|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
There are reports that the Burmese Government intend to impose taxes and duties on planes that take in aid supplies. Is that the case and what representations
8 May 2008 : Column 725
In the aftermath of the tsunami, concern was expressed about the operation of gift aid tax relief on donations to the humanitarian appeal. At this early stage, what steps are the Government taking on this matter?
It is difficult to talk about good coming out of this terrible event. However, as in the case of the Indonesian province of Aceh, devastated by the 2004 tsunami, the shock and turmoil of a natural disaster can, in some circumstances, lead to movement and progress on thorny political conflicts for the greater common good. Clearly, all of us who have been vocal critics of this pariah regime, and of the former communist regime, will put politics to one side as we strive for an effective humanitarian response.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, we, too, are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, that what we see at the moment is only the beginning of what may prove to be an even worse humanitarian disaster than is indicated by reports so far.
There are 42,000 people missing in addition to those killed; moreover, there are fears, as the noble Baroness said, that with the lack of clean water and sanitation, the failure to pick up the dead bodies and the lack of medical supplies reaching those needing them in the isolated regions, the ultimate toll will be very much higher than estimated so far.
However, after initial hesitation, at least the Burmese authorities are allowing supplies to come into the ports and airports and are beginning to relax the difficult restrictions they have imposed on aid workers. I am told that there are still delays, but that these have been reduced to two or three days, which may be ascribed as much to bureaucracy as actual obstruction by the Burmese regime. However, the position is improving and supplies are coming in from many sources.
However, I wonder whether the noble Baroness will confirm one disturbing report. She mentioned supplies from China. There was a Deutsche Presse report that supplies coming in from China, but also Thailand, had been purloined by the regime and incorporated into their military stocks. That would send an adverse signal to those bringing in supplies that the military regime was using them to exploit its own political purposes. The WFP had good reasons for refusing to hand over its stocks, held in Rangoon, to the militaryas demanded by the junta. Does the Minister agree that we need protocols for the management and distribution of relief supplies to ensure that the regime does not appropriate them for its own ends? How are we going to get those in place?
We noted that a number of UK charities, including Save the Children, CARE, World Vision and the Red Cross, are already operating in Burma and we warmly congratulate them on their efforts so far. We also note
8 May 2008 : Column 726
What will the logistical arrangements be for receiving and distributing large inflows of foreign aid? The constraint is probably more in relation to airport and port capacity to receive supplies rather than the permissions being granted.
The noble Baroness confirmed that several flights are on the way. I understand that UN agencies are looking to set up what has been called the cluster approach, which has been tried and tested in other emergencies. I hope that the Rangoon authorities will accept this as the best means possible of ensuring that the logistics workthere would be a special cluster on logistics in accordance with arrangements made in other emergencies. However, will these efforts be financed by the UN central emergency relief fund, to which, as the noble Baroness has said, the United Kingdom is the largest single country donor? What agency will be responsible for the management of the logistics?
Are there any immediate plans to repair the reportedly damaged facilities at Yangon airport? For instance, I have been told that the runway lights are not operating and that the landing of a Red Cross plane, which is in flight and on the way there, may be in question. Apart from that, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of destroyed roads and bridges. Many worst affected parts of the country may be inaccessible by landsuch as the remote district of Labutta, where a military official puts the death toll in that region alone as high as 80,000 people. Therefore, will the UN be responsible for assessing the need for helicopters and, in the case of the delta, for flat-bottomed boats, to supplement the one that the British agency, Merlin, already has on site?
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, for welcoming and supporting the Statement. I underline the praise for DfID staff, both here and on the ground in Burma. They are absolute stars.
We have had encouraging up-to-date information. We are beginning to get co-operation over access. There is an international Red Cross flight in the air, which we have been waiting for. The Burmese have also promised visas for our three-person DfID field team to be issued at 4 pm tomorrow. On the strength of that, we are getting our team ready to go out on a flight tomorrow morning. Of course, this will be a test of the promises that we are receiving from the Burmese Government. The teams role will be to assess the
8 May 2008 : Column 727
The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, also asked exactly what the Burmese military regime is doing at present and she and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, wanted me to go into more detail about the $4.5 million. Is the regime doing enough? We understand that it is providing a significant response under extremely difficult circumstances but that it clearly needs international assistance. The Burmese Government have pledged $4.5 million for relief and have sent military and police units as part of the rescue and clean-up operation. They have also established an emergency committee, headed by the Prime Minister, as I said in the Statement. They have stated their readiness to accept international assistance but they are not clear about the extent to which they will allow agencies sufficient access to manage the delivery of their aid. Discussions around access are continuing between the agencies and the Burmese authorities. Foreign ambassadors were called to a briefing by the Government of Burma on the afternoon of 5 May, when the Foreign Minister made a plea for assistance, including for building materials, medicines, blankets and mosquito nets. We agree with the noble Baroness that Burma should allow the UN full re-entry to the country. We hope that these recent assurances will allow that to happen.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about other donors, in particular those in the region. Britain has made the biggest pledge so far but others, including Burmas neighbours, are contributing. The US has pledged $3 million, on condition that US experts be granted access to the country and the disaster-struck area. Canada has pledged just under $2 million. China has pledged $500,000 to the Government of Burma, with a further $500,000 pledged in kind in the form of tents, blankets and biscuits. Germany, Indonesia, India, Italy, Japan, the European organisation ECHO, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain and Thailand are also donors in one way or another.
