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Humanitarian Situation (Iraq)

Volume 584: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2014

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful for the debate, because it is timely, and I am glad that the Minister is present.

I care very much about Iraq. I have been involved with it since the late 1970s, when I met some Iraqi students who had left Basra and Baghdad for Cardiff. They opened my eyes to the brutality of the regime of Saddam Hussein and I campaigned against its abuses—first through an organisation called CADRI, the Campaign against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq. Many Members of this House were members, as well as exiled Iraqis such as Hoshyar Zebari, who is now the Foreign Minister of Iraq, and Latif Rashid, a former water Minister.

In the late 1990s, I was involved in setting up an organisation called INDICT, which campaigned for Saddam and other leading members of the regime to be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide through an international tribunal set up by the United Nations. Later, we campaigned for prosecutions to take place in individual countries that had an international jurisdiction with respect to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but that did not happen, despite our best efforts. I went to many countries and we interviewed many Iraqis in exile, but only one country almost went through with the process, and that was Belgium. At the last minute, however, the Belgian Parliament changed the rules of the game.

The evidence collected by INDICT of the crimes that had taken place and of the direct involvement of certain members of the regime was subsequently used in the war crimes trials in Baghdad, some of the sessions of which I attended. Over a number of years, as the special envoy on human rights in Iraq for both Tony Blair and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), I went to Iraq about 26 times in all, and at times when it was quite difficult, but I have many friends there. The idea was to help the Iraqis after 30 years of a brutal regime; we tried to explain the niceties of human rights and what they meant in practice.

I still have friends in Iraq. I was last there 18 months ago, when there was a stand-off between the peshmerga of the Kurdish regional Government in Kirkuk and Mr Maliki’s Iraqi forces. They did not actually clash, but it was certainly a stand-off.

I also meet people from the Iraqi Parliament regularly at the Inter-Parliamentary Union; I always look out for them and we spend some time together. The women in particular need to be commended for their bravery. I will not name anyone, but one woman doctor is a Member of Parliament and she has stayed in Baghdad the whole time. She still practises as a doctor, but she is also active as a politician. Since the start of the recent conflict, she has been sending me messages regularly about their concerns in Iraq. I pay tribute to the bravery of such politicians, because it cannot be easy always to be surrounded by about 30 bodyguards—each MP has about that number, which illustrates how dangerous and difficult the situation is.

Since January this year, the surge in violence between armed groups and Government forces has resulted in an estimated 1.2 million internally displaced people in central and northern Iraq and an estimated 1.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing the issue to us for consideration. The Christians in Iraq are under particularly serious pressure. They are centred around Mosul and the plains of Nineveh, but the takeover by ISIS has had a detrimental impact on them and they are threatened, because of their religious views, with crucifixion, beheadings, bomb attacks, beatings and loss of property. Does she agree that we must always ensure that religious persecution stops and that religious freedom wins?

Certainly. In fact, the last time I was in the Kurdish area, about 18 months ago, I went to a conference of all minority religions—there are not only Christians, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, but many other religious groups as well. The conference was supposed to bring them all together. I also met various groups individually, some of which wanted to set up territories of their own, although I think that they have been persuaded that that is not a good idea. We need to ensure safety for all the minorities of Iraq.

The attention of the world is focused on the terrorist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS or ISIL. Inside Iraq, however, the group is only one part of a larger revolt that has been years in the making. Although there is some co-ordination between ISIL and other Sunni groups fighting in northern Iraq, ISIL is only part of the revolt. Anger against Nouri al-Maliki and the behaviour of the Iraqi Government has been building for almost eight years.

The Maliki Government reneged on their promises to build an inclusive Government with the Sunnis and went after moderate Sunni leaders as soon as American troops left. It is regrettable that the Iraqi Parliament has had to adjourn again until the middle of August. It did convene, but has adjourned because it could not agree on the election of a new Speaker.

Iraqi army and police crackdowns over the past year in cities—including Falluja and Madain—have been part of the escalating Sunni-Shi’a tit-for-tat violence that has plagued Iraq for over a year. In one incident in April 2013, dozens of Sunnis were killed by Iraqi security forces in the town of Hawijah during what had been a peaceful protest. As a former US official in Iraq, Ali Khedery, wrote in the Washington Post on 3 July, the US policy during the crucial years following the 2008 Sunni awakening was to place its faith in Maliki to build an inclusive system rather than supporting other political actors.

