I must advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House is gravely concerned by the immense suffering and damage caused in Burma by Cyclone Nargis; notes that 200,000 people may have died and that two million people lack access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation, food and shelter; salutes the work of the Department for International Development’s staff and British NGOs, including Save the Children and Merlin, in responding to the disaster; is further deeply concerned by the restrictions placed on the international humanitarian relief effort by the government of Burma; asserts that the international relief effort is motivated solely by humanitarian concerns; calls on the government of Burma immediately to grant unrestricted access for the international humanitarian effort, including the delivery of aid supplies, and the admittance and free movement of aid workers; further calls on the UN Secretary General to visit Burma immediately to make clear the united desire of the international community to secure access for the international relief effort; further calls on China, India, Thailand and other countries with influence over the Burmese regime to make every possible effort to persuade the Burmese government to allow the international relief effort full access; prefers that humanitarian action should be supported by the government of Burma and believes that this approach is more likely to be successful but concludes that the international community has a responsibility to protect the Burmese people and should consider all options for getting help to those who need it, including using direct aid drops.
As the House debates the situation in Burma today, we are equally aware of the terrible earthquake and awful loss of life in China, particularly among children. However, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the responses of the Governments of China and Burma to the terrible disasters that have hit their countries. The Chinese Prime Minister led the humanitarian relief effort to the earthquake in his country. The full power of the state has been used to rescue and protect the citizens of China, but the position in Burma could not be more different. The regime has not only proved unable to handle the challenges it faces, but actively turned its back on helping its own citizens. Indeed, it has willingly and systematically blocked an unprecedented global humanitarian coalition—a coalition motivated not by politics, but by a desire to help those who are suffering.
Britain’s citizens, through the Disasters Emergency Committee, have raised some £6 million to help save lives. I welcome the funds released in the name of the British people by the Department for International Development. I hope that the Secretary of State will update the House on how much of the £5 million he pledged last week has been released to organisations on the ground and on how it is being spent.
Members of the Burmese diaspora throughout the world are responding by sending money to members of their extended families in Burma. Earlier this week, the American Department of Treasury eased financial sanctions against Burma to let individuals send money to friends and family there. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that everything possible is being done to assist members of the Burmese community in Europe who want to send money home? Could the European Union do more on that? Will he update the House on the aims of the forthcoming visit of the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel, who is due in Burma for talks tomorrow?
Night is now falling in Burma. The situation in the Irrawaddy delta is almost unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands of people will spend another night without shelter. We hear reports of massive makeshift camps for survivors, where tens of thousands of people gather on high ground, waiting in the hope of assistance. Today, 11 days after Cyclone Nargis hit, hundreds of thousands of people lack the basic necessities for human survival—food, clean drinking water, shelter and any form of basic medicine—and another cyclone is feared in the area.
What we are seeing in Burma is a double tragedy. The cyclone was obviously a natural disaster for which no one can be held responsible. However, we are now seeing a second tragedy unfold, as relief is barely trickling through to those who desperately need it. I know that the skilled staff of the Department for International Development are doing all that they can. Their disaster assessment team arrived in Rangoon earlier this week. We look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State on what it found. The team is led by Rurik Marsden, the head of DFID in Burma, and Britain’s outstanding and experienced ambassador, Mark Canning.
British NGOs and their local partners are doing extraordinary work. Save the Children, whose efforts I saw for myself during my visit to Burma last year, has some 500 staff and 35 offices throughout the country. It is led by Andrew Kirkwood and has managed to reach 100,000 people. The British charity Merlin and others are doing all that they can.
There has been some late, limited improvement in access to aid. An American plane was given permission to land earlier this week and two United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees truck convoys have managed to cross the border from Thailand. I am advised that by 11 o’clock today seven or eight planes carrying aid had landed in Rangoon, among which I understand is one British plane. The World Food Programme reported some easing of access to incoming supplies. I am informed that there has been some progress with the granting of visas. However, that limited progress is nowhere near enough. The Burmese Government continue to cut their people off from the lifelines being offered them. The World Food Programme estimates that it has been able to set up only 10 per cent. of the logistics required for the response and has provided only 20 per cent. of the required food. There is no expectation of a visa waiver.
Although this was not made entirely clear when the subject came up at Prime Minister’s Question Time, my understanding is that before the tragedy in China, China and Russia were the two countries at the United Nations standing in the way of UN action to force the Burmese Government to give better access. In the light of the second tragedy—the one that has hit China—is there any prospect of a renewed effort to mobilise the United Nations being more successful?
The hon. Gentleman did not extend or develop his point about the parallels between the tragedy in China and the one in Burma. The Chinese have demonstrated that they understand the need for experts in humanitarian aid to be on the ground immediately, in the place where they are needed. The key issue is not aid, but aid plus people. In the light of their experience, perhaps the Chinese could be encouraged to tell the Burmese to allow the experts in.
The hon. Gentleman, who knows what he is talking about in this matter, makes an extremely good point. I hope that it will be heard clearly by those making Britain’s contribution to the discussions in New York.
I was talking about the situation on the ground, and my understanding is that the authorities still insist that NGO workers should not operate outside Rangoon. Indeed, we have heard today that those restrictions are reported to have been tightened, and foreign NGO workers in the delta will now be required to remove themselves within 48 hours. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to comment on that. If he, understandably, does not have full details of the issue, I hope that he will urgently seek to find out what is happening.
Over the past year, the Burmese Government have sought further to weaken and downgrade United Nations structures in Burma, not least by kicking out Charles Petrie, the able UN head in the country, and by denying visas to key UN personnel. Meanwhile, the price of rice, which was already high due to world conditions, has rocketed, and the price of fuel has increased by 500 per cent., further hindering the relief effort.
The view of the House on the nature of the Burmese Government is well known, but that is unquestionably a matter for another day. Now is not the time to pursue that point. Our position bears repeating. Our motives for wanting to get aid through to those who most need it are not political. The sole aim of the international humanitarian workers on the ground is to save lives. The international relief effort is motivated by simple, common humanity. Our clear preference is for aid to be delivered with the co-operation and active support—or at least the passive acquiescence—of the Burmese Government. It is right that, to date, most of the world’s efforts have been focused on securing that outcome.
The international community has learned from bitter experience what has to be done in these circumstances. The UN has conducted a comprehensive needs assessment to identify what materials and skills are most needed, and the world is responding generously. On this point, the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), should be given credit for instigating the central emergency response fund at the UN. The British taxpayer should also be credited for being the largest contributor to it. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much money has been drawn down from it so far to assist in this emergency?
Unfettered access to the people who need help is now required. The UN Secretary-General has expressed his frustration at the slow pace of the aid effort. As we made clear last week in the statement to the House, we believe that the Secretary-General should travel to Rangoon today to see the situation for himself and to remonstrate with the military junta and demand action on behalf of the international community. I was pleased to hear, during Prime Minister’s questions today, that the Government have adopted that idea.
Everyone knows that time is running out for the Burmese people, so we now need to consider every available option to get help to those who most need it. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said earlier this week that only a defined and limited amount of time should be allowed to pass before the international community takes direct action to reach the people whom humanity demands we assist. If it becomes clear that the Burmese Government remain unco-operative despite continued, concerted pressure from the international community, while people are dying from disease and exposure, the moral imperative to save lives will be overwhelming. The test of our policy must simply be: what will help the people of Burma the most?
The Conservatives are well aware of the complexities and difficulties inherent in attempts to provide aid from the air. Reaching the most vulnerable, ensuring that the aid gets to the people who need it the most and is not seized by the strongest or by the military, and simply finding a suitable place to drop the aid are all very real challenges. However, if we face a choice between getting aid through, even in this imperfect way, and aid not getting through at all to the people who desperately need it and who will die without it, we will have a clear moral imperative to act.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that he is making a very serious point. I have not met any representative of an NGO who takes the view that he is expressing. The NGOs realise that the best way to deliver humanitarian aid is by land and by water. Has he really thought through the implications for the personnel who would be expected to deliver the aid if, at this comparatively early stage—despite the seriousness of the problem—we were to involve ourselves in air drops?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the difficulties that would accompany such action, but he must bear it in mind that we are not at an early stage. Without any aid or support at all, hundreds of thousands of people in Burma could die. Although the aid agencies and NGOs are sceptical about the case that I am putting, it must nevertheless be considered. If we cannot get aid through by any other means, we should get it through directly.
Following on from the previous intervention, will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that certain things cannot be dropped from the air? Safe water systems and other equipment would be badly damaged if they were dropped in on a pallet. The real solution would still require people on the ground who were able to get the resources in by other means.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, to some extent. We are not suggesting dropping water from the air; no one has suggested that. Water purification tablets and equipment could be dropped in that way, however. There are many people stranded on the ground who are starving and who are going to die, and we need to reach them. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) referred to access by sea, and we should also consider that method. The UN has called for a sea corridor to be established to assist the aid effort. Will the Secretary of State update us on what progress has been made in that regard?
Are we not in danger of getting into a false argument on this matter? I was in Ethiopia during the famine in 1985. Because of the desperate situation, it was necessary to deliver a lot of the aid by air. RAF Hercules planes, working with Russian cargo freighters, did fantastic work getting food and other supplies into difficult parts of Ethiopia. That was an example of an airlift being used to the best advantage. This is not a false dichotomy. Given the scale of the disaster in Burma, we are almost certainly going to need air support at some stage. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that there comes a time at which the international community has to say, “We have a responsibility to intervene if the Burmese Government are not willing to look after their own people.”
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I seek to carry the House with me when I say that no one believes that delivering aid directly, whether by sea or by air, is easy. However, the House must consider what we should do if we cannot get aid through in any other way.
I am keen for the hon. Gentleman to clarify the position of his Front Bench on this issue. My understanding is that the Leader of the Opposition set yesterday as the deadline when contemplating air drops during an interview on “The World at One”, but that position now seems to be shifting, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that they should be contemplated for the future. Who is correct: the Front-Bench spokesman or the leader of his party?
I strongly urge the right hon. Gentleman not to abuse his position by trying to make party political points on this matter. I heard the interview that my right hon. Friend gave yesterday, and the point that he made is precisely the point that I am making. If, after a period of time—which my right hon. Friend rightly argued should be defined—the aid is still not getting through, the international community must address the issue of getting it through directly.
Does it not illustrate just how callous the Burmese regime are when the small trickle of aid that has finally got through is halted by the Burmese junta and repackaged to make it look as though it has come from the junta itself? Surely the important thing is that we get the food and aid through to the people who need it most as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend is entirely right.
I was referring to the issue of access by sea and to the UN sea corridor, which has been called for to assist the aid effort. I invited the Secretary of State to update us on any progress that has been made in that regard. The House would also like to hear what steps are being taken in consultation with Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, for Britain to join up with the French vessels that are currently approaching Burma. What plans do the Government have to use HMS Westminster in the relief effort? Will the Secretary of State set out exactly what supplies the ship is carrying and what plans have been made to use them?
