House of Lords
Friday, 13 July 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.
House of Lords (Cessation of Membership) Bill [HL]
Order of Commitment Discharged
My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment to be discharged.
My Lords, I hasten to assure the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who I am delighted is here today to take the Bill through to its later stages, that I do not rise to object. However, I do want to ask him whether he has had recent talks with the Government, and are they still giving him a fair wind?
I ask that because I watched the speech of Mr Harper, his honourable friend in the other place, winding up the two-day debate on Lords reform. I was rather surprised by the tone of Mr Harper. I did not see much search for consensus. I was hurt for the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that almost the final comments of Mr Harper, who of course brings great intellectual coherence to these debates, seemed to be rather critical of the Bill. It would be good to know from the noble Lord whether he has been given any encouragement.
Seeing that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is on the Front Bench, this is also a good opportunity for the Government to say where they are on reform of your Lordships’ House. Obviously, we have read with great interest that Mr Cameron is apparently proposing to Mr Clegg the bonkers idea that you elect, say, 50 people in 2015, suck it and see and then perhaps, a few years later, you elect a few more. Is not this House entitled to be told where we are going on Lords reform? I am sure that we would all gladly give the Floor to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, to tell us exactly where we are going.
My Lords, the last thing I want to do is to prevent the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, from responding to that important question but, as your Lordships will know, I had tabled an amendment for the Committee stage today. It would have withdrawn the automaticity in the Bill on exclusion of Members. It would have meant that if anyone had any criminal conviction, the House might by resolution decide to exclude them but that that would not be automatic. That would have dealt with the double problem, which is that over the past 100 to 150 years, there have been many cases when we would not have wanted to exclude someone who had been convicted—for example, for supporting conscientious objectors during the First World War, for supporting the suffragettes, or the Irish who were imprisoned under the Coercion Acts.
I will give way in a moment, because I shall be extremely brief. That would also have dealt with the anomaly that, under the Bill, even if someone had a series of convictions for up to 12 months, we would not be able to exclude them. However, it has been put to me very persuasively that if I were to pursue my amendment it might risk the Bill getting through, with its important provisions on retirement and exclusion for chronic absence. I therefore decided to withdraw my amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has generously undertaken that my point will be debated when the Bill comes before the House of Commons. As there was a real risk of losing this important Bill, I decided to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, first, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and other noble Lords who had intended to table amendments, because by having no amendments now, provided that the House agrees to the Motion, we can hope to get a Third Reading before the Summer Recess and the Bill will therefore pass to the Commons, where it might provide a lifeline in September—but that is not for me to say.
Tempted though I am by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I shall not comment on what Mr Harper said in the other place. It was not very helpful. Instead, I prefer the words of my colleague, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, David Heath, who wound up the debate on the first day. He referred to the Bill as containing small and valuable proposals. They are small, they are valuable, but they are a start.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, we have come here today to discuss the extremely important question of the Middle East but I know that many noble Lords will need to get away for the weekend. If noble Lords keep their speeches down to 10 minutes or less, we shall be able to rise relatively early in the afternoon and certainly no later than 3 pm.
Middle East: Recent Developments
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to update your Lordships on the truly momentous events in the Middle East and north Africa since our last debate on these and related issues in March. I say straightaway that, viewing the whole scene in the Middle East and north Africa, we see progress and of course we see setbacks. It must be viewed as a mixture of cautious hopes and serious concerns.
In a region with its full share of dangerous and grim events—only this morning, we have news of a further horrific massacre—let me at least start my comments with something a bit more positive. I do so by quoting from a report that came to my hand only this week from our embassy in Tripoli. That is the Tripoli in Libya, as opposed to the other Tripoli. It said:
“Joyful and moving scenes at polling stations as Libyans vote for the first time in 47 years. A small number of violent incidents disrupt polling in the East, but the Election Commission and ordinary people do all they can to ensure voting can continue. Initial assessments from domestic observer groups find the elections well organised, transparent and fair. Turnout projected at 62%, including large numbers of women”.
These are people who, a year ago, were fighting each other and fighting against a brutal tyrant. Despite all the many other problems, this at least indicates that there can be and is progress in some regions.
I will come back to that good story in Libya in a moment in more detail, but I turn straight away from it to a much worse story: the Syrian tragedy, which is a vortex of killing and atrocities. When I updated the House in March, it had been a year since the protest began. It is now 17 months and as many as 17,000 people may have been slaughtered. Hundreds more are dying every week, predominantly at the hands of the regime, which is perpetrating horrifying violence against its own people. The independent UN commission of inquiry has recorded widespread and shocking human rights violations committed by the Syrian authorities, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, sexual assault and rape. The commission also reported on the increasing levels of opposition violence. We of course urge all parties to end the violence. That is what we must do, but there can be little surprise that 600,000 people have fled their homes, with 500,000 of them remaining in Syria and nearly 100,000 now being refugees across Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
The Joint UN and Arab League special envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, whom I had the opportunity to meet the other evening, set out on 16 March a six-point plan to end the violence and to start a political process. He has made it clear that the primary responsibility for implementation must lie with the Syrian regime, but we see little progress on the ground. Violence has intensified over the last few weeks. Nevertheless, the plan as put forward by Kofi Annan remains the best framework and hope of achieving a ceasefire and political transition. This is why my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, William Hague, travelled to Geneva at the end of last month for the first meeting of the Syria Action Group. This meeting, which included Russia and China, agreed: that there should be a transitional governing body in Syria; that it would be made up of representatives of the present Syrian Government, the Opposition and other groups; and that it should be formed on the basis of mutual consent. It is our clear understanding that this would preclude President Assad, from whose circles we note that certain defections have taken place. However, one has to recognise that the hard core around him remains for the moment.
The third Friends of Syria meeting on 6 July in Paris, where over 100 nations and international organisations came together, endorsed that plan. It recognised that the international community must hold all parties, starting with the Syrian Government, responsible for complying with the action group plan. The Friends of Syria meeting resolved to support a Chapter VII resolution in the UN Security Council. We are working with the Security Council to impose tighter sanctions on those who are responsible for the obscene violations of human rights that we have seen, heard and read about.
Given the very grave and deteriorating situation in Syria, we are now urging all our partners to do more than to respond to the humanitarian plight of innocent Syrian civilians. I suppose one has to ask whether we can get the Russians to move more onside, too, in this task. They are making certain moves, reported in the newspapers today, about shipping movements and use of the port of Tartus. We will have to see how that works out but, for our part, on 5 July my right honourable friend the Development Secretary announced a doubling of our humanitarian aid to £17.5 million. That additional £9 million will deliver emergency food assistance to 80,000 people a month, shelter to 9,000 and support for 4,000 more refugees outside Syria.
I began with a mention of the situation in Libya. This was an historic step and Libyans rightly should be proud of the achievement that they have secured so far. Frankly, the United Kingdom has a right to be proud as well to have supported the electoral preparations. We were the largest donor to the UN election funds; we funded training for domestic observers; UK police officers have helped to provide training on the co-ordination of election security; and we have provided significant support to empower women and youth to participate in the political process. We, the United Kingdom, stood shoulder to shoulder with the Libyan people as they sought to protect themselves and fight for basic freedoms. Since liberation was declared nine months ago, tangible progress has been made. The election story that I began with highlights that. We look forward to the swift formation of the national congress and the appointment of a Government to take forward these issues swiftly. We will, of course, maintain our support for Libyans as they continue on their path towards a peaceful, stable, prosperous and democratic country.
I turn for a moment to Egypt, which has taken momentous steps in the transition process. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to the newly elected President Morsi to congratulate him and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary praised the Egyptian people for their commitment to the democratic process. We have made clear the importance of sustained progress towards a legitimate, inclusive and accountable Government, underpinned by strong and responsible institutions—including the Parliament—and a new constitution which represents the interests of all Egyptians. As of now, we are obviously seeing a clash of wills between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military authorities. Perhaps one might observe that this was an inevitable part of the transition process. Our hope, and indeed our efforts, must be in support of seeing that it is resolved calmly and judiciously, not by violence.
The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent Egyptian elections and the successes of other parties inspired by Islam in the region have undoubtedly created some nervousness about the implications for the development of democracy and respect for human rights in the region. In particular, some are concerned that the Arab spring and its consequences have endangered the security of minorities, including Christians, in the Middle East. That, no doubt, is a matter that your Lordships will want to raise during today’s debate.
In Egypt, we have been supportive of interfaith dialogue through a project that creates partnerships between Muslim and Christian groups to train mixed teams in conflict resolution skills. We welcome the work of Al-Azhar University in promoting interfaith dialogue against sectarianism. Of course we recognise that there are problems but we are determined to help resolve them.
Tunisia, where the present phase of protest and empowerment began, has made considerable progress in its transition, including on free expression and political pluralism. We now expect the Constituent Assembly to produce a final version of a new constitution by 23 October and elections will be held in March next year.
This all needs to be reinforced by economic development; obviously, these things go together. The whole Maghreb region is not very well integrated—in fact, some say that it is the least economically integrated region in the world. However, Tunisia has shown admirable support for intra-Maghreb co-operation in the five-nation Arab Maghreb Union and will host the next Arab Maghreb summit in October, the first for 16 years. my honourable friend Alastair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East region, has just presided over and addressed an excellent conference at Wilton Park, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office support entity at Wiston House, dealing with Maghreb unification and development, a highly successful event.
Elsewhere in the region, in many areas change has been very frustrating. In Iraq the political process is deadlocked, with attempts to bring a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Maliki. The continued internal wrangling is detracting from Iraq’s progress on key political and economic developments. The issues between Kurdistan and Baghdad remain to be resolved. However, I have to note that, despite the difficult politics, Iraq’s progress towards its oil production target is on track. Indeed, some say that it will achieve production of 5 million barrels a day and very high exports by the end of this year, so there is some light in that situation.
It is vital for Iraq’s democracy and its continued economic progress that all parties find a way to engage constructively, within the constitution, to resolve their differences. We will continue to encourage a political process that aids Iraq’s democratic and economic development. We also note, and commend, the efforts of the United Nations to broker a peaceful and durable solution to the situation at Camp Ashraf, which has been a matter of great concern.
Then there is Iran, which continues to be a source of deep unease throughout the region and indeed the world. We remain committed to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. In three rounds of talks with Iran since April—in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow—the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, which are leading the negotiations with Iran on behalf of the international community, have put a set of proposals to the Iranian Government about how they could start to build confidence in their nuclear activities. The proposals focus on Iran’s enrichment activity, which at present is on a scale that can have no plausible civilian justification. We believe that Iran now needs to reflect on these proposals and start taking concrete steps to reassure the international community. Until Iran acts, the pressure on it will only grow. The EU oil embargo on Iran came into force a fortnight ago on 1 July and will now be strengthened, and over the coming weeks we will be working closely with our partners to increase pressure much further.
In Bahrain, progress over the past four months has, frankly, been minimal. We await the implementation of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and continue to call for progress to be made. Waiting, though, is not enough. The Government there must go further and implement meaningful political reforms as well. That message is not only for our own consumption; it is one that I and my fellow Ministers in the FCO have delivered to the Bahraini Foreign Minister, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Justice, all of whom have visited the UK over the past month. Some have criticised us for this engagement and we may hear more criticism, but we believe that dialogue is essential if the reforms that we all want are to take place.
In Yemen, we welcome President Hadi’s leadership of the political transition, particularly the progress made on a national dialogue and the reorganisation of military figures. He has achieved notable successes in the fight against violent extremism, pushing al-Qaeda out of the towns since 2011, which is a definite move forward. The trouble with Yemen is that the economy remains infirm and the humanitarian situation, particularly in the south, is growing ever more serious. We have led efforts at the UN to secure UNSC Resolution 2051, adopted unanimously on 12 June, to support Yemen’s transition, and we co-chaired, with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, a Friends of Yemen meeting on 23 May in Riyadh to agree how the international community can best support Yemen. That is the scene there.
Then, of course, we come to a matter of continuing and rightful interest to your Lordships, the Arab-Israeli conflict, which continues to remain urgent and is still very far from resolution. We welcome the recent efforts by the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships to renew direct contacts, but we are concerned about escalations of violence in Gaza again, particularly attacks targeting civilians. We have urged both sides to focus on dialogue, to avoid steps that could undermine the prospects for peace and to work towards the resumption of direct negotiations.
Despite the undoubted frustrations and tragedies, the situation overall in the Middle East and north Africa has developed considerably in the past four months, and in some areas is going forward in the right direction. As my right honourable friend William Hague said on Monday—in The Hague, actually—in his enormously authoritative speech on international justice:
“The Arab spring has shattered the idea that nations can maintain long-term stability and prosperity without human rights, political participation and economic freedom for their citizens”.
I would add to that, “These forces are of course the outcome of the information revolution that has empowered people and weakened Governments everywhere, and not, I may say, just in the Middle East and the north African region but everywhere in the world”.
One has to ask whether the changes that we are witnessing could change the character of the relationship between the Middle East region and the rest of the world. Without doubt, it is not only the internal political changes of the Arab spring, but the profound and fundamental changes in the global energy market which are being highly influential on the whole region and how we look at it. Energy, like politics, is becoming increasingly multipolar as energy demand shifts away from the OECD and energy supply becomes far more diffuse world wide, with newly exploitable, massive sources of hydrocarbons opening up in the Americas, Asia-Pacific and all round Africa. In fact, a second energy revolution, beyond and riding with the green revolution, is in progress.
None of this alters the fact that the Middle East and north Africa lie at the doorstep of Europe and constitute not just our wider neighbourhood but some of our key markets and our close friendships. Instability breeds insecurity. The political success of the countries of the region is intimately bound up with our security and prosperity in the United Kingdom as well as that of our friends, allies and global partners. This has been called the interconnectedness of history. It is the point we have now reached in the globalisation of our interests and our concerns, and that is why this Government and, especially, my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, have worked tirelessly, energetically and creatively in support of peace and development in the region. We will continue to do so. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the Minister explained, the Middle East is a huge topic—no single speaker can cover it all—so I would like to speak just about Israel. I am particularly worried about the upturn in the vilification and demonisation of Israel that I have detected in recent months. Knowing his generosity of spirit, I hope that the Minister will not mind if I try to balance the narrative. I hope that he will consider it consistent with the terms of his important Motion.
What do we do when people vilify Britain? I am sure that all noble Lords have experienced this, particularly when travelling in less friendly countries, responding to blogs or debating. We correct facts. We try to explain the realities of power politics in a democracy and how not every British citizen approves of what the Government do. We try to correct a bad impression by speaking of the good things we do. We try for balance. We avoid the one-sided narrative. So let it be with Israel. Let us make sure that compassion for Palestinians does not come in the form of bigotry towards Israel.
There is one area where this is particularly important, one area where the one-sided narrative just does not work and where balance does—trade. Some noble Lords saw this working last month in London at the Innovate Israel event. Even the most hardened anti-Israeli could not have failed to be impressed with the technology on display. It was not just new digital technology for communication, artificial intelligence and manufacturing but new technology for medicine, health and agriculture. Much of British business was there too to find opportunities, network, trade and partner with a country which is now seen to produce some of the most advanced and sophisticated technology in the world.
For almost 20 years I have been trying to persuade your Lordships that technology will create our future prosperity. So I was delighted that the Government considered this sufficiently important to establish a special technology team at the British embassy in Tel Aviv to find projects where, together with Palestinians, the countries can collaborate.
In a debate in another place last month, the Member for Weaver Vale, Mr Graham Evans MP, spoke of his work with Israelis in developing digital printing— or additive manufacturing, as it is now called. This is a technology which is starting to revolutionise manufacturing in exactly the same way as digital music services revolutionised the music business. The Palestinians are interested too. They are involved and taking an interest because they, too, know that you will soon be able to set up a manufacturing plant with digital printers that is as productive as an automated plant that has had millions invested in it. Indeed, when Warren Buffet was once asked to explain why he had invested $4.5 billion in Israel when there was no oil there, his reply was that he came looking not for oil but for brains.
Israel may have offended some in the way that it has tried to defend itself, but at the same time it has created the institutions, infrastructure, education, skills and initiative to produce a technological powerhouse that will benefit the rest of the world, not only through trade but also through generosity. Through its version of the Ministry of Overseas Development, it has provided many—indeed, most—Middle East and north African countries with new agricultural technology to make dry land productive and to make the most of saline and marginal water resources and post- harvest technology to preserve the land. It has also provided those countries with reliable communications technology through IsraAID. Together with that has gone humanitarian aid to places such as Kenya, where there is the world’s largest refugee camp. When Christians were being slaughtered in south Sudan, it was Israel that provided aid. After the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti, Israel provided not only instant communications but also post-trauma healthcare.
Israeli hospitals are known for their scientific research. Indeed, regenerative medicine and life sciences are so advanced in Israel that a special UK-Israel life sciences council has been formed. However, Israel is also generous with its healthcare. In 2011, 115,000 Palestinians were treated in Israeli hospitals and 100 Palestinian doctors trained as interns at Israeli hospitals. Indeed, two Palestinians received organs transplanted from Israelis. On 1 July, 16 Palestinian children—as well as children from other parts of the Middle East and Africa—were being treated at the specialist heart unit for children. My noble friend Lord Turnberg is instrumental in bringing young Palestinian and Israeli doctors and researchers to the UK for training. My noble friend Lord Stone is instrumental in assisting businesses in Gaza to sell their product to major UK retailers. The Portland Trust, which is based in London, uses economic development to promote peace and stability between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it is all part of the balance.
