HL Deb 02 October 2000 vol 616 cc1206-25

7.41 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider measures to bring to justice those responsible for genocide and abuses of human rights in Burma.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my Question asks Her Majesty's Government to consider the remedies open to the international community in the light of the grave human rights abuses and genocide committed by the Burmese military regime. At the outset, I thank those members of your Lordships' House who have taken a long-standing interest in these issues for their willingness to participate this evening.

This brief debate is particularly timely in the light of the recent reports about the barbaric treatment of Mr James Mawdsley, a British human rights campaigner. A report in yesterday's Sunday Times said that the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention and arrest had found entirely in James's favour, stating that he has been subjected to 10 violations of international law.

Just over a year ago, before he began his 17-year sentence, several members of your Lordships' House met James. He explained that he felt compelled to return to Burma for two reasons: first the denial of basic democratic rights to the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi; and, secondly, the genocide inflicted on the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan ethnic minorities.

Last week the British Vice-Consul in Rangoon, Karen Williams, reported that James had been beaten black and blue, his nose had been broken by prison guards, he had been kept in solitary confinement for a year and he had recently been told that he could see visitors only from behind a glass screen. James would not wish us to dwell unduly long on his suffering and privations, for he would say that the point of his protest was to draw the world's attention to the suffering of Burma's people.

Two years ago, some of your Lordships were good enough to participate in a debate that I initiated after I visited the refugee camps on the Burma border. I took evidence on both sides of the border from our former World War II allies, the Karen. Since then, I have maintained regular contact, meeting two of their representatives last week. I have also recently met representatives of the Shan people and discussed the present plight of refugees. I want to register with the Minister my particular concern about reports that officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees may be preparing the ground for the eventual repatriation of refugees in Thailand back to Burma. That would be signing their death warrant.

More than 30,000 Karen civilians have died as a result of Burmese military activity since 1992 alone. More than 300,000 Karen and similar numbers of Shan people are internally displaced. Many are killed on sight when discovered. About 120,000 Karen and 100,000 Shan have been forced to flee to Thailand to escape the atrocities of the Burmese army.

The sustained carnage and brutality in Burma have left western governments in a quandary as to the most appropriate response. On trade, for example, the United States administration, to their credit, have banned any new investment and their companies have withdrawn. Meanwhile, despite the protestations of Ministers, British and French companies such as Premier Oil and Total continue to trade. There is no internationally agreed approach to sanctions. Neither is there a concerted international attempt to bring those responsible for such atrocities to justice.

It has been suggested that we should wait on the creation of an international criminal court, but only a handful of countries have so far ratified the statute to set up such a court. It is impossible to say when it might begin to function. In any event, it will not have retrospective jurisdiction. It would be an appalling travesty if a well intentioned initiative became the tool used by the perpetrators of mass murder to evade prosecution. The ICC is not an effective solution.

Her Majesty's Government would do better to lobby at the United Nations Security Council for the creation of an international criminal tribunal which could try the Burmese regime and their subordinates for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Perhaps more importantly, it would send a signal of our determination to withstand such massive violations of human rights.

It is sometimes suggested that it is not worth trying because the Chinese might veto such an attempt. That is a feeble and defeatist circular argument. Significantly, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nancy Soderberg, has said in the past few days that the US Government condemn the Burmese and that they will continue to raise their concerns in the Security Council. We should use the same forum to press for genocide charges.

The international legal definition of genocide is found in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The definition given in Article 2 of the convention refers to five sets of circumstances that constitute genocide. The first is the killing of members of the group; the second is causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; the third is deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; the fourth is imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; the fifth is forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Although only one of those five categories needs to apply, there is overwhelming evidence of at least the first three in Burma.

Time does not permit the detailed laying of evidence before your Lordships' House tonight, but let me point to some relevant sources. In 1998, the Karen human rights group—an independent, non-political human rights organisation that gathers evidence inside Burma—published its report entitled Wholesale Destruction. It detailed mass forced relocation, the destruction of villages and village economies and horrific levels of forced labour. In 1998, the UN special rapporteur on Burma, Mr Rajsoomer Lallah QC, submitted his human rights report to the UN General Assembly. In paragraph 59 he said: Violations include extra-judicial and arbitrary executions (not sparing women and children) rape, torture, inhuman treatment, forced labour and denial of freedom of movement. These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest that they are not simply isolated acts of individual misbehaviour of middle and lower rank officers but are rather the result of policy at the highest level entailing political and legal responsibility".

On 2nd July 1998, the International Labour Organisation published a damning indictment of the regime's extensive use of forced labour. I hope that we shall be able to hear later from the noble Lord, Lord Brett, who has great experience of that organisation and its findings.

The Jubilee campaign recently reported the massacre of 64 internally displaced Shan people. On 23rd May, a column of 90 to 100 Burmese troops from infantry battalion 246 seized 64 Shan, including women and children. They were gathered as a group outside Kun-Hing town in Shan state and shot dead. The victims included a seven year-old girl, Naang Seng Hawng, and a four year-old boy, Zaai Awny. Not long afterwards, the Burmese soldiers continued to search the area and killed more Shan civilians.

