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Middle East and North Africa

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on recent developments in the middle east and north Africa.

Britain has continued to take a leading role in international efforts to protect civilians in Libya, and the case for action remains compelling: Gaddafi’s regime persists in attacking its own people, wilfully killing its own civilian population. Our strategy is to intensify the diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Gaddafi’s regime, and since the House last met we have made progress on all those fronts.

On the diplomatic front, I co-chaired the first meeting of the Libya contact group in Doha on 13 April. The 21 states and seven international organisations represented demonstrated clear unity, with participation from across the Arab world and the African Union in attendance. The group agreed that Gaddafi’s regime had lost all legitimacy, that the national transitional council should be offered further support, and that the UN special envoy should take forward an inclusive political process. I will attend the next contact group meeting in Rome on 5 May.

At the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Berlin on 14 and 15 April, I joined colleagues in showing our determination to increase the pace of military operations to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1973. The 28 NATO member states and six Arab countries that attended, 16 of which out of the 34 are engaged in military action, agreed a common strategy. That is an important milestone in world affairs, a sign of a growing ability to work across traditional regional divisions and a demonstration of the breadth and unity in the international coalition in support of the Libyan people.

On the economic front, since my statement on 4 April further Libyan entities have been sanctioned, and the regime is now subject to some of the most comprehensive economic sanctions ever agreed by the United Nations.

On military matters, since NATO assumed full control over all military operations on 31 March, more than 3,500 sorties and 1,500 strike sorties have been conducted. This action has seriously degraded Gaddafi’s military assets and prevented widespread massacres planned by Gaddafi’s forces. Gaddafi’s forces remain unable to enter Benghazi, and it is highly likely that without these efforts Misrata would have fallen, with terrible consequences for that city’s brave inhabitants. Yesterday, Italy announced that its aircraft would take part in ground strikes, and the United States Government have contributed Predator unmanned aerial vehicles to the coalition forces. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is in Washington today to discuss the military situation.

Heavy fighting continues around the towns of Brega, Ajdabiya, Yefren and Misrata. The regime’s indiscriminate shelling of residential areas in Misrata shows that it continues to target the civilian population. Gaddafi has shown that he has no regard for civilian lives. The International Criminal Court prosecutor has said that there is evidence of a case against Gaddafi for crimes against humanity. We look forward to the prosecutor’s report to the UN on 4 May. By his actions, it is clear that Gaddafi has no intention of observing the conditions in Security Council resolution 1973 that I described to the House earlier this month. He has repeatedly ignored the ceasefires that he himself has announced. Our military action is defined by the UN Security Council resolutions. We are also clear that Gaddafi should go, and it is impossible to see a viable or peaceful way forward for Libya until he does so.

The Libya contact group’s statement made it clear that, in contrast to Gaddafi, we and our allies regard the national transitional council as a legitimate interlocutor representing the aspirations of the Libyan people. Our diplomatic mission in Benghazi is working with it. Our special envoy, Christopher Prentice, will shortly be succeeded by John Jenkins, currently Her Majesty’s ambassador in Baghdad.

Last week, I announced our decision to expand this mission with a small advisory team of British military officers. Their sole purpose is to support the NTC’s efforts better to protect civilians by advising on military organisational structures, communications and logistics. They are not involved in training or arming the opposition’s forces, nor are they executing or providing operational military advice. This is fully in line with the UN resolutions, and I reiterate to the House that we will remain wholly in accordance with the UN resolutions, retaining the moral, legal and international authority that flows from that. We have supplied vital, non-lethal equipment to assist the NTC in protecting civilian lives. So far, this consists of telecommunications equipment and body armour. We are considering with our international partners further requests.

In the coming week, we hope to agree internationally the process for establishing a temporary financial mechanism to provide a transparent structure for international financial support for the financial requirements of the NTC, such as public sector pay. Yesterday, Kuwait announced about £110 million of support for the NTC.

I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the skill, bravery and professionalism of the men and women of the UK and our allies’ armed forces. Their actions in the NATO operations have saved many lives and their efforts are essential to bringing a lasting peace and a better future for the Libyan people, who have suffered so much at the hands of this brutal regime. I also pay tribute to those from the international humanitarian community who have put their lives on the line to help their fellow human beings.

The UK is supporting the other needs of the Libyan people in every way we can. The humanitarian situation in the west of the country is getting worse every day. Many civilians in Misrata lack access to basic necessities, including food, water and electricity. There is a shortage of some crucial medical supplies. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced last week that the UK will provide medical and other emergency supplies, and undertake the evacuation of 5,000 migrants stranded at Misrata port in squalid conditions. The UK has so far given more than £13 million to meet immediate humanitarian needs through funding for medical and food supplies and emergency shelter, and assisting in the evacuation of poor and vulnerable migrants. In Misrata alone, British support has given 10,000 people food and 2,000 families water and hygiene kits, and it has provided essential medical staff. The regime must guarantee unfettered humanitarian access and not just give broken promises, which put the lives of aid workers and volunteers at risk.

The wave of demand for change in the Arab world continues to gain momentum in other nations. As I said earlier today, we condemn utterly the violence and killings perpetrated by the Syrian security forces against civilians who are expressing their views in peaceful protests. That violent repression must stop. President Assad must order his authorities to show restraint and to respond to the legitimate demands of his people with immediate and genuine reform, not brutal repression. The emergency law should be lifted in practice and the legitimate aspirations of the people met.

The United Kingdom is working intensively with our international partners to persuade the Syrian authorities to stop the violence and to respect the basic and universal human rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Syria is at a fork in the road. Its Government can still choose to bring about the radical reform which alone can provide peace and stability for Syria in the long term, and we urge them to do so, or they can choose ever more violent repression, which can only bring short-term security for the authorities. If they do so, we will work with our European partners and others to take measures, including sanctions, that will have an impact on the regime. Given our concerns for British nationals in Syria, we changed our travel advice on Sunday to advise against all travel there and to advise that British nationals should leave unless there is a pressing need for them to remain.

On Yemen, the UK welcomes this morning’s news that the efforts of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries to resolve the political deadlock are close to success. I understand that President Saleh and the parliamentary opposition have accepted the GCC’s proposal. That is potentially good news. Both sides now need to come together to confirm their commitment to the peaceful, inclusive and timely transition process that the GCC has brokered. The UK remains committed to its long-standing support for Yemen in these difficult times.

Although the immediate situation in Bahrain is calmer, there continue to be credible reports of human rights abuses. I urge the Government of Bahrain to meet all their human rights obligations and to uphold political freedoms, equal access to justice and the rule of law. Dialogue is the way to fulfil the aspirations of all Bahrainis. I urge all sides, including opposition groupings, to engage with each other.

In Egypt, which I will visit shortly, we welcome the actions being taken by the authorities to move towards a broad-based, civilian-led Government and an open and democratic society.

