§ 11.12 p.m.
§ Baroness Cox
rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how their commitment to a foreign policy based on human rights is being implemented in Burma and Sudan.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, through an oversight the name of my noble friend Lord Moynihan is missing from the list of speakers. As I understand that he will sum up for the Opposition, and as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, has withdrawn his name, I ask the indulgence of the House to allow my noble friend to speak for eight minutes in the gap.
I am most grateful to all noble Lords who are to speak this evening, and especially to those who spoke on Sudan last week. I apologise if this follow-on debate coming so quickly has caused some confusion. I tabled my Unstarred Question before that debate appeared on the Order Paper in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNair. I was unable to participate last week as I had longstanding commitments with the Ministers of education and health from the Russian Federation.
I begin by commending Her Majesty's Government for their principled commitment to develop a foreign policy based on human rights and by the position already adopted with regard to both Burma and Sudan. I wish this evening to provide more first-hand evidence of violations of human rights by the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Sudan and the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) in Burma.
My evidence on Sudan is based on first-hand experience of 15 visits, including five this year, to many different areas in southern Sudan; the Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and eastern Upper Nile; and eastern Sudan between Kassala and the Red Sea. The areas we visit are those designated "no go" areas by the NIF, where the people, cut off from the United Nations and its organisations, and from the ICRC are bereft of aid and advocacy. I suggest that if the noble Lord, Lord McNair, were to visit these areas, he might come to rather different conclusions from those derived from visiting Sudan as a guest of the NIF.
The NIF totalitarian military regime seized power by force in 1989 and has declared a jihad against those who oppose it—Christians, Moslems and animists—and are fighting for fundamental human rights. Many Arab 356 Moslems from the north, the majority of whom belong to opposition parties represented in the previously democratically elected government, have suffered arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture, extra-judicial killings and other forms of repression. For example, on 3rd April the NIF disrupted the 29th memorial festival of Al-Sayid Ali Al-Merghani, blocking access to the celebration and using tear gas. Many people were imprisoned.
In other parts of Sudan the NIF's violations of human rights can be summarised under four headings: military offensives against civilians; the displacement of over 5 million people from their homelands; the enslavement of tens of thousands of black Africans; and the forced conscription of thousands of boys and young men into the government army. The NIF is waging a ferocious war against its own people in southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and eastern Sudan. It has received massive financial assistance from other regimes which support terrorism. For example. there have been recent reports of donations from Iran to purchase tanks, MiG fighters and chemical weapons. There are reports of bases being established for the manufacture of chemical weapons inside Sudan.
The Government deny that they bomb civilians, but I have spent hours in foxholes during the aerial bombardment of innocent civilians that have inflicted death and injury, terrorising them and driving them from their homes into the bush, desert or mountains where they have to scavenge for food with no access to water. They suffer from cold and have no shelter, clothes, blankets or mosquito nets. Earlier this year we were in the Nuba mountains. The Government continue to destroy villages as part of their publicly-declared jihad. Offensives by ground forces are accompanied by aerial attacks by low-flying helicopter gunships which hunt and mow down women and children. We met local Moslem and Christian leaders who described attacks on their villages, such as the one on Regife on 1st March when two elderly men were burnt in their huts, 370 homes were burnt, cows, pigs and poultry killed or stolen and all crops burnt. Over 4,000 people had to flee to the bush suffering severe hunger and cold. The enemy used two helicopter gunships on that occasion, killing and wounding civilians. Three churches were destroyed.
In other parts of Sudan many thousands of people have been driven from their homes. Many have to flee to government garrisons or so-called peace camps in order to try to survive. Christians are compelled to adopt Moslem names and practices to receive food and medicine. When we visited Bahr-El-Ghazal in May 1995 we discovered widespread slavery. For example, on 25th March Popular Defence Forces (PDF) attacked the town of Nyamlell killing 82 civilians, enslaving 282 women and children, burning dwellings and looting cattle and grain. We returned seven times and visited many other locations to obtain evidence of slavery. We have interviewed former slaves, slave traders and the families of people who are still enslaved. We have also interviewed PDF officers. We have taken independent journalists, including NBC Dateline, and accumulated an abundance of evidence to prove beyond doubt that chattel slavery is widespread and encouraged by the 357 NIF regime. The UN rapporteur for human rights in Sudan, Dr. Gasper Biro, has come to the same conclusion. We estimate that there are tens of thousands of slaves in Sudan.
Christian Solidarity International (CSI) therefore developed a two-pronged strategy to try to reduce slavery. The first prong is Arab-Dinka reconciliation. We arranged a visit to the region by the Moslem religious leader Mubarak El Fadil El Mandi and other prominent Arab leaders to meet local Arab leaders and persuade them to advise their people that this is not a jihad and it is in their interests to live in peace with the African Dinkas. Consequently, last dry season there were far fewer slave raids in that area.
We also discovered the possibility of redeeming slaves and reuniting them with their families for the price of two to three cows per slave. Since October 1995 CSI and other organisations have given enough resources to free over 700 slaves, and we have seen many happy family reunions. But the NIF has also pursued a policy of abduction and forced conscription of boys and young men into the government army, where they are compelled to fight against their own people. Those conscripts are usually put in the front line where they are among the first to die. It is estimated that many thousands have suffered this fate. There are no happy family reunions for them.
I turn briefly to Burma, where the SPDC regime continues to violate the human rights of many of its people, repressing political dissent and carrying out ethnic cleansing of minorities such as the Karen and Kerenni. The repression of courageous leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi is well known and widely condemned. Less well known are the government's military offensives against the Karen, which have driven them off almost all their remaining territory in eastern Burma. They are not even safe across the border in Thailand, where they are subjected to bombardment and ground attacks.
In Karenni state, SPDC troops have almost completely accomplished ethnic cleansing. Villagers have been forced to go to relocation camps. Some who have escaped have described conditions there as lethal: food inadequate, contaminated and possibly poisoned. Death rates are high and no foreign aid organisations are allowed to bring medicine. Their homes are mined, so return to the villages is impossible. Those who escape are killed on sight.
Karen and Karenni who are caught by SPDC troops suffer torture, slave labour and use as human minesweepers. Just two weeks ago I received a letter from one of my Karen friends. She wrote:I stayed at my village until we had to evacuate in a hurry because of a SPDC attack in that area … As I was the biggest person at home at that time I had to piggy back my paralysed grandfather for three days, from place to place, until we were able to cross to Thailand … As I write this letter it is the end of the monsoon season and with this comes fear of attacks on our camps. Everyone is afraid".I wish to ask the Minister three questions which relate to both Sudan and Burma, and one which is specific to Burma. May I first say how encouraged I was by her reply to the debate on Sudan last week. First, will the Government consider further measures to alleviate the 358 suffering of civilians in Sudan and Burma. For example, will they press for open access by aid organisations to all areas of Sudan and Burma to ensure that life-saving supplies can reach all those who are denied them?
Secondly, until such time as those regimes allow access to all areas by aid agencies, will the Government consider more favourably giving resources to organisations such as CSI—I must declare an interest—which are prepared to reach people cut off from all other aid? Otherwise, many more thousands will suffer and die in the months ahead.
