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Middle East and North Africa

Volume 533: debated on Thursday 13 October 2011

Events in the middle east continue to have far-reaching implications for the peace and stability of the region and for our own security. Libya continues its profound transformation after more than 40 years of dictatorial rule. On 20 September the national transitional council took up Libya’s seat at the United Nations General Assembly. Order has been restored in Benghazi and Tripoli, as I saw when I visited with the Prime Minister last month, and the NTC has consolidated its hold on the vast majority of Libya’s territory.

The remaining Gaddafi supporters are concentrated in Bani Walid and Sirte, where there has been intense fighting. The NTC has said that it aims to declare the liberation of Libya once Sirte has fallen, to move swiftly to form a transitional Government within 30 days and to hold elections for a constitutional assembly within the following eight months. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary visited Tripoli and Misrata last weekend. His talks with Libyan leaders confirmed their clear understanding of the need for quick formation of a new, inclusive Government.

Colonel Gaddafi’s location remains unknown, but scores of his closest supporters and family members, including his wife and daughter, have fled over Libya’s borders. Interpol has issued red notices for him, his son Saif al-Islam and his former director of military intelligence, all of whom have been indicted by the International Criminal Court. No state should harbour any of those fugitives from justice.

Last week NATO agreed that the positive trend in Libya is irreversible, but that not all Libya’s population is yet safe from attack. We will continue operations to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1973 for as long as is necessary, at the request of the NTC and with the authority of Security Council resolution 2009, which was unanimously agreed on 16 September and established a new UN support mission in Libya.

British planes and attack helicopters have flown some 3,000 sorties across Libya and have damaged or destroyed some 1,000 former regime targets. Their precision targeting has minimised civilian casualties and saved countless lives, helping Libyans to gain their freedom. I pay tribute to them and all our partners involved in the NATO operation.

We are supporting the NTC’s own plans for political transition in Libya, through the friends of Libya group and the allocation of up to £20.6 million in UK funding for stabilisation, including for the rule of law, police, elections, essential basic services and the removal of mines and unexploded ordnance.

Libya’s economic growth will be an important component of its future stability, and on 26 September the Minister for Trade and Investment, my noble Friend Lord Green, visited Tripoli with a trade delegation, followed by a conference in London for representatives of British business.

By contrast with the progress being made in Libya, appalling violence and repression continues in Syria. Some 2,900 people, including 187 children, have died at the hands of the regime and its armed forces in just seven months. Along with the United States and our European partners, we tabled a draft UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s use of force, calling for an end to violence and threatening sanctions, while ruling out military force. Nine of the 15 members of the UN Security Council voted in favour of that resolution, but Russia and China, regrettably, chose to block it. It is a mistake on their part to side with a brutal regime, rather than with the people of Syria.

We will go on working with other nations to intensify the pressure on the regime. On 24 September the seventh round of EU sanctions came into force. They now target a total of 56 regime figures and 18 Syrian entities, and include an arms embargo and a ban on the purchase, import or transport from Syria of crude oil and petroleum products. As the EU previously imported over 90% of Syria’s crude oil, and in 2010 oil revenues accounted for a quarter of all Syrian state revenues, the import ban will have a significant impact. We expect the EU to adopt further sanctions soon against a key regime entity. Turkey has also announced plans to adopt unilateral measures against Syria. We will look to work with it and other like-minded partners to increase the pressure on the regime, as well as continuing discussions at the UN.

Too much blood has been spilled for that regime to recover its credibility. President Assad should step aside now and allow others to take forward reform. We urge the Syrian opposition to develop a peaceful vision for the future of their country, and welcome the formation of the new Syrian national council. Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) met senior members of the council in Paris, and I met Syrian activists in London at the end of last month. The Syrian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office this morning and told that any harassment or intimidation of Syrians in our country is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

There is no one model for democratic development in the middle east. We must work with the grain of each society, while standing up for universal human rights, recognising that the pace of change will vary in each country and offering our assistance where we can and where it is requested.

On 23 October, the Tunisian people will vote freely for the first time in their history. The Tunisian authorities have worked hard to prepare for elections. Tough economic challenges lie ahead for the new Government, but they have achieved a great deal in the space of 10 months.

In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has announced parliamentary elections beginning on 28 November, followed by a referendum on a new constitution and presidential elections. I spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister last night to express our deep concern about recent unrest in Cairo, and to argue for the need for steps to avoid further tensions and uphold the right to freedom of religion and worship in Egypt.

Members on both sides of the House will have concerns about events in Bahrain, including the use of military-led courts to try civilian defendants, including doctors and nurses. We welcome the announcement by the Bahraini Attorney-General that the cases of the medical staff will now be retried in a civil court on 23 October, and the expected report of the independent commission of inquiry on 30 October. We attach great importance to the publication of that report. It is a major opportunity for Bahrain to demonstrate that it will adhere to international standards, meet its human rights commitments and take action when abuses are identified.

In Yemen, President Saleh’s return without a clear plan to transfer power has worsened the severe economic, humanitarian and security crisis. We continue to work for and to urge an orderly transition of power, along with our Gulf partners and other allies. We are now seeking discussion of the situation at the UN Security Council.