In 2006, amidst much self-congratulation, the leaders of the international community in New York embraced a responsibility to protect people whose Governments failed to do so. The UN Security Council referred to the “intentional denial” of humanitarian assistance. The responsibility to protect focuses on genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Lawyers might say that the situation in Burma does not currently fit the technical definition that triggers the responsibility to protect. Conservative Members say that it should and we say further that the international community, through the UN, must revisit this failure to protect as part of the reform of the international architecture so that regimes cannot obstruct and frustrate with impunity the common humanitarian responsibility of the international community. For now, there is one thing and only one thing that matters—the saving of lives, which will surely be lost in their thousands unless international aid reaches those in such peril in Burma tonight.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“notes with horror the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis upon the people of Burma; recognises the vast scale of humanitarian assistance needed urgently to prevent further loss of life; is appalled at the unacceptably slow pace at which the Burmese authorities have so far allowed in international expertise for the relief effort, and at their lack of capacity to distribute aid to the affected areas; calls upon the Burmese authorities to allow immediate and unfettered access for both the delivery of aid and for its distribution inside Burma; strongly welcomes the UK Government’s initial £5 million pledge to the relief effort for emergency items; strongly supports the UK Government’s exchanges with key international partners in order to bring about a concerted international effort for access for humanitarian assistance; in this regard, welcomes the visit to countries in the region by Ministers from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; urges countries in the region to increase their efforts to persuade the Burmese authorities to allow in unfettered international assistance and to ramp up the delivery of aid; and strongly supports continued efforts of the United Nations to secure access and ensure aid is delivered to those in need.”
Let me begin by associating myself with the statement of sympathy offered by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) to the people of China in light of the terrible earthquake that has afflicted the country. I will address the hon. Gentleman’s points in the course of my remarks, but let me start by updating the House on the latest assessment of the situation in the affected areas of Burma. Then I will share with the House the efforts we are making to provide humanitarian relief, before detailing our political and diplomatic efforts to secure further access for aid and, indeed, for humanitarian workers.
As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield described, the situation in the disaster zone of the Irrawaddy delta is rapidly deteriorating—largely, and tragically, because of the inadequacy of the Burmese regime’s response. People are dying now not because of a natural disaster, but because a disaster has been turned into a man-made catastrophe. The state media in Burma are reporting that some 28,500 people have died, 1,400 are injured and more than 33,000 are missing. However, we believe the true figures to be far greater.
I spoke only this morning to Rurik Marsden, the head of the Rangoon office of the Department for International Development, and some agencies in the field are now estimating that the number of dead and missing is rising to more than 200,000 people. At least 1.5 million people are in need of assistance, and for 300,000 of those the need is desperately urgent.
The likelihood of widespread infectious disease as a consequence is increasing fast. The initial risks are diarrhoea and water-borne disease. One aid agency to which we have spoken reports that one fifth of the children it has reached already have diarrhoea. In time, there will be an increased risk of the spread of malaria due to the large amounts of standing water following the cyclone.
There have been some signs in recent days that the amount of aid reaching Burma is increasing. As of Monday, just 35 flights had arrived in the course of the preceding week. In contrast, two US military flights arrived in Rangoon this morning, along with eight aid flights, and we expect a total of 23 flights to arrive in the course of today. One of the eight aid flights to arrive this morning was carrying UK assistance—36 tonnes of plastic sheeting, which is enough to provide shelter for many thousands of people. That shipment was consigned directly to the UN World Food Programme—not, of course, to the Government of Burma—and distribution within Burma will now be taken forward.
Four further UK aid flights are expected to fly out this week, with shelter and blankets as well as flat-bottomed boats to help those most in need. We will also supply experts, both in Bangkok and in Rangoon, to ensure the smooth running of relief flights into Rangoon, and I have also requested the Ministry of Defence to direct HMS Westminster to the region to assist in any appropriate humanitarian response. That request has been approved, and HMS Westminster is now on its way to international waters off the coast of Burma.
The Secretary of State will recognise that much of what he is describing is precisely reflected in the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). Given that the right hon. Gentleman has moved an amendment to the motion, from which we can take it that the Government will be voting against the Opposition motion, will he explain in the course of his remarks precisely what it is in our motion that he disagrees with?
As I made clear earlier before I embarked on my substantive speech, there is some confusion about the Conservative position. The Conservative party leader declared that there was a deadline at the close of play yesterday, whereas that deadline is not set out in the Conservative motion; indeed, its existence appears to have been contradicted by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. In such circumstances, I do not think it unreasonable for the Government to table an amendment, which I hope will secure the support of all hon. Members.
I too am a little confused about what it is in the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and supported by Conservative Members that the Government disagree with—other than the fact that our motion
“salutes the work of the Department for International Development’s staff and British NGOs”,
whereas the Government’s amendment replaces that with praise for
“Ministers from the Department for International Development”.
The confusion is among Front-Bench Conservative Members. Only this afternoon, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield singularly failed to back his own leader’s call for setting a deadline, ending yesterday, for the Burmese regime. Perhaps Conservative Front Benchers will clarify that in the concluding speeches. The responsibility for the confusion rests entirely with them.
The Secretary of State offers the House a most unusual—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) says, the right hon. Gentleman’s explanation is pathetic. What the motion says is very clear. It does not deal with the issues that the Secretary of State has raised. As my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) both made clear from the Back Benches, the motion we tabled is perfectly reasonable, so will the Secretary of State identify which aspects of its wording he disagrees with in order to explain why he is whipping his party to vote against it this afternoon?
I have been clear that the confusion rests with Conservative Members; they failed to back up their own leader who in the course of an interview yesterday—as confirmed by the Conservative Front Benchers—talked about yesterday as a deadline. That position appears to have been resiled from by Conservative Front-Bench Members today. If that is a matter of dispute within their ranks, it is for them to defend and explain it.
I have been generous in giving way and I am keen to make a little progress—[Interruption.] Before abuse is hurled across the House, it may be appropriate for the Conservatives to deal with the confusion—[Interruption.] With the greatest respect—[Interruption.]
Order. There are too many sedentary interruptions. This is an extremely important matter and many people will be watching the House today, so we really should address the central issue before us.
I am keen to make a little progress, but I will be happy to give way again in due course.
A complex picture is emerging in relation to access for international agencies. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked about reports emerging today of further constraints on access for international NGO workers within the delta region. I can confirm that we have received indications that that direction has been offered within Burma by the Burmese regime. Similar directions offered have been circumvented on the ground in recent days, but only time will tell whether this will result in the removal of international aid workers. I sincerely hope not.
From my discussions with British NGOs working on the ground, it is clear that a number of them have been able to secure access to the affected areas recently, and I hope that that will continue. This is obviously a worrying development and we will monitor it closely. In the course of the morning, I met British NGOs working on the ground and they offered different accounts of the level of access that they were able to secure to affected areas.
I am sure that there is consensus among Members across the House in commending the considerable efforts of UN agencies, international NGOs and British agencies to deliver aid to those in need, often in extremely difficult circumstances. The World Food Programme reports that it has dispatched 426 tonnes of food to affected areas and distributed enough food to reach nearly 74,000 people. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies now has two water purification units in Rangoon and expects two more by the end of the week. When all four are operating at full capacity, they will provide minimum daily water rations for up to 200,000 people.
I am still looking at the motion and the amendment. In view of the wording, can the Secretary of State offer any reasons why my hon. Friends and I should support the Government’s amendment, as opposed to the Conservative motion? I cannot see any difference.
At the hon. Gentleman’s request I shall return to the subject of the Conservatives’ lack of clarification of their policy on responsibility to protect, given that divergent opinions have now been offered by their Front-Bench spokesman—the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—and the leader of the Conservative party.
The right hon. Gentleman is beginning to get into the Prime Minister’s mode of failing to answer a specific question. May I make the question a little more simple? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me which part of the Opposition motion he has a problem with, and which part he will urge his colleagues to vote against?
The Opposition motion refers to the responsibility to protect, which reflects an enduring apparent inconsistency on the part of the Conservative party. In recent days the party leader has said that a deadline should be set for the regime—the deadline was yesterday, and it has now passed—but today, when the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman had an opportunity to suggest when such a deadline should be reached, he was unable to confirm that he adhered to a position that involves very serious consequences in relation to whether or not there should be immediate air drops.
I have read both the Opposition motion and the Government amendment. The phrase “responsibility to protect” appears in the motion, but not in the amendment. Let me try to clarify the position. Gareth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister, has written that dangers will be posed in the international community if we use the term “responsibility to protect” so loosely that it undermines the necessity of such action when it is sanctioned by the United Nations in the context of crimes against humanity, such as genocide. Is that the reason for the Government’s amendment?
My hon. Friend brings his considerable experience in the Foreign Affairs Committee to bear on these discussions of international relations. I think that it would send the wrong message to the regime in Burma if we suggested the endorsement of a deadline which has already passed, and which is the subject of confusion in the Conservative party.
I am certainly happy to stand by the terms of the Government amendment, which I think offers a judicious way forward. It recognises the need for continued international pressure, pays due acknowledgement to the work that is under way, and makes clear our continued determination to secure access by all appropriate means.
When the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) quoted Mr. Gareth Evans, he should not have quoted selectively. Mr. Evans wrote in his article:
“But as the days go by, with relief efforts impossibly hindered, only a trickle of the government’s own aid getting through, and the prospect of an enormously greater death toll looming acutely with just a few more days, they”
—that is, the arguments that the hon. Gentleman says Mr. Evans supports—
“are sounding less compelling, and at least need revisiting.”
That is the case that Conservative Members have made.
As for the responsibility to protect, I urge the Secretary of State to return to a bipartisan approach. The issue is currently being debated. The British ambassador to the United Nations has said that he does not think the responsibility to protect is relevant, while the Foreign Secretary said in an interview last night that it should indeed be considered. Rather than making cheap political points, the right hon. Gentleman should focus on the needs of the Burmese people at the moment.
I think the hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. It is for him to account for the disparity between the position that he set out today and what was said by his party leader on “The World at One”. These are serious issues, which is why I am keen for an approach to be adopted that is clearly set out to the regime in Burma, and why it is important not to retain the kind of inconsistency that still haunts the Conservative party. Has the deadline for responsibility to protect passed, or has it not?
I regret that the House appears to have been invited to choose between a motion and an amendment. We can make up our minds later on how that came about, but may I suggest to my right hon. Friend, who has put a specific question, that the non-governmental organisations surely have a say in the matter? The Opposition motion ends with the words “using direct aid drops”. As my right hon. Friend may be aware, Jane Cocking of Oxfam has said:
“The biggest risk is that aid air drops will be a distraction from what is really needed”.
She has also referred to the huge importance of diplomatic efforts. Does that not demonstrate that my right hon. Friend is being entirely responsible?
I recognise the significant contribution that can be made by NGOs, given both their knowledge of what is happening on the ground and their well-established understanding of the need to deliver aid in an effective way. That is why I agreed with what the Prime Minister said during Prime Minister’s Questions today. Of course we take no option off the table, and of course we continue our discussions with the Security Council. That hardly comes as a revelation: it was said by the Foreign Secretary last night, and by the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box today. It is fundamentally different from suggesting that a deadline has already passed and that air drops should therefore follow immediately.
