I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of political developments and security in the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
It is a timely moment for this debate. Next month, as hon. Members know, it will be a year since the death of the fruit seller, Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which heralded the eruption of mass democracy movements across the middle east and north Africa, bringing the potential for significant advances in human rights and freedom, as well as, of course, risk and uncertainty. Supporting positive change and reducing instability in these areas is one of the highest priorities in British foreign policy, and is therefore an important subject for debate.
I wish to record my gratitude to the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and those who serve in the regions we are debating today or who support our efforts from London and in international institutions such as the United Nations and NATO. Their work over this last year has been outstanding, and we could not have done without them.
Over the last six months, the Foreign Office has been extremely active in rallying international action over Libya. Over the coming months, we will be pushing forward international policy on Somalia with equal energy, starting with a major conference hosted on 23 February in London by the Prime Minister. I want to concentrate my initial remarks on the horn of Africa and the Sahel, before turning to deal with north Africa and the middle east, which we so often debate and on which I have made many statements.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have died in recent months; a million are internally displaced and facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The country is a scene of great human suffering, but it is also a base for piracy and terrorism, which exacerbate the country’s plight and threaten our own security. The transitional federal Government in Mogadishu need to succeed in making the necessary political progress to begin to stabilise the country.
We need a more effective international approach that addresses the root causes of the crisis. In our view, this requires a new inclusive political process; a coherent strategy to undermine al-Shabaab and tackle piracy; and economic support, humanitarian aid and assistance to the African Union Mission in Somalia—AMISOM.
The aim of the February conference in London will be to build agreement on such a reinforced international approach. We have been laying the groundwork for some time. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary visited Mogadishu in August—the first British Minister to set foot there since 1992—and on my visit to Ethiopia and to Kenya in July, I met the Somali Prime Minister and, separately, the President of Somaliland.
We are taking increased action on piracy through the use of naval assets as part of the international forces operating in the gulf of Aden, protecting the transit corridors and the wider Indian ocean; we are working with the shipping industry and are allowing armed guards on UK-flagged ships. We are also providing funding to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to continue developing prisons and prosecution facilities on the ground in Somalia and in the wider horn of Africa, as well as operating bilateral transfer agreements, which will facilitate the transfer of suspected pirates back to Somalia to serve their sentences.
The Foreign Secretary said that he had met members of the transitional Government and the leaders of Somaliland separately. Will he clarify the position of our Government in regard to the long-standing aspiration of people in Somaliland towards some form of self-government?
I met those representatives separately for many reasons, including the fact that one set were in Ethiopia and the other set were in Kenya. Although we understand the wishes and desires of Somaliland, its leaders and its people, we have continued, to date, the policy of previous British Governments of not recognising it as a separate country. We think that the emphasis must be on trying to resolve the problems of Somalia as a whole. They are integrated problems, and we need an inclusive political process as well as the strategy to undermine al-Shabaab and effective action to deal with piracy. That must be our priority, and I do not think it right, at this moment, to change our policy on the recognition of Somaliland.
I should like to develop the theme. I greatly welcome the approach that the Foreign Secretary is taking, and his engagement and that of his Ministers with the issue. Does he agree that Somaliland has earned respect by the way in which it has developed its own system and democratic structures, and the way in which it has been helping to deal with the problems in the south over recent months? Does he also agree that it is necessary to find a way in which these neighbours can be in the same room, with respect being paid to the democratic achievements of Somaliland, rather than their being virtually told that they cannot play a role in the same debates as the transitional federal Government?
Yes, I broadly agree with that. I think that a great deal of progress has been made. We have increased our contact and engagement with Somaliland, and my meeting with the leaders of Somaliland in Addis Ababa was part of that. We will continue to encourage everyone to move in the co-operative direction that the right hon. Gentleman recommends.
It is commendable that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are organising a conference next year, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that members of a delegation from Hargeisa in Somaliland will be invited in their own right? I think that otherwise the administration in Somaliland will feel that they are in the background, and that all the attention is being focused on the transitional federal Government in Mogadishu.
They have been invited, as I have just been reminded by the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), and their engagement will be very important.
We have committed £128 million in famine relief for Somalia since July, and nearly £4 million this year to support the African Union Mission in Somalia. The United Kingdom already makes a huge contribution to efforts to improve matters there.
The Foreign Secretary spoke of putting guards on merchant vessels. That was announced at the end of October. Will he tell us what has happened since then, particularly in regard to the establishment of the procedures and protocols and the various rules?
The rules will follow briskly, but of course these things take time to organise. The fact that there has been an announcement does not mean that there will instantly be a guard on every ship; it means that the procedures are in the process of being changed. I have no reason to think that people are dragging their feet, but I will check and write to the right hon. Gentleman, because we will certainly not let them drag their feet.
Successive British Governments have grappled with the problems emanating from Somalia, but we believe that now is the time to seek intensified international action, which I hope the House will welcome.
Regrettably, the situation in Sudan is also deteriorating. I was present when South Sudan became independent in July, when effective international diplomacy helped to ensure a largely peaceful separation from its northern neighbour. Recent events, including the bombing of South Sudan by the Sudanese air force on November 10, have jeopardised the prospect of Sudan and South Sudan co-existing peacefully in a stable region. We urge both sides to exercise restraint and refrain from military activity in each other’s territory, including through support to proxy forces. We are deeply concerned by the lack of humanitarian access in the conflict areas of southern Kordofan and Blue Nile state, and I urge the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement to address this and to negotiate for a lasting peace settlement. The two countries must resolve remaining legacy issues from the comprehensive peace agreement, particularly on oil revenue, citizenship, border demarcation and the status of the disputed region of Abyei.
The House does not often debate the Sahel, but it is a region of growing importance to the UK. I visited Mauritania in October, becoming the first British Minister ever to do so, as a signal that Britain will seek closer engagement with it and the wider region. The Sahel is deeply affected by poverty, insecurity, weak governance and a lack of education and employment opportunities. The revolution in Libya has also had an impact, risking an influx of weaponry from Libya as well as potential new recruits for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in the form of former mercenaries.
I did have discussions on that in Mauritania, as well as on my visits to Morocco and Algeria on the same trip. The hon. Gentleman will be well acquainted with the position of successive British Governments on this matter. We encourage Morocco and the Polisario Front to reach a mutually acceptable and lasting political solution, which provides for the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara, and we support the work of Ambassador Ross in trying to make progress in that regard. I had plentiful discussions on that long-standing problem with all the Governments in the region.
When my right hon. Friend was in Mauritania, I hope he had a chance to listen to its concerns about European Union vessels fishing off the Mauritania coast, raping the sea there, and about the EU not financing some of the projects it promised to fund in Mauritania.
My hon. Friend was, I think, the first Member of Parliament to visit Mauritania in a long time, and he is right to bring attention to that issue. On my visit, we were discussing regional security issues however, so we did not get into the detail of the fishing arrangements, but of course we want them to be resolved to the satisfaction of the countries in the region.
On the Western Sahara, are there any developments at all in respect of the referendum? It was a long time ago when I was shadow Foreign Secretary and went to the Western Sahara and the camps in the Algerian desert, but even then the referendum was regarded as the solution. That was a long time ago, so this is a long time to wait for a democratic vote.
Yes, it is a long time. The problem has been almost identical ever since when the right hon. Gentleman was shadow Foreign Secretary, so this certainly counts as a long-standing problem in world affairs, as I said. The sad news is that there has not been progress on this issue, but there are repeated and continued international efforts to make progress. I referred to the diplomatic work that is going on, and there will be further discussions on this matter over the coming months, but I do not have any better news to pass on than the right hon. Gentleman will remember from the time when he was dealing with this issue in more detail.
I was talking about the influence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—AQIM. It is increasing its influence throughout the region. Operating largely from northern Mali, it presents an increased threat to our security. Last Friday, a group of visitors to Timbuktu was kidnapped. I want to stress to British nationals that they should carefully note our travel advice, which advises against all travel to most of Niger, Mauritania and Mali, including Timbuktu. AQIM is known to have established contact with Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group operating in Nigeria, contributing to the growing strength and ambition of that group in recent months and extending AQIM’s reach into northern Nigeria. We are stepping up our efforts to counter terrorism in the Sahel region and to support economic and political development. We are co-funding a military and police base on the Mali-Algeria border, as well as emergency planning training in Mali and Niger. We are also working closely with Nigeria to combat the threat of terrorism, following the Prime Minister’s visit in July.
We are also working with France and other European allies to develop an effective EU approach to security and development in the Sahel. Plans are at an early stage for a small, focused and carefully calibrated common security and defence policy mission in the region, focusing on policing, security, infrastructure development and regional training. Funding for this mission would come from the common foreign and security policy part of the EU budget. As we already contribute to that budget, this mission will place no additional resource burden upon us, save for minimal costs associated with the deployment of any British personnel. Once we have an agreed outline of this mission, we will submit it to parliamentary scrutiny. The mission is necessary to safeguard our own national security and to help countries in the region.
Instability in the Sahel could have a profoundly destabilising effect on countries in north Africa and the Gulf that are currently engaged in moves to open up their political and economic systems to different degrees. That was particularly apparent on my visit to Algeria in October. Important steps there to lift broadcast media restrictions and reform the electoral system take place against a backdrop of military confrontation with al-Qaeda. As the House understands, the politics and history of each country in the wider middle east are very different. But the contrasting experiences of those Governments beginning peaceful reform now and of regimes such as those in Syria and Iran that have set their face against reform altogether show that moves towards greater political and economic openness are essential for their long-term security and prosperity, as well as being right in themselves. So we welcome the recent elections in Tunisia, and the efforts under way to form a Government who reflect the will of the Tunisian people.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is about to discuss last Friday’s general election in Morocco. Will he note that the PJD, a moderate Islamic party—apparently—has emerged as the largest party? Does he share my slight concern at that, because Islamic parties, however moderate they may profess themselves to be, have a tendency to move away from the west, and that would be a great pity in the case of Morocco?
My hon. Friend invites me neatly on to my next paragraph. As he rightly says, last week voters also went to the polls in Morocco to choose a new Government, following the constitution passed in a referendum in July. That is an important part of Morocco’s progress towards greater democratic accountability. We urge Morocco and Tunisia to turn these democratic gains into real reform that meets the long-term aspirations of their people. That is the answer to my hon. Friend’s question; we have advocated democracy in these countries, and where they have turned to democracy and are holding free, fair and respected elections, we must respect the outcome of democratic votes and not try to second-guess the electorates of those countries. The test for us is not their domestic programmes—that is up to these countries—but whether they are able to continue choosing Governments in the future, having further elections and having alternating Governments in the future. Many African countries, for example, Zambia, have recently set a good example in that regard. That is the test. I do not think that we should couple our support for democracy with regular or constant criticism of parties that engage in the democratic process in these countries.
Is it not worth taking into account that although the Moroccan Islamist party may be the largest single party, it obtained only just over a quarter of the vote and, as in Tunisia, non-Islamist parties in both these elections have emerged with a large majority of the popular vote? That indicates that public opinion is not necessarily going to be dominated by the Islamist point of view.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point and what he has described has indeed been the pattern so far in Tunisia and Morocco. In addition, we must not prejudge how these parties will develop. Understandably, there is some anxiety about that, but they will find in many countries that they are under pressure increasingly to secularise their policies in order to deal with the practical concerns of their people. We will see over time—but only over time—how they develop.
On that particular point, does the Foreign Secretary not accept that in Tunisia there were some concerns about whether Ennahda would be able to represent all of Tunisia? In fact, Ennahda was expected not to meet the rule that was brought in requiring 50% women candidates but, in the end, 42 of the 49 women elected to the Tunisian Parliament came from that party.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a very important point and that is why we should not dismiss the gains and popularity of such parties or assume that their programmes will necessarily be a retrograde step for those countries. The situation might vary from one country to another and we should avoid generalising.
On the question of people’s long-term aspirations and democratic gains, let me turn at greater length to Bahrain and some of the other countries I have mentioned. Members on both sides will have studied the long-awaited report of the independent commission of inquiry set up by King Hamad of Bahrain. The report confirms shocking and distressing abuses, including the use of excessive and unnecessary force against protestors, deaths in custody as a result of torture, the
“systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment”
of detainees, the “deliberate terrorising” of the families of suspects, arbitrary arrests and many other violations of international and Bahraini law. It also points the finger of blame at some protestors who targeted the Bahraini security forces.
The commission has set out clear steps for the Bahraini Government to take, including the establishment of an independent national committee to oversee implementation of its recommendations, an independent committee to hold to account those who broke the law, an independent investigation into deaths caused by the security forces and into allegations of torture and abuse, a permanent new anti-torture organisation that would also oversee human rights training for security forces, the recruitment of Shi’as into the security forces and pardon or acquittal of all those convicted of crimes relating to freedom of expression. The commission called on the Government to publish a timetable for implementation of those and its many other recommendations.
We condemn the behaviour described in the report and call for the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations in full. We also acknowledge the groundbreaking nature of the commission. This is the first time that any Government in the region have set up an international investigation into allegations of abuse, and we welcome King Hamad’s pledge to use the report as a “catalyst for change” to overcome the country’s divisions. I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Bahrain immediately after the issuing of the report, to urge its implementation and offer British support for that objective. Now is the time for Bahrain’s Government and opposition groups to engage constructively, to promote tolerance and reconciliation and to demonstrate a shared commitment to a peaceful future for Bahrain.
Given what the Foreign Secretary has just said about Bahrain, is it appropriate—or was it appropriate, as I do not know what the position is now—to continue to train Bahraini military personnel at British establishments, for the Prime Minister to be photographed on the steps of No. 10 shaking the hand of the Bahraini Crown Prince, or to invite the Bahrainis to a British arms fair? Those human rights abuses have been known for many years.
The abuses the commission talks about have taken place in recent months. I think that it is right—we have considered this carefully at every stage—to have maintained a degree of engagement with Bahrain over recent months. The Prime Minister and I have had meetings with the Crown Prince of Bahrain when he has visited London and I have maintained regular telephone contact with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain. Yes, there are links between our armed forces, and the Royal Navy minesweepers that operate in the Gulf are based in Bahrain. I think that it has been right to continue that engagement while making clear public criticism of what has gone wrong—criticism that I have reiterated today.
Bahrain looks to us for advice and we have repeatedly said that the commission is of enormous importance and that its publication would be of enormous importance and we have urged the Bahrainis to follow the path of treating such a commission seriously and using it as a catalyst for change. Such improvements as we might now see might be partly the product, in some ways, of the engagement of some western countries with the rulers of Bahrain, so it is therefore important to keep that up. In all these countries our Government are ready to support projects to achieve greater political participation, tackle corruption and assist employment. Our Arab Partnership fund, which I announced in February this year, is already supporting 47 projects on political and economic reform in nine countries across the region from Morocco to Iraq. During the visit by His Majesty the King of Jordan to London earlier this month, we agreed to increase our economic co-operation and support for reform in Jordan.
In Egypt, unrest is being fuelled by the fact that the democratic transition is proceeding more slowly than many in the country had hoped, as well as by economic hardship. As a result, last week we saw the largest demonstrations at any time since the revolution. More than 40 people died in violent clashes in Cairo and other cities. We have condemned those deaths and the use of excessive force by the Egyptian security forces. I welcome the fact that, despite these events, parliamentary elections are under way today, and I congratulate the people of Egypt as they go to the polls. Free, fair and credible elections are essential to retaining public confidence and keeping Egypt on track for presidential elections by the end of June 2012. The Egyptian authorities must build trust that there will be a full transition to civilian control, with the military stepping back from power, as well as economic recovery. The new Government being formed should be inclusive and enjoy broad support. I spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister on Thursday to convey these messages.
We have to do our utmost to help Egypt and the countries of the Arab world to make a success of more open political systems and economies, and it is overwhelmingly in our interests to do so. This is very apparent in Yemen, which has experienced 10 months of acute violence.
May I ask about Egypt before my right hon. Friend moves on? Nobody would wish to offer any succour or comfort to those responsible for the deaths and violence in Tahrir square last week, but is it not a little unwise for some western countries to call for the immediate removal of the military regime at a time when the country is facing economic collapse? Is not the long-term process of democratic elections, which will take three months at least, much more important at the moment?
We have called for power to pass to a civilian Government as rapidly as possible, but also for elections to take place. It is quite right for the presidential election to be brought forward to next June rather than for it to take place in 2013. Those are the sorts of things we have urged on the Egyptian authorities. I have always argued with Egyptian leaders that they need a presidential system with strong democratic accountability, which they did not have before, in a country such as theirs and that they were leaving it too late to elect their President. I think we are giving sensible advice. At the heart of this matter is the fact that the elections should proceed, as my hon. Friend says.
I was just beginning to talk about Yemen. We welcome the fact that on 23 November President Saleh signed the Gulf Co-operation Council agreement at a ceremony attended in Riyadh, which was attended by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). This paves the way for the formation of a national unity Government, a Prime Minister nominated by the Opposition, and early presidential elections within 90 days. I congratulate the GCC countries on that agreement. All sides in Yemen must work together to re-establish internal security and tackle its huge economic and humanitarian problems.
May I congratulate and thank the Foreign Secretary and the British Government for the patient diplomatic efforts they have made over the past few months, including the move in the Security Council to try to get the President of Yemen to sign the agreement, which he has now done? Is there absolute confidence that he will stick to that agreement? Given that the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), is present, let me ask whether we can now start to provide the aid that Yemen so desperately needs at this time in its history.
I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks. I should particularly like to credit our ambassador in Yemen, John Wilks, who has done fantastic work in very dangerous—literally physically dangerous—circumstances in the past few months. Last year, there were two very serious attempts on the lives of our diplomats in Yemen. They do an extraordinary job in working there and we have kept our embassy functioning at all times. We will now do all we can to support this process and the work of Vice-President Hadi and the transitional Government. I propose to discuss these things with him soon. We have already provided more than £15 million in UK aid this year alone, but DFID has been restricted in what it can do. This is less than the Budget originally provided because of the very difficult security situation on the ground. We can do more in the development sense in Yemen once security has more widely returned.
As to absolute confidence, it would be a very brave Minister—indeed, a foolhardy one—who expressed absolute confidence in what will happen next in Yemen, after what we have been through in recent years. Nevertheless, the signing of the GCC agreement by the President in the presence of so many regional leaders, including His Majesty the King of Saudi Arabia, is a very big step forward. Now we all have to give every assistance to the process being carried out on the timetable that has been set out.
On Libya, the House will welcome the announcement of a transitional Government, headed by Prime Minister al-Kib. The transitional Government will pave the way for elections to a national congress, a new constitution and elections to a Parliament in 18 months’ time. There are positive signs that the Prime Minister seeks a new Libya built on human rights and the rule of law.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the report issued by the UN Secretary-General, which says that there are up to 7,000 enemies of the state who have disappeared or are being maltreated and tortured in militia-held prisons? Clearly, we cannot have double standards about this. We went to war to protect human rights. We must go on putting maximum pressure on the new Libyan Government.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. Members on all sides will be concerned by reports of the abuse of detainees and of other human rights violations. I raised the issue with the new Prime Minister of Libya when I spoke to him 10 days ago. It is important that the Government’s commitment to uphold human rights is translated into visible action, and we look to them to do that. There are positive signs, as I was saying, that the new Government will be built on human rights and the rule of law. The new Government includes five women, two of whom are Ministers heading the Departments for Health and Social Affairs, respectively. Libya has also now resumed its seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
The Government face urgent challenges, in addition to the one that we have just mentioned, to ensure law and order, control weaponry and integrate revolutionary fighters into the security forces or help them to find other employment. The capture of Saif al-Islam was a significant moment which will help to bring the whole Gaddafi era to a close. The Libyan authorities have committed themselves to ensuring that he receives a fair trial and have indicated their preference for a trial in Libya, which is provided for in the Rome statute. We will urge them to co-operate with the International Criminal Court, as indeed they have said they will do.
Libyans are not alone, of course, in wishing to ensure accountability for crimes attributed to the Gaddafi regime. We, too, wish to see the killers of WPC Yvonne Fletcher brought to justice, and the resolution of other issues that have scarred lives and our relations with Libya, including the Lockerbie bombing and Gaddafi’s support for IRA terrorism. There is no expiry date for such crimes, and we will work to support British nationals seeking justice and closure for these terrible episodes.
We will be a strong partner with the new Libya, working to build a better future for Libyans and strong bilateral relations. We will work together in a range of areas including education, migration, trade and investment and security co-operation. It will take time to cement Libya’s transition from 42 years of dictatorial rule, but the House and our country can be proud of Britain’s role in saving lives and helping to bring about this historic change.
We have done that. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, in particular has been in direct contact with Ministers in Niger, and we have reminded them and other countries in the region of their international responsibilities, which they have assured us they will live up to.
The progress that Libya is making stands in stark contrast to the repression in Syria. The toll of more than 3,500 lost lives since March this year is truly appalling. The UN commission of inquiry report issued today highlights the shocking actions carried out by the Assad regime against its own civilian population, including summary executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and the violation of children’s rights. I welcome yesterday’s unprecedented decision by the Arab League to impose sanctions on Syria and seek UN support to address the situation. The decision by Russia and China to block Security Council action on 4 October was utterly wrong and, in my view, has been confirmed as misguided by everything that has happened in Syria subsequently.
We have discussed that at some length, as the hon. Gentleman can imagine. The Prime Minister and I discussed it with Russian leaders, including President Medvedev, on our visit to Moscow a couple of months ago. We are in constant contact about it at the UN Security Council, as are our representatives there. I continue to believe that it would be right for the Security Council to address the issue and we will make further attempts to do so. Of course, passing any resolution will require a different attitude from Moscow.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the welcome decision by the Arab League, but I understand that at least two important neighbours of Syria— Lebanon and Iraq—have said that they will not impose sanctions. Is that because of the influence of Iran, through Hezbollah, and Iraqi political parties, and does he feel that Iran could play a very negative role in the process?
I will move on to Iran shortly, but I absolutely feel that it plays a negative role in the process and has assisted the Syrian authorities in various ways to try to repress the Syrian population. It would certainly not be surprising if Iran was using its influence on some Arab countries to reduce the impact of any sanctions on Syria. Nevertheless, we should recognise that what the Arab League is doing is unprecedented. The vast majority of its members not only voted for it, but are now preparing to implement meaningful sanctions on a fellow member and colleague. That shows how seriously the Arab world takes the situation in Syria, which will have an impact on the Assad regime. Our Government’s goal is to give maximum support to Arab League efforts to persuade the President of Syria to end the violence while using every lever at our disposal to bring economic and diplomatic pressure to bear. We have supported successive rounds of EU sanctions that have banned the import of Syrian oil and targeted individuals responsible for the violence with asset freezes and travel bans. We are pressing ahead with plans for further sanctions on Syria at the EU Foreign Affairs Council later this week.
