The Secretary of State was asked—
Mr. Speaker, before I answer the question may I say that, as you will be aware, the Foreign Secretary is on an official visit to India, where he is meeting the Indian Government and Opposition and making a speech on terrorism. He will also be discussing India’s relations with Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings, as well as other regional issues. My right hon. Friend sends his apologies.
Our current focus is on securing an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have urged both sides to stop the violence and fulfil their humanitarian obligations. Last week’s United Nations Security Council resolution, tabled by the United Kingdom, called for an immediate ceasefire. The Government are also working on making a ceasefire sustainable, including exploring ways to stop arms trafficking and to open the crossings to Gaza.
Does the Minister share my concern that many reports of Israeli activity in Gaza, including the use of phosphorescent shells and the use of heavy-fire shells in built-up areas and attacks on medical facilities, all constitute prima facie evidence of war crimes. What will the Government do to ensure that where that prima facie evidence exists there will be a full investigation and that those responsible will be brought to justice?
Extremely serious allegations about the conduct of both sides during the conflict have been made by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others. Those allegations have to be properly investigated. The hon. Gentleman referred to the alleged use of white phosphorus. Those allegations have been made but not substantiated and although the use of white phosphorus is not illegal, the UK Government are very clear that it should not be used as an anti-personnel weapon and certainly not in a civilian environment. We will continue to make our view very clear to the Israeli Government and to urge them, as we have done, to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.
May I make it clear to my hon. Friend that my understanding is that the allegations have not been substantiated? Nevertheless, it is the case that extremely serious allegations about the conduct of both sides have been made. Those allegations have to be properly investigated and I remain absolutely firmly of that view.
But while these allegations are being made, is there not an interest in having some balance and remembering that this undoubtedly began through unprovoked aggression by Hamas firing a huge number of rockets into Israel, aimed at civilian targets? Would the proper step not be for Hamas to stop firing those rockets? As long as they are being fired, they are derailing the peace process in the middle east, which may be the intention.
I visited Ashkelon, near the border, just before Christmas and the air raid sirens were going off while I was there. If that is happening on a sustained daily basis—as it has been—it is a real cause for concern. That is why we have argued as strongly as we have both for the rocket attacks to stop and also for an effective ceasefire. There has been massive loss of life in the Gaza strip; the figure is now 900 people, 250 of them—crucially—children. That is why we need a ceasefire and why we have argued so strongly for it and why we secured the Security Council resolution last week.
May I remind the Minister that the allegations of international law abuse have been backed by the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, and by Amnesty? Christian Aid has just reported that one of its mother and baby clinics was bombed by the Israelis earlier this week and completely destroyed. May I press the Minister specifically on what the British Government will do to make sure that there is an independent investigation? Will he take the matter to the EU sub-committee on human rights to see whether the trade agreement can be suspended?
I know that my hon. Friend has a genuine and long-standing interest in these issues. Our overriding priority at the moment is to do everything possible, both diplomatically and politically, to get to a ceasefire. That is what we are driving towards. Consistent with that, we have nevertheless repeatedly called both publicly and, crucially, privately on all parties to fulfil their humanitarian obligations and to facilitate the delivery and distribution of aid, and that we will continue to do.
Is the Minister aware of diplomatic reports that the middle east envoy, Tony Blair, had to be recalled from holiday and from lucrative speaking engagements to deal with the present situation? Does he not share my concern that Mr. Blair has not even been to Gaza at this critical time?
My hon. Friend will be aware of the terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza and of the fact that 850 people have been killed, 250 of them children. What attempts are the Government making to ensure that Israel makes available more time to enable essential medical aid to get through to the Palestinians? I understand that only one fifth to one sixth of the required medical and food supplies are getting through now.
I agree, and we have argued consistently that an immediate and sustainable ceasefire is urgently needed. In tandem, we have argued strongly that humanitarian aid—food, medical equipment and supplies—should be allowed in unfettered. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I met humanitarian non-governmental organisations yesterday; they reported to us that just one fifth of the necessary supplies are getting in daily. That is the reason for the urgency and the reason why we have consistently and continually argued for a ceasefire.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think it ironic that the present Israeli Government were elected on a programme of withdrawing settlements and negotiating a twin-state arrangement independently, and have shown evidence of that purpose by withdrawing from Gaza and removing their own settlements from the area? Are not the present circumstances therefore primarily the responsibility of Hamas, which failed to take up the offers made by the Israeli Government, but continued its programme of rocketing civilians?
