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Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rwanda: Human Rights

Rwanda is fundamentally a safe and secure country with low crime rates. Homicide rates, for example, are well below the average rate across Africa and are lower than the European average. Rwanda respects the rule of law, and has a strong record on economic and social rights and the rights of migrants. However, we are concerned about the restrictions on political opposition, civil society and media freedom, and we regularly express those concerns to members of the Rwandan Government.

Disturbing reports have emerged in Rwanda of adults who were orphaned during the Rwandan genocide being told to leave the hostel they have lived in for years to make room for UK asylum seekers. How does the Minister square that information with her Government’s commitment to being a force for good in the world?

Rwanda has a strong history of welcoming refugees and protecting their rights. Since 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the African Union have been sending refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda. Last month, the UN sent 119 asylum seekers to Rwanda, which it described as a very safe country. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s points on board.

According to the Foreign Office’s own website, homosexuality remains frowned upon by many in Rwanda, and LGBTQ+ people can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities. LGBTQ+ Rwandan refugees have been forced to flee the hostility and dangers they have faced there. What account will the UK Government take of that before deporting vulnerable LGBTQ+ refugees there?

I thank the hon. Member for her interest. She will know that, unlike most countries in the region, Rwanda has no laws against homosexuality, and its constitution also prohibits all forms of discrimination based on identity. When it comes to women’s equality, Rwanda is one of the top countries in the world. We know that LGBT individuals may still encounter discrimination, and we continue to work with the Rwandan Government and the LGBT community in Rwanda to improve their situation.

Exactly. Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report with evidence that Rwandan authorities had arbitrarily detained more than a dozen gay and transgender people—in some cases, violently assaulting them—ahead of a June 2021 conference, accusing them of “not representing Rwandan values”. Is the Minister seriously saying that LGBTQ+ refugees are safe in Rwanda?

Let me be clear: our agreement with the Rwandans ensures that people will be kept safe, but let me also say this about Rwanda. It is one of the top countries in the world for economic growth and for women’s equality. Its health service has ensured that a greater proportion of its people are vaccinated against covid than people in any other African country bar one. It outperforms the UK when it comes to organised crime. Rwanda has entered into this partnership willingly because its Government, like us, do not want to see people drowning in the channel.

We hear a lot about human rights on this issue, but does my hon. Friend agree that by far the worst thing for human rights has been the rise of organised criminal gangs trafficking people by encouraging them to make perilous journeys across the channel? Does she also agree that our plan is the only plan on the table to break that business model?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We have been honest about the fact that this is an innovative approach; as with all new approaches, there is, of course, uncertainty, but doing nothing is not an option when people are putting their lives at risk by crossing the channel in small boats. We need new innovative solutions and partnerships to put an end to this deadly trade and break the model of the people traffickers.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the Government’s landmark Rwanda deal, which is already acting as a strong deterrent to those who might cross the channel dangerously? Zero boats have been detected over the last few days.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I point out that our £120 million investment will help the Rwandans to surmount further barriers to growth and create jobs and opportunities, both for the people of Rwanda and for any asylum seekers who want to settle there.

This policy will do nothing to stop the boats. The Minister has spent the last few days talking up the human rights record of the Rwandan Government, yet the previous Minister expressed concerns around “civil and political rights” in Rwanda. In 2018, 12 refugees were shot dead during protests about cuts to food allowances, and last month, the current Minister said that the UK was raising the latest of many cases of Government critics ending up dead. Is that hypocrisy the reason why the Daily Mirror, The Guardian and the Financial Times were blocked from joining the Home Secretary’s trip to Rwanda—because they would call it out?

I have been very consistent. We do have concerns about restrictions on political freedom, civil society and media freedom, and regularly express them to the Government of Rwanda. However, they also have a strong record on protecting refugees. I know the hon. Lady cares about Afghans, especially women, and she will know that Afghanistan’s only girls’ school recently relocated all its staff, its students and their families to Rwanda. The headteacher herself has described their reception in Rwanda as one of

“kindness, and sensitivity, and humanity”.

Those are her words, not mine.

I really am troubled by this. We think this is a disastrous policy that will not do anything about small boats in the channel, but let us put that to one side. The Minister and the Foreign Secretary must be aware of the grave misgivings among Foreign Office officials about this policy. Can they name a single non-governmental organisation that is in favour of it? Are they just glossing over the human rights concerns about the Rwandan Government? An international development partnership with Rwanda is one thing, but this is entirely different. Are they glossing over concerns in the cynical expectation that the policy will come to nothing? That is the only thing I can think of that would allow them to lend credence to this disastrous policy.