As my hon. Friend can imagine, during the state visit of the President of Turkey last week the Turkish Foreign Minister and I had extensive discussions about Syria. I do not believe that there is any imminent plan to create such a zone or take action within Syrian territory, which would obviously be a major step for any country. I think that the way forward is to intensify international pressure and support the Arab League. We co-sponsored last week’s UN General Assembly resolution condemning Syria’s human rights record, which was passed by a large majority. We will continue to approach the matter in this way.
I have also held talks with representatives of a number of Syria’s opposition groups, including the chairman of the largest body, the Syrian national council. My intention in doing so was to gain further insights into the situation on the ground and to impress upon them how important it is that they unite around a common platform, as called for by the Arab League. At a time of crisis for their country, they should put aside their differences and show the people of Syria that there is a clear alternative to the current regime.
The current lack of a united opposition is one of the many differences between the situation in Syria and that which we faced in Libya. The obstacles to democratic transition are different in each country, and our support for Arab League efforts is the best way forward, but President Assad should not for an instant consider that there is a way back for him and his regime, which has utterly discredited itself in the eyes of most of its people and the vast majority of the world. We will not relent in our efforts to support the right of the Syrian people to choose a different future.
We have long advised against all travel to Syria, and we advise British nationals in Syria to leave by commercial means while such means are still available. Those who choose to remain in Syria or to visit against our advice should be aware that it is highly unlikely that the British embassy would be able to provide a normal consular service in the event of a further breakdown in law and order. Evacuation options would be limited or non-existent, because of likely communication and travel restrictions.
We are also intensifying our efforts to respond to the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear programme. Following the unequivocal report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on 18 November, which pointed to the military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor instructed the UK financial sector on 21 November to sever all links with Iranian banks. The United States and Canada have taken similar steps. In the coming days, European Union partners will expand sanctions against the nuclear programme. We want Iran to return to the negotiating table, and in the meantime it should be left in no doubt about the resolve of the international community.
Members will be aware that yesterday the Iranian Parliament voted to downgrade relations with the United Kingdom. That is regrettable and unwarranted. It will do nothing to repair Iran’s international reputation, and to respond in that manner to pressure from the international community to engage is entirely counter-productive and yet another sign of Iran’s continued unwillingness to enter into dialogue. If the Iranian Government confirm their intention to act on that vote, we shall respond robustly in consultation with our international partners.
The action that could be taken against the British ambassador is totally wrong and should indeed be condemned, as it will be, I am sure, by the whole House, but does the Foreign Secretary accept that the concern remains that whatever the justification—and the action being taken against the regime through sanctions and the rest is absolutely right—military action could be encouraged by Israel? I certainly hope that it will be made clear that, whatever the position, military action will not be approved in any way by the United States—and certainly not by this country.
The position is the one that I have made clear many times before: we are not calling for military action. Our approach is a twin-track approach of negotiations and legitimate peaceful pressure on Iran. We have always said, as previous Governments in this country and other Governments throughout Europe have said, that no option is taken off the table for the future, but we are not advocating military action, and, as I say, our approach is the twin-track approach that I have set out.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary, who is being very generous in giving way. There is no doubt in my mind that the Iranian regime is one of the greatest threats to peace in the middle east, if not the world, but has the Foreign Secretary assessed or considered whether that regime might have drawn the wrong lessons from the change of regime in Libya, whereby the Libyans got rid of some of their weapons of mass destruction and tried to negotiate their way back into the world community? Does he think that Ahmadinejad has drawn the wrong lessons from that?
It is hard to know, of course, what lessons the Iranians have drawn from that, but we certainly have not detected any change in Iranian policy—before or after the events in Libya. As the hon. Gentleman says, however, such a lesson would be the wrong one to draw. The right lesson to draw from Libya is that regimes that oppress their population over a long period eventually find that a vast proportion of that population is against them and wants to change the regime. That is something the Iranians and regimes in several others countries should bear in mind; that is the right lesson to draw.
If the House will forgive me, I will not give way to hon. Members to whom I have given way before, because I will soon have been speaking for three quarters of an hour and more, and I want to deal with one final and very important subject, the subject of my statement on 9 November, which remains a central concern in the middle east, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I repeat today our call for negotiations on a two-state solution, without delay and without preconditions, based on the timetable set out in the Quartet statement of 23 September. In our view, the parameters for a Palestinian state are those affirmed by the European Union as a whole—borders based on 1967 lines, with equivalent land swaps; a just, fair and realistic solution for refugees; and agreement on Jerusalem as the future capital of both states. The Quartet met both parties separately on 14 November and will next meet on 16 December. We urge both parties to engage fully with the Quartet process and to fulfil their commitment to present proposals on borders and security by 26 January.
Will the Foreign Secretary make it crystal clear that both sides—Israelis and Palestinians—are required to step up to the process? Will he say more about what pressure he is able to put on the Palestinian authorities to come to the table?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this requires the involvement of both sides. As I have often argued—I said it in my statement on 9 November—we need to look to Israel to make a more decisive offer than any it has been prepared to make in the recent past. That is an indispensable ingredient of any successful negotiation that could take place. However, it is also important for Palestinians to be ready to engage in the negotiations and not to set preconditions which make such negotiations impossible in the first place. There is a responsibility on both sides. It is a slightly different responsibility in each case, but it amounts to being ready to negotiate a two-state solution, which is otherwise slipping away from us.
Will the Secretary of State confirm one thing and give his views on another? In relation to the Quartet’s call for proposals, will he confirm that the Palestinians have put forward proposals but Israel has so far failed to do so? Will he give his views—perhaps he is going to do this in his speech anyway—on the unity talks that are taking place between Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Mashal? Does he agree that the important thing is to do everything possible to ensure that Hamas is brought into the peace process instead of trying to seek excuses to keep it outside the process?
I am not aware that either side has yet presented proposals that meet the Quartet’s requirements of 26 January on borders and security to that level of detail. We look to Hamas to change its own behaviour; that is the way for it to bring itself into a peace process. We have looked to Palestinian reconciliation before, and we have been on the brink of it before, and now there is new discussion of that. It is important for a Palestinian authority that is the basis of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah to include independent figures, to be committed to non-violence, to be committed to a two-state solution, and to accept previous agreements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That is how we will judge such an authority.
Of course we all hope that there will be a triumph of hope over experience, with swifter action on this terrible situation. In the meantime, what is the Foreign Secretary’s estimate of the catastrophic situation in Gaza? Is he continuing to press at all times to ensure that Gaza’s civilian population have some relief from the predicament in which they have been trapped for so many years?
Yes, absolutely. As the hon. Lady knows, we have a long-standing position on this. We look to Israel to permit the further opening of Gaza so that all Palestinian people can see a pathway to a better future, living side by side with a secure Israel. It is vital that Israel takes that action. We also call on Israel to reverse its decision to withhold tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority. In addition, we have condemned, and I think the whole House is united in condemning, settlement activity that is wrong, illegal and deeply counter-productive. We are very clear about that.
I apologise in advance if I am becoming somewhat repetitive on this subject, but did the Foreign Secretary see the piece in The Times by Tzipi Livni shortly after his last statement? I believe that most people in this House, of all points of view, would consider her to be a proper partner for peace. She made the point, which I have tried to make, that until we deal with the threat posed by Iran and specifically by the Iranian regime, the chance of much progress in any kind of peace process between Israel and Palestine is very slim.
Apologising for being repetitive is a novel approach in this House which no one has ever adopted before. My hon. Friend need not apologise, because this is an important consideration. I would state the point the other way around. I had a very good discussion with Mrs Livni when she was here in October and we agreed on many points. I think that the multiplicity of threats to Israel and its growing international isolation underline the need for progress on a two-state solution and for it to make a more decisive offer to the Palestinians if negotiations take place. I see it that way around, as I think would most in the House.
In summary, our approach in the coming months will be to continue to expand our diplomatic activity in the middle east, north Africa, the Sahel and the horn of Africa; to show leadership in addressing pervasive challenges, such as the crisis in Somalia and terrorism in the Maghreb; to provide tangible support to the democratic transitions in countries from Tunisia to Yemen; to stand by the people of Syria; to meet the challenge of Iranian proliferation; and to support a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In all those areas, British policy benefits from a great deal of international support, from strong international alliances and from strong bipartisan support in this House for our objectives, which this Government will always seek to strengthen.
I welcome the opportunity for the House to debate the Arab spring, the horn of Africa and the Sahel this afternoon. I begin by echoing the warm words of the Foreign Secretary for the diplomats and aid workers of the United Kingdom, who do outstanding work for our country. There is complete agreement across the House on efforts to tackle security in the Sahel and, in particular, to address al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. It is right to begin this debate by recognising that, at least in our objectives, there is a measure of cross-party consensus on a number of the points that the Foreign Secretary has addressed.
It is many months since we have had a full debate on the middle east and north Africa, albeit that we have had a number of statements in the intervening months. In that time, there have been many positives and some worrying developments in the region. In Tunisia and Libya, steady progress is being made. In Egypt, historic elections mark a period of great change. The situation in Syria, however, is defined by a dispiriting lack of progress and a continuation, indeed escalation, of violence and oppression. In Yemen, progress remains slow, albeit that agreement has now been reached, as the Foreign Secretary described. In Iran, the situation is evolving rapidly, with developments increasing the already high tensions in the region. Regrettably, progress on the peace process remains sadly stalled.
I will first address the seismic changes that we have witnessed this year, which have come to be known as the Arab spring. We can already see certain patterns emerging. As has been stated, Islamic parties such as the Justice and Development party in Morocco, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Freedom and Justice party, the party of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are proving to be politically experienced, well financed, disciplined and well placed for electoral progress. It is also clear that the longer the violence continues in countries from Syria to Egypt, the less chance there is that a stable democratic order will emerge quickly, and the more likely it is, in a country such as Syria, that we could see a descent into civil war. It is hard to overstate, therefore, the perils as well as the possibilities of the current moment.
Egypt is the largest and strategically most significant country that has seen its Government overthrown in recent months. As the historic leader of the Arab world, what happens there, perhaps more than in any other country in the region, will shape future generations’ views of this period of change across the Arab world. Today, as we speak, millions of Egyptian voters are going to the polls after a long and hard-won struggle for democracy, yet the deeply troubling resurgence of violence that we have witnessed in these past days, and indeed the reoccupation of Tahrir square by the protestors, demonstrate the continuing fragility of the gains already made and the continuing anxiety of many about the evidence that the pre-Mubarak power structures have retained their authority in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Civilian control of the military is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and after eight months of military rule the Egyptian military face a fateful choice. The so-called al-Selmy proposal for constitutional reform proposed earlier this month by the Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister, which sought to exempt the Egyptian military from proper civilian scrutiny, has now been vocally and visibly rejected by the millions across Egypt who have taken to the streets in recent days.
In light of those recent developments, will the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), confirm when he winds up the debate that, during the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Egypt, the Foreign Secretary was satisfied by the assurances that he received from the Egyptian interim Government on the key issue of civilian control? Did they appreciate fully that attempts to preserve the military’s past privileges and powers would damage the very country that they took an oath to protect? Given the Foreign Secretary’s advocacy this very afternoon of free, fair and credible elections in Egypt, what representations have the British Government made about the United Nations being denied access to election planners in Cairo and about the retention of a system of quotas in Parliament, which has been used to manipulate election results in Egypt since the presidency of Colonel Nasser? Of course, I welcome the fact that so far, the ceasefire between protestors and the police brokered last Thursday remains in place, but so too, if we are honest, do the fundamental political differences that began the conflict.
The road from popular uprising to stable democratic governance is of course hazardous. In the absence of a clearer democratic pathway forward or bold, decisive economic policies, the Egyptian economy shrank by 4.2% overall in just the first quarter of this year compared with a year before. With unemployment now running at about 12%, the economic risks confronting Egypt are real and dangerous. Democratic political reform becomes a much more onerous, indeed difficult, task when it occurs against the backdrop of economic decline. I therefore believe that the Government have to do more to convince all of us in the House that multilateral organisations, critically including the European Union as well as the multinational financing organisations, are taking all possible steps to assist the Egyptian economy in this difficult period of transition. Perhaps the Under-Secretary could set out the practical steps that the British Government are urging upon those institutions.
I share the concerns expressed by the Foreign Secretary about the recent developments on the ground in Syria. As the UN commission of inquiry report issued earlier today states, and with recent UN estimates putting the death toll at a horrific 3,500, it is clear that Assad has lost any legitimacy and must step aside, but how can the international community act to isolate further the Assad regime at this time? First, we must ensure that pressure from the Arab League and regional powers remains coherent and consistent. The Opposition welcome, as did the Foreign Secretary, the recent diplomatic steps taken by the Arab League, including steps taken this weekend to impose further sanctions on the regime. However, will the Under-Secretary give his assessment of the impact that he expects that pressure to have, given that despite the steps already taken the violence has continued unabated and the death toll has continued to rise?
Secondly, can the Government say any more about what discussions they are having with European counterparts about the possibility of imposing further economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria through the European Union? Do the Government share my view that, in light of the welcome and significant steps taken by the Arab League, the EU should now be prepared to go further than the sanctions announced as recently as September?
Thirdly, the Opposition welcome the Government’s involvement in passing the unequivocal statement at the United Nations condemning the recent violence in Syria, but given the stated opposition of China and Russia to taking further diplomatic steps against Syria, which has already been the subject of some debate this afternoon, will the Under-Secretary tell the House whether the Foreign Secretary raised the issue during his most recent discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and particularly what further discussions are scheduled to press the Russians to change their position on Syria?
Finally on Syria, I wish to address the role that Turkey can potentially play in securing an end to the violence, an omission that I found curious in the Foreign Secretary’s remarks. Last week, along with the Foreign Secretary, I met the Turkish Foreign Minister during the state visit to London of the Turkish President. Let me commend publicly the statements that Turkey has made, making it clear that it regards the Assad regime as now having passed the point of no return. But there should be no doubt, as the Turkish Government have made clear, that the longer this crisis endures, the greater are the prospects of ethnic, religious and sectarian fault lines re-emerging in Syria in ways that could make it harder still to reach a swift and peaceful resolution to the conflict. Can the Under-Secretary therefore share with the House some of his thoughts about what further action could be taken, given Turkey’s significant role in the region and its strong commitment to try to see a resolution to the crisis presently affecting Syria?
We welcome the publication—albeit delayed—of the report of the Bahrain independent commission on human rights. Notwithstanding the remarks by the Foreign Secretary, I regret that—contrary to the undertaking that he previously gave the House—the Government have failed to provide a comprehensive written ministerial statement setting out their views on that report. Therefore, I welcome the fact that he confirmed today that the Government are giving their immediate backing to recommendations in the report, not least the call for any protestors accused of a crime to be tried in civilian courts and not special military courts that operate outwith the normal legal system. Therefore, I ask the Under-Secretary to update the House, when he winds up, specifically about the retrials of 20 medics detained during the recent protests. Has he received assurances from the Bahraini authorities that they will meet the necessary international standards of free and fair trials and, if not, what steps are the Government taking to seek to ensure that that happens? We also welcome the report’s conclusion that there is no significant evidence of Iranian involvement in the recent violence, but I suggest that that makes the task of national reconciliation in Bahrain all the more important and pressing. Perhaps the Under-Secretary could be more forthcoming about what steps the Government will take to encourage such critical national reconciliation, given the continued suggestions of violence within the country and Britain’s historically strong links with Bahrain, which the Foreign Secretary described this afternoon.
Ten months after the mass uprising that swept Ben Ali from power, Tunisia has taken a vital step this month in its transition from autocracy to democracy. The country’s constituent assembly held its opening session this week, following the first ever free elections last month, which saw more than 90% of those registered turning out to vote. We therefore urge the Government to continue to monitor the constitutional reform process in Tunisia closely, and to do all that they can to support the democratic transformation thankfully already under way. Only last week, thousands gathered in the streets of Tunis to call on the newly elected legislature to ensure that the new constitution reflected the rights and freedoms that they have for so long sought. Can the Under-Secretary be more specific on what steps are being taken, through the work of the British embassy in Tunis, the Arab partnership fund and the European Union’s neighbourhood fund, to support the democratic transition under way?
In Libya also, the political leaders have begun the process of drawing up a constitution and it is vital that in the months ahead that process is recognised to be fair and transparent. I welcome the swearing in of Libya’s transitional Government, which represents a vital next step in the country’s roadmap to elections next year. The decision by the national transitional council in Libya to work with the International Criminal Court and the United Nations in investigating alleged crimes committed by Muammar Gaddafi and his recently captured son is also welcome. We urge the Government to continue to offer their full support to that process.
It is, however, a matter of regret to hon. Members on both sides of the House that the recent tide of change in the region has not yet led to progress on one of the most intractable conflicts that continues to define the lives of so many in the region—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Across the House, I believe that there is strong consensus that we therefore now need the renewed efforts and energies of which the Foreign Secretary spoke to be invested in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Since we last debated the issue in the House, too little progress has been made on the ground—millions of Israeli civilians are still living in fear of the deadly barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza, while settlement building on Palestinian land has continued unabated in clear violation of international law. For real and urgent progress to be achieved, both parties must be encouraged to come back to the negotiating table.
The international community, as well as a majority of Israelis and Palestinians, share a common view of the principles on which a final agreement will be based. The Foreign Secretary rehearsed them again this afternoon—land swaps around the 1967 borders, Jerusalem as a shared capital and a fair settlement for refugees. However, despite that apparent consensus, progress seems to have stalled and efforts to reinvigorate it remain all too weak. We agree with the Government that there is no alternative to a negotiated peace, and we will support them in their efforts to facilitate a negotiated agreement. Given the present deadlock, will the Under-Secretary tell us what specific steps the Government are taking to re-establish the peace process, and will he offer the House his view as to how the present logjam can be broken?
Let me turn now to Iran, on which there is a broad and wide consensus in this House. An urgent and pressing issue in the region is the apparent ambition of the Iranian regime to acquire nuclear weapons. Based on the threats of the Iranian President himself, we know that, if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, it would pose a grave threat to its immediate neighbours as well as to the stability of the region and the security of the international community as a whole.
Members across the House will have been shocked by the scenes of anger that were directed towards the United Kingdom in a recent session of the Iranian Parliament. Chants of “Death to Britain” were just the latest reminder of the violence and brutality that characterise too much of the Iranian regime. In light of those recent developments, will the Under-Secretary give an assessment of how the downgrading of diplomatic ties is likely to impact on the UK’s ability to take what diplomatic steps it can to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and how the UK strategy on that issue can be advanced notwithstanding these actions by the Tehran regime?
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am not in favour of anyone anywhere having nuclear weapons. He will also be aware that Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and that last year’s review conference called for a middle east nuclear-free zone. Such a zone would obviously include Israel, which is not a signatory to the NPT. Does he not think that, at this delicate time, it is more important than ever rapidly to engage with all shades of opinion in Iran to try to head off a potentially catastrophic descent into a military attack on Iran, which clearly some people are planning to do?
I do not know whether this will encourage or dispirit my hon. Friend, but I can do little better than to echo the words of the Foreign Secretary on the matter. We want that twin-track approach. It is therefore important and necessary that there should be engagement with the Tehran regime. The most recent International Energy Agency report issued a stark warning about the nuclear programme. In all parts of the House, we should be mindful of the grave risks that the Tehran regime is now running. We have already welcomed the steps that were taken last week by the Government to impose new sanctions against Iran, which will cut off all financial ties with Iranian banks.
When the Under-Secretary winds up, will he tell us whether the Government will consider taking further action under the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, which could add further pressure on the Iranian Government? Will he also give us his assessment of the effect of the present EU sanctions on Iran’s critical petrochemical, oil and gas industries? We must continue to search for those peaceful forms of pressure to persuade the Iranian regime to think again. In light of the most recent IEA report, it seems that UN action should be stronger. Will the Under-Secretary give us his assessment of what prospects there are for further action at UN level, given the stated position of both the Chinese and the Russian Governments, and also assure the House that in any recent and further meetings with those Governments, the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran will be high on the Government’s agenda?
Let me turn briefly to events in Somalia, where a tragic food crisis has emerged in recent months. I welcome news that a conference is to be held in London in February, not least given the range of issues that now demand the attention of the British Government and the international community, which include the food crisis and the security challenges, of which the Foreign Secretary spoke.
The first famine of the 21st century was declared in Somalia in July. The lack of rain in the region is due to be the worst in 60 years and the UN is warning that, as a result, more than 1 million people face imminent starvation. Against that backdrop of human tragedy, we are gravely concerned by reports emerging this week that the al-Shabaab fighters have closed down several aid agencies working in Somalia. The stranglehold of al-Shabaab on the region is having a wholly negative impact on the prospects for peace across the region. Given that, will the Government provide an assessment of the progress made in establishing the authority of the Somali Government across the entire country, particularly in areas where militants are making it almost impossible—sometimes wholly impossible—for aid agencies and others to access vital life-saving support from international aid agencies?
In conclusion, as already evident, there is broad agreement across the House on the steps that need to be taken in response to the extraordinary wave of change that has come to be known as the Arab spring. It is already clear that democratic transformation will not unfold uniformly across countries as vast and divergent as Egypt, Libya and Syria, but the consistency of the demands made by the protesters across these borders is testament to the enduring values for which they have been struggling. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to act in the months ahead in ways consistent with the scale of the opportunities and the scale of the risks confronting the middle east and north Africa.
I begin by apologising for the fact that I will not be able to hear the winding-up speeches, but I look forward to reading them.
I agreed with the shadow Foreign Secretary’s observation that patterns are emerging in the Arab spring, and I wish to draw attention to one pattern that has not given risen to much comment but which is very significant. Although turmoil has affected every country in the Arab world from Morocco to the Gulf, it is significant that the greatest turmoil and the revolutions have taken place and dictators have fallen in the republics, whereas the monarchies, with the exception of Bahrain, despite experiencing significant disturbances, have not seen such substantial violence or attempts to overthrow the system.
It is worth asking why that might be. It is over-simplistic and incorrect simply to say, “It is to do with those countries that have oil and those that do not”, because clearly Morocco and Jordan have minimal amounts of oil while Libya has a great deal. I think that it is about legitimacy. I am not suggesting that there is antipathy towards republicanism as such in the republics of the Arab world or that there is a love for monarchy, but these are dictators who have acted cruelly, who achieved power by force—or, in the case of Assad, whose father took power by force—who have maintained it by the cruellest methods of despotism and who therefore have not earned their people’s respect.