The House will know that the United States has announced the disruption of a major conspiracy to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on American soil in Washington. There are indications that that deplorable plot was directed by elements of the Iranian regime, with the involvement of senior members of the Islamic revolutionary guard corp’s Quds force. This would appear to constitute a major escalation in Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism outside its borders. We are in close touch with the US authorities and will work to agree an international response, along with the US, the rest of the EU and Saudi Arabia.

Separately, we welcome the King of Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement that women in Saudi Arabia will soon have the right to vote and run in municipal elections and to become members of the Shura Council, the King’s advisory body. That will be a significant step forward for the people of Saudi Arabia, and I welcome the King’s commitment to listening to the aspirations of the Saudi people.

I also welcome the progress that has been made in Morocco, where elections will be held on 24 November, and in Jordan, where we look forward to the implementation of amendments to the Jordanian constitution, strengthening the rights of citizens and the parliamentary process. Positive, peaceful change is taking place in much of the Arab world.

The case for progress on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become more urgent as the pace of change in the region has quickened. We support a settlement with borders based on 1967 lines, with equivalent land swaps, a just settlement for refugees and Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states.

On 23 September at the UN General Assembly, President Abbas lodged an application with the UN Security Council for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations. This application is now being considered by the UN membership committee. Also on 23 September, the Quartet adopted a statement that provides a clear timetable for a conclusion to negotiations. We have called on both parties to return to talks on that basis. I welcome Baroness Ashton’s statement on 9 October that the parties will be invited to meet in the coming days. Success in this will require bold, decisive leadership from both sides, as well as painful compromises. Palestinians should focus on returning to talks, rather than setting too many preconditions.

For the Israelis, time is slipping away for them to act in their own strategic interest. The expansion of settlements must end; they are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. That is why we voted in favour of the UN Security Council resolution on this subject in February and why we continue to condemn the announcement of new settlements. The Israeli Government need to take bolder steps than Israeli leaders have been prepared to do in recent years.

Separately, I welcome the agreement between Israel and Hamas to release the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, as part of a prisoner exchange. Holding him in captivity was utterly unjustified from the beginning, yet it has gone on for five long years, and the whole House will warmly welcome his return home.

The Government are determined to do all we can to support peaceful economic and political reform across the middle east and north Africa through our Arab partnership initiative, the work of our embassies and our role in the European Union and the G8.

In Tunisia, we are supporting voter education in rural areas. We are helping the government of Morocco to improve transparency in Government Departments. In Algeria, we are supporting a loans scheme for young entrepreneurs. In Egypt, we are helping to establish an academy to provide new female candidates and their election campaigners with relevant skills.

We helped to secure a revised European neighbourhood policy, which makes an ambitious offer of much deeper economic and trade integration and more explicitly conditional financial assistance, and the G8 has pledged $38 billion for the region. In both cases, we want to see policy turned into action, so that the whole of Europe and the G8 can act as magnets for change. The Arab spring has brought conflict and uncertainty, but it undoubtedly has the potential to bring about the greatest single advance in human freedom since the end of the cold war.

We are also determined to learn the wider lessons of these events. On 16 March I announced a review of policy and practice relating to the export of equipment that might be used for internal repression, in particular crowd-control equipment. I have this morning laid a further written ministerial statement before the House outlining a package of proposals resulting from that review, which concluded that measures should be taken to improve aspects of UK export policy. We will introduce a new mechanism to allow Ministers to respond more rapidly and decisively to the outbreak of conflict or to unpredicted events like the Arab spring, by suspending licensing. Our proposals also include steps to strengthen decision making when we provide security and justice assistance overseas. That announcement does not preclude additional measures or further strengthening of the system.

On all these issues, the Government will continue to defend human rights and support political and economic freedom and to work closely with our allies in the interests of peace and stability for this vital region.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, and for advance sight of it this morning. On the Government review of policy and practice relating to the export of equipment that might be used for internal repression, we will study the package carefully. I welcome the statement, given continuing events in the middle east, and note that the last time the House had the opportunity to discuss such a statement was on 29 June.

Let me turn first to Libya, where our forces are still engaged in upholding United Nations Security Council resolutions. Much progress has been made in Libya since the House last met, thanks in no small measure to the continuing and characteristic professionalism of our armed forces in enforcing those resolutions. Fighting continues around Sirte, as the Foreign Secretary says, and I would be grateful if he gave further details of the situation on the ground. I note the presence of the Defence Secretary, who has said that the fall of Sirte is “getting very close”; perhaps the Foreign Secretary is willing to give a time scale, given continuing events in the city.

Will the Foreign Secretary give his reaction to concerns expressed yesterday by the Libyan oil and finance Minister, Mr Ali Tarhouni, and the deputy chief of the national transitional council’s executive committee, that weapons are still entering the country in a way that could threaten its future stability?

