Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 482: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2008

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Middle East

1. What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for peace in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. (234527)

The Annapolis process has been a first step in restoring trust between the parties. We should try to build on it to create a process that can deliver a broader peace, in which all exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities. That would be a true settlement between Israel and all Arab states. I hope that it will be given new momentum from the beginning of the new Administration in the United States.

Following the Syrian Foreign Minister’s recent visit to London, how will the Foreign Secretary develop that specific relationship, especially in encouraging the Syria-Israel dialogue, which Turkey brokered?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. First, we will seek to continue to say to the Syrians that they have important responsibilities in the middle east, notably in respect of relations with Iraq and with Lebanon, as well as with Israel, but that they also have much to gain from a comprehensive settlement—the Arab peace initiative provides an important basis for that.

Secondly, I met the Turkish Foreign Minister last Friday. Turkey has brokered the four rounds of peace talks between Syria and Israel, and I urged him to continue his important work. When I am in Israel next week, I shall also urge the Israelis to continue that important track in the peace process.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, today, at a rally in Ramallah, President Abbas told the thousands of people gathered there:

“The ways of the shahids”—

the martyrs—

“Arafat, Abu Jihad, George Habash and even Sheikh Ahmed Yasin—are the ways we recognise. These are the ways in which we are meant to preserve the national interest of the Palestinian people.”

I have not seen that quotation. As soon as Question Time is over, I will try to find out the details. I believe that hon. Members of all parties have felt that President Abbas is, in the words of the Israeli Prime Minister, “a soldier in the army of peace.” My hon. Friend has given a striking quotation, and I will investigate it as soon as I am back in the office.

Does the Foreign Secretary genuinely believe that, in the two-state solution, it is possible to negotiate a viable and autonomous Palestine, without involving all the representative elements of the Palestinian people, including Hamas, which has recently said that it envisages a Palestinian state existing alongside an Israel based on the 1967 borders?

The Palestinian people need to be represented by a single authority and a single elected leader, and that is President Abbas, about whom we have just been talking. Hamas has the opportunity to join reconciliation talks under Egyptian auspices. The position that President Abbas outlined is an important signal, but it needs to be followed through. That is the basis on which the Palestinians will get the state that they deserve and need, and that the whole region needs.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to get a satisfactory outcome in the middle east, we must engage our European colleagues more energetically? The new Minister for Europe is an energetic colleague. Could not she be sent around Europe banging heads together to get greater involvement on the issue that we are considering and other issues?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is many things, but a head banger is not the first phrase that comes to mind. I assure my hon. Friend that she has already toured the capitals of Europe, notably, Prague, Sofia and Paris, and I am sure that the middle east was on her agenda. My hon. Friend is right that the European Union has an important role to play. It already supports humanitarian efforts for the Palestinians and plays an important role in training Palestinian security forces, which are vital if a Palestinian state is to come into being alongside a secure Israel.

May I say to the Foreign Secretary that it would be helpful if he could impress on his Israeli counterparts that the behaviour of the Israeli military courts in Gaza is damaging Israel’s reputation and makes the prospect of a peace settlement yet more remote?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important point. I will certainly discuss the situation in Gaza with the Israeli Government. We have discussed the situation of the Gazan MPs in the House before, and I will certainly raise that, too. We have discussed the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which will also be on the agenda. I will take up and look into the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises.

Has my right hon. Friend had any talks with the Israelis about the huge number of children who are held without charge in Israeli jails, against the Geneva convention and outside the occupied territories?

I have not had such talks, but I am happy to take them up when I meet my Israeli counterpart next week.

Given that only last night the Prime Minister described Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the greatest challenge to non-proliferation in the middle east and indeed the world, could the Foreign Secretary say why, a year after the Prime Minister promised further European sanctions, those sanctions are still not in place and why Iran is not even on the agenda for the EU Foreign Ministers meeting due on 11 and 12 December?

There certainly are further sanctions than there were a year ago, notably those exercised through Security Council resolution 1803, which has been put into practice by the European Union, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman was referring to oil and gas sanctions, which are important. He and I agree that we need to ensure that financial measures in the oil and gas sector are taken forward, and we continue to have that dialogue. We are trying to achieve unanimity across the E3 plus 3, because it is the basis on which to confront Iran. However, I assure him that the European Union is fulfilling its responsibilities. I do not know which forthcoming meeting the hon. Gentleman was referring to. The General Affairs Council met this week and I am happy to tell him that Iran is a regular topic of discussion. Indeed, I can assure him that it is certainly not suffering from a lack of focus.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

5. What his most recent assessment is of the prospects for a resolution to the conflict in eastern Congo. (234532)

We strongly support the regional initiative of Presidents Kikwete of Tanzania and Kibaki of Kenya. It has allowed countries in the region to discuss co-operation to end the humanitarian crisis and injected new momentum into achieving full implementation of the Nairobi communiqué and the Goma accords, which we will now take forward with President Obasanjo, the UN special envy, and ex-Tanzanian President Mkapa. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown will be in the region next week to take that forward.

