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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2006

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Middle East

1. What recent assessments she has made of the threat posed to regional stability in the middle east by Hezbollah. (87867)

We are gravely concerned about the crisis in Lebanon. Syrian and Iranian support for Hezbollah and other extremist groups is encouraging extremism, threatening the stability of the region and putting peace in the middle east further out of reach. We call on Syria and Iran to stop their support for Hezbollah and end their interference in Lebanese internal affairs in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1680.

I agree with every word that the Foreign Secretary said. It is clear that Syrian and Iranian influence on Hezbollah undermines the ability of the region to embark on peace, stability and prosperity. Hezbollah’s principal weapons are terror and violence, but it also has a hand in aspects of the running of normal Lebanese life, such as the raising of taxes and the running of schools. That being so, what steps will my right hon. Friend take to build international support to ensure that the extremist influence of Hezbollah is minimised, not only militarily, but in civic life in Lebanon?

I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s concerns and comments. There is now a widespread view in the international community that we need to take a fresh look at the situation in Lebanon. The international community needs to turn its attention to the implementation of resolution 1559 in particular, and to what can be done to help to support and strengthen the democratically elected Government of Lebanon, so that they are better fitted not only to rebuild what has been destroyed, but to conduct their country’s affairs in a way that will give them peace and security in future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hezbollah is Syria’s proxy in Lebanon, and that it has been heavily armed by Syria and Iran, which thus bear considerable responsibility for the continuing tragedy in Lebanon and for the missiles that are raining down on Israeli cities? Does she agree that Iran has engineered the crisis to divert attention from its lack of response to the international community on its offer concerning civil nuclear power—no doubt the inference being that there is a nuclear weapons programme there? Does she agree that Hezbollah must be disarmed in accordance with UN resolution 1559 if a repetition of the present disastrous confrontation is to be avoided in future?

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns, as I think does the whole House. I entirely take his point about the potential influence of Iran and Syria and their supplying of weapons, and his point about the timing of the issues. He alleges that the events were perhaps engineered by Iran, but whether they were or not, they are remarkably convenient for that Government.

To what extent was our British Prime Minister in collusion with President Bush in giving Israel the go-ahead to wage unlimited war for 10 days, not just against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, but against civilians in residential Beirut, drawn from all faiths and nationalities—a war crime grimly reminiscent of the Nazi atrocity on the Jewish quarter of Warsaw?

Since I reject the hon. Gentleman’s allegations, there is clearly nothing with which my right hon. Friend would have been in collusion.

Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance about the part of the population that needs to be looked after at the moment—the Christians of the Lebanon? Is she aware that some of the Protestant churches in that country have opened their doors as a sanctuary to Christians, but there is difficulty in getting food to them? Can she do something to help?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and of course I understand that all the communities in Lebanon are at risk and are placed at hazard by present events. One of the things to which, in recent days, we have given a great deal of attention, and are pressing with a great deal of urgency, is the potential for humanitarian action and relief. I anticipate that that will be high on the agenda of the core group meeting in Rome, which I shall attend tomorrow, but I will keep the right hon. Gentleman’s words in mind.

Ministers have been in the region and the US Secretary of State is now there. What discussions have there been about the proposal for an international force in the south of Lebanon, and is that being worked up in such a way that it will be introduced in the near future, rather than waiting several months until the conflict has subsided?

There have been extensive discussions over many days—since very early on after the crisis began—about what contribution an international force could make, how it could be deployed and the range of arrangements, and that work continues intensively. As my hon. Friend and, I think, the House will fully understand, it will take time to put in place a substantial force. What I take to be the underlying thrust of his question is that we should all be seeking as early an end as possible to any hostilities or violence, and that that should not be linked to a full force being put in place, which might indeed take some time to arrange.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that only last year the Lebanese Government saw the back of the Syrians, who arm and organise Hezbollah, financed by Iran? The Lebanese Government have done very well disarming a number of other militia groups. Given that we have so far been unable to disarm the militias in Afghanistan or Iraq, is it right that Israel should be allowed to bully that entire country and put it back 20 years, in the words of one Israeli Minister, in order to get back at Hezbollah, the real villains?

