HL Deb 26 October 1998 vol 593 cc1684-6

2.48 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response towards recent developments in Burma (Myanmar).

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

My Lords, EU Foreign Ministers are meeting today to consider Burma. We hope the EU common position will be renewed and strengthened. We are pressing partners to ban the issue of transit visas to members of the regime. We hope partners will agree that the EU should, like the UK, draw to the attention of tour operators the view of Burmese democracy leaders that it would be inappropriate at present for tourists to visit Burma. We shall be considering a range of further measures that the EU might take. The Government also continue to support the efforts of the United Nations Secretary General to bring progress in Burma and will work for a further tough resolution on Burma at the UN General Assembly.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her encouraging reply. Does she agree that many of the violent abuses of human rights have been well highlighted by the valiant Aung San Suu Kyi but that there are many other causes for concern, particularly in regard to the treatment of ethnic minorities such as the Karen and the Karenni, which have not received such widespread publicity? Is the noble Baroness aware that earlier this year I managed to visit the Karen and the Karenni and that while there I found evidence of appalling violations of human rights? Up to a quarter of a million Karenni have been forcibly relocated in what are in effect death camps. Many Karen and Karenni still suffer slave labour, torture and murder at the hands of the SPDC regime and military offensives even in refugee camps. Can the noble Baroness give an undertaking that the Government will press the SPDC regime to open up all of Burma to human rights monitors and aid organisations to alleviate the suffering and bring an end to these atrocities?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of the visit by the noble Baroness to the region earlier in the year. I am sure that the whole House joins me in my admiration of the courage of the noble Baroness and the valuable work that she undertakes, particularly in relation to the Karen and the Karenni. The Government share the concerns of the noble Baroness about all types of human rights violations in Burma. The resolution of the UN Commission on Human Rights which was adopted in April and which we drafted contains a wide-ranging catalogue of abuses about which the international community is concerned. We take every appropriate opportunity to raise these concerns with the SPDC and to press it to allow the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights access and to improve the human rights situation for all of Burma's peoples.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government are proceeding to the imposition of full sanctions as requested by Aung San Suu Kyi? Can the Minister also say whether they view favourably and are proceeding with the financial sanctions advocated by such countries as Norway and Holland?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are considering a full range of measures at our disposal in order to put more pressure on the regime. However, any sanction must be compatible with our international obligations, notably to the World Trade Organisation membership. It would be difficult for us to implement sanctions without EU agreement or the cover of a United Nations Security Council resolution. However, I stress to my noble friend that in our discussions today with our colleagues in Europe we are pressing them to look more closely at taking some of the measures that we in the United Kingdom already take: notably to discourage tourism and to draw to the attention of those trading in Burma some of the dire consequences of the human rights situation in that country.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, is there anything to stop the Government, with our European partners, from pressing for the appropriate UN resolution or agreement under the World Trade Organisation's rules so that economic or financial sanctions can be imposed?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I said in my first Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, we pressed for strong wording in the UN last year. We shall continue to press for the strongest possible language in this respect.

We have been pleased to note that the regime has now agreed to the visit of the UN Assistant Secretary General, Dr. De Soto. We hope that that will help to take forward some process of dialogue through the UN's auspices.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if the regime persists in refusing access to the UN rapporteur on Burma, Mr. Raj Suma Lallah, or any of the thematic rapporteurs on extra judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and so on, will the Government consider supporting a proposal that the rapporteurs should interview the victims of the regime, of whom 200,000 are now living in exile in the refugee camps of Thailand, so that a full report can be made on the basis of direct evidence from the victims themselves of the violations of human rights under the SPDC?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an interesting point. There have been difficulties, notably with the regime's unwillingness to allow the visit from the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Mr. Lallah. Successive United Nations resolutions have urged the regime to allow such a visit as soon as possible. The SPDC has also refused to allow a visit by the UN Secretary-General's special emissary, Mr. Razali. But, as the noble Lord is aware, there are occasions when the rapporteurs make reports without visiting the countries concerned. I shall raise this matter with my ministerial colleagues to see whether such a move would be possible in respect of Burma.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, can the Minister explain the disparity in the Government's ethical policy towards Burma on the one hand and China on the other? Why is it that, in the words of the Minister of State when responding to Burma's human rights records, outrage is necessary but not enough … we need to have measures which make clear to the regime that Burma will not be integrated into the world until its government changes its ways", while the Prime Minister chose to pursue such a low key approach during his visit to China? The visit was much criticised by Amnesty International and Mr. Martin Lee, who may have hit the nail on the head when he said: I'm afraid as a result of this visit to China [the Government's ethical foreign policy] looks like an economic foreign policy to me".

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord's question is more about China than about Burma. However, he asks about the difference. I shall tell the noble Lord the difference. Elections were held in Burma in 1990 which were overwhelmingly won by the party of Aung San Suu Kyi. Currently Aung San Suu Kyi cannot go to talk to those who were elected with her: currently 200 members elect are held in prison. The human rights performance is among the very worst in the world, with forced labour, forced relocations, torture, rape and killings, as well as the continued repression of the opposition in the way that I have described. One thousand activists and 200 MPs elect have been detained in the past few weeks. So there is a difference. There was an election. There was an overwhelming result to that election; and the comparison that the noble Lord draws is not correct.