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Geneva II Summit

Volume 574: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2014

The objective of Geneva II is to establish by mutual consent a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers. The regime, opposition and invited states should attend on that basis, and all sides need to improve the dire humanitarian situation, including through prisoner releases and improving access.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. Did the United Nations Secretary-General consult him before Iran’s invitation to Geneva II was issued, and if so, what was his response to that consultation?

There have been many consultations at the UN Security Council, such as between the Secretary-General and the permanent representatives, including the UK’s permanent representative. Our advice has always been what I said in the House last week—that we were not opposed in principle to Iran attending, but that we wanted a clearer and more constructive public commitment by Iran to the objectives of the Geneva II conference, which I have just set out. In the light of Iranian unwillingness to make such a commitment yesterday, the Secretary-General was right to rescind the invitation.

As the Soviet Union of the middle east, Iran continues to prop up the Assad regime. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to try to stop Iranian influence in Syria?

Of course, we want Iran to desist from supporting the brutality of the Assad regime, which has been highlighted again overnight by shocking evidence of the torture, abuse and murder of people in detention at the regime’s hands. We will always try persuasion, but in the end it is in Iran’s interests for there to be peace in Syria. We therefore ask Iran to embrace that opportunity.

Will the Foreign Secretary correct me if I am wrong about the tortuous diplomacy over Geneva II? Iran’s participation is clearly essential to getting an agreement to end the catastrophic war. Iran knows that a transitional Government is the only way of doing that. On the other hand, it does not want to be seen to be abandoning its long-term ally, the barbarous regime in Syria. As we know from Northern Ireland, preconditions often kill the prospect of any negotiated solution. How will we resolve that impasse?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about it being a tortuous process, including over the past few days, but it should be possible for Iran to say what others, including Russia, are able to come to Geneva II and say—that our aim is to implement the objective of the Geneva I communiqué: a transitional governing body by mutual consent. It was not a precondition, but it was fair to expect Iran to come to the conference on the same basis as all other foreign states. The practical reality is that if it was not prepared to say that, it would have led to the collapse of the conference. It was clear that if it did not do that, we would not be going to Geneva II tomorrow.

With the spotlight falling on Russia ahead of the winter Olympic games, will the Foreign Secretary press the Russians to increase their contribution to humanitarian aid, the need for which is in large part caused by their support for the Assad regime?

Yes, we do raise that with Russia, and we particularly raise the issue of humanitarian access. We and other countries are providing generously for humanitarian relief in and around Syria, but the regime continues to deny access to more than 200,000 people in besieged areas. We continue to look to Russia to help to lift the regime’s sieges of those areas.

This morning’s reports in The Guardian of the systematic killing and torture by Syrian Government forces of 11,000 detainees are deeply disturbing. The important work done to collect and publish that material was essentially a privately funded initiative run by a London-based law firm. In the light of that, will the Foreign Secretary set out what steps the international community, and the UK Government in particular, are taking to help catalogue and document evidence about alleged gross violations of human rights?

We have a done a great deal, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the evidence that was published last night. That was done with the assistance of the Qatari Government, so it was not entirely a private initiative. I have seen a lot of the evidence. It is compelling and horrific, and it is important that those who have perpetrated those crimes are one day held to account. The United Kingdom has done a great deal in the documentation of human rights abuses, and part of the support we have given to moderate political forces in Syria is to train human rights activists in the recording and documentation of crimes, many of which have therefore come to the world’s attention. We will do more of that.

We all welcome the fact that the Geneva II conference is due to commence in Switzerland tomorrow. Will the Foreign Secretary today set out what he would regard to be realistic ambitions for the discussions this week? Does he agree that confidence-building measures could be an important step towards securing further progress, and if so, does he believe in the relative likelihood of local ceasefires, humanitarian access, or prisoner exchanges being agreed in the coming days?

Confidence-building measures would assist enormously, including prisoner releases and local ceasefires. Although there have been discussions about those issues over the past 10 days, they have not yet borne fruit, and it is important that real effort is made on that in the opening stages of the Geneva II talks. I will attend the opening of those talks tomorrow and speak on behalf of our country, and I will encourage progress from all sides on the creation of a transitional governing body. Realistically, we are starting a process; it is important that a political process is started and then pursued.