The point that I wish to make is very simple. We would all like to see a peaceful two-state solution, with Israelis and Palestinians living together and both states having a right to exist. Trade is a great facilitator of this objective. Demonising and vilifying one side or the other has not worked. It is not going to work. It can lead only to disaster. A balanced approach through trade and aid, an approach which most Israelis and Palestinians would support, must be given a chance. Once again, let politics follow trade. As we are seeing, it is also in our own economic interest to trade and work with these advanced technological businesses.
Will the Minister confirm that this is the policy of his Government? He spoke of the importance of economic development. Does he agree that demonising and vilifying one side or the other is detrimental to that policy and that the Government will take whatever steps they can to stop it?
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for his periodic attempts to update this House on developments in the Middle East. It is a matter of concern across the House, and this debate on these issues is welcome. I will speak principally about Iran and Israel, and will touch on Syria—the potential flashpoints for even greater conflict in the Middle East. I am speaking today, in part, with reflection on my role as co-chairman of the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs committee.
First, on the vexed issue of Iran’s attempts to become a nuclear-weapon state, I share my noble friend’s disappointment that our P5+5 talks in Istanbul last week did not make the progress that we would have hoped for. We need to be clear that diplomacy and negotiation is our preferred option in all circumstances. It follows from this uncontroversial position that when the country in question—Iran—continues to assert that its nuclear programme is for peaceful means, and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has regularly asserted that weapons of mass destruction are deemed to go against Islamic principles of proportionality in warfare, that we need to take care to assure it that international peace and stability are our motives, not belligerent action.
It is on these grounds that we in the Liberal Democrats have always supported a mix of measures to demonstrate our seriousness that there are consequences for Iran if it does not comply with its obligations as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Negotiations, IAEA inspection, verification and economic sanctions all have to play a part in the international community’s response to Iran. When we uphold international law and work through the United Nations, it demonstrates to other countries that the international community expects that they too should be bound by their obligations under the NPT and that there will be consequences for Iran if it does not.
We know that the escalation of sanctions is having an effect on the ground. The Iranian rial has devalued by some 45%, food prices and all basic commodities have increased significantly—unfortunately hurting some of the poorest and most vulnerable Iranians. Iran, too, has difficulties selling its oil. Economic sanctions are a blunt instrument in their impact across the whole population, rather than just the Iranian leadership but, given the apparent lack of responsiveness to international pressure, it is the ordinary people of Iran who have the most power to tell their leadership that they need a change of course. We hope that this change of course will come about in 2013 when presidential elections are held, but hoping for a change of leadership through elections is not the same as pursuing regime change through the use of force. I hope that my noble friend will take the opportunity to reassure Iran that we have no interest in bringing about regime change through force, although we would of right champion the cause of greater democracy and human rights in that country.
Let me turn to the position of our partners in Israel and the United States and speculation about their use of force against Iran to prevent it attaining nuclear weapons. We have seen today extraordinary revelations in the Telegraph that Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, has spoken publically of the role of MI6 assets in alleged assassinations or the use of cyber-warfare against Iran. He is described as having talked up MI6’s role in dealing with the threat. Given that the United Kingdom Government have previously denied any involvement in illegal actions against Iran, I hope that my noble friend will tell the House whether this speech was cleared by the Foreign Secretary, and whether this signals a change in the United Kingdom Government’s stance on publically declaring where their intelligence assets have been active. If these reports are true, they will do little to reassure the public that we are likely to comply with international law. In fact, the effect will be to signal to the public that we are happy to engage in unlawful and belligerent action—something we should have learnt the lesson about, given our unhappy history over Iraq.
Sir John’s comments could almost be construed as bragging. He is reported to have said:
“I take great pride in the fact that, in the last ten years, over a number of jobs, I’ve been involved in an issue of global concern, and I feel that I as an individual [have made] an impact in the outcome of events”.
His follow-up remarks indicate that we have not made a positive impact on the outcome of events if we are now so concerned about Iran’s capability to acquire nuclear weapons by 2014 as he warns. In my view, it would be best for the veneer of silence to descend on the Secret Intelligence Service once again. There is such a thing as “too much information”, and today we have seen an illustration of that. The fact that this speech took place under the heading of an “unclassified chat” and is extensively reported in a journal known as Civil Service World demonstrates a clear lack of judgment on the part of a senior official. It would behove our senior civil servants to express a clearer concern about the UK engaging in unlawful activities rather than indulging in “unclassified chats” which give a contrary impression.
This is not the TV programme “Spooks”. This matter engages UK interests and security directly. There are serious issues about accountability to Parliament as well. I am sorry that the two noble Lords who are members of the Joint Intelligence and Security Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, are not hear today to share their views on the accountability of the services with us.
It is undoubtedly the view of the Liberal Democrats that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a significant threat to international peace and security within the definition of the United Nations Charter Chapter VII wording. The public comments of the Iranian leadership are also contradictory, on the one hand wishing to see the destruction of Israel and on the other hand declaring that it does not consider the use of weapons of mass destruction to be in conformity with Islam. I share the views of Israelis that they must do all they can to prevent Iran from carrying out its threats against them. However much one might appreciate Israel’s dilemma, I would put it to the Israeli establishment that it is not in their interest to carry out unilateral military strikes in the absence of UN authorisation. This is not an issue of legal niceties, either: it is fairly clear that there is no current build-up of military forces against Israel, nor a state of mobilisation against it which might, against a backdrop of hostilities, lead one to conclude that a clear and imminent threat exists, thereby justifying pre-emptive military strikes. The action would therefore be illegal and would destabilise the entire Middle East to a greater extent than ever before.
Lest there be any ambiguity regarding the use of pre-emptive strikes or, to use the more formal expression, anticipatory self-defence, I refer noble Lords to the seventh report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place of June 2004, which had a chapter on international law and the use of force. In the evidence submitted to the committee by Professor Philippe Sands QC, another legal expert, it is clear that self-defence encompasses a right to use force in anticipation of an actual armed attack where there is an imminent threat. You do not need to be an international lawyer to see that the situation has not yet arrived, nor is it likely to for some time, even by Sir John Sawers’s estimation.
We know, too, that wise heads in Israel are themselves unconvinced of the use of strikes. Not only have we heard from Yuval Diskin, the former head of Shin Beit, who criticised the idea of an attack in Iran as recently as April 2012, but we also know that Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, the head of the Israeli Defence Force, has stated that in his view Iran has not decided yet to build nuclear weapons.
There is also the issue of whether the strikes would be successful. Even if Israel were to carry out these strikes unilaterally, which it has indicated it has the capacity to do, they would not be surgical in the sense that the June 1981 attack on Osirak was, which destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction south-east of Baghdad. My understanding is that, with numerous nuclear installations spread across Iran, we would potentially be looking at several weeks of a sustained airborne campaign. This would be not a pre-emptive strike but plain military aggression—a war, in ordinary English.
It is undoubtedly true that in this eventuality United Kingdom interests would be engaged beyond our responsibilities as a member of the United Nations Security Council. There is the question of asymmetric retaliation by Iran. We have forces in Afghanistan, more than 100,000 Britons are resident in the Gulf states, we have naval operations hosted by Bahrain and we have an obligation to keep international shipping lanes open. There is also the question, if the United States decided to support Israel, of the use of Diego Garcia. Will my noble friend give the House a reassurance that in the case of Diego Garcia, which is sovereign UK territory, the United States cannot use it for logistical support without express consent from the United Kingdom Government? It follows, therefore—and I ask my noble friend to confirm this, too—that if such a request was outside international law, permission would not be forthcoming.
My time has run out. I look forward to my noble friend’s response in his concluding statement.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for providing the opportunity for this debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, I feel that the canvas is so broad that one cannot possibly cover it all. Therefore, I shall confine my remarks to just two areas. One is the spread of democracy in the region. It will be of little surprise to the Minister that I also wish to raise Libya and related matters.
I suppose no area of the world has undergone greater change in the past 12 months than the Middle East, starting with Tunisia, through Egypt, Libya and the turmoil in Syria, which has been referred to. Some say that the Arab spring was a new awakening. Some say that it was an inevitable consequence of many decades of suppression of human rights and democracy by various dictators. Perhaps the West’s relationship with some of those dictators is something that we now regret, but that is life.
Whatever the truth, the outcome of the Arab spring far from clear. The early warm welcome from western Governments has given way to some anxiety as radical Islamists begin to flex their muscles at the polls, as we saw only a week or two ago. What will the implications of the Egyptian election results be for the Arab-Israeli conflict? Will the conflict between the Egyptian army and the new President be resolved peacefully? We now await the identification of a new Libyan Government, following elections there last week. The Minister recounted a very moving illustration of what had happened in Libya in such a short time. We must remember that a year ago our aircraft were flying over that country in a major bombing campaign.
However, there is one thing that the West must learn. While it is right to encourage the spread of democratic government and help to end oppression, we must not assume that our model of democracy is the only version that should be adopted by other nations with different cultures and traditions. Are we really saying that the goings-on in this Building in the past week represent the gold standard for emerging democracies? Perhaps we should remember that we could appear arrogant if we dismiss other versions of democracy. The main thing is to see that the local people in those countries are able to participate fully in their own government and are not dictated to or terrorised at gunpoint. In general, the West comes across as a bit arrogant in promoting its particular version of democracy when there may be others.
I move on to a matter in which I take a keen interest, as the Minister knows; namely, the campaign for compensation for United Kingdom victims of IRA violence perpetrated using weapons supplied by the former Libyan regime. Gaddafi decided to launch a campaign against the United Kingdom and supplied boatloads of weapons to the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s. There is evidence that he was at it again as recently as last year, when he tried to help dissident republicans financially. I know that the Government have made strong representations to the transitional authorities in Libya about such incidents as the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher, the Al-Megrahi case and, in general, about compensation for victims in this country of Gaddafi-supplied weapons.
The Minister also kindly arranged for me to meet his officials who deal specifically with Libya and has written to me on several occasions. However, I want to put one matter to him: I still feel that there is a lack of clarity in government policy on this issue. In his most recent letter to me, dated 8 June, the Minister said:
“The government remains absolutely committed to working with the new Libyan authorities to help address the crimes of the Qadhafi regime”.
Having spoken to his officials, I know that that is indeed what they want to do; they are talking regularly. We understand that in a country that has had vast swathes of its infrastructure destroyed and does not even have a solid central Government, it is very difficult to get precise agreement, particularly as we are awaiting, in the next year or so, the installation of a democratically elected Government under a new constitution, which will be drawn up over the next 12 months.
On the other hand, the Minister went on to say that the Government felt that individual compensation claims were best pursued on a private basis and that the Foreign Office will offer facilitation and support to campaigns seeking compensation. Therefore, I have some difficulty in understanding how you can argue that we are having a Government-to-Government negotiation on the wider issue of how this matter should be resolved. I support that and believe it to be a national issue since it was a terrorist campaign against all of the United Kingdom and people in all parts of it suffered. However, a conflict arises if you then say that you will support and facilitate private cases. That seems a disjointed policy. If private cases go on, it does not mean that every victim will get compensation or that every victim will apply for compensation. I support the national Government in negotiating with the Libyans at government level, but I do not understand how there can be a second tier at individual level that will, by definition, be haphazard and uncontrolled. I hope the Minister will address that matter.
I also believe strongly that it will not necessarily be as simple as expecting Libyans to write cheques to a series of individuals in this country. It may be that we will have to look at other means, be that through trade or some other mechanism by which we can help each other. It will be very hard to persuade elected representatives in Libya, with their infrastructure devastated, suddenly to support measures that would give their money to people in this country for something which, in fairness, the average Libyan had nothing to do with. We understand that it will not be simple but the Government must have a clear policy, which should be that we negotiate nation-to-nation, come up with solutions and try to implement them. I am not convinced that running a parallel policy of ad hoc applications for compensation from individual clients is necessarily right. There might also be a risk of certain individual victims being exploited by people who will take claims for fee purposes, whether there is any possibility of success or not.
I hope that the Government will address those two issues and I thank the Minister again for the opportunity to have this debate.
My Lords, perhaps I may begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests. I am a director of a company which has investments in Iran. I am a director of other companies with interests elsewhere in the Arab part of the Middle East. I am also unpaid chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce, which many noble Lords will be delighted to hear has a sharply declining membership.
I want to make comments, first, about Syria and, secondly, about the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The headlines have been dominated obviously by the tragic situation in Syria. The Minister in his excellent speech outlined the recent most regrettable and tragic events. Inevitably, these have given rise to cries for intervention, but those who call out for intervention are less forthcoming about precisely what they mean. Are they talking about safe havens? Are they talking about aerial support? Are they talking about supplying arms?
When I listen to all this talk about intervention, I feel it is as though we learnt nothing from the disaster in Iraq. As the Minister tellingly said, Libya may well be an exception but I do not think we can escape the fact that the history of liberal interventionism in recent years has emphatically not been an unqualified success. In these situations, whatever the pressures, it should encourage us to be cautious about intervention.
We have yet to hear the conclusions of the Chilcot inquiry about what lessons should be drawn from the invasion of Iraq. Some conclusions I think suggest themselves. First, we never know enough about the countries where we choose to intervene—about the cultural and tribal loyalties, which often are concealed where there are dictatorships or authoritarian regimes. We learn about them only when we are there. Secondly, the fact of intervention in a country by foreigners often stirs up nationalism and religious fervour. Thirdly, intervention may be done in the name of saving lives but it usually costs lives in large numbers. In Iraq, it was something like 100,000. In Afghanistan, hardly a day goes by without President Karzai or the Pakistanis complaining about the collateral damage—the inevitable damage from the use of drones.
Bad as the situation in Syria is, it could be made worse by an ill timed intervention. “First, do no harm” is not a bad candidate for the first rule of diplomacy. But we are now in a situation where the United States in Syria appears to be co-ordinating the supply of arms to an opposition which is divided and came to blows in its meeting in Cairo, and one where some members of the opposition, particularly the National Co-ordination Committee, are totally opposed to all foreign intervention and the supply of arms.
We need to be careful that we do not get into the situation of the United States in Afghanistan in the 1980s where the United States’s conviction that the enemy of my enemy is my friend led it to support Bin Laden and the Taliban. What, one wonders, is Qatar, a country of perhaps 150,000 people, doing throwing if not its weight its money around in Syria? I am sure that the Government do not believe that Saudi Arabia is aiding the opposition in Syria because it is dedicated to creating a liberal secular democracy there.
Lives are being lost every day in Syria, as we have heard today. There cannot be a military solution to the conflict. Supplying arms can only make it worse. Diplomacy is essential. Neither side can win. Attention is focused on the removal of Mr Assad but even if and when he is removed, we will still have to negotiate with the huge state apparatus and the huge army there. It will not be possible just to wipe out all these elements at once.
For that reason, I very much welcome what the Minister said about still supporting the Kofi Annan plan—there seems no real alternative to it—for a ceasefire, but a ceasefire that is imposed on both sides and monitored much more heavily than is being done at present. What you cannot do is both support the Annan plan and supply arms at the same time.
This conflict is not about Syria or promoting democracy in Syria. It is about the geopolitical aims of other powers—of the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It would be tragic if the battle was fought out to the destruction of Syria as it was in Iraq. It would be tragic if it led to the expulsion of religious minorities and Christians. I was glad to hear my noble friend highlighting the danger of that. It would be disastrous if it spread to the destabilisation of Lebanon as well.
I turn now to Iran, the nuclear issue and the nuclear negotiations. Indeed, the nuclear issue is not just about Iran possibly developing nuclear weapons. It is also about Iran’s place in the region and the negotiations have to be about that as well. Iran’s main rival in the Middle East is not Israel; it is Saudi Arabia. The two theocracies have little in common and I believe that it is debatable which of the two theocracies in the long run will prove to be the more reliable and possible ally of the West. Saudi Arabia is just, if not more, assertive as Iran in spreading its own brand of Islam—Wahhabism—which is much more inimical to western interests. But whatever the truth of that, I hope that the West will have nothing to do with the suggestion of Henry Kissinger about creating a Sunni crescent in order to counterbalance the so-called Shia crescent. That would be as irresponsible as encouraging a Catholic crescent against a Protestant crescent.
Whatever one thinks about Iran, it will be necessary to live with Iran. I condemn without reservation the repression, the imprisonment of the opposition, the torture, the beatings, the threats against Israel and the suppression of the media. People I personally know have been imprisoned in Iran and others live under the threat of that. But Iran is a country with which we will have to live. I believe that a negotiated settlement with Iran is far better than a military attack. I strongly agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said.
Iran is a country of 70 million people. It cannot be locked up in a cupboard and isolated. That is just not realistic. It is important that talks continue despite the difficulties. But we need to show Iran what it stands to gain at the end of the process if it makes concessions subject to verification. We forget that sanctions will have leverage against Iran only if those sanctions are reversible. I believe that the Iranians have great doubt as to whether an American President can lift sanctions against the will of a determined Congress. The negotiations also need to address the real security fears of Iran—and it does have security fears.
The West may be in danger of overbidding, calling, for example, for the closure of the Fordow facility, primarily, I suspect, because although it is under IAEA supervision, it is none the less underground. But to call for its closure is like saying to Iran, “Please make your facilities available for aerial attack”. Mr Peter Jenkins, the UK former ambassador to the IAEA, has argued that the West should allow Iran to enrich uranium on its soil but under the tightest possible IAEA safeguards. That is what 17 or 18 other countries do, some of which in the past have had programmes to do weapons research in the nuclear area. To some it appears that we are demanding a higher standard—a double standard—from Iran.
