Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 561: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2013

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Free Trade Agreements

The EU has concluded free trade negotiations with Singapore and has launched negotiations with Japan, and EU-Canada negotiations are also in their final stages. An EU-United States free trade agreement would constitute a major contribution to economic growth, and is a top priority for the Government.

Given that the Government were unable to secure significant reform of the common agricultural policy negotiations on the seven-year EU budget deal, what prospect is there is that the Foreign Secretary will be able to make progress on the EU-US free trade agreement?

I think that there is a very real prospect of progress in that regard. There is commitment and real political will on both sides of the Atlantic. The European Commission has published its draft negotiating mandate, and President Obama has spoken about the matter. As an agreement with the United States is potentially worth more than £100 billion a year to European Union economies, we will put an enormous amount of effort into this.

As the Foreign Secretary said, the holy grail of EU free trade agreements is the one with the United States, which would create a world-beating single market and a substantial number of jobs, and would help to increase the EU’s gross domestic product. Does he agree that we would look pretty dumb if we were leaving the EU just as it was signing the free trade agreement with the United States?

My hon. Friend has made his point well, but I do not think that anyone is contemplating leaving the EU before 14 June—if, indeed, ever—when key decisions will be made at the Trade Council in the EU. If that process is successful, it will allow negotiations to be launched during the President’s visit to Europe for the G8 summit a few days later. We are getting on with all these matters now.

I apologise on behalf of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), who regrets that he is unable to be here today. I also thank the Foreign Secretary and you, Mr. Speaker, for acknowledging notification of his absence earlier.

An EU-US free trade agreement will be worth an average of £466 a year to every family in the country. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if his Back Benchers and some of his ministerial colleagues achieve their dream of leaving the EU, there will be little chance of our securing a similar bilateral UK-US free trade agreement?

I am not going to speculate about that. We are going to make a success of negotiations between all the members of the EU, including the United Kingdom and the United States. That is our objective. As several Members have observed, this would be a transformational trade agreement, and I hope that there is a strong commitment to it in all parts of the House.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister on their vision in trying to achieve an EU-US free trade agreement, but does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the fact that, on occasion, the European Union is very slow to act and to make such agreements? There is still room for bilateral trade agreements through strategic partnerships between countries.

There is no doubt that working with 27 countries on these matters can be ponderous and slow, but when it is successful, it is of enormous importance. Those are the downside and the upside of circumstances in which competence lies with the European Union. When it works, it works well. The free trade agreement with South Korea eliminated nearly 97% of tariffs, and some British businesses are now enjoying a huge increase in exports to South Korea as a result. We want to see the same thing happen on an even greater scale in relation to the United States.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the EU has a trade agreement with Israel that allows goods to be imported under preference. He and 16 other EU Foreign Ministers have written to Baroness Ashton asking for guidelines to be drawn up to ensure goods produced in illegal settlements are not imported to the EU labelled “Made in Israel”. What steps are being taken to draw up those guidelines and to bring them into force?

The UK has been advancing the case for such guidelines. That was done under the previous Government, and this Government support it. As the hon. Gentleman says, I have taken this up, along with other Foreign Ministers, with the EU High Representative. We look to the whole of the EU to do this in a co-ordinated and effective way.

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that, in view of the fact that we have been members of the Common Market for 40 years, it is certainly true to describe negotiations as “ponderous and slow.” Does he agree that this country might have made more progress towards securing a free trade agreement with the United States if we had not been members of the Common Market, or what is now the European Union?

Like other hon. Members, my hon. Friend is asking me to speculate on areas I do not want to get drawn into speculating about. We make the most of the situation we are dealing with. The fact is that this is a competence of the EU, although our strong political will and support within the EU is required to make the most of such free trade agreements. As I mentioned earlier, working with 26 other countries can mean the process is slow, but it also means that when we succeed, that has an enormous impact. My hon. Friend should bear that trade-off in mind.

Sri Lanka

The UK is not a member of the CMAG, but we have regular bilateral conversations with its members. We do not expect Sri Lanka to be on the formal CMAG agenda at its next meeting on 26 April, but we expect, and support, it being discussed at some stage in the meeting.

The CMAG is the custodian of the Commonwealth’s fundamental values and principles. Given the allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka and the impeachment of the Chief Justice, will the Government be calling on CMAG members to take action on Sri Lanka at its Friday meeting?

We have been very clear in a variety of statements, and in direct contact with the Government of Sri Lanka, that they should be upholding the very best of Commonwealth values, particularly in view of their intention to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo later this year. We know from comments by members of the CMAG that they share the concerns and that they will also be expecting Sri Lanka to uphold those values.

Do the Government accept that it is becoming increasingly apparent that great damage will be done to the Commonwealth if the next CHOGM is held in Colombo later this year, given the appalling human rights record in Sri Lanka and its Government’s disregard for the rule of law? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government are taking action, along with many other Commonwealth states, to have this matter ventilated not just at the CMAG, but if necessary between Heads of Government, to ensure that action can be taken over the next few months to find an alternative venue?

