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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 538: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Shaker Aamer

1. What recent progress he has made towards securing the release of Shaker Aamer from Guantanamo Bay. (89805)

The British Government remain committed to securing Shaker Aamer’s release and return to the United Kingdom. I raised his case again with Secretary Clinton during my visit to Washington on 12 December. My officials are currently exploring the new US legislation on detainee transfers for the implications for this case.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer and for the continued efforts of the Government on Mr Aamer’s behalf. Obviously, it has been 10 years so I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary could say more to the House about what he considers to be the roadblocks to release and whether he has given any consideration to asking international bodies, such as the United Nations, to support the British Government in their efforts to release Mr Aamer.

This is a matter for the United States, not for international authorities. My hon. Friend is aware of the difficulties; there have been no transfers out from Guantanamo since the National Defence Authorisation Act, passed in 2010, all but precluded transfers from Guantanamo Bay. The Act has recently been renewed for 2012, with some amendments, which is why we are looking at its implications. We have asked about Mr Aamer’s health and welfare, and have been assured that he is in reasonable health, has access to medical treatment and is not held in solitary confinement.

International Conference on Afghanistan

3. What assessment he has made of the outcome of the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn; and if he will make a statement. (89807)

The Bonn conference, which I attended last month, reaffirmed the international community’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan after 2014, through economic support, a plan for funding the Afghan national security forces and a clear set of principles for reconciliation. The Afghan Government committed themselves to progressing their development priorities and upholding their human rights obligations.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his response. Can he tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that women’s human rights are maintained when UK and US troops are drawn down?

We gave a great deal of attention to that at the Bonn conference. The ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas attended the civil society events, and I am pleased to say that 50% of the Afghan delegation to the civil society forum were female and a leading female civil society representative presented views at the main conference. The importance of the rights of women and their involvement was centre stage at the Bonn conference, and we assisted in that process.

The Government’s stated policy objective in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaeda and other extremists bases from which they can attack the UK and other British interests. In a letter to me of 6 December, copied to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, referring to the threat from al-Qaeda, said that

“while the threat is not on the scale it once was…it does nevertheless remain a serious concern.”

Does that, which can only be interpreted as a downgrading of the threat in Afghanistan, have any impact on the timetable for withdrawal?

We hope all the time that we are making progress against the threat in Afghanistan, and there is no doubt that in recent times al-Qaeda has suffered very serious damage and setbacks in Afghanistan and its vicinity. That threat is not over, as my hon. Friend was saying, but our efforts to improve security in Afghanistan continue, and it is a combination of our assessment of that threat and the need for continued political progress in Afghanistan to stabilise its regions. It is our assessment of a combination of all those factors that leads to our decisions on troop levels, with a decision for 2012, which we recently announced.

The developmental teams that will remain after the British military ceases operations in Afghanistan are in danger of becoming top targets for insurgents. Did my right hon. Friend receive any indication from his American counterparts that they envisaged retaining some military capability in strategic bases in Afghanistan after 2014?

The military position after 2014 is under discussion. Indeed, I discussed it this morning with General Allen, commander of the international security assistance force, and important decisions will be made at the NATO summit in Chicago in May next year. We do not envisage that development work in Afghanistan will be without security after 2014. As my hon. Friend knows, we are building up Afghan forces, which are several hundred thousand-strong, in addition to the potential for military co-operation from other states. The position on that will become clearer after the NATO meeting in Chicago.

The threat from al-Qaeda and the training that takes place in Pakistan is high. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Pakistani authorities to reduce the threat of al-Qaeda crossing the border into Afghanistan?

We are always in discussion with Pakistan about that subject, and I have many discussions with the Pakistani Foreign Minister about it. We have regular contact at military level, as well as between the Prime Minister of our country and the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Pakistan’s own long struggle against terrorism is always high on that agenda, and we should recognise the efforts that it has made in that regard: huge numbers—perhaps 30,000 people—have died as a result of terrorist activity in Pakistan over the past 10 years. We look to Pakistan to maintain those efforts.

National Emergency

The Foreign Secretary might have a problem with that. Is it true that under Government contingency plans if the Prime Minister were killed in a terrorist attack it would be the Foreign Secretary who took charge of the Government until the Queen could choose a new Prime Minister?

I can assure my hon. Friend that continuity of government plans are in place to deal with any catastrophic destabilising incident. I know that he has asked the same question of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, and the answer is the same: we do not consider it appropriate to talk about these plans in public, but I can assure him that arrangements are in place for any such contingency. I cannot guarantee that there will be a place in the bunker for Mrs Bone, I am afraid.

EU Economy

5. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department of economic conditions in the EU. (89809)

16. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department of economic conditions in the EU. (89820)

The crisis in the eurozone is having a chilling effect throughout Europe, which is why this Government are arguing vigorously within the European Union for action to promote growth by deepening the single market, boosting trade and cutting red tape.