Sanctions are undoubtedly having an effect on the Iranian economy, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said. But the sanctions almost amount to a form of economic warfare, and they have been accompanied, as the noble Baroness said, by cyber-warfare, whose legality is questionable and which we may live to regret, as well as by the assassination of Iranian personnel—something that the Government have rightly condemned. We must understand that Iranian attitudes are hardened and formed by these events as well.
Iran is able to stand hardship; they are a battle-hardened people, having been through a revolution, a war with Iraq and facing these threats today. Even critics of the regime are the strongest defenders of the nuclear programme in Iran. To my mind, although I know that the Government take a different view, it is unlikely that sanctions will force the regime to capitulate. If they did bring the regime to its knees and then force it to capitulate, that would not necessarily be a good thing.
Machiavelli once wrote that,
“forced agreements will be kept neither by Princes nor by Republics”.
Lord Salisbury said much the same thing when he said that, “the first evil is war and the second evil an obvious diplomatic triumph”. An unreasonable forced bargain runs the risk of not being kept. A sensible negotiated settlement will make a real contribution to the stability of the region.
My Lords, I wish to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the continuation of illegal settlement building, as well as the continuing failure to observe human rights in Palestine. I hope that my noble friend Lord Haskel will not accuse me of bigotry. Like him, I, too, admire Israeli science, technology, entrepreneurship and much of their cultural activity. What I will say is based on what I have witnessed and what I have read, and it is not inconsistent to admire Israel for some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, described and at the same time be critical of successive Israeli Governments in relation to their policies on the occupation.
The peace process has been stalled for some time with little sign of any movement towards restarting it. It is now 19 years since the Oslo agreement and little progress has been made towards a durable settlement based on a two-state solution. Indeed, in many respects the situation has worsened and such a solution looks increasingly difficult. The international community appears to have given up taking any initiatives to restart it; of course, it has many other preoccupations, some of which we are debating today. The parties themselves seem either to have given up hope or to have decided that the status quo is a better outcome, or they are pursuing an altogether different agenda to buy themselves more long-term advantage.
The status quo cannot be the solution. It is intrinsically unstable and fundamentally without integrity. Central to what is wrong is the continuing construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, in spite of the fact that there is complete agreement in the international community that these settlements are illegal and that the Israeli Government have been told so in no uncertain terms. They continue to be built, leading to the displacement of yet more Palestinians. There are now around 500,000 settlers on the West Bank and in east Jerusalem. Does the Minister agree that their continuing expansion poses a grave threat to the two-state solution? What further steps will the UK Government take with our European partners to enforce legality?
There is a growing movement in favour of a boycott of exported goods from these illegal settlements. EU laws prohibit preferential treatment for goods produced in violation of international law, so how is it that the EU allows products made in illegal settlements preferential tariff-free entry into its markets? How is it that Europe has allowed Israel to get away with bundling goods from illegal settlements with those produced inside Israel, which it then ships here and elsewhere in Europe tariff-free? Why are consumer protection laws not enforced properly so that consumers can make informed choices about what they buy through the proper labelling of settlement goods? Surely steps should be taken in Europe to enforce EU laws. Perhaps the Minister could explain why preferential tariffs are continuing when, as far back as far back as 2005, Heads of State in an EU Council called for,
“the abolition of financial and tax incentives and direct and indirect subsidies, and the withdrawal of exemptions benefiting the settlements and their inhabitants”.
Voluntary labelling in supermarket chains is, of course, welcome, but it is inadequate. For example, it does not cover wholesale goods used in ready-prepared food and in the catering industry.
I turn to the issue of construction policies and the highly discriminatory way in which they are operated in the West Bank by the Israeli military so that, between 2000 and 2007, 94% of Palestinians were denied permit applications. In contrast to the near total restrictions on Palestinian construction, settlement housing starts were up by 20% in 2011. How can this help to prepare for a viable Palestinian state? When in desperation Palestinians build without permits, they risk what they have put up being demolished. Hundreds of Palestinian homes were demolished in 2011, displacing more than 1,000 people, 60% of whom live near settlements according to the United Nations. Israel also destroyed latrines, water systems and wells needed by Palestinians because Israelis had refused to connect communities to the water and sewage grids. It is even more scandalous that, according to the UN, more than 25% of the buildings demolished had been internationally funded, notably by European donors. Donors are now very reluctant to invest in expensive development projects and are reduced to giving more and more emergency humanitarian aid rather than the much more beneficial long-term development aid. Will the UK, with our European partners, take some action to object to these violations of Israel’s international obligations as an occupying power?
A related issue to construction policies concerns the state of a Palestinian economy. Any preparation for a two-state solution must include economic development. World Bank estimates indicate that the occupation has led to a large reduction in output so that the Palestinian economy is only about one-fifth of the size of what it would otherwise be. The restrictions imposed range from unacceptable controls on both imports and exports, to lack of access to water for farmers, the allocation of large tracts of the most fertile land to settlers as well as to the denial of fishing rights through curtailed fishing zones. All that increases Palestinian dependence on aid, which Europe and other donors provide at the expense of taxpayers.
The lack of progress towards an independent Palestinian state continues to affect every aspect of Palestinian life, including the daily harassment at checkpoints, where it is not uncommon for people to be detained for two or three hours on their way to or from work; the refusal to allow students from Gaza to attend West Bank universities; housing demolitions in parts of east Jerusalem that border on ethnic cleansing; and the inhumane treatment of children arrested and subsequently tried in many cases by the Israeli military authorities. Since I last raised the issue in this House, an excellent report by a group of distinguished UK lawyers has been published. Its condemnation of the system is very powerful, and I wonder whether the Minister could say what steps the UK will now take since the study was sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
What I have described are just some of the reasons why the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is not acceptable. So is the continual firing of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, which I unreservedly condemn. Yet to continue the so-called process as it is currently constructed seems doomed to failure. The quartet is widely regarded as a busted flush. It is seemingly impossible to get the two parties in the same room. There is no drive or energy in the international community to try and make progress. Yet the only solution in the end, as the Minister has quite rightly said, is a negotiated one. New leadership in Israel and Palestine might certainly help but that, of course, cannot be imposed from outside. Elections in Palestine are long overdue, which has led to justified questions about the operation of democracy there. The next Israeli election is not now likely until autumn 2013.
A recent report of the International Crisis Group suggests that a new architecture is needed, although it rightly rejects a one-state solution, which would be unacceptable to most Israelis and unworkable anyway. First, a move away from the quartet to a new form of mediation is probably needed. Secondly, the terms of the debate need to be expanded from dealing just with the consequences of the 1967 war. Nothing less than examining some of the issues that emanate from 1948 is likely to lead to a durable settlement. Courage is required to address these bigger issues—such as the character of the state of Israel and the Arab minority within it, Israel’s justified concerns about regional security, and the right of return for Palestinians. There needs to be recognition of both Jewish and Palestinian history—on both sides.
The argument of the International Crisis Group, that a new start is needed, is compelling. Such a new start needs to take into account the wider, profound changes in the Middle East that have been discussed in this debate. Meanwhile, a number of small steps, some of which I have alluded to, need to be taken to help the Palestinian people economically and to restore basic human rights to them.
My Lords, this is a timely and most welcome debate on an issue of great importance to us in this country. We do, though, face a difficult problem of prioritisation. We are considering recent developments in the Middle East. Well, that is a very large area, and it faces a very large range of challenges. We, on the other hand, have somewhat limited resources. While of course we can and should talk about and take a view on developments across the board, we as a country need to think about where we should focus our efforts.
For all the difficulties in Egypt and the unfolding tragedy in Syria, the most pressing problem remains the Iranian nuclear programme. It is the most pressing in terms of the security of this country and its interests, and it is made doubly difficult because, in large measure, the way in which events develop is beyond our direct control. The international community has made valiant efforts to resolve the whole question but without much effect. It is perfectly true that sanctions are having a significant impact on Iran’s economy, but it is also true that affected nations find ways of adapting to and living with sanctions if they must, and there are signs that Iran is doing just that. The talks between Iran and the P5 plus one over the course of this year seemed for a time to hold out the promise of a way forward. However, the only good thing about the Moscow round was that expectations by then were so low that no one was particularly surprised or disappointed when they got nowhere. The ongoing technical discussions at least keep the process alive, but that is about all.
Meanwhile, the Iranians continue to enrich uranium. There has been much debate about when they will have enough material for a sustainable weapon programme, should they choose to continue down that route, and views differ on the timescale involved. However, there is only one clock that really matters on this, and that is the one in Israel. For us, the Iranian nuclear programme is a matter of wider security concerns within the Middle East and the future of the non-proliferation treaty. For many Israelis, it is a matter of their continued existence. It is therefore important that we try to see the question through Israeli eyes, as far as that is possible.
In that context, there are two fundamental propositions that we should seek to bear in mind. The first is: “Don’t try to tell us it could never happen. That’s what people said about the Holocaust”. The second, somewhat related idea is: “You can only rely on Jews to look out for Jews”. It seems to me unimportant whether we think these are sound propositions or not; the important thing is that they underpin the calculus of a number of key Israeli politicians.
It is perfectly true that opinion in Israel is divided on the wisdom or utility of a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. We and most of our colleagues in the United States think that this would be a very bad idea, and some Israelis share that view. But some do not. The latter would certainly prefer a non-military solution but believe that military force should be used if all else fails. They believe that a bombed Iran is a better outcome than an Iran with a bomb. This of course ignores what many of us consider to be a more likely outcome of a military attack, which is a bombed Iran with a bomb. However, again we have to try and see things through Israeli eyes, given that it is their calculus that matters, not ours. That said, it seems likely that even the most hawkish of Israelis would want to postpone an attack for as long as possible to give the maximum time for some other solution to be found.
Therefore, the key question for all of us is: when does the Israeli clock stop? Unfortunately, we do not really know the answer to that question. However, there seems to be a view gaining ground in this country and one or two others that it will not happen before 2013. I hope that that is right, but I am not convinced. It is important that the Government do not allow themselves to be convinced simply because this is the outcome they would prefer.
Some people say that the Israelis would not want to attack in the run-up to an American general election. Why would they not? After all, it is very hard for any presidential candidate, even an incumbent, to take too hard a line against Israel in the shadow of an impending election. In any event, if the Israelis really felt that they had run out of time, I am not sure that they would let such considerations deflect them from securing, as they saw it, the future existence of their country.
I therefore hope the Minister can reassure the House that, whatever assessments are made on this score, we acknowledge the high degree of uncertainty that pervades our knowledge of Israeli decision-making, and that we do not for one moment take our eye off this particular ball. I say that because, for all our lack of control, there are two things to which we could and must bend all our efforts. The first, of course, is to continue to pursue a non-military solution with sufficient vigour and seriousness to offer at least some prospect of progress to the Israelis—and, again, it is their perspective that matters here, not ours. The second is to prepare fully for the potential consequences of failure.
We all hope that the Israelis will not attack Iran. But, as I have said in previous debates, hope is not a viable plan of action and we have to be prepared for the worst. If Iran is attacked, it is likely to blame us to some degree, no matter how loudly we protest our innocence. We should not forget the previous form we have in that country; the Iranians certainly do not forget. They could as a consequence decide to retaliate against us and our interests. The Majlis in Tehran has recently made noises about closing the Straits of Hormuz. I do not think that this is a high probability given that nothing could be better designed to draw in the Americans, which is something that the Iranian leadership would surely want to avoid. However, the scope for miscalculation here is huge, and it would not be the first time in history that a regime did something that in the cold light of day looked irrational.
We have to be prepared for a wide range of eventualities. Following an Israeli attack, our aim ought to be to de-escalate the situation and to restore calm as quickly as possible. That would be in everyone’s interest, including Iran’s, but it might not be an achievable aim, and we have to be prepared to defend our interests and to respond if attacked. I would not expect the Minister to talk about operational issues in this forum, nor would I question him on them. However, I would ask him whether he can reassure the House that the Government are engaged in serious discussions with the Americans on this issue so that we are able to respond at short notice in a co-ordinated way if worst comes to worst.
I also ask him to confirm that the Government have reviewed the status of contingency forces that the UK would have available in such circumstances. By this, I do not just mean numbers of platforms and people. If, for example, we needed to clear the Strait of Hormuz of mines, we would require not just the mine countermeasure vessels that are deployed but sufficient numbers of, for example, the SeaFox systems that those vessels deploy against the mines.
Weapon stocks, logistic support, force protection—all these are essential elements of any capability that we might need, but they are all too often neglected in planning, not least when the contingency for which they would be required is one that the Government would rather not contemplate.
My Lords, as we saw in the US debate over Iraq, military men are often the least belligerent. I begin by congratulating the Minister on yet another magisterial opening speech and the Government on providing yet another debate on the Middle East. I see the Middle East rather like a restless sea: always turbulent but with different spouts of water—different crises—appearing at different times. Two years ago it was Libya and Bahrain; now it is Syria and Egypt. There is always some crisis somewhere in the Middle East.
We would normally expect a concentration on Israel and Palestine, but today that is less the case because essentially the international community has given up on progress. There is indeed some progress in the Occupied Territories at the micro-level of economic development but there is no progress and no prospect of progress on the major issues that divide the parties. However, overall in the Middle East, it is clear that something fundamental is happening in the Arab world. No country is wholly untouched. The flames move from one country to another—from the Maghreb to Sudan and of course to Yemen. The foundations are being shaken and changes are occurring everywhere. The Jordanian King is inviting Hamas. As democrats, we must surely welcome these changes and encourage the developments that are taking place.
I shall make some general reflections, obviously concentrating on the Arab world, yet it is significant that the three most powerful nations in the region—Iran, Turkey and Israel—are non-Arab. The problem, as I see it, is, first, the terms that we use as we seek to describe what is happening: the Arab spring, the Arab awakening or the Arab revolution. We are always seeking to see these developments through a western perspective and we use terms that are less relevant to happenings in a different climate. It is what the French would call the faux amis, or false friends.
We refer to the “Arab spring”. There was an interesting article today in the Financial Times by Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign Minister of Israel, headed “Neither an Arab spring nor an Islamist winter”. Spring sometimes leads to winter. We think of the Prague spring of 1968, which afterwards led to further repression in the old Czechoslovakia. We also think of the hopes raised in 2005 by the Damascus spring and the further repression that came thereafter, leading to the current crisis.
The term “Arab awakening” was used in the early 20th century to describe the Arab nationalist revival at that time. It perhaps had its apogee with Nasser and Egyptian nationalism but it was essentially secular; it did not have a major religious element. Today, religion is often fundamental. Therefore, that is not a model.
Another term is “Arab revolution”. In European terms we think of 1848 or 1989, but the Soviet empire, particularly in central and eastern Europe, covered countries which often had a deep democratic tradition. The danger is in thinking of other revolutions—that of 1789, which began with the liberals blowing on the flames of a revolution that eventually consumed them, and that led to the Terror and eventually the Empire. We also think of the Iranian revolution, which began with the liberals—Bakhtiar and the others—and eventually led to the mullahs. Therefore, we have to be careful. Perhaps the absolutisms are more shaky now because of Twitter, but that is another consideration.
So, in despair, some of the think-tankers in Washington are now talking about the “Arab thing”. However, even that is misleading because the different manifestations of the unrest are as important as the matters that unite. For example, the winner of the recent elections in Libya, Mr Jibril, is called in the western press a liberal, thus attaching our western terms to him, yet he has said that he very much wishes to base his constitution on Sharia law. Where is western liberalism as we look at that?
Therefore, there was an overall failure in the western media to prepare us for the different manifestations, particularly in Tahrir Square. Cairo-based correspondents would interview a group of English-speaking, often western-educated, intellectuals, but in fact, when it came to the elections, 70% of those elected to the lower House and 80% of those elected to the upper House were either Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists. It is too easy to ignore the mass of the people—a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. In Syria, the conflict is portrayed in black and white, and it requires the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, in a very good speech, and the noble Lord, Lord Wright, to at least give a certain nuance to the reality of the opposition.
The reality is that throughout the region religion has deep roots, and we ignore that at our peril. Who can forget Sir Anthony Parsons’ mea culpa over the failure of the Foreign Office to understand what was happening in the markets of Iran and a failure to see the importance of the mullahs prior to 1979. In Jordan, which we all admire in many ways, observers now say that the wearing of Islamic dress has advanced massively. In Egypt, people yearn for freedom, as the Gallup polls have shown over time. So the debate over the compatibility of Islam and western-style democracy has yet to be resolved. In Nigeria, for example, I was brought up to think of the major divisions as being between the various tribes. Now, the divisions are no longer tribal but religious ones between Islam and Christianity. The other point to make is the Sunni-Shia divide between and within states. It explains some of the problems, such as those in Syria or those involving Bahrain and the Saudis, preventing the island of Bahrain becoming wholly within the influence of Shia Iran.
Therefore, it is difficult to transplant democracy on to different soil. Israel, of course, is the great exception because of the great Jewish tradition of democracy from the European Jews. I think of the strictures of the several reports of the United Nations Development Programme on human development in the Arab world. Why are the Arab countries not developing more? It is a question not just of governance but of culture. Those reports are well worth reading lest we try to exaggerate the possibilities of development today. The realities exposed by those UNDP reports will not evaporate in the spring sunshine.
Finally, I wish to say a few words about Egypt. It is obviously the key country. It is central geographically in the Arab world; it is the most populous country; and culturally and politically it is by far the most important country. Now, there are new uncertainties—we certainly see through a glass very darkly. There are far more questions than answers. Who is President Morsi? How pragmatic is he? What are the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of women and minorities? What will be its foreign policy? Will Israel be scapegoated if things go wrong? There are still the fundamental problems of the economy—the decline of tourism, for example. We hope that the current confrontation between SCAF, the army and the president will be resolved. Happily, the supreme court is seen by both as playing a major role. One needs a grand bargain, and the army will have to be accommodated. Are both sides ready for that?
