HL Deb 19 May 1998 vol 589 cc1455-63

3.52 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on unrest in Indonesia which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the current situation in Indonesia.

"Our top priority remains to ensure the safety of British citizens in Indonesia. Throughout the recent unrest the embassy has kept in close touch with the British community through the warden system and regularly updated travel advice. This advice has also been broadcast by the BBC World Service. Emergency telephone lines have been set up in Jakarta to provide up-to-date information 24 hours a day.

"Advice to resident British nationals caught up in the unrest has been kept under constant review. From Friday, 15th May, Britons were advised to consider leaving. Early this morning, in view of the latest political developments and the demonstrations expected on 20th May, we issued advice that British citizens should leave Indonesia, preferably avoiding travel on 20th May. At our ambassador's request, an additional British Airways 747 flight has been arranged by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, leaving Jakarta later today for Kuala Lumpur. There are also other scheduled flights available.

"British citizens with safe access to the airport were advised to make their own way there, where an embassy team will be available at the British Airways office to give advice. The embassy also chartered a fleet of buses to transport British citizens from central Jakarta. As an extra precaution, a police escort was requested and provided.

"We have been greatly saddened by the tragic death of a British citizen in Jakarta on 14th May. Our deepest sympathy goes out to his family. The motive appears to have been robbery, as the evidence suggests that the death was unrelated to the mob violence. We have asked the Indonesian police for investigation reports as a matter of urgency. We have heard rumours of the possible death of a second British national but our embassy in Jakarta has established that these rumours are unfounded.

"I should like to thank the staff of our embassy in Jakarta for their hard work in the face of enormous difficulties and a very unpredictable political situation. They, and many of their spouses, have been working tirelessly around the clock since 14th May to help the local British community. Many of them also have dependants in Indonesia to worry about. Although their work is not yet over, I should like to take this opportunity to thank them now for their continuing efforts.

"We are also very grateful to British Airways, and especially to Clare Hatton and her staff in Jakarta, for their great efforts to help many Britons leaving Indonesia.

"The situation in Indonesia is changing very rapidly. President Suharto has told the Indonesian people in a television address today that there will be a general election as soon as possible and that he will not stand again himself. We call on the Government of Indonesia to ensure that the new elections are free and fair. Political reforms are needed that will do justice to the aspirations of the people of Indonesia. The tragic violence that we have seen over the past week must be stopped, before more innocent lives are claimed. We urge Indonesia to introduce the necessary changes quickly so that calm and stability can be restored.

"The British Government have been following developments in Indonesia very closely over recent months. Ministers have made our concerns very clear to the Indonesian authorities. I visited Jakarta in March and my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was also in Indonesia at the beginning of this month. He took the opportunity to underline the importance of political and economic reform. Together with our European partners, we issued a statement on 13th May calling on the authorities to exercise maximum restraint and to respect individual rights. This message has been conveyed to the Indonesian authorities through our embassy in Jakarta and I personally summoned the Indonesian Ambassador on 13th May.

"My right honourable friend the Prime Minister also took the opportunity of the G8 Summit to discuss the situation in Indonesia. As the House will know, leaders called on the Government of Indonesia to refrain from using lethal force and to initiate political reform.

"We have stressed the importance of political and economic reform. The two are now essential to recovery in Indonesia. I am sure that the House will want to support the Government in calling for peaceful transition in Indonesia".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.58 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement being made in another place. We are grateful for the opportunity to hear the Government's concern about the situation in Indonesia, which, in recent days, has been teetering on the edge of anarchy. We share the Government's sorrow at the rioting, looting and burning witnessed in Jakarta. This is the worst violence in the city since President Suharto took power in 1965 and has resulted in a rising death toll approaching some 500.

From these Benches we join the Minister in conveying our condolences to the family of the Briton murdered during the riots and to the families of all the innocent Indonesians who have died. Likewise, we also pay tribute to the work carried out by our embassy officials and would like to associate ourselves with the Minister's recognition of the bravery of Miss Clare Hatton who has kept the British Airways office open in Jakarta and enabled more than 2,000 people to leave the country.

I join the Minister in condemning the rioting and the unprovoked racist attacks, particularly on the ethnic Chinese community. There is a fundamental difference between those who take to the streets in peaceful political protest and the mob rule of violence and death seen in Jakarta in recent days. What reports have the Government had of the situation outside the capital, particularly in East Timor and in Irian Jaya? We welcome the Government's decision to urge the Indonesian authorities to use maximum restraint in dealing with crowd situations in order to avoid any further escalation of violence.

