With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the situation in Ukraine and Syria and on relations with Iran.
Last week, more than 80 people were killed and 600 injured during the worst bloodshed in Ukraine since the fall of communism. It was the culmination of unrest that began in November, when President Yanukovych announced that the Government would not sign an EU association agreement. I know that the House will join me in sending condolences to the families of those who died or were injured.
On Thursday, I attended the emergency meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, which agreed to sanctions on those who have been responsible for the violence, as well as assistance to promote political dialogue and help for the injured. On Friday, President Yanukovych and the Opposition signed an agreement, supported by the whole European Union. I pay tribute to my French, Polish and German colleagues for their efforts to bring that about.
Events moved rapidly after that, including the departure of President Yanukovych from Kiev and the removal of guards from Government buildings. On Saturday, the Ukrainian Parliament, the Rada, voted to restore the 2004 constitution, to release Yuliya Tymoshenko and to impeach the President. He has said that he will not step down, but it is clear that his authority is no longer widely accepted. A number of members of the previous Government have been dismissed and appointments have been made to a new unity Government. Speaker Turchynov of the Rada has been appointed acting President until early elections take place on 25 May.
Ukraine has a pressing need for constitutional reform, improvements to its political culture, free elections, an end to pervasive corruption and the building of a stable political structure. We look to the new Government to create the conditions for such change in a spirit of reconciliation, while ensuring that there is accountability for human rights violations.
For our part, the international community must work with the new Government to discourage further violence and agree international financial support. Ukraine’s financial situation is very serious and, without outside assistance, may not be sustainable. An economic crisis in Ukraine would be a grave threat to the country’s stability and could have damaging wider consequences. I discussed that work with the German and Polish Foreign Ministers over the weekend and I spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia earlier this afternoon. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Putin, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Tusk, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer discussed Ukraine with G20 Finance Ministers in Australia. Later today, I will go to Washington to discuss this and other issues with Secretary Kerry.
While in Washington, I will hold talks with the International Monetary Fund, which is best placed to provide financial support and technical advice to Ukraine. Such support could be provided quickly once it has been requested by the new Government. It requires a stable and legitimate Government to be in place and for there to be a commitment to the reforms that are necessary to produce economic stability. International financial support cannot be provided without conditions and clarity that it will be put to proper use.
Baroness Ashton is visiting Kiev today and I will visit shortly. Our fundamental interest is democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ukraine. This is not about a choice for Ukraine between Russia and the EU; it is about setting the country on a democratic path for the future. We want the people of Ukraine to be free to determine their own future, which is what we also seek for the people of Syria.
On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2139 on humanitarian assistance to Syria, which the United Kingdom called for and co-sponsored. It is the first resolution that has been adopted by the Security Council on the humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict three years ago, and it was agreed unanimously. It demands an immediate end to the violence, the lifting of the sieges of besieged areas, and the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid including, importantly, across borders where necessary. It authorises the UN to work with civil society to deliver aid to the whole of Syria. It condemns terrorist attacks and demands the implementation of the Geneva communiqué, leading to a political transition. It states that that should include the full participation of women.
The passing of the resolution is an important achievement, but it will make a practical difference only if it is implemented in full. We will work with the United Nations and our partners to try to ensure that the regime’s stranglehold on starving people is broken.
The UK continues to set an example to the world on humanitarian assistance. Our contribution to the Syrian people now stands at £600 million: £241 million has been allocated for humanitarian assistance inside Syria; £265 million has been allocated to support refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt; and £94 million of allocations are currently being finalised. We have pressed for other countries to do more, including at the Kuwait conference last month, which resulted in more than $2.2 billion in new pledges.
The Security Council resolution is a chink of light in an otherwise bleak and deteriorating situation. An estimated 5,000 Syrians are dying every month and a quarter of a million remain trapped in areas under siege. The bombardment of civilian areas with barrel bombs continues unabated, and there are reports of attacks with cluster munitions as well. An inquiry led by distinguished British experts reported on the photos of the bodies of around 11,000 tortured and executed Syrian detainees. Some 2.5 million Syrians are refugees in the region, three quarters of them women and children. The UN expects 4 million refugees by the end of this year.
Against this horrifying backdrop we continue to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict, but there is no sign of the Assad regime having any willingness whatsoever to negotiate the political transition demanded by the UN Security Council. The second round of Geneva II negotiations ended on 15 February without agreement on future talks. UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had proposed an agenda for a third round of talks focusing on violence and terrorism—the regime’s stated priority—and a transitional governing body, in parallel. The regime refused this. As a result the talks were suspended, with Mr Brahimi clearly laying responsibility for that at the regime’s door.
The national coalition, by contrast, approached the negotiations constructively and in good faith. It published a statement of principles for the transitional governing body, stating that it would enable the Syrian people to decide their own future and protect the rights and freedoms of all Syrians. Those supporting the regime side, including the Russian and Iranian Governments, need to do far more to press the regime to take this process seriously and to reach a political settlement, as we have done with the opposition. We will continue our support to the national coalition and to civil society in Syria. We are providing £2.1 million for Syrian civil defence teams to help local communities deal with attacks, and improve the capability of local councils to save the lives of those injured and alleviate humanitarian suffering. This includes training, which is now under way, and £700,000 of civil defence equipment including personal radios, rescue tools, fire-fighting clothing, fire extinguishers, stretchers and medical kits.
The UK is also proposing a £2 million package of training, technical assistance and equipment support to build up the capacity of the Free Syrian Police, working with the US and Denmark. I have laid before Parliament a minute to approve £910,000 of equipment, including communications equipment, uniforms and vehicles for the Free Syrian Police. We also intend to make a contribution to the Syria Recovery Trust Fund, established by the UAE and Germany, focusing on health care, water supply, energy supply and food security. We are working with the Supreme Military Council to agree the best way of restarting our non-lethal support, which we halted temporarily in December.
