Burma: Genocide in Burma

Genocide In Burma

Universe Column for January 2003

By David Alton

March 9th has been designated as the global day of prayer for Burma. In the refugee camps, where many of the 130,000 Karen people have fled to escape Burma’s genocide, voices will be raised in the earnest prayer that 53 years of conflict will finally come to an end.

Along with prayer, we need to redouble the political pressure on western governments and on the Burmese military junta. There are also a host of initiatives that individuals and church groups can take to help those who are suffering.

I have just returned from the Burma border where I was taking evidence, along with American Congressman, Joseph Pitts, on behalf of Jubilee Campaign. We collected truly shocking accounts of the latest violations of human rights. Although the British Government still refuses to categorise these crimes as genocide there is no doubt in my mind that no other word adequately describes the realities in Burma’s Karen State.

Two years ago the Catholic human rights activist, James Mawdsley, graphically brought that suffering to light. His brave decision to launch a protest inside Burma and the 17 year sentence and 13 months solitary confinement that followed made many people aware of the harrowing atrocities committed by the military regime.

The story of one small child I met at a refugee camp near Mae Sot illustrates how the brutality and violence of this perfidious regime continues.

Saw Naing Gae is just eight years old. He saw the Burmese military shoot dead his mother and his father. He was then trafficked across the border and sold to a Thai family. Desperately unhappy he managed to escape and made his way to the camp, where he is staying with a group of thirty other orphans. Even as these children sang and welcomed their visitors Saw Naing Gae seemed unable to join in or even to smile. Every trace of joy and innocence had been stamped out of him; and all of this by the age of 8.

Saw Naing Gae squatted alongside four other children, brothers and sisters, whose parents had also been brutally murdered. The oldest girl, aged about 12, and now head of their family, dissolved into tears as she recounted their story.

Naw Pi Lay, whose photograph illustrates this article, did not survive.

Aged 45, the mother old five children and pregnant with her sixth, Naw Pi Lay was murdered in June of last year by the Burmese militia. During a massacre in the Dooplaya district of the Karen State, twelve other people were killed, including children aged 12,7,5, and 2 years old.

Elsewhere in the same district, at Htee Tha Blu village, further violations of human rights were carried out by Light Infantry Battalions 301 and 78. They beat and tortured villagers, stole their belongings and burnt down their church and their homes.

The last time I visited this region, about four years ago, I illegally crossed the border and entered the Karen State. I heard and saw evidence of the internally displaced people – estimated now at 600,000; of the scorched earth policy that has depopulated and destroyed countless villages; and of brutality unequalled anywhere I have travelled.

This time I met one of the Free Burma Rangers who had just come out of the Karen State. He had been with a little girl of eight who still had a bullet lodged in her stomach.  To help people like hr he had taken in some nurses and medics. Why was he, an American, so committed to the Karen? “I love these people, and I simply don’t want to see them suffering like this. We’ve got to do something, even if we’re just like a small barking dog,” he told me.

At Mae Sot we took evidence from the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People. They provided me with over 100 pages of carefully documented examples of human rights violations committed by Burmese military over the past twelve months alone. One day I hope that this evidence will be placed before an international court and as at Nuremberg the perpetrators will be brought to justice.

The report lists three mass killings by the SPDC (Burma’s singularly ill-named State Peace and Development Council). It is a carefully chronicled account of looting, burning, torture, rape and murder. The SPDC routinely plant landmines indiscriminately and in areas where landmines have been laid by their opponents the SPDC use people as human landmine sweepers.

I saw some of the victims – people whose limbs have been severed from their bodies, whose skin has been peppered with shrapnel, and others who have been left blind. I also talked to the families of people whose loved ones – men and women – had been seized and used as porters and construction workers, and who have never returned.  The SPDC kill many of the porters in frontline areas, especially when they are unable to any longer work because of exhaustion or sickness.

The international focus on Burma has long been on the heroic struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).  The SPDC are part of a military dictatorship that has brutalised its people since a coup in 1962. Having called an election in 1990, which the NLD won, the SPDC refused to accept the result. Although in the past twelve months the military have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to travel more freely, tentative talks between the two groups appear to have stalled. During the same period the attacks in most parts of Burma have increased.

A settlement with the NLD represents a solution to only half of the conflict. The seven ethnic groups who have been fighting for self determination or autonomy since the end of World War Two – the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Arakam, Kachin, Chin and Shan – will still need to have their grievances addressed.

In Chiang Mai I met with the authors of a carefully meticulous 120 page report on the Burmese military regime’s use of sexual violence in the Shan State over the past six years. The report of the Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women’s Action Network, “Licence To Rape”, details how rape has been used as a weapon of war. Sexual violence – especially widespread gang rape – has terrorised and humiliated communities, flaunts the power of the regime, “rewards” troops, and demoralises resistance forces.