I believe very strongly there are responsibilities on all sides. The situation in the Gaza strip and southern Israel is desperate; that is why we urgently need a ceasefire. We must remember that as long as the conflict is taking place, the prospects for a longer-term and durable middle east peace settlement are moving further away. That is why dealing with the situation is so important and why we have argued as strongly as we have for a ceasefire.
Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary adequately and unequivocally condemned the terrorist means being used by Hamas. Does the Minister of State accept that the essence of terrorism is to attack civilians and civil infrastructure with a view to achieving or imposing political ends? When, therefore, will the Government similarly condemn the onslaught by Israel on the people of Gaza and stop the twin pretence that there is either military equivalence or moral difference between the terror tactics being deployed by the Israelis and those used by Hamas?
We have consistently and rightly argued that the sustained rocket attacks on the state of Israel are wrong and unacceptable; but we have also rightly called for a cessation of the Israeli activity in the Gaza strip. At the beginning of the conflict—this is the point the hon. Gentleman is driving at—a European Union statement was made that described the Israeli response as disproportionate. We supported that view and that is one of the reasons why we have argued as strongly as we have for a ceasefire.
I met the Prime Minister of Belarus in London on 17 November. I urged the Government to make tangible human rights progress in a number of areas, including greater freedom of the media, engagement with civil society and political opponents of the regime.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. She will know that, since 1994, that country has been run by an autocratic Soviet-style president, who keeps himself in office by locking up political opponents and rigging elections—[Interruption.]—nothing like this country whatsoever. Given that we are talking about a European country—a country in the centre of Europe—surely the UK and EU can do more to support the movements for change and the opposition in Belarus, and to bring about a peaceable, transforming, democratic revolution in that country.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I know that he plays an important role in human rights issues. I reaffirm to the House that, although the EU, with the UK’s support, has opened up some opportunities, there is a six-month window: come March this year, Foreign Ministers will take a decision on whether some of the opening up and reduction of restrictions should continue. Although some small progress has been made in the past few months in relation to the media and political prisoners, a lot more could be done. It is up to those who run Belarus to make the effort. We shall continue to press, as we have for many years through our mission in Belarus, to support those who want more democratic engagement and freedom of expression.
During last September’s elections in Belarus, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe provided a team of observers, who concluded in their subsequent report that despite some minor improvements,
“Further substantial efforts are required if Belarus is to conduct genuinely democratic elections in line with OSCE commitments.”
Does the Minister have any real evidence of progress made by the authorities in Belarus since then—progress that might give us greater confidence that the country is at last moving towards a more pluralistic, democratic model in which we can have some confidence?
The OSCE election monitors made a number of recommendations, as the hon. Gentleman points out. In my previous answer, I referred to some small progress; for example, there have been no further political prisoners, and the opposition press has been given some limited circulation in Minsk. However, undoubtedly, in the next few months, we would like to see some opportunity for the OSCE recommendations to be fulfilled on the ground, including in relation to freedom of the press, the engagement of the opposition parties, and the ability for people to make their views known, including through demonstrations. Also, we would like an end to use of the law to harass those with different political views from those of the people who run the country. We will continue to press on all those fronts.
To what extent do the Government hold Russia responsible for the state of human rights in Belarus? Is it not interesting that while Ukraine struggles for freedom and democracy, and has its gas supplies cut off, Belarus has free and easy gas supplies from Russia without any agreement whatever?
We should remember that while there is, clearly, a long-standing relationship between Belarus and Russia, it is Belarus that has approached the European Union and the Council of Europe, indicating a desire and a wish to have, in future, a good partnership with the west. The country recently received an International Monetary Fund loan, because it faces huge difficulties with its economy. The future is about holding those in Belarus to account, in terms of what we would expect in a good partnership with the European Union. At the same time, we should recognise that Belarus initiated contact with the EU and the west. If that means that we can improve human rights, trade, and so forth, that is a good thing.