The regime’s foot-dragging is also clear on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, only 11% of Syria’s declared chemical stockpile has been removed, and the regime has missed the 5 February deadline for removing all chemicals. That has delayed the destruction operation by months, and puts the 30 June final destruction deadline in jeopardy. This slow rate of progress is unacceptable. The UN Secretary-General and the OPCW have made it clear that Syria has all the necessary equipment to enable the movement of the chemicals. The OPCW’s director general is pressing the Syrians to accept a plan that would see the removal of all Syrian chemicals in a considerably shorter period, enabling the deadline to be met.
Turning finally to Iran, the first step agreement with Iran came into force on 20 January and continues to be implemented. The E3 plus 3 and Iran met last week to start negotiations on a comprehensive agreement, aimed at ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is and always will be exclusively peaceful. The talks were constructive. The E3 plus 3 and Iran agreed on the issues that need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive agreement, and in broad terms on the approach to negotiations in the coming months. The next round of talks will be in mid-March in Vienna. The E3 plus 3 and Iran plan to meet monthly in order to make swift progress on the issues that need to be resolved in the ambitious time frame we agreed in the Geneva deal in November. The House should be under no illusion that the challenges remain very considerable. A comprehensive solution must address all proliferation concerns related to Iran’s nuclear programme. To that end, existing sanctions remain intact and we will enforce them robustly.
We continue to expand our bilateral contact with Iran; indeed, Iran’s non-resident chargé d’affaires is visiting the UK today. Last Thursday, the UK and Iran brought protecting power arrangements to an end. This is a sign of increasing confidence that we can conduct bilateral business directly between capitals, rather than through intermediaries. I thank the Governments of Sweden and Oman for acting as protecting powers since the closure of our embassy, and for their strong friendship and support to the UK. We will continue step by step with those improvements in our bilateral relations, providing they remain reciprocal. We are, for example, working together on ways to make it easier for Iranians and British citizens to obtain consular and visa services.
On all these issues, we will maintain intensive diplomatic activity in the days ahead and I will continue to keep the House informed on our work with other nations—whether in Europe, the middle east or on the prevention of nuclear proliferation—to ensure a more peaceful and stable world.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it.
On Syria, I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming UN Security Council resolution 2139. Despite the progress made in securing this resolution, however, the UN’s humanitarian appeal sadly remains chronically underfunded. Will the Foreign Secretary join the calls we have made for a fresh donor conference urgently to secure additional funds? If not, will he set out for the House the mechanism by which he judges the funding gap can be better closed? The Foreign Secretary acknowledges that those supporting the regime’s side, including the Russian and Iranian Governments, need to do far more to press the regime to take the process seriously and to reach a political settlement. Will he therefore explain his continued opposition to the establishment of a Syria contact group that could get these Governments around the table?
On Iran, we welcome the agreement on a framework for negotiations on a comprehensive deal in Vienna last week, but progress on a comprehensive deal must be made explicitly contingent on Iran adhering to the terms of the interim joint action plan signed up to in November. Iran is reportedly still operating more than 10,000 centrifuges, yet the interim deal sets out a much lower target. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what ongoing steps are being taken to bring Iran into line with the existing demands of the deal it has already signed up to? Will the Foreign Secretary set out the Government’s most recent estimates of the benefits that limited sanctions relief has so far brought to the Iranian economy, and whether the UK has any plans to push for extending, or indeed limiting, the existing relief package agreed by the P5+1, so as not to undermine the twin-track approach supported on both sides of the House?
Turning now to the events in Ukraine, may I join the Foreign Secretary in offering condolences to the families of those killed and injured during the latest violence? Recent days have seen protest, tragedy and change on the streets of Kiev. The first priority must of course be to ensure that the transition to an interim Government is peaceful and that further bloodshed is avoided. We welcome the work already done by the EU High Representative, including on her most recent visit to Kiev today, to try to facilitate this transition, but does the Foreign Secretary believe that the EU should now appoint a dedicated special envoy to support these efforts?
Alongside political turmoil, the Ukrainian economy has been in a long decline and is now on the verge of collapse. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether he has established, during his call with Foreign Minister Lavrov, whether the Russian offer of financial support, which was previously made to the Yanukovych Government, has now been withdrawn? In December, I asked the Foreign Secretary about his readiness to call on International Monetary Fund reserves to be used to help to stabilise the Ukrainian economy. At that time, he said:
“If Ukraine is to make use of that facility, it is necessary for it to engage in important structural reforms.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 764.]
Yesterday, two months since I first raised the issue, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that he believes the IMF should be prepared to act. We have all seen in recent months the geopolitical risks of delay in delivering effective financial action, so does the Foreign Secretary recognise that while conditionality is of course necessary, there are potentially urgent issues around solvency that may need to be addressed? If he does accept that, how does he propose that they should be addressed?
The European Union association agreement which sparked the recent crisis could still prove vital in helping to revive the rebalancing of the Ukrainian economy in the long term. Will the Foreign Secretary be pushing for negotiations on the reopening of the agreement, and should the terms of the deal itself be kept closed or be revisited? President Obama was right to say that Ukraine could no longer be seen simply as a “cold war chessboard”, but will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether he was aware of any guarantees from Foreign Minister Lavrov that Russia would not encourage southern and eastern regions of Ukraine to break away from the rest of the country? Of course Ukrainians have divergent views on the future of their country, strongly shaped by geopolitics, language, economics, and indeed geography, but the territorial integrity of Ukraine remains a matter of significance not just to Ukraine itself, but to the whole wider region.
The Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland, alongside Catherine Ashton, have done vital work in recent days, and the Foreign Secretary was right to praise their efforts. Indeed, recent events in Ukraine have made it clear that—as in other instances—the influence of the United Kingdom Government, acting alone, would have had much less impact without our ability to amplify our influence through our membership of the European Union. However, although that important work has been done in recent days, all of us in the European Union and the international community should acknowledge that much work still lies ahead in relation to this troubled but important country.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for Security Council regulation 2139, which was passed at the weekend. As he said, only part of the $6.5 billion for which the UN appealed has been provided; $2.2 billion was secured at the pledging conference in Kuwait last month, which means that much more needs to be raised. Given that that conference was held only five weeks ago, I do not think that holding another now would greatly change the position, but it is very important for us to follow up last month’s conference. Ministers from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development are doing that all the time, and are pressing for other donations. I do not rule out the need for further such conferences—indeed, I am sure that no supportive Government would do so—but if we are to achieve the momentum that will enable us to secure more donations, we shall need a wider gap than the five weeks that have elapsed so far.
The important aspect of the resolution that was passed at the weekend is that, while it does not change the amounts involved, it does allow us to try to help in new ways. The provisions relating to the delivery of aid across borders, which the UN has not previously authorised, and to aid for civil society in Syria, are very important if they can now be followed up. If implemented, the resolution will help to improve the humanitarian situation.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about a contact group. I do not think that I have ever said that I was opposed to such a group, but, as with any issue, a useful contact group must be cohesive in its purpose. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that one commodity we are not short of, in relation to Syria, is meetings about Syria. I do not know how many hundreds I have attended over the past three years, but if they were the solution, everything would have been resolved a long time ago.
Progress is made—and it has been made in relation to chemical weapons and the resolution passed at the weekend—when the five permanent members of the Security Council achieve some cohesion, in this case with the strong encouragement of Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg on the Security Council, and that remains the most promising way in which to move forward on Syria. However, if we could achieve more cohesion in regard to purposes and pressure on both sides, contact groups could be established in the future. I am not opposed to that.
Iran is currently implementing the agreement, as far as everyone—including the International Atomic Energy Authority—can see. We are not considering extending or limiting the sanctions relief of approximately $7 billion in the current six-month period, which is the amount specified in the agreement. The agreement can be renewed after six months, for further periods of six months. If it were renewed, further sanctions relief would need to be negotiated, but within this six-month period, we must and will stick to the agreed amount, and will not extend or limit it. The estimated amount of about $7 billion must be set in the context of about $60 billion to $100 billion of Iranian assets frozen worldwide. That is small relief, relative to the total, but it is an important signal of our seriousness, and it will maintain the pressure on Iran to come to a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issues.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s questions on Ukraine, it is not clear at the moment how Russia will proceed with financial assistance. He appeared to suggest that there should be unconditional IMF or other assistance for the country. He rightly pointed out that I said, months ago, that there were important conditions to be attached, and I still say that today. It is vital that such economic assistance, through international financial institutions, should not be wasted and that it should not indirectly subsidise Russia. Any such money therefore has to be accompanied by serious reform in Ukraine. The IMF could put together a package very quickly; a programme has been almost ready to go for some time, and the groundwork has all been laid, but the Ukrainian Government’s commitment to much-needed reform is important—as it is in any country receiving support from the IMF.
Ukraine needs to demonstrate the stability of its public debt burden as well as strong prospects for access to private capital markets and the political capacity and will to deliver reform. There is no reason why a new Government should not do those things very quickly. The association agreement remains on the table, but the priority now is to achieve an end to violence, to establish a unity Government and to hold free elections that are fair to all concerned. The appointment of a special envoy is a matter for the High Representative to consider, but it is something that the United Kingdom would support.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that bold, visionary and generous thinking is now required in Ukraine, in stark contrast to the corrupt brutality and incompetence of its Government? If the EU and Russia were to resolve this matter together, without strings attached, it would do a great deal to draw a line under this serious post-war hangover and create law-based liberty for all Ukrainians.
My right hon. Friend is right to call for visionary leadership to bring to an end the pervasive culture of corruption and the divisive politics. That is absolutely what is needed in this situation. It is also important for the EU nations and Russia to work together; that is one of the reasons why I have been talking to Foreign Minister Lavrov this afternoon. Incidentally, I did not respond to the shadow Foreign Secretary’s point on that matter. He emphasised, as I did on the telephone to Mr Lavrov, the importance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and of the country staying together. It is important that all channels of communication between Russia and the EU should stay open and that we are able to support such a new vision.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the rapacious and endemic corruption in Ukraine is not confined to the regime of Mr Yanukovych, and that it has now spread and infected virtually the whole of Ukrainian society? We should be generous with financial aid, but it is absolutely right that we should insist on stringent conditionality. On Iran, I welcome the steps that the Foreign Secretary has taken. Will he tell us what steps the British Government are taking to implement the clear obligation in the 24 November agreement to designate certain banks and financial institutions in this country as facilitators of sanctions relief?
The right hon. Gentleman’s first point is absolutely right; that is the point that I was making a moment ago, and he might want to reinforce it to the shadow Foreign Secretary when he gets a chance. The word I used to describe the corruption was “pervasive”, and we have to be clear about the conditions attached to any financial support for Ukraine. On his question about banks, there are explicit exemptions under the EU sanctions for transactions made for humanitarian purposes and non-sanctioned purposes. There is no legal barrier to banks in the EU undertaking such transactions, but that is a commercial decision for them. I will look further at the point that the right hon. Gentleman has raised.
As my right hon. Friend has implied, a common thread runs through the three difficult issues he has discussed: Iran, Syria and Ukraine. In both Iran and Syria, progress, however limited, was made as a result of engagement with Russia. What possible viable future does he conceive of for Ukraine unless there is similar engagement with Russia?
