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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 549: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Middle East

1. What steps he is taking to promote compliance with international law in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. (118496)

7. What assessment he has made of the prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. (118502)

Progress in the middle east peace process is needed urgently. We have urged both sides to focus on dialogue, to avoid steps that could undermine the prospects for peace and to work towards the resumption of direct negotiations. We are in regular contact with the Israeli authorities on legal issues relating to the conflict, and we urge Israel to comply with its legal obligations, including those arising under international humanitarian law.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to this area, which is particularly important in the light of the problems that are affecting the region, to which he referred in his statement yesterday. Does he, however, understand the concern being expressed by many people that, on 24 July, the EU-Israel Association Council agreed to extend into a further 60 areas of trade co-operation while, at the same time, the increase in the number of demolitions and settlements and the blockade of Gaza are continuing apace. Will he tell us what his Department’s role was in that agreement, and whether he is going to hold Israel to account?

We have repeatedly made clear to the Israeli authorities our serious concern at the 40% increase in demolitions last year, as recorded by the United Nations. We view such demolitions and evictions as causing unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians, as harmful to the peace process and, in many circumstances, as contrary to international humanitarian law. I can reassure the hon. Lady about the EU-Israel Association Council, which discussed some practical co-operation in line with the existing EU-Israel action plan. The EU has been very clear that no progress can be made on upgrading the wider EU-Israel relationship until there is substantial progress towards a two-state solution.

The Israelis are considering closing the Ras Khamis checkpoints in Jerusalem; they are also building new housing in illegal settlements such as Har Homa. Just two days ago, a rocket was fired from Gaza into Israel. What route map does the Foreign Secretary believe can move the conflict from where it is now towards an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians by the end of this year, as recommended by the Quartet?

It is a difficult route map. My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the depressing aspects of what is happening now. We have been working hard this year, as have many others in the region, to achieve the resumption of direct negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, but that has not worked so far. My right hon. Friend referred to what might happen later this year, and it will be vital that, whatever Administration emerge following the American elections, they put their full weight behind this issue from the very beginning of that Administration in January.

21. The Palestinians claim that they will return to negotiations if settlement building stops, but they did not do so when settlement building did stop. They have now introduced two new conditions, including the release of all prisoners. Why does the Foreign Secretary think they are doing that? (118518)

There has been fault on both sides when it comes to making a success of negotiations. We have advocated the need for Israel to make a more decisive offer than has been the case in the recent past, but we have also pressed the Palestinians to enter negotiations and not to set new conditions for doing so. I have said in the House in the past that Israel had been too intransigent in this process, but the Palestinians have been too erratic about the basis on which they are willing to enter negotiations. Both those things need to be put right in order for negotiations to get going and succeed.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the reports that, on Sunday, 280 Israeli settlers were removed from the settlement in Migron under Israeli legal process, as a result of action initiated by Peace Now and Palestinian landowners? Does he not agree that it would be even better if those in some quarters dropped their blanket hostility towards Israel, if the Palestinians were to remove their preconditions to talks, and if there were direct and comprehensive negotiations during which the question of the settlements could be fully addressed?

I absolutely agree that it is important to drop blanket opposition to Israel. We should stoutly defend the security and the legitimacy of Israel, but we must also be absolutely clear that Israel needs to make its contribution and recognise that settlements on occupied land are illegal, that settlement building activity must cease and that outposts on occupied land are illegal. We should be clear about that and maintain the pressure on Israel, as well as on Palestinians, to enter into direct negotiations and give them some chance to succeed.

According to the House of Commons Library, multilateral and bilateral aid to the occupied territories and Gaza cost European taxpayers £670 million last year. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me that, given that Israeli policy on settlements is making a two-state solution less likely, any deepening of trade relations with Israel would not be justified when the cost to European taxpayers is so high?

We do give that support. The right hon. Gentleman is right about the extent of our support, which is, of course, very important for the Palestinian Authority to be able to function, particularly on the west bank. The position on trade relations is the one that I explained to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin), and the European Union is very clear that an upgrade of the wider EU-Israel relationship depends on making substantial progress towards a two-state solution. That is a position that the United Kingdom firmly supports.

Will my right hon. Friend have a look at the case of Mustafa Tamimi, who was shot at close range by an Israeli soldier recently? What can the Foreign Secretary do to ensure that future inquiries meet global standards?

We have made representations about this case. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has done so, and he visited the family on his recent visit to the region. Of course, we want all such investigations to be carried out thoroughly and to meet international standards. That will be part of our continuing representations.

Middle East and North Africa

2. What steps he is taking to promote political and economic freedom in the Middle East and North Africa; and if he will make a statement. (118497)

In addition to diplomatic and political support given to countries in the region, following the dramatic events of the last 18 months, our Arab partnership programme, which is now worth £110 million, provides practical support with a range of projects, including election reform, media transparency and employment initiatives. We will operate across 15 countries in this coming year, with a budget of some £60 million.[Official Report, 5 November 2012, Vol. 552, c. 2MC.]