The chief thing with which I did not disagree in the remarks of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) was the concern that he expressed for the civilian population in Lebanon, as indeed people are concerned about the civilian population in Gaza. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) will appreciate that it creates difficulties when missiles are deliberately sited in civilian centres. That obviously leads to potential suffering—[Interruption.]—and death, as has just been said. But I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s view that what is happening to Lebanon is a tragedy, where the so-called cedar revolution was so frail and needed nurturing. I can assure him that it is very much part of all the intensive discussions that are taking place to consider how that Government can be sustained and supported. I believe that Prime Minister Siniora and other members of his team will be in Rome tomorrow.

Leaving aside any absurd comparison with what the Nazis did in Warsaw—that hardly helps the situation at all—is my right hon. Friend aware that people in the United Kingdom in the main had no time for Hezbollah and such organisations, but find it almost impossible to understand how Israel can act as it is, causing so many deaths and serious injuries to people who are in no way involved in Hezbollah? Is it not time that the United Kingdom––and one would like the United States also––to make it as loud and clear as possible to the Israeli authorities that what they are doing cannot be justified under any circumstances? That is the view, I believe, of the vast majority of people in this country.

My hon. Friend may be right that that is the widespread view in this country. I would only say to him that since the beginning of the crisis there has been a consistent thread of appeals for the utmost restraint—on both sides, by the way—from the G8, the Foreign Ministers Council of the European Union, and the European Council itself, all calling for a cessation of violence and conflict, in exactly the way that my hon. Friend seeks. I know from reports, for example from my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, that there has indeed been a policy of deliberately siting missiles in the heart of civilian populations. I do not say that that is a reason for anything. I simply say that it is bound to cause difficulty when those missiles are continually raining down on Israel, and clearly there is pressure on Israel to attempt to take out those missile sites. That is a strong contributory factor to the terrible events that are taking place in Lebanon.

We welcome the hard-hitting comments made by the Minister for the Middle East during his visit to the region at the weekend. We would go further and repeat the view, as Kofi Annan has said, that there should be an immediate ceasefire. Hezbollah and Hamas must return the soldiers and stop their attacks. But will the Foreign Secretary accept that, for as long as the United States, and, by extension, the United Kingdom, tolerate the disproportionate military response by the Israelis, the diplomatic efforts will be undermined completely?

I can only say again to the hon. Gentleman that if he looks through the statements that have been made, which have always included a call for the return of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers as well as a cessation of violence and hostilities—the European Council called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the G8 called for an immediate cessation of violence—he will see that everything is being done through diplomatic channels to try to create the conditions in which not only can there be a ceasefire, but such a ceasefire can be maintained and can be durable. That, I fear, is probably the key to any kind of good outcome to the problems that we see at present.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Sheikh Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, has said:

“Hezbollah is not fighting a battle for Hezbollah or even for Lebanon. We are now fighting a battle for the Islamic nation.”

Does she believe that the international community has the resolve to deal with such a threat?

Certainly, Sheikh Nasrallah and his colleagues have done everything that they can to exacerbate what was already an extremely dangerous situation. I do not believe that the goals that they have set themselves are in the long-term interests either of the Islamic nation as a whole or of people in the middle east, because they seem to concentrate only on fear and terror, and it is on the road to peace and peace negotiations that, in the end, all parties to this conflict will have to end up, and the sooner they get there, the better for everyone concerned.

The Foreign Secretary might have heard a representative of the Syrian Government on this morning’s “Today” programme indicating that, in their judgment, a lasting settlement to this human tragedy and crisis could come about only if the Syrian and Iranian Governments were involved. Could the Foreign Secretary give the House an assessment of that statement?

I heard a brief account of that, and certainly if what he is saying is that the Syrian and Iranian Governments have it in their power to contribute to a potential peaceful outcome, who can disagree with that? I just wish that I saw any signs that at the moment they wished to do so.

In rightly condemning the terrorism of Hezbollah, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that no party to this conflict has clean hands or occupies the moral high ground, that the father of the Israeli Foreign Minister, with whom my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East had talks, was a terrorist leader who organised the blowing up of the King David hotel in Jerusalem, to which the Israelis have just disgracefully unveiled a memorial plaque, and that it is absolutely essential that we follow up the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to solve this conflict and end the killing?

I entirely share my right hon. Friend’s view that the best possible outcome is, as he says, for those who understand that the way forward is through peaceful negotiation and through the road map being heard in the region and beyond it, and for a move towards such negotiations to take place.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel’s demands for the return of kidnapped soldiers, an end to Hezbollah’s rocket attacks and the implementation of resolution 1559 are wholly legitimate, but that its case will be greatly strengthened by desisting from attacks on purely civil infrastructure and on other areas of Lebanon?