The international community should support a process in which all political stakeholders could be brought together to review the political process and devise a whole new formula for the sharing of power and resources in Iraq. More specifically, it should step in and play a role in helping solve the real problems in Iraq by encouraging a unity Government. In the end, the involvement of other countries, particularly those supporting only one side or the other in the conflict, can only destabilise the region further.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on raising this important issue. Like her, I have real knowledge of the region, having served in the no-fly zone over northern Iraq in a previous career as a Royal Air Force officer; last year I returned there, invited by the Kurdistan regional Government. She is absolutely right that the international community needs to support the area.

Some 100,000 refugees from the Arab south and 260,000 refugees from Syria are being supported by the Kurdistan regional Government, and there are now half a million extra people displaced from Mosul and Anbar. I welcome the £5 million of funding that the Department for International Development has brought forward in support, but the right hon. Lady is right that we need the whole international community to stop the crisis from becoming even worse and prevent the complete splintering of the country.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I was partly instrumental in setting up the no-fly zone: I visited Kurdistan when I was shadow International Development Secretary, and then came back and spoke to John Major about what I had seen—Kurds fleeing over the mountains from helicopter gunships and so on. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman took part in the no-fly zone.

The numbers are horrific. The armed conflict in Iraq has spread from Anbar to Mosul and into parts of central Iraq. With sectarian clashes growing, already nearly half a million Iraqi citizens have been displaced from Anbar province. After the ISIL takeover of Mosul and large areas of northern Iraq, perhaps half a million refugees fled from Mosul, many of whom took refuge in areas controlled by the Kurds. There are reports that many are now returning to Mosul because they feel that they have no other choice and that the city is relatively calm at this moment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate and commend everything she has done by way of her engagement with Iraq over the years, which I greatly respect. I agree with her about the importance of engaging others in the region, but faced with the humanitarian catastrophe that looms and given the suspicion of Governments, including external Governments, is there a particular role for non-governmental organisations, including those from Britain? How far will they be able to get effective relief to people in the very difficult circumstances of the conflict on the ground?

That is the challenge. I have no easy answers. I was about to spell out those challenges, in fact. One is access for humanitarian organisations to people in need—we know how difficult that has been in Syria, for example. There is also the scale of need in reaching all those requiring assistance. I will be highlighting both those issues as I go along.

Humanitarian organisations’ access to people in need continues to be a significant problem due to the multiplicity of actors. On one side, it involves liaising with the Iraqi armed forces—especially the security forces—Shi’a militia and the Kurdish peshmerga. On the other side, it involves armed opposition groups including Ba’athists, tribal militias and members of the former regime and military, along with ISIL. In addition, there may also be forces from other states such as Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to liaise with.

Access for humanitarian agencies to areas of Iraq under ISIL control is difficult. Humanitarian organisations have limited dialogue with ISIL because of a lack of familiarity with its chain of command, and so often have to get authorisation from different leaders and groups to ensure safe access. So far deliberate obstruction does not appear to be the problem; it is more the time that needs to be taken to establish proper channels of communication, particularly with extremist rebel groups and actors. There are, however, established contact points with the Sunni tribes already, which is helping with gaining access.

Thousands of displaced Iraqi civilians are stranded at checkpoints separating the areas controlled by the Kurdish regional Government and the rest of Iraq. At first, civilians who fled the ISIL-controlled areas were being allowed to enter Iraqi Kurdistan, but in recent weeks and days, access has been severely restricted by the KRG. Some of those who fled are seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan while others want to travel southwards to the capital and beyond. The former are mostly Sunni Muslims who fear air strikes by Government forces and their allies, as well as the possibility of further brutality by ISIL. The latter are mostly Shi’a Muslims from the Turkmen and Shabak communities who are trying to flee southwards to Government-controlled areas of Iraq where the majority of the population is Shi’a and where they feel there is no risk of an Islamic State takeover.

With the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from northern Iraq, the KRG have gained control of the disputed oil-rich town of Kirkuk and other areas. In recent days they have announced plans for a referendum on independence—a move fiercely opposed by the Iraqi central Government. Regardless of the political wrangling between Baghdad and Erbil, it is absolutely imperative that civilians displaced by the conflict are granted refuge in and safe passage through KRG-controlled areas. I ask the Minister, what representations are being made in that regard? What assistance has been and will be offered to the Kurdish regional Government to help them respond to the needs of the displaced in areas under their control?