How do we respond to this turbulent Arab scene? We should recognise our limitations and recognise that the problems will have to be decided internally. We should be ready to intervene if asked with our use of soft power, such as the Venice Commission, the various foundations, the Westminster Foundation, the German foundations and others, including EU Mediterranean initiatives. We can only be benevolent outsiders with our feet on the ground, realistic but ready to intervene if asked.
My Lords, during the previous Parliament my right honourable friend William Hague, in his capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary, exhorted all parliamentarians to get to know the Middle East as the crucible of so many of the world’s problems and to re-establish our relationships following the Iraq war.
In the case of my own party, the Conservative Middle East Council became very active with parliamentarians right across all the political divide and political groupings, often coming to very similar conclusions. I praise the activities of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the region over many years. Nobody then could have forecast the dramatic events that subsequently unfolded and I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary, to Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East and indeed, to my noble friend the Minister for the energy and commitment they have shown in trying to engage fully with the huge issues in the troubled region of the Middle East.
During a number of visits to Egypt, initially under the auspices of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to meet parliamentarians of all colours, it became obvious to us that social tensions were extremely high but, of course, we did not know exactly when there might be manifestations of this and the eruptions that then followed. Egypt had liberalised its economy and was enjoying steady economic growth but rampant corruption and huge inequality were fraying the fabric of social cohesion. It is far too early to know whether political and social stability will take root but all the political figures that I have met, whether they are secular liberals, from the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists, know that unless the economy revives there may be further future eruptions and unknown elements arising out of this. It seems to me that the mother country of the Arab world, preoccupied with its domestic challenges, is most unlikely to take on the leadership role in the Arab world for the foreseeable future.
The demography of the region presents a massive challenge to successful governance. In Egypt 57% of the population is under the age of 25 and that includes 37% under the age of 15. Similar weightings exist right across the Arab world, including countries such as Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, with all the demands on employment, health and education. If the so-called Arab spring does not successfully deal with these demographic time bombs, a pattern of social tension, potentially explosive, will simply reignite.
We have seen elections in troubled countries such as Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, but in nine years of being a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and doing political work in the Middle East and Africa, I learnt that elections alone will not mean that democracy can be declared without adequate structures of civil society, independence of the press and the judiciary, and the protection of minorities and women’s participation. In 2000 President Hafez al-Assad died and I joined the late Robin Cook to meet the new President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus at the time of his father’s funeral. I had visited Syria just after leaving university and made some enduring friendships then. It is now worth recalling the hopes that the new young president brought with him into office, not least because history has shown us that the problems of the region cannot be resolved without Syrian involvement. I was asked to be a founder director of the British Syrian Society and we tried to work with our diplomats to establish influence and contact with them. While there was economic liberalisation, political change did not ever take place and when children were killed in Dara simply for writing graffiti on a wall I instantly resigned and I have been trying to help the Syrian opposition since then.
When President Gul was here at the beginning of the year we learnt more about the enormous attempts our Turkish friends had made to encourage President Assad to introduce a political reform process. This simply never happened and as we sit here today it is obvious now that President Assad still rejects a political track despite the infinite patience and diplomatic skills of Kofi Annan. There is a reign of terror, of horror, in Syria; business is collapsing; sanctions are taking their toll; and those who can have tried to get out. It is tragic. Syria has an exceptional tradition of religious co-existence. Gertrude Bell wrote about it more than 100 years ago and it is tragically ironic that President Assad, who projected himself as the guarantor of intercommunal tolerance and co-operation will bequeath a country torn apart by inter-religious conflict. The substantial Christian minority, observing what has happened to Christians in Iraq and Egypt, now live in real fear.
The role of Russia in all of this remains increasingly inexplicable. Of course, Russia has significant and long-standing military, commercial and intelligent links to Syria—the only Arab country now with which it has such a relationship. Clearly, it has hoped to have some sort of mediation role. Indeed, it has publicly declared that it has no personal commitment to President Assad himself, but it must now be obvious that Assad has not given the slightest indication that he will leave the stage or co-operate. The Syrian opposition have constantly assured the Russians that their interests will be preserved. Russia, of course, fears the loss of influence in the region post-Iraq and post-Libya and fears the rise of Islamic fundamentalism on and within its own borders. Regrettably the Syrian opposition are much divided. There is no single charismatic leader and the minorities are insufficiently involved in their leadership, yet none of them favours military intervention. There is an argument to be had about supplying the free Syrian army with communications and other equipment but in the end I suspect it will be the draining of the Syrian Government’s financial reserves and the intransigence of Assad that may inch the Russians into a stance that leads to the Assad regime, damaged more and more by defections, to negotiate some sort of transitional process and its departure. If not, I believe it will simply be overcome by uncontrollable violence.
Of course, all of this is fraught with danger. Real violence may erupt between the different communities with even more horrific consequences. Yet a regime change, which I believe to be inevitable, presents fresh potential opportunities. The entire Syrian opposition have been appalled by the vocal support for the Assad regime by Hezbollah. It will not be forgiven. Hezbollah snipers are allegedly active in Syria. Equally, a new Syrian Administration will not have a comparable relationship with Iran. For Israel that presents an interesting possibility, arising out of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah link being broken. All of this is very uncertain at present and we do not know what the outcome will be. But Israel needs to be quietly thinking of the potential and be considering whether a further real attempt at a resolution of the Israel-Palestine problem and the future of the Golan Heights which have no strategic value any more, could be part of the prize of a greater normalisation of its relationship with its northern neighbours. Turkey, which sought to broker normality between Syria and Israel, is now obviously the pre-eminent regional power and Israel really needs to effect a rapprochement with its former friend.
Finally, we have all become aware of the economic shift from the West to the East, which stares us in the face. But quietly, the greatest consumer of energy, the United States, is moving to self-sufficiency. The price of energy has weakened and may continue to do so. It is possible that with greater use of nuclear or renewable energy, and the ability to exploit shale gas deposits, our dependence on the Middle East will diminish over time.
Democracy has made great strides in our lifetime in Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, the combination of a smaller future income stream, a demographic bulge and increasing religiosity will inevitably continue to make the Middle East a volatile region. What we have learnt—at times painfully—is that dramas played out in the region continue to affect us directly. For that reason we must, either singly or collectively with our friends and neighbours, continue to be fully engaged in what happens there. We will not be immune from events that unfold in the Middle East today.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for initiating a debate that has been very thoughtful, and for his contribution. We are engaged in debating a subject that is full of uncertainty. Although there is an Arab spring in many countries of the Middle East, each country has vastly different problems. I do not have time to dwell on every nation.
I will start with the affairs of Syria. Only today it was announced that a further 200 people had died in Hama province. The Syrian situation is desperate and there seems to be no escape from the bloodbath that beckons. I know that people have dwelt on the issue at some length, but I cannot detect any possible solution.
Iran represents the gravest risk in this area of the world. We must look askance at the issue and, in particular, the fact that within two years Iran will be a nuclear nation. Perhaps the Minister will say something more about that, because it is a predominant issue that ought to capture our minds.
Egypt has just elected a new President but remains deeply divided. Its people desperately hope that things will improve—but will they? The division between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army is only part of the story. Only 50% of the electorate voted in the recent election—hardly evincing a keen interest in the outcome. However, Egypt remains a serious participant in this hazardous area. What will eventually emerge is shrouded in mystery.
A somewhat similar picture depicts the situation in Libya, but there is a huge difference for those involved. We know with clarity that for some 40 years Libya endured a tyrannical dictatorship, camouflaged by a diplomacy that completely bemused—or were they willing victims?—the West, Russia and China. Arms were sold and the Libyan people were in effect held hostage. So-called elections have now been held, but again the situation is far from clear, and what will prevail is extremely problematic.
A number of today’s speeches were about Israel—although that nation, even viewed through its opponents’ eyes, can hardly be held responsible for the plight of the Middle East. I have long been an admirer of a democratic Israel, which sets a desirable example to others in the area—but, sadly, we have witnessed a decline from the high standards that were set as long ago as 1948 when Israel was established. I hope that the situation today is not irrevocable.
The deterioration is undoubtedly associated with the growth of some—but not all—settlements. Some inhabitants believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Some younger people have joined the Israeli armed forces, bringing with them an ideology completely alien to the forces in which they serve. How can such people resolve the dangerous dilemma of choosing between loyalty to their ultra-orthodox rabbis and to their commanding officers? The dilemma is acute. I do not accept that this affects all Israeli armed deployment, but the situation I outlined must be confronted before it is too late. Some ultra-orthodox rabbis have instructed their disciples to refuse to obey legitimate military orders. A minority obeyed, but happily most ignored the directive. I trust that illegal settlements will be dismantled by an Israeli Government—if not by this one, then by a more benign regime in future.
Religious zealotry, practised by Arab or Jew—in the main, comparisons are odious—is the enemy of a peaceful resolution of these troubles. Peace can be won only if Israelis and Palestinians resolve to survive rather than die together.
My Lords, I begin with some brief comments on the internal situation of the United States of America, which is often the key to some of the problems in the Middle East, particularly in the period approaching a presidential election. As I am well known as a keen supporter of the European Union, I will add that many of my confreres in that philosophy share my view that often Europe is singled out for especially onerous attention by the British press in comparison with other areas of the world where debt problems are much more severe. Here I refer to the recent debt crisis of some member states of the European Union.
The US problem of massive total debt is rearing its ugly head again—but of course this gets virtually no mention by scribblers in the UK papers. Once again, the approach of the so-called fiscal cliff is endangering America’s future—literally. The federal debt mountain of $16.4 trillion for 300 million people is way ahead of the much lower EU total for 500 million people, and the broken political system in Washington DC is incapable of ever reducing this horrendous figure. Congress has its usual gridlock—both the ordinary, regular one that persists and the campaign one. If the ceiling is not increased again—as it has been for 70 years—in the negotiations that presumably will follow the presidential election, the States will go bust.
Much of this debt pile is of recent origin, reflecting both the enormity of the US defence budget and, mostly, the accumulation of a succession of foreign military adventures from Vietnam onwards, when the wise presidents of the preceding period were replaced by reckless leaders who ignored Eisenhower’s advice in 1960 to beware the inexorable rise of the military industrial complex. Iraq and Afghanistan have cost billions of dollars which should have been employed in internal policy areas of benevolent, collectivist public sector activity in America—if ever that were possible— such as health, education and welfare housing. America’s broken politics prevent such initiatives lest they give rise to the usual hysteria against socialism or, even worse, communism, which is heard only in the USA of all—I was going to say advanced, but that is a misnomer for America now—countries..
Hence the only form of warped quasi-institutional demi-socialism is defence spending and defence contracts. At least these get some of the young poverty-stricken Americans access to the best public health system—it is only for the military, of course—and education that they could not afford otherwise on the street, even with Barack Obama’s healthcare legislation and other measures.
In 2003 Bush junior unleashed the illegal invasion of Iraq, followed by the British poodle, and Iraq is now a wrecked country mourning the deaths of more than 200,000 civilians, a country almost as psychologically run down as the USA itself. The Americans also invaded Afghanistan, followed by their usual UK poodle and other allies, thus breaking the sacred historical rule that the Soviets regretted. They know now that they have to withdraw to avoid further humiliation and disaster. In “Charlie Wilson’s War”, the Hollywood producers skilfully avoided the use of the word “Taliban”, the then heroic freedom fighters, as they are now the new enemy, albeit with younger adherents. One is bound to ask when this most immature geopolitical of meddlers—namely, the USA—will ever learn the lessons of the past. I hope the answer is now—right away—irrespective of the presidential election result.
The Middle East has suffered long enough from this choking embrace of the US military, the CIA and the rest of the crazy paraphernalia of zonal destabilisation on a massive scale. However, France and Britain, above all, need to recall modestly that we started this destabilisation after the First World War, when the Americans were quite rightly then tut-tutting about sinister and manipulative imperialism.
It has not, of course, been only about oil or appeasing increasingly right-wing Israeli Governments—or, indeed, because the so-called fuzzy-wuzzies had dared to attack us and must be taught a lesson—although US defence spokesmen are now saying increasingly threatening things against Iran even as we speak. I commend the speech of my noble friend Lord Lamont. It has also involved old-fashioned power politics. The Americans say that if they do not meddle then the Soviets—now the Russian Federation—will. So we have to be there, and we are always involved in a damaging way. However, it has certainly been lucrative for the huge United States defence contracting industries and their allies.
Meanwhile, Syria remains virtually the last Russian zone of influence, so the West needs to tread carefully in spite of the deeply humanitarian considerations towards mercilessly treated, hapless Syrian civilians who are in the wrong tribes and the brave freedom fighters. It is time for President Assad to go, but Russia and the People’s Republic of China must also advocate this. Lebanon is bound to be very worried in this context, as other speakers have said.
The US must surely now move on from the grotesque tragedy of 9/11—11 years ago—to a new era of more detached and sagacious support from a distance, avoiding further deterioration in the way the locals regard them in the whole of Arabia in terms of the proponents of the Arab spring. The US needs a period of introspection, as it had after Vietnam, in dealing with its own internal political and social weaknesses, modernising its welfare politics and leaving the struggling Arab countries to deal with their own problems in their own way.
There are no full answers yet, only legitimate questions posed by millions of observers of US foreign policy in Arabia, the West and Asia. Can Egypt’s fledgling democratic impulses hold at arm’s length both its own military menace and the choking grip of indebtedness to the USA? Will Libya be eventually a successful democracy, despite the shaky situation now? Can Yemen be an example in the south? Can the US reduce its slavish adulation of Saudi Arabia—mainly because of oil but other things as well? Can it drop a few hints about Saudi Arabia getting real democracy and allowing women to drive cars? After all, it seems to be totally exempt from any of the routine strictures and instructions coming out of Washington still, albeit slightly less because of Obama’s slightly more sagacious approach.
Can Israel lose its special client status and become a self-standing, proud Middle East country, not depending on 35 US vetoes in the Security Council that have allowed it to flout international law since 1967? Can it find its true role by at last following Ben Gurion’s wise advice to withdraw from the occupied territories after 1967? Can it make true peace with the next door soon-to-be, I hope, Palestinian state, so that both countries shake hands and become dynamic friends in a near east common market of immense potential? Both are very impressive countries. Will Jordan also join in this new near east common market, if it ever develops? Why not Lebanon too? Lebanon is an impressive country in terms of its business enterprises.
Will the US show its real credentials at long last as an idealistic power, as it used to be, and close down the sewer of Guantanamo Bay, as Obama solemnly promised in 2008? On his recent visit to London 10 days ago, President Carter was very critical of President Obama.
Even if we have to wait, as usual, until after yet another election in November, will the US President—I hope Obama and not the idiotic Romney—insist that the new Israeli coalition plays ball at last and withdraws from the occupied territories. If Israel does not step up to the plate at long last, the disillusionment in the West—even in Germany—will be massive.
Meanwhile, there is one other local player of immense importance that needs a place in the sun in this, one hopes, more rational order in the future, however many years it make take to develop and settle down from American mistakes. I refer to Turkey, where I had the pleasure and honour of leading a delegation of the IPU several years ago. This dynamic and forceful country, which has been referred to a couple of times in the debate, has had a recent economic past of incredible activity and growth and has made recent internal reforms in preparing for entry into the EU, which I hope will not be delayed too much longer—it has been too long already. It has now more friends externally, both in the immediate region and elsewhere.
Turkey’s long-standing friendship with Israel has been tragically damaged recently, but this can surely be put right if Israel shows due political wisdom. Turkey deserves a more positive response from many countries and it needs encouragement in dealing with the dreadful problem of Syrian refugees and escapees. I hope the West will pay far more attention in the future to what Turkish leaders, governments and politicians say about the problems in these areas. Turkey needs a place in the sun of its own and to be at the same table as the West.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is already basking in the praise of other noble Lords, but I, too, thank him for his excellent introduction. Even though I sit on the other side of the House from him, I think his contributions are universally outstanding —except when I disagree with them, which is the case today. In my contribution to the debate I shall make comments on the role of social media and communications technologies in the Arab spring.
The changes brought together under the term “Arab spring”, as the Minister said, are some of the most momentous of the past 20 years. In common with other great transformations of world history, they were essentially unpredicted, even by people who had spent their lives studying the Middle East. This was also true of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, of the rise of the internet and of the current global economic crisis. Many of the biggest transformations are not understood before they happen. They happen suddenly and their consequences are for that reason difficult to puzzle through. Who would have thought that some of the most despotic and conservative regimes in the world, those in the Middle East, could be challenged effectively almost overnight? I think that the answer is no one, but it has happened.
The term “Arab spring” seems at first sight not a happy one. After all, the term does not come from 1989, as many people seem to think; it comes from the Prague spring of 1968. Alexander Dubcek, who wanted to make reforms within the framework of communism, was removed from power by force and 150,000 Soviet troops occupied the country. It took 20 years before democracy came to what was then Czechoslovakia. Checking back over that period, I find it quite interesting how the headlines of the time duplicated what is being said today; for example, there was a BBC report headed,
“Russia brings winter to ‘Prague Spring’”.
One of the big differences between the Prague and Arab springs is the visible impact of internet technologies in the latter case. How important were these technologies and can we generalise about their transformational impact on democracy elsewhere? We know that the social media are in widespread use throughout the Middle East today. They were implicated at the point of origin of the Arab spring in Tunisia, through Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and, more latterly, further south in Sudan.