The UK Government are extremely concerned about the current violence in Gaza. We are in close contact with all the key players and are at the centre of efforts to reach a ceasefire and secure urgent humanitarian assistance. The Foreign Secretary was instrumental in gaining Security Council agreement around a British text, which became resolution 1860; that now needs to be reflected in reality on the ground. For any ceasefire to be sustainable, it has to include action to stop illegal arms trafficking into Gaza and opening the crossings into Gaza.
May I thank the Minister for that response? Last week, along with three other hon. Members—my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), for Livingston (Mr. Devine), and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher)—I visited Pakistan, where we were fortunate enough to meet the Prime Minister, the President, and the Leader of the Opposition, all of whom expressed deep concern about what is happening in Gaza. I was left with the overwhelming impression that without peace in Palestine, there will not be peace anywhere in the middle east. Does the Minister agree that current efforts are being undermined by the conflict in Palestine, and that the Palestinian moderates, who seek a peaceful settlement with Israel, are being undermined by the conflict?
There is widespread, genuine concern across the whole international community at the current situation. I share with my hon. Friend a real concern, and I say this as a friend of the state of Israel: there is a real risk that current actions will reinforce extremism within the region and the wider world, and undermine those who are arguing for peace, particularly in the Arab states.
But is not one of the fears of the world that the tragic loss of life in Gaza today will be compounded, and be seen to have been in vain, unless on this occasion, when hostilities stop, they do so on the basis of the chance of a secure, long-lasting peace? That will not be the case until Hamas and its allies move tangibly towards an acceptance of, and stop terrorising, the state of Israel.
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. While Hamas remains committed to the obliteration of the state of Israel and to acts of terror, launching rocket attacks on a regular basis, we will not make progress. We need to move forward and agree a ceasefire, which must address the critical issue of arms smuggling across the border. That is one reason why the talks in Egypt are incredibly important.
According to reports from Egypt, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, and Saeed Jalili from the Iranian security services are actively encouraging Hamas not to enter into a ceasefire and, indeed, to step up the rocket attacks. Does my hon. Friend agree that those reports not only underline Iran’s wholly malign influence in this region but underscore genuine fears among the Israeli public that behind Hamas is a country led by a lunatic and committed to the destruction of the state of Israel?
There are genuine and long-stated concerns about the regional role played by Iran. We constantly urge all parties and states in the region to work with us to try to secure a ceasefire as the first step that is desperately needed for the Palestinians in Gaza and for the Israelis.
Would the Minister not accept that the situation in Gaza is horrific? There are no words to describe what is going on there at the moment, but does he not accept that if Hamas gave an undertaking to stop the rocketing of Israel, the Israeli defence forces would withdraw, and it would give all those who are concerned about the future of Gaza, particularly President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the opportunity to bring peace? Will he tell us what influence President Abbas, for whom I have great respect, is trying to bring to the chaotic situation in Gaza?
President Abbas has been crucially involved in all the discussions, and he was involved in the discussion that led up to the Security Council resolution in New York last week. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need a ceasefire, and a key element of that ceasefire is stopping on a sustainable basis the rocket attacks by Hamas into Israel. If that is to happen, we must address in a real and meaningful way the smuggling of arms across the border.
The Foreign Secretary was right to emphasise the need to facilitate Palestinian unity in his statement on Monday, which is difficult, given the violent methods that Hamas employed to seize control of the Gaza strip, executing Fatah supporters and expelling Palestinian trade unionists. Is my hon. Friend concerned about reports coming out of the Gaza strip that the execution of Fatah supporters has resumed? If so, what are the British Government doing to make their views known?
The Minister rightly said that the Government have argued for better access for humanitarian aid to Gaza, but will he say more specifically what the Government can do, or are doing, about the representations from the ICRC on the creation of safe passage, particularly for ambulances, for the evacuation of the most urgent medical cases, and on the need for both sides to meet their obligations under international law to protect aid workers at all times? Is he satisfied that all necessary plans are being made now, so that Gaza can receive a great deal of aid and assistance for its civilian population whenever there is a cessation of hostilities?