The whole House will remember what happened in 1994, when up to 800,000 people were killed in neighbouring Rwanda, after which 2 million people fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that peacekeeping forces on the ground can take the necessary action to stop the same disaster happening again?

The United Kingdom was proud to support the biggest UN operation ever, the 17,000-strong United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—or MONUC—force, which is in the DRC. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, we need political action, from both the DRC Government and President Kagame in Rwanda. That was the purpose of my trip to the region 10 days ago and it is the purpose of the African Union intervention, which is so significant.

What scope is there for the AU and the EU to work together and use their joint influence on the Congolese and Rwandan Governments? In particular, is there any scope for co-operation in responding to the request by the head of MONUC to boost UN troops, so that there are sufficient forces in the right places to deal with the insurgents and rebels, who are causing so much havoc and terror in the area?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about AU-EU collaboration. That was the purpose of my visit to Dar es Salaam, and the work of Commissioner Michel is taking the issue forward. The EU has an important role in monitoring the implementation of the Nairobi and Goma accords, as well as on the humanitarian side. It is right that the fighting force is a UN force. I do not think that we want a rival EU force. What we need is for all countries, including European countries, to think how they can contribute to the MONUC force. We are waiting for a Security Council discussion later today. The first priority is the proper and effective deployment of MONUC forces, but if it is reported that more troops are needed, different countries will have to decide how they build that up. The decision of the African Union to involve itself and say that African troops will be the first port of call for extra forces is important in that respect.

What pressure is being brought to bear on the DRC Government to disarm the Hutus, who are responsible for the massacre of the 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda?

Eleven hundred FDLR—Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda—troops have been disarmed and repatriated to Rwanda. That is an important step forward, but everybody who meets President Kabila emphasises that it is only that—a first step. When we talk of his fulfilling his responsibilities under the Nairobi agreement, it is precisely the disarmament and repatriation of the FDLR that is at the heart of his responsibility.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his efforts in the Congo. He will be aware that there have been more than 4 million excess deaths there in the past 10 years because of the chronic instability and fighting, and more than 250,000 people have now been driven from their homes. What can he do to put an end to the sexual violence, in particular, and the recruitment of child soldiers? As in all wars, it is the women and children who suffer the most.

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to one of the more shocking aspects of this conflict. The conflict in the Congo has cost more lives than any other since the second world war; I think that the total is now 5 million. The best thing we can do is to have a proper ceasefire, because that is the only basis on which the rights she is talking about can be properly adhered to.

With time being of the essence, surely it must be right for the European Union to support the United Nations and the African Union with military assistance. Is Oxfam not right to say that European

“inaction has very human consequences… How many more must suffer before Europe will take effective action?”?

I do not accept that Europe is taking no action, and I do not just mean on the humanitarian side, where Europe is the largest donor to the DRC. European countries do have troops in the DRC, and we have a small number of officers helping to command the MONUC brigades there. What is important is that the UN takes a grip on this, and that the UN is the right place in which to take this forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would also agree that, rather than repeat the mistakes of the 1990s, when neighbours of the DRC got involved in the war instead of preventing it, it is right that a range of African countries should be the first port of call for extra troops.

The problem with having African solutions to African problems—desirable though that is—is that, in the short term, it is going to lead to the deaths of many thousands of people. As we have seen in Darfur, the African Union lacks the capacity to intervene effectively. If intervention is to come, it will have to come from elsewhere—either through reinforcing MONUC, as my right hon. Friend has said, or through some form of EU intervention along the lines of the French Operation Artemis five years ago.

I think that we are looking at a rather longer-term problem than Operation Artemis. That was a time-limited, three-month operation, as my hon. Friend will know, as a distinguished former Minister for Africa. In our view, MONUC is the right place in which to situate the command structures. We do not want competing command structures, and we need to ensure that, if commanders on the ground report that they need more troops, those troops can be found.

Why is the Foreign Secretary so against an EU force, given that France, Belgium and the Netherlands have said that they are prepared to send forces, and that an EU deployment would be possible under the lead nation concept? Given the urgency of the situation, and the improbability of any immediate reinforcements coming from within the African Union, is not the Foreign Secretary indulging in dangerous wishful thinking by putting the burden of responsibility entirely on African troops?

I am not seeking to put any gloss on the situation: no one who has been there could fail to realise the gravity of it. There is nothing to prevent European nations from contributing to the UN MONUC force; that is the right place to do it. However, I do not think that the Foreign Ministers of some of the countries that the hon. Gentleman cites as being keen to send forces are in quite the position he believes them to be in, but let us leave that to one side. It must be right that, rather than having two fighting forces from outside, we have one, under a single UN command structure, that can deliver. That is what we are trying to do.