In Tunisia, we are providing support with EU partners to help its Government meet the wishes of the Tunisian people. On 11 April, the commission responsible for bringing together opposition parties and civil society approved the draft law for the constituent assembly elections scheduled for 24 July. That is a step towards free and fair elections, and an open and democratic society.

The European Union has a crucial role to play in the southern Mediterranean. The great changes in the Arab world are truly historic, and the response from the nations of the EU should be bold and ambitious. The review of the European neighbourhood policy is due to be published in a fortnight. We have been making the case that we have the opportunity to use that policy to help the peoples of the southern Mediterranean achieve their desire for freer and more prosperous societies. A renewed neighbourhood policy should see the EU using its economic magnetism to encourage and support political and economic reform in neighbouring countries. A partnership of equals should reward those who make the necessary political and economic reforms and, importantly, withdraw benefits from those who do not.

Finally, it remains essential that progress is made in the search for a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is what the majority of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis demand of their leaders. The extraordinary changes in the region are an opportunity to be seized, not an excuse for further prevarication leading to more frustration and discontent.

In our response to the dramatic events in north Africa and the middle east, we will continue to stand for reform, not repression, and for the addressing of grievances rather than brutal reprisals. It is a policy in accordance with our own beliefs, in line with our own national interest and in pursuit of the peace and prosperity of the wider world.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement this afternoon.

I join the Foreign Secretary by saying that the Opposition, too, support the Gulf Co-operation Council initiative to resolve the current crisis in Yemen and achieve a peaceful political settlement. I also associate myself with his remarks regarding the continued need for a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for a review of the European neighbourhood policy.

I begin with Syria. Every Member will have been appalled by the recent reports of Government violence and repression there. First, on the question of UK nationals, can the Foreign Secretary provide an estimate of the number who are in Syria at present, and can he assure us that all contingency plans are in place should it prove necessary, in time, for them to leave?

Of course, I fully support the Foreign Secretary’s condemnation this afternoon of the actions of the Syrian Government, but it was only a few weeks ago, on 27 January, that he travelled to Damascus to meet President Assad. From those conversations, how likely does he judge it that President Assad will now heed the calls for restraint and reform?

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement that work is under way at the United Nations. Can he provide more detail on what progress has been made regarding a statement and/or a resolution from the Security Council? In particular, will he outline what financial sanctions and freezes at UN or EU level are being discussed to make clear the international community’s condemnation?

In a statement this morning, the Foreign Secretary said:

“There needs to be accountability for the deaths that have occurred.”

Of course, I concur with that statement. What discussions have been entered into regarding the investigation of accusations of crimes against humanity and regarding Human Rights Watch’s call for an official commission of inquiry? Finally, what discussions has he held with the Turkish Government, among others, to marshal a unified condemnation of the recent actions and assess possible ways forward in the region?

Although news regarding Bahrain has subsided slightly, the reports of the arrests of opposition figures and deaths in custody, and allegations of torture and the denial of medical treatment, are of course extremely concerning. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the progress of the political reform process initiated by King al-Khalifa? Will he also tell us what recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prince, who, it has been reported, has been close to reaching agreements with the protestors? Britain’s historically close ties to Bahrain should give us all the more reason to be clear and unequivocal in our urging of reform, not repression, as a response to popular protests on those islands.

I join the Foreign Secretary in commending our men and women in the armed forces, and those of our allies, for their brave service in Libya while the House has been in recess. The specific operational steps announced by the Government during that time—providing telecommunications, body armour and 10 military advisers—each had an operational rationale reflecting the new realities on the ground. Although we understand that rationale, will the Foreign Secretary now update the summary of legal advice provided to the House to cover each of the announcements made during the recess? The ad hoc and apparently unco-ordinated manner in which they were announced, rooted in no clearly articulated plan, has, I fear, served only to increase anxieties held by many members of the public.

In truth, none of those specific measures is likely significantly to affect the strategic situation in Libya. As things stand, neither Benghazi nor Tripoli appears likely imminently to fall to either side. Can the Foreign Secretary therefore give the House a somewhat fuller assessment of the military situation than he has so far shared with us? I ask that because the Prime Minister’s official spokesman stated this morning, in summarising the Foreign Secretary’s report to the Cabinet, that we need to

“prepare for the long haul”,

yet a press release was published only this weekend on the Foreign Office website entitled, “Foreign Secretary denies claims of stalemate in Libya”. The situation on the ground led the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, to observe on Friday that

“Libya is moving towards stalemate”.

Can the Foreign Secretary share with the House the information or insight on military progress that was available to him that was apparently not shared with America’s most senior military figure?

That brings me to the question of political objectives and the military mission. On 21 March, the Prime Minister told the House from the Dispatch Box that resolution 1973

“explicitly does not provide legal authority for action to bring about Gaddafi’s removal from power by military means.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 713.]

On 14 April, in an article in The Times, the Prime Minister and the Presidents of the US and France said that

“so long as Gaddafi is in power, Nato and its coalition partners must maintain their operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds.”

Would the House be correct to understand that the language in that article means that in the view of the British Government, UN Security Council resolution 1973 cannot be enforced without Gaddafi’s departure? Given the article’s explicit commitment to maintaining NATO operations “so long as Gaddafi” remains “in power”, will the Foreign Secretary clarify whether a Libya free of Gaddafi is a political aim—incidentally, that aim is shared by all in the House—or a military objective of the British Government? Will the Foreign Secretary further say whether, following that joint statement, American fighter aircraft have once again engaged in ground-assault operations, and whether that statement of aims has led to any significant alteration of the US force posture?

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is no plan, no mandate and no appetite for NATO ground troops attempting to fight their way into Tripoli to remove Gaddafi? If so, can he offer a clearer way forward, beyond the intensification of the current efforts that he spoke about in his opening remarks, to achieving the outcome that the Government seek? It is vital that he does so, not simply to ensure that the Government address the concerns at home and abroad, but, crucially, to convince Gaddafi’s henchmen that there is a credible strategy in place to ensure that his brutal attacks on civilians will not prevail.

We seek as broad a coalition as possible for these efforts, and in that spirit I add my welcome to the addition of Italian fighter aircraft to the mission, which we heard announced today. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the precise number of EU, NATO and Arab League countries that are participating in the military operation, and on what efforts are being made to expand those numbers further? Does he believe that the contact group is proving agile and effective enough to direct the mission? Does he further agree that the comparison last week by the Defence Secretary of the current mission in Libya with the Afghanistan campaign, where a decade on we have about 11,000 troops in theatre, not only ignores the different order of magnitude of threat posed by al-Qaeda and its supporters, but needlessly threatens support for the mission at home and abroad? In the light of that comparison, and given the continuing national security threat being confronted in Afghanistan, will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that no personnel or equipment will be redeployed from Afghanistan to Libya?

