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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 576: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2014

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

North Korea (Human Rights)

4. What steps he plans to take in support of the recent report of the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. (902786)

I welcome the recent United Nations report, which exposes shocking human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and I urge the DPRK authorities to respond to its contents. The United Kingdom is actively supporting a strong UN Human Rights Council resolution on the DPRK. Yesterday I was in Geneva, working to deliver a resolution that makes it clear that there can be no impunity for human rights violators.

As the United Nations has found North Korea to be committing crimes against humanity on a scale unparalleled in the modern world, will the Government refer those responsible to the International Criminal Court and lobby the BBC to broadcast the World Service into North Korea, given the increase in demand for the so-called immoral devices of small radios, the ban on which eased last month? We can no longer say we do not know—it is time to act.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend’s last comment. On the International Criminal Court, in principle it could be an appropriate forum, although the DPRK has not signed up to it. We strongly agree that there should be no impunity for crimes of this sort, so we need to look at the most effective way of holding the DPRK to account.

On the BBC, my hon. Friend will know that I have been in correspondence with and have attended the all-party group on North Korea to discuss the issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the noble Lord Alton. We have approached the BBC and are waiting for its detailed response. I must stress, however, that the BBC World Service is operationally, managerially and editorially independent.

Does the Minister think that the UN Security Council will agree to a referral to the International Criminal Court, and have there been any discussions about possible targeted sanctions against those responsible for crimes against humanity?

I remind the hon. Lady that I was in Geneva yesterday for the opening day of the UN Human Rights Council. The commission will formally present its report on 17 March, so these are very early days. The annual resolution led by the European Union and Japan will then be taken at the end of the Human Rights Council and we will work with colleagues there to ensure that we have the best possible mechanism to hold the DPRK to account. Incidentally, I believe that when the curtain is finally lifted on that country, we will see evidence of human rights violations that surpass anything we have seen in any other country in the past 50 years.

Does the Minister agree that the international community’s response to human rights violations in North Korea has been wholly inadequate to date and that we must now challenge that country with the same emphasis placed on security issues?

I do and I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work she has been doing. She has arranged a briefing by Open Doors this afternoon—I have asked officials to attend it—to highlight the plight of Christians in the DPRK. I also commend—this is not a plug—a book I have just read by the noble Lord Alton called “Building Bridges”, which is the most shocking account of what has been going on in that country.

20. What conversations are the UK Government having with China, specifically about the report’s recommendations on the forced repatriation of North Koreans, which is having a devastating impact on Christians who defect to China? (902804)

We have had discussions with our Chinese opposite numbers on refoulement—that is, the repatriation of those who have escaped from DPRK to China. We had a UK-China strategic dialogue last week and I raised the issue with my opposite number, as did my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary with his opposite number.


6. What discussions he has had with the Government of Ukraine on the political situation in that country. (902788)

I will make a statement shortly and I visited Ukraine yesterday. The United Kingdom is gravely concerned by the violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer and may I pay tribute to him for his extensive efforts during this crisis? Many of us share his concern about this rapidly developing situation. Does he agree that any allegations made by Russia that its minority in Ukraine is in danger would be best addressed through diplomatic means rather than by any use of force?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a very important point. Allegations have been made about threats to the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine. I must say that I have not seen any evidence—no evidence has been presented of those threats—and I received very strong assurances from the Ukrainian authorities yesterday that they would not make any such threats. In any case, as he says, such matters should be resolved peacefully, and institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe are always ready to assist with such matters.

As a schoolboy, I took the bus from Cwmbran to Pontypool via the village of Sebastopol, a reminder of how long the Crimea has been of significance in our history. Will the Foreign Secretary ask all Ministers to refrain from any superficial blame games for party political purposes, which are not in Britain’s interest, and to work with the Opposition to develop a united diplomatic response from Britain in the face of Russian aggression?

I hope that when I present my statement to the House later we will see strong unity on many aspects of this crisis. It is of course the Government’s responsibility to frame this country’s policy and the Opposition’s job to hold us to account for that, as the shadow Foreign Secretary often reminds me. I hope that there will be very strong unity on the key aspects and key principles involved in this crisis. We must debate coolly and calmly, across all parties, the measures we should take in response to it.

What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of reports of continuing violence in Kharkiv and Donetsk over the weekend? Does he have any view on ousted President Yanukovych’s claims of legitimacy from any particular point of view?

Former President Yanukovych left his post and then left the country, and the decisions on replacing him with an acting President were made by the Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, by the very large majorities required under the constitution, including with the support of members of former President Yanukovych’s party, the Party of Regions, so it is wrong to question the legitimacy of the new authorities.

