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24 Oct 2006 : Column 375WH—continued

The adoption of Burma as an agenda item by the UN Security Council on 15 September was a welcome advance, and the subsequent discussion on this important subject on 29 September was a still more welcome advance. The Minister should know me well enough by now to know that I am not grudging in offering praise, so I am more than happy to put on record in explicit terms similar sentiments to those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire: I have been struck by the sheer passion
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and conviction with which the Minister for Trade has advanced the case for human rights in Burma since he took over his new responsibilities.

This, however, is not just a matter for Britain. We need wider support, so there is relationship building to be done. A coalition has to be established and other people have to be brought on board, but we have to run fast to stand still. We simply cannot afford to rest for a moment; we have to keep going and seek the support of other countries at every turn. We should not be remotely afraid of the possibility that some of them might resist our approaches. Let us name and shame those people within the United Nations who represent their national interests or perverted priorities and somehow think that the behaviour of the Government of Burma is unexceptionable and does not warrant the attention of the Security Council.

The report commissioned by Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel, which was provided by the American law firm to which my hon. Friend referred, demonstrates beyond peradventure that the regime substantially meets all the relevant criteria for consideration for UN Security Council intervention. I would far prefer a binding Security Council resolution, but I confess that if we have to put up with a non-binding resolution in the short term, that is better than nothing, although we need to send an explicit, unmistakeable signal to the regime that it is, frankly, a leper at the moment.

Burma is a pariah state within the international community and its behaviour is unconscionable. If it entertains even the remotest future ambition, which it entertained unsuccessfully in the past, of being allowed the chairmanship or presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations, it will have to bring about a massive step change in its behaviour. There can be no automaticity in its promotion to a position of jumped-up political importance that its conduct manifestly does not warrant. So, we need to keep going. I would like there to be an arms embargo and substantial UN sanctions against the regime. I do not say that that will be quick in coming, but we should press for it.

My hon. Friend was right to highlight the alarming phenomenon of the substantial investment in Burma through what I would describe as a circuitous and underhand route. Those resources—to the tune of approximately $1.4 billion since 1988, so far as British territories are concerned—are without question serving to prop up the sadistic, brutal, fascistic, military dictatorship. On 2 October, the Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme highlighted that important phenomenon using disturbing evidence to support its thesis.

I appeal to the Minister in the most strenuous terms to consider the Government imposition of a ban on the use of such territories for the provision of investment to the regime. Such investment is not helping the people of Burma and it is not assisting the ethnic nationals who are belaboured by the regime. It is simply putting a pot of gold into the vaults of the banks that are controlled by the Government of Burma, who have no legitimacy and should not be there in the first place.

As my hon. Friend persuasively argued, the Government of Burma are using 40 per cent. of their national budget to finance the military while subjecting
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the country’s people—their own citizens—to appalling indignities, while expenditure on health and education combined is less than $1 per person per year.

The notion that our territories, however inadvertently and with no malice aforethought, should be used to channel resources to a regime that behaves in that way is unimaginable. Although I understand why widespread attention is given to other important issues of public policy in the international sphere, I make a heartfelt plea for the shifting of Burma from the back of Ministers’ minds to the front. Let us put it on the agenda and keep it there. I reserve considerable contempt for the behaviour of Total and Unocal in propping up the regime.

I endorse my hon. Friend’s powerful plea for cross-border aid for the people of Burma. It saddens and angers me greatly that British annual funding to Burma in the form of humanitarian aid amounts to only £8 million a year. I understand, although I am ready for correction if the Minister wants to offer it, that that budget is to be frozen next year, even though the egregious abuses in Burma are piling up on virtually a daily basis. The plight is not diminishing; if anything, it is being exacerbated. The conditions of life in Burma are not radically dissimilar to those of large numbers of people in sub-Saharan Africa. A greater priority should be attached to funding.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend will be aware that the position of Thailand is important in the cross-border aid equation. It has tolerated camps for internally displaced people and refugees on its border, and it employs some of the people who are displaced from Burma, so there are many things for which we can praise and thank Thailand, but does my hon. Friend agree that it must address two issues? First, it must be more free in enabling aid to cross the border. Secondly, it must look carefully at certain Thai individuals who are senior in the Thai community both politically and economically, who are becoming involved in the acquisition of lands in Burma that belong to the ethnic races of Burma, not people in Thailand.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and I agree with him on both counts.

I want to draw to the Minister’s attention what I suspect must be an inadvertently misleading statement, not to the House, for that would not be in order, Mr. Olner, but in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2006 annual report on human rights, because it is relevant to the debate. At page 42—a page with which I am sure you are closely familiar—it states:

that is the Department for International Development—

However, my distinct understanding is that the British contribution to that consortium is provided explicitly on the understanding that it will not be used to provide cross-border humanitarian aid. That statement’s wording is therefore manifestly misleading in offering a contrary impression. I hope that cross-border
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assistance will be provided as a result of the reconsideration of policy, because 1 million people are suffering in the jungle.

