House of Commons
Tuesday 24 May 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
business before questions
Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the Address of 25th April, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Ruth Evans to the Office of Chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for a period of 5 years with effect from 1 June 2016, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
EU Sanctions: Russia
Russia is failing to fulfil its commitments under the Minsk agreements. Ceasefire violations in the Donbas continue, and these must end. Russia must stop supporting and directing the separatists. Last year, the European Council decided sanctions should be clearly linked to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. We strongly support the continued application of this robust approach, and we expect that the European Union will extend tier 3 sanctions for a further six months this summer. There are separate sanctions in place relating specifically to Crimea, and our strong view is that they must remain in place while Russia’s illegal annexation continues.
I regret that I have to say to my hon. Friend that it is a long haul of maintaining pressure on Russia—through isolation from the international community and through maintaining the EU sanctions that are in place. At the moment, we have no other tools that are likely to prove effective.
I very much understand the need for sanctions because of Russia’s aggression towards the Ukraine, but one problem is that milk and other dairy products are very much involved in those sanctions, and that is having a dramatic effect in terms of the downward price of dairy products. Is there any way that the food and dairy side of these sanctions can be taken away?
The sanctions my hon. Friend refers to are in fact Russian counter-sanctions that have been imposed against EU producers. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, despite the sanctions measures Russia has taken in retaliation against EU agricultural producers, agricultural exports from the European Union in 2015 were up by 6%, showing that our producers—Europe-wide producers—are able to address the challenge of Russian sanctions and to find alternative markets elsewhere.
On the Ukraine, does the Secretary of State accept that Russian bombing of Syrian civilians to provoke refugees and possibly to tilt the balance in favour of Brexit is part of a strategy to fragment European resolve on Ukraine? He is frowning—obviously he has not thought about that.
There is definitely a Russian strategy to try to fragment European resolve. It is probably a step too far to suggest that Russia’s engagement in Syria is designed only to apply pressure over Ukraine. Russia has important and historical equities in Syria and is seeking to defend its interests there. But, overall, Russia’s behaviour in Syria and Ukraine gives us deep cause for concern about the established security settlement that we have been used to living with for the last 25 years.
Did the Secretary of State read the Max Hastings article in The Sunday Times this Sunday, in which he expresses deep concern about the threat from Russia and about the way Russia is now preparing to use cyber-methods against Europe and our allies? Will he take action to make sure that this country of ours is prepared to match up to those threats, and will he seek succour from the European Union in doing that?
I did not read the article in The Sunday Times that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but I am very familiar with that author’s views on this subject and very familiar with the problem. We are taking action to strengthen our cyber-defence and, as I announced three years ago when I was Defence Secretary, to create an avowed UK offensive cyber-capability. We are still the only nation that has publicly declared the fact that we are developing an offensive cyber-capability for retaliatory purposes if we are attacked.
The Foreign Affairs Committee was in Russia last week and would certainly agree with the assessment that our relations with Russia are in the deep freeze, as reflected by my right hon. Friend’s rhetoric. Russia appears to be strategically stuck in its position in the global naughty corner of international relations. Do we not need to be thinking about ways in which we might get Russia out of this position, even if it is only a substantial investment in people-to-people links, Chevening scholarships, cultural relations and everything else?
I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that although our relationships with Russia are in a very difficult phase at the moment and we have suspended most business-as-usual relations, we have maintained our cultural links with Russia and cultural exchanges do continue, including at ministerial level. Russia has its own agenda, and from the point of view of the Kremlin it is not so obvious to me that it will regard its current strategy as failing and in need of revision. Russia is ensuring that the countries that it regards as its near abroad are unable to make free choices about their futures, and I judge that to be the No. 1 priority for the Kremlin.
Does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is any scope for expanding the EU sanctions to include the Russians involved in the murder of Magnitsky and also the Russians involved in the expropriation of $100 billion dollars-worth of shareholders’ money in relation to Yukos?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Yukos issue is a matter that is currently before the courts, and there has been a recent decision in this case. We have looked at the options for expanding sanctions to cover other areas, but we found that the individuals who could be targeted are already either, in effect, covered by other measures or would not be affected by the kind of sanctions that we could impose. So, as a Government, we do not see any prospect of expanded sanctions.
Returning to the original question by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), does my right hon. Friend agree that there can be no question of EU sanctions or Council of Europe sanctions being lifted until Nadiya Savchenko is unconditionally released, until intervention in Donbas has ceased, and until the future of Crimea is properly and freely determined?
That is our position. Of course, we need to maintain a consensus within the European Union on renewal of sanctions, and that is work that we are continuously engaged in. I am confident that sanctions will be rolled over this summer, but we have to make the case again every six months for continuing those sanctions.
I would like to start by expressing my condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones and homes to Cyclone Roanu over the weekend. I welcome the strong leadership shown by the Government of Bangladesh.
I raised my concerns about human rights and violence against LGBT people again this morning with the Bangladeshi high commissioner. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), raised this with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh during his visit there in August 2015.
With extra-judicial killings, disappearances of political opponents and fraudulent elections, Bangladesh is quickly becoming a failed state. Does the Minister not think that it is time to start applying some form of sanctions to try to get Sheikh Hasina to hold a proper general election as soon as possible?
Like all those in this House, I was absolutely appalled by the senseless murders of the LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy, and we call on the Bangladeshi Government to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Extremist-related murders of members of minority religious groups and those whose views and lifestyles are contrary to Islam have increased in Bangladesh since February 2015, and we are discussing this regularly with the Government of that country.
Clearly I do not. We have a certain amount of leverage in Bangladesh—we are the largest grant aid donor, giving £162 million in 2015-16—so our voice has some influence there. In the past year our human rights and democracy programme has provided safety training for bloggers, and we have also funded a project promoting the rights of LGBT groups in Bangladesh, but there is a huge amount more to do. We are not shy of pushing the Government of Bangladesh in the right direction, but sometimes it takes a little bit of time and persuasion.[Official Report, 26 May 2016, Vol. 611, c. 1MC.]
The human rights of secularists in Bangladesh are threatened. Last month, Nazimuddin Samad, a law student in Dhaka, was killed for blogging, “I have no religion.” Will my right hon. Friend raise this with his Bangladeshi counterparts and ensure that secularists’ rights are also protected in Bangladesh?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was not only the Daesh-claimed killing on 9 April in Dhaka of Nazimuddin Samad, but the murder on 23 April of Rezaul Karim Siddique in Rajshahi, in the east of the country. This is becoming an all too familiar occurrence in Bangladesh. There is a disagreement: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blames the opposition parties for trying to destabilise the country and the victims for insulting Islam; we think the problem goes beyond that.
Do not the Government of Bangladesh’s inability to protect human rights and the absence of effective opposition to that Government require the UK Government, which continues to provide substantial aid to Bangladesh, to have a timetable for intervention to ensure that democracy and human rights continue in that country and do not fall under a single-party state?
I do not think my hon. Friend is suggesting that we should tie our aid, which helps some of the worst-off people in the world, with political progress, but I take on board his point. There is much more we can do in Bangladesh and we are trying, not least through the role of the new Commonwealth Secretary-General. Bangladesh is of course a member of the Commonwealth and we want the Commonwealth to take more action in that country, which at the moment is not heading in the right direction.
Around 70 to 80 women and children are trafficked from Bangladesh abroad each day. Law enforcement is failing to prevent forced prostitution. What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having to press that legal systems prevail for women and girls in Bangladesh?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, although of course it is not just Bangladesh that is affected. We have done a lot on human trafficking through legislation; we have also done a lot on the supply chain, where I know there are concerns. We continue to raise the matter, not just in Bangladesh but in countries around the world. It is something we want to erase. It is unfortunately all too common and we take it seriously.
I am delighted to hear that the Minister is so concerned about the recent killings of liberal activists in Bangladesh. He mentioned the brutal murder on 25 April of Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the country’s first and only LGBT magazine, and the appalling fatal machete attack on blogger Nazimuddin Samad on 6 April. Surely the Government of Bangladesh have been far too slow to act. What additional pressure are he and the Government prepared to put on the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that these murders are dealt with properly?
The Government of Bangladesh would argue, as the high commissioner did to me this morning, that one of the victims of these crimes was a cousin of a former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, so this is something they are taking extremely seriously. I do believe that Bangladesh has a problem, and we will continue to talk to our Bangladeshi counterparts on a range of issues, some of which are of very great concern.
