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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 579: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Ukraine

We are gravely concerned about the situation in Crimea and in the east of Ukraine, where armed groups have seized Government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk. There can be no justification for this action, which bears all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine. Russia should be clear that the deliberate escalation of this crisis will bring serious political and economic consequences.

In February, the Chancellor of the Exchequer offered financial assistance to Ukraine. At the start of this month, Gazprom put up the price of gas to Ukraine. What safeguards has the Foreign Secretary put in place to stop any aid we give to Ukraine going straight to Russia via increased gas prices?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the aid that he is speaking of is the International Monetary Fund programme, and work continues on that programme. The Ukrainian Government have been discussing the first stage of that with the IMF. To obtain that aid, Ukraine must meet the conditions set by the IMF, including on how that money is used. Of course Ukraine would enjoy a more successful and prosperous future if Russia were to join the rest of the international community in supporting the economic future of Ukraine.

Following the praise of the UK Independence party on Russian-controlled television yesterday, will my right hon. Friend remind the House of the guiding principles of British foreign policy towards Ukraine, namely that Ukraine has a democratic right to self-determination and that sending in the tanks and holding a sham referendum in the Crimea under the shadow of the Kalashnikov is not only aggression but illegal in international law and a threat to the security of the world?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The guiding principles for us are that the development of democratic institutions in Ukraine and a rules-based international system are in the national interest of the United Kingdom. For any parties or leaders in Britain to feed a Russian propaganda machine after the invasion of a neighbouring country is not a responsible position to take, particularly for anyone who professes to believe in the independence and sovereignty of nations.

The authorisation that President Putin obtained in February to use troops in Ukraine did not specify that it applied to Crimea only. What is our policy in the event of such a Sudeten-like land grab in eastern Ukraine?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and that was of course one of the most alarming aspects of the authority that President Putin asked for in February—that it covered the use of armed force in Ukraine in general. As he knows, the European Union and the United States have imposed certain sanctions, but the European Commission has been asked by the European Council to draw up further far-reaching measures and economic and other sanctions to be implemented in the event of a further escalation and intensification of the crisis by Russia. Any invasion of eastern Ukraine of course falls into that category.

I appreciate that this is not in my right hon. Friend’s gift, but in the event of the situation deteriorating materially, will he at least support the notion that Parliament may have to be recalled? When talking to other Foreign Ministers in the European Union, has he emphasised the importance of a concerted and determined approach to these issues and that any sign of disunity or lack of commitment would undoubtedly be exploited by Moscow?

Yes, absolutely. On the first point, Parliament must always be able to deliberate urgently, although I have always taken the view that before Parliament has gone into recess is too early to call for it to be recalled. However, I take my right hon. and learned Friend’s point about that. I absolutely agree with his second point. At the meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Athens over the weekend, I emphasised that the strength and unity of the European Union on this issue will be a vital determinant of the ultimate outcome.

Although I fully support the Foreign Secretary’s strategy, does he accept that the more the Ukrainian Government can reach out to the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, the less of an excuse President Putin will have for taking provocative action there?

Yes. I think that is an extremely important point and it is one that I have emphasised over the past couple of weeks to both Prime Minister Yatsenyuk of Ukraine and Foreign Minister Deshchytsia. We say constantly to the Ukrainian authorities that it is important that the Government in Kiev show that they represent all the regions of the country. It is of course important to discuss decentralisation in Ukraine without necessarily accepting an agenda of paralysis by federalism, as proposed by Russia.

Although all historical analogies tend to be misleading, can it be borne in mind that if we are looking back to the 1930s, as we are fully entitled to do, the occupation of the Crimea and Sevastopol bears more resemblance to the Anschluss than to the invasion of Sudetenland? If the Russians were actually to invade Ukraine, that of course would be an act of naked aggression.

I think there was a good deal of naked aggression in what happened in Crimea. Of course, my right hon. Friend is right about the great seriousness of any further encroachment into Ukraine. That is something we should bear in mind, as well as his point that historical analogies can always be misleading.

As the Foreign Secretary’s earlier answers show, the protests across the east of Ukraine, in cities including Donetsk, highlight the continued risk of violent escalation and further bloodshed in Ukraine. In his first answer, the Foreign Secretary spoke of recent events bearing all the hallmarks of Russian involvement. Would he be willing to set out for the House in a little more detail his judgment of the form that the involvement of Russia has taken in recent days?

Well, I said that it had the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine and that is something we must expect in the run-up to the Ukrainian presidential elections on 25 May. It would be consistent with Russia’s strategy and behaviour over recent weeks to try to damage the credibility of those elections, to take actions that would make it appear less credible to hold the elections in eastern parts of Ukraine and to make it more difficult for Ukraine to operate as a democratic state. Those hallmarks are all present in what has happened in recent days.