When my right hon. Friend visited Rwanda, was he able to impress upon President Kagame his view that a political solution was absolutely vital and that, just as we expect President Kabila of the DRC to play his part, President Kagame must now insist that Rwanda should be on the side of peace, not of war?

Yes, it is evident that Rwanda has important responsibilities in this respect, and Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, and I certainly impressed that on President Kagame, who made it clear that he and his country would fulfil their responsibilities. That is the significance of the regional process that has now been started.

The Foreign Secretary has emphasised what must happen in the medium to long term, but many hon. Members on both sides of the House have highlighted the catastrophic nature of what is happening in the short term. Many of us believe that, although there are 17,000 UN troops there, they do not have a proper, effective command structure; nor are they a deterrent to General Nkunda, who has now said that, in the event of the troops bringing pressure to bear on him, he would take military action against them. In the short term, what kind of effective military deterrent can we put in place to prevent Nkunda and the others from carrying out what is effectively genocide?

First, it is most important to reinforce the ceasefire and, secondly, to ensure that MONUC troops are properly deployed in the areas threatened by General Nkunda. There are 5,500 troops in the north Kivu province and 76 IDP—internally displaced persons—camps there, which makes the scale of the problem evident. Thirdly, all those with links to General Nkunda need to make it absolutely clear that they will not tolerate further activities of the sort that went on last week and in previous weeks.

Anglo-American Relations

What the priorities of the Government will be in their dealings with the next President of the US and his Administration. (234530)

The Prime Minister spoke to President-elect Obama last Thursday and offered him his warmest congratulations on his historic campaign and victory. We look forward to working with the new Administration further to develop the uniquely comprehensive relationship between our two countries. At the top of our agenda will be the international economic crisis, the middle east peace process, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and climate change.

Following the hugely encouraging victory of Senator Obama—and, above all, in view of Armistice day, when we remember the sacrifice of so many people from this country and our allies—what will the Government do to ensure that the new Administration promote not only good relationships between this country and the USA, but better relationships between the Presidents and people of the USA and Russia, our two great wartime allies?

I think that US-Russia relations are, in the first instance, a matter for the US and for Russia, but we can contribute by engaging Russia in debates about the future of the international system, of which it forms an important part. Secondly, we can ensure that nuclear non-proliferation remains at the heart of a shared agenda with Russia. Thirdly, we need to continue to give help—through the G8, for example—to the disarmament that Russia continues to take forward. There are obviously responsibilities on Russia as well: the President of Russia says that he does not want a new cold war, although the speech he gave last week was an odd way of showing it. It is important that Russia fulfils its responsibilities to the international system.

Are we not becoming enmeshed in American missile defence—without the debate promised by former Prime Minister Blair? Given President-elect Obama’s express doubts about missile defence and given that it is grossly expensive, hugely ineffective and extremely destabilising for Europe, should it not be a priority of our Government, working with the new American Administration, to look for a more constructive collective approach to security concerns?

In tandem with the new Administration, we will certainly look into a whole range of nuclear proliferation issues, including ballistic missile defence. I would say to my hon. Friend, however, that the countries in central and eastern Europe that are siting those missiles are taking sovereign decisions about their own security and defence. Furthermore, the current Administration in Washington offered to run the ballistic missile defence system jointly with the Russians, so it is a pity that the Russians did not take up that offer.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that an urgent priority for the Obama presidency—and, indeed, for that matter, for the British Government—is to ensure that we do not extend NATO membership to countries unless we are prepared ultimately to go to war in their defence? As there is not the slightest possibility of either the United States or the countries of western Europe going to war over countries such as Georgia or those like it whose territorial integrity might be threatened, will the right hon. Gentleman discuss with the American Administration other ways of enhancing the security of Georgia—by accelerating its membership of the EU, for example, as well as through other initiatives?

Yes, we will discuss a whole range of ways in which Russia’s neighbouring countries can give greater security and support—political and economic, including through the EU, as well as on the security front. We should certainly not welcome people into NATO unless they are willing to live up to all the obligations. I would say, however, that when the three Baltic countries joined NATO 10 years ago, many people asked whether they could ever be properly bound into a western security architecture, yet they have been—and they are far more secure for it. I absolutely assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Georgian and Ukrainian cases will be decided on the basis of their merits, their capacity and the determination of their population to join. These countries must want to join; it is not just a matter of whether we allow them to.

President-elect Obama made absolutely clear his condemnation of the assassination of trade unionists in Columbia in Latin America. Does not that condemnation provide the opportunity to reposition ourselves in Columbia? If any assistance we gave went not to the military but to the social partners, the trade unionists, in Columbia, would we not at last be on the right side of the argument in that country?

I can say that, publicly and privately, we have been condemning the killing of trade unionists in Colombia for a long time, and will continue to do so. I can also say that the only military aid that we give to Colombia is for de-mining and human rights training; there is no question of the money leaking into other activities. We will certainly continue to press for reform in Colombia, because it is greatly needed.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the election of President-elect Obama offers a golden opportunity for a fresh start in the middle east? Will he and the Government, and Tony Blair in his role with the Quartet, seek to persuade the President-elect not to lose sight of the actions that are needed so urgently in the middle east as he concentrates on sorting out the domestic problems in the United States?

