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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn):
We were disappointed by the regimes refusal to engage with the UN special envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, during
his visit. It shows no willingness to meet the demands of the international community, in particular the need for a genuine and inclusive process of national reconciliation. The regime is determined to press ahead with its flawed road map process, which risks entrenching division and instability in the country.
Ann McKechin: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, and I share her disappointment with the outcome of the recent visit by the UN envoy. Does she share my concern about the proposed referendum that the Burmese regime anticipates will take place in May? It is likely that it will wish to retain a large block vote for the military in the new Parliament, and to ban opposition leaders. What dialogue has she had with Burmas neighbours, including China and India, on what they will do to put pressure on the Burmese regime to ensure that the process is much more democratic than is currently proposed?
Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the proposals give no cause for optimism at all. There is no inclusive process in the proposals; indeed, the constitution on which the referendum would take place has not been seen. She rightly identifies the important role of China and India. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown has done a great deal to work with them. The Prime Minister raised the matters on his visits to China and India, and we will continue to press them to use their influence.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): On 19 November 2007, in response to the institutionalised bestiality of the Burmese regime, the Council of the European Union announced new sanctions in respect of the Government of Burma covering gems, metal and timber; 127 days later, why have those sanctions not been fully implemented? When does the Under-Secretary of State estimate that they will be, and do the Government intend to press for a strengthening of the EU common position, including a ban on all investment, when the matter comes up for consideration next month?
Meg Munn: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the EU ban on those matters was formalised in January, so sanctions should be in force, and we are monitoring their effect. However, we are not complacent, and we will consider pressing for further sanctions if the regime does not continue to take steps along the lines set out by the United Nations.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Peaceful attempts have been made to demand democratic values in Burma and other locations across the globe. What specific attention have the Government given to efforts to support those peaceful attempts, particularly by the opposition in Burma?
Meg Munn: The Government are in touch with a range of countries in the region, particularly neighbouring countries: not just China and India but the ASEANAssociation of South East Asian Nationscountries. ASEAN has made a decision to step back, but individual countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have proposed talking to the Burmese about encouraging peaceful ways forward, and we support those efforts.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): A few weeks ago, I met Piero Fassino, the EUs envoy to Burma, who has been unable to go there since he was appointed, which indicates the military regimes attitude. What steps can my hon. Friend and her fellow Ministers in the EU take to press for tougher, co-ordinated international action, both within the EU and through their contacts with other international organisations?
Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is right that we should seek to get the Burmese regime to co-operate with a number of processes to demonstrate that it is willing to move towards a more democratic situation. We remain engaged in the United Nations through the Secretary-Generals group of friends. We are involved, too, through the EU, and as I have said, we continue to lobby and discuss the situation with countries in the region. We want Sergio Pinheiro, the UN human rights envoy, to be able to return and make a proper assessment of the human rights situation in Burma, and that is something to which we have given priority.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Ministers have said on many occasions that the Government would support further action at the UN and through the EU on Burma if the Burmese Government failed to make progress on political reform and reconciliation. It appears to many hon. Members that the Burmese Government do not respond to virtually anything; the only thing to which they seem to respond in a small way is strong international opinion. Given that Mr. Gambari has said that his visit did not yield any tangible outcome, will the Government push for Burma to be put on the UN Security Councils formal agenda, and for meaningful action such as a UN arms embargo to be finally adopted?
Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman raises some important matters. We are concerned about the lack of progress and, indeed, in some respects, matters have gone backwards. We would certainly consider pushing for the issue to be discussed further at the UN, and we would support a UN call for an arms embargo.
The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The Government are very concerned about the increasing repression of womens rights activists in Iran. Reports have reached us that dozens of women have been arrested and sentenced for campaigning peacefully for reform of discriminatory laws in the country. Protection of human rights defenders and freedom of expression is crucial to the promotion of human rights. We reiterate the EUs recent call for Iran to
put an end to all acts of harassment against all Iranian human rights defenders.
I thank the Minister for his reply. In addition to being arbitrarily arrested and detained, women are being ill-treated in prison and denied access to legal redress. It may be very well to support EU
action, but what positive action has the Minister taken alongside other EU countries to bring those practices to an end?
