House of Lords calls on British government to stop Karen genocide

 Several members of the House of Lords have called on the British government to do much more to try and end the Burmese military's genocide against the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities. They also paid tribute to the courage of James Mawdsley, a British Christian who has been sentenced to 17 years' imprisonment for distributing human rights literature in Burma and who was recently beaten up by his prison guards. On Monday, the Lords debated the question of whether the British government would consider measures to bring to justice those responsible for genocide and abuses of human rights in Burma. Lord Alton of Liverpool, who initiated the debate, urged the British government to use its seat at the United Nations Security Council to lobby for the setting up of an international criminal tribunal on Burma to try that country's military regime for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as has been done in the case of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He reminded the British government of its duty under Article 1 of the 1948 Convention on Genocide to try to prevent genocide from taking place. Lord Archer of Sandwell, a Labour peer and former solicitor general, backed Lord Alton's call for the setting up by the UN of an international criminal tribunal on Burma. He said: "By assuring the evil-doers of impending retribution, we may save lives before it is too late. And that may add to the developing culture of a global conscience and a global rule of law which may consign crimes of genocide to history." The Bishop of Oxford said: "We need something now to show the Burmese government that the world takes what they are doing as seriously as it takes what has happened elsewhere. I believe that the Karen, Karenni and Shan people need international support now before thousands more are relocated and killed. "The setting up of an international criminal tribunal would send a clear signal and I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government will be able to support it." Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, said that as a veteran of the Second World War, who fought in Burma, he was in a special position to appreciate the support which the Karen people loyally gave to the British during that conflict. He reminded the British government that, "We should not forget or overlook that they came to our aid at our time of need. Surely we have a duty and a moral obligation to support them as positively as we can at a time when they are facing virtual extinction." He added that the very least the British government could do would be to lobby the United Nations security council for an international criminal tribunal on Burma to bring to account those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity and, if the government really did have an ethical foreign policy, then surely stopping genocide should be a top priority. Baroness Scotland of Asthal, speaking on behalf of the British government, claimed that the Karen, Karenni and Shan were not facing genocide, even though she acknowledged that there were very serious human rights abuses in Burma. She admitted that some of the eyewitness accounts we see can only be described as "horrific". She said, "It is a disgrace that the Burmese government continue to put out statements claiming that no atrocities are committed against the ethnic minorities." Lord Alton of Liverpool said, "I am delighted by the widespread support I have had from several Lords in this debate, including the ex-solicitor general, the former Speaker of the House of Commons and the Bishop of Oxford. I hope that the British government will stop delaying and take urgent and decisive action for the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities who are currently being slaughtered by the Burmese military. Now is the time for action, not excuses and thousands of people's lives depend on this." Wilfred Wong, Jubilee Campaign's parliamentary officer, who is also a lawyer and who briefed several of the debate's participants, said, "The British government claims that they do not consider 'genocide' an appropriate term to describe the Burmese regime's behaviour. They say that genocide has a specific definition under international law. Yet they continually fail to give specific or adequate reasons why the situation of the Karen, Karenni and Shan do not fit within the definition of genocide. "The British government appears to think they know the definition of genocide better then we do, yet in the debate Lord Brennan and Lord Archer, both of whom are Queen's Counsels and highly respected senior lawyers backed our submissions. During the debate, Lord Alton read out the legal definition of genocide and related the facts of the minorities' situation to this definition. We have been doing legal research on this issue for the last two and a half years but, in contrast, the British government have simply dismissed its applicability without seriously investigating this question. Thus we can only conclude that the real reasons that the British government do not accept that genocide is taking place in Burma are political rather than based on thorough and objective legal research and analysis. This only undermines the effectiveness of international humanitarian law and encourages regimes to think they can commit mass murder and get away with it." Over 30,000 Karen have died as a direct or indirect result of Burmese military action since 1992. Over 600,000 Karen, Karenni and Shan people are internally displaced, many of them without any food or medicine and hiding in the jungle from the Burmese army, who kill them on sight.

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