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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2008

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Durban II

1. What assessment he has made of the progress made at the April preparatory meeting for Durban II on racism. (204795)

The United Kingdom wants the Durban review conference to contribute to the global fight against racism. The preparatory work is ongoing, but there should be no repeat of the disgraceful anti-Semitism that blighted events surrounding the 2001 world conference against racism.

With Libya chairing the preparatory committee and Cuba and Iran supporting it as officers, the signs are not too good. Can the Minister assure us that if there is even the slightest whiff of anything comparable to the disgrace of the first Durban conference, the United Kingdom will not participate?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members in all parts of the House who played such an important part in the all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism. My hon. Friend is right that there have been dreadful comments and behaviour of an anti-Semitic nature in previous gatherings of that type. I wish to be clear that the UK Government will play no part in a gathering that displays such behaviour. We will continue to work to make sure that the conference is a success, but we will play no part in an international conference that exhibits the degree of anti-Semitism that was disgracefully on view on the previous occasion.

Although the Minister’s comments are welcome, and his remarks about the anti-Semitism group are equally welcome, does he agree that it is interesting that Canada, whose Government are one of the most responsible and friendly with whom we ever have dealings, has already decided not to attend the conference? Is he in touch with the Canadian Government about their reasons for doing so?

The hon. Gentleman was another important contributor to the all-party inquiry and it is right to put that on record. We are in touch with international partners on this serious issue. One of the reasons why the Canadian Government withdrew, as I understand it, is that unacceptable conditions were placed on a Jewish non-governmental organisation from Canada, initiated by the Iranian authorities. We continue to discuss that with Canada and other international partners and that dialogue will continue. If it gets to a point that we come to the view that the conference cannot be a success, the option of withdrawal from the conference remains available to us.

Iranian Nuclear Programme

Iran continues to enrich uranium and carry out heavy water-related projects in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions requesting it to stop. We urge Iran to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to implement the additional protocol that it has signed with the agency, to respond to the serious questions that the agency has put to Iran on weaponisation, and of course to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. On 2 May, I chaired a meeting of my E3 plus 3 colleagues to agree a refreshed offer to Iran as part of our dual track strategy to persuade Iran to comply with its international obligations. That will soon be transmitted to the Government of Iran.

Much of the west’s knowledge of the Iranian nuclear programme is the product of information passed to it by the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, most recently in respect of the nuclear warhead facility at Khojir. Given the historic helpfulness of the PMOI to the west and given also the trenchantly expressed judgment of the Court of Appeal last week, can the Foreign Secretary please say when the Government will make a statement to the House as to the continued proscription of the organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000? [Interruption.]

We were deeply disappointed by the result, given the well documented history of terrorist attacks involving the MEK. I am happy to give details. It explicitly claimed responsibility for a number of serious acts of terrorism on Iranian interests for a number of years. [Interruption.] It has never publicly given up violence and gave up its arms only in the face of overwhelming military might in Iraq in 2003. [Interruption.] None the less, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will be pleased to hear that we will of course abide by the ruling of the court, and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will lay an order before Parliament in the next few weeks to take forward that judgment.

The Foreign Secretary is aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee published a report a few months ago on the situation on Iran. In that report we expressed concern that the current strategy to prevent the Iranian regime from developing a nuclear weapon is not very successful. Does the Foreign Secretary share the Committee’s view that on present trends Iran could have such a breakout capability in about seven or eight years? What will the Government, with their international partners, do over the coming months and years to make sure that that does not happen?

I am obviously not going to comment on intelligence—ours or others’—in respect of the timeline for the Iranian nuclear programme. However, the sense of importance that came through in the Foreign Affairs Committee report is shared by the Government and by our partners as well. Not only the three European countries and the United States, but Russia and China are part of a coalition that sees the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the middle east, which all sane people would see as a danger.

Our quarrel is not with the people of Iran, which is a country of huge civilisation and education; in the end, our quarrel is not with Iran’s rights under the non-proliferation regime, which ultimately include the right to civilian nuclear power. Our quarrel is with the responsibilities, or the lack of responsibility, exercised by the regime. That is why it is important that we take forward at each stage the dual track strategy. There is the offer to Iran of economic, scientific and cultural co-operation, but if it refuses to co-operate with the international community, it is right that sanctions be in place.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that last year’s United States national intelligence estimate that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 was deeply misleading, because it referred only to warhead production? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the real threat is from the uranium enrichment programme, which, far from slowing down, has been accelerated by the Iranians in recent months? Will he do all in his power to ensure that that point is fully understood, both by public opinion in this country and at the United Nations?

I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is quoting from my article in the Financial Times that appeared after the national intelligence estimate came out, but I certainly echo entirely what he has said. A very important confusion was created by the national intelligence estimate report about the difference between, on the one hand, weaponisation, and on the other, the three processes—above all, the uranium enrichment process—that are important for building a nuclear weapon.