On disturbances in Donetsk and other areas of eastern Ukraine, there have been reports of some such disturbances, but it is not clear whether they have been inspired from outside Ukraine.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that without a swift and peaceful resolution to the Crimean crisis, the Government will consider imposing economic sanctions on Russia? Have he and the Government conducted a review of the options at their disposal to apply such economic pressure?

Our options are open on that. The European Union Foreign Affairs Council yesterday agreed to look at targeted measures. Our options are open on the further action that we can take, and which we will take in conjunction with our allies and partners, because that will make any such action more effective, when we are able to consider developments over the coming hours and days.

At this time of crisis, it is clear that the Foreign Secretary must have no conflicts of interest. Unlike the Swiss and the Austrian Governments, this Government have not frozen the assets of members of the Yanukovych regime. Human rights activists in Ukraine have contacted me to complain that the Tories have taken money from members of that regime in the past. Does the Foreign Secretary want take to this opportunity to clear up that matter?

I find the hon. Lady’s question ridiculous in the extreme, and I almost do not know where to begin to ridicule it. Certainly, Her Majesty’s Government would not be influenced by any such matters. I discussed with the Prime Minister of Ukraine yesterday our eagerness to assist with the return of stolen assets and their recovery for Ukraine. For the first time, the Ukrainian Government yesterday gave us a list of those involved; they had not done so previously. I have agreed with the Prime Minister of Ukraine to send a team urgently to Ukraine to advise the Ukrainians on the information they need to provide to us for us to be able to act on it. I think she can now see how utterly baseless her question was.

May I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend on his stamina? Does he agree that it is difficult to take the protestations of President Putin seriously in the light of the incident recently reported of Russian soldiers firing warning shots over the heads of Ukrainian soldiers seeking to go about their lawful business and then threatening to shoot them in the legs if they did not desist? Does he agree that that merely emphasises the fragility of the present circumstances, particularly the risk that either provocation or miscalculation could lead to a conflagration?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point. It continues to be a serious risk that deliberate provocation, in particular, could give rise to a dangerous incident. I will say in my statement how much I commend the Ukrainian authorities for refusing to rise to provocation. I urged them yesterday, when I was in Kiev, to maintain that posture through all circumstances and at all times. I believe that they are determined to do so.

May I, perhaps to his surprise, commend the Foreign Secretary for maintaining a cool head in this situation? Clearly, there is tremendous provocation from President Putin. However, in the end, this situation will be resolved diplomatically or it will not be resolved, with terrible costs to the whole world. In that context, will he say now or later what his view is on Ukraine’s ability to have a free trade agreement with Europe, as well as a free trade agreement with Russia? Will that not be part of a diplomatic future?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. It is important that we never describe the strategic context for Ukraine as a zero sum game. We welcome the idea of closer links between Ukraine and the European Union. We have supported the association agreement and a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement. We believe that those agreements would benefit the economy and people of Ukraine, and the economy and people of Russia. We absolutely recognise that Russia has important and legitimate interests in Ukraine. That, however, is not a justification for the armed violation of the sovereignty and independence of the country.

19. Russia’s actions in Ukraine represent the ramping up of a strategy of pursuing self-interested, unbridled, robust and determined actions. Will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that he will seek unification in Europe’s approach to finding a solution, with a focus on acting together in a robust and meaningful way? (902803)

We will do that. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe attended the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels yesterday while I was in Kiev. There will be a meeting of the European Council—the Heads of Government of the European Union—on Thursday to discuss these matters, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will attend. Yesterday evening, he telephoned President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel to co-ordinate our approach. I therefore can assure my hon. Friend that we will play a leading role in a united European approach.

I have stated previously my support for the Foreign Secretary’s efforts to find a diplomatic resolution to this crisis, and I repeat that today. However, yesterday in Downing street, there was a very serious blunder at a very serious time, with Government briefing documents mistakenly entering the public domain. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the impact of that blunder risks being much more than ministerial embarrassment, and that it risks compromising the UK’s influence with Russia and our key allies at what remains a crucial and, indeed, dangerous time?

Any such photographing of documents or making documents available for photographing is absolutely regrettable and should not happen. I hope that all officials will ensure that it does not happen in future. Nevertheless, it must be seen in perspective. I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it has those implications. I want to make it absolutely clear that anything that is written in one document that is being carried by one official is not necessarily any guide to the decisions that will be made by Her Majesty’s Government. Our options remain very much open on this subject.

I find the Foreign Secretary’s words reassuring, in part. However, let us pursue the implications of what was revealed by the document. Does he accept that, given the gravity of the moment, if every country were to refuse to countenance any economic or diplomatic action that would affect its bilateral standing with Russia, the cumulative effect would be damaging not just for that individual country, but for regional stability and international order?