On Syria, the right hon. Gentleman rightly condemned President Assad and urged him again to step aside. We welcome the fact that Europe has moved to broaden sanctions on the regime, including on its oil sales; Labour Members have argued for that for some months. However, it is six months since Ministers stated that Syria was

“at a fork in the road.”

In light of the continuing bloodshed and repression, will the Foreign Secretary give some detail of the character of the Turkish unilateral actions now under consideration, and will he give us more information on the expected extension of European Union sanctions?

I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed by the brevity of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks on Bahrain, given his previous recognition of the need for more fundamental reform there and, of course, its historically strong links with the United Kingdom. Indeed, in March the Foreign Secretary told the House that

“the King of Bahrain pledged himself…to further such reforms.”—[Official Report, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1137.]

However, in recent months, there has been little evidence of real and substantive reform, and further evidence of deeply troubling events, such as the sentencing of the doctors whom the Foreign Secretary spoke about. Will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that continuing worries about Bahrain will be met with ongoing diplomatic efforts from the British Government, and will he set out what steps he intends to take? In April, the Foreign Secretary expressed his frustration that

“In Yemen, attempts at agreeing a political transition have repeatedly stalled or failed.”—[Official Report, 4 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 753.]

Six months on, can he tell us what further steps he is planning to take to help prevent further dangerous deterioration in the situation there?

Recent events in Cairo will also cause concern to many who remain friends to the new Egypt. I join the Foreign Secretary in condemning unequivocally the killing of 24 Coptic Christians after recent demonstrations. That is just the latest, though clearly one of the most serious, causes of concern. The deaths in Cairo have reportedly prompted the resignation of Egypt’s Finance Minister, Hazem el-Beblawi; in addition, Egyptian output fell by 4.2% on the previous year in the first quarter of this year alone. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about what will happen to the Egyptian economy, and that access to European markets in particular needs to be accelerated?

Eight months after the revolution, the armed forces continue to run the country through their supreme council. The emergency laws originally introduced by President Mubarak have been maintained, and there is at least some talk of the presidential election being slipped to 2015. Will the Foreign Secretary share with the House the Government’s assessment of the situation, and his judgment as to when presidential elections will take place and when power will effectively be transferred from military to civilian authority?

Let me associate myself entirely with the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about the prospect of Gilad Shalit’s long-overdue release, and the recognition that a negotiated two-state solution remains the route towards peace and stability in the region. There is much common ground on the issue across the House. However, I note the carefully chosen words that the Foreign Secretary used in relation to the recognition of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations. Will he confirm today that it has never been the case that that recognition can only follow the conclusion of the negotiations? Will he offer the House a little more insight on where those discussions in the Security Council have reached?

Let me turn to Iran. I concur with the concerns expressed by the Foreign Secretary, but will he give us the British Government’s view of where that leaves the E3 plus 3 process? In June, he promised:

“Until Iran negotiates seriously, international pressure against it will only increase.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 35.]

Will he set out what measures he expects to use to increase that pressure? We know that being able to see protests elsewhere in the middle east and north Africa, online or on satellite television, was a key driver of the changes that we witnessed this year, so what action is the Government taking to support the BBC Persian service, which has been subject to repeated attempts to jam and otherwise block its important information?

These remain days of great possibility and great peril for the middle east and north Africa. I hope that the Government continue to keep the House updated in the weeks and months ahead.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those questions; I think that they reflect the large measure of agreement across the House on many of the issues. I shall run through his questions in the order in which he asked them.

The right hon. Gentleman was quite right, of course, to pay an additional tribute to our armed forces and the work that they have done on Libya. He asked what the situation is in Sirte. There remain two small, steadily shrinking areas where the pro-Gaddafi forces fight on. I do not think that it is possible to give a time scale—[Interruption.]—well, a more precise time scale than anyone has given so far, which is what the shadow Foreign Secretary was asking for. We have always resisted putting precise time scales on things. However, clearly great advances have been made by the free Libya forces in recent weeks and days, and there are now two small areas left. That shows that the pro-Gaddafi forces that remain are in a very difficult position.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to ask about weapons coming into the country. Indeed, that is part of the issue of the stabilisation of Libya. The national transitional council has been consistently underestimated in the past six months, at every stage. International opinion, many media commentators and sometimes those in this House thought that the council did not have the capacity or expertise to get a grip on its country. It has shown at every stage that it does, and I think that it will, in addition, have that ability when it comes to controlling the supply of weapons. We are giving it assistance in tracking down some of the weapons of the Gaddafi regime that have gone missing, and that assistance will continue.

Syria has long since passed the fork in the road. The right hon. Gentleman is right that back in March, I said that it was at a fork in the road—I said it for a while—but the Assad regime is now far past the fork, and sadly it took the wrong fork. That is why we said in August, along with the United States and our European partners, that Assad should go, and that the regime should come to an end. It is for the Turks to announce, of course, the details of their proposals. For reasons that will become obvious, I cannot give details of the next measure that the European Union will take; action against a major Syrian entity will be announced pretty soon.