On the international buffer force that has been proposed, given that British troops are not available––and American troops perhaps not appropriate––and that the French have said that the idea is premature, is she confident that there can be put in place a sufficiently capable and well-equipped force when necessary?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point that Israel’s legitimate demands are viewed against the prism of events taking place in Lebanon and, indeed, in Gaza, which there is a tendency for people not to mention, but where also we have grave concerns. The words “buffer force” do not fall happily on people’s ears in the area, but the right hon. Gentleman is certainly right to identify, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chair of the Select Committee did, that this will be time consuming and not easy, and that the mandate of such a force, and its nature and construction, will be a matter of difficult negotiation. I expect that that will be very much a part of the discussions in Rome tomorrow, but that is why I believe that one of the strong efforts that we must make is to see what can be done now to ameliorate the situation, partly and perhaps primarily in the short term through humanitarian means, but also what we can do to help to improve matters, because it will undoubtedly take some time to answer the very pertinent questions that he has just put.

On Hezbollah’s international links, the Foreign Secretary has already acknowledged that in this crisis we must not lose sight of Iran’s nuclear programme. Is she confident that consensus will be maintained among the permanent members of the Security Council, that momentum will not be lost, that we will see swift agreement on a Security Council resolution under chapter VII of the UN charter and, if necessary, that any early sanctions on Iran will include a ban on the sale of military equipment?

The extent to which consensus, unity and momentum have been maintained among the permanent five has been striking and for a lot of people, including Iran, surprising. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that it is vital both to try to maintain that unity and not to lose the momentum. Talk of sanctions is, perhaps, a little premature. If he casts his mind back to our detailed statement to Iran, which is now in the public domain, he will recall that we deliberately set out a gradual progression of steps in order to make it easy to draw back if there was a response. He has rightly identified a possible key area, if sanctions have to be considered.

International Arms Trade Treaty

2. What progress has been made towards an international arms trade treaty; and if she will make a statement. (87868)

We are committed to securing an international treaty on the trade in all conventional arms, and we intend to introduce a resolution in the United Nations first committee this autumn to progress the initiative. With other supportive countries, we are now circulating an initial draft resolution, which we hope will stimulate debate and help to secure the broad international support required.

That is welcome news, and I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for her work in that area. Does she agree that the language on human rights in the resolution must be robust? Will she reassure me that the UK and other signatories will press for the strictest possible guidelines on the arms trade? And does she agree that it would be much better for the security and safety of the world if the UN could report on the international arms trade treaty before 2008?

Of course, I take my hon. Friend’s observations very seriously, and I share her view that we must do as much as we can to make the resolution as strong as possible. An initial draft text is being circulated this week by a consortium of nations from across the globe, of which the UK is one. She is right to try to set a time line for about 2008 for some of those issues to be considered further. However, the process will take time, and it is important for the House to recognise that we are at the preliminary stage of the discussions. Nevertheless, I hope that the core principles can be agreed in this Parliament, but there will undoubtedly be tough negotiations about the detail.

Will the Secretary of State press ahead with all speed and diligence, confident in the knowledge that the lobbying is the work of not only pressure groups, but a vast number of ordinary people in this country, including, of course, the Christian Churches and the defence industry? The Defence Manufacturers Association and those involved in defence exports want to see a treaty, so they can differentiate from those who are following the law and those who are cheating, which destroys the lives of innocent people around the world.

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an extremely important point. As he rightly says, there is huge popular support for this move. Hon. Members will have already seen that in their constituencies, and I expect them to see more in future. He is also right to identify that there is support not only among non-governmental organisations but, crucially, in the defence industry. That is an enormously important feature of this campaign and one that should assist in its success.

I welcome the statement that we are making some progress in this respect. There has been a bit of a lull over the past few years in trying to negotiate an international treaty. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that small arms, in particular, are central to everything that is done? As she knows, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are killed and maimed every year by the small arms that are sometimes brokered beyond these shores, even under our existing law. Will she ensure that that loophole is closed as part of the international treaty?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have given a great deal of attention to that; indeed, we have restarted the process in Geneva. He is spot on in identifying this as a key area where action is needed. However, because such arms are so widespread, it is also an area of considerable sensitivity that needs a great deal of attention, support and work, which we will indeed give it.


