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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Middle East

1. What steps are being taken in pursuance of United Nations resolution 1701 to disarm Hezbollah and secure the release of Israeli soldiers held hostage. (107305)

The deployment of the Lebanese armed forces and UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—in southern Lebanon in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1701 has had a positive effect on security in the area and has helped to reaffirm the authority of the Government of Lebanon. That Government should be the only body able to authorise use of force in Lebanon.

My visit to Lebanon on 1 and 2 December was undertaken to show support for the constitutionally elected Government and for the full implementation of the UN resolution. We continue to call for the immediate release of captured Israeli soldiers and support efforts by the UN to broker their release.

Will the Foreign Secretary lobby further the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross on the release of the two Israeli hostages? There have been no reports on either of them and their families have had no word on whether they are alive. I ask for that lobbying to take place immediately.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we keep in continual contact with all the many disparate individuals and groups endeavouring to obtain the release of the soldiers. Indeed, I met the wife of one of them in London a few days ago. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is particularly tragic that those holding the soldiers have so far not even been prepared to provide proof of life. That is very distressing for the families. Everyone is doing everything they can to procure the soldiers’ release.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the UNIFIL commander, General Pellegrini, has stated that he is unable to prevent arms from Iran and Syria from being passed to Hezbollah? How seriously does she take that violation of the UN resolution?

As my hon. Friend probably knows, we take such issues very seriously and we continue to work with the Lebanese authorities—and to work through the European Union—to do everything that can be done to strengthen border security. There are obviously concerns about arms passing across the border. At present, there is a certain amount of dispute about whether, and to what degree, such transfer is taking place, but all such transfer is undesirable and we will try to halt it.

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in welcoming the Israeli Government’s decision not to take immediate retaliatory action if they suffer rocket attacks? Does she agree that that is a courageous decision that might help the middle east peace process, particularly if Hamas can play its part by restraining the Palestinians from launching such attacks?

I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I think that most people would. There have been many previous attempts to pursue the peace process, and many of them havebeen bedevilled by one side or another reacting very swiftly to provocations that were clearly designed to undermine it. The step that he mentions is very welcome, and I share his hope that such restraint is shown on both sides.

Violations of resolution 1701 are obviously unacceptable from whichever side they come. Therefore, would my right hon. Friend also care to comment on the large number of Israeli overflights of Lebanon, which also violate resolution 1701? What representations is she making on that, bearing in mind that such overflights have been taking place since well before the events of this summer?

I can tell my hon. Friend that we have indeed made repeated representations to the Israeli Government on the issue of overflight, particularly since the events of the summer. I am sure he knows that this discussion goes straight back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on whether arms continue to flow into Lebanon. Nevertheless, we accept that that tactic can bring considerable dangers in itself, and we have urged the Israeli Government to cease using it.

The Foreign Secretary said that she was recently in Lebanon giving support to the Lebanese Government. Is she convinced that they will be able to face down the extra-parliamentary demonstrations that are taking place, or is she concerned that they will result in the fall of the Lebanese Government and effectively lead to a Hezbollah regime that will be to the benefit of neither the Lebanese people nor Lebanon’s neighbours?

There can be no certainty about the situation in Lebanon, and I share the concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. Certainly, the step that is being taken, with the clearly expressed wish of bringing down the elected Government, is potentially very damaging and destabilising. When I was in Lebanon, among the points I made to my many interlocutors were, first, that the international community supports the Government—whom the people of Lebanon themselves elected—and secondly, that there are many pressing issues and problems on the plate of that Government and of the Lebanese people in reconstructing their country, and that that should surely be their top priority.

As the Israeli soldiers remain captive four months after a war that devastated large parts of Lebanon and killed huge numbers of Lebanese civilians—and Israeli civilians, too—does that not make the visit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Washington this week all the more important in terms of emphasising that none of these problems can be solved without an overall settlement in the middle east?

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. We have repeatedly made the point—not only in Lebanon, but at the broader middle east conference in Jordan a couple of days beforehand—that although moves toward a peace process in Israel and Palestine are not sufficient to solve all the problems of the region, they are a necessary step, since none of the other problems of the region is likely to be resolved without them.

Iraq

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Government of Iraq and other Governments about war reparations. (107306)

I have met the Governments of key debt holders and urged them to consider the long-term benefits of reducing the burden of Saddam Hussein’s legacy, including the financial burden. As part of the Paris Club creditors’ agreement, the United Kingdom has agreed to forgive 80 per cent. of the Iraqi debt to the UK. Other countries have also slashed Iraqi debt, but some—especially among Iraq’s Arab neighbours—have declined to do so. We continue to encourage others to follow our lead in order to help significantly with the vital reconstruction of the Iraqi economy.