Yes, very much. I absolutely accept that, which is why I repeat that anything photographed, or a partial account of a document from one photograph, should certainly not be taken as a guide to the views of the Foreign Secretary, and not necessarily as a guide to the decisions that will be made by Her Majesty’s Government. Our options remain open, and I agree with the point made by the right hon. Gentleman.

I am sure the Foreign Secretary will agree it is important that the west, as far as is possible, speak with one voice regarding this aggression. Is he therefore concerned that, at least modestly, a range of views have been expressed by different capitals, which could weaken—or be seen to weaken—the west’s resolve in responding to this crisis?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about unity in the west, and I draw his attention to a number of things that have already been decided on a common basis. For instance, the decision to withdraw from G8 preparations this week, which we will keep under review, is by all G7 nations, from the United States to Japan, Canada, the UK and the other European participants in the G8. I believe we are acting in a united fashion, and it will be very important to continue to do so in the days ahead.

Last week, when I asked a question about British taxpayers in an austerity-riddled Britain having to hand over money to Ukraine, the Foreign Secretary told the House from the Dispatch Box that the only money would come from the International Monetary Fund. Does he still stand by that guarantee, or does he want to amend it?

I was explaining to the hon. Gentleman that the money that will come through the IMF is not out of the pockets of British taxpayers and into the pockets of anyone in Ukraine. Since then, given the situation, I announced to the Ukrainian Government yesterday that we will assist them with know-how—[Interruption.] Which is money. That is a new announcement. It is, of course, small in the scheme of Ukraine’s entire economy, but we will assist it with debt management, financial management, and all the things that were needed in this country after the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported left office. Ukraine needs that, and it is in our national interest to provide it.

Camp Liberty (Resettling Detainees)

3. What reports he has received on the progress that has been made on resettling detainees held in Camp Liberty. (902785)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has informed us that as of 20 February, 327 residents from a total of approximately 3,200 have been relocated outside Iraq thus far.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but in 2013 there were at least four missile attacks that were likely to have been the result of actions by Iraqi or Iranian militia. What can we do to improve security while the resettlement process continues?

The Foreign Secretary raised that specific issue when he met Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari at the end of November—a meeting I attended. We have repeatedly supported the United Nations in its calls for more to be done to protect the residents, and we will continue to remind the Government of Iraq, as a sovereign Government, that they are wholly and totally responsible for the security of the camp.

There are clearly fears over the security of Camp Liberty because of what has happened previously, which has just been mentioned. Is there anything more we can do to ensure the security of those people inside the camp?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and there continue to be worries about the security of the camp. We must set those in the context of security worries across Iraq at the moment. More than 700 people were reportedly killed by terrorist violence in January, and it is a serious situation across the country. We will continue to remind the Government of that country of their responsibilities, and do all we can to ensure the security of the camp.

Sri Lanka

8. What progress has been made on the establishment of an international investigation into alleged war crimes during the Sri Lankan civil war. (902790)

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported that Sri Lanka has failed to ensure independent and credible investigations into past violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. She recommends establishing an independent international inquiry, and as the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) made clear yesterday at the Human Rights Council, the UK fully supports that view.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. I am sure he understands the deep concern on both sides of the House and elsewhere about the continuing violations. Will he assure the House that the Government will work with other Commonwealth countries to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to desist from their harassment of those who dissent, and to ensure that the international inquiry takes place?

Yes, those are points that the Prime Minister and I, and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), made forcefully when we were in Sri Lanka at the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last November. We are pursuing the issue actively at the Human Rights Council to secure an international inquiry of the type recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. I expect there will be vigorous debates at the Human Rights Council over the next few weeks, but we will certainly stick up for the view that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) has put forward.

Given the intimidation and harassment being experienced by many human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers in Sri Lanka, what more can the UK and its international partners do to ensure that those who give evidence at any international inquiry are protected?

This is an important issue indeed, given the intimidation and sometimes the unexplained murder of journalists and human rights defenders in Sri Lanka. That strengthens the case for an international investigation. Of course, we are unable to provide directly protection within another country, including within Sri Lanka, but that strengthens the case for that international investigation. We will use that argument in the call for such an investigation.

I am more than well aware of the efforts the UK has made over the years to give Sri Lanka every opportunity to make good the President’s responses on seeking reconciliation and justice through a reasonable examination of the war crimes issue. I welcome the fact that there is a sense that time has run out for those efforts, but how can my right hon. Friend convey to Sri Lanka that it is in its interests to comply with an international inquiry and provide the evidence? If it chooses not to do so, it will make an international inquiry very difficult.

