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Topical Questions

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2008

The whole House will be aware that as we debate here today people are dying by the score in Burma, and the Burmese regime are unconscionably holding up the supply of foreign aid. Hon. Members throughout the House will share my anger that any Government could show such a callous disregard for their responsibility towards their own citizens.

The Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that Britain would do everything possible to make a difference. We have pledged £5 million of assistance, a United Kingdom aid flight has left for Burma and more are planned for this week, and a team from the Department for International Development is on the ground there. We are examining all options for getting the aid through, and getting the message through to the Burmese regime that its obstructionism is completely intolerable. Over the past 12 days we have supported the use of any and all United Nations action that will help, and we will continue to do so. The only test is whether that action saves lives in Burma.

The Secretary of State will share the House’s deep sadness about the terrible consequences of the earthquake in China. As he knows, following earthquakes specific aid is required, and is required quickly. Can he assure us that the Foreign Office is offering aid and discussing what aid is necessary and relevant? Can he also assure us that the Foreign Office is participating in the co-ordination of aid so that it arrives quickly and relevantly?

I am happy to say that just before I came here today I had a long conversation with the Chinese Foreign Minister about, among other things, the Chinese response to the disaster, which in many ways has been exemplary. I obviously inquired about the position of British nationals, about which we are concerned, and about offers of assistance. I am pleased to say that the Chinese Ministry of Commerce has now made it clear that the country is open to cash donations and humanitarian help, and we shall ensure that that is given maximum publicity. At present, as I have said, the Chinese Government are handling the matter in an exemplary fashion, but I think that this is an opportunity for people to come together at a difficult time.

I support what the Foreign Secretary has said about the gravity of the situation in Burma and the extraordinary callousness of the Burmese regime. Will he take up the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, that the United Nations Secretary-General go to Rangoon on behalf of the whole international community to urge the regime to provide immediate, unfettered access for all international relief?

While aid can be delivered with great effectiveness only with the co-ordination of the Burmese Government, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the international community has a responsibility to consider any other options? He just mentioned that the Government were considering all options for delivering more help to people in such desperate circumstances. What assessment has he made of the viability of direct aid drops? What plans exist for such drops, and when would they be put into effect?

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the role of the United Nations Secretary-General. For some time we have discussed with him the proposition—originally advanced, I believe, by this country in New York—that he should go there himself. The statement that he issued yesterday was very helpful and positive, and suggested the degree of engagement that is necessary. We know from what happened in 2004 that the role of the UN Secretary-General in bringing people together can be very important.

I chose the phrase “any and all options” deliberately, to make it clear that we are supporting any and all action at the United Nations. As for aid drops, I think it best to quote what has been said by the World Food Programme. It does not rule out such action, and it would be quite wrong to do so, but it does say that

“it’s dangerous and potentially counter-productive if you carry out air drops of food or assistance without the proper set-up on the ground.”

Oxfam, which has a long history in this area, says:

“Food and mosquito nets cannot be targeted at the most vulnerable… clean water systems and safe sanitation cannot be dropped from the sky”.

It also says:

“The biggest risk is that… air-drops will be a distraction from what is really needed—a highly effective aid operation on the ground.”

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to want to be certain that all options are being considered, and I assure him that they are. However, the best option by a long way is for the Burmese Government to stand up to their responsibilities.

Let me raise another matter on which I am sure there is cross-party agreement. We have been emphasising the important role of the Association of South East Asian Nations. The neighbouring countries that will inevitably have to provide the basis for any sort of humanitarian or military help will play a critical part, which is why we have been talking directly to ASEAN countries on the telephone and in person through ambassadors in capitals. I am sure that that action is supported throughout the House.

May I emphatically support what the Foreign Secretary says about the ASEAN countries, and may I turn his mind to another tragic situation: Zimbabwe? Given the violence and intimidation, orchestrated by the Mugabe regime’s thugs, across Zimbabwe, will he join me in commending the bravery of the Opposition activists in their conduct since the elections, for which some have already paid with their lives, and their bravery in contesting a second round that may be overshadowed by violence and devoid of transparency? The regime has indicated that it will not accept international observers to oversee the poll. Can the Foreign Secretary hold out any prospect of southern African nations making a decisive effort to change that, so that the efforts of Mugabe to rig and intimidate in this way can at least partly be constrained?

Yes, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. The bravery is exemplary, and support from the international community is much needed. It is true that the Opposition have not yet won the presidential election, but Mugabe has not been able to claim victory, and that is very significant in itself. I agree that monitors are essential. I was very pleased to hear from the Ghanaian Foreign Minister in person yesterday, and by e-gram from the Tanzanian Foreign Minister, of Southern African Development Community countries taking their responsibilities seriously. I also believe there is a role for Caribbean countries in supplementing the observer mission from the SADC countries, so that there are a greater number of observers on the ground to ensure that, in dreadful circumstances, some sort of freedom is available for people to cast their votes.