We are certainly working to that effect, and the announcement that the Government made last week of $10 million additional support for aid is a demonstration of that commitment. We need to keep arguing, too, that we need to reach that ceasefire as quickly as possible but, notwithstanding that, we must ensure that the aid is getting through on an unfettered basis, and continuing discussions are taking place about what is the most effective route to get that aid into Gaza.
We applaud the dialogue that has led to the constitutional referendum on 25 January. We congratulate the Bolivian Government and all parties involved. We are committed, alongside EU and international partners, to help bring stability and prosperity to Bolivia.
The Minister will be aware that Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, but at last under Evo Morales it has a Government who are committed to addressing the huge economic and social inequalities in that country. Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to send a clear message to the separatists in Bolivia, who have engaged in violent conduct culminating in the Pando massacre, that any attempt by them to overthrow the democratic will of the Bolivian people, as expressed in the January referendum, will have no international support whatever?
As the House knows, my hon. Friend is a great friend of the Bolivian people. I share his concern about the recent violence and deaths in Bolivia, which have no place in a peaceful and democratic society. The best way to resolve those issues is through diplomacy, dialogue and democracy. That is why I very much look forward to the referendum at the end of the month and stress our strong support for democracy in Bolivia and our full recognition of the democratically elected Government of Bolivia.
We must recognise, though, that within Bolivian society there have been many political clashes and unrest. One of the last clashes led to more than 15 people being killed and 100 people going missing. Although we hope for a peaceful referendum on 25 January, can the Minister tell the House what guidance she has given to British people living in Bolivia in order that they can be secure and safe in the run-up to the referendum?
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the considerable violence and tension that there has been. We have a difficult year ahead, but I believe that there are prizes to be won. The involvement of our high commissioner in the process, along with the EU, has been welcomed. We continue to keep an eye, as we do in all countries, on our consular advice to British people, whose safety is always our primary concern.
We remain seriously concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities. It is difficult to believe its claim that its nuclear programme is intended for purely peaceful purposes. Iran continues to enrich uranium and to increase its capacity to enrich uranium in defiance of five UN Security Council resolutions. It is failing to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency. We will continue to work closely with international partners to persuade Iran to suspend enrichment and to engage in substantive negotiations, leading to a diplomatic solution to the issue.
We are all aware that Iran trains, supports and arms Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Given that it is reported that Iran will be nuclear-ready by the end of this year, what steps are being taken to ensure that Iran does not enable its favoured terrorist groups to make use of its impending nuclear capability?
That is a real issue of concern. We remain fundamentally committed to resolving it diplomatically and to the E3 plus 3 dual-track strategy, but that means, bluntly, that Iran has a stark choice. There will be increasingly tough sanctions to persuade the Iranians to change course. However, if they take the alternative path, there can be a dialogue that will lead to full negotiations if the Iranians suspend their enrichment-related activities. That is the argument that we are putting forward. That is the offer that we are seeking to get Iran to engage with, and we will be looking to work on that with the new US Administration when they are formed next week.
Given that the Russian Government have some relationship with the Iranian regime and considerable nuclear expertise, what discussion is my hon. Friend having with Russian counterparts to bring forward in Iran a nuclear programme that is for domestic purposes only?
That is a regular feature of our discussions with Russia. As part of the E3 plus 3 process, an offer is on the table from Russia to secure on an external basis Iran’s reported civil nuclear needs. That is why I strongly urge Iran to take the offer that is on the table, engage and find a resolution to the issue.
The middle east region is a powder keg at the moment. Given the basis on which the overthrow of Saddam Hussein took place in Iraq, what assurances can the Minister give the people of the United Kingdom that the information that he is giving about Iran is accurate and dependable?
It is clear that Dr.el-Baradei from the IAEA has reported on Iran four times since 2008. It is also clear that Iran kept its nuclear programme hidden from the world for two decades before it was exposed in 2002. There are outstanding issues for which the IAEA has asked for an explanation but those explanations have not been forthcoming and that is why I believe strongly that the situation is very serious indeed.
The Minister talked about the need for tougher sanctions and we agree that such sanctions are needed to complement what we hope will be direct United States engagement with Iran. But will he not share my dismay that we still have no EU-wide ban on either export credits guarantees or on new investments in Iranian oil and gas? Have the Government now given up hope of achieving EU agreement on such measures, and if not, when does he think they will be agreed?