I note and welcome the Foreign Secretary’s answer. The Prime Minister said in his statement to this House on Ukraine:

“The international community remains ready to intensify sanctions if Russia continues to escalate this situation”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 350.]

In the light of the Foreign Secretary’s answer, and if reports of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine prove correct, does he believe that that would constitute grounds for widening the economic and diplomatic pressure on President Putin?

That will depend on the course of events over the coming days and on the evidence of Russia’s involvement. The latest this morning is that the authorities in Kiev say that the situation is dangerous, as we have said in this House, but under control. Indeed, the administrative buildings in Kharkiv appear to be back under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. I think we will have to assess the situation over the coming days, but I say again that a deliberate escalation of the situation by Russia will bring serious political and economic consequences.

To what extent has the ability of our European allies to wage effective economic sanctions against Russia been undermined by their dependence on Russian gas sources and do we have a strategy for trying to persuade our allies to diversify their energy sources so that that dependence will be lessened in the future?

I think the answer is that that has not affected what we have done so far, but we have to be very conscious of that point and the effect it could have. We are very active—I at meetings of Foreign Ministers and the Prime Minister at the European Council—in saying that it will be necessary to accelerate measures that reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. The G7 leaders discussed that at some length at the meeting in The Hague two weeks ago and my hon. Friend will be aware that we are convening a meeting of Energy Ministers in the G7 precisely to discuss that ahead of the G7 Heads of Government meeting.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

TTIP is our top trade policy priority, worth up to £10 billion a year for the UK. The EU-US summit two weeks ago re-emphasised political support for that agreement, and our ambition remains to conclude the deal next year, with the fifth negotiating round due to take place next month.

Will the Government use the options open to member states to exclude public services, most importantly the NHS, from the scope of the TTIP agreement?

The Prime Minister has already made it clear that part of our negotiating objective will be to make sure that, when it comes to health services, any provisions included in TTIP are broadly in line with our existing obligations under GATT. We do not envisage any significant change from the current position.

Does the Minister agree that there is a read-across between Ukraine and TTIP, with some seeing TTIP as an economic NATO? Binding the EU and the US together is bound to have political and geostrategic implications, and TTIP can become a symbol of Atlantic solidarity that may well check Russian imperialism.

I agree with my right hon. Friend about the symbolic as well as practical economic importance of the proposed deal. In practice, a successful transatlantic trade negotiation would establish global regulatory standards for business and trade on a transatlantic basis instead of the transatlantic powers having to copy others.

Ministerial Meetings

3. If he will make it his policy to publish a list of all meetings between Ministers of his Department and officials since May 2010. (903575)

We publish details of ministerial meetings with external organisations on a quarterly basis, but in line with the practice of previous Governments, we do not intend to publish a list of meetings between Ministers and their departmental officials.

Will the Minister tell the House whether at the meeting that the Foreign Office had on 24 February with Dmitry Firtash the question of asset freezes or sanctions was discussed?

I am obviously not going to go into details of what may or may not have been discussed at a meeting, particularly one at which I was not present, but it remains the case that Foreign Office officials and Ministers speak to people of all types from many different parts of the world with a single objective in mind, which is how best to enhance the United Kingdom’s understanding of global events and strengthen its interest in world affairs.

Given today’s visit, can the Minister confirm whether he has had any meetings with the Republic of Ireland’s Foreign Minister about its entering the British Commonwealth?

Not to my knowledge. We take the view that this is a matter for the Government of Ireland. Clearly, there are strong bonds of friendship and history between the two countries, but it has to be a matter for the Irish people and the Irish Government to decide about any relationship with the Commonwealth.

European Union Powers (Repatriation)

4. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on repatriation of powers from the EU. (903578)

The Foreign Secretary and I regularly speak to our European counterparts about all aspects of EU reform, including the powers and competences of institutions.

Given that Lord Heseltine has now admitted that the Prime Minister’s approach to Europe is based on narrow party interest rather than the British national interest, will the Minister at last—this is the third time I have asked him at the Dispatch Box—tell us what his top policy priority is for repatriation from Europe and whether that would mean that the Government would then campaign to stay in the EU?

Our top policy priorities in European reform are to make the European Union more democratically accountable, more globally competitive and more flexible than it is today, that arrangements should be fair to eurozone members and non-members and to ensure that power can flow in both directions between Brussels and member states. I would have hoped that those were objectives that the Labour party would share, but it seems that I am to be disappointed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should seek to repatriate control over social and employment legislation, which was handed over to Brussels by the previous Labour Government when they gave up our opt-out from the social chapter?

There are aspects of social and economic policy, such as the working time directive, the application of which have harmed the interests of the United Kingdom, and we do indeed need to seek changes to those policies where we think they make not just the United Kingdom, but the whole of Europe less competitive than we need to be.