Admittedly, the monarchies have not been democracies but authoritarian states, some of which have exercised their power in a way that we and many of their own people would consider unacceptable, but nevertheless in the eyes of a significant proportion of their own people they still have that legitimacy without which a modern Government cannot expect to survive.
I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Does he also accept that certainly in Jordan and Morocco there have been progressive improvements towards democracy—too slow perhaps and possibly temporary but nevertheless a reform process—which has not been the case in some of the other countries?
I was coming to that point. The hon. Gentleman is correct. There is something else that Jordan and Morocco have in common: both the King of Jordan and the King of Morocco claim descent from the Prophet, and many of their people accept the legitimacy of that claim. Furthermore, the King of Saudi Arabia does not call himself “King of Saudi Arabia” but “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”—Mecca and Medina—to emphasise, as he would argue, his spiritual not simply secular role. But the hon. Gentleman is correct: the other phenomenon in many of these monarchies is that they have been prepared, however hesitantly, to begin the process of reform, which might help them to deal with their long-term problem.
I am pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend is raising this issue. I would add that there are many people in Libya who wish for a restoration of their constitutional monarchy and very much regret that the national transitional council is proposing a presidential system without any plebiscite to find out what the people wish.
As it happens, I have met the Crown Prince of Libya in the past few months. It is, however, up to the Libyan people. They were pretty good at getting rid of Gaddafi, and if they want a restoration of the monarchy, it should not be too difficult for them to insist at least on a plebiscite so that the Libyans can decide.
I raise this question not simply to praise the monarchies. In the longer term, they face exactly the problem that the north African countries and Syria face now. They do, however, have a window of opportunity. Their peoples are saying, “We, too, want more liberal, accountable government and the rule of law, just as the rest of the world has increasingly had it. Because we accept your legitimacy and because we acknowledge that you are introducing reform, however tentatively, we are prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt for the time being.” However, I predict that if, in five to 10 years from now, not much real progress is made—if the kings, emirs and sheiks remain autocratic rulers in all but name—then revolution will come to those countries as well.
The crucial country is Saudi Arabia, where even that tentative process of genuine parliamentary reform has not even begun yet—it will always be slower for all the reasons that the House is familiar with. Saudi Arabia needs to embark on that process. Prince Nayef—a man who does not have the liberal inclinations of King Abdullah—has been chosen as the new crown prince, although whether he will be more pragmatic when he one day becomes a monarch remains to be seen. However, Saudi Arabia needs to realise that it cannot simply be immune from this extraordinary revolutionary fervour, which has affected Saudis as well as those in other Arab countries.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there have been demonstrations criticising the monarchy in Saudi Arabia—which have been brutally suppressed—that the army has been sent into Bahrain and that there is almost unparalleled control of the media in Saudi Arabia, even compared with the previous regimes all over the region?
The hon. Gentleman is right that even in the monarchies there are human rights problems, including in the United Arab Emirates in the past few days. Ministers have resigned from the Kuwaiti Government because of protests over various developments there. In Saudi Arabia, it is more a protest of the Shi’a minority. They are big minority—20% of the population—but they can never aspire to power, and if the Saudi Government have sense, they will try to achieve a policy of reconciliation with them.
I want to turn to a second point—one that came up briefly in the earlier exchanges—about the role of Islamist parties in the region. Like most people in the United Kingdom or the west generally, one feels more comfortable if secular parties win elections; however, we should not get too over-exercised by the fact that parties that call themselves Islamist are doing rather well in a number of countries in free elections. The first point, which is perhaps the most important, is that, from the point of view of al-Qaeda, what is happening with Islamist parties in those countries is a disaster. The whole point of al-Qaeda is to reject a parliamentary route to power, to reject the sharing of power and to insist that only by revolution combined with terrorism can the Islamist ideal be achieved.
What we are seeing, not just in Tunisia and Morocco, but with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt too, is a recognition—for a number of reasons and motives—that, at the very least, power will need to be shared. There is a public declaration of a commitment to multi-party democracy and the rule of law. Of course there will be people in those parties who do not share those values, but so far the evidence supports the view that those declarations are what those parties are about. As I mentioned when I intervened earlier, opinion surveys in Egypt suggest that elections in Egypt are likely to be similar to the two elections so far. The Muslim Brotherhood will do well—it will probably be the largest party—but all the evidence so far, including independent surveys of opinion, suggests that it will not form a majority by itself. It, too, will have to share power, which is crucial.
Earlier I mentioned another factor in relation to Egypt which seems not to have been commented on, but which is significant. If the House accepts that the most important reason, apart from a general desire for the rule of law and freedom, for the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere was a demand for economic progress—those countries are economically stagnated, having fallen woefully behind Brazil, south-east Asia and countries of the far east in their economic development—that means that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt faces a particular problem. Anyone ruling Libya will have vast amounts of oil wealth and will be able to afford to act in an extreme way—if that is the way they want to go—because they do not need the co-operation of the rest of the world. The Muslim Brotherhood knows perfectly well that if it were to acquire power in Egypt and then use it as though it had the right to impose an Islamist system on a population that did not want it, that would immediately destroy any possibility of overseas investment in Egypt. Who would invest in Egypt if it seemed to be going the way of Iran? The people of Egypt would never forgive an Egyptian Government who destroyed the prospect of economic growth by pursuing a theocratic agenda. I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood understands that perfectly well and that the first priority of any Egyptian Government has to be to reassure the outside world that Egypt will be an attractive place to come as a tourist and to invest in its resources, in order to help build the economy.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that as a consequence of the 25 January revolution and the uncertainty, Egypt has seen enormous capital flight, so much of the risk and the economic disaster that he outlines has already happened?
Yes, of course, that has happened over the past few months, but it could be reversed if there were a prospect of stability and progress. The tragedy of Iraq is that the Iraq war went on long after the military conflict, with the whole economy destroyed as a consequence. It is only now that Iraqi oil production has got back to its original level. Libyan oil production should be back in a year or 18 months or so—perhaps even earlier. Tourism will return to Egypt when there is stability, but not without it. Any party that destroys that prospect will not be thanked.
Let me turn briefly to two other issues. The first is Syria. There are serious limits to what can be achieved by the outside world in relation to Syria. I pay tribute to the people of Syria who I never expected for a moment would be able to survive eight months of this appalling treatment by their own Government. I assumed wrongly that it would be like the tragedy of Iran and that when the Government used the police, the security forces, the prisons and the torture chambers, the Syrian opposition would, within months, have been pushed under ground, though not destroyed. That has not happened as it did in Iran. The Assad regime is doomed; the question is how we can assist that process.
I welcome the fact that the Government have already opened up contacts with the Syrian opposition. That is highly to be encouraged. I make just one additional point. It seems to me that, although for all the reasons that are increasingly understood, there cannot be a military dimension to the help we give the country, what the Syrian opposition need most is for their morale to be boosted and for them to be able to demonstrate to the people of Syria that they are increasingly winning, not losing, this conflict. That is the significance of the Arab League’s decision and the imposition of economic sanctions. That is how the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States can make an impact—by demonstrating solidarity with those in Syria who are seeking change.
The final area on which I want to comment is, of course, Iran. There has to be very serious doubt as to whether the current policy of economic sanctions has any prospect of working. However much they are extended, there is no evidence that the Iranian Government are terribly interested in dialogue or even in a carrot-and-stick policy.
One problem—we have heard about it elsewhere— is the attitude of Russia and China. The question is whether there is any way in which the Russian and Chinese Governments can be persuaded to change their position. Russia is acting in an utterly illogical way, even given its own national interest. It is difficult to understand why Russia, with a large Muslim minority of its own and considerable destabilisation in the Caucasus, should acquiesce in the growth of nuclear weapon capability in Iran. If one looks for a Machiavellian explanation, there is a very simple one. The Machiavellian explanation for Russia’s opposition to what is happening with Iran is that it does not want sanctions to work and hopes that the Israelis or the Americans or both will use the military option. That would have the dual benefit of destroying or damaging Iran’s nuclear capability, without Russia having to share the responsibility and thus benefiting both ways from the consequent developments. That is a Machiavellian explanation. I hope it is not true, but I am not yet convinced because I cannot think of any other reason why Moscow should behave as it is.
If there is to be any prospect of economic sanctions working, the only opportunity I can see for success takes us back to the Arab League. As the Foreign Secretary has remarked, the Arab League has already acted in an unprecedented way—first with Libya, when it called for the international action to be taken. As a consequence, Russia and China, which would otherwise have vetoed the international action, came round to allowing the resolution to be passed. Secondly, the Arab League has acted impressively in the case of Syria.
In respect of Iran, however, there is an extraordinary silence. Were it not for WikiLeaks, we would not have been made aware of any public comments showing not just the distaste of Arab countries, but their absolute horror at the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon as a result of the geopolitical impact it would have on the region as a whole and on account of their perception of their own security. The situation is extraordinary. As any of us who meet Arab Ministers, Governments or leaders privately will be aware, this is at the top of their agenda: what is the west going to do to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon?
It was thanks to WikiLeaks that King Abdullah was quoted as saying that the head of the serpent must be cut off—a clear endorsement of the kind of military action by which some Members do not seem to be too enthused. The question is, why can the Arab leaders not express their views publicly? If they did, they would put a great deal more pressure on Russia and China. Those who put that question to them, as I have, are normally told, “We must have equivalence between Iran and Israel. We cannot just call for sanctions against Iran, because Israel has a nuclear weapon, and unless Israel responds as well, it would not be acceptable.”
I must say that I find that a pretty pathetic and unconvincing argument. Israel has had nuclear weapons, rightly or wrongly, for probably some 30 years. Of course the Arabs do not like it—they hate it—but they are not frightened of Israel’s nuclear weapons. If they were, they would have moved towards acquiring nuclear weapons themselves some 30 years ago, but they have not made the slightest effort to do so. They know that, while Israel is a threat in other respects, it possesses its nuclear weapons—rightly or wrongly—essentially in order to protect its very existence as a state should it be subjected to unassailable odds in some conventional conflict.
The Arabs have learnt to live with that, but they do not find it acceptable in the case of Iran. They know that this is all about Iranian nationalism. The Shah, as well as the ayatollahs, was interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, although he did not do much to achieve it. Iran’s traditional enemy is not Israel, but the Arab states themselves. If the Arab states are deeply disturbed by this prospect—if they believe, privately if not publicly, that it is a much greater threat to their security than Israel’s nuclear weapons have ever been or are ever likely to be—they must be as bold in respect of Iran, through the Arab League and individually, as they have so splendidly been in respect of both Syria and Libya.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would be horrific for the Russians and possibly the Chinese as well? According to indications that I have received from contacts in Russia, the Russians are pretty horrified by the idea.
All of them ought to be horrified by it. China itself has a Muslim extremist minority on its western borders, in Xinjiang, and it is very much affected by what happens in central Asia. None of these countries wants nuclear weapons—we understand that—and we are not, or should not be, necessarily asking them to support military intervention. We are talking about a peaceful alternative to resolve the single most important problem that currently exists in the middle east, apart from the Israel-Palestine issue. That is the basis on which we should act.
I remain very heartened by what is happening in the Arab spring. It will be three steps forward and, occasionally, one step back, and some countries will not prosper as well as others, but the results in Tunisia—the first country of the revolution, and the country that has gone furthest—are very impressive so far. We shall need to see how the Egyptian elections proceed, but Syria is the key. When—not if—the Syrian regime falls, we shall see a situation that has become absolutely irreversible in the middle east. That will not only help the people of those countries, but will mean that for the first time in its history Israel will be surrounded by countries that, to a greater extent than ever before, respect and understand the rule of law, democratic values and accountable government, which should not harm but help prospects for the long-term relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
I welcome this debate on the middle east, an area in which many countries continue to undergo political upheavals following decades of authoritarian rule for the benefit of those in power and at the expense of the ordinary citizen.
Much attention has, of course, been directed towards Egypt, where the struggle for democracy, accountability and transparency appears, unfortunately, to be far from over. Like many others, I hope that the military will be persuaded to give way soon to a fairly elected civilian Government. However, I shall focus on two other states in the region, which have been mentioned often this afternoon, and where the legitimacy of the Government in power has been challenged. Those Governments now have to decide whether they will undertake reform of their own volition, or precipitate greater instability, and create mistrust and suffering among their own citizens. Those two countries are, of course, Bahrain and Syria.
As has been widely reported, there was widespread protest and serious unrest in Bahrain between February and March of this year. On 15 March, after political negotiations between the Government of Bahrain and the opposition had broken down, the Government declared a three-month state of national safety, which was lifted on 1 June. Gulf Co-operation Council forces were also deployed in the country from about that time. There was a serious and heavy-handed Government crackdown on those believed to have been directing the protests, as well as on leading opposition figures.
These recent events must be put into context. Although there have been attempts by the Government of Bahrain to reform and to address human rights concerns in the recent past, particularly since the ascension to power of the current monarch, reports by well-known international human rights organisations have highlighted the use of torture by the security apparatus, impunity, unfair trials, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly as ongoing and serious problems not just this year, but for many years.
Amnesty International’s background report on the situation in Bahrain in 2010 stated:
“During 2010, sporadic protests took place in predominantly Shi’a villages against alleged government discrimination in relation to housing and employment opportunities. In some cases, protesters blocked highways with burning tyres and threw home-made petrol bombs at the police and security forces. Hundreds of people were arrested”—
I reiterate that this is a report on the situation in 2010, not 2011—
“particularly in August and September, in connection with protests and riots, including many leading opposition figures, most from the Shi’a majority community. Many were allegedly arrested without warrants and held incommunicado for up to two weeks after arrest.”
On the situation in 2009, Amnesty International said:
“The authorities failed adequately to investigate allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees. Government critics were briefly detained and several websites were closed down. One person was executed. The government indicated it would decriminalize certain publishing offences, reduce legal discrimination against women and introduce other reforms.”
Political analysts have highlighted long-standing demands in the country for political, constitutional and socio-economic reform. In particular, calls have been made for an elected Prime Minister, an accountable Government and a fully empowered and democratically elected legislature. Previous attempts by the Government of Bahrain to address these demands have not been viewed as very successful by opposition leaders, and resulted in a lack of trust in the Government’s willingness to implement genuine and meaningful political and socio-economic reform. The protests earlier this year must be seen against this backdrop of long-standing violations and grievances.
The Bahrain independent commission of inquiry—BICI—was set up by the Government of Bahrain to investigate and report on the allegations and events of 2011, and to make such recommendations as it deemed necessary. I, of course, welcome the King’s initiative to set up this commission and to allow for the full publication of the report’s 500 pages. It presents a detailed and balanced account of events surrounding the Bahraini protest movement, the context in which it occurred and the response by Government agents. Its findings set out in considerable detail the manifestly repressive nature of the Government’s crackdown on protesters and opposition leaders.
The report states that the security forces
“in many situations violated the principles of necessity and proportionality, which are the generally applicable legal principles in matters relating to the use of force by law enforcement officials. This is evident in both the choice of weapons that were used by these forces during confrontations with civilians and the manner in which these weapons were used.”
If the hon. Gentleman is a little patient, I shall come to that point in a moment.
The report also states:
“A large number of individuals were prosecuted before the National Safety Courts”.
It went on to say:
“Numerous violations of due process rights were recorded…it appears that the Military Attorney General chose to rely on those statutory provisions that were the least favourable to the arrested persons and to the defendants appearing before the National Safety Courts.”
“The manner in which the security and judicial agencies of the GoB”—
Government of Bahrain—
“interpreted the National Safety Decree also opened the door for the perpetration of grave violations of human rights, including the arbitrary deprivation of life, torture and arbitrary detention.”
The report also details that many of the detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody, and it lists the methods as follows:
“blindfolding; handcuffing; enforced standing for prolonged periods; beating; punching; hitting the detainee with rubber hoses (including on the soles of the detainee‘s feet), cables, whips, metal, wooden planks or other objects; electrocution; sleep-deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; verbal abuse; threats of rape…and insulting the detainee‘s religious sect”.
Those subject to this were predominantly Shi’a.
Many of those held by the authorities claim that they were forced to sign confessions or admit to committing crimes. It is especially pertinent that the report notes on more than one occasion that the actions of the authorities were “systematic”. I emphasise that word, as it shows that these violations were not the fault of a few bad apples or rogue elements; the security personnel in Bahrain were carrying out actions that were expected of them and that were implicitly, if not explicitly, condoned by superiors and other branches of the Government.
With at least 35 deaths, thousands arrested, 4,500 employees dismissed for their support of the protests, more than 500 students expelled and 30 religious sites demolished, it is simply not credible that such a vast crackdown could have taken place at the initiative of the lower ranks of the Bahraini Government alone. The report categorically states:
“In many cases, the security services of the GoB resorted to the use of unnecessary and excessive force, terror-inspiring behaviour and unnecessary damage to property. The fact that a systematic pattern of behaviour existed indicates that this is how these security forces were trained and were expected to behave.”
It goes on to say that there is
“a culture of impunity, whereby security officials have few incentives to avoid mistreatment of prisoners or to take action to prevent mistreatment by other officials.”
Some months ago, before the summer recess, I, on behalf of the all-party group on human rights, and Lord Avebury, the vice-chair, went to see the ambassador of Bahrain at the embassy in London. He was Mr al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family, and Eric Avebury, in particular, had detailed knowledge of the complaints made by some of the medical personnel—he knew some of the doctors personally. He was very specific when we put those accusations to the then ambassador, who said that he knew nothing about it but that he would come back to us with a detailed explanation of all the allegations. We heard not one word from the ambassador and surprisingly—or perhaps not—two weeks later, he was gone from the embassy, never to return. He was replaced by another ambassador, who did not give us any more information.
I remain concerned about the trials of doctors and nurses in military courts and the harsh sentences handed down. Although the King subsequently intervened and most of the health workers are now under house arrest awaiting trial in civil courts, the report’s findings on the brutal manner in which people were arrested and detained prompts the question of whether any subsequent trials can be fair and whether there is any justification for those people being held at all.
I compliment my right hon. Friend on her meeting with the ambassador and the efforts that she and Lord Avebury have made. Does she agree with me, however, that the current process in Bahrain is pretty awful but not particularly new and that it goes back to the suspension of the constitution a couple of decades ago and the continual denial of rights of free expression ever since? This is a merely a descent into that and much of the surveillance of the opposition is done using equipment supplied by Britain.
I thank my hon. Friend for making those points, which I attempted to make to the Foreign Secretary earlier. It is inappropriate: if we are still selling arms to the Bahrainis or training Bahraini military personnel in this country, that should not be done in the light of human rights abuses going back not just to the beginning of this year but to earlier years, too.
If the Government of Bahrain are to retain their legitimacy domestically and their credibility internationally, given what the BICI has established as the systematic nature of the serious human rights violations by Government officials, they must ensure that accountability for those violations goes right to the top. If I have one criticism of the report, it is that I feel it could have gone further, with a more precise allocation of responsibility for specific violations, stating who ordered what and when. The Government of Bahrain will, we hope, do that now.
We should make no mistake: Bahrain is at a crucial crossroads and can redeem itself in the eyes of its citizens and the international community by ensuring that, first, the rule of law and then wider democratic reforms prevail; by putting responsible officials, including those at the top of the chain of command, such as Government Ministers and senior military leaders, on trial; by engaging meaningfully with the Opposition; and by implementing the recommendations of the BICI report in good faith. Alternatively, it can bury its head in the sand and set the stage for further and more pronounced instability in the future.
Perpetuating the myth that Iran was responsible for the unrest is, in my view, not only unhelpful but dangerous. I am no apologist for the Iranian regime—I am only too well aware of the terrible human rights violations perpetuated on a daily basis on its own people and of the profoundly destabilising effects of its foreign policy—but it is important to note the report’s findings in this regard. It said:
“The evidence presented to the Commission…does not establish a discernible link between specific incidents that occurred in Bahrain during February/March 2011 and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
It is critical that leaders in Bahrain take responsibility for their own failings and acknowledge legitimate grievances rather than dismissing them as nothing more than “foreign agitation”.
The Bahraini King has said that he is determined to ensure that the report’s insights will act as a “catalyst for positive change”, and has since issued a decree to form a national commission with powers as advised in the report. However, the King still seems reluctant to face up to the enormity of the task ahead, given his carefully worded statement on receiving the report last Wednesday in which he referred to
“the unprecedented challenges faced by our authorities as they confronted relentless provocation, from hostile sources both inside and outside the country,”
“instances of excessive force and of the mistreatment of persons placed under arrest.”
I trust that the UK Government will, as I think the Foreign Secretary has indicated that we will, as a friend of the Bahraini Government, encourage and persuade them to do what is right in the longer term, however difficult that is in the short term, for the people of Bahrain, the region and the wider international community.
The following words from the BICI report sum up what I want to say on Bahrain:
“During the beginning of the events in Bahrain, as during the past decades, the demand was for reforms, not for regime change. This was the same in the early stages of the demonstrations and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But as experience shows, when demands for reforms are rebuffed, the demands become for regime change. In the end, the society becomes both polarised and radicalised. This situation leaves little room for a centre that could bring together people from all ethnic and sectarian groups and from all social and economic strata to work for reforms based on well established principles and processes of democracy, good governance and respect for internationally protected human rights.”
Turning briefly to Syria, as both Front-Bench spokesmen have said, it presents a more precarious and volatile situation, with catastrophe looming for Syria, the region and the international community if the Ba’athist regime under the current President, Bashar Assad, does not renounce its long-established methods of brutality and authoritarianism. At least 3,500 people, not including members of the security forces and the army, have already been killed. The Syrian Government have been violating the rights of their citizens for many years and Syria has long been a police state. Emergency rule was imposed in 1963 and has remained in effect ever since.
The abuses now being committed in Syria are extremely serious and widespread. As has been recently documented by Human Rights Watch:
“Torture of detainees is rampant. Twenty-five former detainees from Homs were among those interviewed by Human Rights Watch. They all reported being subjected to various forms of torture. Human Rights Watch has independently documented 17 deaths in custody in Homs, at least 12 of which were clearly from torture. Data collected by local activists suggest even higher figures. They say that at least 40 people detained in Homs governorate died in custody between April and August. Former detainees report security forces’ use of heated metal rods to burn various parts of their bodies, the use of electric shocks, the use of stress positions for hours or even days at a time, and the use of improvised devices, such as car tyres…to force detainees into positions that make it easier to beat them on sensitive parts of the body, like the soles of the feet and head.”