Yes. We have already addressed that issue once today, and I addressed it on election day, but we need the engagement of the American Administration from day one. If there is any lesson to be learnt from the Annapolis process, it is that it is not possible to wait until year seven to become fully engaged with the middle east.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an appropriate time to encourage the American Administration to become more positively involved in international development issues, including conflict prevention and the implementation of the millennium development goals?

I do think it is important that America becomes fully engaged with development issues, and the size of its economy gives it a unique capacity to do so. Let me say to my right hon. Friend—I hope that he will still talk to me when I have said this—that of all the things the Bush Administration did, one of the most significant was their work on health issues. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It would be nice to see a few of my hon. Friends expressing agreement as well. I am trying to persuade them.

May I draw to my right hon. Friend’s attention—in the nicest possible way, and without asking him to sign up to anything else—the significance of the $5 billion PETFAR health programme? Perhaps the best way of doing that is to point out that it provides an excellent basis on which the Obama Administration can build in strong and dramatic ways.

One of the foreign policy challenges that the United States Administration will face is the deteriorating situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the European Union and the new Administration should work together to prevent Bosnia from sliding back into crisis? Can he assure the House that the Office of the High Representative will remain open, and that there will be no question of withdrawing EU troops from Bosnia until genuine stability is returned and reforms are under way?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the message of support for the five objectives and two conditions was at the heart of my visit to Bosnia yesterday. In meetings with leaders of all six political parties, I made absolutely clear our determination to follow up the letter that I composed jointly with the Czech Foreign Minister in July about the importance of the EU focusing on the Bosnia issue and the importance of sticking to the conditions that we have outlined for the future of the Office of the High Representative. I also spent two hours on the plane with the High Representative himself, discussing how he could work with the EU to ensure that his mandate was properly fulfilled.

Somaliland

4. What steps his Department is taking to encourage the Somali community in the UK to engage with helping Somaliland to develop its place in the world. (234531)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was glad to join my right hon. Friend in meeting members of the Somaliland community in Cardiff last month to discuss links between the community and Somaliland. We are keen to encourage further links with the community, and are planning further meetings with officials.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to send its sympathy to the people of Somaliland following the recent suicide bombings that disrupted the peace and development of democratic institutions which had continued for the past 18 years. When our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Cardiff recently, he met leaders of the Somali community. I was particularly proud of the young Somali women from Fitzalan high school and the young Somali men from Butetown and Grangetown who said that they wanted to help build links back into the Somaliland community. Will Ministers encourage the diaspora to become involved particularly in work with schools in Somaliland, and will my hon. Friend join me in considering the possibility of internet links to help build pupil-to-pupil and teacher-to-teacher contacts between us and Somaliland?

We also condemn the appalling bombings, and I join my right hon. Friend in offering condolences and sympathy to all those affected. I also commend my right hon. Friend for the work he does in support of Somaliland, and I share his view that fostering links between young people is crucial. I am glad that, under the Department for International Development global schools partnership programmes, four primary schools in Somaliland are linked with primary schools in Cardiff, involving some 4,000 children in Somaliland. We also need to have virtual links between schools, so I am glad that the British Council is developing the online element of its connecting classrooms programme, to enable links to be made between parts of the world, particularly those areas where travel is dangerous.

We constantly work with relevant Governments and non-governmental organisations to support the development of governance and the rule of law and the improvement of the lives of the people in those areas.

Further to that question, what specifically are the Government doing to find a way forward in resolving the conflict in Somalia, which has real strategic implications not only for the horn of Africa, but beyond that for east Africa as well?

My hon. Friend is right to express that concern, and the UK is keen to help Somaliland continue to make progress. That is difficult, particularly where there are setbacks, such as on human rights. A political solution is what is needed, and we work with all our international partners to get that, and we seek the support of the African Union to ensure that Somalia and Somaliland find the correct political solution in the interests of all their people.

UK-Pakistan Relations

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has discussed UK-Pakistan relations with Foreign Minister Qureshi on a number of occasions, and with President Zardari during the Friends of Pakistan meeting in September. We have a broad range of common interests, including the international financial crisis and the need to combat the threat from violent extremism.

The Minister will be aware that there is a significant Ahmadiyya community across this country, which is based in Southfields in my constituency. Is he raising the issue of the persecution of that community in Pakistan? If so, is he aware that recently two members of that community were brutally murdered in Pakistan? However, that is just the extreme end of a broader pattern of persecution that takes place daily. Will he raise this specific issue with the Pakistan Government to find out what pressure can be brought to bear to deal with this problem?