I think it right to make it clear that there continues to be pressure from the international community, that we continue to examine all options with our partners in the Security Council and the international community, and that in the meantime we are unstinting in our efforts to convey aid to the people who require it. That is the Government’s approach, and the approach of the amendment.
The Government should be commended for moving quickly and offering material aid, but as the Select Committee on International Development made plain in its report on humanitarian responses, we cannot focus solely on such aid. We must focus on getting people to Burma to ensure that aid is delivered properly. One of the problems with air drops in such circumstances is that the aid would be dropped on water rather than land, which was not the case in Ethiopia. We should concentrate on access, and the need to persuade the Burmese to admit independent experts from the United Nations and the NGOs to ensure that aid reaches people on the ground, because no one is in a position to deal with that now. That should be the focus of the efforts of Members throughout the House.
I entirely agree, which is why I am not convinced of the case that a deadline of yesterday should have been set. We are seeing a significant increase in the number of flights. As I have said, there have been more than 30 over the last week, and 27 are due to enter Rangoon today. That is why I feel that the sensible approach is to continue the dialogue with the British NGOs—I met representatives only this morning—and to continue to make all possible representations both at the United Nations and internationally, which we are doing. At the same time, we should proceed with the work of our assessment teams on the ground.
Now is the time to take a considered approach, and to make what I accept are difficult judgments on the most effective way of securing aid on the ground. It is for others to account for their own position, but I stand by the terms of our amendment.
I have been generous in giving way, and I want to make a little more progress before taking further interventions.
As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said on Monday, it is clearly still the case that not nearly enough aid or aid workers are reaching those in need. The United Nations staff on the ground are grievously overstretched, and the Burmese Government continue to deny visas to foreign aid workers. As a result, the United Nations has been able to reach fewer than a third of the total number of people at risk, estimated by the United Nations secretariat to be some 270,000.
Since the onset of the tragedy, the British Government have been clear that the Burmese regime must allow international agencies unfettered access and freedom to travel to the worst-affected areas. Let me describe the political and diplomatic actions that we have been taking in pursuit of that objective. As I told the House last week, we have already committed £5 million for humanitarian relief, and we stand ready to provide more assistance in due course. Our ambassador in Burma, Mark Canning—to whom I spoke this morning—is raising the question of access directly with the Burmese authorities, and I have personally raised my concerns with the Burmese ambassador here in London. However, as chair of the United Nations Security Council, we are also pressing for unfettered humanitarian access. The UN Secretary-General is galvanising the international response, and for some days we have been encouraging him to visit the region as soon as possible. That is not a new position of the British Government; indeed, I argued for it several days ago. The Prime Minister spoke to the Secretary-General yesterday, and pressed him to call a high-level meeting to discuss the crisis. I understand that the Secretary–General is to convene a meeting later today.
We and others, including Burma’s regional friends such as China, India and Thailand, all agree that the Burmese Government must open up to international assistance. I have spoken to the Chinese ambassador in London, and our ambassador in Beijing is lobbying the Chinese Government directly. As the most important friends of the Burmese regime, they must ensure that the aid begins to flow and the experts are allowed to start their work. The Foreign Secretary is in dialogue with his Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Australian, American and French counterparts. Lord Malloch-Brown and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), are today on the ground in Bangkok, both assessing the co-ordination of the regional effort and meeting the Thai Prime Minister to press the case for action.
Over the weekend, I requested the European Union presidency and Commission to convene a meeting to galvanise the EU’s efforts in response to the crisis. This British initiative met with support, and yesterday I was in Brussels to meet European Development Ministers. The conclusion of that meeting reinforced the statements made by the United Nations in support of increasing access, and the European Development Commissioner, Louis Michel, is now travelling to the region to press the views expressed by the Council yesterday. In recent days, I have also been in touch with John Holmes, the UN emergency co-ordinator, Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme, and Henrietta Fore, director of USAID.
As has been made clear in this debate—and as was raised in Prime Minister’s questions—some are advocating direct action and the application of the responsibility to protect doctrine. As I have stated, we rule nothing out, and we must do all we can to resolve this crisis. We continue to argue vigorously in New York for UN Security Council engagement, and we are supporting the continued efforts of the Secretary-General to resolve this crisis.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, because this is an important issue. Britain chairs the Security Council. This emerging norm of the responsibility to protect has been developing for a long time within the UN. If we were to listen to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, our understanding would be that the Government are deliberately not including this concept of the responsibility to protect in their amendment because they are in some way resiling from it. If that is the case, as we are chairing the Security Council, it is a very serious issue indeed. Will the Secretary of State therefore please explain what is the Government’s understanding of the concept of the responsibility to protect?
I was endeavouring to do so when that intervention was made. Let me seek to make a little more progress on the matter.
There are very strong differences of view within the Security Council on whether it should play any role in this crisis, as there is an issue of national sovereignty in the minds of some of its members. There is also division within the Security Council on the applicability of the responsibility to protect doctrine to the present crisis. We have made it clear—the Prime Minister did so at the Dispatch Box today—that we will continue to consider all options, including using military assets to help deliver aid, as was the case in the tsunami response, and retaining the option of invoking the responsibility to protect. That is not a straightforward or easy option, and it could delay the delivery of aid, but if the Burmese regime continues to fail to help its own people, we will consider all options, including the options I have set out.
The UN 2005 millennium summit resolution defines narrowly the meaning of the responsibility to protect, and it does not include general humanitarian issues and other non-specific issues. Is it likely that the Security Council would agree to such action when there is already difficulty over the interpretation of the current narrow definition? Also, will the British Government in any circumstances support—or oppose—unilateral action by a group of countries, which seems to be what is implied by the Opposition motion?
First, given my hon. Friend’s knowledge of, and expertise in, foreign affairs, he will be aware that the Canadian commission that preceded the establishment of the responsibility to protect doctrine anticipated that there could be circumstances following a natural disaster where that doctrine might be applicable. There will, of course, be legal arguments and debate about such points, but some authorities have suggested the potential applicability of the responsibility to protect.
As I have made clear, there are at root two legal issues in the context of the discussions that have taken place in the Security Council on this issue. The first of those is whether the Security Council itself is the appropriate body to discuss this matter, because some have argued that it is not, given that this is essentially a matter that comes under the national sovereignty of Burma, while others have argued that there are broader concerns in terms of regional international security which make the Security Council an appropriate forum in which to discuss it. There has also been dispute and division within the Security Council on the applicability of the responsibility to protect. Notwithstanding that, given our position as current chair of the Security Council, we continue to engage actively with our partners on the Security Council and we seek to find consensus and a way forward. It is for the Opposition to explain the terms of their motion, but we are clear that, while we rule no option out, we will continue to pursue this matter within the Security Council and actively engage in discussions with our colleagues.
In addition to the political and diplomatic hurdles that I have described, it is also right to assess the effectiveness of any direct action in getting assistance to the people who need it. This morning, I met representatives of British NGOs working in the field, and received no request for immediate air drops. That reflects some of the sentiments in discussions that have taken place, and some of the difficulties in relation to air drops—which were, indeed, anticipated by those on the Opposition Front Bench. Air drops have proved successful in the past where it is possible to have an identified drop zone and aid workers are waiting to distribute the aid to the most vulnerable within the communities. If such aid workers are absent, not having been deployed to the drop zone, the aid can end up in the hands of the strongest rather than the weakest. Secondly, one would need to identify suitable drop zones in an area of the Irrawaddy delta that is now largely under water as a consequence of the cyclone, with large areas of standing water.
Therefore, as I have said, this is not an easy or straightforward option, and while we take no option off the table, it is interesting that the organisations that are currently making efforts to get aid to those who need it most are making no request to the British Government for such drops at present. Indeed, in recent days the World Food Programme has said that aid drops could be “dangerous and counter-productive” without the proper ground support available, and Jane Cocking, humanitarian director of Oxfam—with which I understand the Leader of the Opposition was in touch only yesterday—has said:
“The biggest risk is that aid air drops will be a distraction from what is really needed—a highly effective aid operation on the ground.”
Let me be clear, however, that we will consider all options in getting aid to those affected, and continue to apply the highest diplomatic effort to ensure that international aid and aid experts are allowed to get to where they are most needed.
The UN Secretary-General has said that we are at a “critical point” in the response to this grave humanitarian crisis. It is, indeed, the case that the lives of many thousands depend now on the actions not only of the Burmese regime but of the international community. There is no difference in the world’s willingness to help, compared with either the tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake. It is the military regime’s chilling indifference to the plight of the Burmese people that has been laid bare. Yet we must balance our outrage at the Burmese junta’s response so far with a clear-headed sense of what will actually make a difference on the ground. While we are not ruling out any action, we are working every available diplomatic channel to provide both unfettered access for international aid and aid workers, and an international community that speaks with one voice—and says that we must work together to avert any further human catastrophe following this natural disaster. I commend our amendment to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. Like him, I join the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), and others across the Chamber in expressing sympathy for the people who have lost family members and friends and who even at this moment have no idea what their future will be after this unimaginable disaster of the past 10 days.
I welcome the statement that was part of the Secretary of State’s speech today, and acknowledge his intention to come back to the House and make a statement in his own time at some point this week. The official Opposition have however provided us with a good opportunity to air all the different issues and to examine thoroughly what has been going on and what can still go on. I welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s decision to move this motion.
On the vexed issue of the motion, I have listened carefully to the contributions from both Front Benches and I wish to make it clear that we will support the motion. It is a shame that the Secretary of State cannot bring himself and his colleagues to support it. I recognise that they have some concerns about the language, but surely what matters is the message that this House sends to the outside world, rather than a dispute about who said what and when, and what represents a particular point of view. In the past few minutes, the Secretary of State has said that we rule nothing out, so I do not understand why the Government cannot accept a motion containing the words
“should consider all options for getting help to those who need it, including using direct aid drops.”
The Secretary of State has helpfully updated us, although starkly so, about the situation on the ground—it is under water, tragically—in Burma. Some 200,000 people may have lost their lives, and that is a staggering figure—it represents nearly every person who lives in my part of the south of Scotland—and 1.5 million people are homeless or in need of emergency assistance, 300,000 or 400,000 desperately so.
As the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State said, there are some urgent priorities: clean water, food, shelter and medical assistance. The World Food Programme estimated the other day that it was able to deliver only about one fifth of the 375 tonnes of food required each day and that instead of two to three aircraft landing each day, one needed to land every 45 minutes or so.
We should be encouraged, to a certain degree, by what the Secretary of State just told us. He said that about 25 to 30 aircraft are landing today. We must hope that that level will be maintained and that the aid can be used immediately and responsibly. It should not, as others have highlighted, be hijacked by the generals and their acolytes, and then be rebadged or simply not distributed.
Food prices in the region were already climbing astronomically—they have increased by 30 per cent. this year alone—and this situation can only worsen that trend. Let us not forget Burma’s tragic recent history. The Saffron revolution of only a few months ago started on the back of fuel price increases and other problems in the country, as well as the fundamental flaws in the regime. The country was desperate before these past few days.