Human Rights Watch has stated that the systematic nature of abuses against civilians in Homs by Syrian Government forces indicate that crimes against humanity have been committed. Syrian Government officials right up to the top will have to be held accountable for these despicable crimes.
I applaud the suspension of Syria from the Arab League and the Arab League members that agreed to impose sanctions on Syria this weekend in their attempt to ramp up the pressure on the Syrian Government to comply with an Arab League peace plan, which they had supposedly accepted. The Arab League’s initiatives come in the wake of sanctions imposed by the US and the EU. It is time now for the international community and particularly the UN Security Council to do more to bring the Syrian Government to their senses, to get them to end the violent crackdown immediately and to allow for the immediate deployment of monitors on the ground.
Of course, there are no easy solutions. I do not underestimate the challenge of getting the current Syrian Government to stop their brutal campaign of repression, and of avoiding civil war. Military intervention by outsiders may also be counter-productive. I fear it may now be a case of too little, too late, with the international community having done almost nothing over the years to encourage the Syrian Government to change their ways, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility now. We cannot continue to leave the many brave Syrians at the mercy of a Government who have never had any regard for them.
As chairman of the all-party group on Libya, I have campaigned for many years on that country, particularly with regard to human rights there. I was invited to visit Benghazi this week by the national transitional council, but I politely declined that invitation because I am very concerned that the people of Libya have not been consulted about the sort of constitutional make-up their country should have.
If we bear in mind the 42 years of brutal tyrannical oppression that Libya went through, it is not unreasonable for the authorities to ask the people of Libya for their opinion as to how their country should be formed and what constitution they should have. The NTC has decided that there will be a presidential type of system, yet many friends of mine in Libya talk of growing public demonstrations throughout that country in support of Crown Prince Muhammad, the exiled crown prince of Libya who has lived in London since Colonel Gaddafi expelled him and his father.
I declare an interest. I have got to know Crown Prince Muhammad very well over a certain period of time. He is a close personal friend of mine. I believe him to be a man of great integrity and honour. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) indicated, many of the monarchies throughout the Arab world have not had the levels of instability that other Arab countries have had. The monarch is very important in this regard.
We must not forget that 30,000 people died in Libya—some estimates put the figure as high as 35,000 or 40,000—to liberate their country from the despot.
Only two countries in the world have gone back to having a monarchy—I am sure that my hon. Friend knows which. One is Spain, as you rightly mouthed just now, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the other is Cambodia, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) indicates.
I meant foreign countries. Spain and Cambodia are the two I was told about. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), it is not necessarily probable that the Libyan people would vote for a constitutional monarch—it is a possibility, but not a probability—but none the less they should be consulted, rather than the national transitional council stating unilaterally that there should be a presidential system.
I move on now to the trial of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. I would never dream of defending Gaddafi or any of his family, sycophants or supporters, but I think it is very important that this man gets a fair trial. Some of the Sunday newspapers have reported that people were saying that, if he was not found guilty and hanged, they would leave the country. Our newspapers must do everything possible not to prejudice the trial, because no matter what the individual may be guilty of, it is extremely important that he is given a fair trial. I very much hope that the Libyan authorities—I make this point to the Minister—will allow International Criminal Court lawyers to be present throughout the trial.
I was glad to hear from the Foreign Secretary that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has raised with Niger the importance of its acquiescing in international standards and handing over remnants of the Gaddafi regime and family members who have sought sanctuary in that country, as they have done in Algeria.
I will in a moment.
I will move on to the rendition of Libyan citizens to Libya when Gaddafi was in power. The shadow Foreign Secretary did not mention Libya once in this whole conversation, and one wonders why. Of course, I fought vehemently against the previous Government’s amazing cosying up to Colonel Gaddafi. I think that they must be embarrassed about the extraordinary rapprochement that Mr Blair and his successor had with that brutal despot—so much for Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy, which was so loudly trumpeted when Labour took office in 1997. I have listened to senior Labour figures stand on the Government side of the House and say that they knew nothing about the rendition of those people to Gaddafi’s Libya. I found that absolutely extraordinary. They say that the previous Labour Government knew nothing about sending those people back, ultimately to be tortured or done away with by Gaddafi, so they must be claiming that our security forces, off their own bat, unilaterally decided to engage with Libyan security forces and were responsible for sending those people to Libya without Government approval. I simply do not believe that. If it were true, I would be extremely concerned that our security forces had done such a thing. That is why I am calling for an investigation. I do not want it brushed under the carpet.
My hon. Friend has moved on from what I was going to say, which is that the International Criminal Court is responsible for trying people only when it would not be possible in their own country. I have given evidence in several ICC trials and am delighted that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi will be tried in Libya. I am happy for ICC lawyers to witness it, but they should not run it.
I agree; I said merely that I hoped ICC lawyers would be able to observe the proceedings.
I have received disturbing evidence about the equipment that some of our European partners sold to the Gaddafi regime. I will not go into too many details, but it helped Colonel Gaddafi to eavesdrop on his citizens and on citizens of this country. That is something that will come out in the coming days and weeks, but I should be interested to find out from the Minister everything that was exported to Gaddafi over those 13 years and might have assisted him in oppressing his own people. Mr Blair told us that the great rapprochement and engagement in the tent in the desert were to ensure that that man gave up his weapons of mass destruction, but from recent newspaper articles we see that vast stocks of chemical weapons have been found in Libya, so Colonel Gaddafi was really just playing a game of cat and mouse with the previous Government.
I very much hope to see progress on Lockerbie now. We all know that Mr Megrahi is not solely culpable of the worst terrorist atrocity on UK soil since the second world war, so I very much hope that the Minister and the Foreign Office will do everything possible to ensure that the Libyan authorities comply fully in helping us to get to the bottom of that case—and the case of PC Yvonne Fletcher.
I turn now to Mauritania. I alluded to the fact that on a recent visit to the country, as well as meeting politicians I spent a little time standing on the coast, watching the fishermen bring in their fish. It was quite extraordinarily difficult for them to drag—literally drag—their small boats on to the sand to get their catch.
The European Union and, in particular, Spanish vessels are pillaging the waters off the coast of Mauritania, sucking out all the fish and impoverishing the lives of local fishermen. Many promises that the EU made as a result of the agreement to which I referred earlier have not been fulfilled. One was that a pier or jetty would be built near Nouakchott for the local fishermen, but that has still not been put in place, 10 years on. I raise the issue with the Minister, as I very much hope that he will use his good offices to find out what the European Union’s promise of assistance was to the local fishermen, and that he will do everything he possibly can to help them.
My trip to Mauritania was the first by a British Member of Parliament since one by the Father of the House in 1960, and the Mauritanians were so amazed by this that they laid out the red carpet. I had more than two hours with the President—[Laughter.] My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) laughs but this is a serious matter, because the people there feel neglected by the United Kingdom and wish to engage far more with us. The problem is that Governments of various political colours have neglected the whole of Francophone north Africa over the decades, and that has led to a lack of engagement in terms of trade and co-operation. Luckily, I studied French—that was my degree—at university, so I could converse quite happily with the Mauritanians in French and had to translate for the rest of my delegation, but we need more engagement.
On my other visit, to Tunisia, I found when I met representatives of its chambers of commerce that only 52 British companies trade there, in contrast with 1,700 French companies—52 to 1,700. There are very similar statistics regarding Morocco. I have met Lord Green, the new Minister for Trade and Investment, who does an excellent job, but I very much hope that somebody who is a fluent French speaker will be appointed to lead a massive export drive to the Francophone countries.
I am far too junior and inexperienced, but I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comment.
I feel passionately about Saudi Arabia. As chairman of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia, I am pleased to inform the House that next month I will lead the largest ever parliamentary delegation to the kingdom, with 16 Members of Parliament, including many Labour MPs, as well as Conservatives. I am looking forward to that trip immensely. I have been battling against extraordinary ignorance about and prejudice against Saudi Arabia for many years, and that includes ignorance and prejudice from British Members of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that there are more women going on the trip than men, which is a specific wish of mine. [Interruption] No, not for that reason. We will certainly be meeting various organisations that deal with women’s rights in the kingdom. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the report after the visit, if he wishes.
There is tremendous anger and hostility towards Saudi Arabia in this country. On one occasion I was sitting in the Smoking Room waiting for a vote, and I asked 15 Tory MPs what their views were on Saudi Arabia, and every single one made very hostile statements about the country. That really upset me, and I did not understand it. I think we have a Guardian-reading liberal elite who want to denigrate Saudi Arabia at every opportunity. The BBC, with its left-wing bias and determination not to report anything positive from Saudi Arabia, also contributes to the extraordinary drip, drip effect of negative press that it gets in this country.
Of course there are huge problems in Saudi Arabia, and of course there are things that we in the United Kingdom disagree with and want changing, but there has been progress, slow though it is. It is extremely important that people like me and others who are interested in Saudi Arabia engage with the country and, specifically, with people who are trying to reform it, who are democrats, and who are passionate about making sure that it improves its human rights.
Yes, and we will be discussing that with them.
A delegation of members of the Shura Council recently visited us and spent a whole week here trying to find out how our Parliament works, how our Select Committees work, and how we hold Ministers to account. They talked to me about their desire for reform within the Shura Council and their determination that there should be elections to that body instead of its members being appointed by the King. Because they are very interested in learning from our experience of democracy, they insisted on spending the day with me in my constituency and finding out how the Member of Parliament is held to account by his constituents, how he interacts with the local council, and so on.
The Minister will know that the Foreign Secretary has described Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally of the United Kingdom and that our relations will be cemented and even further prioritised. I hope that he will confirm that.
The Prime Minister and the European Union talked about a Marshall aid package for Tunisia and Egypt following the revolutions in those countries. I have not heard much subsequently about that huge plan, which apparently involved up to €1 billion. I hope that it will be extended to Libya. I would like to hear what progress there is on that. I hope that some of the money will be used to facilitate British companies in trading with the region.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) is the chairman of the all-party group on Tunisia. He cannot be here, so he asked me to raise the importance of tourism to these countries. I hope that the Minister will agree that we should encourage citizens to visit Tunisia at the earliest opportunity, because it depends so much on tourism.
I will finish by saying that on Wednesday I will be hosting a reception in the House of Commons for the fifth birthday of al-Jazeera English. It is a broadcaster of immense pedigree. I trust al-Jazeera far more than the BBC, regrettably, for impartiality and objective broadcasting. More than 160 people are coming to the event. Because of the strike, I will be pouring the tea and serving the cake myself as we cannot get any catering staff to do so. Hon. Members are very welcome to join us on the Terrace on Wednesday.
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Parker, who came to see me, said that when he was chief of staff in Basra, they were watching al-Jazeera on television and it was the only broadcaster that was broadcasting from Basra. They saw a report on al-Jazeera which said that some of the British shelling was hitting civilians in a residential area. As a result of watching that broadcast, the artillery was stopped and innocent civilian lives were saved. We have a lot to thank al-Jazeera for.
I shall leave it at that.
I do not know how to follow the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who is a west midlands colleague of mine.
I welcome this debate and in particular the way in which the Foreign Secretary opened it. Even though I have some differences with the Government on their non-vote on Palestinian recognition, as was clear from the last statement on the middle east, I have been impressed by the willingness of the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to engage on that issue and to provide regular briefings. I am sure that that is welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
There was a very interesting speech by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), which I will comment on in a minute. I am not sure that I entirely followed his analysis on Iran, but he made some telling points on a number of other areas. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made some important points that we should all heed on Bahrain and Syria.
I would like to say a few words on Syria. All of us, particularly those with a keen interest in the middle east, have been appalled by the level of repression and violence by the Assad regime. As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington said, the Syrian people have showed incredible bravery and fortitude in standing up to that in the most appalling of circumstances. He was right—this has been said in the messages that I have been getting as well—that one of the most important things that we can do is to show the Syrian people that they are not an afterthought, but that we are with them. It is important that we help to keep their morale up. He was absolutely right that that is one of the important points about the Arab League initiative. I hope that the sanctions bite and are effective, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley is correct that we need to think beyond those sanctions as well. The statement that they have made is that the situation is a concern not simply to the outside world but to the Arab world itself, and that the Arab world will not stand for what is going on in Syria.
In Egypt, as we have heard, the polls are open for a general election, which I am sure we all welcome. However, we have to bear it in mind that there are parties that are boycotting the election because of the context in which it is taking place, and that people are still in Tahrir square voicing disquiet about how those elections could turn out. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins or gets the largest single number of votes, as seems likely, it will be really important that it carries through what it has said about recognising that democracy in Egypt has to be for all shades of opinion, secular as well as Islamist. That will need to be reflected in the future constitutional settlement.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the case of the 26-year-old Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil, who is now in his third month of a hunger strike? He was one of the first bloggers and the first Egyptians to say that the army and bits of the Muslim Brotherhood may be coming together. It is the army that is sending thousands of Egyptians to prison, with military courts and 93% conviction rates. That young man may die and be sacrificed as a martyr to the fact that the Egyptian army will not accept the will of the Egyptian people.
My right hon. Friend draws attention to a very brave individual, who is one of many in Tahrir square and beyond. Everyone recognised when the Mubarak regime fell that there were close ties between that regime and the military. Nevertheless, the military were also seen as a national force who were not moving against the people. That is one of the tragedies about what has been happening in Egypt. The fact that things have not moved as people in Tahrir square and beyond wanted them to is a source of profound regret, and that is what is being said in Tahrir square today. I hope that not only the Muslim Brotherhood but, as he says, the military themselves take that on board in the context of the elections. The military in Egypt can be a force for national unity, but they have to change their approach from the one they have adopted in recent weeks and months.
The Muslim Brotherhood is clearly an influential force in Egypt, and in other parts of the Arab world in north Africa and the middle east. Political Islam is a potent force there, and again, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington made an important point about that. If Members look for political symmetry between my views and those of the Muslim Brotherhood, they will have great difficulty in finding any points of contact. However, he was right to suggest that success for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are a disaster for groups such as al-Qaeda and the Salafist tradition of political Islam. We must bear that in mind, and it is why the Government are correct to look to open up engagement with political Islamist forces, whether in north Africa or elsewhere.
We recognise that such engagement is necessary in north Africa, for instance in Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps—who knows?—in creating a dialogue in Jordan. As chair of the all-party group on Jordan, I welcome the visit of King Abdullah to the House the other week, which showed that there is a chance for greater engagement as Jordan continues its reform programme. That sends a clear message that involvement by the UK in the formation of political parties in Jordan is to be welcomed as it moves towards reform. I hope that the Minister will say something about what more we can do on that. However, if we see that engagement with political Islam is important in all those places, we cannot suddenly put the shutters up as a matter of principle if the country involved is Palestine, because the bit of the Muslim brotherhood involved is called Hamas rather than the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the moment, there is a chance of a different way forward in relation to Israel and Palestine. Talks have been taking place in Cairo between Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Khaled Mashal of Hamas about a possible reconciliation between those two parties. Anybody who knows about Palestine knows that both Hamas and Fatah, and both political Islam and secular organisations, are part of the reality of Palestinian politics. If we are to get to the stage of a two-state solution and enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as I am sure the whole House wants, the peace deal has to reach out to both those traditions. It has to include political Islam as well as secular forces.
In the same way, we could not say that the only people we wanted to talk to in Israel were those who would generally be regarded as being in the peace camp. We have to recognise that the reality of Israeli politics also includes people such as Mr Lieberman, whose views are hardly the most progressive in the world—some would say that they are racist. It includes groups such as Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud. If we accept that in relation to engagement with Israel, we have to do so in relation to Palestine as well.
That gives a choice in relation to the reconciliation talks. There have been fairly clear signals coming out of those talks, as there have been from Hamas not for months but for years, about its involvement or acquiescence in a peace settlement. We would be totally foolish to ignore those signals. Yet somehow, the international community has got itself into a position of trying to put preconditions on the involvement of Hamas in talks. That was why I asked the Foreign Secretary a question about the matter earlier. In practice, those preconditions seem to have been designed not to encourage Hamas to come into peace talks but to find ways of keeping it out. Hurdles have been erected so that we can work out whether Hamas has jumped high enough, rather than our understanding what it means and responding when it offers truces and unilaterally declares hudnas. The term “hudna” has huge importance in Islam.
If we want to see peace between Israel and Palestine, a more subtle approach is important, and we cannot have that unless we are prepared to discuss matters and have dialogue. I think most diplomats would understand that dialogue and discussion do not necessarily mean the same as negotiations—negotiations can come later—but are an important start to the process by which negotiations can happen.
I compliment my hon. Friend on the huge amount of work that he has done for many years on the issues facing the Palestinian people. Does he agree that there is an element of double standards here? Israel, the Quartet, the UN and the west in general all have discussions with Hamas and its representatives at times and negotiate with it, hence the release of Corporal Shalit in exchange for a large number of Palestinian prisoners. Is it not time to move on so that there are proper talks and proper recognition instead of the current rather unfortunate stand-off, which has lasted too long?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Shalit prisoner swap is a recent example, and there was engagement with Hamas in relation to the release of Alan Johnston, the British journalist, a while ago. It is true that there are double standards, and if there is one thing that really gets to ordinary Palestinians and people throughout the Arab world, and to an awful lot of people beyond, it is the fact that, when it comes to Israel and Palestine, we suddenly adopt a different set of standards from those that we would see as absolutely incontrovertible anywhere else. That undermines our credibility and influence in that part of the world, and it undermines the peace process rather than taking it forward.
These are not theoretical questions. We have heard, just in the past few days, that simply because Hamas and Fatah are talking together, which might lead to reconciliation, Israel has threatened to cut off water and electricity supplies to Gaza—collective punishment of an entire population because their political leaders are talking together. Now, we either say something about that or we do not. We either take a firm stand on that or we do not. I know which side of the fence I am on.
That point does not just apply to dealing with political Islam. It was not long ago that any time anyone urged dialogue or engagement with Hamas, the call came from Israel that that would be beyond the pale and was impossible because they were terrorists. However, if it was just those nice people from Fatah or the PLO, such as Abu Mazen—Mahmoud Abbas—we could deal with them. But what has been the crime that Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah and the secular organisations have committed recently? Their crime has been to go to the United Nations and say, “Just give us the same rights as you have given Israel for 63 years.” From the reaction of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel and, sadly, the United States—and, even more sadly, of some people in this Chamber—it might be thought that those organisations had somehow declared war on Israel. The approach to the United Nations was described as “a unilateral move”. I cannot think of an organisation that is more multilateral than the United Nations.
I have listened carefully to the comments that my hon. Friend has made about Hamas’s involvement in the peace process. Does he maintain his position in the light of a statement made by a senior Hamas leader in Gaza in October, who said,
“We are not going to accept Israel as the owner of 1 sq centimetre because it is a fabricated state”?
That does not alter my view at all. My hon. Friend has illustrated precisely the point that I was making. On both sides of the debate, we can all produce quote after quote to give us an excuse not to engage in dialogue; to decide that our side is right; to decide that the other side are not worth talking to. It is Hamas now, but she may have made a few speeches a few years ago saying the same kind of thing about Yasser Arafat or about Fatah. That does not get us anywhere. It does not get me anywhere to say, because I can produce a load of quotes from someone like Lieberman—or even the Prime Minister of Israel, Mr Netanyahu—that they should be kicked out of negotiations, even if we all then pat ourselves on the back and say that we had done a good job.
If we are serious about peace, we have to contribute to peace. It is an old cliché, but it is right—peace is made not between friends, but between enemies. Unless we are prepared to try to reach out, not to our enemies, but to the enemies in the middle east and try to get them talking, what are we doing other than just acting as cheerleaders for one side or the other?
I was in Israel and Palestine last week. The situation there never loses its capacity to shock. Settlement building is continuing apace, in defiance of international law and despite having been condemned eight times in six months —or is it six times in eight months—by the Government. I know that the Minister is aware of the issue, but I ask him to pay particular regard to an area which became known as Area C in the Oslo process, which is one of the more rural areas of the west bank, and the encroachment of settlements and the dispossession of Palestinians there. When maps of the future Palestinian state are discussed, the focus is often on towns—on Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Tulkarm. All those places are important, but so too are the bits in between and the people who live there.
As we speak, Bedouin who are already refugees—in the main, they come from the Negev in what is now Israel and have been living in the west bank for decades—face forced displacement and dispossession to make way for settlements. I visited the school of Khan al Ahmar, just outside Jerusalem, which is under threat of demolition. There are two petitions going on, one to demolish the Khan al Ahmar school and one to demolish the Khan Al Ahmar community. One petition comes from the settlement just behind the area and one from the Israeli civil Administration in the west bank. That community, including the civilians—in fact, they are all civilians—and the children, face dispossession. Forced displacement of people by an occupying power is illegal under international law. We should not be scared to say that, nor to require Israel to abide by international law.
Even if those Bedouin were forcefully displaced to a palace it would be wrong. But the proposal is not to displace them to a palace. Instead, Israel proposes to displace them to a site next to Jerusalem’s municipal rubbish dump. I went to that rubbish dump and I saw the pipes that allow methane to escape. I saw a tanker appear, belching sewage from its back, and I saw where the land is being levelled to put Bedouin communities within 500 metres of the dump. As far as I know, that contravenes all health and safety regulations in that area.
Israel is beginning to notice the growing international condemnation of this proposal. It is no accident that access to the rubbish dump is now being blocked off by security blocks like those seen in other parts of the west bank. They have now appeared at the entrances to the rubbish dump—perhaps it has suddenly become a security risk. It may in fact be about stopping foreign visitors—and brave Israelis—from going there to bear witness to what is going on.
These things are wrong, and we should not be scared to say so. Settlement building is also dismantling the chances of a two-state solution before our eyes. The settlement building is not just displacing people to make way for settlers: it is increasingly severing the west bank into cantons or Bantustans that will not be viable as a state—unless we stop it. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House, whether we consider ourselves friends of Palestine or of Israel, will demand that that process stops.
