Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 579: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2014

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.