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Since the onset of the tragedy, the British Government have been clear that the Burmese regime must allow international agencies unfettered access and freedom to travel to the worst-affected areas. Let me describe the political and diplomatic actions that we have been taking in pursuit of that objective. As I told the House last week, we have already committed £5 million for humanitarian relief, and we stand ready to provide more assistance in due course. Our ambassador in Burma, Mark Canning—to whom I spoke this morning—is raising the question of access directly with the Burmese authorities, and I have personally raised my concerns with the Burmese ambassador here in London. However, as chair of the United Nations Security Council, we are also pressing for unfettered humanitarian access. The UN Secretary-General is galvanising the international
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response, and for some days we have been encouraging him to visit the region as soon as possible. That is not a new position of the British Government; indeed, I argued for it several days ago. The Prime Minister spoke to the Secretary-General yesterday, and pressed him to call a high-level meeting to discuss the crisis. I understand that the Secretary—General is to convene a meeting later today.

We and others, including Burma’s regional friends such as China, India and Thailand, all agree that the Burmese Government must open up to international assistance. I have spoken to the Chinese ambassador in London, and our ambassador in Beijing is lobbying the Chinese Government directly. As the most important friends of the Burmese regime, they must ensure that the aid begins to flow and the experts are allowed to start their work. The Foreign Secretary is in dialogue with his Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Australian, American and French counterparts. Lord Malloch-Brown and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), are today on the ground in Bangkok, both assessing the co-ordination of the regional effort and meeting the Thai Prime Minister to press the case for action.

Over the weekend, I requested the European Union presidency and Commission to convene a meeting to galvanise the EU’s efforts in response to the crisis. This British initiative met with support, and yesterday I was in Brussels to meet European Development Ministers. The conclusion of that meeting reinforced the statements made by the United Nations in support of increasing access, and the European Development Commissioner, Louis Michel, is now travelling to the region to press the views expressed by the Council yesterday. In recent days, I have also been in touch with John Holmes, the UN emergency co-ordinator, Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme, and Henrietta Fore, director of USAID.

As has been made clear in this debate—and as was raised in Prime Minister’s questions—some are advocating direct action and the application of the responsibility to protect doctrine. As I have stated, we rule nothing out, and we must do all we can to resolve this crisis. We continue to argue vigorously in New York for UN Security Council engagement, and we are supporting the continued efforts of the Secretary-General to resolve this crisis.

Tony Baldry: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, because this is an important issue. Britain chairs the Security Council. This emerging norm of the responsibility to protect has been developing for a long time within the UN. If we were to listen to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, our understanding would be that the Government are deliberately not including this concept of the responsibility to protect in their amendment because they are in some way resiling from it. If that is the case, as we are chairing the Security Council, it is a very serious issue indeed. Will the Secretary of State therefore please explain what is the Government’s understanding of the concept of the responsibility to protect?

Mr. Alexander: I was endeavouring to do so when that intervention was made. Let me seek to make a little more progress on the matter.

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There are very strong differences of view within the Security Council on whether it should play any role in this crisis, as there is an issue of national sovereignty in the minds of some of its members. There is also division within the Security Council on the applicability of the responsibility to protect doctrine to the present crisis. We have made it clear—the Prime Minister did so at the Dispatch Box today—that we will continue to consider all options, including using military assets to help deliver aid, as was the case in the tsunami response, and retaining the option of invoking the responsibility to protect. That is not a straightforward or easy option, and it could delay the delivery of aid, but if the Burmese regime continues to fail to help its own people, we will consider all options, including the options I have set out.

Mike Gapes: The UN 2005 millennium summit resolution defines narrowly the meaning of the responsibility to protect, and it does not include general humanitarian issues and other non-specific issues. Is it likely that the Security Council would agree to such action when there is already difficulty over the interpretation of the current narrow definition? Also, will the British Government in any circumstances support—or oppose—unilateral action by a group of countries, which seems to be what is implied by the Opposition motion?

Mr. Alexander: First, given my hon. Friend’s knowledge of, and expertise in, foreign affairs, he will be aware that the Canadian commission that preceded the establishment of the responsibility to protect doctrine anticipated that there could be circumstances following a natural disaster where that doctrine might be applicable. There will, of course, be legal arguments and debate about such points, but some authorities have suggested the potential applicability of the responsibility to protect.

