Skip to main content

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan

1. What discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on the political situation in Afghanistan. (102851)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the political and security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (102862)

My colleagues and I regularly discuss Afghanistan with our NATO counterparts, as we will in Brussels this week. Although the situation remains challenging, transition is on track. The main NATO summit in Chicago will send a clear signal of the international community’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan.

Today the Australian Prime Minister announced the early withdrawal of Australian troops. What has the Foreign Secretary discussed with his Australian counterparts and what are the implications for the early withdrawal of British troops?

The vast bulk of the ISAF troop-contributing countries remain clear about the commitment to the end of 2014 as the time when the transition to Afghan security control will be complete. The United Kingdom is fully in line with that. We have said that British troops will not have a combat role after that point or be there in anything like the numbers they are now. That position is unaffected by announcements by any other countries.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s original response. Does he agree that the region itself must take a greater interest in and responsibility for the future of Afghanistan? What discussions has he had with Afghanistan’s neighbours about that?

Yes, I very much agree with that. Of course, there have been conferences of regional nations—promoted by Turkey, for instance. The co-operation of Pakistan with the Government of Afghanistan is of prime importance, and I am delighted that there has been a distinct improvement in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent months. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has also toured central Asian countries to the north of Afghanistan, encouraging their co-operation with that country.

The tragic events of Sunday afternoon in Kabul are yet more evidence that the idea of a transition to Afghan national forces is an objective that has been construed independently of any real long-term political solution—aid militarised, corruption endemic. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore accept that we should bring our brave troops home now, rather than waiting until yet more lives have been lost?

No; one of the things we saw from the incident on Sunday was the increasing ability of Afghan security forces to deal with a major incident on their own. It was the Afghan forces that killed or captured all the insurgents concerned. Of course, they need time for that capability to be built up further, and we are giving them that time by having our troops engaged in Afghanistan—including in combat—up to the end of 2014. If we did not do that, those forces would not be ready for the full task, and we would be letting down the people of Afghanistan and the people who have done so much work over the last decade.

I suggest that British Governments have long failed to understand that given the available resources, ISAF and Afghan forces will not defeat the Taliban. Is it therefore not now time to drop the unrealistic preconditions to talks with the Taliban and explore possible common ground—including differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda—for our possible mutual benefit? We can be proud of our soldiers, but I suggest that it is now time for the politicians to step up to the plate.

My hon. Friend knows that we are fully in favour of a process of reconciliation and that the British Government have been encouraging that—the last Government did it towards the end of their term of office and this Government have continued to do so. However, a successful reconciliation requires a readiness to reconcile on the part of the other party as well, and that has been lacking from the Taliban so far. I suspect that it would be even more lacking if we were to relax our military efforts and let the Taliban think that they could have success entirely on the battlefield.

I have listened with care to the latest answer that the Foreign Secretary has given. I welcome what seems to be his implication that these latest attacks do not detract from the case for dialogue with elements of the insurgency. However, could he tell the House what work is being done and what progress is being made—specifically, by the Afghan Government, the US Government and the British Government—in pursuit of that goal?

Progress has been made, and the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the announcement of a Taliban political office in Qatar. That was an indication of a readiness to begin a process of reconciliation. Since then, the Taliban have suspended that intention. It is not surprising that efforts at reconciliation go backwards and forwards, or that sometimes there is a readiness to engage and sometimes they move back from that. That does not mean that we stop our efforts. The important thing is to maintain all our efforts to improve security and to build a viable state in Afghanistan so that, whether or not reconciliation succeeds, the Afghan national security forces are able to maintain security in their country.

Let me turn specifically to the NATO summit in Chicago in May, which has already been mentioned. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the summit needs to agree a co-ordinated timetable for the withdrawal of NATO forces, a stable and sustainable funding arrangement for Afghan security forces and a status of forces agreement on the role of any international forces, post-2014? Does he also agree that, as well as setting those three goals, the summit must achieve genuine progress on a stable political settlement in Afghanistan, and specifically on bringing the regional powers on board in a more meaningful way than has been achieved to date?

All those things are important, of course. The timetable was set by the Lisbon summit in November 2010, and as I have said, we are sticking to it. The right hon. Gentleman’s point about funding is very important, and we are doing a lot of work to ensure that there is a clear plan and a clear commitment from sufficient countries for the funding of the Afghan national security forces after 2014. I regard that as of the highest importance in regard to what we agree in Chicago. Of course there will be a network of bilateral agreements for forces, as well as any arrangements with NATO and ISAF, including our own commitment to having an officer training academy in Afghanistan after 2014. We also continue to promote a political settlement alongside all that, but the funding arrangements will be of the greatest importance in Chicago.

For a genuine settlement to be reached, equal pressure must be applied to the Taliban and to the Afghan Government. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on whether the Americans are continuing to investigate the possibility of retaining one or more strategic bases in Afghanistan after 2014?