Thirdly, will the Government consider following the example of the USA in increasing economic pressure, trying to develop more initiatives for arms embargoes, and investigating allegations concerning chemical weapons?
Finally, with regard to Burma, will the Government raise the plight of the displaced Karen and Karenni with the Thai Government? While the Thai Government's willingness to provide camps is appreciated, there is concern over inadequate security for those camps, and a fear of forced repatriation.
I know that this debate will bring immense comfort to those people who are suffering so much. Whenever we have the privilege of visiting them, they always say that the fact that they know that they are not forgotten gives them the strength to continue to struggle to survive. I shall ensure that the Hansard report of this debate will reach them in the bush, the desert and the jungle. I know that they will derive great comfort from the assurance that they are not forgotten in this time of tribulation.
§ 11.23 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, the noble Baroness is to be warmly congratulated on and admired for her consistent perseverance and determination in the matters that she brings before us tonight. I hope that it will be a little earlier on another occasion, but of one thing I am sure—we shall hear a great deal more from her on this subject. I believe that her persistence is beginning to make some impact. I hope that I am right in thinking that.
I shall speak only about Burma, of which I have some background experience and knowledge. I have affection for its peoples. I knew and admired Aung San. I have been shaken to discover that his daughter, Suu Kyi, whom I met when she was a delightful child, is being treated by fascist militarists of her own nationality with the same hostility as they applied to her equally brilliant father.
Aung San was murdered by his political opponents immediately after he and his anti-fascist Peoples Freedom League had been democratically and overwhelmingly elected to office. As Colonel Donnison, who probably knew Burma better than any other Englishman, wrote in his book:Aung San and seven of the best and most dependable of his colleagues were dead, a loss from which Burma has not yet recovered, and from which it is probable that she never will recover".359 That was written in 1970, and I believe that the arrival of his own daughter on the scene means that Burma now has the possibility of recovering the democratic process. Indeed, it did recover it, but for a second time it was swept from them by military action. Of course, in 1970 Donnison was not to know that a person such as Suu Kyi would come along and that she, too, would be elected and deprived of office, this time, thank heavens, by military force short of murder but nonetheless disastrous for Burma and its people.
In the interim, Suu Kyi wrote a book entitled Freedom from Fear. It is one of the most remarkable I have read and I commend it to your Lordships. It is written with what is in the circumstances astounding objectivity and an absence of rancour which is remarkable. I was considerably impressed by Aung San and on this evidence I am no less impressed by his daughter. It is a tragedy that the world does not rush to the assistance of this brave woman.
Clement Attlee was perhaps the British Prime Minister who most clearly recognised the obligations to Burma of the departing imperial power. Let us hope that we have another Attlee. The new Government have not been short of sympathetic words, but there has been relatively little action. I am hoping that tonight my noble friend will tell us that the Government have plans for bringing further pressure to bear on the existing regime in Burma. The Government's support for trade with Burma has certainly been stopped, but trade continues without hindrance, let alone sanctions. Tourism halted for a while, but I understand that it is now resuming.
I wished to ask my noble friend to take certain action, but I cannot remember what it was. I am sorry to keep your Lordships waiting, but my papers are mixed up. I appear irrevocably to have lost them, but I remember what I wanted to ask my noble friend and I shall turn to that in a moment. Old age appears to have crept up on me.
I have offered no explanation of how, in 1945, a then obscure flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force came to be so deeply involved in the affairs of Burma at the highest level so that on demobilisation I made it my business to see the Prime Minister and confirm my friendship with Aung San in the Dorchester when he led the delegation which came here to negotiate the successful Attlee/Aung San agreement. Anyone who would like to have a little further information on the background may wish to know that I have an article in the current issue of the New Humanist, a quarterly publication, which is available in the Library.
As it is so late and I have apparently lost a page of my notes, I shall not delay the House further this evening except to say that this debate is important for the reasons which I have given and for further reasons which your Lordships may read about in that magazine in the Library. In my opinion, it is one of the most important guarantees that a government can give that they make themselves truly responsible for the welfare of people who have been within their influence, to make sure that they too share the kind of life which we ourselves are privileged to enjoy.
§ 11.32 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, it is entirely in keeping with the dauntless character of my noble friend Lady Cox that we should be addressing not one but two nearly intractable human problems—the Sudan and Burma—in one debate tonight. Because I still remember the great debt that we owe to the brave Karen people of Burma who fought the Japanese with us, I shall concentrate on Burma. Nevertheless, I wish to say unequivocally, having read the interesting debate on the Sudan initiated by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, on 1st December, that I continue to believe, with confirmation from the UN, that there is indeed widespread slavery and oppression in the south in areas which CSI has visited many times. Those were closed areas to which the noble Lord's official guides from the Sudanese Government in Khartoum obviously did not take him. Moreover, I am not surprised that he remained unaware of the true number of prisoners of the regime. I suggest that there is little to choose in inhumanity between the hostage taking which he admits and slavery.
If I am to judge by the wise speech of the Minister in that debate, I believe that the Government are right to view "the April Agreement with interest" but to remain unconvinced. Given the past experience of sanctions as they were tried in, for example, the long struggle with the South African regime, I do not believe that sanctions, which in any event are frequently broken, are effective alone in changing the minds of an authoritarian regime which acts by dogma. But they have a moral effect which should not be underrated. They send a message to the oppressed that they are not forgotten and the ANC in South Africa supported them for that reason.
In the Sudan, I believe that we should always be ready to talk but we should not be prepared to accept at face value formulae and "peace agreements" which are not acceptable to those most concerned. We should be doing all we can to secure access for UN human rights monitors so that the truth can be widely known and for aid to be administered by the NGOs and not the Khartoum government. We have a particular standing because the contingent countries, Uganda and Kenya, are members of the Commonwealth and not least because we are dealing in Khartoum with a government who, there is good reason to believe, are allowing Iraq to make chemical weapons on their territory. They have some way to go to convince the world, especially neighbouring Egypt, that they are a benevolent regime.
Very similar problems arise in the case of Myanmar or, as we have known it, Burma. The ruling group recently changed its title but not its spots. So I shall continue to call it SLORC. We, the European Union, and the Americans, have moved over the past few years from attempting to convince the regime that it made sense to allow democratic political development and to pursue a programme of opening up to economic development. We have moved to the imposition of economic sanctions. Since 20th May this year new US investment is forbidden. On 24th April the EU removed Burma from the generalised list of references—GDS—and our own Foreign Secretary announced that Burma would be excluded from the Asia-Europe (ASEM) 361 summit in London in April as part of the EU's policy of sanctions and because of Burma's record of extensive drug trafficking.
However, the ASEAN powers' decision to admit Burma with Laos and Cambodia to ASEAN, growing Thai-Burmese economic co-operation, the statement of Dr. Mahathir, the Malaysian Prime Minister, that discrimination against Burma is discrimination against ASEAN, together with the long-standing links between Ne Win and the Indonesian leader, all go far to ensure that Burma will not feel particularly threatened. Further, Burma is joining the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand economic co-operation unit, Bist-ec. We have to accept the harsh fact that the Asian countries, like China, resent the West's efforts, as they see it, to impose alien ideas of humanitarian rights upon them.