As I have made clear, there are at root two legal issues in the context of the discussions that have taken place in the Security Council on this issue. The first of those is whether the Security Council itself is the appropriate body to discuss this matter, because some have argued that it is not, given that this is essentially a matter that comes under the national sovereignty of Burma, while others have argued that there are broader concerns in terms of regional international security which make the Security Council an appropriate forum in which to discuss it. There has also been dispute and division within the Security Council on the applicability of the responsibility to protect. Notwithstanding that, given our position as current chair of the Security Council, we continue to engage actively with our partners on the Security Council and we seek to find consensus and a way forward. It is for the Opposition to explain the terms of their motion, but we are clear that, while we rule no option out, we will continue to pursue this matter within the Security Council and actively engage in discussions with our colleagues.

In addition to the political and diplomatic hurdles that I have described, it is also right to assess the effectiveness of any direct action in getting assistance to the people who need it. This morning, I met representatives of British NGOs working in the field,
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and received no request for immediate air drops. That reflects some of the sentiments in discussions that have taken place, and some of the difficulties in relation to air drops—which were, indeed, anticipated by those on the Opposition Front Bench. Air drops have proved successful in the past where it is possible to have an identified drop zone and aid workers are waiting to distribute the aid to the most vulnerable within the communities. If such aid workers are absent, not having been deployed to the drop zone, the aid can end up in the hands of the strongest rather than the weakest. Secondly, one would need to identify suitable drop zones in an area of the Irrawaddy delta that is now largely under water as a consequence of the cyclone, with large areas of standing water.

Therefore, as I have said, this is not an easy or straightforward option, and while we take no option off the table, it is interesting that the organisations that are currently making efforts to get aid to those who need it most are making no request to the British Government for such drops at present. Indeed, in recent days the World Food Programme has said that aid drops could be “dangerous and counter-productive” without the proper ground support available, and Jane Cocking, humanitarian director of Oxfam—with which I understand the Leader of the Opposition was in touch only yesterday—has said:

Let me be clear, however, that we will consider all options in getting aid to those affected, and continue to apply the highest diplomatic effort to ensure that international aid and aid experts are allowed to get to where they are most needed.

The UN Secretary-General has said that we are at a “critical point” in the response to this grave humanitarian crisis. It is, indeed, the case that the lives of many thousands depend now on the actions not only of the Burmese regime but of the international community. There is no difference in the world’s willingness to help, compared with either the tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake. It is the military regime’s chilling indifference to the plight of the Burmese people that has been laid bare. Yet we must balance our outrage at the Burmese junta’s response so far with a clear-headed sense of what will actually make a difference on the ground. While we are not ruling out any action, we are working every available diplomatic channel to provide both unfettered access for international aid and aid workers, and an international community that speaks with one voice—and says that we must work together to avert any further human catastrophe following this natural disaster. I commend our amendment to the House.

2.18 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. Like him, I join the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), and others across the Chamber in expressing sympathy for the people who have lost family members and friends and who even at this moment have no idea what their future will be after this unimaginable disaster of the past 10 days.

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I welcome the statement that was part of the Secretary of State’s speech today, and acknowledge his intention to come back to the House and make a statement in his own time at some point this week. The official Opposition have however provided us with a good opportunity to air all the different issues and to examine thoroughly what has been going on and what can still go on. I welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s decision to move this motion.

On the vexed issue of the motion, I have listened carefully to the contributions from both Front Benches and I wish to make it clear that we will support the motion. It is a shame that the Secretary of State cannot bring himself and his colleagues to support it. I recognise that they have some concerns about the language, but surely what matters is the message that this House sends to the outside world, rather than a dispute about who said what and when, and what represents a particular point of view. In the past few minutes, the Secretary of State has said that we rule nothing out, so I do not understand why the Government cannot accept a motion containing the words

The Secretary of State has helpfully updated us, although starkly so, about the situation on the ground—it is under water, tragically—in Burma. Some 200,000 people may have lost their lives, and that is a staggering figure—it represents nearly every person who lives in my part of the south of Scotland—and 1.5 million people are homeless or in need of emergency assistance, 300,000 or 400,000 desperately so.

As the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State said, there are some urgent priorities: clean water, food, shelter and medical assistance. The World Food Programme estimated the other day that it was able to deliver only about one fifth of the 375 tonnes of food required each day and that instead of two to three aircraft landing each day, one needed to land every 45 minutes or so.

We should be encouraged, to a certain degree, by what the Secretary of State just told us. He said that about 25 to 30 aircraft are landing today. We must hope that that level will be maintained and that the aid can be used immediately and responsibly. It should not, as others have highlighted, be hijacked by the generals and their acolytes, and then be rebadged or simply not distributed.