My final point is about child prisoners. We have already mentioned the prisoner swap that rightly led to the release of Gilad Shalit and of some 500 Palestinian prisoners. The second phase of that prisoner swap will take place over the coming weeks. There are 150 Palestinian children in Israeli military detention, but so far, none of those is scheduled to be part of that prisoner swap. Several recent delegations to the west bank and Israel—organised by the Britain-Palestine all-party group, which I chair, and other organisations—have been to the Israeli military courts where those children are tried. Like other hon. Members, I had already read the testimonies about how the laws applying to Palestinian children are different from those applying to Israeli children; about how Palestinian children are tried in military courts, but Israeli children, even in the occupied territories, are tried in civilian courts; about how many Palestinian children are given bail compared with how many Israeli children are given bail. But I was not prepared for the sight in a military prison—one of the most secure compounds I have ever visited—of 14-year-old boys shuffling in wearing leg-irons and handcuffs for their court hearings. All members of the all-party parliamentary group who were on that visit made the decision that we were not prepared to shut up about this. Something had to be done. Whatever one’s views on the occupation, on Israel and on the peace process, shackling 14-year-old boys is wrong. It is against the UN convention on the rights of the child and it is inhuman.
Earlier this year, I was invited by the United Nations to a conference in Vienna on the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. It was the first time that I could remember the UN holding a conference with such a title. There were testimonies from people that made exactly the same point as my hon. Friend. Children are quite often charged without having a responsible adult present or legal representation. The stories that we heard were very similar to those he is describing now. It is an absolute disgrace that many of these children are in prison simply for throwing stones.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The biggest number of accusations is for throwing stones. A range of human rights organisations, including Israeli human rights organisations as well as Palestinian and international ones, and the United Nations have amassed loads of evidence showing how children are visited and arrested in the middle of the night and painfully tied with a single plastic cord in violation of Israeli army procedures. The issue of how the children are interrogated and who is allowed to be present is a matter of real concern. Interrogations are not video recorded. Children continue to be denied bail in about 90% of cases, and many are detained in prisons outside the occupied territories in violation of article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention. Those things are wrong.
Even though I thought I knew a fair bit about child prisoners in Palestine, I came across something last week that astonished me even more. I spoke to some ex-detainees in Bethlehem. Most of them came from the town of Hebron or thereabouts. They recounted some of the things that my right hon. Friend has said, that I have said and that the UN has reported, but I wanted to pursue this issue of why they were shackled and had leg irons on inside a prison.
I said to the young boys, “When did they put these leg irons on you? When did they shackle you?” They replied, “Before we went into the court and before we went into the prison.” I said, “You were detained, though. You were already in the prison, weren’t you?” They replied, “No, we were in the other prison.”
Many of those children are held not in Ofer prison, in which they are tried, but in other prisons which could be on the west bank or in Israel itself. The young man who was talking to me was held in Tilmond prison near Haifa and he said that that was where they put the shackles and leg irons on him. He wanted to talk to me about other things. He thought that his experience was quite normal. I said, “Hang on, how long were you in those leg irons and shackles before you got to the prison?” I thought that it would have taken one to two hours to drive to Ofer prison, but he said, “About nine hours.”
At that stage, I thought that I was getting some exaggeration because it is nothing like a nine-hour drive between Haifa and Ofer prison, which is between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He said, “No, we don’t go straight there. We get picked up at about 1 o’clock in the morning and the prison transport takes us down to the Negev where we pick up some more from a prison there. It then takes us back to Ramleh where we have a break for the driver and then we go on to Ofer prison. It takes about eight or nine hours.”
I asked the young boy whether he was shackled the whole time. He said, “Yes.” Other young men around the room nodded in agreement and said that that had happened to them as well. I asked the young boy where they were being held. He said, “We were in this kind of prison bus which had rooms in.” I assumed that it was like prison transport with compartments. He said, “It was a bit overcrowded, but we just had to stay there with our shackles and leg irons.” I asked, “What happened if you wanted to go to the toilet?” He replied, “We just had to do it where we were.” This is the 21st century. Irrespective of our views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, are we honestly saying that those sorts of things should go on?
I know that the Minister and the Government are concerned about this matter. I welcome the work that both our ambassador in Tel Aviv and our consular-general in east Jerusalem have been doing to raise awareness of these and many other issues. There is another inquiry going on at the moment into the condition of child prisoners. This is an issue that must not go away because it is shocking to me and shocking to anyone who sees it. It is against the UN convention on the rights of the child and it is inhuman.
I have been raising these matters over a period of time —perhaps I have been a bit of a bore on the matter— but it is only in the past few days and weeks that we have seen a change in profile and a number of achievements. Israel has equalised the age at which a child is classified an adult—from 16 to 18. The age is now equal between Israelis and Palestinians, which is good. It would not have happened had it not been for the pressure that has been building up. The number of Palestinian children in Israeli jails is now 150; it was 164 a few weeks ago, so I think the Israelis are susceptible to pressure.
What is incredible is that there has been a campaign of hate, misrepresentation and libel against me and others for having dared to raise this issue. To some extent that goes with the territory, and I am not in the firing line; I am a British MP. I can speak in this place. It is easy for me to do so and it is my responsibility to do so. None the less, there are people for whom we do need to raise our voices. I am talking not just about the Palestinian children but the people who are prepared to speak out both in Palestine and in Israel. I am talking about those who are members of groups such as Peace Now, B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Physicians for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence; the brave soldiers who have seen the conflict first hand and have said that things must change. They are prepared to say that the kind of stuff that Israel and Netanyahu put out in the outside world does not reflect the reality on the ground and that there has to be a different way. Those people are the best of Israel.
Very often the Israeli Government and lobbyists for Israel talk about the danger of the de-legitimisation of Israel. Even members of those groups, Israeli Jews, are accused of de-legitimising Israel because they speak out on what is going on. In fact, those groups are protecting Israel’s legitimacy and democracy and they need our support now because laws are being put through the Knessset that will gag them. Any organisation that the Israeli state regards as political will be outlawed from getting foreign funding of over 20,000 Israeli shekels—about £6,000. All the evidence points to the fact that the ones that will be regarded as political will be the human rights organisations. It will not affect the settler groups that get millions from the United States and elsewhere; it will affect the human rights organisations. Legislation is also being passed that is doing strange things to Israel’s libel laws that will try to gag people from speaking out. There are even laws being passed about how judges and justices are chosen that will restrict the ability of such groups to petition the courts in Israel. Those groups need our support. Our ambassador has been forthright on this matter and I commend him for that.
My appeal is not just to people who agree with me on Palestine but to those who regard themselves as friends of Israel. Are they simply friends of whatever the Israeli Government happen to do or say at the time, or are they friends of Israel, of Israeli democracy, of dissent in Israel as well as of the establishment of Israel? If they are, I hope that they will join me and people throughout the world in standing up for Israeli democracy. B’Tselem and other organisations are bravely saying, “We will not be silenced.” We should not allow them to be silenced either.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It was certainly fascinating to hear his powerful personal testimony of the military courts in Israel and Palestine. I had the opportunity to see the courts earlier this year, and one of the most disturbing things is that although, in a sense, it is a testimony to the openness of Israeli society that he and I could see them in practice, the same crimes committed in the same places by Israeli youngsters were tried in civilian courts with all the rights and protections that that implied. He is right to praise Israeli and Palestinian voices that have been raised in opposition to that system.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s broad opening remarks. They provided an informative tour of parts of three continents and numerous societies and conflicts. I do not know whether it is fair to say that some of these parliamentary debates are getting a little broad in their scope. This one encompasses, among many other things, the enormously hopeful transition to democracy in many countries following the Arab spring, the intractable problems of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the dislocation and war in the horn of Africa and the troubling situation in Iran.
Common themes are emerging, however. The first theme that I would identify is a hopeful one: the increasing role of regional organisations in many of these conflicts and policy areas. There was the recent positive initiative by the Gulf Co-operation Council in Yemen leading to what we hope will be the beginning of a resolution of the problems there; there is the very positive role being played in Somalia by the African Union; and there is the historic new-found confidence of the Arab League in tackling human rights issues first in Libya and now in Syria. Some of the Foreign Secretary’s Conservative colleagues might be sceptical of, and worry about, these regional groupings taking on a political role rather than a purely economic one, but I think that some of these disputes are proving the value of regional co-operation and regional groupings.
Rather surprisingly, a second theme appears to be the role of monarchy, which was eloquently expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and then put slightly more eccentrically—I hope that he will forgive me for saying that while he is not in his place—by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). I would say to him that the history of monarchy—even restored monarchies—in places such as France and Greece has not been entirely trouble free, and that the history of middle eastern monarchy is not entirely safe and reliable either. He could look to Iran and Libya for examples of where the path of monarchy did not run entirely smoothly. European history shows that it is common for populations to have considerable respect for the magic of monarchy for quite a long time and always to blame the advisers and Governments, but eventually many monarchs run out of bad advisers to blame and sometimes lose their heads in subsequent phases of popular discontent.
The third common theme, rightly highlighted by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, is the potential for a new, democratic and peaceful brand of political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood is a complicated network of organisations operating in different countries but it has been overwhelmingly peaceful in most parts of the middle east. If it looks to countries such as Turkey and Indonesia for examples of how political Islam can play its part in a completely democratic process—and one that is tolerant of other political traditions in the same society—it will find a very different vision of political Islam from that of violent Salafism or the Iranian-inspired political extremism that we see at work in the region. It would be a terrible mistake to lump those together and to be too afraid of the role of political Islam in these regions.
It is a positive sign that the first democratic elections in Egypt commenced today, although even the operation of those elections has exposed the tensions between the continuing role of the military in Egyptian society and the instincts of the democratic activists in Tahrir square and throughout Egyptian society. Although it is a positive thing that those elections are taking place, we must make it clear to the Egyptian Governments who follow the elections that in due course those tensions must be resolved in favour of democracy, and that the military must learn, as they have done in many parts of Europe and the world, that to be truly patriotic they have to step back from political power and cannot expect immunity for past crimes.
The Amnesty International report from 22 November reinforces the fears of some of the protesters. It talks about military courts still trying protesters, about crackdowns on peaceful protest and about the remit of Mubarak’s emergency law being, if anything, extended in recent months. Those are very worrying tendencies, and I know that the Government are expressing their concerns and fears to the Egyptian Government. It is a positive thing that the military council has apologised and that there has been talk of investigations, amnesties and compensation—that is all welcome—but the fundamental necessity is for a clear shift towards a transparently civilian authority in Egypt.
I totally accept the hon. Gentleman’s point but my simple worry is that if the military were not there—I am not trying to support them—we might have a much worse situation. We have to be careful. The Egyptians have to decide exactly what they want, and we cannot say to them, “This is what should happen.” It is their business, not ours.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but certain fundamental principles ought to inform transitions to democratic government if they are to succeed, and two of those must be that the military step back from the exercise of political power and that they should not expect immunity from investigation of past involvement in human rights abuses. Successful transitions to democracy have always had those characteristics, and the Egyptians must learn from that. I welcome the Foreign Secretary and the Government’s strong line in that respect.
Libya presents different challenges. We must be grateful for the role that British and international armed forces played in that conflict but equally we must welcome the move to a post-military phase and congratulate the Government on reopening the British embassy on 17 October. As hon. Members have pointed out, the treatment of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi will be a test case: his capture provides the opportunity for the new Libyan regime to illustrate its respect for the rule of law and the rights even of despised opponents in a way that was not apparent in the treatment of Gaddafi senior.
I would like the Minister to comment on a security matter that the Foreign Secretary did not really mention: the reports that large amounts of military matériel are going missing in Libya. It is rumoured that some of it is finding its way into the hands of violent Islamic extremists, whether those with Salafist tendencies or even al-Qaeda members. I would be interested to hear whether the Government consider these accounts credible and, if so, whether they are taking action to counteract the problem.
In Syria, we have a different situation again. As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington rightly said, we have to give the greatest credit to the Syrian people themselves for maintaining the uprising for eight months against the most brutal repression. It is an example of extraordinary courage and determination that should inspire people all over the world to rise up against tyranny. However, credit is also due to the Arab League, the regional grouping, first for expressing strong diplomatic disapproval and exerting pressure, then for suspending Syria from membership and, finally, for now imposing sanctions. Such a determined response by the Arab League and neighbouring Governments such as Turkey is a positive development in the history of the Arab League, which has not always been the most robust of organisations on such issues. However, it is now taking a proactive and positive role in the region, and towards Syria in particular.
I think that those in the Arab League see—I hope we see it too—that those developments may avoid the necessity for foreign intervention, which is not something that I have heard anyone in the Syrian opposition call for. Although we might see continued violent conflict in Syria—I think we will, in fact, see it—if a robust approach is taken, we might also see a resolution that does not involve even worse complications, arising from foreign intervention, because there are unfortunate precedents. In terms of geography and political, ethnic and tribal tensions, Syria is rather more like Iraq than Libya, which, in a way, was a rather simple country to intervene in. Libya is reasonably homogenous, its population basically live on one coastal strip and it is close to lots of NATO countries. Intervention in Syria would be a much more complicated and messy affair. We should try to avoid that possibility at all costs.
However, it is rather disappointing that some other international voices have not really joined us in trying to support the Syrian people. It is interesting to note the movement by China, but Russia’s position is completely indefensible. The opportunity for Russia to use its influence with the Assad regime for good is being completely lost. The recent comment by a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman—that what was needed was
“not sanctions, not pressure, but internal Syrian dialogue”—
was, frankly, completely incredibly. That approach risks Russia’s credibility, not just in Europe and the international arena, but specifically in the middle east. I hope that Russia will see that its position is neither credible nor in Russia’s long-term interests, and will instead join the growing international movement for effective international pressure.
The situation in Iran, not far from Syria, is rather more worrying—like other hon. Members, I deeply regret the expulsion of the UK ambassador. Again, this is an area where international co-operation could have proved effective. After all, the International Atomic Energy Agency includes China and Russia, so in a sense they are taking part in the pressure being exerted on the Iranian regime. The IAEA has clearly and unambiguously exposed credible evidence of the Iranian regime’s military ambitions when it comes to nuclear weapons. It is possible to understand Israel’s anxiety in that respect. To Israel, this development poses a real and present threat to its national security. However, I hope that we will join other members of the international community in expressing to Israel the clear belief that military intervention would inflame the entire region and critically undermine the chances of liberal opposition or a popular uprising in Iran, solidifying support for the regime. The role of the international community must be to provide robust and effective pressure—I welcome the increased sanctions regime at the end of this month. However, we must try to pursue that as a means of avoiding the possibility that any country in the region feels it is necessary to intervene militarily.
We have to accept that the Israeli people’s anxieties are quite real. It is not just the Iranian situation that seems to pose a threat to many people in Israel, but in some respects the Arab spring too. However, I nevertheless welcome the Government’s position, which is that Palestine now largely fulfils the criteria for UN membership, including statehood. I rather regret that this has not translated into a promise of a positive vote in favour of Palestinian statehood and membership of the United Nations; nevertheless, the tone of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks and those of Ministers has been absolutely right in that respect. It is right to call on Israel to realise that the only way to avoid unilateral initiatives is multilateral negotiation without preconditions. Israel needs to do that, not least to strengthen the hand of moderate, peaceful Palestinian political opinion, because the path of conflict and confrontation will only reinforce the position of the more extreme factions, if that diplomatic and peaceful process seems completely hopeless to ordinary Palestinians.
Moving around the world, let me turn to Somalia, where there are some quite positive things to highlight. I look forward to the London conference in February. The Foreign Secretary was right to highlight the need for more effective international strategies and pressure. Nevertheless, there is already some positive development to report. The courage of African Union troops and the positive role that the African Union is playing in the country are quite important. The fact that the Secretary of State for International Development was able to visit Mogadishu this summer is quite an extraordinary development. It was a very positive statement for him to make. It might not quite compare with the courage of African Union and Somali troops in trying to promote democracy or national security in that country, but it was a courageous act by a western politician, and we ought to pay him credit for that. There is a fear among Somali civil society that rather more money comes in from foreign countries in the form of ransoms than in the form of development aid. It is therefore positive that the British Government have made a visible commitment to work in Somali society and in Somali civil society, in particular, to promote development.
When we are dealing with piracy, it is quite important that such development should take place, because it is important—if I may misquote Tony Blair—not just to tackle piracy, but to tackle the causes of piracy. We do not just need police actions against ships and aggressive actions in the sea; we need to tackle, for instance, illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste, which are ruining traditional livelihoods and are also among the factors that sometimes drive people to seek such extreme forms of raising money. Wherever possible, we need to invest in infrastructure, such as fishing facilities and so on, to try and start the long, hard process of normalisation in that country. We need to involve Somali civil society in that, and not just in what is technically Somalia, but in those regions that are, in effect, proving autonomous, such as Somaliland and Puntland.
I commend to Ministers the experience of Saferworld and the role that it has played in DFID-funded projects both in Somalia proper and in Somaliland and Puntland. Its experience of trying to put together a positive framework for development in those parts of the world is extremely welcome. Indeed, it is also in line with the Government’s stated policy in BSOS—“Building Stability Overseas Strategy”—which talks about upstream prevention of conflict. In the case of Somalia, it is not so much upstream prevention as an upstream solution while the river is in full flood. We should not take the analogy too far—[Interruption.] Yes, we do not want anybody drowned in the process, but clearly we need to tackle the root causes of conflict, as well as the symptoms.
We see a regrettable deterioration of the situation in Sudan. Briefly, let me say that the Foreign Secretary’s instincts are exactly right in that respect too. We need to watch the situation extremely carefully and urge all parties, in both Governments—the Sudanese Government and the new South Sudan Government—to recognise the importance of trying to resolve their differences peacefully, if at all possible, and to allow the maximum amount of international support in so doing.
In Yemen we see more positive developments. We have the President’s signature on 23 November and the appointment of an opposition politician, Mohammed Basindawa, to the role of Prime Minister, which are encouraging developments. Clearly we are not out of the woods yet in Yemen, but what has happened is a positive step.
Last but not least, I would like to deal briefly with the situation in Bahrain, and I strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s remarks on the country. I listened with interest to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has long been an independent and forthright commentator on international affairs regardless of who happens to be in government at the time. In a way, however, I think she got the tone slightly wrong on the independent committee of inquiry whose report has just been published in Bahrain. She rightly said that it demonstrates comprehensive evidence of widespread and serious abuse of human rights, certainly implicating the security forces, and that this is part of a deep-seated process in the state of Bahrain. The fact that the report has been published at all, however, is a very positive development that we must try to hold on to. The fact that it was robust and that it did not pull any punches is quite a testament to the potential for openness and accountability in Bahrain.
We know from our own experience in this country that it took us decades to accept the role of our military in even very limited and isolated examples of the abuse of military power in Northern Ireland and later in Iraq, for example. These were not systematic, but very isolated cases of discreditable actions—not typical of the British armed forces as a whole—yet these were painful incidents for us to talk about and admit. Bahrain, however, has moved very quickly to a position in which it is openly discussing comprehensive and systematic human rights abuse by its own security forces, which is something to be praised.
Yes, I certainly agree with that. What the report has highlighted about the Shi’a is particularly important. It showed that the idea that Iran was stirring up trouble and was behind the Shi’a elements in the protests was not backed up by any real evidence. That was another honest and important conclusion from the report.
The test is, of course, what happens next. As Amnesty International has said, it is the “speed, extent and seriousness” of the Government’s response that is the real test in this case. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley rightly highlighted the case of medical workers who are still in custody of one kind or another, which is simply not acceptable. The Bahraini Government should tackle that issue as a matter of absolute priority.
I am sure that Her Majesty’s Government will enthusiastically support that kind of robust response to the report by the Bahraini Government, and I think they should also seek to reassure any nervous neighbours of Bahrain that as the “Building Stability Overseas Strategy” rightly points out, we are now looking at a new philosophy of security for countries such as Bahrain and others around the world, whereby security does not come from repression and control, but ultimately and in the long term from societies that are capable of peaceful change, in which human rights and the rule of law are respected. From Somalia to Syria, from Mauritania to Iran, that commitment to peaceful change, human rights and the rule of law ought to be—and, I hope, will be—the hallmarks of British foreign policy.
I certainly hope that the aspirations of the people of the region that have been raised by the Arab spring are realised and that the lives of people throughout that region, and, indeed, beyond it, are improved. It is significant to note that before the Arab spring took place, there was very little, if any, coverage in the national media of the atrocities and lack of democracy that were a reality in those countries. Indeed, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights failed to condemn what was happening in those countries, which perhaps places a big question mark over the efficiency of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
This is a wide-ranging debate, and I would like to comment on a number of areas. First, the Foreign Secretary mentioned the situation in Yemen. I know that the commitments made by the President to take action to bring democracy to the country are doubted by many people. I hope that the British Government will do all they can to ensure that the promises materialise and that the current regime will be replaced by a democratic one that reflects the interests of the people of Yemen.
Iran—not, of course, an Arab country—has been mentioned as an important player a number of times in this debate. I urge our Government to look at the plight of the Baha’i people in Iran and to note the continued persecution and new wave of arrests of the Baha’i minority. It is wrong that what is happening to that minority group is ignored by far too much of the world. I ask Ministers to make a statement about what they going to do to try to ensure that the Baha’i people are not intimidated or persecuted as they are now.
I shall also comment on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute and how I hope matters might be pressed so that justice can be achieved. The context of everything I want to say is that I firmly believe that the only way in which justice can be brought both to Palestinians and Israelis is to have two states of Israel and Palestine with negotiated borders, with an agreed settlement on refugees and an agreed sharing of Jerusalem. These objectives are not as far away as many people may believe. Indeed, a number of significant negotiations have come very close indeed to finding resolutions to those difficult issues. As I say, those issues will be resolved only by detailed negotiations between the parties concerned. It is right that the Quartet and others try to assist the negotiations, but a lasting solution can be brought about only by agreement between those two main parties. Calls for boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment will not bring peace and will not bring security. Direct negotiations are the only way.
It is a common call for there to be an end of the occupation to resolve this dispute. Indeed, I am opposed to occupation—the occupation of one people by another has to be bad both for the occupied as well as the occupiers—but too often ignored in debates on this issue is the fact that Israel has withdrawn from lands it occupied in its defensive war in 1967, when its existence was threatened by the armies of Arab states around it. Israel has withdrawn from territories it occupied, in response to offers of peace. Perhaps the best example was in 1979, when Israel withdrew from the whole of Sinai as part of a negotiated agreement with Egypt. Until now—and, we hope, in the future, although sadly there seems to be a question mark over this—there has been peace between Egypt and Israel. It has often been described as a cold peace, but it is nevertheless a peace. In 1994, Israel reached agreement with Jordan, which has also continued. Israel has withdrawn from territories occupied when threats were made to its very existence and peace has resulted from it. It is also the case that Israel has withdrawn from other territories it occupied as a result of attacks, but peace has not been the result.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I understand that Israel fervently wishes to maintain its peace treaty with Egypt. However, it is concerned about statements that have been made by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which suggest that it would like to review or, indeed, drop the treaty. Israel wishes to maintain it, and I hope that that can be achieved.