Too many people have suffered too much, for too long and with too little done to help them, and that must change. Of course we require pragmatism in the conduct of foreign policy, but there is a proper place for a healthy dose of idealism to boot. Narrow, selfish and destructive commercial considerations have held sway for too long, and it is time to proclaim with a degree of passion that respect for human rights and democratic values must take precedence over the reckless and destructive pursuit of filthy lucre. I hope that the Minister has something useful, interesting and forward looking to say on that point.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and the spokesmen for the two Opposition parties, I should say that this is an important subject, and hon. Members have raised some important questions. Therefore, they should give the Minister adequate time to respond and remember that the debate will conclude at 12.30 pm.

11.40 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Olner. You need have no fear about me. I shall be quite brief, given the great difficulty that I shall have following two such passionate and eloquent speakers on a subject such as this.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this important debate. Indeed, I myself had a debate on this very subject in 2003, so I do not come new to the issue. I am saddened that, despite lots of talk, there has still been no real action by the international community since then. I hope that this debate, and the Government action that should follow from it, will act as a catalyst to bring about the international action that is so necessary. The international community must take stronger action to stop the abuse of innocents and children.

I am sorry that the Minister with responsibility for human rights is not here, but I entirely understand that he is engaged elsewhere and that that was inescapable. Given that he is not here, however, we could hardly have a better Minister with us than the Minister for Europe. He is a good man, he listens carefully and he will take the message of this debate back to his Department. Indeed, he needs no message from us, because he is already aware of the terrible abuses committed by the evil regime in Burma. He is an excellent man and I am sure that he will do a good job today.

The continued detention and brutal treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners is an offence against any concept of civilisation, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire explained, the United Nations Security Council must take action to bring about change. Indeed, as our Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) explained, that will perhaps be a first test for those involved.

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I have been in the Burmese jungle and met the people there. I have seen the horrendous, brutal and inhumane treatment that they have suffered and I honestly believe that they are suffering what is probably a successful attempt at genocide. I have sat with children in the jungle villages and seen girls sent out in the mornings to walk miles to carry back fresh water in old jerry cans and plastic containers. I have seen children with no access to education, health care or any of the normal things that we expect to be available, particularly to young girls passing through puberty. I have a photograph with me of myself sitting with children in the jungle in Burma and I was deeply moved to meet such people and to see their plight. What really offends me, however, is that after all this time, there has been no real action, even though lots of words have been said, and people are still pouring out their souls. Nobody is prepared to step in and take action to stop the abuse of innocents and children.

I have one simple question for the Government. Will they be more proactive? Will they stop talking about their good intentions and take action? Actions speak louder than words. For instance, there is still a strong—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. In his note to me, the hon. Gentleman said that he would take just one minute. Will he please come to his conclusion?

Bob Spink: I will. There is still a strong suspicion that the investment that supports this nasty regime is being channelled through British dependent territories such as Bermuda. The UK Government have the legal power and ability to act, but they have not yet done so. They claim that no new investment is in the pipeline and that action is therefore unnecessary, but I hope that we all agree that that position is insupportable. First, there is such a lack of transparency that the Government cannot know whether there is new investment. Secondly, even if there were no new investment, strong action by the Government now would send a clear message to the regime, to the world and to companies. Perhaps we should have a policy of naming and shaming companies such as the French oil giant Total and Orient Express, that tacitly support the evil Burma regime and its human rights abuses. The time for turning a blind eye has ended—we now need action.

11.46 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you for calling me for the first of the summations, Mr. Olner. In the light of what you said about the obvious need for the Minister to respond in some detail, I shall not detain hon. Members for longer than necessary.

I pay genuine tribute to the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) for his speech and for securing the debate. I share his observation that there are many forgettable moments at all party conferences, but something occasionally stays with us. It is often a speech that is made by a visitor to the conference, or perhaps by somebody from another part of the world, which shines a light on a part of the world that
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would otherwise not necessarily be illuminated. I was interested to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s experiences, and he does the House great credit by giving us the opportunity to debate the issue.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is a masterful performer in the House. He was extremely eloquent and laid out in great detail the challenge facing the British Government and other Governments right around the world.

It is often observed that the House is not at its best when it is consensual because hon. Members rush to be part of the crowd, to go along with the herd and to ensure that they do not stand out for particular attention. In those circumstances, errors are sometimes made, and hon. Members need to speak out against the consensus and put the contrary point of view. That is often the case when legislation is being formed in the House. However, there are times when it is useful for us to speak with one voice right across the political parties, and the main occasion when that is of benefit is when we talk about our values.

If we leave aside for one moment the political parties’ differences over their policies, manifestos and platforms for the general election and boil the issue down to what brings us all here in the first place, we see that it is a shared belief in the virtues of liberty, freedom, democracy and tolerance. We want not only to see those values prosper and flower in the United Kingdom but to see what we in the House of Commons and the Government can do to ensure that they are spread more widely around the world and that the many people who do not enjoy the systems that we take for granted can benefit from them in the future.