I agree with the hon. Lady: we are concerned about the two recent murders in the Ahmadiyya community. We fundamentally support religious freedom, and with our European Union partners we regularly raise concerns about the treatment of minority groups with the Government of Pakistan, and have stressed the fundamental interplay that exists between long-term security, a stable democracy and the importance of guaranteeing the rights and political participation of all Pakistani citizens. We will continue to make that argument.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the British embassy in Islamabad has stopped taking applications from Mirpur, which has made it extremely difficult for people there to have applications processed, as the nearest places at present are Lahore or the United Arab Emirates? Since there have been no terrorist activities in Mirpur, that situation should not continue.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I know he has expressed them on a number of occasions. There is a balance to be struck. There are logistical and security concerns about the issuing of visas. We keep matters under review, but the current situation is as it stands.

Is the Minister aware that last week 14 new members of the Pakistan National Assembly were here in our Parliament under the auspices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch? They were particularly interested in the development and evolution of parliamentary democracy in their country. They were also interested to know why in the past we supported in Pakistan an individual who certainly did not support parliamentary democracy. Is it our view that we can develop with the Government of Pakistan an improvement in parliamentary democracy in that country?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that visits such as that organised by the CPA are particularly important. We both want to support the development of democracy in Pakistan, which is a key facet of our bilateral relationship.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that several Pakistani MPs attended an Inter-Parliamentary Union human rights conference in Geneva last week. They thanked the IPU for the role that it had played in trying to help President Zardari, who had spent all those long years in jail, to get a fair trial. They singled out the IPU in particular, because they said that no other organisation gave assistance in the same way. What news does my hon. Friend have about the reinstatement of the judges in Pakistan, because it was of considerable concern to this country when, under emergency rule, they were all dismissed?

I share my right hon. Friend’s regard for the IPU’s work, not only in Pakistan but across the world. During the coalition discussions to resolve the issue of the restoration of the judiciary we certainly reiterated our position of attaching great importance to respect for the independence of the judiciary as a cornerstone of the rule of law. We supported the efforts of coalition leaders to find a solution. That remains our position, and we are pushing that argument forward very strongly.

Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss with his Pakistani counterparts the effect of recent US military strikes on Pakistan? Could he tell us the Government’s view of military action that takes place in Pakistan that is not authorised or approved by its Government?

That is an operational matter—[Hon. Members: “It is not.”] It is an operational matter that should be, and is, discussed between the Pakistani authorities and the United States. The Government of Pakistan are making great efforts to control security in the border area, and it is very important that both we and the United States work closely with the Pakistani authorities in support of that.

Stability in Pakistan will be difficult to achieve while the Kashmir conundrum continues. Does the Minister welcome President-elect Obama’s underlining of Kashmir as an issue that America will have to address? Does the Minister also agree that the presence of half a million Indian troops in Kashmir means that Pakistan keeps most of its military on its eastern flank, instead of focusing on its western flank and helping us in Afghanistan?

The situation in Kashmir remains an important concern, and we are urging all parties to commit themselves and to support the composite dialogue in that regard.

Afghanistan

7. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for International Development on co-ordination of policies relating to Afghanistan. (234534)

Ministers in all three Departments regularly discuss and co-ordinate our strategy and policies on Afghanistan. To complement ministerial-level working, the cross-departmental Afghanistan senior officials group and the Afghanistan strategy group also meet regularly.

In reviewing the co-ordination efforts, will the Minister examine the US model, in which the army is able to undertake aid and reconstruction efforts? Military victories become hearts and minds victories, because local people can see positive evidence on the ground that a victory means that they get something worth while in the way of aid and reconstruction.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s underlying comment that there needs to be a multifaceted approach in Afghanistan. Although that has a military component, it also contains political, economic, aid and other elements. There needs to be a follow-on from military activities, and we are very much engaged in that area.

When the Foreign Secretary meets President Karzai, will he take the opportunity to address the issue of the number of people in Afghanistan awaiting the death sentence? I understand that the judges have dramatically increased that number, to 125 or so. Can he make specific approaches to Afghanistan not to go down a route that would bring such international opprobrium?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a real interest in these issues, and we have been consistent in articulating our policy on the death penalty. We have also raised specific concerns, for example about the case of the journalists, and we will continue to put forward our view to President Karzai and other members of his Government.

Given that the British Army is already nearly at breaking point, will the Government resist any pressure from President-elect Obama to commit more troops to the morass of Afghanistan?

Let me be clear: we need greater burden-sharing by all our partners and allies and we are not anticipating further British troop commitments at the moment. Part of the longer term solution is the development of capacity in the Afghan national army, and therefore the recent agreement by the Afghan Government to expand the army’s capacity from 80,000 to 122,000 troops is very welcome.

The British remain in the lead on drugs interdiction. Is there any better news about our ability to bear down on that awful trade?

As I recall, the most recent United Nations survey shows a reduction of roughly 19 per cent. reduction in poppy cultivation, and the number of poppy-free provinces has increased from 13 to 18. I do not deny that we and the Afghan authorities continue to face a significant challenge, but it is fundamentally in our national interest to address it, given that 95 per cent. of the heroin that ends up on British streets derives from Afghanistan.

