HL Deb 16 November 2004 vol 666 cc1293-6

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they will take in view of the apparent continuation of the violation of human rights of ethnic minority groups in Burma.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, as we have in previous years, the Government are working to ensure that human rights and the treatment of ethnic minority groups in Burma are fully addressed at the autumn United Nations General Assembly. We support the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, and at the ASEM meeting in Hanoi on 8 October, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the lifting of restrictions on the National League for Democracy, the start of a genuine dialogue and an early visit by the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative, Razali Ismail.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that robustly encouraging reply. However, is she aware that the SPDC continues to subject ethnic national groups such as the Karen, the Karenni, the Shan, the Chin and the Kachin peoples to forced labour and to use as human minesweepers? It continues to burn their crops and villages, so that now more than 1 million of those people are living in appalling conditions as internally displaced people. Will Her Majesty's Government therefore put even greater pressure on the SPDC to open all of Burma to human rights organisations, as well as allowing access to Burma for the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the special envoy of the Secretary-General, both of whom have been refused entry in recent months?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords; we are applying pressure for both United Nations representatives—the Secretary-General's personal representative and Mr Pinheiro—to have access to Burma. The noble Baroness is quite right to point out, as we discussed, that there is a great deal of suffering in terms of human rights in general. It is fair to say that, in relation to issues around the use of land mines, the ethnic groups suffer disproportionately. We have condemned such abuses and we will continue to do so. We will also continue to co-sponsor United Nations resolutions which point out such abuses.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, why does the European Union's common position on Burma not include a prohibition on investment in gas, oil and timber, the regime's principal sources of income? Are the Government trying to persuade our Common Market partners to take sanctions more seriously?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that my noble and learned friend knows that as a government we do not support trade with Burma. The EU common position chose to target the measures that would minimise the impact on the poor, but still attack those in power in Burma. The EU therefore chose to target the two military-owned companies, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and the Myanmar Economic Corporation, along with their subsidiaries and joint ventures. We have spoken before about the importance of trying to target sanctions where it really hurts rather than in such a way as would further disadvantage those who are already poor.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, despite the European position and our position as outlined in the question of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, what pressure are Her Majesty's Government putting on China, Japan and other countries to continue to support the free hospitals and schools for the people of Burma that were established by English companies such as Premier Oil? Is the Minister aware that British companies which were forced by the Government to leave Burma because of its human rights record have now been taken over by the Chinese, Japanese and Malaysians and are now trading very successfully despite all our sanctions?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of that. The heart of the problem lies in the fact that there is not an internationally recognised position on Burma. We are able to get resolutions through the United Nations General Assembly, but we cannot get mandatory resolutions through the Security Council. We cannot do so because we cannot get consensus. Not all countries take the view that is rightly and properly taken on all sides of your Lordships' House on the question of human rights in Burma. I am very pleased to hear the noble Baroness speak up in the way that she has.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, has the noble Baroness seen the letter which was addressed by the general secretary of the International Confederation of' Free Trade Unions to the director general of the ILO last week citing a number of instances of forced labour in six different provinces and districts, involving in many cases women and children? Does the noble Baroness intend that we should raise this matter at the ILO meeting currently under way in Geneva? Does she have any information from the ILO liaison officer in Myanmar which corroborates what the ICFTU has said?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord will recall, forced labour is one of the recurring human rights abuses that Her Majesty's Government have raised not only directly with Burma but in such forums as are available to us—such as the ILO and, certainly, the ASEM meeting at which my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister led for the United Kingdom. The noble Lord is right to point out that we have ways of trying to deal with some of these issues through the ILO, but, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, we need to create wider international consensus. We have gained some strength through the ASEM meetings, with Burma's representatives sitting there and having to listen to what we are telling them directly about such abuses.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans

My Lords, in the light of the appalling circumstances in Burma, does the Minister think that there is anything to be gained by considering the appointment of an EU special envoy on Burma?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that there are those who espouse an EU special envoy on Burma. However, I believe that strength lies in supporting the envoys that we have already through the United Nations—the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Sergio Pinheiro, and the United Nations Secretary-General's special representative, Razali Ismail. We need to get those representatives, who speak for the international community as a whole, into Burma in order to receive reports from them. I would not wish to do anything that deflected attention from the efforts of the representatives we already have.