The Government are acting in Libya for principled reasons, but that does not remove our obligation to look at practical questions. In conclusion, in the light of this morning’s statement, which mentioned a “long haul” in Afghanistan, what further diplomatic measures are being pressed by the Government on the international community to strengthen the isolation of, and to increase the pressure on, Gaddafi’s regime?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman particularly for what he said about various countries at the beginning of his questions. I am sure that the whole House will join him in welcoming the seemingly successful efforts of the Gulf Co-operation Council in relation to Yemen. There is also agreement across the House, I think, about the importance of the middle east peace process and a bold and ambitious European neighbourhood policy.

The right hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions about Syria. About 700 British nationals in Syria are now registered with us, although some of them of course will be dual nationals with their families in Syria, and we should not assume that they would want to leave Syria whatever the circumstances there. However, we have contingency plans for their evacuation. Previous to the change of travel advice on Sunday, we advised them to consider leaving Syria by commercial means, and it is still possible to do so—for instance, over the land border to Lebanon and by commercial flights still running every day out of Damascus.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the conversations that I had with President Assad at the end of January. From those conversations, I think I can fairly say that what has happened in Syria over the past couple of weeks will have come as a surprise to the President and the Government. I asked him then why he thought that Syria would be different from what had already begun to happen in Egypt and Tunisia, and he said that it was because of Syria’s clear ideology, the continuing resistance to Israel and the popular support for the Government in Syria. Clearly, however, there are common aspirations in many of these countries for economic freedom and greater political rights, and therefore the position of the Syrian authorities in relation to their population was not as strong as he and his Government assessed. Of course, we have many differences with the Government of Syria on many foreign policy subjects that I discussed with him. For a long time Governments of the United Kingdom have urged the Government of Syria in the direction of greater respect for human rights. Had they taken that advice, including from previous Foreign Secretaries, such as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), they would be in a stronger position today.

The right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) was right to ask about work with the Turkish Government. I regard them as holding a central position in working with other nations on how we should proceed on Syria. I discussed the matter at length last night with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and we are in close and daily touch with the Turkish Government. The work on what may happen at the UN and in the EU is of course at a preliminary stage, and it will be difficult at the UN Security Council, because not all the permanent members will see this in the same light, so I do not want to raise expectations of action at the Council. That would be unrealistic. However, we are working closely with our European and American colleagues on the Council to see how we can proceed, and we are doing initial work on what action the EU could take. However, I cannot go into more detail about that at this stage.

On Bahrain, the dialogue between the Government and the opposition is not overtly progressing. However, the authorities there have reiterated to us their determination to proceed with and reignite that dialogue. I spoke recently to the Foreign Minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa, to ask for his commitment to that, as well as to investigation of the human rights issues that I have mentioned in the House, and he has given those commitments. As I said in my statement, therefore, we look to all sides in Bahrain to commit themselves to that dialogue. That is the only way forward for a country in Bahrain’s situation. However, I do not have any reports of success in that dialogue to give to the House now.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Libya and our various announcements over the recess of non-lethal assistance to the transitional national council. It was my decision in every case to make public the information as soon as possible about every form of assistance. It might have satisfied his desire to avoid what he called ad hoc announcements had we waited to put them all together, but in my view it would not have satisfied the interests of full transparency and of giving Parliament the necessary information as soon as it became available by depositing it in the Library. This is a fast-moving situation. How we help the transitional national council has to be agreed with other countries in order that we do not duplicate what they do, so how we are able to assist the council will change from week to week. However, we will keep the House informed as rapidly as possible, as we did over the recess, even if that means that announcements come out at different times and are followed one after the other.

It is important to remember that the military situation remains fluid and has not settled into a stalemate. Hon. Members will be aware of how much the situation in Misrata has changed over recent days. Fighting has gone backwards and forwards on the western borders of Libya, and although there is a fairly static situation on what might be called the eastern front, between Brega and Ajdabiya, it has not yet settled into what one would call a long-term stalemate. The military mission is defined by the United Nations resolution, and what the Prime Minister said about that on 21 March absolutely stands. That has not changed, although it is the common assessment of all NATO and Arab League nations involved—there might be a difference of view in some African Union nations—that it is impossible to see a way of securing the full implementation of the UN Security Council resolution while Colonel Gaddafi remains. That is why it is quite right to reiterate, as we all do in this House, that Gaddafi should go. However, the military mission remains defined by the UN Security Council resolution, and there has been no change in the Government’s approach to that.

On the question of NATO participation, there are 16 nations participating in the military effort at the moment. The shadow Foreign Secretary asked whether the contact group of 21 nations and seven international organisations was unwieldy. My experience so far is that it is not unwieldy—provided that it is well chaired, which it has been—but works together well. Having such a wide spread of nations and international organisations might initially look unwieldy, but it allows the contact group to continue the international legitimacy and the broad-based coalition that are present on this occasion and in these operations, the lack of which has sometimes bedevilled our efforts and those of the previous Government in foreign affairs, so it is important to maintain that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Defence Secretary’s remarks about Afghanistan. The Defence Secretary was simply saying that we wanted Afghans to be able to take on responsibility for their own security; he was not comparing the conflict in Libya to the conflict in Afghanistan, and we should not give that impression. I absolutely agree with the shadow Foreign Secretary that NATO ground troops will not be going into Tripoli to resolve this matter. It is clear in UN resolution 1973 that there should be no foreign occupation of any part of Libya. We will adhere strictly to that, as to all other parts of the resolution. The strategy going forward is what I set out in the statement—to intensify the diplomatic, economic and military pressure.

The point that I made at the Cabinet this morning was that in this situation, time is not on the side of Gaddafi. We are often asked in international conflicts whether time is on our side. We should be confident that in this situation—given this coalition, this range of sanctions and these intensifying efforts—time is not on the side of Gaddafi, and the members of his regime need to know that. The resolve of the international community to implement the UN resolutions—and our resolve, separately from those resolutions, that he should go—is undiminished; indeed, it is strengthened by the experience of recent weeks. We have already achieved the saving of thousands of lives, the assembly of a remarkable international coalition and the prevention of the regime’s re-conquest of Libya by force, which could also have destabilised Egypt and Tunisia. These things have been worth achieving in the last five weeks, and if we continue to intensify our work in the way that I have described, we will indeed go on to success.

Order. The Front-Bench exchanges, although enlightening and engaging in equal measure, have nevertheless consumed almost half an hour. I am very keen that there should be time for Back Benchers to contribute. Short questions and short answers are required.

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that it may be over-optimistic to assume that the civil war in Libya will cease when Colonel Gaddafi departs the scene? As he knows, the estrangement of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica dates back to the Punic wars, which is why in 1946 Ernest Bevin wanted to restore Mussolini’s single Libya to its two historic entities. Moreover—if you will bear with me for a moment longer, Mr Speaker—we could impose an immediate partition on the country by air power alone. That would enable us to remove by sea those rebels on the coastal strip who found themselves on the wrong side of the dividing line, before they were massacred by the inland tribes.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Gentleman. When I have heard him, I invariably feel better informed, and somewhat improved.