I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that it is important that policies are enacted at EU level to encourage economic growth? Measures designed to help drive sustainable economic recovery, such as exempting micro-businesses from the burden of red tape, would have positive implications for all Government Departments across the 27 member states, including his own.

I agree completely with my hon. Friend, which is why the agreement at the December European Council for an exemption from European regulations for micro-business was particularly welcome, especially as that will apply not only to new European legislation but will prompt a review of the existing acquis in respect of micro-businesses.

Can the Minister assure the House that the principles of the Prime Minister’s veto will be followed through, and that any attempt by the EU to impose a tax on this country’s financial services will be vigorously resisted?

A financial transfer tax would require unanimous agreement by all 27 member states, which is something that the single market Commissioner, Monsieur Barnier, has confirmed to me. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we would not agree to the imposition of such a tax.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on the EU economy of the recent behaviour of the Hungarian Government? Has he reminded that Government that there is an expectation that all EU members adhere to normal democratic norms?

We are certainly concerned about any developments in other EU member states which might lead to even greater economic instability than we currently see. I have talked about the concerns expressed in a number of quarters with regard to Hungarian legislation with my Hungarian opposite number and with the Commission. As the right hon. Gentleman may know, the Commission is due to release the results of its assessment about now. The Hungarian Government have said that they will consider carefully and constructively the comments that the Commission makes, whatever they are, and I believe that that is the right way forward.

It has been reported that the Foreign Secretary advised the Prime Minister before the European Union summit in December that if it is a choice between keeping the euro together or keeping the Conservative party together, it is in the national interest to keep the Conservative party together. Can the Minister confirm that the Foreign Secretary regards the unity of his party as more important to the national interest than the success or failure of our largest trading partner?

I really had hoped that the hon. Lady would have something a bit better to say than that. What the Government are determined to do is to support our allies and neighbours in the eurozone in their efforts to restore economic stability to their currency union, and also to press for the measures to promote job creation and economic growth which the whole of Europe desperately needs. We are not prepared to take lectures from the Labour party that signed away £7 billion of the British rebate and denied the people of this country the referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which it had promised.

Does the Minister agree that the gloom about the consequences of an early break-up of the euro has been greatly exaggerated, bearing in mind the very positive economic experience for eastern European countries from the break-up of the rouble zone—very similar to the euro—in the early 1990s?

I have to say that it is unusual to find my right hon. Friend looking to the example of the former Soviet Union for inspiration. We have looked across Government very carefully at what the consequences of a eurozone break-up might be, and one of the key differences between now and 20 years ago is that the economies and the financial systems of Europe are much more closely interlinked now than they were then. It is certainly our judgment that it would be damaging to the British national interest were a collapse of the eurozone or a prolonged recession in the eurozone to take place.

The credit ratings of a number of eurozone states have been downgraded this week. The bail-out fund is now considered to be far too small to do its job. Mario Monti, Italy’s unelected Prime Minister, said yesterday that there would be a backlash against austerity unless Germany provides more support to Italy. The crisis becomes deeper every day. Is it not the case that recovery for many of those countries can come only when they can recreate national currencies, devalue and start to grow again?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman—his views on the subject are utterly consistent and I respect them—that is a matter for the peoples and Governments of those sovereign countries. From our point of view, what is needed is for the eurozone countries to implement in full the deal that they agreed to in October last year, and for Europe collectively at 27 to move forward urgently with deepening the single market, boosting global trade and cutting red tape and regulation on our businesses. That is the way to growth and jobs.


6. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on bilateral relations with Brazil of that country having overtaken the UK as the sixth largest economy. (89810)

The continued rise and success of emerging powers like Brazil present a great opportunity for our bilateral relationship. This Government have already shifted resources there. The Foreign Secretary will be leaving this evening for a visit to Brazil. In November I opened a new consulate-general in Recife in Brazil’s fastest growing region.

With the world’s fifth largest population and sixth largest economy, Brazil is an important economic power and a key market for expanding British trade, so the Foreign Secretary’s visit is welcome. It is also an increasingly important diplomatic power, so what can the Government do to encourage Brazil to play a positive leadership role on global issues such as climate change, human rights and democracy?

That precise point will be central to the Foreign Secretary’s talks with the Brazilian Foreign Secretary in Brasilia tomorrow, but as an illustration of the seriousness with which we treat this relationship, let me tell the House that last year there were 14 ministerial visits to Brazil, whereas in the previous three years combined there were just 10 ministerial visits. So we are affording Brazil four times the amount of ministerial attention that the previous Government did.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our trade at £5.2 billion in 2010 offers scope for considerable increase? What more can his Department do, particularly through UK Trade & Investment, to forge better links with the Brazilians in order to increase that trade?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s point. The economies of Latin America and Asia are growing fast and becoming increasingly important, which is why the British Government are determined to double trade with Brazil in the lifetime of this Parliament and why we are expanding the network of diplomatic and trade staff across Brazil, including opening a new consulate-general in the north-east of the country in November.

