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Topical Questions

Volume 636: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2018

My immediate priority is to take forward Britain’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Burma and in Bangladesh. I was deeply moved by the plight of Rohingya refugees whom I met in Cox’s Bazar earlier this month. I went to Burma with the express purpose of raising the tragedy with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The UK’s goal is to help to create the conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the refugees to their homes.

The House will join me in welcoming the Gambia back to the Commonwealth, providing an excellent prelude to the Commonwealth summit in London in April.

Will my right hon. Friend say what discussions he has had with the Government in Wellington about UK-New Zealand trade and co-operation on Brexit?

I have just returned from a sun-kissed New Zealand, where I had fruitful discussions—[Interruption.]—indoors in the main, with a range of political figures, including my counterparts the Associate Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister, and with the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. New Zealand is a valued Five Eyes security partner and a priority for a deeper security and trade agreement once we leave the EU. We have the broadest and deepest friendship with New Zealand.

The UK is joint guarantor of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, yet we have seen booksellers abducted, elected legislators barred and student demonstrators imprisoned, and in Guangdong, in December, 10 people were tried in a sports stadium before being executed. Why did the Prime Minister not raise the issue of human rights in public in Beijing? Was it because she does not care or because she is so desperate to get a trade deal?

I reassure the shadow Minister that the Prime Minister did raise these issues, but we do this not through megaphone diplomacy but in private meetings; we relentlessly raise human rights issues, not least in respect of Hong Kong. As the hon. Lady rightly says, it is vital that Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms are respected. Our most recent six-monthly report states that one country, two systems must continue to function well, and we remain concerned by, for example, the rejection of Agnes Chow’s most recent nomination for March’s Legislative Council election.

T4. What steps has the Department taken to highlight concerns about North Koreans sent to other countries to work, in effect, as slave labourers—and with what result? (903933)

We have fully supported the United Nations resolutions that have imposed increasing sanctions upon the use of overseas labour from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Many such workers operate in slavery-like conditions while the DPRK regime takes a large slice of their wages. The latest of those was UN Security Council resolution 2397, which was adopted as recently as 22 December last year.

T6. The Foreign Secretary mentioned his visit to Bangladesh and Burma, and his meetings with the Rohingya. We hold the pen at the UN on this issue. Will the British Government bring forward a resolution referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, given what happened? (903935)

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s interest in this subject. As he knows, the difficulty is that in the UN Security Council there will be those who would not support such a resolution at present. The crucial thing is that everybody in the region and around the world makes it clear to the Government in Naypyidaw and to Daw Suu that the only way forward now for Burma is to create the conditions for a safe, dignified and voluntary return—and that must mean an independent UN-led agency to oversee the repatriation; otherwise those people are going to be too frightened to return. That is the priority on which we should focus.

T5. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have suffered for far too long. At least 6 million people have died in the past 20 years—it is probably more—and 4 million were internally displaced last year, which is more than the figure for any other country in the world. Will the Minister say what the British Government are doing to ensure that we do all we can to see the suffering brought to an end? (903934)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this disastrous situation and the importance of the UK’s role. He will be aware that the DRC is an extremely dangerous place even for the UN peacekeepers; some were killed last year. The UK Government are calling on President Kabila to respect the constitution, to fulfil the commitments made in the Saint-Sylvestre accord and to continue with the implementation path to elections this year.

T7. Since the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed in Yemen. Norway and Germany recently suspended their arms sales to Saudi Arabia. What will it take for the UK Government to do the same? (903937)

We have one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world, governed both by this House and by the law, and we will continue to abide by that. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to encourage a diplomatic solution to end the conflict in Yemen. That is the only thing that will bring the suffering of the people of Yemen to an end.

T9. In the light of the recent Vote 100 celebrations in this House and the launch of our Equalitea party in Redditch, supported by women and girls of all ages, will my right hon. Friend assure me that his international agendas are also supporting women and girls? (903939)

We are totally aligned with what is taking place in Redditch in the sense that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa said earlier, our ambition for there to be 12 years of quality education for every girl in the world, which I believe is the universal spanner that will help to unlock so many other global problems, is at the heart of our Commonwealth summit—

The universal spanner—a device that will solve almost any problem. I truly believe that female education is at the heart of solving so many other global problems, which is why we are putting it at the very centre of the Commonwealth summit in April and the upcoming G7 summit. Across our network, female education is at the heart of everything that we do.