So what can we do? Here is a country which has signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but which presses children into the army, and a country which relocates whole Karen and Shan populations. In central Shan state since March 1966 over 100,000 people from 600 villages were moved into 45 relocation sites where they found neither shelter, food nor medicines but were pressed into forced labour and left to live on roots and leaves. In a further relocation drive, 12,500 were moved in March this year.
Because my noble friend Lady Cox has told us so much about the sufferings of the people, I shall concentrate on what might be done to help them. I suggest that HMG could start by making the strongest representations both to the Thai Government and to the UNHCR to end the absurd system under which the latter has no presence on Thailand's borders but has to require those fleeing persecution in Burma to make their way to Bangkok where the UNHCR conducts its screening procedures. Most fear, with some justice, that they will be arrested and returned to the border before they ever reach Bangkok to attempt to establish refugee status determination.
We should advocate a strong UNHCR presence at the border and protection for the camps from attacks by SLORC forces. Thailand does not, I believe, impose such restrictions on UNHCR at the Cambodia and Laos borders and it is painfully clear that growing Thai-Burmese common economic interests may account for the fact that a refoulement and "voluntary repatriation" have for some time been the order of the day, especially for the Shan. Refugee camps are now designated as temporary shelters, and the shelter provided is deliberately temporary: it will not survive a rainy season.
In May this year 430 Shan were escorted to the border by Thai troops and "repatriated" to Burma as they were no longer categorised as "fleeing fighting". It is of course a considerable burden on Thailand to receive such large numbers of refugees, but what is the UNHCR doing? It should insist upon being free to carry out its mandate of care at the point of entry and to prevent or, at the very least, most strongly denounce forced repatriation — refoulement! By March this year the UNHCR director for Asia and the Pacific had not visited 362 the new camps on the border. The UN is trying. under the new Secretary General, to order its affairs better. I urge the Minister to take up in New York the recommendation made in the UN's own programme for reform issued in July this year: first, to achieve greater co-ordination and oversight in the development assistance area; and, secondly. to "institute a major restructure of secretariat machinery responsible for co-ordinating humanitarian assistance". What the UNHCR is doing, or rather not doing, in Thailand for a whole population fleeing from Burma should be at the top of the agenda. I believe that this Government have the will and the commitment to put it there.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, on a point of order, may I ask your Lordships to extend to me a special privilege permitting me, as I have recovered my note, to complete my speech, which I can do in one minute if your Lordships will allow me to do so? 1 know this is out of order, but I ask you to grant me this special privilege.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I was not aware of my noble friend's earlier difficulty but he really ought to write to the Minister on any additional points.
§ 11.40 p.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, I, too, rise to support the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and to express great admiration for her courage. I have not been to either Sudan or Burma. I was due to go to Sudan this time last year as the leader of a human rights reporting mission for the International Commission of Jurists, a highly respected international body of lawyers and judges. The International Commission of Jurists had been trying for some years to get permission from the Sudanese Government to send a mission, and we eventually obtained that permission. Less than a week before we were due to go out, and after two members of the mission had already arrived in Cairo to interview Sudanese exiles, that permission was withdrawn. Therefore I cannot speak from personal knowledge.
I have, however, among other things, seen recently the comments on Sudan of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. That is a body established under the international covenant on civil and political rights, to which Sudan is a party. Member states are required to submit periodic reports to the Human Rights Committee and the committee publishes its comments on those reports. On 7th November the committee published its comments on the report of Sudan. Those comments are devastating.
Among the principal subjects of concern that it listed were, first, the imposition of the death penalty for offences such as apostasy, illicit sex, embezzlement, robbery, and a third conviction for a homosexual act. Apostasy—perhaps one could describe it as a right to change one's religion—is of course not only not a crime but a recognised human right.
A second subject of concern is the recognition of flogging, amputation and stoning as penalties for criminal offences. Recently 37 women were flogged for demonstrating outside the house of the United Nations 363 representative. Thirdly, the committee referred to female genital mutilation, described by the Human Rights Committee as a cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment which is in violation of the covenant. It is widely practised, and not a criminal offence, in Sudan. Fourthly, the marriage of a woman is prohibited, even if of full age, without the consent of her guardian—a prohibition which can only be overridden by a court. Fifthly, there is the absence of a legal minimum age for marriage.
Sixthly, there are many reports from the United Nations and NGO sources of extra-judicial executions, torture, slavery, disappearances and abductions. We have heard the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, speak of those matters. Seventhly, the vague and legally undefined concept of national security is used as a basis for arrest and detention without any specific charge. Eighthly, there is a power to detain persons for excessively long periods before trial.
Ninthly. there is the arbitrary refusal of the freedom to leave Sudan, and in particular an arbitrary requirement for a woman to show that she has the consent of a male relative before she does so. Tenthly, there are inadequate prison conditions and the existence of "ghost house" detention centres; that is, secret prisons where neither the existence of the prisons nor the identity of the inmates is revealed. Eleventhly, there is a system of media licensing which jeopardises freedom of expression. Twelfthly, there is the absence of a right to use local languages for official purposes. Thirteenthly, religious minorities are adversely affected by a range of discretionary administrative acts, such as the destruction of schools on allegedly town planning grounds. Fourteenthly, the judges are not independent, not selected on the basis of legal qualifications, and are subject to pressure from the Government. Very few judges at any level are either women or non-Moslems. Fifteenthly, there are the strict dress requirements for women in public places, with inhuman punishments being imposed for breach of those regulations. Sixteenthly, there are documentated cases of official action which interferes with the rights of non-Moslem religious denominations to practise their religions.
Those are the comments of the highly respected United Nations Human Rights Committee.
I shall not go into detail on Burma. It has been covered by other noble Lords. But the situation there is at least equally bad on human rights. As we have heard, there is extensive forced labour, the suppression of political opposition, the repression of ethnic minorities and the control of the Government by armed forces.
Sudan and Burma may not be the very worst countries of the world in terms of violations of human rights. They rank perhaps marginally above Iraq, Afghanistan and countries such as Somalia where law and order have completely broken down, but that is the best that can be said for them. If Her Majesty's Government mean what they say about a commitment to foreign policy based on human rights, they must do nothing to maintain support for the existing regimes in either country. They must indeed do all they can by all means short of military force to support the democratic elements which exist in 364 both those countries. That means of course no arms, no commercial deals, no investment and no aid except where it can be routed through a non-governmental organisation operating independently of the Government. I wait with interest and hope to hear the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean.
§ 11.47 p.m.
§ Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe
My Lords, when we debated the issue on 1st December, I welcomed the interest of the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Bradford, who made his maiden speech. However, during the course of his remarks, he said that the situation in the Sudan is most certainly not a war between Christians and Moslems as there are people of each faith fighting on both sides. He said that it was a longstanding and complex conflict. It may well be longstanding and complex, but I believe that if our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries are in need of our help it is our duty to speak out. In all my reading and gathering of material about the Sudan, I have yet to come across any examples of Moslems or other religious faiths being forced by Christians to convert. I think that we gain a rather one-sided view of matters at times.