No. We have been at the forefront of arguing coherently and strongly that to make this dual-track strategy work, the sanctions need to be as robust and effective as possible. The EU, at our prompting, has gone beyond the rest of the international community, for example, freezing the assets of more entities, including Bank Melli. But I take nothing off the table. We will keep trying to ensure that the stick of sanctions is as strong and effective as possible to encourage and persuade Iran to take the fork of diplomacy.
US Secretary of State
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary looks forward to a close working relationship with the incoming US Secretary of State following the President’s inauguration, which will of course involve face-to-face meetings in the US, the UK and elsewhere. He has already spoken to her by telephone.
When the Foreign Secretary first meets Hillary Clinton, will he stress to her that the closure of Guantanamo, the ending by the United States of extraordinary rendition of suspects to countries with dubious human rights records, and the total abolition by the United States of torture such as water-boarding as a US army interrogation technique, will restore to the US the moral leadership of the world, a leadership that has been sadly eroded over the last eight years?
I understand the force of conviction with which the right hon. and learned Gentleman puts forward those arguments. President-elect Obama has particularly made clear his intention to close Guantanamo Bay, something for which we have argued for a long time, and that will help to reinforce the legitimate leadership position that the US has within global affairs.
May I urge my hon. Friend when he meets the Secretary of State to raise the issue of Cyprus? I do so for a particular reason. [Interruption.] Wait until you hear it. Both communities are committed to a peace settlement, yet the negotiations have stalled, and they have done so because the other parties to such an agreement are not actively involved. Both the US and the UK have great purchase with those countries. I think particularly of Turkey and Greece. This would be an opportunity for the US to have an early win in the new Administration. May I urge my hon. Friend to raise that?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a genuine interest in these matters, and we continue to work with both communities for a resolution of the issue within Cyprus. This will be one of a long list of issues that President-elect Obama will have to address. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will visit Cyprus in February when I am sure that the issue will be considered.
Can the Foreign Secretary remind the Secretary of State, if she needs reminding, of the enormous popularity and support that President-elect Obama has within the continent of Africa? Can the Foreign Secretary urge her to use that support and influence, particularly with the South Africans, to bring about the end of the terrible tyranny of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe?
I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is critical that the genuine crisis that is taking place in Zimbabwe is brought to an end. Regional neighbours within Africa have a particularly important role to bring to bear in making it abundantly clear to Robert Mugabe that the current conduct is completely and utterly unacceptable.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, rather than keep asking what America can do for us, should we not seek here in Europe to say what we can do to work with America to solve pressing problems on the economy, the environment, Russia, the middle east, Afghanistan and, indeed, Africa? To achieve that, can the Foreign Secretary work towards a more united, coherent Europe, because the last thing that President Obama needs is 27 nationalistic European foreign policies—the ideology of Opposition Front Benchers?
As on many issues, I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. There is a real risk in some quarters that people feel that, with the passing of President George W. Bush, all the difficult issues in the international community will disappear. There is an important necessity for the international community to work together on these issues, and that means that Europe needs to come together with the United States of America. That was one of the issues discussed at the General Affairs and External Relations Council last week.
Right at the top of the agenda with the new Secretary of State must be strategy in Afghanistan. Given the expectation that the United States will ask its allies to send more forces to Afghanistan, when will the House be informed of the outcome of the Government’s own review of Afghanistan strategy, which the Minister said in November would be completed in 2008, with the House informed of the implications of the assessment? Will he accept our calls for regular quarterly updates to Parliament on the strategy, objectives and progress made in Afghanistan so that, with thousands of our troops deployed and serious casualties being suffered, the nation gets the transparency from the Government and in Parliament that our commitment to Afghanistan warrants?
That review is ongoing, and we will report to the House at the appropriate time. We have regularly updated the House on the situation in Afghanistan. It does have a military component, but a military solution on its own will not succeed. That is why we are working in the way that we are, and this is one of the issues on which we will work exceedingly closely with the new Obama Administration.