This is a very important point. Again, it is why the Prime Minister spoke to President Putin on Friday, and why I have spoken to Foreign Minister Lavrov today and agreed to speak again in the near future. It is very important that we present this correctly. We are seeking a democratic and free future for Ukraine, one in which it makes its own decisions. We believe that closer economic links between Ukraine and the European Union can be beneficial to that entire region, including to Russia. We are not presenting this as a strategic competition between east and west—it would be a mistake to do so—so continuous contact with Russia and recognition of the fact that its approach to Ukraine will always be important to its stability will be a continuing feature of our policy.
I welcome UN resolution 2139, but when it comes to ensuring that humanitarian assistance gets into Syria, and indeed across borders into countries where there are millions of refugees, the power brokers are still Russia and Iran. What persuasion is being exerted on those countries to exercise their power in such a way that the innocent civilians in Syria are not left either starving or slaughtered?
The hon. Lady makes a crucial point. The one encouraging sign—I do not in any way guarantee success in this—is that Russia was part of the agreement on this Security Council resolution. It could not have been passed without the support of Russia. The text has been negotiated painstakingly over the past two weeks, including with Russia. Now that it has been passed, we will hold Russia to the implementation of the resolution. It is a step forward—as I have described, it is a chink of light in a depressing scene—but we will continually press Russia to assist with the implementation of this resolution, which means getting humanitarian aid more effectively to millions of people who need it.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of the problems in Ukraine have been stoked by the policies of the Kremlin? Will he and his international colleagues take every opportunity to remind the Russian leadership that the era of the Soviet Union is over, that interference in what they regard as their near abroad is counter-productive and anachronistic, and that sovereign nations should be allowed to operate self-determination without hindrance or interference?
We will always stand clearly for democratic nations being able to make their own decisions without outside interference—without duress—from other nations. We have made that clear both in our own statements and those from the whole of the European Union in the conclusions, over several months of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, and we will continue to make that clear. Of course, I pointed out to Foreign Minister Lavrov earlier today that in the events over the weekend many Ukrainians joined in these decisions, including people who were previously of the governing party. They voted in the Rada for the impeachment of the President and for the elections to be held early, so these are decisions that are being made across parties in Ukraine and they are decisions we should respect.
During the recess, I was in Kiev, at the Rada and on the streets, and I wish to thank our ambassador for his good advice and help. I, too, am convinced that Ukraine’s future lies in a choice not between east and west but between the autocracy, corruption and cronyism of the past and a future of human rights and the rule of law. What will the UK and the EU be doing to persuade Ukraine’s new Government to establish an independent judiciary, a fair and balanced electoral commission and an anti-corruption commission with teeth?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has returned safely, and I will pass on his thanks to our ambassador. We are already conveying those messages through our embassy. I have asked to talk to the Speaker who has been declared the acting President—[Interruption.] I am not sure about encouraging that thought, Mr Speaker. I have asked to speak to the acting President to convey the message from the UK that the new Government should not be as divisive as the old one so evidently was. They should seek reconciliation and be a true unity Government who try to establish a new political culture. If they do those things, they will receive a great deal of international support.
The Foreign Secretary may know that the EU-Ukraine association agreement is still under scrutiny in the European Scrutiny Committee and will certainly require a debate. It is important that he has mentioned the fact that the International Monetary Fund, and not the EU, should be the lead on this. The amount of money that could be required of the United Kingdom in the light of an EU financial deal could be so horrendous as to make it completely unacceptable.
I have consciously tried to reassure my hon. Friend on that matter. I deliberately mentioned IMF support. There will be opportunities for European Investment Bank or European Bank for Reconstruction and Development support as part of a broader international package, but those options do not involve a quick fix. The focus now needs to be on ensuring that the IMF is at the front and the centre of any package of assistance to Ukraine. I will be discussing that with it in Washington later this week, as I am sure other EU countries will do as well.
Like others, I have been disturbed by the violence that we have witnessed in Ukraine in recent days, but I have also been struck by the footage of ordinary citizens who have been prepared to put themselves on the front line to secure accountable government. Will the Secretary of State assure us that protecting human rights and civilians will be the Government’s top priority in their diplomatic efforts in the days ahead?
Yes, absolutely. That is why I emphasise that our fundamental interest is in a free and democratic Ukraine that respects human rights. In that way, it can then make its own decisions, whatever they may be, in foreign and domestic policy. The hon. Lady is right: there is a demand from citizens all over the world for accountable government. We are seeing that in many countries. It reaches fever pitch in countries where the Government are particularly corrupt or where the political systems are unresponsive to public opinion. That is a lesson for many Governments and political systems all over the world.
I am sure that the wide-ranging nature of the Foreign Secretary’s statement today reflects the extraordinary volatility of the new world order. I suggest that the House might like to have the opportunity to debate this matter further rather than simply hearing a statement. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with Mr Lavrov of Russia, has there been any mention of Crimea, because of course it is the Russian Black sea fleet that is based at Sevastopol? One must bear in mind the fact that a large proportion of the population there have Russian passports. Did Mr Lavrov give the Foreign Secretary a cast-iron commitment that Russia will not intervene?
On the question of a debate, the Deputy Leader of the House is in his place and will have heard that request. My hon. Friend will be pleased and somewhat reassured to hear that Mr Lavrov did not raise the issue of military intervention in Ukraine. My hon. Friend was right to point out that the Russian Black sea fleet is based at Sevastopol, but it is clear, as I said on the television yesterday, that any notion of this kind is manifestly not in the interests of Russia or Ukraine, and I hope that that point is well understood.