In February, Amnesty International interviewed Shan refugees from Laikha, Murngpan, Kunhing and Namsan townships in the central Shan state. All except one stated that they had been forcibly relocated by the Burmese military. They reported instances of the army killing their friends and relatives if they were found trying to forage for food or harvest crops outside relocation sites. Every refugee interviewed stated that they had been forced to build roads and military buildings and to carry equipment for the military. Some were as young as 10. Amnesty has described the human rights abuses against the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan as "systematic".

In October 1999 the tribunal established by the Asian Human Rights Commission published its findings on the links between militarisation and food scarcity in Burma. It concluded that the military government, is largely responsible for food scarcity", and, may be considered guilty of a crime against humanity, punishable under international law … it falls, it said, within the scope and obligation of international law to investigate and prosecute those responsible".

Article 1 of the 1948 convention on genocide lays a duty on our Government and on all other others who ratified it to try to prevent genocide from taking place. We are a privileged nation. We have a seat at the Security Council. We claim high ethical standards in the conduct of our international affairs. We know from our own history and from past experience, from the genocide of the Armenian people to the Jewish Holocaust, from Cambodia to Bosnia, to Rwanda and to East Timor, that tyrants are emboldened when free nations appear indifferent or hide behind diplomatic niceties or interminable arguments about legal definitions and meanings.

The suffering which one British national, James Mawdsley, is enduring at this time has thrown those issues into sharp relief. James is a young man of extraordinary faith, great courage and personal integrity. He is a man of deep conviction. His sacrifice will be worth while if it spurs the rest of us into seeking a more resolute and trenchant approach towards Burma's military regime.

7.51 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, the House owes a great debt to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for reminding us so forcefully of a matter which is an imposition on our conscience. As I understand it, the noble Lord has set out to do two things in this debate: first, to inform noble Lords who are not aware of the facts of the appalling atrocities which are being committed in Burma against the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan peoples. I do not intend to add to that list of facts. Other noble Lords here tonight are better qualified to do so.

I do not believe that what the noble Lord said will have come as a surprise to my noble friend the Minister. The atrocities have been condemned repeatedly by the international community. We shall hear later in the debate from my noble friend Lord Brett of the steps taken by the International Labour Organisation and of the fact that so far they have fallen on deaf ears. My noble friend will remember that on 5th June in the course of a Question on the Sudan I asked why the Government are prepared to engage in discussions with the Government of the Sudan when clearly they have given up on the Government of Burma. My noble friend replied that the Government of Sudan were at least prepared to discuss their human rights record, whereas the Government of Burma are beyond reproof and beyond shame. I hope that that is a fair paraphrase of what my noble friend said.

The reason why I intervene in this debate is to address the noble Lord's second purpose which, as I understand it, is to examine how far we can make our concerns effective. I do not believe that my noble friend needs to be persuaded that what happens in Burma is our business. Many years ago the international community was able to dismiss human suffering in other countries with a reference to national sovereignty. That is no longer possible. It is accepted that the world cannot disavow its responsibilities so lightly and, as the noble Lord said, it is now an obligation in international law. Indeed, the United Kingdom Government, and specifically my noble friend the Minister, played a commendable role in establishing the International Criminal Court.

I do not share the noble Lord's pessimism. The statute already has 20 signatures. It may well not be long before it has the necessary 60. The United Kingdom Government are consulting urgently on the domestic legislation which will enable this country to be among them. We may hope that within a very few years we shall be spared the necessity of discussing what we can do about such atrocities. However, for tragic numbers of innocent victims a very few years may well be too late. As the noble Lord said, the jurisdiction will not operate retrospectively. It is good to know that we may soon have a fire brigade but, if one's house is burning, a fire extinguisher now is more important than a fire brigade next year.

An ad hoc tribunal established by a resolution of the Security Council retrospectively to the crime is only a second best. However, until we can call on the best, we should settle for the second best. If the United Kingdom were to initiate a discussion in the Security Council with that as the objective, and if they were successful, then those who commit such crimes will know that today they may shelter behind the sovereignty of their government but governments may change or they may fall and, when they do, those who rely on them for protection will have nowhere to run, as at least seven war criminals from Rwanda now know to their cost.

By assuring the evil-doers of impending retribution, we may save lives before it is too late. And that may add to the developing culture of a global conscience and a global rule of law which may consign crimes of genocide to history.

7.55 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I warmly congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this timely debate for, tragically, as the summer has progressed, events in Burma have deteriorated once more.

As we have heard this evening, the most recent outrage has been the treatment of the imprisoned human rights activist, James Mawdsley. Last week we heard that he had been severely beaten and his food and possessions taken away from him. I look forward to hearing what success the Minister had during her meeting with the Burmese ambassador in conveying our anger in the strongest possible terms at this violation of human rights and blatant flouting of the standards of the international community. What response has there been to her warning that the British Government will not tolerate the situation and to her demands that James Mawdsley be released immediately or transferred to Rangoon where consular staff can watch over his welfare?

This is a country where Amnesty International last year released reports describing how the Burmese military had killed dozens of unarmed farmers from the Karen, Karenni and Shan ethnic groups and forced thousands into forced labour and forced relocations.

