Meeting with Anatol Liabedzka, chairman of the United Civil Party of Belarus and head of the National United Democratic Forces, a coalition of 20 political parties which support democracy.
President Lukaschenko has changed his rhetoric since Putin became president of Russia, no longer favouring anschluss. He is still quite popular in spite of his authoritarian rule, but since the beginning of 2007 when the Russians stopped subsidising oil and gas supplied to Belarus, the cost of living and unemployment have risen.
Among political prisoners are Alyaksandr Kazulin, serving five and a half years after an unfair trial; Zmitser Dashkevich, imprisoned for 18 years for belonging to an unregistered organisation, and Andrej Klimov, who has been imprisoned three times. There will be elections in the autumn of 2008 and without freedom of expression they will be meaningless.
The government produce half a million copies of their official daily paper. The opposition paper Freedom of Belarus, has to be printed abroad, and they can only afford 50,000 copies. There is an opposition website, hosted in Germany. He didn’t think the audiences for BBC World Service or Radio Free Europe in Belarus were very large, or that they were reaching people who needed to be convinced of the merits of democracy. (I since asked them, and the BBC say they have an audience of 67,000 for the Russian, 5,000 English service; RFE say they reach 1% of the population, about 100,000)
Because of low wages and rising costs, there is large scale emigration, with 600,000 in Russia alone. Officially there is no unemployment. The average pay in Minsk is the equivalent of $450 a month, and the rent of a one-room flat is $250.
Lunch with Tameem Ebrahim at which we discussed citizenship problems, mostly relating to Hong Kong. We have dealt with British National (Overseas) citizens of Indian origin, but there are remaining problems with the Nepalese. But in both cases, where a person was documented by the state concerned, notwithstanding that under the law of Nepal or India a person can’t be a citizen of another country and Indian or Nepalese as the case may be, the British are demanding a certificate that the document was issued in error.
PM, first meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Intergovernmental Organisations, chairman Clive Soley. Terms of reference are to consider how international issues are addressed through our membership of intergovernmental organisations other than the EU, and how our membership contributes to the achievement of specific UJ policy objectives. This is a very wide field, and the Committee will have to confine its inquiries to particular objectives, still to be decided.
Meeting on the Chittagong Hill Tracts. There are good prospects for revival of the international Chittagong Hill Tracts, which did good work in the 90s. The problems still remain: militarization of the CHT; continued dilution of the indigenous people by internal migration of Bengali settlers; failure to implement the 1997 CHT Peace Accords, and human rights violations which are largely unreported in the outside world.
Question on the Rights of the Child. The Government say they need a reservation to make it possible to remove failed child asylum seekers, but other European countries manage without a reservation. Ministers claimed in the Borders Bill that full compliance would create a new avenue of appeal against refusal, but they are wrong; the Convention wouldn’t create any new appeal rights, but could only give applicants additional arguments they could deploy in existing appeals. If this is the fear, the Convention should at least be extended to all other functions of the Borders and Immigration Agency other than the implementation of decisions to grant, refuse or vary leave to remain in the UK.
The Minister who replied, Christine Crawley, didn’t answer these points, and I shall have to write to her.
After questions I met a party of MA students from City University, showed them round the Palace of Westminster, and gave them a thumbnail sketch of the work of the House.
Then to Wormwood Scrubs Prison, for a multi-faith event there to mark Prisons Week. Ironically, because of the endemic shortage of staff, none of the prisoners were able to attend, but there were representatives of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism. The Address was given by the Ven Ajahn Khemadhammo Mahathera, Spiritual Head of the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Angulimala, He said that when he had started work in the prisons, an event of this kind would have been unthinkable. With Burmese monks at the ceremony, he pointed out that recently, monks had taken to the streets there armed only with the Buddha’s words of lovingkindness, even in the face of oppression. Religion gave us a standard: how to live without anger but with friendship to all. If we took this example out into society, just imagine how the world would be transformed. The Prison Service Chaplaincy was to be praised for bringing all the faiths together, and with that peace and harmony we could end violence, anger and hatred.
Meeting with NGOs to discuss the Climate Change Bill. It was difficult to see how it could be applied to development issues, the remit being entirely concerned with the UK’s attainment of emission reduction targets.
Then to Cambridge, where I spoke to the University LibDems on foreign affairs generally, and conflict resolution in particular.
The House didn’t sit today, but I chaired a meeting of the Traveller Law Reform Unit Advisory Committee. The Committee discussed the recent judgement of the European Human Rights Court in the case of DH & others v Czech Republic [57325/00], in which it was decided that the authorities had acted unlawfully in segregating Roma children into special schools, and whether this had any bearing on the exclusion of Gypsy and Traveller children from schools in England and Wales. It was acknowledged, however, that the Department for Children, Schools and Families was very supportive. The Committee discussed the extension of Mobile Homes Act security of tenure to Gypsies and Travellers in the Housing and Regeneration Bill; the need for research on evictions, and on existing local authority sites that were unsuitable because of their proximity to rubbish tips, motorways, sewage works etc.