The decision to site the next CHOGM in Colombo was taken by consensus in the Commonwealth back in 2009, and we have no indication that the Commonwealth intends to change its view on that, but my right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to point out the contrast between Commonwealth values and concerns about what is happening in Sri Lanka. We and other Governments have made that clear, and the recent passing of the Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva, which the UK strongly supported, is evidence of that.

The Minister just referenced the most recent United Nations resolution on Sri Lanka, in which it noted

“the continuing reports of violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.

Given that Sri Lanka has been judged in those terms by the UN, to what extent does the Minister think the country complies with the principles of the Commonwealth and the recently adopted Commonwealth charter, and should we use CHOGM as a means of leverage to put pressure on Sri Lanka to put its house in order?

The hon. Lady is correct when she says that CHOGM provides the opportunity for us and others to express concerns to Sri Lanka, and to urge it to make good its own promises to fulfil the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. We have urged it to do so and we will continue to do that.

I was able to speak to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister yesterday. I made reference to our further concerns, whether they are about the impeachment of the Chief Justice or further attacks on the press in Jaffna, and made it clear that if Colombo is to host CHOGM later this year, the spotlight will be on Sri Lanka and it will need to demonstrate to the world how it has responded to these concerns and made good its own beliefs in reconciliation for the future.

May I again urge on Ministers the idea that the Commonwealth should have a group of people independent of the relevant Government, who can go in and look at human rights issues, so that we can have not just a charter, but a method of reporting back to see whether the charter is upheld in Sri Lanka and other places?

The determination of the Commonwealth to uphold the highest principles, the Lancaster principles, and how that can be ensured in all Commonwealth countries, is a matter of active discussion in the Commonwealth. The situation in Sri Lanka has pointed out very sharply the discrepancy between the concerns and those values in principle. I have no doubt that leaders of the Commonwealth and Heads of State are acutely aware of the concerns that my right hon. Friend raises, and will be addressing them.

Indonesia (Death Penalty)

The British Government strongly oppose the death penalty, as a matter of principle. We continue to make formal representations to the Indonesian authorities and to speak out publicly on this issue, and they are in no doubt as to the seriousness with which we take this issue. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised our objections to the use of the death penalty with the Indonesian Foreign Minister in November 2012.

I thank the Minister for the efforts that the Foreign Office is taking on behalf of Lindsay Sandiford. Does he agree that the Indonesian Government should be left in no doubt that the failure to commute the threat of a death sentence would have serious implications for our relationship with Indonesia, and their standing in the world?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed the death penalty with the Indonesian Foreign Minister during the November state visit of the Indonesian President. I issued a statement on 15 March, firmly expressing UK concern following the recent execution carried out by Indonesia. We continue to be deeply concerned for both Lindsay Sandiford and Gareth Cashmore, who have been sentenced to death for drug-trafficking offences. We are seeking reassurances that Indonesia will not seek to carry out the death penalty in both cases.

May I also thank the Foreign Office for the support that it has given to my former constituent, Lindsay Sandiford? However, given the concerns about the adequacy of translation in the initial trial and the adequacy of legal representation going forward to the Supreme Court stage, will the Foreign Office reconsider its position and follow Indonesia’s own example, which provides support for translation costs and legal costs for its nationals facing the death penalty abroad, and support Lindsay Sandiford through that process, even though it is not legally obliged to do so?

My hon. Friend is right to voice that concern, but it is true that the Government do not pay for legal representation for British nationals overseas. We have been working extremely closely with Lindsay Sandiford’s lawyers and Reprieve in identifying a lawyer for her, and we are prepared to assist her with anything beyond actually having to meet some of these bills, which we just simply do not do.

Korean Peninsula

4. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for the UK of instability in the Korean peninsula. (152347)

6. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for the UK of instability in the Korean peninsula. (152349)

Our assessment remains that there is no immediate risk to British nationals living or travelling in the Korean peninsula. But North Korea’s rhetoric and behaviour poses a serious risk to the stability of the region, which includes several of the world’s largest economies. The impact of miscalculation by the North Korean regime could extend well beyond its region. That is why the international response must remain clear, calm and united.

Inevitably and rightly, there has been tremendous focus on the absurd rhetoric of the North Korean regime and the development of its nuclear capability, but last month the United Nations Human Rights Council decided to set up a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea. Will the Foreign Secretary give us an indication of how that work might develop?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right about this. The UN Human Rights Council agreed to establish a commission of inquiry. This was a unanimous vote, which is unusual on these issues, and it was proposed in a resolution presented by the European Union and Japan, and co-sponsored by more than 40 countries. This will investigate the most serious human rights violations identified by the UN special rapporteur, including those in political prison camps. It is quite right that we do everything we can to investigate what is known to the world as an appalling record of human rights abuse in North Korea.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a further missile test by North Korea would be illegal, provocative and dangerous in the current climate? What steps has he taken to persuade the Chinese Government to use their influence to urge the North Koreans not to go down this dangerous path and to return to the negotiation table?