Middle East

7. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Palestinian National Authority on rocket attacks on Israel. (89811)

I met the President of the Palestinian Authority yesterday. We are extremely concerned about the recent escalations of violence, including Israeli air strikes on Gaza and rocket attacks by Palestinian groups on Israel. We condemn any actions in which civilians are hurt or killed and have called on all sides to show restraint and avoid a spiral of retaliation.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that response. In order to move to a two-state solution in the region, did he stress in his conversations yesterday the importance for Palestinian unity of recognising the Israeli state and bringing an end to the rocket attacks?

Of course, that is extremely important, particularly when one considers the number of rocket attacks—it is reported that 758 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel in 2011. We certainly discussed Palestinian reconciliation and the fact that any Palestinian Authority constituted as a result must be able to work with Israel towards a two-state solution. I strongly welcomed the initiative of His Majesty the King of Jordan in bringing Palestinians and Israelis together in recent weeks for discussions. That is a positive development that we want to see continue.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s reply to the previous question. With Hamas raining many hundreds of missiles upon Israel, can the Government do more to try to stop weaponry being smuggled through tunnels into Gaza, and does he agree that the more missiles come over, the harder it is to make peace?

My hon. Friend is absolutely and very evidently right that that does not help peace or the two-state solution that we all so urgently want to see. We call again for such rocket attacks on Israel to end.

I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary met the Palestinian President yesterday. In my later discussions with the President, he was at pains to emphasise the urgent need to make substantive progress in the coming days in the negotiations that the Foreign Secretary mentioned are taking place in Jordan. In the light of this urgency, when did the Foreign Secretary last speak with his Israeli counterpart and what steps are the British Government taking to ensure that ongoing Israeli settlement expansion is not allowed to be a reason for these crucial talks to be derailed?

I also spoke yesterday to the Israeli Government, to the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Meridor—I speak sometimes to him and sometimes to my counterpart, Mr Lieberman. On this occasion I called Mr Meridor to stress the need for Israel to respond positively in the negotiations and put forward its own proposals, and I made the case, as I have often done in this House, that Israel needs to make a more decisive and generous offer than we have seen for some years in order to be able to make progress. The Israeli Government are in no doubt about our views and we urge both sides to continue with these talks and not to be so wedded to the 26 January deadline that the opportunity to continue the talks is lost.

I welcome the tenor of yesterday’s conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Meridor. In an earlier answer the Foreign Secretary mentioned the reconciliation process within the Palestinian community. Alongside the immediate prospects for the latest round of talks, will he give the Government’s assessment of the possible implications of a deal reached between Hamas and Fatah? Given Hamas’s stated position on Israel and the peace process, will he also give an undertaking that any internal political agreement reached within the Palestinian community needs to be assessed in terms of the external political implications on the prospects for peace in the wider region?

I agree with that. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is very important that the Palestinian Authority are constituted in a way that allows them to conduct negotiations with Israel. That includes, importantly, recognising the previous agreements entered into by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and that is a key point, so we hope that that will be continue to be the position of the Palestinian Authority. Of course, reconciliation is meant to pave the way for elections among Palestinians, and we cannot at this stage pre-judge or predict the outcome of those elections.

The Foreign Secretary is right to call for temperance on all sides, but does he agree that it is unacceptable for senior officials and members of the Palestinian Authority to continue to attend cultural events at which individuals call for the end of the state of Israel, and that it is wrong for those officials to support sporting events named after “martyrs”—people who have murdered innocent Israeli citizens?

We do not support any delegitimisation of the state of Israel. We are friends of Israel, and we support the right of Israel to exist in peace and security, but we believe that that peace and security is best served by urgent moves towards a two-state solution, and that always guides our policy.

Middle East

8. If he will make representations to the Government of Israel on the increase in demolition of Palestinian homes in the west bank in 2011. (89812)

I do make representations on the demolition of homes, and I will continue to do so. I was in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories last week, and it gave me an opportunity to see some of those who are subject to demolition orders, including the Bedouin community outside Jerusalem, and to visit such people in the Negev as well. I had the opportunity also to raise those issues directly with Israeli Ministers.

Is the Minister aware that the number of Palestinian homes demolished by the Israelis last year rose by 38%, and that the number of displaced Palestinians doubled? Does he agree that that is hardly the sign of a Government intent on peace settlements on the basis of the 1967 borders, and that it would send a signal to the Israelis if the UK Government supported the Palestinian bid to join the United Nations?