I wish to ask the Minister a few questions about the arms used in the recent disorder. Can the Minister confirm whether the Scorpion armoured reconnaissance vehicles which have been used to suppress protests in Indonesia were exported from Britain under this Government? Can the Minister further confirm whether Hawk aircraft have been used at any time during these disturbances? Is it the Government's intention to revoke export licences to Indonesia, as the Member for Cynon Valley has suggested? President Suharto has made a live address on national television promising to implement reforms and to hold parliamentary elections as soon as the Indonesian constitution allows. Does the Minister believe that a change of government can be achieved under the present Indonesian constitution? Does the Minister support President Suharto's decision not to resign immediately? If so, what timescale would be appropriate and practical for new elections to be held in Indonesia? Will the Government offer to send British experts in elections to provide advice to the Indonesian authorities on the drafting of new laws?

Finally, does the Minister agree that the recent agreement between Indonesia and the international financial institutions, including the IMF, must be adhered to if growth and confidence in the country are to be restored? What consultations have the Government had with Indonesia's regional neighbours and with our European partners on the situation in that country? We join the Minister today in wanting to help Indonesians see the potential of their country fully restored. It is a country with great economic potential. We welcome the initiatives that have been taken, as described in the Statement which the Minister has repeated.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement to the House. I also thank the staff of the British Embassy and British Airways in Jakarta for the help they have given to our citizens. Will every British citizen who wants to leave be enabled to do so in the reasonably near future? When the Government say in the Statement that they call on the Government of Indonesia to ensure that the new elections are free and fair, does the Minister recognise—as the Opposition spokesman has mentioned—that that is rather a difficult objective under the present constitution? Will the Minister make it clear to the present Government of Indonesia that to be successful such elections would have to be administered genuinely independently, and possibly with some external assistance?

In recent days British television viewers have watched democratic demonstrations in Jakarta being put down by British made water cannon firing British supplied nerve gas. My colleagues and I have tried to find the difference between the policy of the previous administration and the ethical foreign policy of the present Administration on the question of supplies to Indonesia. We have found an interesting difference. On 26th November 1996 the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker of Wallasey, stated in a Written Answer, We do not license for export, to Indonesia or to any other country, any UK defence equipment likely to he used for internal repression".—[Official Report, 26/11/96; col. WA5.] On 24th July last year the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, said: We will not sell arms to regimes which might use them for internal repression or external aggression".—[Official Report, 24/7/97; col. 1513.] In the light of that subtle difference, will the Minister explain or confirm that 22 licences were granted to Indonesia between May 1997 and December 1997 for toxicological agents, riot control agents, body armour, and so on, and that between 1st January and 3rd April this year a further 28 individual arms licences were granted to Indonesia, some of them even after the troubles and violence began? What licences have been refused to Indonesia?

When I visited Jakarta a couple of years ago one of the people who impressed me most was the Speaker of the Parliament who seemed keen to improve the role of that parliament. Therefore is not his call for the resignation of President Suharto of particular significance and importance? In a meeting I attended with newspaper editors it became clear that the press operate under a strict system where, if they write something inimical to the regime, their licence to publish can be suspended. The conclusion we have to come to in this unhappy tragedy is that an ethical foreign policy must begin by denying weapons of security to unethical regimes.

4.5 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Steel, for their kind tributes to the British Embassy staff which I shall do my best to ensure are conveyed to the staff and to the spouses of staff in the embassy who have made such enormous efforts over the past weekend. I acknowledge again the bravery of Miss Clare Hatton from the British Airways office.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked about the position outside Jakarta. As I understand it, there are demonstrations outside Jakarta at the moment although I do not have precise information. The warnings and advice that the British Government are issuing apply across Indonesia except for Bali. I hope that that answers the point; namely, that we are concerned about the situation elsewhere in Indonesia because there is sufficient unrest to warrant that concern.

