HL Deb 27 October 1999 vol 606 cc298-300

3.5 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty's Government:

What efforts they are making to secure the release of James Mawdsley and Rachel Goldwyn from Burmese gaols.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, we have expressed our and James's and Rachel's families' concern to the Burmese authorities at the way certain aspects of their separate cases have been handled. We remain in close touch with the families and will continue to provide full consular protection and do all that we properly can to assist both during their detention.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I thank the Minister for all that she personally has been doing to assist Rachel Goldwyn and James Mawdsley. Has she had chance to consider the appeal made by James Mawdsley that Her Majesty's Government should respond in two particular ways? First, genocide charges should be brought against those responsible for the suppression of democracy in Burma, especially for violations of human rights against the Karen people, 30,000 of whom have died in the past five years and 300,000 of whom have been displaced. Secondly, have the Government considered the call James Mawdsley has made that economic sanctions should be brought against those British companies such as Premier Oil which continue to be involved in Burma? Does the Minister further agree that the sentences—up to 17 years in the case of James Mawdsley—for simply distributing literature in favour of democracy illustrate more graphically and eloquently than anything that may be said today the nature of that oppressive and brutal regime?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised to know that Her Majesty's Government have not ceased to press their complaints about the undemocratic processes in operation in Burma. We have been at the forefront of those wishing to impose sanctions to achieve an appropriate Burmese response. However, your Lordships will also know that there is not total agreement about the way in which that response should be managed. We have endeavoured to do all we can to raise the concerns many have expressed, not least about the length of the sentences imposed. However, we must bear in mind that judicial systems are entitled to operate within their own confines. Every effort is being made on behalf of Rachel Goldwyn in particular by those representing her and receiving her instructions to pursue her appeal. For the moment, James Mawdsley has chosen not to appeal. He has one more month in which to reconsider his position and lodge an appeal, However, that is a matter for his choice.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I appreciate what the Government are doing on behalf of the two people involved. Is the Minister aware that the very courageous young man, James Mawdsley, went to Burma with the intention of raising in the public arena, particularly with the SPDC, the release of all political hostages, the opening of universities, and respect for the legitimate rights of the National League for Democracy and the ethnic minorities? Has the Minister raised these issues with the SPDC, and if so, what was its response?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am not able to tell noble Lords the precise nature of all the conversations that have taken place over many months in regard to these issues. However, I can reassure the House that human rights are an issue that is constantly brought to the attention of Burmese representatives and pursued with vigour. The noble Baroness is right when she says that James Mawdsley went to Burma knowing that he was in breach of a suspended sentence and that the acts he intended to commit would be in contravention of the Burmese position. For the moment, we are in a sensitive position. The Burmese authorities have not always responded well to statements made by outsiders. For that reason we must exercise a degree of circumspection, even in this House, in the way we respond. However, I can assure the noble Baroness and the House that this issue is at the forefront of the mind of Her Majesty's Government and that we have not obscured the real difficulties present in Burma.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister's replies, especially the first. Perhaps the noble Baroness can give an example of how the Government's policy of constructive engagement and dialogue, including our trade links to which she referred, has improved the human rights situation in Burma over the past two and a half years.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the attempts made by Her Majesty's Government to engage the Burmese have met with resistance. I believe that that is known to all in the House. Burma has set its face against proper engagement. Therefore, we have done all we can to make sure that Burma is aware of the strong disapproval of Her Majesty's Government for its actions. I regret to say that there is little we have been able to do so far to change its obdurate stance.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in recent years both the British press and indeed the British Government have striven to have released men and women who perhaps should have stayed in prison under any jurisdiction? However, in this case we are dealing with two young people who have acted with great courage and in the highest traditions of British commitment to liberty and freedom. In her first reply the noble Baroness said that the Foreign Office was doing everything that is proper. I think that the feeling of the House is that the Foreign Office must do more than what is proper. It must strive with everything at its disposal to make clear that we want an extra effort on behalf of these young people.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, perhaps I may respond by saying that Her Majesty's Government have never sought the improper release of any person. I do not accept one of the first statements made by the noble Lord in that regard. Your Lordships' House should be clear that it is not within Her Majesty's Government's gift to secure the release of these two young people. I say without shame that this Government will always act with the utmost propriety. If the noble Lord seeks to persuade us to cross that line, I regret to say that we will not hear his siren call. We are pursuing with vigour every avenue open to us to ensure that both James Mawdsley and Rachel Goldwyn have the best consular support we can provide. We are assisting both of those young people and assisting their families in every way we know. I do not think that either of the families could say that Her Majesty's Government were failing to do anything that they can properly do to assist them.

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