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Topical Questions

Volume 549: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2012

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.