This is the regime where over the past four years some 300,000 Shan and over 20,000 Karenni villagers have been forced from their villages into designated relocation sites where the military has kept them, in the words of one former resident, like chickens in a basket". Those brutal policies have led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people across Burma's borders into neighbouring countries, an issue referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Amnesty International and the UN Special Rapporteur for Burma, who repeatedly has been denied access to the country since his appointment in 1996, have catalogued a list of truly appalling human rights violations.

In Burma the forces of democracy are locked in a long war of attrition against the forces of despotism, of tyranny, of slaughter and of genocide. In battle after battle, in stand-off after stand-off, the ruling State Peace and Development Council has resorted to the use of brute force and repressive violence. Yet, in the 10 years since winning the elections, the National League for Democracy has refused to be cowed or to admit defeat, despite the fact that more than half its MPs have been persecuted. Of the 392 NLD MPs elected in 1990, over 100 are either in prison or detained. A further 100 have been forced to resign or have gone into exile, and two have died in prison.

From thousands of miles away across the other side of the world it is all too easy to express shock, horror and outrage at the situation in Burma and to broadcast our insistence on dialogue instead of repression. This debate addresses the second point, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, addressed: how can we translate this into concrete and effective action? What tools do the Government and the international community have at their disposal to persuade the Burmese authorities to move away from military solutions and to engage in an all-inclusive political debate with political opposition? Few effective ones, it seems. In the past 10 years, we have had little success in attaining the goal of a process of dialogue. It is a stain on the face of the international community that 10 years since the Burmese people were denied democracy little there has changed for good.

As we all know, in Burma words are not enough. The Government's policy is, according to the Minister of State, one of condemnation and pressure. It has clearly irked the Burmese regime. But what confidence does the Minister have that it will draw more than a merely venomous sting from the Burmese authorities? Does she agree that securing an imminent visit by the UN Special Rapporteur should be the litmus test for the success of the Government's policy? Will the Minister say what efforts the Government have made to engage China in finding a solution to the situation in Burma?

The challenge for the international community now lies in matching our goals for Burma's future with the tools we have available. Our tools of persuasion are limited and we hear few calibrations of subtlety and balance. The tools of condemnation and isolation are blunt and heavy but they are justified if, and only if, they achieve a result. That result would be a peaceful and stable government in Burma which reflects, not rejects, the will of the Burmese people.

8 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing the debate this evening. I pay my own tribute to him for the courageous and steadfast commitment that he has shown to the cause of freedom in Burma over many years.

I had intended to speak tonight from personal experience as I had arranged to visit Rangoon last month as a guest of John James, our ambassador. But the Burmese government paid me the enormous compliment of refusing me a visa.

But you do not have to visit there to learn what sort of regime exists in Burma. You can start by looking at who its friends are. It is China, for example, which supplies most of the arms and weaponry used for internal repression. It is clearly not bothered by the reports of child slave workers in Burma or by the ILO's accusation that the exploitation of forced labour amounts to an international crime, and possibly a crime against humanity; or by the overwhelming evidence that the regime is into heroin production and trafficking up to its neck.

The other great supporter of the Burmese junta is Slobodan Milosevic, himself an indicted war criminal. He entertained Win Aung, Burma's foreign minister, in Belgrade in July and said that between them, they had agreed that sanctions imposed on sovereign states were, a criminal form of behaviour [and] a massive violation of human rights". They should know about both those things.

By contrast, our record and that of the United States is good. Our embassy in Rangoon bravely maintains contact with the NLD and with Aung San Suu Kiu, despite massive intimidation from the Burmese military. The FCO has done its best to persuade British companies to pull out. It is deplorable, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, that Premier Oil still refuses to abandon its gas pipeline, even though it was Forced to admit at its AGM in May that human rights and environmental abuses are linked to that project. Surely it should be concerned about the hundreds of political prisoners, the thousands of arbitrary arrests and torture cases and the tens of thousands of ethnic Karen and other tribespeople abused, killed or driven from their land.

The discouragement of tourism is also important. The FCO travel advice website contains links to briefing papers on the subject, including the late Derek Fatchett's letter to the chairman of the Association of British Travel Agents, where he draws attention to the views of pro-democracy leaders that it is inappropriate for tourists to visit Burma.

But the cynicism of some or our tour companies is breathtaking. Let us take the Orient Express as an example. It not only promotes luxury holidays in Burma but on its website it boasts, in response to the question: What about Myanmar's human rights record? that, it makes no apology for the actions of any of the countries our guests visit". That is not good enough.

Finally, as parliamentarians, we should use every opportunity to express our support for the democratically elected leadership and for the scores of MPs who have been jailed in Burma, some of whom have died in detention. There is a government in exile, with a Prime Minister, Dr Sein Win, waiting to take over. He has written to many of us—and I expect that many of your Lordships have had his letter—seeking support for a declaration of Members of Parliament throughout the world in solidarity with the democratically elected members of the parliament of Burma. He says in his letter: This will not only make a difference in how these elected MPs and their fellow citizens are treated but will take a significant step towards the goal of bringing our national nightmare to a close". I urge your Lordships to support that declaration.