No Foreign Office Ministers were present during yesterday’s debate on European matters, so will the Minister for Europe comment on the presidency text, which suggested that we would have to make a decision by June of this year as to what parts of the justice and home affairs opt-out we will opt into?

I read the comments in yesterday’s debate by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. As she told the House then, she is engaged, with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary, in negotiations with other member states and with the European Commission. Those talks are moving forward constructively. We hope for agreement at the earliest possible date, but there is no artificial deadline, save the one in the treaties, which is 1 December this year.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the repatriation of powers under the common fisheries policy has enabled important localisation of benefits for British fishermen, and will he condemn UKIP, which voted against the iniquitous practice of fish discards?

The ban on the obscene practice of discarding and the shift of fisheries management back to local and regional level is a real achievement for United Kingdom MEPs working with colleagues from other countries and with the European Commissioner concerned. It is disappointing if some UK MEPs felt that there were more important calls on their time than to defend British fishing interests in the way that our MEPs did.

The Prime Minister promised us all that EU treaty change would happen by 2017 and that a major repatriation of powers would follow. Given that the French, the Germans and the Italians now, have all confirmed that this is not their priority, could that be why the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) thinks that the Prime Minister has made such a mess of winning back powers from the European Union?

Oh dear, dear, dear. I am heartened by the strong support in Denmark and the Netherlands for our ideas on strengthening the role of national Parliaments in the European Union, by the words in the German coalition agreement about the need for treaty changes in the future, and by the practical achievements in repatriation of powers, whether through fisheries or the arrangements for double voting on the single supervisory mechanism. What the British people are waiting to hear is whether the Opposition are prepared to trust the British people with the final decision on our membership of the European Union.

Freedom of Religion

5. What recent assessment he has made of respect for freedom of religion or belief worldwide and how it can be improved. (903579)

The Foreign Office addresses freedom of religion or belief across the world through our bilateral relationships, through multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations, and through the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group.

Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state face discrimination and a protracted humanitarian crisis, compounded by the failure of the Burmese Government to recognise their right to citizenship. What action is the Minister taking to prevent the Burmese Government from using their census, which receives some £10 million of UK assistance, to discriminate against Rohingya Muslims by refusing to recognise their religious and ethnic identity?

The hon. Lady’s point is well made. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), expressed our strong concerns about conditions there during his visit to Burma in January. He called the Minister, Khin Yi, on 26 March, and summoned the Burmese ambassador only yesterday to make these representations.

In the middle east, with the exception of Israel where there is a lot of freedom of religion and the Christian community has increased by 1,000% since the state of Israel came into being, there is a lack of freedom of religion. What are the Government attempting to do to resolve that?

Not least in response to concerns expressed across the House through the Foreign Office’s mail bag and at Question Time, we have made a priority of visiting religious leaders throughout the middle east during visits. Recently, I have seen the Copts in Egypt and the Catholic community in Jordan, and called in at the Holy See when I was in Rome for the Libya conference, to speak to them about their concerns.

18. I am sure the Minister is aware that the erosion of freedom of religious practice is an issue in a number of Commonwealth countries, including Malaysia, where the Malay word for God has effectively been banned, making the Bible illegal, and Brunei, where the introduction of sharia law has caused huge anxiety among the sizeable Filipino Catholic community there. Will the Minister ensure that these issues are raised not only in the forums to which he referred but through the Commonwealth forums, to ensure that there is real freedom of religion in Commonwealth countries? (903593)

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Minister of State responsible for the Commonwealth, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), has got that message clearly. When I mentioned the multilateral institutions, I could not list them all, but clearly the Commonwealth is key among them.

Over the past 50 years the Jewish population in Arab countries has shrunk by 836,000 people, who are all refugees. At the same time there are some 836,000 Palestinian refugees. What is my right hon. Friend’s reaction to the fact that more than $2 billion has been spent supporting the Palestinian refugees, but zero on Israeli refugees?

Our allocations in this area are driven by need. I thank my hon. Friend for the various pieces of literature that he has provided to me, which I will follow up separately. There is a straightforward assessment of need. The situation of refugees, not only Jewish, not only Palestinian, across the middle east, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon—it is worth reminding the House that we have these questions at a time when the millionth Syrian refugee has arrived in Beirut—is a matter that we are addressing as a priority.

As we approach Easter, we know that millions of Christians across the world will be prevented from celebrating or will risk persecution for doing so. New research by the Pew research centre suggests that persecution of people who practise their religion increased in almost every major region of the world in recent years. In the light of such concerning reports, what specific steps are the UK Government taking as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council to ensure that tackling the persecution of Christians and promoting freedom of religion is a key priority?

