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Topical Questions

Volume 538: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2012

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.