Order. There is a lot of chortling going on in the Chamber, but we have had an update on the spanner situation, for which we are indebted to the Foreign Secretary.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; I am well aware that this issue is close to his heart. He will be aware that Lord Ahmad and I regularly liaise on the issue with our embassies and high commissions. I wrote a joint letter to those on my patch, in Asia and the Pacific, and I have received replies from Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. I am encouraged that the network takes the issue as seriously as the hon. Gentleman does.

If Britain is to assume a more ambitious global trading role as we leave the EU, we shall surely need to expand the depth and reach of our network of high commissions and embassies in regions such as North America. What assurances can my right hon. Friend offer the House that critical diplomatic missions in countries such as Canada are being expanded, not cut back?

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that to the best of my knowledge we have, just in the past 18 months, opened three new trade missions in North America. I cannot comment about Canada specifically, but we are certainly beefing up our presence in the United States in advance of doing a great free trade deal.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described what is happening to the Rohingya people as a military campaign in which

“you cannot rule out the possibility that acts of genocide have been committed”.

Having met the victims in Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Foreign Secretary said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) that a Security Council referral is too difficult. Will he show some leadership and work with our EU partners next week at the Foreign Affairs Council to build support for a referral? The act of a referral will make a difference.

As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, Myanmar is not signed up to the International Criminal Court, but there must be no doubt about the gravity of what has taken place. Anybody who flies over northern Rakhine, as I did last week, will see literally hundreds of villages that have been burned or destroyed. Some 680,000 people have been displaced. This has been ethnic cleansing on an industrial scale and it may also have been genocide. It is vital that the evidence is acquired to determine whether any future prosecution can be mounted.

The recent extension of the state of emergency and the arrest of former President Gayoom and two Supreme Court judges has shown President Yameen tightening his grip in the Maldives and the further extinguishing of the democratic institutions there. Given the fact that at any one time there are literally thousands of British holidaymakers on those islands, and that until recently the Maldives was a welcome member of the Commonwealth family, will the Secretary of State agree to head up a mission there, or encourage the UN to establish one? The situation has the potential to bring China and India into an unwelcome regional conflict.

Like my right hon. Friend I am deeply troubled by the declaration of a state of emergency in the Maldives on 5 February and the accompanying suspension of fundamental rights. Last November in London, I met former President Nasheed, whose own time in office was turbulent, and we discussed the deteriorating situation. We will very much take on board my right hon. Friend’s suggestions.

Is the Secretary of State concerned about weekend reports by human rights observers that the civilians of Afrin have been subjected to chemical gas attacks by Turkish forces? Should we expect that conduct from a so-called NATO ally?

As I mentioned earlier, any suggestion of the use of chemical weapons must be independently verified. The degree to which they have become more used in the Syrian conflict by a number of different sources, not least the regime, is a matter of great concern, but any suggestion must be properly identified and verified.

The Good Friday agreement has brought about peace for almost 20 years in Northern Ireland. Will the Foreign Secretary give an unequivocal assurance that Her Majesty’s Government will not do anything that undermines the agreement, including pursuing any policy that undermines the principles that led to its creation?

Has the Secretary of State had the chance to speak to the Sri Lankan ambassador regarding his defence attaché Brigadier Priyanka Fernando and his behaviour on 4 February, when he made throat-slitting gestures to Tamil protesters? If somebody else incited hatred in that way on our streets, they would be interviewed by the police. Will the Minister make arrangements for Brigadier Priyanka Fernando to be interviewed by the police about that crime?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the UK takes this incident very seriously. When I spoke recently to Foreign Minister Marapana, he left me in no doubt that the Sri Lankan Government were treating it with the seriousness that it deserves. They have informed the UK Government that they have ordered the defence attaché to return to Colombo from London with immediate effect for consultations while the incident is thoroughly investigated. I hope that the UK and Sri Lanka bilateral relationship will remain strong and co-operative.

