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Norman Baker: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to get the history right. China continually maintains that what happens in Tibet is an internal matter. It is not an internal matter because Tibet is not part of China. It is an occupied country. I believe that it was independent for hundreds of years, but it was certainly independent between 1911 and 1950. The United Kingdom has a special position in that respect; we were one of the few countries to have that dealt with Tibet during that period, and we can testify to Tibet’s status. Indeed, we signed detailed treaties with Tibet, including the Simla convention.

That may be history, but it is important in establishing how the international community should deal with Tibet. Only Britain can deliver on that. My first request to the Minister is that he should gently correct the historic record, and not allow the Chinese Government continually to say that Tibet has always been part of China. He knows that it has not.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right about the historical record, but would he concede that the Dalai Lama has made an historic compromise in calling for autonomy rather than independence? That compromise should have been taken up by the Chinese. May I also say that the current repression of Tibetans is worse than what happened in 1989 in Tiananmen square? It is the act of occupiers rather than of people who govern with consent.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, I am grateful to colleagues from across the political spectrum for being here today; it is not a matter for one Member only but for Parliament. Members of all three parties are concerned about this serious matter. Indeed, as we have seen, people across the world are concerned, including the Indian football captain who refused yesterday to take part in the Indian leg of the Olympic torch relay, and the protesters in Greece when the torch was lit. The Chinese authorities have horrified the entire world with their actions.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. As he knows, we hear a great deal in relation to foreign policy about the advocacy of liberal values and the pursuit of human rights. Does he agree—I am sure that he does—that the Government and political parties have a responsibility to pursue those ends in the face of powerful countries such as China no less than in the face of less powerful ones?

Norman Baker: That is true. I am sorry to say that the world’s reaction to the events in Burma—the Burmese Government were heavily criticised, and rightly so—was very different from the muted response to the Chinese crackdown in Tibet. I hope that the leading nations of the world, including those in NATO, the EU and G8, will come together to make it clear to the Chinese authorities that they are not happy—that is an understatement—that they are appalled by the action taken in Tibet.

I digress for a moment on the historical context. The “Today” programme continually refers to protests that happen “outside” Tibet. That is to misunderstand the boundaries of Tibet. Tibet includes areas that the Chinese
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annexed when setting up the Tibet Autonomous Region, but provinces such as Sichuan are part of Tibet. I am sorry to say that the “Today” programme refuses to correct that, although they have been informed of the error by me and others. That shows the arrogance of the programme; it will not always correct things that are wrong. I hope that the programme will do so in future.

The western world’s muted response is not something of which we can be proud. It contrasts with our condemnation of the Burmese regime. The stifled sounds of western Governments should be much louder and more forceful. They need to be forceful not only for the philosophical or ethical reasons, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, but because time is limited. A railway has been built into Lhasa, and there is a mass migration of Chinese into Lhasa and Tibet generally, so Tibetans are becoming marginalised in their own country. We need a solution for Tibet in the next few years, and the Olympics is the key to putting pressure on the Chinese Government. Unless we take advantage of that, in five or 10 years’ time we will be arguing about an historical situation. Tibet is a wonderful country and it is sad to see it slipping away. I do not intend to let that happen without a fight, and I hope that Members on both sides will join me in that campaign.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done for Tibet over many years. He mentioned the Olympics. The Dalai Lama clearly has not asked for a boycott of the games, but there is growing international support for boycotting the opening ceremony. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be used as a propaganda weapon by China? Does he agree also that it is quite outrageous that the Chinese ambassador in London should be carrying the Olympic torch—the torch of harmony—through the streets of London? Does he agree that everyone in London should be out on the streets protesting peacefully with the Tibetan flags and other placards about China?

Norman Baker: I entirely welcome that intervention and I welcome the contribution that the hon. Lady has made on this and many similar matters. The action taken by the Chinese ambassador on Sunday quite unnecessarily stoked the flames and added insult to injury, and I hope that he will reconsider even at this late stage.

Let me use my last five minutes to suggest a number of actions to the Minister. First, however, I should say that the Government’s view on Tibet over the years has been helpful, because Britain, unlike most countries, has not accepted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The Government have a formula that they trot out, and I am sure that we will hear it from the Minister again today. Their position is that successive British Governments have regarded Tibet as autonomous while recognising the special position of the Chinese authorities there, and I expect to hear the Minister repeat those words back to me shortly.