Israel has withdrawn from territories that it has occupied as a result of attacks on it, and the consequence of that withdrawal has not been peace. In 2000, Israel correctly withdrew completely from south Lebanon. The consequence of that was the occupation of the area by the Iran-backed Hezbollah, followed by attacks on Israeli citizens. Although it was a correct withdrawal from occupied territory, it did not lead to peace.
More recently, in 2005, the Israelis correctly withdraw all their 8,000 settlers and military personnel from Gaza. As we all know only too well, the result of that was not peace but the election of Hamas—refusing to recognise Israel’s existence—and the firing of thousands of rockets and other missiles on Israeli civilians in Sderot, Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod. The withdrawal of the Israelis from Gaza, which I fully support, did not lead to peace.
People talk as though withdrawal and the end of occupation inevitably lead to peace. I stress again that I am against occupation, but in those two instances at least, when Israel has withdrawn from lands that it has occupied as a result of attacks on it, peace has not been automatic. Moreover, when people advocate the withdrawal of Israelis from occupied lands, it is not always clear exactly which occupied lands they are talking about. Are they talking about 1967 or about 1948? Here in London a few months ago, on al-Quds day, it was evident what was meant by many of the campaigners against Israel’s policies and against Israel itself. One illustration of that was a big placard held up by a young child, bearing the unfortunate words “For world peace, Israel must be destroyed”. That is hardly conducive to efforts to find a solution.
I also note that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s logo features a map that does not depict Israel as existing at all. When I hear calls from that organisation for Israel to end its occupation, I question what it really means. Is it talking about a negotiated solution to the problem of land that is occupied as a result of attacks on Israel in 1967, or is it talking about there being no Israel at all? We must know what people mean, in what context they are speaking and where they are coming from if we are to assess the validity of the criticisms that they are making at any given time.
I understand the genuine anxieties that the hon. Lady is voicing. However, she must accept that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have made it clear that they are talking about negotiation more or less on the 1967 borders, and that anything beyond the 1967 borders of Palestine must therefore be Israel. That is an implicit, if not explicit, recognition of Israel’s absolute right to exist. By responding so aggressively to the peaceful and diplomatic approach to the United Nations made by the Fatah administration—by responding with extended settlements and threats to the economic and financial viability of the Palestinian Authority—Israel is surely playing into the hands of the very extremists, bomb-makers and rocket-makers to whom the hon. Lady is referring.
I acknowledge that the Palestinian Authority has played a constructive role in the attempt to make progress. That is clear from the way in which it has worked with the Quartet and others on the west bank, the dramatic increase in prosperity there, and the way in which—again, working with the Quartet—it has developed its security forces and the civil administration. That could easily and quickly make Palestine into a viable and successful country, if only the political negotiations could make progress. I also think it important for the Palestinian Authority to recognise that the solution lies in urgent negotiations rather than declarations at the United Nations which, in practice, will not solve any of the practical and difficult problems that need to be addressed. The Palestinian Authority should be urged to return to those negotiations.
I know that my hon. Friend is not happy about the reference to the United Nations—she and I disagree about that—but may I invite her to answer the question that was put by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood)? Irrespective of whether she feels, or Israel feels, that it is a good idea for the Palestinians to go to the United Nations, does she think that it helps the peace process for Israel to respond by continuing and accelerating its settlement building, and by cutting off tax revenues that are owed to the Palestinian Authority but are being held by Israel?
I do not think that those activities are helpful to the quest for peace. I think that the only way in which progress can be made is for the Palestinian Authority to be urged to return to the negotiating table. It is a great shame that when it stopped negotiating and said that it wanted a settlement freeze—I considered that to be a reasonable request, and indeed there was a settlement freeze—the Palestinians did not return to the negotiating table.
It is important to recognise that the role and the views of Hamas do matter. Quotations from Hamas are important, because they reflect the reality. Hamas still does not recognise the validity of the existence of the state of Israel. I am not talking about an argument about borders; it does not recognise the validity of the state of Israel. That is shown clearly in its charter, which states that it is its religious duty to have an Islamic state over the whole of the area in which Israel now exists. That has nothing to do with 1967 borders.
The charter also refers to Jews—not Israelis—running the world and controlling the media, and contains other diatribes against Jews, not just Israelis. As I mentioned earlier, Hamas leaders in Gaza have recently stated
“we are not going to accept Israel as the owner of one square centimeter because it is a fabricated state.”
Those are not just words while Hamas’s rockets continue to rain down on Israeli citizens. If it changes its position, we shall be in a different situation, and I certainly agree that a different approach must be taken. However, no one who believes that Israel’s existence should be guaranteed can accept that it should negotiate about its existence. Yes, it should negotiate about boundaries since 1967, but it should not be called on to negotiate about its existence. Unless the person requesting that is one of the people whom I mentioned earlier, who by “occupied lands” is really referring to Israel’s existence, it is land since 1948.
As a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, my wife used to have to deal with Hamas daily in south Lebanon when she was the delegate in Tyre. Would it not be in all our interests for huge efforts to be made—I am sure that some efforts are already being made—to persuade Hamas to change its position with regard to Israel and its right to exist, so that we could proceed to negotiation? It is clear that Israel must exist in future. It is equally clear that its borders must be secure—that is part of the process— but I agree that Hamas’s present position is a really big stumbling block.
Is there not an instructive example from our own country, however, in the way in which we drew Sinn Fein and the IRA into the process of negotiation and eventually a settlement even while there was still some violence going on, and even while those organisations were still committed to the abolition of the Province of Northern Ireland and to its incorporation into the Irish state? That political issue was resolved only at the very end of the negotiations, with the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Does the hon. Lady not agree that we should be trying to draw Hamas into the democratic process and the negotiating process, and not setting preconditions that even we ourselves did not set in our own peace process?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Sinn Fein only became part of the peace process—indeed, it did not become part of it directly—when it changed its position in respect of recognition, and I also do not recall that it had a theological basis of hatred for the British state.
The whole process brought about changes, but there was acceptance only when Sinn Fein changed its position, and I repeat that I am not aware of its having had a theological determination to eliminate the existence of the British state. Hamas not only has a theological determination to eliminate the state of Israel, but is acting on that by sending its rockets over.
I think I might differ with my hon. Friend on her history of what happened in relation to Northern Ireland, but may I put two questions to her? First, does she accept that, although some things such as the Hamas charter remain as they were and the phrases she quotes are no doubt genuine, there have also been indications coming out of Hamas that, while it may not recognise the state of Israel, it could live with living alongside the state of Israel? Is she aware of that shift, and does she think we should explore and encourage it and see where it can go? Secondly, I agree with her that Israel should not have to negotiate its own existence, but what does she think it sounds like to a Palestinian when she and others say a Palestinian state can only come about through negotiation?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The state of Israel came about because it was internationally recognised—[Interruption.] Following a number of commissions looking into the question of whether there should be a state of Israel, the UN put forward specific boundaries following the work of a special committee that had considered that matter over a number of years, and supported that. That was accepted by the state of Israel, but it was not accepted by the Arab states, which then invaded Israel. That was the origin of how the state of Israel came into existence.
I am aware that from time to time some elements of Hamas are said to have made statements to the effect that they would be prepared to live with Israel, but I cannot think that any state would take that seriously when at the same time much more senior people consistently state they wish to see the end of Israel and, indeed, start to act to do so by sending their rockets, directed at Israeli civilians. We must also bear it in mind that Hamas is not acting alone, but is backed by Iran in respect of training and arms—and Iran is, of course, repeatedly threatening the annihilation of Israel. I therefore think Israel has every right to treat Hamas very sceptically indeed, unless there is an explicit and profound change in its position.
I was particularly interested in the hon. Lady’s recent comments about how Israel came into existence, pursuant to a United Nations commission which set out the boundaries and established how things would work. Would she accept a similar result from a UN commission now on the establishment of a Palestinian state?
The state of Israel exists, and has every right to exist. Indeed, I know of no other country in the world in respect of which when its future is discussed questions are raised about the existence of the state itself. I agree that the state of Palestine, which does not exist at present, ought to be set up, but it can only be set up side by side with Israel on the basis of detailed negotiations about borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
Discussions have taken place, following past negotiations which ultimately failed, about the issue of Palestinian refugees. The solution to that problem can only come about by agreement between the parties, and on the basis that Palestinian refugees are to be able to return to a Palestinian state and, by agreement, to Israel and in agreed numbers, with compensation to be offered. I note that the critics of Israel often talk about the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to Israel, rather than to Palestine. That, of course, is simply code for the destruction of the state of Israel, but that distinction is seldom recognised.
There is a lack of balance in discussions on this issue. I am, for instance, increasingly concerned about the attempts to demonise and delegitimise the state of Israel. The term “Zionism” is now used as a term of abuse, which is wholly unacceptable. Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people for a homeland in the state of Israel. Like all national movements, it contains a range of individuals and parties with very different views. Zionism is not a term of abuse, and when it is used as such, that illustrates the demonisation of the state of Israel itself.
The term Zionism means what it has always meant: a Jewish national movement for a Jewish national home in the state of Israel. It is Israel’s detractors who have perverted the meaning of the term Zionism and made it a term of abuse, in an attempt to delegitimise the very existence of the state.
I was going to comment on Hamas, but I think that has been dealt with by others. I can, however, confirm the point my hon. Friend makes about Zionism. I am not Jewish, but I have been denounced and vilified as “that Zionist MP” by various people simply on the basis that I support the two states position. That tactic is certainly used by some organisations and some activists in certain extremist groups as a way to try to change the narrative in British politics. It is very important that all of us who believe in the right of the state of Israel to exist alongside a Palestinian state make it very clear to these people in the various campaigns that it is unacceptable to use the term Zionist as a term of abuse. It is used as such against both Jewish people and non-Jews.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and agree with what he said.
I am also increasingly concerned about the loose use of language, which is leading to a creeping anti-Semitism in this country and elsewhere, causing increasing concern among the Jewish community. I was extremely concerned to see on the website of the Liverpool Friends of Palestine a cartoon—this was viewed on 9 September—headed “The power of Zionists”. It depicts a stereotypical Jewish man—a man with a large hook nose holding a Jewish emblem in his hand—pointing to an American soldier under the heading, “Join the United States army” and at the bottom it says “and fight for Israel”. That cartoon could have come out of Nazi literature, given the depiction and the heading “The power of Zionists”. I was appalled to see that and although it has now been removed from the Liverpool Friends of Palestine website, I must ask how it came to be there and what kind of thought was behind it. I gather that it is not a solitary example of what is happening on websites of similar groups.
Some years ago, the New Statesman had a front cover with the big headline “A Kosher Conspiracy?” Underneath that headline was a cartoon depiction of a Jewish symbol—an Israeli Magen David—piercing the British Union Jack, among other things, thus raising the old anti-Semitic allegation that Jewish people are not sincere citizens of their country. After considerable controversy, and some weeks later, the editor said that he had no understanding of what he was doing when that was published, that he did not mean it to be done in the way it was done and that he did not know it was reminiscent of Nazi literature and old stereotypes, and he apologised for it. That occurred some years ago, but this loose language is now going rather further.
I read with increasing concern an article by Deborah Orr in The Guardian on 19 October about the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from his captivity with Hamas. After long, hard bargaining, the Israeli Government eventually decided that the only way they could secure his release was by accepting the proposed deal from Hamas that more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners should be released. The fact that the Israeli Government accepted that has been controversial in Israel for a lot of reasons, including the fact that among those 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange were extremely serious terrorists and murderers, including those who sent the bombs to the young people in the pizza parlours of Jerusalem and to the old people at the Passover service at the Park hotel in Netanya, and those responsible for many other atrocities. The Israeli Government felt that they should strike that deal because they felt that realistically it was the only way in which Gilad Shalit would be released.
I was appalled when I read Deborah Orr’s article in The Guardian, which was entitled “Is an Israeli life really more important than a Palestinian’s?” When talking about the background to the situation, she said:
“At the same time…there is something abject in their”—
“eagerness to accept a transfer that tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe—that the lives of the chosen are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours.”
That is basic anti-Semitism.
I am sure that Deborah Orr is not anti-Semitic, and indeed, she later published an apology of sorts, in which she stated:
“Last week, I upset a lot of people by suggesting Zionists saw themselves as ‘chosen’. My words were badly chosen and poorly used, and I’m sorry for it.”
Deborah Orr did say that, but just as I was concerned a number of years ago when the New Statesman felt that it was perfectly in order to have the sort of front page it had—one headlined “A Kosher Conspiracy?” and questioning Jewish people’s loyalty to their country, the United Kingdom—I am concerned that Deborah Orr, not an anti-Semite, thought it was all right to write about Zionists in terms of the word “chosen” in that derogatory manner, when the Israeli Government had done all they could do to secure the release of a soldier. The conditions came from Hamas, not from the Israelis. These are all great warning signs that loose language is now causing more anti-Semitism to be around and to cause disquiet within British society.
The hon. Lady has alluded to references in sections of the British media. My concern is ensuring that she would not besmirch the entire range of British media with the accusation of anti-Semitism, because that is a grave charge. I just wanted clarification on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I do not refer to the whole of the British media. I made my comments in relation to one instance in the New Statesman and I referred to Deborah Orr’s article in The Guardian. I also note that the editor of its readers’ section has recently acknowledged that the way in which The Guardian has used these words has helped to encourage the growth of anti-Semitism. My comments are very specific: they related to the journals and articles that I mentioned. This is not about the British media as a whole, which do not all share this weakness and looseness of language.
What matters most is that there should be a resolution to the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I reiterate what I said at the beginning of my contribution, which is that the only way to bring that about, on the basis of two states living side by side in security and peace, is through a resumption of direct negotiations. I hope that our Government will continue to do all they can to ensure that that comes about.
How very jealous George Canning would have been in 1823 to see the scope and ambition of this debate. Triumphant from Waterloo and Trafalgar, with the greatest economy and Navy in the world, he hesitated to get involved in affairs in France and Spain, whereas we have skipped in this debate from toxic waste in Somalia to minorities in Sudan, the situation in Yemen and the Baha’is in Iran. We have touched elegantly on the military in Syria and in Egypt, on elections in Morocco, on Islamists in Libya and in Tunisia, on refugees in Niger and on the fishermen of Mauritania. How jealous he would have been.
Given that we can pack the House for a debate on the fair fuel tariff, one would imagine that we would now find the journalists leaning over the railings, the Gallery packed and the House stuffed, with everyone desperate to get involved at this moment of deep crisis when the middle east and north Africa are teetering on the edge, and Europe is in trouble—but no. Why not? It is because at the heart of our problems in the middle east and north Africa is the situation of Britain for the past few decades. As our relative economic power declines, our ambitions become ever greater and our rhetoric becomes ever more inflated. We wish to get involved in countries that would have been obscure to us at the time of our greatest power, yet at the same time we hollow out the institutions on which we depend to deliver our policy.
Let us consider the middle east and north Africa and what we have done in this Arab spring. On Tunisia, the reality is that we had abandoned not just Mauritania but Tunisia itself to French diplomacy and French policy. In Libya, we contented ourselves with kissing Gaddafi on the cheeks and handing out a doctorate to his son at the London School of Economics and our connection with Egypt was contained to snorkelling as guests of Mubarak in Sharm el Sheikh.
This is not a point about snorkelling. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) is making an impassioned and eloquent speech, but surely he must recognise that the reason why we are more committed to intervention in such areas—more so than in imperial times—is that we are part of a wider comity of nations. We are part of the UN and of NATO and as part of that joint venture we are committing and projecting ourselves in the region. In imperial times, such circumstances did not prevail. We acted unilaterally and, as he is right to say, in many instances we chose not to intervene and interfere in the internal politics of other countries.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but the problem is not our desire or our commitment to the multilateral system but our capacity and what we can actually do. Our engagement with the United Nations and NATO and our various grand views about globalisation and economics lead us to believe that we should be involved in all those areas, but what capacity do we have to deliver, what understanding do we have of those specific countries and what power do we have in our hands to do one half of the things that have been discussed in the Chamber today?
Surely my hon. Friend must acknowledge and accept that the recent intervention in Libya was a great success. If it were not for our Prime Minister getting that resolution and pushing it through the UN and past President Obama’s reticence, the bloodbath that Gaddafi would have pursued would not have been avoided.
I agree absolutely, yet it was, to quote the Duke of Wellington, a “damn close run thing”. We stretched our military sinews and our diplomatic resources hard to achieve that success in Libya. We did it by pulling Dominic Asquith in from Egypt and John Jenkins; we gathered almost all the Arabists at our command to deal with one single country of 6 million people in north Africa.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the overstretch in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Does he also recognise that we did what we did in Libya in conjunction with France, that the lead was taken by a number of European countries, working together, and that his vision, which goes back 150 to 200 years, is of a very different world? The future for British foreign policy is not just in the United Nations but in co-operation with our European partners.
I would agree absolutely if I did not fear that Europe itself is hollowing out its foreign services in exactly the same way as we have hollowed out ours. German diplomats, French diplomats and Italian diplomats recognise that they are pinned in their offices with 400 e-mails in their in-tray, unable to study languages, unable to get out into the rural areas or to collect the political intelligence on which their Governments depend. They are looking in dismay at an External Action Service that is clearly not delivering and they are looking to countries such as Britain for the inspiration and leadership that they might find it increasingly difficult to receive.
Look at what we face. So far, we have dealt with just the second division but we are now entering the premier league. We are looking at countries such as Syria, countries of astonishing complexity with Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, Druze, Sunni groups, Alawite groups, orthodox Shi’a groups, Yazidis on the border and Kurds in the north. We are looking at a country such as Egypt that is set fair to become a modern Pakistan on the edge of Europe: a country where the economy is faltering, the military is grabbing on to power and terrorism is appearing on the fringes. We look, too, at Iran, split between its rural and urban populations, with nuclear weapons being developed.
What do we have to put against that? What will happen when we move with our team from the second division into the premier league? Are we up to the job? The answer is that, in many ways we are not. We are in a bad situation. Due to duty of care regulations, our diplomats have become increasingly isolated and imprisoned in embassy compounds. It is increasingly difficult for a British diplomat in a country such as Afghanistan to spend a night in an Afghan village house and even to travel outside the embassy walls without booking a security team in advance. When we attempt to compensate for that, as we did in Iraq by relying on Iraqi local translators or employing Iraqi staff to perform the jobs that our diplomats were not permitted to do, we find ourselves the subject of a class action suit from a British law firm, arguing that we owe exactly the same duty of care to our Iraqi locally engaged staff that we owe to our British staff, thereby tying us up absolutely.
Let us think about what we used to do under the colonial service, although that has lots of negative connotations: people lived in those countries for years—perhaps 10 years—and spent time travelling the country, getting to know all the different levers, whether they were economic, political or otherwise. Does my hon. Friend think that the structure in our FCO, which involves postings of two to three years, is fit for purpose when we consider the more complex and dynamic environments in which we and those diplomats must operate?
That is a very good point. The analogy with the colonial period is a very dangerous one and we do not want to recreate some form of colonial service. The structures of imperial control are no longer relevant, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right about the complexity and unpredictability of the modern global world. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) misleads himself, perhaps, in that he imagines the modern global world as some uniform space in which the fundamental language is English and the fundamental symbol is the mathematics of the banker. In fact, the modern globalised world is defined by complexity and by specificity. The very failed states that we consider tend to be among the most isolated and most alien societies with which we have to engage. That brings us to the problem of the Michael Jay reforms.
Those reforms are the second problem that our Foreign Office has inherited. Since 2001, a consecutive series of permanent under-secretaries have shifted the balance at the Foreign Office from languages and area expertise towards management jargon and an increasing insistence on the “best practices” of the corporate world. All that has meant that because of the very precise details of the “core competences” required for promotion to the senior grades and the appointment procedures, the Foreign Office, instead of giving linguistic and political experts that sense of status and pride, is rewarding people for their ability to deal not with people outside the embassy walls but those within the embassy itself.
That all takes place within a broad context. As the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) suggested, we operate in a multilateral world in which we are very dependent on other partners. Those partners, too, are being hollowed out. We hope that we can depend, as our political service collapses, on journalists, but the newspapers are collapsing and their foreign correspondents are being drawn back to their capitals. There is less and less capacity on the ground.
My hon. Friend knows, probably better than anyone in this House, the extent to which modern media and modern technology have completely revolutionised the way in which we gather information and deploy our authority. I have listened to the debate for a number of hours now and I was intrigued to discover that people were harking back to colonial times, the empire and that sort of thing. They had nothing like the technology we have today and although I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the need for languages and cultural expertise in the Foreign Office, it is not remotely apparent to me that we should have exactly the same infrastructure today as we had in 1930 or 1880. That model is completely false in today’s environment.
This is a very tantalising and attractive argument and I can see exactly why it is made. Of course, we should not have the same structure as we had in 1880 or 1930—and nor do we—but the notion that technology and the related aspects of the 21st century have somehow transformed our relationship with a country such as Afghanistan is fundamentally misguided. In the recent Helmand police intake, eight out of 100 people could write their name or recognise numbers up to 10. There is no electricity between Herat and Kandahar. The notion of a Facebook revolution in Afghanistan, Somalia or South Sudan is a distant fantasy. The fact that in the British embassy in Kabul two years ago, there were exactly two people who had passed a Dari exam at an operational level and that there was not a single Pashto speaker is testimony to the fact that we believe we live in a globalised world in which it is unnecessary for us to study other people’s languages or understand their culture.
With respect to my hon. Friend and the House, I have always said in relation to these issues that linguistic competence is absolutely vital, and it is a scandal that the Foreign Office should have turned its back on that. He must acknowledge, as I think he is doing, that the technological environment in which we operate allows us to have certain levers and information that we did not have 15 or 20 years ago.
I could not agree more—it certainly allows us to have a great deal of information. However, at the fundamental core of the Foreign Office’s work, which concerns politics and power, there appears to be a problem. The same problem was apparent when nobody challenged the Government’s policy on Iraq, which is the single most humiliating mess into which the British Government have got themselves since Suez. Not a single senior British diplomat publicly or even privately challenged the Prime Minister on that issue. Why? Because at the same time as we imagine that everything is manipulable through technocratic processes and technology, the knowledge and the confidence that came from country immersion and language is lacking, as is the confidence that would allow one to challenge power.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous with his time. Let us look at what the Pentagon did about four or five years ago. It put a huge amount of investment into technology and the technological retrieval of data, and then it decided that many of its decisions, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or internationally, had failed because the system did not have enough human intelligence. Technology can deliver a certain level of intelligence, but ultimately we need people who really understand the area to interpret that information and to add that human dimension.
