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Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

The human rights situation in Burma remains dire. Serious human rights abuses are being committed, particularly in areas of armed conflict. The Burmese people do not enjoy the most basic human rights—including the right of freedom of speech and association—democracy and good governance, and the rule of law.

The Burmese Government have recently orderedthe International Committee of the Red Cross to close its field offices. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development and I have issued strong statements condemning that action, which I have placed in the Library of the House.

I discussed the human rights situation in Burmawith UN Under-Secretary-General Gambari on15 November. I have also invited Juan Mendez, UN special adviser for the prevention of genocide, tobrief Members of both Houses of Parliament on14 December.

I thank the Minister for that full answer. It has been the policy of this country for many years to discourage UK companies from investing in and trading with Burma, but despite that the human rights situation in that country has worsened, as hehas just described. What consideration have the Government given to shifting from a policy of discouragement to one of prohibition? Does he accept that if we did that, we would have a great deal more moral authority when we were trying to discourage other countries in the region from trading with and investing in Burma?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the way he worded it. It reflects the common approach across the House and shows how effective that can be. There is a common European Union position on the matter, which includes an arms embargo, a ban on defence links, a ban on high level Government visits to Burma and a ban on the supply of equipment. As a result of our discouragement, British companies have been disinvesting in Burma to the point that there is little or no UK investment in Burma or its overseas territories. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the best chance we have of imposing embargos is through the EU. If we do so unilaterally, we will open the door to some countries in Europe which may not want to join in the strength of the common position. It is critical that the 25 countries maintain the same line and ensure that commitments given are carried through.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Chinese Government have extensive economic and political relations with Burma. What representations has he made to the Chinese authorities about these matters? Is he optimistic that China will eventually move into line with the body of international opinion?

I have not only raised the matter with my counterpart in China and with the ambassador on numerous occasions, but in recent days I have taken the opportunity to speak to my counterpart in India, and yesterday I met the representatives of countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations to talk through with them a more proactive approach by the ASEAN countries. Last evening I met the Foreign Minister of Brunei, who is chair of the ASEAN group, to discuss with him a more practical approach by ASEAN, along with India and China, to try and resolve the issues on behalf of the people of Burma.

Following the pretty bleak reply that the Minister gave on the Burmese regime, does he agree that it is one of the most evil regimes in the world in terms of its human rights record? Recent reports say that Burma has the highest recruitment of child soldiers, and routine rape and torture of women and young girls. That is unacceptable. What further action is the Minister taking within the European Union so that certain countries do not block a UN resolution? Does he agree that tougher action needs to be taken by China and Russia so that together the international community can bring forth a real and workable UN resolution to stop the regime committing such human rights abuses?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. First, I have spoken directly with the Burmese ambassador on numerous occasions, with a range of allegations backed up by firm evidence. To date the response has been negative. No responsibility is accepted, including for rape by army officers and army personnel. Secondly, I have had personal and detailed discussions with all the countries that the hon. Gentleman mentions, except Russia. As I said to Mr. Gambari when we met recently, our commitment is to support a UN resolution. All our efforts among our European colleagues and colleagues in the ASEAN group are important to get maximum support for any further Security Council resolution. That is why I have invited a UN representative to come here on 14 December and give a report to Members of both Houses. It is important that hon. Members of both Houses have the opportunity to meet a UN representative and to discuss with him in person the role of the UN working with us as a Government. Not everyone can fly to Geneva or New York, so we are bringing Geneva and New York here. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) are welcome to attend the meeting, which is a genuine effort by me to open up the dialogue and give others the chance to put the case for the Burmese people.