Until the famine of the 1990s, food rationing was perhaps the single most important way of controlling the population in North Korea, as people could receive rations only from their place of work or study. The system largely kept the population immobile and obedient, so that people would not risk losing their only source of food.

So, Mr. Benton, what is the way forward? It is obvious to all of us here that the North Korean Government must allow international NGOs, including the World Food Programme, to resume the necessary supply of food. More than that, they must either ensure that its distribution is fair and adequately supplied, or permit
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citizens to obtain food in other, direct ways through markets. It is clear from the devastating famine and pervasive hunger of the past, which was well documented by the United Nations and NGOs, that the PDS and the country’s official food industry have miserably failed the North Korean people.

My party supports the resolution of the 2003 UN Commission on Human Rights, the second resolution tabled by the EU in 2004 following a visit by the hon. Member for Harlow and the third UNCHR resolution in 2005. I note with sadness that those resolutions have never been acknowledged by the DPRK Government, and nor has the appointment of the UN special rapporteur on human rights, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, who was mentioned by the Minister. I was particularly pleased to hear that the Minister had invited him to London, and I hope that it will be possible for the all-party group to attend a meeting with the special rapporteur, not only to hear what he has to say, but to question him as well.

Mr. McCartney: The purpose of asking Professor Muntarbhorn was not just to give myself or officials the privilege of discussing his views of what we need to do internationally since the creation of the new council but to give people here open access to him. That includes hon. Members from all parties, Opposition spokespersons, Members of the House of Lords, NGOs and others with a direct interest in the matter. We want to give hon. Members, not just Ministers, access to him. It will be a privilege to meet this gentleman. I hold him in high regard, and he is very knowledgeable. He wants to discuss his ideas; he desperately wants to move things forward in North Korea.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I regard that as extremely helpful. It will be an important meeting that I much look forward to attending. I have no doubt that those who have attended this debate will be there, ready with some fairly sharp questions for the special rapporteur about how things can be moved forward.

We must make it clear to the North Koreans that we are ready to help their people, but that basic rights and needs must first be granted, either by bilateral or multilateral processes. Clearly, one of the first tests of the new United Nations Human Rights Council will be to address the appalling situation in North Korea and to challenge and engage with Pyongyang.

The missile situation inevitably has an effect on the North Korean Government’s attitude to human rights because if they are spending money on re-arming and on ever more devastating technology, that must have an effect on the amount of money available for the people of that country. The United States ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has said:

The tests would spell further trouble for the stalled six-party negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and human rights. They would raise questions about
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the future stability and security of the region and North Korea’s enduring role as the region’s troublemaker.

The UN has made it clear that all diplomatic negotiations must take place through the six-party framework involving North Korea. I welcome that, because I think the idea behind testing this missile may well be to tempt the United States back into bilateral talks to offer further carrots to the regime, which would be totally the wrong way to go. The six-party talks, involving South Korea, Russia, Japan, China and the United States, must be allowed to proceed and I hope that they will produce some improvement in the standard of living of the dreadfully oppressed people in North Korea.

4.34 pm

Mr. McCartney: With the leave of the House, Mr. Benton. I was both encouraged and perplexed by what I have heard from hon. Members today. It is clear that there is widespread concern about the behaviour of the North Korean Government, and I was perplexed by the matter-of-fact way in which the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) explained what he found on his visit, which made his speech all the more effective. There were no frills or attempts to exaggerate: he gave a straightforward account of what, as an eye-witness, he saw and found and of what he suspected was behind some of the situations that arose. He did not grandstand in any way, and I shall come back to some of the issues that he raised in a minute.

To my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) I make the point that it was the regime that broke off the discussions in the six-party talks and which will not allow the UN special rapporteur in. The rapporteur is not from the west; he is Thai and a respected international figure in terms of discussions, negotiations and representation for his region. It is the regime that will not allow the United Nations to come in and give help and support to change the situation there. The regime restricts the role of non-governmental organisations in the country—NGOs whose members have skills, knowledge, expertise and courage. They do not take a party political stance, but have one simple interest: the development and redevelopment of the country and its citizens.

If my hon. Friend has further talks with the regime in London, will she urge the regime to: return to the talks; allow the special rapporteur to enter the country and do his work; allow the UN to work effectively with the North Koreans; and release the people there who are in jail or similar situations for simply expressing a view or not having the same view as the regime, expressed or otherwise?

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