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House of Commons Hansard

Iraq and Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict

16 June 2014
Volume 582

  • With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Iraq, and update the House on the outcome of last week’s global summit to end sexual violence in conflict.

    The Sunni extremist group “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”—ISIL—launched a series of attacks and car bombings in Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, Samarra, Ramadi and Jalawla, over the last 10 days, culminating in the capture of Mosul on Tuesday. From Mosul, ISIL, with other armed groups, took control of the towns on the main route to Baghdad, including Tikrit, 110 miles north of the capital. The Iraqi security forces initially proved unable to resist these attacks, although there are now signs of a fightback in the area around Samarra.

    These are extremely grave developments. ISIL is the most violent and brutal militant group in the middle east. It has a long record of atrocities, including use of improvised explosive devices, abductions, torture and killings. The reported massacre of 1,700 Shi’a air force recruits is more evidence of its brutality. ISIL’s aim is to establish a sharia Islamic state in the region, and it is pursuing these goals by attacking the Government of Iraq, gaining control of territory, and inciting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

    The group has bases in northern Syria as well as in Iraq. While the majority of its members are Iraqi or Syrian, it also includes a significant number of foreign fighters among its ranks. As I have previously told this House, we estimate the number of UK-linked individuals fighting in Syria to include approximately 400 British nationals and other UK-linked individuals who could present a particular risk should they return to the UK. Some of these are, inevitably, fighting with ISIL.

    Over the last few days, I have held discussions with Foreign Ministers from the region, including Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari and Turkish Foreign Minister Davotoglu, with whom I discussed the welfare of more than 60 Turkish citizens kidnapped in Mosul. Our national interest lies in supporting a sovereign and democratic Iraq to resist those threats, offering assistance where necessary and working with others to prevent the spread of terrorism in Iraq and throughout the region.

    On Friday, I held talks with Secretary Kerry in London. We agreed that the prime responsibility for leading the response to these events lies with the Iraqi Government. The United States, which is the country with the most appropriate assets and capabilities, is considering a range of options that could help the Iraqi security forces push back on ISIL advances. President Obama has been clear that action taken by the United States will succeed only if accompanied by a political response from the Iraqi Government.

    We are taking action in three areas: promoting political unity among those who support a democratic Iraqi state and stability in the region; offering assistance where appropriate and possible; and alleviating humanitarian suffering. We have made it clear that this does not involve planning a military intervention by the UK.

    On the first of these points, yesterday I underlined to the Iraqi Foreign Minister the need for his colleagues to form a new and inclusive Government who bring together all Iraq’s different groups and are able to command support across Iraqi society. ISIL is taking advantage of political disaffection, including among Saddam-era officers and soldiers, and Sunni tribal fighters, who have lost trust in the Iraqi Government. Overcoming this will require a concerted political effort by the Government, including working with the Kurdistan Regional Government against this common threat. I welcome the fact that the Iraqi Supreme Court has today ratified the large majority of the results of April’s elections, and I call on them to announce the full results as soon as possible to allow for the rapid formation of a new Government in Baghdad.

    On our second objective, we are examining what more we can do to assist the Iraqi authorities directly in their security response. We are urging them to take effective measures to organise security forces effectively and push ISIL back from the areas it has occupied, while protecting civilian life, infrastructure and vital services. We are discussing with the Iraqi Government areas for co-operation, including the possibility of offering counter-terrorism expertise. We are also providing consular assistance to a small number of British nationals who have been affected. For this purpose, a UK Ministry of Defence operational liaison and reconnaissance team arrived in Baghdad on Saturday to help to assess the situation on the ground and to assist the embassy in contingency planning.

    Thirdly, we have responded rapidly to the humanitarian emergency. About 500,000 people are reported to have been displaced in the north and now need urgent support. Last week, we were the first donor country to send a field team to the Kurdistan region, where they met UN and non-governmental organisation contacts and the Kurdish authorities. My right hon. Friend, the International Development Secretary announced on Saturday that we would provide £3 million of immediate assistance, including £2 million from the rapid response facility to NGOs for water and sanitation and other emergency relief and £l million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for mobile protection teams and establishing camps. We are considering urgently what further assistance we can provide.

    The rise of sectarianism and religious intolerance is fuelling instability in the middle east. This has been compounded by the brutality of the Assad regime, whose relentless war against its own people has created an opening for extremists. That is why we will continue to support the moderate opposition in Syria, who have had the courage to fight directly against ISIL and other extremists, as well as urging the Iraqi Government to take the political and military steps required to defeat such groups in Iraq. We are also working to reinforce stability across the region, including through providing significant security support to the Governments of Lebanon and Jordan, as well as £243 million in humanitarian assistance to those countries. We will intensify our efforts in the coming days and weeks to tackle this serious threat to international peace and security.

    Addressing the crises of today should never prevent us from dealing with the longer-term issues that are fundamental to conflict prevention in many parts of the world. Last week, I co-hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the largest ever summit held on this issue. It was attended by 128 countries, 79 Ministers and eight UN agency heads, as well as by presidents and prosecutors from the International Criminal Court and international tribunals, and more than 300 delegates from conflict-affected countries.

    The summit had two primary objectives: to agree practical action to tackle impunity for the use of rape as a weapon of war and to begin to change global attitudes to these crimes. We opened the summit up to thousands of members of the public, at 175 public events. Our embassies held events to mirror what was going on in London for the entire 84-hour period and our intensive social media campaign reached all parts of the world. This was the most important milestone yet in our efforts to address this issue. My intention is to create unstoppable momentum in addressing these crimes, which are among the worst experienced in the world today.

    We set in motion a series of practical steps and commitments. We launched the first ever international protocol on how to document and investigate sexual violence in conflict as a means of overcoming the barriers to prosecutions of these crimes. I announced £6 million in new UK funding to support survivors of rape, and the United States, Finland, Bahrain, Australia, Japan and others also made new and generous pledges. The African Union also announced a pilot project in the Central African Republic to respond to the urgent needs of victims of sexual violence. The Somali Government launched a new action plan on Somalia, supported by the UN and the international community, for addressing sexual violence, which has blighted the lives of thousands of women, men and children.