The right hon. Gentleman was worried about the brevity of my remarks on Bahrain, but that was simply to comply with Mr Speaker’s strictures. One could talk for hours on any of the subjects that we are discussing, and if the House sets aside the time, I will be delighted to do so. Over the past few months, Bahrain has taken some actions that are welcome, and some that are very unwelcome; it has gone in different directions—sometimes at the same time, speaking frankly. It was welcome that it announced the commission of inquiry into abuses, and indeed put internationally respected people on it. I also welcome its decision, after the international outcry about the trial of the doctors and nurses, about the retrial. It is welcome that it has attempted, since the time that the right hon. Gentleman was talking about, a national dialogue in Bahrain, yet of course there are many valid, legitimate criticisms as well, and allegations of human rights abuses. That national dialogue has not yet been successful in bringing everybody together in Bahrain.

The diplomatic message to Bahrain is communicated in many different ways, including by me, in my conversations with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is in regular discussion with the Bahraini authorities. The National Security Adviser, Sir Peter Ricketts, recently visited Bahrain and made clear our views on all these matters, so I want to put the emphasis for the next 17 days, up to the publication of the commission of inquiry’s report, on the great importance that I think all of us in the House attach to that, because the credibility of the report and the readiness to act on it will be an important test of how Bahrain will approach the coming weeks and months.

In Yemen, we are taking many steps to support an orderly transition of power. I pay tribute again to the staff in our embassy in Yemen, who work in what is perhaps the most dangerous situation that any of our diplomats face around the world. I visited them there in February. They do a great job in supporting the Gulf Co-operation Council’s efforts to promote dialogue and trying to persuade all sides to sign up to the orderly transition of power. We continue to work closely with the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, on this. As I have said, we are about to discuss this in the United Nations Security Council and are considering whether a resolution there would add to the international pressure on the President to sign up to an orderly transition of power.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the Egyptian economy. I expressed those concerns to the Egyptian Foreign Minister when I talked with him last night and, in particular, asked him and the Egyptian Government to take steps to give investors in Egypt greater confidence about both security and in relation to recent court decisions. That is very important to British businesses, which are the largest investors in Egypt, particularly in the oil and gas sectors. He undertook to do that, and UK Ministers will of course strongly reiterate these concerns on forthcoming visits.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right to raise concerns about the timetable for presidential elections slipping. When I asked the Egyptian Foreign Minister about that yesterday, he said that he believed that the elections would take place by the summer of next year. According to other commentators, that is an optimistic timetable. Without interfering in the sovereign affairs of Egypt, I think that we can continue to express our view that the sooner such elections take place, the better. Egypt of course needs clear and strong civilian leadership in the form of a democratically elected President, and that cannot come about too soon.

The right hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement on welcoming the release of Gilad Shalit. The Security Council is considering the membership application of the Palestinians through its normal procedures. When and how to take that forward will be partly up to the Security Council and partly up to its members. There is currently no specific proposition before the Security Council on this. He said that I had expressed carefully chosen words on the issue. They are very carefully chosen, because words really matter on this issue. It is a delicate and difficult subject. Our words are all directed towards trying to bring about the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. How we act in the Security Council or on any motion that may come before the UN General Assembly will be determined by how we can bring about a resumption of negotiations. All 27 EU countries have withheld a verdict on motions at the UN, partly because there is currently no specific motion to vote on, but also to maximise our leverage over both Israelis and Palestinians to return to talks. That is the basis of our position and I think that it would be wrong to move away from it at the moment.

On Iran, we announced considerable additional European sanctions at the end of May. We are working on further sanctions, but I am not in a position to announce those today. The attempted action revealed by the United States this week makes a strong case for additional measures, which we are now discussing with our partners. The right hon. Gentleman rightly identified the importance of the BBC Persian service, through which we should communicate at every opportunity. Attempts are made to block that, but we of course support the service politically, diplomatically and technically in any way we can.

Order. We have taken quite a long time so far, so we need brevity in the questions that will be asked and certainly more brevity in the answers.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the advancements that could be made after the long-overdue release of Gilad Shalit could be followed by Hamas agreeing to recognise the state of Israel and renounce violence?

This successful negotiation is a ray of hope in a difficult and often bleak situation in the middle east. It shows that a successful negotiation can be carried out with the involvement of Israel and, as was necessary in this case, Hamas, through the good offices of Egypt, and I congratulated the Egyptian Foreign Minister on Egypt’s role in this. It would of course be welcome if Hamas were to move away from its rigid positions. If peace is to be brought about, it is very important that all concerned recognise Israel’s right to exist, support previous agreements and denounce the use of violence. It would be very welcome if Hamas would do those things or make concrete moves towards them.

On the same theme, does the Foreign Secretary accept that the continued economic siege of Gaza creates the space for the most extreme voices to gain traction there? If we are to see movement towards a proper negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is it not necessary for that economic siege to be lifted?

The hon. Gentleman’s terminology is slightly different from how I would describe the situation, but yes, we think that the Israelis should act to allow more goods into and out of Gaza. We have criticised the current policy on many occasions, although there have been some improvements over the past year. I agree with the gist of his remarks. Often the effect of the policy has been to strengthen the position of Hamas domestically within Gaza and its financial interests there. It would be wiser for Israel to change the policy, just as it is necessary for Hamas to change its policies in the way I have just described.