What action is the Minister taking to build commercial relationships for British business in Libya?

We would like to see Libya as the partner of choice in a range of commercial activities. The work done to date, following the re-establishment of the UK Trade & Investment office in September last year, has been to look at key sectors of mutual benefit to us both, such as health care, education and civil security. UKTI has led some 12 trade missions over the last year—about one a month—and has a further 27 planned.

The development of democracies in this region will take a long time. Many organisations, including the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, are involved in this, and they are learning from the experience of what works in those countries and what help they will need in the future. Will the Minister ensure that the total learning from all that work, funded by the Arab partnership fund and others, is brought together so that parliamentarians and, equally, people who work in the Foreign Office understand exactly how we can best support that process?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I pay tribute to her work and that of other parliamentarians involved in the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It is indeed the case that the various non-governmental organisations have different skills to apply, and it is important that we learn all the lessons from them. We have learned, as if we needed it told, that each of these countries is different, following slightly different paths and requiring different skills to be applied. The value that this country’s really good NGOs and parliamentarians can provide to the development of the democratic system will stand these countries in good stead. We certainly need to make sure that we have pooled all the lessons learned.

Last year, the Foreign Affairs Committee recommended a political surge in Afghanistan with talks involving all the regional players. The Government response agreed with that. A year later, however, nothing has happened. Despite the turmoil going on in the middle east and political paralysis in Washington because of the presidential elections, is it not time to give fresh impetus to this process and kill off the logjam of momentum caused by the delay?

Despite all the events that have taken place in different parts of the world, the United Kingdom has never ceased to focus on the fact that Afghanistan remains the principal foreign policy issue affecting the Government. The political paralysis that the hon. Gentleman describes is not necessarily there. Political processes continue in Afghanistan, and we continue to encourage both the Government and those whom we wish to enter into talks with President Karzai on the Afghanistan Government’s principles for engagement to maintain their activities. Following the death of the former chairman of the High Peace Council it has been difficult to get the process moving, but we continue to apply pressure, and we are sure that, as time moves on towards the presidential elections in 2014, the reconciliation process will continue.

What action is the Minister taking in relation to money that has been taken out of Egypt by the former regime and is now in UK banks?

Legal processes are necessary for the return of any money that has been frozen in the United Kingdom as a result of sanctions. We are continuing to work closely with the Egyptian authorities, and we are providing support to ensure that they have the necessary expertise to navigate through British legal processes. We want to ensure that money that rightfully belongs to those in Egypt who have rightfully reclaimed it is indeed returned.


We are very concerned about the current situation in Mali, particularly in the north of the country, where violent extremist groups including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have taken advantage of the instability to consolidate their position. We will continue to work very closely with key international partners, especially France, to support the region in its efforts to restore political stability and security to the country.

I pay tribute to two charities in my constituency which do excellent work in Mali. May I ask the Minister to encourage the Economic Community of West African States, and in particular Senegal and Algeria, to work with what remains of the democratically elected Government in seeking a peaceful solution before military intervention is considered?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those non-governmental organisations. I entirely agree with him that the situation is very fraught, but the good news is that President Traore has come back from Paris, and there is now a Government of national unity which is truly inclusive. The most important consideration is that ECOWAS must help to secure the state institutions in Bamako and then rebuild the capacity of the Malian army before even thinking about taking any action against the rebel groups in the north of the country.

As the Minister says, the situation is extremely serious: more than half the country is now occupied by al-Qaeda-backed rebels. What steps can he take with his international counterparts to ensure that sanctions are imposed on sources of supply for those rebels, particularly in relation to arms and ammunition?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, especially in view of the number of former mercenaries from Libya who have found their way into the region. Obviously the region is extremely unstable. A number of different rebel groups are plying their evil trade. What is most important is for the Government of national unity to secure Bamako, to work with ECOWAS and other international organisations to build capacity, and then to think about what action can be taken against those groups in the north. In the meantime, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. There has been a United Nations Security Council resolution, and we will consider, as best we can, sanctions and other measures against individuals.


It is in the interests of the United Kingdom and the global economy for the eurozone countries to take action to restore public finances, strengthen the banking system and improve competitiveness.

Fortunately, under this Government the United Kingdom will never be part of the eurozone, but the economic crisis is nevertheless having a dampening effect on UK economic growth. What strategy is the Foreign Office adopting to persuade the eurozone leaders to stop kicking the can down the road and find some solutions that will help the UK economy?

We are certainly continuing to support the efforts that eurozone Governments are taking to make their currency zone more stable and sustainable than it is at present, but we are also continuing to emphasise at every EU meeting that Europe’s competitiveness depends in the end on deepening the single market, improving free trade with the rest of the world, and cutting red tape and regulatory burdens on business.

I am one of those who happen to believe that the eurozone is not long for this world. Is the Foreign Office looking seriously at what Europe might look like after the eurozone, and is it not possible that international relations within Europe will be improved once the tensions of the eurozone are gone?