I know the Foreign Secretary shares my view that our leadership in marine conservation, particularly in respect of the blue belt, is a source of national pride, but may I urge him please to use the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April to press our Commonwealth allies, more than half of which are island states, to make that a high priority in the discussions ahead?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the pioneering role he has played in championing the blue belt initiative, which has consecrated millions of square miles of ocean, protecting habitats and species around the world. As he knows, the UK Government have put a further £20 million into that scheme. As he rightly foreshadows, it is our ambition at the Commonwealth summit to go further.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the plight of my constituents Mr and Mrs Westwood, who were first of all defrauded of their entire possessions in Zimbabwe and then forced to flee for their lives by armed gangs with very close links with the Mugabe regime. Will he explain why the Westwoods recently received a letter that appeared to indicate that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was no longer willing to give them any assistance? Will he agree to meet me and the Westwoods to give them his personal assurance that the FCO will not abandon them?

May I ask my right hon. Friend what his view is of the position with the Ecuadorian embassy in London? The situation has been going on since 19 June 2012. In the first three years, it was estimated to have cost the Metropolitan police an extra £11 million. When are we going to take action?

Julian Assange breached his bail conditions in 2012. In upholding the arrest warrant of 13 February, Judge Arbuthnot said:

“He appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favour.”

In our view, Assange is not a victim of arbitrary detention. He is avoiding lawful arrest. He should step outside the door and face justice. That would bring an end to the matter.

Almost two years ago, my constituent Adrian St John was murdered in Trinidad. Since then, his mother Sharon and I have been working with Ministers and officials in both countries to secure justice, but progress has been grindingly slow. The case in Trinidad has been adjourned 27 times. Will the Government ensure that Adrian’s murder is on the agenda when the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago visits London in April, and will Ministers allow time during Mr Rowley’s official visit to meet Sharon and me to help her to secure justice?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the manner in which he is defending the interests of his constituent. I am acutely aware of this case. Adrian was murdered in Trinidad. We cannot interfere in the judicial process, but we are extending every possible support. I advise the House that we understand that a preliminary trial to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to charge the accused with murder will be held on 8 March. I hope that this will mark some progress towards what the hon. Gentleman is seeking.

Millions of people are celebrating the seventh anniversary of the start of the Libyan uprising and the ousting of Colonel Gaddafi. Fayez al-Sarraj has been the Prime Minister of Libya for nearly two years and progress has been painfully slow. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what his Department is doing to help the Government of National Accord to bring about a prosperous and—more importantly—peaceful Libya?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest in a country that is still bedevilled by factional feuding between a very small number of men—a maximum of about half a dozen—who have it in their power to come together and build a better future for Libya. We are trying to back the efforts of UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé to bring the eastern and western parts of Libya together, with a plan for the whole country—a new constitution, to be followed by elections. That is what we are working for.

May I ask the Minister for the Middle East what representations have been made in the case of Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who is facing another long prison sentence tomorrow, simply for taking to social media to criticise torture in Bahrain’s prisons and the Saudi-led war in Yemen?

There are a small number of those who have been arrested and have had lengthy trials in Bahrain. The United Kingdom has made representations in a number of these cases, including those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and we continue to monitor the trials and processes very carefully.

Estimates suggest that 12 million tonnes of plastic go into our oceans every year, causing immense damage to our ecosystems. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need not only to get involved on the global stage to influence the cleaning up of our oceans, but to lead by example in the UK, not least—it might only be a small thing—by giving up plastic for Lent as far as we can, as many hon. Members are doing?

My hon. Friend speaks for millions of people in the country who feel ashamed to see the state of our oceans and wish that they could be cleared up. This country is taking a lead. Cracking down on plastic waste will certainly be at the heart of the Commonwealth summit. I have to admit that I do not know how easily I could give up plastic for Lent. I have a plastic biro in my right hand; I propose to take it out and dispose of it in a suitable manner. My hon. Friend is entirely right.