My right hon. Friend has often done a very good job of presenting that case to Sri Lanka. We continue to make that case. As he knows, Sri Lanka has made progress on de-mining and resettlement, but that is not sufficient to address accountability and human rights concerns, or to ensure that there is stability and democracy in future in Sri Lanka. We continue to ask the Sri Lankans to mount their own domestic investigation and inquiry, but in the absence of that, it is important that we press for the international inquiry to which hon. Members have referred.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that Sri Lanka’s failure to address the allegations was fundamentally a question of political will. Was it not incredibly naive of the Prime Minister at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to believe that President Rajapaksa had any intention of conducting his own inquiry? Given the time that has been wasted by setting a March deadline, what has the Prime Minister done to use the UK’s position on the Human Rights Council to push for an international investigation, which he should have pushed for many months ago?

I think there was a lot of unity in the House on Sri Lanka, but the hon. Lady chooses to try to make it a party political issue. Having witnessed the bilateral meeting between the Prime Minister and President Rajapaksa, I assure her that there was nothing naive about it. The Prime Minister forcefully put the case for Sri Lanka to mount its own inquiry and forcefully made it clear that he would press for an international inquiry if it did not do so. That is what he is doing in his contacts with other Heads of Government around the world. I and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, are doing the same with other Foreign Ministers. I hope the Opposition will concentrate on supporting that rather than trying to snipe about it.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

9. What recent progress has been made on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership; and if he will make a statement. (902791)

TTIP is this country’s top trade policy priority, worth up to £10 billion a year for the UK. Negotiations are progressing well and our ambition remains to conclude the deal next year.

Does the Minister agree that TTIP provides an ideal opportunity to look at having a US free trade agreement based on sovereign states and not on political integration, as well at as our relationship with Europe?

The key advantage of TTIP is that a successful deal would create what would be by far the world’s most important free trade area, and would set global regulatory standards for trade on a transatlantic basis rather than having to wait for other countries to come and set the model for us to follow.

The partnership does indeed offer great potential to Europe and the United States, but as the Minister will know, there are fears that it could lead to a watering down of workers’ rights and environmental and social protection. What are the Government doing to ensure that that does not happen?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that considerable legal and other measures already exist on both sides of the Atlantic to secure proper protection for workers, and those matters are indeed in the minds of negotiators. However, I do not think that we should take our eyes off the enormous prize that a trade deal of this kind would represent in increasing economic growth and mutual trade on both sides of the Atlantic.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who campaign for us to leave the European Union would be turning their backs on a free trade area constituting some 40% of the productive wealth of the world, and that we would be unlikely to negotiate similar terms outside the Union?

I think it is true that the opportunity for a trade deal with a market of more than 500 million people in Europe as a whole is more attractive to United States negotiators than a trade deal with any single European country. Moreover, as my hon. Friend says, any member state that left the European Union would, unless alternative arrangements were negotiated, be abandoning the free trade agreements that the Union had negotiated with other countries around the world.

Will the Minister ensure in the negotiations that the multinationals pay their proper tax in this country, notwithstanding some of the things that have happened in the past?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to applaud vigorously the initiative taken by our Prime Minister through the G8 to try to secure an international agreement on a system whereby all multinational companies pay their fair share of tax, but I am also sure he will accept that that can be realised effectively only on a global basis.


During my second visit to Burma in January, I met Aung San Suu Kyi, key Ministers, the Speaker, and the Commander-in-Chief. I discussed the need for constitutional reform and continued progress in the peace talks, and I raised in strong terms our concerns about human rights and about the situation in Rakhine state. I was also the first British Minister to visit Kachin state since Burma gained independence in 1948. Among other things, I met a group of Kachin world war two veterans, and paid tribute to their exceptional and brave service during the war.

I thank the Minister for his response, and pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker: if you had not raised the issue of political prisoners with the General and Ministers during your recent trip, they would not have been released.

May I urge the Minister to press the Burmese Government? There is still concern about the census. Many people have been displaced, Médecins Sans Frontières has been suspended from Rakhine, and there needs to be constitutional reform by 2015 if there are to be free and fair elections.

We approach this issue in a spirit of agreement, and, in accordance with the pledge that I had given the hon. Lady previously, I was able to raise the issue of political prisoners. I believe that there are still 30 whose cases are disputed.

As for the census, the hon. Lady will be aware that we are providing funds for it, and that it is the first census to take place for a very long time. There are issues surrounding it, but we believe that it is the right course. I believe that our engagement with Burma is on the right lines, but serious issues remain, not least the continuing problems in Rakhine.

I welcome what the Minister has said, and his engagement with Burma. Of course there are many challenges within the country, but does he not accept that the steps towards peace and democracy deserve our support and wholehearted engagement while the opportunity presents itself?