I welcome the tone of the Minister’s reply, but why have the Government acquiesced in an arrangement whereby $40 billion of Iraqi oil money that should have gone into reconstruction and development has been siphoned off for reparations, including very large payments to companies such as Bechtel, Halliburton and even Kentucky Fried Chicken for lost profit opportunities during the first Gulf war? Is that not obscene, as well as stupid?

I am not entirely sure that I go along with the adjectives that the hon. Gentleman has just used. I remind him and the House that reparations for losses incurred as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait have been dealt with by the United Nations Compensation Commission, which was set up by the United Nations Security Council in 1993. These have been paid out of the UNCC compensation fund, and payments to British recipients have now been completed.

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, in that the vital need is to reconstruct Iraq. This situation does not help and is unsatisfactory, and I certainly agree that the new democratic Iraqi Government should not have to pay for the crimes of Saddam. However, thosewho loaned money to Iraq and who suffered under the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait have a right to expect recompense—a right that was recognised, as I said, by the United Nations.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the UNCC regime must be brought to an end? It undermines the democratically elected Government of Iraq, because they are forced to levy their oil revenues to pay wealthy Kuwaitis and American big business. It is a regime imposed by the United Nations that was appropriate in its time, but its time is now over. Will the Government help to bring it to an end?

We have made it clear to the Paris Club creditors’ that this debt burden is a significant hindrance to the reconstruction of Iraq. However, I should point out that many honest businesses and countries suffered as a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait—not least the Kuwaitis themselves. I am sure that in a perfect world we could bring this situation to early closure, and we have to convince those Governments and companies that that is the right thing to do. Believe me, some of those Governments and companies feel extremely bitter about the losses that occurred as a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s illegal action.

Does the Minister agree that a resolution of the reparations question must involve the regional powers, such as Syria and Iran, and that an allied withdrawal from Iraq would force those countries to face up to their responsibilities in the region? Rather than arming the militias in Iraq and fomenting the civil war there, they should start to build for stability. So in fact, an allied withdrawal might accelerate peace and stability in the region.

I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that Syria and Iran—the two main countries that he is talking about—should take a much more positive role to try to bring stability and prosperity to Iraq. We have to talk not just to the Syrians and the Iranians, but, most importantly, tothe Iraqi Government—the democratically elected Government of Prime Minister al-Maliki. They have made it clear to us that they want a transfer of responsibility for security and for shaping the future of their own country. They very much hope that their neighbours will play a more positive role, and have been trying to achieve that in discussions with Syria and Iran.

I note that Syria, for example, is to open an embassy in Baghdad, which is a good move. However, I am not sure that a hasty retreat from Iraq would necessarily help that process. We have to undertake it in stages carefully and, most importantly, with the co-operation of the Iraqi Government.

My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question, as those issues hardly get any coverage in this country. I was in Basra last week and saw for myself how initiatives such as Operations Sinbad and Better Basra are achieving a great deal. I know that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who speaks on foreign affairs for Her Majesty’s Opposition, has also been in Iraq recently.

I saw one project that alone involves the planting of 8,000 date palms, as part of Operation Sinbad, and employs 4,000 people in Basra. What Basra needs above all is for young men and women to get jobs and not to be prey to the militias that cynically use them to kill our troops. Many good things are happening in southern Iraq, and in the Basra area in particular, which is reflected in the urge of the provincial Government and other authorities in southern Iraq to take on more responsibility.

While we are talking about war reparations, will my hon. Friend look at the situation of the British people taken hostage in Kuwait when a British Airways plane landed there during the invasion of that country by Saddam Hussein? Many of those families were taken to Iraq as human shields and many are still suffering from the trauma of their ordeal. The Americans on the plane received compensation; the British never have. Will my hon. Friend look again at the matter?

I will be only too glad to do so. I know that my right hon. Friend feels strongly about what happened during the early days and weeks after the invasion of Kuwait. I believe that a comprehensive statement was issued by the previous Government, and I shall be glad to furnish her with a copy so that she and I between us might be able to discover what compensation might be paid out.

Cluster Munitions

3. What assessment she has made of progress towards banning cluster munitions; and if she will make a statement. (107307)

8. What assessment she has made of progress towards banning cluster munitions; and if she will make a statement. (107312)

The United Kingdom raised the question of cluster munitions at the recent review conference on the convention of certain conventional weapons, and we secured an agreement to hold urgent expert-level discussions on their humanitarian impact. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East explained Government policy in a written ministerial statement issued yesterday.