That is a good question. As I said in my original answer, the Foreign Office picks up the issue through bilateral relationships with the countries concerned, through the multilateral institutions and through the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group. This is an issue that we will concentrate on over the period. The reaction that we have had across the House and from those with whom we have had contact indicates that this is a serious issue and it is one that we will take seriously.

Human Rights (North Korea)

The UN commission of inquiry report on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea documented appalling human rights violations. The UK played a leading role in ensuring a strong UN Human Rights Council resolution on the issue, which made it clear that there can be no impunity for those responsible.

The report documented a totalitarian state on a par with Nazi Germany, systematically starving, torturing and murdering its own people, and in reply North Korea, backed by China, told the international community to mind its own business. How do we tilt the balance of China’s perception of its national interest so that it stops protecting the war criminals in Pyongyang?

My hon. Friend is right. The Human Rights Council resolution talked about state-sanctioned horrific violations, which it described as

“without parallel in the contemporary world”.

At the UK-China strategic dialogue my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the commission of inquiry report with State Councillor Yang, and we continue to discuss human rights abuses in the DPRK with the Chinese and other parties.

North Korea’s periodic review at the United Nations is due on 1 May. Will the Government take that chance to highlight the fact that 25% of Christians are incarcerated in North Korea, and to highlight the repatriation of people from China to North Korea, where they are treated very badly?

It is right that in the run-up to Easter this House should be concerned about the freedom to practise Christianity. The stories included in the report of the persecution of Christians in the DPRK are truly shocking. Refoulement, which the hon. Gentleman referred to in the second part of his question, is something we have been discussing with the Chinese.

The killing of parents in North Korea, many of whom are Christians, is leaving their children abandoned, confused, frightened, and left to starve to death. Has the Minister been able to have any discussions with the North Korean ambassador, or indeed with the Chinese authorities, who could add their influence, to see whether these people’s circumstances can be improved?

The threat in North Korea is unfortunately not just to the Christian community but to the other people of that country; the threat comes from their own Government. As I said, we are extremely concerned about the persecution of Christians and other minorities. The world is watching DPRK. We need to assemble all the evidence, because I believe that one day this appalling regime will be held to account.

LGBT Rights

7. What his priorities are for tackling discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity internationally; and what steps the Government are taking to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people worldwide. (903581)

The UK is committed to combating violence and discrimination wherever it occurs. FCO Ministers have recently raised LGBT issues with the Governments of Nigeria, Russia, India and Uganda. We used our 2013 chairmanship of the Council of Europe to reform legislation in Europe, and at the UN we have raised concerns about several other countries.

There is great concern across the House that the Government’s response to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act has been too weak. This dreadful violation of human rights needs a strong international response to send a clear message not only to Uganda but to other countries contemplating similar legislation. Does the Secretary of State accept that quiet diplomacy is not enough and that it is now time for targeted travel bans and meaningful sanctions as a real statement that the UK will not tolerate such abuse?

I have spent a good deal of time studying this issue, which I regard as very important. First, it is important for us to encourage a long-term change in attitudes. In Uganda, we support training, advocacy and legal cases related to the protection of LGBT rights. We fund a project by the Kaleidoscope Trust. I myself met the leading Ugandan LGBT human rights activist, Dr Frank Mugisha, to illustrate the importance we attach to this. However, I judge that were we to implement sanctions or other measures, it would penalise poor people who benefit from our development aid or could produce a counter-productive response in other African countries. It is a difficult judgment, but the approach I have outlined is what I consider to be the right one.

There is anecdotal evidence that since the passing of the law there has been an increase in persecution of and attacks on Ugandans who are homosexual. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the Home Office on what approach it will take to those who seek refuge from persecution?

Of course, the Home Office applies strictly and properly the criteria for accepting people who are vulnerable to persecution as asylum seekers into this country. That can include people persecuted or at risk of discrimination or violence on grounds of LGBT activism, so that is an important criterion.

Brazil

9. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Brazil on closer economic and political co-operation between that country and the UK. (903583)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who is rapidly becoming one of the greatest Chancellors in modern times, is in Brazil this very week, as the fourteenth Government Minister to visit in the past 12 months. Yesterday he announced a further £4 million-worth of funding for UK Trade & Investment to support 3,000 exporters and to expand its operations to Latin America, as well as a special Bank of England facility to support lending.

But we still lag behind Germany, France and Italy in terms of the strength of our trading partnership with Brazil. Although the Brazilian economy is going through a tough time, is there any update on the bilateral tax treaty that we were pursuing? Is that part of the discussions during the Chancellor’s visit? When will we redouble our efforts to export to this important destination?

I am sure the Chancellor will be discussing all matters of interest to the UK economy and the City of London, double taxation being one of those. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, who was part of a Government who, for 13 years, had responsibility for Britain’s exports and relations with Brazil, that in the past 13 months alone there have been 14 ministerial visits to Brazil. That level of commitment was not matched in virtually the entire period of Labour’s maladministration.

