Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2021

Since the last oral questions, I have visited east Africa. I have also visited Cyprus, where I met President Anastasiades and the Turkish Cypriot leader in support of the peace initiative and the UN talks. On 18 February, I met our E3 partners in Paris and also the new Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, to co-ordinate our approach to Iran. Finally, I am sure the whole House will be pleased to hear that the international community has elected not just the first British female judge in the International Criminal Court but the first British chief prosecutor.

The Prime Minister has rightly condemned the UN’s Human Rights Council for its disproportionate focus on Israel, which he said was

“damaging to the cause of peace”.

As the UN Human Rights Council meets over the coming weeks, will the Government commit to voting against one-sided resolutions singling out Israel, including those outside permanent agenda item 7, in order to send a clear message that such blatant anti-Israel bias will not be tolerated?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have stood up for Israel when it has faced bias and, frankly, politicised attacks in the UN and other forums. We will continue to press for the abolition of item 7, because it is the only country-specific standalone agenda item and it focuses on Israel, and that cannot be right.

The US intelligence report released last Friday makes a clear and compelling case that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Last year, the Foreign Secretary said of those with “blood on their hands”:

“You cannot set foot in this country and we will seize your blood-drenched ill-gotten gains if you try.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 664.]

Can he confirm that he will be bringing forward sanctions against bin Salman following this report and that he now finally accepts that it is time to fundamentally reappraise our relationship with Saudi Arabia?

The hon. Lady is a bit behind the curve here. Of course, we have an important relationship with Saudi Arabia on security, on trade and on other things, but the reality is that it was this Government, and me, who introduced Magnitsky sanctions on 20 Saudis involved in the murder under our global human rights regime—[Interruption.] We did it last July. She ought to catch up.

I am, frankly, astonished; I genuinely expected a better response from the Foreign Secretary. He will not stand with the family of Jamal Khashoggi as they seek justice. He will not stand to lift a finger against the dirty money flowing into the City of London. He will not stand with our allies in ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He will not even defend the children of Yemen against brutal aid cuts by his own Department, even as his Government seek to sustain the conflict that they are party to. Last year, we heard him talk tough about standing up to despots and henchmen, but now he tells us that in response to this report he is not prepared to take a single action, will not stand up to corruption, will not stand against humanitarian catastrophe, will not stand up for press freedom and will not stand up for human rights. Is there a single thing that he will actually stand up for?

I again say to the hon. Lady that we were already right out in the lead in imposing asset freezes and visa bans on 20 of the most directly responsible. She refers to the US report. The US has not put sanctions on the Crown Prince, as she well knows. More generally, she will have seen the action that we have taken—[Interruption.] She ought to listen. On dirty money, we have already said, and I have committed to this House, that we will introduce an extension of the Magnitsky sanctions to cover corruption—[Interruption.] She is now going on to talk about Russia. The reality is that we will continue to support standing up for human rights, and I will be introducing to the House Magnitsky sanctions and extensions in the corruption space shortly.

The growing ties between Israel and her Arab neighbours are extremely positive developments that provide an opportunity to reinvigorate the middle east peace process, which has regrettably stalled for many years. Will my right hon. Friend outline what more the UK can do to help support the resumption of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, alongside our allies in the region? (912814)

I thank my hon. Friend. We have supported the normalisation of relations, which is a good step around the region. Of course, this also led to the suspension of the threat of annexation on the west bank, which was very important. As a result of that, I was able to go to talk to President Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh and encourage them to resume dialogue on west bank issues, which is very important for security, and to make sure that Palestinian public servants are paid. Plans are at least mooted for elections on both sides—both in Israel and on the Palestinian side. Ultimately, we need leadership from both sides to secure the peace that my hon. Friend and other Members want. We need a two-state solution, and the UK will support all those efforts.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, we appear no closer to a successful exit strategy. The NATO mission faces difficult choices: leave and see the Afghan Government fall; continue the stalemate and face a permanent involvement in the country; or ramp up the war, with the devastation that follows and no guarantee of success. What discussions are the British Government having with the Biden Administration about the way forward? (912810)

We are having discussions with the Biden Administration on the approach to the proposed US withdrawal or drawdown from Afghanistan. It has to be linked to violence on the ground and to the wider peace talks and the agreements that have been made in Afghanistan between all the local parties, and it has to be based on the delivery of those conditions.