It is precisely the dangers of the expanded uranium enrichment programme that have motivated successive United Nations Security Council resolutions that have demanded the suspension of that programme. Last year, the E3 plus 3 put forward a proposal for a “freeze for freeze”—a freeze on sanctions in response to a freeze on the uranium enrichment programme. We are refreshing our offer, but are absolutely clear that underlying it is a determination to ensure that Iran fulfils its responsibilities as well as exerts its rights under the NPT.

What is the best estimate available to my right hon. Friend on the number of centrifuges available to the Iranians for uranium enrichment at present? Where are those centrifuges coming from?

I am not going to comment on our estimate of the number of centrifuges. My hon. Friend will have seen President Ahmadinejad’s claim—I repeat that it is a claim—that 3,000 centrifuges have been increased to 6,000 centrifuges. As I say, that is his claim. I am afraid that I am not able to go into any details on their origins, but obviously we are working across all parts of the international community to staunch the flow not only of equipment, but of personnel and ideas.

Following on from the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he sets more store by the United States intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability, to which he has referred, or by the very much more bullish assessment made by Israeli intelligence, on which he had a report this week?

What is bullish and what is bearish in this context I will not go into. What I rely on are British intelligence estimates. That is the right basis for policy—[Interruption.] I am very, very surprised to see Opposition Members querying the exceptional quality of British intelligence. [Interruption.] I might expect the Liberal Democrats to denigrate the work of public servants, but I will not do that. What is important is that the international community is united in recognising that the problem is serious and that it is not a question of pursuing a vendetta against the people of Iran, or even the regime of Iran. We are seeking a change in behaviour, not a change in the regime. It is right that we devote ourselves diplomatically to achieving that end.

The centrifuges are based on a design stolen by A.Q. Khan; that is how the Iranians acquired them. May I clarify something with my right hon. Friend? Are the use of the centrifuges or the lack of inspection agreements at the core of the problem? How is he proposing to change the inspection regime to ensure that although Iran can continue with a nuclear power programme if it wants to, nuclear weapons conventions will be protected?

There are three charges against the Iranian regime: first, in relation to its refusal to comply with UN Security Council resolutions in respect of uranium enrichment; secondly, in respect of IAEA demands for full information on previous programmes, not just the P1 but the P2 programme—I apologise for going into the detail—and thirdly, there is the question of the additional protocol, which the IAEA has demanded that Iran lives up to. These are not my demands; they are demands that have been made by the international community, unanimously on successive occasions, and by the International Atomic Energy Authority—[Hon. Members: “Agency.”] I am sorry; I am grateful for the correction. Living within the bounds of UN and IAEA requirements is what we ask of the Government of Iran. I should also add that we are asking nothing more of them than to live within boundaries that are set for every other country; that is a point that we can all do well to remind people of, in Iran and more widely.

Can the Foreign Secretary give us a clear assurance that if Iran were now to reject the new offer that he has described to the House, the sanctions against Iranian oil and gas, which the Prime Minister promised as long ago as last November, will finally be imposed? Does he agree, too, that with Lebanese Ministers alleging that Iranian republican guards have been deployed and are fighting on the streets of Beirut, the need for effective pressure on the Iranian regime really is urgent?

I certainly reaffirm our commitment to take this up at European level. We said that we would pursue these actions at the European level, because that is the right place to do it, and we will certainly continue to do so. It is worth reporting to the House that the latest figures for the UK’s action alone show that £513 million of Iranian assets have been frozen, and EU trade with Iran is down 34 per cent. in the year to March 2007.

In respect of the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which takes us into new territory, all I can say is that I spoke to the Prime Minister of Lebanon on Friday, discussed the very serious situation there, and expressed my total support for his Government in seeking to maintain the integrity and democratic legitimacy of the Government of Lebanon. I hope that in topical questions I may be able to say more about last night’s phone call of the Friends of Lebanon group, which involves 12 countries around the world, mainly from the region. I will be happy to report on that to the House.


3. What recent assessment he has made of the human rights situation in Guatemala; and if he will make a statement. (204797)

We are encouraged by Guatemala’s participation in the United Nations universal periodic review of human rights. As part of this process, the UK has raised its ongoing concerns about the human rights situation in Guatemala—in particular, widespread impunity, child rights, human rights defenders and the rise in murders of girls and women. I raised these issues with the Guatemalan Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Vice-Minister, during my recent visit.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She will be aware that there were 6,000 murders in Guatemala last year, which is equivalent to 28,000 murders in a country the size of Britain. There are terrible problems with policing and the justice system in that country. Will she comment on the recent Bill on the death penalty vetoed by President Colom?

Certainly—my hon. Friend is absolutely right about these concerns. We have also been putting in support for training of police officers. The UK worked with EU partners and we were successful in lobbying President Colom to veto the recent law that the congress had passed seeking to restore the death penalty. I stressed with the Guatemalan Minister for Foreign Affairs the importance of finally abolishing the death penalty. I can assure my hon. Friend that the UK and the EU will continue to work towards the abolition of that in its entirety.