The Government have also raised human rights matters in dialogue with China. I am not, therefore, criticising the Government. However, I urge the Minister to grasp the opportunity presented by the Olympics to move matters forward. Simply cajoling the Chinese authorities does not work, because they do not do anything; in fact, they go backwards. We need a gear change if we are to
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see action to save Tibet. The continuation of the present policy is not sufficient, and I hope that the Minister will accept that when he responds. Let me therefore suggest some points to the Minister.

First, I have suggested that the British, uniquely, have an opportunity and, indeed, a duty to set out the historical context so that the world will be aware that Tibet operated independently, at least between 1911 and 1950.

Secondly, the Government have rightly urged engagement between the Chinese authorities, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile. That is correct as far as it goes, but I hope that the Minister will recognise that the six rounds of dialogue so far have been a farce because the Chinese authorities have given nothing at all in response to overtures from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We are bound to conclude that the purpose of such dialogue is not to reach an accommodation, but to spin things out until after the Olympics and perhaps until the Dalai Lama is no longer with us on this planet. I hope that the Minister recognises that such engagement needs to be different, and my second request, therefore, is that the Government, along with like-minded Governments, should urge the Chinese authorities to hold real dialogue with the Dalia Lama; indeed, the Prime Minister referred to that at Prime Minister’s questions. That dialogue should also be independently chaired so that we know what is going on and we can measure how serious, or otherwise, the Chinese authorities are.

My third request is that the Government appeal to China’s self-interest. That may sound rather odd, but does China want to be the world’s pariah? I do not think that it does, although it is going that way at present. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), China must also realise that it has a good offer on the table from the Dalai Lama. Notwithstanding the historical context, he has offered to accept Chinese sovereignty, which has no historical basis, provided that there is genuine autonomy. That is a good offer; it is certainly much better than the offer that the Chinese would get if the Dalai Lama was no longer there. Like others in the room, including my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) and hon. Gentleman, I have met young Tibetans, and plenty of them know that the next generation are not as peacefully minded. They are more frustrated and they are beginning to wonder what 49 years of non-violence have achieved. I am not advocating violence, but simply painting a reality—that is how people feel. The Chinese would therefore be better off doing a deal with the Dalai Lama than doing a deal after he has gone.

My fourth request is that the Government push the International Olympic Committee and the British Olympic Association to do something. When the Chinese were awarded the Olympics, they made promises about human rights and free access for journalists, but they have not kept those promises. In fact, the human rights situation is worse, and access for journalists is either non-existent or highly controlled, as we saw when journalists visited Lhasa the other day on some sort of official package tour. What will the BOA do? When will it break its vow of silence, come out and demand that the Chinese adhere to the conditions that they promised to keep to?
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I hope that the Minister will join me in encouraging the IOC and BOA to do something other than pretend that this is all a horrible dream that will go away.

Harry Cohen: The British Olympic Association has imposed a gag on British Olympic competitors. Should they not lift that gag?

Norman Baker: I understand that it has in fact lifted the gag under some pressure, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right that there was a gag in the first place. It is an absolute disgrace that people should be gagged in a country where there is free speech.

That relates to my next point. My fifth point is that the Minister should reiterate the helpful view of his Foreign Office colleague in the House of Lords that UK athletes are free to make comments about Tibet if they wish to do so. No one is forcing them to do so, but if they want to comment, they should be free to do so without fear of reprisal or sanction. If, when they are in China, they say that Tibet should be free, the British Government should protect them.

My sixth request is that the Government press Ban Ki-moon to send a special mission to Tibet to investigate the situation. He can do that without approval from the Security Council, where the Chinese would doubtless veto such a move. As the Minister will know, there is a precedent for such a mission from 1985, which involved Nigeria.

My next request is that the United Nations Committee on Human Rights send a special rapporteur to Tibet to report back on human rights abuses. I hope that the Government will agree that this and my previous request should be supported.

Next, I ask the Government to work with NATO, the EU and the G8 to produce a statement of condemnation, which has so far been sadly lacking.

Lastly—the Minister will not agree with this, but he should hold it in reserve—we should not rule out boycotting the opening ceremony. We should see how matters develop, but we should not rule out such a move.

The world has let Tibet down very badly over the past 50 years and it has a duty to repair that damage. This country, in particular, has a duty to do so, given our historical links with Tibet. The international community must come together to defend the peace-loving people of Tibet. The Chinese Government can kill, maim and torture under the auspices of patriotic re-education, and they can destroy and marginalise, but they will never destroy the spirit of the Tibetan people and they will never win their hearts and minds.

1.46 pm

Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Dr. Kim Howells): It is a great pleasure to serve in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on proposing this topic for debate at such an important moment.