On the first part of the hon. Lady’s remarks, I am very conscious of the numbers, as indeed are many Members because of the representations that have been made to us. It is a very serious issue, which we take up regularly with the Israeli authorities. The movement and settlement of people is a hugely divisive political issue, and it is one reason why we have pressed both sides to move towards a settlement, because that is the only thing that will ultimately ensure that all those who live in Israel and in the Palestinian territory can live in peace and security.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the demolition of Palestinian homes and the continued construction of settlements on the west bank, not to mention the construction of new houses in East Jerusalem, will make it increasingly difficult to establish a viable Palestinian state and, in turn, make it impossible to reach a two-state solution?

I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s concerns, and that is why we have repeatedly made clear to all our view that we regard illegal settlement building as contrary to the interests of peace building. It is a matter that must be addressed. It is vital to the division of land in the area, and that is why we constantly raise it.

How many Israeli settlements does the Minister think need to be built on Palestinian land before the chance for peace is destroyed?

The numbers are not a matter for the United Kingdom. What we do say, and say very clearly, is that building on occupied Palestinian land is illegal in international law and has been held to be so in some cases by Israeli law. That is why we regard the issue as an obstacle to peace, unless it is dealt with. It is vital that it is part of the negotiations, and that is why we wish very well the current efforts being made in Amman.

Following the recent leaked internal EU report expressing concerns about the west bank, will my hon. Friend make it clear to the Israeli Government—and I understand that there is fault on both sides—that the construction of housing units in and around Jerusalem is counter-productive to the peace process?

The issue of East Jerusalem is particularly difficult. For there to be a viable two-state solution and a shared capital, it is essential that East Jerusalem retains its Arab character. That is why we are so concerned about the settlement building there. The Government of Israel are well aware of our concerns, which we make very clear. I repeat to the House that, as we all know, this matter must be included in the overall settlement, the basics of which we hope are being discussed by the parties with great intent in Amman at the moment.

Last week, Israeli forces cut off access to the village of Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin community just outside Jerusalem where a school was built using international donations. Is that an example of something that must be unacceptable? Given the international character of Khan al-Ahmar, what representations can the UK Government make to get the Israeli Government to change their mind on the matter?

By happenstance, I was at the village and saw the obstruction of access take place. It was an unannounced visit as far as the authorities were concerned. Effectively, an Armco barrier was built across the access road that leads to a major highway. It was not immediately clear where the alternative access could be, except via a hill with an extremely steep gradient behind the village. That very lunchtime, I was able to make representations to the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, about the circumstances. This is precisely the sort of thing that raises concerns among the international community and makes it difficult for the Bedouin in that area to feel secure.


9. What steps he plans to take in response to recent reports of human rights abuses by the Government of Russia. (89813)

We will continue to raise concerns about human rights with Russia at ministerial and official levels. We shall sponsor a number of observers at the forthcoming Russian presidential election that is due in March.

I thank the Minister for that answer. With the US Senate due to approve the bipartisan Magnitsky Bill, which will impose mandatory visa bans and asset freezes on those responsible for gross human rights abuses, and with similar proposals in the Netherlands and Canada, will he look at the case for bringing forward an equivalent Bill in this House?

As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) in Westminster Hall the other day, if the American Bill, which I understand is at committee stage in the Senate, eventually becomes law, we will look closely to see whether there are lessons on which we might draw. My hon. Friend will know that we have powers in this country to ban any person from coming to the United Kingdom if there are grounds for concern about their character, conduct or associations.

When the Minister is making representations in Moscow about human rights in Russia, will he raise with the Russians, who have a pivotal role at the United Nations, the human rights abuses in Syria, because if Russia unblocked its present position at the United Nations, it would allow real pressure to be brought on the Syrian regime?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We obviously talk a great deal to Russia about the situation in Syria. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, within the past few weeks, has talked to Foreign Minister Lavrov about Syria, including to pass on our great concern about the systematic abuse of human rights in that country.

Although the respect for human rights in Russia may be considerably greater than in it was in the Soviet Union, does not the terrible treatment of Mr Magnitsky, his death in custody and the refusal of the Russian authorities to recognise responsibility for what happened suggest that my right hon. Friend the Minister should follow the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and not wait until the United States has reached its conclusion, but do everything in our power to follow a similar course of action?

As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, we have powers in existing law to ban people from coming to this country on the grounds that their presence would not be conducive to the public good. He also knows that successive Governments have followed a practice of not commenting on individual cases. His concerns about the abuse of human rights in Russia are, however, well made. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and all Ministers, when they meet Russian counterparts, always make a point of raising human rights matters.


10. What representations he has made to the President of Colombia on protection for trade unionists and human rights activists in that country. (89814)

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary discussed human rights with President Santos during his visit to the United Kingdom in November. I chaired a discussion between the President and non-governmental organisations, which included the security of human rights defenders in Colombia, and the President reiterated his commitment to improving Colombia’s human rights situation.

There is real concern that people are still being imprisoned in Colombia for trade union activity. What assessment has the Minister made of that situation, and what representations have been made?