8.4 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for asking this Question on such a crucially important subject. I should like to begin by paying tribute to those who, sometimes at great personal cost, are working to stop the abuses in Burma and bring about a democratic government, especially of course, as the noble Lord mentioned, James Mawdsley, and we think also of Aung San Suu Kiu, who is such an inspiration to the world.

But this evening we are considering an issue even more important than democracy—the charge that there be such a systematic violation of human rights against particular peoples in Burma that it amounts to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The United States Department of State's report on Burma for 1999 is a very sober document but, in its sober style, it reports: In rural areas the military Government also continued its widespread and frequent practice of forcibly relocating ethnic minority villages. This practice was particularly widespread and egregious in the Shan, Kayah, and Karen States and in areas of Mon State and Pegu Division as part of the armed forces campaign against insurgents. In these areas, thousands of villagers were displaced and herded into smaller settlements in strategic areas … These forced relocations often have been accompanied by intensified demands for forced labor to build infrastructure for both villagers and army units to guard them in the areas to which they were relocated, and often have generated large outflows of refugees to neighboring countries or to parts of the country not controlled by the Government". We have already heard some of the staggering figures which lie behind that report, so I shall not repeat them. However, I should like to quote some words of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma. He wrote: These violations have been so numerous and consistent over the past years as to suggest that they are not simply isolated or the acts of individual misbehaviour by middle—and lower—rank officer but are the result of policy at the highest level entailing political and legal responsibility". The Myanmar government, in the literature that they have sent out to many of us, claim that they have concluded agreements with most of the minority groups and that they are left fighting recalcitrant terrorists. Even if that were true, which I do not accept, it cannot justify the scorched earth campaigns, the forcible removal or destruction of whole civilian populations, with all the associated torture and ill-treatment, for villagers are being forced into relocation camps and summarily executed if they do not obey.

I know that Her Majesty's Government are well aware of what is happening and desire to do what they can. I support the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in asking Her Majesty's Government to use their place on the Security Council to press for the setting up of an international criminal tribunal. Such tribunals have been set up in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and are bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice. The scale of the violations in Burma warrants similar treatment.

I am afraid that it is no good looking to the setting up of the international criminal court to deal with that issue, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, indicated. That court is necessary and it is right that the Government should support its establishment. But it will be some years before it is operational. We need something now to show the Burmese government that the world takes what they are doing as seriously as it takes what has happened elsewhere. I believe that the Karen, Karenni and Shan people need international support now before thousands more are relocated and killed.

The setting up of an international criminal tribunal would send a clear signal and I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government will be able to support it.

8.8 p.m.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for providing the House with the opportunity to debate this every important issue. I thank him also for his extremely comprehensive overview in the few short moments that he had to initiate the debate.

My hope is that in considering what they can do, the Government will act as quickly as they can to press for a fresh international initiative which will bring before an international criminal tribunal those responsible for crimes which they have committed, and are continuing to commit, against humanity.

I am confident that my noble friend the Minister will agree that there is sufficient evidence to warrant that an international criminal tribunal should be established. Tragically, evidence exists in abundance that the vicious military machine that controls the people of Burma is responsible for persecuting ethnic minorities.

Mention has been made that the Karen, Karenni and Shan peoples are facing the threat of genocide. Figures have been quoted, but those I have been able to get hold of indicate that more than 600,000 people from these minorities are displaced within Burma. Many of the displaced are in hiding from the Burmese army, some in the jungle. They are persecuted people with little food or medicines. If found they are likely to be shot on sight. The list of atrocities perpetrated by the military is long and harrowing.

The evidence is there for the world to see, but what is not so clear is what the international community is doing to bring to an end the suffering and abuse being inflicted on the people of Burma.

Many members of your Lordships' House can, with authority, refer to the legal definitions of genocide and the denial of human rights. As a lay person, without the legal ability to comment on the interpretation of genocide, all I can sincerely hope is that our Government will pursue, wherever possible, the case against the brutal and corrupt regime that exists in Burma today. It is an illegal regime that has denied the Burmese people the democracy that they overwhelmingly voted for, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in the elections in 1990 when the National League for Democracy won 82 per cent of the seats.

This evening we also remember, with sorrow and through our prayers, the plight of James Mawdsley who is held in solitary confinement in prison in Burma. His crime was simply to distribute pro-democracy literature. The case of the inhuman sentence passed on James Mawdsley was discussed on the Sunday programme yesterday morning on Radio 4. I want to take the opportunity this evening to express my hope that the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, will be successful in his attempt to represent Mr Mawdsley if he is allowed to appeal against the inhuman 17-year sentence imposed upon him.

Speaking on the programme, the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, mentioned a number of actions that we could support in expressing opposition to the regime. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments about not trading with Burma and alerting the attention of tourists to the use of slave labour. The noble Lord asked us to, ever remember that people like James Mawdsley are a sign of liberty, Burma has reached a dark moment in its history and that the people of Burma deserve our support". I am sure that all Members of the House will echo what he said.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the many reports of atrocities and the list of atrocities contained in the report entitled Wholesale Destruction from the Karen Human Rights Group in 1998. Comment has already been made about the burning of villages, the destruction of the economies of those villages and the relocation of the people. There are many reports and much evidence. Those reports confirm the need for co-ordinated international action to assist the Burmese people. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will press for such action at the United Nations Security Council and do all they can to seek a common European Union policy of sanctions. The time for action has long passed. We should not wait any longer.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Brett

My Lords, I rise to echo the words of my noble colleagues and to express appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for raising this matter. I also echo the many comments of noble Lords in seeking to condemn the regime in Rangoon. I shall restrict my contribution to three points: a point of fact, a point of appreciation and a point of concern.