We are absolutely not glossing over our concerns about rights when it comes to, for example, space for political opposition, civil rights and media freedom. Indeed, I met the permanent secretary of the Rwandan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation in London earlier this year and made those points to her. However, to break the people trafficking model that is causing lives to be put at risk in our channel, things need to be done; doing nothing is not an option. That is why the Government of Rwanda have willingly entered into this partnership; they too want to stop lives being put at risk.

Sexual Violence in Conflict

2. What steps her Department is taking to protect women and girls from the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict. (906603)

10. What diplomatic steps her Department is taking to help ensure sexual violence is not used as a weapon of war. (906612)

The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict is a war crime. The UK is determined to tackle this scourge, which devastates lives. That is why we are campaigning for it to be a red line, on a par with the use of chemical weapons.

The reports of appalling, widespread sexual violence being used by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are deeply disturbing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Murad code is a vital step to ensuring justice for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, and that we must send a strong message to Russia and to Putin that rape as a weapon of war is evil and we must stamp it out?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is evil, and we have seen horrific sights in towns such as Bucha, where rape and sexual violence were used to terrorise women and children. The UK is leading the charge on the need to collect evidence of those crimes, and under our presidency of the United Nations Security Council we have launched the Murad code, which sets global standards for effective evidence-gathering on sexual violence.

Today’s Daily Telegraph includes the testimony of Anna, a 41-year-old woman from Ukraine who says she was raped by a 19-year-old soldier. I note that the UN Secretary-General is meeting Mr Putin today to discuss humanitarian aid, and I hope he will bring up the use of rape as a weapon of war—a weapon that the Russians seem to be using. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the UN charter mandate is to maintain international peace and security, perhaps it is time the international community questioned whether Russia should remain a permanent member of the Security Council?

My hon. Friend is right about the appalling reports that we have seen in the Telegraph and other newspapers of the use of rape in Ukraine. The Security Council has a role to play. Under our presidency of the Security Council, we have used it to call out Russia’s lies. We have also hosted President Zelensky, who has spoken to the Security Council. My hon. Friend is also right that we have concerns about an international security architecture that has Russia as one of the permanent members of the Security Council, where it has used its veto as a green light for barbarism. Part of our response has been working more closely with allies such as the G7 and NATO, because we simply have not seen enough taking place at a UN level.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to the Murad code for survivors, but the Foreign Secretary knows that my commitment is to prevention. Women and girls in conflict zones are subjected to particular sexual violence. Rape continues, without apparent consequence, in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Myanmar—I could go on. What plans does the Foreign Secretary have to make tackling sexual violence a part of a broader cross-Government atrocity prevention programme?

The hon. Lady is right that we are seeing appalling cases not just in Ukraine but in countries such as Ethiopia. Later this year, in November, the UK will host an international conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict. We are working with counterparts such as the Canadians on the idea of a new convention that puts sexual violence on the same level in war as the use of chemical weapons. We are also working across Government with our domestic programme to prevent sexual violence. We are restoring our budget for women and girls, one of the key parts of which is for work on preventing sexual violence. We will shortly release our new international development budget for 2022-23.

We are hearing heartbreaking stories of children being forced to watch their mothers being raped and then murdered in Ukraine. We are hearing of rape being used as a weapon of war across conflicts, including in Tigray in Ethiopia. International Rescue Committee analysis reveals that women and girls across conflicts are experiencing widespread abuse and exploitation, including rape. What are the Government doing not only to stop this being used as a weapon of war but to challenge the way that women are used and exploited in conflicts across the world?

The hon. Lady is right: this abhorrent policy is being used to terrorise women and children. It is being used to destroy communities and destroy their spirit. It is a deliberate act. We know that; it is what the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe report on what is happening in Ukraine shows. First, we are working to collect the evidence through a number of bodies, including the Metropolitan police. We are funding the International Criminal Court to collect evidence. We will make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. More than that, we need new international agreement on making the use of sexual violence in war a red line. It needs to be regarded on the same level as the use of chemical weapons. That has not yet happened. That is why the UK is hosting a conference on this later this year, and we are working with international partners on this. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: it is appalling and abhorrent.

I welcome enormously my right hon. Friend’s words on sexual violence in conflict. We have seen the rape of Bucha, sadly, and the rape of so many other towns and cities around the world, most notably in places such as Ethiopia and Mali. However, will my right hon. Friend also talk about sexual violence not in conflict? There is forced genital mutilation of young women and girls around the world, and an extraordinary level of violence in ordinary life outside conflict. The work that her Department can do in helping communities to defend themselves is not just transforming them, but transforming countries’ economies and futures.