Zimbabwe is one of the greatest concerns to the European Union and it is regularly discussed with partners. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last did so on 15 June and will be doing so on an ongoing basis. EU sanctions against the Government of Zimbabwe will be discussed when they are due for renewal in February 2007. Those sanctions keep Mugabe’s regime isolated and under pressure, and they are wholly warranted by his grotesque misgovernance. We continue to do all that we can to help the people of Zimbabwe, who have suffered so much under Mugabe’s regime.

Hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers in Zimbabwe are having their homes bulldozed, the farming sector has been destroyed, people are starving, and inflation is at more than 1,000 per cent., with bank transactions measured in trillions—all because of a mad, evil dictator. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that at a time when the world’s attention is focused on the middle east, and rightly so, the plight of Zimbabweans is not forgotten?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that not only is their plight not forgotten but as a country we are doing several things—not only in continuing with the sanctions, important as they are, but in assisting the ordinary citizens of Zimbabwe through hundreds of millions of pounds of aid to feed a country that was once southern Africa’s food basket but is now unable to feed its own nation. We are giving millions to help the quarter of the population who are suffering from HIV/AIDS.

We are working as a Government with civil society, trade unions and others who are bravely each day speaking up and speaking out about their fellow citizens in Zimbabwe, and we are making practical resources available to them. Our front-line staff are working in the country each day, in very difficult circumstances, to provide the necessary support for civil society. In addition, we are working with the front-line states, particularly those in southern Africa, to try to ensure that they do more to end this evil regime and return democracy to Zimbabwe.

Have Her Majesty’s Government made any representations to Kofi Annan and to the African Union about the recent appointment of the former Tanzanian President, Ben Mkapa, as the so-called mediator between Zimbabwe and the UK? Is he aware that Mkapa has consistently called for the ending of European Union sanctions, and does he accept that this appointment will do nothing other than satisfy Mugabe, because he has merely been a stooge of Mugabe?

If Mr. Mkapa can persuade Mr. Mugabe to undertake policy changes, we would support that. Mr. Mkapa has made no representations to us, nor has he sought our support. One thing that is certain is that, working with the United Nations, we will continue to pursue the issue of the lack of real progress in Zimbabwe. I hope that my answer to the previous question gives my hon. Friend certainty about how seriously we take the situation in terms of working in diplomatic and practical terms to assist individuals and Zimbabwe itself. It is important to build bridges. Zimbabwe is in this condition because of the actions of the Zimbabwean regime towards its own people, infrastructure and society. The sooner we get international action to resolve that, the better.

The Minister rightly assured my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) that Zimbabwe is not being forgotten at a time when events in the middle east are drawing attention elsewhere. When the Foreign Secretary raised Zimbabwe on 15 June, what specific measures were proposed to the European Union to increase the pressure on that country? What is the next set of proposals for the subsequent meeting that the Minister mentioned?

As I said in my earlier answers, the review of the sanctions will take place in early 2007. They were renewed for the fourth time earlier this year. I have no sense that they will not be maintained or that South Africa will not work with us more positively in the intervening period to try to find additional ways in which we can not only put more pressure on Mugabe but witness his taking some action on the changes that need to take place.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the meeting in June. As I said in my first answer, the EU reviewed how the sanctions are working, whether they are effective and whether member states are co-operating with them—the answer to that is yes.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall come to the House to set out in detail the discussions that we will hold between now and February with the United Nations, the front-line states and others to try to secure a more effective way of dealing with issues internally in Zimbabwe. Hon. Members should rest assured that, whether we are considering civil society, the aid programme or the health programme, we are committed to continuing to involve ourselves effectively on a day-to-day basis with the citizens of Zimbabwe.

Falkland Islands

4. What discussions her Department has had with the UN on the Argentine Foreign Minister’s recent representations to Kofi Annan on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. (87870)

The British deputy permanent representative to the United Nations met the Secretary-General on 16 June 2006. The meeting covered several issues, including the Falkland Islands. The United Kingdom referred to the presentation by the Falkland Islands councillors at the C24 UN decolonisation committee on 14 June 2006 and made it clear that the UK’s position on sovereignty remained unchanged.

Argentina’s sabre-rattling, hostile policy on the Falklands and the decision to establish a commission to win control of the islands serves only to set back Argentinian-UK relations. Is not next year’s 25th anniversary of the heroic liberation of the islands a great opportunity to commemorate and pay tribute to the courage and bravery of the UK armed forces, who won not only the conflict but the right of the Falkland islanders to live in freedom and in a democracy? Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to remind the Argentinians again of the importance of the principle of self-determination?