Well, so do I. I absolutely take my hon. Friend’s point about the Punic wars and the historical division between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, but I have to say that I do not think that that is the solution in this particular case, in the 21st century. All the people we have spoken to in the transitional national council are very much committed to the territorial integrity of Libya as a whole. The country could not be so easily partitioned as my hon. Friend might think, in that there is strong support for the opposition forces throughout Libya, including in the west, in cities in the western mountains and in Misrata. The people of Misrata do not want to be taken away to the east; they want to stay in their own city, with their rights being respected and their lives being preserved. There is no simple east-west division in Libya now, in contrast to what has happened in previous centuries or, indeed, in previous millennia.

Fear is growing that, although we are doing enough to keep this operation going, we are not doing enough to bring it to a successful conclusion. If stalemate or de facto partition are unacceptable, and if the people cannot be properly protected while Gaddafi is in place, surely we need to make enough effort, now that we are engaged in this operation, to bring it swiftly to a conclusion, and to bring to an end the suffering in Libya. Surely that means doing more than is currently being done.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. Other Ministers and I went to the NATO meeting in Berlin to ask for an increased tempo in the military operations, as well as increased support from other countries for military operations, some of which we have secured. He will have heard us talking about Italy earlier. However, when he says that the situation needs to be brought to a conclusion more rapidly, he is really calling for a military effort that is very different in its scale and in its nature. I would say to him that that would not be in accordance with UN resolution 1973. The large-scale use of ground troops, for instance, would not be in accordance with the resolution. Whatever we do, it is vital to keep the legal, moral and international authority that comes from working within the United Nations resolutions. I must therefore resist his demands for a more rapid or overwhelming military solution to the situation. We have to continue to intensify the pressure on Gaddafi through diplomatic, economic and military channels, but we must stay within what is legal and internationally supported.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the Government’s twin fundamental aims of protecting civilians and requiring the departure of Gaddafi cannot be achieved by coalition air power alone—or, indeed, by diplomatic and economic pressure—and that the achievement of those aims will require giving military support to the insurgents? I welcome the fact that instructors have been sent to Benghazi, but does the Foreign Secretary not agree that much more military support could be given that would be consistent with the UN resolution, which allows all necessary measures for the protection of civilians throughout Libya?

The first point to make to my right hon. and learned Friend is that these are not instructors. I would not refer to them as instructors. It is a military liaison team; it is working on headquarters organisation. I stress that these officers are not involved in arming or training the forces of the opposition side in Libya. Our position—my right hon. and learned Friend has brought it up before—is that we will help with non-lethal equipment. The British Government have taken no decision to arm or equip the opposition forces with lethal equipment. I have expressed our view of the legality of that before, which is that the arms embargo applies to the whole of Libya, but that it is legal under the UN resolution to supply equipment to protect civilian life in certain circumstances. Other nations may wish to do that or to interpret the resolution in a different way. We interpret it in that way and believe that the best way for us to help is to supply the non-lethal equipment that I have mentioned.

May I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on delivering an absolutely brilliant piece of Foreign Office speak for the last 10 minutes? He assured us that there was to be no ground intervention, yet military forces are being sent to assist the British diplomatic mission. He assured us that there was no intention of regime change, and then promptly called for a regime change. What exactly is the Government’s position on Libya? Is it to have a partition; is it the overthrow of Gaddafi; is it to hand over the oil and banking interests to Qatar; is it the sale of arms to the whole region? What on earth are the Government’s long-term intentions on Libya? Will he please explain?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s congratulations in the spirit in which they were offered, and I am tempted to go over my whole statement again. Our attitude to the whole issue of change in the middle east is that if it goes right, it will be one of the greatest advances in human freedom and world affairs that we have seen—certainly since the end of the cold war, and in some ways comparable to it. If it goes wrong, however, leading to more authoritarian regimes or a long period of violent disorder, it will provide a serious threat to our own national security and that of the whole of Europe, with new breeding grounds for terrorism, uncontrolled migration and threats of extremism. We therefore have to do what we can to make sure that change goes in the right direction, not the wrong direction. That is what we want for Libya and what we want for other countries. We are able to help in each country in different ways, but that is the context in which our Libya policy sits.

Notwithstanding my right hon. Friend’s careful and circumspect response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, is it not clear that the United Kingdom and France are disproportionately bearing the burden of the offensive air campaign? Why is it that our NATO allies are not making a better contribution, and is the Foreign Secretary disappointed by their failure to do so?

It is certainly true that the United Kingdom and France make a huge contribution and, most of the time, the largest contribution to the campaign. I hesitate to use words like “disproportionate”, as I must say that the contribution—including an offensive strike capability—from countries such as Denmark and Norway is, considering their size as countries and the size of their armed forces, very much proportionate to the efforts that we are making. We should not think that only the United Kingdom and France are contributing. There are 16 nations involved in the military activity. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, Arab nations are also involved. In response to our recent requests, other countries have brought other military assets into play—Spain, for example, providing additional air-to-air refuelling capability and Italy bringing in ground-strike capability. At all times, the United States continues to supply about a quarter of all sorties flown, even in periods when it is not taking part in ground strike. The right hon. and learned Gentleman can see that the burden is spread more widely than the headlines sometimes give the impression, but would we like a greater contribution from some other nations and did we say so at the NATO meeting in Berlin? Well, yes, we did.

The Foreign Secretary has quite rightly referred to the legal, moral and international base that resolution 1973 mandates, and it is imperative that we stick within it. In that context, can he restrain those voices calling to go beyond that—as, for example, the call to target Colonel Gaddafi and others—and make them desist, because that sort of thing will not keep the coalition together?

I am trying to restrain them, as I restrained the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) a moment ago in relation to a parallel subject. As for the question of specific targets, we will not go into it. Who or what become legitimate targets depends on how they behave. I will not expand, and no Minister will expand, on who or what will be a target.

Given that the Libyan regime can place its forces in heavily congested urban areas and fight house to house, and given the terms of the resolution, is it not the case that the NATO forces are in no position to exert any influence over the outcome of this civil war?

No. Although NATO air forces are constrained by having to operate entirely from the air—obviously there can be problems with air operations on days when the weather is bad—they have clearly had a huge and, so far, decisive impact. Had it not been for those NATO-led air operations, Benghazi would have fallen and Gaddafi would have reconquered the entire country; I think that Misrata would have fallen.

As my right hon. Friend says, it is very difficult when forces are making themselves look like civilians and fighting at close quarters in a city like Misrata. Nevertheless, there is a good deal of evidence that in recent days they have been pushed back. The use of a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle over Misrata is something that the regime forces have to worry about and, I think, have worried about greatly over the past 48 hours, however clever they may think they are at concealing themselves.

May I compliment the Foreign Secretary on his attitude to this difficult matter? May I also urge him to continue to resist the calls that have come from certain important Members of Parliament, notably a former Foreign Secretary and a former Defence Secretary, my fellow Coventrian the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth)?

