Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Oct 2006 : Column 369WH—continued

The Kachin have a ceasefire with the SPDC, so rape cannot simply be dismissed as a consequence of “counter-insurgency” operations. Similarly in Mon state, where there is also a ceasefire, women are taken as sexual slaves for the army, as described in the devastating report “Catwalk to the Barracks”.

In his report of last week, the UN special rapporteur says:

In light of UN Security Council resolution 1674 passed this year, which calls for the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, what action will the Government take at an international level to bring the regime to justice for those crimes? Will the Minister assure hon. Members that in the debate at the Security Council in New York in two days’ time on resolution 1325 the UK will raise the situation in Burma and encourage others to do so? Will the UK call on the SPDC to bring an end to the system of impunity for grave violations committed by state actors, including rape and sexual violence?

On the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Burma, in September the Back Pack Health Worker Team—a group of extremely courageous medics who work in the conflict zones of eastern Burma, at huge risk to their lives, to deliver medical assistance—published a report called “Chronic Emergency: Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma”. Its findings are an indictment of the regime and of the international community’s failure to respond. According to that report and a similar one published earlier in the year by Johns Hopkins university, Burma faces a dire public health crisis caused by the regime’s lack of investment in health care and its violation of human rights. Eastern Burma, in particular, is one of the world’s worst health disaster zones.

24 Oct 2006 : Column 370WH

“Chronic Emergency” claims that the situation is as bad as that in the poorest countries in Africa, yet Burma receives only a fraction of the aid and attention given to Africa. Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS have reached epidemic proportions. Infant mortality rates and deaths from treatable diseases are among the worst in the world, yet Burma’s regime, which spends more than 40 per cent. of its budget on the military, invests less than $1 per person per year in health and education combined. The World Health Organisation’s assessment of health care ranks Burma 190th out of 191 states. Only Sierra Leone has a worse record of caring for its citizens.

I appreciate that the debate continues about the most effective way to deliver aid to the people of Burma and undoubtedly we want to avoid channelling money through the SPDC. I do not intend to try to address here all the complexities of that discussion, but I shall raise one simple point. I am aware that the Department for International Development is in the final stages of carrying out a review of its policy on Burma. I welcome the fact that it has had that review and I look forward to hearing the outcome, but I hope very much that DFID will find a way to provide substantial and much-needed assistance to the more than 1 million internally displaced people who as yet have not been reached by DFID funds. Outstanding organisations, such as the Back Pack Health Worker Team, are carrying out life-saving work and deserve our support. There is a precedent, as I understand that four other Governments do fund such humanitarian groups. I hope that DFID will be able to join them.

I want to focus on current political developments, first within Burma and then internationally. Just two weeks ago, the SPDC began the final session of its national convention to draw up a new constitution for the country. I hope that the Minister will assure hon. Members that Her Majesty’s Government do not give the SPDC’s national convention one iota of credibility and that the Minister will recognise it for what it is—a sham and a desperate bid by a brutal military regime to rubber-stamp its own agenda and give itself a civilian face. The delegates at the national convention are hand-picked and threatened with severe penalties if they criticise the process. The NLD and the major representatives of most of the ethnic nationalities are excluded from the convention.

I understand that the SPDC plans to put the new constitution to a referendum. No one has any confidence that that will be a free and fair referendum. What plans does the Minister have to put pressure on the SPDC to invite international and truly independent monitors, not just on the day of the referendum but in the run-up to it? What hope does he have that there will be a proper period of public awareness raising, information, education and consultation, including freedom for groups to campaign for a no vote?

The SPDC plans to hold new elections following a referendum, only it does not want a rerun of its defeat in 1990, so it has ensured that the proposed constitution assures it of victory. One third of the seats in the legislature will be reserved for the military. The president must be someone with at least 15 years’ experience in the military, and the regime’s civilian militia—the Union Solidarity and Development Association—is expected to be used by the SPDC to
24 Oct 2006 : Column 371WH
contest the seats that are not reserved for the military. The USDA, it should be remembered, are the thugs who attacked Aung San Suu Kyi in Depayin three years ago. During that attack, more than 100 of her supporters were beaten to death. Is this to be the new face of Burma?

Does the Minister agree with the UN special rapporteur, who described the national convention as “meaningless and undemocratic” and added:

Does he also agree that the only way forward for real change and national reconciliation in Burma is tripartite dialogue involving the SPDC, the NLD and the ethnic nationalities? The NLD and the ethnic nationalities have repeatedly stressed their willingness to talk. What action is he taking to push for meaningful tripartite dialogue?

