Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Arms Trade Treaty
The United Kingdom has led international efforts to secure a legally binding treaty to end the irresponsible trade in arms worldwide. On 6 December 2006 we successfully pushed through a resolution establishing a UN process to work towards a treaty, and we will continue to build support for the initiative in UN discussions during 2007 in preparation for the meeting of the group of governmental experts in 2008, which will look at the draft parameters of a treaty.
I am afraid that I do not carry the detail of the Department’s finances on this issue at my fingertips, but I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman. A great deal of work is going on. We are preparing a paper, as are other contributors, to take forward the process of negotiation.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her predecessor on the UK Government’s leadership on this issue, which has taken place alongside the work of non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam. Will she give an assurance that the UK’s objective is that such a treaty should cover trade in all conventional arms and all dual-use goods and technologies? Will she advise the House on what progress is being made in persuading the US Administration to modify their previous position and become an enthusiastic supporter of this noble effort to secure action against the abuse of human rights through the arms trade?
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I agree that a great deal of work was done on this matter by my predecessor. As my hon. Friend will know, we are certainly committed to such a treaty covering all conventional arms, and to focusing on some core principles about when trade is unacceptable. I thank him and his colleagues on the relevant Committee for the work that they do on scrutinising the export of arms. I fear that, although we are certainly engaged in discussions and will endeavour to persuade the United States of the merits of this process, it may take some little time. It was the only country to vote against the proposal.
In pursuing that welcome process, will the Secretary of State draw to the attention of the United Nations the unique circumstances that have led almost everybody to support this move? For once, we in this country have both sides of the House, the Christian Churches, the NGOs and the bishops all in agreement. The people of this country, and I believe the vast majority of the population of the world, think that this issue is important. Let us have a swift process please, and let us hope that the Secretary of State will win the day with this argument.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for mentioning the Churches and the NGOs, because I meant to pick up on what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) said about those. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is even more support for these moves than we might have thought. We got a very good vote—139, I think—in the first committee, and 153 votes for the resolution. That is about three quarters of the membership of the United Nations. It has indeed been a cross-party, cross-faiths supported movement, and we will certainly get on with it as fast as we can.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her energy on this subject, but is she aware that in Africa one of the biggest suppliers of weapons is the People’s Republic of China? Will she invite our embassy there to seek to monitor that, and to put on the public record what we know about that huge new growth industry in a country that is not democratic and not really much interested in solving this problem?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that there is concern. One of the things that remains a source of some concern, and that we will continue to work on, is that although only the United States voted against the proposal, there is less involvement that we would like to see from other major arms exporters—not only China, but Russia, Pakistan, India and some of the Arab countries. It is important that the support that is built in taking forward the treaty should bring in the major arms exporters. One of the things that I hope and believe will help with that is the involvement of the arms industry itself, which understands the dangers of the unregulated trade.
Does the Foreign Secretary not accept that under successive Governments, the United Kingdom has had one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world, and that Britain’s defence industries make a huge contribution to the defence not only of this country, but of our allies? Those who are engaged in Britain’s defence industry—some 300,000 of our fellow citizens—are engaged in a noble effort, which should be supported by the House.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have had stringent controls on the export of arms—quite rightly—under successive Governments. He is also correct to say that there is a right to self-defence, and that there is a legitimate trade. One of the excellent things about the initiative that we are taking forward is that it focuses, with the support of the existing industry, on the real dangers of unregulated trade.
His Majesty King Letsie III of Lesotho dissolved Parliament on 24 November for an election to be called within 90 days, in accordance with the constitution. The election will be held on 17 February. Our non-resident high commissioner, Paul Boateng, visited Lesotho on 4 December. High commission staff are monitoring the situation and remain in regular contact with Lesotho Government Ministers and officials, the chairman of the independent electoral commission, political parties and civil society organisations.
The Minister will be fully aware of the strong links that exist between Welsh communities and the Kingdom of Lesotho, especially in the field of education. He will know that among the problems affecting the country’s economic stability are poor health and the exacerbated problem of AIDS. The situation is being made even worse by the exodus of medical practitioners and doctors from the area. What are the UK Government doing to stabilise the situation so that Lesotho can deal with its health problems, tackle its economic problems and bring about political stability?