As my hon. Friend rightly says, we work with China on this, and of course with the United States. I was pleased that on Secretary Kerry’s visit to China in the last 10 days, the United States and China presented a strong, united position on this. As I reported to the House last week, we were active in bringing together the G8 nations, including Russia, during our meeting with G8 Foreign Ministers in London two weeks ago, to make it clear to the North Korean Government that they have a choice to make: either continue with this provocative path and face further isolation, or engage constructively with the rest of the world.

Clearly, immense challenges remain in the Korean peninsula, including for British citizens and their representatives. What additional support has been provided through the Foreign Secretary’s office to embassy staff in both North and South Korea during this period of heightened threats and tensions?

The offices function very well. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question because it gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to our embassy staff in Pyongyang. It is not an easy country for the staff of western embassies to work in, but their work is important, particularly as many of our allies, such as Japan, the United States and South Korea, do not have embassies in Pyongyang. Our embassy is important and the small staff there do a great job. We were informed on 5 April by the North Koreans that they could not guarantee the safety of embassies in the event of war, but we are responding in the calm way that I have advocated, and our embassy sees no need to be withdrawn from Pyongyang.

Despite the limited nature of the threat directly posed to Britain by North Korea, does the Secretary of State agree that the speed with which this crisis has arisen indicates how foolish we would be to downgrade our strategic nuclear deterrent in the future?

Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That would be a very serious national error. We have to bear in mind that North Korea has paraded, but not tested, a long-range missile with a claimed range of 12,000 km. That is clearly the sort of thing that it is trying to develop, and we must bear that in mind when making the decision that my hon. Friend talks about.

Does not the behaviour of North Korea confirm that vile dictatorships are a threat not only to their own citizens, but to their neighbours? Has the Minister conveyed the full support of the UK to the Governments of South Korea and Japan in the face of outrageous aggression from North Korea? What steps is he taking to ensure that disputes in east Asia are resolved through international law, not military action?

Yes, we are in very close consultation with those countries. I discussed this in detail with Foreign Minister Kishida of Japan when he was here two weeks ago, and last week I telephoned Foreign Minister Yun of South Korea. These countries are very conscious of our support and grateful for the support that we give at the UN Security Council. On other disputes in east Asia, we make it clear to all countries concerned that we wish to see them peacefully resolved and in accordance with international law.

Given the reckless, threatening behaviour in the north, what would the Foreign Secretary say to those in South Korea who would advocate a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent as a central plank of their future national security?

Of course, the goal of international policy is to bring about the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, which is something the South Korean Government support, but I believe that it is very important for a country, such as ours, which has a nuclear deterrent that adds enormously to the credibility of the western alliance, to keep it.

Colombia (Human Rights)

We recognise the progress made by the Colombian Government to address human rights problems but continue to raise issues of concern when they arise. On 4 March I met Colombia’s Vice-Minister for Defence, Jorge Enrique Bedoya, in London. We discussed various issues, including human rights and military justice reform.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does he recognise that there can be no real peace in Colombia until the rights of the democratic opposition and mass social movements, such as the Patriotic March, whose leaders will visit Parliament tomorrow, are recognised? Its members are regularly brutally murdered by both the Colombian Government and right-wing paramilitary groups. Will he assure me that the UK Government will do everything possible to stress to the Colombian Government that democratic opposition is part of a civilized society?

Yes, we absolutely will. We recognise the efforts made by President Santos to date. In fact, our 2012 annual human rights report, which was launched on 15 April, gives our assessment of the key areas where the Colombian Government have made progress and the areas where human rights concerns remain. We believe that the President is making the right moves and that he needs greater encouragement. I welcome the interest shown by Members across the House in holding the Colombians to their word.

I am sure the Minister shares my hope that the latest round of peace talks with the FARC will succeed. Can he update the House on his assessment of what progress has been made in those talks and tell us what representations, if any, the UK has made to President Santos regarding his five-point plan, particularly the fifth point, which is on victims’ rights?

As I said, we are hugely supportive of what President Santos has done to date and very much welcome the talks that have been going on in Havana, which we understand are due to restart in May. We stand by to offer any help we can. I think that it is worth paying tribute to his Government for getting to where they are. It has been a long time since Colombia has been as peaceful as it is today, but there is still a long way to go.

South Africa (Sexual Violence)

Levels of gender-based violence in South Africa are among the highest in the world. The UK Government have committed £4 million to working with the South African Government, UN agencies and civil society to tackle the root causes.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Constituents of mine have raised concerns about the levels of sexual violence in South African schools. Has his Department had any contact with the Congress of South African Students to discuss that distressing situation?