Let me say to the Minister of State that to be fair to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, he was not part of that Government but a proud Back-Bench supporter of them. That is an important distinction, as I think the Minister would readily concede.

Brazil is the leading economic and political power in south America. How successful are we being in persuading the Brazilians of the merits of the Falkland Islanders’ case that their sovereignty should be decided by the islanders themselves and not by their Argentine neighbours? [Interruption.]

I hope that Opposition Members are laughing about something else—perhaps they are not—because this is a very serious matter. Whenever we go around Latin America and, indeed, central America, we are always absolutely certain to make the case that the Falkland Islanders had a referendum in which they expressed an overwhelming desire to maintain their current status. That should be recognised by countries right across the world, not just in Latin America, if they believe in self-determination and human rights. Unfortunately, one particular country in Latin America continues to bully and intimidate the Falkland Islands.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

10. What recent assessment he has made of the political and security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (903584)

Bosnians are deeply frustrated by the failure of political leaders to deliver on any of the issues that matter. During my visit to Bosnia 10 days ago, I urged Bosnia’s leaders to respond to protesters’ legitimate demands and to avoid ethnic and secessionist rhetoric. The redrawing of borders in the Balkans is finished.

The challenge of Bosnia continues to be exacerbated by secessionist voices within the entity of Republika Srpska. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Europe and the United States must address this threat to the stability of Bosnia and that the international community must be prepared to sanction those responsible for it?

Certainly, the international community must address those issues. We will discuss them at the European Union Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg next Monday. It will be vital, after the elections take place in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October, for there to be a major international effort to ensure that a functioning state is created in Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is not happening at the moment.

This is the first opportunity I have had to put on the record my sadness at the passing of Margo MacDonald, the former SNP Member for Glasgow, Govan. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would wish to pass on their condolences to Jim Sillars—himself a former Member for Glasgow, Govan—and the extended family.

On Bosnia, the Foreign Secretary is aware that Croatian Bosnians are able to access and have passports from the Republic of Croatia; that, soon, Bosnian Serbs will be able to have Serbian EU passports; and that the one group of citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina who will not be able to have EU passports are the Bosniaks themselves. What can the Foreign Secretary do to ensure a European perspective for all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

I join in the tribute to Margo MacDonald on her passing and to her strong record in this House in the past.

On the very important question of what happens to the whole population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I spoke about it on Saturday with other EU Foreign Ministers, including those from EU candidate countries, and stressed the very point the hon. Gentleman has just made. An unstable Bosnia threatens the stability of the whole of the western Balkans. That is why we have to make sure there is a functioning state in that country in the coming years.

Israel

11. What recent assessment he has made of progress in peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. (903585)

In the past few days, I have discussed progress with Secretary Kerry and President Abbas, and I will speak to my Israeli counterparts in the coming days. Secretary Kerry’s tireless efforts provide an unparalleled opportunity to achieve a two-state solution. I urge both parties to show the bold leadership needed to resolve this conflict once and for all.

I certainly welcome the information provided by the Foreign Secretary, but he will be aware of press stories that the latest report by the European heads of mission in East Jerusalem states that Israeli policies in Jerusalem are aimed at

“cementing its unilateral and illegal annexation of East Jerusalem”,

with an unprecedented surge in settlement activity. Does the Foreign Secretary concur with that view and, if so, what is he doing to ensure the future of Jerusalem as a shared capital as part of the negotiations?

Jerusalem, as a shared capital, is part of what we believe is a characteristic of achieving a two-state solution, along with a solution based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps and with a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. It is vital that that possibility is kept open. That is why so many of us on all sides of the House have voiced such strong disapproval of settlements on occupied land, which are illegal. We make that point regularly to the Israelis—indeed, I will do so to an Israeli Minister this afternoon—and we urge them to take the opportunity of peace.

Last December, the Foreign Secretary said that the British Government have been

“clear to the Palestinians that there is no alternative to negotiations”

and that “we oppose unilateral measures”. What representation has he made to the Palestinian Authority following its return to unilateral actions last week, in violation of its commitment to abstain for the duration of direct peace talks?

I called President Abbas last Thursday to repeat our view that the only chance of achieving a viable and sovereign Palestinian state is through negotiations. President Abbas assured me that he remains committed to negotiations, so we will continue to encourage him and Israeli leaders to make a success—even at this stage—of this opportunity.

It is essential that both sides return to negotiations and that they recognise that they will both have to make great compromises to secure a negotiated peace. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the Palestinian leadership has been preparing the Palestinians for peace when terrorists freed by Israel have been welcomed in the Palestinian Authority as heroes? A broadcast by Palestinian Authority TV has honoured Dalal Mughrabi, who was responsible for a hijacking in which 37 Israeli citizens, including 12 children, were killed.

