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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011

We are very concerned about the limited progress that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made over the past year in implementing the reforms necessary for both EU and NATO accession.

Given that we have now had nearly 14 months without the formation of any Government in Bosnia, does my right hon. Friend think that we, neighbouring states or the international community could be doing anything extra before there is very serious economic damage to that country, on top of the political instability?

We continue to urge on the leaders of all political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina the need for urgent progress to establish that state-level Government. I talked about that to EU Special Representative Peter Sørensen and the international community’s representative, Valentin Inzko, a week ago. Every actor with influence on the Balkans needs to work towards greater stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Yesterday two German soldiers were shot and wounded by Serb thugs in northern Kosovo. It is a huge problem. Will the Minister and the Foreign Secretary appeal to President Tadic, whether it is in Bosnia and Herzegovina or in Kosovo, to assume responsibility? The proposed talks next week about Serbia joining the EU cannot get under way so long as there is no democratic law-and-order authority in Kosovo—or, indeed, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I deplore the incident that the right hon. Gentleman described, and I discussed it with my German counterpart yesterday. The Commission’s report on EU enlargement clearly sets out the fact that Serbia needs to address its relations with its neighbours if it is to make progress towards EU accession, as it hopes to do.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow and Thursday I will attend the EU Foreign Affairs Council, where we will discuss Egypt, Syria, Yemen and the European neighbourhood policy, and we will also examine the latest developments in the western Balkans and in the middle east peace process.

In his last middle east statement the Foreign Secretary called on the Israeli Government to make a more decisive offer than any that they have been willing to make in the past. Israel made profound offers during the peace talks, unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and has accepted the Quartet’s peace initiative. What representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Palestinian Authority to make similar genuine efforts towards peace?

It is very important, as we discussed a moment ago, that both sides embrace the opportunity of negotiations and respond to the Quartet timetable of substantive proposals by 26 January. In my view, that requires Israel to make that decisive offer, but it also requires Palestinians not to set preconditions for entering into such negotiations, and both sides to have the necessary spirit of compromise.

I join the Government in deploring the Iranian Government’s recent threats to downgrade diplomatic relations between Iran and the United Kingdom, and I welcome the sanctions imposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which cut all ties with Iranian banks. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether those recent measures cover foreign subsidiaries of British banks, and foreign banks operating in the UK?

The measures apply to the UK financial sector—to credit and financial institutions here in the United Kingdom. They do not, therefore, apply to foreign banks that happen to operate in the United Kingdom. Of course, the necessary defining measures will set that out in detail. The sanctions will be quite far-reaching, particularly as we are joining the United States and Canada in the measures, and I expect other countries to join in as well.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European Union has centralised too much power, and that it should be one of the Government’s stated aims to return powers and competences to London from Brussels as soon as possible? (83307)

Certainly, it is true that the European Union has not only too much centralised power but too much power in total, in my view. As my hon. Friend knows, I have long stated that I wish to see the repatriation of powers to the United Kingdom.

T3. During the visit of President Santos of Colombia, did we, the British Government, make representations about the appalling human rights situation in that country, particularly the attacks on and killings of human rights defenders? If so, did he give a concrete response? (83308)

Yes, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we raised those issues. I raised them myself with President Santos at my meeting with him last week. The Colombian Government are well aware of opinion in this country about those issues. However, it is fair to point out that President Santos’s Government are very clear about their commitment to human rights and have made a renewed, much stronger, commitment in Colombia to their observance in that country. I believe in his Government’s sincerity and their commitment to dealing with those issues.

T7. As small businesses in my constituency are keen to export goods and services to new markets, what is the Foreign Office doing to develop business and trade opportunities overseas? (83315)

UK Trade & Investment is reinvigorating its efforts not just to increase foreign direct investment in the UK but to encourage firms to export all round the world. That is one reason why the Foreign Office has gone ahead with its network shift, so we have 50 new people in China, for example, and we have new missions including four new embassies in Africa.

T4. I heard what the Secretary of State said about the commitment by President Santos on human rights abuses in Colombia. May I press the Foreign Secretary on that? Before we go ahead with programmes such as “Britain open for business” and others that support commerce between the two countries, will he ensure that, as far as possible, there are not only binding commitments but observed improvements? (83310)

Yes, there are already observed improvements in the behaviour and performance of the Colombian authorities in this regard. The UK and Colombia signed a joint statement on human rights during the president’s visit, so we never underestimate the importance of this issue. Our strong engagement with Colombia and our commitment to strong bilateral relations with it are part of encouraging the continued improvement in human rights observance by the Colombian Government. These strategies fit together.

My right hon. Friend has made repeated requests of the Egyptian authorities that they should announce a timetable for a rapid move from military to civilian rule. To that extent the elections yesterday, and the pride with which a huge number of people took part in them, are a very important step in the process. We wish it well, and we wish to see the transition to civilian rule move as quickly as possible.

T5. What assessment have Ministers made of the current political situation in Moldova, especially in view of the news of a delay in electing a new president? (83313)

The further delay in electing a new president is dismaying, but we welcome the fact that the 5 plus 2 talks are due to commence formally again very soon. It is in the interests of the whole of Europe for Moldova to move as swiftly as possible towards entrenching democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Will my right hon. Friend act urgently to ensure that much more humanitarian aid reaches the Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon, and will he also act to bring about an international arms embargo covering all UN states to ensure that Syria is not armed further?

