HC Deb 16 May 2000 vol 350 cc137-8
4. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

What steps he is taking to promote democratic rights in Burma. [120873]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

We are deeply concerned at the brutality of the military in Burma, the systematic use of forced labour and the displacement of ethnic minorities. Within the European Union, Britain recently proposed measures that have toughened Europe's common position against the regime in Burma. Within the International Labour Organisation, we have vigorously supported the decision to invoke article 33—for the first time in the organisation's 80-year history—against Burma.

During my visit to Thailand last month, I took the opportunity to visit a refugee camp for those who had been forced out of Burma by the military. I pledged to them that we would not relax our pressure on the regime in Burma until it respected the democratic rights of all the people of Burma.

Mr. Colman

I thank my right hon. Friend not only for that action by the Government, but for the further action that he has taken in encouraging Premier Oil to withdraw its investment and stop its work in Burma. In the past day, we have seen newspaper reports of Premier Oil's admission, at its annual general meeting, that democratic abuses have occurred in Burma. Has the Secretary of State had discussions with Björn Stigson, chief executive of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development—which represents all the major multinationals and is greatly concerned about democratic rights in the countries where multinationals work—to determine the possibility of organising an investment boycott by multinationals in Burma? Such a boycott would ensure that if, as I hope, Premier Oil steps out of Burma, other multinationals do not step in.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. We shall pursue that with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. I have already raised the issue with my colleagues in the European Union. I noted with interest what was said at Premier Oil's annual meeting yesterday. I fully understand the concerns of the shareholders about the investment in Burma. We have called on Premier Oil to consider whether withdrawing from Burma would be consistent with its legal responsibilities. It is important that the company should consider withdrawing, because if it continued with its development it would produce a revenue stream that would be available to buttress a regime that is in great difficulty.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Yesterday, Baroness Scotland, the Foreign Office Minister in another place, announced that the presence of reputable companies in Burma does not help the democratic cause. The Foreign Secretary has just said that it is now official Foreign Office policy to lean on reputable companies trading in Burma, such as Premier Oil. When the Minister wrote to Premier Oil pressurising it to pull out of the country, did the Foreign Office also write to other companies trading in Burma, such as HSBC, GEC and BAT, asking them to pull out? If that policy applies to Burma, why does it not apply to other countries with similar human rights records, such as Algeria, Cuba and China—or is this yet another example of the double standards practised by a Foreign Secretary who has made a mockery of the words "ethical" and "moral"?

Mr. Cook

Premier Oil is way ahead of all the rest of British investment in Burma added together. It also publicly claimed that the Foreign Office had told the company that we did not have a view. If it wishes to go public on that, it cannot complain if the Foreign Office takes care to make plain its view on the matter. As for the hon. Lady's last point, if she took the time and the courtesy outside the House to speak to the Burma Campaign or to make contact with any of the many people such as those whom I saw in Thailand who had been evicted from Burma, she would understand full well why we have adopted our policy on human rights in Burma.

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