Two weeks ago, Abdul Waheed Majid became the first British citizen to conduct a suicide bombing in Syria. So far, 360 British citizens have travelled to fight in Syria. Estimates of other conflicts indicate that one in nine of those returning will take part in domestic terrorism. What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with the Home Secretary to try to prevent British citizens from going abroad to engage in terrorist activities?
Of course we have regular discussions in the Government and with our allies on this very important subject. It is now of serious concern, as I and the Home Secretary have mentioned previously. I cannot go into details, for obvious reasons, about all those discussions, but I can say, as the Home Secretary has said, that we will always protect our national security. I remind people that our advice is against all travel to Syria and that, if necessary, the Home Secretary has the power to remove passports or to revoke leave to remain in this country, and all our security and law enforcement agencies are working very closely together on this.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, whether in relation to Iran, Syria or Ukraine, the United Kingdom’s ability to influence events positively is largely enhanced by our being a member of the European Union and that the EU’s ability to influence events is largely enhanced by the fact that it has been able to speak with one voice on these issues?
We work very effectively with other countries in the European Union. Of course, I would point out that being a member of the UN Security Council is pretty key to all this as well, but we will always use our membership of all the international institutions of which we are members to try to address such crises and to resolve them.
As several hon. Members have said, Russia’s role in providing an enduring solution in Iran, Ukraine and Syria is vital. What is the Government’s medium to longer-term strategy for better engaging Russia on these and other issues?
This Government set out from the beginning to create a better working relationship with Russia, which had become very difficult through no fault of the previous Government in the previous few years. Of course, there remain serious difficulties, such as over the murder of Litvinenko and over human rights issues, which are often raised in the House, but for the reasons that the hon. Lady sets out—for reasons of working together in the UN Security Council on many more issues than just this one—it is important to have a good working relationship. We have established a frank and good working relationship. That does not mean that we agree on everything, but it does mean that, at such times of crisis, the channels of communication are fully open.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the UK’s role in achieving the Syria resolution—I quite agree with him that it was an important achievement. On Ukraine, does he agree that one of the many reasons for the present crisis was the EU’s early hesitation and a lack of clarity in its aid package? Will he elaborate on what his discussions with the IMF and the World Bank will involve? Given that the elections in Ukraine are far from becoming a foregone conclusion, does he agree that it may make sense to wait until those elections are over before concluding that agreement?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his congratulations. Our diplomats in New York again did an excellent job in helping to secure the resolution, by working on it hard over the past two weeks.
On Ukraine, it is not clear that it is possible to wait that long for a financial package. The situation there is very serious. Ukraine has dwindling reserves, a depreciating currency, large foreign exchange debts that are falling due, a large public deficit and a large current account deficit, and it is shut out of private capital markets.
Actually, it is more like Britain was before the current Government came to power, but it is worse even than that. Therefore, the package cannot necessarily wait until 25 May. It is important for the new Government being formed now in Ukraine to show their readiness to undertake the necessary reforms.
Have I got it right, or not, that a Tory Foreign Secretary has come to the House to take money out of the pockets of people in Britain—flood-ravaged and austerity-riddled Britain—to hand it over to the EU fanatics in Ukraine? Is that correct? Is money no object, and how much money will we give them?
That is not correct—let us be clear about that. [Interruption.] Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that what we are talking about is IMF support, which does not involve tax rises in the United Kingdom; it does not involve any extra money being taken out of the pockets of anyone in the UK. We are talking about IMF support under agreed conditions, given to people who are willing to undertake economic reforms in Ukraine, and I do not think that they would all come under the description of “EU fanatics” any more than the hon. Gentleman would. [Interruption.]
Order. From a sedentary position, the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) moderately unkindly suggested that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) was “bonkers”. I do not seek to make any judgment on that matter, but I simply remind the House that the right hon. Gentleman served for some years—he may still do so, for all I know—either as patron or president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, a post for which I think the whole House will agree he was extremely well equipped.
May I express that last question in a slightly gentler way by asking if we can avoid any Russophobia in this debate? “Ukrayina” means “borderland” in Russian, and Ukraine has always been a legitimate sphere of Russian interest. In the shape of the Kievan Rus, it was the foundation of the modern Russian state in 800 AD, so can we accept that only the Russians can bail out this state to any significant extent and we have to work with them?
Russophobia, as my hon. Friend described it, certainly has no place in our diplomacy on this issue. It is very important for Russia to respect the democratic wishes of the people of Ukraine; it is important for all nations to do that. However, it is also important for all of us not to describe this as a binary choice for people in Ukraine. It is important for Ukraine to have a future in which it is able to have close links and co-operation with the European Union and Russia. That should be what we are seeking, and Russian understanding of that is important to long-term stability in the region.
I gently suggest to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) that homophobia does not have a role in Russia either.
The Foreign Secretary has suggested that there is corruption in Ukraine, and he is absolutely right, but Russia’s involvement since Ukraine gained independence in 1991 has been pernicious, self-serving and corrupt. Is it not time that the whole idea of “my backyard” or “your backyard” was put away, as a means of securing a prosperous future for the people of Ukraine?
Since I am trying to make sure that in the long term we can work with Russia on this, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I have put things in a slightly different way from the words that he is using. It is of course important to have Russia’s co-operation and support in achieving long-term stability and recognition of democracy in a country such as Ukraine. We should always work together on securing that and we should always talk to Russia about those matters.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it would be wrong to lend money to Ukraine before she has a stable democratic Government in charge and one that has the respect of the people, and before she has an economic plan that might work? The British people will not thank him if we lend Ukraine money that we do not get back and the economic crisis there gets worse.
I do not think that anyone in the IMF will want to lend money that there would be little chance of getting back, so the readiness to undertake economic reforms—for instance, any observer of the economics of Ukraine would see that gas price reform is necessary—will be important in Ukraine agreeing an IMF package. That will require some difficult political choices in Ukraine. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for this, so it is a question of how quickly a new Government in Ukraine can supply the necessary political will.