I wish to take a few examples from the report—I referred to it previously—of the US State Department on religious freedom, with particular reference to Christianity. In introducing the issue, John Shattuck, the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said:The issue of persecution is a serious one, affecting many religions. The issue has not previously received much attention with respect to Christians".The report goes on to say that the United States believes in religious freedom for all faiths. It then gives much detail about conditions in different parts of the world. I shall not say too much about the conditions in the Sudan. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, whose work we all admire and support so far as we can, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, with his detailed exposition of the United Nations Human Rights issue.
The report deals with the current situation in the Sudan. The American study states that,in practice the Sudanese Government treats Islam as the de facto state religion. Forced conversion to Islam of Christians, animists. and other non-Muslims takes place as part of government policy".It goes on to talk about the civil war between the largely Islamic north and the largely animist and Christian south claiming more than a million lives, and states that,In war zones, government efforts to restrict religious freedom are particularly heavy-handed—churches are closed or permission to build them is denied, clergy arc harassed, and members of indigenous faiths are persecuted".The United States is taking action against the Sudan in terms of sanctions and also reduced diplomatic presence. We look forward to the Minister's reply to see whether the Government can strengthen those measures.
365 So far as Burma is concerned, the United States report deals with the current situation and states:The Government imposes several severe restrictions on fundamental freedoms. Adherents of all religions … are duly registered with the authorities…However…publications remain subject to control and censorship. Christian Bibles translated into indigenous languages cannot legally be imported or printed. It remains extremely difficult for Christian and Muslim groups to obtain permission to build new churches and mosques".So Moslems are persecuted and restricted in the same way as Christians are in Burma. We have to try to broaden the issue in order to have as much tolerance of all faiths as we possibly can.
The report goes on to state that both the Moslem and the Christian minorities are regarded with suspicion by the authorities, and goes into detail as to how the situation deteriorated significantly last year and how the United States is imposing very much stiffer conditions on Burma than previously in order to try to show the level of its disapproval at the neglect of basic rights. That applies in the diplomatic field particularly, as well as the economic field.
The last time that I addressed the House on this subject I mentioned the visit of Colonel John Garang to President Mubarak of Egypt and said that that was a promising development. Only yesterday the visit took place of the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright to East Africa, and she met the Sudanese leader, Colonel John Garang, in Uganda on Wednesday. I believe the meeting took place in Kampala. That was a major show of approval by the Secretary for the Sudanese opposition. She urged Colonel Garang to bury the differences which exist between the liberation SPLA and other groups and to form credible governments. The report of the meeting goes on to state:Albright's meeting with Garang and five other representatives of the National Democratic Alliance umbrella group was Washington's highest level contact so far with Sudan's opposition".Madeleine Albright had said earlier that she had met the Ugandan President Museveni and they had agreed how their two countries, the United States and Uganda, were very deeply concerned about the situation in the Sudan. Finally, she said that members of the National Democratic Alliance must not only oppose the Khartoum regime but also try to lay the groundwork for a new Sudan in which people of all faiths and cultures can focus on rebuilding their country.
That is a feeling which all of us share. We all have to try in our small ways to press forward to achieve much greater religious tolerance and understanding throughout the world wherever it is necessary. If we can achieve a groundswell of feeling like that, then a number of these apparently intransigent situations could well start to lessen and be relieved.
§ 11.55 p.m.
§ Lord McNair
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us yet another opportunity to debate the situation in the Sudan, which will be the subject of my remarks. I should certainly consider visiting some of the areas that she suggested, and look forward to hearing about that.
Debate is the theme of much of what I want to say. 366 I was pleased to hear the Minister say, on the previous occasion that we debated this subject, that there were two sides to the issue. At least, that is what I thought she said. However, when I looked in the Official Report, did not see those words. I wonder whether I was mistaken or whether she or a helpful Private Secretary had a change of heart at the last minute. There are two sides to this debate.
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. I am sure he is not suggesting that I in any way interfered with the record of the House. I am sure that I misunderstood his remark.
§ Lord McNair
My Lords, I am expressing my puzzlement and that of other noble Lords. I thought that that was the gist of the remarks that the noble Baroness made.
Last week my noble friend Lord Avebury sent me a copy of a letter to the Minister. I have discussed with him my intention to refer to it in this debate. In that letter he correctly raised the issue of a demonstration about the school leavers who had been conscripted into the Sudanese Army. There is a perfectly legitimate and important debate, from a human rights and civil liberties point of view, about conscription. In the United Kingdom we ended National Service in only the early 1960s. Several western European countries still retain conscription.
My noble friend wrote of "forcible conscriptions". Apart from the fact that the word "conscription" is not commonly used in the plural, even in discussions about the present Government of the Sudan, is not conscription, in every country where it is used, by definition backed by the force of law? The human rights concern about that incident should be about whether the executive interfered with the judiciary on that occasion or whether the judiciary exceeded acceptable norms in meting out punishment to the women who demonstrated. Several points have been raised this evening which I know are misguided or misdirected, but I do not have time to counter them.
I notice about the debate over human rights violations in the Sudan what my father used to call selective moral indignation. That is what I object to about this debate. My noble friend, the noble Baroness, the Minister, and all noble Lords who have spoken out against human rights abuse in the Sudan must be aware of the many thousands of Sudanese boys, some as young as six years old, who have been abducted by the SPLA in a manner that can only be described as systematic and cold-blooded; but it is an issue on which this House has been virtually silent.
On 18th December 1996 the Interpress Service quoted Farouk Saleh Mohamed Abdellah—I doubt if he is a Christian—a former SPLA member who used to train child soldiers at Dima camp in Ethiopia:We took them by force from their homes, from their parents and guardians. We confined them to one place. The children that we usually looked for were between the ages of five to sixteen years".367 That practice is clearly defined as slavery or a slavery-like practice by the slavery convention of 1956. It has helped to dislocate southern society. It has removed generations of children from their communities, their society and their way of life. They do not know the names of their parents or grandparents or even the clan to which they belong. They have forgotten, or been denied, the wonderfully rich tradition of oral history that forms the backbone of southern tribal life. Some of those children were returned to the Sudan from Cuba, where they had been sent for ideological training, speaking only Spanish.
The living conditions of those boys are mentioned by John Prendergast, an internationally recognised expert on development, in his book Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids in Sudan and Somalia. He also described Sudanese children in a UNHCR refugee camp in Uganda. He said that they drew harrowing pictures of pre-rape scenes, killings and lootings, with "SPLA" written on top of many of the pictures. Are not some of those children Christians? Are not the overwhelming majority "black African" southern children?
Reports suggest that there used to be an estimated 10,000 of those boys. By 1995 Human Rights Watch/Africa estimated that the number was down to 4,500. The rest have died as under-age conscripts forced into battle or from illness or malnutrition in the appalling conditions in which they are kept. It is a dreadful situation. And, as Human Rights Watch/Africa made clear, it is a practice which continues to this day.
We must persuade the SPLA to release the children who are still alive into the care of the International Red Cross, UNICEF or other international organisations which care for children. That is something that they have so far refused to do. We should also press Mr. John Garang to account for those who are missing. I hope that the noble Baroness who initiated this debate will press him to do that and to deliver the surviving children from what is a form of slavery.