Yes, I do. I have been able to discuss the situation with Baroness Amos, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, in the last couple of weeks. I also discussed it yesterday in Geneva with António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and last night with Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

We are all extremely concerned about aspects of what is still going on in Burma, but we believe that, with our support across the board, the Burmese Government need encouragement on the path towards democracy. It was never going to be easy, but we must redouble our efforts to ensure that they deliver on the pledges that they have made.

On Friday I met representatives of the Karen community who have been settled in Sheffield for some period now. They expressed great concern about Karen people in Burma, despite the peace talks. What is the Foreign Office doing to look at the situation of the many ethnic groups in Burma, not just the Rohingya Muslims, and to ensure there really is peace and that they are given support to integrate properly into society throughout Burma?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that. We are extremely concerned about allegations of human rights violations and inter-communal violence. We have discussed this right across the board with Burma’s leaders and with Aung San Suu Kyi herself. The census is an important step. Whatever kind of Government then come about in Burma will, to my way of thinking, have to recognise some of the differences in the different parts of that country. Human rights are universal; we cannot pick and choose them, and everyone in that country is entitled to the same protection as everyone else, regardless of their ethnicity.

Knowledge is key in promoting democracy. Does my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the assistance this House is giving in setting up the library in the new Burmese Parliament?

Yes I do, and you, Mr Speaker, and others at all levels in this place are trying to show best practice. In effect, we are trying to build a democratic country in a country that has not been a democracy. We are trying to embed democratic institutions and that requires a lot of work, and I pay tribute to those right across this House—officials, civil servants, Ministers, Opposition MPs. All of us have a part to play in this, given our long-standing close affinity and history with that country.

Afghanistan (British Civilian Personnel)

11. What steps his Department is taking to provide protection for British civilian personnel currently working in Afghanistan. (902794)

Government Departments take the duty of care for our civilian personnel serving in Afghanistan extremely seriously and all civilian personnel are provided with a high level of protection, but for obvious reasons, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand, we do not publicly comment on the nature of that protection.

I thank the Minister for his answer. In the light of the recent horrific attacks in Kabul, and, indeed, the risks to British civilians working for peace and development worldwide, can the Minister assure us that the Department will be keeping advice given to civilians under constant review and that proactive communication will continue to be made, particularly with non-governmental organisations, on that matter?

Yes, I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The travel advice is reviewed on a regular basis and each time there is an attack or any intelligence. It is cross-checked against what we are doing in other parts of Government and is kept under constant review.

The Minister will be aware that the Afghan elections are approaching. The international security assistance force is drawing down, but the crucial US-Afghan partnership agreement has yet to be signed. Will the Minister update the House on when that important agreement will be finalised?

No, I cannot. We continue to encourage the Afghan Government to sign that agreement for all the reasons my hon. Friend mentions. We believe it is clearly an important part of the future of Afghanistan moving forward, and we will continue to encourage the Afghanistan Government to sign it as soon as possible.

This Friday morning there will be a meeting to commemorate the life of Alex Petersen, one of the young men who lost their lives in Kabul in January. That highlights the fact that those at risk are not just the civilians who work for the British Government, but the civilians who work for contractors and in other peace-building capacities. Will the Government focus on them as much as on British UK Government personnel?

Absolutely we will, and I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to all those who lost their lives because they were clearly doing a very valuable job, attempting to make the lives of ordinary Afghans better than they are at present. The point of the travel advice is to provide precisely the sort of guidance she seeks. Some 13 foreign nationals were killed in the attack I think she is referring to, and it is a great tribute to them all that young people continue to go to Afghanistan and carry out that work.

Obviously, one significant threat to civilians is bomb attack, which underlines how despicable it was that my constituent Jim McCormick, a convicted fraudster, made £50 million out of selling to the Governments of Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries a completely bogus and useless bomb detector. Would it surprise the right hon. Gentleman to know that those useless detectors are still being used in Iraq and many other countries, and that a company in Romania is now patenting, and presumably will produce, an identical device, which obviously will be equally useless? Will he take measures to inform as many countries as possible of these eventualities, and prevent them from using this device and thereby putting civilians at risk?

I can only say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments entirely. When the Foreign Office was made aware of this issue in 2010, we attempted then to inform everybody of exactly what had happened and what the consequences would be, and we will continue to do that.

British civilians working for both the Government and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) stressed, non-governmental organisations have played a crucial role in helping the ordinary people of Afghanistan, especially women, to improve their lot and have a better future, which is why they are targeted by the despicable Taliban. So what are the Government doing to ensure their safety, not only now, but especially after the military draw-down?

I suppose the answer to the question of what we are continuing to do now is the British military presence in Afghanistan, the aim of which is to increase security throughout that country. A series of programmes will continue after the draw-down, particularly the training of the Afghan military and police, and the Government will do all they can. I echo the comments the right hon. Gentleman made about the contribution made by so many people in the voluntary sector.

