In my view

Protecting human rights in countries around the world can be the matter of a few simple actions.

Protecting human rights in countries around the world can be the matter of a few simple actions.

It is therefore depressing to learn that Newcastle City Council's Liberal Democrat leaders refuse to reconsider the award of a multi-million pound contract for our Central Library and High Heaton Branch Library to the Kajima Corporation.

The Kajima Corporation is listed on the website of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions as having been involved with forced slave labour on a site in Burma. Even the United Kingdom Government has, unusually, asked companies to stop doing business with the oppressive Burmese regime. Many have withdrawn. But not Kajima.

There is no doubt that the military regime in Burma is one of the most prolific abusers of human rights in the world. Amnesty International's annual report on Burma identifies serious human rights abuses by the army, including the use of forced labour against ethnic minority civilians. Torture, political imprisonment and ill-treatment of prisoners is also rife.

What's more, the International Labour Movement, other United Nations agencies and international aid organisations face increasing restrictions on their ability to help vulnerable populations in the country. In August last year, the World Food Programme reported that 40% of children were malnourished, despite Burma's rich natural resources. Since then, at least one UN agency has had to withdraw its programme because of the severe restrictions on its activities.

Libraries are a symbol of human liberty. How ironic, then, that the Kajima Corporation who operate and invest in Burma, are to build public libraries for us and our children.

Newcastle City Council even admit that they approved a report about Kajima, stating that there were "no significant human rights implications" when the contract was awarded. The council's claim that the questions were asked about Kajima Europe, and not any other Kajima company, does not make a difference. Indeed, Kajima Europe UK Ltd still belongs to the global Kajima Corporation. Also, the display in the City Library has just a Kajima name tag, not Kajima Europe UK Ltd.

Political double standards are also at work here. In December 2002, the Lib Dems in North Tyneside criticised the then Conservative Mayor of North Tyneside Council for awarding a school building contract to Kajima.

Newcastle City Council say that there is nothing they can do about the award of the contract. However, it is also worth remembering that a previous council found ways of overcoming legal obstacles to prevent South African companies gaining council contracts at the time of anti-apartheid boycotts. It is possible to take a step towards protecting the human rights of vulnerable communities in Burma. The council can act responsibly and ethically by cancelling the contract at once.

* Clare Woodall is Chair of the Newcastle City Amnesty Group based at Books for Amnesty, 96 Westgate Road, Newcastle.


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