The co-ordination of policy in Afghanistan is a vital issue. For example, which Department will be responsible for the security of the transmission cables from the Kajaki dam once the third turbine is up and running?

There is effective co-ordination on the ground between all the relevant Government Departments. There are regular meetings and liaison, and we will ensure that those issues are addressed.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), is it not extraordinary that the EU is making grants and encouraging people to grow poppies in this country when we are bearing down on people growing poppies in Afghanistan? Is that not most illogical?

I will come back to my hon. Friend on the details of that question. What I can say with conviction is that tackling poppy cultivation in Afghanistan remains a fundamental priority that we are taking forward with vigour.

Iran

The Foreign Secretary met his Russian opposite number on 25 September to discuss Iran. He also took part in a meeting of E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers on 26 September. Political directors from the E3 plus 3 last met on 19 September and are scheduled to meet again on 13 November. An official from our embassy in Moscow most recently discussed Iran with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 16 October.

Over the past few years, Russia has used energy as a weapon to bully other countries. Is it therefore a credible option to offer the Iranians Russian fuel as a way out of the nuclear impasse? Is it not about time that the United States and the west went their own way with some imaginative thinking in trying to solve the Iranian problem, rather than waiting for an ever more totalitarian Russia and an ambivalent China?

Part of the resolution of that problem has to be to ensure the meeting of the legitimate civilian nuclear needs of Iran, and Russia can be helpful in that regard. However, we should be in no doubt that significant concerns remain about the willingness of the Iranian Government to engage with safeguard provision. We need to press them through sanctions and other measures. A significant offer is on the table from the E3 plus 3 process and we have to push internationally for Iran to engage with that process.

Does my hon. Friend believe that the strength of economic and political ties between Russia and Iran is undermining international sanctions aimed at putting an end to the Iranians’ development of nuclear power?

Russian has supported all five UN Security Council resolutions in respect of Iran’s nuclear obligations. It remains the case that we expect all our partners in the E3 plus 3 process to do everything possible to fulfil their commitments to stop Iran generating and developing nuclear capability.

Are the Government convinced that the objectives of Russian policy vis-à-vis Iran are the same as those of Her Majesty’s Government?

On the nuclear issue, yes, I believe that that is the case. On five occasions at the Security Council Russia has voted with us in respect of those resolutions, urging Iran to engage. We expect all our partners to fulfil their commitments to stop Iran getting that nuclear capability, and we believe that they will work with us.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we want to build better co-operation with Russia on the subject of Iran and the nuclear issue, the strident anti-Russian remarks of the likes of the shadow Foreign Secretary are not at all helpful?

Topical Questions

Today, I led a service of remembrance in the Foreign Office for those members of the diplomatic service who have lost their lives while serving the country. I am sure that the whole House will want to express its support for the families who bear a lifetime’s burden from that loss.

Yesterday, the General Affairs and External Relations Council of the European Union discussed Bosnia and Herzegovina, following which I visited Sarajevo, where I relayed the European Union’s deep concern at the pace of reform and the domestic political climate. The Government are committed to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s European perspective, but Bosnian politicians must find a constructive way forward within the Dayton framework.

Today of all days, as we remember all those who have fallen in the past 90 years, will the Foreign Secretary renew with the President-elect of the United States his commitment to insist on maintaining a fair share of the burden of troops in Afghanistan and other theatres of war? Will he also take this opportunity to ensure that other European Union countries maintain their fair share of the burden?

It is not just the military burden that needs to be fairly shared, but the economic and political burden, too. There are 42 countries contributing militarily to the coalition and it is vital that we all play an appropriate role. President-elect Obama’s plans on the military side have received more coverage than his plans on the economic and political side, but they are equally important. We certainly propose to continue to fulfil our responsibilities.

T2. The election of Barack Obama has been greeted with enthusiasm around the world, in part because of his acceptance of the importance of tackling climate change. What discussions are planned with the incoming US Government to promote that agenda globally? (234517)

My hon. Friend makes the very important point that climate change is now seen as a foreign policy and security issue, not merely an environmental issue. The first step is obviously for the European Union to agree a strong climate package in December, but we will be working with the new Administration to ensure that the efforts of American states, cities and businesses are brought together nationally and joined with European efforts.

At the previous Foreign Office questions, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that the criteria for the resumption of the EU-Russia partnership talks included Russian compliance with all six points of the ceasefire agreement and the return of ethnic Georgian refugees to their homes. Russia remains in clear breach of the ceasefire agreement, because Russian troops have not withdrawn to their pre-war positions. EU ceasefire monitors are still denied entry to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Georgian refugees have not been able to return home, yet the Government have now agreed to the resumption of the EU partnership talks with Russia. Will the Foreign Secretary explain the consistency between his remarks in the House last month and his actions this month?