The United Kingdom is the only developed country to implement and review systematic policies that explicitly prevent the targeting of developing countries in the international recruitment of health care professionals. The NHS leads the way in the ethical recruitment of health care professionals and has worked with the Department for International Development to draw up a list of countries from which it will not actively recruit, including all countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. The NHS will contract only with private recruitment agencies that are signed up to the code of practice.
In retrospect, would not the Government have been in a better position if they had not reneged on a commitment to maintain a full-time high commissioner in Maseru?
One of the major challenges facing the new Government in Lesotho will be the delivery of primary education for the first time to the country’s young people. Will my hon. Friend commend the work being done to carry through the global schools initiative by Dolen Cymru/Wales link, which is sending school teachers from Wales to Lesotho for long periods to assist in the delivery of education to young people for the first time in a country that has been starved of opportunities in the past?
I commend the excellent work of Dolen Cymru in Lesotho. My hon. Friend reminds us of the strong links that Wales has with Lesotho and other communities; my town of Pontypridd has strong links with Mbale in Uganda. Such links are based on teachers and doctors working with professionals in those countries so that no money donated is wasted, and it is all used to the best effect.
At present there is no consensus among EU Governments on the future of the constitutional treaty. The German presidency has been asked by EU leaders to present a report to the European Council in June on possible next steps, following consultation with all EU Governments. I set out the Government’s approach in my written ministerial statement of 5 December 2006.
Will the Minister give an assurance that no Labour Government would sign a European Union treaty that would give permanent EU competence over United Kingdom affairs by removing the right of Parliament to amend or repeal European Union treaties through the relevant Acts of Parliament?
I am not entirely sure that I follow the reasoning behind that question. What is important is that successive British Governments have supported section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972, which was taken through the House by the then Conservative Government. Subsequent Conservative Governments—incidentally, they were supported by the shadow Foreign Secretary—have argued for extending the competence of the European Union, for example at the time of the Maastricht treaty. They have never argued for a referendum on the subject—I have checked—and neither did the shadow Foreign Secretary during all the time that he was in government. The people whom the shadow Foreign Secretary opposed during the Maastricht process are now running Conservative party policy on Europe.
The process is apparently being driven by Chancellor Merkel in Germany. Two decisions have been made by democratic vote in France and Holland, rejecting the constitution. When my right hon. Friend next meets Chancellor Merkel, will he remind her about those democratic decisions, and say that we respect democratic decisions even if she does not?
I think that my hon. Friend is being a little harsh on other EU Governments, who of course supported the idea of consultation and encouraged the German presidency. The reason why Chancellor Merkel is so interested in the subject at present is that Germany has the presidency. It is important that all member states find a way forward; there is no agreement at present, as I have said, but that is the purpose of the efforts being made by the German presidency—as, I suspect, efforts will be made by subsequent presidencies.
May I be helpful to my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] May I be helpful—as always—and ask him whether, in a constructive mood, we could cease to accept any more transport directives until we have carried out an audit of the effect of European directives on safety for aviation, maritime affairs and, specifically, inland waterways?
In the same constructive spirit, may I too be helpful to the Minister? I suggest that he take Chancellor Merkel to one side for a cup of coffee and tell her that if she is looking for consensus, we have consensus in this country on the subject: we are agin it.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. I cannot help but notice that immediately behind him is the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who, I understand, has been given permission by the Leader of the Opposition to campaign for the Conservative party to advocate leaving the European Union. There appear to be 57 different policies among Conservative Members, and that of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is only one of them.
My right hon. Friend will know that the German presidency has suggested a meeting on 25 March in Berlin, at which it hopes to make a Berlin declaration, which will consist of a statement of the fundamental values of the European Union. Will he tell the House that the Government will fully support such discussions, and that where there are matters on which Governments can agree, and that do not require constitutional change, we will move forward in a spirit of co-operation?
My right hon. Friend is right. The 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome, which will be marked by a declaration in Berlin next March, is an important anniversary in the history of the European Union. It is right that we should not only celebrate the achievements of the European Union, but look to the future, as regards the principles that guide the decisions that we will take. It is vital that the United Kingdom should participate enthusiastically in that process, as we will, and I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will join us in that celebration.