Illegal Wildlife Trade

12. What reports he has received on the outcomes of the London conference on the illegal wildlife trade 2014. (902795)

More than 40 nations attended the illegal wildlife trade conference and vowed to help save iconic species from the brink of extinction. The London declaration contains commitments for practical steps to end the illegal trade in rhino horn, tiger parts and elephant tusks, which fuels criminal activity. Botswana will host the next conference.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the London declaration marks significant progress made in combating wildlife crime? But can he assure the House that what has been put on paper will be translated into positive action before the Botswana conference next year?

I very much hope so. In particular, the elephant protection plan, which was endorsed during the conference by five key African states, now needs to be implemented in those states, and funded by other states and by the private sector. If that happens, it can become a game-changing agreement on preserving the African elephant. I certainly hope that major progress will be made on that before we get to Botswana in a year’s time.

This is an extremely important matter of much interest to a great many of our constituents, and if the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) or other Members wanted an Adjournment debate on it, they might find themselves successful.


13. What assessment he has made of the prospects for successful peace talks on Syria; and if he will make a statement. (902796)

The Syria crisis is worsening by the day, with no sign of the Assad regime having any willingness to negotiate the political transition demanded by the UN Security Council. The second round of Geneva II negotiations ended on 15 February without agreement. Those supporting the regime, including Russia and Iran, need to do far more to press it to reach a political settlement.

The war in Syria is a tragedy for its people, who have seen their lives, families and homes torn apart, and for the region, which has seen millions of refugees displaced to neighbouring countries. What steps are this Government taking to alleviate the tragedy, promote regional stability and do all they can to prevent a contagion of this crisis?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his description. I probably cannot describe all those things in one answer to a question, but in our efforts to alleviate the crisis UK aid is now providing: food for more than 210,000 people a month; water for 1.4 million people; and cooking sets and blankets for 300,000 people. So he can see the scale of the assistance that is being delivered. Tomorrow, I will attend the International Support Group for Lebanon meeting in Paris, where we will be working with other nations on providing the necessary assistance to help stabilise Lebanon, too.

I realise that relations with Russia are rather difficult at the moment, but will the Foreign Secretary renew his efforts to talk to Iran and Russia to bring about a renewal of Geneva II, a ceasefire and then some kind of political solution? The crisis in Syria cannot be ignored just because of events that are happening elsewhere.

Yes is the basic answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question. I assure him that although Ukraine occupies a great deal of attention, all our work and the pace of our work on Syria will be maintained. We are suggesting to Russia and others that there should be new work and meetings among the permanent five members of the Security Council to try again to make a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria—I cannot hold out any prospect of that at the moment—and of course we will hold discussions with Iran, so the answer to his question is yes.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on winning the 2014 Clinton prize for women, peace and security for his leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Given the widespread violence against women and girls in Syria, what steps is he taking to ensure that women are properly represented and properly heard as he attempts to renew Geneva II?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have advocated the inclusion of women to a greater extent in the peace talks on Syria. A women’s action group was formed in parallel with the Geneva II negotiations, and I went to meet its members in Geneva and have invited them to visit the UK. I constantly urge the UN, including the UN Special Envoy, to ensure that women’s representatives are included in future negotiations. I am pleased that the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces ensured that women were represented in its delegation.

Recent suicide attacks in Lebanon have shown the intense danger of the Syrian conflict expanding beyond the borders of Syria. After the end of the Geneva talks last month, what efforts is the Foreign Secretary making to discuss with the UN a process to bring the parties back to Geneva and to begin the process of negotiation that is so desperately needed?

The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the dangers in Lebanon. As I have said, we shall hold the international support group for Lebanon, which I shall attend, tomorrow in Paris. He is also right to emphasise the importance of bringing the parties back to the table. For that to happen, the Assad regime has to be ready to discuss the creation of a transitional governing body. The offer that Lakhdar Brahimi made to both sides when the talks last ended was that they would discuss terrorism, as the regime describes it, and a transitional governing body, as the Opposition wanted, in parallel. The regime refused to do that, but it needs to become ready to do that for the talks to get going again.

Persecution of Religious Minorities (Pakistan)

14. What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Pakistan on the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in that country. We remain deeply concerned about the persecution faced by Christians and other religious minorities and continue to raise that with the authorities in Pakistan at the highest level. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi most recently raised the matter with the Pakistani Prime Minister during her visit last October. (902797)

Many of my constituents have written to me about the persecution of Christians across the world and want British Government action. The Minister appears to recognise the sectarian bias, which is a significant problem in Pakistan. What talks has the Minister had with the Pakistani authorities to assist them in protecting all religious minorities?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue. It is something that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes extremely seriously across the world. It is vital that Pakistan guarantee the rights of all its citizens regardless of faith and ethnicity. The UK Government are extremely active and raise issues of religious freedom on a regular basis. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met faith leaders in Lahore last year, and my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi has had frank discussions not just with the Prime Minister but with the national security adviser of Pakistan and the then Minister for National Harmony. We did so both on a bilateral and multilateral basis.