I rightly referred to a range of criteria that we would use, the most important of which was whether we would be able to pursue our aims in respect of the territorial integrity of Georgia through the negotiations. The current partnership and co-operation agreement—PCA—includes no mention of the territorial integrity of Georgia, whereas the mandate for the PCA negotiations states clearly that the Council and the Commission will pursue a settlement of the frozen conflicts in the Republic of Moldova and Georgia, respecting the principle of territorial integrity. That means that the PCA gives us the chance to take forward those principles, and that is what we will do.

I think that that answer means that the Foreign Secretary will make no attempt to explain any inconsistency between his remarks last month and his actions this month. What he said last month was in line with the EU summit of 1 September, which said that the implementation of the ceasefire agreement “has to be complete”. I realise that in the past couple of weeks he has probably been overruled by the Prime Minister—or, more alarmingly, by the Business Secretary—but does it not show extraordinary weakness for the Government and the EU to be unable to stick to a firm position for even three months on an agreement that the EU itself sponsored and negotiated? What sort of message does that send to Russia about the future? In our dealings with Russia, do we not need to demonstrate consistency and strategic patience, and does not what he has agreed make this country and our partners look incapable of either?

No. The right hon. Gentleman is kidding himself if he thinks that the continued suspension of the talks would punish Russia. It would not: instead, it would isolate him and, if he were standing on this side of the House, Britain. I spoke to the President of Georgia both last night and last week, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe met Georgia’s Foreign Minister yesterday. They did not object to the recommencement of the PCA talks, but they made it clear that they wanted economic, political and security support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. That is what we have offered: frankly, if that is good enough for them, it should be good enough for him.

T3. I have been contacted by a large number of constituents over the past few months about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, and particularly of the Tamil community. What action will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe take to ensure that the plight of the Tamil community is high on the EU agenda, especially given the new French presidency? (234518)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that she takes this matter very seriously and that she has constituents who have great concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka. The European Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel, have expressed concern about the situation in Sri Lanka. Both have appealed to the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to ensure human rights and security, in line with international humanitarian law. They are also looking at whether the funding from the EU has been accompanied by the commitment to human rights that is expected when such funding is received. I shall be happy to write to her with a further update on the matter.

T4. We heard earlier about our difficult relationship with Russia. Next week marks the second anniversary of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London, but the BBC World Service is axing all cultural programmes in Russian, reducing broadcasting by 19 hours a week and making a 15 per cent. head-count reduction in the Russian service. Most remarkably, the Russian language service that is broadcast into Georgia is to be moved from London and based in Moscow. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to be increasing and expanding our broadcasting into Russia, not cutting it? (234519)

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail on the issues that he has raised. My understanding is that part of what the World Service is doing is to look at where people access the service most. One thing that it is considering is expanding the service through the internet, as it has found that many more people in Russia want to access the service through that medium than want to use the radio service. These are BBC decisions, but we want to make sure that services are well provided and in a way that is in tune with the sort of media that younger people in particular use today.

T5. Further to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about Egypt’s role in the middle east peace process, what discussions has he had with the Egyptian Government on negotiating an extension to the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas? (234520)

I met the Egyptian Foreign Minister in Marseilles last Monday at the EU Mediterranean summit. It is fair to say that at that stage he was still working very hard to ensure that the reconciliation meeting happened over the weekend just gone. It did not happen because Hamas pulled out, which is obviously regrettable. I think that it is important that the Egyptian Government are given every encouragement for their work in supporting the elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and in uniting the Palestinian people under his leadership.

The Foreign Secretary has said that the No. 1 priority for discussion with the new American Administration will be the international economic crisis. When he and the Prime Minister engage with the Administration, may I caution them not to repeat that the crisis was entirely born in the United States? Otherwise, it will bring about the very proper retort that Her Majesty’s Government have rather more than their fair share of blame.

With the greatest respect, I think that is a rather foolish thing to say, as President-elect Obama has spent the last 22 months saying that the economic crisis was born in Washington DC and New York, at the hands of the current Administration. So I do not think that we will have any problems at all forging a strong partnership with the new Administration.

T6. The Government’s view on Israeli settlements is that they are illegal and an obstruction to peace. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that steps are now being taken to stop settlement products that misapply the EU preference from being sold in this country? Also, are steps being taken to discourage UK residents from purchasing properties in illegal settlements? (234521)

I am happy to confirm that we are determined to see properly implemented the 2005 agreement between Israel and the European Union governing products from the occupied territories. It is certainly our intention to see that the agreement is properly implemented.

T7. While the world’s eyes have been on Iraq, Afghanistan and, more recently, the Congo, the situation in Darfur has continued to deteriorate. What efforts are the British Government making to try to bring about a solution to the impasse caused by the citation of President Bashir by the International Criminal Court? Next year will be a year of elections in Sudan; how will we make sure that they can be carried out? (234522)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. It is because we must not lose the focus on, or recognition of, the importance of Darfur and Sudan that I met the Vice-President of Sudan in New York on 26 September. I discussed with him the importance not just of the elections in 2009, but of the referendum plan for 2011 and preparation for it. Obviously, it is vital that the north-south track is maintained under the comprehensive peace agreement, that the situation in Darfur remains at the heart of the humanitarian effort, and that proper relations with Chad are not forgotten.