In the 108 days since the ceasefire,177 people have been injured or killed by unexploded bomblets from cluster munitions in southern Lebanon. If casualties continue at the current rate, by 2007, when the Government’s proposed discussions are to take place, the figure will have risen to 500. Will the Minister make a commitment to hold truly urgent discussions with the Israeli Government regarding their violation of international law through their use of cluster bombs this summer?

The hon. Gentleman sets out clearly the nature of the problem. That is why the United Kingdom led the initiative at the recent CCW review conference for urgent discussions to take forward a comprehensive solution to the problem he describes so well. In addition, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary demonstrated on her recent visit to the area, the UK Government have provided financial assistance for the clearance of unexploded ordnance in southern Lebanon and we will continue to provide such assistance.

The Government have been trying to draw a clear distinction between smart and dumb cluster bombs—the latter of which they apparently disapprove of. Why then are they waiting until the middle of the next decade before ridding themselves of the large stockpile of dumb cluster munitions? Why not ditch them now?

I accept the implicit criticism in the hon. Gentleman’s observation about the distinction between smart and dumb weapons. However, the matter is not as clear cut as that. There is no internationally agreed definition. He has to face up to the fact that that weapons system, if used properly and in accordance with humanitarian law—that is, where there is no direct threat to the lives of civilians—is the most effective weapon for dealing with armour. He has to bear it in mind that, for example, if that weapons system was not available to British forces under threat from an armoured group, large amounts of high explosives would be required to deal with that threat, so there would be greater risk to the civilian population and greater risk of further damage to people in the area.

That is why it is appropriate to use this weapons system in accordance with humanitarian law, but at the same time to ensure that we take steps as best we can to reach an agreement internationally that, in particular, those weapons that cannot be properly targeted—those considered dumb, in the language that the hon. Gentleman uses—should not be used by any country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, according to the Mines Advisory Group and a cross-party group that was in Lebanon last month, some 32.7 million sq m of land are infected and contaminated by cluster munitions? According to the Mines Advisory Group, if the Israelis were to give it grid references for the 1.2 million bombs that were let loose in the last three days of action, instead of three children dying a day, as is the case, the number would, it hopes, be much less. Will he use his good offices to ensure that we put sufficient pressure on the Israeli Government to move forward on this important issue?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We have repeatedly urged the Israeli Government to provide the UN with detailed maps and other help in locating unexploded cluster munitions in the area that he describes. There is, however, a very determined effort under way to clear that area of unexploded weapons. As I have already indicated, we have given significant financial help to that effort.

Although I understand my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the military capability of thoseweapons, does he understand that the humanitarian consequences are so vast that there is a requirement to move as quickly as possible? What assessment has he made of the progress and what chance does he think there is of reaching an international solution in the way that we did for land mines?

That is why the United Kingdom has adopted the approach that I set out. What is important is that we secure an international agreement in precisely the way that we did in relation to land mines, as my hon. Friend indicated. It is important that all countries move together as part of international law on this question. However, I emphasise that the United Kingdom’s use of that particular weapons system is always governed by humanitarian law.

But should not equal priority be given to removing the causesof conflict, which lead to the use of destructive armaments such as these and, for that matter, the 4,000 missiles that were rained down on Israeli towns and cities at the beginning of this conflict and which have a pretty contaminating and non-humanitarian impact on those who are on the receiving end of them?

Will the Minister give equal priority to supporting all those in the middle east who seek a peaceful solution, including the President of the Palestinian Authority and the Prime Minister of Israel? Would not a good start be made if there was an initial settlement that led to the release of the two hostages, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev?

Of course, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, as I mentioned, were in the region very recently, as was my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East. So, a determined effort has been made by the Government, and will go on being made, to reduce the causes of conflict and to find a way back to a peace process.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has to say and the written statement in particular. Does he agree that one thing that we could bring forth at the CCW conference in a year’s time would be a clear statement that we intend to publish details of our stocks of cluster munitions in the hope that all other countries do so? If that could be done, we would at least know the nature of the problem with which we are dealing.

I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes, but when trying to ensure that all countries respect international law, it is important that there is an international agreement. That is why we have taken the initiative, which I believe represents the best way forward. As other hon. and right hon. Members have said, the initiative is a route towards a comprehensive international ban.

In the past couple of weeks, we have begun a useful debate on this subject in Parliament, and I pay tribute to Landmine Action and others for the work that they do in this area.

May I press the Minister on his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie)? The right hon. Gentleman did not tell us why, if it is a matter of principle to get rid of dumb cluster munitions, it will take until the middle of the next decade for the British to do that. More generally, does not the Government’s distinction between dumb and smart cluster munitions ignore the reality that the smart bombs can have an unacceptably high failure rate of 10 per cent? Surely the bottom line is that we should be getting rid of all cluster munitions.