Given that Russia has developed a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan and, suddenly and more recently, Armenia, is it not the case that despite the Foreign Secretary’s wish—he said that there was not a choice between Russia and the European Union—President Putin sees things in a different way?
It is very important for us, however anybody else may see this, to maintain this narrative and perspective, which is true: we do not intend association between the Ukraine and the EU to be hostile or damaging to Russia. However anybody else may present this, we should be insistent on that point.
Prime Minister Medvedev has just described events in Ukraine as an “armed mutiny”. Did the Foreign Secretary make it clear to Mr Lavrov that the whole European Union, while sensitive to Russian interests and concerns, will support the people of Ukraine if they choose a free and democratic future in closer association with the European Union, as well as good relations with Russia?
Yes, absolutely, and both parts of what my hon. Friend says are important: they are what I have been saying. We support that association, including an association agreement with the EU. Our prime interest is in a free and democratic future for Ukraine, but that need not exclude economic co-operation and working with Russia on many issues. We are absolutely clear about that, and he is right that the whole European Union will support that free and democratic future for Ukraine.
On Ukraine, recognising the popular demonstration against the discredited president, and deploring the killing of demonstrators—this House should not be indifferent to those killings—will the Foreign Secretary bear in mind the activities of the far right? It is important to note that, unfortunately and tragically, Ukraine has a long history, over centuries, of racial intolerance and crimes.
It is very important; and we were clear about this in our comments last Wednesday and Thursday, when the violence was taking place: we called for all violence on all sides to stop. A great deal, but not necessarily all, of the responsibility for that violence fell on the then Government, so it is important to make it clear that our message about avoiding violence is to all sides. It is also clear, however, from events over the weekend, when more than 300 Members of the Ukrainian Parliament voted for various measures that have now been enacted, that there is a great deal of cross-party support in their country for what has happened, including among many who were in the Party of Regions, the party of Mr Yanukovych. That political change is taking place with the support of many more people than just any far-right elements.
May I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the heroes of the Maidan who gave their lives, and will he confirm that the UK will do all it can to work with the new Government to bring to justice all those responsible for the deaths, including possibly freezing financial assets held in London?
Yes; I think that the right way for the new Government to approach this, as I said in my statement, is in a spirit of reconciliation but holding to account those responsible for human rights violations. Of course we resolved at the Foreign Affairs Council on Thursday to impose visa bans and asset freezes on those who we know are responsible for such violence, so we can exercise that power.
The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly rightly said that Ukrainians must decide the future of Ukraine, and that political change must be achieved peacefully. Accepting those constraints, what does he think, in practice, the EU can and should do to build capacity and support political development?
We can do a great deal, as we have in many other countries. The hon. Lady raises an important issue. Through the work of our embassies, we can give the Ukrainian authorities clear advice, as I have been doing in public today, and shall do in private, about how matters should be conducted to achieve that free, democratic future with financial support from international institutions. However, it is also important to communicate that message more widely across many different sectors of society in Ukraine—our embassy has begun to do that —and it is possible to find in European Union countries funding to support democratic development and political capacity building. We will be ready to do that.
Whether we like it or not, Ukraine is a polarised society, with large parts looking towards the west and significant parts looking towards Russia. Does the Secretary of State think, therefore, that the constitutional advice we give should include a recommendation for some form of devolved government so that Ukraine does not become a focus for east-west tension or, heaven forbid, confrontation?
That analysis is correct. I said earlier that it is important not to present this as a binary choice for Ukraine. My hon. Friend’s argument is the reason for that: a binary choice would always make it difficult for a nation with that composition to give a 100% clear answer. It is important to leave open the wider possibilities of co-operation, both with Russia and with the European Union in future. It is for Ukraine to decide its constitutional structure. We can support the objectives of territorial integrity and the workings of a democratic state, but it is for it to decide the means of doing so.
In 2011, I visited Kiev with the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) as part of the efforts by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to try to build a stronger Parliament. Those efforts failed. Has the Foreign Secretary given active consideration to finding fresh funding to restart that process as one of the things that we do to help the Rada move forward?
That is a possibility, as I said in reply to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). It is for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to decide its own dispositions. My job is to maintain the funding for that, which I have done, so that it can make those decisions. We will need a fresh look altogether at how we can support that democratic development under the right conditions.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to working with Russia to secure a stable and democratic future for Ukraine and to resolve the problems in Syria and Iran. However, will he make it clear that no nation in today’s world is entitled to establish or to seek to maintain spheres of influence? In this year, of all centenary years, we should remember that that is the politics that leads to war.
I agree very much with my hon. Friend about working with Russia, and that in the 21st century we live in a world of global networks in which the power of ideas has become more important than spheres of influence. Democracy, accountability and human rights are ideas that cannot be suppressed, and should not be suppressed. We look at international diplomacy in that way. I agree that the age of spheres of influence is now over.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Chancellor and others about the role that international financial regulatory bodies, banks and, indeed, other treasuries can play to give practical support to investigations into corruption? Where wrongdoing is proven, what steps can be taken not only to freeze but return assets to the Ukrainian people?
Where we have evidence of corruption, we can act: those who are called politically exposed persons and who live in the UK are subject to that scrutiny. The Treasury is very much in favour of that. The Foreign Office and Treasury will work closely in ensuring that the international financial support I have been speaking about is based on clear conditions and on transparency and that it is used effectively, not in a way that feeds corruption.
What chance does my right hon. Friend think there is of a marked improvement in Anglo-Iranian relations and, besides the enormous nuclear question, what issues must be settled for this important rapprochement to begin to happen?
