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Topical Questions

Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 30 October 2018

Since the last oral questions, I have attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York, addressed a special Security Council session on North Korea, joined a meeting of Foreign Ministers on the tragedy in Yemen and convened a roundtable on Burma.

Last week, the UN special rapporteur, Michael Lynk, produced his report on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He concludes that the problem is not with the clarity of international law, but with the unwillingness of the international community to uphold it. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with that assessment and, if so, what action will his Government take to ensure the rule of law in the middle east?

We are very concerned about a number of the things that have been happening in the occupied territories. We will study that report extremely carefully. Indeed, we are talking closely to the Americans about their middle east peace plan, which we hope will be launched soon.

T4. What assessment have the Government made of extremely alarming reports of internment camps for Uyghur Muslims in China? (907371)

We look at those reports with a lot of concern. We had our own diplomats visiting the Xinjiang province in August and they concur that those reports are broadly accurate. I raised it with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, when I went to China and we continue to be extremely concerned about what is happening.

The Burmese Reuters journalist Wa Lone has still not met his 11-week-old daughter. She may be seven years old before he finally sees her. He was jailed for seeking to report accurately the Rohingya crisis. Does not the fate of Wa Lone demonstrate that the Government’s position is too weak in expecting the Myanmar Government to investigate themselves? Will the Foreign Secretary adopt the UN recommendations and refer Myanmar’s military leaders to the International Criminal Court?

I share the hon. Lady’s concern about what is happening. With respect to Wa Lone and to the other Reuters journalist, Kyaw Soe O, I have raised concerns directly about due process in their case with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and she assured me that she would relook at whether due process had properly occurred, but we are very concerned about that and indeed about the situation in Rakhine, where there has to be accountability. However, we have made some progress. We had the strongest ever condemnation of what happened by the Human Rights Council on 27 September. I convened a meeting at the UN General Assembly about this. The fact-finding mission has now come before the Security Council and there are lots of things that are happening.

T8. The Government can be proud of their world-leading commitment to ensure protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, but can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the forthcoming international oceans strategy will have that goal at its centre and that it will set out a plan for ensuring that our own blue belt of marine sanctuaries is set to the global gold standard? (907375)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tireless championing of this agenda. I can confirm that the UK will be supporting it. I can also confirm that we are on course with the blue belt programme to deliver over 4 million sq km of maritime protection around the UK’s overseas territories by 2020.

T2. I am sure that most of us will have viewed the outcome of the Brazilian presidential election with some alarm in terms of the implications for human rights and the rule of law. How are the Government going to approach their future relationship with the Bolsonaro Administration? (907369)

It is important to remember that President-elect Bolsonaro received a clear mandate from the Brazilian people, and we will of course endeavour to work with his Administration. However, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, our view on racism, homophobia and misogyny is clear—it would never be acceptable. We will remain the strongest of champions on human rights on the international stage and will not shy away from expressing that view where we disagree with other Governments, including our closest allies.

I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Tunisia. Yesterday the Tunisian capital, Tunis, was the target of a suicide bombing—the first attack in the country since 2015. What support are my right hon. Friend and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office providing to Tunisia in the wake of yesterday’s attack to ensure that its tourist economy, strengthened by UK holidaymakers, does not falter as it is starting to gather speed?

We have already expressed our condolences to Tunisia for the attack yesterday. The security situation in Tunisia has been worked on quite intensively by the Tunisian authorities since the attack in Sousse some years ago. We remain in close contact with Tunisia. We constantly update our travel advice to keep people in touch with the situation. We will continue to work with the Tunisian authorities to improve the security situation still further.

T3. For at least nine months, the Met’s war crimes unit has been assessing material from the Rwandan authorities relating to five men living in the UK likely to have committed genocide offences in Rwanda in 1994. Their extradition to Rwanda was blocked in 2015. How much longer will these men evade justice? (907370)

We are well aware of the reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I can assure him that, should there be any issues in terms of action that the UK can take in this regard, it stands ready to do that, should the situation require our intervention.

May I ask the Minister for Africa what diplomatic support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can give to the English-speaking community in Cameroon, which is being quite widely oppressed at the moment?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important situation. I was in the Anglophone region of Cameroon earlier this year. We are following with great concern the reports we are hearing that the situation has not got any better since I visited. We are urging the President, who has recently been re-elected, to follow through on his assurance that he would engage in meaningful dialogue to address the concerns of the people living in that region.

T5. The human rights situation in Tibet is deeply worrying. It is difficult to know how many Tibetans have been imprisoned unjustly in China. The situation will continue to deteriorate without transparency. What steps are this Government taking to facilitate independent observers’ immediate and unhindered access to Tibet in order to accurately address the human rights situation on the ground? (907372)

I completely share the concerns that the hon. Lady has raised. This is one of a number of human rights issues that we raise regularly with the Chinese Foreign Minister, and I will continue to do so.