We make all sorts of contingency plans for all sorts of contingencies, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, but I say this to him: while I believe the United Kingdom is much better off outside the eurozone, those 17 countries have taken democratic sovereign-national decisions to form this currency union, and we who support national independence and the right of nations to determine their own futures should respect those decisions.

Is it not the role of Government to say what would be best for the whole of Europe, and is not what would be best for the whole of Europe an orderly break-up of the euro?

The best thing for the future of Europe would be for Europe to start to get to grips with the shift in global economic power to Asia and Latin America that is taking place as we speak, and to focus on making it easier for European businesses to compete through enlarging and deepening the single market, through encouraging free trade with other parts of the world and through cutting the red tape that holds European businesses back compared with those in Asia and south America.

I remind Government Members that it was the previous Labour Government who kept this country out of the euro. There has been recent speculation in the German press that the German Chancellor will push for a new treaty to create closer fiscal and political union in the eurozone. What is the position of the Government on this proposal, and what discussions have the Minister and his colleagues had with their German counterparts about this proposal?

There are all sorts of exciting media reports, but there are no proposals for treaty change on the table at present. I simply remind the hon. Lady, however, that while the Government parties have supported giving the British people the final say over any proposal from any Government to join the euro, her party leader has said that securing the objective of Britain joining the euro will require only his remaining as Prime Minister for long enough.

Iran (Nuclear Programme)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential threat to stability in the middle east of Iran’s nuclear programme. (118500)

We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme. A nuclear-armed Iran would result in still greater instability in the middle east and increase the risk of a nuclear arms race. Iran must negotiate seriously on the nuclear issue, to give the international community confidence that it is not developing nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reckons Iran has 189 kg of uranium enriched to 20%. Were this quantity enriched to 90%, that would be enough for five nuclear bombs. Given that enrichment to 20% requires four fifths of the effort to get to 90%, will my right hon. Friend redouble the United Kingdom’s efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed military power?

Those efforts have been redoubled in recent times in many ways, and my hon. Friend will be aware that, with our partners in the European Union and many other partners and allies around the world, we have imposed more serious economic sanctions on Iran than we have imposed on any country in recent times. This has caused Iranian oil exports to fall by about 1 million barrels a day from last year. Iran is losing almost $8 billion in revenues every quarter as a result of that, and we will continue to intensify the pressure from sanctions, as well as remain open to negotiations, in order to try to resolve this issue. In the longer term, we take nothing off the table in our efforts to resolve the issue.

Has the right hon. Gentleman read the article by David Remnick in the current issue of The New Yorker? He has just returned from Israel, where he discussed this issue with all the top figures in Israeli intelligence, every single one of whom is opposed to Israeli military action against Iran. Vile though the regime in Iran is, and while it is proper for the right hon. Gentleman to be taking the action he is, will he make it clear to Israel and everybody else that we are totally opposed to military action against Iran?

I have not seen the article in question; I will be very pleased to have a look at it. Certainly, there is a variety of views in Israel about the merits of military action at any time. We have been very clear to Israeli leaders—the Prime Minister and I have been clear in our recent meetings with Israeli leaders—that the policy we favour and are pursuing is the twin-track policy of sanctions and negotiations. We have been very clear that under those circumstances, we oppose a military strike on Iran.

20. Can the Secretary of State explain the stark discrepancy between the comments made by Sir John Sawers on 4 July and the Senate testimony early this year of the director of the CIA, General Patraeus, in which he stated that there was no evidence of a decision by Iran to build a nuclear weapon? (118517)

I am not going to comment on the reported comments of the director of the Secret Intelligence Service, but I do not think there is any contradiction in anything that has been said in public. Iran is, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) in asking this question, accumulating material for which there is no logical explanation other than an ultimate intention to construct a nuclear device. There is no peaceful explanation that has been given to the world, and that is the important truth we have to confront, whatever decision-making process is going on in the Iranian leadership.

I have noted all that the Foreign Secretary has had to say about the sanctions that are in place, but given the very concerning terms of the IAEA report, of which he and other colleagues have already spoken, and in particular the reports of the doubling of production capacity in the Fordow underground site, will he share with the House a little more of his sense of whether the current sanctions are themselves sufficient to effect behavioural change in Tehran, or whether other sanctions could be imposed to achieve that outcome?

Those sanctions are having a substantial effect—I quoted some facts in relation to that a moment ago—but it is important to note not only the impact on their oil revenues, which I mentioned, but that Iran’s other industries are also suffering. Domestic car production has dropped by nearly 40%, textile manufacturers are operating at 50% capacity, and there has been a surge in inflation, which is perhaps twice the official figure of 25%. These are very difficult economic circumstances, which Iran is making worse by the policies it is pursuing.