The point of fact is that I am closely allied, as has been said, with the International Labour Organisation, which for three years has been conducting a commission of inquiry, seeking to get the government in Rangoon to fulfil their obligation as a member of the ILO. The report of the commission of inquiry was not a report by people taking hearsay evidence; it was a report by three eminent world jurists who spent a great deal of time, and half a million dollars, to arrive at a decision, a 254-page horror story. The result has been that at a conference in June the International Labour Organisation, which reflects the 174 member states of the United Nations of which it is an agency, condemned, with a handful of votes against—merely ASEAN countries—and a number of abstentions including Japan and India, the government in Rangoon, saying that they should fulfil their obligations under their position within the ILO and do so by November. To date nothing has happened. That is the point of fact.

My point of appreciation relates to the UK Government and to their civil servants, who have been forthright in condemning the regime in Rangoon. One civil servant has as a trophy a rather battered name sign that says "United Kingdom". He battered it almost to smithereens in seeking to get the chair of the June conference to recognise him so that he could make a strong statement. As chair of the workers' group of the ILO, I am appreciative of the support of the UK Government and the foreign service.

I turn to my point of concern. The UN rapporteur, of whom mention has been made, the ILO, a UN agency that condemns Rangoon, the General Assembly and UNHCR have all made statements condemning this pariah state. In September Aung San Suu Kiu was effectively blockaded in a convoy by the military. She was denied the right to leave Rangoon.

At the same time, what was happening in New York city at the UN? The very same United Nations, the very same 174 nations, took it upon themselves to elect Ambassador Tan, a gentleman I have met o n several occasions—in my view, several occasions too many who is Burma's permanent representative at the UN in Geneva, to be chairperson of the UN General Assembly's first Committee on Disarmament and International Security. I consider that to be a slap in the face. The United Nations, in its own fora, condemns the regime. Are our diplomats and our leaders so cynical that it is business as usual?

I ask the Minister—I gave notice of this question—why that has happened, and why those same nations that condemn Burma in the ILO and other places did not voice a protest at that election of an ambassador of a pariah state to an important position in the United Nations. Your Lordships can rest assured that that may not have made any headlines in this country but I can promise you that it made headlines in Rangoon. I am sure that it was presented as an indication that the world was accepting the military regime.

Two years ago I had the dubious privilege of being declared an enemy of the state by what was then the SLORC. I wear that as a medal of honour, although I do not intend taking any holidays in Rangoon in the foreseeable future. Unlike my noble friend Lord Faulkner, I would not invite them to reject me as a visitor. It is important that this debate is aired and that we ask of our colleagues why we cannot have joined-up international thinking and joined-up international action which we call for in our own country.

8.17 p.m.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, I intervene briefly in this short but, nevertheless, important and timely debate to support what the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and others have said about the continued abuse of human rights in Burma, not only in relation to James Mawdsley, but also in relation to the plight of the Karen, the Shan and other tribes in Burma as they face the darkest hour in their history.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has spoken from fairly recent personal experience, as has the noble Lord, Lord Brett, of the atrocities perpetrated by the military regime. My personal experience is less recent, but as a veteran of the Second World War, who fought in Burma, I am in a special position to appreciate the support which the Karens loyally gave to us in our struggle at that time. Nobody knows that better than my noble friend Lord Slim, who is with us this evening. We should not forget or overlook that they came to our aid at our time of need. Surely we have a duty and a moral obligation to support them as positively as we can at a time when they are facing virtual extinction.

Apart from the atrocities about which we have heard tonight, I understand that there has been a sharp increase in civilian landmine casualties as the Burmese military implement a strategy of mining rice fields and village paths used by those fleeing for safety to Thailand to avoid forced labour, rape and other terrible atrocities. We may not be in a position to help those unfortunate people directly, but the very least Her Majesty's Government can do is to lobby the United Nations Council for an international criminal tribunal on Burma to bring to account those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity.

If the British Government really do have an ethical foreign policy, then surely stopping genocide should be a top priority. Failure to raise that crucial issue at the United Nations may suggest that the Government are prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of a British citizen in prison, but overlook the plight of those who fought with such loyalty and bravery with us 50 years ago. I do not believe that that is the case. I believe that the British Government will take positive action.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Brennan

My Lords, we are many who denounce genocide and the breach of human rights in Burma; they are few who are prepared to make the kind of sacrifice that James Mawdsley made. For those people who suffered that genocide and those breaches, entering Burma legally, passing out leaflets that said no more to the people around him than that they should stand up for democracy, he was arrested, quickly tried, convicted and sentenced to 17 years imprisonment. I have applied to the legal authorities in Burma for permission to enter that country, to be admitted to their profession, so that I can represent him should he be given a final appeal at the High Court in Mandalay. I hope that permission will be given.