Does the Minister for Europe remember the serious disquiet in Scotland, Norway and Iceland following the enshrining of fisheries as an exclusive European Union competence in the constitution? Does he not agree that if there is a renewed constitution or similar treaty, it should command the support of nations inside and outwith the European Union, and those who might seek to join at a future date? Bearing that in mind, will the Government give a commitment to revisit the issue, should such negotiations be started?
My hon. Friend is quite right. What is important as we take the European Union forward—and the British Government have consistently advocated this—is step-by-step developments and benefits for the citizens of Europe. That is the best way of acknowledging the significant changes that Europe has made in the interests and for the benefit of citizens of the UK and elsewhere.
In reply to my written question, the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that he responded to the German Chancellor’s request by appointing Mr. Kim Darroch and Ms Nicola Brewer to liaise with the German EU presidency on the drafting of the new political declaration and
“possible ways to take the constitutional process forward.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 788W.]
What terms of reference have Mr. Darroch and Ms Brewer been given? In particular, will they be told to make it clear to the German presidency that the EU constitution is not acceptable to Britain, and that a referendum would have to be held on any new treaty containing significant elements of the constitution?
Two very distinguished civil servants have been appointed to deal with the questionnaire that the German presidency will circulate to all member states. It is vital that member states find a way forward, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in acknowledging that, because it is in the interests of both the European Union and the United Kingdom. We want to ensure that the UK is constructive and positive, and finds a way through the difficulties facing the EU. I have already made clear our position on a referendum in the UK.
President Bashir has now accepted UN support for AMIS—the African Union Mission in Sudan—and has allowed the first UN military personnel into Darfur. That is important, but it is only the first step. We urge the Government of Sudan, the UN and the African Union to work for full implementation of the joint support package and an urgent resumption of the political process. All sides need to observe the ceasefire, too, particularly the Government of Sudan, who have been bombing the rebels, as that is vital for progress on the humanitarian front.
There are three stages to the deployment: first, light support, in which 180 personnel, 34 of whom have already arrived, are expected to be involved; secondly, heavy support; and, finally, the establishment of a full hybrid African Union and United Nations force. There is no specific timescale, but everyone who wishes the position in Darfur to improve is anxious that as many of those people as possible should be deployed as soon as possible, and that is something for which we are all working.
Is it not correct that although it is six months since the Security Council agreed to put more than 20,000 peacekeepers into Darfur, very few countries have agreed to supply either troops or police? What can my right hon. Friend do to convince more of our allies to support UN resolutions on the ground? When that deployment is finally made, will she ensure that steps are taken to protect the women of Darfur, thousands of whom have been raped when they went out to do normal tasks such as gathering firewood?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to one of the most appalling aspects of the situation in Darfur. I understand her concern that there has not been a speedier commitment of forces ready to move into Darfur, but she will appreciate that one reason is that until now, the Sudanese Government have been unwilling to make clear their acceptance of the need for troops. It is difficult in those circumstances to persuade the international community to come forward as speedily as it should, but with our allies, we continue to push for such steps.
Given that the poisonous conflict in Darfur has now spread to Chad and the Central African Republic, and that as the right hon. Lady has acknowledged, foot-stamping by the Sudanese Government has already vetoed one vital United Nations troop deployment to Darfur, what further steps can and will be taken by the international community to rein in that violent barbaric regime, whose diplomatic sorcery is exceeded only by its unrelenting genocide?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, because I know that he takes a great interest in these issues, we have appointed a special representative to go and work in the area as a roving ambassador, and the United Nations has recently appointed Jan Eliasson, who was, I believe, in Sudan last week, to make his own fresh assessment of the situation. So further diplomatic efforts are continuing. In fairness, I ought also to say that President Bashir wrote a few days ago to say that he does accept the agreements made at Addis Ababa and the previous agreements, and will now proceed to implement them. We all hope that on this occasion that will be followed through.
Further to the answers that my right hon. Friend has given, can she say whether we have had bilateral discussions with the French, in particular, and with the Government of Chad, about how we can support the efforts of the international community more specifically?