I am not going to give the hon. Gentleman and the House a lecture on the distinctions between dumb and smart weapons. One problem is that the word “smart” is generally used to refer to a guided weapon. Unfortunately, in this context, “smart” is also used to refer to the ability of this particular weapon to self-destruct if it has not exploded after a period of time.

A smart cluster bomb ought to be guided and should self-destruct after a period of time. However, I accept that the definitions are sometimes used imprecisely. I also accept that it is important that we move together with other countries to try to find a comprehensive way to resolve the problem. I do not wish to repeat all the points that I have made about the use of the weapons system, but I assure the House that the United Kingdom Government have only ever used such weapons fully in accordance with international law.

Has the Minister read research by Handicap International that demonstrates quite clearly that 98 per cent. of casualties from cluster munitions are civilians and that a third are children? Can he justify to the House how it is right that civilians should be allowed to go back to homes and fields that are clustered with explosive debris? Will he work with the International Committee of the Red Cross to try to overcome intransigence—especially on the part of the United States of America and Russia—over getting a ban on such munitions?

I am not even going to try to justifywhat my hon. Friend describes. It is appalling that children—or anyone—are damaged by such weapons when they fail to explode, because that is an indication that they have been used in circumstances in whichthe United Kingdom would not use them. It is important to emphasise that great care is taken by our commanders in the field to ensure that the provisions of humanitarian law are recognised and respected. By implication, my hon. Friend made clear the importance of getting a comprehensive international agreement on these weapons, which I emphasise.

In an effort not to be dumb, may I put one simple point to the Minister? As part of the Government’s efforts to achieve an international ban on cluster bombs, would it not assist if the UK gave them up first, thus taking the moral high ground? I remind him that while unilateral disarmament might not be the flavour of the month among those on the Treasury Bench at present, it might be a good idea during the negotiations.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East did in yesterday’s written ministerial statement, I have made it clear that the Government’s intention is to phase out a certain kind of these systems—I say that without repeating the word used by the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him to the extent that it is important that we lead the way on that. However, equally, it is vital that we use the existing framework that is available to all countries that own and use those systems, and that there is a comprehensive agreement. Kofi Annan has made it clear that the parties should use the existing CCW framework, and that is the approach on which the United Kingdom Government have led the way.

Zimbabwe

4. When she next expects to meet her European Union counterparts to discuss the effectiveness of current sanctions against Zimbabwe. (107308)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed Zimbabwe with her EU counterparts in October. I have also had discussions on that country, including with my Portuguese counterpart. There will be further discussion of the EU’s targeted measures against Zimbabwe early next year, before their expiry in February. We believe that the measures, which target the regime members and not ordinary Zimbabweans, are effective and should be continued.

The Minister will be aware ofthe total collapse of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and the rampant hyperinflation, with the cost of water in Harare last week increasing from 8 to 130 Zimbabwean dollars per unit. Is he also aware of the horrific human rights abuses, including the recent police attacks on the trade union vice-president Lucia Matibenga, which resulted in a broken arm? Surely the time has come for our Government and Europe to tighten smart sanctions and travel bans, which do not affect Zimbabwe’s hard-pressed citizens, but are aimed at Mugabe and his evil henchmen?

May I make it clear that the UK condemns the most recent assaults on ordinary Zimbabweans? The organisation Women of Zimbabwe Arise shuns any form of violent demonstration and has a history of peaceful protest; there can be no excuse for the attacks that its members have suffered. The beating of women and children only two months after the abuse of the trade union leadership is further evidence of Zimbabwe’s terrible human rights record, which Robert Mugabe tries to argue is a figment of the west’s imagination.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is vital that we continue to isolate the regime, but, as his opening observations made clear, we have no quarrel with the people of Zimbabwe and no reason to cause further harm to a population who are already suffering as a result of the appalling decisions of their leaders. That is why we draw the distinction between sanctions that are aimed at the regime and other measures that might further damage the people of Zimbabwe.

Although I welcome the talks on Zimbabwe with our EU partners, should not more effort be spent in talking to Zimbabwe’s neighbours, whose actions might have more effect, and to countries such as China, which continue to invest in Zimbabwe?

I agree that all parts of the international community, and in particular Zimbabwe’s near neighbours, could do more. It is important to continue to isolate the regime, and it is vital to world opinion that the countries of southern Africa take united and effective action to isolate Zimbabwe. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments.