There is no evidence, so far, that this has produced a change of policy in the Iranian leadership, although I am sure it is the best policy for us to pursue. Certainly, I believe there is a strong case for the intensification of sanctions, and for additional sanctions to be agreed in the European Union and brought into force with the United States and other partners around the world, so that Iran is clear about the consequences of continuing with this policy.

As the Opposition, we have associated ourselves with and support the Government’s approach of intensifying sanctions but also securing engagement and dialogue with the Iranians. Given what the Foreign Secretary has had to say about sanctions, many of us welcome the re-establishment of the E3 plus 3 process. Can he update the House on his assessment of the progress made in those discussions, and has a date been fixed for further discussions?

It was progress of a kind to have the discussions between the E3 plus 3—with Baroness Ashton speaking on our behalf, but all six countries present—and the Iranian negotiators, but those negotiations have not produced any breakthrough. Baroness Ashton and the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator, Mr Jalili, spoke again on 2 August—their most recent conversation—and we expect further contact between them in September. But for those conversations to make progress, it will be necessary for Iran to have less unrealistic objectives for the negotiations, and to be ready to respond to the clear and generous offer that the E3 plus 3 have made.


I held intensive discussions on Syria with Foreign Minister Lavrov during June, in Kabul and Geneva; the Prime Minister and I met President Putin in August; and I will look forward to meeting Foreign Minister Lavrov again at the United Nations General Assembly this month.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. The civil war in Syria has just witnessed its most bloody week, and the head of the Syrian National Council has today said that the extent of the economic destruction in Syria means that nothing less than a Marshall plan by the international community will be required to reconstruct the Syrian economy. Will the Foreign Secretary continue to remind his Russian counterpart that a policy of engagement rather than obstruction is necessary for a secure middle east, and is in our and the Russian national interest?

I absolutely will, and I did that, as I reported to the House yesterday, at the meeting of the UN Security Council in New York last Thursday. We will, of course, continue to press this point through the General Assembly meeting later this month. Again as I said in my statement yesterday, we are, in the meantime, working on what happens the day after Assad in Syria. There will be immense challenges for any future Administration of Syria. It is difficult for the United Nations to do all the necessary planning because the current Government of Syria are still a member of the United Nations, but we are doing that with the Friends of Syria group and we will be taking it forward energetically over the next few weeks.

Did Kofi Annan resign because he recognised that the civil war in Syria is a focal point of the ancient war between Sunni and Shi’a, that even locally it is beyond the power of the great powers to resolve unless Russia is prepared to help and that Russia is determined not to allow its Alawite allies to be overthrown by a western-backed Sunni rebellion?

My right hon. Friend always puts these things extremely well, and that question is no exception. One of the dangers of this conflict going on and on is, indeed, that it becomes even more of a focal point for Sunni-Shi’a rivalry. That is not the only origin of this conflict, as I have argued to him before; there are also many people in Syria who want freedom from an oppressive regime, whatever their religious or ethnic affiliations. Kofi Annan resigned because he was not getting the necessary support from the Security Council, because of the Russian position, which my right hon. Friend describes. As I said to the House yesterday, I believe that that position will probably change only when the situation on the ground changes further in Syria. Sadly, that means a great deal more death and suffering along the way.

Instead of an obsession with regime change, why has the Foreign Secretary not been promoting a negotiated settlement, based on compromise, as all such conflict resolution is? This is not about appeasing Assad’s butchery, Iranian malevolence or Russian self-interest; it is about ending an horrific and deepening civil war, which is reverberating beyond Syria’s borders. Is this not the time to admit that there has been a catastrophic and monumental failure of western policy, and to change course?

The right hon. Gentleman may wish to familiarise himself with the positions that we have been taking, in common with not only western Governments, but the majority of Governments in the world. Our position was the position of the 133 nations in the UN General Assembly that voted for the resolution of 3 August, with only 12 votes against. That position is to have a transitional Government in Syria, including members of the current Government and the current opposition, based on mutual consent. That is the compromise solution. If he wants us to make a further compromise with forces who have killed indiscriminately and oppressed the people of their country with appalling human rights violations, I can tell him that that we are unable to do.

Although one can welcome his recent announcement of certain modest increases of contacts with the Syrian opposition, does not my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the arms embargo, which Britain supports, creates a hopelessly unbalanced situation, because the Syrian Government have a monopoly of air power, artillery and other forces, and because the embargo is not binding on Russia or Iran, which are not members of the European Union? Does he not acknowledge that this is simply going to mean that this conflict will last for many more months than would have been necessary, with many more thousands of Syrians being killed in the process?

My right hon. and learned Friend always makes an eloquent case on this subject. I respect his views and always pay great heed to them, but although I do not exclude any option for the future, I do not agree that it would be right now to lift the EU arms embargo. It has not been our policy in any of the conflicts in the middle east to send arms into a region of conflict. He will know that there are disadvantages as well as advantages to the course that he advocates, because it would be very hard to know what some of those arms would be used for. In the long term, there would be at least as great a risk that they would make the conflict greater as reduce it. We support the opposition in the terms that I set out yesterday in the House. It is clear that Syrian opposition groups are obtaining arms from other sources, but it has not been our policy at any stage to join in with that.