May I return to the subject of Bosnia and Herzegovina? Is the Foreign Secretary satisfied that Serbia is playing a constructive part in talking to the Serbian population within Bosnia to try to bring about a realistic solution?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which I discussed last Tuesday and Wednesday in Serbia. I discussed it again this morning with the Serbian Foreign Minister, and I discussed it with the Serbian President and Foreign Minister last week. Serbia has an important role to play. The Serbian Government said to me very clearly that they want to exercise a stabilising and responsible role in the region, and we certainly plan to work with them to deliver on that.

T8. Does my hon. Friend agree that Israeli settlements on the west bank are illegal under international law, and that it is vital that Israel at least stops expanding those settlements if it wants talks to take place, irrespective of anything else? Will he consider supporting a resolution to that effect in the United Nations under chapter VII of the United Nations charter? (234523)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We regard all settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal under international law, and settlement construction is a serious obstacle in the peace process. In a very real sense, Israel is already under an obligation not to expand settlements. However, I do not agree with him on a chapter VII resolution. Such a resolution would imply that all the movement is necessary on one side, whereas in reality we all know that we need movement on both sides.

T9. A number of us visited Bosnia earlier this year, and I was particularly struck by the extent to which Republika Srpska has advanced economically and socially in the past 10 years or so, compared with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the EU plays its full part in ensuring that the whole of Bosnia enjoys economic and social development, and not just the residents of the ethnically cleansed RS? (234524)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It is absolutely vital that all those who live in Bosnia and Herzegovina feel that they have a stake in their future. That is what we are attempting to ensure, in co-operation with other EU partners and the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, whom I was pleased to meet last week. We have to make sure that we can focus on the big picture, which is security and prosperity for all who live in that country, but security for that part of the Balkans is also an important factor.

Will the Secretary of State look at the situation facing the Tibetan community in Nepal? Following anti-Chinese demonstrations, a number of Tibetans face extradition to China, and have been denied entry to India. Considering Britain’s relationships with Nepal, our history and relations with India and the fact that Britain occupied Tibet for the best part of 40 years at the beginning of the last century, what can the Secretary of State do for the Tibetan community there?

I am aware of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. We are, through our embassy, discussing those matters, and the recent change to our policy on Tibet means that we are now in a position to focus forcefully on the issue of human rights and the need in the Chinese constitution for greater regional autonomy. We are now in a position to push those issues very strongly.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary use his influence with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to press the European Central Bank to take a lead from the Bank of England and secure substantial further reduction in interest rates? (234525)

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but it is not for the Government to comment on the monetary policy of the central bank of the eurozone, not only because the UK is not a member of the eurozone but because it is absolutely right that monetary policy should be set independently, which is why we gave the Bank of England independence in 1997. However, I am pleased that the European Investment Bank is providing €30 billion, which is available to small businesses, to support them in the months ahead. That clearly demonstrates that there is a role for the EU to add value to what national Governments can do, and I am pleased that, as a Government, we can play a constructive part in making sure that that happens.

Given that the Government of Burma continue to practise some of the most bestial human rights abuses to be witnessed anywhere on the face of the planet, will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what steps he has taken to work with his counterparts in the United Nations Security Council to try to bring about a binding resolution that will bring the regime to book and offer the people of Burma the freedom and justice that we have so long enjoyed and which they have so long been denied?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I pay tribute to the work that he does on that subject. The situation in Burma remains one of our highest priorities. If the UN Secretary-General visits later this year, that visit would have our full support. Indeed, I hope in the next couple of days to discuss that matter in New York at the United Nations. The junta’s road-map process and the elections planned for 2010 lack all credibility, and that is a message that we need to send out loud and clear.

My constituents were appalled to read in the British press of a 13-year-old girl in Somalia who was gang-raped. When the authorities heard of the gang rape, they sentenced her to be stoned to death as punishment. What steps have the British Government taken to send a clear message to the Government of Somalia that that is certainly not the sort of behaviour that we condone, and can we take that up at international level? If women and children cannot be protected, what hope have we of a peaceful world?

I share my hon. Friend’s outrage, and we, too, utterly condemn that barbaric practice. That tragic incident occurred in the city of Kismayo, which is under the control of radical Islamic insurgents. The Somali Government have no control in that area, and international agencies are unable to act. We deplore that horrific incident, and call on those responsible to act with restraint and in accordance with the peaceful tenets of Islam.

BILL PRESENTED

Remembrance day bank holiday

Mr. Frank Field, presented a Bill to designate 11th November as an annual public holiday in the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 November, and to be printed. [Bill 162].