I am sure that the Afghan Government feel that pressure. As my hon. Friend knows, they are in favour of reconciliation; they are promoting it. President Karzai has appointed the high peace council to take forward that work, endorsed by Loya Jirga, so that work is certainly under way. The presence of American forces is a matter for the Governments of Afghanistan and the United States to reach agreement on themselves, so I cannot give my hon. Friend any new news on that.

2. What reports he has received on the capacity of the authorities in Afghanistan to preside over free and fair presidential elections in 2014. (102852)

6. What reports he has received on the capacity of the authorities in Afghanistan to preside over free and fair presidential elections in 2014. (102856)

10. What reports he has received on the capacity of the authorities in Afghanistan to preside over free and fair presidential elections in 2014. (102860)

When I was in Kabul about three weeks ago, officials made it clear that the forthcoming elections would create challenges, not only in relation to security. Accordingly, we are working with the United Nations Development Programme to support the capacity building of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, which will have responsibility for presiding over and delivering the election in 2014.

Is the Minister confident that the Afghan police force will be strong enough to secure a presidential election in 2014 that is free from intimidation and electoral fraud?

We certainly hope so. The work that is being done to train and build up the Afghan national security forces, including the police, is on track. The numbers have increased, and they now stand at 148,000. It should also be noted that not all of Afghanistan is Kandahar or Helmand; there are substantial parts of the country where security is not an issue. As a result of the transition process, half the population is now under the control of the Afghan national security forces. We will continue to work with them, but we hope that they will be responsible for the conduct of free and fair elections and be able to guarantee that security.

The Minister will know that there are concerns about the capacity of the Afghan authorities to hold presidential elections in 2014. In the light of that, what is the Government’s assessment of recent media reports that Hamid Karzai is considering stepping down a year early, thereby triggering an election before the withdrawal of international forces?

Of course the date of presidential elections that might be triggered by a resignation must be a matter for the Afghanistan Government and the President. That he has made clear his intention to stand down is important in the context of accepting Afghanistan’s own constitution, which limits him to two terms. If an election were to come up immediately, the Independent Election Commission has said it would be difficult, but I think the sense is that the timing is likely to be co-ordinated with the Afghan Administration’s ability to hold such an election. It is a matter for them, but too soon an election might be very difficult, although the Independent Election Commission is working hard at improving its capacity to hold an election at the allotted time.

I am sure the Minister will agree that for the next elections in Afghanistan to be really free and fair, women must be able to participate unrestricted in the process. What action has the embassy in Kabul taken to support women in the political process, and how confident is he that such participation will be meaningful?

Again, my recent visit and one I made some months ago allowed me to talk to women who are engaged in the political process. They are conscious of the difficulties in a socially conservative structure, but also of the gains they have made over the past 10 years and of their determination to make sure that the constitution, which guarantees equality for women, is adhered to. There can be no guarantees, but we are working with women’s groups and organisations throughout the country to ensure that the constitution is lived up to and to ensure the best possible opportunities for women’s representation because their full participation is indeed crucial.

The Minister will, I hope, agree with me that British parliamentarians have a role to play in building capacity in regard both to the elections and to general parliamentary matters in Kabul. Will he therefore encourage the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is planning a trip to Kabul for British parliamentarians, to press ahead with it irrespective of security considerations?

I do not think it is ever sensible to press ahead “irrespective of security considerations”, but the point is well made: parliamentarians have an opportunity to share experiences and help in the capacity building of Parliament, which is already ongoing. I very much hope that such a visit will be able to take place in proper security conditions.

Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to ensure the improvement of voter registration of male and female voters in a country with widespread illiteracy?

That is a key part of the capacity building of the Independent Election Commission, which has already improved the percentage of those registered. There is clearly a close correlation between ensuring proper registration and preventing fraud, and the commission is very conscious of that correlation and of the need to continue to do more. That work is ongoing, and we are confident that it will be improved further from the elections of 2009 and 2010.

The capacity of the Afghan authorities and their ability to hold free and fair elections will be crucially affected by the summit at Chicago, as the Foreign Secretary said, so we welcome his remarks about the involvement of neighbouring powers—a course of action we have urged on him for some time. Surely, however, this should also include India, Russia and Iran. Equally important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) stressed, the voice of Afghan women must be heard at the negotiating table. We must ensure that women’s rights are protected under the settlement. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that?

Of course the Bonn conference is part of the ongoing relationship of the international community with Afghanistan, and it has women represented on it. We made it an important part of our representation, and our own Minister with responsibility for dealing with violence against women—the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)—was present. We do indeed work to make sure that women’s representation is there. I come back to the point that much of this is in the hands of Afghan women themselves, who are very active and have made it clear that they do not wish to see the gains of recent years reversed. It is difficult, and no one should pretend otherwise, as it is not easily dealt with. We are confident that the opportunities will be there, that the determination of the international community will be there and that Afghanistan will be a stronger society because of the participation—political and otherwise—of women.

Ethiopia

3. Whether he has had discussions with the Ethiopian Government on the human rights situation in that country; and if he will make a statement. (102853)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have candid and regular dialogues on human rights with Prime Minister Meles and others. We recently raised the plight of opposition leaders and journalists who have been arrested under Ethiopia’s counter-terrorism legislation, and we have also raised the impact that that is having on Ethiopia’s already restricted political space. We are engaging with the Government to promote best practice in the implementation of the legislation, with respect for human rights.