    Within the summit, I convened a special meeting on security in Nigeria following the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in April and a summit on this issue in Paris last month. We agreed that a regional intelligence fusion unit should be made operational immediately. The countries of the region also agreed rapidly to implement joint or co-ordinated patrols along their borders, and Cameroon committed to add a battalion to that regional taskforce. The UK, US and France pledged to support these regional efforts. On behalf of the UK, I announced a separate package of support for Nigeria, including increased tactical training for the Nigerian army, assistance to regional security and intelligence co-operation, and a joint UK-US educational programme to educate an additional 1 million children in Nigeria. All the parties present also agreed on the need for UN sanctions against Boko Haram’s leadership and Ansaru, another dangerous terrorist organisation.

    Finally, states and delegates at the summit joined together to sign a statement of action, uniting Governments, UN agencies, civil society, experts and survivors with a shared determination to tackle these issues. We will now work hard to ensure that the momentum is sustained and accelerated in the months and years ahead. We will publish a comprehensive report on the summit that will distil the expert recommendations that were made. We will turn our focus to practical implementation of the international protocol. We will continue to use our team of experts in conflict-affected countries. For the past two years, the United Kingdom has led the way internationally in addressing these vital issues and we must continue to do so until the scourge of sexual violence is finally confronted, addressed and defeated.

  • I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this afternoon.

    Let me begin by turning to the Foreign Secretary’s remarks on Iraq. That country is today facing fundamental threats to its integrity, security and stability. Faced with a lightning advance by a few thousand Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant fighters from their base in Syria’s Raqqah province, the Iraqi army’s presence in the northern and western Sunni-majority provinces has effectively collapsed. Beneath these latest advances for ISIL lies the deeper and fundamental question, not just for Iraq, but for its neighbouring countries across the region: can they, in time, develop a pluralistic, democratic politics, where people live together as citizens, rather than dividing along sectarian, ethnic or religious lines? Alas, today, the answer to that question still remains uncertain.

    Inevitably and understandably, these events have rekindled the debate around the military intervention in Iraq 11 years ago. For most British people, including many of us who supported the action at the time, the fears of those opposed to the intervention have been vindicated by subsequent events. It is futile to deny that subsequent history, as surely as it would be folly to repeat it. Yet it is also facile to suggest that the crisis affecting Iraq today can be attributed solely to the consequences of intervention. Such an account denies the truth that the slide towards crisis in Iraq has been exacerbated by the civil war in Syria. Today these are two nations sitting astride the Sunni-Shi’ite faultline, engulfed increasingly by sectarian violence, while the rest of the region has looked on as sectarian tensions rise.

    Tragically for Iraq, the hallmark of Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’a-dominated Government has been a sectarian rather than an inclusive approach. Indeed, the welcome progress made by the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government since 2003 serves only further to highlight the extent of the Iraqi central Government’s failures in moving the country forward. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what specific steps the UK Government are taking, in co-ordination with allies, to encourage that formation of a new Government in Iraq? Beyond his conversation yesterday, what contact is being planned to urge Prime Minister Maliki to take concrete measures to reduce sectarian tensions, empower regional Governments and re-professionalise the Iraqi armed forces?

    Today and in statements made over recent days, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that British military intervention in Iraq is not being contemplated. I welcome this assurance. Will he further give the House the assurance that the Government will not agree to any proposals significantly to increase the nature or scale of support that we are already giving to the Iraqi Government without a much wider debate in Parliament, and indeed the country?

    It is clear that Iran is heavily engaged in Iraq today, so it was disappointing to hear Tehran apparently rule out direct talks with the Americans earlier this morning. I welcome confirmation that the Foreign Secretary has been in touch with his Iranian counterpart earlier today, but does he agree with me that there is now an urgent case for ensuring an effective British diplomatic presence in Tehran to help co-ordinate such discussions and to advance dialogue?

    As the crisis continues, the scale of the humanitarian suffering inevitably grows, so I welcome the additional humanitarian funding that the Government have already announced, but will any further requests from Iraq’s Government for additional humanitarian support be considered promptly?

    Many British citizens will have watched the scenes both in Syria and Iraq in recent days with growing concern and anxiety, so it is right that we pay tribute today to the work of the British intelligence and security forces, which are doing vital work to keep us all safe. Will the Foreign Secretary set out the Government’s latest assessment of the threat posed by British citizens returning from the region? I know that the Foreign Secretary will be concerned, too, about the safety of British diplomatic staff in Baghdad, Irbil, and Basra, so can he assure us that all the necessary plans are in place to guarantee their safety? The most urgent task now is for Iraq’s leadership to unite and galvanise its response to this crisis—the future of the whole country and the fate of millions of its citizens depend upon that.

    Let me turn now to the preventing sexual violence in conflict summit in London, which was a genuine credit to the work of campaigners and activists around the world who have tirelessly worked to raise this issue up the political agenda. The British Government, and the Foreign Secretary personally, have done a great deal in recent months to help do just that, and I commend him sincerely for his efforts.

    The Foreign Secretary was right to say in his statement that the priority now must be to translate words into practical action. I welcome the further £6 million pledged by the UK to support survivors of sexual violence in conflict. The statement of action to tackle the culture of impunity surrounding sexual violence in conflict, to which the Foreign Secretary rightly referred, was indeed an important step forward. Alongside agreeing a coherent legal framework, will he set out what further steps will be taken to help tackle some of the underlying issues that contribute to impunity, such as the independence of the judiciary within conflict-affected states? I look forward to the publication of the comprehensive report on the summit. Could he give us an indication of when we can expect it to be published? The real test now is whether the summit in London can make a difference on the ground in conflict zones around the world. The Foreign Secretary will certainly have our support in his work to ensure that it does.