That is why it is so important to restore the women and girls budget, as we will in our new announcement on international development. Key focuses will be girls’ education, ending the use of female genital mutilation, and preventing sexual violence in conflict but also more broadly. My hon. Friend is right. If women do not have this basic security, they will not be able to achieve their full potential, or have the opportunities they should. That is of course appalling for them, but also appalling for the societies they live in. That is why, in our international development policy, we absolutely must start with the most vulnerable, who are women and children.

Sexual violence and rape are abhorrent anyway, but their use in conflict is a crime against humanity. I very much welcome what the Secretary of State has said about trying to get a convention in place that puts their use on the same level as the use of chemical weapons. On the women and children who are victims now, what work is she doing with our allies to ensure that the perpetrators of these vile crimes are brought to account, and that authorities go after the generals in charge of those soldiers, because these are war crimes?

They are war crimes. We are collecting the evidence, and we have British people currently working with the Ukrainian Government in Ukraine collecting that evidence. We are working with the International Criminal Court. If the ICC mechanisms are not enough, we will find other ways of getting to the people—not just those who perpetrated the crimes, but those who ordered them to be perpetrated. Also, through the aid budget that we have allocated to Ukraine, we are helping the victims. We are helping the survivors of sexual violence, and we are allocating money to local organisations to help those who have gone through the appalling trauma of being raped and sexually abused in conflict.

Democracy: Eastern Europe

We have made it clear that we, the UK, will defend democracy at the frontier of freedom in eastern Europe as part of a network of liberty. We are strengthening our partnerships in the region, including on: countering disinformation and propaganda; advancing trade and technology; and supporting transparent, accountable political processes through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other institutions. On 7 April, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met NATO Foreign Ministers and affirmed our commitment to defending, and deterring threats to, the alliance members in eastern Europe.

Without doubt, the UK is leading the way in providing military support to eastern Europe. We are doing everything from sending manned Challenger 2 tanks to Poland to doubling the size of our deployment in Estonia. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK is working closely with NATO allies to provide all the support required to defend democracy in eastern Europe?

I assure my hon. Friend that the UK will continue to play a leading role in NATO to respond to Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. I fly out to NATO tomorrow to meet our new permanent representative and our allies in that alliance. NATO has also announced the establishment of four additional multilateral battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. As I say, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and NATO Foreign Ministers have agreed increased support to regional partners to strengthen their resilience and their ability to defend themselves against cyber-attacks, disinformation, political interference and other physical and political threats to them.

I thank the Minister for his answer. We are all moved by the Ukrainian people’s fight to defend their hard-won democratic freedoms, but several countries in the region are still in transition, including Moldova, Georgia, and NATO allies such as Albania and North Macedonia. What work is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office engaged in to support reform, so that all peoples in eastern Europe can experience the same democratic freedoms that we have in the UK?

My hon. Friend is right that many countries in the immediate vicinity of Ukraine are suffering oppression. The UK is supporting democratic reform across the south Caucasus, in Moldova and in the western Balkans, including through programmes that support the strengthening of democratic freedoms to deliver the reform programmes and reduce corruption. We are also working with partners in the western Balkans to support their Euro-Atlantic integration, which is in itself a stimulus to reform.

Britain’s Army is smaller than it has been at any time for 200 years and we currently have plans to reduce personnel in our armed forces by a further 20,000 individuals. Does the Minister agree that if we are to stand by our allies in central and eastern Europe, we need to be in a position where we are militarily strong enough to do so?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that, ultimately, his question would be more properly answered by Defence Ministers. I can assure him, however, that the close working between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Ministry of Defence and our international partners will ensure that the UK absolutely remains a top-tier defence country within NATO. We will continue to support our NATO allies and countries in the region to defend themselves against physical and digital threats.

Many countries of eastern Europe chose to join NATO as soon as they were free to do so, because they regard membership of the defensive alliance as essential to their security and democracy. As a result of Russia’s invasion, Finland and Sweden are considering whether to make such an application; the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the UK would support an application if it was forthcoming. Is the Minister confident that, in that event, NATO would agree to admit Finland and Sweden to the alliance?

The phrase that comes to mind is, “When people are free to choose, they choose freedom.” In this instance, a number of countries are seriously considering joining NATO—as the hon. Gentleman says, predominantly Finland and Sweden. I have no doubt that their application will be considered seriously by NATO member states. They are both serious defence players in their own right. Our view is that they would be an asset to NATO. Ultimately, the choice is for the people of those countries, but as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, we would look favourably on that application.