The humanitarian situation in Syria is dire and getting worse. More than 2.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, many are internally displaced and more than 200,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. The UK is the second largest national donor of international aid for the Syrian people and will continue to do all it can to assist.

Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary outlined the blocking stance that Russia and China were taking in the Security Council. Will he set out whether Russia and China, in light of their approach, are giving additional humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of the Syrian people?

No, and the hon. Lady is quite right to raise that point. Given the under-subscription to the UN appeal for funds, which we discussed in the House yesterday, we need countries around the world to contribute. We are setting a strong example in doing so, as is the United States. It is very important that other countries do so, and in my view that should certainly include all the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

I welcome the efforts that the Government are making through their contact with opposition groups in Syria to promote the protection of minority rights in whatever regime replaces the murderous Assad regime. Will my right hon. Friend particularly bear in mind the especially vulnerable position of the Christian community in Syria—he will understand the reasons for that position—and continue to do that work?

Absolutely. The position of Christians is vulnerable not only in Syria but in other middle Eastern countries, and it is an issue to which we regularly return. The Syrian opposition must not only come together as a united front for the purposes of negotiation and transition in this crisis, but reinforce at every opportunity their commitment to the representation of all groups and religious affiliations through their own composition and through support for the rights of all communities in Syria. That is crucial and is constantly reiterated by our special representative to the opposition.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement yesterday and for reporting to the House so promptly. One of the areas that he has identified as of real concern is the overspill of refugees and humanitarian problems across Syria’s borders to the adjacent nations. What specific assistance is he giving to the countries that are offering so much to those people?

Our assistance takes many forms. Our main assistance comes from what the Department for International Development is doing in support of international agencies and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That is helping to fund the supplies for people in camps who have crossed the border into Jordan and Turkey. Again, through international agencies, a lot of that aid is getting to people inside Syria as well. There are specific projects, for instance to help the victims of sexual violence who have gone to Jordan, which I talked about yesterday, and to help buttress Lebanon and support the work of its armed forces in maintaining its own security. So we have a lot of specific projects, too.

Latin America

9. What steps his Department is taking to strengthen the UK’s bilateral relationships with Latin America; and if he will make a statement. (118504)

The Foreign Office has totally transformed Britain’s relations with Latin America after years of neglect. There have been more than 30 ministerial visits to Latin America in just the last 15 months. We have opened an embassy in El Salvador and a consulate in Recife, Brazil, and we will reopen in Paraguay and Haiti in 2013. Our extensive co-operation with Brazil on the London 2012 Games has been the closest ever seen between consecutive hosts.

Undoubtedly, the Foreign Secretary’s speech to Canning House in 2010 opened a new chapter in relations with south America, and I support the Government’s aspiration to double exports to Brazil, Colombia and Mexico by 2015. However, we must not neglect our traditional staunchest allies, such as Uruguay and Chile. Given our historic role as a trading nation, and the implosion of business confidence in the eurozone, what practical steps is the Minister taking to bolster UK trade with Latin America?

I share my hon. Friend’s analysis. We have a very close working relationship with Chile, which is the most developed economy in Latin America, as well as with Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and other countries with an outward-looking free trade disposition. We continue to work closely to promote British trade and, more generally, wider British interests, including our political interests.

Can the Minister give us a progress report on what the Foreign Secretary called

“Britain’s most ambitious effort to strengthen ties with Latin America in 200 years”?

Does he regard the motion passed by the Organisation of American States, expressing solidarity with Ecuador over his bungled threats to their embassy, as a measure of how successful the Foreign Secretary has been so far?

As an indication, the Foreign Secretary and I have visited Latin America more than did all the Ministers in the previous Government put together. We are strengthening our ties with like-minded countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Peru. As for Ecuador, when I visited I was the first Minister to go there for 12 years.

May I take the Minister back more substantially to the issue of Ecuador? If we appear to behave in a high-handed fashion, is there not a risk that the very objectives to which he has referred will be substantially prejudiced, not least of course our interest in preserving the independence and self-determination of the people of the Falklands?

It is worth reminding the House that the case to which my right hon. and learned Friend alludes is about Britain discharging its legal obligations with regard to Sweden and an Australian national, so we should not allow it to obscure our wider relations with Latin America. There is no question of Britain acting improperly or beyond the law, and I assure the House that Britain’s relations with Latin America are on a better footing than they have been for decades.

Arms Trade Treaty

At the month-long negotiating conference in New York in July good progress was made towards getting a robust and effective arms trade treaty in the manner we wished for, but unfortunately it was not possible to reach a conclusion on the text at the end of the month. Accordingly, we are now recommitted to doing everything we can to see that base built upon, and we hope to make progress as soon as possible towards the treaty, which we hope will be in the next UN session beginning this month.