I shall not go over ground that has already been covered at length, but Burma’s record is particularly shameful and grotesque. Statistics show that there are well over 1,000 political prisoners in the country, most, if not all, of whom routinely suffer torture. The hon. Member for Buckingham paid tribute to two organisations, the Burma Campaign and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I would also mention Amnesty International, of which I am a member. At school, we were encouraged to support it once a week with a letter-writing campaign; it was voluntary, but lots of the pupils participated. We were given a prisoner of conscience on whom the school was focusing, and we all wrote handwritten letters to the Government of the country concerned. It taught me at quite an early age about values. We ought to believe that individual citizens, let alone parliamentarians, can do something and have some responsibility for the plight of people in countries far from the UK. Amnesty is an organisation that I continue to admire immensely.

Let us consider the rest of the Burmese record, which has been touched upon—systematic rape, 1 million people forced from their homes, and child soldiers. The human rights record is grotesque, but it is worth adding that the regime fails on any other criterion. The Government might say, “Well, our human rights record is not something we are proud of, but look at the quality of life and the material wealth that our citizens enjoy.” I would not accept that as an answer, but I could see that some might wish to make that case. However, the statistics for Burma show that it fails on every count. One in 10 children die before their
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fifth birthday, which is an extraordinarily high rate of infant mortality. As has been touched on, Burma is second to last—191st out of 192—in the world league table as ranked by the World Health Organisation. We have heard that less than $1 a year is spent on health. The figure that I have seen is that Burma spends less than 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product annually on health. The figures are shocking in terms of both the material, physical and other well-being of the people, and the human rights that remain absent from their lives.

What can we do about it? It is widely accepted that the situation requires attention. I want to give some credit to the Government. As I began by saying, I do not think that this is a point of conflict or that the Government seek to frustrate the ambitions of hon. Members in all parts of the House. We may wish that the Government had greater ambition, but we are in no way seeking to disagree with their general intentions or other ambitions. They have made some progress, and I echo the calls that others have made for the United Nations to play a large part in bringing it home to the Burmese regime that its standards do not accord with those of the international community as a whole.

Specifically, the Government have a duty to examine investment that goes from the United Kingdom or through United Kingdom organisations into Burma, because no regime can survive in the medium to long term without some sort of financial input. I join others in condemning the actions of Total and others who have invested with an absence of ethical consideration. If the Government are able to put pressure on France and other Governments who may be able to exert influence on such companies, they will have performed a useful role.

Although I, too, lament the absence of the Minister with specific responsibility for human rights, there is one upside of having the Minister for Europe in his place. If the European Union serves any purpose, it is surely that we can speak as one with 25, soon to be 27, voices and say that we have a shared set of values—liberty, democracy, freedom and tolerance, which I touched on earlier. That voice is heard all the more clearly for being echoed right across the continent and being not just a British voice. It is appropriate that the United Kingdom, given its history in Burma, is able to lead the European Union and other powerful nations on our continent, including France, in bringing pressure to bear on the Burmese and ensuring that they realise that it is not possible to split the civilised nations of the world into those that have more or less antipathy towards them. We share a common and deep hostility to everything that they are doing.

John Bercow: Given that Total, the French-owned oil business, is responsible for propping up the regime to the tune of somewhere between $250 million and $400 million a year through its unethical investment, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the rest of the European Union should, in concerted form, come together to name, shame, denounce and humiliate the French Government for their outrageous collusion in the regime’s unethical practices?

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): As the hon. Gentleman answers that intervention, will he bear in mind the clock?

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Mr. Browne: I will indeed, Mr. Olner. I was about to bring my comments to a conclusion, but I echo the comments that the hon. Member for Buckingham just made. Shame is a great feature of foreign policy in respect of human rights. I understand, as do all hon. Members, that there are limits to the practical impact that the British Government can have. I sometimes sympathise with Foreign Office Ministers, who are urged by Members to make good the wrongs of the world in every single nation. However, shaming the Burmese Government, the French Government and those associated with propping up the Burmese regime could be an important instrument for change.

I shall conclude with a brief observation. One of the strands of foreign policy on which the British Government can make a big difference is the pursuit of human rights. When the Government came to power nine and a half years ago, they talked about having an “ethical foreign policy”. Most people would accept that, in practice, foreign policy must balance a number of considerations—a fact touched on by the hon. Member for Buckingham. On occasions, it may not be practical to have an entirely unsullied ethical foreign policy, even if it is desirable. The ethical dimension to foreign policy in relation to countries such as Burma and North Korea, whose values so clearly violate those that we hold dear, is an extremely important strand of British foreign policy and one that would find great favour among all our citizens. I urge the Minister to pursue it with vigour.

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