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Topical Questions

Volume 482: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2008

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.


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].