Dr. Gareth Price and Tamara Lynch of Chatham House—I declare an interest as, like the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), I am a member of its council—have stated:
“It is pretty clear that the government in Burma focuses more on remaining in power (and self-aggrandisement) than on responsiveness to people’s needs.”
Those two people do not have an axe to grind; they are not party politicians or non-governmental organisations, but individual experts making a damning indictment. Their assessment highlights the fact that despite the arrangements made by neighbouring countries in the region facing the same risk of cyclones, Burma has had no cyclone warning system. It also has no system of building cyclone-safe houses. Although such houses have not protected Bangladesh in every last respect, they have brought about a major improvement there in recent years. Even the Burmese military—the much-vaunted 500,000 people who are the regime’s elite—has been forced to feed off the land; vegetables are being grown beside airstrips and there are chicken coops behind the barracks.
Burma is a country with a twisted set of priorities that has never got things right, and in this moment of crisis, we have not seen a proper response. Indeed, we have seen the absolute obscenity of proceeding with a referendum on a constitution to which nobody can give any credence—it is simply designed to entrench the power of the military. Above all, we have seen the disgraceful and unbelievable response to the cyclone: the refusal of all outside assistance. That assistance ought to be making the difference in saving lives that are at risk.
At this time, we learn that the generals’ preoccupation is that somehow outside assistance would strike at the heart of the regime’s legitimacy and the country’s national sovereignty. For that reason, the generals feel that they must reject the assistance, but I suggest that the regime has no legitimacy to lose. The very nature of the military dictatorship goes against every standard and norm that we would support. The reaction to the democracy protests both a few months ago and over many years, the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime’s complete failure to prepare for events such as these are sadly predictable. It is not outsiders who are undermining the regime’s legitimacy; the regime itself is doing so.
That whole debate has enlivened the broader one that we are having internationally—we have also heard it here this afternoon—about the responsibility to protect. We are arguing over how formal that responsibility is and what it has meant in the past few years, but surely that fancy new phrase simply formalises the basic humanitarian instincts that we all have and to which we respond on occasions such as this, when we expect Governments, as a basic part of their duty, to protect the people who live in their countries. The responsibility to protect, as formalised and debated in recent years, has been clearly based around the ideas of the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react and the responsibility to rebuild. On all those grounds, the Burmese regime has failed, not just in the past 10 days, but over many years.
The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, of which Gareth Evans was a member, published a report in December 2001 and kick-started this debate more broadly at the United Nations. It stated:
“Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of…state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.”
So, we cannot pretend that this is not a legitimate area for debate, and we must be clear that in our deliberations we are examining where we can go using that new authority. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development, the Prime Minister and others have recognised that it is a legitimate part of the process. I equally acknowledge that it is not straightforward, to put it mildly, to move the debate through our partners in the United Nations Security Council, and I hope briefly to discuss that in a little while.
We must not assume in this debate that that responsibility means an automatic rush to have military action, or military or another assertive form of intervention. Military action is an option, but it must only be a last resort and it is not what is contemplated in this situation. As the shadow Secretary of State made clear, and as the motion sets out, our instincts and objectives are humanitarian. Inevitably, military assets and military assistance will be necessary and useful in making the humanitarian intervention more effective, so we must be prepared to argue the case in not only this Chamber but the broader international community.
The international response has been patchy. We can be encouraged by the fact that in this country and many others there has been a good response from the public to the appeals made by the Disasters Emergency Committee and others. I am sure that hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House would encourage everybody who can to contribute to that assistance. We know that major NGOs, such as Save the Children and Merlin, which are mentioned in the motion, and others, are making strenuous efforts as we speak to minimise the cost to lives and the quality of lives in Burma.
Thailand, as a neighbouring state, has been as supportive as it can be and is hosting much of the international support network. China, we have seen in recent months, is more willing to play a quietly assertive role with the Burmese. We must hope that China will not stand in the way of the international community’s making it plain to the Burmese that their attitude is not acceptable or sustainable.
As we sympathise with the Chinese about their terrible loss over the past couple of days following the earthquake, we must also congratulate them on the speedy way in which the Chinese Prime Minister and others have been at the scene of the disaster and on how they have encouraged others to contribute to what they are seeking to do. That lesson might have been very painful for them to learn, but I hope that they will see the logic of extending that lesson to their neighbour. India, too, surely has an important role to play, and has been sadly too quiet in its comments thus far.
On such occasions, we are used to turning to regional bodies and wondering what they are doing. I do not think that I am alone in being frustrated at the slowness of the response from the Association of South East Asian Nations countries, of which Burma is one. It is deeply alarming that it has taken them so long to gather. It was good to hear that they will have a mercy mission and that they will hopefully ratify that on the 19th, but surely this disaster needs not bureaucratic responses but political pressure, applied quickly and now, to make the Burmese change their minds.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State talked about bringing our European partners together and the fact that the commissioner is to visit the region. Perhaps the Minister who replies to the debate might also brief the House on the extent to which European funds and other forms of support have been offered by our partners. It is important to demonstrate that Europe can come together on these issues and be more effective than we are bilaterally. In particular, the UN reckoned a few days ago that $187 million of support might be needed—although the figure might have changed—but we have not heard thus far how much of that has been delivered. It would be helpful to know what will happen.
Ministers, officials and others are to be congratulated on the efforts that they have made so far and on their steadfastness. We know that they were working over the weekend to brief colleagues in the House as well as attending to the details of what was going on. We cannot criticise them on that level. We want to know if they believe that as a result of their actions, in Europe and elsewhere, the funding and logistical support will be in place for that moment when, we must hope, the Burmese change their attitude and allow things to move on.
In particular, may we have an assurance that the money that has been pledged is additional to that that was already in the budget for the region or for Burma—that it is not replacement or accelerated funding, which would otherwise have been given later in the year? It is important that we have that assurance, and a statement this afternoon would be helpful.
I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he was looking for. The funds that we are providing for immediate humanitarian assistance to Burma are additional to the programme funding that we would otherwise have provided. That will continue to be the approach as we reflect on the flash appeal and the need for further assistance in the days and weeks to come.
I am sure that that is welcome on both sides of the House; right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased to have heard that.
We cannot imagine what it is like in Burma or China at present. It is incumbent on us all, however, to ensure that our support, our suggestions, the questions that we ask and the things that we do are dedicated to one objective: minimising further humanitarian suffering and death in that region. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak this afternoon and to support the motion.
I welcome this debate and the topic that has been chosen by the Opposition. It is a credit to us all that at a time when we have talked for weeks about the world economic crisis, the credit crunch and pressure on budgets in Britain, we respond generously as a country when we see a humanitarian crisis and people losing their livelihoods and lives. We ought not to forget that in the arguments we have in this House.
I believe that the Government need to be congratulated on the fact that they responded quickly and have given an international lead in their response to the appeal and the crisis. That is good news. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) was generous enough to acknowledge the work done by the former Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), in trying to sharpen up the UN humanitarian response. It had been a bit of a shambles, frankly, but some order was put into the system. We are trying to give a lead, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for his remarks.
In parenthesis, the debate is haunted by the fact that we have much to do to transform, reform and shape the UN and to turn it into a body that defends the universal common good, whether during humanitarian disasters or when countries inflict violence on their own populations. We have much to do to turn the UN into an international body that serves the general common good of our world. It is difficult when there is a need for consensus and we cannot reach one, and that is perhaps why we end up in the difficulties that we do.
It would be desperate if, in spite of the Government’s good efforts and the financial commitments that people have given in appeals, as well as the Government’s budgeting to ensure that there is money for aid in such crises, our response and the need to focus on the provision of humanitarian aid and the needs of the people of Burma were to degenerate into a debilitating political stand-off between the west and Burma, or a deadlock in the UN Security Council while thousands needlessly die. There is a danger that the response to the crisis might end up like that.
I know from my experience on the Select Committee on International Development over some years, and from my experience over the years of the management of disasters and crises elsewhere, that we ought to try to keep together meeting the need for materials—food, water tablets and sanitation equipment—and the deployment of professional, experienced people on the ground to ensure that aid reaches people in an orderly fashion and that there is some sense of process. What has happened in Burma is the worst disaster since the tsunami in 2004. We have all worked on the reports from this House on implementing the lessons from that disaster, so we must look back at what happened then and ask what we learned—we did learn from that disaster—as well as what we can do better. We should try to the best of our abilities to cajole the international community to get Burma on side to deal with the crisis properly.
Richard Horsey, from the UN humanitarian operations, has pinpointed four immediate needs: clean drinking water; emergency shelter; medical supplies and support, which are not easy to drop from the air in any circumstances; and food. Estimates have varied and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the figures that he gave. The latest reports from the ground estimate that the number of people dead and missing is now more than 200,000. At least 1.5 million people are in need of immediate assistance and more than 300,000 are in desperate need. This is not a small-scale emergency but a major emergency for the Burmese people.
The estimate that 300,000 people are in dire need means that a minimum of 150 metric tonnes of food a day must be sent into that country now. That is the equivalent of 10 standard relief flights a day for food alone. We heard today that since the cyclone hit, there have been about 35 flights. The scale on which food has been provided is completely out of kilter with what is needed. That is why this is an urgent debate about how to deal with the crisis, rather than just an attempt to nudge the UN in the right direction and to ensure that it gets its terms of reference right. Such urgency needs to be injected into that debate in the UK and internationally.
Today the UN is calling for an air bridge or a sea corridor. There were even hints that a floating warehouse in the Irrawaddy delta region could be used to channel in aid on the scale needed. I would like to know whether those practical proposals are being discussed internationally, both at the UN and with the Burmese authorities. Let us literally give the authorities a bridge—a way forward—through the difficulties. If the aid, and the personnel to manage the aid, do not get through, in not many days there will be starvation and disease on a scale that we have not seen before, as the second wave of the disaster hits the Burmese people.
I would like more clarification from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), on the following point. The regime still insists that it does not really need aid on the scale that is envisaged, and it seems to be insisting that it does not need practical assistance in delivering that aid, yet I get the impression that it does not even have the equipment to unload planes properly. Loads are passed from hand to hand; the people do not have the necessary equipment. I was under the impression that army checkpoints have been used in the delta region to prevent personnel from foreign non-governmental organisations from entering. I think that it is still difficult to get a permit to move out of Rangoon. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may have said that there has been an ease-up in the situation, which would be most welcome.
In my discussions with the British NGOs this morning, it was confirmed that although some are finding it difficult to secure access to areas outside Rangoon, others are not. My right hon. Friend is right to recognise that there are difficulties with lift capability and unloading planes at Rangoon airport. That is one of the reasons why part of the money that we are providing will be spent on cargo lifting material to allow quicker offloading of the planes arriving at Rangoon airport. As for the level of access being secured by aid workers, the picture in the country continues to be generally confused. Some of those aid workers are positive, but some still find it extremely difficult to move around.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. When I was privileged enough to be in the Foreign Office, I learned that British officials are incredibly pragmatic, in the best sense of the word. They resolve problems in detail, and that is what we need now: hard-headed ways forward on issues. I welcome that approach. That is what came through in the International Development Committee’s seventh report of the 2006 Session, which was on humanitarian responses to natural disasters. The Government responded to the report and we debated it in the House. The point that came through most strongly was that we cannot go ahead anywhere with haphazard, random, inefficient air drops in areas where there is still bad weather—and there is still bad weather in Burma; it is still raining. It is difficult terrain, and it is a flooded area. The drops will be lost and will not reach the people.
