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Volume 795: debated on Thursday 24 January 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to reports that the government of the United States have recognised the Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the interim President of that country.

My Lords, we are aware of announcements by the United States, Canada and a number of other Lima Group countries recognising Juan Guaidó as interim President of Venezuela. We support the Venezuelan people’s loud call for democracy and freedom, supporting a credible, peaceful political process leading to free and fair elections. The United Kingdom fully supports the national assembly as a democratically elected institution whose powers need to be restored and respected. We believe that Venezuela needs a carefully constructed political process to bring moderate factions together for negotiations on a peaceful transition. We and our EU partners are seeking to assist such activity through an international contact group.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree, as I am sure she does, that Venezuela is in a desperately unstable situation? Some 3 million people have already fled the country while up to a further 7 million might flee if Maduro stays, and inflation runs at 10 million per cent. Is she concerned about not only the dire situation of those in the country but, and especially, the destabilising effect of refugees on the countries around it, countries whose democracies are not yet deep-rooted? We are a permanent member of the Security Council and still a member of the EU. That combination gives us global influence. Are we supporting the US action—this was not clear from the Minister’s Answer—which is supported by certain Latin American countries and Canada but not by Russia and Cuba? If not, how does she think this crisis will be addressed?

The noble Baroness is right to highlight the profound nature of the problems confronting Venezuela. There is widespread concern, not just in the UK but globally. It is the case that the UK recognises states, not Governments. We have made clear that we think this has to be resolved by free, credible and fair elections. We are doing everything we can to influence debate towards that end. We have also made clear our support for the national assembly. We are working in concert with our global partners, not least the EU. For example, together with our European partners the UK has applied targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for serious human rights abuses and for undermining democracy and the rule of law. We remain ready to support our global partners if, for example, this matter is raised at United Nations Security Council level.

My Lords, the obvious priority must be to avoid a repeat of the violence in 2017. Therefore, the Secretary-General’s call for the international community to encourage all sides, the Government and the opposition, to adopt a peaceful approach is obviously the right one. We need to uphold the rule of law and respect human rights and democratic freedoms. I agree with the Minister, but can she be a little clearer in her response? Will she and the Government support the United Nations Secretary-General and his work in building the coalition for peace, or will they jump to the side of Trump, who seems to operate on the basis that adding oil to the fire is the way to go forward?

I agree in large part with everything the noble Lord said. As he is aware, the United Kingdom exercises its own role on the global stage. We make our own decisions on circumstances that arise. We are always willing, where we can, to work constructively with our partners. I indicated that we are doing that already with the EU, and we are certainly doing it with the United Nations. We are extremely concerned about the situation. As the noble Lord might be aware, we offer help to Venezuela, and not just in the form of supporting other international programmes working there. We have a bilateral programme budget of approximately £500,000 this financial year to support Venezuelan democracy, human rights, economic reform, regional stability and security.

The UK is very conscious of the serious nature of the situation. It is profoundly concerning, not just for stability in the area but for the residents and inhabitants of Venezuela, many of whom have been treated appallingly. The United Kingdom is quite clear about that. We are doing what we can, either on our own, bilaterally or in concert with global partners, to improve the situation.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the noble Baroness’s answers, in particular regarding recognition. Those answers are well judged. The notion of recognising leaders of opposition seems to set a precedent that might prove extremely uncomfortable in other circumstances. The Government’s position as outlined by the noble Baroness is, at least for the moment, exactly the correct one. The announcement today as to what has been done unilaterally by the United States, in concert with other countries including Canada, raises for some of us recollections of the actions of President Reagan and Mr Oliver North.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his very helpful comments. The Chamber recognises his undoubted knowledge of, expertise in and wisdom about such matters. It is important that these issues are handled with a degree of judgment, sensitivity and delicacy and that there is not a rush of blood to the head. As I said, in its international affairs the United Kingdom conducts a carefully constructed, carefully thought out programme of response and, where possible, substantive help. That is the course we shall pursue.

My Lords, I also agree that we are handling this very sensitively politically, but the problem, and the reason for the vast flow of people, is that people are starving to death in Venezuela—those pouring into Colombia are avoiding starvation. The noble Baroness talked of £500,000. What are we actually doing to try to mobilise something to try to recover this dreadful situation? I am afraid it has to be done more rapidly than some of these political manoeuvrings.

As I indicated to the Chamber, the UK has its own bilateral programme of help with Venezuela, but we are also significant supporters of, and contributors to, international responses. The humanitarian agencies in Venezuela have a very difficult role, partly because the Government deny that the crisis exists. Notwithstanding all that, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund has been an important component in trying to contribute to the alleviation of the very conditions to which the noble Lord refers. The UK has contributed financial assistance through the EU’s contributions to that fund, and has also contributed through Start Fund, which has activated urgent programmes in both Ecuador and Peru in response to the Venezuelan crisis. The UK has also deployed humanitarian advisers to the region, to monitor the situation and consider options for UK assistance.

My Lords, given the Prime Minister’s recent strong commitment to cross-party working in a number of areas, and given the leader of the Opposition’s expertise and experience on Venezuela, has the Prime Minister consulted the leader of the Opposition on what the British response should be?

I wish the leader of the Opposition were a more co-operative respondent to invitations to become involved in important discussions—he has shown a certain recalcitrance in that respect. But when we are dealing with a situation of the gravity of that in Venezuela, there is a desire, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, to work across parties, if we can, and to recognise that there are problems in that area; that way all minds can contribute to improving the situation. That is a desirable way to approach the matter.