T2. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of Kosovo’s independence, and what is the UK doing to support Kosovo? (204787)

Forty-one countries have so far recognised the independence of Kosovo, including all the G7 nations and 20 countries of the European Union. The United Kingdom is, of course, among that number, supporting Kosovo’s independence based on the Ahtisaari plan. That is about ensuring that there is no break-up of Kosovo and maintaining territorial integrity, and it is also about ensuring that the forthcoming international donors conference is a success, so that the new Government in Kosovo can kick-start the economy effectively.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken eloquently against the malign neglect of the Burmese Government in respect of foreign aid. I recognise that Ministers have been working hard on this issue, but how does he explain the delays in getting British Government aid into Burma, when aid from the American, French, Indian, Swedish, Spanish, Greek, Chinese and Russian Governments has arrived, not to mention aid from the World Food Programme and non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross and Save the Children? If other countries and organisations have managed to get aid in despite the problems with the Burmese junta, why did the first British Government aid plane arrive only today?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words, and the answer lies at the door of the Burmese Government, who have placed so many obstacles in the way of foreign aid, and of foreign aid workers, who are essential to ensure that the aid is delivered to the people who need it, not to support the regime.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has today spoken to the Foreign Minister of Serbia, Mr. Jeremic, to congratulate him and his party, For a European Serbia, which is now the largest party after the elections in Serbia. It is clear that Serbia now has a European future. The 27 countries of the European Union have said that very clearly, and have signed up to a new agreement with Serbia. With that, of course, comes responsibility for Serbia, in particular adherence to its responsibility to bring to justice in The Hague those alleged war criminals, Mladic and Karadzic, and we will continue to press the Serbian authorities on that matter.

T4. Obviously, the world’s attention has moved on from Kenya, despite the fact that last week the new Kenyan Government, with 40 new members from both the Opposition side and the previous Government, were formed. What is the Government’s assessment of the viability of that Cabinet, and what assistance is being given to ensure that the democratic process wins in this process, despite all the problems Kenya has had over the past few weeks? (204789)

My hon. Friend is right: that has slipped from the front pages. However, he is also right to say that a grand Government coalition has now been formed and that common sense has prevailed. Clearly, the imperative is for Kenya’s leaders to implement the power-sharing agreement. In terms of our support, the Secretary of State for International Development will reinforce our message about the UK’s commitment to this process when he visits Kenya next week.

The Foreign Office was rightly congratulated on its support following the tsunami; it provided consular support on the scene and at home. Today, I received a message from a constituent whose parents from Hereford are missing in China. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that consular support will be available not only in China, but at the Foreign Office in London to ensure that families are kept abreast of the situations of missing British nationals?

Yes, I can. Our ambassador is on his way to the main scene of the earthquake disaster, we have a consular team in place and we have investigations going on into all those whom we know are missing. I am happy to have a word with the hon. Gentleman straight after this, and we will get the details of his constituent. I am pleased to tell him that the Chinese Foreign Minister, to whom I spoke just before questions, wanted to talk to me about what his Government were determined to do to maximise the openness with which the Chinese authorities investigated any and all suggestions of missing people. I hope that that will bring some relief to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who are doubtless very worried about the situation.

T6. In the context of the welcome co-operation between the United Kingdom and China, will my right hon. Friend impress on the Chinese the fact that our humanitarian efforts would be properly amplified if China were to bring considerable pressure on Burma to ensure that the Burmese opened up facilities to humanitarian agencies there? (204792)

Yes, I shall. The regional powers, notably China, have an immensely important role to play not only in facilitating practical support on the ground but in applying political pressure on a Burmese regime who have so far been closed to reason. It is obviously essential that we continue the links with the Chinese Government to ensure that they understand the strength of feeling across British political parties and across Britain about the need to respond to what is becoming a man-made catastrophe.

May I invite the Foreign Secretary to give his latest assessment of the situation in the Lebanon? May I also ask him to reassure us that military preparations are being made to evacuate 5,000 British citizens and their dependants, if necessary, and that a decision on that will be made early enough, before the situation deteriorates and an armed force is required to land in the Lebanon to effect such an evacuation?

The attempt to disrupt and disable the Government of the Lebanon—the full frontal challenge to that Government from Hezbollah—is, or should be, completely unacceptable to the whole international community. Last night’s Friends of Lebanon discussion, which was convened by Saudi Arabia and the United States and which included the United Kingdom, brought a strong statement of condemnation of the activities of Hezbollah and its supporters from a wide range of viewpoints. I am happy to associate myself with that. Practical support must be not only military, but economic and political support for the existing Government of Fouad Siniora. I shall continue to offer that political support, as I did to him personally on Friday.

T7. The most worrying aspect of last weekend’s Justice for Equality Movement-inspired attacks on Omdurman in the Sudan was that they appeared very much to be tit-for-tat attacks mounted in response to the attempt to remove President Deby from Chad. What assurances can my colleagues give that they will talk to the Governments in Khartoum and in Chad to ensure that there is no conflict between Sudan and Chad? (204793)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are in regular contact with Governments on those issues. As I have said, the important point is that all sides need to stop the conflict, because until it stops and the talks are in place, we cannot hope for the much-needed peace in Darfur and in Sudan.

T5. The recent rise in global food prices has led to food riots in a number of developing countries, one of which is Cameroon. As it is the only Commonwealth country to have an English-speaking minority with a justified sense of grievance, will the Minister speak to her counterpart in Cameroon to ensure that the riots over food prices are not used as a pretext for a further crackdown on that English-speaking minority? (204791)

We obviously share the concern that all Cameroonians should enjoy equal rights, free from disadvantage, in respect of their regional or linguistic reasons. We have not raised this issue previously, but I am happy to pass this on to my noble Friend and to take up this issue of discrimination.