We have had continuing discussions with a number of allies, including our French colleagues. As my hon. Friend knows, there is concern about the position in Chad. We are pressing all involved to uphold the Tripoli agreement and to stop the fighting that has been occurring on the border, not least through proxies on the border, and to take more concrete steps on the ground to try to re-establish a degree of peace, not least because, as I know my hon. Friend and the House are aware, the last thing we need in the region is to see instability and conflict spreading in Chad, to add to that in Darfur. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing everything we can to make progress on the matter.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the situation on the ground in Darfur appears to be the worst that it has been for some time, with humanitarian access at its worst point since about 2004, given the withdrawal of NGOs, and with 200 people reported killed in the week up to last Saturday, journalistic access—for obvious reasons—increasingly rare, many thousands of people in danger of violence, and hundreds of thousands in danger of food shortages? Although I welcome, as the right hon. Lady does, the comments of the President of Sudan, will she comment on the fact that he is also reported as saying at the weekend that UN troops are not necessary, and that there are sufficient forces in Sudan already, from African countries—not a helpful approach to the situation? Given her previous statement last October that “negative consequences” will arise for the Government in Khartoum if the situation continues to deteriorate, will she reiterate that today, and even spell out what some of those negative consequences might be?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making those points. In some ways he is right about the situation being dreadful and deteriorating, but in some ways it is not quite so bad, in that there is less fighting than there has been. What are particularly dreadful, and must cease, are attacks by the Government themselves, including in the past few weeks attacks on groups who had just agreed a ceasefire with the African Union commanders. That is a chaotic and ridiculous situation. The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the implications for the humanitarian effort. I am sorry to tell the House that there are probably fewer aid workers in Darfur now—for wholly understandable reasons; those are very brave people, who go into all sorts of horrendous situations—than for about two years, although there remain quite a number of food stocks. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that we have tried to do everything we can to work with the humanitarian organisations, by helping to organise protected routes and so on. As I mentioned, the UN envoy was in Sudan only a few days ago. The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that there is quite a small window of opportunity for the Government of Sudan to show that this time they are sincere in being willing to move forward with the UN and the African Union. If they are not able to do so, consideration of what action the international community can take, such as sanctions, will have to come to the fore again, which is not what anybody wants.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of reports that last week some 200 people were killed in clashes between ethnic African farmers and nomadic Arabs in southern Darfur. She will also be aware that the rebel forces have split into many different groups, which seem to spend as much time fighting one another as they do even the Government of Sudan. Would she go as far as to impress on the Government of Sudan the view that this is now not only a question of trying to bring in a force to deal with the normal conflict, but of ensuring that there is security on the ground, so the AU-UN force has to be brought in now, not in the future?
My hon. Friend is right to express concern about the fact that there seem to be even more splits among the rebels, and fighting within and between different rebel groups. That suggests that unless we can soon make more progress in pushing forward the peace agreement and encouraging the rebel groups who had not previously signed to do so, the administrative situation could deteriorate from where it is now. As he says, that makes the situation urgent as well as dangerous, and we will continue to work with our colleagues in the United Nations to try to see what can be done to help to resolve it.
After some years of lawlessness and little effective government, an historic opportunity now exists for a sustainable solution to Somalia’s difficulties. We are working with Somalia’s transitional institutions and our international partners to help to stabilise Somalia through early deployment of a security force, to restore governance through an inclusive political process, and to rebuild Somalia through increased international assistance.
Given that many fear that the clan-based warlords will simply reorganise themselves and continue the insecurity that Somalia has faced over the past 16 years, what steps will the international community take to foster reconciliation among the various clans so that we can tackle the long-term reasons behind the insecurity and violence that has blighted that country?
My hon. Friend is right to identify those concerns. As I said to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), we are encouraging the transitional Government towards an inclusive political process, because we feel that that could help. There is a fairly widespread view in the international community that, paradoxically, recent events in Somalia have created a better opportunity for such moves than has existed there for quite some time. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has recently been in Yemen and Kenya talking to other people who are taking a great interest in these issues. We are doing what we can to seize the opportunity that recent events have created.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) is far better-looking than me—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] That is what he tells me, but I do not believe him.