We have contact with many organisations in South Africa, including Rape Crisis and the Women’s Legal Centre, which works to improve access to justice for poorer people. Our high commissioner has given a series of radio interviews about the issue. We would be happy to add to that work and to those contacts, so I will look specifically at the organisation to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

As chair of the all-party South Africa group, may I tell my right hon. Friend how pleased we are about the money that the Foreign Office has made available? Will he use his good offices, those of our high commissioner and our role in the Commonwealth to show how unacceptable such behaviour is in South Africa, and indeed in other parts of the Commonwealth?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and absolutely agree with her. I mentioned how active the British high commissioner has been in highlighting the issue, including during South Africa’s 16 days of activism on gender-based violence in November last year. She also raised awareness of the issue at an international women’s day reception just last month, in March. We will continue that work, with the encouragement of this House.

South Sudan

Much of South Sudan has enjoyed improved security over the past year, but we are concerned about violence in Jonglei, including the recent attack on a UN convoy in which 12 peacekeepers and civilians died. We are supporting community reconciliation efforts and urging the Government to prioritise the protection of civilians.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Have the Government been able to form any reliable assessment of recent events in Eastern Equatoria, particularly the alleged killings by the army in Lorema hospital? Obviously those alleged events follow the recent killing of members of the governor’s bodyguard, but there are divergent accounts and allegations. Have the Government been able to give credence to any side’s version of events?

We are still trying to assess the detail of exactly what happened and to untangle the different stories emanating from that part of southern Sudan. There needs to be recognition that significant progress has been made and that a key part of finding a lasting solution to the tension between South Sudan and North Sudan is the implementation of the agreement that was announced at the United Nations General Assembly last year.

Now that South Sudan and Sudan have resolved their difficulties over oil, South Sudan has the potential to become an extremely prosperous country, but it still has very weak governance. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to help the Government of South Sudan enhance their machinery of governance and their capacity properly to govern South Sudan?

My hon. Friend makes exactly the right point: the oil now flowing between and through South Sudan and Sudan creates the opportunity for economic stability, development and growth in the southern part of Sudan, so the Government of South Sudan will have to have additional capacity to deal with the income that will, I hope, flow into the South Sudanese exchequer. Support is provided by the Foreign Office and by the work of our colleagues at the Department for International Development. We are assisting the South Sudanese Government in building that relevant capacity.

Colombia

10. What assessment he has made of the progress made by the Government of Colombia in tackling impunity and implementing the victims and land restitution law. (152353)

As noted in our 2012 human rights report, the Colombian Government have made some progress on both issues: 170,000 victims have been provided with reparations under the victims and land restitution law. We continue to press the Colombian Government to speed up the processing of cases and reduce impunity, and support them in their steps to reform the judicial system.

I am sure the House will agree that, despite the law’s success, many human rights activists are still in grave danger from death threats, and the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and others have campaigned to highlight the issue. Has the Minister met CAFOD and, if not, will he do so?

The UK’s statement on the UN’s 2013 universal periodic review on Colombia, which we are launching today in Geneva, will call for improved access to justice for victims. I have not to date met representatives from CAFOD, but I would be delighted to do so, particularly if they were accompanied by the hon. Gentleman.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that lessons learned by the UK during the Northern Ireland peace process could be useful in helping us to deliver peace in Colombia?

Having had the honour of serving as Minister of State for Northern Ireland for two and a half years and of now travelling the world, I know that many countries benefit from what was learned in Northern Ireland. I welcome the interest shown in Colombia by Members from Northern Ireland, because what they know can be of huge use to Colombia as it tries to inch towards peace.

The Minister will be aware that, while the land restitution law is good, when peasant farmers return to their land they are coerced, bullied, injured and murdered. Have the Government held any discussions with the Colombian Government to ensure that peasant farmers are given protection when they return to their land?

The hon. Gentleman is right. We are concerned about the right of indigenous people. We are providing technical assistance to the Colombian Government to work towards effective implementation of the new land and victims law, which aims to do exactly that—to return land to huge numbers of displaced people and to compensate victims.

Sexual violence has reached a dangerous level in Colombia. The numbers are ever increasing, yet very few are brought to trial. What can the Government do to highlight this absurdity?

Indeed; in 2012, President Santos launched Colombia’s national public policy for gender equality, and the British Government will provide support to the Colombian Government to promote women’s rights and address discrimination wherever possible. Equally, the British embassy in Colombia is assisting the Colombian Government in looking at these extremely serious issues.

CHOGM (Colombo)

11. What discussions he has had with his Commonwealth counterparts about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in 2013 and the progress being made on tackling human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. (152354)

We have discussions with our counterparts in the Commonwealth on a variety of subjects on a regular basis, including on CHOGM. We make every effort to reiterate our concerns about human rights directly to Sri Lanka, whenever we get the opportunity. I was able to do that most recently in a meeting with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister just yesterday.

It is obviously not enough, because the Sri Lankans are not listening. They do not listen to the UN or the Commonwealth. It beggars belief that we think that they will listen more if CHOGM goes ahead there and we attend. I ask the UK Government to think carefully about the signal that it will send about their commitment to human rights if they go ahead with that visit.