It is not just a question of getting the food there. The real issue is the need for people with humanitarian expertise. Skilled personnel from the NGOs and the UN are needed on the ground. We are not starting from scratch, having had no one there. World Vision, Merlin, Save the Children, Care International and the International Red Cross have had staff in Burma for a long time. The Burmese authorities have memorandums of understanding with all those NGOs to allow them to provide humanitarian aid; that has been the situation for a while. As I think the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, Save the Children has had 500 members of staff in Burma since 1995. We are not starting from nothing.
Can we build on what we know is working? Can we extend those memorandums of understanding? I suggest that as a way forward, because we need professionals on the ground. We need to give reassurance, even to people in this country. If we make a flash appeal and want people to give, their first question will be, “How can we be sure that the money will reach the people who need it?”; otherwise, a lack of assurance may undermine the aid appeals and deter people from giving. That is why the central issue is access, and not good will, the amount of money concerned, or the commitments that the Government have given. We must negotiate access, so that we can properly assess the needs on the ground. That is what the experts are brilliant at doing. They can work out the need and manage the aid coming into the country to make sure that it reaches people in a proper, orderly, managed fashion.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and for his clear sense of priority in who he chooses to give way to. Will he accept the following assurance? I had a conversation with the director of Save the Children only this morning, and she was able to assure me that Save the Children continues to operate, fully supports the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, and asks that I continue to communicate to the people of the United Kingdom, as I sought to do in interviews over the weekend, that the money that they are donating through the DEC is already making a difference on the ground in Burma.
My aim in intervening was precisely the same as that of the Secretary of State. When I was in Rangoon last year, I saw the work done on the ground by Save the Children, and the excellent work being done in Burma by Andrew Kirkwood. Everyone who gives money to the DEC appeal can be absolutely confident that they have a really first-class NGO in Save the Children. Other NGOs mentioned in this debate are also doing very valuable work on the ground.
I am grateful for that. On the DEC and the NGOs that gather around it, from my personal experience over the years I can say that I have absolute confidence that all our NGOs ensure that what the British people give them reaches the people. That is why the real issue is to encourage, exhort and convince the Burmese authorities to allow in world-class independent expertise, and the well-respected independent organisations that can help to manage and monitor the impact of humanitarian aid in Burma. I am not asking for us to go there; I do not ask our Prime Minister, or even the Secretary of State to go there. I am asking for independent people with experience of managing such situations to be allowed to do that work on the ground. I do not ask them to negotiate the politics or the future of Burma; I want them to get resources to the people.
May I make two further points? We need to address the immediate needs of the people. People are surviving by putting little plastic cups out to catch rainwater, because they have no water. Fifteen days post-disaster, the mortality rate for the under-fives goes up massively, and 30 days later there is crisis on an unimaginable scale, because the mortality rate rises then apply to the whole population. Disease spreads exponentially 30 days in. We are now at a crucial time.
However, even though this is an important moment, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to think ahead to the medium and longer term. There are 2 million homeless people in Burma, and 3,000 schools have been destroyed. As was the case with the tsunami, the big money is not needed at the front end. In the case of the tsunami, the money came in well, through generous donations from people and Governments, but money was needed for the medium and longer term, when the media went away. We now need to get a focus on the reconstruction. I want to flag that up, even at this early stage.
Finally, I should like to follow up a remark—it was almost an aside, although an important one—made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, concerning rice. Rice prices have risen by 30 per cent. in the past two months. As everybody knows, rice is the staple of the people of Burma, particularly poor people. Tragically, the flooding and the cyclone have hit the Irrawaddy delta, which is the rice bowl of the whole of Burma. The World Food Programme estimates that Burma has less than half the rice that it needs to feed all its people, so there is a desperate need for food, both now and in the long term. That is because it is harvest time, but the harvest has been washed away, as have the stored grains.
Worse still, we are right in the middle of planting for the next harvest. How can people plant in fields of salt water? That is the problem. The tide has come in, and rice cannot be grown in salt water. There will be a food crisis in Burma for months to come. There is already a problem, but we need to address the issue of the failure of the next crop, otherwise within months we will be back discussing the issue in the House. In the best sense, I hope that we do debate the issue again in the House, but tragically we could be discussing mass hunger in Burma, and not just how to tackle the present humanitarian crisis.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), with whom I enjoyed working for a number of years on the International Development Committee. As ever, he spoke a considerable amount of sense.
Those of us who have witnessed humanitarian disasters know that the scale of the Burma disaster requires an enormous amount of professional logistic assistance and support to ensure that food, water and medical supplies get to the right people. That requires a great deal of expertise, which the international community has. The task cannot be accomplished by army personnel unloading cartons at airports. Getting sizeable amounts of water and food to large numbers of displaced people is a difficult logistical exercise.
There are, as we understand it, hundreds and hundreds of children who, tragically, have been orphaned. Looking after those children and ensuring that they do not become dehydrated or die of malnutrition is incredibly important. Someone has to take responsibility for that. The concern of many of us is that, to date, the Burmese authorities do not look as though they want to take responsibility. They did not have warning systems in place. For many days after the cyclone struck, there seemed to be very little, if any, response from the Burmese authorities, and their resistance to allowing the international community to come into Burma—their refusal to grant visas and so forth—is a matter for considerable concern.
It is heartening to hear from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that NGOs are slowly beginning to be able to get into Burma, but one has to recognise that the scale of the disaster is enormous. It will require large numbers of people and expertise in the very near future if a major humanitarian disaster is to be averted.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, West made another point that I wish to amplify. In the case of a drought, such as that in Ethiopia, it is hoped that the rains will fall the next year and people will be able to return to their homes and villages, plant crops again and restart. The entire topography of the Irrawaddy delta looks as though it has been changed for ever. Relocating and rehousing thousands of families and children would be a massive humanitarian and political challenge to any Government, let alone a Government who are inherently secretive.
To amplify a further point made by the right hon. Gentleman, we are seeing throughout the world from Burma to Somalia to Zimbabwe the impact of rising food prices. That gives enormous power to whoever controls the food. Allowing the army in Burma to control humanitarian food supplies substantially enhances the position of the Burmese authorities and army. The same happens anywhere. We had Foreign Office questions yesterday. From reading in the regional press about what is happening in Somalia, it is clear that the militias are seeking to control the food supplies. In terms of the broader conflict in Somalia, that puts the militias in an incredibly strong position. We should bear that in mind.
We must also bear it in mind that the architecture of international institutions such as the World Food Programme will probably have to change dramatically. For a long time the World Food Programme took surplus grain from countries such as Australia and the United States, kept it in reserve and made it available, when necessary, to countries such as Malawi. Serious structural deficits in world food supplies will require the World Food Programme to become a kind of hunger agency and to be much more proactive in trying to ensure that countries become more self-sufficient in agricultural production.
It is, for example, crazy that Sierra Leone, which used to be able to export rice and had some of the best rice production in west Africa, is still importing rice. There is no reason why Sierra Leone should not be growing rice again. It is not a difficult crop to start to grow, it takes only one year to get it going, and the conflict in Sierra Leone has been over for some time.
The Burmese cyclone demonstrates, tragically, yet again that when natural disasters hit, they invariably hit the poorest and the weakest worst. Whether it be the tsunami in Sri Lanka, the earthquake in Kashmir or the cyclone in Burma, because people are unbelievably poor they are less able to resist natural shocks. We must not forget that at the best of times Burma is a very poor country. Before the cyclone hit, about a third of Burma’s population lived below the poverty line and infant mortality was extremely high. Before the cyclone hit, the World Food Programme estimated that about a third of the children under five were malnourished. The country was extremely fragile even before the recent disaster.
I am not necessarily suggesting that a cyclone is caused by climate change, but the point that I want to make to the House is that all those climate-related disasters hit the poorest and the weakest hardest, which is why, when it comes to the Climate Change Bill and the work that we are doing on climate change, there is a moral imperative to support some of the weakest people on the planet by ensuring that the Bill goes through and that we have effective legislation on climate change.
I shall not add to what the Secretary of State or my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State, said about the immediate future in Burma. Knowing both the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, I am sure that with DFID’s experience over the years in disaster intervention it is doing an exceptionally good job. Like most Members of the House, I am sorry that there seem to be some unnecessary divisions across the Chamber.
I shall take this opportunity to try to tease out the Government’s position on the concept of the responsibility to protect. That is an important issue. For some time now, the international community has been groping with the question of how to protect vulnerable people in countries where their own Governments cannot or will not protect them. On a number of occasions the Security Council determined that there was a threat to peace, even if the situation was internal. We saw examples of that in Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Rwanda, Zaire, Yugoslavia and East Timor, which the right hon. Member for Leeds, West had much to do with when he was a Minister at the Foreign Office.
There has been a tendency, however, for the international community to make it up, so to speak, as we go along. For example, Lord Hurd of Westwell, when he was Foreign Secretary, justifying the no-fly zones over northern Iraq in 1991, said that
“we operate under international law. Not every action that a British Government or an American Government or a French Government takes has to be underwritten by a specific provision in a UN Resolution provided we comply with international law. International law recognises extreme humanitarian need . . . we are on strong legal as well as humanitarian grounds in setting up this ‘No Fly Zone’.”
As has been said, in September 2003 Kofi Annan, when Secretary-General of the UN, established a high level panel on threats, challenges and change. It followed the Canadian example and endorsed that work in producing what was described as an “emerging norm” of responsibility to protect civilians from large scale violence. The panel’s report, which the UN endorsed, makes two further points that I would like to cite. It stated:
“We endorse the emerging norm that there is a collective international responsibility to protect, exercisable by the Security Council authorising military intervention as a last resort in the event of genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing, or serious violations of international humanitarian law, which sovereign Governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent.”
It also states:
“There is growing recognition that the issue is not the ‘right to intervene’ of any State, but the ‘responsibility to protect’ of every State when it comes to people suffering from avoidable catastrophe—mass murder and rape, ethnic cleansing by forcible expulsion and terror, and deliberate starvation and exposure to disease, and there is growing acceptance that while sovereign Governments have the primary responsibility to protect their own citizens from such catastrophes, when they are unable or unwilling to do so that responsibility should be taken up by the wider international community”.
I am concerned that the Government’s amendment makes no reference to the responsibility to protect. We all know that parliamentary clerks in the various Departments will have pondered the wording of the resolutions carefully. I was concerned to see press reports that John Sawers, who—as many people will know—was an excellent Foreign Office diplomat for many years and is now our representative at the United Nations, had said that the doctrine of responsibility to protect applies only to intervention in response to genocide and war crimes. If that is the line that the Foreign Office is now taking, it is a much more restricted line than the Government took in the past. It is certainly a much more restricted line than the previous Administration took, and it would be helpful to understand what the Government mean when they talk about the responsibility to protect.