  • I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. There is a huge amount of common ground on both these subjects. As he said, now is an important moment for seeing whether pluralistic, truly democratic politics can be created in Iraq. He made some references to the history and debates surrounding intervention, and I agree with what he said about that, too, in that there are many roots to what is happening here, including the growth of sectarianism, of religious intolerance across the middle east and, of course, the crisis in Syria. We must not think that everything that happens is a result of western action or inaction, although our actions can, of course, have a very important effect.

    As for the specific steps that we are taking to encourage that pluralistic and inclusive politics, the primary step is, of course, persuasion. This is a sovereign country. I have put that argument—not for the first time—to Iraqi Ministers, who have been making the case directly to Prime Minister Maliki, among others, for some time, and our embassy is busily engaged in doing that with Iraqi Ministers now. However, I think that what has happened in Iraq over the past week will be a very vivid demonstration to Iraqi leaders that this is necessary, and is in their own interest. It is not just desirable as a point of political principle. It is essential for the future of Iraq that Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds work together—that all who support the existence of an Iraqi state work together—and if what is now happening does not demonstrate that clearly to them, nothing will. We will always try to persuade, but events on the ground are demonstrating the need for this.

    The right hon. Gentleman endorsed what I had said about our approach to questions of military intervention. I am sure that, if there were a substantial change in that policy, I should be back here explaining it to the House, or asking permission for it, depending on the circumstances. He asked about relations with Iran. As I said in my statement, over the last few days I have talked to a number of Foreign Ministers around the region. As well as those whom I mentioned in the statement, I have talked to Ministers in Israel and Iran. Indeed, I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Iran on Saturday about a number of matters, including the situation in Iraq. He said that there was a case for a further step forward in our bilateral relations. I have discussed that with him, and I shall have something more to say about our discussions imminently—in fact, very imminently, if the right hon. Gentleman is here tomorrow. That is a heavy hint. However, our work on that is distinct from discussions on Iraq, which is partly why I shall address those separately.

    As for humanitarian support, the right hon. Gentleman can be absolutely sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and her Department are very quick to react. They have had the first field team in the north of Iraq in the last few days. They work closely with all the United Nations agencies, and envisage that more support may be necessary. Of course, we keep the safety of our staff in Baghdad under close review.

    I was grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s supportive remarks about the work of the Government and many people around the world on the preventing sexual violence initiative. As he said, the key thing now is to turn that into practical action. I am convinced that if everyone who was at the summit last week now did what is set out in the protocol and the declaration on ending sexual violence in conflict, it would make a huge difference throughout the world. We all understand that a great deal of work will still be necessary to ensure that practical actions are taken by prosecutors in independent judiciaries, in military training and in the changing of laws. However, I believe that we have given real momentum to that work, and that it is an essential part of what I have described as a great strategic prize of this century: the full social, political and economic empowerment of women everywhere. We in the Government will remain utterly dedicated to that.

  • In the light of Tony Blair’s protestations to the contrary, I commend the shadow Foreign Secretary for making it clear that he accepts that the crisis in Iraq today has its roots in the chaos that has continued since the ill-judged invasion of that country in 2003.

    Does the Foreign Secretary agree that long-term stability in Iraq cannot be achieved until the Iraqi Government accept the need to incorporate and absorb the Sunni population in Government at the highest levels, proportionate to their legitimate entitlement, and will he make it clear to the Iraqi Government that serious support from this Government will not be possible until that happens?

  • Yes, I do agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. Only yesterday, I made it very clear to the Foreign Minister of Iraq that the support that will be received from the rest of the world will be closely related to progress made on that issue of bringing Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds together. This is essential. As I mentioned in my statement, President Obama has made it clear that support of various kinds from the United States may well be conditional on political action by the Iraqi Government, so that message is very clear.

  • I commend what the Foreign Secretary said, and also what my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said in his careful remarks about the history here, but may I press the Foreign Secretary a little on the issue of Iran? I welcome the imminent statement he is due to make tomorrow, which I assume means there will be a strengthening of relations, but does he recall that after 9/11, and until, frankly, the Khatami Government were undermined gratuitously by President Bush in his axis of evil speech, the Iranian Government gave the British and American Governments very good, positive and trusting co-operation in respect of the removal of the Taliban? Does he also accept that, with the current Rouhani Government, there is an opportunity to build more positive relations, because the Iranians have a similar interest to us in ensuring their neighbour is a stable democracy and not reduced to the chaos it is in now?

  • Yes, of course we do have, going back over many decades and including now, important common interests with Iran, and that includes stability in Iraq and, indeed, in Afghanistan. There are also many other issues, such as dealing with the narcotics trade, on which Iran and the UK have common interests, and that is a very good argument for trying to advance our bilateral relations. Of course we also have to deal with the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, which was something else I discussed with the Foreign Minister at the weekend, and there will be further negotiations this week. We also need Iran to make its contribution to stability in the region by ceasing its support for sectarian groups in other parts of the region. We look to Iran to do those things, but do we have some common interests? Yes, we do.

  • My right hon. Friend will recall that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends at the time were unequivocally opposed to the military invasion. Notwithstanding that fact, I can tell him that I am sympathetic to the view that it cannot be credibly said that the invasion is the sole cause of the present situation in Iraq, although it is, I think, now generally accepted across the House that it has most certainly made a significant contribution.

    May I turn, however, to the issue of Iran, properly raised by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)? There is no question but that the United States and Iran have different motives, but as the Foreign Secretary acknowledged a moment or two ago, they have common interests, so co-operation between them, even if covert, would be in the interests of us all.

  • Well, of course covert co-operation is not something I will speculate about on the Floor of the House; it is not my habit to do so for very good reasons. Of course those common interests with Iran are there in respect of the stability of the entire region. That is very clear, but I stress again that Iran can do a great deal for stability across the whole of the middle east by desisting with a nuclear programme that threatens nuclear proliferation across the region and by ceasing support for sectarian or terrorist groups elsewhere. There is a heavy responsibility on Iran, as well as on all of us to do what we can to improve relations and to get that point across to Iran.

