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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle): The British ambassador in Bogota delivered a clear message to the guerrillas that they must end their involvement in kidnappings, forced disappearances and extortion, prior to an international meeting in Colombia on 29-30 June. A statement subsequently issued by all 23 countries and organisations
Mr. Goggins: As my hon. Friend is aware, kidnapping for political and financial advantage is an all too common occurrence in Colombia. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the five remaining hostages of the Avianca hijacking in April last, one of whom is Juan Manuel Corzo, a member of the Colombian Parliament. Will the Minister use every means at his disposal to urge all armed groups in Colombia, including the FARC and the ELN to grant an early release to all hostages as a genuine and sincere indication of their desire for peace?
Mr. Battle: Yes. We regularly discuss human rights with the Colombian authorities. Those discussions include the subject of kidnapping and hostage taking. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised our concerns over the continuing violence in Colombia when he met President Pastrana during the President's visit to London on 13 April. We also stress the need for further progress on human rights. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office visited Colombia, she also urged the Government to tackle the problem of the paramilitaries.
Of course, the best way to end kidnapping is to help the Colombian Government to advance the peace process. More encouragingly, on 10 July President Pastrana signed legislation making forced disappearances a criminal act under Colombian law. What we now want the Colombian Government to do is to introduce the instruments to enforce that legislation.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I associate myself from the Conservative Benches with the remarks of the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins). Is not the fact that President Pastrana has sent his former high commissioner for peace to this country as ambassador a sign of the importance that the Colombian Government attach to the United Kingdom in advancing reconciliation and the restoration of security within that country? Can Her Majesty's Government now make resources available to Plan Colombia to reconstruct the country, and not necessarily wait for the European Union to do it?
Mr. Battle: In relation to Plan Colombia, we are playing a full part in the international and EU discussions. We convened a conference in London to engage the non-governmental organisations in that process. The recent conference in Madrid took the process further. I believe that no country is discussing contributions at this stage, because we want the structure of our contributions to the plan to be right, which includes improving the human rights situation in Colombia. Our aim is to work constructively to ensure that the peace process is properly supported and that the horrific accounts by Amnesty International of some 24,000 murders that it has catalogued become a thing of the past.
Mr. Battle: The fact that my right hon. Friend was engaged in the process both during her visit and at the meeting in Madrid was a clear indication that we certainly attach importance to supporting the peace process. That not only means including alternative crops rather than spraying, but involves a wider social and economic agenda than has been suggested by others: it means tackling illegal drug production and trafficking, and we insist on an emphasis on human rights. Our intention has been to broaden and deepen the agenda so that it is not a single instrument; that would be in no one's interests. We want to ensure that in the long term Colombia has a peaceful way of ensuring the development of the people and not a dependency on drug cultivation.
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): My hon. Friend is right to say that the best long-term guarantee against kidnapping is to move on the peace process. But will he also make sure that the message from our Government is clear: we expect the Colombian Government to prioritise the problem of hostages and hostage taking and make sure that that is a part of their own peace dialogue; and that there is also an expectation that the ELN and the FARC will make sure that hostage taking becomes a thing of the past, as a measure of their sincerity in moving towards the process of peace?
Mr. Battle: I can only re-emphasise that in all our meetings at every level we tackle that agenda and keep insisting on it. The British embassy maintains a regular dialogue with human rights bodies and other NGOs in Colombia and has facilitated meetings between NGOs and representatives of the Colombian armed forces in order to encourage confidence building. In addition, the ambassador and officials often visit trouble spots, both at the invitation of interested parties and on their own initiative, to try to bring people together around the peace process, which is the way forward.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): We warmly welcome the initiative of President Clinton in bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority together in a summit. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I met Prime Minister Barak on the eve of the summit and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has sent a message of support to President Arafat. There remain formidable differences to be bridged on the territory of the west bank, on the status of Jerusalem and on the rights of refugees.
Mr. Clappison: Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, in their response to President Clinton's initiative, both Prime Minister Barak and President Arafat are making it abundantly clear that they are committed to the peace process and are doing everything in their power to bring about a lasting settlement in the face of substantial internal opposition? Can the Foreign Secretary tell us what practical steps the Government are taking to support them and, in particular, to help gain the acceptance of the Israeli and Palestinian people for the peace process?
Mr. Cook: I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman about the courage being shown by both those leading the delegations. I stress that peace is a far greater advantage to both sides than the price of any compromise necessary to secure that permanent peace. The hon. Gentleman asked what we are doing to be helpful. Only yesterday, I spoke to Madeleine Albright and assured her that, if there is a peace settlement, Britain, and Britain in the European Union, will be willing to ensure that we take every possible step to see that it is bedded down and that the people of Israel and Palestine can see that there are real and concrete advantages from it.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend has played an important part in bringing together President Arafat and Prime Minister Barak. Does he agree that one of the major keys to peace in the area is to persuade and encourage the Syrians to support the peace deal? Will he step up his efforts, possibly working with one of the Arab leaders, such as Egypt, to persuade the Syrians to accept peace with Israel?
Mr. Cook: Britain's position has always been to favour a comprehensive peace settlement. Only with a comprehensive peace settlement and all its tracks can we have security for the region. I met new President Bashar al-Assad at the state funeral in Damascus and assured him that we will wish to continue our dialogue and would wish to encourage both sides to find a solution to the Golan Heights and the Syrian track, which will bring stability and security to the region.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): The central purpose of the intergovernmental conference is to prepare the European Union for enlarged membership. The applicant countries will measure Europe's commitment to enlargement by our resolve to complete these reforms on schedule. Britain's positive role in the IGC reflects the Government's position that Britain must be the champion of enlargement.
Mr. Cook: At Berlin we secured reform of the structural funds and the common agricultural policy, which has provided--[Interruption.] We did indeed. Every household in Britain will see its bill decrease by £64 as a result. We created room in the budget to afford enlargement in the current financial perspective until the year 2006.
The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends cannot pose as supporters of enlargement if they constantly harp on the cost of enlargement. There will be benefits. For Britain, those benefits could result in almost an additional £2 billion-worth of trade. We will benefit from that as an existing member; it is not just the new applicants that will benefit.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Is there not a paradox in that many of the new applicants are newly emerging democracies? If they are accepted, they will be joining an organisation that is bureaucratic and centralised and will be giving up some of the democracy that has just been established? Should not the European Union enhance its democracy and help them to share in its operation?
Mr. Cook: Whether those countries should join is a decision for their own democracies. I do not know any of those Governments who are not enthusiastic about joining the European Union. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must make the European Union more transparent, democratic and accountable and that is precisely why we are pressing at the IGC for reform of the Commission and the Council of Ministers, and for votes that will fairly reflect the size of population in the larger countries such as Britain.