We are certainly assisting: Ministers at the Department for International Development have committed a sum of £20 million to support international organisations helping with the relief of humanitarian suffering in or around Syria. My hon. Friend will understand that humanitarian access in Syria is one of the great problems, because of the appalling behaviour of the regime, which means that we are not able to get that help to all the people who want it. Syria should certainly no longer be purchasing any arms from any EU country.

T6. At the end of October the Foreign Secretary announced plans to put guards on merchant vessels. Yesterday he said that action would be taken briskly, but did not confirm a time scale. [Interruption.] Will he today confirm what has happened since October, especially with regard to the establishment of procedures, protocols and various rules? When can we expect to see the pledge fulfilled? [Interruption.] (83314)

Order. I understand that the House is excited, but I am sure that when the Foreign Secretary traverses the globe his statements are greeted in respectful silence. It would be magnificent if that could happen here as well.

Yes, that is universally the case, Mr Speaker—particularly with announcements on tackling piracy, which the hon. Gentleman asked about. The Department for Transport has, in consultation with the shipping industry, produced national guidance for maritime security contractors. He may be happy to learn that this is due to be announced and published later this week. The regulation will require such companies to comply with DFT guidance and to apply to the Home Office for licence to carry firearms. This is an important change in our policy with regard to tackling piracy, and it will soon be able to take effect.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should use our presidency of the Council of Europe to push through reform of the European Court of Human Rights, so that it does not consider cases that have been properly considered by national courts but concentrates instead on serious and systemic human rights abuses?

That is the clear top priority of the British chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which I discussed with members of the Parliamentary Assembly and the secretary-general last Friday.

The Secretary of State will be aware that there are hundreds of journalists lying in Turkish jails without trial or sentences. Some of them have been there for nearly nine years. When the Secretary of State next meets his Turkish counterpart, will he mention this distasteful situation?

Yes, Mr Speaker. Human rights are at the core of our foreign policy all over the world. The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, which we have of course discussed with Turkey. However, as he raises the matter now, I will make a particular point of mentioning it again at our next meeting.

What representations did Ministers make to the Turkish President when he was visiting the country recently about continuing human rights abuses in Turkey? Some 70 journalists are currently in prison, which is a worrying trend.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that 90% of the species for which the UK has responsibility reside outside the UK in the overseas territories. They are therefore not the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but of his Department. Given that that 90% are his responsibility, can he assure the House that he is spending nine times as much as DEFRA on protecting biodiversity?

We had a very successful overseas territories consultative council last week. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the biodiversity issue, and I can assure him that we are putting a huge amount of emphasis on it. We spent £15 million last year on biodiversity and environmental schemes in the overseas territories; they are a key priority of the overseas territories.

Does the Foreign Secretary want to welcome the announcement by New Delhi on Friday of the partial opening up of the vast Indian retail sector to foreign supermarket groups such as Tesco, which has been a key objective of UK commercial diplomacy for many years?

Yes, my hon. Friend points to a very important development. We have long advocated the liberalising and the opening up of the Indian economy. This will be vastly beneficial to the people of India and to the growth of trade. We want to see progress made on a free trade agreement between India and the whole of the European Union.

Of all the principal concerns and exhortations that the Foreign Secretary has conveyed to the Israeli Government, to which, if any, have they paid most attention?

I hope, of course, that they will pay attention to the entirety of our representations, and to the strong feeling in this House and across the world that it is important to make a decisive move to reach a two-state solution to help to avoid the future strategic isolation of Israel. It is, therefore, the entirety of our representations that I would urge upon them.

I share the Foreign Secretary’s concerns about the restrictions on Gaza. He reports that fewer than half of the agreed 15,000 vehicles a month are making it across the border to improve the humanitarian situation there. Most recently, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister spoke of further restrictions on energy and even water supplies in Gaza. Will the Foreign Secretary urge the Israeli Government to reject such collective punishments of the people in Gaza?

I was in Gaza a few months ago and able to observe the pressures on the state. I visited a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school to see the difficulties there. We will indeed continue to urge Israel to ease the restrictions on goods going in, because it is to the political and economic benefit of Gaza and Israel if that situation is eased.

Two thirds of Afghan women think that their lives have improved, but nine tenths fear a return to a Taliban-style Government. When Ministers meet their counterparts in Bonn next week, will they make it clear that Afghan women’s rights must not be traded away in any future peace agreement?

Yes, this is a very important issue. I shall be leading the UK’s delegation to Bonn next week, and we will underline that point in the make-up of our ministerial team, in everything that we say about the importance of human rights in Afghanistan, and in reiterating what I have said before—that a sustainable peace in Afghanistan will not be achieved without the extensive and wholehearted commitment of the women of Afghanistan.

During the UK’s presidency of the Council of Europe, will the Foreign Secretary make arrangements for himself and the Prime Minister to visit the island of Cyprus, particularly at this crucial time in the talks?

Clearly, we are heavily committed during our presidency of the Council of Europe, but my hon. Friend can be sure that we will visit Cyprus, because in the second half of next year it will hold the presidency of the European Union. We will be there, and I shall, of course, attend the regular meetings of Foreign Ministers that take place in whichever country holds the presidency. The answer to his question, therefore, is yes.

Does the Foreign Secretary think that getting rid of elected Governments, in any circumstances, is a price worth paying for saving the euro?

It is important, of course, that all Governments across the EU remain fully democratically accountable to their Parliaments and people, and so far as I am aware, that continues to be the case.