Discussions that I have held with the Oromia Support Group and Human Rights Watch suggest that the situation on the ground is extremely serious. For instance, 80% of male detainees have been tortured and more than 50% of female detainees have been raped, and more journalists are locked up in Ethiopia than in any other country. Would the Minister be prepared to meet me, along with representatives of those groups, to try to clarify the position, so that if it becomes clear that they are wrong and the Ethiopian Government are right, the situation can be rectified, and if it is the other way around, the issues can be taken up with the Ethiopian Government?

I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and any people he wishes to bring to see me.

It is important to bear in mind the fact that, although we recognise Ethiopia’s right to fight terrorism, that must be done in the context of observing human rights. It should also be borne in mind that there is a big difference between journalists’ reporting terrorism and their supporting it. It seems that the Ethiopian Government often do not make that distinction.

Given that between now and 2015 our colleagues in the Department for International Development will be spending £330 million a year in Ethiopia, could we not do more to bring pressure to bear on its Government to improve their human rights record? After all, should not diplomacy and aid go hand in hand?

We have great influence with the Ethiopian Government, which is why, whenever my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary or I visit the country, we have access to the Prime Minister and other Ministers. We have made it absolutely clear that they must give more space to the opposition, and must do more to respect human rights. We find it troubling that, whereas there were 150 Opposition Members in the last Ethiopian Parliament, there is now only one. We will certainly keep up the pressure, and we will continue our candid dialogues.

UK Economy

4. What steps his Department is taking to support the UK economy; and if he will make a statement. (102854)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office works to boost trade and support the United Kingdom economy by lobbying the Governments of other countries to open markets, reduce barriers to trade, and make progress with multilateral and EU bilateral trade agreements. To support that work and promote Britain’s future prosperity, we are adding more than 100 new positions in our posts in the fastest-growing cities and regions throughout the world.

Last week, during the Prime Minister’s successful visits to Japan and Indonesia, and elsewhere in south-east Asia, he was able to welcome major deals involving 11 Airbuses for Indonesia and 1,500 new jobs in Nissan in the UK. Given the success of that visit, what steps is the Foreign Office taking to build on the trade relationships that are being fostered in those vitally important export markets?

I strongly endorse the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. Its economy is growing by 6% or 7% a year, and it is the only G20 country in south-east Asia. There are big opportunities for us—political, diplomatic and economic—in countries such as Indonesia. I am delighted that the Prime Minister’s tour of Asia was so successful, and we are working in posts and across Government to build on that success.

Britain has some of the toughest arms export rules in the world, and the Prime Minister’s recent efforts to promote the defence industry on his overseas visits will have been made within those parameters. Did he also take the opportunity to push for a strong international arms trade treaty, and what steps are the Government taking to bring that about?

In a sense, the hon. Lady has answered her own question. We have extremely tough rules on arms exports, and we are keen to promote an arms treaty. However, as is widely recognised throughout the House, it is legitimate to sell arms to people who comply with the regulations, and that is what we will do when it is appropriate.

Russian Federation

5. What reports he has received on the conduct of recent presidential elections in the Russian Federation. (102855)

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, while giving a positive overall assessment of voting on election day, identified problems with unequal campaign conditions and serious limitations on voter choice.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. Does he know whether the Prime Minister raised the issue of electoral irregularities with President Putin when he called to congratulate him on his election victory?

We raise with Russian leaders and Russian officials, at every opportunity, our concerns about human rights in their country, and we have certainly raised with the Government of Russia our concerns about how the presidential elections, and indeed last year’s parliamentary elections, were conducted.

Following the results of the Russian elections, does my right hon. Friend anticipate any change in Russian policy towards the oil and gas producing countries of the South Caucasus? What can the British Government do to further broaden and deepen our relationships with those countries?

We continue to press for reconciliation between Russia and Georgia following the conflict between those two countries, but we are firm in our belief that that has to be achieved in a way that recognises Georgia’s territorial integrity.

17. The Minister mentioned the OSCE report. It also said that irregularities occurred in up to a third of the polling stations in the Russian Federation. What representations have the Government made to the European Union for it, in turn, to put pressure on Russia to address the situation? (102868)

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he needs to acknowledge that there are limits to the leverage that the UK alone and the EU collectively have with Russia. However, we always ensure, both bilaterally and in European conversations, that the central importance of human rights and respect for democratic processes is brought home to our Russian interlocutors.

Syria

7. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the situation in Syria; and if he will make a statement. (102857)

I discuss Syria regularly with EU colleagues. At the March Foreign Affairs Council, we condemned the violence of Assad’s regime and supported Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. We agreed to adopt further sanctions, including an asset freeze on two Syrian petroleum companies.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. What role does he envisage for the Security Council in the ongoing crisis in Syria?