Women who have been raped have frequently been abandoned or rejected by their husbands. One woman described how she was gang-raped when she was 7-months pregnant and then gave birth prematurely to her child. Another was told by her husband to leave: “You didn’t control yourself. You are no longer my wife. Leave our home.”

The Burmese Junta have turned their country into one vast concentration camp. They are Nazi thugs who deploy Nazi methods. Like their Nazi predecessors they fail to appreciate the strength of the human spirit and the capacity to endure and survive.

Typical are the joint secretaries of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Bo Kyi, a student leader who spent seven years in Burmese jails, told me that “torture is designed to break down your identity, to turn you into a non-entity with no connection to the world outside of the torture chamber.”

Naing Kyaw served 8 years in Insein and Thayet prisons and still manages to joke that “insane” would be a better spelling.  Regularly beaten with a chain and ball on his back, and often kept in solitary confinement, he was offered the chance to become an informer.

Instead, he learnt English from the professor who was housed in the adjacent cell – so that he would be able to tell the world about Burma’s suffering. He has put the language to good use in his essay in “Spirit For Survival” which he dedicates to a despairing young woman who took her own life: “All the suffering you felt we will change into strength. This grief, this feeling of deep hurt and bitterness will become a volcano, which is going to explode.”

I was struck that even as the suffering deepens no-one is giving in. Democracy activists continue their struggle and the beleaguered ethnic minorities refuse to capitulate.

In amongst it all are people trying to bring hope and help  – like the Karen Catholic priest I visited who is simply known as “the jungle priest.” He is running an illegal school for young people denied education. Or the Thai Catholic nuns, inspired by the vision of one of their number, Sister Love.  They have created a wonderful centre and school for six hundred children.   The evangelical Life Centre for girls rescued from traffickers, the Bible School in the heart of one of the camps, and the non-governmental organisations are all doing wonderful work.

There is an old saying that the darkest moment is always just before the dawn.

For Naing Kyaw, Bo Kyi, and the other extraordinarily courageous men and women I met on the Burma border, this indeed may well be the darkest time.

Until now the Thai Government has been generous and hospitable in allowing refugees and democracy activists a place of shelter.  While our delegation was in the country, not only did a group of 2,000 Burmese military attack Karen settlements in the Tak district, we also learnt that the Thais had raided the homes of pro democracy activists and were seeking to repatriate them. It would have been more humane to have issued an order for their summary execution and have done with it. Imagine Winston Churchill deporting members of the French Resistance to occupied Nazi Europe and you have the correct parallel.

All this has to do with the Thais seeking to strengthen commercial links with the military junta. On February 9th the Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra and the army chief, Somdhat Attanant, travel to Rangoon.  It is impossible for me to imagine how any democratic leader could want to do business with a regime that kills and brutalises its people and that relies on drug production to finance its economy.

Last year more than one billion meth-amphetamine pills were produced in Burma and most were sold on in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, causing disastrous social consequences. The junta have been making a killing from illegal trafficking of drugs, timber, and people, and then they use their illicit gains to kill their own people. One day the people who have collaborated in this profiteering will be held to account, tried and jailed.

These words from Psalm 61 were handed to me as I left the Karen refugee camp on the Burma border: “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you. I call as my heart grows faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”

They represent a plaintive and last desperate cry by a people who have suffered beyond reason. Their cry is indeed issued from the ends of the earth. How much longer will they have to wait for the rest of the world to respond?

On March 9th the people of Burma will be sorely in need of our prayers. But they need our help too. Please resolve to help in some tangible way.

HOW YOU CAN HELP – WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Jubilee Campaign has campaign material available: info@jubileecampaign.co.uk or telephone Jubilee at St. John’s Seminary, Wonersh on 01483 894 787
  • You can send a “Good Life” pack of small gifts for displaced children inside Burma (they suggest chewable vitamins, a small comb and mirror, a small toy, pencils) in a heavy duty Ziplock freezer bag, marked “gift/school needs/ no commercial value”, to Christians Concerned for Burma, PO Box 14, Mae Jo P.O., Chiang Mai, 50290, Thailand.
  • You can sponsor or support the education of children being cared for by James Mawdsley’s Metta Trust, by the Burmese Jungle Priest or by Sister Love and her co-workers. Cheques should be made out to Jubilee Action and sent to St. John’s Seminary, Wonersh, nr Guildford, Surrey GU5 0QX.
  • You can write to your MP, to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Prime Minster, demanding that Britain press for genocide charges to be brought against the Burmese military junta. (all c/o House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA)

·    Write a letter of protest to the Burmese Ambassador:

His Excellency Dr Kyaw Win, Embassy of the Union of Myanmar (Burma)

19A Charles Street, Berkeley Square, London W1X 8ER

Telephone number: 020 7499 8841

·      Organise a Day or Prayer on March 9 in your parish or at your home

Burma- International Criminal Tribunal

Written Answers

Monday, 18th December 2000.