I agree that the anniversary next year will be an important opportunity to commemorate the deaths of not only British but Argentinian soldiers. Britain’s armed forces would also want to recognise the sacrifice that was made on both sides of that conflict. I was the first British Minister to lay a wreath at the memorial to Argentinian soldiers. It is important that we acknowledge the sacrifice that all our armed forces made in that conflict. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that self-determination remains absolute. The UN charter makes it clear that it is for the people of a territory to determine their future. That is why I made it clear that the UK’s position has not changed at all.

Self-determination has to be the key principle on which the future of the Falklands is based, as the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) and the Minister said. I ask the Minister to send the clearest message from the House that the Falklands will never be negotiated away except on the principle of self-determination.

I am sorry if my previous remarks left any room for doubt. Self-determination is a fundamental principle of the UN charter. For the avoidance of doubt, we have made it absolutely clear that the position of the Falkland Islands will not change without the consent of the people of the Falklands Islands.

When I was in Argentina last November, it was clear that the Argentinians would not renounce the claim on the Falklands—we take that as a given—but the Ministers to whom I spoke also made it clear that they had no intention of going to war against the UK. Given that that is the case and that we now have a democratic Government in Buenos Aires, why do we need to spend £120 million a year on maintaining a garrison in the Falklands?

The answer is similar to the answer that I gave earlier: for the avoidance of doubt. My hon. Friend is right to say that successive democratically elected Argentine Governments have made clear their determination to resolve this matter peacefully, and we maintain a garrison in the Falkland islands to ensure that that promise is carried out.


5. What progress has been made on the accreditation of the non-resident British ambassador to, and the honorary consul in, Madagascar. (87871)

Mr. Speaker, I must warn you that in this answer I shall have to speak French on two occasions. I have been practising.

Our requests for agrément in respect of the British high commissioner to Mauritius to be our non-resident ambassador to Madagascar, and for authority to appoint an honorary consul in Antananarivo, remain with the Malagasy authorities. We continue to push for swift accreditation. My Department has discussed the matter with the Malagasy chargé d’affaires in London twice since March, most recently on 29 June 2006. We currently have no intention of reopening our embassy in Madagascar. I think that is five out of 10.

Given that Africa has recently been our focus of attention, that the President of Madagascar is a prime example of good governance, that the 28 non-governmental organisations based there are now developing trade and investment interests and want an embassy there, and that the Malagasy have recently opened an embassy in London, would it not be best to avoid the past mistake of closing the embassy and then having to reopen it? Would it not be better to stop the accreditation of a non-resident ambassador and honorary consul and to reopen the embassy forthwith?

Africa is obviously a main priority for the Government, and that means that we need to modernise our network. We need to ensure that our network is placed in the most effective areas, to maximise our ability to represent the interests of this country. That has meant that posts have been closed in some areas, and enlarged in others, such as Pretoria, Kinshasa, Khartoum, Kigali and Addis Ababa. We are putting the investment in, but it must be appropriate investment in appropriate places. The appropriate investment in this case involves the appointment of the non-resident ambassador and the honorary consul, as I have explained, and I hope that we can reach an agreement on this matter pretty quickly so that we get on with the job that we want to do in that area.


Like the rest of the international community, the British Government are deeply concerned about the situation in Lebanon. Intensive diplomatic efforts are under way to create a durable ceasefire. There are a number of initiatives that could help to bring an end to the suffering of the people of Lebanon and northern Israel, including—as my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said—Hezbollah handing back the kidnapped Israeli soldiers immediately.

I am sure that the whole House will agree that it was right for the Minister to have travelled to Lebanon last week, and we are grateful that he did so. As this dreadful human tragedy unfolds, caused primarily by Hezbollah’s terrorist activities within the state of Lebanon against the Israelis, does the Minister agree that the only long-term solution is an international peacekeeping force? I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary was cautious earlier in saying how long that might take, but may I urge her and the Minister to remember that speed is essential if we are to avoid a complete humanitarian disaster?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I agree that we have to be very careful about the way in which we approach the subject of a stabilisation force, or of buffer zones. There are mixed feelings about such prospects across the middle east. He is also right to focus on the key issue of the Hezbollah militia. It was mentioned earlier that other militias have given up their arms in Lebanon. Hezbollah is the only powerful militia that has not done so. It is important to say that the people of Lebanon have suffered on many previous occasions from the likes of Syria and Iran fighting their war against Israel by proxy on the sovereign territory of Lebanon. They must stop doing that. I hope that the nations of the middle east, as well as the powerful western countries, bring all their diplomatic skills and influence to bear on Syria and Iran to ensure that they stop giving arms and sustenance to Hezbollah.