There was a lot of breathless discussion of all this in the newspapers to begin with, but, more latterly, it has become a fashion among commentators to question the influence of the social media. After all, internet talk, Twitter et cetera might seem very insubstantial when the tanks roll in, just as were the flowers that the Prague activists offered to the Russian soldiers. I want to argue that this is wrong and that the influence of the social media is deeply structural and almost certainly irreversible, not only in the Middle East but in other authoritarian states throughout the world.
There are two main reasons that I would offer for this. The first is the impact of voice. Facebook and Twitter have created what you could call a virtual civil society in countries which possess very few civil society institutions. A significant aspect of this is that groups which were previously excluded, such as young people, women and minorities—certainly in the beginning, have had an enormous impact. This is a very different group from the power system in those countries and it marks something new in terms of being a wedge for continuing change.
The second reason is the influence of cosmopolitan attitudes. In the era of the internet, it is impossible to close off the diversity of the outside world. This is true of all of us throughout the world today. For instance, you can download an interview with a Saudi hip-hop artist describing his work and arguing that it is consistent with his Arab identity. There is no way back from the inherent cosmopolitanism of a globalising, communication-driven society.
I conclude with three consequent observations. First, the Prague spring, in retrospect, was actually one of the conditions of 1989. It helped stimulate the development of Solidarity in Poland, similar movements in Hungary and, as I know intimately since I used to go there at the time, counter-movements in perhaps the most repressive state in eastern Europe, East Germany. There was a causal connection, therefore, between the Prague spring, even though it was repressed, and the democratisation which occurred later. It is not surprising in the light of this that the situation in the Middle East is currently so inchoate, so ambiguous and so fraught. There is no known example in history—at least to me—of a country which has moved from being an authoritarian state to becoming a reasonably fully fledged democratic one in a very short period. This is bound to be, therefore, a fairly lengthy process, full of conflict.
Secondly, internet technologies are generally liberalising but can also promote extremism. Closed groups of believers who concentrate on outlandish views of one kind or another are created and intensified. In other words, what happens on the internet is that extremist groups only talk to one another; they create closed circles; and these closed circles around the edges are closely linked to the possibility of violence. The internet has a double effect in this respect, which has consequences for the problem of schism across the Middle East and the sufferings of minorities, which have been mentioned by previous speakers.
Thirdly and finally, one of the paradoxes of new communication technologies is that while they promote democratisation in authoritarian states, they appear to undermine democracy in their heartland countries in the West or at least contribute to that process. In other words, at the same time as people are suffering so much to create democracy, in democratic countries there is massive and, surely again, structural disillusionment with democracy and political leaders. The origins of these things could be the same. Almost everywhere, political leaders are held in low standing and populist parties have arisen. The interest of this, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is that we should not assume that what unfolds in the Middle East is simply a process of catch-up with the West. We have all to do some pretty fundamental rethinking of how we can stabilise and accentuate democratic mechanisms in a society which has been transformed by global mass communications. I therefore support previous speakers who have said there may be various lines of evolution to democratic participation. We can perhaps learn as much from other parts of world as they can learn from us.
My Lords, we are indebted to the Minister not just for providing the canvas for this debate but for so expertly opening it by sketching his own thoughts in such an illuminating manner. I should like to concentrate on two aspects of the Middle East, the first of which is Bahrain. In February last year, as the Arab spring spread, more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of the capital, Manama. The Bahraini Government—for whom we should always read the Bahraini royal family—responded brutally. Four protesters camping in Pearl roundabout were killed, yet, despite that, protesters reoccupied the roundabout and there were large marches involving up to 150,000 participants. These numbers are put in perspective when it is recalled that, in total, there are fewer than 1 million Bahraini nationals.
In March 2011, at the request of the Government, Saudi armed forces entered the country, which those opposed to the regime characterised as an occupation. The following day, a state of emergency was declared and protests subsided after a savage crackdown was launched against protesters. More than 3,000 people were arrested and at least five people died while in police custody. Many of those not directly involved in the protests, such as doctors and bloggers, were targeted and arrested. Some doctors and other medical staff were subjected to torture on the basis that they had done no more than tend the injuries of protesters brutalised by the regime’s own forces and the Saudi forces. It has been estimated by Human Rights Watch that up to 50 people have died since the start of the uprising. Of course, those numbers pale into insignificance compared to Syria but that is not a meaningful comparison.
Meanwhile, doctors have been charged with serious offences and convicted, and have received long sentences—despite the evidence against them rather than because of it. It is surely a doctor’s obligation to try and save lives and there are no circumstances when any medic should be subject to the charges simply for doing so. An international outcry followed the outrageously long sentences handed down to the medics. That even included the USA. In April, Amnesty International published a detailed report on events in Bahrain since February 2011. It was a damning indictment of the so-called reforms introduced by the royal family since then. The report highlighted the killing of civilians, deaths and torture in custody, trials of political activists lacking the basics of a serious judicial system leading to death sentences being passed—thankfully later commuted—and workers and students who participated in the protests being summarily dismissed from their jobs or courses of study. A month ago, the Court of Appeal in Manama upheld the convictions of nine medics and nine others were acquitted. These outcomes, though far from satisfactory, would never have happened but for the intervention by the UN, US and other countries, including the UK, to let the Bahraini royal family know that they had used greatly excessive force in quelling what were legitimate attempts by the Shia majority to win democratic reforms at the expense of the ruling Sunni minority.
I very much welcomed the Minister’s opening remarks on Bahrain. He said that progress had been minimal and that that was not good enough. He said that there was a need for meaningful political reforms. He also said that there had been criticism from some quarters—I am not sure where it came from—of the Government’s engagement in relation to Bahrain. I certainly would not criticise the Government for it. They have intervened and made strong statements. I hope the Minister will confirm today that the Government will go further and continue to pressure the Bahraini royal family to implement the kind of changes that were called for in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia. Human rights, the right to freedom of expression and the ability to choose their political representatives must not be seen as the preserve simply of people living under regimes with which our Government disagree. Just because we have traditionally had good relations with Bahrain must not mean that these fundamental fights can be relegated to the fringes of our relations with them.
Turning to Israel and Palestine, I find the situation there profoundly depressing. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has already commented on it in some considerable detail. The quartet has now been in existence for 10 years, with Tony Blair as its special envoy for half that time, yet no meaningful progress has been made towards a peace settlement. It may be true, as the noble Baroness suggested, that the quartet is now a busted flush. Certainly, it could be argued that a peace settlement is further away now than it was in 2002. In September last year, the quartet issued a new schedule for resumption of negotiations between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority which called for negotiations to be completed by the end of 2012. Suffice to say, that will not happen, not least because the Netanyahu Government continue to ignore international outrage—with merely mild displeasure being expressed by the UK and US Governments—at the continuation of Israel to build illegal housing developments in the West Bank. That matter was again covered by the noble Baroness.
Last month saw a return to violence between the Israeli Defence Force and Hamas militants, which is very much to be regretted. I unreservedly call on both sides not to repeat that violence. All the while, on the Palestinian side, there is a continuing gulf between Fatah and Hamas. In April 2011, the two parties signed an agreement of reconciliation but its implementation has stalled since then. Legislative and presidential elections were both due to take place in the occupied territories in May this year but, following a breakdown in reconciliation talks between the two, elections have now been postponed. It seems unlikely that they will be held before the end of the year.
My noble friend Lord Haskel made remarks in his speech with which I have to take some issue. I would agree that we need to ensure that compassion for Palestinians does not translate into what he termed bigotry against Israel. I would reject the charge that I have ever approached any question relating to Israel in a bigoted way. Yet this is important. My noble friend highlighted the benefits of trade in the Israeli context. I have only had a few moments since his speech to do some very brief research into the question of trade as far as Palestinians are concerned but it is vital to Palestinians.
According to a study last year by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, West Bank trade remains largely isolated from global markets due to restrictions imposed by Israel on the movement of goods. According to the World Bank, the absence of container scanners at the six commercial crossing points between the West Bank and Israel constrains Palestinian access to external markets and means that all cargo is subject to physical inspections. That means the loading and unloading of lorries, sometimes more than once. Often, the food and vegetables involved are delayed for so long that they become unsalable. I cannot see how those sorts of restrictions will in any way help the Palestinians to help themselves. When we talk about trade, it has to be recalled that fuel is a vital commodity, yet the Palestinians are forced to import fuel via Israel. If they could import it via Jordan, that would cut the price by half—to the clear benefit of Palestinian communities. That must be borne in mind.
Of course, the biggest restriction on Palestinians is the blockade of Gaza, which entered its sixth year just a few weeks ago. Coinciding with that milestone, a report by Save the Children and Medical Aid for Palestinians emphasised how the extensive restrictions placed on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza continues to have a real and negative impact on the lives and health of Gaza’s children. The blockade has been the single greatest contributor to endemic and long-lasting household poverty in Gaza. That has meant that families are unable to buy nutritious food and less able to produce it themselves.
The health of children in Gaza prior to the war of 2008-09 was seriously below international standards but is now worse. The Save the Children report states that long-term exposure to chronic malnutrition remains high: it is found among 10% of children under five. The Palestinian Authority has set goals to meet the needs of its children and spends some 11% of its GDP on healthcare. That is more than most middle-income countries. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid are directed towards the occupied Palestinian territories every year, yet still child health in Gaza continues to get poorer.
I will not deny that Israel has of course the right to safeguard the security of its citizens but, as the occupying power, it must also allow for the free flow of goods, people and services. According to international laws, Israel is responsible for the welfare of Gaza’s civilian population. With the blockade now having been in place for more than five years, will the Minister agree that there is a pressing need for the coalition Government to call on Israel, in the strongest possible terms, to fulfil its responsibilities and end the blockade of Gaza immediately and in its entirety?
My Lords, in such a region of turmoil, where horrible events have occurred and people are suppressed, maimed and killed in countries as widespread as Syria, Egypt and Iran, people often tend, as my noble friend Lord Haskel said, to ignore any positives but take sides and lay blame on one side or another. Perhaps it is useful to condemn but this should not be one-sided vilification. If one chooses to lay blame, it should be on Governments and organisations making wrong policies and decisions, not the peoples of any of these countries. Most Iranians, Egyptians, Syrians want to be free to live a normal family life. The dispute I know most about in the region is the Palestinian/Israeli arena. Survey after survey has shown that 70% of the populations on both sides would like to be in two separate states, living side by side with mutual recognition. It is the extremists with the loudest voices and insidious actions who prevent the majority getting on with living the way they would prefer—in peace.
As we have heard from the Minister today and from Tripoli, there are individuals and organisations working in the region to heal these rifts. When, in freedom, individuals are able to experience something greater than their habitual selves and escape insular dogma, they tend to live more fulfilling lives and choose to follow the path of service. From what I understand, in Jewish thought and Christian belief, as a Muslim tenet and also in Buddhism, it is said that moral responsibility lies entirely with the individual. I just want to mention some of the things that I have witnessed that responsible individuals are doing within the communities in the region. I mention them because I believe that if we, as individuals, and our own Government were to recognise, support and involve ourselves in this way, rather than just blame others, we could all help to heal the region.
For example, in education, last week we held the board of trustees meeting here in London for the British University of Egypt. Five years ago, Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall opened that university in Cairo and, in partnership with Loughborough University, BUE is thriving. In fact, in three years’ time, we plan to have 6,000 young students from the region studying and researching in Cairo to UK standard in nursing and dentistry, renewable energy and engineering, advanced materials and business and entrepreneurialism—in fact, seven faculties
In Jordan, where we were last month, in agriculture and commerce Moon Valley is arranging to build and operate an olive processing plant with the help, advice and partnership of a Palestinian construction company, CCC, and Olives Et Al, an innovative private company based in Dorset which supplies UK food stores with the most delicious olives and tapenades. The Jordanian plant will work with olive farmers in Jordan and West Bank Palestinians to improve their methodologies and standards to produce delicacies that can be sold locally and in stores in the UK, Europe and the Gulf.
In textiles and clothing, I have spoken before in this House about Moon Valley helping Palestinian farmers to sell their goods to Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury and the Co-op. Waitrose has now expressed an interest. With reference to the point made by my noble friends Lady Blackstone and Lord Watson, with the help of my noble friend Lady Ashton and the EU, we have now negotiated that all agricultural goods from the West Bank and Gaza enter the West Bank tariff-free. Just last week, after a year’s work, the same team has helped a knitwear manufacturer in Gaza produce and export 4,000 men’s pullovers and cardigans to UK online retailer, JD Williams—were again I must declare an interest—for sale in this country with “Made in Palestine” on the label. In fact, if Erskine May did not prevent it, I would have brought one here to show you and try to sell it. DfID, the office of the quartet, our British consul general in East Jerusalem, together with the authorities in Israel, have all played an important part in making that possible.
In the field of high-tech, this week, here in your Lordships’ House, a UK task force funded by the Pears Foundation and led by Alice Wood hosted some enlightened Israeli Arabs and Jews from the Nazareth region who have formed an organisation called Tsofen, which means code, with whom we are working to enable Arab citizens of Israel to use their entrepreneurialism in the high-tech field to break the code, to integrate their people better into Israeli society and business networks to create wealth for their community.
Last month, I mentioned in a debate about the voluntary sector how UK charities can spread their good work by internationalising themselves. I know through the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that our Government are considering developing that is a forward strategy for the sector. Here is an example from the region: www.healthtalkonline.org, an Oxford-based charity which I chair, is now working with both An-Najah University in Nablus and Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in the desert, together with eight other countries, to help patients with health conditions to understand better from other patients what are the options and how to make choices about their lives.
Those are examples in commerce, education, technology and health where, instead of vilifying others and laying blame, those involved will help individuals to see positive opportunities and work to inspire others to try to heal rifts. I realise that those projects alone will not resolve the issues, but neither will politics alone. Of course there is a place for politics.
There are those on all sides who thrive on conflict and the misery of others. They work ceaselessly to engender hate, vilification and division, and to blame the other. Their actions result in death and destruction. Here, perhaps, the rifts can be healed by politics. Here, we must be willing to talk to everyone. This is where non-governmental organisations, such as the Next Century Foundation, a UK organisation in which, again, I must declare an interest, can lead and Governments can follow. We currently have the odd irony where we engage willingly with the radical Muslim Brotherhood elements in the Syrian opposition, whereas in Gaza, Her Majesty’s Government are unwilling to talk to Hamas. If the Government’s experience in Northern Ireland proves anything, it is that talking to all sides matters. Talking to your enemies does not mean legitimising them.
In conclusion, by supporting and involving ourselves in the type of constructive projects I mentioned, and with the help of the Government, we enable them to touch thousands of people. Then, the destructive elements on all sides can be exposed and weakened. That should be done by those with open hearts and peaceful intention working together just as forcefully as those who peddle hate. In that way, we can enable the peoples of those countries to be in control of their lives.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Howell for initiating this debate. Although the Motion refers to the Middle East, my contribution will include developments in North Africa. I have visited some of the countries in those areas and have personal knowledge of the situation in these countries.
Noble Lords will recognise that the Middle East and North Africa are commonly referred to as MENA. Therefore, I cannot discuss the former without making reference to the latter. It is vital that Her Majesty’s Government should continue to highlight and condemn instances of violence and discrimination against individuals and groups because of their beliefs, wherever, and whenever, they occur. To that end, I fully support the work of the Arab Partnership.
The Arab spring heralded a new era for many citizens who were living under oppressive regimes. However, it has led to unfortunate consequences that have permeated neighbouring countries; namely, Mali. Tuareg rebels now control two-thirds of Mali, due to the provision of weapons following Colonel Gaddafi's downfall. Algeria has just celebrated 50 years of independence, which has seen increased foreign investment to the nation in recent years. Libya’s first democratic election has been won by the former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who led Libya’s National Transitional Council last year. The composition of the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia occurred with little controversy. I hope that the elections in Tunisia scheduled for next year follow that trend.
Although both the elections in Libya and Egypt were reported to have been relatively peaceful, like most noble Lords, I am concerned with the perceived power struggle between President Morsi and the Special Council of the Armed Forces. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to resolve that tension?
There are many positive developments to highlight in this debate about solidarity among nations in the region. I would now like to discuss the positive points, as the situation is good in certain areas. Bahrain appears to be successfully positioning itself as the Gulf’s shipping centre, following the opening of the Khalifa port and the Bahrain logistics zone. Oman is a founding member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force, which was established in 2004. Since Oman’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2000, a substantial improvement in its investment environment and regulatory framework has occurred. The 2006 free trade agreement with America resulted in the adoption of International Labour Organisation regulations, further encouraging international investment in Oman. I may add that Oman is important to us strategically and it is our friend.
Reports in the Saudi media last month claimed that Saudi Arabia had rehabilitated an old Iraqi oil line, which could serve as an alternative route to the Strait of Hormuz, should tension increase with Iran. Bahrain and Qatar have engaged in joint economic initiatives such as the proposed friendship bridge project, which would link the two countries. Both nations are also thought to be in discussion about construction of a subsea pipeline to supply natural gas from Qatar to Bahrain. In February 2010, the Emir of Qatar issued a decree which allowed the Minister of Business and Trade to waive the 49% foreign ownership cap in the tourism, natural resources, health, education and consulting sectors. I support this policy as it reflects a desire to attract further foreign investment.
The vast majority of nations in the Middle East are enjoying peace and prosperity. However, Iran and Syria unfortunately do not follow this trend. Iran is in clear defiance of six UN Security Council resolutions that call for the suspension of its uranium enrichment programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed concerns about the potential military implications of Iran’s nuclear programme. As such, I welcome the EU’s sanctions against Iran as a means of urging the regime to review its stance. We need to deal with the situation by the application of stringent sanctions and by negotiations. I do not favour any form of military action. What are my noble friend the Minister’s views on military intervention?