Further to the Foreign Secretary’s comments on the security force on the border between Somalia and Kenya, can she give the House an assurance that the quid pro quo for the Ugandan defence force’s involvement will not be to turn a blind eye to the creeping move against freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Uganda?
No; absolutely not. We welcome Uganda’s willingness to help resolve the situation in Somalia, but Uganda is not the only country in the world about which we continue to have and express concerns regarding some of its domestic policies, while welcoming its involvement in some international efforts.
Will the Foreign Secretary reconsider her earlier reply to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) about the American air strikes in Somalia? Does she not accept that the United States performed a wholly illegal act, which will make the position worse? Several people killed as a result of the air strikes were nothing to do with Islamic Courts but innocent civilians who happened to be in the area. Does not she acknowledge that that makes the situation in Somalia far worse, rather than bringing about the necessary peace and reconciliation process to put an end to the misery that has been the life of most people in Somalia for at least the past three decades?
I certainly accept my hon. Friend’s final remarks that a peace and reconciliation process is important for the long term. As I have already said in answer to several other hon. Members, we intend to encourage the transitional Government to undertake a political process that is as inclusive as possible. However, I stress to my hon. Friend that it has long been public knowledge that extremist elements have operated as part of Islamic Courts and that al-Qaeda has operated in Somalia for some time. That poses a threat to people in Somalia as well as the wider international community. I take the view, which the Prime Minister expressed last week, that there cannot be a safe haven for international terrorists.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is a short window of opportunity in which to establish a self-governing, stable democratic state in Somalia, which is a hugely important strategic area of the horn of Africa? She referred to the international stabilisation force that may be established today. What dialogue has she held on the matter with the international community? Does she agree that the force must have sufficient combat strength and an adequate mandate, and that there is a genuine danger of Somalia descending into a fundamentalist Islamic state if sufficient action is not taken in good time?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks. Yes, of course there is a danger, but it has existed for quite some time. One reason for sharing his wish for speedy action to move in and support the Government in Somalia is that it is perhaps less of a risk now than it has been for a considerable time. We are very anxious to secure a force that has sufficient strength and the right kind of mandate. On dialogue with the international community, as it happens I was discussing the matter only this morning with the President of Tanzania. Our officials were heavily engaged in the international contact group and played a key role in trying to help broker and reach agreement. I therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that we are conscious of the need for speed as well as effectiveness, and we will do everything that we can. No one wants a security vacuum in Somalia, not least because of the dangers to which he and I referred of extremist elements there.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Unfortunately, exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a driver of conflict when it could and should be a driver for development. Any sustainable solution will involve tackling corruption and ensuring responsible investment, effective and fair taxation and better control over borders and the resources themselves.
Stability and prosperity in the DRC will have a huge impact on not only its 60 million inhabitants but the peace and security of the whole central African region. That is why we supported the election process to the tune of £35 million and why we have increased our bilateral support to £62 million this financial year.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Before its eight-year civil war, Congo was among the world’s top producers of copper, cobalt and industrial diamonds—vast mineral wealth that should now be put to the service of the people of Congo, most of whom live on less than a dollar a day. Will my right hon. Friend work with his counterparts in the European Union to put pressure on the Kabila Government to reform the mining and logging sectors in Congo to ensure transparency in them?
My hon. Friend makes a number of important points. It is important that the DRC has already signed up to the extractive industries transparency initiative and the Kimberley process. We will continue to support the implementation of both those policies, as we will support the Congolese national committee charged with taking forward the implementation of the EITI. We are also seeking to help to promote responsible business behaviour in the private sector, and to improve the livelihoods of the many Congolese small-scale miners engaged in the extractive industries. As far as forestry issues are concerned, we are financing a study and a series of round-table discussions with non-governmental organisations and industry to develop new and innovative models for sustainable forest use in the DRC. We will also contribute to a multi-donor trust fund which provides support for improving governance in the DRC forestry sector.
Is the Minister concerned about the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China in African countries, not least the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The natural resources with which countries such as the DRC are richly endowed are of growing interest to the communist Chinese. Does he feel that that will be helpful to the development of such countries?
The People’s Republic of China is responsible for a huge amount of the world’s manufacturing industry these days and has legitimate reasons for engaging in trade in Africa and other continents. Concern has been expressed, however, about the extent of the influence that follows on from that legitimate trade, and we keep that matter under constant and close review.