Yazidi Population: Syria and Iraq
Britain and other countries have been appalled by Daesh’s actions against Yazidis and other minorities in northern Iraq. It has prompted us to join other countries in taking action through the formation of the international coalition against Daesh, which now includes more than 60 countries.
As the Minister will know, many Yazidi women and girls who suffered sexual slavery at the hands of Daesh experienced severe trauma, but they struggle to access the support they need. What steps have the UK Government taken under their preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative to promote access to mental health care for all those victims?
The hon. Lady is right to point to the importance of the support that we need to provide not just to the Yazidis, but to other minorities that have been affected by Daesh. We are the largest donor to Iraq’s humanitarian pooled fund and there are a number of programmes, including those of the Department for International Development and the human rights and democracy fund, to provide exactly the sort of assistance that is required immediately.
As the Minister and the questioner have made clear, the key threat to the Yazidi population and other religious minorities is the control of territory by Daesh. Does my hon. Friend therefore welcome the news this morning that a major assault has been launched to retake Falluja, and does he agree that the liberation of towns and cities is the way that such threats will finally be put to an end?
My hon. Friend is right. Little by little, we are able to remove from Daesh the territory that it has held. Falluja was one of the first cities to fall to Daesh. Along with Mosul, these will be important changes that show that Daesh is finally being removed from the territory. But as the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) pointed out, once we have defeated Daesh militarily, there is a huge amount of work to do on stabilisation and humanitarian support for the people who have suffered so much as a result of the atrocities.
The Yazidi people of Iraq were given two choices by Daesh in 2014—convert or die. Will the UK Government accept that what happened in Sinjar was genocide, and urge the Iraqi Government to work with the International Criminal Court to bring murderers and rapists to justice?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Britain stepped forward, along with other countries, to make sure that we were able to provide airdrops and safe passage on Mount Sinjar, which were critical to support for the Yazidis. Her question has been debated at length in this Chamber and I very much support her views, together with John Kerry and the European Parliament, and this Parliament voted on the matter. However, it is not for us to make those judgments; it is for the International Criminal Court. We are helping to collect the evidence to make sure that when the time is appropriate, we can bring those people to justice.
Does the Minister agree that the money that this country spends supporting refugees in Iraq and Syria can support a far greater number of people far better than attempting to relocate refugees to the UK, and that it is right that the focus of our efforts is to support people in the region?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Yazidis as a group are endogamous and have not grown as much as other groupings in Iraq. They want to stay together and they want to stay in the area. For every one person that we are able to support in the UK, we can support more than 20 people in location—clearly, on a different standard, but it means that our money can go a lot further and we can pride ourselves on being one of the largest supporters in Syria and Iraq.
The Minister has just repeated the arguments he made to the House on 20 April against referring the genocide of the Yazidi people to the UN Security Council, which this House unanimously rejected. The Minister’s arguments have been challenged in the other place, where the noble Lord Pannick QC pointed out that article VIII of the convention on the prevention of genocide explicitly gives the UK Government the power to make such a referral. May I press the Minister to respect the will of this House and refer the matter to the UN Security Council without further delay?
I very much join in the spirit of the hon. Lady’s remarks, but we have to work within the mechanics of such a referral. We took the initiative to bring the situation to the awareness of the International Criminal Court in 2014. Our efforts were vetoed by two permanent members of the Security Council. That will happen again unless we are able to provide the necessary evidence, which is exactly what we are doing. We will hold those people to account, but there is an order and a process that we must honour. I entirely agree with the spirit of what the hon. Lady wants to do.
Middle East: Press Freedom
We encourage all countries to respect freedom of the media. On concerns about freedom of expression in the middle east, we clearly set out these concerns in our annual human rights report, which was most recently published in April.
It is now four years since the Saudi writer Raif Badawi was arrested. Earlier this month his wife was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for promoting her husband’s cause around the world. Given that it was British engineers who have extracted Saudi oil and built their roads, and given our massive co-operation on matters of defence and foreign policy, are not people around the world and in this country right to have expected a bit more progress than the Government have obtained so far?
The hon. Gentleman and I have debated these matters, both publicly and privately, for a long time. We have a right, duty and determination to raise those matters both in public and in private, and we make no distinction between the two. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done that on a number of occasions, as have I. It is for the court in Saudi Arabia to follow its processes, as I have explained to the hon. Gentleman in the past. We must encourage advancement in society in Saudi Arabia, but that will not happen overnight.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which we have raised in this House on a number of occasions. The tool used by Daesh to exploit others and to reach every home in every corner of the globe—it will also be used by future extremists—is the internet. We need to make sure that we are able to counter those messages. Daesh is sending a false message of hope, promising a fast track to paradise. We have formed the strategic communications cell in the Foreign Office, which is bringing together expertise from around the country and, indeed, the world to make sure that we can counter the Daesh messages, whether they be on Twitter, Facebook or other websites.
What representations has the Minister made to President Erdogan’s Government in Turkey about their action against press freedom and their suspension of parliamentary immunities, which may open opposition MPs to accusations of offences such as insulting the President? Will the Minister confirm that there are no plans to introduce an offence of insulting the Prime Minister and that a country engaged in such anti-democratic activities would not be eligible for European Union membership?
I concur with the right hon. Gentleman’s view that a free and fair media environment makes for a healthier society. We encourage constructive debate, which is a vital component of a fair and functioning society, no matter where it happens. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has raised the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point with the Turkish Government.
On the importance of setting an example, can the Minister conceive of circumstances where, on finding that a Scottish newspaper was to publish some inconvenient information about Libya, a Minister in the last coalition Government would have tried to suppress that edition?
Does the Minister agree that press freedom in Turkey has been in decline for many years? Despite the fact that he is not directly responsible for the issue, he must know that President Erdogan has been cracking down on his opponents when they make even the mildest of criticisms of him in the press, and now that the immunity of MPs is being lifted in Turkey, human rights will decline even further.
We do not want to see journalists being intimidated, the internet being blocked or people’s ability to speak freely being interfered with, wherever they are in the world. We will continue to make that case from this place and in our direct communications with those Governments.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that the notable journalist and writer T. E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—was an exponent of freedom in the middle east? Now that the Government have prevented the export of his robes and dagger, where will the public be able to see them as an inspiration for greater understanding of the middle east and to encourage greater freedom in that part of the world?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on weaving in an important aspect of our history and making it relevant to this question. He is absolutely right about the importance of saving not only the robe but the dagger for the nation. They will not be leaving the country. The dagger was given to Lawrence of Arabia by Sherif Nasir after Lawrence’s fantastic attack on Aqaba. On his way there—this was glossed over by the media at the time—he accidentally shot his camel, but he continued on another camel and was able to take Aqaba. He later moved to work in the Foreign Office, and I would like the garment—the gown or the robe—and indeed the dagger to be on display in the Foreign Office. I am not sure that we will be successful in that, but I am glad to say that the dagger will stay in the United Kingdom.
European Migration: Western Balkans
Since agreement was reached between the EU and Turkey on additional measures to control migration to Europe, we have seen a very significant reduction in the number of migrants arriving in Greece and transiting through the western Balkans.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the root cause of the migration pushing people through the Balkans has been the civil war in Syria? Does he agree that this country must certainly never be part of the Schengen area, which could allow people to be pushed to the UK?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s point. Of course we must not be part of the Schengen area. We will not be part of the Schengen area, and thanks to the special arrangements we have negotiated with the European Union, we are able to enjoy the benefits of membership without being forced to take part in the passport-free area.
I would say to my hon. Friend that although the Syrian civil war was clearly the immediate cause of the flow of refugees that Europe faced, primarily last year, statistics show that about 50% of those arriving in Greece are actually not from Syria or the surrounding area but come from further afield. What started as an exodus from the Syrian civil war and the Daesh occupation has become a wider movement of people.
The measures introduced by our European partners—working with other countries, particularly in the former Yugoslavia —such as the civil protection mechanism are starting to have an impact in the region. What further work can be done to share information through Europol to make sure that we really tackle the scourge of smuggling across eastern and central Europe?
The hon. Gentleman is right: sharing information between European security agencies, intelligence agencies and border police is key to breaking the business model of the smugglers. That is one of the key elements to solving this problem. Such people are being exploited by the organised criminal gangs that are taking their money, often for very little in return, and we need to nail them.
On migration to Europe, there has been a great deal of discussion recently about potential new EU member states. Article 49 of the treaty, which deals with countries applying to join the EU, says:
“The applicant State shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously”.