I understand if the Secretary of State’s response is to say that this is not a dispute about the responsibility to protect, but a pragmatic difference of opinion about how we keep China and Russia onside in the Security Council, but I hope that he will make that clear. The amendment says that the FCO
“urges countries in the region to increase their efforts to persuade the Burmese authorities to allow in unfettered international assistance”.
That seems to suggest that it is not a matter for the Security Council or the UN, but for us just to try to help regional partners put pressure on Burma. If that is the situation—let us not forget that the UK chairs the UN Security Council—we would be giving way too easily.
I also wish to flag up the concern that at some stage we will all have to engage more closely with China so that we better understand how it sees its role in the international community and the international community’s role in humanitarian disasters. So often—as in Darfur and now in Burma—the Security Council is semi-paralysed because France, the US and the UK take one view, which is broadly the responsibility to protect, and Russia and China take a different view. China and Russia are often preoccupied by access to natural resources and their own internal political agenda, but we have only the UN to act as the voice of the international community as a whole, and if the Security Council is paralysed, it will make the expression of that voice incredibly difficult.
The hon. Gentleman makes his reasonable point well, and in the same spirit I wish to reiterate the position taken by the Foreign Secretary last night on “The World Tonight”, set out again by the Prime Minister at PMQs today and rehearsed in my earlier contribution to the debate. We retain the option of invoking the responsibility to protect. The disagreement reflected in the debate betrays some genuine confusion among the Opposition on the issue of the responsibility to protect, but it also reflects our continuing determination to raise these matters at the UN. That was the position that I adopted at the European Council of Development Ministers yesterday, and we have set it out publicly and continue to argue for it at the UN. The hon. Gentleman rightly recognises that there is no consensus with our partners on that issue in New York, but we continue to put the case to them.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation of that line and I am glad that we have that on the record. There was some ambiguity, and I would hate there to be any suggestion in the international community that Britain, which has been one of those working hardest to encourage the sense that we live in one world with a mutual responsibility for fellow citizens, was resiling in any sense from that general principle. It is important that that is clearly on the record. No one underestimates the complexity of this issue, or of any other—including Zimbabwe and Darfur. We are not children and we all understand that we have to have a pragmatic approach as well as a principled approach.
My wider concern in this debate is that it is one thing for some of the members of the Security Council to be anxious that we do not interfere unnecessarily in matters that should be the sovereign responsibility of member states, but the suspicion must be—in Darfur or in Burma—that the self-interest of those members is uppermost. The international community cannot function on that basis. That may mean that we have to try to expand the Security Council to bring in other member states—which has been discussed for a long time and is unfinished business—but we need to ensure that the UN and its institutions match the needs of the 21st century.
I apologise that a commitment to the Royal British Legion meant that I missed part of the Secretary of State’s speech, but, as I understand it, the point that I raised in an earlier intervention still has not been addressed. Whereas it was thought a few days ago that China was blocking action being taken on the Security Council, that surely ought no longer to be the case, now that China is reacting to its disaster in the way that the Burmese authorities should have reacted to their disaster. What efforts is Britain making at the UN to put China to the test about why it will not support similar measures being taken in respect of Burma that it welcomes for itself?
My take on that—and I would be interested to see whether it finds support elsewhere—is that China sees the world in terms of spheres of influence. China sees Burma as being within its own sphere of influence, just as it sees parts of Africa in the same way. Burma’s main trading partner is China, which accesses a lot of coal, timber and other resources from Burma. China was anxious about the international community internationalising the involvement in Burma, so China, sadly, has taken a very different position in the Security Council from that to its own earthquake catastrophe, where it has been glad to see international support.
It is fair to place on the record that I first contacted the Chinese ambassador here in London before the tragic earthquake that now afflicts the country, and I made clear to her our strong desire that China use its considerable influence over the Burmese regime to secure the unfettered access that is the desire of Members on both sides of the House. She in turn, before the earthquake, made it clear that that was the Chinese Government’s position, and that she would pass our representations back to Beijing, but assured me that efforts had already been made by Beijing to make representations to the Burmese Government. As I say, further contact is being sought both through our permanent representative in New York and direct ministerial contact, but it is right to recognise that even before the soliciting of international aid by the Chinese Government following the earthquake, the Chinese ambassador made it clear to me that Beijing had made representations to the Burmese regime, encouraging efforts to open up in the face of the terrible cyclone that affected the country.
That is welcome from the Secretary of State, but he will also have to note that today’s report in the Financial Times by Harvey Morris at the United Nations states:
“South-east Asian states moved to take the lead in the Burma relief effort yesterday after China, the military regime’s closest ally, rebuffed western attempts to raise the plight of 1.5 million victims of cyclone Nargis at the United Nations Security Council.”
It adds that
“the Security Council, meeting in closed session yesterday, consigned”—
because of China’s intervention—
“the crisis to the heading ‘any other business’.”
The Chinese ambassador in London is an incredibly nice lady—
Other partners on the Security Council object to the Security Council being an appropriate forum for reasons of national sovereignty and the invocation of the responsibility to protect doctrine. In that sense, it is for others on the Security Council to account for the position that they have taken. The emphasis that we place on China, India and ASEAN partners results from the fact that, historically, significant influence has been wielded in relation to Burma by both India and China, and of course influence continues to be exerted by neighbours in the immediate region. For us, it is not an either/or between encouraging China, India and ASEAN partners to exert their influence on the regime and continuing to work to use the mechanism of the United Nations and its various bodies. It is important that we send a clear signal, and some partners on the Security Council, because of a particular view of the status of the Security Council, can find themselves in the position of objecting to the position that we, as the British Government, would support.
I have no quarrel with the Secretary of State on any of that except that I express the concern that there are members of the Security Council who view the Security Council in a way that will limit its role in the future. It is the only international institution of its kind that we have, and we will have to return to how we ensure that the UN functions effectively and properly. All sorts of bits of reparation and repair work might have to be done. The whole matter of the UK, the US, the Iraq invasion and the coalition of the willing has done some damage, but, bluntly, the truth is that the Security Council, through no fault of the UK and its chairmanship, has not stepped up to the mark in this crisis in the way that one would have hoped and expected. It is as simple as that.
I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, not least the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who I am sure will add to comments about the responsibility to protect, and I am glad that the House has had the opportunity to debate the issue in the main Chamber in prime time. I hope that the Secretary of State will undertake to update the House regularly, because—I entirely endorse and echo what the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) said—this will be a long-running tragedy that will need an enormous amount of international effort. We all know that one of the real tragedies of such events is that they understandably endure for a period of time on the television screens and news broadcasts, and then they are simply forgotten, and large numbers of people feel forgotten and abandoned. We should, if we do nothing else during the course of the debate, make it clear to the people of Burma that they will be neither forgotten nor abandoned.
I agree with much that has been said and I will not repeat those points, but I want to pay tribute to the non-governmental organisations that are today doing vital work in Burma, but also in other parts of the world, saving lives and improving the conditions of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. That work goes on, day by day, regardless of whether newspapers and television programmes are showing any interest in it. It is important that members of the British public know that those organisations are not corrupt, that they are efficient and that, as has been said, money that is given gets through directly.
I concur with the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) who talked about the situation with the vile brutal regime in Burma. It is important that we understand that as well as not doing enough, or actively impairing humanitarian efforts, it has also devoted its television channels to broadcasting smiling, dancing women, telling people to go out and vote; it has postponed its referendum on its fake constitution in the area that is now under water by just a few weeks, seemingly in the belief that it can then run some falsified referendum in a few weeks’ time; and it is still pursuing its brutal repression of the ethnic groups in the rest of its country. This, after all, is a very complicated country, where there is a brutal military regime at the top, which does not have the support of the people, and where Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, 20 years ago, won a democratic election—then she was put under house arrest, which she has been unable to leave. It is important to place that on the record today.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) referred to the impact of climate change. Sadly, that issue, which we are confronting today, will have to be confronted more and more in this century. Rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions impact on coastal peoples causing natural disasters, with a world population that is now far more urbanised, and with many people and living in flood plains or on the coast. We need international mechanisms whereby we can intervene quickly and effectively in such cases.
However, we do not live in a world of world government. We do not live in a world where the United Nations General Assembly or the United Nations Security Council can decide something and then it happens. There are almost 200 countries in the world, some with corrupt and incompetent Governments, some that are failed states, and some where the Governments are not incompetent, but rather are very effective at maintaining their power despite the wishes of their people or of the rest of the world. It is extremely frustrating when we know that intervention and assistance could make a huge difference to those millions of people, yet we do not have the means to intervene. There is therefore a real question to be confronted about how we strengthen international institutions and the rule of international law.
The motion in the name of the Conservative party uses the phrase “international community” in its last sentence. I would ask what we mean by “international community”. We have had a bit of a debate about the differences between the motion and the Government amendment. The Government amendment, interestingly, does not use that phrase. It talks about the United Nations. I am trying to tease out whether we are saying that the existing UN system is not able to deal with these issues. Does that mean that we should move towards a league of democracies that would act outside—my Scottish friends would say “outwith”—the international community? That issue is flagged up in an article in today’s Financial Times by the foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, Mr. Robert Kagan. I am very worried about that development, because we do not strengthen the ability to act, particularly in countries such as Burma, if we do not have the support of the growing major power in Asia, which is China, or of India. If we rely simply on the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Canadians, the United States and European Union countries, that will not be effective.
Sadly, reference has been made to opposition within the UN Security Council to taking responsibility. That is not just China. It is also Russia and South Africa—a non-permanent member of the Security Council that seems to have taken a totally traditionalist attitude to non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. That is the traditional Communist party view from the 1970s, which seems to be influential in the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of South Africa. It is understandable, but it is not right, because in the world today we need the growing economic and political powers, the so-called BRICS—Brazil, India, China and South Africa—to work for the development of international institutions that work. They should not take a traditionalist view that would stop the more effective international organisations that we need to deal with such issues working.
Even if we all agreed, however, we would still face a very difficult situation because we know that intervention is not always easy, and there are unintended consequences. Reference has been made to the no-fly zones in connection with the Kurds in Iraq. I think that John Major’s Government deserved enormous credit for establishing that. It may have been said that it was in accordance with international law, but it is doubtful whether it was. Kosovo, too, comes to mind. Some people have said that the invasion in 1999 was illegal but legitimate. That was done with no UN Security Council authorisation or resolution, and we are still dealing with the consequences of that today with the developments in the Balkans, Serbia and the greater western Balkans.
If there were to be intervention by the “international community”, however defined, without a UN Security Council resolution, it would be contrary to the conditions laid down within the Canadian-sponsored commission, the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel and the UN General Assembly resolution of 2005. It was made explicit in 2005 at the General Assembly that the principle of the responsibility to protect would be based on, first, each state having the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, not from humanitarian disasters. Secondly, the principle is that if a state fails to discharge its responsibility, the international community has a responsibility to use peaceful means to protect the population, and it can also, on a case-by-case basis, as a last resort, and through the Security Council, issue a binding resolution or authorise the use of force if
“national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations”.