Reforming natural resource extraction and other reconstruction measures in the DRC will require good governance and parliamentary scrutiny. Given our Government’s strong support for the recent democratic process, which the Congolese acknowledged to us when we were there and since then, will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to continuing involvement with the democratic process in the DRC, including giving strong support to strengthening the civil institutions and to making it clear that an effective parliamentary scrutiny role must be given to the opposition, who should not be excluded from parliamentary positions or commission chairs? Otherwise, we might find the country slipping back into conflict.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The figures that I gave to the House earlier show that the United Kingdom was the largest single donor in assisting in the monitoring process, and I am grateful for her participation in that process. The United Kingdom was also the largest European supporter of the DRC in the last financial year. It is clear from the constitution that there is no specific role for the opposition in the DRC, but following the election, President Kabila said that he would be willing to provide an opportunity for such a role to be developed. The United Kingdom Government will offer expertise and assistance on the role of the opposition, and the Opposition in the United Kingdom, having long experience of that role, might wish to assist us in that.
I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that the DRC has signed the EITI and the Kimberley process. Signing is one thing, however; enforcing is something different. Will he give me an assurance that this Government and the European Union will ensure not only that those initiatives are extended, secured and supported but that any accusations of malpractice or trading in conflict resources by EU or British companies are thoroughly investigated and exposed, so that there can be no opportunity for the country to break down into conflict again or for the warlords to get revenue from conflict resources?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I alluded to the matter earlier. The DRC has signed up to those initiatives, and it is important that they are now delivered. The United Kingdom Government are engaged in supporting a committee that has been established in the DRC and charged with the responsibility for delivering those initiatives. We need to ensure that we can offer the necessary expertise and support to the Government there to ensure that those policies are carried through.
The British embassy in Damascus maintains regular contact with the Government of Syria. Our ambassador met President Assad of Syria and Foreign Minister Muallim on 7 January. The Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, visited Syria in late October 2006. He reiterated the Government’s hope that Syria will revise its policies to play the constructive role in the region that the international community expects.
I am grateful for that statement, but would not my hon. Friend be well advised to be cautious in approaching Syria, given the real concerns about its border to the east with Iraq, which insurgents and weapons are believed to cross, and suspicions surrounding its involvement to the west in Lebanon, where political assassinations are believed to be attributable to the Syrian Government? One can, however, imagine Syria playing a constructive role which would bring enormous relief to the region—for example, by offering a less warm haven to the political leadership of Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Damascus.
I read with great interest a publication to which my right hon. Friend put her name recently, in which she reminded us that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak once said:
“Our dispute with Syria is simpler to sort out than the Palestinian”
“on the Golan Heights there is no Temple Mount.”
That is an interesting observation. My right hon. Friend is right: there is no question but that putting life back into those agreements between Syria and Israel would have a galvanising effect on the peace process in the middle east. She is also right to highlight the enormous difficulties that have arisen as a consequence of Syrian foreign policy in recent years. There is, however, potential for change. I very much hope that the friendlier noises that we have heard recently as a consequence of such initiatives will increase, and that Syria can become part of a constructive move to peace in the middle east.
In welcoming the visit of Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus, may I ask the Minister what has flowed from it? Given the importance that the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) rightly attaches to Syria and its dealings, does the Minister agree that we should do more to engage the Russians’ interest in encouraging the Syrians to play a more responsible role?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s observations and approach to the issue. We are pressing the Russian Government to play a more constructive role in relation to Syria. We are encouraging them to urge the Syrians to look to their eastern border with Iraq, to reconsider their relationship with Hezbollah and, probably most importantly in view of what he said, to reconsider their support of the rejectionists in Damascus, in order to improve the situation in Palestine.
On Christmas day, the 72-year-old uncle of my constituents, Talib and Dianne Elam, was shot and died when American troops attacked his house in Baghdad. The family are Kurdish, suffered terribly under Saddam, and strongly support our intervention in Iraq and the new Iraqi Government. They are now desperate to find out the circumstances surrounding their uncle’s death. Will my hon. Friend raise the issue with our American allies and ask them to provide the family with as much information as possible?