The Security Council has, I am glad to say, at last agreed a Security Council resolution. It did so on Saturday and I pay tribute to our mission at the United Nations in New York for the way in which it helped to achieve that. This resolution embodies the Kofi Annan plan, but it also sets out very clearly how the role of the monitors for the ceasefire that has now, at least partly, come into effect in Syria, should be regarded, in terms of giving them access to where they need to go and to people they need to talk to. For the first time the Security Council has passed a resolution uniting all the members of the Security Council, against which the Assad regime and its behaviour can now be judged.

The Syrian military have shelled refugees in Turkey. What is our Government’s attitude to that? If the Turkish Government take justified military action in response, will we support them?

We deplore that outrageous behaviour, along with the killing of 10,000 and more people throughout this conflict so far in Syria. We have expressed our strong solidarity to Turkey over that. I am not going to get into discussing hypotheses about military action by Turkey; I do not believe that that is being seriously contemplated at the moment, although, of course, continual violation of the border would be an immense provocation to Turkey. But we absolutely deplore that particular violation.

Is it not clear that the Assad regime had no intention of respecting the ceasefire and withdrawing its tanks and heavy artillery from towns and cities? As the international community accepts a responsibility to protect, will the British Government initiate urgent discussions with the Arab League, Turkey, the United States and other European countries, with a view to encouraging Arab states to close their land borders and their airspace to any traffic destined for Syria? If that were combined with a naval blockade of the Syrian coast, would it not, at the very least, prevent any further arms from being delivered to the Syrian regime?

As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, we have very tough sanctions in place, imposed through the European Union, and the Arab League has sanctions of its own. But as he will also know, some Arab League countries do not implement, or do not fully implement, those sanctions, particularly countries that are close to Syria, such as Iraq. For that reason, it is extremely difficult to impose the general blockade that my right hon. and learned Friend talks about, and arms shipments continue to reach Syria from Russia as well. Cutting off all such arms supplies without the co-operation of the countries I have mentioned is not possible. What we now have to do is try to ensure that the terms of the UN Security Council resolution are met, and clearly warn the Assad regime that if they are not met, we will be able to return to the Security Council for further measures.

Let me stay on the issue of the Security Council resolution, and echo the words of praise for the UK mission in New York. We welcome the authorising of the deployment of observers from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the fact that, as I understand it, members of the group have now started arriving in Damascus, but will the Foreign Secretary say when he expects the observer group to be up to full strength, when it will begin reporting back, and what his personal assessment is of the chances of its being able to go about its work peaceably?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to sound a sceptical note about the group’s ability to go about their work, as the Assad regime did not fully co-operate with the Arab League observers who were in the country previously. That shows the importance of passing, in the Security Council resolution, clear language about “unhindered deployment of…personnel”, full

“unimpeded and immediate freedom of movement”,

as well as “unobstructed communications” and a requirement to be able

“to freely and privately communicate with individuals throughout Syria”.

The observers will therefore be able to report on a continuous basis on whether these terms are being met, and the Security Council will then be able to debate those terms. They are terms that have been agreed by Russia and China as well as by countries such as ours. The expansion of this monitoring team into a team of several hundred, rather than 30, depends on the observance of the ceasefire, what progress is made over the coming days, and the passage of a further UN Security Council resolution.

19. What financial support are the Government considering giving to international agencies working to support refugees outside Syria in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan? (102870)

Through the Department for International Development, we have already given about £4.5 million in support for humanitarian purposes. That goes through international agencies. That has helped to provide basic supplies and much needed emergency supplies, particularly to people on the borders with Syria, and we have offered further assistance to Turkey, which has seen large numbers of Syrians cross the border in recent times, if it requires it.

Order. Progress is rather slow today, so I appeal to colleagues to ask shorter questions and to Ministers to grace us with somewhat shorter answers.

The Syrian opposition has taken steps to improve its cohesiveness. In Istanbul on 1 April, I met senior members of the Syrian National Council. I urged them to continue their efforts to provide a common platform for the opposition to Assad, including for Kurdish people, and I have doubled the financial support we provide to them for non-lethal activities.

What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the Syrian authorities’ commitment to the peace process, and what effect is the continued violence, particularly in Homs and other areas, having on the cohesiveness of the opposition?

I think the behaviour of the regime—not only in Homs now or in recent weeks, but throughout the last 13 months—can only help to solidify and intensify the opposition. It is an encouragement to them because it shows what an appalling and murderous regime they are up against. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise doubts about the intentions of the regime. It has complied with the ceasefire in the most grudging way possible, and has not yet met all its terms. It continued to kill as many people in the opposition as it could until the last possible moment. I have no doubt that it will at various stages try to obstruct the observers and that it does not necessarily intend to engage sincerely in any process of political transition. All that is true, but it is an advance to have the observers there and the Security Council resolution in place.

In the judgment of my right hon. Friend, are the tragic events in Syria a genuine national uprising against a tyrannical regime or a power struggle between the Sunni and the Shi’a and their foreign backers, which, if it results in the overthrow of the Alawite regime, could lead to tragic results for some of the other minorities in that country, including the 350,000 Christian Syrians?

