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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Ethical Dilemmas

Monday, June 23, 2008

At the ‘ethical dilemmas’ conference organised by the Northern Region of the Co-operative Group at Northern College, Meg made the following remarks.

 

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

 

I joined the Co-operative Party in my teens. I have been an active member as well as active within the Society, and I had the honour of being elected President of the 2006 Co-operative Congress. I’ve also been the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Heeley since 2001 and a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since July 2007.

 

It’s good to see you here discussing ethics and there relationship in life, in business. It is, or should be, our ethical stance as co-operators which mark us out as different to most of the business world.

 

I intend to talk about fair-trade and human rights this afternoon.  

 

Fairtrade

I’m very pleased that the Co-operative retail movement is the leading British retailer for Fairtrade. It was the first major retailer to sell fair-trade products in its stores back in 1994. This follows the tradition of the co-operative movement - doing business fairly, honestly and democratically, in a world where we still too often find exploitation of the weak, few rights for workers and unfair trading practices.  

 

The objective of Fairtrade: to ensure that producers receive a fair share for their goods is right. Countries that rely mainly on sales of agricultural products get a larger share of the world’s GNP, and thus are more able to spend money to meet the needs of their people.

 

As well as being beneficial to the grower, Fairtrade products usually offer the consumer better quality, including crops grown using fewer pesticides or by organic cultivation. Growers naturally select the best of their crops for Fairtrade because they receive a higher price.

 

The Fairtrade Mark provides reassurance to customers who want to buy products they can trust. Through the Co-operative Food stores alone, Fairtrade sales exceeded 40million in 2006, out of UK total of 290million this compared to just 100,000 in 1998.

 

Through Fairtrade, we’re encouraging farmers to help themselves out of poverty. The world is suffering high food prices at the moment, but the best way to help those in developing countries beat food shortages and poverty is giving them the tools and capabilities to help themselves. Fairtrade is leading the way in doing just that.

 

Human Rights

It’s all too easy for human rights to be given a bad name with tabloid newspapers ready to pounce on decisions by government that they don’t like by suggesting that our human rights legislation is at fault. When we look round the world we see that many people do not enjoy the human rights that we take for granted, whether it’s the right to free expression, the right to a fair trial or the right to humane treatment in prison.

 

Human rights are central to the work done with countries around the world by the Foreign Office and in our work in international organisations. This includes individual cases of concern, but also institutional problems such as with prisons or justice systems. As well as lobbying countries on these issues, our embassies often choose to use funds for local programmes that support projects that improve human rights. A couple of examples I have seen, are the development of improved court processes in a region of Mexico, and the development of a modern prison system in the Dominican Republic.

 

In addition to the work in countries, the UK has two formal human rights dialogues, with Russia and China. This means that on a regular basis officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office meet to discuss particular human rights concerns. One example is the respect for human rights in Tibet by China. The regular nature of the dialogue allows issues to be followed up and improvements to be monitored.

 

We’re also involved in the EU’s human rights dialogues. There are a whole range of these in different formats. To give you some examples:

  • the EU has formal dialogues with Russia, China and Iran.
  • In its relationships with other regional bodies it discusses human rights. For example Euromed, (countries of southern Mediterranean and Middle East), African countries under the Cotonou Agreement. 

The objectives of dialogues are:

  • to have frank discussions of human rights issues and concerns,
  • to share relevant experience and best practice, and
  • to raise individual cases of concern. This is usually the most controversial element. 

Human rights are a fundamental part of our developed society. They were formally adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and celebrates its 60 years inauguration this year. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of human rights:

 

“It is our duty to ensure that these rights are a living reality -- that they are known, understood and enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. It is often those who most need their human rights protected, who also need to be informed that the Declaration exists -- and that it exists for them.”

 

The UN human rights council meets in Geneva and is important in both monitoring human rights around the world and in drawing attention to human rights’ violations. Only this week it produced an important statement on the situation in Burma.

 

The UN has in recent years developed the concept of ‘responsibility to protect’. One of its important aims is to provide a legal and ethical basis for humanitarian intervention: the intervention by external actors, preferably the international community through the UN, in a state that is unwilling or unable to prevent or stop genocide, massive killings and other massive human rights violations.

 

Britain has advocated the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’ concept for some time. We have learnt lessons from conflicts in the past and have determined that brutal oppressive regimes should be tackled in order to allow democracy to prevail.

 

In my Ministerial job I have been dealing with the brutal activity against human rights and democracy in Burma.

 

Extraordinary pictures

Last September and early October the situation in Burma dominated TV and our newspapers front pages - the extraordinary pictures of monks and Burmese citizens showing incredible bravery in standing up against the military regime. We saw those same monks and citizens suffering appalling violence, including TV footage of the shooting dead of a Japanese journalist.

 

That was followed by mass arrests, invasion of monasteries by the army, beatings, suppression of anything that might show that the Burmese people wanted political change. The military regime tried to shut down the opportunities for the true story of what was happening to come out.

 

The events of last year provided the best opportunity for nearly 20 years to try and achieve change, a move to a more democratic society. We need continued international engagement that the protests of last autumn created, and crucially the sense of moral outrage that was articulated around the world following the brutal crackdown.

 

Since then of course Burma has suffered the devastation of Cyclone Nargis. Burma faces the biggest humanitarian crisis in the region since the tsunami in 2004, with thousands homeless and at risk of disease.

 

The military government’s response has been inhumane and appalling. Thousands have suffered and died as a result. They refused to let international aid and assistance in and even initially refused to take phone calls from the UN Secretary General.

 

During these dreadful circumstances in Burma the military regime chose to go ahead with a referendum on the country’s constitution. Even before the cyclone the referendum was judged unlikely to be free and fair; now the outcome is without any credibility whatsoever.

 

The Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest whilst her people suffer. Thursday was her birthday. It should be a time of reflection and increased determination to tackle the military junta. However the effects of the cyclone have made this more difficult and the international community must continue to concentrate efforts on humanitarian aid.

 

There are a number of international organisations who support, directly or indirectly, the Burmese regime. Unlike the Co-operative Bank, whose ethical policy is to refuse the use of its banking services to any organisation that has dealings with the Burmese military regime. 

 

To conclude

There are a number of dilemmas that we may like to consider, both on fair-trade and human rights.

 

Regarding fair-trade:

  • are we prepared to pay more for our goods now we are seeing increasing food prices?
  • are we prepared to lessen trade restrictions to allow more fair-trade into the EU and Britain, which may affect food production, prices and employment inside the EU?   

In the case of human rights:

  • how far does a country Britain or the international community go to protect human rights?
  • do we use military force, economic sanctions or any other means on a country such as Burma, or Zimbabwe, which may harm those inside the country?
  • or do we respect the right of national sovereignty and not intervene?  

I’m happy to take questions.


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