Burma

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether they will boycott the European Union-ASEAN meeting in December and urge other European Union governments to do the same, in the light of the conduct of the Burmese military towards the Karen, Karenni and Shan ethnic minorities and Burma’s membership of ASEAN.[HL30]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My honourable friend John Battle, Minister of State, attended the EU-ASEAN Ministerial meeting in Vientiane on 11-12 December. They had a frank discussion on Burma. EU and ASEAN Ministers expressed their full support for the efforts of Mr Razali, the UN Secretary General’s Special envoy, and called for an early dialogue between the Burmese Government, the NLD, and other relevant parties. The Burmese Foreign Minister gave assurances that the EU Troika mission in January would have full access to the NLD, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and other opposition groups. This is a welcome development.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Why they have not attempted to build consensus at the United Nations Security Council concerning the creation of an International Criminal Tribunal on Burma.[HL31]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I refer the noble Lord to my answer of 25 October (WA 42) on this issue. In raising our concerns about Burma with Security Council partners, we have directed our efforts towards building consensus. It nevertheless remains the case that there is no consensus for engagement on Burma issues for now. This extends also to the question of an International Criminal Tribunal on Burma.

BURMA AND JAMES MAWDSLEY

Article For The Tablet by David Alton

James Mawdsley’s welcome release from his Burmese incarceration should serve to spur us all into a tougher stand against one of the world’s remaining pariah states. It would be a mistake to see the decision to free James as an act of generous compassion. In achieving his objective of forcing the world to take note of the plight of the indigenous Burmese James had simply become too much trouble to them. Despite beating him up and cruelly leaving him for over a year in isolation they hoped to break his remarkable spirit. Having failed to do that they simply calculated that he would be less trouble outside than inside the country. In the long term this may prove to be yet another miscalculation by a regime notorious for its use of brute force rather than finesse. This extraordinarily articulate young man, driven by his deep faith and belief in justice and human rights, will become an authoritative moral voice which will now have access to millions of hearts and minds. And what will he use his voice to say? He will focus, as he has done throughout, not on his own privations and mistreatment but on the denial of basic democratic rights to the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and on the genocide inflicted on ethnic minorities such as the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan.

Two years ago I visited the refugee camps on the Burma border. It was after this that James made contact with me. I took evidence on both sides of the border from our former World War Two allies, the Karen. Since then, I have maintained regular contact with the Karen and the Shan. What I heard and saw then has left me in no doubt that Burma is experiencing genocide – and I use that word, not as exaggerated hyperbole, but in the strict sense laid out in Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Crime of Genocide.

Over 30,000 Karen civilians have died as a result of Burmese military action since 1992 alone; over 300,000 Karen and a similar number of Shan are internally displaced. Many are normally 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. Yet there is no concerted attempt to bring those responsible to justice. Last year I went to the American Congress and presented evidence to their Human Rights Committee, urging the US Administration to press for genocide charges to be laid. The Americans are sympathetic to this argument but regrettably the UK Government has thus far declined to support it. Instead, we have simply lobbied for the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – good in itself but wholly irrelevant in the case of Burma. As yet, only a handful of countries have ratified the statute setting up the court. These twenty need to be joined by a further forty countries before anything can happen. It is therefore impossible to say when it will begin to function. It will not, in any event, have retrospective jurisdiction and it would be an appalling travesty if a well intentioned initiative were to become the tool used by the perpetrators of mass murder to evade prosecution. A former Labour Solicitor General, Lord Archer of Sandwell, put it well when he said “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. The ICC is not an effective solution. Instead the Government should be lobbying at the UN Security Council for the creation of an International Criminal Tribunal to try the Burmese regime and their subordinates for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It is extraordinarily defeatist and feeble to argue that because the Chinese might veto such an attempt that it is not worth trying.