While acknowledging the undoubted right of Israel to defend itself against terrorist attack, does the Minister agree that the damage inflicted by Israel on the civilian population of Lebanon is wholly disproportionate to the damage that it has sustained? Will he continue forcefully to voice the concerns of many of those who have hitherto regarded themselves as friends of Israel?

The hon. Gentleman is reflecting a great deal of opinion across the world. Israel must be careful to understand, as I am sure it does, that it is fighting not just a military but a political campaign. Opinion on the Arab streets, and on Muslim streets in general, is fed by those who want to portray in the worst possible light the effects of what has been a savage and harsh military campaign by Israel on a great part of Lebanon. However, I also saw for myself the way in which a ruthless militia, Hezbollah, locates its men, missile sites and supplies right in the middle of domestic housing. It does not care about the people who are dying there. It will use them in whatever way it can as propaganda for its campaign, and ultimately for the campaign of Iran and Syria. We must try to understand that the situation is not simple—there is not the wish to destroy a nation—but the results are horrendous. People are dying in Haifa as they are in Lebanon. We must find some way of constructing a durable peace.

The Minister will be aware that, according to the ICM poll published in The Guardian today, 63 per cent. of people in the United Kingdom believe that the Prime Minister has tied Britain too closely to the White House, and they expect the British Government to stand up to the US. Although I agree that Hezbollah has no respect for human life, whether Muslim, Jewish or any other, the Israeli response is disproportionate and has targeted the entire Lebanese population. Is not it time for the British Government to call on the United States to call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire?

I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have worked closely in discussions with the United States and many of our other allies. If he is trying to ask me to denounce a nation that has fought for democracy, democratic rights and freedom for a century or more, I cannot agree with him.

Is it not essential to remember how this conflict began, no matter how tragic its consequences? It was deliberately initiated by Hezbollah, after stockpiling missiles, apparently siting them in civilian areas, as the Minister has said, and clearly using them against civilian targets in Israel. Is it not essential, if there is to be a long-term, durable, sustainable peace, that the problem of Hezbollah be addressed, so that people on both sides of the Lebanese-Israel border can live in peace?

Yes, I agree with every word of that. The problem must be addressed, and the Lebanese Government must be helped, by any nation that can do so, to build up their capacity, through whatever means, to disarm Hezbollah—in the best possible way, to get Hezbollah to give up its weapons and, if necessary, to take those weapons off Hezbollah. As long as there is an alternative Government in Lebanon who decide their own foreign policy, how on earth can the democratically elected Government of Lebanon extend their remit to the frontiers of Israel? It will be impossible. That is why it is essential for us to help that Government in whatever way we can, hopefully by peaceful and diplomatic means, to ensure that Hezbollah gives up its weapons.

Many people were genuinely grateful for my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East’s forthright comments over the weekend, when he was in Lebanon. They introduced real balance, in the form of proper condemnation of the humanitarian abuses on both sides of the conflict.

Was not my hon. Friend absolutely right when he just told the House that, in the long run, the answer to Hezbollah is not a military victory for Israel but a strengthened Lebanese state that can control every aspect of life in Lebanon? The guarantee that we need is that we will not abandon Lebanon as the next crisis preoccupies us, and simply forget today’s crisis.

My hon. Friend’s words are wise. George Mitchell, a man with enormous experience in helping to negotiate peaceful outcomes, said on the “Today” programme this morning “Let us not come up with facile answers.” A simple ceasefire will mean that the conflict will start up again in a week, a year, or two years, and people will suffer again and again.

There has to be another way through this. We must construct a proper, sustainable peace for the region, and my hon. Friend is right to point out that one way in which we must do that is by building up the authority and capacity of the Lebanese Government.

When the Minister was in Beirut, he expressed his views forcefully, as he has in a number of our debates in Westminster Hall. He said:

“The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people. These have not been surgical strikes.

And it’s very difficult, I think, to understand the kind of military tactics that have been used.