Is it not a fact that there are no practical consequences that the Minister can name that have affected the leaders of Zimbabwe as a result of the sanctions? To follow up the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), is it not necessary to do more and not only talk to Zimbabwe’s neighbours, but pin them down to practical measures that they can impose and we cannot?

I have made it clear that we would likethe international community, including Zimbabwe’s southern African neighbours, to do more, but I do not accept that there are no practical consequences. If that were so, the regime in Zimbabwe would not protest so loud and so long about the impact that the sanctions have. The fact is that its leaders do protest, which means that the sanctions are having some effect on them.

Burma

The human rights situation in Burma remains dire. Serious human rights abuses are being committed, particularly in areas of armed conflict. The Burmese people do not enjoy the most basic human rights—including the right of freedom of speech and association—democracy and good governance, and the rule of law.

The Burmese Government have recently orderedthe International Committee of the Red Cross to close its field offices. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development and I have issued strong statements condemning that action, which I have placed in the Library of the House.

I discussed the human rights situation in Burmawith UN Under-Secretary-General Gambari on15 November. I have also invited Juan Mendez, UN special adviser for the prevention of genocide, tobrief Members of both Houses of Parliament on14 December.

I thank the Minister for that full answer. It has been the policy of this country for many years to discourage UK companies from investing in and trading with Burma, but despite that the human rights situation in that country has worsened, as hehas just described. What consideration have the Government given to shifting from a policy of discouragement to one of prohibition? Does he accept that if we did that, we would have a great deal more moral authority when we were trying to discourage other countries in the region from trading with and investing in Burma?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the way he worded it. It reflects the common approach across the House and shows how effective that can be. There is a common European Union position on the matter, which includes an arms embargo, a ban on defence links, a ban on high level Government visits to Burma and a ban on the supply of equipment. As a result of our discouragement, British companies have been disinvesting in Burma to the point that there is little or no UK investment in Burma or its overseas territories. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the best chance we have of imposing embargos is through the EU. If we do so unilaterally, we will open the door to some countries in Europe which may not want to join in the strength of the common position. It is critical that the 25 countries maintain the same line and ensure that commitments given are carried through.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Chinese Government have extensive economic and political relations with Burma. What representations has he made to the Chinese authorities about these matters? Is he optimistic that China will eventually move into line with the body of international opinion?

I have not only raised the matter with my counterpart in China and with the ambassador on numerous occasions, but in recent days I have taken the opportunity to speak to my counterpart in India, and yesterday I met the representatives of countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations to talk through with them a more proactive approach by the ASEAN countries. Last evening I met the Foreign Minister of Brunei, who is chair of the ASEAN group, to discuss with him a more practical approach by ASEAN, along with India and China, to try and resolve the issues on behalf of the people of Burma.

Following the pretty bleak reply that the Minister gave on the Burmese regime, does he agree that it is one of the most evil regimes in the world in terms of its human rights record? Recent reports say that Burma has the highest recruitment of child soldiers, and routine rape and torture of women and young girls. That is unacceptable. What further action is the Minister taking within the European Union so that certain countries do not block a UN resolution? Does he agree that tougher action needs to be taken by China and Russia so that together the international community can bring forth a real and workable UN resolution to stop the regime committing such human rights abuses?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. First, I have spoken directly with the Burmese ambassador on numerous occasions, with a range of allegations backed up by firm evidence. To date the response has been negative. No responsibility is accepted, including for rape by army officers and army personnel. Secondly, I have had personal and detailed discussions with all the countries that the hon. Gentleman mentions, except Russia. As I said to Mr. Gambari when we met recently, our commitment is to support a UN resolution. All our efforts among our European colleagues and colleagues in the ASEAN group are important to get maximum support for any further Security Council resolution. That is why I have invited a UN representative to come here on 14 December and give a report to Members of both Houses. It is important that hon. Members of both Houses have the opportunity to meet a UN representative and to discuss with him in person the role of the UN working with us as a Government. Not everyone can fly to Geneva or New York, so we are bringing Geneva and New York here. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) are welcome to attend the meeting, which is a genuine effort by me to open up the dialogue and give others the chance to put the case for the Burmese people.

Iraq

Iraqi leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to national unity. The national reconciliation initiative is being pursued and the constitutional review committee has now been formed. On security, two provinces have already been handed over to Iraqi control and four more will follow this month. Agreement has also been reached to transfer four of the 10 Iraqi army divisions from the multinational force to Iraqi command and control this year. Political progress is, though, still being hampered by high levels of sectarian violence specifically aimed at undermining the Government’s efforts to improve security. We will continue to support the Iraqi Government in their work.