Does the Minister agree that if the new President of Guatemala, Álvaro Colom, is serious about human rights, he will deal with the corruption in the judiciary, in the army and in some parts of the Government, and he will introduce the measures that he said he would introduce prior to his election as President to deal with what is perhaps Latin America’s worst human rights record?

The hon. Gentleman raises important points. During my visit in April, I had a frank discussion with Ministers about their unacceptable human rights position. They insisted that the Colom Government would work energetically to improve matters, but clearly those good intentions need to be put into action and we will continue to press the Guatemalan Government on the fact that good human rights are essential to good democracy.

I would like to thank the Minister for visiting Guatemala and for raising human rights concerns with the Government there. She must be aware of the marginalisation of women, particularly non-Spanish speaking women, in society; they have little access to justice or human rights and are fearful of the army and the police in all that they do. Is there anything that she can do by way of providing practical or financial support to human rights defenders and human rights advocates, and training programmes for them, so that they can try to defend themselves legally against unaccountable forces?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those are the precise issues that we raised. The Department for International Development has committed £60,000 in support of a United Nations anti-impunity commission in Guatemala, and there is a range of other support for projects there. Perhaps I can write to my hon. Friend in greater detail on that.


The UK works to support the Government of Afghanistan at both national and provincial levels through an extensive, co-ordinated programme of development assistance and military support, as well as diplomatic activity. That includes providing support to the local government structures in Helmand. We have frequent and wide-ranging contacts with Governor Mangal of Helmand—the new governor—as well as with the independent directorate of local governance, working together to extend governance and the provision of services in the province.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Given the crucial importance to the whole world of a stable and democratic Government in Afghanistan, can he outline the progress being made in the international community to ensure better co-ordination of economic, military and political assistance to the Government?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are now 46 countries in Afghanistan, and the danger is that the Government of Afghanistan spend all their time in a series of bilateral meetings with each of those Governments instead of getting on with the business of running Afghanistan. The appointment of Mr. Kai Eide as the new UN Secretary-General’s representative in Afghanistan is a major opportunity. My meetings with him suggest that he is a serious figure who has the confidence of all sides, and he will be able to play a co-ordination role at national level as well as the rallying role in capitals around the world that is so important.

What does the Foreign Secretary think the new Secretary-General’s representative will be able to do about improving the security situation in Helmand province, which is where our armed forces are primarily deployed? When will we see some improvement in the situation for our security forces?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the first responsibility for security after the Afghan Government lies with the commander of the international security assistance force, General McNeill. The responsibility of Mr. Eide, the UN Secretary-General’s representative, is to ensure that civilian work matches that military activity properly. The two are two sides of the same coin.

One indicator of improved security in Helmand is the fact that drug production is falling so fast. That also reflects the rising wheat price, which is encouraging farmers to go into farming wheat. In a way, that is a leading indicator of security. That is not to say, however, that our forces do not face serious danger every day that they are doing work. Kai Eide’s appointment, and his professed determination to get to grips with policing issues as a counterpart to the military campaign, is essential. It is in respect of policing that we hope to see the greatest improvement over the next couple of years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the long term the only way to resolve issues in Afghanistan is through a greater involvement of the Afghani military and police, and the civil structure? The quicker that we establish those relationships, the quicker we can deal with those issues.

Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. He will also appreciate that a major contribution will be to ensure that complementary strategies are pursued on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The fact that the new Pakistani Government have made a commitment to ensure that they tackle terrorism on their side of the border is the sort of activity that will help the Afghans, and get us out of the Afghan-Pakistan blame game, which has too often typified relations between those two countries.

Can the Foreign Secretary outline whether there are any plans to allow the Territorial Army personnel who are currently serving in Afghanistan to join in the commemorations of the centenary of that fine and upstanding organisation?

I have to apologise to the hon. Gentleman because I do not know the answer, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence writes to him as soon as possible with the answer to his question.

How does the Foreign Secretary account for President Karzai’s hostility to British political advances in Helmand province when our troops are fighting so bravely there to defend his interests?

I have discussed President Karzai’s alleged hostility with him directly on three occasions. He denies any hostility and insists that he has been misquoted in the allegations that have been made against him. He also insists that he has nothing but admiration for the commitment of British forces, and that of the British people in supporting the role of British civilians and British armed forces in that country.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important that the Department for International Development works more closely with British military forces on the ground? It is a widely held view by all those who have served in Afghanistan that the Department for International Development, although it does a good job, could do much more if it would swallow the nonsense about not working with people in uniform.

I have talked in Helmand to soldiers and representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. I do not want to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s allegations but I want to take collective responsibility for the activities of FCO and DFID staff. There is no question but that we need to ensure better civilian-military co-operation. I hope that he agrees that the appointment of a civilian head—as it happens, from the FCO—of the Helmand provincial reconstruction team, who takes office next month, will be the symbol of the proper, high quality civilian-military co-operation that he and I agree is essential.

