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House of Lords

Thursday, 27 October 2005.

The House met at eleven of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Burma: Human Rights

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, we remain deeply concerned about the human rights violations in Burma, and we take every opportunity to raise the issue directly with the regime. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary raised Burma with the Thai Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister on 13 October. Our ambassador in Rangoon and other EU ambassadors expressed our concerns about the grave human rights situation to the Burmese Foreign Minister on 22 August. Most recently our ambassador in Rangoon met the Burmese Foreign Minister on 26 October and repeated these concerns. We will continue to press this regime.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Is he aware of the report commissioned by Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu entitled Threat to the Peace, which calls for the situation in Burma to be discussed by the UN Security Council? Will Her Majesty's Government publicly support the United States and other nations in supporting this important initiative? I returned from the region yesterday, and can confirm from first-hand evidence that the suffering of the people of Burma caused by human rights violations by the SPDC is as grave as ever, and certainly as grave as that outlined in the compelling report.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I am aware of the report and have studied it. We fully support the initiative of the United States and any action of the UN Security Council that would help to promote reform and positive change in Burma. We agree that the UN has a vital role to play in Burma and strongly support the Secretary-General's efforts to promote national reconciliation, as well as the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Professor Sergio Pinheiro, and the UN Secretary-General's special envoy to Burma, Tan Sri Razali. We urge the State Peace and Development Council to work closely with the UN and its agencies in the interests of a lasting peace and inclusive democratic reform in Burma.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the SPDC has persistently ignored the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Secretary-General, his special envoy, the Human
 
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Rights Commission and its Special Rapporteur, and the International Labour Organisation. Given that, is it not time to recognise that flouting the will of the international community and creating a human rights black hole, from which 750,000 people have fled abroad, constitutes a threat to peace and security within the meaning of Chapter 7 of the Charter, and that therefore we should refer the matter to the Security Council so that it may be discussed there?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I understand the sentiment that lies behind that question, and, were it possible to secure that kind of majority in the Security Council, that might be a way of proceeding. I have to be honest with the House, though: I do not think at the moment the majority is there in the Security Council for that approach, and there would certainly be strong resistance from some of Burma's immediate trading partners on its own borders.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, things can be done. When the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, was last in Burma—before this time—she found that the Chin and a number of the other ethnic minority tribes were receiving no help whatever from the international aid organisations across the border. It is surely within our power to do something about that. We owe a particular debt to the Chin, because I remember General Slim, in Defeat Into Victory, saying that they were some of the most outstanding, loyal, courageous and intrepid fighters in the war against the Japanese. We owe them, as a country, a special debt.

I also entirely support what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said, but I know too well how impossible it is, apparently, to cause the United Nations to live up to its principles.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I share the sentiment of the noble Baroness on the historic obligations that are owed to the peoples of the region by the peoples of the United Kingdom. The UK, through DfID, provides humanitarian assistance to help refugees and internally displaced people through the funding of the Thai-Burma border consortium, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation. We also provide support through NGO projects in ethnic minority areas and through the contribution to the European Commission's funding for repatriation and reintegration of refugees. We have tried to find routes into all those areas on the disputed borders and to support the peoples whom the noble Baroness rightly draws to our attention.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, while the situation in Burma is better than it was in the past under the communists, it is still totally unacceptable. Despite the Burmese Government's ratification of Order 1/99 in 2000, which bans forced labour, sources inside and outside Burma continue to provide extensive reports of government-organised forced labour. These are primarily linked to military operations. What steps will Her Majesty's Government take to put pressure on the Burmese authorities to abide by the order?
 
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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I agree that the Burmese Government have still to address in any effective way the international community's concerns on the use of forced labour in Burma. We support the efforts of the International Labour Organisation to end permanently the use of forced labour. As regards Burma's general system of preferences—the trade privileges—which were suspended in the EC in 1997 in response to our concerns, that is a sanction which we shall continue to employ. We shall encourage others way beyond the boundaries of the European Community to employ the same sanction. The European Community has called for it and has repeatedly condemned Burma's lack of progress on forced labour. We will work with the international organisations to try to extend the pressure that we can bring to bear.

Lord Elton: My Lords, what steps, apart from those the noble Lord enumerated in his substantive Answer, have the Government taken, or are they taking, to secure a majority in the Security Council before they go to it with this issue? We quite understand that being defeated in the Security Council on an issue such as this would be very harmful as regards what we are trying to achieve, but what are we trying to do to ensure that we get a majority before we go there?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I believe it is well known in the House that across a number of issues involving intolerable regimes, different countries have taken the lead role to try to get a sensible division of labour. In this case the United States has taken the lead role, for which I am grateful. We are working to support that and have made it clear that we will do so.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the Minister's department have information on large exports of high-quality timber from northern Burma to China? Does it take a view on the probable consequences for flooding of such cutting?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we believe that there is extensive trade in teak with China. I am told that numerous lorries travel the roads between the two countries. There is a grave risk to the environment as a result of that. There is also rather more of a boost to the Burmese economy than one would have wished. It would be very good if Burma's near neighbours could be persuaded to bring pressure to bear on this abhorrent regime.

Disabled Facilities Grant

11.8 am

Baroness Wilkins asked Her Majesty's Government:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, as part of this review a report by Bristol University has been prepared with wide-ranging recommendations for change. In particular, the report recommends that the DFG means test should be removed for families with a disabled child and the Government have agreed to implement this change in England from December this year.

Written statements about progress with the DFG review are being laid today in both Houses and the Bristol report will be published tomorrow.


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