Just over a year ago, the former Czech President, Vaclav Havel, and the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, commissioned an international law firm to assess the case for bringing Burma to the UN Security Council agenda. Their report concluded that there was an overwhelmingly strong case for doing that because Burma met all the major criteria for Security Council action. It recommended a Security Council discussion and a binding resolution that would require the SPDC to release all political prisoners, to open the country to international human rights monitors and humanitarian aid organisations without restriction or interference, and to engage in meaningful tripartite dialogue and a transition to true democracy.

Last month, a year after the report was published, the UN Security Council formally discussed Burma for the first time. That followed two informal UN Security Council discussions on Burma in the past 12 months or so. I am aware that the United Kingdom, along with the United States and others, worked very hard to bring Burma to the formal agenda, and I wish to express my appreciation for the Government’s efforts and to welcome the successes that have been achieved so far. However, I also want to urge on the Minister the fact that the need for a binding resolution on Burma has never been greater. The recent discussion at the Security Council is a very significant step, but talk is not enough.

The UN special rapporteur recommended specifically that the UN General Assembly should call on the Security Council to

Does the Minister support the special rapporteur’s recommendation? What action is the United Kingdom taking to bring about a binding resolution and to ensure the support of other Security Council members?

I shall conclude by considering other steps that the United Kingdom could take. I applaud the robust statements made in the past by the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for human rights, and I reiterate
24 Oct 2006 : Column 372WH
my gratitude to the Government for the efforts made within the UN Security Council to seek a stronger international position. However, I want to suggest additional steps that should be considered.

First, and with great respect to the efforts of the Minister for Trade, I want greater engagement in the issue of Burma at a higher level in the Government, both by the Prime Minister and by the Foreign Secretary. I recognise that there are many challenges on the international scene, but given Britain’s history with Burma and given the severity and the duration of the suffering of its people, I hope that they will give the situation a higher priority than they have done so far.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a very telling, forceful and well-researched speech. He mentioned the Minister with responsibility for human rights, who has spent a great deal of time this year encouraging the new UN Human Rights Council to further its work. Does my hon. Friend agree that that council should perhaps take Burma as one of the first tests of its veracity and effectiveness in pushing the UN to develop the binding resolution that he talked about?

Mr. Crabb: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Secondly, the UK is the second-largest source of approved investment in Burma. Although most major British companies that previously invested in Burma have withdrawn, companies all over the world use Britain to invest in Burma via British dependent territories, such as the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda. The Government could introduce legislation to ban investment in Burma from Britain or British dependent territories.

Thirdly, the Minister should consider ways to strengthen the EU common position when it is reviewed this year. Will he tell the House why, despite the common position to freeze assets held in Europe by listed regime officials, less than £4,000 has been frozen across all 25 EU member states so far? What action are the Government taking to address that in the EU?

The strongest feature of the EU common position is a limited investment ban, introduced in 2004. European companies are banned from investing in a number of named state-owned enterprises. However, on that list of named state-owned enterprises are a pineapple juice factory and a tailor’s shop, but no enterprises in the key sectors of oil, gas, mining and timber. The military regime in Burma is propped up by oil, gas, timber and gems, but surely not by pineapple juice.

Fourthly, DFID provides no financial support for Burmese pro-democracy and human rights groups that are operating in exile but which carry out vital work in documenting and disseminating information—groups such as the Shan Women’s Action Network and the Karen Women’s Organisation, which have helped to bring the issue of rape to the attention of the world; media organisations such as the Democratic Voice of Burma radio and television stations, which broadcast news to Burma and provide an essential source of information; and democracy organisations such as the Government in exile, the National Council of the Union of Burma or the trade union movement. If
24 Oct 2006 : Column 373WH
developing democracy and civil society is to be a priority, why does DFID not fund such work for Burma?

Finally, it is becoming increasingly obvious that what is occurring in eastern Burma, particularly to the Karen, Karenni and Shan, amounts to more than just the counter-insurgency that the SPDC claims. The crimes of widespread rape, forced labour, mass displacement, torture, the use of human minesweepers, and the destruction of villages, livelihoods and lives surely amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is a strong case of genocide or attempted genocide to be considered. I note that one definition of genocide provided by the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, in article 2(c), is:

Genocide does not have to involve the destruction of a whole race; nor need it even entail mass killing.

Earlier this month, when the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) asked the Minister responsible for human rights, by way of a written parliamentary question, about whether genocide was being committed inside Burma, the answer expressed no view. At the end of June, the reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), was that

I should like to ask again whether, in the view of Her Majesty’s Government, the Burmese regime is committing genocide. Does the Minister agree that there is a need thoroughly to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide or attempted genocide? If so, what action are he and his colleagues taking?