Although Iraqi and international political discourse both seem largely out of step with the rapidly changing reality on the ground, the sectarian dimension of the conflict is becoming more marked by the day and Iraq’s diverse communities are struggling to grapple with the new reality. They increasingly wonder where and how they can be safe. For example, in both Turkmen and Shabak communities there is now division among Shi’a and Sunnis. Turkmen Shi’a are trying to flee to the Shi’a stronghold in the south, but the Turkmen Sunni are not even contemplating going there: they are staying put in the north, terrified of Government air strikes against areas controlled by ISIL.

A woman whose relatives—two young children and their parents—were killed in an air strike in Tal Afar on 22 June stated:

“We are not with ISIL, but when the government bombs ISIL we are in the middle and when we get killed nobody cares”.

One man, a father of eight who had just driven nearly seven hours from Sinjar, taking a long detour to avoid Mosul and his home town of Tal Afar—both now under ISIL control—told Amnesty International:

“We do not want to stay in Kurdistan; we just want to pass through to get to the road southbound to Baghdad and on to Najaf in the south”.

Many Shi’a Turkmen and Shabak civilians have alleged that their Sunni neighbours are co-operating with the Islamic State, while Sunni Turkmen and Shabak have accused Shi’a members of their community of being linked to pro-Government armed Shi’a militias. No general evidence is provided to support such polarising narratives, but perception can be as important as reality, poisoning relations between communities and adding fuel to an already inflamed situation.

Minorities in Iraq, including Christians, Yazidis and others, feel particularly vulnerable, and rightly so. The Islamic State referred to its Yazidi hostages as “devil worshippers” in one of its recent videos. That and the abduction of two Christian nuns in Mosul on 28 June are just two examples of a string of recent incidents targeting minority groups. Members of Iraq’s majority communities do not feel safe either. Indeed, most of those killed and displaced in this conflict were from the Shi’a and Sunni majority communities, who happened to be a minority in a particular place at a particular time.

Increasing speculation about a possible three-way split of Iraq into Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish states or entities is raising serious concerns about the further massive population displacement that is likely to ensue. Minorities are very concerned about whether, if that came to fruition, their communities would have a future in Iraq. Iraqi leaders and would-be leaders and their backers in the international community must act responsibly and work towards finding solutions to the current crisis that will ensure that members of all communities are protected and their rights respected.

The recent wave of fighting has also led to many people being detained by the Iraqi security forces and armed groups. It is becoming very difficult to track detainees as areas of control fluctuate and detainees are often moved. Amnesty International has recently spoken to released detainees from the Yazidi community who were captured by ISIL, as well as to family members of those still held by the group. At least 24 Iraqi border guards and soldiers were captured by ISIL last month in north-west Iraq. Some were released later, but the rest are being held by ISIL across the border in north-east Syria. The captives are among scores of minorities who have been targeted in a spree of sectarian detentions and abductions carried out by ISIL in recent weeks.

Order. I gently urge the right hon. Lady to bring her comments to a conclusion as the Minister has only nine minutes in which to respond.

I will attempt to do so, Dr McCrea, as soon as I can. I am obviously not very good at timing myself. I have several questions that I am sure the Minister will be able to answer.

A recent Guardian report states that ISIL has been looting antiquities from the region and selling them in the international marketplace. That happened previously after 2003 when many of Iraq’s antiquities were looted; I understand that many of Syria’s antiquities have also gone. Some $36 million of antiquities, up to 8,000 years old, were allegedly taken from the al-Nabuk area alone. Given that the UK is an important antiquities market and to stop funding for terrorist organisations and impoverishing Iraqis of their heritage, should the Government not ensure that “blood antiquities”, like blood diamonds from conflict zones, are not sold here?

Many families are in need of water, food and shelter, and want to feel safe. I hope that the international community will react with generosity, as it normally does, when the UN asks for funds. I know that the UN does not have enough money—it never does—for such things, but this situation is urgent because people are already dying and the situation may get worse.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this important debate, and I acknowledge her deep and long-serving experience and wisdom in the matter. It is quite something, and I learned several things from her speech.