  • The past is always with us. We are urged to learn from our mistakes, and I am delighted to hear that the British Government have learned and that there will be no military incursion in this particular war. May I also add my voice to those that have already been raised to say that the British Government should encourage Iran to think again, to work with America and our allies, and to bring its best efforts to bear on ending what is, in the Foreign Secretary’s own words, a Government of sectarianism and religious intolerance? Surely the way to bring about an inclusive Government in Iraq is to urge the stepping down of Prime Minister Malaki at the earliest possible moment.

  • It is not for us—the Government of another nation—to try to pick and choose who will be the Prime Minister in Iraq. After all, we have all said for so long how much we believe in democracy in Iraq, and that choice has to be the product of its own democracy. None the less, we can give it the advice, coming loudly and clearly from this House today, that it needs political unity in Government, in support of the existence of its state and the functions of government, between Sunni and Shi’a groups, with the inclusion of Sunni leaders, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) mentioned. We want Iran to encourage that as well. Indeed, one of the points I made to Foreign Minister Zarif of Iran was that it is in Iran’s interest to press for that Sunni inclusion inside Iraq.

  • Sadly, it is inevitable that there will be a heavy loss of life and bloodshed in the region, but it is imperative that ISIL is defeated. Although that must fall to the Governments in the region, primarily Iraq in the first place, where they have identified military capability gaps, we must be sympathetic and help them. The last thing we want to do is to send a message in advance that we have ruled anything out, which could only be of help and comfort to the terrorists.

  • ISIL must be defeated, as my right hon. Friend says. I agree with him—I think it is the mood across the whole House—that the prime responsibility rests with Governments in the region, including the Iraqi Government, who have very substantial security forces at their disposal. As I said in my statement, we can provide assistance of various kinds, and other nations are considering other forms of assistance. The United States has said publicly that it is looking at all options. It has the assets and capabilities of the type, scale and location to deliver such assistance if it believes it can do so productively, so we will concentrate on helping in the way that I have set out.

  • Given that the Sunni-Shi’a divide is now a fault line in the region and that an almost primeval form of jihadism is driving that on the Sunni side, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is imperative that ownership of solving this conflict has to be in the region, particularly in Iraq but also in neighbouring Iran, which, as he has implied, could help significantly? I agree with the previous comments that it is imperative that we lose no opportunity to engage Iran, even if it is not up in lights as some formal alliance, which is what has understandably been rejected this morning. It is a key to all of this, does he agree?

  • I absolutely agree with the broad thrust of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. The prime responsibility lies with all the states of the region; they all have a responsibility to improve the way in which they work together, because they are all at risk in various ways. There is no state that has an interest in this instability in Iraq, other than possibly the regime in Damascus. Every established state in the middle east has its interests confronted and threatened by these developments. It is important that they improve their own working together, and we must use our own diplomacy to encourage that. I stress again that that requires a change of policy by Iran as well as every effort on our part to engage Iran.

  • It is a pity that we have had to run these two subjects together, because no one should underestimate the extraordinary work that my right hon. Friend has done in relation to raising the issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict to such a level. He fully deserves all the commendation he is getting.

    In relation to the issues in the wider middle east, does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that we are dealing with non-state actors across boundaries with no accountability and a wicked ideology who are taking on individual states that are so consumed with their own internal problems that they cannot yet act together and recognise the scale of the threat? Does he have any sense that states recognise that, and that they will, at some stage, have to work together to kill off both the ideology and the people who are propounding it? In that struggle, we do have a role to play in order to combat a threat that will ultimately arrive on our doorstep.

  • I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. We have a role to play, and yet the responsibility of the states in the region that he talks about is clear as well. What happened last week has been a huge shock in Baghdad. It is a clear demonstration to them, as I said earlier, that they need greater political unity. It is also a clear demonstration that unity is needed across the Arab world in order to deal with these threats, working with religious leaders as well as working between national Governments. We will certainly encourage that as well as providing direct assistance of the type that I have described, and providing strong protection for our own national security through our counter-terrorism vigilance and expertise.

  • Noting his fetching white jacket, which is sparkling indeed, I call Mr Mike Gapes.

  • The Foreign Secretary was a Minister in John Major’s Government, a Government who used military intervention to impose a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds. That policy was continued and enhanced under the Tony Blair Government. We would not have millions of Iraqi Kurds living in peace, prosperity and democracy without the intervention that took place to protect them from Saddam. If we had brought back Saddam or Uday, the Kurds would have suffered in the same way as the rest of the Iraqis are suffering today. Therefore, if the Kurdistan Regional Government request assistance, should we not give such a request sympathetic consideration?

  • I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of what we did, in this country, to protect the Kurds. Only a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government was here. We hear all the time, as he will have heard, the continuing gratitude of the people of that region for what the United Kingdom did.

    I am not arguing against all military interventions; I am saying that in this situation, now, in Iraq, we are not planning a military intervention. I am not saying that there will never be any circumstances in the world in which we may need to make a military intervention—far from it. We have had no such request from Kurdistan. Indeed, the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government have acquitted themselves well in recent days, and they have been an important part of bringing about stability in the northern areas of Iraq. We have not received such a request, and we do not envisage such a request at the moment.

  • I am sure that the Foreign Secretary can see the irony of the Iranians floating the idea of co-operation with the United States, albeit indirectly, having gone to such great lengths to get rid of it in 2011. Does he agree that this is the first time in decades that our interests coincide with those of the Iranians? My enemy’s enemy is my friend, so will he take every opportunity to build a rapport with the Iranians, which could have beneficial effects in other areas?