I am pleased that Russia has softened its position towards Syria by calling for a three-month extension of the UN monitoring mission, which is scheduled to end on 20 July. Yesterday the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, defected to join the revolution against al-Assad’s regime. His is the second high-profile defection since the uprising began 16 months ago. The Republican Guard’s Brigadier-General Manaf defected last week. These two defections suggest that support for President Assad’s regime is diminishing. I welcome Russia’s decision to suspend defence co-operation with Syria. Russia has blocked two United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria to date.
Last week, Hillary Clinton urged Russia and China to join Britain, America and France to put pressure on Assad’s regime. In May this year, 108 people were killed in the Houla massacre, 49 of whom were children. More killings occurred yesterday. Kofi Annan’s Geneva initiative does not demand the removal of Assad. It is therefore unpalatable to the Syrian opposition. Reports suggest that more than 17,000 persons have lost their lives since the uprising began 16 months ago. The US Secretary of State has also called for “real and immediate consequences” for non-compliance with Annan’s peace plan.
Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, has expressed his intention to join any effort to end the bloodshed in Syria. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are providing arms and funds to the Free Syrian Army. Qatar played an important role in providing military and financial support during and after the Arab spring to countries in the Middle East and north African region. Qatar was a founding member of the Gulf Co-operation Council in 1981 and hosts a large American military base. Qatar also has the highest GDP per capita in the world, which is growing at a faster rate than that of any other nation. Qatar successfully acted as a mediator between Yemen’s Government and the Houthi rebels. We should be making more efforts towards further engagement with Qatar in all areas.
Last week I spoke about us undertaking more trade with overseas countries. With regard to the Middle East, there are favourable situations in certain countries and we must make use of these opportunities and do more business in the region. The Middle East is blessed with great mineral wealth and a vibrant culture. However, challenges lie ahead for peace in the region. It is up to Britain, alongside our international allies, to demonstrate leadership in efforts to help the region and achieve lasting peace.
My Lords, faced with the kaleidoscopic series of developments in the Middle East that has followed the Arab awakening and which seems set to continue for the foreseeable future, it is clearly right that we should be debating these issues again a mere four months after our previous debate. I am grateful to the Government for making that possible, even if I cannot resist commenting that it would be even better if they could find time to debate other major areas of foreign policy.
I welcome, too, the Minister’s extremely comprehensive and helpful opening contribution to our debate. It is right that we should be debating this because the Middle East, as other noble Lords have observed, matters to this country and to the European Union as a whole in a way, and to an extent, that few other regions outside Europe do. It affects our security, our energy supplies, the flows of migration and many other issues too.
There are of course difficult policy choices to be made, ones that we have not always made very skilfully or wisely in the past, between, for example, the role of appalled spectator and victim of events or, on the other hand, that of an intrusive actor intervening forcefully and often insensitively. A third option is as a sympathetic neighbour recognising that it is for the countries of the Middle East to shape their own future, but ready to help evolutionary change across the region once the initial process of upheaval has passed. I am glad that we and our allies seem, broadly speaking, to have chosen the third option, and I think that we will need both strategic and tactical patience in sticking to it.
On the positive side of the ledger since we last debated, one can reasonably place the Egyptian presidential elections and the recent elections in Libya. Both sets of elections are of course only the first stages of a long and complex process that still has far to run, but both have confounded the predictions of the pessimists, and both are remarkable and probably irreversible developments in two countries that have never before experienced free and fair multiparty elections. On the negative side of the ledger must clearly stand the continuing conflict in Syria, disfigured by increasing evidence of massacres of innocent civilians by the regime’s supporters and by the stalemate over international efforts to bring the fighting to an end and to initiate a transitional process away from Ba’athist dictatorship.
Somewhere in between on the ledger, I suggest, stands the unsatisfactorily dilatory process of talks over Iran’s nuclear programme and the absence of any negotiating activity at all over Palestine. Both these latter two issues mask an explosive potential that we ignore at our peril. I listened with great interest to my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup’s description of the dangers that face us from a failure to achieve a negotiated solution on Iran, with which I totally agree.
In Syria, the arguments against any external military intervention—that, I suggest, includes the supply of weapons—still seem to outweigh the arguments in favour of a no-fly zone or the establishment of safe areas, even if the balance between them is not as clear-cut as it was at the outset. The international community’s responsibility to protect is still, I would argue, better exercised through diplomatic, humanitarian and economic action than through the use of force. The present stalemate, though, while the sectarian nature of the conflict becomes more and more marked, with disastrous potential effects on the future stability of the country, and while arms and military expertise pour in, particularly from Russia and Iran, is neither sustainable nor ought it to be accepted. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about what we know about arms and military expertise flows that come from those two countries.
Surely we need to bring home more clearly than we have done hitherto that war crimes and crimes against humanity, by whomsoever committed, will one day end up before the International Criminal Court, and that the universal jurisdiction in the convention against torture already applies to those who are using these methods. Making these points is all the more urgent in the wake of the latest news we have had of yet another massacre by supporters of the regime.
More generally, is it not time that we went back to the UN Security Council and sought a mandatory resolution—that is to say, a Chapter 7 resolution—that would set stated timelines for Kofi Annan’s six-point plan and his transitional process to be accepted and backed that up by a clear threat of economic sanctions if that timeline was ignored? It is, of course, possible that the Russians will veto such a resolution. Their policy so far has been callous and opportunistic, and we have little or nothing to show for all the efforts to enlist their support for a genuine transition, but my experience is that you never find out just how firm that blocking position is until you put it to the test. Personally, I think that even if the Russians were to veto, our position would be better if we had put them before their responsibilities than if we allowed them to emasculate any resolution that we move forward in an attempt to get away from the deadlock. Meanwhile, I hope that the Minister can confirm that we and our allies are working closely with the Arab League and will urge consistently on the Syrian opposition the need for greater unity and for a public commitment to a democratic alternative to the Assad regime that will respect and protect all religious and ethnic groups in the country.
For Egypt and other countries now pursuing a peaceful process of evolution—countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen and Jordan—the challenge for the international community is principally an economic one. The success or failure of these processes of evolution will depend crucially on whether the new democratically elected Governments can offer better prospects to their rapidly growing young populations. That requires better trade outlets, greater skills, more inward investment, the establishment of the tourist industry and much else besides which, while not exclusively in the gift of outside countries, can be greatly facilitated and encouraged by their activities. Perhaps the Minister will say a little about what the European Union is doing in that respect and also about what is being done through such instruments as DfID, the British Council, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the BBC. Are their activities as well funded as they need to be? Are their efforts as well co-ordinated as they need to be if they are to be effective?
With the negotiations between the five plus one in Iran still continuing, however desultorily, it is probably wise not to say too much, but I regret—here I join the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, on one point that he made—that with all the emphasis on sanctions and the rumours of military action, the positive side of the equation—what Iran could hope for if it could satisfy the UN comprehensively about the peaceful nature of its nuclear programmes—is being marginalised and overlooked. Successful negotiations require benefits for all the parties to them, and we should not lose sight of that. What is not in doubt is that failure to reach a negotiated solution will bring seriously negative consequences for all concerned.
The moribund nature of the Middle East peace process while settlement activity in the Occupied Territories continues apace should bring solace to no one, although I sometimes fear that the Government of Israel regard it as better than any of the alternatives. If they do, I fear they are grievously wrong, and it will not be long before they find that out. Politics being politics and the central role of the US in any peace process not being easy to dispute, it is not likely that any serious movement will take place until after the US presidential election in November, but thereafter, a serious attempt to move ahead again will be the only alternative to a drift towards conflict. I say without any pleasure at all, having listened to a number of contributions to the debate, particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, that of course the case for aid and trade is a strong one, but it is never going to do the trick on the Palestine issue. Politics will always trump aid and trade. Meanwhile, I hope that the Minister can say what the UK is doing to ensure that a conference on a Middle East weapons-free zone, scheduled for the end of this year becomes the start of a continuing process, and not a fiasco or a slanging match.
In conclusion, it cannot be said that the prospects in the Middle East are rosy. Nor, I believe, are they without hope. I hope that we can resist an obsession with the precise religious content of the Governments emerging from the new democratic processes and, even more, resist the vocabulary of Islamophobia. There is far too much of it around. The Governments of these countries are for them to decide. We should judge them by their deeds, not by their words or their religious beliefs.
My Lords, I join others in your Lordships’ House in thanking my noble friend the Minister for his clear statement at the start of this debate. I also thank him for his stewardship, which at times perhaps goes unnoticed, on the international stage in strengthening Britain’s role, particularly at a time when it is most crucially required.
On 18 December 2010 the Arab spring began. What has this meant over time? Dictators have fallen; Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are testament to that. There have been civil uprisings; Bahrain and the current tragedy we see unfolding in Syria are a reflection of that. There have been other strong protests. Let us not forget Algeria and the continuing disturbances and troubles in Iraq. Even in Jordan and, indeed, Saudi Arabia, we have seen protests on the streets. Some have been resolved through people power. Some, as we saw, needed military intervention, such as those in Libya. Ultimately, however, this has been driven by the need to see democracy—to see the vacuum being filled through democratic reforms.
However, as many have already alluded to in your Lordships’ House, the jury is still out. We need look no further than recent events in Egypt. For sustainable democracy in all of these countries is not just about winning the right to vote. It is not just about setting up elections. It is, as my noble friend Lord Risby suggested, the establishment of other free principles of democracy, the kind of democracy we enjoy at home. First and foremost, is the essence and prevalence of the rule of law. Yes, we all stood up against the tyranny and despicable atrocities committed by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammur Gaddafi. Yet the lynching and the way in which they were executed provided a shallow and unstable beginning to the democratic foundations of those countries. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has already stated, it is important that these tyrants are brought to justice in a humane way, even if they themselves did not see humanity as a prevailing priority.
Elections must be based on trust and integrity. The recent presidential elections in Egypt reflected the need for that to be a sustained proposition. For Governments to function effectively, they must do so on the principle of absolute justice. Too often, we look inwardly and perhaps beat ourselves up a bit about democracy and our party politics here, but we have a prevailing democracy that sees a peaceful transition from one party to another, from one Government to another. That should be the aim and principle we seek to install in these emerging democracies. Freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and a free press are essential tenets to a sustainable democracy.
Let us not forget human rights, which we have often debated in your Lordships’ House—in this very place. Most recently, we debated Christian rights in the Middle East. We cannot let new Governments be elected on the basis of democracy just so that they can adopt repressive regimes.
The UK has a crucial role. Compared to some of our partners, diplomacy is one of our key strengths. Where we see humanity suffering, where tyranny and suppression reign, we have used different forms of intervention. I have always propagated the belief, and always will, that the ultimate sanction—but last option—of force should always remain on the table. When dictators tumble through people power or military intervention, the job—indeed, our role—is only beginning. Therefore, I seek the Minister’s assurance that, as we assist and co-operate to build stronger ties, we will do so by ensuring that the prevailing rule of law is sustained in each of these countries and by holding these regimes to account.
We have talked about religion. The Minister talked about how Islam is prevailing. I say to each and every one of these countries: if you truly seek to follow a religion, look at the faith of Islam and you will find your answer. It is not about suppression but about ensuring the rights of all individuals, of whatever faith they may be or of no faith at all. Coercionist faith is part and parcel of no religion and it is no part of Islam. I assure noble Lords that that should be absolutely embedded in the new emerging democracies in the Middle East.
I also seek the Minister’s assurance on another matter. Today the House of Commons produced a report on arms exports. I was disturbed to learn that even today we retain nine licences for arms exports to Syria. Our arms exports are based on none of the arms being used for internal suppression. That litmus test must be applied to all licences as we move forward. I also seek clarification on the way forward beyond the UN mandate in Syria, which expires on 20 July.
I return to the concept of diplomacy. Many noble Lords have referred to the importance and role of Iran. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, spoke eloquently and passionately about the need for deepened diplomacy. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, talked in detailed and undoubtedly expert terms about the outcome if we were to fail in that. What happens in Iran and the Straits of Hormuz will, as we have heard, impact not only on Iran but on the whole world economy. That cannot be ignored. Yet is force the answer? I hope not; I pray not. Diplomacy should be the call of the day.
Many noble Lords have alluded to Israel and Palestine. A number of times, I have stood in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere when the issue of Israel and Palestine has been used as a rallying call from extremist to moderate to ensure that we do not see any progress. It is about time that we put that to one side. There is a need for progress on this issue. Therefore, I ask the Minister to support the Arab peace initiative, which was signed up to by the Arab League, agreed to by Israel and offered Israel peace with its neighbours. It offers the chance to normalise relations with Israel and for peace with the Palestinians. However, just as Palestinians must recognise the right of the state of Israel to exist, they must also not regard Israel as the problem. This applies not just to Palestine but to every Arab state. Israel is part of the solution. As the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, the futures of two people, the Palestinians and the Israelis, are intertwined. Through co-operation and working together, we can see a brighter future for that region and, indeed, the whole world.
Britain is in a unique position. We are respected and we have wide diasporas from all these Arab countries and the Middle East who are resident on our shores. We have historical and cultural ties with many of these countries. It is essential that we play our part in the prevailing democracies and do not allow them to degenerate into repressive regimes to replace the repressive dictators we sought to fight. But as we build ties—be they economic, ones of defence, or education which is a key to all, or development—we do so on that basis, and extol in each and every regime the importance of human rights and the prevailing rule of law.
Perhaps that is a tall order, and Ministers and our Government have a difficult task ahead. I am reminded of the words of my noble friend Lady Thatcher when she said:
“The wisdom of hindsight, so useful to historians and indeed to authors … is sadly denied to practicing politicians”.
I wish our Government well in resolving these issues.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend the Minister for his wide-ranging introduction to the debate.
If one is to focus on good omens today—Friday, 13 July—one positive straw in the wind might be Libya’s recent election results. Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance appears to have won the elections. We are told by experts that that is good news for the forces of secularism and democracy. Mahmoud Jibril headed Libya’s National Transitional Council from August to October 2011. However, before we get too elated by his election, we might note that an Amnesty International report on torture states:
“A Libyan Government headed by Mr Jibril has it all to prove on questions of democratic reform and human rights, as is the case for new post-despotic regimes across the region”.
My noble friend Lord Lamont referred to a comment made by Dr Kissinger. I would add that we must move on from Dr Kissinger’s comment, in another context, that:
“He may be a despot, but he’s our despot”.
It is excellent that the UK coalition Government are spending £40 million on the Arab Partnership Participation Fund,
“for political reform, supporting free and fair elections, stronger parliaments, media and judiciaries”,
in countries across the region. Last year, in a speech on the Arab spring, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said:
“Successful revolutions may change the world overnight. But, in many ways, it’s the morning after that the real work begins”.
Noble Lords will not be surprised if I say something about Israel and the Palestinians. In that context, I declare that I am a vice-president of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel. In a debate that is not specifically about Israel but about the Middle East in general, I am keen to avoid the trap of focusing only on Israel/Palestine. The region faces a great many challenges of which—as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said—the Israel-Palestine peace process is only one.
I was going to talk about Iran but the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and my noble friend Lady Falkner have provided a forensic analysis of the situation which makes anything that I could say probably superfluous. I would add just one comment. I am pleased that, on 21 June, the Minister for the Armed Forces, Nick Harvey, said:
“Threats or attempts to block the Strait of Hormuz show a contempt for international law as it is seen by the majority of the states in the region, if not the world … Any attempt by Iran to do this would be illegal and … unsuccessful”.
I turn from Iran to recent developments in Egypt, which my noble friend Lord Anderson commented on. Amid the uprisings that led to Mubarak’s ousting a power vacuum emerged in Sinai which was quickly filled by Jihadists from mainland Egypt and neighbouring Gaza. The worry in the region is that the new President of Egypt and his Muslim Brotherhood party have promised to revise the Egypt-Israel peace treaty—whatever that means.
The consequence for Israel is that its once peaceful border with Egypt has turned dangerous, and the situation in Sinai has allowed increased weapons-smuggling into Gaza. More importantly, the Sinai peninsula has become a launch pad for terrorist attacks, such as the killing of an Israeli worker on 18 June. A cell of approximately four terrorists planted and detonated a roadside bomb beside jeeps carrying workers via the border, killing Said Fashpashe, an Israeli construction worker. The recent escalation in violence along the Sinai-Israel border has worried many and could be part of a conscious effort to establish the Sinai as a new base for Jihad operations.
My plea in your Lordships’ House is that balance is needed. This has come through in a number of speeches from noble Lords. I give an example of bad balance. On Monday this week, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion to support the work of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, or EAPPI, a project of the World Council of Churches. EAPPI sends participants as accompaniers to the West Bank for three to four and a half months, with less than a week scheduled in Israel. The accompaniers’ role is to witness and recall Palestinian life on the West Bank, such as at checkpoints and Israeli defence actions. I am certainly not justifying all that Israel does, but this creates a one-sided understanding of the conflict. On their return the ecumenical accompaniers, or EAs, have to fulfil at least 10 speaking commitments, and reports back from several of those meetings have been that they are biased and have propagated anti-Israel sentiment. Their literature has suggested hacking government websites and a cultural and artistic boycott of Israel which helps no one. It is unhelpful in understanding what is truly a complex situation, as many noble Lords have said.
There is another way—that sounds like a political statement. The Proms begin tonight, and it is heart-warming to see the West-Eastern Divan youth orchestra playing, which includes Palestinian musicians from the West Bank and musicians from Israel. They are ambassadors that help an eventual peace to arrive.