I will give a short introduction and then immediately answer some of the points the right hon. Lady raised. With so little time left, I will not get through everything I wanted to say.

As we have heard, on 8 June in Iraq’s northern province of Ninewah, heavy fighting between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Iraqi security forces led to casualties and mass displacement among the civilian population. The UN estimates that 650,000 people have been displaced, not including an estimated 500,000 people who had fled previous fighting in Anbar province. Some are in hotels and some have been temporarily housed in tented settlements, but most are staying with families. All want to go home. As fighting continues and access to some areas is incredibly challenging, it is difficult to know how many people are affected, but we know that the mass displacement and long-term disruption to the lives of millions that we have already seen in Syria are now affecting Iraq.

I want briefly to say what the Department for International Development has done. I am pleased to be able to say that the UK was the first country to send a team on the ground, deploying three DFID experts, to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The team’s rapid assessment from the field meant we were able to announce on 13 June, three days after the capture of Mosul, an initial £3 million of support to displaced people. That included £2 million via the rapid response facility mechanism to non-governmental organisations in the region—the right hon. Lady asked about NGOs—to provide clean water and sanitation, essential medicine, women-friendly hygiene kits, basic household items, and a further £1 million for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to establish camps and provide dedicated protection teams to identify and assist vulnerable people, including women and girls. The right hon. Lady knows of my interest in women and girls and their protection.

The Prime Minister has since pledged an additional £2 million of emergency humanitarian relief to help the tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis in serious need. This second package of support will provide emergency medicines, including polio and measles vaccines, food and basic shelter to women, men and children affected by the crisis. It will also enable aid agencies on the ground to trace and reunite families who have been separated while fleeing. That funding is in addition to the £292 million that DFID has allocated to support refugees fleeing from Syria. Some of that support had been in Iraq, and now Iraq itself faces a humanitarian crisis.

The right hon. Lady asked some specific questions. In terms of the politics, the walkout of Sunni and Kurdish representatives from the new Parliament last week was extremely worrying. The Iraqi Government must urgently demonstrate unity and co-operation, but I am sad to say that I see no sign of that. Political unity is the single most important factor that will counter the threat from ISIL, bring about an end to the conflict and stop the worsening humanitarian situation. It is essential that all parties involved in the political process reach the necessary decisions and compromises to form a broad-based, inclusive and representative Government who respond to the need of all Iraq’s different communities.

Humanitarian access is a major problem in areas that are controlled by ISIL. However, our humanitarian partners and the International Committee of the Red Cross inform us that some aid, including vital medical assistance and the provision of clean water, is getting through. Humanitarian actors are adjusting their programmes as the conflict continues to evolve, but it is very challenging and clearly we are not reaching everyone.

In terms of what else we are doing and representations, the UK Government are undertaking considerable political and diplomatic efforts to stabilise the region and to promote unity among those who support a democratic Iraqi state. In the KRG areas that the right hon. Lady asked about, we are working closely with the British consulate in Erbil and engaging directly with the Kurdish Government. We will provide a technical expert to the Kurdish Government to help them plan and manage the response to those who are displaced in the KRG.

On minority groups, our field team have met displaced minority groups, particularly those who have fled Mosul. As the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, Christians and Turkmens are concerned about their safety and are likely to settle more permanently in the Kurdish areas, and our support will reach those people.

I was going to say quite a lot about women and girls, but I think time will run out on us. Going forward, one thing I did not raise—because I am skipping parts of my speech to get to the end—is that the Saudi Government have given $500 million to the appeal, so it is a fully funded appeal. Although it is very positive that, thanks to Saudi generosity, the UN appeal is now fully funded, needs related to the displacement and interruption of critical services in Iraq will not be resolved quickly, even though we have a fully funded appeal. We will continue to work with humanitarian partners to ameliorate the suffering of those Iraqi women, men and children enduring terrible hardship on a daily basis. In addition to financial support from DFID, we are also providing technical assistance to support the UN and the Kurdish Regional Government effectively to co-ordinate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the affected populations.

As well as addressing the short-term humanitarian needs, we are undertaking a great deal of effort on political support to help resolve the crisis and promoting political unity among those who support a democratic Iraqi state—

Order. We now move to the final debate on caste discrimination, which Mr Adam Holloway will be leading. I just mention to Members that the sitting will conclude at 5.12 pm.