  • I will do so, yes. We have overlapping interests, although I am not sure that it is the first time we have done so. We have always had common interests in some of the areas that I mentioned earlier, such as stability in Afghanistan. The current situation does highlight that, and as my right hon. Friend can gather from the conversation I had over the weekend with the Iranian Foreign Minister, we are making every effort to ensure that we discuss a whole range of issues with the Iranians. I say again that we are looking to them to change some of their approach in the wider region if they really want to be the agents of its stability, rather than its instability.

  • Tony Blair took the UK to war in Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction that never existed. He was rewarded, remarkably, with the post of middle east peace envoy. Given his dangerous and ill-judged comments in the past few days, which were described by the Foreign Secretary’s colleague the Mayor of London as “unhinged”, does the Foreign Secretary agree that Tony Blair should not continue in post as a middle east peace envoy?

  • No, I do not agree with that. Nor do I think that the recent events in Iraq should be turned into a proxy debate about Tony Blair and everything that he has ever said or done. The shadow Foreign Secretary is looking rather alarmed about the idea of a proxy debate about Tony Blair. In any case, we have set up an inquiry in this House into the Iraq war, and that inquiry will report in due course. [Hon. Members: “When?”] If the inquiry had been set up when I called for it, it would have reported a long time ago. Hon. Members will have to ask those who were in Government at the time, and who resisted such an inquiry for a long time, about the delay in its reporting.

    We can all pass judgment in detail when that report is published, but the issue we must address now is how to deal with this situation. I do not think it would help this situation for Tony Blair to feel that he has to resign from other positions.

  • Many people in this country will be keen to understand how an estimated 400 British nationals came to be engaged in foreign terrorism in Iraq and Syria. What conversations is the Foreign Secretary having with his colleagues in government to ensure that those individuals will not have the option of returning to the UK—ever?

  • We are having many conversations in government and, of course, with other Governments about how to prevent that. As my hon. Friend will understand, if a British national leaves via a third country and ultimately travels to Syria over the border of one of Syria’s neighbours, it is very difficult for us in the UK to know about that. We advise strongly against all travel to Syria and have made it very clear that the Home Secretary will not hesitate to use her powers to withdraw passports and cancel leave to remain in the United Kingdom and that our security forces will make arrests wherever there is the appropriate evidence. People can be absolutely sure that we will be extremely vigilant about this issue.

  • In Iraq and Syria and throughout the Muslim world extremists live and dictators survive off the back of the fear and division between Shi’a and Sunni. Those efforts of persuasion that the Foreign Secretary talks about should be aimed not just at political leaders and Governments but at figures of influence on both those sides of Islam. How much effort and influence does he think there is and how much of a priority do the British Government give to trying to encourage reconciliation and co-operation from religious figures of influence, both Shi’a and Sunni?

  • We give that a very high priority, but these events show that we cannot do too much and that we might need to do a lot more over the coming months and years. We give it a high priority and my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi has done a great deal of work on it as part of her work on freedom of religion, which is also about bringing different religious leaders together. Our embassies across the middle east do a great deal of work as well. The right hon. Gentleman is right that this is not just about political leaders; it is about religious leaders and other leading figures in society in many of the countries concerned. We have insisted all along that the Syrian national coalition must represent religious reconciliation and people of all faiths in Syria. I think the answer is that we do a great deal, but we must acknowledge that more will need to be done.

  • I congratulate the Front-Bench team and their counterparts in the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Justice on the work they have done over the past four years to promote women’s rights across the globe. I am saddened that, as momentum behind the issues has grown, some of the media have chosen to belittle the contribution of Angelina Jolie at the recent conference rather than focus on the issues that she cares about. In the light of that, what would my right hon. Friend’s advice be to Bono?

  • I hesitate to give advice to Bono, but it is nevertheless important for us to ensure that this work reaches all parts of the world. It is vital work, as my hon. Friend describes. Governments cannot reach all opinion formers everywhere in the world and so the contribution of my co-host at the sexual violence summit, Angelina Jolie, is immense in getting the message across to countries that would never otherwise hear about the work or never necessarily take any interest in the summit that we held. I advise everyone to take full heed of that work and give it full support as that is the only way to tackle some of the worst crimes that we are seeing anywhere in the world.

  • The recent advance of ISIS—the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shammight have been a shock, but the reality is that hundreds of people have been dying in terrorist attacks in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq for many months. That is a result of the breakdown of the situation and the civil war in Syria. The signal given last summer by this House, and by the United States and the international community, created the space into which ISIS has now pushed forward. What is going to change, and how is the international community going to turn this round?

  • Clearly we have to do what I set out in my statement. The House of Commons cannot re-fight its earlier decisions. I disagreed with the decision made in the House last August, but we are democratic politicians and we respect the House’s decision on that occasion. If we had voted the other way, would it have sent a sharp message to the Assad regime? Yes it would, but we did not vote in that way. This House makes the decisions on those matters, and we work within the constraints of that. I have made it clear that we can provide assistance to the Iraqi Government—the United States might be able to provide a great deal of other assistance—while simultaneously stressing that Government’s own heavy responsibility to rise to the challenge in both the security and the political sense.

  • I was one of the 1 million who marched against the war in Iraq, although we were ignored by the Government of the time. I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comment that he is not planning military intervention by the UK. I and many others will keep track of what happens in that regard. What steps will he take to ensure that Prime Minister Maliki does not use this crisis to try to extend his executive power in inappropriate ways?

  • Inclusive politics and a more inclusive political leadership in Iraq would not involve the abuse of power by the Prime Minister of the day, and it would have to include some degree of people not only working together in government but genuinely sharing power. Otherwise, it would not work. It would be built into a broader political unity in Iraq that Sunnis and Kurds would be well consulted and have leadership positions in the political process, but it would be up to them to determine the details of that.

  • Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent destruction of all the structures of civil society there have led to this implosion? Does he also accept that the current crisis is being exacerbated by the arms in the region? He has confirmed that there will be no military intervention by Britain or the USA, but what discussions has he had with Saudi Arabia about its influence, its arms supplies and its friendships within the region, and about its actual aims?