Difficult though the matter is, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s reassurance that—as we all now accept—ground troops have no role to play, and his continued resistance to a deeper, heavier NATO involvement than that described by him and allowed by the United Nations resolution. I believe that this is the only way forward, and that, if pursued with sufficient patience and perseverance, it can achieve our objectives.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We do operate under certain constraints. The United Nations resolutions are clear and comprehensive—they authorise “all necessary measures”—but they are not qualified in certain important ways, and we are clear about what those mean. It is more important to stick to the resolutions, and to achieve success within their constraints, than to expect a lack of support among the nations of the coalition for our action in continuing these operations as necessary, along with our other diplomatic and economic efforts. I think that we must indeed have the persistence and the patience to continue with that strategy.

The Foreign Secretary is working with our international partners to persuade the Syrian authorities to stop the violence, which he rightly condemns. Does he recall that the intervention in Libya came only after a request for intervention from the Arab League? Is there any sign of a further request from the Arab League for intervention in Syria?

No. The work with international partners is very important—particularly the work with Turkey, as I mentioned in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary—but my hon. Friend is right: in the case of Libya there was a clear call from the Arab League for the United Nations to take action. That was a transformative intervention, in that it gave legitimacy and broad international support to our work at the United Nations Security Council. We should hesitate to draw direct comparisons between what we may do in Libya and what we may do in other countries in the region.

The reported use of cluster bombs against civilians by the Gaddafi regime has been rightly condemned. Equally worthy of condemnation would be the use of depleted uranium. Has the Foreign Secretary sought any assurances from his United States counterparts that depleted uranium weapons have not been, and will not be, used in this conflict?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right about cluster munitions—and we might add land mines as well; there are reports of the Gaddafi forces laying them in the vicinity of Misrata. I am certainly not aware of any use of depleted uranium weapons. I would be very surprised if any such weapons were being used, and I think I can give her the assurance she seeks.

It has been reported that NATO intelligence believes that some 450 of Gaddafi’s mercenary army are in fact Algerian-backed Polisario guerrillas paid for to the tune of some millions of dollars. Has the Foreign Secretary taken this matter up with the Algerian Government, and can he tell the House what we have done, beyond the freezing of British, European and American bank accounts, to deny access to the money that enables this sort of action to take place?

Yes, there are many such reports. My right hon. Friend mentions reports concerning Algeria, and there are also reports of fighters for the Gaddafi regime coming from other countries in north Africa. We are taking these reports up; we have taken them up at the diplomatic level with some of the countries concerned. We need more specific evidence than usual in these situations, in order to be able to say squarely to the countries involved that they are in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, but whenever we have that evidence we will act on it, and at the ministerial level as well.

On the question of denying Gaddafi the ability to pay for such fighters, we have done two sets of things. One of them is the asset freeze, to which my right hon. Friend referred. Tens of billions of dollars of the regime’s assets have been frozen, particularly in the United States and our country, although that measure is also widely observed across the world. Secondly, the sanctions that we are implementing also deny a great deal of income to the regime. That is why I say that there is no future for this regime. Time is not on the side of Gaddafi. It will be very difficult for the regime to amass the resources required for it to be able to continue with this effort for the longer term. We will seek the rigorous implementation of those measures, and, of course, if any nation appears to have sanctioned the employment of people from its own country as mercenaries in Libya, we will pursue that matter with it.

This morning, the BBC was reporting that four European Union countries were working up a new resolution for the Security Council. The Foreign Secretary did not refer to that in his statement. Is that because of the reluctance on this issue of the Arab League, to which he previously alluded? Is there not also a danger, however, that many people in the Arab world will perceive double standards if the UN Security Council does not at least adopt a strong resolution condemning the Ba’athist repression in Syria?

I think the report in question was about the possibility of a presidential statement, rather than a resolution of the UN Security Council. Certainly, France, Germany, Portugal and the United Kingdom are working together at the Security Council to raise the issue of the situation in Syria. The hon. Gentleman asks about double standards. Different countries will have their own opinions on this subject, and I sounded a note of caution about the attitude of some of the other permanent members of the Security Council. Particularly on Syria, they will be very cautious about adopting statements, and especially about adopting resolutions. The position of the Arab League is a matter for its members. It is, of course, up to them to decide whether to be consistent in their statements or to regard the situation in different countries as requiring different responses. We have certainly had no call or clear message from the Arab League on the situation in Syria in the way that developed in respect of Libya.

If, as my right hon. Friend suggests, there is such general international agreement that Gaddafi should go, is any work being done in the United Nations to change the resolutions to reflect that, because otherwise we will continue with a military objective that is at odds with the political objective?

I have had no indication that it would be possible to pass a new and—what one might call—stronger resolution in the UN Security Council than the ones that have already been passed: resolutions 1970 and 1973. I think there would be a good deal of opposition to that. I think it is unlikely at this juncture that such a resolution could be adopted in the UN Security Council, which is why, as I have said in answer to earlier questions, we must work within the resolutions we have and maximise the diplomatic, economic and military pressure, consistent with those resolutions.

May I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said about developments in Yemen, and commend his efforts and those of the GCC? If the President signs the agreement tomorrow, there could be a new Government in 28 days. Are our Government ready to assist that new Government? What matters then is the stability of Yemen.

Yes, we absolutely are ready to do that. At that point we will, of course, want to revive, with some vigour, the Friends of Yemen process, which was started under the previous Government—we have continued it, but the group has not been able to have meaningful meetings in recent weeks, given the situation. We will very much look to revive that, working closely with Saudi Arabia as co-chairs of the Friends of Yemen. There is a great deal we can do to encourage stability and peace in Yemen, and we will be highly active in doing so.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary about Saudi Arabia, as there have also been reports of protests—albeit on a smaller scale—met with repression there and as its contribution to finding a peaceful solution to the unrest in Bahrain was to send in its troops? Does he think that the Arab spring could have a positive influence on human rights improvements in that oppressive regime? How can it be encouraged to take a positive attitude to the dialogue towards democracy that is so needed in Bahrain?

Given the previous question, it is important to recognise in this context the strong and, it seems, successful efforts of Saudi Arabia to bring mediation to Yemen. The hon. Lady is right to say that Saudi forces are in Bahrain—at the request of the Bahraini Government—but I think that Saudi Arabia, like other states in the region, is very anxious that there is a successful national dialogue in Bahrain. I have no reason to doubt that at all, having discussed the situation at some length with Prince Saud, the Saudi Foreign Minister, over recent weeks. Of course, we do ask all Governments in the region to respect the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression.

No one disputes the brutality of the Gaddafi regime, which of course we were selling arms to, along with other western powers, right up to recent events, but may I urge the Foreign Secretary to resist the calls that we have heard today from what I would describe as the “war party”, which wants to escalate the conflict? Some of us believe that what is really required is a genuine effort to bring about a ceasefire. I am aware of all the difficulties—I know that Gaddafi cannot be trusted—but if there is a chance of stopping the bloodshed on both sides in the civil war, that opportunity should certainly be grasped.