Topical Questions

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer.

With the Antarctic Act 2013 now successfully passed, what reassurance can Ministers give on encouraging other signatory states to the treaty to ensure that they, too, put into their domestic law measures to protect the Antarctic?

My hon. Friend deserves huge congratulations on successfully piloting his private Member’s Bill through Parliament and the significant positive contribution that the Antarctic Act 2013 will make. Other countries need to ratify the treaty’s provisions quickly so that they can come into effect. I know that through his contacts he is pushing Germany and the United States, and I can inform the House that my officials are in regular contact with their counterparts and will use the Antarctic treaty meeting in April to continue to push other countries to ratify.

Given Chancellor Merkel’s confirmation that she does not support a fundamental reform of the European Union’s architecture, will the Minister for Europe update the House on when we may expect some clarity from the Prime Minister about what powers he wants repatriated to the UK?

I was heartened by Chancellor Merkel’s strong words about her determination to work with the Prime Minister to secure a European Union that is significantly more competitive, more democratic and more flexible than it is today. I wish that, instead of carping all the time, the hon. Gentleman would join us in that great project of reform.

T2. The coalition Government have set great store by encouraging stronger economic, cultural, religious and tourism links with India. With that in mind, there is constant lobbying for the reintroduction of direct flights from London to Gujarat, and especially Ahmedabad. What diplomatic efforts can Ministers launch to assist that campaign and get that much needed reform in place? (902810)

Of course the issue of direct flights between London and Ahmedabad is ultimately a commercial decision for airlines, but India hosts the largest UK diplomatic network in the world and we now have a British trade office there. I visited Gujarat and met the state’s Chief Minister Modi in March 2013, and we would welcome such direct flights because a huge section of the population travels to and does business with that thriving and vibrant part of India.

T5. What impact will our worsening relations with Russia have on our ability and that of our NATO allies to bring military equipment from Afghanistan back home via the overland route through Russia? (902813)

That remains to be seen, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Ministry of Defence has important arrangements not just Russia but with several central Asian countries, and there are also other routes out of Afghanistan. There has been no impact so far, but we will keep the House informed.

T3. Next week will mark three years of devastating bloodshed in Syria and one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the preventing sexual violence initiative in ensuring that those who have survived sexual violence receive the comprehensive services that they need not only inside Syria but in the wider region? (902811)

We have started our work on that, but there is much more to do. The team of experts that I formed, who can be deployed anywhere in the world to help local groups and authorities to combat sexual violence, have been deployed to the Syrian border. Of course we have ensured that of those people who will be entitled to come to the United Kingdom, we shall strongly prioritise those who are vulnerable to violence, including the victims of sexual violence. However, we are only scratching the surface of this immense and tragic issue, which we will discuss further at the preventing sexual violence summit that I will host in London in June.

T6. Following the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to Washington this week, will Ministers give their assessment of the progress of the Kerry talks between Israel and Palestine towards achieving a two-state solution and, especially, regarding illegal settlements? (902814)

There remains, I hope, healthy optimism that something positive will come out of the Kerry process. I think Members on both sides of the House will commend the energy that the United States Secretary of State has brought to the issue. He hopes to agree outline terms by the end of March, and at that stage we will be in a much better position to see how we might take the process forward.

T4. On Saturday, more than 100 people were injured and, tragically, 29 were killed as a result of the brutal mass stabbing in the Chinese city of Kunming. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever the underlying issues, that horrific attack is no solution to the problem? Will he join me in expressing our condolences to the families of those affected? (902812)

I strongly condemn the brutal terrorist attack at Kunming train station on 1 March. My thoughts and sympathies are with the families of the victims and those injured. Our consular team responded immediately to reports of the incident, speaking to local police and hospitals where the victims were taken for treatment. The Yunnan authorities have confirmed that no British nationals were caught up in the attack. We remain in touch with the local authorities and receive regular updates.