It was good to hear the Minister mention the situation in the western Balkans where, of course, democracy and stability are under threat not just from Putin’s Russia but from those who seek to generate chaos locally. I therefore welcome the sanctions that the Government have announced against the Republika Srpska leader Dodik and others. That is an issue that we raised back in March. Can the Minister say what wider discussions he is having with our allies and special representatives in the region, and with Serbia, to maintain peace, democracy and stability in Bosnia, Kosovo and beyond and to counter Russian and domestic threats to undermine all those?

The hon. Gentleman makes some important points about the fragility of countries in that region. The Prime Minister recently appointed Stuart Peach, who is very experienced and highly regarded. He has been active already in his engagement with the region. I have met him already and intend to do so again. On my visits to eastern Europe, I have discussed some of the challenges with regard to the western Balkans. As he said, we recently imposed a series of sanctions against the leadership of Republika Srpska, who need to be reminded that the best way forward for that country is through democracy and support for the rule of law.

Democracy is ultimately built on hope. In response to a recent question to the Prime Minister about my suggestion that we fund a new Marshall plan for Ukraine from seized Russian assets, he said that that is something that his Government are working on. Can the Minister update the House as to what work is taking place in his Department?

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We are currently supporting Ukraine and eastern European countries through our humanitarian support to deal with the initial and immediate pressures. What we can do in terms of reparations is ultimately a matter that will need to be done at Foreign Minister level within the UK and internationally, but I, and I am sure the Government, take his suggestion very seriously.

International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

4. What diplomatic steps she is taking to ensure that the UK has a role in the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. (906605)

6. What diplomatic steps she is taking to ensure that the UK has a role in the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. (906607)

We welcome the US’s Middle East Partnership for Peace Act and the proposals for increased international funding for Israeli-Palestinian peace. We share the objective of advancing economic, social and political connections, and peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. We stand ready to co-ordinate and collaborate further.

The recent attacks in Israel and the violence in Jerusalem and Gaza are a reminder of how urgent it is to support projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Can the Minister now confirm to the House when the UK will join the board of the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. UK officials remain in close contact with the US Government about how our existing peace-building projects and funding can better support the goals of the Act. We stand ready to co-ordinate and collaborate further, including regarding the advisory board, as additional information about their plans and priorities become available.

Recent violence in the west bank and in Israel itself underlines the need for an international fund for Israeli and Palestinian peace, but such a fund will not just happen. It actually requires positive support from Governments around the world, including and especially this Government, yet the truth is that our Government are paying only lip service to it. When will the Government remember the success of the International Fund for Ireland and learn the lessons of that success?

As I say, what we all want to see is a safe and secure Israel, and we want to have a two-state solution that enables us to do that and also delivers Palestinian self-determination. We are working with the US Government on these projects and the funding that can support the Act, and as and when we have more information about the plans and the priorities, we will co-ordinate with them.

The last few weeks have seen spiralling tension and violence in Israel and Palestine, with a dozen Israelis killed in a spate of horrific terrorist attacks and more than 20 Palestinians killed in response, including the senseless killing of a teenager and a human rights lawyer. We remain resolutely committed to the goal of a two-state solution, but it feels a very distant prize at present. Can I ask the Minister what she is doing to try to remove the barriers to peace, including ensuring respect of holy sites such as the al-Aqsa mosque, preventing Hamas rocket attacks, ending the expansion of illegal settlements and finally recognising Palestine as a state?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and we are deeply concerned about the very fragile security situation. We are working actively with key partners, including members of the UN Security Council, and both parties to encourage de-escalation of tensions. As he says, there have been some horrific attacks, and we do want to see the situation de-escalated. We are having those conversations to ensure that we play our part in preventing further escalation.

The UK’s funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees was cut by more than 50% last year. UNRWA provides essential services to Palestinian refugees in the west bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but it has been described as “close to collapse” due to funding shortfalls. Can we truly say, as Ambassador Allen stated to the UN Security Council in 2018, that

“the United Kingdom strongly supports peace”

between Israelis and Palestinians when it simultaneously sells arms to one side and cuts humanitarian aid to the other?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have said, we are committed to a two-state solution as the best way to deliver Palestinian self-determination and a safe and secure Israel. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and North America announced last year that we are providing £27 million to support UNRWA, including £4.9 million for its flash appeal following the Gaza conflicts in May.

India: Economic and Security Relationship

5. What recent steps she has taken to strengthen the UK’s economic and security relationship with India. (906606)

15. What recent diplomatic steps she has taken to strengthen the UK’s economic and security relationship with India. (906618)

India is the world’s largest democracy and a key partner of the United Kingdom. We are deepening our defence and security ties, as well as securing a trade deal by the end of the year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, and for the tremendous work she has been doing since she became Foreign Secretary to deepen the relationship with India. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s visit last week built on that relationship. Clearly there is a need for defence, trade and other opportunities, but there is also a requirement to move India away from its relationship with Russia. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that our friendship continues with India, and that it is moved back towards the west?