When my right hon. Friend speaks to the President of Sri Lanka later on in the week, will he point out that his recent actions are in direct contravention of the 19th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, that the international community continues to recognise Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the legitimate Prime Minister, that this can only be changed by a vote in Parliament, and that Parliament must be recalled as a matter of urgency in order that such a vote can take place?

I will certainly be making those points when I talk to President Sirisena. I know that a number of Members are concerned about the safety of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and we are watching the situation with a great deal of concern.

The independent international fact-finding mission has recently spoken of the “enduring catastrophe” in Myanmar. Has not the time come to put forward a UN resolution referring this to the ICC and bringing public pressure to bear, to try to prevent it from being vetoed?

I completely share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. As I said to the House at the last oral questions, the issue with the ICC referral is that it has to go through the Security Council, where we think it would be vetoed by Russia or China. We are looking at alternative solutions. We are absolutely clear that there has to be accountability, because without accountability, the Rohingyas will not feel safe to go home.

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), will the Foreign Secretary confirm that Britain’s position will be to back the rule of law as a guiding principle in Sri Lanka and elsewhere?

I am absolutely happy to confirm that—and, indeed, upholding the constitution in Sri Lanka.

T6. The Saudi-led war in Yemen is causing what could be the world’s worst famine in 100 years, with 14 million people at risk according to the UN. This war is dependent on the UK Government’s assistance and support, and it could not be waged without UK arms and military assistance. What crimes does the Saudi regime need to commit before the Government finally stand up for human rights and bring forward that resolution? (907373)

The most important thing in Yemen is to bring the conflict to a conclusion. Over the weekend, I spoke to representatives of the UN, the United States, the coalition and the Government of Yemen. Intensive work is going on to make every effort to bring the conflict to a conclusion, and the United Kingdom will play a full part in that.

Following the terrible Salisbury attack, the United Kingdom Government expelled 23 Russian diplomats, and about 20 other countries did the same. Given the evidence that has emerged since then—for example, the attempted hacking of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is a case for the UK to go further in degrading the Russian state’s ability to commit espionage on our territory, by expelling more Russian diplomats?

We are absolutely going to go further. As the Prime Minister said to the House, we will seek to degrade the GRU’s capabilities and will work with our allies to do that.

T7. Given the concern expressed across the House about Kashmir, will the Foreign Secretary commit to raise that issue at the Security Council, of which we are a permanent member, the next time he addresses the United Nations? (907374)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He may not have heard it, but I said earlier on that we are making it very clear that it is not our place to intervene or interfere in this matter, but clearly it is a concern. The UN report on human rights has rightly been referred to. We very much take note of former high commissioner Zeid’s presentation to the Human Rights Council in June this year and the clear recommendations for the Governments of India and Pakistan. We hope that those will be adhered to.

In the light of recent worrying developments in Sri Lanka, will the Foreign Secretary urge the Government there to make good on their promises to deliver justice for the Tamil people and accountability for war crimes committed against them?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. I was in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the month, and like the Foreign Secretary, I am deeply concerned by the fast-developing political situation there. As I say, not only do we want to stand up for the constitution, but my right hon. Friend is right to say that we need to continue to urge Sri Lanka to implement fully the commitments it has willingly made to the UN Human Rights Council.

T9. What are the Government doing to secure the release of South Sudanese civil society activist and Cambridge PhD student Peter Ajak, who has been detained without charge for 94 days in the notorious Blue House prison in Juba? (907376)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Sudan and South Sudan. This is a serious situation. We continue to advocate the freeing up of political space and the freeing of political prisoners, as some of the cost-free things that the Government of South Sudan could do to show willing in terms of the peace process declared on 12 September.

While the nation and the international community rightly focus on the situation in Rakhine state in Burma, I recently met people from Karen and Chin states, and they told me some horrendous continuing stories. I am also hosting a delegation from Kachin and Shan states—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a busy man—we are all well aware of that—but what is the question?

Will the Foreign Secretary tell me what we are doing to tackle the situation in the whole of Burma?

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest, and he is absolutely right. The fact-finding mission said that there were mass exterminations and mass expulsions in the Kachin and Shan areas as well, and we raised all those issues with Aung San Suu Kyi when I saw her.

I know the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) very well. He has many commitments, he is a very busy man and he has a very full diary. There is no need to advertise it to the House; we are all aware of what an indispensable public servant he is.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. For over 70 years, the sons and daughters of Kashmir have been subjected to persecution, oppression and human rights abuses, yet it seems that our position continues to be that this is a matter for India and Pakistan. How many more innocent men, women and children have to die before we at least facilitate peaceful talks between those countries to find a peaceful resolution?

I do understand the passion and the genuine sense of outrage that the hon. Gentleman feels. Ultimately, there can be a solution only if India and Pakistan work together. It cannot be our role to intervene, not least because, as I think the hon. Gentleman will understand, we will be seen by one or other side as intervening on that side rather than on the other. We will do our very best, as I have already mentioned, as far as the UN is concerned—given that a UN report is on the table—to try to bring the parties together. However, on the notion that it is in any way the place of the UK Government to intervene on this matter, I am afraid that we have quite rightly maintained such a position for over 70 years.