Prisoner releases are always controversial in a peace process, as we know well in our own country, but I absolutely regard President Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians, as a man of peace, and I pay tribute to the bold leadership that he has shown on these issues in recent months. As the hon. Lady has just heard, I have urged him to continue with that, and we must focus on that point.

What is Government policy on Palestine applying as a state to be a member of international political or cultural organisations?

Last week, President Abbas signed and submitted letters of accession to 15 conventions, including the fourth Geneva convention. No decision is imminent or necessary at the moment on these things, and given that our focus is on urging both Palestinians and Israelis to make a success of the negotiations, I do not believe that it would be wise for us or other countries to pass judgment on those applications now.

UN Human Rights Council

13. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council on global efforts to uphold universal human rights. (903587)

The 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council took strong action to combat impunity by voting through resolutions on Syria, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Sri Lanka in response to UN reporting on allegations of serious human rights violations.

I will focus on the international inquiry into the conflict in Sri Lanka. Given the Rajapaksa Government’s hostility, what mechanisms are available to the inquiry to enable it to carry out its investigation on the island and what protections can it give to the witnesses that come before it, both of which are absolutely critical if we are to get to the bottom of the events in 2009?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We got through the resolution that we wanted. The Prime Minister showed tremendous leadership on this. We were completely vindicated in our decision to go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary included—because had we not gone there, we would not be in the position that we are today. Now that the international community has spoken through the United Nations Human Rights Council, it is important that the Government in Colombo listen to what has been said and what is asked of them, and that we can conduct an investigation through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to make that country a better place for all.

Will the Minister also maintain the robust approach to human rights abuses in Tibet with the UK-China human rights dialogue coming up, and will he press the Chinese for a date for the visit to Tibet and China by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to which China has agreed?

We are of course looking forward to the human rights dialogue with the Chinese, for which a date will be forthcoming shortly. It is worth saying that the new configuration of the Human Rights Council means that it is less prepared to support country mandates, because re-elected along with the United Kingdom were Russia, China and Cuba.

Despite the release of Sakineh Ashtiani, many other women in Iran face the death penalty, in breach of their human rights. Will the Minister raise their case and uphold their human rights?

To my way of thinking, human rights are universal, and where they are being abrogated or violated, attention needs to be drawn to it. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary acts on that.

Libya

14. What discussions he has had with the Libyan Government on reparations for people killed in attacks made using Libyan Semtex. (903588)

Successive UK Governments have not routinely negotiated with foreign Governments over private compensation claims. However, the UK has raised with the Libyan authorities on a number of occasions the importance of engaging with UK victims seeking redress, including those seeking compensation through private campaigns, and with their legal representatives.

The Minister will be aware that the American victims of Semtex bombings have received more than £1 billion of compensation, while the 200 UK victims have so far received nothing. Can he assure the House that no deal was done in 2008 as part of the normalisation of relations with Gaddafi, to the detriment of my constituents?

Yes, I can. I should probably say to my hon. Friend that the situation here is very different from that in the United States, because we have victims who have suffered by a wide range of means, not merely Semtex. However, I can absolutely assure him that the claim that Government officials took any action in the 2008 bilateral agreement between the US and Libya that denied UK victims compensation is wrong.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already had one go. His appetite ought to have been satisfied for now. He seems to be a hungry caterpillar, but he will have to wait. Never mind.

Syria

The UK is leading international efforts to help the estimated 4.1 million Syrian refugees in the region and 6.5 million internally displaced people. So far we have provided £241 million in life-saving support to civilians caught up in the conflict and allocated £292 million to help refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries.

Is my right hon. Friend concerned by reports from Open Doors that 3,000 Christians have fled their homes in Kessab, in northern Syria, in the past few days owing to fighters of the al-Nusra Front and ISIS entering north-west Syria from Turkey? Ethnic conflict is increasing there and aid cannot get through. Has he made representations to the relevant authorities about Turkey’s porous borders?

We are very concerned about reports of violence and of people being displaced in Kessab. It is difficult to establish accurate numbers, but we are working closely with the Turkish Government to restrict the ability of foreign fighters to cross into Syria. I have discussed that recently with the Foreign Minister of Turkey.

It has been promised many times, but what progress has been made on gaining unimpeded humanitarian access in Syria?

Very little progress has been made, despite the successful passing of UN Security Council resolution 2139, which included the authorisation of cross-border access. The Security Council is due to review the position every 30 days, and at the coming review we will press strongly for full use to be made of what is authorised in that resolution.