We have seen the winds of change blowing though north Africa and the middle east in an encouraging way and the British Government have been strong and robust in their words and actions, for which I congratulate the Foreign Secretary. We have also seen the opportunities in Israel and Palestine with the pending release of Gilad Shalit and the deal. It would be helpful, and compatible with the negotiations and Baroness Ashton’s intervention, if we ensured that Israel knows that Britain’s objective will be to recognise a Palestinian state as soon as possible so that there can be parity and equality in the negotiations and their conclusions?

It is of course our objective to help bring about a two-state solution. We believe in and want to see a Palestinian state, but that state will only be a truly viable state, in control of its own territory and able to make its own decisions, as a result of negotiations with Israel. We can pass all the resolutions we like at the United Nations, or not, but what is required is a successful negotiation. That is what we must keep in mind. Our attitude to the recognition and inclusion of Palestine at the United Nations is determined by how we can restart negotiations. I put it that way round, but the objective is absolutely as my right hon. Friend describes it—to have a Palestinian state.

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about carefully chosen words with regard to the Palestinian application for membership of the United Nations, will he note that the carefully chosen words of Obama and Clinton are already intended to oppose the application totally and bully and blackmail other countries as well as the Palestinians into opposing it? Will he assure the House that the Government will not succumb to that bullying and blackmailing and that they will do the right thing for the Palestinians?

Of course, I work closely with Secretary Clinton on this and other issues, so I do not characterise the United States’ policy as the right hon. Gentleman does. Nevertheless, there are differences between us and the United States in our approach to the issue. We voted in opposite ways on the resolution on settlements in February, and we have a different way of handling the Palestinian approach to the UN: the United States has discouraged it—that is absolutely right.

I believe, however, that President Abbas did achieve at the UN General Assembly the highlighting of the issue in front of the world. Nothing technically changed at the United Nations, but he did achieve that and did press on the world the urgency of it—and he was right to do that. So we do differ from the United States in many things that we say on the issue, although we share with them the objective of a negotiated two-state solution.

I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, and in particular I am very encouraged by mention of training and support, and whatever, for female candidates in Egypt. Can he assure me that the Government will continue to take a leading role in pressing for women to benefit from the new political and economic freedoms that we hope will sweep across the region?

Yes, absolutely. That is of immense importance and one of the potentially very exciting aspects of the ongoing change in the Arab world. Senior people in Saudi Arabia told me before the recent announcement by the King that they cannot treat the next generation of women in the same way as the previous generation—they know that.

We have made the case in all our contacts with the Libyan authorities for the much greater involvement of women in their public life. The International Development Secretary and I met leading women in civil society in Benghazi on our visit there in June, so we will continue very much to encourage that, and I agree with my hon. Friend.

Does the Foreign Secretary know why the Bahraini doctors and nurses are on trial in any court, criminal or civil, bearing in mind that they were just doing their jobs and could be covered by international humanitarian law?

It is absolutely not my brief to defend the Bahraini Government in their handling of the situation. There are allegations about those doctors and nurses, and some in Bahrain argue that they were not going about their jobs but doing other things. It is not for me, however, to state those allegations or to agree with them. Those people should have been tried, if they needed to be tried at all, in a transparent way, in a civil court and with, of course, a fair judgment at the end. Therefore, we welcome the decision that they should be retried, and we will all watch very closely how that retrial takes place and what the verdicts are.

The Foreign Secretary is right to draw attention to the elections being held in Morocco next month and to their importance. What significance does he ascribe to the far-reaching constitutional reforms announced as part of the referendum held in July in that country? Does he agree, as he has before, that Morocco offers a beacon of hope in a region that has been blighted by conflict and violent disorder over the past several months?

Yes, I do agree. The King of Morocco has shown a determination to be ahead of the curve in the demand for change, in his own country and throughout the region, and that should be strongly welcomed. I will visit Morocco shortly to see for myself what is happening and to discuss those matters in more detail. It is part of the excitement that we should feel about what is now possible in north Africa. If we just imagine Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and, we hope, Egypt as more open societies and economies, we find that the possibilities for their citizens in terms of freedom and economic progress are a tremendously exciting development in world affairs.

The first question that the Foreign Secretary was asked from the Government side of the House basically involved urging Hamas to recognise the state of Israel, and if I understood the Foreign Secretary correctly, he broadly agreed with that idea. I think that both sides of the House would have a real problem, whatever individual Palestinian or Israeli political parties did about recognising each other, if there were any doubt about the international community recognising Israel. That being the case, why should there be any doubt about the international community recognising Palestine? Sooner or later a decision will have to be made on the issue at the Security Council. How will the Foreign Secretary take the feeling of the House before Britain makes its decision on that question?