The noble Lord asked various questions—as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Steel—about the equipment being used in the repression on the streets of Jakarta. I shall do my best to answer specific points put by both noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, went into specific detail which I may have to answer by letter. As regards the Scorpion tanks and the water cannon of British origin seen by television viewers being used recently, the licences were approved under the previous administration. It is not realistic or practical to revoke licences which were valid and in force under the previous government. We have issued no new licences for any equipment where we have judged that there is a clearly identifiable risk that it might be used for internal repression or external aggression. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked about Hawk aircraft. We have studied all the information available as regards Hawks being used in East Timor. We are confident that UK supplied Hawk aircraft have not been used there, or in any counter-insurgency role in Indonesia. That is the information that I have as of today's date.

The noble Lord, Lord Steel, asked about refusals of licences. Since 2nd May we have refused a number of standard individual licences for Indonesia. We believe that this clearly demonstrates that the new criteria are having an impact. We are not in a position to give details on individual contracts as the information is confidential to the companies concerned and to their customers but if there are questions which the noble Lord has posed which I can answer without compromising that confidentiality, I shall be happy to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked about President Suharto's position. I think it is still too early to anticipate when the elections he referred to in his broadcast yesterday are likely to take place. The noble Lord will know that there has been a certain amount of speculation about that in the press. As regards answering that question at the moment, I do not have any additional information. The noble Lord also asked t4thether it might be possible for British experts to help in those elections. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, mentioned that any elections should be clearly seen to be independent and to have received external assistance. I take the point that there has to be confidence in any election procedures in Indonesia. I shall convey the point that the noble Lords have put to me on this to my right honourable friend and my honourable friend Mr. Fatchett for their consideration in order to see whether there is any practical way that we might offer assistance. I cannot say whether such assistance will be welcome, but I shall ask my right honourable friend and my honourable friend. I think the two points that the noble Lords made were reasonably adjacent on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, then went on to ask about the IMF and the economic situation. We have contributed greatly to tackling the current financial problems in Indonesia. We have given full support to the IMF's role in seeking to restore confidence to markets in the region with its various rescue packages. Our aid effort in Indonesia is largely channelled through multi-lateral organisations such as the World Bank. We have also responded to the ICRC's appeal for help in Irian Jaya and East Timor. I hope that answers the points on the IMF.

I have already indicated that I shall try to see whether I can obtain more detail on some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Steel.

Perhaps I may make one further point. I made an error in beginning my Statement this afternoon. I indicated that the Statement was being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. It is 'n fact being made by my honourable friend Mr. Fatchett. I apologise to your Lordships for that mistake.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for repeating the Statement and for adding to it, may I ask her whether there is any estimate of the number of British citizens still in Jakarta and if it is known whether all of them are wishing to leave or whether there is a substantial number who are intending, against the advice tendered to them, to stay in Indonesia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we do not have precise figures. We are doing our best to obtain them, as the noble Lord would expect. The British Embassy staff are trying actively to establish how many Britons remain to offer them advice and assistance. But the task is complicated because a number of the wardens that were used, to whom I referred in the Statement, have already departed. It is through the wardens that such information is normally communicated to the embassy.

I believe that the numbers are falling. Without being absolutely precise, we are hopeful that those who wart to leave will be able to leave on the additional BA flights which are going in. As I indicated to you Lordships, there were a number of vacant places on the BA flights that came out over the weekend, but it may be that individuals will now feel they want to go. They may feel that because the advice has hardened and because the situation is so unstable they now want to leave. Of course, we are doing our best, with all the other agencies, like BA, to ensure that those who want to leave can.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, would the noble Baroness join with me in paying a tribute to the staff of the British Council in Indonesia? Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that I am a member of the British Council Board. They have traditionally, in the British Council way, worked extremely closely with the Indonesian population over recent years, not only in terms of English language teaching and training potential English language teachers, but also in trying to arrange for Indonesian students to come to this country. I know that some members of the British Council staff left Jakarta at the end of last week. I am not yet certain about the position of the others today.

Does the noble Baroness agree with me that there is a rather deeper problem for long-term consideration? For more than 25 years, this country and other western countries have worked extraordinarily hard to try to put stability into the Indonesian financial system. After all, was it not true that under President Sukarno Indonesia was in an almost permanent financial crisis? Is it not extremely sad to see one of the south-east Asian Tigers, for whom we had hoped a great deal, collapsing so quickly like a pack of cards? Does that not call for a sober assessment in due course of the success of World Bank loans, of IMF money and, indeed, of the role of the Department for International Development? To what extent can we affect such huge events in as distant and as huge a country as Indonesia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am happy to pay tribute to the work of British Council staff on this occasion. Indeed, I am always happy to find opportunities to praise the work of the British Council. Whenever I travel abroad I always try to make a point of seeing representatives of the British Council and to acknowledge the important work that they do in relation to ensuring that the work of Britons at home and the cultural aspects of life in Britain are understood by our friends abroad.