It is therefore clear that each existing member state has a veto. However, this weekend a serving member of the Government went on national television and denied this. One of the seven principles of public life is:
“Holders of public office should be truthful.”
Will the Foreign Secretary therefore take this opportunity to confirm the correct position, as the Prime Minister has already done on Sunday?
Yes, I am very happy to do so. As we have said ad nauseam, everyone single member state has a veto on the accession of any new member state. In our case, any proposal to expand the European Union would require the approval of this House. I can assure the House that those safeguards remain in place and are undiluted, and all my colleagues in the Government should be fully aware of that situation.
Palestinian Territories: Radicalisation
I condemn all violence and all efforts to incite or radicalise people to commit violence in the middle east. During my most recent visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in February, I raised this issue with the Palestinian Authority and urged them to do more to tackle this issue and make clear their opposition to violence.
Last week, the Fatah party in Palestine described the terrorist who killed 26 people and wounded more than 80 in a shooting attack at a Israel’s main airport in 1972 as a “hero” and said it was
“proud of every fighter who has joined our mighty revolution”
against Israel. Does the Minister agree that the success of the two-state solution that we all want rests upon the Palestinian Authority starting to teach its young people about peaceful coexistence?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about peaceful coexistence. It is important that President Abbas condemn statements such as that when they are made. I have noticed a disjunct between the elderly leadership and the youth, who feel disfranchised and so are taking matters into their own hands. I looked into the particular claim that my hon. Friend has raised; I understand that it was placed on Facebook and so was not attributed to a particular Minister, as has been the case in the past. Nevertheless, it should be condemned and removed, as my hon. Friend indicated.
Does the Minister agree that people’s expectation that they will be able to carry on living in their own homes would not normally be regarded as a sign of radicalisation? He will know that in the past week he has received a number of parliamentary questions from me and others about the fact that more than 90 Palestinian Bedouins, mostly children, have lost their homes in the village of Jabal al-Baba. He has said in his written answers that the Foreign Office condemns that but also that it has not raised that specific case with the Israeli authorities. Is it not time to do so, not least because the demolished structures are EU funded?
I fully concur with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have visited one of the Bedouin camps. I should make it clear that that situation is different from the situation for those based in the occupied Palestinian territories; some are being removed in green line Israel, as well. These people are reliant on farming and so need space, so there is the internal issue of making sure that they are given the same amount of space if there is a requirement for them to be moved.
I raised Sombath’s disappearance with Laos’s then Foreign Minister, now Prime Minister, Dr Thongloun Sisoulith, when we opened the new Lao embassy in London in November 2014. Sombath’s disappearance was raised at the annual EU-Laos human rights dialogue in October. We will continue to highlight our interest in this particular case.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. In addition to the disappearance of Sombath, the whereabouts of three students arrested in 1999 and another nine arrested in 2009 are still unknown. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what the UK is doing more generally about discussions with Laos on human rights?
Indeed I can. We have an annual EU-Laos human rights dialogue; the last one was held in October 2015, and the next is scheduled for the final quarter of 2016. The Laos Government agreed to establish a thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into Sombath’s disappearance following a British recommendation in Laos’s universal periodic review of human rights last year. We will not cease in pursuing this particular case and the others to which my hon. Friend alludes.
The past couple of years have been long and difficult for Yemen, so I very much welcome the cessation of hostilities that began on 10 April and the UN-led talks that began in Kuwait on 21 April.
Yesterday, a suicide bomb in Aden killed 45 people who were trying to join the Yemeni army. What steps can we take to stop that beautiful city in Yemen, where I and other Members of this House were born, being destroyed by the civil war going on between the various forces?
First, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for raising these matters regularly. He has huge expertise on Yemen, and I am pleased that he is able to hold the Government to account on what we are doing in this important area of the middle east. He is right that events are taking place because hardliners want to throw the talks and the cessation of hostilities off track. We encourage both sides to stay firm in their commitment to a political solution, not least because of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place.
A series of serious allegations were made yesterday by Amnesty International about the alleged use of UK-manufactured cluster munitions against civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. Did the Minister, or any UK personnel operating in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, have any knowledge that those cluster munitions were being used? If so, what action has been taken?
That is probably more a question for the Ministry of Defence, but from my understanding—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just confirmed this—we are not at all aware of this. Let me make it clear that the munitions that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned are almost three decades old. They are probably past their sell-by date, and it would be dangerous for anybody to go anywhere near them.
Iran: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s most recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities concluded that Iran is complying with its obligations under the JCPOA. We have been working to help British businesses take advantage of new commercial opportunities, and to ensure that Iran benefits from sanctions relief, including seeking to address barriers within the international banking system to both objectives.
Since the signing of the nuclear deal, a religious minority still suffers from systematic persecution. Baha’is and Christians are routinely harassed, arrested and detained, and have received sentences totalling 193 years for simply manifesting their faith. What will the Government do to ensure that the new dawn in relations shines a light on Iran’s human rights abuse of religious freedom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Iran’s human rights record remains shocking, as does its record of interfering in the affairs of its neighbours in the Gulf. The JCPOA, to which he referred, is a narrowly targeted agreement designed to shut down Iran’s capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and it has been effective in delivering that outcome. We will continue to make representations—I spoke with the Iranian Foreign Minister in Vienna only last week on some specific human rights cases that affect dual nationality British citizens, and we will continue to make such representations.
The Foreign Secretary referred to Iran’s interference in the affairs of neighbouring countries, and he mentioned the Gulf. Will he say something about our Government’s attitude to Iran’s interference in other countries in the region, particularly its role in Iraq and in helping Assad in Syria?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Iran is a significant player in the politics of Iraq, although generally not in a way that is helpful, and it is a significant backer of the Assad regime in Syria, with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ground forces taking part in action in defence of the regime. Iran is also a member of the International Syria Support Group, and as such it is incumbent on it, as well as on Russia, to apply pressure on Assad to deliver on the commitments made in the Vienna forum..
11. What assessment he has made of the effect of the recent activities of Hamas in Gaza on the middle east peace process. (905049)
The recent activities of Hamas in Gaza, including attempts to rearm and rebuild tunnel infrastructure, undermine efforts to improve the situation in Gaza and harm prospects for the middle east peace process. Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza must permanently end rocket fire and other attacks against Israel.
Does the Minister place any significance on the founding charter of Hamas, which is clearly, or to a large extent, a stream of the most visceral anti-Semitism, and even includes approving references to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”?
I have many conversations about that situation and the challenges we face in the middle east, not least in Gaza and the west bank. A number of commentators have said, “You need to speak to Hamas; you need to get them to the table”, but until Hamas changes its constitution, in which it clearly does not recognise the state of Israel, it will be impossible for us to move forward.
Departmental Estate: Rodent Eradication
The FCO facilities management contract covers pest control activities. However, the continued presence of mice in the FCO main building has given my officials “paws” for thought. After careful consideration, we appointed Palmerston the cat last month as chief mouser to the FCO to complement the work of our contractor. I am pleased to report to the House that he has settled in “purr-fectly” and is performing his duties more than satisfactorily.
I am sure the whole House will welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and also the arrival of Palmerston, the FCO’s rodent killer, but there is a serious point here. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether Palmerston has been security cleared or not? He may recall that the Chancellor’s cat, Freya, had access to the Foreign Office and No. 10 Downing Street, and it was thought that she might have been “got at” by a foreign power. May I ask him: has Palmerston been positively vetted by the security service and scanned for bugs by GCHQ? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House, and the more paranoid element of the Brexiters, of Palmerston’s British provenance and that he is not a long-term mole working for the EU Commission?
He is definitely not a mole and I can “cat-egorically” assure my right hon. Friend that Palmerston has been regularly vetted. As for being a sleeper, he is definitely a sleeper—I am told very often in my office. But unlike Freya, who went missing for two years, his attendance record has been 100%. My experts tell me that that pretty much rules out the possibility of him being a Commission employee. I should also tell the House that while Palmerston has so far caught only three mice, his Twitter account, “Diplomog” has attracted 8,158 followers, with a rate of growth that implies he will overtake me by the summer recess.
Egypt: Human Rights
Ministers and senior officials regularly raise human rights concerns with our Egyptian counterparts. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister discussed these issues with President Sisi during his visit to the UK in November. I regularly raise our concerns with the Egyptian ambassador, most recently on 17 May.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish national who has been in custody now for 1,000 days, faces a possible death penalty for being caught up in a pro-democracy demonstration. He is just one person in a concerted crackdown by Egyptian authorities against those who defend human rights. Will the Minister make every effort, when speaking to the Egyptian Government, to impress on them the view that we hold, which is that this is unacceptable?