  • We have had many discussions with states throughout the region, particularly in relation to Syria. We have said that any support, including the non-lethal support from the United Kingdom, should be given to moderate groupings and not to extremists. Indeed, these events underline the importance of that, and it is something that we will always restate to Saudi Arabia and to other states in the region. They are committed to not supporting extremist groups, because those groups ultimately present a threat to them as well as to Iraq and to many people in Syria. On the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I think we will have to wait for the report from the inquiry into Iraq. People can argue the case either way in regard to the consequences of the 2003 invasion, but it is worth pointing out that if Iraq had developed a more inclusive politics over recent years and if the Assad regime had not opted to wage war against its own people, the scenario would now be very different, notwithstanding the 2003 invasion.

  • May I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the leadership that he showed during last week’s conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict? That is a major issue, but it is one that many people—dare I say it, many men—have avoided addressing. My right hon. Friend deserves congratulation on addressing it. Will he take this opportunity to challenge media commentators who have suggested over the past few days that it is a relatively minor issue compared with the issues of Iraq that we have just been discussing? Does he not agree that, in many ways, they are two sides of the same coin and that the fundamental belief that women are second-class citizens lies at the heart of the use of sexual violence in conflict and at the heart of the beliefs of most of the extreme terrorist organisations?

  • My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. There are reports from Iraq of sexual violence, and as I mentioned in my statement, in Nigeria extremist terrorist groups are some of the main perpetrators of appalling sexual violence against those in their captivity. This is not only a vital moral issue for the world—we have been right to break the taboo in many parts of the world about discussing it. It is also fundamentally connected to conflict prevention. When mass war-zone rape is committed by one community against another, it becomes dramatically more difficult to prevent conflict between them for decades into the future. I think that in some quarters there is a good deal of ignorance about those matters.

  • I join others in congratulating the Foreign Secretary on his role in initiating the conference. My concern is with Iraq and the huge number of people who will now be leaving or attempting to leave because of the current crisis. Many of those people will be at the hands of people traffickers who will exploit them, and they will end up on the borders of Greece and Turkey. What support can we give those countries, and what steps can we take to help authorities in Iraq to stop people leaving?

  • As I set out in my statement, we are giving rapid assistance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development authorised that quickly at the weekend, and is ready with further assistance if it becomes necessary. We are already generous donors to many other countries in the region that are dealing with huge refugee flows, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, and through UN agencies we are also assisting with refugee flows in Turkey and the area of the Kurdistan Regional Government. After the United States, Britain is the second most substantial national donor in the world to programmes for refugees in the region, and the right hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will maintain that strong record.

  • Does the Foreign Secretary agree that whatever the historic failings of western policy, we cannot simply stand aside as the viability of the Iraqi state is called into question? Do we not have a responsibility to the Iraqi people to ensure that their country does not descend into all-out sectarian violence, which in any event would be completely against our national interests in the middle east?

  • I am certainly not advocating standing aside, and I have set out what we are doing politically and in terms of humanitarian aid and assistance to the Iraqis. There is no question of our standing aside from such a crisis, but we should be clear—I think we have been clear across the House today—that there is prime responsibility on leaders in the region, including Iraq, to ensure a coherent security and political response. It is within their power to do so, and it is therefore their prime responsibility to do so, with our support where necessary.

  • It was a privilege to meet some of the brave women who came to give evidence at the conference last week, particularly those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was ironic, however, that at the same time as the conference was going on, women were being raped in Iraq. There is no doubt from UN reports about the behaviour of ISIS in Iraq, which is threatening sharia law and carrying out extreme sharia law. Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear that people who are found guilty of those crimes will face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that they will not get away with it?

  • It is clear in the declaration on ending sexual violence in conflict, which I put forward and which 155 nations have now signed, that these crimes are to be considered grave breaches of the Geneva conventions. Much of what we are doing, as the right hon. Lady knows, is to make sure that the era of impunity for these things is over, and that prosecutions can take place and that evidence can be more easily gathered. If we do not do that, the problem will get worse in the world over the coming years. I very much agree with the thrust of her question; it is at the very top of the priorities of the preventing sexual violence initiative.

  • Would it not be wise for Tony Blair to be a bit more Trappist about this issue, at least until the Chilcot inquiry reports, rather than trying to re-write history by attempting to say that the shambles of an occupation that we saw is somehow not linked to the tragic events that we see today? Is it not the case that in 2003 al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq? A vacuum of governance was caused and that was filled. That is something that, sadly, the Iraqi Prime Minister has failed to meet.

  • I will add Tony Blair, with Bono, to the list of people whom I will not advise on what to say during the course of our proceedings. There will be many important lessons that are best looked at when we have all the evidence of the inquiry. We are very clear on what is needed now in Iraq and in neighbouring states to respond to this situation, and for the moment we must focus on encouraging that correct response.

  • Will the Foreign Secretary, with his emphasis on looking to responsibilities within the region, say a little more about the role of Saudi Arabia? Have not few countries done as much as Saudi Arabia to promote a sectarian and deeply conservative brand of Islam right around the world, including in the middle east? It and other conservative Gulf states stay high on the list of diplomatic friends of our Government. If we are to speak truth to power, why do we not challenge those who have helped foster the sectarianism that we now see?

  • The position among regional states is a complex one. Saudi Arabia has often acted with us in the past to try to ensure that there is stability in the region, and it is important to bear that in mind. I stress again that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and many across the House that there is a responsibility on all leading states in the region to improve relations and to try to ensure that religions can co-exist side by side. There is a huge responsibility on Iran in particular, as I mentioned earlier, but of course there is a responsibility on Gulf states and others as well, and we will make that very clear.