I thank the Minister for that response, and I am glad that he is talking about taking the matter to the UN General Assembly, rather than waiting for yet another meeting—under the rules, next year. We would need to get a two thirds majority, so this could be made faster now. Is he concerned that there are still many loopholes in the arms trade treaty, not least the fact that ammunition will be subject to fewer restrictions than conventional arms and that there is no requirement for the public reporting of arms deals? What plans does he have to address those loopholes?

I do not want to risk taking too long in my answer, because there is an awful lot in this. The pause that the chair of the conference gave to allow nations to consider progress allows us the opportunity to make representations to see whether we can make progress on what we thought was already a good text. There are some good things there already. For the first time, there is a global commitment to arms export controls and a mandatory requirement that arms exports should be subject to a range of requirements, including human rights, with a mandatory refusal if there is a risk of abuse. In company with civil society, non-governmental organisations and other partners, we will look for the process that is most likely to improve it and we will work with partners on the best way of taking steps forward.

I think a meeting between the Minister and the hon. Lady would be an enriching experience for both of them.

We are glad to hear it. A beautiful relationship. We are grateful to the Minister. I call Martin Horwood.

I do not want to intrude on the love-in!

Last minute blocking tactics by the United States and then by Russia prevented the signature of a robust treaty in July. What assurances has the Minister had from the American Government that the international community will be able to pick up where it left off, perhaps after any distracting events in November are out of the way, and that the treaty will not be watered down in the meantime?

“Assurances” is not necessarily the right word. The conversations between us and those we expect to be major signatories, such as the United States, go on all the time. Time scales might have an impact on the negotiations that are going on, but it is important that we use the time that has been given to build on the good things in the treaty and do our best to ensure that those are not lost as we take the process forward.

United States Foreign Policy (Asia)

I regularly discuss US foreign policy priorities with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We welcome the rebalancing of US focus to the Asia-Pacific region, which is in line with our own renewed engagement in the region.

Given the United States’ refocus on Asia and repivoting there, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is taking to further our diplomatic and commercial interests in the growth markets of China and south-east Asia?

We are doing a great deal to increase our emphasis on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states. This autumn, I shall reopen our embassy in Laos, which means we will be one of the few EU countries with representation in all 10 ASEAN states. We are doing a great deal to add to our commercial diplomacy in China, adding 60 new posts in the diplomatic service. This year, UK Trade & Investment expects to help more than 3,000 British firms to do business in China in design, construction, management of hospitals and energy generation, and there is a lot more to do.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with our US representative about the sabre-rattling between China and Japan over disputed islands, and between Japan and Korea in relation to their long-term relationship? This is a matter of just a little concern at present, but we do not want it to escalate.

Of course, we discuss all global affairs with the United States, including those disputes. It is primarily for the countries concerned to resolve them, as is the case with the disputes in the South China sea. We want those disputes to be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. That is what we call for when we meet all the countries concerned.


12. What recent assessment he has made of the state of UK relations with the Commonwealth; and if he will make a statement. (118508)

The United Kingdom remains strongly committed to a reinvigorated Commonwealth. We want to see a relevant and effective organisation that brings strong values, development and prosperity to all its citizens.

In December 2010, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the House in a statement that the Government should use the Commonwealth to develop trade and investment opportunities for the United Kingdom. Will he update the House on progress being made on that, especially given that Commonwealth GDP is poised to surpass that of the eurozone and is projected to grow at three times the eurozone’s rate for the next five years?

As my hon. Friend says, the Commonwealth brings with it some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as India, Ghana, Nigeria and Mozambique. We are responding with our FCO network shift. We opened a new deputy high commission in Hyderabad on 31 May and are to open another in Chandigarh later this year. We are strengthening FCO and UKTI commercial teams in Canada, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya and Cameroon. I could go on and on, Mr Speaker.

Does the Minister agree that successive British Governments have neglected relations with Commonwealth countries? That is due mainly to the overweening obsession of the Foreign Office with the European Union and relations with Brussels. Will he set out how we will rebuild those relationships, particularly during this year, which is the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are completely committed to a reinvigorated Commonwealth. We feel that it will be one of the most important organisations in the world going forward. That is why we welcome the work being done by the ministerial action group and some of the other initiatives. For example, there is a proposal for a Commonwealth commissioner for human rights. We also want to see the new strategic plan. I pay tribute to the work of the eminent persons group—including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who did so much work on that group—to help to move the Commonwealth in what will be a much more dynamic direction.

Topical Questions

May I remind Members that exchanges at this point are supposed to be brief? They need to be if I am to accommodate as many colleagues as possible.