If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay my condolences on the loss of aircraft EgyptAir MS804, yet another disaster for Egypt. The whole House will want to share their thoughts and prayers.
Tourism is very important for Egypt. The right hon. Gentleman touches on freedom of expression, and people will be watching Egypt carefully. I raised the matter of Ahmed Abdullah when I met the ambassador on 17 May. I will continue to press for greater freedom of expression in Egypt.
I share the condolences expressed by the Minister.
Human rights in Egypt are deteriorating rapidly. Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge University student, was tortured and killed in Egypt while conducting academic research. This happened during the British-Egyptian year of academic co-operation. Does the Minister accept that killing an academic marks a fundamental attack on academic freedom? Will the Minister explain why the murder of a British-based academic was not raised by the Prime Minister’s special envoy on a visit to specifically discuss academic co-operation?
We debated these matters in detail in a very productive Westminster Hall debate. The hon. Lady will be aware, as will the House, that Giulio Regeni was an Italian citizen and that therefore it is appropriate and right that the Italians take the lead. We have worked closely with, and provided support to, the Italians as they have pursued the matter, however, and have raised it with Egyptian officials as well.
My priorities for 2016 are the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, managing our relations with Russia and seeking to protect the rules-based international system, as well as, of course, ensuring Britain’s continued membership of, and leadership in, the EU.
Last year, after the Prime Minister’s historic visit to Jaffna, the UN Human Rights Council passed a consensual resolution on accountability and reconciliation, following the atrocities at the end of the Sir Lankan civil war. When the resolution comes back before the UN in June, will our Government do whatever they can to ensure that Sri Lanka lives up to its promises? Progress to date has been slow to non-existent.
I start by offering my heartfelt condolences to the people of Sri Lanka affected by the terrible floods and landslides that have hit so much of the country. I expressed that message personally to Foreign Minister Samaraweera last week.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will give his assessment of progress at the next meeting of the UNHRC in Geneva in June. Before then, I myself will visit Geneva to discuss with him how we can encourage and support the Government to deliver fully against their commitments. We recognise that there is still much more to be done, and the UK will continue to support and encourage the Sri Lankan Government to deliver fully against their commitments.
Amnesty International reported this week that unexploded British-made BL-755 cluster submunitions have been found in Hayran, Yemen. We know what these weapons can do, especially to children, who mistake them for toys. Amnesty also reports that on 1 March two children near the village of Fard were herding goats when they found some other cluster bomblets. They played with them until one went off, killing the eight-year-old and severely injuring the 11-year-old. Does the Foreign Secretary regard the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas as a breach of international humanitarian law?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the UK has long since given up the use of cluster munitions. Their use or supply is illegal under British law. As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said earlier, the weapons described were manufactured decades ago, but the Ministry of Defence is urgently investigating the allegations, and I believe there will be an urgent question on this subject shortly.
I am grateful for that reply. As the House knows, we are a signatory to the convention banning the use of cluster munitions, but sadly Saudi Arabia is not. It is alleged that this particular type of BL-755 was designed to be dropped from one specific jet—the UK-manufactured Tornado used by the Saudi air force. Under the cluster munitions convention, member states should
“make…best efforts to discourage States not party to this Convention from using cluster munitions.”
What steps has the right hon. Gentleman taken to discourage the use of British-made cluster munitions mounted on British-made jets by Saudi Arabia—an ally with which we have extensive military co-operation—and will he now commit to suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and to making the strongest possible representations that it must cease the use of cluster munitions in this conflict?
We need to be careful. There is no evidence yet that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions. The right hon. Gentleman is right that Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the convention banning cluster munitions, but nor is the United States. We have always made it clear to the Saudi Arabians that we cannot support the use of cluster munitions in any circumstances, as to do so would be unlawful for Ministers and officials in this country. We believe we have an assurance from Saudi Arabia that cluster munitions have not been used in the conflict, but as I said earlier, the MOD is urgently investigating the allegations. I am sure that my ministerial colleague will have more to say in response to the UQ.
T3. What specific commitments can the Government make to support Burundian civil society organisations in their peace-building efforts in light of the need to foster and strengthen social cohesion among Burundian communities from conflicting political, ethnic and social groups? (905029)
Through the conflict, stability and security fund, we are seeking to reduce the impunity and address the causes of conflict. We are working with the Burundians in general and with the international community, the country’s human rights commission, the truth and reconciliation commission and the court system. I met human rights organisations in private in Bujumbura in December to hear their detailed concerns, and I addressed the UN Security Council in March. I am pleased to report that the Arusha talks have now started under the chairmanship of former Tanzanian President Mkapa. I look forward to hearing reports about how they are going.
T2. Last year, Nepal suffered a major earthquake, which badly injured the country’s spirit. In the meantime, the world has contributed hugely to rebuild the nation. At the same time, Nepal has adopted a new constitution. What support have the Government given to Nepal to help with the implementation of its new constitution? (905028)
The February amendments to the constitution were a significant moment for Nepal, as I think the hon. Gentleman would agree, and a step towards resolving long-standing differences. We continue to encourage peaceful dialogue and compromise to reach a political situation that meets the concerns of all Nepali citizens. I discussed this most recently with Nepal’s deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kamal Thapa, in London on 27 April.
T6. What assessment has the Minister for Africa made of the International Monetary Fund’s regional economic outlook and the opportunity of the result to tackle extremism in the region? (905032)
As a region, sub-Saharan Africa has seen uninterrupted economic growth over the last 20 years. The IMF regional economic outlook for sub-Saharan Africa projects a growth rate of 3% on average across the continent. Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Senegal are all expecting to grow well in excess of double that figure, with the Ivory Coast growing from 8% to a potentially staggering 10% growth annually. Africa clearly continues to offer some great investment opportunities for UK business.
T4. What recent representations has the Minister made to his counterparts in the Nigerian Government on the continued detention of the British citizen Nnamdi Kanu of the indigenous people of Biafra? Is the Minister confident that Nnamdi is receiving all his rights under international law? (905030)
I have continued representations with the Nigerian Government on Biafran and other issues and I will continue to do so. I have met a series of Members of Parliament who have constituency interests in Biafra, and I am happy to continue to do so. The British Government recognise Nigeria as a geographic area that holds together as one country, not as separate countries.
T7. The 26th of June will mark one year since the attack on holiday makers on the beach at Sousse, resulting in the loss of 38 lives, with 39 people wounded. What is the Minister doing to assist families in marking this anniversary in peace? What are the Government doing to assist the Tunisian Government in promoting security and the country’s economy? (905033)
My hon. Friend is right to raise the devastating impact of this attack on the Tunisian economy. We are working very closely to provide support to the country’s policing in order to secure its borders. We are doing all we can to support the Britons affected by the bombs—whether it be the families of the bereaved, those who were injured in the attack or even those who saw what happened and need psychological support. We held a commemoration service in April.
As “Project Fear” reaches dizzy new heights, the Prime Minister and certain members of this Government are making clear on a daily basis the potentially disastrous consequences of Scotland and the UK leaving the EU. Given that, will the Secretary of State confirm why this Government have taken our country into such a precarious position?
If the hon. Lady is asking why we are holding a referendum, it is because the British people are entitled to have their say on this important issue. For 40 years, their voice has been ignored, and because we have a Conservative Government, they will now have their say on 23 June. I hope that we politicians will listen to what they say and will accept their verdict.
T8. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the Philippines, may I ask my right hon. Friend to join me in congratulating President Rodrigo Duterte on his victory, wishing him well, and finding a mutually convenient time to meet him? (905034)
I congratulate the Filipinos on their vibrant show of democracy. Mayor Duterte has received a strong mandate from the electorate, who want greater prosperity and security in the years ahead. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited the Philippines in January, and plans for further ministerial visits will be made after the new Government take office on 30 June.
Can the Secretary of State tell us how remaining in the European Union gives us stronger control in finding solutions to issues such as population migration, which are often caused by conflict and the results of climate change?
Working with our partners in the European Union on such complex and long-term issues clearly reinforces our ability to have effect. In my nearly two years as Foreign Secretary, I have visited more than 70 countries in six continents, and in none of those countries has anyone ever suggested to me that Britain’s voice would be more influential if we were outside the European Union. Quite the opposite: being in the European Union means that our influence is augmented, not diminished.