Topical Questions

Yesterday I attended the commemoration in Rwanda on the 20th anniversary of the genocide, and today I will join in welcoming the President of the Irish Republic on his historic state visit.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome robust political engagement with European politicians such as Martin Schulz, the socialist President of the European Parliament, or will he be on his knees begging him not to come to the UK during the European parliamentary campaign, like the Labour party?

Robust political engagement is definitely the option to take, but there is nothing robust about being in alliance with other parties when you are ashamed to see their leader and candidate come to this country.

I welcome the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, but given that President Rajapaksa has failed to comply with previous resolutions and with the very generous last-chance offer that the Prime Minister gave him at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and has now rejected the current resolution outright, does the Foreign Secretary still think it is appropriate for President Rajapaksa to continue as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth? If this is referred to the Commonwealth ministerial action group, what position will the UK take?

The UK is not on the Commonwealth ministerial action group, as the hon. Lady knows, nor is it in our gift to determine the chair of the Commonwealth ourselves, but it was within our gift to decide to go to Sri Lanka and to raise these issues. As the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) has just made clear, there would have been no chance of succeeding in the Human Rights Council, as we recently did, had it not been for the Prime Minister’s leadership, our presence in Sri Lanka and our willingness to show how passionate we are about what happened in the north of Sri Lanka. The Opposition’s attitude of not going to Sri Lanka would have been a terrible misjudgement.

T3. I was pleased to read in a recent report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Government have been developing a strategy towards the Gulf. In view of the obvious complexities of the middle east, does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is now a very good case for opening up that approach to a broader regional strategy? (903565)

Absolutely. The Gulf strategy has been developed over a number of years and is already paying benefits not only diplomatically but economically and commercially across a wide range of areas. Indeed, the strategy has been such a success that many other people are looking to establish such a relationship with us.

T4. Has the Secretary of State received any recent reports on the condition of the seven Baha’i leaders who are now approaching the sixth anniversary of their incarceration in Iran? Will he take this opportunity to call again for their release? (903566)

Yes, we will. As the hon. Lady is aware, there is a gradual and staged process of unfreezing relationships with the Iranian Government. We have not directly addressed that issue personally at ministerial level, but it is one of the issues that we will take up as we move the relationship forward.

What is the Foreign Secretary’s view of the bizarre situation in which this country pays overseas aid to the Palestinian Authority, which uses it to pay salaries to the families of convicted terrorists in Israel?

As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, at the moment the entire and sole focus of our policy on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories has to be to get behind the peace process led by John Kerry. Once that process has been concluded—I hope successfully—there will be an opportunity to look at all these issues afresh.

T5. In a recent report on Colombia, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights again emphasised her concerns about human rights. Will the Minister confirm what recent discussions he has had with the Colombian Government on protecting the safety of human rights defenders and trade unionists? (903567)

Human rights continue to be a very important part of our relationship with Colombia. We discussed human rights with President Santos and Defence Minister Pinzon during the visit of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to Colombia in February. He also met a range of non-governmental organisations that work in the human rights field and hosted a high-profile event on sexual violence in conflict. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) will want to be aware that we are also publishing our annual human rights report on Thursday.

Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has held a number of elections in which the results have been called into question by the various participants, and it is crucial that that does not reoccur. What help and support are the UK giving to the Government of Ukraine to ensure that the forthcoming elections are truly free and fair?

I have made that very point strongly to Ukrainian leaders that it is important that the elections on 25 May are well observed internationally and are accepted as fully free and fair, which includes accepting the recommendations made by observers of previous elections. I believe the Ukrainians have the resources to do that, so our efforts will be focused on ensuring good observation and trying to ensure good procedures.

T6. The Foreign Secretary has talked proudly of his preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative and the summit in June. Given the concerns that many hon. Members have about what is happening in Sri Lanka, does he believe that the Sri Lankan Government will attend, and what action will he take if they do not? (903568)

Of course, I am not able to compel any Government to attend. I have invited the 143 nations that so far have endorsed the declaration that I launched on ending sexual violence to attend the summit in June, but I cannot force any of them to do so. However, given events in Sri Lanka in recent decades, it would be highly appropriate for the Sri Lankan Government to be there and to present their plans. I have encouraged them to do so.

As a unique financial hub, we have the power to inflict more painful sanctions not only on Russians who are involved in assisting intervention in the Ukraine, but on the wealthy friends and backers of Vladimir Putin. We also have a unique responsibility as the European guarantor of the Budapest memorandum, which should have protected Ukraine from Russian aggression. If Russia further violates Ukrainian sovereignty, should we not use that power to uphold that responsibility?

The Budapest memorandum of 1994 does not give us a specific power other than to call for consultations with the other signatories. Although we, Ukraine and the United States have done that, Russia has refused to join those consultations. However, the European Commission has been asked to prepare more far-reaching measures which, as the Prime Minister has said, cover economic, financial and trade areas. It is doing that work. We will be in favour of such far-reaching measures if Russia deliberately continues and deliberately escalates the situation in Ukraine.