Last week the UN Special Rappporteur on Burma, Mr.Rajsoomer Lallah QC, detailed further evidence of terrible atrocities in Burma. An earlier report, in 1998, by the International Labour Organisation(ILO) was a 254-page horror story. All credit to the ILO and the UN but wasn’t it rather inconsistent to appoint Burma’s Ambassador to the UN as the chairman of the UN General Assembly Committee on Disarmament and International Security (with the support of HMG)? Either this is a pariah state or it is not. An earlier submission by Mr.Lallah was placed before the UN General Assembly. At paragraph 59 he said: …violations include extrajudicial 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. If this is so, why does the world then keep its eyes closed when it comes to trying those responsible or even indicating that one day they may be held to account? Why is the world so supine when it comes to organising a coherent policy of economic sanctions? With body language composed of shut eyes and muted mouths it is little wonder that the Burmese military believe that the international community is not serious in its prosecution of the case against their regime. There is no coherent approach to the prosecution of genocide charges or to the imposition of world wide sanctions. The publishers of The Lonely Planet continue to encourage British tourists to travel there – and to stay in hotels built by slave labour. The American Administration, which has a total ban on Burmese investment, has been badly let down by its European allies who permit their companies to exploit the withdrawl of American petroleum companies. The Catholic human rights lawyer, Lord Brennan, put his finger on this point when he said: For the sake of the people of Burma we should stop trading with that country.People in Parliament and in this nation felt in past years that South Africa induleged in an outrageous system called apartheid. Is Burma any different?” Lord Brennan was this week pursuing his argument in Geneva, raising the use of child labour in Burma.

The ILO say that the widespread use of forced labour is a crime against humanity that is punishable under the terms of the statutes setting up the four ad hoc international criminal tribunals established since the Second World War to try those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law. In their conclusions they state that “There is abundant evidence before the Commission showing the pervasive use of forced labour imposed on the civilian population of Myanmar by the authorities and the military.

Why then do we not do something about it? Two weeks ago I initiated a debate in Parliament pressing for genocide charges to be brought. My call was supported by Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, Lord Archer of Sandwell and the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Weatherill, among others. Richard Harries said that “the Karen, Karenni and Shan people need international support now before thousands more are relocated and killed. And what will be the implications for us if we fail to act? Quite recently the Organisation of African Unity demanded payment of significant reparations to Rwandans by the countries who failed to prevent the genocide there in 1994. Everything that happened in Rwanda – and the subsequent successful prosecution of individuals on genocide charges -, everything which has happened in the Balkans, and all we know of the Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, teaches us that tyrants are emboldened when free nations fail to act. What point is there in Britain maintaining its claim to a seat at the United Nations Security Council unless it uses it to pursue the high political themes of human rights and justice? My hope now is that James Mawdsley will use his newly gained freedom to campaign throughout Britain raising moral awareness and pressing home the argument for the preferment of genocide charges. His is the voice of one who has paid a personal price and who was prepared to put his own life on the line. It is the voice of a man motivated by deep faith and belief in what the Pope has called “the unity of life.” It is the voice of courage and integrity. It will be a voice which will ensure we do not forget the 1,500 political prisoners who remain in Burmese jails and the hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities whose suffering continues unabated.

Burma – Karen

BurmaLord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether they have raised the issue of the plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities in Burma at the United Nations Security Council. [HL4117]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We have raised our concerns over Burma with our Security Council partners. But there is no consensus at the moment for Security Council engagement on Burma issues. We nevertheless ensure that Burma is on the agenda for all other appropriate UN bodies, such as the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly, both of which have annual resolutions condemning the human rights violations against the ethnic minorities in Burma.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether they have urged the European Union to raise the plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities with Burma’s military regime. [HL4118]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The UK works with EU Partners through the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy to maintain pressure on the Burmese Government to improve their human rights record. Repression of the ethnic minorities in Burma is a serious concern of the EU and has been included in regular EU statements. The terms of reference for the next EU Troika mission requires them to meet not only Aung San Suu Kyi but also representatives of ethnic minority groups. The last Troika mission, in 1999, had a firsthand account of the plight of ethnic minorities from ethnic representatives in Rangoon.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether they will urge the European Union to produce a declaration concerning the plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities in Burma in line with the European Union’s initiative concerning human rights abuses against Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the National League for Democracy. [HL4119]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The EU regularly calls upon the Burmese regime to enter into substantive dialogue, not only with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, but also with ethnic minority leaders. For example, the EU Presidency statement of 7 October supported the efforts of the UN Special Envoy to initiate dialogue between the Burmese authorities, democratic parties and ethnic minorities. The statement of 28 September, about the SPDC’s treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi following her second attempt to travel in recent weeks, also included a call for such dialogue.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether they have raised the issue of the plight of the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities in Burma at the recent United Nations Millennium Summit. [HL4121]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The Prime Minister took advantage of the brief time available to him in the plenary session of the UN Millennium Summit clearly to register his dismay at the latest negative developments in Burma. Our deep concern for the human rights of all Burma’s people is well known: we will continue to press for improvements in this area.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether the situation of the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities in Burma fits within the international legal definition of genocide. [HL4120]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I refer the noble Lord to my response during the debate on Burma in the House on 2 October (Official Report, 2 October, col. 1223).