T9. In 2010, the Prime Minister said: “I am here to make the case for Turkey’s membership of the European Union and to fight for it.” In 2014, he said: “In terms of Turkish membership of the EU, I very much support that.”Is the Foreign Secretary really claiming that we should take it from those words that the Government intend to veto Turkey’s accession to the EU—and, if there is no remote prospect of its joining the EU, why is so much taxpayers’ money being spent on preparing it for accession? (905036)
Turkey applied to join the European Union in 1987, and, as the Prime Minister observed—I think—yesterday, given the current rate of progress it will be decades, if not longer, before it gets anywhere near EU membership. However, there is a benefit for us in seeing Turkey on a European-facing path, and thus under pressure to improve human rights and compliance with the rule of law. If we do not keep that path open, we shall not have that leverage.
Ultimately, though, we have a veto. [Interruption.] We have a veto over the terms and conditions on which any applicant country is able to join the European Union, and we have made it absolutely clear that there can be no question of further accessions and access to free movement within the European Union until an applicant country has reached the average level of GDP per capita across the European Union. That means no more poverty gradient in the EU. [Interruption.]
Earlier questions have referred to the middle east, and to deploring extremism wherever it may be found. Is it not a matter of grave concern that the new Israeli Defence Minister is extremely right-wing and ultra-nationalist? He said last year that what he described as “disloyal” Israeli Arabs should be beheaded. Does that not illustrate how far the Israeli Government have gone in their extremism and their rejection of any idea of a two-state solution, and should that not be condemned?
In answer to a written parliamentary question from me, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury reported that on 16 January £657 million of frozen Iranian assets had been unfrozen, and therefore returned to Iran or Iranian citizens. What are the Government doing to monitor those funds and ensure that they are spent correctly, rather than being handed over to terrorists or funding action against British troops?
My hon. Friend asks two separate questions. First, we are committed to the unfreezing of Iranian assets. Some who were opposed to the joint comprehensive plan of action—JCPOA—agreement with Iran suggested that up to $150 billion would flow back to Iran in short order, but to date we think that the process has managed to achieve about $11 billion. Secondly, there are of course international agreements in place to monitor and prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorist organisations, and those apply to Iran as much as to any other country.
As I said earlier, Tunisia is going through a difficult period at the moment. It has been subjected to a number of terrorist attacks and attempted attacks. We have almost doubled the size of our embassy there, and we are doing our best to ensure that we provide support during this difficult period. I would be happy to discuss in more detail some of the challenges relating to freedom of the press with the hon. Lady outside the Chamber.
Yemen: Cluster Munitions
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on reports of new evidence that UK-manufactured cluster bombs may have killed and injured civilians, including children, in the conflict in Yemen.
The United Kingdom last provided BL755 cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia nearly 30 years ago; the final delivery was in 1989. We ratified the convention on cluster munitions on 4 May 2010 and we no longer supply, maintain or support these weapons. We have not done so since we signed the convention in 2008. Based on all the information available to us, including sensitive coalition operational reporting, we assess that no UK-supplied cluster weapons have been used, and that no UK-supplied aircraft have been involved in the use of UK cluster weapons, in the current conflict in Yemen.
We are aware of reports of the alleged use of cluster munitions by the coalition in Yemen. We have raised their use during the current conflict in Yemen several times with the Saudi Arabian authorities and, in line with our obligations under the convention on cluster munitions, we continue to encourage Saudi Arabia, as a non-party to the convention, to accede to it. The Saudis have previously denied using UK cluster munitions during the conflict in Yemen, but we are seeking fresh assurances in the light of this serious new allegation.
Amnesty International yesterday sent a letter to the Prime Minister calling for an urgent investigation into the scandal of UK-supplied BL-755 cluster bombs being used in villages in northern Yemen. Amnesty stated:
“During recent field research in Sa’da, Hajjah, and Sanaa governorates near the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border, Amnesty found a partially-exploded UK-manufactured “BL-755” cluster bomb, as well as other evidence of US and Brazilian cluster munitions which had been used by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces.”
I note the Minister’s remarks, but the discovery of the cluster bomb—originally manufactured in the UK in the 1970s—is clear evidence that, as has long been suspected, members of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition have used British cluster munitions in their highly controversial attacks in Yemen.
The European Parliament voted in February by a large majority for an EU-wide ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing the “disastrous humanitarian situation” as a result of the
“Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen”.
Further to this, under a 2008 code of conduct, EU member states promised not to sell weapons to countries where they might be used to
“commit serious violations of international humanitarian law and to undermine regional peace, security and stability”.
With that in mind, will the UK Government now finally suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and properly investigate the issues raised by Amnesty International? Will the Secretary of State now confirm that the Government will keep their commitment to the EU not to export in these tragic circumstances? Finally, will he now apologise to the House for this Government’s continued inaction on this vital matter, given that the continued use of British bombs has resulted in the deaths of Yemeni men, women and children?
The Government recognise the seriousness of the allegation and have therefore requested that the Saudi authorities reconfirm any evidence suggesting that UK munitions have been involved in the way alleged. We have no evidence of that at present. As I have said already, we have not supplied any such munitions for a long time. There have been seven conflicts in the border area between Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen over the past decade, and it is unclear from the evidence provided thus far that the munitions came from the current conflict.
As for the other issues mentioned by the hon. Lady, we have been clear that the role of the United Kingdom’s advisors to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces in this conflict is not operational. We welcome the ceasefire and the negotiations that are under way and have been for the past six weeks or so. We want them to be successful so that the cessation of hostilities continues to result in no further conflict in Yemen.
I am the Government’s special envoy to Yemen and have been there many times over a period of 30 years. I have more recently been to Saudi Arabia, where the Yemeni Government are based. I have also been to the operational targeting headquarters of the Saudi-led coalition and have seen for myself the high professional standards being set by that operation. Notwithstanding the passion of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), which I think it is fair to say is driven much more by non-governmental organisation briefing than by any kind of personal experience—
It is not at all insulting to suggest that experience of the country matters. I make a plea to the hon. Lady: would it not be wise for the House to appreciate that the current cessation of hostilities and the peace talks in Kuwait are in an absolutely critical phase? The future of the country entirely depends on the talks, so it would also be wise not to inflame any kind of opinion that could jeopardise those talks, empowering those who would rather them fail than succeed.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who speaks with considerable experience on matters Yemeni as the Prime Minister’s envoy to the country, which he visits, along with its neighbours, more often than most other Members. I gently remind Opposition Members who are rightly concerned about the impact of certain munitions in this conflict that, were it not for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia establishing the coalition following UN resolution 2216, it is highly likely that Yemen would have been entirely overrun and would be in a state of continuous chaos.
We have all read the reports from Yemen in recent days of cluster bombs in such volumes in civilian areas that they are hanging off the trees, and of young children herding goats and picking up the bombs, thinking they are toys, with all-too-familiar results. Anyone who read those reports will be asking questions today and will be rightly concerned about the Minister’s lack of answers.
We need to know whether the Saudi military has used British planes to drop cluster bombs. What is the extent of British involvement in the conflict, and what precisely is it designed to achieve? Today’s Los Angeles Times reports a US State Department official as having said that the United States has reminded Saudi Arabia of its obligations regarding the use of cluster bombs and encouraged it
“to do its utmost to avoid civilian casualties”.
Will the Minister confirm whether he has also raised such concerns with his Saudi counterparts? What response has he received? In the face of all the mounting evidence, we have the absurd spectacle of the Saudi spokesman, Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, insisting that the coalition is not using cluster bombs. Does the Minister believe the brigadier general? If not, what is he going to do about it, and when?
We regard the reports as serious. We are seeking to investigate, through our discussions with the Saudis, any further evidence to substantiate the allegations that have been made. I can categorically reassure the hon. Lady and this House that no British planes have been involved in this coalition effort at all, let alone in dropping cluster munitions—that is the potential allegation. There is no British involvement in the coalition in targeting or weaponising aircraft to undertake missions.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who deals with the middle east, was in Doha yesterday, where he met the United Nations envoy for Yemen. He has impressed upon him the need to continue with the delicate negotiations under way in Yemen.
The Secretary of State and Ministers will be aware of the inquiry being held by the Committees on Arms Export Controls, on the conflict in Yemen. Will the Minister commit to submitting further evidence, not least evidence on cluster bombs and evidence from Saudi Arabia, to the Committees as soon as it becomes available?