T7. One of the main reasons given to this House in 2001 for our involvement in Afghanistan was that 90% of the heroin consumed in Britain came from Afghanistan. Thirteen years later, and after the tragic deaths of 447 of our brave soldiers, 90% of the heroin on the streets of Britain is still coming from Afghanistan, where the heroin crop is at a record level. Helmand is controlled by the Taliban. Can this be described as “mission accomplished”? (902815)

The hon. Gentleman is right that the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan remains a very serious problem that has not been defeated, but of course many other things have been achieved in Afghanistan, and he is losing sight of that in his question. Terrorist bases that were operating for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have been destroyed, the threat to the world from terrorism originating in Afghanistan is now much less than it was in 2001, and the Afghan people have been able to make enormous progress in other ways—so that is only one dimension on which we should measure the operations in Afghanistan.

Touching on the Foreign Secretary’s responsibility for GCHQ, in a speech this morning the Deputy Prime Minister initiated an independent review of the intelligent balance that needs to be struck between digital freedom and national security. Even to a keen supporter of the intelligence services like me, that does not seem unreasonable. Why were Conservative Ministers not willing to support it?

The Deputy Prime Minister was speaking in his own capacity on that issue. I reiterate what I have said to the House before about the extremely strong system of oversight that we have in this country, with which my hon. Friend is very familiar. Of course, there are issues being looked at now by the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I think it wise for most of us to await the Committee’s report.

There is obviously an appetite for democracy in Bangladesh. Why do the Government not go further in pressing, as the EU and other countries have, for fresh, free and fair national elections in that country?

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes, but he needs to recognise that the elections were held in accordance with the Bangladesh constitution. I understand that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box, but the final result of elections in Bangladesh is ultimately a matter for the Bangladeshi people to judge. The United Kingdom will continue to provide support through updating electoral registers and training polling officials.

In February 2011, I was on an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Georgia. We went to the border with South Ossetia where, through binoculars, we saw Russian troops and the Russian flag displayed. The Russians had invaded in 2008 and they remain there today. Anyone who believes that doing nothing will remove the Russian troops from Crimea should look at history; it will actually do the reverse.

Of course I will come on to these issues in a minute, in my statement. My hon. Friend is quite right to point to what has happened in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, indeed, Transnistria, where Russian troops remain stationed on a permanent or long-term basis. There is every indication that the intentions for Crimea are the same.

T8. Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), the political violence and deaths in Bangladesh are deeply disturbing. How are the Government using their good offices to assist the parties there to restore civil order and create good governance? (902817)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the appalling electoral violence in Bangladesh, which we completely condemn. We continue to support the Government structures by updating electoral registers, training polling officials and putting in place new systems for publishing details, particularly as people stand for office. Those improvements will, we hope, create and strengthen the foundations for better future elections.

What assessment do Ministers make of reports that Iran is stepping up its already considerable military assistance to the Syrian regime?

The simple answer is that those reports are almost certainly credible. One of the most damaging aspects of the conflict in Syria is the help given by both Iran and Hezbollah to the regime forces. That will need to stop before there can be any peace in that country.

When the Foreign Secretary visited Colombia recently, did he raise the fact that last year 78 human rights defenders, political activists and community leaders were killed—the highest number for a decade? Does that not suggest that the Government’s constant reiteration of the claim that things are getting better in Colombia is not the case and that more needs to be done to protect people engaging in perfectly legitimate political activity?

Yes, in Colombia two weeks ago I raised those issues with the President and other Ministers, including the increase in the number of deaths of human rights defenders last year, which is very important. Part of the answer is a successful peace process, and the Colombian Government have been right and courageous to embark on that. If successful, it will change the entire environment in Colombia, but more needs to be done in other ways to protect human rights defenders, and that is certainly something we discussed with the Colombian Government.

Does my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe agree that although the free trade agreement with the United States is a very good step in the right direction, it is nevertheless very unambitious that the EU spends only 2% of its annual budget on trade, compared with over 40% on subsidising farming?

I must say that if the Commission is looking for a way to allocate its priorities better, beefing up its excellent team in the Directorate-General for Trade would be a good way of going about it.

There has been international condemnation of Putin’s actions as Russian aggression intensifies in Ukraine. However, European leaders seem hampered by the dependence of much of the European Union on Russian oil and gas. What effective action will be taken to stop Putin walking over the will of the people of Ukraine?

I will be making a statement on Ukraine in a moment, as the House knows, and setting out many aspects of that. It is very important that we maintain a clear and united international response.

Will the Government support an independent Crimea if its people vote for that in a referendum, because presumably the Government will support an independent Scotland if its people choose to be independent?

Here in this House and in the United Kingdom we believe in freedom, democracy and self-determination around the world, but my right hon. Friend will recall that the referendum in Scotland is taking place with the agreement of this House and of the Government of the United Kingdom as a whole. Under the Ukrainian constitution, that would be the proper arrangement in Crimea as well.

Why did the UK refuse to join 146 other states at the recent conference in Mexico on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons?

Because we believe that there are other international forums that are more effective for achieving those aims.