In the mean time, James Mawdsley is in solitary confinement; he sees only his guards; he lives with electric lights on for 24 hours a day; he can only see his visitors inside a glass cage and is thereby subject to inhuman treatment. Yet his will survives. That, for me—I hope for this House—is an example in two ways. It is an example for the people of Burma, for whom he feels so much, that there are those who will stand by them. It is an example to this House and this Government that we can do something, and I invite this Government to do something.

First, I commend the actions of our consular officials, our courageous Ambassador in Rangoon, and in particular the tremendous work done by my noble friend Lady Scotland in recent months in dealing with that case and Burma in particular. Let their efforts continue. Secondly, the Government should, as they have done, stand by the elected representatives of the people—Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters—and stand by them day by day. Thirdly, for the sake of the people of Burma they should stop trading with that country. People in this House, in this nation, felt in years past that South Africa indulged in an outrageous system called apartheid. Is Burma any different?

Fourthly, we should vigorously discourage people from travelling in that country for holidays. Fifthly, thorny though it is diplomatically, the adjacent nations of India, China and Thailand should be pursued with vigour to partake in the programme that I have just outlined for our Government. Finally, James Mawdsley is a persecuted Englishman in a foreign gaol; let us not forget him. But he is there to stand up for a persecuted nation. Let us not forget them. I ask the Government to take the measures that I suggest.

8.26 p.m.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton and for the kind words of my noble friend Lord Weatherill. I should like to address Her Majesty's Government on this particular sordid, cruel and terrible subject of Myanmar—Burma—today.

I believe we can do more on the periphery of Burma, and in that I include India, but also around the Thai border. I do not feel that the Government are giving sufficient support to many of the NGOs working there. I say immediately that one NGO with which I am connected, Prospect Burma, has had very little support from the Foreign Office, apart from words. The only money that we have been given has come from the American Government. We are not given money by our own Government.

Burma has now had five or six years with no schools and no universities, and at least one if not two generations of Burmese will not be able to speak English—by that I mean the medical, technical, engineering and computer English. Prospect Burma set out to make a tiny contribution towards that. However, such moneys as we give seem to go via Europe as a nation. I do not know what the European Union—Brussels and Strasbourg—do with it. I believe they stick it in one of their banks and take the interest. I do not see much movement from the European Union into the affairs and the tragedy of Burma today.

The Minister is familiar with the British and Commonwealth Ex-Service League of Veterans. There are 54 Commonwealth nations involved. We have sparse money but do our best to help any Burmese veterans—there are many—who need help. We can only do that on the perimeter. Any help or money injected places a man in danger from the junta and we can only help a veteran who arrives on the frontier, though I will not go into how.

My point is that it is not only the Karens; there were at least 10,000 signed up to Kachin levies, for instance. They did a marvellous job. Many tribes in Burma gave of their time, their courage and their lives for Great Britain. I merely ask the Minister to support in a better and stronger way the many NGOs that work on the periphery. If it is money they need, then give them money. But the NGOs need the support of our Government, whether they are Christian or the organisations that I mentioned. One way of doing that would be to gather the heads and secretaries together to sit down with the Foreign Ministry and do some tough talking. Let us get some help and advice. The Government have a duty to do that.

8.29 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, perhaps I may take a moment wholeheartedly to support what has been said by many wise speakers in the debate. I, too, recognise the disgusting regime which prevails in Burma and the appalling atrocities which have been committed against the Karen people who helped us so much in the war. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we are placed in a quandary. We can try his line of going to the international criminal tribunal but I fear that that will not get far.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister one question. It is right that the Government would not want to get involved with the horrific people in the military government and should support the elected democratic government. However, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, raised the central question of other involvement which, far from condemning and destroying, we should be promoting in the non-governmental area.

Many people have condemned trade and investment with Burma. But are we sure that we want to close down all the huge social programmes connected with the Yetagun project, the gigantic gas project? The Save the Children Fund of the US is working with the much criticised Premium Oil in health education, academic education, vocational training, income generation projects, sports and arts projects, environmental preservation projects and a variety of others. I carry no brief for that or any oil company but ask whether we have examined the matter carefully. In our zeal, we should ensure that we do not destroy what is good but instead open the future for the people of Burma and close down the horrific rulers with which they have been saddled in recent years.

That is the only point I have time to raise but I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has done a great service in promoting the debate.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I agree that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has done the House a great service in allowing us to debate the matter. Unlike almost every other country in the world, Burma has been deaf to appeals to conform to internationally accepted human rights standards. The state continues to engage in warfare against its own citizens, particularly the minorities of the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to the report of Amnesty International that 300,000 civilians of the Shan have been displaced from their homes, as have many tens of thousands of the other minorities; that thousands are seized by the army and are forced to work without pay; and that hundreds are being killed as they return to their farms. The same story applies to the other minorities.

Undoubtedly, crimes against humanity have been committed by the state. The ILO explicitly recognises that and its report catalogues the most appalling litany of human rights abuses. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that if possible that should he dealt with by an international tribunal. If not, the Security Council should be persuaded to consider other means of bringing the regime to book. We already have the convention against torture, under which it would be possible to indict members of the regime if they were unwise enough to set foot in this country.