What can the Foreign Secretary say to disprove the withering verdict of the US State Department official, Kendall Myers, that Washington has systematically ignored British advice over Iraq? Can she give a single concrete example of any piece of advice given by her or the Prime Minister that was accepted by Washington and without which the catastrophe in Iraq would have been even worse?

I could certainly give the hon. Gentleman many examples of advice that we have given that has been accepted by Washington. As regards Kendall Myers, I had never heard of him before and I do not suppose that I shall ever hear of him again—[Interruption.] The example with America goes back as far as Winston Churchill, a point of view that the hon. Gentleman might not wholly share.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the view of the Secretary-General of the United Nations that Iraq is now in a state of civil war? A simple yes or no answer would be very helpful.

No. Furthermore, I would say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is very experienced in politics as well as in some of these issues, that it might have occurred to him, because it has certainly occurred to me, that it was not the Secretary-General who said that—not for the first time, the words were put into his mouth by a journalist.

Should there not be total condemnation from everyone in this House, whichever line they took at the time of the war, of the mass murder that is being carried out on a daily basis against completely innocent people by terrorists who have, needless to say, not the slightest interest in democracy? Since it is clear that the occupation troops can in no way stop what is happening, does my right hon. Friend accept that the continued reduction of British troops is to be welcomed? I hope that that will continue throughout next year.

My hon. Friend is entirely right that everybody must, and does, condemn the terrible levels of violence and the nature of the violence—wanton violence—in Iraq, which seems to be aimed at nothing more than destroying the hope and the prospect of peace. It is confined to fewer areas than one is sometimes given the impression is the case from coverage in this country, but it is nevertheless quite appalling.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that it is important that we continue with the process of handing over security responsibility to the Iraqi police and armed forces as they become able to take it on. Like him, I strongly hope that that process will continue.

As it would appear that the presence of forces responsible for the invasion is merely fuelling the insurgency,what discussions have taken place with the Iraqi Government about the desirability of handing over some of the responsibility to United Nations forces?

Lots of discussions have taken place with the Iraqi Government about a transfer of responsibility, but I have detected no interest in the Iraqi Government in finding a new international force. Perhaps I could remind my hon. Friend, as she seems to have forgotten, that the multinational forces that are there are under the authority of the United Nations. The Iraqi Government are not interested in getting in a fresh set of international troops, but there is certainly interest in taking over control of security themselves—that is a view that we strongly share.

Let me add that it is not the case that the presence of multinational forces is fuelling conflict in every part of Iraq—there are some areas where it may not be assisting and may even be adding to difficulties, but that is not so across Iraq. That is why the Iraqi Government are not asking for those forces simply to decamp.

Given the pace of the policy reassessment going on in Washington, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it would be highly desirable for the Government to come to the House before the Christmas recess with a statement of policy on Iraq and on the prospects for our operations there? Will she describe the shape currently taken by any policy review going on in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence or Downing street in parallel with the two reviews taking place in Washington? With or without that, what can she tell the House about the advice that the Prime Minister will give to President Bush when he travels to Washington tomorrow?

The advice that the Prime Minister will give to President Bush is exactly the advice that he has shared with the House and, indeed, the country, on many occasions. It is on the need to give attention to supporting the Iraqi Government’s efforts to improve services and infrastructure, and to improve and take greater responsibility for security, as they can. Obviously, it is not entirely up to me how matters are reported to the House, but I certainly give the right hon. Gentleman an undertaking that if there is a change that seems to require fresh information to be given to the House, I will be happy to give it, in one way or another.

I am grateful for that answer, and of course I will pursue the matter. In the meantime, it is evident that military force alone will not resolve the current situation, and I know that the Foreign Secretary will agree that a broader political reconciliation in Iraq is indispensable to its future, but what does she think are the chances of arriving at such a situation in the next few months? Does she think that it is a good idea to establish an international contact group of countries that wish to help in such matters, and that have the influence to do so? Such a group could begin to provide the international framework to buttress any such agreement in the future.

First, may I say that I strongly share the right hon. Gentleman’s view—a view thatwe have been expressing continually to the Iraqi Government—that political reconciliation is imperative in Iraq? We have encouraged and supported that Government in that work. I can tell him and the House that, two or three days ago, I had a long and very fruitful conversation with the Iraqi Foreign Minister, who told me how much better those efforts are proceeding, and how encouraged he is that people there are seeing some improvement in the situation. I very much hope that the next few months will bring the kind of improvements that he, and we, seek. On the issue of an international contact group, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that for some time we have urged Iraq’s neighbours and its colleagues elsewhere—for example, in the Gulf and among the Arab states—both to join the international compact to support Iraq, and to be prepared to be engaged in a wider group helping to support and assist the Government of Iraq in their endeavours. We continue to make such representations, and I think that they are increasingly being taken seriously. Whether there will be a formal contact group is another matter, but support for the international compact will, I think, have the kind of effect that the right hon. Gentleman seeks.

