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David Lidington highlights China, Burma and Zimbabwe in Westminster Hall debate on human rights

Lidington_david_new David Lidington MP, Conservative Foreign Affairs: "I want to talk briefly about three specific countries. China has been mentioned a lot, and it would be wrong of me to omit it because I had the opportunity to go to Beijing and Lhasa last month as part of a cross-party delegation led by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman). We had some frank conversations in both cities about human rights and what struck me was that although the Chinese officials to whom we spoke firmly defended the policy of the Chinese state, they were prepared to engage in discussion and argument. We saw some evidence that life had improved considerably—particularly in terms of freedom to pray in Tibet and in Xining, where we visited a mosque—from what used to be the case, especially during the cultural revolution. As other hon. Members have said, there are still massive problems such as the denial of routine internet access, the blocking of sites such as the BBC’s, the difficulties and persecution faced by unlicensed religious groups and the re-education through labour campaign that, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) pointed out, amounts to full detention without trial.

The prospect of the Olympics in 2008 provides an opportunity for Britain and the EU to accelerate the human rights dialogue with China. Clearly, we are dealing with a country that represents a quarter of the world’s population, is a permanent member of the Security Council and without which it will be impossible to tackle many serious global challenges, such as climate change or international terrorism. There are important reasons for Britain to have a constructive relationship with China, but I hope that the Minister will agree that we do not serve our own interests if we ignore the question of human rights. Frankly, I think that the Chinese would be astonished if we were to do so. I hope that we will see that dialogue pressed forward with greater urgency.

My impression is that the Chinese Government want, at the time of the Olympics, to showcase the history, culture and tremendous modern economic achievements of the Chinese people. They know that they will be subjected to unprecedented international scrutiny and that a lot of that scrutiny will be critical. It is opportune to keep reminding the Chinese Government of the commitment to ratify the international convention on civil and political rights and to bring forward the changes to the criminal justice code that have often been promised but have not been fully delivered.

Let me turn now to Burma. The Independent newspaper today has starkly reminded us of the atrocities that are taking place in Rangoon and elsewhere. Other hon. Members criticised internet providers for their willingness to accept restrictions on access in China in particular. I want to voice a word of congratulation to the BBC for the performance of the Burmese service in recent weeks. It provided a lifeline to the people of Burma by telling them what was going on inside their own country. I know that people have worked for and spoken to the BBC from inside Burma at enormous risk to themselves, because they regarded it as vital that the truth got out. That is just one reminder of the fact that we have something of real value in the BBC World Service.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s words at the time of the demonstrations in Burma. It is a pity that the issue was not taken to the Security Council a long time ago. In view of the EU Council next week, I hope that the Minister can be specific about the measures that our Government will propose that the EU should collectively adopt. I hope that there will be an intensification of sanctions directed at the members of the junta and their families, such as action against overseas bank accounts, and I hope too that the Government will keep up the pressure not only on China but on India, Thailand and Japan, which all have significant investments inside Burma and are in a position to exercise some leverage on the regime.

Turning to Zimbabwe, I welcome the Prime Minister’s declaration that he will not attend the summit in Lisbon in December if President Mugabe is going to be there. What I am not yet clear about is who would attend on behalf of the United Kingdom if the Prime Minister chose to boycott that summit because of Mugabe’s presence. Would it be a Cabinet Minister? Will the Minister be lumbered with that task herself? Would the British delegation be at only an official, rather than ministerial, level?

Secondly, what do the Government propose to do if Mugabe bottles out but is replaced by a senior member of his regime—perhaps by somebody who is known to be complicit in the atrocities that have been carried out in that country? In those circumstances, will Ministers stay away? Will they regard it as an important principle to sustain the boycott under such circumstances?

Thirdly—this came up at Foreign Office questions the other day—when will we see some action on President Mugabe’s honorary knighthood? I really cannot believe that it has taken so long for action to be taken. It is hardly as if he needs to drive down the Mall in order for it to be ceremonially stripped from him. I hope that the Minister can announce some decisive action in that respect.

At the beginning of my remarks, I said that respect for human rights should be integral to both foreign and domestic policy. That point was made very firmly by the Committee’s Chairman when he opened the debate. The Government need to explain how they can justify the combination of a foreign policy that rightly gives a high priority to human rights, and one at home under which Ministers are still trying to deport people to Burma. We know of the case of Lay Naing, who is active in the Burmese underground opposition movement and who has been imprisoned in Burma already for criticising the junta, and who faces the prospect of enforced removal from Britain.

We know that the Government are still fighting through the courts to try to deport people to Zimbabwe. Some estimates say that about 1,000 asylum seekers lost their cases last year and now face deportation. I do not know whether the estimate is accurate, but I can say to the Minister that in my constituency surgery, practically every fortnight at least one Zimbabwean asylum seeker resisting removal from Britain comes to see me. The Government have even been trying to deport Darfuris to Sudan. If human rights are indivisible, we need some joined-up thinking and government. On that point, again, I hope that she can give us some reassurance."

More from Hansard here.


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