I share the hon. Lady’s observation that there are real concerns about human rights abuses in Colombia. We do not pretend otherwise, and we actually spend a lot of time and money on trying to improve the situation. The President has made that point, and he acknowledges our concerns. It is fair to recognise that improvements have been made in recent years, but many further improvements still need to be made and we are actively working to try to bring them about.

Is it not the case that the greatest human right of all is the right to life and that under the Administration of President Uribe and now that of President Santos the demobilisation of the FARC guerrilla group, reducing it from tens of thousands to 9,000 today, has brought about a new era of peace and prosperity in Colombia that is good not only for Colombia but for Latin America and for our bilateral relations?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The murder rate in Colombia has fallen dramatically. It is still very high by European standards, but it is nevertheless a lot lower than it previously was. I am delighted that the Colombian President signed a joint declaration on human rights when he was in London a couple of months ago, and we had the opportunity to talk about how we can enhance Colombia’s prosperity and trade opportunities, which are also important for its development.


Having delivered bilateral support in Tunisia during the election process through help on voter outreach and through the United Nations Development Programme generally, the United Kingdom continues through its Arab Partnership to support efforts to rebuild democracy and freedom of expression in Tunisia and strengthen economic reform.

The Minister will be aware that local governors have been replaced by unelected governors in Tunisia. What efforts can be made to bring about local as well as national democracy there?

It is a good line. The Arab Partnership is interested in working with the Tunisian authorities on what they are looking for by way of re-establishing government. It enables us to draw on resources right across the UK—for example, institutions, NGOs and organisations such as the Local Government Association —that have expertise to offer. The hon. Gentleman certainly makes an interesting suggestion. It has not been raised directly with me in my visits to Tunisia, but I will certainly take it back with me.

Anybody who has been to Tunisia recently will have been impressed by the enthusiasm for the new democracy and the ideals of the revolution, but many challenges remain, particularly in the economy. What material resources and assistance are the UK Government therefore giving the constituent assembly in the drafting of the new constitution?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to put the focus on the economy. When we talk about the changes that have taken place in the Arab world we concentrate on the political, but unless the economics are right they will undermine the political changes that have been made. The UK provides support multilaterally through the G8, the Deauville partnership and the European neighbourhood partnership, and we have offered support for capacity building right across the board, including on constitution drafting and issues affecting economic reform.

Loathing of corruption was the immediate catalyst of the Arab spring, but the Tunisian Association for Financial Transparency states that the British Government need to do more to assist the current Tunisian Government by providing information, particularly about finance in the British overseas territories and the transactions of the previous Tunisian Government. What discussions has the Minister had with the current Tunisian Government about access to the British overseas territories and their finances?

I have had no discussions in the terms that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I know that one part of the assistance that we are already actively providing is to the anti-corruption unit in the Tunisian Government. It has already taken advice and support from the UK on that matter. I will consider what the hon. Gentleman says specifically about the overseas territories, but so far that issue has not been raised with Ministers.


I draw the House’s attention to the written statement on my visit to Burma, which was published yesterday. Last week, the Burmese Government and the Karen National Union signed a historic ceasefire. The following day, there was a significant release of political prisoners, which will contribute to greater democratic participation in the parliamentary by-elections. If that momentum can be maintained, we are clearly moving into a new phase in our relations with Burma.

As my right hon. Friend says, the release of 651 political prisoners by the Myanmar Government is a major political statement and certainly one that is to be commended. What confidence does he have that all political prisoners will be released in time for the elections in April this year?

The importance of the timing of last week’s announcement is that yesterday—16 January—was the date for any candidates to register to participate in the 1 April elections in Burma. The release of so many prisoners is therefore an important move ahead of those elections.

My hon. Friend is quite right to ask about other political prisoners. Our assessment is that of the 651 prisoners released on Friday, between 270 and 283 could be considered political prisoners. That means that political prisoners remain, although it must be said that there are definitional disputes over what a political prisoner is between the Burma Government and opposition groups. However, we of course look for the release of all political prisoners in Burma while welcoming that move as a major step forward.

All Members of the House support the release of the political prisoners and share the concern that there are still so many. However, I understand that the released prisoners have not been pardoned, but simply had their sentences suspended. What assurances has the Foreign Secretary had that they will be pardoned and kept out of prison rather than being re-arrested shortly?

My hon. Friend is quite right about the details, although that seems to be the effective way for the President of Burma to secure the release of the prisoners—the laws allowed him to act decisively to release a large number of prisoners. Of course, let me make it absolutely clear that the improvement in relations between Burma, our country and many other countries would come to a very rapid halt and go into reverse were those prisoners to be taken back into custody, but the President of Burma said to me when I was there 10 days ago that Burma’s progress to democracy is irreversible, and all the Ministers I met said that all political prisoners would be released.

