Human Rights (Burma)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 15th June 2005.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 2:30 pm, 15th June 2005

The interesting point to emerge from my hon. Friend's intervention is that although I have not thought of ways to improve the position unilaterally, he has manifestly done so. It would be profitable for me to have further dialogue with him in the hope that we can launch a joint approach or two-handed initiative. The House ought to be aware that my hon. Friend and I, who have been friends for a long time, have always understood that we have only one brain and we have decided to share it between us. On this occasion, my hon. Friend has considered the issue carefully and contributed substantially to my thinking on this matter. I had not worked out precisely how we should proceed, but perhaps we can proceed within EU trade rules. If so, we should not wait for the collective response of the European Union—we might wait for that for a long time—but take unilateral action.

The UN has a role to play as well. It is a counsel of despair for the Government to argue, as the Minister did in a parliamentary written answer to me on 25 May this year, that there is no consensus on bringing the issue of Burma's human rights abuses to the UN Security Council, as if that were a justification for the Government's wilfully continuing to fail to do so. I say in all candour to the Minister that I recognise that it is difficult to make progress, but the logic used by the Foreign Office is a case of reductio ad absurdum. Its argument goes, "We do not think that we will get agreement in the Security Council. The French will probably complain and the Chinese will strongly object and veto any action. Therefore, it is not worth raising such matters." Miss Widdecombe, you know as well as I that if the Conservative Opposition in this House worked on the same principle, we would not have staged a single Opposition day debate since 1997. We would simply have said, "Oh well, it is all hopeless. We cannot possibly win. The Government won't take any notice and we won't win a single vote. We might as well pack up and go home." I am sure that that would be satisfactory for the Minister and Andrew Miller, to name but two hon. Members, but we have not taken such an approach. The Government should raise matters such as Burma's human rights abuses and put them on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. Let us name and shame those states that, because they lack any moral sense or they are consumed by the pursuit of filthy lucre—or both—object to, and use the veto against, any effective action that could help to bring the regime to heel.

In terms of sanctions, there is another stick that we can use against Burma. Everyone knows that Burma treasures the forthcoming chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations in 2006. In respect of international credibility, that post is important to Burma. We should say that that is unacceptable. Parliamentarians in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, to name but three ASEAN countries, have objected to the idea that Burma should have the chairmanship. Through its military expansionism, its involvement in the drugs trade, and its spawning of a humanitarian crisis as a result of the flow of refugees over the border, Burma now poses a serious threat to regional stability. Apart from its regional threat, it is also guilty of terrible human rights abuses. Unless and until Burma can comport itself in accordance with the standards of civilised behaviour, it should not be allowed to parley on equal terms with the world's democracies. We should say through the European Union, "Unless and until you clean up your act, you will not have the chairmanship of ASEAN." One thing that we can say is that we will have no part in meetings under Burma's chairmanship if it is allowed to go ahead.

The Prime Minister has often displayed a truly laudable determination to tackle rogue states and to spread democracy and human rights throughout the world. Sadly, to date, Burma has not formed part of the equation. I am not making a party political point: it is a great indictment of the House that, so far back as records can be traced, not one ministerial oral statement has been made in Parliament about the abuse of human rights in Burma. That situation should change. If we declared our intention as a Parliament to oppose the regime, we could make a difference in time. If we were to adopt, through the European Union and the United Nations, the sanctions that are needed in respect of the oil, gas, timber and gems sectors on the one hand and follow up with a comprehensive UN arms embargo on the other, what a difference that could make.

The Government of Burma have a responsibility to stop subjugating their citizens and to start liberating them. If they will not act voluntarily, they must be squeezed, squeezed and squeezed again. Like many other despotic regimes throughout the world, the Government of Burma are contemptuous of weakness. They respect only strength. They will respond only—if at all—to pressure, pressure and more pressure. If we take the approach that I recommend and if the Prime Minister is willing for his remaining period in office to put himself at the head of a movement to bring about change in Burma, that would be right in itself. It would also enable us to send the most delightful and welcome 60th birthday present to Aung San Suu Kyi.