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House of Lords

Tuesday, 2nd July 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

The Earl of Carlisle --Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, before the commencement of business, I take the opportunity to inform the House that some time ago I accepted an invitation to receive an honorary degree at the University of Leicester on Friday 5th July 1996. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence on Friday 5th July 1996.

Burma: Human Rights

2.32 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their response to continuing violations of human rights against ethnic minorities by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in Burma (Myanmar).

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, we remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Burma, including violations against ethnic minorities. Together with our EU partners, we have taken action both bilaterally and in international fora to put pressure on the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known as SLORC, in Burma to implement human rights reforms. We shall continue to take this action.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, which will give encouragement to those who are suffering at the hands of the SLORC regime. Is my noble friend aware that the human rights organisation with which I work, Christian Solidarity International, and other aid organisations are obtaining continuing evidence of gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the SLORC regime against ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, the Karenni and the Mon peoples, including murder, rape, torture, pillage and slave labour, which has forced tens of thousands of survivors to flee to refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border? Can my noble friend say what contribution Britain is making to the efforts of the international community to try to alleviate the suffering of those people?

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Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, we share entirely the concern expressed by my noble friend. We have been providing help for the Karen, Karenni and Mon peoples for some time along Burma's borders in terms of support for relief work in refugee camps, health and schooling facilities and teacher training. In the past four years we have also provided about £630,000 in humanitarian aid for Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries. We continue to support the Burma Border Consortium's work on the Thai-Burmese border. We are deeply concerned about the situation and continue to raise our concern both bilaterally and in every international forum in which we can do so.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, I understand that the European Commission has considered, or is considering, the withdrawal of trade benefits to Burma. Can the Minister tell us anything more about that?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, at this moment I cannot say any more on that specific issue, but I can assure the noble Lord that together with our partners in the European Union we have made a demarche to the SLORC administration in Rangoon. We have made sure that no instance when such comments should be made to that regime is forgone.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, given the brutality of that regime, will the Government consider raising the question of international economic sanctions against Burma both with our European Union partners and in the United Nations?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, it is an attractive thought that some form of sanctions might do some good, but I am afraid that it would be a dialogue of the deaf. We know that the United States is considering sanctions. The Danes have asked us and other European partners to consider an export ban for Burma, but there really is no evidence of international support. It is critically important to continue to try to influence SLORC. We shall continue to do that.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, we all know that the Minister needs no encouragement to defend human rights, but may I suggest that we have a special duty to the Karen, who fought against the Japanese by our side during the war, and that we should perhaps take up the question of the Anglo-Burmese who recently died in prison who was a respected member of the community? I understand that it is alleged that he was imprisoned (although he was an honorary consul of several countries) only because he afforded the use of his fax and his telephone to the democracy movement. Does the Minister agree that there are limits to the extent to which one can rely on quiet words behind the scenes--although I know that they are important?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, perhaps I may take my noble friend's last point first. Of course, there are limits to the extent to which we can rely on words alone. We were deeply sorry to hear the news of Leo Nichols' death on 22nd June. The Danish,

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Norwegian, Finnish and Swiss representatives for whom he was the de facto honorary consul will ask the authorities for a full explanation, with the backing of EU partners.

To answer my noble friend's earlier question, the United Kingdom will, of course, always be grateful for the loyalty of the ethnic minorities in World War II, and was particularly mindful of their interests in preparing for Burma's independence. The terms of association that we agreed between the minority peoples and the Burmese in a united Burma was one of the good things that were left behind. What has happened now is a tragedy for Burma and for South-East Asia. I hope that the ASEAN countries will join the rest of us in other places in bringing more pressure to bear on the SLORC regime which is doing such desperate harm to the Burmese people.

Lord Rea: My Lords, does the Minister really believe that talking to the SLORC regime and applying diplomatic pressure will make any difference at all to its behaviour in terms of human rights? A regime which refused to recognise a president elected by an 85 per cent. majority of the electorate and took over power itself is hardly likely to listen to persuasion. Surely sanctions are the only way, as my noble friend suggested. Should not Britain join those countries that are taking a lead in that respect?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, I know that sanctions appear to be an easy option for bringing pressure to bear, but I simply do not believe that it is the only way, or necessarily the quickest way, to bring about change. We are highly critical of that regime. We have been the co-sponsors of resolutions in the United Nations. We are looking at all ways of bringing pressure to bear, but until other ASEAN countries also take action I do not believe that we shall quickly see a change. But it must be both European countries, who have a great interest and owe a great debt to Burmese people, and ASEAN countries who join with us in the action that we take.

Viscount Mersey: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm on behalf of the Government that the situation has recently deteriorated further in Burma? In light of that fact, is it true that we are sponsoring two high-profile trade missions to Burma? If so, should we be doing so?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, the situation has worsened. There was a trade mission which received some financial support last February, but since then there has been no further assistance for such trade missions. One can bring about improvements in people's attitudes when working alongside them, but at the moment there is no intention to support further trade missions. If British companies decide to go to Burma on a private basis we cannot stop them. However, many companies are well aware of just how bad the situation is in that country. The Government have withheld help from the BEAMA mission which is going this month. That mission will go without Government support.

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Britain and Singapore: Air Services

2.41 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made in discussions between Britain and Singapore with the intention of liberalising air services between the two countries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, a first round of talks was held in Singapore in March, and a second round of talks is currently taking place at the Department of Transport.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister agree that these negotiations are dragging on for a long time? Can he assure the House that the interests of Manchester International Airport are not being subordinated to the interests of Heathrow or British Airways? At the same time, will he promise to visit the magnificent exhibition on the Committee Corridor which commemorates the success of Manchester International Airport over the past 50 years?

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