My hon. Friend is a huge champion for the Indian community in Harrow East, and he is right: India is a democracy. We want to work more closely with India and other democracies to reduce dependence on authoritarian regimes such as Russia. We can do that by working more closely with India on defence, which is what the Prime Minister was doing on his visit to India last week, and more closely on trade and investment, so that democracies are working with each other and we are less dependent on regimes such as Russia that have ill intent.

Following on from that, will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the progress made by the Prime Minister last week to boost security in the Indo-Pacific? Will she confirm that following his trip, the UK will continue to work closely with our friends in India to deliver a more secure and prosperous future for both our peoples in the UK and in India?

That is right. First, we are working more closely with India on defence, to benefit industries in both our countries and make our countries more secure and less dependent on authoritarian regimes. At the same time, we will be delivering more commercial benefits. When the Prime Minister was in India he confirmed deals of more than £1 billion, creating almost 11,000 new jobs in the United Kingdom. There are huge opportunities for more jobs in India and the United Kingdom, and more security for both our countries.

Last week before his visit to India, I wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to raise the human rights abuses against Kashmiris, and the increasingly Islamophobic direction of the Modi Government and the persecution of minorities. It seems, however, that the Prime Minister did not even think those grave human rights abuses worth a mention. That is frankly disgraceful. The Government cannot pick and choose the human rights abuses around the world that favour them. When will this Government fulfil their international obligation to the Kashmiris, and to those persecuted by the right-wing Modi Government in India?

On Kashmir, we encourage both sides to engage in dialogue and find lasting diplomatic solutions to maintain regional stability. We raise our concerns with the Governments of both India and Pakistan.

Following the question from the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), it is important that we strengthen the UK’s economic and security relationships with India. It is equally important that we address the issue of human rights abuses, and the persecution of Christians and Muslims. What discussions have taken place to ensure that when it comes to addressing the persecution of Christians and Muslims, and the abuse of human rights in India, something is being done and India listens?

Of course we raise the issue of human rights with the Indian Government. Indeed, later this summer we will host a conference in London on the subject of religious freedom, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). This is an important issue for us. Looking at the big picture, there is a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom to work more closely with India in the face of some appalling authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia, which has staged an unwarranted, unjustified invasion of Ukraine. It is important that leading democracies across the world stand up for freedom and democracy and work together.

To isolate Putin on the global stage, we must build the largest possible coalition against his illegal war. India is one country that has so far stayed neutral. The Prime Minister spent last week in India, but No. 10 admitted that he failed even to mention India’s neutrality in his meeting with Prime Minister Modi. That follows the Foreign Secretary’s own failed trip to India where she failed to demonstrate any progress in bringing India into the international coalition condemning Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Will the Foreign Secretary explain that failure and commit to asking her counterparts in India to oppose Putin’s barbaric war?

Of course, I have discussed the issue of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine with the Indian Government, but the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong if he thinks that the right approach for Britain is to go around finger-wagging to the rest of the world rather than working to build strong relationships and partnerships to attract India and others to work more closely with us. On both my visit and the Prime Minister’s visit, we succeeded in moving forward our relationships on trade, investment and defence, generating jobs in Britain and in India with the ultimate goal of working more closely together as fellow democracies and moving away from dependence on authoritarian regimes. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman prefers gesture politics to getting things done. [Interruption.]

Commonwealth Countries

8. What diplomatic steps she is taking to strengthen relationships with Commonwealth countries. (906609)

I am terribly sorry, Mr Speaker; I could not hear my colleague over the noise in the House. The UK has been an energetic Commonwealth chair in office, working to strengthen collaboration and co-ordination right across our Commonwealth family, including on recovery from covid, trade, investment and climate. Last week, as we have been discussing, the Prime Minister visited India. The Foreign Secretary has also visited India as well as Australia. I have visited South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho and Eswatini, and if I were to tell hon. Members where Lord Ahmad has been, we would be here until tomorrow.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer—I am normally heard wherever I go. With the recent royal tour of the Caribbean and the Prime Minister’s visit to India in mind, does she agree that, in this post-Brexit world, we should make the strengthening of the Commonwealth—that great family of democracies—a top priority?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and Essex neighbour about the importance of the Commonwealth. We are committed to deepening our ties with all Commonwealth countries, including on trade. We have already signed free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand and we look forward to concluding one with India this year. We have got economic partnerships with 27 Commonwealth countries. We are working closely with many Commonwealth partners on global challenges such as climate and health, underpinned by over half a billion pounds of international investment. Members of the Government are deeply looking forward to attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, in June.