I think it is much more the former than the latter—that would be the judgment I would give to my right hon. Friend. From everything I have seen of opposition activists in Syria, they are motivated by their opposition to the regime for many secular rather than religious reasons. They want to bring about a plural democratic political system in their country, so I think those are the prime motivations, but we always impress on them the need to state their commitment to protecting minorities, including the Christian minority in Syria, and I am pleased that they have now strongly stated that commitment.

Last week, I visited Jordan’s northern border with Syria, near the town of Deraa. I draw Members’ attention to the entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that will soon appear. Will the Foreign Secretary check how much of the £4.5 million being given to help refugees is going to the Jordan border, where literally thousands of Syrian refugees are coming through? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is operating on a shoestring and such relief work is often being done through the generosity of the Jordanian people themselves.

I certainly will check, and will encourage my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary to check in detail. We should be clear that if we are asked by the UNHCR or by countries bilaterally for greater assistance, we will provide that. We are providing assistance that has been requested, and we will certainly do more if necessary.

In welcoming the Annan plan, does the Foreign Secretary agree that, ironically, compliance with it entrenches the regime in situ? Is it still his wish that the Assad regime stand down, and how does he think that can be best achieved?

Of course it is our view that the Assad regime should go—that was our stated view from last summer—but as my hon. Friend knows, that is not the united view of the whole United Nations Security Council, so this resolution and the work of Kofi Annan is based on a political process. However, that is a process, as set out in the Annan plan, to lead to a plural democratic political system. Of course, the regime will try to use a ceasefire and a political process to its own advantage; but the more it is a genuine ceasefire and a genuine political process, the less it will be to the regime’s advantage.

Israel/Palestine

9. What representations he has made to the Government of Israel on the increase in demolition of Palestinian houses in the last year. (102859)

I raised the issue of demolitions in the west bank with the Israeli ambassador on 23 February, and again with the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Mr Meridor, on 19 March.

I thank the Minister for that half an answer—it might have been useful to tell us what the Government said. There has been a 40% increase in demolitions in the last year, 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since the Oslo agreement was signed, and 14,000 people have been put out of East Jerusalem through the withdrawal of their right to live there. Is this not in fact ethnic cleansing, and are the Government of Israel not now heading for a racially based apartheid regime similar to South Africa?

I am happy to give the second part of the answer—now that that part of the question has been asked. The situation is as the hon. Gentleman indicated: the UN reported an increase in demolitions of some 40% last year. We have made representations to Israel on this issue, and we think the demolitions are very destructive of the peace process and the relationship that needs to be built. This has to be set in the overall context of the relationship between the Palestinian authorities and Israel, because settlements, demolitions and related issues must be part of an overall peace process, which is why we have pressed both parties to continue their engagement.

Is my hon. Friend aware that over the same period last year there were 627 rocket attacks into Israel, with an upsurge of 200 in the last month? Does my hon. Friend agree that it would help the peace process, which we all want to see furthered, if those acts of unprovoked aggression were brought to an end immediately?

We have indeed condemned the rocket attacks that have emanated from Gaza, as we have expressed concern about the increased violence in the area and attacks on civilians anywhere. My hon. Friend’s question is a measure of the difficulty of dealing with this when both sides have issues to raise about each other. That is why our pressure and our determination to see the middle east peace process develop and continue are so important. We have not lost sight of that despite all the other things going on in the region.

The increase in demolitions of Palestinian houses is one example of the approach to the west bank situation being taken by the Israeli Government. A septuagenarian from my constituency, Anthony Radcliffe, discovered another when he was detained over this weekend by the Israeli authorities in Tel Aviv, having attempted to gain peaceful access to the occupied territories in the west bank. Does the Minister agree that it is wrong that the security services of one country, Israel, can prevent a British citizen from visiting another, Palestine, and what will he do to ensure free passage for British citizens in future?

It is clear that UK citizens can visit the west bank and that they do so in ordinary circumstances, but the Israeli authorities have made it clear that they will not facilitate what they consider to be an organised protest. We have made that clear in our travel advice, and in the circumstances we have seen over the last weekend we have ensured that consular officials are available at the airport. It is within Israel’s legitimate immigration rights to do what they are doing, but clearly the situation is not comfortable. We believe that it provides further reasons why we should continue to press both parties to engage in the talks that will resolve the situation. We cannot separate the attempt being made at the weekend to mark Palestinian land day from the overall concerns of both sides.

I would like to make some progress down the Order Paper, so we need shorter answers. The word is “shorter”—[Interruption.] I have explained it; shorter answers are required. The Minister must practise giving them.

Does the Minister not accept that what he is proposing does not work? Will he support me and others at peaceful demonstrations at events involving Israeli Olympians to highlight the plight of the Palestinians and to bring to public awareness the apartheid regime in Israel?

I understand any colleague’s desire to take part in free and peaceful process in this country, but the hon. Gentleman raises an issue that he knows is deeply contested by Israeli authorities as regards how they conduct their affairs. It is a further measure of why it is important to work on both sides to get an agreement to this long-standing dispute.