Mr James Mawdsley

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    What response they have received to the conclusion of the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention and arrest, on the wrongful imprisonment of James Mawdsley by the government of Myanmar; and what information they have on his present condition. [HL4249]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The Burmese Ambassador, Dr Kyaw Win, called on my honourable Friend, the Minister of State, John Battle, on 16 October to inform him that his government had decided to deport James Mawdsley. He made no reference to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s decision that James was being held arbitrarily.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, is already aware, James has now been released and returned to the UK on Saturday 21 October.

 

Burma – Min Ko Naing

Min Ko NaingLord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether they know the whereabouts and health of Min Ko Naing, the Burmese pro-democracy activist.[HL1884]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Our Embassy in Rangoon has obtained confirmation that Min Ko Naing is in Sittwe prison. He is said to be in reasonable health, is allowed outside exercise and regular family visits. He is one of an estimated 1,500 political prisoners in Burma. We take every opportunity to press for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience–for example, through ambassadorial representations in Rangoon and United Nations resolutions.

 

Burma – The trial of James Mawdsley

Mrs Diana Mawdsley

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have received a letter from Mrs Diana Mawdsley concerning the captivity of her son, James, in Burma; and when they anticipate acknowledging and replying to this correspondence.[HL1333]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: A letter dated 17 February from Mrs Diana Mawdsley, was received on 23 February and a reply was sent from our Consular Division on 29 February. A copy of the letter was faxed to Mr & Mrs Mawdsley on 1 March.

Mr James Mawdsley

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    (a) whether they have obtained a transcript of James Mawdsley’s trial in Burma; (b) whether they have obtained details of who was present at the trial; (c) whether the Burmese authorities have agreed to an appeal being held in public; and (d) what arrangements will be made to ensure that James Mawdsley is properly represented at the appeal. [HL1334]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Our Ambassador in Rangoon met Deputy Foreign Minister, Khin Maung Win on 1 March and requested the trial transcript. The Embassy sent a written reminder on 3 March. We will not know who was present at the trial until we receive the transcript.

The Ambassador also raised the issue of a public appeal hearing and the other conditions James wants met with the Deputy Foreign Minister during their meeting. The Minister took note and will inform the Embassy when a decision has been reached.

We will do everything we can to ensure that James receives legal representation if he chooses to appeal.

Burma – Resignation of Rapporteur

Written Answers

Tuesday, 21st November 2000.

Burma: Resignation of UN Special Rapporteur

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether the resignation of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma, Mr Rajsoomer Lallah, was due to the lack of resources to fulfil his mandate; and whether they will give more funding to support his work. [HL4587]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has confirmed that Judge Lallah, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma, resigned on 2 November. We have not seen his letters of resignation to the High Commissioner and to the Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which are confidential.

 

On the question of funding of such rapporteurs, they are supported by OHCHR. Given the importance the UK attaches to this key UN body, we voluntarily provide them considerable extra funds over and above our UN regular budget contributions.

Burma: War Crimes Proposal

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    In light of the recent decision by the United Nations Security Council to set up a court to try those accused of war crimes in Sierra Leone, whether the Government will urge that similar action is taken with regard to war crimes committed in Burma. [HL4588]

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The Special Court in Sierra Leone is being set up with the co-operation and support of the Government of Sierra Leone and consensus among Security Council members. Similar circumstances do not apply in the case of Burma.

Burma: Travel Advice

Burma: Tourist Advice

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty’s Government

    What advice they offer to British tourists planning to visit Burma.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, our travel advice says that the political situation remains unsettled; visitors to Burma can visit only officially designated areas; some ethnic insurgents remain active in Burma, particularly in border areas; and that visitors should seek medical advice before travelling. The full text of our latest travel advice for Burma can be found on the FCO website, on Ceefax or by telephoning our travel advice unit. We have drawn attention in Parliament, in correspondence and on our website to the views of Burmese democratic leaders that tourism to Burma is inappropriate at present. I have placed a copy of our travel advice in the Library of the House.

 