I would have liked the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, to be in the Chamber. She spoke once before, eloquently, and did so again today, about what she has witnessed in the West Bank. The last time she left before I spoke—perhaps she can read it in Hansard. Yes, there are problems and she witnessed them, and that is it. But the economy of the West Bank to which she and other noble Lords have referred has actually percentagewise increased. In this country we would envy the percentage increase of that economy, albeit from a low level. But it is an increase, and those who that decry it are not seeing the effects of what many participants have managed to achieve.
Comments were made about water, which is a dreadful problem in the area. Of course, it is a problem. Israel perhaps takes more than its share from the aquifers in the area, but it has moved on with massive desalination projects which are now providing the vast majority of water to Israel. I pray that in that region desalination projects could exist on the coast of Gaza, which the Israelis could help to set up to solve a problem of water that will not be solved by just relying on aquifers.
The problem raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, was about expansion of settlements. As a Jew and a pro-Israeli, I am against the expansion of settlements. They do not help the peace process. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, referred to 500,000 settlers in the settlements, which is true and not true. Half of those are in the three or four large towns just on the wrong side of the 1967 truce line. All those who know about the borders that will arise know that those towns or settlements will be within Israel when the border is finally agreed, with a land swap to the Palestinians from mainland Israel. So we are talking about half that number of settlers. Those settlers should not be there and should not expand their settlements, but let us not quote statistics that are not really true.
People talk about a boycott, but boycotts in this region will help no one. We want to encourage trade, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, and the intellectual knowledge that comes out of Israel that is used in many countries around the world. Consider the heart of Intel computers—the research and development has been in Israel. We should build on such things, not talk about boycotts. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, talked about other problems, perhaps understating the effect of rocket attacks on places such as Sdot and Ashkelon. Those attacks make people feel incredibly insecure.
My questions to the Minister are: have the protests and uprisings affected the politics of the strategic situation? Have they hindered or advanced the ability of the Palestinians, the Israelis, the people in other Arab countries and the other key players in the region to make peace? How has the recent escalation in violence on the Sinai-Israeli border affected the Israel-Palestine-Egypt process? We should be striving for balance in the Middle East, not endorsing one-sided rhetoric or actions from whichever side.
My Lords, so far no one has succeeded in stopping the bloodshed in Syria, whether it be the Arab League, the United Nations or anyone else. Perhaps it is just conceivable that applying the Olympic Truce during the period of the Games could provide a pause for the negotiation of a transition of power. With Russian and Iranian help, this could happen. Next Monday I will be asking an Oral Question in your Lordships’ House on this issue, and I will therefore say no more on it now.
I turn now to two cases where independent arbitration could be helpful if the parties would agree to it. The first relates to Sheba’a farms that are a matter of dispute between Lebanon, Syria and Israel. It is a dispute about a small frontier area whose resolution could clear the way for wider peace negotiations. The second issue is the boundary between Iraq and the Kurdistan regional government. The longest part of this boundary is known and accepted, but in the north it affects oilfields and large cities.
I come now to the most important issue, which has been touched on by most speakers—namely the position of Israel in the Middle East. I can say confidently that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and no doubt elsewhere, understands perfectly well the need for peace and stability. It needs to rebuild its tourist trade and relaunch its economy. It has to attract inward investment. When you add the urgent problems of health and education, most of all in rural areas, no Egyptian Government could want war, especially the broad coalition of religious, secular and minority partners that will, I hope, emerge. Even if the military retain much power in Egypt, I believe that the principles of the Camp David agreement will be upheld. The Muslim Brotherhood will not make empty promises to the Palestinians that it cannot fulfil. Israel, on the other hand, will have to comply with the spirit and the details of that agreement.
More than half of Israel’s population has its origins in the Middle East or north Africa. When one adds in the indigenous Palestinian citizens of Israel, there is a large majority whose culture is more Middle Eastern than European. These are the people who will, I trust, want to see their country take its rightful place in the region. The Government of Israel have a strong majority in the Knesset and no elections immediately ahead. They therefore have a huge opportunity to normalise relations. This indeed was the big point of the Arab League’s initiative of 2002.
There is so much that Israel could contribute industrially, commercially and in technology, as was eloquently pointed out by the noble Lords, Lord Haskel and Lord Stone. The partial peace provided by the treaties with Egypt and Jordan was a cold one. It now needs to be replaced with the warm relationships of peoples across frontiers. Israel has a highly developed civil society, ideal for this purpose. Whether new deep relationships can develop will, however, depend on how the Palestinians of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza are treated. If nearby Arab peoples see that their Palestinian cousins are still occupied, colonised and blockaded, what chance is there of a response to even the most enticing Israeli approaches? The existence of so many colonies in the West Bank, the position of the separation barrier, attempts to alter the population balance in east Jerusalem and, above all, the collective punishment of Gaza by blockade have been condemned by the international court judgment, by UN resolutions and by countless reports from specialist agencies and parliamentary visitors.
A strong Government, such as Israel now has, could surely put an end to illegal and provocative behaviour—for example, the relative impunity of settlers, house demolitions, the treatment of the Bedouin or land registration in the West Bank. The recent legal report on the arrests and sentencing of Palestinian children has already been mentioned.
In 1938, Mahatma Gandhi said of the Jews:
“They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart”.
Even if the present Israeli Government forget such prophetic words, the non-Jewish friends of Israel should persuade them. The Jewish diaspora throughout the world should act now. Will they emphasise that true security lies in peace? Will they restrain the zealots and the extremists? Will they explain how Jewish brains can help Arabs to turn dreams into solid achievements? That is the challenge. Will both friends and diaspora rise to meet it?
I give the last word to a distinguished German-Jewish woman, Sabine Stamminger, who said, “Respect works”. I urge Her Majesty’s Government not to give up on peace throughout the Middle East, however difficult it may be, because it will have implications for generations yet to come. Our Government should use all possible means—the Olympic Truce, arbitration and, above all, leadership and the mobilisation of world opinion. The wars and conflicts have major religious roots. The moral imagination of the great Abrahamic faiths, as well as traditional political and diplomatic skills, must therefore be used. These faiths will, I trust, convince world opinion that peace is far better than the unjust and immoral status quo.
My Lords, I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that, as a member of the Jewish diaspora, I have absolutely no influence whatever over the settlers; nor would they ever listen to me.
I thank the Minister for what he had to say today. It was a tour de force on the situation in the Middle East, and as we come to the tail end of this debate, it has been very inspiring. The headlines today say it all: “Another massacre in Syria”. My notes say that 15,000 people have been killed in Syria; the Minister says that it is 17,000. When this butchery is over and the facts become known, none of us will be surprised to learn that the real number is significantly higher than that reported. Certainly President Bashar al-Assad will have managed to outdo his father when it comes to slaughtering his own people.
Last year we witnessed another massacre about to happen. The forces of Colonel Gadaffi were marching on Benghazi determined to liquidate that city. Thankfully, due to prompt and effective military intervention by our Government, together with France and the United States, this carnage was prevented. Two years ago people in Bahrain demonstrated against their Government. As my noble friend Lord Watson mentioned, young doctors who treated the wounded demonstrators were arrested and given long jail sentences. In Iran three years ago a general election was held. The Government ignored the result and massive protests occurred resulting in many deaths.
The Middle East has been on fire with revolution. This Arab spring is still burning, but the costs in human life have been massive. We have witnessed great hope but also great abuse of human life and human rights. When Arabs are slaughtering Arabs, should we not ask ourselves why this very evening there will be no protests outside the Syrian embassy in London? Why have there been no calls for Iranian universities to be boycotted? How was it that Bahrain was allowed to play host to Formula 1 motor racing? When such atrocities are taking place, where are the predictable protesters? Where is the Socialist Workers Party? Where is the Palestinian Solidarity Council? Where are the demands for further debates in Parliament? Where is the normal righteous indignation? When Israel transgresses, the whole world goes crazy. It takes only a minor incident on the West Bank or Gaza for the rent-a-mob crowd to be up in arms. Hypocrisy is the only word that comes to mind.
My noble friend Lady Blackstone referred to the FCO report, entitled Children in Military Custody, on the treatment of Palestinian children under Israeli military law. Where are similar reports about children in military custody in Iran, Syria, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or any other despotic region we could mention? That will never happen. But in democratic Israel, even painful investigations are allowed to take place.
In 2007 I was chairman of an organisation called Weizmann UK and today I am proud to sit as a member of its executive council. Weizmann is not a university as such but a science institute working solely on basic science. It is a powerhouse in Israel providing one-third of the PhDs in science in that country. Three years ago it achieved its first Nobel prize. When there was much talk in this country of an academic boycott of Israeli universities, I took all the actions noble Lords might have expected. I spoke in your Lordships’ House, wrote letters to the press and mustered as much support as I could, and I think we won. Even though the calls for a boycott continue, the intensity is not as great. But for me it was not enough. I wanted to do something more to demonstrate that academic boycotts are not only wrong in principle but wrong in purpose. So I initiated a project called Making Connections, which has been a huge success.
We raised initial funding to enable Weizmann scientists and UK scientists to collaborate on frontline projects designed to advance scientific learning. Partnerships have been established with, among others, Cancer UK Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, UCL, Durham, Warwick and Imperial. Among the subjects in question are: motor driven transcription factors in injured nerves; switchable nanomaterials for catalysis and sensing; the electrical double layer in pure ionic liquid next to an electrified metal surface; and the interplay between algorithms and randomness. Noble Lords will get my drift. It is cutting edge science, with Israel and the UK in partnership, and the eventual winners being mankind itself.
There are, of course, other initiatives. The British and the Israeli Governments have entered into an agreement to promote closer understanding between universities in a whole host of subjects. My noble friend Lord Turnberg, who is in his place, and his wife Lady Turnberg, created the Dr Daniel Turnberg UK/Middle East Travel Fellowship in honour of their late son. Under this project, early-career biomedical researchers from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and the UK have worked together and obtained great results. One day, Arab students will go to Israel and vice versa.
Once upon a time, if you thought about Israel’s economy, you thought about oranges. Today Israel is about science and technology. It is a high-tech powerhouse. When it comes to cutting-edge research and development, it is second only to Silicon Valley. Nowhere in Europe even gets close. Technology fuels Israel’s economy. Last year it recorded GNP growth of 4.5%. Just like people in Singapore, Malaysia or China, Israelis look at you blankly when you talk about a double-dip recession.
In the area of information technology, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and Motorola all have major development plants in Israel. Apple has just agreed to follow, and Israel will be a major partner in its development. At CERN in Switzerland, Israeli scientists have been at the forefront, and 11 of them have worked with colleagues to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson.
Using solar energy, Israelis are converting greenhouse gases into fuel. In medical research, they are dramatically improving the diagnosis of blood infection as well as using extreme cold to destroy diseased tissue. I love the fact that Israel was the only country to end the 20th century with more trees than it started it with.
I know Israel well and I have worked closely with its scientists. They love their subject and they love international collaboration. From time to time I have posed an out of the box and totally impossible question: “If you had the opportunity, how would you view working with scientists in neighbouring countries?”. Everyone I spoke to was very excited, but they knew it could never happen—yet it does happen. I saw it at CERN, where Israeli scientists were working with their Muslim equivalents. I saw it at Haifa University, where 20% of the students are Arab. I have seen it in Britain, where Jewish and Muslim students, often from Israel and Arab countries, simply get on with it. The science comes first; it is the politicians who get in the way.
I invite noble Lords to imagine Israelis and Arabs working on joint projects on subjects that matter to them, such as water, which other noble Lords mentioned. Crops could be developed that grow in saline water and all sorts of diseases could be prevented. The opportunities are many, but the political situation does not let it happen. It needs a breakthrough.
So I have an out of the box request for the Minister to think about. I am not sure that I will get an answer today, but perhaps he will mull it over. Just as I and many others have initiated bilateral scientific co-operation between British and Israeli universities, why does this country not go one step further? Why do we not have a three-way programme, with British, Israeli and Arab universities working together? We in Britain are in a prime position to do this. We have connections with all countries in the region. The Government could set up a fund so that UK universities could take the lead and promote three-way joint projects. It would not need massive publicity and it may not lead to peace, but it would certainly improve the climate. Fanciful? Perhaps. Impossible? Maybe. But in this world if you do not try, you get nowhere—and if it were to succeed, what a coup it would be.
My Lords, I will speak very briefly to terminate this debate. As we all know, there have been significant developments in the Middle East, especially over the past 18 months with the Arab spring, with citizens fighting for new freedoms in their societies.
Israel is a technology hub that has achieved, and continues to enhance, scientific discoveries that benefit countries all over the world. Technology continues to develop and grow, and Israel is one of the most influential elements of this highly demanding industry. Only last week, at the annual lunch of the Labour Friends of Israel, my right honourable friend Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, addressed the importance of high-tech advancement and bilateral relations as a way for our country and Israel to learn from each other. He said that,
“we see our mission as the opposite of those who seek to weaken economic, trade union, intellectual and cultural ties … I believe the Israel experience teaches us that a strong and active partnership between business, universities and government is the right way forward, not laissez-faire”.
That is right. Israel is indeed an incredible source of innovation, with more start ups per capita than anywhere else in the world. Last year our Government set up a bilateral initiative called the UK-Israel Tech Hub, a relationship that combines both countries’ intelligence to enhance and develop our British economic growth and Israel’s business connections.
As this coalition of business and science increases between our countries, Israel is continuing to expand in scientific know how. Indeed, only last month in Rio at the United Nations conference on sustainable development, Israel announced its latest hi-tech advancements in what it called “green technology”. It has found new ways to improve our environment and to use alternative resources for energy that are beneficial for nations across the globe. To prove how important this technology is, Japan has declared that it will use this knowledge in the development and rebuilding of its towns and cities that were affected by the tragic tsunami which hit the country last year, as I am sure we all remember.
We should all recognise the developments in the Middle East over the past 18 months and the fundamental changes that have occurred in so many countries. However, we must acknowledge that Israel has been, and continues to be, the longest-running democracy in the region. It has been the only democracy in the Middle East for many years and has made advancements in technology, science and achievement. It is a small, self-sustaining country which has fought for its identity. It works tirelessly to promote and create new technology that will provide help to the entire world, and that we should all recognise.
That is the shortest speech that I have ever made in Parliament.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for today’s debate. There has been an excellent, wide-ranging and stimulating discussion on the changing face of the Middle East. I have certainly learnt a huge amount over the course of today from noble Lords with far greater experience and expertise than I have.
We have heard a variety of perspectives on the individual countries in the region: we heard about the Israel-Palestine issues from my noble friends Lord Haskel, Lord Mitchell and Lady Blackstone and from the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. We heard a considerable amount about Iran from the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and others. I want to make a slightly different kind of speech. I want to take a step back from the details of specific countries and ask how the extraordinary events of the past two years in the Middle East should force us to reassess what kind of foreign policy is appropriate for a region experiencing such profound change.
I would argue that the suddenness, the irreversibility and the variety of transition processes that we are seeing—from Libya and Tunisia in the west to Iraq in east—should force noble Lords on all sides of the House to think again about the kinds of challenge faced across the region. It should make us reconsider the instruments of foreign policy that are most suited to supporting the region’s move to greater stability, greater prosperity and greater democracy. Although I shall not discuss the question of military intervention directly, I associate myself with the strong scepticism expressed by both the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, about the consequences of such intervention, however well intentioned.
The security situation in the Middle East has always been of greater concern to the international community than that of any other part of the world. Crises in the region can trigger global recessions; they divide the international community as well as bringing sustained misery to those in the areas affected. Perhaps because of the region’s unparalleled sensitivity, the approach of the West to the region has, with some notable exceptions—such as over Palestine and Iran—been characterised by a strong preference for stability over change.
Broadly speaking, our approach to the Middle East has been governed by a set of orthodoxies: an orthodoxy that the governance of Arab nations of the Middle East was broadly stable, at least at the level of the regimes; an orthodoxy that the interests of the international community lay in support—tacit or explicit—for these regimes, because the maintenance of order, and the suppression of sectarianism, required us to support authoritarian rule; an orthodoxy, especially after the Iranian revolution in 1979, that we should be reticent in wishing for democracy in countries where the ballot box might deliver Governments who were radical, populist and Islamist in character; and, among some, an orthodoxy that there was no great yearning for democracy among the populations of many Middle Eastern countries.
The developments of the past 18 months have exposed the limits of these orthodoxies. Some of the most remarkable moments of our era—Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia; the demonstrations in Tahrir Square; the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi; the Yemeni President agreeing to hand over power after a third of a century in power; and the announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s victory in Egypt just two weeks ago, when many thought democracy would be strangled at birth—have forced us to think again about the categories that we use to understand the Middle East and the way we respond.
The responses within the regimes to the popular pressure have been diverse and in many cases surprising. The Egyptian regime of President Mubarak collapsed quite quickly, while in Syria, as we all know, the continuing brutal response of the Ba’ath Government to opposition demonstrations and, now, armed civil war has disgusted the international community. In general, the regimes of Arab monarchies have proven more resilient than Arab non-monarchies. In Iraq, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, we are watching the first fragile steps of nations towards some kind of post-authoritarian democracy, however imperfect. These developments are still in train. The political situations are fraught and fluid, but, although we have not arrived at stable settlements in any of the countries of the Middle East, we know that a foreign policy for the region based on past orthodoxies is no longer up to the job.
I suggest a revised approach to foreign policy for the Middle East and three different categories of action: first, policies to help end conflict, contain violence and protect civilians; secondly, policies to help support peaceful transitions and new constitutional orders; and, thirdly, in the longer term, policies to build up the democratic capacity of post-authoritarian countries.