The Foreign Secretary must be right to emphasise the importance of Iraq’s neighbours, who must be part of the solution, as regards the politics of Iraq. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Washington, will he tell the United States Administration unequivocally that we must now talk, however reluctantly, to the Syrians and the Iranians? They must be part of any solution; if not, they will be part of the problem.

Those countries are part of the problem now. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will discuss with the President a whole range of matters, which will encompass the points rightly raised by my hon. Friend. It has long been clear—and, of late, we have made it explicitly clear—to, for example, the Syrians that people are prepared to talk to them, and that it is in their interests, and in the interests of Iran, and all of Iraq’s other neighbours, that there should be a stable Iraq in the future. They might think about that a little more fully than they seem to do at the moment. Of course, although people are prepared to engage in dialogue—I am pleased, for example, that the Syrians are opening an embassy in Baghdad—the degree and the nature of that dialogue will depend on whether or not action is taken by both Syria and Iran that shows good will, as opposed to ill will.

Middle East

7. What discussions have taken place with the Israeli Government on the use of rubber bullets by the Israeli military against Palestinian protestors. (107311)

A report in 2002 by a group of Israeli researchers, including the then chief physician of the Israeli police force, recommended that rubber bullets

“should…not be considered a safe method of crowd control.”

Despite that, on 4 August this year, my constituent, Margaret Pacetta, was shot in the back with a rubber bullet during a peaceful protest in the disputed village of Bilin, leaving her bruised and badly shaken. Will the Minister raise that issue again with the Israeli Government and ask them to follow the advice of the 2002 report?

The hon. Lady is rightly concerned about what happened to her constituent, but she will acknowledge that rubber bullets are a hell of a lot better than ordinary metal ammunition, which tends to kill people or blow their arms off. There is not a general prohibition on the use of rubber bullets under international law—she will recall that the United Kingdom used them regularly in Northern Ireland. We expect the Israelis to use them only when necessary with proper control because, as she said, they are sometimes lethal. Our embassy in Tel Aviv raised that particular case with the Israeli authorities on 13 June, and our ambassador wrote on 15 June. The embassy pursued the case with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 30 August, and it asked the Israeli Government to clarify whether plastic or rubber bullets were fired at demonstrators and whether the crowd was beaten with batons. If so, it asked them to explain why such force was necessary, but it is still awaiting a response.

Mr. Liberman, who is a Member of the Knesset, believes that all Palestinians should be cleared out, not only from the occupied territories but from Israel. What chance is there of establishing a Palestinian state when a Knesset Member with racist views is holding the coalition Government together in Israel?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an absurd situation, as that man holds views that are akin to those that prevailed under apartheid. He wants Palestinians to be driven out of Israel, but I am sure that that view is not held by most Israelis—it certainly is not held by most Palestinians. We should work wherever possible in our negotiations with the Israeli Government and generally in diplomacy to counteract such arguments.

Will the Minister raise the issue of glass fibre shells, which have allegedly been used in Gaza, with the Israeli Government because, as doctors in the House will know, they leave small fragments that cannot be detected by X-ray?

I will certainly make inquiries, but it is the first that I have heard about such munitions being used. If that is the case, we would certainly deplore their use.

Ceasefire (Gaza)

We welcome the mutual ceasefire in Gaza between the Palestinians and Israel. Like everyone else, we were concerned that in the early part of the ceasefire Qassam rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, but we welcome the public commitments of Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to make it work. All sides need to use this opportunity to take measures to restore confidence and return to the road map. A great deal of energy, commitment and continued effort is required from the international community to help to facilitate that.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but does he not think that it is time that pressure was put on the American Government to make a concerted effort to sort out the middle east question, particularly the road map to peace?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited the region from 9 to 11 September and met key leaders. He believed that it was important to visit the region to exchange ideas and to start to identify a way forward for the parties, as that can lead to genuine dialogue through negotiations and a way back to the road map. I do not doubt that he will urge our American allies to devote more energy to that re-engagement in his impending visit to Washington.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) recently visited Sri Lanka, and he put his finger on an important issue in peace building and efforts to reinvigorate the procedure. He noted that it is not enough for the parties to be brought together once every six months in Geneva—it is something that must be worked at day and night, as was the case under Prime Minister Major. People must construct back channels, and explore ways to bring the sides together. It is about peace building, and those are not easy techniques to evolve. We should not assume that it is enough to hold the occasional grand meeting at which the great and the good are brought together and various resolutions are arrived at. We have to do much more, as it is about building peace from the bottom up.