Given that covid-19 is reported to have killed more than 120,000 of our fellow citizens it is reasonable, in time, to understand where lessons can be learned domestically, but surely it is our moral duty to establish the origins of the virus and how it spread as an international community. So may I ask the Minister: what is the British Government’s view on where this came from and on the efficacy of the World Health Organisation’s current fact-finding mission to China? (912818)

My hon. Friend asks a very sensible question. The UK co-sponsored the World Health Assembly resolution in May 2020 that agreed an investigation into the origins of covid. It is important that that investigation is given the time it needs. The field mission to Wuhan was a key early step in the investigation. Of course we cannot pre-empt findings, but we will look closely at the field mission’s report when it is published. We have been clear that the investigation must be robust, open and scientifically rigorous.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) the urgent question that is to follow on Yemen, which is a human rights catastrophe. Similarly, every Member of this House must acknowledge the humanitarian hellhole that Syria has become over the past decade. Given that the existing programme has now run out, will the Secretary of State update the House on our country’s intentions on welcoming refugees to our shores from Syria and the region, and the good quality of life that we will guarantee them once they are here? (912811)

We will of course continue to make sure that we provide vital humanitarian support. I agree with the hon. Lady that the ongoing crisis in Syria is appalling. I think she asked about the Home Office plans for a new global resettlement scheme; that is for the Home Secretary to talk about, but I will—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is right that it is a diplomatic issue, which is why I fully support it.

The UK is a global leader in refugee resettlement, and the new UK resettlement scheme will demonstrate global Britain’s efforts to tackle humanitarian crises wherever they are. To what extent does my right hon. Friend consider that refugee resettlement is an important part of the UK’s wider diplomatic efforts, particularly in respect of supporting those who may now be refugees and have been involved in supporting our military and peacekeeping efforts? (912819)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The truth is that I would not be here today if it was not for this country’s proud tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. Since 2015, we have resettled 25,000 refugees, with the support of brilliant charities—I always think of Elmbridge CAN in my constituency, which helps new families to settle in. We remain committed to discharging that historic role. The new global resettlement scheme will be developed and launched by the Home Office in due course.

The perception that corporate interests and market-friendly laws are prioritised over economic fairness, local communities and the environment has resulted in the Indian farming protests. Given the Foreign Office silence on the issue, will the Prime Minister be raising the injustices that the farmers feel when he visits India? (912812)

I appreciate that there are concerns on this issue; we have a large Indian diaspora and have had lots of constituents writing in. I did raise the matter with Foreign Minister Jaishankar when I was in India and we discussed it. Ultimately, the situation is the result of a reform agenda that the elected Government are pressing through. It is of course contentious and we have discussed it, but ultimately it is for the Government of India to decide.

    The Government have made it clear that we must protect the reputation of organisations such as the UN Human Rights Council. Given our work on gender-based violence and the fact that next Monday is International Women’s Day, I would be grateful for an update on what work is being undertaken on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative and what steps we might take to implement an international body that can support survivors, document crimes and lead prosecutions. (912825)

The PSVI remains a top priority for the UK Government. Since its launch in 2012 we have committed £48 million and funded 85 projects across 29 countries to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. Of course, the UK’s G7 presidency is an excellent opportunity for us to galvanise support for the PSVI.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm the Government’s commitment to a bizonal, bicommunal federation as the only basis for a political settlement on the island of Cyprus, ahead of next month’s UN-sponsored 5+1 talks in Geneva? (912813)

I was out in Cyprus recently, as I have already discussed, and spoke to President Anastasiades and to Ersin Tatar, the new Turkish Cypriot leader. That is, of course, the starting point. The most important thing that we need to see right now is for both sides to go to those UN 5+1 talks without preconditions, so that we can re-engage in the kind of flexibility and pragmatism that can see lasting and enduring peace for the whole of Cyprus.