Although I welcome the changes and developments with the Karen people, they are far from the only ethnic minority within Burma with which there have been a lot of tensions and difficulties, as the Foreign Secretary will know. Despite progress in some areas, there has been an increase in attacks on other peoples. What discussions did he have on other ethnic minorities and what pressure is he putting on Burma to ensure that every ethnic grouping is included in the democracy that we hope is developing there?

The hon. Lady is quite right: although what has happened in relation to the Karen people is important, other ethnic conflicts continue. I held a meeting with ethnic representatives from around Burma in Rangoon on my visit there and raised this wider matter with the Government at all the meetings I had with them. I also announced an additional £2 million of humanitarian assistance for displaced people in Kachin state, where fighting continues. It is important for the Government of Burma to understand that resolving the conflicts more widely around the borders and ethnic areas remains important.

The Opposition join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the release of political prisoners in Burma although, as he has acknowledged, many hundreds of men and women remain in prison there for their political beliefs. Will he tell the House what he did to push the Burmese regime to allow greater access for the world’s media, particularly in the run-up to the elections in April, now that restrictions have started to be lifted?

I made the point to Government Ministers there that part of the essential opening up to the rest of the world is access for media representatives. Indeed, on my visit I was able to facilitate that access for the first time and to ensure that BBC correspondents could go to places or get invited to press conferences to which they would not previously have been invited. Each international visit helps to prise open to a greater extent the media’s access to Burma. We will continue with those efforts.

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in extending continued support to the pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi?

I certainly will. I spent the best part of 24 hours with Aung San Suu Kyi during my visit to Rangoon. She is an inspirational figure, a great leader and a great hope for the future of her country.

Libyan Assets

The United Kingdom continues to play a leading part in working with the Libyan authorities on the recovery of assets through the alleviation of sanctions. On 16 December, the United Nations was able to lift the sanctions on the Central Bank of Libya and on the Libyan Arab Foreign bank, which released some £6.5 billion worth of assets in Britain alone for the use of the Libyan people.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In October last year, the Foreign Secretary noted in a letter that

“the countries of the Arab League will play an important part in providing the support the Libyan Government requires to rebuild the Libyan economy”.

Will the Minister tell us what recent assessment he and his Department have made of the contribution of the Arab League member countries to the economic recovery in Libya to date, and what form he expects it to take in the future?

The Arab League, in conjunction with the rest of the international community, played a vital part in ensuring the freedom of the people of Libya, and that support continues to be evident. The Libyan Government are establishing themselves and building their capacity to handle the recovery of assets and to determine the way in which they can be used. Accordingly, they are in discussions with ourselves and with Arab League partners, which are being effective. This is a process in which we are all engaged.

One of the problems with liberal imperialist wars is that once they are over, we lose interest in their victims. I have already drawn attention to the United Nations report on the plight of the 7,000 prisoners who are being held by the current Libyan Government in the most appalling conditions and undergoing torture and many other dreadful things. What are this Government doing about that?

This Government do not lose sight of the victims of this conflict. The conditions of those in detention have been raised by Ministers on visits, and directly with the Libyan Government. It is a matter for them to be able to create the processes to determine the future of those detainees. The commitment to human rights is absolute, regardless of how those in Libya were taken prisoner, captured or anything else. The United Kingdom stands four square behind that, and so does the national transitional council, which has made clear its own concerns, as well as its determination to deal with the issue of detainees through appropriate free and fair judicial processes as quickly as possible.

Topical Questions

This week, I am visiting Brazil as part of our efforts to transform our engagement with emerging powers in Latin America. I will also co-chair the UK-Caribbean ministerial forum, which will reinvigorate our historic ties with those countries.

Islamic fundamentalist violence has been increasing in Nigeria for more than a decade, and has now erupted beyond the northern region. What does my right hon. Friend think can be done to counteract this threat to Nigeria and to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole?

We are focusing on that threat. We are sharing with Nigeria our expertise on counter-terrorism policy and on legal frameworks. We are also providing assistance with specific capabilities such as managing the consequences of a terrorist attack. In all of this, we are in close touch with our partners in the European Union and the United States. We are also supporting programmes in the north of Nigeria to address the root causes of insecurity, such as poverty and social inequality.

Will the Foreign Secretary give the House his assessment of the calls by leading members of the Free Syrian army for the Arab League to refer the issue of Syria to the United Nations Security Council? In the light of the difficulties encountered by the Arab League observer mission, and on the basis of the aforementioned discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov, does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is any realistic prospect of the Russian Government altering their stance on Syria?

