Burma

Part of Opposition Day — [12th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 1:51 pm on 14th May 2008.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander The Secretary of State for International Development 1:51 pm, 14th May 2008

First, given my hon. Friend's knowledge of, and expertise in, foreign affairs, he will be aware that the Canadian commission that preceded the establishment of the responsibility to protect doctrine anticipated that there could be circumstances following a natural disaster where that doctrine might be applicable. There will, of course, be legal arguments and debate about such points, but some authorities have suggested the potential applicability of the responsibility to protect.

As I have made clear, there are at root two legal issues in the context of the discussions that have taken place in the Security Council on this issue. The first of those is whether the Security Council itself is the appropriate body to discuss this matter, because some have argued that it is not, given that this is essentially a matter that comes under the national sovereignty of Burma, while others have argued that there are broader concerns in terms of regional international security which make the Security Council an appropriate forum in which to discuss it. There has also been dispute and division within the Security Council on the applicability of the responsibility to protect. Notwithstanding that, given our position as current chair of the Security Council, we continue to engage actively with our partners on the Security Council and we seek to find consensus and a way forward. It is for the Opposition to explain the terms of their motion, but we are clear that, while we rule no option out, we will continue to pursue this matter within the Security Council and actively engage in discussions with our colleagues.

In addition to the political and diplomatic hurdles that I have described, it is also right to assess the effectiveness of any direct action in getting assistance to the people who need it. This morning, I met representatives of British NGOs working in the field, and received no request for immediate air drops. That reflects some of the sentiments in discussions that have taken place, and some of the difficulties in relation to air drops—which were, indeed, anticipated by those on the Opposition Front Bench. Air drops have proved successful in the past where it is possible to have an identified drop zone and aid workers are waiting to distribute the aid to the most vulnerable within the communities. If such aid workers are absent, not having been deployed to the drop zone, the aid can end up in the hands of the strongest rather than the weakest. Secondly, one would need to identify suitable drop zones in an area of the Irrawaddy delta that is now largely under water as a consequence of the cyclone, with large areas of standing water.

Therefore, as I have said, this is not an easy or straightforward option, and while we take no option off the table, it is interesting that the organisations that are currently making efforts to get aid to those who need it most are making no request to the British Government for such drops at present. Indeed, in recent days the World Food Programme has said that aid drops could be "dangerous and counter-productive" without the proper ground support available, and Jane Cocking, humanitarian director of Oxfam—with which I understand the Leader of the Opposition was in touch only yesterday—has said:

"The biggest risk is that aid air drops will be a distraction from what is really needed—a highly effective aid operation on the ground."

Let me be clear, however, that we will consider all options in getting aid to those affected, and continue to apply the highest diplomatic effort to ensure that international aid and aid experts are allowed to get to where they are most needed.

The UN Secretary-General has said that we are at a "critical point" in the response to this grave humanitarian crisis. It is, indeed, the case that the lives of many thousands depend now on the actions not only of the Burmese regime but of the international community. There is no difference in the world's willingness to help, compared with either the tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake. It is the military regime's chilling indifference to the plight of the Burmese people that has been laid bare. Yet we must balance our outrage at the Burmese junta's response so far with a clear-headed sense of what will actually make a difference on the ground. While we are not ruling out any action, we are working every available diplomatic channel to provide both unfettered access for international aid and aid workers, and an international community that speaks with one voice—and says that we must work together to avert any further human catastrophe following this natural disaster. I commend our amendment to the House.

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