Iran

13. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on Iran; and if he will make a statement. (102864)

I am in regular contact with my European colleagues on Iran. Most recently my officials met Iranian representatives, alongside those of France, Germany, the United States, China and Russia, in Istanbul on Saturday to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.

EU member states make up four of the world’s 10 biggest oil importing states and OPEC has calculated that removing Iranian oil from the market would result in the loss of about 10 billion barrels a day. To maintain biting sanctions on the Iranian regime, alternative and adequate supplies of oil need to be secured. What steps are the Government taking with their EU counterparts to achieve that?

The ban on importing Iranian oil comes into force on 1 July, although most European countries have already stopped such purchases. During March, Iranian exports of crude oil reportedly fell by 14%—in just one month. That is putting considerable pressure on Iran. I am not aware so far of any difficulties among EU countries in replacing those supplies. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are increasing their oil production and that is very helpful.

In the Foreign Secretary’s discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the EU about Iran, what measures are being considered in response to growing concerns about nuclear proliferation in Iran?

The measures we will take will go down the twin track of sanctions and negotiations. We now have unprecedented sanctions coming into force on Iran, including not just the oil embargo but a partial asset freeze on the central bank of Iran, and expanded financial measures against Iran, including on gold and precious metals. However, we are sincere about negotiations. I am pleased that the opening round of negotiations in Istanbul went better than previous rounds, and a second round has been agreed for Baghdad on 23 May.

I am pleased that the talks last weekend were described as “fruitful” and co-operative—I think those were the words—which is useful of course. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we need to keep up a maximum dialogue between now and 23 May so that when the parties next convene for a formal discussion we can really look forward to concrete proposals?

Yes, of course the dialogue will be kept up, as will the maximum pressure in the form of the sanctions coming into place. The commitment to a second round of negotiations includes a commitment to discussions between officials between now and then in order to prepare those discussions in Baghdad.

15. The last nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference supported the concept of a nuclear-free middle east. Could the Foreign Secretary say what is being done to promote that and when the conference involving all countries in that region including Israel is due to take place as a way of promoting a nuclear-free and therefore peaceful region? (102866)

We are in favour of such a conference and we were one of the countries that promoted the idea. It was due to take place in 2012, although agreement on its taking place has not yet been reached. I stress, however, that we have no chance of achieving a nuclear-free middle east as long as Iran persists in a programme that the world suspects is a nuclear military programme.

My right hon. Friend has already referred to the effect of the sanctions and oil embargo in putting pressure on Iran. What discussions has he had with those countries, notably China and Russia, that are breaking the oil embargo and that would presumably have a great deal to lose if there were a loose Iranian nuclear power?

China and Russia are not part of the agreement on the oil embargo—there is no United Nations oil embargo; it is a European Union embargo—but it is noticeable that Chinese purchases of Iranian oil seem to have fallen in recent months. The Iranian nuclear programme is an issue that we discuss constantly with our counterparts. I discussed it with the Russian Foreign Minister in Washington last week and I will be discussing it with a member of the Chinese Politburo in about 45 minutes’ time. We will of course continue all those discussions.

Her Majesty’s Opposition strongly welcome the constructive and useful talks that took place last weekend, but what specific actions are the British Government requesting of the Iranian Government before the resumed talks in May?

The most important thing in making a success of the Baghdad negotiations is that there are productive discussions between officials beforehand and that Iran comes to the table with proposals of its own for urgent practical steps that can be taken to give confidence that it is serious and sincere about the negotiations. The most important step it could take would be to demonstrate to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the whole world that its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes and to do so to all our satisfaction, but it has not been able to do that.

Sri Lanka

The most recent discussions with the Sri Lankan Government possible were at the March meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. We lobbied for and supported a resolution that was passed at the meeting which we believe will assist in creating new impetus for Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

I thank the Minister for his answer. On Saturday I attended a Sri Lankan new year cultural programme in my constituency, which was part of important work to build links and trust between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Does he agree that it is now vital for the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that there is a credible, independent investigation of the alleged abuses on both sides as part of taking a critical step towards long-lasting peace, as called for by the UNHRC?

The hon. Lady’s presence at such a meeting indicates how important it is for the process of reconciliation to be accepted on all sides. There is no doubt that the lingering doubt about the events at the end of the conflict will produce a cloud and a shadow over that. We have been at the forefront of calling for a credible inquiry into those circumstances and we believe that the passing of the Human Rights Council resolution produces a new opportunity for us and Sri Lanka to deal with this and other aspects of reconciliation detailed in the Commission’s recommendations.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and I will attend a meeting of NATO Defence and Foreign Ministers in Brussels. The meeting will prepare for the Chicago summit in May, which will focus on Afghanistan, improving military capabilities, and strengthening NATO’s network of partners across the world.

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in congratulating Aung San Suu Kyi on her election victory, and does he agree with claims by the Chindits—the lions of the jungle—that they have been abandoned by the UK Government in their fight against Burma’s ruling dictatorship?