The Foreign Secretary knows about the complexities of co-ordinating policy in Helmand. What is the Foreign Office view, especially given the new appointment, of conducting negotiations with those elements of the Taliban who may have been active in violence but are now prepared for a more peaceful solution? How will he persuade President Karzai of the importance of such a subtle approach?

The position is clear and shared by President Karzai and the British Government. I sat with the US Secretary of State in President Karzai’s office in Kabul in February, discussing the reconciliation programme. I describe it as a reconciliation programme rather than a negotiation programme for the simple reason that those members of the Taliban who are willing to live by constitutional rules are welcome to do so, and the Government of Afghanistan will bring them into the political system. In that sense, it is not a negotiation—the red lines are clear. Recent evidence from Musa Qala shows that there is a genuine opportunity to bring members of the Taliban, who are not ideologically convinced but make a contingent decision about which side to back, into the mainstream and persuade them that that is where they have the most stable and prosperous future. We are determined to do that.


In light of the recent devastating earthquake in China, I am sure that I speak for the House in extending our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of all those affected. I commend the Chinese Government for their rapid and efficient response to the crisis.

Our relationship with China is strong and growing. The Government believe that engagement with China is firmly in the UK’s national interest.

China’s development offers opportunities for co-operation and advancement on key global challenges. Our engagement allows us to tackle all issues with China, including human rights and internal reform.

I am sure that the House would wish to be associated with the Under-Secretary’s sentiments about the Chinese earthquake. The earth’s fragility has been awesomely demonstrated through the recent tragic events in south-east Asia, as has the need for the world to rely on itself and our mutual dependence for aid and assistance. Does the Under-Secretary believe that, in the medium term, those events might help China revisit its obligations on issues such as carbon emissions? Much more urgently in the short term, does she believe that China’s experience of tragedy today will ensure that it urges the Burmese Government this afternoon to do all they can to allow aid and assistance in immediately, given that it is waiting on the borders and needed to deal with Burma’s tragedy?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made that point when he spoke to his counterpart in China just before this Question Time. I understand that China is now requesting international support for the situation. We know that the position in China is much better than in Burma. There is much more infrastructure and the Chinese Government are much more capable of supporting people. We know that the situation in Burma is dreadful. Without the help and support being readily offered by the international community, many more people will die. We will continue to urge China, as well other countries in the region, to make those points to the Burmese Government. This is not a political issue; it is a humanitarian issue. On climate change, we are in discussions with the Chinese on the development of technology. We will continue to work on those issues, which affect us all and on which we need that international co-operation.

The Foreign Secretary has used strong words on the subject of Burma and the responsibilities of other countries, such as China, to assist in getting humanitarian aid instantly—not in a few days—to Burma. The United Nations has established the principles of the right to intervene and the responsibility to protect. We chair the Security Council; surely we can do more than we are now.

We will support any and all activities that will take the matter forward and get that aid into Burma. It is clear that the US and the European countries on the Security Council are ready to move the issues forward. We are pressing to get that aid in. What is important is not just the physical aid, which is already under great pressure, but the need for people who can distribute it. There are development workers on the ground, but they are not disaster relief experts. We need disaster relief experts there. Burma needs to let those people in now.

The Minister has just told the House that the Government’s relationship with China is strong and growing. Will she also tell us what action the Foreign Secretary has taken in expressing our concerns to the Chinese Government that that arms shipment should never have been sent to Durban? It was only as a result of the brave decision of the dockers in Durban that that shipment did not go to Zimbabwe, where it would have been used by a vile regime.

I am sure that we all applaud the stance taken by the dockers in preventing that shipment, which demonstrates the importance of civil society acting in such situations. We on the Labour Benches support the role of trade unions in that. We are working for an international arms embargo to Zimbabwe and will continue to do so.

Following the previous question, will we use our good offices with China to express the disquiet felt throughout the House and the country about China not only training but arming regimes all across Africa?

We need to recognise that China can choose to play a positive role in the world, too. We know that China is putting a great deal of aid into Africa. We of course express our concerns about human rights and negative actions, and through our engagement with China we are unable to do so better.

I add the condolences of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru to the people of China on the terrible circumstances of the earthquake. The Minister used the same words as the Red Cross in Beijing today to describe the response there—the Red Cross said that it was “swift and very efficient”. Should the Burmese Government not pursue the same course of action? What will the Minister and her EU colleagues do in concrete terms to persuade them to emulate the Chinese approach?

Of course—that is exactly what should happen and that is what we are doing. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is at the EU Development Ministers meeting doing precisely that. The problem is that the Burmese Government are failing to grant visas for the aid workers to enter. The world is ready to help. This is not a political situation; it is a humanitarian disaster. The Burmese Government need to grant those visas and let people in, so that they can begin to save lives.

I shall shortly visit Taiwan to attend the inauguration of the new, democratically elected President of that country. What pressure are the Government bringing to bear on the People’s Republic of China to live in peaceful co-existence with its small neighbour and to remove the 1,000 missiles that are directed from mainland China towards Taiwan?

