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Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2006

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.