The paramount need is to return to negotiations—I stress that. The Palestinian state that the hon. Gentleman and I want to see come securely into existence will come about in the end only through successful negotiations, and therefore the difficulties that arise with ideas of UN resolutions at the Security Council or in the General Assembly are the dangers of resolutions that may undermine the prospect of negotiations, rather than buttress them. That is what we have to weigh in the balance, and carrying resolutions that then make it harder to pursue negotiations or are not accompanied by a clear commitment to return to negotiations may not be helpful. That is just one factor that we have to weigh in the balance.

On parliamentary opinion, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I make as many statements as possible on this subject—I think more in this calendar year than any Foreign Secretary has made in some decades; and, if the business managers can find time for debates on these matters, I would welcome it.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s rejection of the admonitions of some in this House for precipitate recognition of Palestinian statehood. He may know that in December 2008 I raised in an Adjournment debate the incarceration of Gilad Shalit, who has been in captivity since 25 June 2006. Will my right hon. Friend restate the imperative for Hamas to use that gesture as an opportunity to build for the future, to reject violence and terror, and to move towards peace and prosperity under the auspices of the Quartet principles?

Yes, I very much agree. In line with my earlier answer to our hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott), that is absolutely right. That gesture is a glimmer of hope, but it is very good news in the individual case of Gilad Shalit. In terms of the overall scene we should not overstate it, as it is a glimmer of hope, but all sides should now seek to build on it.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s focus on the importance of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as the only way to achieve a viable and lasting Palestinian state alongside Israel, but what steps is he taking to secure the resumption of those negotiations, without conditions, as the Quartet requests?

We have made our view very clear, including in discussions at the United Nations General Assembly. For instance, during the General Assembly ministerial week last month, I held direct talks with President Abbas and with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr Lieberman. At the beginning of that week, our Prime Minister also spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister about the matter, and we have urged all of them to return to negotiations in the spirit that I described in my statement.

Of course, we work through the European Union as a whole and through the very good work of Baroness Ashton on the matter, and we also influence the work of the Quartet—the EU, the UN, the United States and Russia —whose statement on 23 September provided the framework and timetable for a resumption of negotiations, so we are active on this issue on all diplomatic fronts.

I commend my right hon. Friend and, particularly, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on their work over many years to secure the release of Gilad Shalit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that Israel has released more then 1,000 prisoners, many of whom were involved in horrific terrorist atrocities, shows that it is willing to negotiate and to make some moves towards peace?

Yes, I do agree, and I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, as does the Under-Secretary; we are grateful for that. The release does show such willingness, but it is now important to replicate it in other negotiations.

In this case, Israel has made, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) suggests, a decisive offer to bring about the release of Gilad Shalit; we now need Israel to make decisive offers on a much grander scale in order to bring about a two-state solution. That is what we urge it to do in the coming weeks. It will be necessary for Israel to do so if we are to arrive at that two-state solution, because without that solution Israel will be in a steadily more isolated and dangerous international situation.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for the individual efforts that he made with regard to Gilad Shalit; I know that that is greatly appreciated. I also support his comments about the persecution and murder of Coptic Christians and other minorities in Egypt.

Turning to the cocktail of crises on the African continent, is it not about time that there was an Africa summit led by this nation, with our partners across the world, to address the many-faceted problems and to keep world attention on those problems so that we can help to resolve them and bring freedom, encouragement and business acumen to that continent?

There are, in effect, many such summits. The G8 summit at Deauville at the end of May focused absolutely on that, and it was followed up by a meeting of the G8 Finance Ministers early in September and the meeting of G8 Foreign Ministers in New York that I attended on 20 September. That is about much of the western world—the developed world—trying to ensure that it is a magnet for change and for economic and political freedom in north Africa. A total of $38 billion of finance is available multilaterally to these countries. That effort is very much going on. Of course, the African Union also holds its own summits, and we are present and active around them—my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, in particular. This country has a very strong record in promoting freedom and prosperity in Africa.

The positive example of Liberia and the rather more depressing tale of Angola show that the involvement of women in post-conflict negotiations is not just a matter of equality—it is absolutely vital for security and stability. How is the Foreign Secretary using his influence to ensure, at this critical time in the formation of new Governments and institutions in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, that women are around the table, with full speaking rights, as an essential part of those future successful states?

That is a very high priority for the Department for International Development in all the work that it does, and it is an important priority in our Arab Partnership fund. I listed earlier some of the projects that we are undertaking: for instance, to train and assist female candidates for election in Egypt. Of course, we cannot ensure that such things happen in those countries—we are not a sovereign power—but we can transmit the right signals and encouragement all the time, and we do so. The Prime Minister very much did that in his meeting with national transitional council members in Tripoli a few weeks ago. I will be visiting Libya and many other north African countries shortly, and I will return to that subject constantly.

Would not a successful resolution on UN membership for Palestine strengthen the hand of Fatah, whereas at the moment, with the prisoner exchange, Hamas is looking as though it is more successful than Fatah?