It has been Government policy for a long time to support a one China policy, and our position on Taiwan is well known and has not changed. However, we certainly look to both sides to avoid unilateral measures that raise tensions across the straits, and we will continue to engage in confidence-building measures. In that respect, I support what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Bosnia (EU Accession)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the EU high representative to Bosnia on Bosnian accession to the EU. (204800)

I met High Representative Lajcák on 18 March in Sarajevo. I discussed with him the key reforms needed for Bosnia to move towards EU membership and reaffirmed the UK’s support for his efforts to uphold the Dayton peace agreement.

Following the welcome demonstration by the Serbian people in Sunday’s general election that they want closer links with the European Union, will my hon. Friend ensure that the accession of the Balkan countries, and of Bosnia in particular, remains a high priority in the European Union, so that we can help to contribute to bringing peace and stability to that still-troubled part of Europe?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that the result of the election in Serbia was a clear demonstration of the continuing European aspirations of the population of that country. We should acknowledge and celebrate that fact. He is also right to say that the area is recovering from the vile ethnic cleansing of recent years. The United Kingdom Government will do all that they can to support the expansion of the European Union into the western Balkans. It is also in our strategic self-interest to do so.

My hon. Friend will be well aware that the priorities of the people of Bosnia are focused on job creation and on securing further improvements in their standard of living. What contribution does he think that members of the EU could make towards ensuring that the voices of the people of Bosnia are properly heard by their Government at every level?

My hon. Friend is right. The real need for economic development was made clear to me when I met representatives of the Bosnian, Croat and Serb communities in Bosnia. The signing of the stabilisation agreement with the European Union over the next few weeks will be crucial as it will send a clear signal that all 27 EU countries are willing to support Bosnia’s development and economy. In return, Bosnia will of course have to undertake significant structural domestic reform.


7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the UN and other international organisations in the process of peace and reconstruction in Somalia. (204801)

We support reconciliation talks, arranged by the special representative of the UN Secretary-General, due to begin this month, between representatives of the Somali transitional Government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia. We remain very concerned by the general humanitarian and security situation in Somalia. We are working hard within the UN Security Council for improvements, including a new resolution addressing the political, humanitarian and security needs.

I am sure that a United Nations Security Council resolution would be very welcome, but does my hon. Friend not agree that the world has neglected Somalia, to all our costs? We know the lessons of the failed state in Afghanistan, and we are aware of the potential for Islamic radicalisation in Somalia. Because of our resident Somali population, Britain of all countries has a huge interest in creating stability in Somalia. Can we ensure that the EU addresses the lack of capacity of African agencies such as the African Union, and that we now put real effort into bringing this internal conflict to an end?

I know that my hon. Friend has long taken an interest in this area, and he is absolutely right to point out the importance of the European Union in this regard. I am pleased to be able to tell him that the EU has done a great deal. It has contributed €15 million to the African Union mission, and it is engaging with the Opposition. It has contacts within civil society to try to develop its role in the country, and it is responding to the humanitarian problems that arise there. I am sure that we will continue to press for this engagement through the European Union as well as through the United Nations.

The Minister will be aware that the African regional press testifies that food prices in Somalia are skyrocketing, which means that families have to buy less food or less nutritious food, leading to malnourishment and malnutrition. Does not that present a massive task for the international community and the World Food Programme? Will the Minister share with the House the results of the welcome summit that the Prime Minister recently held at No. 10 on the rises in international food prices? As has been said, Somalia will become a humanitarian disaster area if the international community does not act in the near future.

The hon. Gentleman makes some important points and I appreciate the tone in which he does so. We are giving a lot of humanitarian aid to Somalia; we are the second largest bilateral donor. Of course, the humanitarian situation will improve only if the political situation improves. A genuine political process is under way and we have to put our support behind it. In view of the history of Somalia, it is easy to be discouraged, but for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman raises—the concerns of the population and the continuing pressure of rising food prices—we must ensure that this political process moves forward, if at all possible, in order to bring about greater stability in the area.


There has been little movement in the Darfur political process because of fragmentation among rebel groups and continued violence. The Prime Minister has offered further UK support for international efforts, including a meeting in the UK, if it would help revitalise the process. We are exploring the scope for this with the United Nations, the African Union, Sudan’s neighbours and international partners, the Government of Sudan and movements in Darfur.

The Secretary-General’s most recent report states that in, one month alone, the air raids of the Government of Sudan have killed 200 civilians and displaced 10,000. Their impounding of vital equipment, blocking of the deployment of contingents and withholding permissions for 15 helicopters have resulted in less than a quarter of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur forces being deployed. Is it not time that we had a serious review of the sanctions regime?

We rightly discuss Darfur and Sudan every month at parliamentary questions and it is, of course, extremely disappointing and frustrating when the situation does not improve. Indeed, it is a matter not just of the aerial bombings by the Government of Sudan but of recent incursions by rebel groups that have made the problem even more difficult. The fighting must stop and the talking start. Sanctions might have a role to play, but the serious issue is the need for the fighting to stop so that proper talks can begin.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the warrants issued by the International Criminal Court in respect of events in Darfur should still be pursued—and pursued urgently?

