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House of Commons

Tuesday 24 June 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What recent representations he has made to the Government of Burma on the renewed detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. [213055]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy of France jointly called for Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate release on 19 June, her birthday. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary deplored the extension of her house arrest on 27 May. We worked to ensure that the European Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council issued calls for her release in the past week.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for that informative reply. Given that the illegal, immoral and intolerable detention under house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi for more than 12 years is but one example of the Burmese Government’s egregious human rights abuses, which include rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings and the active denial of aid to hundreds of thousands of people following Cyclone Nargis, will she work with her international counterparts to press the United Nations Security Council to refer the Burma Government’s conduct to the International Criminal Court?

Meg Munn: I am sure that all hon. Members agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. He will appreciate the difficulties of getting a resolution through the Security Council on those matters. At the moment, we are concentrating on seeking an authoritative assessment of the situation on the ground. The UN Human Rights Council agreed a resolution by consensus, which calls for the regime to give full access to all parts of Burma.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend appreciate the amount of frustration felt in this country at our inability to effect any change in this wicked regime and its attitude to that fine woman?
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Does she realise that even moderate Members of Parliament such as me would change their minds about a boycott of the Beijing Olympics if we found that, in Burma, as in Zimbabwe, China is the block on anything being done by the international community?

Meg Munn: Of course, I appreciate the frustrations that many people feel in this country about the lack of change in Burma. We have succeeded in getting aid into Burma, especially with the help of the Association of South East Asian Nations countries in the region. China agreed with the consensus on the UN Human Rights Council declaration. On that basis, we believe that we can continue to work with China to put pressure on the Burmese regime.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the Government ensure that sanctions are tougher, more targeted and hit the military junta where it hurts, not least on arms? Will they also ensure that international aid from taxes and charities does not unwittingly get into the despicable junta’s hands?

Meg Munn: On the latter point, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that aid in Burma goes through the UN and non-governmental organisations on the ground. On the first point, our sanctions in the European Union are designed to do exactly what he said: to be targeted on the regime, through, for example, timber, precious gems and so on. We are also doing further work to ascertain whether any financial sanctions could have the same effect.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that, in Cardiff on Saturday, nearly 200 people attended an event to mark Aung San Suu Kyi’s 63rd birthday. Does my hon. Friend agree that, following the referendum, which many people consider rigged, Burma’s new constitution will effectively debar Aung San Suu Kyi and her party from taking part in the democratic process? What can she do about that?

Meg Munn: I congratulate my hon. Friend and the people of Cardiff, who keep the issue in the public eye, which is essential. She is right that the constitution has no legitimacy. Indeed, it is incredible that anyone could believe that the referendum was fair. The constitution is flawed and would debar Aung San Suu Kyi, and we continue to call for a proper process, which includes all those in Burma who have an interest in the development of democracy—Aung San Suu Kyi and all the leaders of the different ethnic groupings.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I see that the Foreign Office has a special representative, whose responsibilities cover the wider middle east, including Iraq and Iran, as well as the middle east peace process. He is also responsible—rather bizarrely—for Burma. Has that representative been involved in any negotiations with the Burmese Government on the issue that we are considering and others? When did he last visit Burma?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman refers to Michael Williams, who has been very involved in our work on Burma. He has spent a great deal of time travelling in the region and speaking to countries there about the
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pressure that they can bring to bear. He also attended the donors conference in Burma at the end of May with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend would recognise that Aung San Suu Kyi has been completely failed by the international community. Whichever way we look at it, we see that there have been 12 years of imprisonment and a lot of fine words, but absolutely no movement and an evil regime still in place. What can we do, other than just having fine words from all the different nations? What sanctions can we put in place to overthrow the Government in that country?

Meg Munn: The truth is that neither sanctions by the international community nor engagement by countries in the region has brought about the result that we would desire. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, we have seen something of a change in the neighbouring ASEAN countries, which are now indicating more vocally that they believe that things need to change in Burma. We will continue to work with those countries and with the United Nations. Ban Ki-moon has said that he will return to Burma later this year, following up his visit after the cyclone. We are hopeful that that will enable us to move the political process forward in the right direction.

