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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:15 pm, 13th October 2008

The hon. Lady has made a good point, and I completely concur. Education—particularly the education of women and primary education—is an absolutely vital tool in a successful international development policy, including in those elements of the policy that focus on encouraging pluralism and respect for the civil rights of others.

Of course, we cannot simply reorder the world as we choose. We do not have the power to do so and, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind hinted earlier, soldiers can remove a tyrant but find it difficult to build a functioning democratic system to take over. If the events of recent years have taught us anything, it is surely that if democracy and human rights are to take root, they need to grow in a way that is sensitive to each nation's history, culture and tradition. If we think about the history of Europe since 1989, it is striking that democracy and civil rights have flourished most quickly and richly in countries whose political cultures already had elements of pluralism within them and in which some people at least had a memory of how a democratic system of government and democratic and pluralist institutions ought to function.

However, there are things that we can and should do. As the Minister discussed, one is to give practical support for building and sustaining democracy. I agreed with her point that membership of the European Union has helped to strengthen new and fragile democracies in Spain, Portugal, Greece and, more recently, in eastern and central Europe. I agree, too, with her tributes to the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

This country has a good track record of contributing what one might term "democratic know-how" to new democracies. I had better declare that I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy; I do so because I want to pay tribute to Hugh Bayley and his predecessors as chairmen of the WFD, which has contributed hugely, in a largely unsung and unglamorous way, to the strengthening of democratic institutions in eastern and central Europe and now also in other parts of the world.

Secondly, we can speak out; we have the freedom to speak without fear of retribution. It therefore becomes our duty to lend a voice to the millions of people who are denied that right. I want to touch on one or two countries for which that duty is pressing. I should like to consider the case of Burma first. At the beginning of this year, I thought that the record of the Burmese Government could have plunged no lower. However, even those of us who believed that we were inured to the horror that is government in Burma were shocked by the ruthless brutality of a military junta who were prepared to obstruct efforts to bring help to the dying and destitute in the wake of cyclone Nargis.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is due to visit Burma this December, and that is welcome. However, I hope that the Government agree that the time has come to bring to an end the apparently open-ended and inconclusive diplomatic exchanges with the regime. Do the Government agree that it is now time to set clear benchmarks for the Burmese junta and deadlines for meeting them? I hope that they will press for such an approach at the United Nations Security Council and in their bilateral exchanges with the Secretary-General. The very first step should be the release of political prisoners in Burma—something that was demanded by the Security Council a year ago and on which no action has yet been taken by those who rule Burma.

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