I could not agree more. This is not an either/or situation. I am deliberately being somewhat, or even intensely, polemical, so let me try to be more reasonable. Technology is not irrelevant and nor is it the case that the world has not changed since the 19th century, but it is important to recognise that the countries that pose the most trouble for us are often those we find the most difficult to understand. It is in precisely those contexts that deep knowledge of those countries and their power structures and relationships is required, and I think the same would almost certainly be true if one was trying to run a business selling into those markets. That applies not only to our diplomats’ relationships with politicians and a Cabinet but to their relationships with rural populations and opposition groups. All of that would put Britain into the state of grace and provide the insurance policy on which this country depends.
Moving towards a solution and a conclusion, the solution must lie in pushing ahead with the very reforms that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary have undertaken, but to push them harder and faster. The diplomatic excellence initiative that the Foreign Secretary has launched is a very good beginning. Even today, however, one still meets political officers in embassies who say that they cannot see how that will help them with promotion. They say, “Focusing on policy work is not going to get me promoted because you haven’t changed the core competences. It’s management of two people and the DTI staff that will get me my next job.” Those are the things we need to address.
In Afghanistan and, indeed, Iraq, I felt very sorry for the previous Government because one often had the feeling that they were not being told the truth at every opportunity. On a Defence Select Committee trip to Afghanistan, I remember being briefed by a guy in the Foreign Office who gave us the normal line that everything was going terribly well but that there were challenges. Six weeks later, he sidled up to me in a restaurant and said, “Adam, I’m really sorry about that briefing I gave you, but the problem is that no one gets promoted for telling it how it is.”
This is fundamental because we live in a world in which there is not enough challenge in the system. There are not enough checks or balances. I have mentioned that our newspapers have fewer and fewer foreign correspondents. The quality of foreign reporting in Britain is not as good today as it was 20 years ago because we simply are not investing as much in foreign reporting. At the same time, the military is increasingly preponderant in the United States, and brings with it the inherent optimism and determination to say, “We’ve inherited a dismal situation but we have the resources and the mission to deliver a decisive year,” pushing aside the civilian advice. We are flattered by English-speaking, upper-class Afghans, Iraqis and Libyans who feed our fantasies and tell us what we want to hear.
In that context, and in the context of the temptation across Europe and the United States to have more and more centralised power, we need our Foreign Office to act as a check and balance. We need it to challenge policy and to speak truth to power. Above all, we need it to say not just what the UK interest is, what our ethical limits are or what we are not prepared to do morally, but, most fundamentally of all, what we cannot do. When somebody comes forward and says, in country X, “In this failed state, we will create governance, the rule of law and civil society,” it should be the job of our Foreign Office to ask “How?”, “With whom?” and “With what money?” It should ask, “What possible reason have you to believe that you can achieve this grandiloquent objective you have established?”
We also need to explain matters to the public, because this entire rhetoric is the rhetoric of a poker game. It is the rhetoric, perpetually, of “raise” or “fold”, and of driving people to ask, “Have you met your $3 billion objective on trade this year?” or “Have you or have you not set up the rule of law and civil society?” and if not, “Why have we got an embassy in Mongolia? Why have we got to bother having any representation in Peru? Why don’t we drag it all back to London and do it down the internet?” The way to cease that is to be honest—not just internally but with the British public as well.
My hon. Friend raises a particularly pertinent point about the operations of the Foreign Office. He will remember that in times gone by, that was the Foreign Office’s job and it consistently said no. If we are to believe the memoirs of politicians, it consistently set itself as a roadblock to ministerial action and said, “No you can’t do that,” to Ministers who wanted to intervene or act purposively. He will also remember that a former Conservative Prime Minister once commented that she understood that the Agriculture Department looked after farmers, that the Labour Department looked after workers and that the Foreign Office looked after foreigners. It is well known that the Foreign Office has been the check that my hon. Friend describes.
The Foreign Office has a very distinguished tradition of doing that. With many of the things it challenged, it did so correctly. It challenged Lord Salisbury’s insane idea of launching an invasion into Afghanistan in 1879, it challenged Lord Grey’s absurd ideas about secret treaties with France in 1912 and 1913, and it challenged the absurdity of Suez. In all those ways it acted responsibly, but increasingly it is no longer performing that role.
Of course the politicians can, when they want, overwhelm the Foreign Office, push it aside and push ahead, and that is fine, but—on this, I think, we should conclude—we are now in a very strange position in this country. We are hollowed out. We are facing an enormous crisis. Europe is teetering on the edge. The German Chancellor is invoking ghosts of European destruction. The middle east and north Africa have seen more tottering regimes and dynasties than in any period since the end of the first world war. At this time we need to remember that that very modest investment in the Foreign Office—only £1 billion a year on its core costs, if we exclude the British Council and the World Service—is an extremely wise insurance and investment.
We need to remember at times like this how vital is the ability to set out our limits, to set out a strategy and vision, to explain exactly, as this Government are doing, and to continue to explain more clearly to the public, exactly what Britain believes and what our strategy is—that peculiar mixture of pragmatism and belief in rights, a belief not just in ideals but in common sense, expressed in a world that understands that today of all times a residence can be much more powerful than a regiment, a Tuareg specialist than a Tornado, an Arabist than an aircraft carrier, and that the Foreign Office is our strength, our nation, and our defence.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) but I shall not go into Tuaregs and Tornados. I shall immediately go into the election that is taking place today in Egypt.
It seems that there is a large turnout for the election, with queues at polling stations. For most Egyptians it must have a similar impact to that of the first democratic elections that took place in South Africa after the end of apartheid—another large African country undergoing a process of transformation—but there are, of course, significant differences. The election in Egypt today is about establishing a constituent assembly, from which 100 people will be chosen to draft a constitution. That will be followed by a presidential election, the date of which has just, reluctantly, under pressure from the streets, been announced by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—12 March next year.
We will not know the outcome of the elections until they are verified and adjudicated by lawyers, and the result will not be known until January. That is worrying. We saw from what happened in Afghanistan a year ago how legal challenges to elections and disputes about the validity of the vote and about candidatures can lead to great complications when a body is established. We have also seen in other countries disputed elections leading to severe delays. I am worried about that and other difficult processes that Egypt has to go through.
As has already been said, Egypt has a very large young population, high levels of youth unemployment and an economy that is in decline and could go into an even more serious decline because so much of the revenue is built upon tourism and foreign investment that may not come about because of the uncertainty and instability that are developing. At the same time, there are worrying developments in the nature of the political process that has been established.
There was a democratic election in Tunisia under a formula whereby 50% of the candidates had to be women. That led to an elected Parliament in Tunisia which reflects the fact that in Tunisian society under the previous regime women played an important role. There is much greater equality overtly between men and women in that country. Even though the Islamist party Ennahda has come out as the largest political grouping, there are some positive signs about the continuation of women’s role within the political process in Tunisia.
The same cannot be said of the situation that has developed in Egypt. A helpful research paper produced by the Library points out that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt is distinctly conservative in its approach to women’s representation. Under the old electoral system in Egypt 64 parliamentary seats were reserved for women. That law was abolished by the military regime. In its place is a provision that every party list must include at least one woman. That is an extremely worrying development.
It has also been decided that there will be no requirement for any women’s representation on the committee that will be established to draft the constitution, and there is only one woman in the present Egyptian Cabinet of 28. That raises serious concerns about where Egypt will go after today’s elections and the constituent assembly that is established in future, and what kind of society there will be in the post-Mubarak era.
Further concerns have been expressed by many of the demonstrators in Tahrir square about religious tolerance and what might develop in the future in a country where a significant proportion of the population—more than 10%—are Coptic Christians. There has been a series of attacks on Christian places of worship and on Christian ceremonies. Other worrying developments include statements from some of the more extreme Islamist groups about the kind of society and kind of laws that will emerge and whether minorities will continue to be tolerated in Egyptian society.
The international community must be resolute. We should send clear messages to the newly elected Egyptian political establishment when it is announced and also to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that there are international standards that we expect a democratic Egypt to uphold, and that the international community’s response to the changes in Egypt will be shaped by the treatment of minorities and women in Egyptian society.
The plight of Christians in the middle east is desperate and many of our actions have made that plight far worse, particularly in Iran. What is happening to the Coptic Christians is very worrying. Does the hon. Gentleman think there is more that we in the west can do? Can a Christian west take more responsibility for the plight of Coptic Christians? What does he think we can realistically do and what pressure can we impose on an Egyptian Government? What is going on there is terrible.
At this moment we need to give the Egyptians the benefit of the doubt because the process is still developing. We should try to get groups from the United Kingdom and other Western European Union countries reflecting faith forums and diverse groups, including leading British Muslims, to go to Egypt, taking with them Jews and Christians to show diversity and tolerance and how we work together. We also need to talk to countries such as Turkey, where an Islamist-influenced political party, the AK party, is in power in a secular state and where religious minorities are treated with tolerance in Turkish society. I think that we should try to use our influence.
When the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr Erdogan, went to Cairo to give advice, he seems to have been very strongly welcomed. Interestingly, there were large demonstrations in the streets when he arrived, but when he left, having made it clear that he wanted Egypt to remain a secular state rather than adopt an Islamist constitution, even though he was an Islamist, the demonstrations were much more muted. The message he sent the Muslim Brotherhood was not the message it wanted to hear. He said that he wanted a Prime Minister from an Islamist political party, but in a secular state. That was very important, and he should be praised for trying to show that the Turkish model is not just one in which Islamist parties can come to power and that democracy means leaders, after coming to power, having respect for women and minorities rather than imposing an intolerant form of society that does not respect diversity.
I would like to consider the revolutions that have been called the Arab spring. Had they taken place in summer, I suspect that we would refer to the Arab summer, but I am not sure that we would talk of the Arab winter. Nevertheless, the issues are now much more complicated than they appeared to be at the start of the year. We are in a situation in which we can be guided by history, which the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border mentioned in his contribution. Those of us who have studied the history of the 19th century will know that the revolutionary processes that took place in that century and at the end of the 18th century were not easy, were in some cases bloody and often led to years or even decades of turmoil. I suspect that what we are seeing in north Africa and the middle east and what we will see in the Gulf states could be such a period.
It is only 20 years since the transformation of central and eastern Europe after communism was lifted. The political formations that have taken power in some of those countries have at times been difficult to cope with and some very unpleasant organisations have since come out from under the stone. We have seen political parties that are overtly homophobic, racist and authoritarian, and some that are associated with admiration for the Waffen SS have been elected to Parliaments in countries such as Latvia, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, yet all those countries have come through the process. They still face difficulties, but because of the European Union they have been able to become democratic, pluralistic countries in which there have been changes of power. Parties that were in power have lost it and oppositions have won power and then lost elections. That is what democracy means. Just because elections are beginning in Egypt does not mean that that country is already a democracy.
Similarly, although there has been an election in Tunisia, it is not yet a democracy. Democracy will be entrenched only when parties that win elections are thrown out of office and when there is respect for diversity, the rule of law and minorities. Some of these countries will have to learn that respect. We have seen the great difficulties in Iraq when the parties that fought the last election came to a standstill and there was no possibility of Mr Maliki and Mr Allawi agreeing on who should be Prime Minister. It took the Iraqis almost as long as the Belgians to form a Government because there was no tradition or understanding of how Government and opposition work within a pluralistic political culture. Ba’athism had destroyed that political culture.
If the revolution comes to Syria and the Ba’athist regime there is forced to leave or is overthrown, there will be an almighty, complicated mess to deal with. It will be extremely hard to achieve stability and a pluralistic society, given the diversity in Syria that has been mentioned, and we will need to be patient. We should not expect these countries rapidly to become models of democracy of the sort we have in this country and elsewhere in the EU.
I started working with the Iraqi opposition in 1993, and it was 10 years before Saddam Hussein was overthrown. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, in many ways there is a more complicated patchwork of different communities in Syria, and I very much welcome the Government’s support for the Syrian opposition. Does he agree that that will require sensitive handling as we move forward so that we do not end up in a worse situation?
I agree. I think that we should be guided by some of Syria’s neighbours. The Arab League has made an unprecedented move towards imposing sanctions on the country. We should also listen to what the Turkish Government are saying. I had a meeting last week with the Turkish Foreign Minister while he was here and also heard the remarks of President Gul when he spoke to Members of both Houses in the Royal Robing Room. The situation in Syria is causing extreme alarm within Turkey and the Turkish Government have basically had enough of the way the Assad regime has lied to and misled them—my words, not Turkey’s—about the promises of reform that were not kept. Instead of reform, there has been brutality and repression. Turkey has now come to the same view that Britain, France, the United States and many other countries have come to: the Assad regime is no longer capable of being the agent of reform and it must go.
How the regime goes, in what circumstances and when are very difficult questions. We need to be sensitive to the fact that Iran is playing a destructive role in the region. As I mentioned in my earlier intervention on the Foreign Secretary, the Iranians have a significant relationship, through Hezbollah, with the Lebanese Government. They also have significant influence in the Iraqi political system through some of the Shi’a political parties in Iraq. It is significant that the two Arab League countries that have said that they will not impose sanctions on the Syrian regime are Lebanon and Iraq.
Iran will potentially play another destructive role. We have seen our country denounced in the Iranian Majlis and its vote calling for the expulsion of Dominic Chilcott, our excellent ambassador. We have been there before: a former nominated British ambassador to Iran, David Reddaway, was prevented from taking up his post many years ago; and a few years ago the royal garden party in Tehran was attacked from outside by people throwing rocks over the wall at the time when Geoffrey Adams was ambassador. A few years ago the Iranian revolutionary guards detained British naval personnel in the waters just off the coast of Iraq.
It is quite possible that the Iranian regime will now engage in a series of provocations and incidents in order to up the ante and gain for itself a diversion from its main problem, which is that it has been found out: Iran has been developing for many years a nuclear weapons programme, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, in its latest report, has confirmed that some nuclear enrichment and other nuclear activities have continued over recent years. But we should not therefore move easily into the dangerous area of saying, “Because the sanctions we have imposed so far have not worked, and because, despite those sanctions, the Iranian regime has continued to build up its nuclear programme potential, Iran is about to gain nuclear weapons and there are grounds for a pre-emptive military strike.”
I was encouraged by the remarks of the United States Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, whom The Guardian reported on 11 November as saying that military action against Iran could have “unintended consequences”, and agreeing that such an attack would only delay its nuclear programme, rather than prevent it from obtaining a nuclear bomb. In these circumstances, talk of pre-emptive military action can do no more than strengthen the Iranian regime internally and weaken the democratic voice of the country’s young, dynamic population who do not like the theocratic cap that the regime has put on them.
Similar comments were made on 4 November in an interesting article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which noted that the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Barak favour military action against Iran in circumstances where Iran is about to obtain a nuclear bomb, but that three former chiefs of the defence staff in Israel do not, and that the former head of Mossad who retired earlier this year, Meir Dagan, has said that Israel would be “stupid” to launch an air attack on Iran.
That does not mean we should accept as “a good thing” Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon—absolutely not. Given the arms race that would be unleashed in the middle east, and given how countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Gulf states would secure the potential, through Pakistan, to obtain a nuclear weapon, it would be a very worrying development: a Sunni nuclear bomb to offset a Shi’a nuclear bomb. There are other ways of dealing with the situation.
I refer to an interesting article by Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, published a few days ago, stating how strengthening the IAEA inspection regime, and not imposing more and more sanctions that do not work but adopting a policy of more transparency, may be a more effective way of dealing with the immediate problem. The key to that is the IAEA’s additional protocol, which Iran has not yet signed, but which the international community, through UN Security Council resolutions, has called for.
We face a difficult period in Europe, but we are sometimes obsessed with our own problems. Compared with the difficulties of many hundreds of millions of people in the Arab world, our difficulties are insignificant. The people in north Africa and the middle east face a difficult transition on an uncharted course from authoritarian regimes to new democracies. They will need our help and solidarity. The European Union should do more through its neighbourhood programme and by other means, but our country does not have an insignificant role in the world. It has an important role, working with its partners and neighbours to ensure that the international community makes the right decisions and supports the right side in this democratic transition.
It is a great honour to follow not only the poetry of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), but the practical and pragmatic approach of the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). The hon. Gentleman’s last point was about how our problems in Europe are a great challenge but events in the Arab world are of a different scale, but I would refine it and say that the problems in north Africa and in the Arab world are our problems, too. I commend the Government for what they have done over the past year and a half, and for how they have been able to change the relationship between north Africa and this country.
Many people were worried about our involvement in Libya, and although I was supportive I was concerned. I would have voted against the Iraq invasion if I had been a Member back then, but the decision on Libya was clear for me, and it was clear on a humanitarian basis. We not only assisted the Libyans in ridding themselves of their dictator; we started to develop a different relationship with parts of north Africa, one I hope very much we will continue. We did so with sophisticated diplomacy, and we should be extremely proud of the outcomes in Libya.
Just after the fall of Tripoli, I, with the director of the Conservative Middle East Council, went out there and, in the chaos of the week after, met an Islamist who, having fought against us in Iraq and Afghanistan, made the most extraordinary comment, saying: “This is the first time that the west has stood with ordinary people in the region. We shall not forget it.”
I very much welcome that intervention. That is the absolute core of the issue.
We need not only to build on the momentum that we have started, but to change and recalibrate how we engage with north Africa, an area that was in many ways caught in aspic by the cold war. Every dictator who has been deposed over the past year was a product of that rather binary environment, “Are you against us or for us?”, and we have rid ourselves of that through the people.
We have to be careful about engaging directly and passionately with the new Governments who arise. As the hon. Member for Ilford South said, there will be lots of iterations of democracy, and they are not going to emerge as some sort of Westminster parliamentary structure for perhaps 10, 20 or 30 years, so we have to maintain that relationship with the people. Obviously we need to work with Governments, but the credibility and legitimacy of the people are what matters. Toppling regimes is not easy, but the transition process is even more difficult, and that is where we need to ensure that the Foreign Office is absolutely at the top of its game, as I am sure it is.
We have heard a lot today about the politics, about building institutions, and about threats, but not many Members have talked about the economics. Can emerging democracies survive when they have insecure economic environments and are finding it difficult to keep a hold on inflation? My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) talked about the people of the region. Those people were not necessarily just looking for the vote, although some of the countries had elections, if perhaps false elections; they were looking for democracy as a representation of opportunity for all, with no corruption, and the ability to get on in life without being part of the in-crowd or the out-crowd and to ensure that they could deliver a secure future for their families. Too often, in the Foreign Office and in our debates, we talk about institution-building and the governmental dimension, but we need to talk about north Africa’s economies.
In starting to develop a lot further how we could build greater economic stability in north Africa, we should act on the basis not only of those countries’ national interests and democracy-building but of our own national interest. The French are rather good at economic diplomacy. Is that such a dreadful term to use? They have completely understood where their national interest lies. Their ambassadors are an integral part of the French business community and spend a lot of time ensuring that the French economy and French businesses are integrated into the countries in which they operate. We have been rather weak at this in the past.
What north Africa really needs is expertise and commercial acumen, with partnerships to develop and exploit industries and technologies, management skills, and operational capabilities. I do not know whether those things are on the Foreign Office checklist and are being considered for north Africa, but it is absolutely essential that we start to make a move on this as quickly as possible, before economic instability undermines the democracy that has been created. In addition to sending three-day trade delegations out to these countries, we should be thinking in a much more considered way about what support each country needs and where, to be self-interested, the UK can benefit.
Just outside Tripoli, Libya has a large oil and gas institute, but it has not been updated for years. Why are we not taking on the responsibility for giving the Libyans a state-of-the-art institute that looks at operations, exploration and building skills, and links with the people, not necessarily with transient Governments? Tunisia needs tourism to get its economy off the floor. Its tourism industry employs 400,000 people, yet the number of visitors has dropped by 45%. We should be revitalising the country’s visitor economy, establishing courses and training for young people entering the sector and supporting the small businesses that make up the majority of it. We should set up a small business institute to ensure that we are bringing expertise and allowing the people to exercise their democratic right through economic security.
Egypt is facing a great challenge in food and cotton production. Why are we not asking Hadlow college to set up an operation in the Nile delta, bringing students from all over Egypt to think about how to increase yields and improve standards and water management? That would get to the heart of what these Governments need to deliver to their publics to maintain some stability while democracy is gaining a foothold. If we are not in these countries delivering value-added assistance and practical input, then others will be, and yet again we will look back nostalgically in 10 years and say, “Why did China, Turkey, Russia and France steal a march on us when we were so involved in those early years?”
I propose that we look at the Economic Community of West African States as a model for promoting greater economic prosperity within the north African region. While ECOWAS has its limitations, it is developing stronger links with its neighbours. Joint economic activity is building greater political interdependency. In north Africa, greater economic interdependency will be one of the biggest deterrents to any political friction between states that could emerge over the next decade.
My final suggestion is that we start to take forward a stronger interrelated economic model as between the countries of the north and south Mediterranean. The hon. Member for Ilford South mentioned that. Some important organisations already exist, but they have mainly regarded north Africa as the liability and southern Europe as the superior model. This needs to be recalibrated, and we need to turn a talking shop into an active economic forum.
We are facing a new world. The previous century was one of global politics; this century is one of global economics. Every country will need to deliver economic security for its domestic audience and will play out its international politics on that basis. If we can work closely with these countries on what really matters to them—their economic survival, jobs for their young, and a greater relationship with the international community —we will be doing them, and this country, a great service.
Earlier this year, I was in Tunisia, where, in addition to having talks with members of the temporary Government who were in office before the country’s election, I spoke to business men and visited tourist sites. I was very troubled by the fact that those tourist sites were empty. It was understandable that after the upheaval in Tunisia people might have been wary about going there and doubtful about their own safety. On the other hand, if there was a velvet revolution anywhere in the Arab spring, it was in Tunisia, with one poor man dying because he had been insulted and then no more deaths. It is important for us to make it clear to the people of this country, a considerable number of whom have habitually visited Tunisia and seen its beautiful sights—not only the holiday areas but places such as Carthage—that it is safe to go there, good to go there, and good for democracy in north Africa to be there.
The hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) referred to Libya. Of course, she is right to say that it is not for us to impose our concept of democracy on Libya. It is a fact, however, that there would not have been a change of Government in Libya without the action of NATO. That being so, we have a right to communicate our views—the views of that community—to the people who will be governing Libya. I hope that the Government will make it clear to those who are in office in Libya at this time that, while it is right and proper that Saif Gaddafi should be tried, it would go against everything that we have been supporting in Libya if he were executed.