9. What recent diplomatic steps her Department has taken to help support the right to freedom, democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar. (906610)

In February 2022, to mark a year since the coup, the UK co-ordinated a joint statement agreed by 36 countries and secured a strong UN Security Council press statement that called for a return to democracy. We also sanctioned three individuals for undermining democracy and the rule of law.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but, since the military coup on 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military has carried out brutal crackdowns aimed at suppressing widespread public opposition to its rule, and almost half a million people have been displaced, partly due to airstrikes or the threat of them. Will the Government introduce sanctions on Burmese companies that supply aviation to the military and British companies involved in any aspect of the supply of aviation fuel, including shipping and insurance services?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, for everything that she does on Myanmar and for ensuring that we are having this discussion, because it is really important that we keep a focus on the situation in Myanmar. I reassure her that I have many conversations with counterparts on visits. We work closely with partners to put pressure on the regime to de-escalate the crisis, including through targeted sanctions against individuals and entities who are providing support for the military. Obviously, I cannot talk about future sanctions.

Freedom of Religion or Belief

11. What steps she is taking to ensure that freedom of religion or belief remains a key strategic priority for her Department. (906614)

Promoting freedom of religion or belief is one of the UK’s longest-standing human rights priorities. We are making good progress on implementing the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations to support everyone persecuted for their religion or belief. We are looking forward to hosting an international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July to drive forward international efforts to promote openness and freedom.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for her strong support for the international conference on freedom of religion or belief, which the UK Government will host in July. Do Ministers agree that that would be an excellent opportunity to showcase how FORB is a priority for the UK Government to many Government Ministers from across the world, whom we hope to welcome to that event, which we expect will be the largest UK-hosted international event of 2022?

I thank my hon. Friend for her outstanding work across the world on the Prime Minister’s behalf as his envoy on freedom of religion or belief. She is right to be really concerned about the increasing attacks and the increased severity of attacks on freedom of religion or belief. The conference that the UK is going to lead in July will be enormously important; we will welcome partner countries and stakeholders from all across the world. The Foreign Secretary is very much looking forward to attending it and taking part.

Thank you for your tolerance of me this morning, Mr Speaker.

Will the Minister meet the Christians in Parliament to discuss this subject? An earlier question was about links with the Commonwealth, and children and adults in certain Commonwealth countries are persecuted for their faith. Can we do something about that? Good communication between those of us who are active Christians in this House and the Minister would be most appreciated.

I would be very happy, as a Christian, to meet the Christians in Parliament and to meet other faith groups and those who hold no faith. I thank the hon. Member for that invitation.

Topical Questions

Despite having failed in his initial aims, Putin continues his barbaric war in Ukraine. The United Kingdom, together with our allies, has stepped up sanctions and lethal aid. We have put more sanctions on than any other nation, including on oligarchs and banks, and we have supplied everything from hundreds of Starstreak anti-air missiles to ammunition. This week, our ambassador, Melinda Simmons, is returning to our reopened embassy in Kyiv. We will continue to back Ukraine until it prevails and Putin fails.

In addition to the devastating impact of the conflict in Ukraine itself, the International Monetary Fund report shows that this is now having an impact on world food prices, particularly affecting some of the world’s poorest communities. In Yemen alone, there is evidence that food prices have increased by 150%. Will the Secretary of State tell us what assessment her Department has made of the impact of rising food prices in some of the world’s conflict zones and what the Government’s response will be?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: we are working closely with our international allies. We committed extra billions at the spring meetings last week to help to provide food aid to the rest of the world. We are also restoring our humanitarian budget, as part of our aid budget in the United Kingdom, to help to deal with the crisis.

T3.   The independent review of persecuted Christians that was carried out in 2019 by the Bishop of Truro has been mentioned this morning, and it has its formal review this summer. The FCDO has made progress in adopting the report’s recommendations, but will the Secretary of State assure the House of further progress in this area by the summer? (906594)

I am working very closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is our religious freedom envoy. I am pleased to be hosting and attending the global summit to promote the freedom of religion in July, and we continue to make progress on implementing all the recommendations of the Truro review.

Wars rage in Africa, the middle east and now Ukraine. There is a growing climate crisis, food prices are surging and 300,000 children face death by starvation in Somalia. Britain’s reputation is in tatters after two years of callous aid cuts, having shut down the world-renowned Department for International Development. It is clear that Britain needs a strategy for long-term development to stop lurching from crisis to crisis. Can the Secretary of State confirm today exactly when the new strategy will be published? Will it be backed with the funding, focus, ambition and expertise needed to make a lasting difference in the world?