Of course I very much congratulate Aung San Suu Kyi on those victories. We are pleased that such change is taking place in Burma. We will discuss at the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg next Monday what we now do about sanctions on Burma. The Prime Minister had a very successful visit there last Friday. We are not abandoning anybody as we improve relations with Burma. In fact, we have stressed throughout the importance of the release of political prisoners, the upholding of human rights—far more effectively, we hope, than in the recent past of Burma—and the ending of regional ethnic conflicts. All of those are equally important.

T2. This week is the anniversary of the genocide that was perpetrated by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, a genocide that is still not formally recognised in most countries. Will the UK recognise that a genocide took place and encourage others to follow suit? (102877)

Whether or not the term “genocide” is appropriate, it is clear that an appalling atrocity was perpetrated against the Iraqi Kurds, not least at Halabja. They were among a number of minorities who were attacked by Saddam Hussein. It is noteworthy that his indictment at the end of the day was for crimes against humanity. Very many suffered as a result of his activities and we should remember them all, as we remember the opportunities now created in Iraq for a new future.

T4. Following the recent threat by the Iranian leadership, what steps, if any, are being taken to prepare for the possible implications of Iran seeking to close the straits of Hormuz? (102879)

The Defence Secretary and I have both referred to that in the past and we have stressed that any such attempt would be unsuccessful. It is one of the reasons for our maintaining a force of minesweepers in the Gulf. It is one of the reasons for our joining the United States and France in sending ships through the straits some weeks ago to demonstrate our determination to protect international navigation, so I hope that Iran has taken note of that determination and will desist from any such attempt.

T3. My constituent John Lawton has been missing in Greece since Easter Sunday. He was competing in a marathon. He passed through the fourth checkpoint and has not been seen since. This is very distressing for his wife, Lynda, and son, Steve, who are out in Greece and with whom I am in regular contact. Can the Minister assure me and the Lawton family that everything possible is being done by the Government to support the family and to make sure that everything possible is being done by the Greek authorities at the highest level to ensure the widest possible search, and that the family receive support on the ground from the British embassy? (102878)

May I first express my sympathy to the Lawton family at what must be an incredibly traumatic time for them? I spoke to our ambassador in Athens this morning about this case. My understanding is that our embassy has been in regular contact with both the Lawton family in Greece and the Greek authorities at every level, from ministerial to operational police level. I am very willing to offer a meeting between our consular team in Greece and the Lawton family members who are there, and I am also very happy to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, our hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), in order to discuss the case further.

T5. Following the recent sudden death of the President of Malawi and the peaceful and constitutional succession of Joyce Banda as the new President, what assessment has the Minister made of the prospects now for full diplomatic representation in Malawi and the resumption of the direct foreign aid that is so important to so many people in that very poor country? (102880)

I had a chance to speak to President Joyce Banda a few days ago. I was extremely impressed by her determination to drive a programme of economic reform and to meet some of the milestones that we put in place for the bilateral relationship, so I am confident that we will be able to appoint a high commissioner in the very near future. Direct budget support will be up to the Department for International Development, but we will carry on providing aid to the Malawi people.

T6. I recently visited India with a view to helping a constituent whose son died there two years ago. They are still awaiting the outcome of the forensic findings of the loss of life investigation. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me and, on a cross-party basis, other Members of the House who are similarly affected by loss of life investigations in India? (102881)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the diligence with which he has pursued the case of his constituent. I have raised the case with the Indian authorities on two occasions but have not yet resolved it to his or my satisfaction. I am more than happy to meet him and others to try to make further progress.

T8. The International Crisis Group reported in December that:“Women in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil-speaking north and east are facing a desperate lack of security in the aftermath of the long civil war.” It refers to forced prostitution and trafficking. Will the Minister raise those issues in his dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka? (102883)

We thought that it was a good report, with elements that we certainly recognise and that also match some of the issues raised through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, so those concerns will form part of our dialogue with Sri Lanka as it works towards its own determination to secure peace and reconciliation for the future, which we believe must also be based on justice for the past.

T7. Following a recent visit to Gaza, I refer the House to my entry in the register. Have Her Majesty’s Government raised with Egypt the serious impact on Gaza’s economy, basic infrastructure and medical facilities and the Gaza strip’s sole power station of Egypt’s recent restrictions on fuel exports to the Gaza strip? (102882)

I have not raised that specifically with Egypt. We are aware of the concerns about power and fuel and the discussions among the relevant parties to try to resolve it. We are following those discussions closely and urge those parties to solve the issue so that some of the pain of the Gazan people can be relieved. My hon. Friend is right to raise it.

T10. Given that today is Palestinian prisoners’ day, can the Minister say what representations he has made regarding the number of Palestinian children currently detained in Israeli prisons and what concerns he has about the treatment they are suffering? (102885)

I have raised the issue of the detention and treatment of children on a number of occasions with the Israeli authorities. We appreciated the fact that the age of majority for criminal proceedings has been raised, but I still have concerns about access to lawyers. Indeed, from this Dispatch Box I have said that the shackling of children is wrong. We can continue to raise those issues on behalf of those affected.