Middle East Peace Process
Recent events in Gaza have highlighted more than ever the importance of a two-state solution for any decent vision of the future. The Israelis and the Palestinians must continue to negotiate in 2009. We must make the case, too, for a comprehensive approach to resolving the conflicts in the middle east. The Arab peace initiative is an important basis for progress. Real peace will come only when Israel and the whole Arab world are at peace. That means making progress at the same time on establishing a Palestinian state and on other sources of conflict, notably the Golan heights and stability in Lebanon.
In commending the Foreign Secretary for his key role in drafting the United Nations Security Council resolution seeking to end the devastating violence in Gaza and southern Israel, may I ask what assurances my hon. Friend can give that any new ceasefire agreement will be long-lasting and will serve as a real basis for peace talks in 2009?
My hon. Friend’s question hits on a very important issue. We will certainly do everything that we possibly can to get that durable and sustainable ceasefire, but we do not have the power to mandate it. We are using every ounce of political and diplomatic capital at our disposal, but ultimately to get that sustainable ceasefire we need words to be translated into action—and that means action on the part of Hamas and the Government of Israel.
At the last count, there were more than 600 checkpoints, barriers and fences in the west bank, which undermine human rights, freedom and the economy in that part of the world. What pressure are the Government putting on the Israeli Government to reduce dramatically the number of those barriers?
We are constantly pressing that issue with the Government of Israel. I visited Hebron during my visit just before Christmas and highlighted those concerns. The crossings and the settlements that are illegal on occupied territory are among the components that must be addressed in any lasting peace resolution in the middle east.
Last week, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar broadcast that Hamas was entitled to kill Jewish children anywhere they could be found, anywhere in the world, echoing the messages of hate in Hamas’s charter. Does the Minister believe that those people who challenge Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas’s rockets understand the true nature of Hamas as set down in its charter and as shown by its actions?
I agree with the underlying thrust of my hon. Friend’s question; Hamas is not a benign organisation. It is committed to the obliteration of the state of Israel and to acts of terror. The statement that was made last week saying that it was now legitimate to attack Jewish children anywhere in the world was utterly chilling and utterly wrong.
If it is the case that Iran is using Hamas as its proxy to attack Israel by supplying rockets, what further representations are the British Government making to Egypt to try to control the flow of rockets into Gaza through the tunnels and via the Rafah crossing?
I said earlier that to get a durable, sustainable and immediate ceasefire, one of the critical issues that must be addressed is the flow and the smuggling of weapons across the border, particularly at Rafah. That is why we have constant dialogue with all the parties, and critical discussions are taking place in Egypt at the moment.
Will the Minister assure us that, rather than being diverted by Gaza, more attention will be given to the west bank? Should we not redouble our efforts to get some sort of move forward in the west bank, so that it can be used as an example to show Israelis and Palestinians that it is far easier to make progress through negotiation than through conflict?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Over the past year, genuine progress has been made on building and bolstering the authority of the Palestinian Authority in the west bank. Above all, we need to make progress on all fronts, because until we resolve the conflict in the middle east, we will not resolve many other conflicts in the world.
The President resigned on 28 December 2008 and a permanent successor has yet to be selected. The transitional federal Government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia have agreed to form a unity Government. We hope these changes will help to promote the peace process.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to talk of the humanitarian crisis, which is indeed a tragedy in Somalia. I can assure the House that the UK has made progress by co-sponsoring UN Security Council resolutions 1816 and 1838, which called for measures to combat piracy off the coast. We are working on military options through the EU and NATO, and we are specifically working on what our naval contribution can be. The EU has a naval counter-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, and the UK is providing the commander and the operation at HQ. Tomorrow, in New York, a new international contact group will meet to discuss international efforts in this regard.
While there is chaos in Somalia, will my hon. Friend recognise that to the north of that country, there is a small and young democracy called Somaliland? It is struggling against appalling and great odds, but doing so very well, to bring stability to that part of the world. However, it is not recognised by the international community and has received very little international help. Will she start to work with other members of the EU, with the United States and with members of the African Union to see how we can get recognition for Somaliland? Will she accept that Mogadishu is de facto not the Government there, and that it should not be the Government de jure either?