Yes, I agree that they should be pursued. We need to do everything we can to bring about peace in Darfur, and securing proper justice and the end of impunity is part of that process.

Ministerial Meetings

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the new Italian Foreign Minister designate, Mr. Franco Frattini, on 16 April to congratulate him on his appointment. Both my right hon. Friend and I look forward to meeting our new counterparts in the very near future.

The sight of supporters of the new right-wing nationalist Government in Italy celebrating their victory with fascist salutes and shouts of “Duce” was not exactly a good advert for Italy throughout the world. When my hon. Friend has the opportunity to meet the new Foreign Minister, will he discuss with him the importance of the Governments across Europe working together to tackle xenophobia and racism?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that all European Governments—in fact, all Governments across the world—have a responsibility to demonstrate by their actions as well as their words their revulsion at the sentiment represented by those fascists and extreme right-wing politicians. We rightly take the view, however, that the Italian Government as they are and will be constituted will, as a modern democratic European state, take that responsibility very seriously indeed.

When the Minister meets the Foreign Minister of the newly elected centre-right Administration in Italy, one of the issues that I am sure they are bound to discuss is the Lisbon treaty and its ratification. When they do meet, will the Minister confirm to his Italian counterpart that if Ireland votes no on 12 June, the British Government will respect that decision and there will be no adverse consequences for Ireland were the people of Ireland to make such a choice?

Only the hon. Gentleman could turn a question about the new Italian Government into a question about the Lisbon treaty referendum in the Republic of Ireland. [Interruption.] He takes it as a compliment, but I take it as a statement of the modern Conservative party and its Europhobia gone mad, running rampant through the middle of the party. When I am in Italy, as I hope to be next week, I will search very hard for a political party anywhere near the Italian mainstream that shares the British Conservative party’s view of Europe. As I have reflected before, there are literally dozens of conservative parties in Italy and not one of them shares his obsession with, and dislike of, all things European.

May I calm things down a bit? Clearly we must all be sensitive to the election of high officials with whom we do not agree. They might use words such as piccaninnies or xenophobic language, but they are elected, and that is it. Foreign Minister Frattini, as a former Foreign Minister, worked very constructively with this country, and as the EU Commissioner on Interior Affairs he worked constructively, sensitively and tolerantly. Italy is an important country. Its diplomatic service is first-rate. We should construct a positive relationship with Mr. Frattini. After all, the centre-right parties of Europe can only talk to this party in power; they do not talk to the rubbish over there.

Order. We should use temperate language. May I also say that one day—perhaps one day—I will get a brief supplementary question from the right hon. Gentleman?

I have always considered my right hon. Friend in the role of a conciliator, both here and elsewhere, and towards the end of his question he showed just why.

On the specific points raised, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have common cause with the Italian Government and Italy on so many big strategic interests that face our world—climate change, international terrorism, and concerted and co-ordinated work on the migration of people across the planet. We have a packed agenda of common concerns with our colleagues in Italy, and we look forward to holding that conversation in the months and years ahead.

Middle East

10. What recent discussions he has had with Quartet representative, Tony Blair, on Gaza and the middle east road map. (204804)

We met on 1 and 2 May to talk about the middle east peace process and discuss the situation in Gaza. The ad hoc liaison committee meeting in London kicked off a critical six to eight week period for the middle east peace process, and it is vital that the practical progress in the negotiations is matched by improvement of the situation on the ground.

Is it not clear that without an improvement in the economic and humanitarian conditions within Gaza, we are not going to see any lasting chances of peace in the near future? Surely the road map is coming to the end of its life and we should reappraise it so that we can work with our EU partners and the Quartet to bring some lasting chances of peace to the region.

I entirely agree that the humanitarian situation in Gaza needs to be improved, but I plead with the hon. Gentleman not to start throwing out the road map and the Annapolis process now. This is a critical six to eight week period. President Bush is, I think, going to the region tomorrow, the Bethlehem investors conference is taking place the week after next, and the Germans are taking a lead on security sector reform to support the Palestinian Authority. For seven years, we have not had a process: now we have one, for goodness’ sake, let us not lose it at this stage.

Topical Questions

The whole House will be aware that as we debate here today people are dying by the score in Burma, and the Burmese regime are unconscionably holding up the supply of foreign aid. Hon. Members throughout the House will share my anger that any Government could show such a callous disregard for their responsibility towards their own citizens.

The Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that Britain would do everything possible to make a difference. We have pledged £5 million of assistance, a United Kingdom aid flight has left for Burma and more are planned for this week, and a team from the Department for International Development is on the ground there. We are examining all options for getting the aid through, and getting the message through to the Burmese regime that its obstructionism is completely intolerable. Over the past 12 days we have supported the use of any and all United Nations action that will help, and we will continue to do so. The only test is whether that action saves lives in Burma.

