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Mongolia (UK Relations)

Volume 506: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2010

I am a very happy man this afternoon for three reasons. First, it is my birthday and I am not yet 50—I am well under 50, one might say. That is one good reason to celebrate. Secondly, Mr. Cummings, if I had chosen the Chairman for the debate from the Chairmen’s Panel myself, I could not have chosen a better man than your good self—a fellow member of the all-party group on Mongolia, a visitor to Mongolia and possibly the only other Member of the House who has had an intern or member of staff from Mongolia in the past, just as I at the moment have an intern from Mongolia called Mr. Bakhyt, who has assisted me with preparation for the debate.

Thirdly, looking back in the annals of this place, I find it hard to place a previous debate on Mongolia, certainly in recent times, yet the United Kingdom has a proud record of relations with Mongolia, dating from when we were the first nation in the west to recognise Mongolia, in 1963. When the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, met the Mongolian President in April 2007, part of the declaration stated:

“This long association has given the UK a special position in Mongolia, with the Mongolians looking to Britain for advice in their transition to democracy and a market economy.”

Therefore, I thought I would use the minutes available to me to list 10 basic facts about Mongolia—some perhaps surprising, some perhaps well known and all of them pretty well known to you, Mr. Cummings. The first is that Mongolia is now a proud democracy. That is something we share with the nation of Mongolia. It is something not only to be proud of, but to be cherished in the part of the world where Mongolia is situated. One cannot really say the same about China. One cannot say the same about Russia. Mongolia became in effect independent in 1911, when the Chinese left. It was the second nation to become a communist nation after the Soviet Union, and was dominated by the Soviet Union for many years. It suffered dreadfully through Stalin’s purges and the oppression of Buddhism.

If we fast-forward to 1990, Mongolia was not perhaps the most likely candidate to be an emerging democracy, but in 1990, as the Russians pulled out, 3,000 people gathered in Sukhbaatar square in Ulan Bator and demanded democracy and, within a few weeks, democracy had begun to emerge. Since then, we have seen the rotation of power quite regularly. Fairly recently, we saw the transition of power from President Enkhbayar of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary party, which is a sister party to the Labour party, although it is having a healthy debate about its name at the moment and whether it is time to go back to the party’s original name, which was the Mongolian People’s party. It is perhaps the only example remaining of a party that existed under communism that has modernised and retained the support of a large proportion of the population. Anyway, President Enkhbayar lost the election and there was a peaceful and successful transition of power to President Elbegdorj, who was involved in 1990 in some of the demonstrations for freedom.

At the moment, there is a Government involving both main parties. There were some very unfortunate riots in July 2008, following the last parliamentary elections. That was a big shock to the political system. A number of people died, and I think that all political parties realised that they had to govern in the interests of all the people of Mongolia. The coalition emerged from that and was a specific Mongolian response to that time. There is a free media. The elections are judged to be free and fair by international standards. There is still much to do on combating corruption and improving the judicial system, but Mongolia holds its place among the democratic nations.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that when the United Kingdom recognised Mongolia in 1963, a previous Member of the House called Sir Fitzroy Maclean, who some people say was Ian Fleming’s inspiration for James Bond, wrote an article. He was a Member of the House until the 1970s. The first lines of the article were:

“As far as I can remember, I first became aware of the existence of Outer Mongolia twenty-five years ago, in Moscow. Idly looking through the list of my fellow members of the diplomatic corps not long after my arrival there, I came upon the Legation of the People’s Republic of Outer Mongolia, headed by the Minister, Monsieur Sambuu, and at the next official reception I was able to identify him by his characteristically Mongolian countenance and his charmingly Mongolian-looking wife.”

That could almost be something from an Ian Fleming novel, but at the time it was an extremely progressive move by the British Government to recognise Mongolia. We had an enormous embassy there at one stage, which I suspect was full of spies rather like James Bond as much as diplomats during the cold war, but that has stood us in good stead and it brings me on to the second point, which has to do with the economy.

It is perhaps not known widely in the House that various newspaper articles, particularly in the financial press, have recently been comparing Mongolia to Dubai. That was before the Dubai crash; they were saying that it would be the new Dubai. The comparison was made on the basis of Mongolia’s small population of just 2.5 million people and its rich mineral resources. Its gross domestic product per head is only about $2,500, but it is rising. Currently, the economy is largely based on mining, which dominates the industrial sector, and on agriculture. Just before Christmas, an historic agreement was reached for the Oyu Tolgoi mine, which is a complex in the Gobi desert. It has a mixture of copper and gold. Ivanhoe Mines, the Canadian mining company, was leading on that, but Rio Tinto has a stake in the mine that could rise to nearly 50 per cent. should it so choose. That means that there is very much a British interest.

It is important to note that the Mongolian Government have retained a 34 per cent. stake in the mining company. There has been a long debate in the country about ensuring that the local population get proper benefits from mining. People there have looked at the experience of other countries, perhaps where the local currency has appreciated, destroying the rest of the manufacturing sector, and I think that all political parties in Mongolia are determined to ensure that ordinary Mongolian people get a benefit.