Of course we all want a ceasefire. One of the stated goals of resolution 1973 is a ceasefire—a genuine end to violence—but it would have to be a genuine ceasefire in which the regime’s forces pulled back from the populated areas they were attacking and really ended the violence and stopped the suppression of all opposition in the areas that they controlled. Although it is important, as the hon. Gentleman says, to resist calls to change the nature of this conflict and go beyond the resolutions, it is also important to resist any temptation to weaken in our implementation of the resolutions. That is why we must continue carefully and persistently with the strategy we have set out.

Given that there are now 300 dead in Syria and hundreds more imprisoned, is it not time for Britain to lead the way with a United Nations resolution to try to stop what Syria is doing?

As I mentioned in answer to earlier questions, it is not a simple matter to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria—of course that may change as the situation in Syria develops. The important thing for today is to emphasise that, as I said in my statement, the Syrians are at a fork in the road and are coming to the last point at which they can say, “We are going to embrace the reform that is necessary in our country and that will be supported nationally and internationally.” If they continue down the alternative route of ever more violent repressions, our concerns will of course be shared more widely at the UN Security Council and the situation there may change.

I sympathise with the Foreign Secretary, but I am afraid I agree—I do not often say this—with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) in that the arguments that the Foreign Secretary is using increasingly sound casuistical, especially when he tries to draw a distinction between why we are engaged in Libya but not in Syria or anywhere else and, in particular, when he says that although we are providing equipment, that is all right because it is non-lethal, or that although we are providing military personnel, that is all right because they are not instructors. Surely we are coming to a fork in the road: either we want rid of Gaddafi and we should get rid of him, or we should get out of there.

Sympathy from the hon. Gentleman is entirely unnecessary in my case; I can assure him that I will be fine without it. Anyway, I suppose I am grateful for it. Let us think about the alternatives for which he seems to be calling. One is to weaken in what we are doing, to say that we do not really care what happens in Libya, and to allow Colonel Gaddafi to run amok in murdering thousands of his own people, destabilising everything else in north Africa. I reject that alternative. The other alternative to our policy is to say that we are not really going to abide by the UN resolutions and that we will do whatever we are urged to do, because we think that our public’s patience is too limited in any matter of international relations and so we will be panicked into doing other things. I reject that alternative, too. For too many years, we have been accused of not having the necessary legality or moral support for, or an international coalition behind, what we are doing. We are going to maintain those things in what we do in Libya and that requires persistence in the policy we have adopted.

The Foreign Secretary and I have had a number of exchanges on this subject. I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, because the Prime Minister has written to me today saying that

“we do not rule out supplying lethal equipment, but we have not taken the decision to do so, and there remain legal and practical questions which need to be carefully considered.”

That is the Government’s policy, the legal basis of which seems to be as clear as mud. The problem, very simply, is that we want to relieve the pressure on civilians and to ensure that the people in Libya are properly protected. Unless they are given arms and the right kind of equipment under the resolutions—including paragraph 9(c) of resolution 1970, which I have mentioned before—there will be hand-to-hand fighting and they will not have the ability to deliver. That is where the problem lies and the policy must be made clearer. Why does not the Foreign Secretary go back to the sanctions committee and find out?

I hope the policy as I have set it out is very clear about the Government’s understanding of what is legal under the UN resolutions and about what we are doing, which is different from going the whole way under the resolutions towards arming civilians and the opposition in certain circumstances. We have not taken the decision to do that, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his letter to my hon. Friend. We are giving a great deal of other assistance. We should remember that what the United Kingdom is doing as regards the deployment of the Royal Air Force and its military action over the past five weeks, which has potentially saved the lives of hundreds or thousands of people, is a greater help to the civilians of Libya than we can provide to them in any other way.

As we have seen in the House today, to many outside this House Britain’s intervention in Libya looks like a blood-soaked political shambles. As we have moved from the protection of civilians to regime change, promises of no boots on the ground have been undermined by the presence of advisers’ boots on the ground. Now a limited intervention has moved to being a long-haul engagement. Have the Government given any consideration whatsoever to conflict resolution and taking up the offers from other countries of mediation to secure a peaceful settlement?

Attempts at mediation by other countries so far have run into the problem of Colonel Gaddafi’s refusal to depart. Without that departure, it is hard to see a solution being arrived at in Libya. That is the difficulty. We have agreed in the contact group that it is primarily for the UN special envoy, Mr Khatib, to take forward the work of trying to search for a political settlement—that is absolutely what the UN special envoy is for. We have in no way lost sight of that aim, but it will require a genuine ceasefire, which seems also to require the departure of Colonel Gaddafi. The hon. Gentleman speaks of a blood-soaked result to what we have been doing, but there really would have been a blood-soaked result had we done nothing five weeks ago, allowing Benghazi to be overrun, thousands of people to be killed and tens of thousands to be driven towards the border. That would have been a blood-soaked result, and I think that was the policy that the hon. Gentleman favoured.

The debate and vote on Libya was couched very much in terms of humanitarian aid, but it has since become clear, from the rejection of the African Union peace proposals and from the joint statement, that Britain, the US and France will accept nothing less than Gaddafi’s removal. Will the Foreign Secretary sanction a further debate and vote on this issue in Government time?

No. Of course, I will make statements to the House whenever possible and I am in no way resistant to long debates about the matter, but I do not think the Government’s policy has changed in any material way that requires a fresh vote in the House of Commons. We are absolutely within the United Nations resolutions and within the policy we expressed at the outset.

Could the Foreign Secretary explain how it is that the Italians are now providing strike aircraft and the Americans unmanned Predators? He described how the 1,500 strike sorties have seriously degraded Gaddafi’s military capacity and he described the severity of the UN sanctions, but those are all actions undertaken by external bodies—the UN, NATO and Arab allies. Will he tell us whether there is a plan—not a time scale, but a plan—so that the House can know how the national transitional council might be in a position to offer Libyan political and military leadership, which would bring an end to the problem?

The national transitional council has organised itself over the past five weeks. It has a president in Mr Jalil and an executive prime minister figure in Mr Jabril, and it is seeking other adherents and allies in Libya—and not just in the east, where it is based, in Benghazi. In recent days, towns in the west—on the western border—have also declared their adherence to the national transitional council. It is making a genuine effort to include people in its work beyond its current base and operations. It believes in the territorial integrity of Libya and in being able to bring the Libyan people together in future. I think it does have a political plan and a plan for a political transition, but the behaviour of the regime’s forces at the moment prevents it from carrying that out.

It seems fairly clear that the western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps are being used as a recruiting ground by General Gaddafi, yet the Polisario Front maintains an office in many western capitals, including London. What pressure can we put on the Polisario formally or informally to make it very clear that any co-operation with Gaddafi is unacceptable and highly unlikely to help its cause?

If we have clear evidence of what my hon. Friend raises, we will make that very clear and there will certainly be consequences, but we would have to have clear evidence.