I joined other Ministers in appearing before my hon. Friend’s Committee recently—a novel experience that I hope was satisfactory to its members. I am happy to undertake that, should we receive further evidence as a result of our inquiries into the use of cluster munitions, we will provide it to the Committees.
This Government have truly got their head stuck in the sand. Yemen faces one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, yet through their continuing sale of arms to Saudi Arabia the UK Government are exacerbating the plight of the Yemeni people. The Scottish National party’s alternative Queen’s Speech called for a regulation of weapons trading Bill, which would seek to regulate the arms treaties that the UK Government might sign. That is the right and transparent approach to such deals, which the UK Government must follow. Does the Minister agree that it is a disgrace that since this Prime Minister took office in 2010 the UK Government have licensed £6.7 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia, including £2.8 billion since the bombing of Yemen began in March last year? Is our arms trade with Saudi Arabia worth so much more than the thousands of men, women and children involved in and dying in this terrible conflict? This Government have questions to answer, with evidence mounting that they have breached international law. When will a full inquiry get under way?
I ask the hon. Lady to consider her last remarks. There is no suggestion—none whatsoever—that the United Kingdom or our forces are involved in breaches of humanitarian law in this conflict. The humanitarian aid provided by this country to refugees as a result of the crisis in Yemen is second in the ranking of countries around the world. We have a proud record of supporting the humanitarian cause of people disturbed by this crisis. As she will probably be aware, the UN estimates that some one fifth of people in need around the world as a result of conflict are in Yemen. We are committed to supporting a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Arms exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in recent years have primarily been about providing capability to cope with incursion by foreign powers. These exports support the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the anti-Daesh coalition, in which they play a vital role. The hon. Lady has to look at the challenges in the round in the region and at the role that Saudi Arabia plays in providing continued security to the region.
I am sure the Minister would agree that when looking at the Arabian peninsula we sometimes have to be careful what we wish for, as even more conservative forces could replace some of the Governments and some of the organisations there. Without intervention, we would have seen a collapse in Yemen that would have endangered our entire security. Does he agree that this latest incident and the latest allegations show the importance of all nations signing up to the cluster munitions legislation, as the UK already has?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that this is a very volatile country that has played host to a number of international terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda. I agree that it is desirable for more countries to sign up to the convention on cluster munitions. We have encouraged our friends in Saudi Arabia to do so on several occasions.
Doubts have been cast on the validity of the evidence produced by Amnesty and others, but I and other hon. Members have seen a series of photographs and evidence that suggest that cluster munitions are being used in Yemen. Amnesty has told us that it was impossible to obtain more information because three of the de-miners were killed in a cluster munitions incident while carrying out their work, which itself suggests that cluster munitions are being used. Will the Minister explain whether he has seen all the evidence from Amnesty? Will he commit to reviewing it independently, and not just relying on Saudi assurances?
Has the Minister had any answers to the series of other serious allegations that have been made not just by Amnesty, but by Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch and other organisations about attacks on civilians and humanitarian facilities, which the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), admitted he had not had satisfactory answers to when he appeared before the Committees on Arms Export Controls?
I am not casting doubt on the photographic evidence. The challenge is to determine where and when the munitions were laid, and by whom. There is very little evidence at this point. We are taking this matter up with the Saudi authorities. We are particularly concerned about the potential evidence of any UK munitions that might have been used in this way. As I have indicated, if we find any evidence, we will pass it on to the Committees on Arms Export Controls, on which the hon. Gentleman sits. In relation to the questions that he posed to me and the other people who appeared before the Committees the other day about the extent of the investigations into other matters that we are reviewing and on which we are seeking information from the Saudi authorities, I am not aware that any further information has been forthcoming since we met the Committees a couple of weeks ago.
May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh)? This is a very serious matter and I am glad that there will be an investigation of the serious allegations that have been made by Amnesty International.
We are involved in Yemen because we are peacemakers: we want to see peace restored to a country that is bleeding to death because of the involvement of so many countries. Of course, we needed the support of the Saudi Arabians to restore the legitimate Government of President Hadi because of the actions of the Iranians. However, it is important that they now stop and support the ceasefire. These kinds of allegations undermine the work that has been done by the coalition. Will the Minister ensure that the Saudi Arabian ambassador is called to see the Foreign Office Minister so that we can reinforce the message that these kinds of allegations undermine the peace process, which we need to make sure is maintained?
Sorry, President Hadi. It is therefore a fully legitimised operation. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the primary aim of the efforts of the United Kingdom Government is to ensure that peace is restored to the country. To that end, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), meets the Saudi ambassador routinely. He last saw him last week and continually impresses upon him the importance of the negotiations in Kuwait. We are seeking to assist those negotiations to the extent that we can.
The Government are digging a very deep hole for themselves. I have exchanged many letters with Ministers on this subject and have been informed that the UK Government have concluded that the
“Saudi-led Coalition are not targeting civilians”
in Yemen. How can the Government draw that conclusion when the Saudis have stated that whole cities—Sa’dah, where UN Security Council experts identified that hospitals, schools and mosques had been attacked, and Marran—are military targets; when the Saudis are apparently using UK-made cluster munitions; and when 93% of the casualties from air-launched explosives are civilians, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs? Will the Government finally acquire a backbone, accept that Saudi Arabia is in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law and halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia until it cleans up its act?
This is a civil war and in civil wars, difficult things happen. This is a very complex environment. Actors use whatever is available to them, in respect of the terrain that is there, to adopt positions. It is not a nice, straightforward, clinical exercise like a training event. Therefore, accidents do happen. As a result of our relationship with the Saudi Arabian armed forces, we are in a position to exert some influence on the coalition and, in particular, its leadership in respect of investigating accidents when they occur and allegations of incidents such as those that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We are putting that pressure on the Saudis and they have given us undertakings that they are undertaking those investigations, and we are awaiting the outcome.
Thanks to a Labour Government, we have the Export Control Act 2002, which provides this country with a robust mechanism for arms exports not just to Saudi Arabia, but to other nations around the world. Will the Minister tell the House what pressure is being put on the Iranians to stop not only exporting weapons to rebels, but using them as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia?
The hon. Gentleman, who is experienced in these matters, will be aware of the coalition’s efforts to intercept matériel that foreign Governments, in particular Iran, are seeking to supply to rebels through the waters surrounding Yemen. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs met the Iranian chargé d’affaires last week to raise that specific issue. We will continue to put diplomatic pressure on the Iranians to cease their support for the rebels.
I, too, thank the Minister for his response. Along with the Chair of the Defence Committee, I attended the Committees on Arms Export Controls, where there was a robust exchange of views, as the Minister will recall. The use of British-produced cluster bombs was mentioned in that evidence session, and he has referred to that. In his response to the Committees, the Minister stated that if evidence was produced of British-produced cluster bombs being used, there would be sanctions and the Government would stop arms exports to Saudi Arabia. More evidence has been produced today and I ask the Minister the same thing. Will we take action today to ensure that the exports to Saudi Arabia stop, because the evidence clearly shows the use of British-produced cluster bombs?
Again, the hon. Gentleman has taken a consistent interest in this subject and plays an important role on the Committees. I repeat what I said to the Committees, which is that we at the Ministry of Defence provide advice to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is the entity within the UK Government that provides arms export licences. Our advice will be shaped by the circumstances at the time. At present, we have an allegation of the use of a UK munition. Until such time as we have established whether that munition has been used by a member of the coalition as part of the current conflict, we will not be in a position to speculate on what might happen to future licence applications.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to have a detailed investigation of exactly what was dropped and when, because we all know that munitions can come to light many years after conflicts? For example, we are still finding bombs from the second world war in Britain. Does he agree that such an investigation is also important because this is a close ally acting in self-defence of a Government that are entitled to run the country? It is therefore not a straight matter of condemnation.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for pointing out that munitions have quite a long shelf life. As I indicated, it is quite possible that the munitions that are the subject of this allegation are a relic of previous conflicts in the area, of which there have been seven over the past 10 years.
Britain was right to join other countries in banning cluster bombs. It is clear that, in this matter, Saudi Arabia has questions to answer, and the Minister has mentioned several times the representations the Government have made to the Saudi Arabians. Will he help me by explaining what work he is doing alongside other countries in multilateral institutions to bring the Saudi Arabians into the consensus against cluster bombs?
As a signatory to the convention, we encourage non-signatories with which we have close military relations to consider acceding to the terms of the convention or joining it themselves. Through our offices at the UN, there are periodic dialogues with countries that are not, as yet, signatories to the convention, and we will continue to support those discussions.