I also ask the Minister to convey to Mr. Garang, as a matter of urgency, the concern of this House about this matter as it affects children on both sides of the civil war, when the FCO is next in contact with the SPLA. John Prendergast also wrote scathingly in the book I mentioned earlier about the SPLA's behaviour towards the people of southern Sudan. He wrote that they hadterrorized the southern population into passive compliance",and that,the predominant instruments … have been and still are coercion and corruption. It [the SPLA] has not managed to integrate society around any positive values".And also,Institutionalisation of the top-down arrangements by the socialist group who initially established the SPLM/A has led to a permanent oppression of those persons in the area under the control of the movement".Finally,The human rights abuses of the SPLA are by now well documented … What is less understood is the abuse and manipulation of humanitarian assistance, the undermining of 368 commerce and the authoritarian political structures which have stifled any efforts at local organising or capacity building in the south".That describes nothing so much as a gangster state, or part of a state. Does the Minister and do the British Government really want to lend their authority to such people?
On 1st December the Minister referred to the large mailbag which the department receives about human rights in the Sudan,
despite limited media coverage on the subject".—[Official Report, 1/12/97; col. 1235.]Media coverage on Sudan is most definitely limited; it is limited to what is at times a grotesquely one-sided account. Bernard Levin is a particular culprit. He has written about himself,hyperbole is my middle name".He has admitted that he exaggerates awfulness just for fun.
Despite assurances by the Minister last week that the Islamic nature of the government is not a problem and that it is not just a north-south issue, I know that the popular belief in this country reflects the one-sided media coverage of these issues. If we fail to publicise the plight of these children, if we fail to press hard for their early release so that they can be reunited with their families, we will have closed our ears, our minds and our hearts.
§ 12.3 a.m.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for bringing us news of the persecuted minorities in Burma and Sudan. On Burma, I once had the honour of meeting a Karen war hero who served under Bernard Fergusson. He gave me a tin of tea to carry back from Burma to your Lordship's House for his former commander. It carried the message:To dear Lord Ballantrae, from sunshine—Mandalay".We owe a great debt to the Karen people and the other minorities who are now living in appalling conditions, many caught between the Scylla of the SLORC and the Charybdis of the Thai Government, as other noble Lords described. I urge the Government to further the cause of the Karen through the European Union and Thailand in particular, while continuing to support the refugee work of our NGOs through the Burmese Border Consortium.
On Sudan, the noble Lord, Lord McNair, said last week that we must all beware of distortions. Moral outrage is not a scarce commodity in this House; reliable facts sometimes are. The noble Lord said that there was no evidence whatever of the CSI allegations of slavery in Kordofan or Nuba Mountains. We have now heard an unequivocal reply. He also quoted other sources, including Anti-Slavery International, saying that there was no evidence of government involvement in slave trading or raiding.
I would specifically like to answer for Anti Slavery International, the oldest organisation in this field, founded in 1839, with much experience in Sudan. Slavery is a problem which has perplexed this House 369 ever since. General Gordon, with all his influence, was unable to solve it 100 years ago, and in some areas few have been able or willing to alter the way of life of slave traders ever since. In a sense slavery symbolises the struggle of the south for liberation from the north and cannot be separated form the political, ethnic and religious struggle which we simplify into the term "civil war".
It is a highly complex problem. But it is important that we pool our resources and our information and respect the well documented evidence of ASI, CSI and others that slavery does exist in many areas of Sudan, and that it is wrong and a serious abuse of human rights which must, in time, be removed.
The noble Lord, Lord McNair, quoted ASI and Sudan Update's joint 1997 report in support of his response to CSI, stating that there was no evidence for government raids in Sudan. ASI' s position is that, while it may be inaccurate to accuse the Government of direct involvement in slavery, there is certainly evidence that slavery is a by-product of the Government of Sudan's arming of the local Baggara militia in Kordofan and Dharfur.
Age-old competition for pasture between the Baggara nomads in south Kordofan and the Dinka herders of northern Bahr al Ghazal worsened because of drought and civil war in the mid-1980s when the then defence minister channelled modern weapons to the Baggara raiders as a means of holding off the SPLA. These weapons have since given the Baggara the upper hand in their violent attacks on Dinka cattle and villages. There is evidence that children as well as adults have been captured during these raids and either enslaved or conscripted.
The Government of Sudan have made a number of statements denying the existence of slavery which has officially been illegal for over a century. Slaves, they argue, are merely captives or hostages. But by using those who practise slavery as part of their military campaign, whether or not as a deliberate policy of condoning slavery, they are allowing this major abuse of human rights to persist, at least by default. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned last week, the special rapporteur has criticised the "manifest passivity" of the Government of Sudan, leading him to the conclusion that abductions and slavery,are carried out by persons acting under the authority and with the tacit approval of the Government of Sudan".There are clear measures at the government level recommended by ASI and other agencies which could, in the long run, lead to the elimination of slavery. They include ending the practice of arming local militias, encouraging reconciliation between the Dinka and the Baggara, requiring police to help families in the location of slaves, and working closely with international agencies with experience of tracing and human rights monitoring. Purchase or redemption is a controversial subject because it could create or encourage a slave market.
There is now considerable experience inside Sudan among the Churches and human rights agencies of tracing missing persons and of monitoring human rights 370 abuse. Dinka retrieval groups have had some success, especially in tracing children. But in a sense it is only a determined government campaign at the highest level, gradually backing up the recommendations of the United Nations special rapporteur and of local human rights arbitrators and monitors, coupled with a long-term public education policy, which will have an impact on slavery. I sincerely hope that our own Government will be able to endorse that through the United Nations.
I was grateful to hear from the Minister that Britain is indeed supporting the Sudanese refugees in other countries through the United Nations agencies. I would like to ask in particular whether she has any news of the Kakuma camp in Kenya, where there are reports of dire malnutrition coming through the Church Mission Society and other sources. Can she say—perhaps she will be able to do so by letter—whether aid is getting through?
I was reassured by her, following last week's debate, that humanitarian aid will not be affected by sanctions. That is very encouraging for the NGOs involved. I am sure that she will agree that there is some confusion between ECHO and DG8 over food aid which, while understandable, should be kept to a minimum. I would only ask for clarification on one further point, which is food-for-work programmes. Is there any reason why this useful, localised form of humanitarian aid in Sudan, which often takes the form of small dykes for water catchment, essentially for crop growing in areas of shortage, should be refused support on the grounds of sanctions?
§ 12.10 a.m.
§ Lord Moynihan
My Lords, I offer sincere apologies for my oversight in not confirming my name was on the speakers' list. I offer additional apologies to those who work so assiduously in the Government Whips' Office for adding to their workload this evening. Your Lordships and the Officers of the House have been most considerate in allowing me to contribute to this debate.
I, too, would like to take this opportunity to thank my noble friend Lady Cox for securing this important debate. It seems to me ironic that we should have this debate on the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on the eve of Human Rights Year, the end of which will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of that seminal document. For tonight we are discussing two countries whose governments have violated almost every international standard of human rights addressed in that declaration.