My hon. Friend is right to say that this is an enormous issue and that until it is resolved it is an impediment to relations of the sort that we want to see. But we also want to see a wider change in the foreign policy of Iran, which has created great difficulties for the region through the Iranians’ involvement in Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the middle east. We would like them to work much more constructively with their various neighbours, including those in the Gulf, and we would like to see a marked improvement in their appalling human rights record.
I am sure I am not the only Member of Parliament struggling to resolve cases of Ukrainians born before 1991 seeking safety in this country who are, in effect, stateless. Would the Foreign Secretary have a gentle word with his colleagues in the Home Office regarding the exceptional circumstances of those who had only internal passports, who have no external passports and find themselves trapped in our asylum process?
This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, as the hon. Gentleman knows and correctly identifies, so I cannot give a more detailed answer than the Home Office has given him in the past, but I will draw the attention of my colleagues to the point he raises.
Some of us on the Foreign Affairs Committee met the Iranian chargé d’affaires this afternoon. He expressed regret at what happened to our embassy. He realises the significance, and apparently Tehran is willing to meet all the assurances sought by London in order to speed up the process of establishing two embassies—something that he himself expressed frustration at. Meanwhile, planeloads of French and German businessmen are visiting Tehran, securing trade deals. Is there at least a chance that the UK is missing a trick here?
I welcome the attitude of many in the Iranian Foreign Ministry to this improvement in the bilateral contact we have been building up over recent months. My hon. Friend understands very well the complex power structure in Iran. At the time that our embassy compounds were invaded in 2011, I doubt very much that this was at the behest of the Iranian Foreign Ministry or with the approval of that ministry. So it is necessary for us to be confident that the Iranian system as a whole is ready to let an embassy fulfil the normal functions of an embassy. Good progress is being made on that, as he has seen for himself. On trade relations, it is very important to uphold existing sanctions, not to send a false signal to Iran that it now need not worry about the economic situation, and the United Kingdom will be careful not to send such a false signal.
How does the Foreign Secretary see the implementation of the United Nations resolution on aid to Syria? Surely that will be very difficult to implement.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that that is going to be difficult to implement, because the presidential statement of the Security Council agreed on 2 October last year was certainly not implemented. That is why we have gone back to the Security Council for a resolution. This has the additional force of a resolution. It has the force of international law behind it and the world behind it, including Russia’s agreement. So it is a much more substantial product of the Security Council and I hope, therefore, as I said, that Russia will now join in the pressure on the Syrian regime to permit its implementation, but nothing is yet guaranteed on that.
My question has just been asked, so I will waste the House’s time no more.
Members of Nottingham’s Association of Ukrainians assembled yesterday to remember those killed in the recent violence, and I am sure that they will welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement today. What discussions has he had with colleagues in other Departments about how we can support Ukraine and its economy at this critical time?
I was just thinking, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the precedent of not asking a question that had been asked before could revolutionise proceedings in this House—and indeed the answers.
The hon. Lady has asked a different question though, and a very important one. Our discussions are primarily with the Treasury about support from the IMF programme. The Chancellor has been discussing this with his G20 colleagues at their meeting in Australia this weekend and I will discuss it with the IMF in Washington this week, so we are in close touch about how not just Britain but the world can provide that financial assistance, but in a way that meets conditions so that we know that it will be used for genuine and productive purposes.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for making this statement, as it is vital that there is clarity about what is in our national interest and what we are prepared to do to protect it for the benefit of a domestic audience as well as a foreign one. Is there similar resolve among the foreign ministries of other EU member states?
Yes, I hope and believe so. I think we are all clear that what I set out earlier is our primary interest here—a Ukraine with democracy and freedom of expression that respects human rights. That is then the basis of everything else. It can then make its own decisions about how it wants to work with the EU and Russia. I will certainly continue to make this point, and I think we have it in common with our EU partners.
I take it from what the Foreign Secretary said earlier that he did not seek any specific assurances from Foreign Minister Lavrov about the possibility of military intervention. Will he explain why that is the case and who the UK Government recognise as Head of State in Ukraine?
I put it to Foreign Minister Lavrov that Ukraine would benefit from reassurance from Russia about this situation and about how we will all try to work with the new Government in Ukraine. As I mentioned earlier, he was very clear, as I was, about the importance of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Those points were made very clearly. We are working with the new Government in Ukraine. There is, of course, a dispute constitutionally about who is the President, but in this situation it is clear that whatever the constitutional provisions, the authority of Mr Yanukovych as President is no longer widely recognised. In order to achieve the objectives that I have just set out it is necessary for us to talk to the Speaker, who has been declared the acting President.
I welcome the steps that are being taken to seek to stabilise the Ukrainian economy and the recognition that urgent action is required, but what further steps are being taken on the other vital task, in the Foreign Office and with other Departments, to help with the constitutional reform that is required across the political landscape in Ukraine?
The Ukrainian Parliament has voted to adopt the 2004 constitution, a system with less presidential power, although that remains to be implemented and will be bound up in the elections planned for 25 May. Our embassy will make it clear that the UK has a great deal of expertise, including in tackling corruption and transparency in government. For instance, the UK is very much at the heart of the Open Government Partnership, which we advocate all over the world to combat corruption and give citizens confidence in the administration of their country, and we can bring the benefits of that to Ukraine as well.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of recent reports that Hezbollah forces are now fighting alongside the Syrian army loyal to President Assad close to the Syrian-Lebanese border. Given the potential that has for wider regional instability, what more can be done beyond the Geneva II process to prevent other parties from being drawn into what is already a highly volatile and bloody conflict?