We will be publishing our new development strategy this spring. There are some key elements to the strategy: first, we will restore the budget for women and girls and restore the budget for humanitarian aid. In the face of the appalling crisis in Ukraine, we have already committed £220 million of development funding, and we are one of the largest donors.

T7.   Across Keighley and Ilkley, there is no shortage of good will to help those who are affected by the conflict in Ukraine—including from Ilkley and Surrounds Support for Ukrainian Evacuees, a volunteer group led by Caroline Hyde that is working to help those seeking refuge within our community. Of course, that is dependent on the Government working with our European counterparts to ensure the safe passage of refugees from Ukraine. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with her counterparts to make sure that that happens? (906598)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fantastic work that he is doing with the local community in Keighley and Ilkley. We are seeing people across Britain really contributing to the effort to support the people of Ukraine. We have now issued more than 70,000 visas to Ukrainians. We are working with Foreign Ministers right across Europe to ensure that we are completely co-ordinated, particularly with those Governments that are close by, like the Poles.

We are now three weeks into the UN-sponsored truce in Yemen, which has resulted in the release of 14 foreign captives including UK national Luke Symons and his family. It is also intended to open roads, allow fuel through the port of Hodeida and allow commercial flights from Sanaa to Jordan and Egypt. But it is a fragile truce that could collapse at any minute, so can the Minister tell me what steps the UK is taking to support Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, to keep the peace and to prevent a return to conflict and a re-escalation of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

The UK welcomes the two-month truce announcement in Yemen. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to support the UN special envoy and co-ordinate closely with international and regional partners.

T9.   Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the £40 million support package over 10 years that was announced in 2016 for the Chagos island community? (906600)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for being such a strong voice for the Chagossian community; I know that he has a large Chagossian community in his constituency of Crawley. We have gone to great lengths to find projects for that money that will benefit the Chagossian community. I would like to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what more we can do.

T2. According to Human Rights Watch’s “World Report 2020”, the Rwandan regime is active in“Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities”.Despite the Home Secretary’s nonchalant dismissal in the Chamber recently of legitimate concerns about the safety of asylum seekers, what mechanisms will the Foreign Secretary exercise in the oversight of those detention facilities to ensure that the same ill treatment and torture does not befall the already vulnerable human beings whom this Tory Government will be callously shipping off to Rwanda? (906593)

I make it very clear that there is an agreement between the Government of Rwanda and the Government of the UK: they have agreed with the Home Office to make sure that the rights of those who go from the UK to Rwanda are protected. May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that just last month, the UN Refugee Agency sent 119 refugees to Rwanda, and the UN itself described it as a very safe country? In December, the UN said that Rwanda had done an excellent job on integrated refugees. Will he please look at what is being said right now about how Rwanda is caring for these people with kindness?

Exmouth has welcomed Afghan refugees and their families while the Government work hard to find them long-term accommodation around the UK, but sadly some of their friends and family members have stayed behind. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give that UK aid reaches those who need it most in Afghanistan, not the Taliban?

Last month the UK co-hosted a donor conference with the United Nations, Qatar and Germany which raised more than £2.4 billion. We work through international agencies to ensure that the money reaches the people who need it, and that half of it reaches women and girls, who are particularly vulnerable in Afghanistan at the moment. We will continue to press the Taliban to adhere to their international commitments, and to press our international friends to ensure that the money is received by the appropriate people.

T4.   The recent fire in Hargeisa market has had a terrible effect on the people of Somaliland and their livelihoods. I understand that the FCDO is supportive and that is great, but what practical help will be given to the people of Hargeisa to help them to rebuild their lives? (906595)

That fire was devastating. The UK is leading diplomatic and development response efforts on the ground, which include chairing an international co-ordination group that has visited the site and is assessing potential response options. This week our ambassador met the President of Somaliland, senior Cabinet members, the mayor of Hargeisa and the fire service commander to help shape our response. We are leading the international community, but also working with the locals on the ground.

The Taliban’s decision to suspend secondary school classes for girls in Afghanistan was deeply disappointing. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are working with our international allies in continuing to pressurise the Taliban to allow equal access to all levels of education?

My hon. Friend has made a valuable point about the importance, internationally, of education for girls and support for women. I can assure him that the UK will always push to increase the availability of education for girls, particularly in Afghanistan, and will also push to ensure that our money, and international money, reaches the people who are most in need and is not siphoned off by the Taliban regime.