The Foreign Secretary might well have the agreement of the Libya contact group, but does he have the support of the British public for what is happening? When we had a debate only weeks ago in the House we were assured from the Government Benches that there would be no mission creep and no targeting of Colonel Gaddafi. We were assured that regime change was not our objective and that there would be no boots on the ground, but we now have quite a strategic change. How will the right hon. Gentleman assure the British public that there will not be further mission creep when those military liaison officers advise that further support is needed on the ground?

I hope that I have made it clear in the House today—indeed, on all days—that there will be no ground invasion of Libya and that we are not planning to send troops in any large numbers into Libya. I have made clear the terms on which the military liaison advisory team has gone into Benghazi. I think that what people would worry about with mission creep is a ground invasion—a protracted ground battle involving British troops in Libya—and that is not on the cards. It has no part in our plans and it is not consistent with the UN resolutions, so I can reassure people about that and I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in doing so.

From contacts of mine in Libya it is clear that morale among the opposition fighters, whether they be in the east or the west, differs greatly depending on their military successes and on what the international community does and how it acts. One thing that many people are calling for is the British Government's recognition of the TNC as the legitimate Government, albeit a transitional one. Are we considering that measure?

The wording that we agreed for the whole contact group at Doha and the wording that I used in my statement earlier is that in contrast to Gaddafi, whom we do not regard as having legitimacy any more in leading the Libyan people, we regard the transitional national council as a legitimate interlocutor representing the aspirations of the Libyan people. I think that is the right way to put it. My hon. Friend will say that that is not formal recognition of the council, and it is not, because we recognise states rather than Governments within states and there are very good reasons to continue that policy, but it means that our diplomatic mission in Libya is in Benghazi, not in Tripoli. Our active daily work is with the transitional national council, so for all intents and purposes our approach, and that of France and Italy, for instance, which have formally recognised it, is identical in practical terms.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that our activities in Libya have now gone well beyond the terms of a no-fly zone to protect civilians? Is he not concerned that we will be giving the impression that we are taking sides with the intention of regime change, rather than protecting civilians? Is that impression not being strengthened by the fact that we are not even calling for sanctions in Bahrain and Syria, in spite of the atrocities being carried out there?

Well, no. It will be evident that I do not agree with that. I think we are operating within the UN resolutions and so do the vast majority of other nations—so does the whole of NATO and the vast majority of the Arab world, including the Arab League. I stress again the importance of the legitimacy of our actions internationally, which means that where the Arab League has called for assistance, as it did in the case of Libya, we are in a different situation from other countries and regarded as such at the United Nations Security Council. We are operating in response to the calls from the Arab League and with the authority of the United Nations Security Council, and we will continue to operate within those constraints.

Order. A very large number of colleagues are still seeking to catch my eye. As right hon. and hon. Members know, I always seek to accommodate as many as possible. I know that the Foreign Secretary regards occasions such as this as the political and intellectual equivalent of one of his judo routines, and I am sure he makes no objection, but I need a degree of economy if we are to accommodate the interest of colleagues.

At the end of February, I and a number of colleagues visited Syria. It was obvious to us then that that country was at a tipping point. Two things were obvious: first, young people wanted economic and social reform; and secondly, the reformers and the hard-liners were locked in battle inside the Government. We now have a report that Iran has been invited in to crush the reformers. What robust message can we send that aligning itself with Iran is in the long term a losing game for Syria?

Since it is possible to make quick, deadly judo moves, I will try to give quick answers. We have consistently given the message to Syria, including when I saw President Assad in January, that aligning Syria with Iran is a great mistake, and it would be a great mistake to intensify that in the current crisis.

May I remind the Foreign Secretary that with a heavy heart I voted in favour of the intervention in Libya? I and many colleagues did so because we believed that it was imperative to stop the death of innocent civilians—men, women and children. That was the reason that I voted for it. I am very concerned about some of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks today, which did not address the report that many of us heard on Radio 4 this morning from a respected British journalist about the 1,000 deaths in Libya in recent days. We are not doing enough to stop that. I do not want ground troops; I am not a warmonger; but what has happened to the American intervention that seemed to be more effective in the early days?

Just because we cannot do everything does not mean that we should not do something. It has of course not been possible to save every life in Libya—this is an extremely messy and difficult situation—but the hon. Gentleman should be proud of the fact that, although he voted with a heavy heart, the vote in this House, and that in other Parliaments, to support military action has probably saved thousands of lives and saved tens or hundreds of thousands of people from a desperately difficult humanitarian situation. It is better to vote with a heavy heart than to be a faint heart about this situation.

The Foreign Secretary carefully draws the distinction that the equipment supplied by Britain to the Libyan transitional national council is of a non-lethal nature, but in an era of improvised explosive devices how confident can we be that even telecoms equipment might not ultimately have a lethal use?

We can be fairly confident that the transitional national council very much wants to use the telecommunications equipment that we have given it as telecommunications equipment, as it is doing. It would not be productive to divert that into other things. The other equipment that we have given is body armour, and it is quite difficult to use that in any way other than to save life.

On 18 March the Prime Minister said:

“The resolution helps to enforce the arms embargo, and our legal understanding is that that arms embargo applies to the whole of Libya.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 623.]

That has been reinforced by the Foreign Secretary today. Can he therefore tell us what active measures NATO forces are taking to stop the supply of any arms to the rebel forces from outside Libya, or is it in fact the truth that NATO is the military wing of the rebel forces in a civil war?

The NATO operations, in which ships of many nations are involved, including those of our own Royal Navy, are dedicated to enforcing an arms embargo on the whole of Libya. They are positioned in order to do that, so the hon. Gentleman can be confident that they are doing that.

Given the permeable nature of the Libyan border, particularly around the Sarra triangle, will the Foreign Secretary please advise us on what actions he has sought from the countries surrounding Libya to prevent foreign mercenaries from entering the country and assisting the Gaddafi regime?

We have made that point to neighbouring countries and have been particularly active with the Government of Tunisia in trying to stop any flows into Libya of matériel or arms that would be used by the Gaddafi regime and that would enter the country in contravention of the Security Council resolutions.

Over the weekend I met a number of constituents who are very concerned about their families and the situation in Yemen. Yesterday, two protesters were killed there and hundreds were injured. The Foreign Secretary spoke about the Gulf Co-operation Council’s efforts to break the political deadlock and a revival of the Friends of Yemen group, but what specific representations are the British Government making to call on President Saleh to end the violence?

We have made those representations all the time. I went to Yemen and saw President Saleh at the beginning of February to urge him to come to an agreement with the opposition parties, which he seems to have done in the past 24 hours, thanks to the mediation of the GCC countries, so we have been very heavily involved in that. Our ambassador in Sana’a has been particularly heavily involved on a daily basis for many weeks with both the Government there and the opposition, and the British Government have been heavily involved.

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the Assad regime that ordering the army’s tanks to slaughter its own people is completely unacceptable, that it will have repercussions for Syria’s international relations for years to come, that it may well be a war crime, and that it will undoubtedly lead to sanctions?