Next week, the UN Secretary-General's special envoy, Mr Ishmael Rezali, is to visit Burma in pursuance of the recommendations made by the General Assembly in its resolution of last February. It strongly urged the government of Burma to co-operate with the special rapporteur, who has still not been able to visit the country. Will the Government ask the Secretary-General to report on this mission and to engage in discussions with members of the Security Council on a range of possible sanctions against Burma to see what consensus there may be. Will they ask the Secretary-General to commission the preparation of a draft indictment which could be used before an ad hoc tribunal if it were possible to set one up? We could then at least frame the charges and see how they could work.

In November, the ILO governing body meets to consider what to do about the failure of the state to implement any of the recommendations in its 1998 report or to co-operate with its mission of May 2000 when an attempt was made to agree a programme for restoring Burma to compliance with its obligations under the convention. As the noble Lord, Lord Brett, pointed out, in June it voted to take a series of measures if Burma had not effectively complied with the recommendations by the end of November. Presumably, that has the full support of the Government. It would be useful to have that on the record. We hope that the November deadline will not be allowed to slip and that those measures will be taken in the event of Burma's failure to honour its obligations by that time.

The contempt of the SPDC for international opinion has been underlined twice in recent days: first, by the torture of James Mawdsley, now compounded by the effrontery of the denial by the Burmese Ambassador in London; and, secondly, the latest example of the relentless persecution of Aung San Suu Kyi. I refer to her detention when she was at the railway station with eight leading members of her party, intending to travel peacefully to Mandalay. She is now held incommunicado at her residence and the NLD headquarters is also sealed off by security forces. I hope that when the Minister summoned the Burmese Ambassador to talk about the case of James Mawdsley, she also protested about the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked what efforts we had made to engage China. Next week, the Government are to host the UK/China dialogue. The SPDC would pay attention to the Chinese, so could we ask them to use their influence to persuade the regime to comply with international law and with the resolutions of the General Assembly and the ILO?

8.35 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for giving us the opportunity to debate Burma in this House today. Perhaps I may thank all noble Lords who have faithfully participated tonight, as they have on a number of occasions, and for their warm words of support for the work undertaken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

We previously debated the issue on 15th May and it is right that we should focus once again on the tragedy that is unfolding there. As we have heard so graphically during the debate from a number of noble Lords, the regime's human rights record is dreadful and getting worse. This is a country which used to be the rice bowl of Asia but where now some struggle to feed themselves. It is a country bled white by misdirection of resources into arms. The World Health Organisation recently ranked Burma's healthcare as the second lowest in the world, beating only Sierra Leone.

The poverty, fighting and gross human rights violations has led many to flee Burma. The information we receive on refugees, particularly to Thailand but also to India and Bangladesh, is profoundly disturbing. Some of the eye-witness accounts we see can only be described as horrific. It is a disgrace that the Burmese Government continue to put out statements claiming that no atrocities are committed against the ethnic minorities. Many noble Lords commented on that. The Burmese Government cannot be allowed to get away with such lies. The evidence to the contrary is compelling.

The UNHCR statistics for the period May 1999 to July 2000 show that on average more than 1,000 Burmese refugees entered Thailand each month. By the end of August, the Burmese Border Consortium, a non-governmental organisation providing relief to Burmese refugees and displaced people, was helping more than 126,000 refugees; a rise of more than 3,500 on the previous month and a new and terrible record.

I am therefore pleased to reassure the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that the UK helps fund the consortium. In response to these increasing demands, I am pleased to announce that the Department for International Development is increasing this year's support for it from £270,000 to £350,000; an increase of nearly 30 per cent. I hope that the noble Viscount will be pleased to know that, as regards the Prospect Burma, officials from the FCO had a meeting only last week to discuss the way forward. So things are happening.

However, the suffering of those forced to flee their homes and live in refugee camps is unimaginable. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was deeply moved by their resilience in the face of such desperate conditions when he visited one of the camps in Thailand in April. As was highlighted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, my noble friend Lord Clarke and other noble Lords, the plight of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people within Burma is also deeply worrying.

Then there were the arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, summary executions, forced labour, forced relocation and the absence of basic freedoms of speech, movement and political rights in Burma. Visitors are not immune. Our thoughts are with James Mawdsley and his family, as he sits out the second year of a sentence imposed for the heinous crime—which the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, touched on—of handing out pro-democracy leaflets. I am sure that all noble Lords share the outrage expressed by the Foreign Secretary last week in response to the news that James had been severely beaten by prison guards.

As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, I summoned the Burmese ambassador on 27th September and made it abundantly clear that they cannot treat a British national in that way. It is a gross abuse of human rights and we will not tolerate it. I asked that James be released immediately or transferred to Rangoon, where consulate staff could watch over his welfare and ensure that such barbarism is not repeated. I regret to tell your Lordships that I was met by barefaced denial. I was told that there had been no assault—that James Mawdsley had, while handcuffed caused the injuries himself. We are continuing to press for a proper response. Noble Lords will not be surprised that I was not willing to accept that tissue of lies. Today, our ambassador reiterated our concern to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rangoon.