T5. Last month a Saudi teenager, Abdullah al-Howaiti, was given a second death sentence for a crime that he was accused of having committed as a 14-year-old child. Sentencing a child to death is a violation of international law, and Reprieve has strongly condemned the move. Will the Secretary of State make representations to her Saudi counterparts, on behalf of the House, to prevent such a grotesque miscarriage of justice and violation of the rights of the child? (906596)

The people of both Myanmar and Ukraine are risking their lives to continue fighting for freedoms that have been taken away. In both those countries, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was running projects that were making a real difference in bolstering their democracies until the men with guns moved in. Today is the 30th anniversary of the foundation, of which you, Mr Speaker, are a patron, and many Members on both sides of the House have played an active role for a generation in promoting peace and democracy around the world, currently in about 30 countries. The Foreign Secretary has recently resolved our funding issues. Will she agree to play a leading role in events celebrating this anniversary, and ensure that her Department continues to give its own in-house open societies champion every chance to do even more good work?

I am pleased that we were able to resolve the funding issues so that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy could continue its excellent work. What we are learning about as a result of the Ukraine crisis is the strength of democracies in fighting back and fighting for what they believe in, and it is organisations such as the foundation that help to provide the intellectual ballast for them to do so.

The Spanish Government stand accused of using Pegasus, the controversial Israeli spyware, to hack into the phone of a Scottish solicitor who was representing Professor Clara Ponsati, Catalonia’s former Education Minister and now a Member of the European Parliament. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if this occurred, it would constitute a disgraceful breach of solicitor-client privilege and a direct attack on a democratically elected politician, and will she take the matter up with the Spanish ambassador next time she meets him?

I can assure the hon. and learned Lady and the House that we have a strong international relationship with Spain and we are able to raise all kinds of issues. I am not going to speculate or comment on the details that she has raised, as I have no way of corroborating them, but I can assure her that this Government will always stand up for the rule of law and our willingness to support it.

The Minister will be aware that next Tuesday is World Press Freedom Day, yet free media are under greater pressure than ever before, particularly in Russia where independent journalism has been ruthlessly suppressed. Does she agree that the need for independent news providers such as the BBC World Service is greater than ever, and will she ensure that they continue to receive all the funding they need?

My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely correct. We totally condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the lies it is using to promote it. It is seeking to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, to obscure the truth and to hide war crimes. An independent media, including the World Service, is vital. We are providing the World Service with over £90 million this year, but we have also created a Government information cell to counter Russian information and ensure that the people of Russia can access the truth.

T8. When words are not enough, sometimes actions are required to bring about change. When is the UK going to ban the import of goods that are produced in the Israeli settlements that they deem to be illegal under international law? (906599)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are clear on our position on the settlements: they are illegal under international law and we urge Israel to end settlement expansion. This is something that we raise with our counterparts.

Has my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had an opportunity to raise the cases of my constituent Aiden Aslin and of Shaun Pinner with her Ukrainian and Russian counterparts? These two British citizens continue to be held in captivity and to be tortured and abused for propaganda purposes by the Russian military, which I hope all of us in this House will uniformly condemn. We want to see those individuals released as soon as possible.

I have discussed the issue of foreign volunteer fighters with the Ukrainian Government. They are clear, and we are clear, that those fighting under the Ukrainian flag for the Ukrainian armed forces in the defence of Ukraine should be treated as Ukrainian military and as prisoners of war, with all the protections that the international humanitarian law affords to those individuals.

T10. On 21 April, an attack targeting the Hazara mosque in Afghanistan killed 30 people and injured 80. The violence and the dangerous situation is getting worse. What steps is the Minister taking to protect minoritised communities in Afghanistan and bring them to a place of safety in the UK? (906601)

My hon. Friend the Minister in the other place, Lord Ahmad, discusses these issues with regional partners regularly. The UK remains committed to ensuring the protection of minorities. We will hold the Taliban to the commitments they have made and ensure that where possible we work with international partners to push them to the protection of ethnic minorities, religious minorities and other vulnerable people in Afghanistan.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s work on combating sexual violence in conflict and the fact that the Government have upgraded the money for this area. If she recognises that the International Criminal Court and the United Nations do not bring better outcomes for survivors of sexual violence or bring perpetrators to justice, does she agree that we need to look at a new international mechanism that the UK could lead?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that we need to bring these perpetrators to justice. That is why we are funding the ICC to do more, as well as collecting our own evidence and working with the Ukrainians, but if a new mechanism is needed, we would be prepared to lead the work on that. The conference later this year on the prevention of sexual violence is a good opportunity to do that.