Twenty-five years ago, I was part of a British, Han Chinese and Uighur expedition that crossed the Taklamakan desert in western China for the first time. Today, Xinjiang is not a happy region, and there are worrying, wide-scale reports of abuses of the human rights of the Muslim Uighur population. Does the Minister believe that this is something we should be raising at the human rights talks in Geneva?

My hon. Friend is a great expert in Chinese matters. I think this issue is of very great, and growing, concern. We will raise it in all appropriate forums, and that may be a very good thought.

Will the Secretary of State consider all options we have at EU level to prosecute and impose sanctions on those who have committed atrocities against the Rohingya people in Myanmar?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that the EU has already introduced targeted sanctions against seven Burmese generals. We are in discussions with the French, as the other EU permanent member of the Security Council, as to what further measures we can take.

Increased Russian military activity has been noticed in Libya, and we continue to monitor that. We would reiterate that there is a UN arms embargo in relation to Libya. It should be the role of all parties to work constructively with the efforts of UN special envoy Ghassan Salamé, and Russia should direct its efforts to encouraging parties to work with that process to bring the conflict to a conclusion.

Order. We are running late, which is not exactly novel, but I could accommodate more colleagues if each was kind to every other. I am sure Mr Stewart Malcolm McDonald will volunteer just a sentence.

What discussions have the Government had with the Government of Ukraine regarding internally displaced people and food insecurity, particularly in the illegally occupied Donbass region?

The hon. Gentleman was there recently, I understand. He will be aware that, through the Department for International Development, we do have a programme of humanitarian assistance there, but Russian aggression continues to destabilise the area. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently spoke to Foreign Minister Klimkin to emphasise our commitment to and support for Ukraine, including through Operation Orbital.

Given the extraordinary declaration by the Argentinian Foreign Minister that Argentina will seek to enhance its claims to the Falklands if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, will my right hon. Friend confirm that—deal or no deal—there will be no question whatever of undermining the status of the Falkland Islands as a British territory?

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is meeting now in Hobart. What progress has the UK delegation made in securing a marine protected area for the Weddell sea, which is absolutely vital to stop run-away climate change?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the important talks that are taking place. The UK is very much a co-proponent and keen advocate of the proposal currently under discussion. We strongly support this marine protection work, not just in the Weddell sea.

I have recently returned from Abu Nuwar, a village close to Khan al-Ahmar. There, I asked some of the mothers about their hopes and expectations. They said their hope was to remain in their village; their expectation was that, if Khan al-Ahmar is demolished, they would be next. What hope can the Minister give the mothers of Abu Nuwar?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, both for his visit and for his continuing interest in this issue. As he knows, and as the House knows, we have made significant representations in relation to Khan al-Ahmar and other Bedouin communities in recent times. There has still been no decision to demolish the Khan al-Ahmar village; that is currently paused—a decision by the Israeli authorities that we welcome. We continue to hope that a resolution will be found that does not involve demolition. The United Kingdom will remain closely involved.

If President Sirisena will not back down on the apparent return of Mahinda Rajapaksa—a man with a terrible human rights record in Sri Lanka—what further steps will the Foreign Secretary take with our European allies to demonstrate the seriousness of Britain’s concern about this matter?

We very much hope that President Sirisena will back down and will adhere to the constitution, which of course means bringing back Parliament at the earliest opportunity. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, when he alludes at least to this, that we are actively co-ordinating our response within the international community. We believe that a concerted international response will have the most effect.

During the events that followed the Salisbury attack, the incompetence of the Russian operatives was there to be seen, but so too was their malevolence. Our EU friends were hugely helpful in thwarting their ambitions. Can I have an assurance that Her Majesty’s Government will continue in the future, whatever the future holds, to work closely with our European friends in thwarting this kind of threat?

Does the Foreign Secretary understand the complete terror and horror of my Tamil constituents at the idea that Mahinda Rajapaksa may be coming back? There can be no justice in Sri Lanka; these people will not find out where their disappeared relatives went nine years ago. What is the Foreign Secretary really going to do to support them?

I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that we do a lot already to support them. As I mentioned, I visited Colombo at the beginning of October and made these points to Foreign Minister Marapana. I also met the Tamil National Alliance leader and a number of human rights and other civil society activists. We will continue to do that work. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady, and I am as alarmed as she is. It is absolutely essential that we get Sri Lanka back to the table to ensure that it adheres to its UN Human Rights Council obligations.

The United Kingdom reserves the right to acknowledge and recognise the state of Palestine when it is in the best interests of the peace process to do so.

We have no current presence in Sana’a, so we have no consular staff or anyone available. When people can get to a border, we can offer support, but we cannot physically offer support in Yemen. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a continuing case, and we have done our very best to support him and his constituents in very difficult circumstances. We will continue to do so, but the conflict makes our assistance extremely difficult.