As Iraqi Ministers have said publicly that they are satisfied that the vast majority of foreign jihadi terrorists enter Iraq through Syria, and as it is inconceivable that that can happen without the knowledge and acquiescence of the Syrian Government, will the Government not just respond to friendlier noises from Damascus but emphasise that no meaningful relationship can be achieved with that country unless it ceases such support?
We have made those points forcefully to President Assad on several occasions and will continue to do so; the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. He might also have said that there have been indications that some of the jihadists who are moving into Iraq do not much like the regime in Syria either, and might just decide to stay there. The Syrian secret service is more than a little worried about that.
In a similar vein, do the British Government remind the Syrians that the instability in Iraq is likely to lead to the break-up of Iraq? Given the large Kurdish minority in Syria, it too could experience pressure for secession. On a more positive note, my hon. Friend made the important point that Syria can have a galvanising effect in the region if it comes on board on the right side. We might want it to have a galvanising effect on Hezbollah: to bring it out of violence and into the political process.
My hon. Friend is right. We are very worried about Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah. We know from intelligence that we have received from various sources that weapons are still moving across the Syrian-Lebanese border and down to Hezbollah. That is deplorable, and of course runs counter to the United Nations Security Council resolutions that forbid it.
The United Nations’ estimate of 35,000 civilians killed last year will, I think, dispel any lingering doubt that Iraq is in a state of civil war, and the resolution of that will desperately need Syria’s involvement. How can we reconcile the United Kingdom Government’s efforts in support of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which favour engagement with Syria, with the White House’s rejection of that policy and engagement with a strategy involving, apparently, “seek and destroy” and hot pursuit across Syria’s borders?
I was encouraged to hear Condoleezza Rice say that she was prepared to go anywhere to pursue peace in the middle east, although I am not sure that she was specific about Syria. The hon. Gentleman must remember, however, that the House and the Government are responsible for British foreign policy, not American foreign policy. We will continue to do what we think is in the best interests of the British people.
Given that last weekend the President of Iraq went to Damascus to discuss with the President of Syria the sealing of the borders and exchange of security and intelligence information, is there not a strong case—in line with the Baker recommendations, and in the interests of our soldiers serving in Iraq—for discussions at ministerial level between the British Government and the Government of Syria?
We have regularly made clear—through the Prime Minister’s foreign affairs adviser and others, including our ambassador—that we deplore the fact that on occasion jihadists have been allowed to move through Syria and into Iraq to threaten our soldiers. We heard earlier from my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) what happens when certain elements disrupt society in Iraq and allow an anarchic situation in which people are killed at very high rates and very regularly. We have made very clear to the Syrians that we expect them to guard their frontier properly, and to ensure that jihadists do not move through Syria into Iraq to threaten our troops.
The Minister said a few moments ago that it was the role of the House and, indeed, Ministers to speak on behalf of British foreign policy. May I return him to what many people think is a distinct lack of coherence between the approaches of our Government and the American Government to involving Syria in the situation in Iraq? The Prime Minister spoke forcefully in support of the Iraq Study Group’s proposal that Syria should be engaged, and the Foreign Secretary herself said that she too supported it. Obviously Sir Nigel Sheinwald had been there. Yet, to all intents and purposes, President Bush has rejected the idea. What influence have the Government on the United States Government when it comes to engaging Syria fully in the process?
I would argue that we have as much influence as any country—outside the United States—on the face of the earth, and we will continue to argue the case in which we believe. That includes trying to engage with the Syrians and anyone else who is likely to make the situation better, not just in Iraq but in the middle east in general.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that there have been some very welcome moves recently. The Syrians are setting up an embassy in Baghdad, and the Iraqis have a reciprocal arrangement in Damascus. It is very good news that the two countries are establishing stronger diplomatic links: that must be seen as a positive development.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must keep stating what we believe in, and we will continue to talk to whoever we think will make the position better than it is at present.
What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the recent statements of Khaled Meshal, who is thought to direct Hamas policy in Palestine from his base in Damascus? He recently said that Israel is a “reality” and that
“there will remain a state called Israel, this is a matter of fact”.