T8. Greenpeace campaigns against Procter & Gamble’s use of palm oil, which reports say is being sourced from companies contributing to the deforestation in Indonesia, endangering the habitats of Sumatran tigers, elephants and orangutans. Given that the Minister is the Government’s strategic relations manager for Procter & Gamble, what discussions has he had with the company on the matter, and can he say whether this would be endorsed under the Government’s action plan on business and human rights? (903571)

I confirm that I have had no such discussions to date with Procter & Gamble. If the hon. Lady would like to meet me to discuss her concerns in greater detail, I am sure that I would prove a useful conduit for them.

Following the successful renegotiation of fisheries policy back to regional control, will the Government use their good offices to ensure that they decide which greening measures to use rather than them being dictated by the EU?

My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs always have in mind in the application of European rules how they can secure the best possible opportunities for this country’s agriculture. They will continue to do so.

T9. Will the Minister give us an update on the political situation in Venezuela, and tell us what prospects he sees for dialogue and an end to violence? What action are the UK Government taking in relation to that? (903572)

We are extremely concerned about the situation in Venezuela. In my statement of 26 March, I urged all sides to take steps to avoid confrontation, reduce tensions and create the right conditions for genuine dialogue. A commission of Foreign Ministers from the Union of South American Nations group of countries is on its second visit to Venezuela as we speak. They will support and advise on dialogue between the parties. We hope that that will play a positive role in helping to avoid violence and in promoting reconciliation in Venezuela.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had about the situation in Ukraine with his counterparts in other countries in the former Soviet Union but outside the European Union, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, to understand their perspectives and concerns as he develops his thinking on that area?

We have had many discussions at many different levels with those countries. I think it was significant that, when it came to the vote at the UN General Assembly on what has happened in Crimea, only 11 countries in the world supported the Russian position. Even many of the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States were not willing to support the Russian position. That is an illustration of Russia’s diplomatic isolation on the issue.

The long-suffering Christian communities of Kessab were mentioned earlier. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that this community is predominantly of Armenian origin, facing the 100th anniversary of the last Armenian genocide. Many of my Armenian constituents are convinced that Turkey is facilitating, or at least not preventing, the cross-border attacks and atrocities. Will he undertake to raise this matter with his opposite numbers?

As I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), we are very concerned about what has happened, particularly in recent days, in that part of Syria. We do, in any case, raise with Turkey the importance of doing everything possible to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Given the concern in this House, it is a point we will raise again with the Turkish Government.

Following the Minister for Europe’s visit to Georgia last week, does he now discern a pattern of prosecutorial intimidation of Opposition politicians, and does he share my extreme concern that the highly respected Giga Bokeria was hauled in by prosecutors on Friday?

In my conversations with the Prime Minister and other Ministers when I was in Georgia last week, I repeated very clearly that it is in Georgia’s interests, as well as the expectation of the United Kingdom and Georgia’s other friends, that while no one should be exempt from due process, we should avoid any appearance or risk of selective justice of the kind we saw under the previous regime in Ukraine.

Once again there has been very little discussion today of the situation in Syria, yet the conflict continues. Thousands are being killed and millions are being displaced. What are the Government and the international community doing to stop this dreadful conflict?

The hon. Lady is quite right. This remains the most serious crisis in international affairs, even by comparison with all the others we have discussed. The international community has so far failed to resolve this conflict. We remain in favour of a third round of the Geneva talks, but that requires greater flexibility on the part of the regime with regard to what it will negotiate. In the absence of such progress, our focus is on humanitarian assistance to the millions of people displaced. On that, the United Kingdom plays a leading role in the world.

The Foreign Secretary will have heard the findings of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the impact of climate change. What diplomatic initiatives are his Department taking to broker international agreement to cut global carbon emissions?

The United Kingdom is one of the most active countries in the world diplomatically in promoting global, binding agreement to address climate change. The IPCC report underlines the extreme urgency of this issue. I discuss regularly with Secretary Kerry what we can do with the US Administration to push forward international agreement. We will remain very active on this issue.

Fifteen thousand UK jobs rely on employment in the Ford plants at both Dagenham and Bridgend, which is close to my constituency. What does the Minister make of the comments by Steve Odell, the chief executive of Ford’s European operations, who said:

“I don’t want to threaten the British government”—

but, and it is a big but—

“I would strongly advise against leaving the EU for business purposes, and for employment purposes in the UK”?

Mr Odell, like many other business leaders in this country, has been very clear about the economic risks that would be taken were the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. That, no doubt, will be one of the chief arguments in the referendum debate that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has promised. At the end of the day, it should be for the people to decide, having taken into account all arguments, both for and against membership.