The hon. Gentleman has an important point. It is true that how we act at the United Nations and how we promote negotiations must support the work of the moderate leaders of the Palestinians. I do not think that Israel is going to have better partners than President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for reaching peace and a two-state solution. That is why we should not be dismissive of their efforts and what they have brought to the United Nations, with President Abbas’s speech on 23 September. It nevertheless remains the case that a return to negotiations is the only way to bring about what we want. The simple passing of resolutions, if passed in a form that makes the situation worse in some ways—the US Congress has threatened to cut off funding and the Israeli Government have threatened to withhold tax revenues under certain scenarios—would not bring about that negotiated solution. That remains our paramount interest in our approach to these matters.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his comprehensive statement. There are worrying signs in Egypt. Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, there has been increasing use of summary justice and emergency powers, as well as the reports of shooting of Coptic Christians. What is Britain doing specifically to facilitate the transition to democracy there? In particular, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is vital that the forthcoming elections are overseen by international monitors?

In answer to the early part of my hon. Friend’s question, we are active in particular projects in Egypt, and we are also active diplomatically, in persuasion and pressure where necessary about respect for minorities such as the Copts in Egypt, respect for human rights, and so on. My hon. Friend will have to remind me of the last point in his question.

Monitors, yes. In the case of Egypt, it is important that the terminology is right. The Egyptians do not like the term monitors, or even observers—I think they would prefer to call such people witnesses—but the concept is the same. I discussed that with the Egyptian Foreign Minister last night. Certainly, Egypt is now accepting such witnesses—or monitors, or whatever they are to be called—for the forthcoming elections.

I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s initiative in seeking a discussion on Yemen at the Security Council. Does he know why the President of Yemen has changed his mind? He had agreed to go, the Gulf states and he backed it, and now he has changed his mind. Will the Foreign Secretary consider making a visit to Sana’a, as he has before, perhaps with another EU Foreign Minister, to try to enter into a proper discussion on these matters?

We will consider any step that helps. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to read the mind of the President of Yemen. Having met him on my visit in February, I know that that is an extremely difficult thing to do, even when sitting talking to him, let alone watching developments from afar. I do not know whether he has changed his mind or whether he ever decided to give up power; there are different hypotheses about that. One of the constraining factors is the presence of people around him who do not want to give up power, whatever his own intentions. There are indications that that puts back the signing of an agreement and an orderly transition. We will keep on with all our efforts and pursue them in any effective way that we can. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s welcome for our approach at the United Nations.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have just returned from a trip to Jordan and the west bank. I used the opportunity of a meeting with the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister, Mr Fayyad, to call on him to facilitate the release of Gilad Shalit. I was therefore delighted when that action took place the following day. However, I do not claim the credit; I express the delight of everyone in this House that it has finally happened. During the visit, it became evident to me that the level of settlement activity on the west bank is speeding up, and that is obviously of great importance. Will my right hon. Friend therefore make sure that the Palestinians return to negotiations urgently, rather than using their time lobbying members of the Security Council and the United Nations to secure a vote, so that we can get a viable two-state solution?

I am pleased that my hon. Friend raised the case of Gilad Shalit; he is well on his way to a Nobel peace prize for the instant result that was achieved on that. Yes, the pace of settlement activity, which is illegal and which is on occupied land, is wrong. It is also one reason why it is an urgent issue, because a two-state solution will become impossible in a few years’ time if it is not arrived at in the near future. That means Palestinians returning to talks, but it also means Israelis returning to them ready to make a decisive offer to Palestinians.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that very many Palestinians—I would imagine the large majority—believe that the western Governments, including the British Government, are much more on the side of Israel than of Palestine, and that therefore the question of a vote in the United Nations, if there is to be one, is of crucial importance regarding the line that Britain is going to take?

We are on the side of a two-state solution. We want a secure Israel living alongside a viable and secure Palestinian state. I do not see us as being on one side or the other. We make no compromises on the security or the legitimacy of Israel. The hon. Gentleman can gather from my remarks today and on many other occasions, and from the way that we have voted on settlements at the Security Council, that we believe in putting Israel under pressure to arrive at a two-state solution. We have done more of that, I have to say, than happened under any previous Government. That is the direction of our policy; it is not a matter of taking sides one way or the other.

May I turn the House’s attention to today’s written ministerial statement on the arms export regime? I welcome the tightening and strengthening of that regime, but there remain real concerns that British-made matériel is being used to suppress democratic movements, particularly in Bahrain. Will the Foreign Secretary publish the review and tell the House what more he is doing to stop British-made matériel being used to persecute people seeking democratic reform?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome for this move. On Bahrain, there is no evidence of British-made equipment being used in that way. He will be aware that we revoked export licences to Bahrain to try to make sure of that for the future. The review points the way to being able to make such decisions at earlier stages if enough is known about a situation. The internal report gives advice to Ministers and contains commercial information, so I do not envisage publishing it, although I have published its conclusions. As I indicated in the written ministerial statement, I am open to taking further measures and to further consideration of the matter.

We support the Foreign Secretary when he condemns Gaddafi’s torture in Libya and Bashar Assad’s torture in Syria. Why will he not condemn the al-Khalifa family’s torture in Bahrain? Is he aware that the senior police officers who were suspended for that torture have been reinstated? Women doctors should not be put in prison after a fake trial. If that happened in Burma or Zimbabwe, the Foreign Secretary would be straight out there calling for their release. Instead of welcoming an announcement and attaching great importance to it, will the Foreign Secretary say from the Dispatch Box that these women should be freed this afternoon?