In describing the situation in Burma I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the regime’s legacy of fear and suffering. I have not, for example, described the use of forced labour. Nor have I detailed the lack of religious freedoms that blight the lives of Christians and Muslims alike in Burma. However, it is clear that across the full range of basic human rights the Burmese dictatorship systematically restricts, denies and undermines the freedoms that should be enjoyed by all peoples in Burma. In his book “The Case for Democracy”, Natan Sharansky describes the differences between freedom societies and the societies that he calls “fear societies”, which are ruled by regimes that deny freedoms to their peoples and suppress human rights. A community of free nations throughout the world will not, he says, emerge on its own:

We have a duty to confront, in the ways that I have described, the fear society that has been imposed on the people of Burma by the regime there. I close with the words of Zoya Phan, who spoke at the Conservative conference three weeks ago. She said:

24 Oct 2006 : Column 374WH

We need to use our privileged position in the UK to make the situation in Burma the urgent business of the international community.

11.23 am

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am grateful, Mr. Olner, for the opportunity to participate in the debate, and I pay heartfelt tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), who offered the House the most passionate, insightful and spine chilling exposé of the reality of life for millions of people in that beautiful but benighted country called Burma. It is right that the House should have the opportunity, 11 years into the continued incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi, to debate these matters with a view to the formulation and promotion of a still more active Government policy to try to improve the conditions of life in Burma.

Extra-judicial killings, rape as a weapon of war, brutal water torture, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of human mine clearers, the use of child soldiers on a scale proportionately greater than in any other country in the world, and the daily, systematic razing and destruction of villages in their thousands, throughout eastern Burma, all point to the institutionalised bestiality of one of the most appalling Governments on the planet.

I believe that all the people of Burma are dehumanised and continue to suffer on the most breathtaking scale as a consequence of the wholly illegitimate Government who tyrannise each and every one of them. I am mindful, however, of the very particular circumstances and plight of the ethnic nationals to whom my hon. Friend so movingly referred. I speak of course of the Karen, the Karenni, the Kachin, the Chin, the Mon, the Arakan and the Rohingya peoples, to name just a few of the groups that daily experience the most egregious abuse of their human rights.

In that context, I express my personal gratitude and that, I suspect, of a number of right hon. and hon. Members, to two organisations that make a distinctive contribution in reminding the world of the plight of the people of Burma. I refer, of course, to the Burma Campaign, with which I am well familiar and with which I have closely co-operated in recent years as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Burma. I know that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) is well aware of that organisation, too. The Burma Campaign is fantastic. Whenever I think of it, I call to mind the three musketeers, united in vigorous and committed campaigning for a better future for that country. I refer, of course, to Yvette Mahon, Anna Roberts and Mark Farmaner. They are superb campaigners and deserve tribute to be paid to them in the House.

The other organisation that is very much to the fore in highlighting the abuse of human rights in Burma is Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I want to acknowledge the sterling contribution made by Ben Rogers, the advocacy officer for Burma and south-east Asia, who has made about a dozen visits in recent years to the Thai-Burmese border to meet, and to hear the harrowing personal testimonies of, those who have suffered under the wilful abuse of a destructive regime.
24 Oct 2006 : Column 375WH
Those organisations continue to fly the flag for a better future for people who are suffering grievously on a daily basis, with scant protection and precious little active help—something that cannot be right, and must change.

It is a pleasure to see the Minister for Europe here today. I recognise that he has, in former capacities, regularly had to listen to me speak on this subject. When he was Leader of the House, I often called for such debates. It may be a relatively trying experience for Ministers to endure the phenomenon of any Member regularly pontificating on a subject, but I make no apology for doing so, because I believe that the State Peace and Development Council is one of the worst and most tyrannical regimes in the world, and that, although now and again it receives adverse coverage, that happens on far too limited and sporadic a basis. We need a focus of critical attention and determination to secure change, if there is to be any prospect of delivering that in the foreseeable future.

I have three proposals—none of which is original, and to all of which my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire referred, but each of which is vital to the prospects of trying to get a better deal for the abused citizens of Burma. The first is to secure UN Security Council intervention in Burma. I point out to the Minister the fact that that cause commands substantial cross-party support. I tabled early-day motion 902 on the subject last year, with the support of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird)—not to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I think that subsequently we were joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). When last I looked, less than 24 hours ago, that early-day motion had commanded the support of 320 Members of the House. From all the major and some of the minor parties, support has been forthcoming.

Given that Ministers are not in a position to sign early-day motions, and that the same prohibition applies to members of the Government Whips Office and the whole payroll vote, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries, that puts in context the scale of support that we enjoy. There are probably only 500 right hon. and hon. Members at most who are in a position to sign early-day motions, and we all know that some colleagues prefer not to sign any such motions for fear of being asked to sign more than they would like. It is therefore telling testimony to the strength of opinion and deep sense of frustration that we feel, and our earnest conviction that something better can and should be done, that the support of 321 colleagues has been secured.

Next Section Index Home Page