Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, many of your Lordships have experienced at first hand the conditions of abject poverty that many countries suffer, but I would like to focus on some of the examples of selfless dedication that are shown by people working day after day to try to alleviate some of the intolerable suffering.

While in Sierra Leone with the charity Mercy Ships with a team of six other doctors and 30 nurses and many other helpers, we screened 5,000 patients who queued for two days in the local football stadium. Naturally everyone wants to be seen first, but when the crowd saw a little girl of nine whose breathing was clearly obstructed by a large facial tumour, everyone passed her overhead right to the head of the queue and then over the gates of the arena so that she could be treated immediately. She had a tracheostomy that saved her life and then the tumour was removed. Years later she decided to train as a nurse. The money for her education was supplied by the nurses on the ship.

I also find rather striking the dedication of so many volunteers who live in somewhat cramped and uncomfortable conditions, sometimes for years on end—one has done so for 25 years—to help the poorest people in the world. The chief surgeon on board is Gary Parker who trained in north Wales in one of the best maxillo-facial surgical units in the UK. At the end of his five-year training his local community and church agreed to support him to work on the ship for three months. They rather liked the idea of knowing exactly what their money was going to do. He has now been operating on the ship for 17 years still supported by north Wales.

But perhaps the most incredible helper on the ship was a little girl of five called Chloe, the daughter of the captain, who made a Christmas card and took it down to the ward to give to one of the patients. She had heard that there were some pretty horrendous sights on the ward and was not very keen on going. In the event, she went down and found a poor chap whose relatives had all been murdered by the rebel soldiers, and they had taken an axe to the side of his face and taken half of it off. He was on the ship having his face reconstructed in a little intensive care unit. She gave him a Christmas card and said, "As you don't have any visitors, would you like me to come down and read you a story every evening?". When she started to read the story, the tears were running down his cheek; in that war-torn country, he had never found love like that. That little girl aged five gave him back the will to live—it is never too young to start.

Then there was the courage of a 12 year-old girl from Sierra Leone who was kidnapped by the rebel soldiers, taken away and raped and tortured for a year to such an extent that she was rendered doubly incontinent. Somehow, she managed to escape from the rebels and hide in the jungle for a week, survived and then appeared at the ship. She was very disturbed and difficult to handle; she was very aggressive, quite understandably so. Yet the surgery was successful and the nurses' kindness and understanding restored her
24 Nov 2004 : Column 103
not only physically, but mentally and spiritually. One nurse even gave what little money she had to have the child educated. It is very moving to see that kind of dedication and generosity.

In Africa, we reckon that 2 million to 3 million women have been rendered incontinent through childbirth due to lack obstetric facilities. They are the outcasts of society, thrown out of their homes and villages; they often commit suicide. When they come on board, we carry out a curative operation. In the post-operative period, we try to teach them microeconomics, so that when they return home they have some form of trade and a chance of supporting themselves. We have agriculturists on board to teach the local people how to grow crops with drip feeding, and builders to help to rebuild their clinics and homes and teach them how to do so. We have engineers who go ashore and work with the local people to reopen wells that have been filled in and destroyed by the rebels and to dig new ones; again, the local people are taught how to do that, so that they can set up their own businesses. That kind of capacity building is an important feature, but it seems to work only if the local people really want to do it; there is no use us trying to impose on them what we think that they need.

As the farmers in Sierra Leone lost all their sheep and goats in the war, the ship brought 180 sheep and goats. The 30 children on board—the children of the crew—renamed the charity "Mercy Sheeps". The arrangement was to give the animals to the farmers on condition that they gave the first offspring to their neighbours. That is rather similar to the system operated by a charity called Kids for Kids, which is supported by our Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Cope. He indicates his support by wearing a small goat in his lapel; I should say that it is a metal goat. Several of the charity's goats are lent to a family in Sudan for two years, providing milk for the children and income to pay for water and education. The kids which the goats produce are then given to the family, forming the nucleus of a little flock. Also, local people are trained to man the veterinary dispensaries to safeguard the goats' welfare.

Gradually, Sierra Leone is being restored but, as my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth mentioned, none of that would have been possible had it not been for the 2,000 British troops. They not only quickly restored peace but maintained it, and did much more besides. They helped the locals to rebuild their homes, clinics and schools. They went the second, third, fourth and fifth miles. It is a good news story, so it is rather sad that it never seems to feature in the press very much; perhaps that is because it is good news.

The story of overseas development would not be complete without mentioning the aid that comes from the United Kingdom in government money and expertise. The increase in aid announced by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is especially welcome, as my noble friend Lady Rawlings mentioned. This morning, I heard that Norway is very grateful for the generous financial help that DfID is giving to the Congo. There was an encouraging report from the City in the Financial Times on 28 October, describing a long-term
24 Nov 2004 : Column 104
partnership between Standard Chartered Bank and Sight Savers. The bank has pledged 6 million dollars for the charity and five other organisations, to restore sight to a million people. That is a business alliance which will give the bank's employees an opportunity to help to solve a global problem. It would be great to see more such initiatives.

Although the great tragedy of such impoverished countries is overwhelming, it is a source of enormous encouragement to see the dedication and selfless devotion of many people from this country. They are often teenagers on their gap year, working in very primitive and uncomfortable situations to help those suffering people. This is the kind of good news that we really ought to see more in the media.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I will refer very briefly to three aspects of the gracious Speech which I welcome. They are references to problems of drug smuggling and international crime, African issues, and promotion of democracy in Iraq. In doing so, I shall highlight some of the implications for women and children, which in some ways may echo the poignant stories told by the noble Lord, Lord McColl.