I think that I have been very clear in what I have said about that matter. I do not think that the Bahraini Government are in any doubt about our views on these issues; I expressed them forcefully to the Bahraini ambassador last week. They must not miss the opportunity that is there with the report on 30 October. The difference between Bahrain and Libya is that a political process is alive in Bahrain. The only way forward for Bahrain is for that political process to succeed and for an accommodation to be reached between its Shi’a and Sunni communities. That is a different situation from the one that prevailed in Libya six months ago.

I lived for three years in Yemen, for three years in Bahrain and also in Jordan. I was always told not to make any comment about the Sunni or Shi’a branches of Islamic religion. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to ensure, as I am sure he is doing, that our diplomats are utterly bipartisan and as neutral as possible in this matter, because it has a knock-on effect elsewhere, for example, dare I say it, in trade?

Yes, I assure my hon. Friend that our diplomats are religiously neutral about religion. We support the rights of minorities throughout the world, including the right to freedom of worship. In that, we do not differentiate religions and that should apply all over the world.

I have profound respect for the role of our armed services in Libya. However, we know from experience in Afghanistan and Iraq that the challenges of post-war reconstruction can be as taxing as military operations. Will the Foreign Secretary soon make a written statement to spell out our plans for post-war reconstruction in Libya and for the development of democratic institutions using agencies such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy? Will Britain support the inclusion of Libya in NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue?

I will seek every opportunity to keep the House updated on what we are doing. To give a brief answer, I stress that this is a very different situation from Iraq or Afghanistan: there is no serious damage to the civilian infrastructure, it is a Libyan-led effort and there is no occupying army. The hon. Gentleman asks about our plans, but I stress that they are Libya’s plans for the stabilisation of its country. They are not plans for reconstruction, because the children are at school, the shops are open and the traffic is running, as I have seen for myself in Tripoli and Benghazi. We are involved in many ways, some of which I listed in my statement. As matters develop, as the transitional Government come in and as the UN mission expands its work, I would be happy to spell out in more detail in a written statement or in another statement to the House what we will be doing.

In the past year, the Egyptian economy has shrunk by more than 4%. That is reflected throughout the middle east, demonstrating that the Arab spring started because of economic disadvantage and a lack of economic opportunities. What efforts is the Foreign Secretary making to sponsor a dialogue between the European Union and those African countries? He has mentioned the efforts of the British authorities, but surely the crucial factor will be reaching an EU-wide agreement to support those economies and help them through this difficult period.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. That is why we place such emphasis on the European neighbourhood policy being a bold and ambitious policy that offers closer economic integration to those countries. There was a very good meeting of the EU-Tunisia taskforce on this matter in the past couple of weeks. That needs to be followed up by looking at Egypt. The role of the European Union is really in solidifying and expanding the economic links, and I think that that work is going on.

On a recent visit to Gaza, the United Nations was keen to stress that 800,000 Gazans were living on UN food aid and that 600,000 of those people would receive no food aid at all come 1 January because of a lack of funds. If poverty is a major barrier to peace in the region, what can the Foreign Secretary do to remedy the impending humanitarian disaster?

Through the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, we are one of the biggest contributors to the funding that goes to Gaza. Wherever such problems arise, we encourage other nations to join in with such funding. We will encourage other nations to do that, as indeed we have been doing. We are on to that.

What estimate has the Foreign Office made of the number of Libyan students currently studying in the UK? There are a number in Leicester who have made representations to me. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what arrangements are in place to ensure that those students continue to get funding from Libya so that they can continue in their studies?

That was one of the major issues when we ordered the closure of the embassy of the old regime. From memory, there were about 8,000 Libyan students in the UK at that stage. Of course, that varies from one academic year to another. We were concerned at that time to ensure that the financial arrangements for those students were robust. Certainly, enough money was set aside for their support to be continued. We will monitor how that situation develops. The new Government of Libya have access to substantial financial resources and we will look to them to continue the support that has been given in the past.

I commend the work of the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on religious freedom in the middle east and north Africa, and the specific action that the Foreign Secretary took last night with regard to Egypt. Will he say a little more about his general approach to religious freedom across the region, which is experiencing much change at the moment?

The whole House believes in such freedom, in the rule of law and in places of worship being respected. The Foreign Minister of Egypt assured me last night that the violence with the Copts, in which 36 people were killed, is being investigated through an inquiry and that legislation concerning places of worship will be brought forward in Egypt. I hope that that will help to guarantee, at least in law, the sanctity of those places. Beyond that, there is a wider argument to be won across the middle east and north Africa. British and other western voices should be strong in that argument, pointing out the great advantages to those societies of diversity and respect for freedom of religion. Amid all the horrors of the Syrian regime, one good thing in recent years has been the right of minorities to practise their religion in Syria. We hope that that will continue.