Food prices in the region were already climbing astronomically—they have increased by 30 per cent. this year alone—and this situation can only worsen that trend. Let us not forget Burma’s tragic recent history. The Saffron revolution of only a few months ago started on the back of fuel price increases and other problems in the country, as well as the fundamental flaws in the regime. The country was desperate before these past few days.

Dr. Gareth Price and Tamara Lynch of Chatham House—I declare an interest as, like the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), I am a member of its council—have stated:

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Those two people do not have an axe to grind; they are not party politicians or non-governmental organisations, but individual experts making a damning indictment. Their assessment highlights the fact that despite the arrangements made by neighbouring countries in the region facing the same risk of cyclones, Burma has had no cyclone warning system. It also has no system of building cyclone-safe houses. Although such houses have not protected Bangladesh in every last respect, they have brought about a major improvement there in recent years. Even the Burmese military—the much-vaunted 500,000 people who are the regime’s elite—has been forced to feed off the land; vegetables are being grown beside airstrips and there are chicken coops behind the barracks.

Burma is a country with a twisted set of priorities that has never got things right, and in this moment of crisis, we have not seen a proper response. Indeed, we have seen the absolute obscenity of proceeding with a referendum on a constitution to which nobody can give any credence—it is simply designed to entrench the power of the military. Above all, we have seen the disgraceful and unbelievable response to the cyclone: the refusal of all outside assistance. That assistance ought to be making the difference in saving lives that are at risk.

At this time, we learn that the generals’ preoccupation is that somehow outside assistance would strike at the heart of the regime’s legitimacy and the country’s national sovereignty. For that reason, the generals feel that they must reject the assistance, but I suggest that the regime has no legitimacy to lose. The very nature of the military dictatorship goes against every standard and norm that we would support. The reaction to the democracy protests both a few months ago and over many years, the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime’s complete failure to prepare for events such as these are sadly predictable. It is not outsiders who are undermining the regime’s legitimacy; the regime itself is doing so.

That whole debate has enlivened the broader one that we are having internationally—we have also heard it here this afternoon—about the responsibility to protect. We are arguing over how formal that responsibility is and what it has meant in the past few years, but surely that fancy new phrase simply formalises the basic humanitarian instincts that we all have and to which we respond on occasions such as this, when we expect Governments, as a basic part of their duty, to protect the people who live in their countries. The responsibility to protect, as formalised and debated in recent years, has been clearly based around the ideas of the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react and the responsibility to rebuild. On all those grounds, the Burmese regime has failed, not just in the past 10 days, but over many years.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, of which Gareth Evans was a member, published a report in December 2001 and kick-started this debate more broadly at the United Nations. It stated:

So, we cannot pretend that this is not a legitimate area for debate, and we must be clear that in our
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deliberations we are examining where we can go using that new authority. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development, the Prime Minister and others have recognised that it is a legitimate part of the process. I equally acknowledge that it is not straightforward, to put it mildly, to move the debate through our partners in the United Nations Security Council, and I hope briefly to discuss that in a little while.

We must not assume in this debate that that responsibility means an automatic rush to have military action, or military or another assertive form of intervention. Military action is an option, but it must only be a last resort and it is not what is contemplated in this situation. As the shadow Secretary of State made clear, and as the motion sets out, our instincts and objectives are humanitarian. Inevitably, military assets and military assistance will be necessary and useful in making the humanitarian intervention more effective, so we must be prepared to argue the case in not only this Chamber but the broader international community.

The international response has been patchy. We can be encouraged by the fact that in this country and many others there has been a good response from the public to the appeals made by the Disasters Emergency Committee and others. I am sure that hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House would encourage everybody who can to contribute to that assistance. We know that major NGOs, such as Save the Children and Merlin, which are mentioned in the motion, and others, are making strenuous efforts as we speak to minimise the cost to lives and the quality of lives in Burma.

Thailand, as a neighbouring state, has been as supportive as it can be and is hosting much of the international support network. China, we have seen in recent months, is more willing to play a quietly assertive role with the Burmese. We must hope that China will not stand in the way of the international community’s making it plain to the Burmese that their attitude is not acceptable or sustainable.

As we sympathise with the Chinese about their terrible loss over the past couple of days following the earthquake, we must also congratulate them on the speedy way in which the Chinese Prime Minister and others have been at the scene of the disaster and on how they have encouraged others to contribute to what they are seeking to do. That lesson might have been very painful for them to learn, but I hope that they will see the logic of extending that lesson to their neighbour. India, too, surely has an important role to play, and has been sadly too quiet in its comments thus far.

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