I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Evans on securing this important and timely debate, and thank him for doing so. He is a staunch defender of human rights and a true friend of the peoples of Burma, and I am please to have the opportunity to speak for a few minutes in this debate.
I will start by thanking the Burma Campaign, an organisation that operates with few resources, yet that punches far above its weight in ensuring that the issue does not move far from our agenda in this place. It does a sterling job in briefing MPs, peers and Ministers and ensuring that we return to the issue time and again, because it is too important to lose sight of. I also pay tribute to the work of people such as Ben Rogers at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which my hon. Friend has already mentioned, and Baroness Cox at the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust. Together, those individuals and their organisations have been doing some extremely important work on Burma, specifically in relation to some of the ethnic groups, such as the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan people of eastern Burma and the Chin people of western Burma, on the border with India, who are currently suffering in appalling conditions. I also pay tribute to the Minister and the Government for their work and the steps they have taken in recent years to respond to the growing crisis in Burma. The Minister and I have shared platforms on the issue before, so I know from talking with him that he has a personal commitment to this, and I look forward to his remarks.
I make no apologies if I repeat some of the points and evidence that my hon. Friend gave in his contribution. It is absolutely right and vital that we keep coming back to the issue, both for the people of Burma, who are currently suffering in appalling conditions, and because it is a test for us and for the international community on how well we deal with the worst of the worst. The situation in Burma is a litmus test to show how serious the international community is in giving real meaning to the terms of the universal declaration of human rights, the anniversary of which we will celebrate tomorrow on international human rights day. Are we serious about seeing basic civil freedoms upheld for all peoples everywhere throughout the world, or do we just pay lip service to those things?
Let us be clear: with the military junta in Burma, as my hon. Friend said, we are dealing with the worst of the worst gangster regimes to be found anywhere in the world. The regime continues to have one of the worst records for imprisoning political opponents and for forcibly recruiting child soldiers. In fact, it has the largest number of child soldiers of any army in the world. It is waging a brutal war on its ethnic minorities. It is a regime that turned the humanitarian crisis that followed Cyclone Nargis into a near-genocidal catastrophe. It is a regime that has, time and again, laughed in the face of the international community and run rings around the whole succession of toothless UN envoys and special representatives.
I will provide more detail by discussing the proposed UN commission of inquiry on the crimes of the Burmese regime. Following the failure to secure a UN Security Council resolution two years ago, it is vital that that issue is a top priority for the UN. I look forward to what the Minister has to say on the proposal for a commission of inquiry, which is being pushed for in this country by the Burma Campaign and across the world by the worldwide Burma democracy movement.
In October, in a statement to the 64th session of the UN General Assembly Third Committee, the UN special rapporteur on Burma described the human rights situation in that country as "alarming". He noted that
"there is a pattern of widespread and systematic violations" and that
"the prevailing impunity allows for the continuation of these violations."
Would the Minister give a view on how best the proposal for a commission of inquiry could be taken forward and, indeed, whether he supports such a proposal? If he does not support such a commission, what alternative course of action are the Government pursuing at the UN to bring pressure to bear on the generals over their appalling record of human rights abuses?
Supporters of democracy are also pushing for a universal arms embargo on Burma, and stressing the need to build a global consensus to ensure that a true, universal arms embargo is imposed, which is now more necessary than ever. On
"the events of the past two years in Burma have shocked the world...The deterioration in the political and humanitarian situation calls for a clear response by the international community...There can be no justification for selling arms to a regime which...uses those arms simply to suppress its own people".
A large number of countries have already signed up and support a global arms embargo, including the UK and many European countries. As far as I can see-the Minister can correct me if I am wrong-the British Government and the EU have stated that they support a global arms embargo but have taken few practical steps to secure it. Perhaps the Minister can set me straight on that.
I will move on to the detail of the recent reports by Baroness Cox, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred. Baroness Cox has just returned from a visit to Chin state and earlier this year visited eastern Burma and produced two excellent reports, which I strongly encourage the Minister and his colleagues at the Department for International Development to read in detail. Chin state is experiencing a deteriorating humanitarian situation and a famine caused by the flowering of bamboo and an infestation of rats, which has lead to serious food shortages and increased rates of morbidity and mortality. Children are not going to school, because they need to search for food or are too weak, and reports are coming through of entirely deserted villages and large migration flows of people into India, Malaysia, China and Thailand. At the same time, severe and grave human rights abuses continue to be perpetrated by Burmese military troops, who are dispersed across Chin state. There are reports of forced labour, torture, rape and the systematic refusal by the regime to provide anything like adequate health care. The result is widespread suffering in Chin state.
In 2008, DFID committed initial funding of £600,000, specifically to address the food crisis in Chin state. That sum was increased to £800,000 in March 2009, which we welcome. However, there is concern that in some areas, international funds for emergency food relief channelled through the UN Development Programme allegedly are being provided not as aid, but as loans that are repayable at rates of up to 200 per cent. If the Minister does not have the information to hand to respond to that point, would he write to me after the debate to assure me that more assistance will be provided to Chin state, and will he investigate the claims that in some areas, the UNDP is providing money in the form of loans charged at 200 per cent?
In eastern Burma, the absurdly named State Peace and Development Council-they are brutal military thugs-continues to inflict gross human rights abuses on the Karen, the Karenni and the Shan peoples. In the so-called brown territories, human mine sweepers and forced labour are used. In many parts of the black areas, where there is a sustained military offensive by the Burmese regime, there is a shoot-to-kill policy and widespread reports of the torture and rape of civilians. There has been a large increase this year in the number of internally displaced people as a result of the military conflict. I understand that there are approximately 30,000 IDPs among the Karen people alone, hiding in the jungle in appalling conditions. Would the Minister update us on what steps he and his colleagues are taking to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches those oppressed ethnic groups?
Is the Minister aware of the very difficult debates among the ethnic groups of Burma on how to respond to the forthcoming national elections? Should they participate or boycott them? They are loth to confer legitimacy on those elections by participating, but they are worried that by not voting they might lose the opportunity to provide evidence of vote rigging in future and that doing so will deny them any sliver of representation, however minimal, once those elections have taken place. Does the Minister agree that whatever decision those ethnic groups reach on whether to participate in the elections, the international community must not endorse the regime's sham elections and must lend no credibility whatever to the process? To do otherwise would be a huge disservice to the democracy movement in Burma and a massive setback for its ethnic peoples.