Baha’is (Iran)

2. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What recent reports he has received on the situation of Baha’is in Iran; and if he will make a statement. [213056]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): When I raised with the Iranian ambassador to London the UK’s great concerns about reports of maltreatment of adherents of the Baha’i faith in Iran, he told me that Baha’ism is not officially recognised as a religion in Iran. We receive reports that Iranian Baha’is face routine discrimination and harassment on the grounds of their faith, and the informal Baha’i leadership has been detained for more than a month now. We remain deeply concerned by the situation of the Baha’is in Iran and will continue to raise our concerns with the Iranian authorities.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for his response. He will be aware of reports from Iran that a new penal code is being drafted, which will be considered by the Iranian Parliament, that would introduce a mandatory death sentence for apostasy. The code would have extra-territorial jurisdiction and could lead to a fundamental attack on the human rights of Christians and Baha’is, particularly those with one Muslim parent, who could, under the new law, be considered apostates. Will the Minister confirm what action the Government are taking on the issue, in particular with the international community, to remind Iran of its responsibilities under international law, in particular article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights?

Dr. Howells: Yes, I can confirm that the new draft penal code is currently being considered by a judicial committee in the Iranian Parliament, but it has not yet been debated or voted on in plenary. We are very
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concerned that the draft code makes apostasy punishable by death and that the provisions contravene the principle of religious freedom. We are worried about the impact that they would have on religious minorities in Iran, including Christians, as the hon. Gentleman said, and the Baha’i community.

We have certainly made representations to the Iranian Government about the matter. The EU issued a statement of concern on 25 February and raised its concerns with Iranian officials in Tehran on 4 March. I called in the Iranian ambassador to express the UK’s concerns on 1 April. We are keeping a close watch on the issue, and I very much hope that our concern will help to galvanise international opinion against this barbaric proposal.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): As an officer of the all-party friends of the Baha’i faith group, may I thank the Minister for the representations that he and others have made to the Government of Iran about the situation of individual Baha’is whose cases we have drawn to his attention? Will he also make representations to the Government of Iran about the denial of access to higher education of young Baha’is in that country? Of some 200 Baha’is who began university courses in autumn 2006, about 130 have since been expelled on the grounds of their religious faith. Will the Minister raise that point with the Government of Iran, too?

Dr. Howells: Yes, we will certainly raise it with the Government of Iran. That is one example of the way in which Baha’is in Iran are being marginalised because of their beliefs. That is wholly without justice and is a very worrying development.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Minister will know that not only Baha’is, but Christians and indeed homosexuals often face torture and sometimes even death in Iran. Does he therefore share my concern about the recent alleged comments made by the Home Secretary when asked about failed asylum seekers who are openly homosexual, that they should return to Iran and be discreet in their sexuality? Given that there is no discretion, with the eyes of the state constantly on the gay community in Tehran and Iran more widely, does the Minister want to put it on record that he perhaps has a different view?

Dr. Howells: I am completely unaware of the alleged statements made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but I am only too willing to put it on record that people should not be punished in any way for the way in which their sexuality guides them. They should certainly not be tortured, imprisoned and hanged, as they have been in Iran.

Middle East (Egypt)

3. Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Egypt on the middle east peace process. [213057]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister yesterday about the middle east peace process. I thanked him for Egypt’s efforts in bringing about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. It is vital that the
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ceasefire now holds, allowing the humanitarian situation to improve and bringing to an end the rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Mr. Joyce: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I agree that the Egyptians have made commendable efforts in the last short while. Does he agree, however, there is a great deal more that they could do? I hope that they would agree that that is the case as well. I am thinking in particular of the tunnelling under the border, which is continuing, and the smuggling of people and dangerous contraband.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that smuggling is a long-term issue that is a threat to Egypt as well as something that just goes through the country. This is intimately related to the crossings between Gaza and Egypt, and the crossings into Israel. As soon as we get properly organised legal traffic going through those crossings, which is a priority for all sides, there will be a parallel commitment to crack down on the smuggling that is a threat to all the countries in the region.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I welcome, as did the Foreign Secretary, the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Does he agree, however, that there is now a pressing need to ease the blockade on Gaza? I went to Gaza two months ago, and I was horrified by the crippling poverty there, and particularly by the impact of the blockade on health services. In his discussions with Egypt and with Israel, has he had specific talks about the passage of patients across the border to access better health care? I certainly saw individuals being denied that health care.

David Miliband: The hon. Lady raises an important point, and it is one that we raise particularly in respect of health supplies, and in general in respect of fuel, electricity and other traffic into the Gaza strip. It is important to say that we are not just calling into thin air for improved access to Gaza on humanitarian grounds. As part of the agreement, Israel itself has committed to improving the flow of goods services, and all the independent estimates—and statements by Hamas and by Israel itself—show that there has been an improvement of, I think, about 30 per cent. during the first three days of the ceasefire. That is certainly something that we should encourage all sides to build on.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Foreign Secretary referred to the Rafah crossing. He will aware that the opening of that crossing in 2006 was negotiated after a lot of effort by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. What recent discussions has he had with Condoleezza Rice about the prospects, seven months on, for securing the Annapolis process agreement?

David Miliband: On almost every occasion that I meet or speak to Secretary Rice, we discuss the situation in the middle east. We certainly did so on Sunday, when I last spoke to her, and I will obviously meet her at the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting on Thursday in Japan. I know that the middle east will be a major topic there, and we are looking forward to her latest report on her recent visit, and also to having further discussions on how to advance a process that, I think it is fair to say, is
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slightly more promising than it would have been in a Question Time two or three weeks ago. The developments in Gaza and the Lebanon, and the opening of the Israel-Syria talks, are creating a more propitious environment for the Israeli-Palestinian track. It is important that we should not get carried away by any sense of optimism, but there are some important stirrings there.

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): Can the Minister give me an assurance that there will be no negotiations with Hamas by the British Government until the three Quartet principles have been met and upheld?

David Miliband: Yes, we certainly stick to the Quartet principles. It is important to say, however, that the lack of contact is not the real issue in respect of Hamas. The real issue is the choice that it has to make about the role that it wants to play in the future. The Norwegians have publicised the fact that they are talking to Hamas, and Hamas has obviously been involved in discussions with the Egyptians over the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The announcement by President Abbas that he wanted to re-establish Palestinian unity on a basis that recognised the state of Israel, that renounced violence and that respected previous Palestinian agreements was the right way forward. It is important that we take our cue from President Abbas on this matter.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In congratulating the President of Egypt on, and thanking him for, the key role that he has played in bringing about the ceasefire between Hamas and the Israelis, will my right hon. Friend say whether when he has his discussions with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he will also discuss with her the continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on the west bank, which are against international law and which President Bush to his credit—a very rare thing—has denounced?

David Miliband: Yes; my right hon. Friend has made his own position clear and I have made the Government’s position clear from this Dispatch Box on many occasions: the requirement on all sides to live up to their road map commitments does indeed apply to all sides. The Israeli commitment in respect of settlements needs to be honoured. There is significance in what President Sarkozy said in Israel yesterday and in what President Bush said there the week before. There is real determination in the international community to hold on to the idea that 2008 has to be made into a key year for the middle east peace process. There has not been such a process for seven years; there is one now, and it is precious, so we need to ensure that we make some progress.

Human Trafficking (Romania/Bulgaria)

4. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): If he will meet his counterparts in Romania and Bulgaria to discuss human trafficking. [213059]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): I met Bulgaria’s Europe Minister earlier this month and discussed a range of rule of law issues. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), has recently visited both Romania and Bulgaria to discuss a number of issues, including those relating to human trafficking.

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