There is perhaps an argument that by failing to assist in coping with this disaster, the regime in Burma is manifestly failing to protect its population.
Or worse. But the principle is that the Security Council has to issue a binding resolution. The Chinese and the Russians have at least to acquiesce in it. If not, any intervention would not be authorised by the UN system. That is important.
Then we get to the question of practicalities. There was an interesting article by Bronwen Maddox yesterday in The Times pointing out that even if there were a debate on these matters, the question of legality is irrelevant if the intervention would not improve the situation on the ground. We have heard the arguments about what the NGOs feel about whether air drops can be an effective way to send in the things that are needed. Even though there is a great desire, as there always is in such issues, for something to be done, we have to judge whether what is being proposed will make the situation more difficult to comply with, or whether it will assist.
This is a difficult issue because, as has been recognised, we are not dealing with just a few days’ or a few weeks’ humanitarian assistance. There would have to be a huge commitment, perhaps lasting several years, particularly in areas that have are now under water and have been made impossible for human habitation, from which the populations have to be moved somewhere else and given a new start. That will require, presumably, the co-operation of the Government of the country concerned, or at least their acquiescence, while people come in and in effect take over and create a kind of safe haven. It might be argued that that was done with the northern no-fly zone in Iraq to protect the Kurds, and with the southern no-fly zone to protect the Shi’a population.
Actions have consequences, so the term “responsibility to protect” needs to be clearly defined. Gareth Evans, the former Foreign Minister of Australia, who heads the international crisis group and who chaired the UN panel, is right to say that there are dangers in eroding the definition of what we mean. However, as Opposition Front Benchers pointed out, he also said that there might be circumstances in which such action was necessary. That is similar to the call of the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, for the international community to act.
I will support the amendment. I believe that the Opposition tabled their motion with good intentions, but language such as “responsibility to protect” needs greater clarity. Otherwise, we may find that we undermine an important principle of dealing with humanitarian issues such as war crimes, stopping ethnic cleansing and other matters to which the UN resolution refers.
In the next few weeks, I believe that the Chinese Government will have a decisive influence. I met the Chinese ambassador yesterday, and China is clearly exercised about its perception by the world—whether in the context of Tibet, Darfur, the Olympics or other issues, including the terrible earthquake and its consequences. The Chinese Government have moved into the 21st century in dealing with matters internationally. The Chinese Prime Minister did not do what President Putin did over the submarine Kursk, but went quickly to the area of the disaster. The Chinese Government openly and quickly publicised what was going on, and are prepared to accept international assistance, although they have the capability—and are showing that they have it—to help their people and deal with that enormous disaster.
I hope that such a reaction will translate into Chinese foreign policy and influence some of China’s traditional allies. However, the experience of South Africa shows that Foreign Ministries are sometimes the last redoubts of the conservatives. When domestic reforms happen, people are shunted off to Foreign Ministries—I do not believe that there are any parallels in this country—
The hon. Gentleman is shouting at me, but I will not take an intervention.
The position in Burma today is a tragedy for the people, added to the other tragedies and oppressions that they have suffered. I hope that it means that the world will continue to focus on that country, not only on the immediate disaster but on allowing the people of Burma to have a democratic representative Government so that, in the case of future disasters, they have a Government who care for their people and do their best for them.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He commented on China, which has become a world superpower, and its new position brings new responsibilities. It has some geographical responsibility for Burma, and it must show leadership, talk to the junta that operates there and ensure that the physical and other aid that is needed can get into that country.
When we consider what is happening in Burma after the cyclone and look at the photographs of babies and young children floating in the water or lined up on river banks, it makes us want to cry. When we consider that the junta in charge of that country will stand idly by and prevent humanitarian aid from getting into the country, one simply despairs.
The last time I spoke about Burma in the Chamber a few months ago, I condemned the hideous regime for its reaction to the outpouring of ordinary people, led by the monks, in response to their despair at the poverty that already existed in that country. Now, Burma has been hit by a natural disaster and its Government intervene to prevent the aid that the rest of the world wants to give from getting into the country. People have died and will continue to die because of their Government’s reaction. It is desperate to contemplate why the regime acts in that way.
Whole families are being torn apart. Fathers, mothers and children are dying, orphans are being created and, if the Burmese Government do not relent, disease will break out. Hundreds of thousands of further deaths will ensue if action is not taken now. The junta stands before the world court, and is condemned as guilty of genocide. The actions that it is now taking means that it is as good as murdering its own people. Those actions are a crime against humanity, and in the history to be written in years to come, future generations yet to be born will look at what happened and ask themselves poignantly why the rest of the world did not do more to help and save the Burmese people.
In this Chamber we have already heard the horror stories: not only has the junta acted to stop the aid coming in, but it decided that its rogue referendum would still go ahead. What did that mean? It meant that resources that should have gone to help the people who were dying went towards the holding of the referendum. Vehicles that should have been used to help the people get to safe ground were used to distribute ballot papers. I find it absolutely stunning that the junta carried on with that referendum.
We know that a trickle of aid is getting through, but it will not be enough to help the people who need the food and medicines. I heard that the junta was repackaging the aid coming from the United States simply so that its people might not think that it was coming from another country. It makes me despair to think about those starving Burmese people; the last thing that they were going to do was to read the packaging—they wanted to eat what was in the packaging.
I understand that India gave Burma 41 warnings about the cyclone, starting on Saturday 26 April. The junta did nothing. It took a three-day public holiday and then closed its overseas embassies, causing even more delays for foreign aid workers who needed to get visas. Recent reports indicate that the junta has put only $5 million into helping the victims of the cyclone. However, two years ago the Burmese leader, Than Shwe, spent $300,000 on his daughter’s wedding and she received wedding presents from regime members amounting to more than $50 million.
Rather than diverting its huge army to help alleviate the disaster, the regime has stepped up its attacks on the Karen people since the cyclone. Ben Rogers, of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, has said:
“This is a regime guilty of every possible human rights violation, amounting to crimes against humanity, and possibly a case of genocide. The Generals have presided over campaigns involving the widespread, systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, forced relocation, and the destruction of over 3,200 villages in eastern Burma since 1996. Over a million people are internally displaced as a result of military offensives against civilians. And all this was going on before Cyclone Nargis.”
The regime has only one care: self-preservation and control. As long as it perceives an international presence in Burma as a threat, it will continue to refuse access and to manipulate the aid. The Burmese junta’s intransigence in the face of the catastrophe makes a strong case for the responsibility of the United Nations to protect. I understood fully what the Secretary of State said about nothing being ruled out, and I am delighted that he said it. At some stage, if things carry on as they have been, we are clearly going to have to take further action of a different kind. Otherwise, the people who desperately need the food and aid will not get it.
It is clear that China and Russia, as members of the United Nations Security Council, and India and Burma’s other Asian neighbours can and must now exert some influence on the Burmese regime.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s passion and anger about what has been going on in Burma, but the situation is not new. I worry that he has used the word “despair” about seven times, because I am looking for some hope in this situation. I want to put my point to him in these terms. I am anxious for aid workers to get into Burma. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s priority is not to have a UN discussion on whether genocide has taken place. I also hope that he would rule out military intervention. I say that as someone who has opposed military intervention on every occasion in this House—including in respect of Iraq—because it causes more damage than good every time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not saying that at the back of his mind he imagines a military intervention in Burma. That would not be the answer at all. The answer is to get in professionals from the non-governmental organisations and the UN. However, without a UN agreement, I do not see how he can follow his argument through.
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman how. I make no apology for using the word “despair” seven times—I would use it 27 times if I had more time—or for using passion in my speech. I am sure that he feels anger and passion about what is going on in Burma, which has been going on for many years but is exacerbated by what has happened with the cyclone. His Secretary of State said that he ruled nothing out, and I take him at his word. All of us in this Chamber want the food and humanitarian aid to get through to that country however we are able to do it. We need to get that aid through. We do not want disease and pestilence to break out, leading to several hundred thousand more people dying. We are all agreed about what we want to do.
We have a pecking order of preferences. We want, surely, to use the influence that we have in the United Nations and with Russia and China to encourage them to use their influence on Burma to open the doors to the aid that the rest of the world wants to give it in order to save lives.
I do not think that I need say any more than that, because we are all agreed that we must try to save the people who are in this plight. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) said that it is difficult for us to imagine what it is like in Burma today. Indeed, it is almost impossible for us to imagine how those people are living and the conditions in which they are operating, but we know that we must give them help in some way, shape or form.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that given the brutality of the current regime in Burma, limiting the level of intervention in the way that has been suggested may only encourage it in its intransigence, and that it is therefore important that there be no limit to the level of intervention if it is deemed necessary and deemed to be the only way of helping people who have been left to their own devices?
The Secretary of State said that he is going to rule nothing out. The last thing that we want to do is to come back to this Chamber in one month’s time, or even two months’ time, with nothing having happened, the aid still trickling through, and the regime taking part of that aid away and selling it to other countries. Given that it is even selling rice to other parts of the world when its own people are starving, it is obscene and perverse to say that we are going to carry on with our contractual commitments. I seek assurances from the Government that they are using every effort possible to ensure that we make advances and breakthroughs—the people of Burma deserve nothing less.
As the last Back-Bencher to contribute to the debate, let me put on record how regrettable it is that there is an alternative motion on the Order Paper. This afternoon we had a really good opportunity to strike a strong, united and compassionate position in this House on the desperate plight facing the people of Burma, and we have fallen short of that. We like to pretend that what we say in this place matters, but sometimes we behave as if it does not and as if nobody in the outside world is watching. But people in south-east Asia will pay attention to what we are saying, and it is important that we send a strong signal from this House to the regime in Burma.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) made an outstanding speech in which he rightly observed that even before Cyclone Nargis struck Burma last week the Burmese people were suffering under a humanitarian disaster. That is why 27 aid agencies are already there and Save the Children has 500 personnel on the ground, and why I and several colleagues who sit on the International Development Committee have been calling for many months and years for more DFID aid to go into Burma.
The actions of the regime over the decades towards the people—the military crackdowns, the burnt-out villages, the campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Karen, Chin and Shan peoples of Burma—has led to a humanitarian disaster, and in the past week Cyclone Nargis has added another layer of catastrophe to the suffering of people there.
Forgive me, but I will not give way.
I welcome the new money that the Secretary of State pledged, and I welcome the fact that he clarified that it is additional money. I have a couple of brief points; I do not intend to go over ground that other speakers have gone over already. Earlier on, there was a discussion about air drops, and I sensed a false argument. No one is saying that all the aid should be dropped from the air, or that we should drop water from the air. However, it is not the case, as was suggested by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), that all the NGOs are against air drops. Oxfam and Save the Children have certainly expressed concern about air drops, but one of the directors of the United States Agency for International Development has said that unilateral air drops should be considered as a lever of policy.