We are looking at all the allegations made by the various bodies mentioned in the Chamber, and we have the opportunity to indicate to the Saudi military that these incidents are worthy of investigation. This is an ongoing process, and we have had opportunities to encourage the Saudis to speed up their investigations. However, at this point, I am afraid that I cannot put a timetable on it.
It is clear that these munitions are old, but they are falling now, and they are affecting families and others living in Yemen. Does the Minister not agree that the Government have a responsibility—certainly a moral responsibility—to provide training and resources to the services on the ground in Yemen that are trying to de-mine these areas so that people can live in safety without having to fear for their children’s lives?
The hon. Lady referred to munitions falling. We do not know at this point when, where or how the munitions referred to in the allegations were delivered. It is that kind of information that will help to inform the investigation and what is then done about it. In relation to clearing up the munitions that clearly do exist in northern Yemen, we are supporting a number of non-governmental organisations by providing resource and training to encourage them to undertake this very important work.
Following on from the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), will the Minister tell me what happened to the existing UK-manufactured cluster bombs when the UK signed the convention on cluster munitions?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) on bringing the Minister to the Dispatch Box to answer this urgent question. The fact that these cluster munitions seem to have been modelled and designed in the 1970s underlines the historical defence relationship between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Over that time, possibly thousands of UK personnel have found themselves advising the Saudi Arabian armed forces or leaving the United Kingdom services to take up a role in the Saudi Arabian armed services. How confident, therefore, are the Government that no UK citizen has been involved in targeting, firing or maintaining these illegal weapons while in the service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
Once again, we have Ministers prepared to present the Saudi wolf in a sheepdog’s clothing. Today, we have been given a pub crawl of excusery. We have been told that the weapons were old or that there was no evidence of any cluster munitions having been used by the Saudi-led coalition. Then we were told that there was no evidence they were British manufactured. Then the Minister told us that he was concerned and that he would try to get evidence. Rather than just asking the Saudis what they have done, will the Government contact the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre, which actually recovered the matériel we are talking about and has it in a de-mining depot, and look at the same evidence that Amnesty International has examined?
I would gently remind the hon. Gentleman that we are not members of this coalition. We do not have locus in Yemen to undertake direct investigations ourselves. What we are talking about are alleged violations of international humanitarian law. The correct procedure when an incident has been brought to the attention of members of the coalition is for them to undertake the investigation itself. We are able to encourage and stimulate them to undertake that investigation, because there is a long-standing relationship between our respective armed forces. That is what we are doing, and that is the right way to proceed.
This is an allegation. There are a number of allegations of potential violations of international humanitarian law. If investigations lead to clear evidence, that evidence will have to be taken into account whenever an arms export licence is presented and where that information is relevant.
The shocking statistics referred to a few moments ago make it clear that the deaths of civilians in Yemen are not an isolated, unfortunate accident. The Saudis are, at best, being recklessly indiscriminate; at worst, they are deliberately setting out to kill civilians. Does the Minister agree that we should not hide behind the assertion that we cannot prove that British weapons have been used in this act of mass murder? Does he agree that the only way to ensure that they are not used in this way is to call an immediate halt to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia until the allegations have been proven unfounded, rather than to wait for the allegations to be proven correct?
Such a call would, of course, have no impact on the use of weapons that have already been supplied, so it would not achieve what the hon. Gentleman looks to do. The answer is that we are using our influence on the Saudi Arabians to encourage them to undertake investigations in circumstances where there has been conflict on the ground. This has been a war environment; difficult things happen in wars, and it is not possible to be absolutely certain about everything that takes place in such an environment. That is why it is important to investigate these allegations of actions that appear to be in breach of international humanitarian law.
Given the grave concerns raised, will the UK Government now heed the recommendation of the International Development Committee and back the establishment of an independent investigation into alleged breaches of humanitarian law in Yemen?
There is a clear process under which the Saudis, as leaders of the coalition, undertake the investigation. That is a novel aspect of this conflict. The Saudis have not done that before in previous conflicts in which they have been engaged. We think that that is appropriate, as do all other nations.
Counter-Daesh Quarterly Update
With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to update the House on the counter-Daesh campaign following the December and February statements by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary. Since then, the attacks in Brussels in March have reminded us of the importance of defeating this terror. Since the decisive vote to extend air strikes to Syria, we have stepped up our air campaign, and today I want to set out the United Kingdom’s contribution to military operations and our wider efforts to defeat Daesh.
We now have 1,100 military personnel in the region on this campaign. I know the House will want to join me in paying tribute to them and to their families who are not with them. The RAF has conducted over 760 airstrikes in Iraq and, since December, 43 in Syria—more than any nation except the United States. As well as providing close air support, we have been targeting Daesh’s communications, command and control, and infrastructure, and also providing crucial intelligence and surveillance. In Iraq, we have over 250 troops who have trained more than 13,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, mainly in countering improvised explosive devices. The extra troops I announced in March have now started to deploy—22 Engineer Regiment from Wiltshire is providing bridge building training, while the MOD hospital unit from Northallerton is providing medical expertise.
The military campaign is making progress. In Iraq, Daesh is on the back foot: it has lost territory, its finances have been targeted, and its leadership has been struck. About 40% of the territory that Daesh once held has been retaken, including Ramadi; last month, Hit; and, more recently, Rutbah. Preparatory operations for the encirclement of Mosul are under way and, at the weekend, Prime Minister Abadi announced the beginning of the operation to retake Fallujah.
In Syria, the civil war, the persistence of Daesh, and Russia’s intervention have created a more complex situation. Despite the so-called cessation of hostilities, the regime has continued to hammer the moderate opposition. In Aleppo, hospitals and schools have been repeatedly shelled. On 4 May, the United Kingdom called an urgent session of the UN Security Council to highlight the regime’s atrocities. Russia, the Assad regime’s protector, must apply pressure to end this violence. None the less, even in Syria, Daesh has lost ground and has been driven from al-Shaddadi—a major supply route from Mosul to Raqqa. Coalition airstrikes have destroyed an estimated $800 million-worth of Daesh cash stockpiles, while the RAF has struck oilfields in eastern Syria—a major source of revenue. We need to build on this progress. Earlier this month, I and other coalition Defence Ministers reviewed what further support we can offer, and we are looking at what more the UK can do.
Daesh cannot be defeated by military means alone. That brings me to the wider strategy. First, on counter-ideology, the UK has led the creation of a coalition communications cell to undermine Daesh’s failing proposition that it is winning militarily, that it is building a viable state, and that it represents the only true form of Islam. Some in the media have criticised our proactive efforts to discredit Daesh’s perverted ideology. I say to the House that we make no apology for seeking to stop people being radicalised and stop them becoming Daesh suicide bombers or foot soldiers.
Secondly, we are supporting political reform and reconciliation in Iraq, and the ending of the civil war in Syria and the transition of Assad from power. We are helping to stabilise areas liberated from Daesh so that people can return to a safe environment. We have contributed to UN-led efforts to remove IEDs, to increase water availability to above pre-conflict levels in Tikrit, and to rebuild schools, police stations and electricity generators across Anbar and Nineveh provinces.
In Syria, long-term success means a political settlement which delivers a Government who can represent all Syrians and with whom we can work to tackle Daesh. Last week, the International Syria Support Group reaffirmed its determination to strengthen the cessation of hostilities, and set a deadline of 1 June for full humanitarian access to besieged areas. It is concerning that despite this agreement, attacks have continued, and that armed groups are on the brink of withdrawal from the cessation. We support the UN special envoy in his efforts to resume Syrian peace negotiations, the success of which depends on respect for the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access, and discussion of transition by both sides.
Thirdly, the UK is playing a full role, alongside our partners, in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria. At the London conference, we doubled our commitment to Syria and the region to £2.3 billion, which has already delivered over 20 million food rations and relief items for over 4.5 million people—but there remain 13.5 million people in need inside Syria. The regime continues to remove vital medical supplies from aid convoys, in violation of international law. It is outrageous that aid itself has become a weapon of war.
Fourthly, we are stemming the flow of foreign fighters through better international co-ordination. At least 50 countries now pass fighter profiles to Interpol—a 400% increase over two years. We estimate that the number of foreign fighters joining Daesh has now fallen to about 200 a month from its peak of about 2,000 a month.