Despite their respective locations on two continents separated by thousands of miles and no obvious geographical, historical or cultural connections, these two countries still have marked and tragic similarities. The authoritarian, totalitarian, military regimes in both countries hold power without the consent of the people whose elected representatives were either overthrown or denied their rightful mandate to rule. The international community, particularly Britain, who has close historical ties to both these countries, has an obligation incumbent on it to keep faith with the people of Burma and with the people of Sudan. They have made clear 371 their support for human rights and democracy and it is their will that the ruling regimes have chosen to disregard.
Democracy, political pluralism and opposition have no place in Burma or Sudan. Those who are brave enough to stand up for their beliefs risk arrest and detention. Both regimes terrorise many of the ethnic and religious minorities who live within their borders, who by the very nature of their minority status should most merit the protection of the government
In Sudan, there are reports of attempts of forced conversions to Islam of the country's African non-Moslem people, while in Burma the Christian Chin children of the Chin ethnic minority are forced to convert to Buddhism and Christian crosses are burned.
Both regimes are characterised by the contempt they show for the opinion of the international community. Each seems to revel in its status as a pariah of the late 20th century and each ignores the opprobrium, condemnation and censure heaped upon it by the rest of the world. Thus Sudan has become a haven for terrorists and Burma turns a blind eye to its status as a world centre for opium and heroin, from which its government profits, while the international community seeks to counter and eradicate the evil scourge of the drugs trade.
It is government by the government for the government. Hope is starved and desperation is fed, while corruption and nepotism prosper. While the people of Burma and of the Sudan are denied their rights, these countries will never fulfil their potential.
In Sudan, wracked by one of Africa's most bitter and protracted civil wars, in which 1.2 million people are estimated to have been killed since 1983, the north is ravaged by soaring inflation and commodity shortages, while the economic infrastructure of the south is in ruins and the villagers are starving, their livestock is stolen and crops destroyed. All of this in a country capable of food surpluses.
In Burma, image and rhetoric have played a greater part in the renaming of the regime than substance or new policies. The military junta has shown no credible signs of willingness to cede its power or to negotiate with pro-democracy forces and ethnic groups for a genuine political settlement, to allow a return to the rule of law and respect for basic human rights as demanded by the international community.
Despite an announcement last month that they wished to:create conditions in which political parties, especially the NLD, can play a constructive role in moving Burma to democracy",in the same week four members of the NLD were arrested in the "interests of maintaining stability" and Aung San Suu Kyi's car was blocked by barbed wire barricades to prevent her attending an NLD meeting in case it created an "unnecessary disturbance of the peace".
These potentially prosperous nations have failed their own people. Sudan, the ninth largest country in the world, a land of extraordinary diversity and potential, has contributed negatively to the region's welfare as a 372 whole, while the economic miracle of the South East Asian tigers has bypassed Burma entirely. Its economy weak and seriously short of foreign reserves, its political institutions moribund, its bureaucracy bloated, its governance arbitrary, facing social crisis, soaring drug addiction and a related AIDs epidemic, Burma is a stark and isolated contrast to the open, integrated and prospering economies of the region.
The 1996 parliamentary and presidential elections in Sudan were neither free nor fair. With any political opposition banned, the people of Sudan were yet again denied a real choice. In Burma, the SLORC regime continues to reinforce its rule via a pervasive security apparatus led by military intelligence and to restrict sharply basic rights to free speech.
At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the work of the BBC World Service. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that during the six years of her house arrest the World Service provided one of her few links to the outside world. Without the BBC World Service she would not have heard about the historic events of those years, which saw the domino topple of Communism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; the release of Nelson Mandela and the ending of apartheid in South Africa; and the extraordinary revolution in global communications and information technology. I pay tribute to the work of the World Service and the many languages in which it broadcasts and I would like the Minister's reassurance that its future is secure.
There is consensus in your Lordships' House that Britain must use its influence to promote real democracy in these countries, to promote the rule of law and respect for human rights, which will follow in its wake. There are two models that the international community can follow in order to put pressure to reform on a regime which abuses the rights of its people: that of critical dialogue and constructive engagement, combined with strong combined international pressure for reform, and that of isolation.
I do not think there is such a gulf of difference between the Opposition and the Government as the Foreign Secretary's rhetoric would have the world believe. I must ask the Minister if she sees a difference between our policies and, if so, in which countries do Government consider the abuse of human rights to be sufficiently serious to merit the imposition of trade sanctions? Given that human rights are now at the centre of the Government's foreign policy, how much further would the level of human rights atrocities in any country with which we trade have to deteriorate before the Government impose sanctions, if not in Burma and the Sudan? If the Government are not considering the imposition of trade sanctions in either of these countries, how will they reconcile the inherent tension between the policy of constructive dialogue and non-isolation on the one hand with the expectations raised by an ethical foreign policy?
The international community looks forward to the day when it can send messages of congratulation to peaceful and stable governments in both Sudan and Burma, which reflect, not reject, the will of their citizens. During its presidency of the EU, Britain has an 373 opportunity to use its influence to lead the world community in helping to fashion an African and an ASEAN solution to the problems of the Sudan and of Burma respectively. We hope that it will rise to that challenge.
§ 12.18 a.m.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, as on many previous occasions I have the honour to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her outstanding work on human rights in the many very dangerous parts of the world which she visits with great frequency—none less than Sudan and Burma, to which she has assiduously drawn your Lordships' attention with regard to the many and gross violations of human rights in both countries.
This evening I shall concentrate on Burma as we had a debate on Sudan last week and this evening my noble friend Lord Goodhart dealt extensively with the devastating report of the UN Human Rights Committee which is absolutely unanswerable. It is no adequate reply to say, as my noble friend Lord McNair has this evening, that if Mr. John Garang, commits human rights abuses as well, that forms some kind of excuse for the government.
§ Lord McNair
My Lord, if I may intervene briefly, I did not say that Mr. John Garang's misdemeanours let the government off the hook but that we needed a two-sided debate and it was important to realise that these human rights abuses were committed by both sides.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lord, it is the state which is responsible for the rule of law, not the opposition or some person who sets himself up as an alternative to the government in one part of the country. I should have thought that my noble friend would have read Mr. Gladstone's famous letter to Lord Aberdeen about the Bourbon regime in Naples in which he made this point very clear. But I do not want to be diverted by that because I do not have time to do more than cover the human rights abuses that now occur in Burma about which all of the human rights NGOs and UN agencies that have looked at the matter have reached similar conclusions. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch Asia and particularly the UN special rapporteur, Judge Rajsoomer Lallah, have all published detailed reports on the gross and persistent violations that have been committed ever since the SLORC came to power. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that it does not matter what they call themselves. Unlike the rose, this regime has a nasty smell whatever name it chooses to use.