Does my hon. Friend think that that statement is sufficient to begin at least some third-party connections with Hamas, which is, after all, the elected Government of Palestine? Does he understand that many of us believe that we cannot talk only to Fatah in Palestine, but that there must somehow be a means of communicating with Hamas as well?
A debate is going on within Hamas about its attitude towards Israel. At the conclusion of that debate we should know whether it has moved in a direction that enables us to have a constructive conversation with it, but we cannot have a conversation with a political party—or a Government at present—that pays suicide bombers to kill innocent Israelis, any more than we could have one with any other despotic regime anywhere in the world. I recognise the validity of the proper democratic process by which Hamas was elected, but the British Government should not give money to a Government anywhere in the world that has such aims and carries out such terrorism. If Hamas shows signs of moving towards recognition of Israel, we will have to look seriously at that development, but until that happens we must dine with Hamas with a very long spoon.
Middle East Peace Process
We were pleased that there was a meeting between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas on 23 December, which signalled their mutual determination to find a way forward and produced concrete agreements to release $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues and to ease restrictions on movement and access, but it is clear that major challenges remain. We are working with the United States and the European Union on how we can build on that opportunity.
I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the moves to peace made by both Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, but is not one of the major challenges that remain—to use her words—the fact that Islamic Jihad has chosen to ignore the ceasefire of 26 November, since when it has fired approximately 60 missiles on civilian targets inside Israel? Israel has shown commendable restraint. Will our Government do what they can to bring to an end such rejectionist activities, and in particular put whatever pressure they can on the states that support Islamic Jihad, including Iran?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. We regret and deplore the attacks that continue, and continue to congratulate the Israeli Government and to encourage them to maintain their policy of restraint. It is of course a difficult and delicate time when such attacks are going on. It is yet another example of how many people do not wish a peace process to succeed in Israel and Palestine. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our Government will do everything that we can to support and encourage such moves to peace, including putting pressure on those who, as he rightly says, support such armed activities.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of reports that Hezbollah in Lebanon is rearming despite the presence of United Nations troops? What representations have been made on that?
Yes I am aware of those rumours. We continue to keep pressure on all involved to restrict such moves and to point out, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East did a few moments ago, that that is completely contrary to the United Nations resolution and that it will do nothing to help establish peace in the region.
The Minister for the Middle East has already acknowledged that one of the main keys to a settlement in the middle east is Syria. Is the Foreign Secretary aware of the fact that, as I learned on a recent visit to Damascus, a large number of senior Ministers in that Administration actively and genuinely support the Baker-Hamilton plan, and will she not emulate her German counterpart by going to Damascus to engage with those people to find a constructive way to reopen negotiations and dialogue with Israel?
As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East said a moment ago, we keep such issues under review. It was a deliberate decision on our part to send Sir Nigel Sheinwald, and it was also a deliberate decision not to go at ministerial level at that time. We keep the matter under review and will continue to do so.
Hearts and minds are as relevant in the middle east as elsewhere. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the gruesome and botched executions that occurred in Iraq yesterday will be strongly condemned in the region, as I hope they will be in this House and in the country at large? Do the Iraqi authorities not understand by now the effect of such action on people generally in the middle east?
My hon. Friend will know that the British Government strongly oppose the death penalty and continue to make representations where we see that it is being carried out. The events to which he referred only highlight one of the many reasons that I think lay behind the wise decision of this House to abolish capital punishment in this country.
Will the Foreign Secretary report briefly on the Prime Minister’s visit to the middle east before Christmas, and in particular on whether his visit to the United Arab Emirates was the beginning of the strategy that the Opposition have called for to elevate our cultural, political and economic ties with the countries of the Gulf? Is there not a very strong case for such a strategy, and is it not vital if we are to build stronger British influence in the middle east than we appear to have today?
We do continue to have strong influence in the middle east, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is important to maintain, improve and step up our contact with the Gulf states, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has assiduously been doing in recent months. Yes, it was a deliberate decision by the Prime Minister to undertake such steps. On the general issue of the principal outcome of the Prime Minister’s visit to Israel and Palestine, apart from confirming our support for and engagement in moves toward a peace process, the main thing that I would identify is the clear need, which was itself identified, to support and build capacity among President Abbas and his office and those who surround him and to seek to work with him. Steps to do so are under way.