Before turning to these three categories, I suggest that there is one precondition for the effectiveness of any aspect of our foreign policy towards the Middle East: the need for international co-ordination of policy. We will rarely, if ever, have a positive effect on the lives of the people of the Middle East by going solo. When the international community is co-ordinated in taking disciplined and decisive action, it has a chance of success. In Libya, concerted action by and through UN followed by military support to Gaddafi's opponents helped avert the threat of a protracted civil war, while the co-ordinated imposition of US and EU sanctions two weeks ago on Iran’s oil exports has already had a significant effect on immobilising Iran's oil tanker fleet. However, where the international community has been divided, as it has in different ways over the Iraq conflict, Israel/Palestine and most recently over Syria, our ability to support peaceful change is diminished.
Co-ordination requires close partnership with our allies in the EU, as well as in the US. Although I shall not make any other partisan remarks in this speech, I hope that, despite this Government’s seemingly accelerating Euroscepticism, they can in this area of foreign policy at least commit to working in constructive partnership with our European allies.
I turn to the three categories of foreign policy that I mentioned earlier. The first is the immediate task of action to help end conflict and protect civilians. Violence is a daily occurrence in too many countries of the Middle East. Bahrain has witnessed violence perpetrated by security forces against pro-democracy protesters. In Libya and Iraq, security forces, armed gangs and militias continue to disrupt government and economic life and to threaten and kill innocent civilians. In Syria, now in a state of civil war, yesterday saw the highest number of deaths in one day, I believe, since March 2011. As we have heard, the total death toll now is around 17,000. I strongly support William Hague’s call this morning for access for an urgent United Nations investigation of the atrocious massacre in Traymseh yesterday.
Disturbingly, Syria’s internal conflict also now seems to threaten to spread to Turkey, Lebanon and perhaps even Israel. Foremost among our challenges in the international community is to prioritise efforts to force the cessation of violence in these varied situations, without which the other aspects of transition simply cannot take place properly. In this context—and in light of today’s report by the Joint Committees on Arms Export Controls recommending a change in our policy towards sales of weapons and military equipment to authoritarian regimes—what is the Minister’s view of the action the Government are proposing to look again at the rules for exports to such countries as Syria and Bahrain, where the world has witnessed such brutal oppression?
Alongside efforts to contain and defuse violence sits the priority of responding to dire humanitarian situations across the region. In Yemen, estimates suggest that nearly half the population—about 10 million Yemenis—are,
“either hungry or on the edge of hunger”.
In Aleppo in Syria, there are reports that residents are now forced to scavenge for food and fuel, yet international humanitarian access is virtually non-existent.
Finally, a less widely noted but severe challenge to many countries is the deterioration of their economy. Transitions—even successful ones—bring uncertainty and thus undermine the confidence of investors. For example, Egypt has seen foreign investment collapse to quarter the levels seen under Mubarak. Global economic fragility continues to undermine opportunities in the Middle East, particularly for young people. That is often cited as one of the causes of the Arab spring. Across the Arab world, over half the total population is now under 25, yet youth unemployment remains at frighteningly high levels—and is growing.
These immediate concerns tend to dominate discussion of our foreign policy in the Middle East. But, however remote the prospect of more stable times might appear at the moment, it is crucial that our foreign policy begins to look to the longer-term needs of countries undergoing transition. These needs may be less immediate but responding to them may be the most effective way of our playing a part in securing a more peaceful and democratic region.
Let me turn to the second category of actions: policies to help support stable transitions and the emergence of new constitutional orders. We know that the toppling of long-standing undemocratic regimes is more often the prelude to disorder, chaos, the surfacing of age-old sectarian enmities and sometimes protracted violence than it is the first step towards some kind of Swedish liberal democracy. The first challenge is to support efforts to establish processes that can help countries navigate the multiple small steps from overthrow of the regime to providing officials whose election enjoys broad legitimacy. In their different ways, Libya, Egypt and—most successfully—Tunisia are all embarking on this delicate but transformative process.
We may feel like bystanders as we watch, for example, the tussle between the newly elected president and the military elite in Egypt—to a large extent, we must let these transitions chart their own course—but the onus is on us all to find ways of supporting the process of transition, such as UN efforts to press for a national unity government in Syria, as discussed today, or building on the success of the limited transition deal brokered in Yemen by the Gulf Co-operation Council. Now is the time for us to consider ways in which we can support the establishment of new constitutional arrangements that suit—as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, reminded us—the particularities of each country but which embed authority in elected institutions and protect the rights of citizens of whatever religious or ethnic background. In the long term, the stability of countries undergoing transitions will depend on the legitimacy of the institutions of political power. This might seem a long way off but we can play an important role in stimulating what one might call “constitutional imagination” about which institutional arrangements suit the emerging democracies of the Middle East.
For example, in countries marked by bitter sectarian conflict, such as Lebanon, Bosnia or even Northern Ireland, institutional arrangements that embed power sharing in legislative, executive and administrative life have been central to ensuring basic stability and legitimacy—sometimes called consociational democracies. In other countries, different kinds of federalism are used to meet the demands of different communities for greater relative autonomy. It may seem odd, or perhaps utopian, to argue that such applied political science should be an integral part of our foreign policy thinking, but experience from across history suggests that a constitution that responds to historical grievances and commands respect for its fairness as well as its efficiency is a huge prize in the search for true stability.
That brings me to my third and final category of policy interventions: ways to make democracy work effectively and to reinforce the habits of democracy. We know from the experience of transitions in Africa, South America and elsewhere that real stability and functioning democracy do not, as the noble Lord, Lord Risby, reminded us, emerge spontaneously when elections happen and new constitutions are drawn up. Over time—and it may take a long time—embedding the habits of democracy, ensuring that obstacles to the effective functioning of democratic institutions are overcome, is indispensable. The path from nominal to genuine democracy is often long and tortuous, but it can be shored up with support from countries such as ours.
Let me take two brief examples of barriers to effective democracy to make the point. First, when authoritarian regimes collapse, the collapse often reveals a nexus of power structures underneath that prove much more resilient to change and persist into the period of democratic transition—a good case being that of the military in Egypt at the moment. The historic experience of countries such as Pakistan and Turkey shows that the relationship between the military and formal democratic institutions can remain problematic for a long time. In other countries, it is the relationship between religious and secular authority that can limit the extent to which democracy can truly take root. There are no easy answers to those cases where countervailing forces limit the effectiveness of democracy, but we need to take them seriously and use experience from other countries to inform our approach in addressing them.
A second example is the need to build up civic capacity in countries that have had precious little organised civic life outside organised religion and the state. We know from previous transitions that the development of what some American political scientists have called a civic culture, acceptance of the authority of the state and widespread participation in civic life are important parts of what makes democracies end up working well. In this area, we need to take a much broader conception of foreign policy: one that embraces the role of political parties in Britain working with new political parties in the region; one that seeks partnerships with NGOs to build capacity with nascent NGOs in the Middle East; one that looks to support the work of organisations such as the BBC, the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Anderson and the noble Lord, Lord Risby, which do so much to promote debate, culture and transparency; and, as my noble friend Lord Giddens reminded us, imagination about how social networking can be used to strengthen civic society.
Our foreign policy towards much of the Middle East was historically based on the premise of stability, but we now find ourselves in an era of dramatic change. It was based on a view that stability and democracy were not easy bedfellows, but we now find the thirst for democracy spreading across the region. It is a time of great excitement and great uncertainty. Our foreign policy towards that part of the world needs to adjust.
The three areas of priority that I have suggested are approaches that enable us to welcome transition from authoritarian rule toward some kind of democratic future rather than, as is too often the case, being scared of the instability that it brings. Turbulent times are dangerous times, but they need not be cause for pessimism if we work in partnership with other nations to build a foreign policy based on a commitment to support and reinforce democratic values. The courage that the people of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere have shown deserves nothing less.
My Lords, of course it is impossible to do full justice to all the wisdom and analysis uttered during this debate this morning and this afternoon. I shall not be able to answer every question, although I shall attempt to cover as much ground as I can. I say straight away to the noble Lord, Lord Wood, that it is very welcome to hear his support for my right honourable friend William Hague in his call that the UN mission in Syria must be able to access Traymseh in the Hama district quickly and without hindrance so that it can carry out an independent investigation into what has happened and who is responsible for the shocking atrocities that have been reported. Naturally, that makes us redouble our efforts to agree a Chapter 7 resolution of the United Nations Security Council. I shall return to some of other comments of the noble Lord later.
A number of themes and preoccupations run through this. There is the call about the need for balance, with which the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, set off our debate. It is very easy and right to call for balance but it is extremely difficult to achieve as we weave our way through these rival claims, often with a lack of clear information about what has happened, who has said what and what is going on. However, this is obviously the aim that Her Majesty’s Government seek constantly to achieve in a very complex situation; and, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, reminded us in his excellent speech, it is a constantly changing situation. The emphasis of these different issues moves rapidly from one area to another.
Let me go through some of the detail. First, we heard from my noble friend Lady Falkner who straight away touched on Iran, which has been an issue throughout the debate, and whether tensions would be rising among Israeli policymakers about the possibility of attack. These are issues that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, also raised, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, my noble friend Lord Sheikh and many others. As a general observation, we take the closest possible interest in Israeli thinking and reactions to the evolution of policy that goes on. Our policy is entirely intact towards Iran, having had these three series of discussions. Pressure and engagement are the dual tracks we are pursuing.
It is true that the threat to the Strait of Hormuz, which we have heard inevitably and have heard before, may come along but Hormuz can be at least partially bypassed by other pipeline developments. I think my noble friend Lord Sheikh touched on this. The developments include the Fujairah pipeline, which can carry some extra oil and cut out the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, this is a serious issue. It affects world perceptions, international crude oil prices and so on. This is the area of threats and actions, which we must be right to seek to avoid by maintaining sensible negotiation. We agree that negotiation is obviously the best path forward, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, emphasised. However, it must be negotiation and if we cannot achieve progress on that front then the pressure will grow. I described some measures that are already being taken and will follow from the 1 July oil embargo. One has to be realistic about that.
My noble friend Lady Falkner also asked about Diego Garcia. Supposing the scenario darkened, which I naturally hope it would not, and there was a military development of some kind, she asked what it would be used for. The answer is obvious. If Israel was to take military action, the United States would be involved and if the United States was involved we would be involved. This would be a triggering of global action and Diego Garcia would therefore obviously be dragged into it. However, this is a scenario of the future that we are anxious to avoid by the negotiation path. I make that absolutely clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly observed that our democracy is not the only version. He is absolutely right. There is a tendency, which many of us in your Lordships’ House know we should seek to resist, to arrive with packaged lectures on how democracy should work in cultures where, frankly, it works in completely different ways. It is always wise to bear that in mind. The noble Lord asked about compensation following all the dark Libyan doings of the past under Colonel Gaddafi, which have led to sadness, tragedy and violence in Northern Ireland, and how the public and the Government’s approach fitted in with the private search for individual compensation. I do not find the difficulty with that which he seemed to find. The aim of government policy is to repair relationships generally with a number of measures that we are taking, leaving the quest for individual compensation in private hands. If he has more worries about that, I am happy to go into it with him in future.
My noble friend Lord Lamont said, in a very impressive speech, “Don’t arm the Syrian rebels”. We are not; our policy is only to provide non-lethal equipment and advice, and that is what we are doing. The people who are being armed are the Assad regime. We know about Iran; I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, the detail that he wants because we just do not have it, but we know that arms are passing from Iran to the regime. We are also deeply concerned by reports of Russia’s supplies to the regime. We can all read the latest reports in the newspapers about additional Russian warships going to the port of Tartus, some of which may be laden with equipment, helicopters and so on, that could be and perhaps are being used by the Assad regime. The reality, I am afraid, is that arms are being poured into this lethal, miserable and tragic situation. My noble friend Lord Risby spoke with great authority about the Syrian scene and about the inevitability of regime change. I hope that that is right; as I said in my opening remarks, we are watching carefully to see whether serious defections from the Assad circle are beginning. That is what we have to continue watching for.
Predictably, a number of noble Lords voiced concerns about the Middle East peace process and the unending and aggravating issue of settlements. I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, without any equivocation that we have repeatedly condemned Israel’s announcements that it is accelerating settlement-building in the Occupied Territories, including in east Jerusalem. We have called on Israel to reverse these. As well as being illegal under international law, settlements undermine the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict and those working for a sustainable peace. We look constantly to the Government of Israel, and are pressing them, to take all necessary steps to prevent settlement construction, and we will not cease pressing. I also have to say that we find the Levy commission conclusion, which says, in effect, “It’s all all right because these aren’t really occupied territories”, distinctly odd. Frankly, it does not fit in with the realities. That is on the negative side. I shall come to more positive aspects of the peace process question in a moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised the issue of Bahrain, which I also touched on in my opening remarks. I assure him that we will certainly keep pressing on this matter. We regard Bahrain as friends, but friends who need to be pressed to deal more constructively and effectively with the situation that they face. No one questions or denies the difficulties and the tensions that are faced in Bahrain, and obviously there is religious or sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni factions. Nevertheless, I leave him in no doubt that we will continue pressing on that.
My noble friend Lord Dykes had a good go at US policy. I thought that he was a shade harsh, but I would say this: here in the UK, because of our long history and experience, we can certainly assist our close American colleagues and allies in handling some of the immensely difficult situations that we all face collectively—not any particular country—in the Middle East. My noble friend was also right to praise Turkey and the Turkish role, which is something that we need to co-ordinate and work with very closely. Turkey is a major influence on the Middle East situation and is developing a new emphasis in its policies which we want to work closely with.
When the noble Lord, Lord Stone, rises, my spirits tend to rise as well on these occasions when we look around the generally extremely gloomy outlook because he always brings news of practical, sensible developments that are raising living standards, easing poverty and meeting, overcoming or bypassing the political difficulties, particularly on the Arab/Israeli front, but in other areas as well. I congratulate him on all that he is doing.
I feel somewhat the same about the experience and wisdom of my noble friend Lord Sheikh, who also brings news of the investment potential opening up in these regions that if pursued, despite all the politics and the setbacks, can bring only benefit. My noble friend also mentioned Oman. He did not reprove me, but I reprove myself for not mentioning it in my opening speech because our relations with that country are extremely good. We work very closely with it in all sorts of ways, as your Lordships know. Perhaps the lack of mention was simply because there are no problems.
Other noble Lords also emphasised what Israel and Palestine can do together: the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, at the beginning of our debate and the noble Lords, Lord Hylton, Lord Mitchell and Lord Janner. The suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, about universities working together excites me. I have no idea whether it is practical or to what extent Governments should be involved in what should perhaps be a non-governmental initiative, but this sort of thing must make the scene and the underlying context better so that we can get the MEPP to move again in a rather more encouraging way.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, contributed his wisdom and experience about the UN. We will continue to mount all kinds of robust pressures to get a Chapter 7 resolution. If it appears that some members of the P5—most obviously Russia, but perhaps China—are reluctant, we will have no hesitation about nevertheless pushing forward initiatives to bring home to them the essential need for us to work together if there is to be effective co-ordination in meeting the horrors of Syria or the dangers of Iran, which are just as much dangers to Beijing and Moscow as they are to western capitals and to the capitals of the Middle East as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made a fascinating speech about how social media empower people and weaken Governments. I totally agree with that thesis and have long argued it myself. It is obvious that the internet and the web liberalise in that Governments no longer have a monopoly of data, but they also endanger by empowering very sinister groups. I was delighted to hear his speech. Some of us have been writing about these things for a couple of decades, and in due course all our great media commentators and so on will grasp the impact of the electronic and information revolution on the position of Governments and on the power of overcentralised Governments to retain control, which they can no longer do.
The noble Lord, Lord Wood, wound up with a very interesting survey of how he feels policy should change. He set out his three policy aims, and I have to say that they sound awfully like what we are trying to do already. I am sure he has ideas for doing them better, but they are the driving forces of our strategy in the Middle East. As to co-ordination, it is not just co-ordination with our EU allies and partners, which goes on, but, such is the global nature of our problems, it is co-ordination, if we can achieve it, with Beijing and the policy-makers in Shanghai and other places who inspire Chinese foreign policy and open up the fact that China can no longer stick to a non-interference policy because its interests are directly affected in the Middle East. There is the co-ordination with Turkey and the other rising and emerging powers of Africa. This has become a task of infinitely greater complexity than merely working with our next-door neighbours in the European Union.
The noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Ahmad, made excellent speeches as well. I mention the correct analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, of the current changing emphasis in the Middle East. Out thoughts are obviously on the Syrian horror, but no doubt new and more difficult challenges lie ahead.
Developments in the Middle East and north Africa are being driven by the desire of the peoples of those countries to determine their future—to determine who governs them and by which rules—and to freely express themselves and earn a fair living, which is vital, and support their families. Perhaps we have not covered the economics of the situation as much as we should have this afternoon, but they are central.
Her Majesty’s Government’s approach will always be to support these people, their hopes and desires. We are proud of programmes we have in place, such as the Arab Partnership and many other dialogues and bilateral and multilateral links which we operate from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the vigorous support of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary—and, indeed, of my colleagues as well. If we stay true to our values, committed to change and conscientious in achieving it, Britain can play an important role in forging more open, tolerant, stable and prosperous societies in the region, from which we will all benefit. I like to think that what your Lordships have contributed this afternoon will help to clarify and unify our attempts, and reinforce what we are trying to do to achieve a better pathway forward for what has been such a troubled region.
House adjourned at 2.12 pm.