On the misappropriation of aid, a couple of speakers have already referred to aid being commandeered by the regime, re-badged, and then either sold on the black market or used inappropriately. During the past 48 hours, I read that some of the high-energy biscuits that arrived on one of the first World Food Programme flights had been taken to a military warehouse. I was not clear about to what use they had been put, but my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) hinted at it when he said that aid is a powerful tool for the junta in Burma. The concern is that because the regime relies so heavily on the support of the military, the 400,000 Burmese soldiers and their families will be prioritised in the disbursement of aid. One senior person from an NGO has expressed to me concern that low quality alternatives are being substituted for high quality, high nutrition biscuits before the aid is distributed to the mass of the population. Indeed, CARE Australia has put on record its concerns about the quality of rice being disbursed, which is very mouldy and of poor quality. There is a need for high quality, nutritional aid.
On the United Nations, the Secretary of State referred to the discussions that the Prime Minister was having with Ban Ki-moon. I am afraid that I do not share the Secretary of State’s optimism for what can be achieved at the UN. Indeed, Ban Ki-moon said that he had spent all weekend trying to get through on the phone to Senior General Than Shwe, with no success.
Forgive me, but I am not going to give way. I have just three or four minutes left.
The fact that the senior general, the ruler of Burma, will not even pick up the phone to speak to the Secretary-General of the UN highlights the way in which the Burmese regime runs rings round the UN time and time again. We saw that from the way it played Ibrahim Gambari in discussions about political reform in Burma. We should be cautious about the amount of optimism we invest in UN processes. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rightly highlighted the need for serious reform of international processes and institutions with regard to how we respond to such disasters.
Mention has been made of the role that the Association of South East Asian Nations can play. It is easy to knock ASEAN; it did not behave as quickly as we would have liked and often dealing with it is a case of two steps forward, one step back—or one step forward and two steps back. That was certainly the case at the end of last year when many of us were initially optimistic that ASEAN would take a strong position on the political situation in Burma and the crackdown on democracy protestors, but in the end we were all slightly disappointed by the relatively weak stand that it took. However, ASEAN is important, and it is trying to assemble a mercy coalition to play some sort of effective role in the humanitarian effort in Burma. Rather than be critical of that, it is incumbent on Ministers and the Department to see what assistance they can provide to the ASEAN effort. The Secretary of State’s Department is recognised as “top of the class” of governmental international aid Departments, and he should look at the assistance and advice that his Department can give to ASEAN’s aid efforts. We want to see ASEAN play a much more productive and constructive role in Burma’s affairs and this disaster perhaps provides an opportunity for it to do so.
I will not go into the responsibility to protect, which numerous other speakers have covered.
Genocide has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). In the early days of the disaster last week, even Liberal Democrat Front Benchers were talking about genocide, in the context of the regime’s initial response. Genocide had been talked about in connection with the Burmese regime long before the disaster struck. Back in June 2006, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) tabled a question asking the Minister responsible at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office whether the Burmese regime’s acts against the ethnic peoples there amounted to genocide. On that occasion, the Government did not take a definite position. In October 2006, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) tabled a similar question, again asking whether the actions of the regime in Burma amounted to genocide or an intent to commit genocide. Again, the Minister concerned did not quite take a clear position.
Many of us hold the view that the behaviour of the regime in recent years amounts to genocide and a clear intention to commit genocide. The regime has strong genocidal tendencies, as has been demonstrated again in recent days.
We cannot quite neatly separate the humanitarian issues from the political issues when we talk about the disaster in Burma of the past seven days. They are bundled up together. Indeed, I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is sitting on the Front Bench this afternoon, because I know that she takes a deep personal interest in the issue. Her presence serves as a reminder that the political issues are wrapped up with the international development issues.
Our hope is that we get a more effective and systematic humanitarian effort up and running. The aid getting through is nothing like enough to bring relief to the people of Burma. However, there is a bigger hope beyond that—that the tragic events of the past week will somehow lead to a new outlook, particularly on the part of the younger generation of Burmese rulers, who will come through when that group of ageing, corrupt and abhorrent generals finally has its day. As has been the case in other parts of the world, disasters have led to political reform. My hope is that once we get through the immediate humanitarian response, there will be a political sea change in Burma.
I apologise that I was not in the Chamber earlier. I was in another meeting and therefore missed many of the contributions from my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am sure that all issues have been covered, whatever I have heard so far.
As an immigrant from India, a neighbouring country, I understand the impact that the current disaster and previous political actions have had not only in Burma, but in neighbouring countries. I am glad that the Indian Government have taken initiatives to provide assistance to the Burmese people, although the current Burmese military regime has not accepted assistance and is creating blockages. It is important that the international community should not only take action to overcome the disaster and help the communities affected now, but ensure that political action is taken to bring forward a more democratic system in Burma; otherwise, the Burmese will continue to suffer not only from natural disasters, but from human disasters.
It is important that the international community should come together to ensure not only that assistance is given to the communities affected, but that the military regime over there is tackled. I am certainly glad to see that the Government have taken initiatives to offer support and will continue to work with hon. Members from all parts of the House to ensure that those people are helped. I will certainly support the Government on that point.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House for giving me the opportunity to sum up this debate.
Outrage has quite rightly been expressed at the climatic disaster that occurred on 2 May, Cyclone Nargis. We have heard speeches of despair and of outrage at what happened in Burma from my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), and my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), for Banbury (Tony Baldry), and for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). Last, but by no means least, we heard the brief contribution from the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma). It was very nice to have his support in the debate today.
Cyclone Nargis was a climatic disaster on a huge scale, the like of which has not been seen since the tsunami of 2004. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, reckons that 1.5 million people have been affected in one way or another, including 1 million who have been made homeless and—depending on whom one believes—up to 100,000 who have died in the Irrawaddy delta and the Rangoon region. Anyone who has seen the pictures—described in such graphic detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley—of bodies floating in the water cannot fail to be moved and to feel desperate to help.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury has already made clear, the sad, poor, egregiously repressed people of Burma lived in appalling conditions long before this climatic disaster struck. One third of them already lived below the poverty line, and one third of children under five were already malnourished. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley said, 1.5 million oppressed people had already been forcibly moved from 3,000 villages in the Karen region and adjoining states.
It is hard for us to understand the junta, led by the generals, stopping aid getting in to save its own people. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West made an extremely good point when he said that 10 days had already passed since the disaster, and that disease would spread exponentially if this situation continued for another 15 or 30 days. That is what will happen if we are not careful. The climatic disaster, which was unavoidable, could well be followed by a second, humanitarian disaster, which is completely avoidable. It would be a disaster of hunger, thirst and, above all, disease. Without sufficient medicine, if measles, cholera and other killer diseases start to take hold, it will be very difficult to stop them.
A plea should go out from the House today to the Burmese generals, to tell them that the aid workers do not want to go into their country for political purposes, and that they want to go in purely for humanitarian purposes. When the Minister winds up the debate, will she tell us exactly what the current position is regarding the Burmese Government’s granting of visas? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley pointed out, it is a disgrace that Burmese officials went on holiday for three days to avoid giving visas to NGO workers.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield that it makes a welcome change to see the Chinese dealing with their own humanitarian disaster. Their Prime Minister was prepared to go to the site of the earthquake to see for himself what was happening and to reveal to the world what was happening. That is a welcome change from what would have happened in that vast country a year or two ago. I believe that the Chinese are changing. I also believe that they put pressure on the North Koreans to reach some kind of deal at the negotiating table. We know that many North Koreans were close to starvation, so it was not simply an issue of nuclear proliferation; it was a humanitarian issue as well. I believe that the Chinese Government recognised that fact. The fact that that the Chinese Government have, almost for the first time, given $5 million in aid to the appeal in Burma is also a welcome sign. In fact, that sum matches what little the Burmese Government have themselves given.
I congratulate our excellent ambassador in Rangoon, and thank him for all the work that he has done. I also thank the excellent and experienced DFID team. Of course, a good range of NGOs—Save the Children, Merlin, the International Red Cross and Oxfam, among others—are already on the ground, as we have heard. I praise what they have been able to do so far. It is not a question of whether enough money and aid have been given; rather, it is a question of allowing that aid to get into the country.
Much has been said—notably by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury—about the responsibility to protect. That doctrine, of course, was designed not for humanitarian or climatic disaster on this scale, but for genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes of humanity. We need to debate very quickly within the UN how to get a UN aid effort into the country, co-ordinating the NGOs and other unilateral and multilateral aid. It would be much better if, instead of bickering over how aid should be got into the country, the generals allowed the UN to take a lead on this subject. I hope that Thailand’s Prime Minister and the European commissioner, who I believe are both in Rangoon today, succeed in persuading the generals to open their doors, as it is hard to know how else we shall get a good lead on getting aid into the country.
However, as the Foreign Secretary has made out, we have to rule nothing in, and we have to rule nothing out. If the right hon. Member for Leeds, West is right, which I suspect he is, disease will become rampant in the next week, 10 days or so. Is the world going to stand by and allow that to happen? I ask the Under-Secretary to clarify what precisely the UN is going to do if that situation develops. She is trying hard to get a UN resolution, which must be the preferred route, but what are the UK Government going to do if, in a week or 10 days’ time, we still do not have it? What alternatives will she consider? That is a really important question for her to answer. It is also important that we ask neighbouring countries—our friends, China, India and Association of South East Asian Nations countries, which could put considerable pressure on the regime—to do more. It is wholly unacceptable for these people to be left to die.
As the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk said in what I thought was a statesmanlike speech, only a trickle of aid is going in at the moment—two or three planes a day when what we need, as he said, is 35 planes a day. That is the scale of the aid needed. Will the Minister tell us whether she is establishing any form of forward bridgehead, which has been done in other humanitarian disasters? It seems to me possible for us to establish in some place a forward bridgehead of all the essential supplies rather than have them coming in from all over the world. They should be accessible in one place—perhaps one that is acceptable to the Burmese junta, such as Bangkok. We should consider what more we can do in that respect.
We also need to consider how to put Burma back together for the longer term. Once again, the right hon. Member for Leeds, West made a very perceptive point about that. Speaking as a farmer, I understand only too well how the sediment of the Irrawaddy basin has been washed away, altering the pattern of rice and other crop growing in the area for a very long time. The ground will become saline for many months to come, so the people will simply not be able to feed themselves. In view of the fact that 40 per cent. of Burmese rice comes from the Irrawaddy delta, a big effort will be required of the World Food Programme to deal with the problem, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) said. We need to think about that now. How can we get a sufficient volume of food in? Assuming that we can solve the first wave of the problem by letting in humanitarian aid, medical supplies and emergency food and water, how are we going to deal with the second ongoing wave and keep the Burmese population alive and flourishing?
In conclusion, this is a humanitarian disaster that could yet get substantially worse. It is a harrowing experience to watch people die on our television screens every night. We, the UK Government and the world community must summon every effort we can muster from wherever it might come to try to stem this disaster. We have to impress on the Burmese regime that it is in their own and their people’s interest to stop this crisis and allow aid in. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how our Government are managing to procure that situation.