The Secretary of State will share the House’s deep sadness about the terrible consequences of the earthquake in China. As he knows, following earthquakes specific aid is required, and is required quickly. Can he assure us that the Foreign Office is offering aid and discussing what aid is necessary and relevant? Can he also assure us that the Foreign Office is participating in the co-ordination of aid so that it arrives quickly and relevantly?

I am happy to say that just before I came here today I had a long conversation with the Chinese Foreign Minister about, among other things, the Chinese response to the disaster, which in many ways has been exemplary. I obviously inquired about the position of British nationals, about which we are concerned, and about offers of assistance. I am pleased to say that the Chinese Ministry of Commerce has now made it clear that the country is open to cash donations and humanitarian help, and we shall ensure that that is given maximum publicity. At present, as I have said, the Chinese Government are handling the matter in an exemplary fashion, but I think that this is an opportunity for people to come together at a difficult time.

I support what the Foreign Secretary has said about the gravity of the situation in Burma and the extraordinary callousness of the Burmese regime. Will he take up the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, that the United Nations Secretary-General go to Rangoon on behalf of the whole international community to urge the regime to provide immediate, unfettered access for all international relief?

While aid can be delivered with great effectiveness only with the co-ordination of the Burmese Government, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the international community has a responsibility to consider any other options? He just mentioned that the Government were considering all options for delivering more help to people in such desperate circumstances. What assessment has he made of the viability of direct aid drops? What plans exist for such drops, and when would they be put into effect?

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the role of the United Nations Secretary-General. For some time we have discussed with him the proposition—originally advanced, I believe, by this country in New York—that he should go there himself. The statement that he issued yesterday was very helpful and positive, and suggested the degree of engagement that is necessary. We know from what happened in 2004 that the role of the UN Secretary-General in bringing people together can be very important.

I chose the phrase “any and all options” deliberately, to make it clear that we are supporting any and all action at the United Nations. As for aid drops, I think it best to quote what has been said by the World Food Programme. It does not rule out such action, and it would be quite wrong to do so, but it does say that

“it’s dangerous and potentially counter-productive if you carry out air drops of food or assistance without the proper set-up on the ground.”

Oxfam, which has a long history in this area, says:

“Food and mosquito nets cannot be targeted at the most vulnerable… clean water systems and safe sanitation cannot be dropped from the sky”.

It also says:

“The biggest risk is that… air-drops will be a distraction from what is really needed—a highly effective aid operation on the ground.”

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to want to be certain that all options are being considered, and I assure him that they are. However, the best option by a long way is for the Burmese Government to stand up to their responsibilities.

Let me raise another matter on which I am sure there is cross-party agreement. We have been emphasising the important role of the Association of South East Asian Nations. The neighbouring countries that will inevitably have to provide the basis for any sort of humanitarian or military help will play a critical part, which is why we have been talking directly to ASEAN countries on the telephone and in person through ambassadors in capitals. I am sure that that action is supported throughout the House.

May I emphatically support what the Foreign Secretary says about the ASEAN countries, and may I turn his mind to another tragic situation: Zimbabwe? Given the violence and intimidation, orchestrated by the Mugabe regime’s thugs, across Zimbabwe, will he join me in commending the bravery of the Opposition activists in their conduct since the elections, for which some have already paid with their lives, and their bravery in contesting a second round that may be overshadowed by violence and devoid of transparency? The regime has indicated that it will not accept international observers to oversee the poll. Can the Foreign Secretary hold out any prospect of southern African nations making a decisive effort to change that, so that the efforts of Mugabe to rig and intimidate in this way can at least partly be constrained?

Yes, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. The bravery is exemplary, and support from the international community is much needed. It is true that the Opposition have not yet won the presidential election, but Mugabe has not been able to claim victory, and that is very significant in itself. I agree that monitors are essential. I was very pleased to hear from the Ghanaian Foreign Minister in person yesterday, and by e-gram from the Tanzanian Foreign Minister, of Southern African Development Community countries taking their responsibilities seriously. I also believe there is a role for Caribbean countries in supplementing the observer mission from the SADC countries, so that there are a greater number of observers on the ground to ensure that, in dreadful circumstances, some sort of freedom is available for people to cast their votes.

T2. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of Kosovo’s independence, and what is the UK doing to support Kosovo? (204787)