As Daesh is squeezed in Iraq and Syria, we have seen new branches appear, most concerningly in Libya. The Foreign Secretary visited Tripoli last month to reiterate our support for Prime Minister al-Sarraj. Yesterday I spoke to the new Libyan Defence Minister to repeat our offer of assistance to the new Government of national accord. Last Monday, the international community reaffirmed its support for that new Government and underlined the need for enhanced co-ordination between legitimate Libyan security forces to fight Daesh and UN-designated terrorist groups. Britain would provide training or other support only at the invitation of the Libyan Government or by other authority. Let me reiterate to the House that there are no plans to deploy troops in a combat role.
Since this House supported extending military operations, we have intensified our efforts to defeat Daesh. There is a long way to go, and political progress needs to match military progress on the ground, but we can be encouraged. This may be a long campaign, but it is one we have to win and one we will win. I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by joining the Secretary of State in recognising the extraordinary bravery and commitment of the men and women of our armed forces? I welcome much of what he has said. Daesh and those who fight alongside it are barbaric and hateful terrorists, and they must be stopped. I was surprised, however, that there was not recognition from the Secretary of State of the terrible news of the suicide bombings in Syrian strongholds that caused so many fatalities yesterday. That obviously serves as a reminder that progress cannot be measured only in terms of the size of Daesh-held territory. On behalf of the House, may I express all our condolences to the victims of this senseless violence, and their families?
A particularly significant development in Iraq was seen at the weekend with the launch of the ground offensive against the Daesh stronghold of Fallujah. It is often forgotten that about 250 British troops have been deployed on the ground in Iraq, providing vital training and military advice to the Iraqi security forces. We therefore have an important stake in the success of the Iraqi military, and we will continue to monitor their progress very carefully.
As the Secretary of State acknowledges, the situation in Syria is much more complex. Last year, he said that we were going to
“tighten the noose around the head of the snake”
that was Raqqa, but taking the fight to the de facto capital of Daesh in Syria will present many challenges compared with the previous stages of the campaign.
In terms of ground forces, coalition airstrikes to date have been complemented by a number of armed opposition groups on the ground, particularly in northern Syria, but the YPG is unlikely to have a role in Raqqa, I would suggest, given its distance from the majority Kurdish regions. There are questions too about both the numbers and the composition of other armed opposition groups. The House was told last year that the Free Syrian Army, comprising the majority of the 70,000 moderate fighters the Government identified, was going to fight in Syria, but as the Secretary of State said again today, Russian airstrikes have systematically targeted the Free Syrian Army, among other rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime but not thought to be affiliated to Daesh. In fact, there have been reports in the past 24 hours that indicate that the Free Syrian Army may be excluded from the US-led plan to liberate Raqqa. Is that correct? If it is, how are the Government expecting to contribute to the next phase of the campaign without troops of our own on the ground? Do the Government plan to increase co-ordination between coalition efforts and the Assad regime and its Russian allies?
Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that further airstrikes will avoid inflicting civilian casualties, particularly if urban areas such as Raqqa are to be targeted? The statements so far on the latter point have not provided sufficient reassurance. We are told that a review is carried out after each strike to assess the damage, but there are few details of the process involved. The MOD, we are told, considers all credible reports of civilian casualties, but it is not clear how credibility is defined in that context; nor is it clear how many reports of civilian casualties have been received but not found to be credible, or even how the difficult distinction between combatant and civilian is being made in the first place.
I welcome the progress that has been made in the fight against Daesh in recent weeks. I hope to hear in more detail from the Secretary of State what strategy the Government have for taking the campaign forward.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tone of her response. She raised three or four specific points.
The hon. Lady is right to draw the attention of the House to suicide bombings. In Iraq, they may to some extent indicate a switch in tactics by Daesh. As it is increasingly pushed west along the Euphrates and north up the Tigris, we have seen suicide explosions in Baghdad and in Syria.
The hon. Lady is also right to draw attention to the operations likely to be needed to liberate both Raqqa and Mosul, which are the main centres currently occupied by Daesh. That will require quite sustained and formidable operations by the local forces on the ground, and nobody should underestimate the difficulty or the timescales involved. However, as I indicated, some progress is being made in north-east and northern Syria, with operations ongoing to try to seal the remaining unsealed pockets of the border and to begin slowly to tighten the noose around Raqqa. Operations have begun to begin to plan how the city of Mosul may be recovered and troops are being moved forward up the Tigris to be ready for that.
The hon. Lady asks about the estimate of 70,000. Our view is that that estimate has stood up. Numbers of that size are still involved in fighting the regime, and the Syrian democratic forces are part of that struggle.
Finally, the hon. Lady asks about civilian casualties. I made it clear to her and the House that we carry out a battle damage assessment after every RAF strike: we look back at the evidence of what the strike actually achieved to satisfy ourselves that that there have been no civilian casualties. We will of course look especially closely at any allegation made and any piece of evidence that comes to light that there may have been civilian casualties, but at the moment, after a year and a half of operations in Iraq and Syria, our view remains that we have seen no evidence yet of civilian casualties being caused by our strikes. That, I suggest, is a tribute to the professionalism of the RAF pilots and crews and to the choice of precision munitions.
Russian media are reporting a Russian statement that a force of 6,000 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are preparing for an assault on Aleppo. Plainly there is scope for confusion and misinformation about identifying al-Nusra and other opposition forces. Has any work been done by the members of the ISSG to create a joint intelligence picture, so that the capacity for misinformation in that area can be reduced?
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is responsible for middle east affairs, is already involved in work to build up a better picture. The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right: the picture in and around Aleppo is the most complex of all in terms of the different groups fighting there. He makes a good point about sharing intelligence more widely.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
During the debate in December, we were told that the UK’s unique contribution to defeating Daesh was the Brimstone missile and that our coalition partners were pressing the UK to bring it to the conflict. Incidentally, this unique contribution argument continued even after it was shown that the Royal Saudi Air Force had been using Brimstone in Syria since February 2015. Despite that, it remained a central plank of the Government’s case for extending UK military action into Syria. Indeed, according to information obtained by The Huffington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, until as late as February this year not a single Daesh fighter had been killed by a UK-fired Brimstone missile. The Brimstone missile and its capacity to minimise civilian casualties work best when there is human intelligence on the ground to supply precise information. That explains the other great plank of the Government’s case: the 70,000 moderate ground troops who were, we were assured, ready to cut off the head of the Daesh snake in Raqqa.
Today, we are told that the coalition is airdropping leaflets into Raqqa urging the civilian population to flee the city ahead of an imminent attack—the problem of course being that the civilian population of that city are being used as human shields by Daesh, which has threatened to murder anyone attempting to leave the city. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with our coalition partners to decide whether the RAF will take part in the imminent bombing of Raqqa, with its large civilian population?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. They are largely about operational matters, but I will do my best to respond.
The RAF uses a number of precision weapons—Paveway bombs, Hellfire and Brimstone missiles—for different tasks. The Brimstone is particularly suited to striking moving vehicles, for example; the Paveway deals with more static targets, such as command posts. I can tell the House that yesterday the RAF used all three—Paveway, Brimstone and Hellfire. There will be more details of that in due course.
We have never suggested that the RAF would start bombing Raqqa or Mosul indiscriminately. The coalition will have to be extremely careful in its use of close air support as operations begin first to encircle, then eventually to liberate the suburbs and the city centre. Obviously, we want to ensure that as many civilian lives as possible are saved. As we have in the liberation of other cities, the coalition has of course been encouraging citizens to leave, to make sure those lives are spared. We discuss such matters regularly inside the coalition.
Order. A further 29 hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and I am keen to accommodate all of them on this important statement, the timing of which was flagged up last week by the Government, but there are also about 30 people seeking to contribute to the subsequent debate, so pithiness personified is what we require.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who say that we must find some accommodation with Assad because we need to work with him to beat Daesh are missing the point? They need look no further than Darayya on 12 May, where a humanitarian convoy was prevented from entering the town to save the lives of starving children. The brutality of that regime means that we have no chance of working with Assad successfully in the future.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The brutality of the Assad regime means that he can play no part in the future of Syria. He and his forces have been using barrel bombs and chlorine, dropping munitions indiscriminately and robbing humanitarian aid convoys of exactly the medicines that the local communities need.
We have made progress in reducing the dependence of Daesh on illegally traded oil across its borders and also internally in Syria. We have made progress in cutting down the sale of antiques and artefacts in international markets. We have had the strike that I referred to on the cash stockpiles that Daesh has been using to finance itself. Of course, it draws other revenues from the areas it controls, but one illustration of the progress has been consecutive reports that Daesh has begun to cut the pay rates to its own troops.