Dr. Howells: I can certainly tell the hon. Lady that the United Kingdom has been in the forefront of efforts to persuade EU member states to take much stronger action against Iran, principally for its general abuse of human rights. It is the country that executes the second highest number of prisoners in the world, after China, and those executions very often take place publicly under barbaric conditions. It is also the country that has brought back all sorts of barbaric punishments, such as stoning to death. I have démarched the Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom about that, and I know that a number of other European states have done the same. I can assure the hon. Lady that we will keep up that pressure.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I wonder what other action we can take to deal with the problem of the abuse of women and also, as he rightly says, Irans terrible record with regard to capital punishment. Is it not time that the UN took that up more seriously? We hear about the threat of nuclear proliferation, but Irans treatment of its people should also be at the forefront of our mind. What does my hon. Friend intend to do about that?
Dr. Howells: The Government are publishing their human rights report today, in which, unfortunately, Iran features heavily. My hon. Friend is right. We believe that there ought to be much more concerted action on the part of the United Nations to persuade the Iranian Government that if Iran is to be, as it purports to want to be, a modern democratic state, it could begin quickly and easily to be so by stopping the abuse of human rights and the barbaric punishments that it uses.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I am glad to hear that the Minister and the Government take seriously the appalling treatment of women in Iran. Can he share with the House the Foreign Offices assessment of what happened last week in parliamentary elections, and whether the so-called conservative consolidation in those elections may even make matters worse?
Dr. Howells: I think there is a question coming up on that, but I can say that I, for one, was disappointed by the apparent outcome of that election, but we have heard since that there is now quite a strong group in Parliament that refers to itself as pragmatic conservatives. I do not know whether the hon. Lady knows what that means, and whether she would recognise that term. It should be a great cause for concern among all politicians inside Iran that a country that is potentially as great and as wealthy as Iran ought to be is better known for human rights abuses against women and against many other parts of the population than it is for its great history and great potential.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con):
As relations between Iran and the outside world have worsened over its nuclear programme, Iran has also taken less and less notice of rebukes over its extremely poor human rights record. Given that and Irans effective suspension of
the EU-Iranian human rights dialogue since 2004, what additional action do the Government propose to take to expose Iranian behaviour and to call on it to abolish cruel and degrading punishments such as stoning, flogging and amputations once and for all?
Dr. Howells: I can assure the hon. Gentleman, who is the Opposition spokesman on this important subject, that whenever and wherever we hear reports of such abuses taking place, we try very hard to ensure that our voice is heard. As hon. Members have said, it will take a lot more concerted action on that, and I would like to see far more effective action by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly to address these matters, which infect the reputation of Iran. We want that country to have a good reputation, not to be known for its abuses of human rights.
The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): It is essential for Iraqs stability and prosperity that it develops constructive relationships with its neighbours, including Iran. We welcome Iranian efforts to build relations, but some elements in Iran continue to support illegitimate armed groups, undermining democracy and security. That is wholly unacceptable, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have told the Iranian Foreign Minister on a number of occasions. British and coalition troops will continue to support the Iraqi Government in confronting such groups and their sponsors.
Mr. Dunne: Despite President Ahmadinejads official visit to Baghdad earlier this month, General Petraeus yesterday publicly accused the Iranians of being responsible for supplying the mortars and rocket shells that landed within the green zone. He also said that Iranian revolutionary guard elements were responsible for training the insurgents who fired those rockets. What action will the Government take against the Iranian authorities to prevent the Iranians from stoking the insurgency in Iraq?
Dr. Howells: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been worried for a long time about the supply of Iranian weapons, especially those of Hezbollah designroadside bombs with special detonation devices that bear the hallmark of Hezbollah and seem to have come through elements of the Iranian security forces.
We have called on Tehran to turn its rhetoric about wanting a good relationship with its neighbour Iraq into a reality. We urge it now to try to do just that, to make sure that the relationship is based not on fear and terror, but on the understanding that if Iran is to have a safe and secure future, Iraq must be safe and secure as well.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The whole House will be very concerned about the situation in Tibet. An uneasy calm has returned to Lhasa, although unrest has spread to surrounding regions. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to Premier Wen on 19 March, my right hon. Friend urged him to respect the human rights of detainees, avoid the use of excessive force, respect freedom of expression and religion in Tibet, and start a political dialogue with the Dalai Lama. I repeated those points to the Chinese Foreign Minister when I spoke to him on Friday. We also call on the protesters to desist from further violence.
Mr. Gray: The whole House will be with the Foreign Secretary in hoping that protesters desist from further violence. However, the fact is that most Free Tibet protesters and the Buddhists that go with them are peaceful protesters. The awfulness has been that they have been repressed in the most violent way by the Chinese and other interests.