One of the great failings of the Labour Government was that they did not make their voice heard when the Iraqis moved to execute Saddam Hussein. He was an evil dictator, and the Gaddafi family were a family of evil dictators, but the whole point about liberating people from dictators is that one does not behave in the way the dictators behaved towards their enemies. I know that this Government have a strong policy of opposing capital punishment wherever it is carried out or planned. I hope that they will make it clear to those in authority that turning a new page for Libya means getting rid of primitive and savage punishment in Libya.
In talking about what NATO has done to the benefit of the people of Libya, it is important to draw to the attention of the House where NATO has gone wrong and where it has run amok. What has been taking place in Pakistan over the past few days is an abomination. Pakistan is an independent country and an ally. A great many people of Pakistani origin live in this country and take part in our democracy. Its independence was violated by NATO going in and killing 24 people and injuring a great many more. That was a violation of Pakistani independence and sovereignty.
That was not the first time that such a thing had happened. It happened when the Americans sent their navy SEAL mission to kill bin Laden. Again, he was an evil man who had done dreadful things. However, the whole point of our being what we are is that we do not do what vile terrorists do. An article in The New Yorker not long ago told, move by move, how the SEALs went in. They did not have a fight with bin Laden, but simply went in to kill him, with the President of the United States and the American Secretary of State watching it all on television. That struck me as one of the most odious manifestations of the kind of Administration that the United States now has.
When George W. Bush was President of the United States, I expected it to behave in a way that was odious. We were dragged by Bush not only into the Iraqi war, but into the unplanned, chaotic aftermath of that war. The sanctimony of Barak Obama led us to believe that he would not get involved in the same kind of thing. However, Guantanamo Bay remains open three years after the man was elected President. We must have a British and European foreign policy, and not simply be dragged behind the American Administration, whatever it is that they do, as unfortunately the Labour Government were from time to time. We have just had another example of that with the attempt by the United States Administration to water down international regulations on the use of cluster bombs, which are used by the Israelis in their attacks on the Palestinians and which were used in Gaza in Operation Cast Lead.
I do not know whether Obama believes that he can get re-elected by behaving like the Tea party, but we must not behave like the Tea party. We must behave like a British democracy. I find many aspects of this Government’s foreign policy attractive and it is possible to support them. In listening to the Foreign Secretary and hearing about the kind of things that have been taking place, I hope that we will not permit this extremism from across the Atlantic to motivate and dominate our policies.
Another example, which has been referred to by many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), is the situation with regard to Iran. Iran has an odious regime internally, which stones what it calls adulterous women to death, which stones homosexuals to death, and which tortures and imprisons. It is one of the most unpleasant regimes not simply in the region, but on the planet. On the other hand, although it would of course be a matter of profound concern if Iran acquired a nuclear weapons capability, as many hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, and although Iran undermines many regimes, as we have heard this evening, it has never carried out an outright attack on another country. Indeed, it was the victim of an attack by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In the region, there is a country with a large nuclear stockpile: Israel. It has not only a huge nuclear capability, but nuclear missiles, which were based originally in Dimona in the Negev. Israel has a record of invading other countries. It invaded Lebanon several times. We do nothing whatever about that.
I agree with hon. Members about how important it is to take action and to deter Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. However, if military action were taken against Iran, the consequences would be incalculable. One of the great rules of action, whether in internal or overseas policy, is that we should not do something the consequences of which we cannot calculate before we do it. It is impossible to know how dreadful the consequence might be of military action against Iran. The Americans will not do it because Obama does not want another war in the less than a year before he faces the electorate again, but he might well want others to do it. Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak have their own objectives based on the precarious nature of their Government in Israel. It is important for us to make it clear to the Israelis how strongly we would be opposed to their taking any military action against Iran.
The situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians gets worse day by day. I have spoken with some commendation of Foreign Office policy, but I was very sorry that the Government veered away from voting for Palestinian membership of UNESCO, and I am concerned that they intend to abstain when, eventually, the Security Council votes on the Palestinian application for UN membership. By abstaining, we will get no thanks from Obama and the United States, who want us to vote against, and at the same time it will give us no leverage whatever with the Israelis.
Today the Foreign Secretary, as he does whenever he talks about these things, advocated peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and set out yet again the parameters for the outcome of those negotiations. However, the prospect of such negotiations is nil, because the Palestinians will not sit down with an Israeli Government who are constantly expanding settlements, and I do not blame them for that. There are thousands and thousands of settlements. Other hon. Members, like me, have been there and seen not only the expansion of the settlements but the way in which settlers move into a Palestinian’s house in a Palestinian area of Jerusalem, live there and force people out of the house, with the support of the Israeli police. Can one be surprised that Palestinians do not want to sit down with people who do that to them and get away with it both internally and internationally?
The checkpoints continue to impede movement, and as I have seen and other hon. Members will no doubt have seen, the illegal wall—as illegal as the settlements are—keeps olive cultivators away from their groves. A grove that is five minutes away by foot is hours away, if it can be got to at all, because of the wall. Does one really expect the Palestinians to accept that and sit down with the people who are doing that to them?
Now, the latest development, the Israeli punishment of the Palestinians for having applied for membership of the UN and achieved membership of UNESCO, is that the Israeli Government are illegally withholding £63 million of tax revenues from the Palestinians. That will affect tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of jobs of Palestinians working in the public sector, but what happens? Hillary Clinton gets on the phone to Netanyahu, and Netanyahu basically tells her to get lost. The Americans could have their will with the Israelis whenever they wanted to, as George Bush senior did when the Israeli Government refused to go to Madrid for talks, but they do not. They whimper. Tony Blair has complained about the tax revenues being stolen by the Israelis from the Palestinians, but nothing happens.
What is more, the Israelis have refused to stop planting land mines, which the House united in opposing. They are now saying that they will do something even nastier to the Palestinians if the talks between Fatah and Hamas provide a unity Government. Hamas is a dreadful organisation, yes, but it is there, and it won an election democratically. There was international invigilation showing that it was a democratic election. It had a more valid election result than George W. Bush’s first one.
If there is to be a united Palestine, it is absolutely essential that those parties get together. Otherwise, there will be at best an independent west bank with Gaza separate from it, and nobody else will take in Gaza. When I had a talk with Mubarak about Gaza and asked him whether, because of its physical separation from the west bank, it would make more sense for Egypt to incorporate Gaza, he said, “I wouldn’t have Gaza in my territory for $5 million.” The only way in which the Gaza problem can be solved is a Palestinian unity Government, and we should want to foster the unity of Fatah and Hamas, not oppose it.
I was interviewed by a bizarre Israeli television interviewer last week, who said to me, “At least you’ve got to agree that Israel is a democracy.” But that democracy is being impaired the whole time. The Knesset has passed legislation limiting freedom of speech, and it has just passed legislation that forbids overseas Governments from providing finance to the NGOs, many of which would not be able to function without that finance. I pay tribute to the Department for International Development for what it does with the NGOs. If there is a shining example of what this Government are achieving, it is the work of that Department, but its efforts are being hampered by the way in which the Israelis are conducting themselves—against international law.
I would love to go along with what the Foreign Secretary said—which the Minister will no doubt repeat—about how hard we are working to get talks going, because in the end, talks are the only way in which this will be solved. But there will be no peace in the region—in all that turbulent region—until the justified aspirations of the Palestinians are fulfilled.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and I do not always agree on everything, but it is a pleasure to follow that speech. I did not agree with all of it, but much of what he said is deserving of approbation from both sides of the House. I am conscious, as I always am in these debates, of the considerable knowledge that he and others bring to this issue. It is far greater than mine, although my hon. Friend the Minister will recall that it was in a debate such as this that I had the temerity to make my maiden speech. On that occasion, at least, I had the considerable privilege of not being interrupted. It is an example that I encourage the House to follow this evening—
I will happily give way to my hon. Friend, but I think that attempt was a little tongue in cheek.
On the last occasion that the House debated these issues at length, I spoke on the subject of Egypt, an issue—and indeed a country—close to my heart, not least because of the legacy that this country left for the Egyptians and the responsibility that we bear for the situation in which we left our former mandates with regard to democracy. In the case of Egypt at least, the good beginnings that we perhaps left behind were thrown away.
I shall begin with Egypt, not least because it is in that country that today—at least according to The New York Times and the Financial Times as I have read them online during the day—we have seen those queues, which are so familiar in countries that have not enjoyed democracy, snaking around the block from the polling stations, as those who have not experienced the benefits, even the joys, of electing those who represent them queue to vote for the first time in many cases. That has certainly been the case in Egypt today for many people. With the possible exception of an 18-month period in the 1980s, there have been no real democratic elections in the last 30 years in one of the largest and most populous Arab states.
The right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) observed in his remarks that Egypt is a particularly important country in the context of the Arab spring. That is something with which I agree and with which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agrees. The simple fact is not merely that Egypt is the largest of the Arab countries by population and geographical size but that it carries considerable influence. It is the seat, for example, of the rejuvenated Arab League. As someone said to me earlier, it is the future Brussels of the middle east. It was with horror, therefore, that I saw my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) in the debate earlier. I feared that he would remain for the entirety of the debate and that on making that remark, he would intervene on me and tell me the inadequacies of the euro and of everything else to do with the European Union. I am glad to see, at least on this occasion, that he is not in his place and that I can make the remark without fear of intervention.
I have no doubt that whenever I speak in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is watching.
Egypt has also been the most stalwart of the allies that this country and the entirety of the west have had in the middle east for a number of years. It is a country that has a refined economy that is capable of providing the economic motor for north Africa and the Arab states. It is of course the bread basket of that region and is capable of providing a great deal of food, which is necessary in so many of these impoverished countries and regions. For that reason it is extremely important that the revolution that began earlier this year in Egypt is sustained and that the democracy that we have seen growing is fostered not only by this country but by our allies in the western world and the European Union. There is this fear, certainly in my mind, that were the revolution in Egypt to fail, the rest of the Arab world might run the risk of sinking back into some form of authoritarianism, even were it not the authoritarianism that we witnessed under the Mubarak regime.
When the revolution took place, there was of course great hope. I spoke about it earlier in the year. A number of Members on both sides of the House have said quite rightly that it is not for us to impose our model of democracy on either Egypt or any of the other countries passing through the Arab spring. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took power and the Prime Minister travelled to Cairo after Mubarak’s fall, there was great hope that the sweeping reforms that were promised would be delivered in short order and that there would be a swift return to stability within the country and a prompt transition to elected civilian rule. It is a matter of regret, I think, on both sides of the House, that that has not happened as quickly as we would have liked. There has been an absence of a clear political plan and of the bold reforms that are necessary to deliver democracy in Egypt—as they are necessary to deliver democracy in the rest of the region.
Most worryingly of all, the economy has faltered, which appears to have led to the current ream of protests that have again resurrected themselves in Egypt. The Supreme Council and the generals are obstructing the necessary economic reforms, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) mentioned earlier. That has deterred international investment in Egypt and, most worryingly, it has let the country slide further into debt—the sort of debt that we in the west know all too much about.
The timetable for democracy has been unnecessarily stretched out, from months to years. The generals have hinted that they expect to retain a dominant role, entirely failing to understand or reflect the spirit of change that led to those momentous events in Tahrir square earlier in the year.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was overhasty and undemocratic in bringing forward the amendments to the constitution proposed in the al-Selmy proposals. Trying to slip in additional pre-emptive clauses to protect the privileges and powers of the armed forces and trying to keep the defence budget a secret is simply not acceptable in a modern, democratic society. The discipline that the army reimposed on protesters—for example, using military tribunals and the emergency laws first passed in the 1950s and first used in the 1960s—has naturally led those who wanted democracy in Egypt to return to the streets to protest against the lack of progress towards the reforms necessary to secure the sort of democracy that we have in this country.
Those protests have recently resulted in appalling loss of life. Thousands have returned to the streets again not least, as I have mentioned, because of the state of the economy in Egypt, but the response from those who seem to be isolated from their people has been too little, too late: the offers to hold presidential elections by the end of June, to free political prisoners and to allow impartial investigation of the obvious abuses by the security forces that have been documented in the media have been wholly inadequate. It remains to be seen whether the democratic exercise to which the Egyptian people have for the first time been given the right today will calm matters and return peace to the streets of Egypt. That is to be hoped for, given not only the recent unrest but the loss of life last week.
The path to democracy is never easy, however, and we should commend Field Marshall Tantawi and those responsible for ruling Egypt since the revolution on their reiteration of the army’s determination to leave power eventually. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary indicated, however, we should encourage them to do so as quickly as possible.
The recent moves have gone some way to meeting the popular demands of the Egyptian people. No doubt that is why the Muslim Brotherhood expressed cautious support for some of the recent announcements by Field Marshall Tantawi and SCAF. As several speakers have said, we should not tell those whom we are encouraging to exercise their democratic rights what sort of Government they need to elect. If we are honest about democracy, we must live with whatever Government are elected, whether in Egypt or anywhere else. If there is fear in the House about the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt, as I suspect that it will—no doubt in coalition, which is something of which I am not a great fan, but there we are—that is not something of which the House, the Government or the British people should be afraid.
Other speakers have pointed out that the exercise of power by Islamists who take power through the ballot box deprives al-Qaeda of the oxygen that it has always had, which is its argument that there is no route to Islamist control of middle east countries and Arab states without violent revolution. That is why we do not need to be afraid of these events—indeed, they indicate that we should support those Governments who will take power in due course whether in Egypt or anywhere else.
Whether in Egypt, Syria or elsewhere, the army and those institutions that have hitherto assumed that it is their automatic right to govern should retreat from politics and leave it to politicians elected by the people. Furthermore, military tribunals and emergency laws must be abolished, the legacy in the middle east of failed democracy—so much the fault of the west—must, perhaps for the first time, be cast aside and those who inhabit the Arab states must for the first time have the opportunity to exercise the rights that we take for granted.
My hon. and learned Friend makes some important points. Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh—Islamist-led countries, yet stable democracies—give a positive sense of where things can go. It behoves us and this Government to do everything we can to support those emerging democracies and give them the direction that we can, in the way that he is indicating.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an extremely valid point. Democracy may not be the best system by which mankind can be governed, but it is certainly the least bad system that we have yet hit upon. As I said to the House previously—I think in March this year—we are not in possession of the one, unique form of democracy in this country, nor are any of the other western democracies. It must be for those countries concerned to determine what form of democratic systems they must put in place—consistent, it must be said, with human rights, which are inviolable, accountability, including democratic accountability of politicians, and any number of other things. However, once those core things are in place, precisely what form of democracy a particular country follows must be up to that country. It is for that reason that one can support and see the validity of establishing the principle that certain proportions of Members of Parliament in some of those countries must be women or must be under the age of 30—as I think is the case in Tunisia—and so on. That is a matter for those countries. It is not for us to decree precisely how they should run their countries.
There is considerable optimism as a result of today’s elections in Egypt. They may be too late and they may be being conducted under an extremely complex system, which seems designed in part to generate confusion and perhaps to entrench some of the interests that the Egyptian people would rather see lose out—that is, the interests of the elite that has governed them tyrannically for so long—but there is genuine hope in Egypt, as in other countries. It is for that reason that I sincerely hope that today’s elections will result not only in a reduction in violence, but in a democratic Government being installed in Egypt, for the first time in the living memory of many.
The motion on the Order Paper is wide-reaching. There is much that I would wish to say about a number of other countries; however, I will say something about just a few. The first is Syria. There is universal condemnation, on both sides of the House, of the existing regime in Syria. Its time has come, a fact that is clear from the action taken by the Arab League and from the reaction to the regime’s repression of its own citizens. It is also clear in the sense that there is now no international support for the regime at all—no votes, for example, in favour of retaining Syria in the Arab League. I was pleased, therefore, to hear my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary tell us of the pressure that the Government are bringing to bear on the regime, and also of the pressure being brought to bear on those who, it would seem, do not wish to impose further sanctions or encourage the regime to follow the route that is so obvious to all of us in this House. The regime must eventually stand aside, and there must eventually be democratic elections in Syria too.
Perhaps most notable has been the recent reaction of the Kingdom of Jordan, hitherto standing aloof perhaps—or certainly standing neutral—which one can understand, but now utterly condemning what has been going on in Syria. If Syria, the Syrian regime and President Bashar al-Assad think that they have any friends left—whether in the west or the Arab world, or whether China or Russia—I rather suspect that that misconception will be quickly eradicated in the next few months.
So, Syria, one hopes, will be a country where the west will keep up its pressure over the next few years and over the next few weeks and months. Our allies will do the same and every member of the United Nations will do the same in utterly condemning the violence and requiring those who have hitherto ruled Syria to stand aside and to allow the people of that nation the democratic freedoms that so many others in so many other Arab nations are now experiencing as a result of the Arab spring.
Let me touch briefly on Bahrain. There have been wide-scale human rights abuses in that country, and it is perhaps a matter of encouragement that the King established the independent human rights commission to examine the protests. The commission was led by Cherif Bassiouni, a former war crimes lawyer for the United Nations. Members of all parties will have read the report that ensued and will have congratulated the Bahraini Government. It is important that the pressure continues to mount on Bahrain to bring to justice those responsible for these appalling human rights abuses. It is also important to recognise, however, that no other Arab ruler has voluntarily invited such scrutiny of an Arab Government. For that reason, the Government are taking, in my judgment, precisely the right actions on Bahrain. I think there has been general agreement that this applies pretty much across the middle east.
The great benefit to this country of the Arab spring is perhaps that it not only presents us with the opportunity to ensure that many citizens across the Arab world who even a few years ago could not have expected to live in democratic societies have that opportunity for the future, but affords us the opportunity for the first time, given our history and our responsibility for the region, to do what is right, to encourage the democracy that we value so much and to ensure that everybody across the Arab world enjoys the rights that we take for granted.
I am pleased that we are having this debate. I shall endeavour not to take too long so that time is available for everyone to speak.
We are dealing with an amazing atmosphere, which is of historic proportions, across north Africa and the middle east. It is interesting to reflect that over the past 60 years, the countries of this region have seen the end of the second world war, an independence process being established, an initial Arab spring in the 1950s, the degeneration of many of those then revolutionary Governments into autocratic and authoritarian Governments who relied heavily on secret police and prisons, leading up to the uprisings that have broken out right across the region this year.
I think we should bear it in mind that every single one of the countries across north Africa and the middle east has at least half of its population under the age of 25, with many even younger. There are a great deal of very young, very angry people who have been through school and college, in some cases to university, yet they cannot find jobs. There is a big economic aspect and economic demands underpinning the whole process, which then relates to the political sphere of the unaccountability of government and the power of police forces and the secret police to imprison and control people.
In their search for an accountable Government and for some degree of opportunities in people’s lives, we need to be aware that people do not necessarily view western Europe or north America as a good example. They do not necessarily want to create the kind of societies that we have; they are looking for something that is identifiably theirs and of their region, not aping the previous imperial masters that controlled so much of that region for so long. We need to be a bit more cautious and respectful of the historical process that is going on.
I shall touch briefly on a number of issues. First, the Foreign Secretary mentioned the meetings he had had in Mauritania and Morocco. I intervened on him—and I was grateful to him for giving way—on the question of Western Sahara. Many people have been in refugee camps in Algeria since 1975, when, following the Spanish withdrawal from Western Sahara, Morocco marched in and established a military presence, driving them out of the area.
Under decolonisation statutes, as former Spanish colonial subjects those people have the right of self-determination. They are entitled to decide whether they want to live in an autonomous region or an independent country, for instance. However, they have never been allowed to make that choice. More than 80 countries recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. This country does not recognise it—indeed, no European country does—but all of Africa except Morocco does, as do many other countries, particularly in Latin and central America.
We should spare a thought for the difficulties of a Government who, based in refugee camps and in exile, must lead their people while the majority of them also live in refugee camps, and must explain to them that they do not want to go back to war or launch a terrorist attack. In fact, they want a peaceful resolution and look to the United Nations to provide it, and I hope that this country will do what it can to support their aim. I had a useful meeting with the Minister to discuss the issue, and he showed considerable understanding of the situation. Let me compliment him on the fact that Britain has not supported the renewal of the EU-Moroccan fish agreement on the basis that it has been of no benefit to the people in the occupied territories—although, of course, it should have been—because it is taking resources, fish in this instance, from the waters alongside the western Sahara. I hope that he is aware of the strength of feeling that exists. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Western Sahara, I can assure him that we will continue to pursue the issue.
According to a parliamentary answer given to me last week, the war in Libya has cost £1.8 billion, rather more than the £200 million that we were told it would cost at the start of the conflict. I am not very surprised, because wars cost an awful lot of money. I am not here to defend human rights abuses by anyone. I am here to support the idea of accountable government, an independent form of justice, and adherence to UN basic law on human rights—all the fundamental elements of the UN charter.
I did not support the intervention in Libya for a number of reasons which I gave at the time, and I remain very concerned about the human rights situation in Libya. I am concerned about, for example, the number of African migrant workers who were living and working in Libya and who have been abused or murdered, or whose lives and homes have been destroyed, and the number of others who have faced summary justice in Libya since the transitional national council took over.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) mentioned Saif, Gaddafi’s son, who has been arrested. It is still not clear whether he is in the custody of the transitional national council or in the custody of some other group in the town where he was captured, but I think that he should be put on trial. He probably has a great many interesting things to say about Libya’s economic relationship with this country, France, Italy and many other nations less than a year ago; about the amount of money that Libya spent in this country, France and Italy less than a year ago; and about the arms supplied by all those countries. He deserves to be put on trial, not just because of the abuses of human rights carried out by his father’s regime and the killing of prisoners some time ago, but so that we can understand what those relationships lead to at the end of the day. A lot of truth needs to come out.
I would prefer Saif to be tried by the International Criminal Court, but within the terms of the Rome statute, he does not have to be tried there. The national jurisdiction can put him on trial, although it must follow international standards and allow international observers and international representation.
Yes, that is my understanding. That is why I said that Saif does not have to be extradited to The Hague. I would prefer it if he was, but that has to be decided. However, we do have to be confident that there will be an independent judicial system. The murder of his father by a mob is not a very good precedent. We must also look at some of the other abuses of human rights that are now taking place in Libya, and have some very serious concerns.
We should not say, “Ra, ra, we’ve won,” too often, because there is too much pain and too much suffering, and too many people have already died. I read an interesting article by Franklin Lamb from Sirte in Libya called “Bad