I understand the concerns of the right hon. Lady, as do all hon. Members. This is a decision for the Commonwealth. It decided by consensus that the Heads of Government meeting should be in Colombo. The Commonwealth recognises the issues of concern in Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that whoever ends up going to CHOGM, from whatever country, Sri Lanka will be in the spotlight. The progress that can be made on a number of the positive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is a key topic that many will want to address. We want Sri Lanka to get to where it professes it wants to go. However, I agree with the right hon. Lady entirely that the evidence of that at present is pretty scant.

21. On human rights abuses, the British and US assessments of the level of torture in Sri Lanka seem to be at variance. The FCO says merely that reports of torture continue, while the US State Department says that there is“widespread impunity for a broad range of human rights abuses, particularly involving police torture”.Why the difference of views? (152367)

We judge the evidence of torture that is brought to us and make our calculations upon it. We have expressed concern about incidents of torture. Our asylum processes take account of the possibility that some people, but not all, could be subject to torture. Cases are dealt with on an individual basis. Part of the overall picture of human rights concerns in Sri Lanka is that the Government appear to be determined to address the issue, but the evidence remains difficult to see in certain cases. We will continue to press the case and we know that this is a matter of great interest to all right hon. and hon. Members.

Mali

12. What progress has been made on rebuilding democratic and accountable institutions in Mali; and if he will make a statement. (152357)

The UK’s primary goal in Mali is to encourage the transitional authorities to pursue an inclusive political process that supports long-term stability. We welcome the commitment to a road map and the creation of a national commission for dialogue and reconciliation, but rapid progress is required if that is to stay on track.

The French Parliament has just voted to extend France’s military mission to Mali at least until the end of the year. A French colonel is reported in Le Monde as saying that the Malian military remains ill-equipped and ill-trained. How long does the Minister think the UK will contribute by deploying troops to the EU training mission?

Let us be absolutely clear that the UK is offering the French deployment, at the behest of the civilian-led sovereign Government of Mali, limited logistical support. Approximately 40 UK military personnel are deployed as part of the EU training mission, three of whom are specifically related to the Foreign Secretary’s initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. They are there to train the Malian army with respect to human rights. Other international and multilateral discussions are taking place on deploying AFISMA—the African-led international support mission to Mali—to replace the French troops and, ultimately, a UN mission.

Indeed, Jeffrey Feltman, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, said last week that it was vital that the political process be taken forward in Mali. Given our previous military involvement, what specific assistance are the UK Government giving to the political process? Does the Minister envisage the elections taking place by the summer of this year?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Bamako recently to support that process. The Prime Minister has appointed a special representative, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien), who is very involved in the process. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the importance of the political process. We are discussing whether we can support the efforts of the African Union as well. We need to ensure that all the groups in the north are involved in the political process, and that mechanisms are put in place to air and resolve the grievances of those who live in the north.

Middle East Peace Process

13. What recent assessment he has made of the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. (152358)

Progress towards achieving a lasting two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians remains a top foreign policy priority. I welcome the efforts that Secretary Kerry has put into the middle east peace process since taking office. The UK will make every effort to mobilise the European Union and Arab states behind decisive US-led moves for peace.

With the US Secretary of State rightly attempting to encourage both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships back to the negotiating table, does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern at the resignation of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad? Has he conveyed to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, the need for Mr Fayyad’s economic reforms to continue?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we are concerned about the resignation of Salam Fayyad, who has done a great job of building institutions for Palestinians. He is remaining in office for an interim period of several weeks as consideration is given to a successor. We are certainly always in touch with the Palestinian leadership, and they know that we strongly believe that the economic programme that Salam Fayyad has pursued must be continued.

My right hon. Friend may be aware that Prime Minister Netanyahu has emphasised his new Government’s commitment to an independent Palestinian state through direct negotiations. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of reports of Palestinian Authority-sanctioned incitement, which remains an obstacle to a genuine peace settlement?

President Obama’s commitment is very important, and his visit to the region last month was successful. He argued in Jerusalem that peace is necessary, just and possible, and we should strongly welcome the involvement of the United States. There will be many obstacles in the path on both sides, and many forms of behaviour and many things that are said will make the process more difficult. We have to overcome those and work with the leaderships of the Israelis and the Palestinians on the basis that they are willing to come to a negotiated peace.

20. In recent days, rockets have fallen on the Israeli town of Eilat and the Egyptian authorities have intercepted a ship containing arms destined for Gaza and Sinai. In view of that, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the implementation of United Nations resolution 1860, which deals with international arms smuggling, must be an integral part of any peace settlement? (152366)

Yes, the hon. Lady is right. On 17 April at least two rockets hit Eilat, in southern Israel, reportedly fired from Sinai, and militants have fired a number of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel since 26 February. All of that makes pursuing a peace process and securing a two-state solution more difficult. It is very important that every country fulfils its international responsibilities under UN resolutions to intercept arms shipments.

Can the Foreign Secretary say why Palestinians should trust Britain when there is not a level playing field—literally—because the Government are supporting a European international football tournament taking place in Israel?