  • In his reply to the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend talked about all those who support Iraq. With Maliki running a sectarian Government, with the Kurds taking the opportunity to seize Kirkuk, which will always be one of the very difficult post-conflict issues to solve, and with the Sunni population turning to this dreadful mediaeval force, is not the problem that, frankly, not many people support the concept of Iraq? Is it not about time that we started pushing for an international conference to bring all the actors together so that we can have a strategy that can lead to an agreed post-Iraq solution?

  • I do not exclude at all the need for international conferences to try to bring together all the countries in the region, as well as key players in Iraq. My hon. Friend is right to point to the formidable difficulties facing those who need to work together in Iraq. However, underneath that there is tremendous support among the people of Iraq for the functioning of their country. They have turned out in very large numbers in elections. They have made every effort to participate in their democracy, and I believe that the mass of the people in Iraq want that democracy to succeed. Their leaders, as in any country, need to respond to that and harness that.

  • May I ask the right hon. Gentleman about the second part of his statement? Does he share my alarm about the reports of increasing numbers of Tamil asylum refugees being refused asylum status despite entirely credible accounts of their being subjected to rape by the security services? Will he please give an undertaking to the House that the Foreign Office will look again at the country profiles on which the Home Office and the courts rely before making decisions in those cases, particularly highlighting the problems in relation to women being raped?

  • There have been major problems of sexual violence in Sri Lanka. I spoke about this to the Sri Lankan media and with the many NGOs that I worked with when I was at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka in November. In this country we take our responsibilities to asylum seekers very seriously, as the hon. Lady knows, but in a strict and, we hope, fair system. Where there are serious and valid complaints, of course they will be looked at. As she knows, this matter is primarily the Home Secretary’s responsibility, not mine, so either I or a Home Office Minister will write to the hon. Lady about that point.

  • I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. What steps—diplomatic action in particular—are being taken by the UK and other nations to improve the degree of engagement between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Government?

  • This is an important issue, as we noted earlier. Through all our diplomatic channels and through my conversations with the relevant leaders, we encourage that co-operation between the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. I discussed this at length with the Prime Minister and other Ministers of the KRG a few weeks ago. I discussed it with the Iraqi Foreign Minister just yesterday, and we will continue in that vein.

  • Did not the vote of 29 August last year prove that the trust of many Members of this House in military action has been deeply undermined by the terrible decision that we took in 2003 to send 179 brave British soldiers to their deaths in Iraq on the basis of untruths and the hubris and vanity of a Prime Minister? Will not that trust be further undermined if the Chilcot report is expurgated—if it omits the full text of the letters from Tony Blair and George Bush—and will it not be seen as an establishment cover-up by politicians and civil servants to guard their reputations?

  • I am sure there will be an occasion to debate that report when it is available. The hon. Gentleman and all of us will be able to give our views then. I think it is true that the vote in the House last August was influenced by a loss of trust in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, whatever side we took and whatever we think about that. It was influenced by that, yes, so we have to conduct ourselves in a way that rebuilds trust in Government decisions on these matters. That is what we are constantly seeking to do.

  • It is said that the international community wants to engage Iran to help resolve the situation in Iraq, but some ask how that can possibly be the case when Iran is supporting terrorism in Lebanon by Hezbollah, supporting Hamas and supporting the horrific regime of President Assad, and when it backed Prime Minister Maliki to cause the mess in Iraq in the first place. Linked to that, what steps are we taking to address the problem that the advanced-level weapons given to the Iraqi army by the international community are ending up in the hands of the extremists?

  • The point that my hon. Friend raises is exactly why I have stressed several times that although it is right to engage Iran, which we are doing, we need to see a change in Iranian policies if the Iranians are to promote stability rather than instability in the region. They do support sectarian or terrorist groups and have supported them elsewhere in the region. That is an important policy to change because it creates deep divisions across the middle east, and I again stress that we look to Iran to change those policies.

  • I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has said on several occasions that the Government are not planning any military intervention. Can I be absolutely assured that there will be no military intervention by this Government, or support by this Government for others’ military intervention, without a vote of this House?

    On the second part of the Foreign Secretary’s statement, with regard to sexual violence, will he look at reports that women who have come to this country seeking asylum from areas of conflict have been detained in Yarl’s Wool, where they have been subjected to sexual abuse?

  • The hon. Gentleman’s second point is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but I will of course draw it to her attention. We have a clear precedent established about coming to the House, when circumstances permit, in relation to the use of military force. We did that over Syria, even though we were then defeated. The hon. Gentleman is trying to extend that precedent to support for other states taking military action. This House does not govern actions taken by other states. The Government will of course always come to explain our diplomatic posture on all those things.

  • In the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan conferences, and in the Syria peace conferences, Iran was consistently left off the guest list. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that what we are seeing in Iraq is the inevitable outcome of our picking and choosing our regional players and leaving Iran off the guest lists? In future we should learn the lesson and invite all sides to try to resolve these issues, especially those that live closest and suffer the greatest threat through such conflict.

  • My hon. Friend must bear in mind that there is also a lesson for those not invited. In the case of the unsuccessful Geneva peace conference that we held earlier this year on Syria, we and others were entirely open to the inclusion of Iran. We only wanted to know that Iran would support the creation of a transitional Government in Syria as a solution to the problem, in the same way that Russia has done through its support for the Geneva 2012 declaration. That was quite a small requirement for adding it to the guest list, but Iran was unable to do that. The effort has to come from Iran as well as from the rest of us.

  • I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his important conference last week. However, while I recognise that real progress is being made in conflict zones, it is a very different story when the same survivors of rape make it to UK shores. Will he add to the list of things to raise with the Home Secretary a more systemic concern about our asylum system, which often punishes and humiliates women a second time when they arrive? They are expected to talk to men, often on their own or in front of their children. It really is not a sensitive way forward.

  • I will add that to the list, but I hope that the hon. Lady will also bear in mind that the Home Secretary said in her recent announcements on admitting Syrian refugees into the UK that we would give particular priority to people who are vulnerable and at risk of violence, including sexual violence, so it is clear that the Government are attempting to assist in such cases, but where there is criticism we will examine it and respond to it.