Following the London conference on Somalia in February, there are encouraging signs of progress in Somalia, which matters greatly to the security of the United Kingdom and the world. A new Speaker has been elected to the Somali Parliament and presidential elections will be held on 10 September. The new British office in Somaliland opened yesterday, and a new British embassy in Mogadishu will open soon—our first diplomatic representation on the ground for 20 years.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the stories surrounding Mr Julian Assange, currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, that he might be executed if he faces trial in the United States, are utterly without foundation, and that his rights would be fully protected should he be extradited to Sweden, as that country has requested?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. I set out the position in a written statement to the House yesterday and made clear the implications of the fact that the United Kingdom and Sweden are both signatories of the European convention on human rights. We are two countries which have some of the strongest attachment of any countries in the world to human rights. Therefore the fears that have been expressed that extradition to a third country could lead to a death sentence are without foundation.

The Bahraini Government have long claimed their determination to pursue the path of reform and reconciliation, but only yesterday it emerged that the retrial of 20 activists and Opposition figures had resulted in all of them being found guilty, with long sentences and, in the case of eight defendants, life sentences. In light of this, can the Foreign Secretary set out the British Government’s judgment as to whether these were fair trials? More widely, what is his assessment of the Bahraini Government’s commitment to reform and reconciliation?

I am very disappointed at the Bahraini civil court’s decision to uphold all the sentences of 20 political activists in Bahrain. We welcome the decision to review these cases in a civilian court but we remain very concerned by some of the charges that defendants were convicted of, and I urge the Bahraini Government to ensure that the human rights and freedoms of their citizens are fully upheld at all times. We are aware that the defendants can now appeal to a further court and we hope that this will be conducted thoroughly, with urgency and with due legal process. That will be one of the tests of the Bahraini Government’s commitment to reform.

T4. In light of the recent news that the legislature of Argentina in Buenos Aires has passed a Bill to prohibit British ships from docking in its ports, what recent discussions have Ministers had with their counterparts across south America to prevent other states in the region from taking similar economically counter-productive measures? (118524)

We have regular discussions about ensuring that British interests are protected in Latin America, but as I said in response to an earlier question, our relations with Latin America as a whole are in a better condition than they have been for many decades.

T2. The lives of 179 brave British soldiers were lost in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If the nuclear state of Israel attacks Iran in pursuit of non-existent long-range Iranian missiles carrying non-existent Iranian bombs, can we have a guarantee that the House would discuss its position before any British lives were put in jeopardy? (118522)

First, the hon. Gentleman must be careful not to extrapolate too much from one case to another. The position on Iran and its nuclear programme is documented in dramatically more detail than any of the programmes of Iraq discussed before the war in Iraq. But of course we have established a clear convention in the House over the past 20 years about the commitment of our forces to military action and the need to consult Parliament and to have a vote in Parliament at the earliest opportunity. That is a convention well understood across the House.

T5. Ministers will be aware of the concern about the case in Pakistan involving a young girl, Rimsha Masih, who is thought to be as young as 14 and to have learning difficulties and who has been accused of blasphemy. Can Ministers update the House on what representations they have made to the Pakistan Government about this case? (118525)

My hon. Friend is right to raise concerns about the case. It has attracted a great deal of attention. It has been noticeable also that President Zardari has commented about it and raised concerns, as indeed have a number of Muslim clerics. There now appears to be some doubt about the individual who raised the accusations against the girl. I spoke to Paul Bhatti, the President’s adviser on religious affairs, just two days ago to raise the United Kingdom’s interest in the case and we will now watch events with interest.

T3. Given that Venezuela has held more elections than nearly any other country in the world in recent years, and that these have been independently verified as free and fair by international bodies, will the Foreign Secretary join me in calling for all parties in Venezuela, including the Opposition parties, to recognise the outcome of October’s presidential elections, whatever the result may be? (118523)

There is certainly a vigorous election campaign going on in Venezuela; there is no doubt about it. We support a democratic process in Venezuela, and of course want the elections to adhere to the highest standards. Everyone will have to make their own judgment about the elections at the time, but we certainly hope that they are elections whose outcome everyone can respect.

T6. Will the Foreign Secretary please update us on the long-term vision for Afghanistan? What sort of presence is Britain likely to have in Afghanistan in, say, 2020 and what will we be doing there at that date? (118526)

As my hon. Friend knows, our troops will not be in a combat role after the end of 2014 and will not be there in anything like the numbers they are now, but we have gone out of our way over the past couple of years to stress our long-term commitment to Afghanistan. That will include, on the military side, leading the officer training academy. Decisions will be made in due course about any other military support. Of course, our prime contribution will be an economic and diplomatic one, and the Secretary of State for International Development has announced large-scale development aid for Afghanistan for the future, so I hope that our role will be one of encouraging regional support for Afghanistan and working with a democratically elected Government on the country’s future.

T7. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the directors of G4S are possibly violating article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention through their involvement in imprisoning Palestinian children in Israeli jails and, if so, would he like to comment on that? (118527)

The issue of contractual arrangements between the Israeli Government and their contractors is a matter for them. We are aware that concerns have been raised about the issue and know that enquiries are going on in that regard, but essentially the contract between G4S and the Israeli Government is a matter for them.