The noble Baroness asked about tariffs. We have been told that tariffs are being suspended but, again, that has yet to be tested. The noble Lord asked about access. As I said, we hope that the situation is improving and we are working day and night to ensure that. We do not know whether supplies from China and Thailand have been purloined by the regime, but it would be appalling if they had been. We understand that the UN deliveries are so far secure and remain under UN control.
The noble Lord asked about protocols for distribution. The main priority at the moment is to get our people in there, on the ground, to assess and then to start looking at the management and the distribution. I was asked how we are distributing the £5 million pledged by the UK. It will be distributed between UN agencies and NGOs. The noble Lord also asked about the World Food Programme consignment. As far as we understand, it is being delivered to a World Food Programme warehouse, not to a Burmese army warehouse. I cannot give a clear picture on the Yangon airport
8 May 2008 : Column 728
I was asked about the need for helicopters and boats. DfID has already opened discussions with the MoD. We do not believe that at present DfID needs military equipment, but the situation is, of course, ongoing. After we have access, we will continue to talk not only to other government departments but to the UN about this. We now have ready access to a large civil, rather than military, boat for equipment.
Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, access is clearly crucial, as the noble Baroness said, and her supplementary answer was a little more hopeful on that. However, as she also said, signals are mixed. She will have seen the remarks attributed to the French Foreign Minister, Mr Kouchner, in which he talked about the possibility of invoking the relatively new UN right to protect to make sure that the aid gets through. He mentioned it in the context of French warships being in the vicinity. He also specifically mentioned British warships, although it is not clear what he had in mind. Can the noble Baroness tell us what Royal Navy ships are in the vicinity and what instructions they are operating under?
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I understand that the Royal Navy ship the Westminster is about three days sailing away. A French warship, the Mistral, is, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said, in the Andaman Sea. Obviously, as the situation develops, both those facilities will be there and available. I understand that the UN responsibility to protect was conceived to address four defined situations in which Governments have failed to protect their people: war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The current situation does not fit clearly into these categories. It is important to recognise the different views within the Security Council on this issue. As the noble Lord, with all his experience, will know, the absolute priority is humanitarian and we must be alive to the risk that threatening the regime will make that more difficult to address.
Lord Kinnock: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the Statement and join her in expressing admiration for all those from every nation, including ours, who are striving to assist the wretched people of Burma. Does she agree that, although these are not conditions in which strident political sentiments should be expressed, it is impossible to avoid making the observation that it is a tragic absurdity that the huge state apparatus controlled by the junta in Burma, which so recently and ruthlessly could suppress popular protest, has not been used quickly or properly in trying to bring relief to the people of Burma and to prevent the even greater carnage that will come from the terrible disruption and the spread of disease?
Will my noble friend ensure that our Government express their thanks to countries in the region, which are already evidently active in trying to aid the people of Burma? In doing that, will the Government do two other things? First, will they urge countries such as China, India and Malaysia to increase their efforts? Secondly, will they establish whether those countries are willing to transmit aid from other parts of the world into Burma, as it is likely that they will get much better access much more quickly than will those agencies, including UN agencies, from elsewhere on the planet?
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Kinnock is absolutely right. We are continuing to talk intensely to our colleagues in China, India, Malaysia and Thailand to ensure that their position, both politically and geographically, is used to the maximum. We will ensure that the time for political discussions on how we feel about the situation in Burma is not lost. We in this House have a sterling record of ensuring that we discuss Burma continually and, politically, we will come back to that, but we will talk to our friends in the region continually to ensure that food gets through.
Viscount Slim: My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness is aware that I go to Burma, Myanmar, from time to time and am concerned with some four rather specialist charities that do good there. I worry a little about our embassy. Compared to the number, size and staffing of other embassies, we are very tiny; it is almost a one-man band. We have had and have now a most excellent and outstanding ambassador, but I have often wondered why we do not have a defence adviser. That seems rather odd. We are dealing with a military Government. We ought to try to get messages across to them; we ought to try to influence them in certain ways. Other agencies seem not to be on board. Including this immediate disaster, we could well be understaffed. I wonder whether we are not being a little stingy from the Foreign Office and DfID in manning and giving proper support and help to the embassy and its staff.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I do not think that we are being stingy; we are giving everything that we possibly can at present. It is not a matter of amount or quality; I know that it is to do with access and not having a clear picture of the situation. However, we have great confidence in our ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning. He is doing a marvellous job; we are supporting him to the hilt and we will continue to.
Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I salute the work of my noble friend and her department, DfID, in their effort in numerous crises. I had the great fortune of visiting Bangladesh post-Cyclone Sidr. I travelled to the Bay of Bengal and visited Sarankhola and Patuakhali. I must tell noble Lords that it was a devastating experience. Nothing compares to the devastation that you witness after such a natural calamity. I have little idea of what is going on in Burma but, in the light of that experience, I suggest to my noble friend that she consider speaking not only to all the other countries but Bangladesh, in particular, because it has recent experience.
I know that DfID, in its partnership with organisations such as Oxfam and Muslim Aid, has exactly the right experience. Given what my noble friend Lord Kinnock said about Burma perhaps being amenable to accepting immediate aid and assistance through other countriesnot that that is what we should expect or be party toI think that we should do everything we can to ensure that that expertise is used immediately. Will my noble friend assure me and the House that she will speak to the Government of Bangladesh and talk with organisations such as Muslim Aid, which has long-established experience of working post-tsunami and post-Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh?
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lady Uddin for sharing her direct experience of disaster relief. I hope that it will encourage her to hear that the DfID office in Bangladesh is already sharing its experience with DfID in Rangoon.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, perhaps the Minister will reply to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which she did not reach, which concerned the implications for the constitutional referendum this weekend. It seems to me an act of extraordinary insensitivity to the suffering of the people of Burma to go ahead with that project. I do not want to characterise the nature of the project during questions and answers about humanitarian matters, but it seems rather insensitive.
Secondly, can we not get away from the concept of the responsibility to protect being a military concept? It is not a military concept; it is a normative concept of international humanitarian law. It applies just as much to the situation in Burma now as it does to the situation in Darfur, Zimbabwe or anywhere else. The military aspect comes only if everything else fails. Can we not somehow get references to the responsibility to protect out there in the open as a civilian concepta concept in which both the international community and the authorities in Myanmar have responsibility to protect those people? That should lead to lifting of the restrictions, free access for all humanitarian agencies, and so on. We really must not mix that up with the idea that somehow or other we will force aid by military means. That is uniquely difficult.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, given the noble Lords direct experience of Burma, I say to him that, as we understand it, the constitutional referendum is to go ahead in those areas unaffected on the original date; it is to go ahead in affected areas by the end of the month. The noble Lord will know our position: we were very robust recently in an Answer to a Question he asked about the constitutional referendum. That is the position as we see it at present.
The noble Lord asked what the UK has been doing to persuade the Burmese Government toward democracy. The UN common position and sanctions against the Burmese regime were renewed last month, as he will know. The UN Security Council issued a presidential statement on 2 May ahead of the 10 May referendum underlining the need for an inclusive and credible political process in Burma. That recognises the obvious shortcomings in the regimes road map for political reform, which is simply intended to reinforce long-term military control in Burma.
The noble Lord returned to the UN Security Council right to protect. There is no doubt that the Burmese Government have a responsibilitya civil responsibility, as he put itto act, and to act now to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of souls in Burma suffering after the cyclone. We must convince the regime to co-operate and are using all available channels to urge them to facilitate the international effort. We hope that they will listen to their friends in the region, who have made that point strongly, and to the UN Secretary-General, who has urged maximum co-operation.
The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, we very much welcome the Statement by Her Majestys Government, and we enormously appreciate the lead that they have given, especially in the size of the donation. The noble Baroness read out an encouraging list of countries that have already pledged their support. Your Lordships House will recall that in the tsunami crisis a similar list of countries pledged support, but subsequently we heard stories in the media that these pledges were not honoured and the money did not come forward. Could such a protocol be constructed so that countries were held to the commitments that they make publicly, so that when this terrible disaster has passed out of the medias interest but the humanitarian need remains, money, aid and development will still flow to those people who need it?
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, it is our will that all the countries to which I have referred will not only make pledges but continue to honour those pledges. We will continue to honour the pledges that we have made. As well as the £5 million which DfID has pledged this week, we have increased our long-term aid to Burma and believe that that is an example to be followed by other countries.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned helicopters briefly in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The worst of this disaster has occurred in the Delta region, which is substantially under water as a consequence. The experience of the tsunami showed that substantial helicopter support was absolutely essential, and was provided on that occasion largely by the United States offering some of their aircraft carriers. Is there any indication that the regime is likely to allow the use of helicopters from outside, and is action being taken at this stage to press it on what is likely to prove to be an extremely important matter?
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|