  • I take on board my right hon. Friend’s point, made in answer to previous questions, that in the here and now we can cajole through the diplomatic avenues. We can also make it clear to everybody involved that it is in their best interests. But does he agree that actually the real issue is good governance? We have a history in this country, through Northern Ireland—of course, that is a different political prism—of bringing an approach of consensual politics to such matters. This is very similar to corruption: we need to break the cycle. Do not do unto others as has been done unto me.

  • My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point, and I hope that it will be well heeded far beyond this House.

  • The EU Enlargement Commissioner is scheduled to hold talks with the Turkish President and Foreign Minister. No doubt the capture of Turkish diplomats in Mosul last week will be raised. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the more secular yet Sunni Turkish Government about the security situation in Iraq?

  • I regularly discuss the situation in Iraq with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, most recently on Saturday, when I expressed our concern about the Turkish nationals who have now been taken hostage by ISIL. We of course hope for their safe return and are consulting closely with Turkey about the whole situation we have been discussing in the House today.

  • My right hon. Friend says that he is keeping open the possibility of offering counter-terrorism expertise. Another area in which we have particular expertise is aerial reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering. Is he therefore keeping open the option of offering Royal Air Force ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—assets?

  • What my hon. Friend mentions would count as a military intervention, and we are not planning military intervention in Iraq in this situation, as I have made clear; while I have taken care not to rule out the things that could happen in a whole variety of situations in future, I think that I have made that very clear today.

  • One of the many worrying aspects of recent events is that the Iraqi army and other security forces do not appear to have performed well. Of course, this is not just about military capability; it has much to do with the political decisions taken by the Iraqi Government. Looking ahead to the end of our operational commitment in Afghanistan at the end of this year, what is the Foreign Secretary doing to satisfy himself that the Afghan national security forces have the confidence and the capability needed to avoid a similar situation in Afghanistan?

  • This is a very important question. Of course, every quarter we have an oral statement on Afghanistan, and this will be an important topic for the next one. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have taken every care to build up and train the Afghan national security forces. They have acquitted themselves very well in conflict in Afghanistan over the past year or two, having led all major operations in recent times themselves. I hope that the new President of Afghanistan, for whom elections took place this weekend, will sign the bilateral security agreement with the United States that will enable all of us to settle how we support the Afghan state in the future. There is further work to be done on this, but the Afghan national security forces are extremely strong and capable.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that the removal of Saddam, which, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said, prevented the Kurdish nation from being exterminated, is not the sole cause of the current crisis? Is it not more the problems in Syria, and the weakness and inadequacy of the Iraqi President, that have led to Islamic jihadists launching a campaign from Syria? Does he not also agree that if the crisis gets worse, at some point NATO and the United States will have to intervene militarily to put a lid on the problem and protect the Kurdistan region?

  • On the last point, the United States has said that it is examining all options. I think that the necessary support for the Iraqi security forces is much more likely to be given by the United States than by NATO as a whole. My hon. Friend is quite right about many of the other massive contributory factors. Whatever people think, with hindsight, of the merits or otherwise of the 2003 invasion, recent events in Syria and the failure in Iraq to develop a fully inclusive politics have certainly contributed to this situation.

  • Given that the Foreign Secretary now finds himself dealing with a major crisis in Iraq, does he share my regret that the Chilcot inquiry has not published its report? If it had, his foreign policy would benefit from a detailed analysis of events before, during and, critically, after the last Gulf war.

  • Yes, in many ways, because I think it was 2006 when, as shadow Foreign Secretary, I first proposed an inquiry on Iraq. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman’s party supported that at the time; I am sure that it did. Perhaps it even called for an inquiry before then. Had the inquiry been established then, rather than being resisted by the then Government for a good two years, we would certainly have had the result by now.

  • Why does the speed and extent of the success so far of the caliphate forces seem to have taken everyone by surprise?

  • I think that it has taken people by surprise, including in Baghdad, because of the failure of Iraqi security forces—large numbers of them—to hold the territory to which they were assigned. That, of course, is very disappointing and alarming, and it underlines the need for the Iraqi security forces to be well led, to work together well, and to be backed by political unity. I think that is the answer to my hon. Friend’s question.

  • What discussions were held at the summit with regard to Sri Lanka? In the past 24 hours, a number of my Muslim constituents of Sri Lankan origin have got in touch because they are deeply fearful for the lives of many of their relatives in Sri Lanka, who are under threat from the sectarianism of the extremist Bodu Bala Sena group. What advice does the Foreign Secretary have for my constituents and what pressure can he put on the Sri Lankan Government?

  • Of course, we regularly try to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government. The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to tell the House how much we look to them to prevent sectarian conflict and outrages within Sri Lanka, just as we look to any Government responsible for their own citizens to do the same. The hon. Gentleman will also know that the UK led the way, successfully, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in March to win the vote on setting up an international inquiry into the conflict in Sri Lanka. We are always leading the way on this and I join the hon. Gentleman in reiterating our strong message of concern about these events.

  • The prize for patience goes to Mr John Woodcock.

  • Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Whatever the responsibility the UK holds for the current situation in Iraq, there is a clear need to prevent the country from falling into the hands of these extremists. Given the Foreign Secretary’s statement that military intervention may well prove necessary, why has he ruled out any UK participation or military support whatsoever?

  • For the reasons I set out in my statement, the prime need is for the leadership in Iraq—in both a security and a political sense—to be able to respond. There is a case for outside support where necessary, but as I said, the assets and capabilities to deliver such military support are much more likely to be possessed by the United States of America. I have set out other areas in which we can help. That is the reasoning for this approach.

  • We appreciate that that statement took a very long time—longer than usual—but the House is grateful to the Foreign Secretary, as those were two very important issues on which many Members wished to asked questions.