May I reinforce what the Minister has just said about peace building? It is essential that both sides get rapid benefit. In the absence of rapid benefit, there is never support for the process.

I agree entirely with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. As he knows as well as any of us, it should not be rocket science. I have met people who said that Egyptian contractors could be used to build 200,000 new houses in Gaza. Imagine what that would do for employment in the area. There are plenty of people with good intentions. There is no shortage of resources, but there is a shortage of political leadership and will to get on with it—and to get on with it quickly.

Cluster Munitions

10. Whether the UK will be represented at the conference on cluster munitions in Oslo in February 2007; and if she will make a statement. (107314)

Invitations to the conference on cluster munitions in Oslo in February have not yet been issued. We will carefully consider any such invitation, if and when it is received.

Given that Kofi Annan has, among other things, called for a freeze pending the ban, and given that the expert-led urgent discussions will not report back to the review for a whole year, I urge the Government not only to attend the Oslo conference, but to take a lead part in discussions on a possible moratorium and, ultimately, a ban on these utterly abhorrent weapons.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s suggestion, but I answered her question as I did because we have not yet received any invitation, so we are not in a position to say whether we can attend or not. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to take forward a process, which is why we have taken the initiative and appointed a group of experts to look into the problem through the conference of the convention on certain conventional weapons in order to bring about the possibility of an international ban. I hope that my hon. Friend strongly supports that, which is precisely the process that Kofi Annan advocated.

Carbon Emissions

11. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on international mechanisms to enforce the reduction of carbon emissions. (107315)

I am in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs on how best to deliver the UK’s climate objectives. I have made the joint pursuit of climate and energy security a strategic international priority for the UK. It is vital to our security and therefore a major focus of our diplomacy to achieve a rapid transition to a low-carbon global economy.

The Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs is committed to UK and EU cuts in carbon emissions, but only the United Nations has the authority to take a global view of this issue, so will the Foreign Secretary press the UN to make climate change a central purpose—naming and shaming recalcitrant countries, if necessary—rather than the peripheral concern that it is now?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is being unfair to the UN in saying that it is a peripheral concern. Indeed, at the recent United Nations framework convention on climate change conference in Nairobi, the Secretary-General made a very strong statement about the importance of this issue. I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s view that the matter should have even more prominence in UN discussions, which is something that we are urging on the new Secretary-General.

The Secretary of State knows that we share her strong commitment to international co-operation to achieve carbon emission reductions. Does she share our view—and the view expressed by the Minister for Europe on 26 October—that it can be achieved without any additional EU powers?

We are rather a long way from the international agreement that we all seek in the longer term. In the shorter term, we certainly believe that one of the main instruments that can be used to make progress is the EU emissions trading scheme and extensions to it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this country is, I believe, the only one to have had its national allocation plan proposals for the new scheme accepted. That does not, at present, require any new powers.

North Korea

Immediately following North Korea’s nuclear test in October, the Foreign Secretary had telephone conversations with her counterparts, including Chinese Foreign Minister Li. I also called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ambassador in London to the Foreign Office to make our views clear. On a previous visit to the region in July, I discussed the issues with interlocutors from China, as well as Japan and South Korea, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister had further talks during his visit in October. We remain in direct and regular contact with the Chinese Government on the issue, including through our ambassador in Beijing and via other high-level ministerial and official contacts. China has an instrumental role to play in the resumption of the six-party talks and in ensuring that North Korea complies with UN Security Council resolution 1718.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A few weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that he had had three hours of talks with the Chinese special envoy to North Korea at the end of October. Will the Minister tell us a little more about the content of those talks?

I do not want to be awkward and say, “No, because I wasn’t in the room when the discussions took place.” I can tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that if the Deputy Prime Minister spoke to the special envoy in the same way that I did, it will have been a very productive discussion.

Does the Minister accept that the situation in North Korea is a perfect illustration of why it is vital that we renew our nuclear deterrent? Does he agree that the argument that we are unlikely to use such a deterrent is not only wrong but dangerous when we are faced with an opponent such as North Korea, which accepts only one principle, namely, that might is right?

I take on board entirely what the hon. Gentleman says, and I thank him for his support of the Government’s position. It is also really important that we get the six-party talks going again. It is critical that we resume those discussions. We already have talks about the talks under negotiation, and several points remain under discussion to be agreed between the United States and China. I hope that the talks will resume soon.