The SLORC does not allow any investigation by the international bodies that I have mentioned inside the country. The UN rapporteur has just told the UN Third Committee that he has been unable to gain the co-operation of the Government of Myanmar in the two and a half years since his appointment. The special rapporteur says that the absence of democracy is at the root of all the major violations of human rights in the country. There is no accountability and the structure of power rests on the denial and repression of fundamental 374 rights, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and forced labour, particularly in the context of development programmes and counter-insurgency operations in minority-dominated regions. The special rapporteur says that arbitrary arrest and detention are widespread. partly because of the absence of an independent judiciary coupled with a host of executive orders criminalising normal civilian conduct, prescribing enormously disproportionate penalties and authorising arrest and detention without judicial review or any other form of legal authorisation. He concludes that there is no freedom of thought, opinion, expression or association in the country. The absolute power of SLORC is exercised to silence opposition and penalise those holding dissenting views or beliefs. Because of both visible and invisible pressures the people live in a climate of fear in which whatever they or their family members may say or do, particularly in the area of politics, involves the risk of arrest and interrogation by the police or military intelligence.
The special rapporteur says that there are violations of the right to freedom of movement and residence including the right to leave and re-enter one's own country, some of which are racially based. He says that internal deportations and forced relocations violate freedom of movement and residence and in some cases constitute discriminatory practices based on ethnic considerations. Some of the thematic rapporteurs are also heavily critical of Myanmar, while others simply note the conclusions of the special country rapporteur. There would be no point in a separate investigation by the rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers because the regime does not even pretend that the courts are independent. The special rapporteur on violence against women reports that debt bondage is used to control women and that women and girls from Myanmar typically "serve" six men per day, 25 days a month and earn one dollar a day in the prostitution industry. She says that officials of both Myanmar and Thailand are involved in trafficking women from one country to the other, and she quotes a report which claims that girls are transported into Thailand by policemen in uniform, armed and often in police vehicles. Mrs. Kirin Htay Kyu of the Burmese Women's Union says that women suffer under the SLORC as men do, but face additional sexual abuse when imprisoned. She claims that ethnic cleansing has forced women out of some rural areas and into Thailand's sex industry. She reports that the SLORC's soldiers are told to rape women from ethnic minorities in a systematic effort to destroy their people's identity. That has echoes of what we know about Bosnia. Presumably none of the special rapporteurs or working groups have tried to get an invitation to visit Burma, in the light of the country rapporteurs' experience of refusal. Should not they formally ask the SLORC to let them in so that the position would be on the record? Will the Government propose that at the next meeting of the Human Rights Commission?
One of the effects of the human rights disaster in Burma is the pressure, as has been mentioned, of refugees on other countries in the region. Human Rights Watch Asia reported in August about the continuing 375 plight of the Rohingyas, who were persuaded to return to Arakan state from the camps in Bangladesh, even though there are new refugees crossing the border. The SLORC has deprived all the Rohingyas of their citizenship. Thailand has started to repatriate what it calls illegal alien workers: 93,000 this year to the end of October, most of whom were Burmese. An article in the November Burma Issues says that many refugees are being refouled under the eyes of the UNHCR which has not published a report on its observations. The international community should ask the UNHCR to undertake a comprehensive study of the refugee problems arising out of the SLORC's oppression and the financial penalties that it imposes on neighbouring states. Perhaps ASEAN could then discuss compensation, to be paid out of oil and gas revenues, as in the case of Iraq.
I realise that the UNHCR has no presence on the border, as other noble Lords have said, but the Burma Border Consortium might be asked to help with that survey. Speaking of oil, UK-based Premier Oil is negotiating, or may already have completed negotiations, to buy out Texaco's stake in the Yetagun oilfield, which would make it the second largest investor in Burma. That indicates that the advice being given to British companies by the Foreign Office is not strong enough. I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government would consider proposing urgently a mandatory ban on investment by EU companies, to bring Europe into line with the US. Why is it that so often dictatorships receive mixed signals, when part of the democratic world is trying to impose restrictions while others opportunistically try to step in to grab the business?
The Yadana pipeline, which brings gas from the Andaman sea deposits across Burma into Thailand, led to massive attacks on the local people in Tennasserim in which thousands of people were killed, and even more displaced, many of them over the border into Thailand. Total, the main partner in that development, says that the company applies the same standards in Myanmar as in the other parts of the world where it operates, particularly as regards human rights. I am not aware that Total has any general policy on human rights, and its comment upon what it admits are tragic events in that area is that they are merely a continuation of the ethnic insurgency which started before independence. It does not see that petroleum developments tend to bring troops into the area, and thus may be indirectly the cause of human rights abuses in the country.
I shall mention the drug problem.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I would point out that the noble Lord has gone well beyond nine minutes. At this time of night, we should observe the eight-minute limit.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, I am sorry about that. I was going to mention the association of the Burmese regime with the drug problem. I shall conclude by saying that we should not have any dialogue with people who are associated with the drug peddling mass murderers in charge of Burma. We should do our utmost 376 to tighten the screws on them until they are removed. It is as intolerable that we should be doing business with those people as it would be with Saddam Hussein. I hope that the Government will take the strongest possible line on disinvestment, on severing all cultural and sporting links with Rangoon, on nailing the crimes of the SLORC at the Human Rights Commission, and on supporting democratic opponents of the regime both within the country and abroad.
§ 12.30 a.m.
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, human rights are at the centre of the Government's foreign policy. This is not an issue which can be put into a special box to be taken out and examined only when the situation absolutely demands. Human rights are an integral part of our policy formulation, informing all our decisions.
In raising her Question, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has drawn attention to two of the most repressive and authoritarian foreign regimes in the world. I applaud the sustained interest which the noble Baroness and other noble Lords have taken in the appalling human rights situation in Burma and Sudan. I thank her warmly for introducing the debate tonight, even at this late hour.
The Government strongly share the concerns expressed this evening. It may be useful if I outline the situation on the ground in Burma and Sudan and explain how the Government are translating their concern into action for the benefit of the peoples of these two benighted countries. Let me first address the situation in Burma.
The sad fact is that the track record of the Burmese authorities remains deplorable, as the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Avebury. said. Their gross violations of human rights continue. Under their stewardship the Burmese economy has seen the free market exchange rate for the kyat lose over 70 per cent. of its value since April. The ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was formally dissolved on 15th November. But this was no cause for rejoicing: it has been succeeded by an equally unelected and unaccountable body, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). We can all understand why the SLORC wanted to change its name, but regrettably it has not changed its nature. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy remain tireless champions for democracy in Burma despite the appalling harassment to which they and other pro-democracy groups continue to be subjected collectively and individually, as the noble Lord. Lord Moynihan, illustrated.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has rightly drawn particular attention to the plight of Burma's ethnic and religious minorities. I strongly share those concerns. There are widespread reports of forced labour and forced relocations, particularly in Karen and Karenni and Shan states. The brutality of the Burmese authorities is deplorable. Following a Burmese army offensive against the Karen earlier this year, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 refugees tied into Thailand. In response to my noble friend Lord Jenkins, I must say that the Minister 377 of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Patchett, summoned the Burmese ambassador to condemn this violation of human rights and press for swift remedial action. Her Majesty's ambassador at Rangoon made a similarly forthright démarche to the Burmese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I turn to some of the specific points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. The problem of refugees needs to he tackled from both sides of the border. There are now some 110,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand. Her Majesty's ambassador in Bangkok has urged the Thais to provide necessary shelter and protection for refugees. He did so most recently in response to the displacement on 15th November, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, drew particular attention. Since 1992, we have provided £630,000 in humanitarian aid for Burmese refugees.