What steps is my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary taking to respond to the ongoing campaign for Papuan independence? (912830)

The UK Government have repeatedly asserted our long-held position that we respect the territorial integrity of Indonesia, including the provinces of Papua and West Papua. The UK Government categorically do not support the activities or views of Papuan separatist activists. The presence of some individuals in the UK, including Benny Wenda, in no way means that we support their position. We engage with a diverse range of cultural and political figures in the Papua region, and our ambassador made a visit to Papua in November, when he met environment, education and human rights experts, as well as the Governor of West Papua.

Iranian officials have made it clear that the imprisonment of British dual nationals is directly linked to the £400 million IMS debt. The longer the Government deny that link, the longer Anousheh, Nazanin and Aras will be kept away from their families. Will the Foreign Secretary tell me what consideration has been given to an urgent repayment of the debt through alternative means, such as covid-19 supplies or other medical aid? (912815)

The hon. Lady takes a heartfelt interest in this matter. I have recently spoken to the families of all three British-Iranian dual nationals. Of course, we accept that there is a long-standing dispute in relation to the IMS debt that needs to be resolved, but that is separate from the arbitrary detention of British nationals. Frankly, we should not be giving succour to the idea that anything should happen other than their unconditional and immediate release.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran’s uranium stockpile is now more than 14 times over the limit agreed in the 2015 nuclear deal. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the framework is working? What consequences will there be for Iran’s continued non-compliance? [R] (912831)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Iran’s systemic non-compliance with its obligations under the joint comprehensive plan of action are rightly a concern of the whole international community, particularly the state parties to the JCPOA. Frankly, Iran has a clear choice: return to compliance or face increasing economic and diplomatic isolation. On 18 February in Paris, I joined my French and German counterparts and the new US Secretary of State Tony Blinken to reinforce the transatlantic alliance and concerted action to bring Iran back to full compliance, which is our overriding focus.

I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to War on Want’s new report into Israel’s military court system in the occupied west bank. Does he agree that Palestinian civilians should not be tried in military courts? What is his Government doing to support Palestinian human rights defenders who are being tried in them? (912817)

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the treatment of Palestinians. The reality is that I do not think there is a bar on the use of military systems of justice under international law—let alone under the International Criminal Court system. Indeed, we use a military justice system with some of the highest standards in the world. What is crucial is that there is adequate due process to ensure that people’s rights can be fairly and duly heard.

Yesterday, the last case arising from Jonathan Taylor’s whistleblowing concluded, with Paul Bond being sentenced to three and a half years in prison for conspiracy to give corrupt payments. Jonathan Taylor has been vindicated again, but he remains stranded in Croatia due to the Interpol red notice issued by Monaco based on a debunked allegation by his old employer in retaliation for his whistleblowing. Now that the relevant court cases are complete, will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to bring Mr Taylor home? Will he also speak to ministerial colleagues about the need for whistle-blowing law reform so that, in future, people like Jonathan Taylor get the support and protection they need?

We are providing ongoing consular support to Mr Taylor. Consular staff have been in regular contact with him and his UK lawyer. The British ambassador in Zagreb met him in December to discuss his concerns and explain the FCDO’s consular functions. I spoke to the Monégasque Foreign Secretary and the Croatian Secretary of State for European Affairs in November and sought assurances that both authorities were giving full consideration to the fact that Mr Taylor is a whistleblower. The UK is a state party to a number of multilateral conventions that require adequate arrangements to be made for the protection of whistleblowers. The UK has made appropriate provisions to do so in our own law, demonstrating the seriousness with which we take our obligation, and we are encouraging our international partners to do likewise. We are, however, unable to protect whistleblowers in other jurisdictions that may not have the same law.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.