T9. I welcome what my hon. Friend has said about the case of the Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. Last week I met a group of Asian Christians in my constituency to discuss the case. Will he comment further on what more he and Members of this House can do to support religious tolerance and freedom in Pakistan? (118530)

The fact that Members of this House speak regularly and clearly about the importance of religious tolerance and freedom is significant and important not only in Pakistan, but in the countries right across Asia, the middle east and around the world where our voices are heard. There are some difficult issues to be confronted in those countries where the Government’s writ does not always run in every area, but the House can be reassured that we make regular representations on these matters. The more voices that can be raised in support of tolerance and freedom and the brave people in those countries who are working for them, the better.

T8. Now that the President of Colombia has announced talks with FARC about the peace process, will the Minister confirm that it is important that all sections of civil society are involved in any settlement and that the deep inequalities in that country are addressed? Will he be pressing the international community to support those Colombians who have worked for years for peace, often risking their own lives, so that they can contribute to the future of their country? (118528)

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the importance of Colombia, the second most populous country in south America and one that we work with closely. I know that Members on both sides of the House want to see a peaceful future for Colombia with an emphasis on human rights, which is also very much the priority of the British Government. We hope that the talks between the Colombian Government and the FARC are successful after decades of conflict and are keen to play a full part in assisting with that process.

Will my right hon. Friend condemn the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza by Hamas? Reports from Palestinian agencies suggest that up to 120 families will lose their homes in Gaza because of the actions of Hamas.

Yes, absolutely. We have said what we have said about demolitions on the west bank, and that certainly applies to demolitions in Gaza as well. I will look at the reports to which my hon. Friend refers. There are many things that we call on Hamas to do in order to make a peace process viable and, of course, it is important that it respects the rights of the people living in Gaza.

The Minister will be aware of the strong relationship over the past year between trade unionists in the United Kingdom and in Colombia. What recent assessment has he made of the spate of killings this summer of trade unionists in Colombia known personally to members of the British trade union movement?

I have regular meetings with groups to discuss this problem and have raised it on numerous occasions with members of the Colombian Government, right up to the President of Colombia. We are extremely concerned to ensure that the human rights of trade unionists around the world, including in Colombia, are protected. It is worth saying that significant progress is being made in Colombia and I hope that we will see, both in talks with FARC, and more generally in terms of the advancement of civic society, a peaceful future for Colombia whereby murder rates in general, including those for trade unionists, fall dramatically to levels comparable to those in many other parts of the world, including Europe.

In the past few weeks there has been growing concern about the human rights situation in the Gambia. I am very grateful to the Minister for all the assistance that he has given my constituent, Deborah Burns, whose husband is one of those who has been threatened with execution on death row. Can the Minister provide an update on the representations made by the Government and assure us that human rights will be restored in the Gambia?

We are obviously very concerned about what is going on in the Gambia, because there has been an effective moratorium on the death penalty since 1985. All of those on death row, including General Mbye, the husband of my hon. Friend’s constituent, had effectively had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. We have made very strong representations to the Gambian Government. I will meet Gambian Foreign Minister Tangara in the near future, and we will push them very hard indeed on this matter.

Do the British Government intend to have any observers at the trial of Bradley Manning? There will be a pre-trial hearing in about a month’s time and the full trial will start next February.

It is difficult at present to go into the circumstances because of confidentiality issues, but as the right hon. Lady knows, representations have been made on behalf of the British Government to those representing Mr Manning. The indication has been that he has not wanted that involvement, so it may not be possible— and indeed it is not always the practice—to have observers. I would be very happy to meet the right hon. Lady privately—arranging such meetings seems to be a feature of my exchanges this afternoon—to discuss the issue further.

Will the Secretary of State provide the latest information on the situation facing the Rohingyas in Burma, and would he be prepared to meet a group of Rohingyas who live in my constituency and have appalling tales of atrocities to tell about the situation in both Burma and, indeed, Bangladesh?

These people are in a very difficult and often desperate situation in Burma and in neighbouring countries. This is a subject that both I and the International Development Secretary have raised in recent times with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, and with Burmese leaders, including the Opposition and Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the Burmese Government, so we are constantly engaged on the issue and wish Burmese leaders to address it. Certainly, one or other of the ministerial team would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it.

The Foreign Secretary will have seen the worrying reports about young people from the United Kingdom travelling to Syria as the recruits of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, and he will recognise the risk that such individuals may pose on their return. Will he assure the House that the security services will do all that is needed to counter this potential threat?

Absolutely. We take very seriously the reports that British nationals are among the foreign fighters in Syria. We cannot provide any estimate of the numbers, which the right hon. Gentleman asked for in his earlier question on the Order Paper, because there are numerous travel routes via many third countries. However, where there is evidence that British nationals are involved in terrorism or other illegal activity, the Government have a range of powers to stop them travelling and will use those powers appropriately.

Order. I apologise to colleagues whom I was not able to call. As Members will appreciate, Foreign Office questions are a box office-busting occasion on which demand for tickets invariably exceeds supply. We must, sadly, move on.