The fact is that both sides have a level of trust first in the United States, and then in many other countries in the world, including the UK, to take forward the process. I will visit the region in the coming weeks to reinforce that and to try to accelerate everything that we are talking about. In general in world affairs, I do not believe that sporting fixtures should be an obstacle to political progress of any form, and I do not think they will be in this case.

Does the Foreign Secretary not realise that any progress between Israel and Palestine is very unlikely to move on at all while the settlement building, the annexation of East Jerusalem and the siege of Gaza continue? Until Israel radically modifies its behaviour towards the Palestinian people, how can there be any progress?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware of our condemnation of settlement activity on occupied land, and I am happy to reiterate that today. It is one reason why carrying the process forward is such an urgent matter. Settlement activity means that within a foreseeable time, a two-state solution will no longer be practical. Secretary Kerry has put that case, and the United States Administration accept it. We have to try to make a success of the process, including by coming to a conclusion on all final status issues.

Does the Foreign Secretary think it would be helpful or unhelpful for there to be elections in the west bank and Gaza strip this year?

As believers in democracy we are always in favour of people having their voices heard, and we would be reluctant ever to regard elections as unhelpful. We hope, of course, that in any elections, people who are ready to make peace will be successful so that this long-running conflict can be resolved.

Ghana

14. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Ghana; and if he will make a statement. (152359)

We welcome Ghana’s successful conduct of elections in December 2012, which were internationally recognised as generally free, fair and credible. The Foreign Secretary visited Ghana in March, strengthening further the already excellent Ghana-UK relationship, and I had the pleasure of attending the presidential inauguration in Accra in January.

I am a little bit surprised by the Minister’s answer to be honest. Last week some women from the Ghanaian Parliament came to Westminster, and they emphasised the value of stable institutions. As the Minister knows, a dispute about the presidential election is, fortunately, being pursued in the courts rather than on the street. Will he say a little more about discussions that the Foreign Secretary has had about that episode?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the petition before the Supreme Court in Ghana. However, Ghana has now had six successful elections since military rule ceased in 1992, and is rightly seen as a beacon of democracy in western Africa. She is also right to say that it is essential that such disputes are delivered through the courts, rather than on the streets. In the legal process, the Supreme Court started looking at the petition on 16 April, and we anticipate a judgment within the next month or two.

Somalia

15. What discussions he has had on ensuring the representation of women at the upcoming conference on Somalia and ensuring that there is discussion of women’s rights and gender-responsive peace-building at that conference. (152360)

We have encouraged the Somali Government to bring a representative delegation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I will hold an event early next week to hear from prominent Somali women about empowerment, violence against women and forced marriage. Preventing sexual violence in conflict is also a theme of the Somali conference.

Members of the Somali community in my constituency feel it is hugely important that work is done to reach out to, identify and encourage key women to participate in the conference. Will the Minister reassure them that that will be the case?

In short, I can, not only at the conference but also prior to it. I and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are reaching out to and meeting not just male, but female representatives of the diaspora throughout the United Kingdom. As I mentioned, a meeting will be focused on Somali women and the preventing sexual violence initiative is a key part of the Somali conference. I reassure the hon. Lady that the key is an end to conflict and insecurity in Somalia, and we sought to insert language into UN Security Council resolution 2093 about the importance of the role of women in all efforts for peace and security going forward.

Sexual Violence in Conflict

16. What steps his Department is taking to implement the G8 declaration on preventing sexual violence in conflict; and if he will make a statement. (152361)

Following the adoption of the historic G8 declaration, we will take the campaign to the UN and begin implementation immediately. G8 peacekeeping experts meet next week to discuss commitments on military training, and work begins next month in The Hague, London and Geneva on the development of the protocol.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the outcome of the G8 summit, and I particularly welcome the declaration on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. Will he tell the House what action he will take to move the initiative beyond the G8?

Now that we have the strong support of the G8 nations in what amounted to an historic declaration, I want to take the campaign to the United Nations and convene during our presidency of the Security Council in June a special session of the Security Council, which I will chair, in order to rally wider global support. I will then take the campaign to the United Nations General Assembly in September. I believe that in this calendar year we can make an enormous difference to global attitudes, action on the ground, and global agreement on combating sexual violence in conflict.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware of ongoing concerns, which have been expressed not least in the Human Rights Watch report published yesterday, on Burma, sexual violence, and what Human Rights Watch says amounts to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. Given the lifting of sanctions, what representations has he made on the profoundly concerning human rights breaches against the people of Burma?

It is important for us to keep up the work and the pressure on those subjects, which I discussed last week with one of the President of Burma’s most senior Ministers and advisers—a Minister of the President’s Office. In particular, we discussed addressing the stateless position of the Rohingya people. The UK and other EU countries have a role to play in offering police training in dealing with ethnic violence. Keeping up the pressure on human rights issues will be part of the EU’s continuing approach.