The mining complex to which I am referring is huge. There are 440,000 metric tonnes of copper and 337,000 oz of gold there, and it is just one of many potential deposits. The Tavan Tolgoi coking coal mine is not too far away. The Government have said that they would prefer to retain ownership of that, but involve foreign companies in extracting the coal. Altogether, there are possibly 8,000 deposits of 440 different minerals across Mongolia and only 200 of those are currently being exploited.

However, that is only part of the picture of Mongolia, because half the labour force still work in the countryside. Just under half live in Ulaanbaatar and a good deal of the rest live in the countryside. Some 250,000 families have extensive livestock. Three quarters of those rely entirely on the livestock and their income from them. It is worth mentioning at this point that one reason why I wanted to have the debate now was that this has been a very harsh winter in Mongolia and more than 1 million—perhaps 1.7 million—livestock have died. The very heavy snow has followed the drought of last summer, which is the worst possible combination because food has not been stored up for the livestock.

The United Nations warned just a few weeks ago in late January that Mongolia’s severe weather threatens lives. The statement said that 19 of Mongolia’s 21 provinces had been hit by heavy winter snow and temperatures that had plunged below minus 40°. That puts our own winter in context. The UN’s resident co-ordinator in Mongolia, Rana Flowers, said:

“The poor did not have the resources to stockpile food or fuel for heating and the supplies in the now inaccessible villages as a whole are stretched.”

I am very pleased that the European Union has responded, and that the United Kingdom is playing a major role. The Mongolian President met José Manuel Barroso a few weeks ago. The EU has increased aid, pledging €150,000 to help Mongolia tackle the severe winter. Mr. Barroso also said that that the EU plans to increase assistance by 40 per cent. to €5 million a year, or $7 million, to support the Mongolian national development plan. It is worth noting that extensive efforts are being made in London. The Mongolian Association in the UK is organising a dinner at the Renaissance Chancery Court hotel to raise funds to help with the difficulties suffered in Mongolia.

I am aware of the time, Mr. Cummings, so I shall rattle through the remainder of my 10 points to enable the Minister to reply. It is a matter of pride that the Mongolian President recently took the brave decision to abolish the death penalty. Since coming to office, he has commuted all death sentences to a 30-year jail sentence. That was not an easy thing for him to do. I hope that the Mongolian Parliament will debate the matter in the near future, and that it will back the President and abolish the death penalty for good. That was a difficult decision, but it is a measure of the quality of debate on human rights that is now occurring in Mongolia. It is worth noting that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has tabled a motion commending Mongolia on that action, which has been signed by 33 Members.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Genghis Khan, the Mongolian national hero. A few years ago, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of his rise to power; he united the Mongolian people and conquered most of the known world. A recent study suggested that Genghis Khan’s direct descendants constitute 8 per cent. of men in a large part of Asia, and 0.5 per cent. of the world’s population. His reputation is twofold—he was obviously a conqueror, but Mongolian people take great pride in the fact that he introduced the rule of law, written language and education. Some of those traditions have lasted down the centuries, so his legacy is in many ways a positive one.

I invite any Members who want to come to the annual reception of the all-party group on Mongolia on 8 March in this place, and I am sure that you will attend, Mr. Cummings, if you can. We are also having a joint seminar on the Mongolian economy with the British-Mongolian chamber of commerce, which I co-chair with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry).

Tourism has great potential in Mongolia. I understand that about 7,000 British tourists a year visit Mongolia. It is a starkly beautiful country. I hope that MIAT, the Mongolian airline, will introduce direct flights to Ulan Bator before too long, which would reduce journey time to about nine hours. Mongolians coming here realise that they will need visas and to meet the necessary requirements, but I hope that our embassy in Beijing and the subcontractor that considers visa applications will be aware of the different context for Mongolia. I know that there have been various discussions at an official level about that.

The sixth point is that Leeds and Mongolia have many links. Cashmere cloth was supplied to Burton’s factory in Leeds, and the previous President of Mongolia was educated at Leeds. Point number seven is that we should not forget our military links. Mongolia has an efficient army, which has been in action alongside British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for sport, it is a matter of fact that Mongolia is one of those nations that voted at the last minute for London to host the Olympics. It rejected the blandishments of Paris, and we are eternally grateful for that. Mongolia won its first gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and it had a team of two in Vancouver, but I think we will have plenty of boxers, wrestlers, judo players and archers in London.

Point nine is that many institutions in Mongolia look to Britain for advice and examples. The old public service television channel has remodelled itself on the BBC, and is independent of Government. The Education Minister, who visited Britain only a few weeks ago, is very keen to introduce some of the Cambridge education board’s standards to Mongolia.

I pay tribute to some of the people who have been crucial to relations between Britain and Mongolia in recent years. Mr. Altangerel is the Mongolian ambassador, and Mr. Davaasambuu was his predecessor; and Mr. Bill Dickson is our ambassador in Mongolia.