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much for that reply. I am not sure how often the tabling of a Question in your Lordships’ House makes an immediate difference to what a government department does, but it seems to have happened in this case. Is my noble friend aware that I tabled my Question because I was concerned that, when I looked at it in December, the travel advice on Burma issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contained no reference whatever to human rights? Will she confirm that the FCO’s website was changed last Friday so that, as she rightly says, the travel advice now includes a link to the letter by the late Minister of State, Derek Fatchett, to the chairman of ABTA in which he drew attention to the request from Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic leader of Burma, that British tourists should not visit the country, as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office brief entitled Burma: Ten Years of Oppression?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can certainly confirm that my noble friend’s Question caused us to look at the two sites where information about Burma was entered. It was clear that a link between those two sites would ease the situation and make it easier for people to find out the full picture. Therefore, that link was arranged. I thank my noble friend for bringing the matter to our attention. However, all the information was available to those who wished to find it.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I welcome what the Minister has said to the House, but is she aware that many of the hotels and the tourist infrastructure in Burma have been built by slave labour, often involving in particular the Kareni people and others from different ethnic minorities, who have been forcibly exploited and many of whom have even died during the creation of that tourist infrastructure? Is she further aware that in the past five years in the Karen state alone, some 30,000 Kareni people have died, 300,000 have been displaced, and that clearly that amounts to genocide? I welcome what she said to her noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester. However, in reviewing the tourist policy, will she also review Her Majesty’s Government position so far as concerns economic sanctions in order to bring them into line with those of the United States Government? Will she agree that it would be better to follow the brave lead given by the young British national, James Mawdsley, in campaigning for democratic rights in Burma, rather than seeing Burma as a potential tourist destination?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, first, I join wholeheartedly with the noble Lord to say that we deplore the forced labour used in Burma. That has been a position upon which Her Majesty’s Government have been consistent. Forced labour is one of a large number of human rights violations in Burma. The report in 1998 by the International Labour Organisation highlighted the use of forced labour in Burma and made three recommendations for the regime to implement. Your Lordships will know that we have continued to pursue the matter. I believe that the position taken by Her Majesty’s Government in relation to unilateral financial sanctions is well known and there has been no change as far as concerns that policy. However, we have let no opportunity go by to make absolutely clear to the Burmese our revulsion at the oppressive nature of their regime. So far as concerns James Mawdsley, of course, we appreciate that he has chosen that particular way to demonstrate his dissent in relation to the Burmese Government. However, our Government wish to take those courses which are most likely to bring about productive results.

China: Bishop Shi Enxiang

Bishop Shi EnxiangLord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    What representations are being made to the Government of the Republic of China about the reported reimprisonment of Bishop Shi Enxiang, following the previous 33 years in gaols and forced labour camps.[HL1902]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthall): We have raised our concerns about the reported detention of Bishop Shi Enxiang on 27 April with the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, and will continue to follow this case closely.

 

We regularly raise concerns about the harassment of Christians in our Human Rights Dialogue with China, the latest round of which was held in Beijing on 12-14 February. We made it clear that such harassment was unacceptable and not in keeping with the provisions of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China signed in October 1998.

China: UNFPA: International Development Bill

Baroness Rawlings: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 28. This is a key amendment which seeks to place the UK Government’s relationship with charities and non-governmental aid organisations specialising in development on a more stable financial footing. It would ensure that development assistance provided through charities and NGOs could not fall below 15 per cent of total development assistance; would help to build strong support for development; and would act as a check against an overly centralising government.

The Bill, as Members of the Committee know, gives considerably more power to the Secretary of State. We believe that charities and non-governmental organisations are an asset to the United Kingdom’s attack on global poverty. We believe that charities and NGOs are more than just service providers and, as such, should be formally recognised and supported in the Bill. Aid distributed by UK- based charities and NGOs amounted to £195 million in the financial year 1999-2000. That was roughly 8 per cent of the total DfID budget. We want to see their role in development boosted and their involvement increased. We believe that by increasing government funding for charities more people will become involved either directly or indirectly with the development programmes and projects and that support for development will increase.

The Government pay lip service to charities but fail to harness their energy and enthusiasm. Howard White, an economist with a special interest in issues relating to aid policy, especially the macro-economic and poverty impact of aid, wrote an article about the first four years of the Department for International Development. It was placed in the BOND newsletter, representing 250 international development charities. In his article he criticised DfID, stating:

    “DfID’s relationship with the NGO community has been somewhat chequered. It might be thought that the trends outlined above of a stronger poverty focus and the emphasis on partnership have led to a closer working relationship between DfID and NGOs. In reality the picture is somewhat more mixed. It is true that NGOs welcome the poverty focus, and they find several positive aspects in the changing nature of DfID’s work–the HIV/AIDS programme is often mentioned in this regard. But there is also a feeling that there is not a genuine partnership, since DfID is not really prepared to enter into dialogue. As mentioned above, these criticisms centre in particular in the second White Paper. The consultation process for preparing the document was said by one NGO not to be very consultative. The relationship between DfID and NGOs is also seen to have suffered as a result of Clare Short’s personal antagonism towards the NGO community. Mainstream NGOs believe that genuine debate has been sacrificed by the Secretary of State’s desire to distance herself from the anti-liberalisation stance of more radical members of their community. [BOND Newsletter, DfID, The First Four Years, April 2001]”.

However, the Government claim that:

    “The UK Government work closely and constructively with NGOs and other elements of UK civil society.” [Globalisation White Paper, 199, col. 359].