Topical Questions

On Saturday, I met Friends of Syria ministers in Istanbul, where the Syrian National Coalition issued its clearest statement yet of its support for a political solution to the conflict, its commitment to a future for all Syrians, its rejection of all forms of terrorism and extremism, and its responsible approach on chemical and biological weapons. In return, the nations present undertook to strengthen their support for the Syrian opposition.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Britain’s relationship with Germany is one of the most important aspects of our influence within the EU. Will he outline how he and his Government have engaged with Germany, and how they will do so in future?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Compared with the last year of the previous Government, we have nearly quadrupled the number of ministerial and senior official bilateral visits to Germany each year. We have established joint meetings twice a year of the British-German ministerial committees on the EU. I have made many visits to Germany, and as my hon. Friend knows, the Prime Minister works extremely closely with Chancellor Merkel. I believe it is right to say that we now work more closely with Germany than any previous Government.

As we move towards the final military draw-down in Afghanistan, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure personnel protection for our remaining training forces, and for our brave men and women from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and non-governmental organisations, who are working for a better future for the Afghan people?

Protecting people during the draw-down is extremely important. That is one reason for maintaining a substantial military force. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, our military numbers are coming down from 9,000 to 5,000 this year. We will then decide on the profile of withdrawal from then on. A large part of their job is the protection of the personnel who remain. We also work closely with the Afghan authorities and the very substantial Afghan national security forces to ensure that our hard-working personnel, to whom I pay tribute, are properly protected.

T4. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation in Kashmir remains a key to lasting peace and security in Asia? What efforts are the Government making to help Pakistan and India to resolve their differences and unlock the great human and economic potential of the region? (152372)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Efforts to resolve the issue in Kashmir continue and will be of huge benefit to both countries and the region as a whole. The UK is in contact with both Governments to urge them to do as much as possible to assist that reconciliation. We were particularly engaged after the incidents in January, when, once again, there were killings and shootings. It is important to note that those incidents did not disturb the dialogue that had grown up between India and Pakistan, which is important for the resolution of the issue.

T2. Following the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), is he aware that Ahava Cosmetics, which produces cosmetics in an illegal settlement, is currently labelled as “Israeli” in the UK? Despite complaints to trading standards, it refused to take up the matter. I welcomed his approach to EU-wide guidelines, but will he talk to his colleagues to ensure that the guidelines we already have are upheld and enforced? (152370)

It is of course essential that guidelines that have been introduced are adhered to, and that products are correctly and properly labelled. I am aware of the concerns about the product that has been mentioned—it is discussed. It is important that the voluntary guidelines are extended, and that settlement produce and Israeli produce are correctly labelled to give people a choice.

T5. A Palestinian news agency has reported that Hamas will seek to petition the EU to remove it from the terrorist list. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of those reports, and will he confirm that the British Government will remain steadfast in its position that Hamas is indeed a terrorist organisation? (152373)

Our position on Hamas is well known. We look to it, as we look to everyone in that region, to uphold previous agreements, forswear violence and make credible movement towards all of the Quartet principles that have been long established. There has been no change in our position on Hamas, and we do not, therefore, have direct contact with it.

T3. Will the Minister update us on the ratification of the UN arms trade treaty and what work we are doing with our international partners to implement it as soon as possible? (152371)

I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman raised this point. It has been rather unnoticed in the past few weeks that the ATT was passed. It is one of the most important things the UN has achieved in recent years. Ratification will begin on 3 June, and we will be playing a leading part in encouraging states to sign up and ratify as soon as possible. I appreciate the support of the whole House. This has been a joint effort; it began in 2007 under the previous Government and we have seen it through to its successful conclusion. I would like publicly to congratulate Ambassador Jo Adamson, who has led the team in the United Nations and done a wonderful job.

T6. Last year, Conservatives on Essex county council passed a motion calling for the EU budget to be cut, a reduction in our contributions to the EU and for EU red tape to be slashed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the good people of Essex should back Essex Conservatives on 2 May—the only party to stand up to Europe? (152374)

I absolutely agree, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful for the robust support of Conservatives on Essex county council on aspects of foreign policy. I am sure that they do a good job outside of foreign policy, too. Their support for a reduction in the EU budget is very important. It is something that people across the country want to see, and the Prime Minister has achieved the first ever reduction in the multiannual financial framework—a major diplomatic achievement for this country.

Human rights organisations were alarmed when sanctions against Burma were lifted. Could the Foreign Secretary use this as a lever to ensure that the United Nations can establish its human rights office in Burma, and to ensure that Burma releases all political prisoners, including Aung Naing?

It is worth pointing out to the hon. Lady that, yes, we agree with what she says, but human rights will be at the heart of the lifting of sanctions in Burma. We did it with the advice of Aung San Suu Kyi, because we believe that engagement with the Burmese Government is the way forward. We are deeply concerned about human rights and we remain deeply concerned about ethnic conflict, but we believe that now is the appropriate time to lift sanctions.

T7. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the tragic bombing in Boston is a sad reminder of the ongoing threat of global terrorism, and stresses the importance of the United Kingdom having very close links with the intelligence services of our allies, particularly the United States? (152375)

Yes, absolutely. The tragic events in Boston are a reminder of that, as is this morning’s news about the operation in Canada to prevent a terrorist attack. We must always be vigilant about these matters and work closely with other countries. I explained, in my speech to the Royal United Services Institute in February, how we are extending our co-operation on counter-terrorism with many more countries in the world, given the more diffuse nature of the terrorist threat.