Access to ethnic and religious minorities in remote areas within Burma remains difficult. We are proud to have developed a close working relationship with non-governmental organisations, particularly those working on the Thai-Burma border. I pay tribute to their dedication and tenacity under very difficult circumstances.
This pooling of knowledge and expertise is invaluable in helping us to take swift action where necessary in support of human rights in Burma. We seize every suitable opportunity to do so. For example, noble Lords may be aware of the instrumental role Her Majesty's Government have played in negotiating with EU partners a package of political measures on Burma. We see strong arguments for adopting still further measures to increase the pressure on the SPDC for change. There is at present, however, no consensus for this among EU partners. Her Majesty's Government have therefore shown a lead within Europe by adopting, unilaterally, a suspension of government financial support to companies for trade missions to Burma and trade promotion activities within Burma. We shall continue to press for EU-wide implementation.
But there is another side to that coin: we want to do more to help relieve the suffering which Burmese government policies cause to ordinary Burmese people. We are encouraging our EU partners to consider drawing up a package of "positive measures" to strengthen civil society in Burma—and to reinforce the excellent humanitarian work which is already being done. We are discussing with our friends in the NGO community how best to take forward this further important British initiative.
There is also a convincing case for keeping Burma high on the agenda for intergovernmental discussions. Ministers regularly compare notes with their counterparts in key foreign and Commonwealth countries and international organisations on the political and human rights situation in Burma. This includes members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Burma acceded earlier this year, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, reminded us. We firmly believe that governments in Asia have an important role to play, in using their influence with the SPDC to press for reform in Burma. We continue to urge them to do so.
378 In answer to the points that the noble Baroness made about ASEM 2, there is no automatic link between membership of ASEAN and participation in ASEM. Expansion of ASEM must be agreed by consensus among the existing members and no consensus exists on Burmese participation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, also raised questions about the UN Fair Committee Resolution on human rights in Burma, adopted in committee by consensus. We expect adoption in the plenary session on 12th December. The UK has offered detailed contributions at each stage of the drafting process.
Several noble Lords also raised questions about the major elements and asked what more could he done in UK policy towards Burma. Ministerial statements since 1st May have unequivocally condemned abuses and called for some substantive political dialogue with opposition groups, including the ethnic minorities. There is not any sign of progress at present. The EU common position includes a full-scale arms embargo, a ban on visa issue for members of the regime and their families, a ban on defence links and aid, except, of course, humanitarian aid. and that is being renewed for a further six months at the GAC which took place on 6th October.
I turn now to the position in Sudan. Increased respect for human rights in Sudan is a centre-piece of our policy towards that country. As I explained to noble Lords recently, we have made it clear to the Government of Sudan that an improvement in relations is dependent on an improvement in the human rights situation. We want to see a peaceful, democratic Sudan where the human rights of all citizens are equally respected.
I spoke, I hope reasonably informatively, on 1st December, about the civil war in Sudan. It is clear that many of the human rights abuses reported in Sudan are linked to the civil war. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has briefed us tonight on her experiences in the war zones and the terrible sights she has seen there. Her accounts are the more compelling because she is not giving us second-hand accounts. She is telling us dispassionately but very clearly what she has seen for herself. She has not been where only the Sudanese Government sent her. She has been where she felt she had to go in order to get that clear, first-hand account. I am sure we all respect her for her courage in doing so.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Sudan, Dr. Gaspar Biro, for whose work the Government are grateful, has also reported terrible abuses. Not only Christians suffer: all southerners not allied to the government are targeted, Moslems and Animists as well as Christians. Such unacceptable abuses take place not only in the south of the country, but also in the Nuba Mountains and eastern Sudan. Allegations have also been made against opposition forces. The displaced people living in camps around Khartoum also suffer maltreatment and the destruction of their churches and schools.
We do not accept that human rights problems in Sudan are just an unfortunate by-product of the civil war which can be ignored. Human rights must be respected even in war zones by all sides to the conflict.
379 Moreover, it is clear that those who raise their voice against the government, in Khartoum as elsewhere, are subject to maltreatment. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, told us and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has written to me about the beating with sticks and rubber hoses of women demonstrating against the conscription of high school graduates; and the subsequent detention of 30 of them. The UN complained to the Sudanese Government about that brutality and the British ambassador in Khartoum has also done so.
Human rights work constitutes a major part of the work of the British Embassy in Khartoum. It raises specific cases with the Sudanese authorities as well as making use of its contacts to urge greater respect for human rights and progress towards democracy in general. It stays in close touch with opposition and human rights activists in Khartoum and is supporting work to reunite families split up by abductions, about which we have heard.
We play our part in international pressure: we were a co-sponsor of the recent successful resolution in the UNGA's 3rd Committee expressing concern about the continued human rights abuses in Sudan. There is already an EU arms embargo on Sudan. A UN arms embargo is a possibility, but such measures need to gain sufficient support in the UN Security Council. It is not clear, as yet, that such a measure would gain sufficient support.
We remain very concerned about the continued refusal of the governments of both Burma and Sudan to allow access to a number of locations in their countries to relief aid and monitors. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, reminds us about that situation both rightly and often. We continue to press for access to all areas of Burma and Sudan, not only by aid organisations to deliver humanitarian assistance, but also by human rights monitors. We are in touch with the Commission for Human Rights in Geneva about the expected appeal for UN human rights monitors. We are also in touch with human rights NGOs about monitoring activities in the Sudan.
We continue to take the view that the best way to ensure such assistance is through operations, in the case of Sudan under the umbrella of the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan. But where there is urgent need the Department for 380 International Development is prepared to support agencies outside that umbrella if they have experience of working in conflict situations, are able to act neutrally and can ensure that aid reaches those for whom it is intended. I hope that that meets the points raised by the noble Baroness in relation to her earlier remarks about CSI.
In answer to a specific question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, we are not attracted by the example of unilateral US economic measures against the Government of Sudan. It is not the Government's policy to use such measures as tools of foreign policy. There are serious legal difficulties involved and the effect on target countries is very small.
A number of other detailed questions were raised this evening. However, in view of the lateness of the hour, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I respond to some of those points by way of correspondence. The noble Lord, Lord McNair, raised questions about the debate that we had on the Sudan on 1st December. I raised those points with my officials, who are the same ones who were present on that occasion. They assure me that there was no interference whatever; indeed, I would have been extraordinarily concerned, shocked and surprised had there been any interference in the official record in Hansard on that occasion.
I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, will recognise that I have written to him concerning the points on Kenya and the Kakuma camp. I should point out to him that if he has not yet received that letter he will do so very shortly.
I believe that all of us in this House are agreed that human rights abuses in Burma and in the Sudan are truly unacceptable. The British Government have not turned a blind eye to those abuses. We have responded to the widespread concern in the country, in this House and among NGOs, about the situation in Sudan and that in Burma. In doing so, we sometimes have to act through different channels from those of NGOs: the arena of international relations involves both advantages and restrictions. But we will continue to press our concerns about human rights and related issues; and we will continue to keep under consideration other initiatives to help the human rights situations in both those countries.
§ House adjourned at seventeen minutes before one o'clock.