I think that it would be right for the Arab League to bring its concerns and any decision that it makes at its forthcoming meetings—it has two coming up, on the 19th and 22nd—to the UN Secretary-General and UN Security Council. Over recent weeks, I have encouraged the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Mr al-Arabi, to bring Arab concerns directly to the Security Council, because I believe that the time is long overdue for the Security Council to be able to speak on Syria with a united voice. The right hon. Gentleman will recall—his question partly referred to this—that when we last tried to do so, on 4 October, our resolution was vetoed by Russia and China. I am not optimistic that the situation with regard to Russia’s attitude would be different at the moment, but we will continue to discuss the matter with Russia. It would help if the Arab League were to come to the UN directly with its concerns.

T2. Will the Foreign Secretary assure the patriotic Falkland Islands that any posturing by the Argentine Government will be met with a very firm response? (89831)

I can assure my hon. Friend of that. The view across and in all parts of the House on the Falkland Islands is firm and consistent: we believe in the self-determination of the people of the Falkland Islands, and it is their self-determination, of course, that they wish to remain British.

T4. In line with the recent report by the UN rapporteur on torture, will the Minister condemn the practice by Israel of holding children in solitary confinement, and will he make representations for the release of the 106 children who remain detained within the Israeli military prison system? (89833)

We welcome the fact that Israel has recently changed to 18 the age of majority in those territories for criminal jurisdiction, but we have made, and continue to make, representations in relation to children’s rights—the right of audience, the right to interpreters and the like—and from the Dispatch Box recently I said that the practice of shackling children was wrong.

T3. Under the Government’s excellent new human trafficking strategy, the Foreign Office is required to have country business plans obliging ambassadors and high commissioners to take appropriate local action against human trafficking. What action has been taken? (89832)

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this matter. We have highlighted to our posts around the world the key commitments in the human trafficking strategy that they can help to deliver. Those include engaging with foreign Governments to ensure that common challenges are identified, and encouraging them to work with us to address those challenges. We have asked each of our posts to identify a single point of contact on human trafficking, and we are working in consultation with colleagues across government and with non-governmental organisations to bring together all the work that is already going on, including on the specific local challenges in each country. He can therefore be assured that our posts across the world are working hard on this.

T5. What assessment have the Government made of recent calls by the Qatari leadership for Arab states to intervene militarily to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and would the Foreign Secretary support such action? (89834)

That is one view—and an important view, of course, coming from the leadership of a state such as Qatar. As I mentioned in reply to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), the Arab League is meeting on the 19th and 22nd, so we should not presume that this is the view of the whole Arab League. Although we continue to increase the pressure on the Assad regime and strongly support the Arab League’s work, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have not called for military intervention in Syria, the consequences of which would be far more difficult to foresee than in Libya and the legal authority for which does not exist. As things stand, therefore, this is a distinct case from that of Libya.

T8. The Foreign Secretary’s previously referred to visit to Brazil this week is welcome and continues his much-needed drive to make trade the cutting edge of British diplomacy. As the balance of world economic activity shifts to the east and the south, would he agree that a blinkered approach to trade inside the European Union is not only very last century but painfully lacking in ambition? (89838)

We need both actually. Given the flat economies in the eurozone and the fact that exports to the eurozone have fallen over recent years, it is doubly important that we develop our export markets across the rest of the world. However, there is also a strong case for driving growth within Europe, through free trade agreements with the rest of the world, by pushing forward the single market in services and digital services and by removing regulatory barriers to growth. The Prime Minister will very much be pushing that agenda at the European Council on 30 January.

T6. Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps, if any, are being taken to prepare for the possible implications of Iran’s seeking to close the straits of Hormuz? (89835)

As the Defence Secretary pointed out in his speech in Washington a short while ago, any such attempt to close the straits of Hormuz would be illegal and I believe that it would be unsuccessful. It would also be damaging to Iran—to its own economy and its own situation. I think it is important for Iran to desist from statements on this subject and to engage instead with the offer of negotiations with the E3 plus 3 countries. In the meantime, we are working ahead of next week’s Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels to extend sanctions on Iran, including an oil embargo on a phased basis. Work on that is going on now to increase the peaceful pressure on Iran to negotiate.

T9. What progress is being made on the forthcoming constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe, which will be a prerequisite for free and fair elections in a country that has had more than its fair share of violence and intimidation in elections in the past. (89839)

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern about continuing persecution, particularly of Movement for Democratic Reform MPs. There was the dreadful case of the recent arrest of Lynette Karenyi allegedly for insulting the President. Obviously, the immediate priority for Zimbabwe is preparation for the referendum on the constitution and making sure that the road map to credible free and fair elections is in place.

T7. What steps are the Government taking in the coming year further to strengthen the parliamentary systems in our overseas territories? (89836)

I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) for participating in the mission to observe the British Virgin Islands elections in November. We believe that having observers is good practice for open democracies like ours and the overseas territories. This is highly relevant to the Turks and Caicos Islands where we hope to have elections later this year if the milestones continue to be met.