I turn first to "the narco-dictatorship"—Burma—which is still in the grip of the Orwellian-named State Peace and Development Council and heavily implicated in international trade in illegal narcotics. There is deep concern over the recent so-called Cabinet reshuffle, with fears that a more hard-line influence may threaten the 17 existing ceasefires, leading to disintegration or full-scale civil war, with disturbing implications for peace and stability throughout the region.

The changes in political leadership also do not bode well for the ethnic national groups. This year I have visited the oppressed peoples—the Karen, Karenni and Shan in eastern Burma, and the Chin and Kachin peoples suffering in north-western Burma. The catalogue of violations of human rights by the SPDC is authoritatively documented by many respected organisations and by the people themselves. In a reply to a Starred Question on 16 November, the Minister gave a very robust account of the position of Her Majesty's Government, which I welcome. However, I want to mention briefly three specific problems that time did not allow me to address on that occasion. They are the abuse of women as a war crime, child soldiers, and education for children inside Burma.

Systematic assaults on women by SPDC forces have been well documented, as in the report, Licence to Rape. We have obtained corroborative case studies. The very poignant report, My Gun is as Tall as Me, claims that Burma has the worst record in the world today on child soldiers. For example, 70,000 children are forced to serve in SPDC forces. One-sixth of the world's child soldiers are found in Burma. Some escapee child soldiers told us how they were abducted from cinemas or bus stops and taken to army camps, with no opportunity to tell their parents what had happened to them. Then they were sent quickly to frontline danger zones, where some were compelled to "supervise" local people who had been
24 Nov 2004 : Column 105
taken for forced labour. They themselves were forced to beat and maltreat those forced porters. Two boys told us how they had risked their lives to escape, because they could not endure being forced to beat elderly people who were unable to carry the 30 kilograms of ammunition or rice required by their captors. May I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, to ensure that in any representations made by Her Majesty's Government to the SPDC, these issues feature prominently, as there is no sign of any improvement, despite all the evidence?

Finally regarding Burma, there is the issue of cross-border aid. Many of us were disappointed that DfID could not support the courageous back-pack teams taking medical aid and training to the thousands of Karen and Karenni IDPs trapped in the jungles with no healthcare; although I was grateful for the explanation as to why DfID could not. Perhaps I may try another approach, avoiding some of the problems identified by DfID. Many of the hill peoples in Chin state have no access to healthcare or education. Given the importance of education for children, might Her Majesty's Government consider supporting local NGOs in providing education where there are currently no schools and no access for international organisations?

Secondly, I shall turn briefly to Sudan—briefly because my noble friend Lord Alton will, I am sure, address this issue, and because I spoke regarding this matter on November 1. However, I must again deplore the lack of effective international intervention to halt the continuing atrocities in Darfur. Canada has joined the United States in the use of the word "genocide". I would highlight the reports of the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war by the Janjawid, supported by government forces, and the slaughter of children.

The horrors of Darfur are a sequel to comparable genocidal assaults on civilians in other parts of Sudan. The media arrived in Darfur too late for the 2 million dead and over 4 million displaced from other parts of Sudan since the National Islamic Front regime seized power in 1989. I and others have walked through many killing fields, similar to those we have at last seen on our TV screens, on many earlier visits to areas from Bahr-El-Ghazal in the west to Southern Blue Nile in the east. I have also interviewed many who have suffered the NIF's policies of abducting thousands of women and children into slavery. That use of slavery has been endorsed by international observers, such as the former UN rapporteur Gaspar Biro.

Will Her Magesty's Government now accept the evidence that the government of Sudan are guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide? Or is it Her Majesty's Government's policy to help the NIF regime to stay in power? This policy been reported by friends in Khartoum—the reason given being given to them is that the British Government would rather see that government stay in power, believing that change would lead to a "failed state". It is hard to imagine what a "failed state" can be if Sudan does not qualify already. I appreciate that Her Majesty's Government believe that it is a priority to focus on the peace talks. I respect that. However, this regime has a long record of continuing to kill while it
24 Nov 2004 : Column 106
talks peace and, as we speak, many more hundreds of innocent people are dying in Darfur. Therefore, can the Minister say how long the Government will continue to give the NIF regime the benefit of the doubt? When will enough be enough and when will the Government acknowledge the truth—genocide?

Finally, and briefly, I turn to Iraq. I had the privilege of meeting some Iraqi women at a multi-faith conference earlier this year. They are likely to become leaders once Iraq elects its national assembly with a quota for women members. Those women are extremely competent and eager to help in the reconstruction of Iraq. However, they feel ill-equipped, as they have been long been out of touch with the wider world. They are eager to visit countries such as the UK, to familiarise themselves with developments in areas such as healthcare—especially maternal, child health and palliative care—and with developments in education and their own political leadership. Can the Minister say what assistance the Government are offering to such women—new leaders in a democratic Iraq—to prepare them to make maximally effective contributions?

In conclusion, perhaps I may highlight the importance in post-conflict situations of simultaneous reconciliation and reconstruction, and the particular needs of women and children. They are often the unseen and unheard victims of conflict, their traumas do not disappear when conflict subsides, and they shape the future. Their healthcare and education must be a major part of reconstruction and reconciliation. Reconciliation is difficult while people are still suffering acute deprivation, with lack of schools, healthcare and employment. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, said, it is hard to keep democracy on empty stomachs. Also, reconstruction without reconciliation is dangerous. Renewed eruption of conflict, which destroys that which has been rebuilt, creates even greater disappointment and despair.

So, I look forward to any answers that the Minister may be able to give to bring hope to some of the people, especially women and children, suffering in so many parts of the world today from man-made catastrophes—particularly to my long-suffering friends in Burma, Sudan and Iraq.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page