HL Deb 03 December 1998 vol 595 cc594-6

3.4 p.m.

Lord Moynihan asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their current assessment of relations between the United Kingdom and Malaysia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Malaysia is an important economic partner for the United Kingdom, with strong historical links and shared membership of the Commonwealth. But this has not inhibited us from instituting a frank dialogue on human rights issues, including the treatment of Anwar Ibrahim.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, what specific action have the Government taken to satisfy themselves that in the case of the former Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, international standards for fair trial, including the presumption of innocence of the accused, are being observed, that the Malaysian law is being applied all the time in accordance with the basic human rights principles, and that the law is not being misused to detain or imprison him solely for the non-violent expression of his political views?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have been following the case closely. We have taken every opportunity to raise our concerns bilaterally. The Secretary of State raised the case with the Malaysian Prime Minister on 21st September, and with the Malaysian Foreign Minister on 24th September. We have also raised our concerns through our High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. Moreover, the presidency issued a declaration on 2nd October expressing deep concern about the reports of physical mistreatment of Anwar Ibrahim and calling on the Malaysian authorities to guarantee the rule of law and to respect human rights.

The latest EU statement was only last week on 27th November. That expressed concern that the Malaysian authorities still have not published the results of the investigation. The EU urged them to do so. There has also been an observer from the Bar Council, Mr. Charles Flint, QC.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, the Minister's action will certainly win the approval of this House. Does my noble friend think that it might be helpful to engage the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Secretary in making, if possible, similar representations, in particular now that, since the Harare Declaration, the Commonwealth is committed to democracy and human rights?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the members of the Commonwealth are expected to adhere to the principles of the Harare Declaration, as my noble friend indicates. But it is for the Commonwealth Heads of Government to set that agenda. This was discussed by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group only last month. I regret to say that there was no consensus at that meeting. The next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is in November 1999. That will be an opportunity to discuss the issue if the situation in Malaysia has not improved in the intervening months.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, will the Government also take an active interest in the case of Mr. Param Cumaraswamy, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary, who is being sued for libel in the courts of Malaysia in circumstances which certainly look as though they are intended to silence him?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the EU has raised our concern about Mr. Cumaraswamy's case relating to his right of immunity as a UN rapporteur, as the noble Lord indicates. We have raised those concerns with the Government of Malaysia. The UK also made a statement on Mr. Cumaraswamy's case at the UN, expressing regret that the Government of Malaysia had taken such actions. Malaysians can be in no doubt that problems of this kind do not help their international reputation.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I think that we would all agree that it is right that the Government and the European Union should take actions in any way they can in support of democracy and human rights in Malaysia. Will the Minister confirm that it would be the view of the British Government that no third country could exert extra-territorial criminal jurisdiction over actions which are committed in Malaysia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, extra-territorial jurisdictions vary enormously from country to country and I am sure the noble Lord will understand why, at the moment, it would be improper for me to go any further on that issue

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, will the noble Baroness take into account a rather different side of the coin? There are many thousands of Malaysian students in this country who are already in considerable difficulties because of the great fall in the value of their local currency against sterling in recent months. Many of those students are here under the aegis of the British Council, of whose board I am a member. Many of them will become extremely important citizens in Malaysia in the future. Will the Minister take all possible action to ensure that the natural outcry against Malaysia for its human rights abuses does not impinge on the future of those students in this country? Will she ensure that everything possible is done to help them financially?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. Britain and Malaysia co-operate extremely closely in the field of education. The largest overseas student contingent in the United Kingdom is Malaysian. We have seen as many as 20,000 students in the United Kingdom at any one time. It is enormously important that relationships for the future are properly fostered and nurtured in the way that the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, does the Minister have any information about the frigates under construction in the Yarrow yard, which I understand should have been delivered to the Malaysian Navy in 1996?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes. GEC Yarrows signed a contract in 1992 to deliver two frigates to the Royal Malaysian Navy, as the noble Lord suggests, in 1996. Sea acceptance tests are currently under way and we hope that the ships will be delivered in mid-1999.