The noble Lord then went on to raise questions about perhaps the longer term assessment in relation to the IMF. s per Majesty's Government are confident that with the IMF and World Bank programmes, which I mentioned in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and with a strong adjustment effort from the Asian countries concerned, financial stability will be restored to the region.

Like everyone else, I am not able to say when, but ire believe that those are the reasonable mechanisms to use in order to try to re-establish that stability.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, appreciating what the Minister has said, it has been widely reported that what triggered the disorders was the raising of the price of important commodities at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. Is it not important that we should lock at the kind of advice that is given to such countries if this is the result of its acceptance?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I think it is sensible for us to look at all the differing reasons which may have triggered the unrest in Indonesia. The noble Lord cites one of those reasons. There are other reasons, too, not least what is seen by many people to have been a regime which has not respected human rights. The fact that so many young people and students have been out demonstrating against the regime may be an indication of their desire for those greater human rights.

I by no means dismiss what the noble Lord is saying. At the moment, we are in the midst of a very difficult situation. There are British lives which I hope are not at risk but are certainly in an unhappy and uncomfortably- position, which is why we are trying to bring them out.

We now need to concentrate on ensuring the safety of British nationals. That is our foremost task and that is our foremost duty. Once we are sure that this immediate danger has been put on one side—the noble Lord is quite right, as are other noble Lords who have made this point—it is of course our duty to examine why this situation has arisen, to try to analyse the reasons and to do what we can to address them.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, the Minister hinted in one of her comments that this is an area which is notoriously sensitive to anything that smacks of interference by the former colonial powers. The people who are being butchered are not Europeans, they are Asians and overwhelmingly Chinese. There is nothing new in this situation; it has happened before. Do we have any indication of the action of other countries in the region At the end of the day, they will be the people who wil7 apply power, other than the IMF. It will not be this House.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes, I would not wish that anything I said should be implied to mean that the British Government can come metaphorically parachuting into a situation and find all the answers. That is as self-evidently wrong-minded as the noble Lord has indicated.

The noble Lord asked what else is going on in the, region at the moment. I am not sure whether he relates that to what other people are doing about evacuations around the region. I know that the Australians are involved in such measures at present. If the noble Lord means what are the other countries in the region looking at in relation to Indonesia and Indonesian stability, I gave an answer in relation to the IMF and the measures that are being taken to secure economic stability in the region as a whole. Indonesia may be in particular difficulties at present. But many of the financial problems it is experiencing are, if not exact mirror images, at least similar to those arising in other countries in the area. We—I hope that the noble Lord will not misunderstand me—shall wish to look not only at Indonesia but at the problems of the region as a whole, as we did at the Asia Meets Europe Conference last month in London.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, the noble Baroness speaks rightly of the need for us to concentrate on saving the lives of British citizens. Would she consider reintroduction of the system that used to operate whereby British citizens resident abroad register their names at the nearest British consulate? In the event of an upset such as this the authorities would have some idea who our nationals are and where they are so that they could be assisted. The system was abolished by the previous government. I suggest that the position might be reviewed.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. As the Minister responsible for consular matters, I undertake to consider his suggestion which I think is interesting. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord that we are not just looking at British citizens who are resident. There may well be a number of British people and others in Indonesia. We warned people who did not have essential business from, I think, Friday 14th May, or it may have been 15th May. I shall check the date. We believed that those who did not have any specific reason to stay in Indonesia should consider leaving. It is important to consider that it is not just residents. British nationals may also be in Indonesia at present.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, does the Minister agree that the Indonesian people have a great history of consensus in the way they are governed? Is it not appropriate to send a message to the Speaker of the Parliament from our Parliament to give those in parliament the encouragement needed? Is the Minister impressed by the restraint that has been shown by the students interviewed on television, and by some members of the army?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I should have to take further advice before responding to the noble Lord's point about sending messages. As I am sure noble Lords will understand, this is a very sensitive time. I believe that we must not lose sight of our immediate objective: to get British nationals out of Indonesia. Anything we do which cuts across that objective will not serve their interests. I believe that it would cut across our central duty, which is to the British nationals.