Yes, I will. On top of that, such actions will not even bring longer-term security to the regime itself, so it is a thoroughly bad idea.

We have sent in a small team of military advisers, as have the French and, for all I know, some other countries. What co-ordination is there between those various teams of military advisers in order to provide coherent, rather than contradictory, advice?

As ever, that was a very perceptive question from the hon. Lady. That is a very important issue. A French team is going, and there may well be a team from another European country. They are working very closely together, and the effectiveness and experience of the British team is helping to ensure that everyone there works together.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important to communicate to the critics—in this country and abroad—of previous military conflicts that the intervention in Libya is not just another western intervention? Can I ask the Foreign Secretary, therefore, how many Muslim countries are contributing to the implementation of UN resolution 1973?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. The coalition includes countries from the Arab League, and the specific answer is that two Arab nations are involved in enforcing the no-strike zone, and in one case in ground strikes as well. Several other nations are providing logistical, humanitarian and, indeed, financial support. I have already mentioned the case of Kuwait, and Turkey is of course heavily involved in enforcing the arms embargo and in giving humanitarian support, so a wide range of Muslim nations is involved.

The Foreign Secretary sounds increasingly like Dr Pangloss —that this is the best possible policy of all possible policies—but in tone and content his statement is very different from the speech that the Prime Minister made here last month. There has been a clear defining of objectives on regime change and on taking one particular side in a civil war. I regret that the Foreign Secretary has already said that he will not organise a debate in the House on a voteable motion, and I hope he will reconsider that, because it is better done on a Government motion than on a Back-Bench one.

Those are of course matters for the House anyway, but my point is that I do not regard the Government’s policy on the issue as having changed. I have said today that Colonel Gaddafi must go, and the Prime Minister said that in the debate on 21 March. I have said also that we will continue to take all necessary measures to protect civilians, although the nature of those measures may change from week to week, and that is what we said in the debate of 21 March that we would do, so we have not changed our approach.

Given the Gaddafi regime’s constrained refining capability, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the merits of strengthening the restrictions on supplies of petrol and diesel to the regime’s forces?

It is very important to enforce the existing sanctions on the regime. We are doing a lot of work to make sure that they are rigorously enforced by other countries, and that takes in my hon. Friend’s point. So we are looking at that at the moment.

May I press the Foreign Secretary on the subject of the contact group? What discussions has it had about the need for humanitarian troops to go in and provide aid, and specifically what discussions has he had with Turkey and other Muslim nations about that role?

The contact group has not discussed troops going in for humanitarian purposes. It did of course discuss in Doha the need for effective humanitarian relief, particularly for people in Misrata, and we have been successful in providing a good deal of that over the past couple of weeks, but the group has not had discussions about military provision to assist the humanitarian effort. We would be guided by the United Nations and, in particular, by the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs on requesting any military support for humanitarian needs, but no such request has been made.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of a proper financial structure to provide short-term finance to the Libyan national transitional council, but he will be aware that one of the many challenges facing the rebels is the need for cash to fight Gaddafi as well as to provide important public services, so will my right hon. Friend consider releasing to the rebels the many hundreds of millions of Libyan dinars that are printed or held in this country in order to help to finance their fight?

Those Libyan banknotes are held in this country as part of the asset freeze, and since they are held as part of the asset freeze they remain frozen. [Interruption.] Indeed, that is not surprising. The Government have not so far seen any legal way of releasing those banknotes from the asset freeze.

May I add my voice to those on both sides of the House who have called for a further debatable resolution of the House about the future of this action? Does not this whole issue illustrate the importance of the International Criminal Court’s being able to take effective action against despots before their people rise up against them, and what is the Foreign Secretary doing to make that more possible?

Of course it would be helpful if the ICC were able to do that. As the hon. Lady knows, there are cases such as that of the President of Sudan where we have all supported the ICC’s being able to come to its indictments. There is then the problem of the people of those countries not being able to turn over those despots to the ICC. However, we certainly support the ICC’s being able to make investigations in circumstances short of what we are seeing in Libya now.

In the weeks leading up to the most recent major religious festivals, Jerusalem suffered the first suicide bombing for nearly three years and ordinary Israeli citizens experienced an escalation of rocket attacks from the Gaza strip. What has my right hon. Friend done to apply pressure to Islamic Jihad and Hamas to cease their terrorist activities and return to the negotiating table?

The UK is very clear: we have expressed our outrage at those attacks. We have also called on Israel to exercise restraint in responding to those attacks, because we believe that there is an overriding need to put new life into the middle east peace process and for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make the necessary compromises—compromises which Hamas leaders have never yet shown that they are prepared to make. It is necessary to do that in order to bring long-term security to the middle east and an end to the kind of appalling incidents that my hon. Friend mentions.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Right across the whole of Libya a great many new battles are starting—for example, on the Libya-Tunisia border. Is NATO and the western alliance aware of all these battlefronts in places where people are fighting for freedom, and what help is it able to give them?

Yes, I believe that the NATO command—NATO plus the Arab allies, I should stress—are aware of these situations, some of which are difficult to help for the reasons of close-quarters fighting that were described earlier. NATO air strikes have been used in recent days to relieve the pressure not only on Misrata but on towns in the west of Libya, with some effect. That will continue and, if necessary, intensify.

It was plain from my right hon. Friend’s answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) that the Government have received very clear legal advice on the action that has been announced while the House has not been sitting. The Government made a great advance in publishing a summary of the legal advice on Libya before the last debate. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to update that advice by placing a copy of the Attorney-General’s advice in the Library?

We provided the note on the legal advice in order for the House to have a debate and for it to take a very important decision. History showed that the House really did want to know more about the legal advice in such circumstances, but I am not going to commit the Government to doing so on a case-by-case or continuous basis.

Should Colonel Gaddafi be deposed, or go by whatever means, would he be subject to the 1970 human rights Act—I am sorry, not human rights—[Interruption.] If I may carry on, would he be subject to the war crimes part of UN resolution 1970?

That depends on what Colonel Gaddafi has done. The International Criminal Court is looking into that at the moment. As I said, we expect a report from the prosecutor of the ICC to the United Nations next Wednesday, 4 May. That will be the next development in this subject and it is the ICC that will come to a view about it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the last few weeks, not only have the eyes of much of the world been on Libya, but, unfortunately, so have the eyes of the leaders of many of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in the world? If Colonel Gaddafi manages to cling to any form of power having turned heavy weapons on his own people, it will make such behaviour far more likely in other countries across the region, costing many tens of thousands of innocent lives and potentially putting back the cause of democracy for decades. Is it not for that reason that Gaddafi must go, by one means or another?

That is one of the reasons. Certainly, if Gaddafi had been able to do what he intended to do, the Arab spring, as many have called it, and the desire for democracy and greater freedom in the Arab world would have suffered an enormous setback, with potentially damaging consequences for this country.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary and colleagues for their co-operation in what were very full exchanges.