As my hon. Friend will be aware, we do not currently recognise Somaliland as an independent state, and neither does the rest of the international community. The UK has signed up to a common EU position and to many UN Security Council presidential statements that refer to the territorial integrity and unity of Somalia. Nevertheless, I assure my hon. Friend that the UK is well aware of the position of the authorities and the people who live there, and of the opinion within Somaliland which itself is very divided.
By every criterion, Somalia is a failed state. There are horrendous activities by different groups of armed individuals, with an appalling impact on the local population. The Minister has said that hopefully the transitional federal Government will come up with an answer, but does she see the Islamists playing any part at all in that? Many people on the ground, particularly the non-governmental organisations, believe that the only way in which the Government can be got back on track to any degree is through some form of involvement by at least some of the Islamist parties.
The truth is that we are in the very early stages, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and that our best hope of turning the country around is to create effective government and to improve security and humanitarian access. We work consistently on all those matters. It is true that we need a more inclusive Government, and we hope that there will be many opportunities for that through the unity Government. It is right that I welcome the engagement that has taken place with clan leaders and the business community, which had previously not happened. Inclusiveness will be the way forward.
The Foreign Secretary set out to the House yesterday our determination to achieve an immediate and sustainable ceasefire in Gaza. The situation remains deeply concerning. Since the statement yesterday, the Palestinian death toll has passed 900 and dozens more rockets have been fired into Israel. As I said earlier, the Egyptian efforts to find a way forward remain critical, and we continue to expend every ounce of energy to support those efforts, secure greater humanitarian access and bring the conflict to a close.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Quite rightly, the eyes of the world are focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. However, I should like to refer to another humanitarian crisis, which was marked only yesterday by the attendance of thousands of mourners at the funeral in Sri Lanka of a newspaper editor who was murdered last week. Intimidation and violence are the hallmarks of Governments who do not respect the freedom of the press. Some 70,000 people in that country have died in the conflict and many have fled their homes. There have been press reports suggesting that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are on the verge of being defeated by the military. If that is so, what additional steps will the Government take to ensure that the minority Tamil population really do have their human rights respected, and that peace and justice prevail?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are extremely concerned about the increased military hostilities in northern Sri Lanka and their humanitarian impact. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the continuing acts of violence and intimidation against the media, including the killing of the chief editor of the Sunday Leader on 8 January. We have put our views forward forcefully, and my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown is very much engaged on the issue. We shall continue to do everything possible to bring about a settlement.
I can assure the House and my right hon. Friend that the UK does indeed remain very active in the region, and will continue to do so without being diverted. We are encouraging the work of the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, and just yesterday my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister for Africa, spoke to him to offer our further assistance. We continue to provide the substantial humanitarian assistance that is so desperately needed and to reinforce the work of MONUC, the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
If the hon. Gentleman has a specific example to draw to my attention, I will investigate it, but what the House needs to know is that there is close working between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, endorsed by Ministers and led by officials.
I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern about that illegal activity off Somalia’s coast, which impacts negatively, as she is aware, on the marine environment and on the livelihoods of those who depend on it. That can push them into crime, which may mean piracy. As I said earlier, a new international contact group on piracy will meet in New York tomorrow, and we will discuss with our international partners whether the group may be an appropriate forum to consider that serious problem.
Does the Minister agree that although we and the world are naturally focused on Gaza, we must keep up the pressure on President Mugabe in Zimbabwe? We share the frustration that, without South African support, we seem powerless to push Mugabe from power. Will the Minister, perhaps with colleagues in the Home Office, therefore consider the plight and concerns of Zimbabweans here in the UK, not least following today’s allegation to the Prime Minister from Citizens for Sanctuary? More than 11,000 Zimbabweans are destitute in the UK today with no right to work and no access to benefits. Can she not see that we are missing a massive opportunity to prepare for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe by not allowing those talented people to contribute to the UK while they are here?