I end with what may be a little-known fact—that the Mongolian community in London and worldwide celebrated its new year last year. The dates are not the same as the Chinese new year. It is appropriate for the House to wish a happy new year to all Mongolians who contribute to London—at least 6,000 or 7,000 of them study or work here—and also to the people of Mongolia.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, not least because of something that I did not know—that you are interested in Mongolia and are committed to the cause.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). Given the many activities that he undertakes in the House, I find it difficult to believe that in a few months’ time he will no longer be a Member. I hope that the House manages to find a suitable replacement for him as chairman of the all-party group on Mongolia, even if it is a pale imitation. All-party country groups do an invaluable job not only for Parliament but for British interests. They maintain long-standing relationships, which Ministers, who change with monotonous regularity and ludicrous frequency, sometimes find more difficult to achieve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his birthday. He said that Mongolians celebrated their new year last year. They celebrate it every year; I think that he meant last week. I too wish them a happy new year.

As my hon. Friend said, Mongolia has a proud and long history. The Mongol state was created by Genghis Khan in 1206. My hon. Friend alluded to the country’s legal systems and the rights of the individual, which may seem to have been lost during the years of Soviet domination. However, they are now flourishing in a way that has not been possible for many years. The Mongolian People’s Republic, founded in 1924, gave way to the democratic revolution in 1990. That may have had many strengths, but we all recognise the dramatic improvements that have come about in the short time since 1990.

We should remember that Mongolia is not a wealthy country. It is the 19th largest country in terms of its geography, but the most sparsely populated. As a result it faces particular difficulties. My hon. Friend referred to the problems that Mongolia has had over the past two years—the drought and then the zud, which is the Mongol name for the very harsh winter that the country has suffered this year. I was in Moscow last week, and it felt cold enough at minus 10° C. The temperature in 90 per cent. of Mongolia is between minus 35° C and minus 40° C. That is very rough. As we heard, more than 1 million animals have died, which represents about 2 per cent. of the country’s livestock, 73 people have been transferred to hospital for frostbite and a couple of people have died. Such events are not new to Mongolia; they occur regularly, as do the problems in relation to drought. When we talk about the effects of climate change, we tend to focus on the bits of the world that we know best, but we also need to consider areas such as Mongolia. People tend to think that the warming of the world will be a good thing, but there is a real danger that Mongolia will suffer from further levels of drought, and that the intensity of the winters will get worse rather than better. Yet again, we have another reason why we need to tackle the important world issue of climate change.

The one issue that my hon. Friend did not refer to was the festival of Naadam, which runs from 11 to 13 July. It is a big, important festival that is specifically Mongolian. In this House, we rarely sit down and write the rules of football, but I gather that at last year’s discussions the Mongolians decided to change some of the categories and awards that are given for success in the three main parts of Naadam, which are archery, wrestling and horse racing—long-distance horse racing and not our polite version of going around a track once.

My hon. Friend also referred to the BBC and the reforms that have been introduced in Mongolia in relation to broadcasting. He is absolutely right; there are now some 300 different outlets, including broadcasting and newspapers. That is a very important part of ensuring that the 3 million people who live in Mongolia have not just the structures of democracy but the freedom of expression and association that go with them. Anything that we can do to help in that process, we stand ready to provide.

My hon. Friend also referred to the issue of the death penalty. I wholeheartedly congratulate the President on bringing forward his announcement on 14 January of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and of its abolition from 2011. Such an announcement must have been of particular delight to him because he first brought forward a resolution on the matter—unsuccessfully—in 1991. To be able now to abolish the death penalty in Mongolia is a very dramatic personal achievement. He has invested a great deal of his political life into ensuring that all Mongolians can enjoy the same human rights as those elsewhere in the world, and it is a significant achievement. Those who have already been sentenced have had the death penalty commuted to 30 years’ imprisonment.

In 1993, we were the first country to open up diplomatic relations with Mongolia and we are very proud of that. We have a strong relationship with the country, thanks to our commercial links. Changes in the investment law will mean that not only will Rio Tinto be able to open the mine at Oyu Tolgoi for copper and gold, which could be worth something in the region of $300 billion, but there will be significant extra possibilities for a whole range of other British companies that would like to invest in Mongolia. There are many other countries in the world that would benefit from a similar change in the law. If Mexico, for example, went down the same route as Mongolia and changed its investment laws, it might be possible to extract some of the oil that is presently available in the Gulf, for the benefit of Mexicans.

We have had a large number of high-level visits recently. The Minister for Minerals and Energy visited in December and saw the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who would normally be here to lead this debate, but is abroad. He also met Ministers in the Departments for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of Energy and Climate Change, and for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss climate change and business developments. Last February, the Minister for Education, Culture and Science also visited the UK and, as I understand it, had particularly interesting discussions with colleagues in Cambridge. In January, the Duke of York had a bilateral meeting with the President of Mongolia at Davos where he was awarded an honour for his continued service to Mongolia. I am absolutely certain that if Mongolia was to give out any more awards, the next one would go to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this debate today. We are conscious that we need to do more to reinforce our relationship with Mongolia. I am delighted with the recent formation of the UK-Mongolia chamber of commerce, of which my hon. Friend is vice-chair or vice-president. We look forward to working closely with it to ensure that the reciprocal interests between Mongolia and the United Kingdom are upheld, and I look forward to attending the presentation of the honour from Mongolia to my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.