Yes, there have been reports of that on and off for a long time, as the hon. Gentleman will know, particularly in early 2013, when large numbers of Hezbollah fighters were clearly in Syria. Indeed, quite a large number of them were killed. It is important for us to help stabilise neighbouring countries so that they are less likely to be drawn into the conflict. We are doing that in a big way in Lebanon, where we are assisting with education and humanitarian aid and helping the Lebanese army with its border observation posts. However, the only answer to the risks he spells out is a political solution to end the crisis, and that is our top priority.
My right hon. Friend has recognised the importance of economic stability to the long-term structural stability of Ukraine. Does he agree that long-term economic stability also requires transparency and national and international trust in Ukraine’s legal systems and systems of public administration, which it currently lacks, as does Russia? Will Britain see what more it can do, in addition to economic aid, to assist in enhancing Ukraine’s legal systems, both directly and through our membership of the Council of Europe?
I will make that important point to the authorities in Ukraine when I visit. Britain has a lot to offer when it comes to well-functioning legal systems that create confidence in the rule of law and in property rights, which encourages investment. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will be making that point.
Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), UK banks are often intimidated by extraterritorial US congressional sanctions on any business with Iran, even if those transactions are licensed by the Treasury and are in accordance with EU sanctions requirements. If we are to meet our Geneva accord obligation, I urge the Foreign Secretary please to do more than just leave it to commercial decisions and proactively to nominate a UK bank to handle future EU and Iran humanitarian transactions, in the same way that the French and German Governments have done.
As my hon. Friend knows, and as I said to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), there are explicit exemptions, but he is well aware of that point. As he and the right hon. Gentleman have raised it, I will certainly look at it again.
When the Foreign Secretary refers to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, I trust that that applies to all peoples and nations. In the concluding paragraph of his statement, he referred to
“intensive diplomatic activity… to ensure a more peaceful and stable world”
and he specifically mentioned the middle east. Why, then, does Britain have double standards when it comes to the Palestinians?
That is not the focus of today’s statement. However, respecting the hon. Gentleman’s question, he will know that we give strong support to the middle east peace process and to the negotiations now taking place between Israelis and Palestinians. We want to see a viable and sovereign Palestinian state as part of a two- state solution. That is not double standards; it is trying to bring about peace and stability for everyone in the middle east.
I have raised with my right hon. Friend before the matter of the compensation due to the British Government for the Iranian Government-sponsored mob smashing into the British embassy compound some time ago, doing millions of pounds worth of damage and frightening diplomatic personnel to death. While we are talking about advancing relations with Iran, is not the reality that the British taxpayer is due some compensation under the Geneva protocols for the damage done?
Yes, absolutely, the British taxpayer is due compensation by Iran for the very serious damage that was caused to our embassy compound. As I indicated earlier, there are a number of issues to be resolved now in taking forward our intensified bilateral contact, and that is one of those issues.
As others have noted, each of the countries mentioned in the statement suffers from the malign influence of the Russian state. Although I fully recognise that the Foreign Secretary must maintain relations, does he agree that our long-term approach towards Russia, and that of other European democracies, needs further thought, and that that would be greatly aided by making Europe less dependent on Russia’s mineral resources, access to which it continues to use as a geopolitical weapon?
In our dealings with Russia, and with any other country, we should always be clear, as we are, that we support freedom, democracy and universal human rights around the world. We are committing to working with Russia in many ways, as I have described, but on energy we are also committed to a diversification of energy supplies into the country. In December I was in Baku at the inauguration of what will become a new pipeline route for gas into Europe. That diversification is strategically important.
Ukraine is a historical name but some parts of its territory are less historical than others—for example, the Crimea was incorporated into Ukraine by Khrushchev as recently as 1954. While I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), will he reiterate that if the difference of opinion between east and west Ukraine translates into a different trajectory, we will be mindful of those aspirations?
Yes, we should be mindful of the history. Like any country, Ukraine is a product of many different histories, as we are in the UK. That requires a political system that accommodates that, and achieving it is a major political and constitutional challenge for Ukrainian leaders. As I mentioned earlier, Ukraine is a sovereign nation and we cannot lay down to them what the solution is, but we can encourage them to have political leadership and a political system that is responsive to the concerns of different parts of their country.
On Syria, does the Secretary of State agree with certain comments and reports that the situation on the ground does not allow for transition or dialogue because the Assad regime is so strong, which is why it refused to accept discussions on a Government in Syria? What steps are being taken to overcome that? Linked to that, the Secretary of State has said that the United Kingdom will be providing technical assistance. Does that include providing intelligence sharing so that the Free Syrian Army would have certain targets to look at?
My hon. Friend is right that the fact that the regime feels itself to be in a strong military position, relatively, is probably behind its intransigence at the Geneva negotiations. In the long term, of course, that will be an illusion, because it is in that position in a collapsing country. This conflict has gone backwards and forwards over three years now, and its tide can easily turn against the regime in future. I think it is making a great mistake. I would never comment in the House on intelligence matters, as my hon. Friend knows, but I stress that this is one of the reasons we must help a moderate opposition to stay in being. There will not be a political solution in Syria without the activity of a moderate opposition, and that is what we must support.
Last but certainly not least, I call Neil Carmichael.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a great pleasure to be here for the final question.
It is absolutely right that the issue of political and constitutional reform is a priority, and that the integrity of Ukraine remains an objective. However, does the Foreign Secretary agree that any economic support through the IMF should also be supported, in effect, by development of international trade through and with Ukraine in order to embed political reform and to avoid any binary choice, which he correctly notes is a threat?
We must strongly encourage international trade for Ukraine, which currently has a current account deficit of more than 9% of GDP. The absence of sufficient exports is part of its very serious economic problem. We will tell it very clearly that one of the things that can be achieved if the right economic programme is implemented and political stability and unity is achieved is, of course, a serious improvement in that position.