I am sure that the House agrees that the continuing political impasse is a direct result of Robert Mugabe’s abuse of power. I assure the House that we shall continue with our intense diplomatic activity, including pressing for further targeted sanctions from the EU, and that our humanitarian commitment continues. The hon. Gentleman is aware from his discussions with the Minister for the Middle East and Africa that no Zimbabwean asylum seekers are forced to return home against their will. We are still hearing and granting claims for asylum from Zimbabweans in the UK, and we are providing measures to ensure that they are not destitute. All are treated with respect and humility, but if the hon. Gentleman or other right hon. and hon. Members have examples, I shall be pleased to consider them.
That is a very topical question. Gas supplies from Russia have been switched on, but I understand that there are technical difficulties in getting energy through to families. I was at the informal General Affairs and External Relations Council last week when I heard my Bulgarian and Romanian colleagues talking about the many families who are affected. The matter is serious. Although Russia is the largest external gas supplier to the EU, it is far from being a monopoly provider. We shall continue to support EU efforts to diversify supply routes and sources, as well as looking for alternatives and energy efficiency. We must also step up efforts to improve gas interconnections and to move to a more liberalised market. In that way, we can ensure that we have the necessary security and diversity.
We have embarked on negotiations for a new agreement to replace the existing partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia. It is in the interests of the UK and the EU to have a rules-based relationship, and the new agreement will cover several areas, including trade and how Russia will work with the EU, as well as human rights and democracy. We look forward to continuing those necessary discussions.
As I made clear on 1 January on the “The World at One” when that poll was put to me, I totally agree with the people who said that they did not think that entering the euro was a priority for Britain at the present time. That view is shared by this Government, but it is also shared by businesses and others. We need to focus on the need to tackle this global economic challenge. That is why I am pleased to say that we have unity in the 27 member states in Europe. Our German colleagues have just announced a huge fiscal spending package, which I am afraid leaves those on the Opposition Benches lost for answers as to what they would do as we endeavour to ensure that we meet the challenge that families and businesses are facing in Britain today.
I very much agree that the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a top priority. There is an improved relationship between those two countries and it is one that we very much want to support and develop. I have no doubt that, with the formation of the Obama Administration, that relationship will be one of the highest priorities.
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a genuine interest in these issues, so let me say to him, as I said in that Adjournment debate, that there are real concerns about the position of Christians, particularly in Mosul. I and the Government have very much welcomed the Government of Iraq’s robust response. Christians are now returning, but this is an issue on which we will continue to work with the Iraqi Government to ensure that the constitution of Iraq, including article 41, is upheld and that Iraqi Christians are safe and secure.
I reiterate what I said earlier: we very much welcome the statement from President-elect Obama about closing Guantanamo Bay. There is currently no request on the table from the US Administration. Our focus remains the two UK residents and securing their release from Guantanamo Bay. Partners of the United States will undoubtedly want to look at how we can work to ensure the closure of Guantanamo, but our overriding concern as a nation will remain the safety and security of our nation and its people.
Is it not plain as a pikestaff that Israel is in breach of article 2 of the trade association agreement with the European Union, which is the world’s biggest importer of Israeli goods? Why can we not suspend the trade agreement forthwith, as suggested by my Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)?
As I said to my hon. Friend yesterday evening, we do not see sanctions as the route to the desperately needed ceasefire. Also, whatever our view might be, there is no appetite elsewhere in the European Union for sanctions. Our position has been clear and unequivocal: we need a ceasefire. That requires words to be translated into actions, and that means action from Hamas and from the Government of Israel.
The Minister with responsibility for the middle east will be acutely aware that what happens abroad can have consequences at home. Given the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain since 27 December, including an attempt to burn down a synagogue, and given the attacks on Muslims and mosques that have taken place since 9/11, will he tell the House what discussions he has had with domestic Ministers to ensure that they at least try to get Jewish, Muslim and other organisations to talk to each other at this difficult time? Also, does he agree that, while it is entirely right for people to march, protest and demonstrate if they feel so moved, violence and intimidation must be left outside the door of our common British home?
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government and I deplore anti-Semitic attacks and anti-Muslim attacks. I also agree with the underlying thrust of his question. Inter-faith and inter-community dialogue is desperately important. Last week, Ministers from elsewhere in Whitehall and I met a number of Israeli and Muslim groups from within this country to ensure that they were aware of our views and of what the British Government are doing to try to achieve the ceasefire in the middle east that is so desperately needed.