T9. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the diplomatic and responsible way in which the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict was handled recently. What is his view on Argentina’s continued reference to an illegal occupation, which does not reflect the principle of self-determination? (102884)

Our view on this is well known: we support the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination. For us this is not about territory, but about the rights of those people, who have been settled there for generations. We recently saw the birth of a ninth-generation baby on the Falkland Islands, and some of the families have been settled there since before Argentina existed in its current form. The Falkland Islanders have been there a long time. We uphold their right to self-determination and will always continue to do so.

I know that the Government are appalled at the recent turn of events in the west African state of Guinea-Bissau. Is the Minister in a position to update the House on what has happened in Guinea-Bissau and what efforts can be made to help restore democracy to that beleaguered land?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interest in Guinea-Bissau. I gather that he has been there twice, including recently as an election observer. We absolutely deplore the coup d'état. Guinea-Bissau was making really good progress from a failed state towards a functioning democracy, so we support the statement by the Economic Community of West African States that the Prime Minister, Carlos Gomes, and the interim President, Raimundo Pereira, must be released and that the second phase of the election must go ahead on 22 April.

In the curious case of Mr Neil Heywood, can the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that everything that could have been done has been done, and everything that should have been done has been done, preceding and proceeding Mr Heywood’s tragic death?

Yes. My hon. Friend will be aware that before Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions today I issued a written ministerial statement, setting out what has happened since 14 November, since the tragic death of Mr Heywood, and I hope that it will be for the assistance of the House. As my hon. Friend knows, we have asked for—we have demanded—an investigation, and the Chinese authorities have agreed to conduct such an investigation. There has been a further discussion about that this afternoon, between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and a visiting member of the Politburo, Mr Li Changchun, whom I too will meet shortly, so we are pursuing the matter extremely carefully but vigorously.

Further to Question 9, is not the worst aspect of the demolitions the practice of punitive demolitions, which is based on the doctrine of collective punishment, and does that not directly contravene article 33 of the Geneva convention?

I reiterate again that we raised with the Israeli authorities the issue of demolitions as one of great concern. They have been on the increase, and we see them as a setback to the peace process and to the need to build a proper relationship with the Palestinian authorities in order to get an ultimate settlement resolved. It will be resolved only within that context, but we are concerned about the recent increase, and we make our representations very clear.

I have great concerns about demolitions in East Jerusalem, and the Foreign Secretary himself recently talked about Israeli settlements in the west bank being illegal under international law, counter-productive, destabilising and provocative, but other than words of criticism are there any consequences for the Israeli Government, or do they pursue those policies with impunity?

My hon. Friend makes very clear, by echoing my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s statement, how seriously the United Kingdom takes those issues and how constantly we raise them, but again I have to come back to the fact that Israel sees the issue differently, and accordingly it is one of those things that ultimately will be resolved only by the settlement that every Member wishes to see between the Palestinian authorities and Israel. Differences of opinion on the matter are likely to remain, but we are increasingly concerned about the activities in East Jerusalem, and my hon. Friend is right to raise them, as indeed was my right hon. Friend when he made his statement.

Three hours ago the Foreign Secretary rushed out a statement about the death—possible murder—of a British citizen in China last November. There are so many different aspects to the matter that there is no time to go into them, but the statement makes it clear that the Foreign Office knew on 18 January about the allegations, that they were brought to the Foreign Secretary’s attention on 7 February and that it took two months for him to bring it to the attention of the Commons or the public. May I invite him to give a full oral statement, so that the many worries and questions that need to be raised can be put to him for a full answer?

The points are very clear in the statement that I have issued today—not in a rushed way but after full consideration, putting all the facts together for the House. On the one hand the right hon. Gentleman says that there is a rush, but then he asks for a rush on a great many other things. What is clear is that rumours within the British expatriate community about the matter were brought to officials on 18 January; that the allegations about Mr Heywood’s death, made by former Chongqing vice-mayor and chief of police, Mr Wang Lijun, were made on 6 February; and that on 7 February, the next day, officials brought those concerns to me—the same day that I instructed them to ask China to investigate. I think that puts into perspective some of the ranting of the right hon. Gentleman.

Will the Government seek prudent limits on the amounts of money that the European Central Bank can lend to weak commercial banks in the European Union, given our small shareholding and big interest in that difficult situation?

That may be more a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but of course the governance of the European Central Bank is also not primarily for the United Kingdom, given that we are mercifully not part of the euro—and are not going to become part of the euro. So we might not be in a strong position to seek those limits.

Are the Government aware that at least 65 executions, including of women, took place in Iraq in January, and that the Iraqi criminal justice system depends largely on confessions extracted routinely by torture? Surely that is a legacy that shames us all.

We have noted the increase in executions to which the right hon. Lady refers. We have issued a statement of deep concern and condemnation in relation to it. It is a measure of how far the justice system still has to go in Iraq that some of these hangovers of the past have to be overcome. The United Kingdom, as is its declared policy, will continue to work to oppose the death penalty and continue to work for the improvement of justice in Iraq.