However, we have seen that this is not the full story. The Government should take on board this criticism and work towards a better relationship with the UK overseas development charities. The Government could do this by providing charities and the British people with more information on development aid and how they can help. They could also increase the amount of DfID funding spent via charities and NGOs.We on these Benches believe that the British people should be encouraged to play a more active role in development. Conservatives see aid not purely as an activity for governments but as an area in which everyone can participate. The Conservative Party believes that the Government should support the British people by setting up agencies dedicated to motivating and encouraging the entire UK aid effort.

Baroness Amos: I shall begin by addressing the points raised by my noble friend in relation to Clause 6 and then move to discuss Amendments Nos. 23, 24, 26, 26A and 27 to 33. Clause 6 sets out the kinds of financial assistance which can be provided under the Bill. The Bill provides for the use of a wider range of financial instruments than are available under the 1980 Act by enabling the Secretary of State to provide guarantees and to purchase securities in a company as well as providing grants and loans.

The ability of the Secretary of State to use these new financial instruments has generated some interest. Let me therefore offer an example of how the Secretary of State might come to use development funds in this way.

DfID is currently working with a number of micro-finance institutions (MFIs) to extend the provision of financial services to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. For DfID to make a grant to such institutions carries several risks. An MFI, for example, might pay insufficient attention to innovation or cost control. Those risks would not apply to MFIs which were able to obtain capital on commercial terms. But banks are risk averse and often poorly informed about micro-finance institutions. The provision of a guarantee by DfID would enable banks to learn about the nature of the micro-finance market, and the Bill would enable the Secretary of State to do so. I am happy to write further to my noble friend Lord Judd on these matters.

Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 would require the Secretary of State not to provide assistance to any organisation or individuals involved in promoting or practising coercive population policies. Before I comment on the amendments, I should take this opportunity to clarify the Government’s policy on this important issue. UK assistance for all family planning is provided in line with the principles of free and informed choice upheld at the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994. The Government are totally opposed to any kind of coercion in matters related to childbearing. The issue is usually raised in connection with the policies of the Chinese Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, did this evening. The Government disagree with China’s one child policy and do not support it. Coercion should have no place in family planning.

DfID makes annual contributions towards the work of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation in over 150 countries, including China. We support their programmes in China because they work to secure greater respect for reproductive rights. UNFPA makes a full range of reproductive health services available in 32 Chinese counties on a voluntary basis in adherence to the standards agreed at the conference in 1994. Birth quotas have been abolished in the areas where UNFPA works. The programme shows encouraging achievements; for example, it has witnessed a decrease in the induced abortion rates in those counties. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that our work has made a difference.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is the noble Baroness able to confirm that her department’s publication China: Population Issues states:

    “Critics of this position argue that several years of UNFPA and IPPF involvement in China has not led the Chinese to moderate their policies or stop abuses in the implementation of policy. This is true”?

Baroness Amos: As I have said, we have evidence that the work of UNFPA in the 32 Chinese counties has led to a decrease in the induced abortion rate. That is the aim of the work within the context of the principles agreed in Cairo. Therefore, the Government’s policy is in line with the sentiment behind these amendments.I should also explain why we believe that it is unwise to accept the amendments. To specify individual policies or priorities in the Bill would give rise to doubt about the scope of the powers in the Bill and throw into question the ability of the Secretary of State to support policies and priorities that are not mentioned. This arises because of the legal convention that nothing is said in law that is not necessary. If we set down in the Bill individual policies and priorities which the Secretary of State is in any case able to pursue, or in this case not to pursue, we would allow the inference that the powers in the Bill would not otherwise cover such activities. That might lead a court to conclude that the powers in the Bill should be interpreted narrowly, excluding policies and priorities that were not mentioned on the face of the Bill.

Amendment No. 26 would require the Secretary of State to consider using country-based non-governmental channels for the provision of development assistance where she had evidence that the government of the country were using assistance inefficiently or condoning corruption and bribery in its distribution.

The noble Lord, Lord Freeman, implied that DfID assistance to smaller UK NGOs is now channelled only through developing country governments. I can reassure the noble Lord that that is not so. Centrally run programmes, such as the Civil Society Challenge Fund, continue to provide direct DfID funding to civil society organisations. In addition, our regional programme managers continue to use what the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, referred to as the ancien regime. The latest departmental report gives a number of examples, including support to CAFOD to develop a peace-building programme in DRC and to Oxfam to improve the livelihoods of pastoralists in Kenya.

Subsection (1) of Clause 7 allows the Secretary of State to impose terms and conditions on the provision of development assistance. Further, Clause 7 is subject to the core power set down in Clause 1. I can, therefore, reassure the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, that the Bill already reflects the exact sense of his amendment.