Every international body asked to examine the situation on the ground in Burma returns with a catalogue of abuse. Some observers—including the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord Weatherill and Lord Brennan—consider that such abuse amounts to genocide against Burma's ethnic minorities. The Government have no wish to shield the Burmese junta from the consequences of its actions.

In recent months we have led international condemnation of the military regime and played a key role in keeping the spotlight of world opinion on its dreadful record—but we must be careful in our choice of words. For reasons that have been explained to several of your Lordships in correspondence, the Government do not consider "genocide" an appropriate term to describe the regime's behaviour. Genocide has a specific definition under international law. It is difficult to prove and is restrictive in terms of definition. Amnesty International does not use the term "genocide" when describing what is happening in Burma. Neither does Judge Lailah, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, nor the Burma Border Consortium—which daily witnesses the suffering of thousands of freshly displaced refugees.

Let us not allow terminology to cloud the central issue. However one describes it, the regime is committing systematic atrocities on a daily basis. What can we do to stop it? At present, there is no international criminal tribunal with jurisdiction over Burma. To establish one would require a Security Council resolution—and there is no prospect of the necessary consensus for that in the foreseeable future. However, I assure the House, and particularly the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Moynihan, that we and the United States of America will continue to make our concerns known in Security Council discussions, despite the lack of consensus.

To help end impunity for the sort of atrocities we are seeing in Burma, the UK strongly supports the establishment of a permanent international criminal court. I respectfully agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell that such a court may add considerably to our armoury against such tyranny. We have published draft legislation to enable the UK to ratify the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court and we are consulting widely on the Bill with a view to ensuring that it is in the best possible shape for introduction as soon as parliamentary time allows.

The existence of such a court will put all future war criminals on notice that they may be held to account personally for their actions. Meantime, we can turn up the international heat on the regime, as we have clone in recent weeks, to make it realise that the international community will not stand idly by while that regime brings a potentially prosperous nation to its knees. International reaction to the regime's disgraceful handling of Aung San Sun Kyi and her National League for Democracy colleagues last month will have left the regime in no doubt of the strength of world opinion. I assure your Lordships that I also raised that issue with the ambassador, with a good deal of force.

The Foreign Secretary was one of the first to deplore publicly the way that the regime stopped Aung San Suu Kyi from travelling by car. My honourable friend John Battle, Minister of State, summoned the Burmese ambassador to complain about the restrictions placed on Aung San Suu Kyi and the lack of access to international observers. When Aung San Suu Kyi tried to leave Rangoon again, she was stopped and forced home. I repeated our demand to release her and her colleagues from effective house arrest. So far, the regime has not heeded our calls.

But the regime backed down on the first stand-off. International pressure works—and that is the essence of the Government's policy towards Burma. Already this year we have led the way in strengthening the EU common position on Burma, so that it now includes a published visa ban list of regime members, an assets freeze for those on the list and a ban on the supply of weapons of internal repression. Those measures are in addition to the ban on military exports, defence links, developmental aid and high-level bilateral visits that have been in place under the common position since 1996. In March, we spearheaded condemnation of Burma at the governing body of the International Labour Organisation. In June, ILO delegates voted to take action to force Burma to comply with ILO regulations on forced labour. I thank my noble friend Lord Brett for his contribution in that regard.

Burma has until November to implement the ILO's recommendations on forced labour and we hope that it will do so. If it does not, the ILO will invoke punitive measures against a member state for the first time in its 80-year history. At the UN, Burma has consistently flouted the humanitarian obligations that it has signed up to under the UN charter. With breathtaking hypocrisy, the regime continues to claim that it upholds UN principles.

I assure my noble friend Lord Brett that the chairmanship of the UN General Assembly Committee rotates annually among the five UN regional groups. This year, the first committee fell to the Asian group. That group unanimously chose to nominate the Burmese representative to chair it. As chairman, he will not be representing Burma's national policy and his appointment does not enhance Burma's influence over the first committee issues.

As I said, the regime continues to claim that it upholds UN principles but the truth is quite the reverse. That is why, uniquely in the UN system, Burma's record is regularly condemned in consensus resolutions. In April, we again co-sponsored a strongly worded United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution, and we shall do the same at the UN General Assembly next month. We will also again call for the UN special rapporteur to be allowed access to Burma, as well as condemn all the human rights violations.

Those are not empty exercises. Each resolution carefully and systematically catalogues the latest chapter of abuse and repression. Together, they make up a melancholy catalogue of misrule. They act as a reminder to world opinion of why none of us can afford to forget what is happening in Burma. It is our joint responsibility—governments, non-governmental organisations, international agencies and observers—to keep Burma's performance under constant scrutiny. We are grateful for the close co-operation we receive from all those groups fighting for justice in Burma.

Burma today is in a worse condition than ever before. Its people are abused, its economy is on the ropes and its international standing is at an all-time low. Time is running out for the regime. World opinion will not give up on Burma. Nor is the Burmese people's patience inexhaustible. For the generals to continue down the present blind alley is as risky as it is irresponsible. Instability will only increase. We can only all hope that the generals will finally start listening.