While my right hon. Friend strives to halt the tragic loss of life in Syria, will he also be mindful of Harold Macmillan’s advice that one should never underestimate the capacity of a middle eastern state to replace a bad Government by an even worse one—or, may I add, by no effective Government at all, which could create even greater bloodshed?

It is not only middle eastern states that do this from time to time. I very much take what my right hon. Friend says, but I have to point out that there has been, I think, a better trend than that during the last year, which can be seen if we look at events in Libya and Tunisia and at democratic developments in Morocco and Jordan. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend’s warning is well taken: we always listen to the words of Harold Macmillan and to his.

Has the Foreign Secretary had a chance to read the reports from the Carter Centre, the European Union, the United Nations and the Catholic Church of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the recent conduct of the presidential elections there and the barely credible reports of a 100% turnout in some areas, which led to President Kabila being declared the winner and the British ambassador attending his inauguration? What representations is the right hon. Gentleman making to the DRC Government concerning those elections and the future of democratic elections in that country?

On the positive side, there was far less violence in these elections than there was in 2006. Furthermore, most voters who wanted to vote could and did vote. I agree, however, with the hon. Gentleman that there were a number of serious irregularities throughout the electoral process. That is why we called on the DRC authorities to investigate them properly and fairly. It is vital that lessons are learned.

As we discovered during events surrounding the invasion of Iraq, it is essential for states to act only on hard evidence. In relation to Iran, will the Secretary of State encourage not only Iran itself but the whole international community to listen carefully to the International Atomic Energy Agency this time?

Yes, it is very important to listen carefully to what is said by the International Atomic Energy Authority. As my hon. Friend will know, it was a report from the IAEA which, in November, referred to the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme and the concern that was felt about it. That has fortified our determination—the determination of countries throughout the European Union—to adopt the measures that we will be discussing next week although, as my hon. Friend has said, they must always be based on hard evidence.

What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the current crisis in Pakistan and its possible implications for our country?

We have been making a continuous assessment of political events and tensions in Pakistan over recent weeks and days, and we are in close touch with a variety of Pakistani leaders. My noble Friend Baroness Warsi was in Pakistan for several days last week and met many of the leading figures there. We are friends of a democratic Pakistan—across the House we are friends of a democratic Pakistan—and we look to all concerned in both the political and the military leadership to work together to ensure a democratic and constitutional future for their country.

I know that the Foreign Secretary will share my disappointment at the news that the overseas territories have been refused permission to enter a vessel in the diamond jubilee river pageant in June. Will he assure the House that they will be granted full recognition and participation in the diamond jubilee celebrations?

I want to praise my hon. Friend for his indefatigable support for the overseas territories. As he knows, we will shortly publish a White Paper which will discuss how we can reinvigorate our relationship with them, and obviously we want them to participate fully in Her Majesty’s jubilee celebrations.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can play an important role in encouraging the Burmese to maintain the progress that he described earlier?

Yes. That is particularly true given that Burma will have the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014. One of the points that we made to other ASEAN nations at the United Nations General Assembly last year, before Burma’s appointment, was that the country must be pushed in the right direction—the direction in which it is now moving—if it expected to have the chairmanship, and those nations seem to be working well together.

What steps can be taken to limit the shipment of arms and munitions from Iran in particular to militant groups in Palestine?

We are very concerned about the shipment of arms by Iran, and about Iran’s consistent support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, but there has been evidence over time of arms shipments from Iran to other parts of the region as well. We will always express our concern about those actions, and will always encourage other countries in the region to live up to their own legal responsibilities to intercept illicit armed shipments. That is certainly happens, but we will always encourage those countries to ensure that it continues.

What assurances did the Foreign Secretary seek and secure from the Burmese Government that there would be free and fair elections in April?

That main assurance I sought was that at least a large tranche of political prisoners, but preferably all of them, would be released before the date on which candidates should register for the elections. I warned the president directly that the elections would not be considered free and fair if most political prisoners were still in prison and unable to stand. That is why I am pleased that so many prisoners were released a few days before the deadline for registration. We will now have to judge the circumstances in which those elections take place—to judge whether there is free debate in the media and out in the country—but I can certainly say on the basis of my meeting with the committee of the Mutual League for Democracy that there is real enthusiasm and determination to ensure that such free debate does take place.

At this sensitive time in relations with Iran, will the Government still do what they can to encourage Iran to improve its record on religious persecution—for instance, in the case of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who apparently faces a death sentence unless he is prepared to give up his Christian beliefs?

My hon. Friend and many other Members have made representations about this matter, and there was a very good debate about it in Westminster Hall last week. We will continue our representations in relation to Pastor Nadarkhani. History tells us that efforts to make people of faith recant their faith are doomed to failure: the faith endures, and the name of the faithful is remembered long after the torturers are forgotten.

Order. I apologise to any Members who may be disappointed, but the appetite for questioning the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues is invariably insatiable.