You know, if they’re”

—he was referring to the Israelis—

“chasing Hezbollah, then go for Hezbollah. You don’t go for the entire Lebanese nation.”

The Minister pointed out that Hezbollah hides in urban areas, and is totally and utterly incapable of understanding the consequences for the Lebanese people. What advice does he give the Israelis now? How are they to deal with Hezbollah if they are not to engage in the kind of wider damage that is undoubtedly taking place?

I am not a military strategist, and I am not aware that the hon. Gentleman is either. [Hon. Members: “He is!”] I apologise. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was just a good bloke. I hope that he accepts my apology.

The position is very difficult to understand. While I was in Beirut, I heard a story about a bridge that the Israelis feared would be used to bring supplies to Hezbollah from Syria. I am not certain, but I believe that the bridge may have been paid for with European Union aid money. It certainly cost €70 million. I understand from everyone to whom I spoke that there was a big hole in one end of the bridge. The bridge was reparable in time, but instead it was attacked again and again until it had been utterly destroyed. I do not see the sense in attacking the Lebanese infrastructure in that way.

Worse still, I heard of a Lebanese army barracks in which 17 or 18 engineers were killed. It was very close to the British ambassador’s residence. If the aim is to go in and try to disarm Hezbollah, whether by persuasion or by force, where is the sense—tactical or otherwise—in dropping a bomb on the very force whose help is required in establishing law and order and extending the Government’s remit right down to the Israeli border? It makes no sense. I made that view known to the Israelis—including the Israeli Foreign Minister—and I know that they realise they must be very judicious in the way in which they attack such targets if they are to win opinion on the Arab streets.


We remain concerned about the political situation in Burma, which is unchanged. I summoned the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and wrote to the Burmese Foreign Minister setting out our concerns in detail. I also raised Burma with the Governments of China, India, Japan, Thailand and South Korea and I met Juan Mendes, the UN special adviser for the prevention of genocide, to discuss the Burmese situation. Indeed, I invited Mr. Mendes to come here to Parliament to meet Members of both Houses and discuss their continuing concerns about Burma. I hope to able to arrange that in the near future, and we will continue to press for positive change in Burma.

I thank the Minister for that reply and I encourage him to continue taking specific steps to build international support for a UN Security Council resolution on Burma, particularly in the light of the extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest in May and the continuing Burmese army offensive against the Karen people, which has resulted in the displacement of more than 18,000 individuals this year alone.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. He referred to a group of specific issues, which I also raised with the ambassador and with the Foreign Ministers of other countries in order to secure co-operative action in the region to get Burma to accept its international obligations. First, Burma should allow the UN to enter the country. Secondly, it should allow in the UN refugee administration and, thirdly, it should also allow a UN rapporteur into the country to investigate allegations of torture and other inhumane treatment against ethnic minorities. Countries in the region must take some responsibility for developing a comprehensive strategy to bring Burma into the public domain and to get it to live up to its requirements on human rights and for its own civil society. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am continually raising the issues that he mentioned with both the Burmese Administration and the countries around Burma, which could exert a greater influence than they have up to now.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s robust answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). Given that the remorseless bestiality of the military junta has caused the patience of the Malaysian Prime Minister and his colleagues in the Association of South East Asian Nations finally to snap, and given that no fewer than 313 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 902, calling for a UN Security Council intervention in Burma, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House today what particular steps he is taking to try to persuade Ghana, Tanzania and Congo-Brazzaville to back a robust resolution that will force the regime to stop subjugating its citizens and to start liberating them?

Again, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we support a proposal for a Security Council resolution on Burma and we are working closely not only with the United States, but with other partners on the Council to ensure that we have a full debate on Burma, which we hope will lead to a resolution. Our first objective—to answer the hon. Gentleman’s main question—is to get Burma formally added to the UN Security Council agenda. To achieve that, we need nine votes and we are working with like-minded partners to secure those votes. I cannot yet tell the House that I have secured the nine, but we are close to doing so. I hope that, having achieved the nine votes, we can proceed to put the motion at the Council. That is a clear indication that the international community has not just lost its patience with Burma, but is prepared to take action to represent the needs of the Burmese people who are trapped in that country. They are powerless and voiceless and only we can help them to resolve their problems.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Burmese regime is propped up by the highest number of child soldiers in the world? It has been reported that the Burmese regime frequently apprehends boys as young as 12 at train and bus stations, markets and other public places, forcing them into the army and even to participate in executions. When he next meets the Burmese—