Will the Foreign Secretary give us his assurance that as the Olympic torch wends its way across Europe and through the UK, the British authorities will allow peaceful protest by the Free Tibet people and that he will use his best initiatives with other countries across the world to ensure that those people are allowed to continue their perfectly legitimate and free protests?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. He is absolutely right that our traditions of free speech and free demonstration must be upheld in respect of all mattersincluding the passage of the Olympic torch, which should pass with full security but also with full respect for our democratic freedoms.
The hon. Gentleman hinted at a further important point. In the last 50 years, the Dalai Lama has made it his business not to argue for independence for Tibet, but to voice calls for moderation and dialogue. The danger is that people give up on that course and turn to more violent courses of action; the hon. Gentleman may have been hinting at that point in the early part of his question. I certainly echo the conclusion of that point, which is that the need for political dialogue has never been greater.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that many Tibetans in exile in northern India are expressing impatience with the Dalai Lamas commitment to peaceful protest and to autonomy rather than independence. Does my right hon. Friend not think that that makes it even more important that the Government should put all the support that they can behind the Dalai Lama and behind the work towards a peaceful resolution?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and it is precisely why the Prime Minister is going to meet the Dalai Lama, who is a respected religious figure. My hon. Friend is right to point to the fact that without dialogue as the basis for expressing
frustration, people turn in other directions. I share the sense of urgency that she brings to the issue.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): Given that the Chinese Government depend on trade with the EU, what European initiative is likely to take place to try to ensure that the Chinese understand that dealing with the Dalai Lama is crucial not only to their domestic problems in Tibet but to their global position and their increasing respectability in the world before the Olympics?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In respect of both the Olympics and trade, there is an important decision for the world to take: whether it gains, and China gains, from engagement or from isolation. We have made our position clear in respect of the Olympics: engagement is betterand ditto in respect of trade. However, I can assure him that in that context of a commitment to engage in China on an open basiswith maximum openness, actuallythe 27 European Foreign Ministers who meet this weekend will discuss how we can ensure that the maximum political voice is given to the need for the sort of dialogue that he believes in.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend enter into discussions with the Chinese to ensure that non-violent protest may take place, that people who are going to take part in the Olympics will not have to sign any gagging orders, and that we allow freedom of speech in a non-violent way?
David Miliband: To the extent that that question is related to the story about British athletes, there is certainly no question of gagging orders. My hon. Friend also raises a wider point, which is that in our own history and reading of the Chinese situation, giving people expression for human rights and guaranteeing human rights, whether in the courts of law or in respect of freedom of speech, is the way to ensure the stability of a society rather than to promote its instability. That is the basis of our human rights dialogue with the Chinese authorities, which went to Tibet earlier this year, and it is the basis of the human rights cases that I raised with Chinas Foreign Minister and Prime Minister when I was there last month.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): When issuing instructions on the policing for the progress of the Olympic torch in Britain, will the Government take the view that the police should allow placards to appear in any picture of the torch passingthe protesters viewor will they take the Chinese view that the event should be policed in such a way that no protest placards and posters will be on display?
If the right hon. Gentleman believes that we control the pictures that people take, he is perhaps giving greater credence than is deserved to stories about the Governments prowess in controlling the media. Obviously, the operational matters will be taken forward by the policing authorities. I am sure that the spirit of the whole House is summed up in the idea that we want to ensure not only security for the torch and a proper celebration of the Olympic spirit,
but that our own history and our own commitments to democratic rights and freedom of protest are properly respected.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): In todays London Times, it is reported that the Foreign Secretary was assured by the Chinese Foreign Minister that any Chinese protesting against the Beijing Olympics would be given a cup of tea by the police; we then read that Yang Chunlin was given five years in jail for it. Tibetan protesters have been getting shot. What credence does the Foreign Secretary give to assurances from the Chinese Foreign Minister or Government about their good intentions?
David Miliband: The Chinese Foreign Minister did not assure me about a cup of tea or promise me a cup of teahe answered a question from, I think, a correspondent from The Times at a press conference that the Minister and I held in Beijing, and I think that his answer was in respect of a slightly different point. The credence that we have to give is that actions are what count; the rights of individuals in China and the actions of the Chinese Government are absolutely key to the responsibilities of great nations like the Chinese. It is important that we continue to set out our own view without fear or favour.
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