Amendment No. 26A to Clause 7 seeks to require that special consideration be given to the needs of children. I am sure that all Members of the Committee agree that the welfare of children is of paramount importance to the reduction of poverty in developing countries, but it is difficult to isolate their needs from other ways of contributing to sustainable development or enhancing welfare. Children need parents who can access livelihood opportunities and protection from lawlessness, and they and their parents benefit from improved government resource mobilisation that finances better services. All assistance provided under the powers in Clause 1 directly or indirectly reduces the effects of poverty on children.

Preparation of development assistance proposals under successive governments has required an assessment of the likely impact on those most affected.

Similarly, it has long been standard practice for recipients to report on the implementation and impact of the assistance. Paragraphs (a)and (b) of the proposed subsection (5) are, therefore, unnecessary. The proposed subsection (6) would require that assistance affecting children should be provided only to a country which has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This, too, is unnecessary as assistance to any country, whether or not it has ratified the convention, will be provided only where the circumstances justify it. I hope that that reassures my noble friend Lord Brennan.

Amendment No. 27, tabled by my noble friend Lord Hunt, would require the Secretary of State to ensure that in funding third parties the effectiveness of their contribution towards poverty reduction is regularly monitored and made public. I can offer two points of reassurance to my noble friend. First, Clause 4(2), under which the majority of such expenditure will be given, requires that assistance can be given only if the Secretary of State believes that it is likely to contribute to the reduction of poverty. Secondly, DfID has a comprehensive and transparent procedure for assessing the contribution that multilateral institutions, such as the European Union and the United Nations, can make to international development targets and for determining the nature and scale our contributions to them. DfID’s institutional strategy papers also set clear targets for its engagement with those institutions.

Amendment No. 28 would have the effect of imposing a limit on the value of development assistance that could be provided directly as opposed to being provided by arrangement with charities and NGOs. The amendment relates to Clause 8 which allows the Secretary of State to act through other persons or bodies as well as directly. This amendment runs up against the same arguments of principle and practicality that I outlined earlier. I do not believe that we should set out in the Bill limits on the amount or nature of the assistance that the Secretary of State can provide.

The amendment is also undesirable on practical grounds. There may be circumstances when it will be appropriate to provide less than a certain percentage of assistance to a country through NGOs. I do not believe that we should use the Bill to constrain the Secretary of State’s ability to act in the most effective way possible.

Amendment No. 29 seeks to require the Secretary of State to preserve, respect and encourage the independence and impartiality of NGOs involved in the provision of humanitarian aid. The Government value the independence and impartially of all non-governmental organisations. I hope that there is no doubt about that.

 

The amendment imposes an uncertain and potentially onerous duty on the Secretary of State. If a duty is to be imposed in law, it should be cast in sufficiently precise terms so that a Secretary of State can be held to account on whether or not the duty is being met. If we accepted the amendment, or one similar to it, we would need to specify exactly how the Secretary of State was to preserve, respect and encourage the impartially of NGOs. We would then need to specify the extent to which the duties should be met. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is a difficult area. If we were capable of formulating such directions, the risk is that they would be so prescriptive in terms of the relationship that the Secretary of State would have with such NGOs, and so onerous in terms of the work required by both parties to manage and monitor the arrangement, that the work of responding effectively and efficiently to disasters and emergencies would be compromised.

Amendment No.30 would require parliamentary approval of each and every sector-wide programme commitment. It is already a requirement set out in DfID’s procedures that any significant expenditure commitment, such as that in a sector-wide programme, be made only after a report has been completed on a proposal. The report must include target outputs and monitoring arrangements. Where the programme envisages channelling resources directly through a partner Government’s financial management and control systems, these systems are assessed for their adequacy. I do not believe that it would be appropriate to impose prior parliamentary scrutiny on routine decisions relating to the bilateral programme. Prior parliamentary scrutiny would add a potentially cumbersome procedure to a process which often requires considerable speed and flexibility.

Perhaps I may touch on the point made by the noble Baroness in relation to staffing overseas. The increase in staffing overseas is not directly related to the use of sector-wide approaches, rather it reflects the increasing dialogue between DfID and developing country governments on the key macro-economics and sector policy issues that determine the effectiveness of all forms of assistance.

I have already spoken in some detail about the accountability of the Secretary of State to Parliament and to the courts and also about the transparency of DfID’s decision-making procedures and policy development.

Amendment No. 31 would require the Secretary of State to set up and maintain a website for the purpose of helping to co-ordinate and facilitate the development activities of charities and those who give to such causes. If the Secretary of State considered that establishing such a website was an effective way to contribute to the reduction of poverty, then she could support it without recourse to a statutory power.