T9. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments about Syria at the start of Topical Questions. Will he update us on what representations he has made with the international community to put pressure on Russia in relation to Syria? (152377)

Putting pressure on Russia is a constant effort. We discussed it at the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, and I discussed it with Sergei Lavrov when he was in London last month. The Prime Minister speaks regularly, and will shortly speak further, with President Putin. Our diplomatic efforts with Russia are continual, but we have to say clearly that those efforts have not been successful so far and that therefore it is necessary to give greater support, in various ways, to the Syrian National Coalition on the ground in Syria in order to try and save lives and increase the incentive for the Assad regime to come to a political settlement.

T8. My hon. Friend will be aware that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam’s mustard gas attack on Halabja. Will he support the principle of a UN inquiry into those many hundreds of western companies that supplied the chemical weapons that enabled Saddam to carry out his attacks? (152376)

I am aware that my hon. Friend was in Iraq recently for the commemoration on the 25th anniversary of this dreadful massacre, and he also spoke with great passion in a recent debate in the House. Following the incident, there were extensive UN and UK investigations into the use of chemical weapons and any involvement of UK companies. Those inquiries were fairly comprehensive and did not illustrate any UK involvement. From a UK point of view, I am not sure that any further inquiries are necessary.

Recently, the Prime Minister made the very eccentric contention that North Korean missiles could reach the shores of the UK, apparently in an attempt to bolster support for Trident’s renewal. Is it not time to scrap the Trident renewal, save £100 billion, spend it on public services and avoid hitting the vulnerable in society?

To be clear, the Prime Minister said that North Korea claimed that it had missiles that could hit the whole of the United States, and if that was the case, of course, it could also hit the UK. I mentioned earlier that it has paraded, but not yet tested, a 12,000 km-range missile. Looking decades ahead, as we do with these decisions, we have to be aware of the great variety of potential threats to the UK. It is vital, therefore, that we retain the ultimate deterrent in this country, the total cost of which is about 1.5% of the total welfare budget.

I hope my right hon. Friend will excuse me if I return to the question of Syria and the possible supply of arms to the opposition. Does he understand that it appears to many of us that the language being used by the Government is equivocal and delphic? In these circumstances, can we have an assurance that any material change in policy will be subject to the express endorsement of the House?

My right hon. and learned Friend knows that I come regularly to the House with updates on Syria—I think I have given seven or eight oral statements—and that on any major decision the House can express its view. I am sure that the business managers would want to facilitate that—let me put it that way. The next few weeks will be crucial, because we need to decide, with our European Union partners and the United States, the next steps that we can realistically take, and should take, in order to do what I was just talking about—to strengthen the opposition on the ground and increase the incentives for a political settlement in Syria. We have taken no decision about that, but if we do so, I will come to the House and describe that decision.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to set out the UK’s opposition to boycotts, disinvestment campaigns and other attempts to de-legitimise the state of Israel, because the only way we will see peace in the middle east, with a secure Israel living peacefully alongside a viable Palestinian state, is by initiatives that bring people on both sides who believe in peace to work together, not by boycotts and all the rest of it, which just drive people further apart?

The hon. Gentleman puts it very well, and I know he cares passionately about this subject. The United Kingdom has always opposed boycotts and disinvestment. We believe absolutely that the future for peace in the middle east will come through negotiations between the two different sides. President Obama’s recent speech, in which he spoke about the urgency and possibility of peace, but also about the need for justice, provides a good base for both sides to proceed. We believe and hope that those opportunities should be taken as quickly as possible.

Sanctions against Zimbabwe were recently eased and the UK gave £90 million in aid last year, but many British pensioners are being robbed of their pensions, following Mugabe’s decision in 2002 to stop paying pensions to British citizens. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the case of my constituent Mr Scott, who worked for the Zimbabwean police for over 20 years and is being denied his pension, to end this injustice?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important issue on behalf of his constituent, but he will also be aware that many others have been affected by the withdrawal of pension payments. Hopefully his concerns will be assuaged by the fact that I have met representatives of civil servants who used to work in Zimbabwe who are not getting their pensions. I have also discussed the issue with the Zimbabwean Finance Minister, as part of the challenge to try to find a satisfactory resolution, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent to discuss the matter further.

Did the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister have any discussions with the Prime Minister of Israel on his recent visit to London, or can he say when he last discussed the middle east peace process with the Prime Minister of Israel?

Yes, I had discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the margins of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral and the Prime Minister had a formal bilateral meeting with him that evening. As always, we are in close contact with the Israeli Prime Minister and, as always, we have urged him to make a success of the opportunity now to take forward the middle east peace process and find a lasting and just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but I have a sense that even if we doubled the time allocation for Foreign Office questions—of which there is no immediate prospect—demand would probably still exceed supply.