Burma: Operations of UK Companies

– in the House of Lords at 2:47 pm on 15th May 2000.

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Photo of Lord Blaker Lord Blaker Conservative 2:47 pm, 15th May 2000

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why, and under what authority, they have pressed Premier Oil and other United Kingdom companies to give up their operations in Burma.

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My Lords, the presence of reputable companies in Burma is not helping the democratic cause there. We therefore told Premier Oil, the largest UK investor, that we would welcome their moving out of Burma. We have no legal powers to force them to do so, nor do we seek any. We also tell British companies inquiring about Burma that we do not encourage trade with nor investment there.

Photo of Lord Blaker Lord Blaker Conservative

My Lords, while we all deplore the human rights situation in Burma, how is it that the Government are pursuing this policy of economic sanctions against that country, when they encouraged Jiang Zemin of China, a country not well known for its observance of human rights, to visit this country and be received at Buckingham Palace? Why did the Government fail to support a resolution of the United Nations proposed by the United States criticising China's human rights record? What is the difference? Could it be that Burma is a small country and cannot hurt us very much, whereas China is a big country and could hurt us a lot? Is that an ethical foreign policy?

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My Lords, we have said on a number of occasions, but let me repeat, that the difference between the two is clear. We are currently engaging in a critical dialogue with China. There is therefore a way forward so that we can hopefully improve the human rights situation in China, improve our relationship with the Chinese, and include China more in the international community. Burma turned her back on any such critical engagement. She refuses to engage with the international community. She refuses to recognise that there is any problem at all when it comes to human rights and will not bend her knee in any way to the lures that we put out for reasonableness. There is a clear difference between the two and therefore we have to maintain a difference in the way in which we approach the two nations.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her forthright answer. We on these Benches wholly agree with her. Will she confirm that the government of Burma are a military government that overthrew a clearly democratically-elected regime and to this day keep its leader under effective house arrest? Does she agree that, in pursuing an ethical foreign policy, it is necessary to try to win the support of major corporations in the private sector? Will she confirm that, as in the case of De Beers in Angola and Shell in Nigeria and Indonesia, it has often been the case that the help and assistance of large multi-national and other corporations has been sought on behalf of the British Government?

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My Lords, I am pleased to confirm that. It is important for large, multi-national companies of this nature to assist us in this regard. The discussion with them is important and we welcome every occasion when they help us.

Photo of Lord Jenkins of Putney Lord Jenkins of Putney Labour

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is widely known throughout the country that Burma is in a special position and that the Government's action in this matter is widely supported, generally understood and I hope will be persisted in until such time as Burma acquires, in the course of time (as one hopes it must) a government that are prepared to act as part of the international community? While it insists on putting itself outside the national community, one cannot expect, nor wish the Government to treat it as though it were the same as any other country.

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's support. We have received support from all sides in this endeavour and welcome that support. It is a joint endeavour. We are working together with many partners and need everybody in every sphere to join with us.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, is the government of the Sudan engaging in a critical dialogue with Her Majesty's Government on human rights matters? If not, why is it correct to seek to restrain human rights abuses in Burma by impeding the exploitation of oil in that country? Would it not be correct to do the same thing in the Sudan, to which we continue to send machinery for that purpose?

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My Lords, as I said earlier, we are engaging with all those who will engage with us. The noble Lord knows well that we have to look at each country and decide which sanctions or movements will most effectively deliver a better quality of human rights. It is quite wrong for us to have a "one-size-fits-all" policy; regrettably, it does not. We must fashion the sanctions that we impose to the situation that pertains in each individual country.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Labour

My Lords, is not the answer to the noble Lords, Lord Elton and Lord Blaker, that if you wait for a perfect world you will wait for ever? In the case of Burma, there is no doubt that the action against oil companies could make a difference, bearing in mind that the construction of oil pipelines requires the removal of villages and a programme of forced labour? Indeed, this has resulted in the deaths of many local people at the hands of the SLORC troops. Is my noble friend aware that the firm stand she takes certainly has strong support on this side of the House?

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My Lords, I am happy to hear that echo of support from my noble friend who sits behind me. Indeed, I hope that that echo will be found in front of me, notwithstanding the comments that have been made by some noble Lords opposite.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

My Lords, we can all agree that Myanmar has a brutal and undemocratic regime. It is quite understandable that HMG should want to be as distant as possible from it. However, I am advised that other countries, which take the same broad view about this repulsive team, still retain informal links with Myanmar. For example, the United States has welfare programmes in the country and, of course, Japan took part in the ASEAN meeting that was held in Myanmar. Indeed, other neighbouring countries of ours retain links with the country through private enterprise. Can the Minister say why we are different in that respect? Are we sure that we have got the balance right between isolation, which is understandable, and constructive engagement, which is our policy in other areas?

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My Lords, I hope that the House will allow me the privilege of welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Howell, to the Dispatch Box. We know that he will cover his duty with great honour and expedition.

As I have already said, the difference in the situation with Burma is that the Burmese have withdrawn. If constructive engagement were possible with Burma, this would be pursued. Regrettably it has not been. That is a matter of great sadness to us all, because in other areas where we have been able to communicate that approach has yielded real benefit. Unfortunately, Burma is an exception; there are exceptions to every rule.