Forty-one countries have so far recognised the independence of Kosovo, including all the G7 nations and 20 countries of the European Union. The United Kingdom is, of course, among that number, supporting Kosovo’s independence based on the Ahtisaari plan. That is about ensuring that there is no break-up of Kosovo and maintaining territorial integrity, and it is also about ensuring that the forthcoming international donors conference is a success, so that the new Government in Kosovo can kick-start the economy effectively.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken eloquently against the malign neglect of the Burmese Government in respect of foreign aid. I recognise that Ministers have been working hard on this issue, but how does he explain the delays in getting British Government aid into Burma, when aid from the American, French, Indian, Swedish, Spanish, Greek, Chinese and Russian Governments has arrived, not to mention aid from the World Food Programme and non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross and Save the Children? If other countries and organisations have managed to get aid in despite the problems with the Burmese junta, why did the first British Government aid plane arrive only today?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words, and the answer lies at the door of the Burmese Government, who have placed so many obstacles in the way of foreign aid, and of foreign aid workers, who are essential to ensure that the aid is delivered to the people who need it, not to support the regime.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has today spoken to the Foreign Minister of Serbia, Mr. Jeremic, to congratulate him and his party, For a European Serbia, which is now the largest party after the elections in Serbia. It is clear that Serbia now has a European future. The 27 countries of the European Union have said that very clearly, and have signed up to a new agreement with Serbia. With that, of course, comes responsibility for Serbia, in particular adherence to its responsibility to bring to justice in The Hague those alleged war criminals, Mladic and Karadzic, and we will continue to press the Serbian authorities on that matter.

T4. Obviously, the world’s attention has moved on from Kenya, despite the fact that last week the new Kenyan Government, with 40 new members from both the Opposition side and the previous Government, were formed. What is the Government’s assessment of the viability of that Cabinet, and what assistance is being given to ensure that the democratic process wins in this process, despite all the problems Kenya has had over the past few weeks? (204789)

My hon. Friend is right: that has slipped from the front pages. However, he is also right to say that a grand Government coalition has now been formed and that common sense has prevailed. Clearly, the imperative is for Kenya’s leaders to implement the power-sharing agreement. In terms of our support, the Secretary of State for International Development will reinforce our message about the UK’s commitment to this process when he visits Kenya next week.

The Foreign Office was rightly congratulated on its support following the tsunami; it provided consular support on the scene and at home. Today, I received a message from a constituent whose parents from Hereford are missing in China. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that consular support will be available not only in China, but at the Foreign Office in London to ensure that families are kept abreast of the situations of missing British nationals?

Yes, I can. Our ambassador is on his way to the main scene of the earthquake disaster, we have a consular team in place and we have investigations going on into all those whom we know are missing. I am happy to have a word with the hon. Gentleman straight after this, and we will get the details of his constituent. I am pleased to tell him that the Chinese Foreign Minister, to whom I spoke just before questions, wanted to talk to me about what his Government were determined to do to maximise the openness with which the Chinese authorities investigated any and all suggestions of missing people. I hope that that will bring some relief to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who are doubtless very worried about the situation.

T6. In the context of the welcome co-operation between the United Kingdom and China, will my right hon. Friend impress on the Chinese the fact that our humanitarian efforts would be properly amplified if China were to bring considerable pressure on Burma to ensure that the Burmese opened up facilities to humanitarian agencies there? (204792)

Yes, I shall. The regional powers, notably China, have an immensely important role to play not only in facilitating practical support on the ground but in applying political pressure on a Burmese regime who have so far been closed to reason. It is obviously essential that we continue the links with the Chinese Government to ensure that they understand the strength of feeling across British political parties and across Britain about the need to respond to what is becoming a man-made catastrophe.

May I invite the Foreign Secretary to give his latest assessment of the situation in the Lebanon? May I also ask him to reassure us that military preparations are being made to evacuate 5,000 British citizens and their dependants, if necessary, and that a decision on that will be made early enough, before the situation deteriorates and an armed force is required to land in the Lebanon to effect such an evacuation?

The attempt to disrupt and disable the Government of the Lebanon—the full frontal challenge to that Government from Hezbollah—is, or should be, completely unacceptable to the whole international community. Last night’s Friends of Lebanon discussion, which was convened by Saudi Arabia and the United States and which included the United Kingdom, brought a strong statement of condemnation of the activities of Hezbollah and its supporters from a wide range of viewpoints. I am happy to associate myself with that. Practical support must be not only military, but economic and political support for the existing Government of Fouad Siniora. I shall continue to offer that political support, as I did to him personally on Friday.

T7. The most worrying aspect of last weekend’s Justice for Equality Movement-inspired attacks on Omdurman in the Sudan was that they appeared very much to be tit-for-tat attacks mounted in response to the attempt to remove President Deby from Chad. What assurances can my colleagues give that they will talk to the Governments in Khartoum and in Chad to ensure that there is no conflict between Sudan and Chad? (204793)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are in regular contact with Governments on those issues. As I have said, the important point is that all sides need to stop the conflict, because until it stops and the talks are in place, we cannot hope for the much-needed peace in Darfur and in Sudan.

T5. The recent rise in global food prices has led to food riots in a number of developing countries, one of which is Cameroon. As it is the only Commonwealth country to have an English-speaking minority with a justified sense of grievance, will the Minister speak to her counterpart in Cameroon to ensure that the riots over food prices are not used as a pretext for a further crackdown on that English-speaking minority? (204791)

We obviously share the concern that all Cameroonians should enjoy equal rights, free from disadvantage, in respect of their regional or linguistic reasons. We have not raised this issue previously, but I am happy to pass this on to my noble Friend and to take up this issue of discrimination.