It is not normal to put into the public domain discussions with an ambassador, even of that regime. However, on the issue of child soldiers, I asked the ambassador to look me in the eye and tell me—not as an ambassador or politician, but as a father and a grandfather—why so many of his children or grandchildren have had their childhoods stolen and how many of them are fighting an inhumane war against their own fellow children and fellow human beings instead of playing in the streets and doing the things that children take for granted in this country. He did not answer that question, but I looked him in the eye again and I asked him again and again, and I will continue to ask him until he rids his country of child soldiers.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, which is very impressive, but what are the Chinese doing? What discussions has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had with the Chinese? The key to putting pressure on Burma must be found in China changing its position and beginning to condemn that awful regime.

I can confirm that I have had three conversations with different representatives of the Chinese Government—their ambassador, whom I will meet again soon, their Vice-Foreign Minister and their Deputy Foreign Minister, the latter of whom I spoke to only last week in Beijing. I have asked them to consider finding a practical way forward. They are obviously concerned about security on their own border. However, China and the other nations in the region have a direct responsibility not just to get fed up with Burma and its actions, but to do something about being fed up. I am having those delicate discussions on the basis of securing, first, a UN Security Council resolution and, secondly, co-operation to allow the UN to enter Burma freely and to start doing the work that we need to do there on behalf of the people of Burma.

As has been made clear in these exchanges, the Burma regime is one of the most inhumane in the world. The Minister has recently had high-level talks with the Chinese, who are key players in bringing about change, first, because of their major influence on ASEAN; secondly, because of their increasing trade with Burma, through their building of ports to gain access to the Indian ocean and through gas supplies; and, thirdly, because they are one of the key nations that are blocking a binding resolution. Precisely what discussions has he had with the Chinese to bring about a change in their attitude towards Burma, because they need to start taking a more responsible attitude in the international community towards bad human rights records in countries such as Burma?

Yes, as the military strategist says. Why does a military strategist become a Member of Parliament? I can give an assurance that we asked our colleagues in China to do a number of things: first, to help facilitate access by the UN; and, secondly, to think seriously and to help facilitate a UN resolution and a resolution in the Human Rights Council on a better proactive dialogue to allow the various commissioners appointed by the UN to deal with Burma and to be able to do their jobs. We have yet to get a full response, but at least they are prepared to discuss it. Their recent actions in regard to Iran and North Korea are surely a really good sign of their being more proactive in the region on an international basis. By taking those two steps forward, I hope that we can take steps forward in terms of Burma as well.

Middle East

We are gravely concerned by the situation in Lebanon, Israel and the occupied territories. We are urging restraint on all sides and are working with international partners to secure a durable ceasefire. It is important that the abducted Israeli soldiers are released and that Israel acts proportionately, conforms with international law and avoids civilian death and suffering. Ultimately, to resolve the situation in both Gaza and Lebanon, we need to deal with the underlying causes, so we must get negotiations between Israel and Palestinians back on track and make progress towards the two-state solution.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. If she recalls, there was a summit at Sharm el-Sheikh last year, and the Israelis promised to release Palestinian prisoners. However, there are still 9,000 Palestinians in detention or prison, including 400 children. In addition, 33 Palestinian Ministers and Members of Parliament are also in detention. The Israelis must understand that there cannot be peace and stability in that region unless they give the Palestinians their independence and their liberty.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is one of the more distinguished contributors for her record in all of these spheres, and I understand the concern that she expresses. I can tell her that, particularly with regard to the recent detention of Ministers and Members of Parliament, international concern has been expressed and there continue to be calls for their release. I can also tell her that the wider concerns that she expresses about Palestinian prisoners in general are shared, and that much discussion and negotiation is going on at the current time about all of these issues.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that a ceasefire will be short lived unless both Hezbollah and Hamas agree to give up their weapons and agree to a ceasefire themselves, and that, sadly, neither looks like happening?

As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East said in response to earlier questions—and as Senator Mitchell said on the “Today” programme this morning—it is of course the case that any ceasefire that is other than a ceasefire on both sides, and any ceasefire that does not have the capacity to be durable and sustainable, simply will not hold. The right hon. Gentleman is right that, sadly, there seems to be little evidence that either Hamas or Hezbollah has much interest at present in such a ceasefire.