Like the hon. Gentleman, many of us have been extremely troubled by the recent scenes of violence and unrest in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas. As he knows, the Prime Minister also takes a close personal interest.
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If I may, I should like to set out the situation as it stands, the underlying issues that the recent unrest has highlighted and our strategy on the way forward.

First, let me deal with the situation as it stands today. The demonstrations that began peacefully in Lhasa on 10 March, and which developed into outbursts of violence on 14 March, have now subsided. Unrest was still being reported in the provinces surrounding the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region after an uneasy calm had been restored to Lhasa itself. Official estimates of the casualties have been steadily increasing, and the authorities admitted on Friday that three of the 18 people officially reported dead were Tibetans. As we all know, the Tibetan Government in exile puts the figure much higher, at about 140.

Groups of journalists and diplomats have been taken to Lhasa on specially organised visits by the authorities, and our embassy in Beijing participated in that visit. However, it remains impossible to gain access to the TAR independently. As the hon. Gentleman said, there also remain severe restrictions on access to the surrounding provinces, and there is a significant security presence across Tibetan-populated areas, many of which, as he reminded us, are a long way from the TAR’s present borders.

As we have heard, the Dalai Lama called again in a statement on 28 March for restraint and for a resolution of the underlying issues through dialogue. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) quite properly spoke of the significance of that statement, and it is groundbreaking. Despite that, the Chinese authorities continue to point the finger of blame for the violence firmly at the Dalai Lama and his supporters.

The rioting in Lhasa has been on a scale unseen since 1989, and the unrest elsewhere in Tibetan-populated areas is unprecedented. The current situation of Tibet is a vivid demonstration of many of the human rights concerns that we, as a country that aims to uphold international human rights standards across the world, find most troubling. The first, of course, is freedom of religion. We believe strongly that ordinary Tibetans must enjoy the right to live according to their traditions and customs. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done over the years in pointing out the fact that special protection is needed for that precious culture and language, and that that does not mean being opposed to immigration—I am sure that, like me, he is not against immigration into this or other countries.

Freedom of expression is also necessary. There is no doubt that the demonstrations last month involved widespread violence, and in that situation the authorities in China, like those of anywhere else, are of course entitled to use proportionate force to quell them. Equally, however, where demonstrations are peaceful, like the first ones in Lhasa on 10 March, the right of individuals to make their views known, in Tibet or anywhere else, must be upheld. Peaceful advocacy of any cause—even one deeply unattractive to the Government—should not be criminalised, and journalists and others should enjoy the right to witness and report objectively on what they see. That is extremely important.

With wide scale arrests of those allegedly involved in the demonstrations, our focus must of course turn to trying to ensure the right to due process for those who have been detained. I know that in the short time
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available to him the hon. Gentleman did not have time to talk about that, but I am sure that he agrees with me that it is very important. We raised the issue last week at the organised visit to Lhasa by diplomats, and we were pleased with the verbal commitment from the authorities that those who protested peacefully during the journalists’ visit earlier last week would not be charged. However, we have not yet received a response to the international request made during the diplomats’ visit—it is not just this country that has been making the calls—for access to the trials of those alleged to have been involved in the unrest.

The underlying human rights issues in Tibet are concerns that have been addressed regularly at the highest level in recent discussions between my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and their Chinese counterparts. We have also pursued them through our bilateral dialogue with China on human rights, and through programmes funded through non-governmental organisations and research institutions. The last round of our bilateral rights dialogue, for example, included a field trip to Tibet. I was quite sceptical when I read about that, but we took a very interesting party there. There were experts on, among other things, devolution: devolving power realistically and effectively. That is something that we could certainly debate here, although there is not time at the moment.

As to our response to the current situation, when violence erupted the United Kingdom’s response was fast and firm. Ministers went on the record as soon as the news broke of demonstrations becoming violent. The Prime Minister discussed the crisis in person with Premier Wen on 19 March and the Foreign Secretary discussed it with Foreign Minister Yang on 21 and 28 March. Further regular contact has been maintained with the Chinese embassy in London and through the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those officials who have worked round the clock to keep on top of the rapidly unfolding events.

Harry Cohen: The Minister has referred to the Prime Minister intervening quickly and discussing the matter with Premier Wen. It was good that he did so, but he reported to the House of Commons on 19 March that the Premier told him that

Will the Minister elaborate on that? Will there be face-to-face talks between Premier Wen and the Dalai Lama, and would not it be better for them to happen sooner, rather than later?

Dr. Howells: I certainly cannot give my hon. Friend any more information on that than he already has. If more becomes available I undertake to write to him and to copy the letter to the hon. Member for Lewes.

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