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9.13 pm

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I want to thank the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown), before he leaves, for selecting the subject for debate tonight and particularly for his excellent rendition of Housman's poems. As I grew up in Shropshire, almost under the shroud of Housman, I fully appreciated their spirit. His prophetic utterances about the dangers of the first world war turned out to be entirely true. It is time that we heard more poetry in the House. A great deal can be learned from it, and it is better than the prose that we usually hear.

My next point is not intended as a criticism of the right hon. Gentleman, but the debate is in danger of becoming a self-satisfied discussion about what the rich northern world thinks about its place in the globe. In reality, we are one country in a world where, appallingly, a quarter of the population lives at starvation level and many have life expectancies that would mean that virtually every hon. Member present would be long dead. Life expectancy is constantly falling in many of the poorest countries. It is now down to less than 40 years in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. We live in a world in which the basic human rights of many people in respect of the ordinary ability to live--never mind of political expression--are completely lacking. We must do an awful lot better in this century than we managed to do in previous ones.

I want to draw attention to three points. I do not want to speak at great length about the generality, but I think that the theme of our debate must be world peace, world social justice and environmental sustainability, and the need seriously to support international organisations that can achieve those aims. I refer especially to the possibility of ensuring that the UN's role in the world is much enhanced, rather than diminished. We should debate those

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issues more often. Indeed, I think that our procedures would be improved if there were a more effective way of monitoring what we actually do at the United Nations. For example, we could establish a Select Committee on United Nations affairs or ensure that we receive a report back about what goes on at the UN. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights is just completing its work, but I do not suppose that we will hear one word about it in the Chamber, other than the few mentions that it will receive tonight. However, what is currently occurring in Geneva is crucial and it deserves much greater publicity than it has so far received.

As I said, I want to refer only to three issues, as I know that other hon. Members want to speak. The first directly concerns the United Nations and the Security Council, which is meeting tomorrow morning. At the meeting, it will receive a report from the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, on the situation in the western Sahara. The western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1974, but despite year after year of agreements, pledges and arguments about the voters' role, there has been no referendum, and the fundamental right of the people of the western Sahara to vote on their future in a free and fair referendum has not been recognised. I understand that the Secretary-General will not specify a date by which the referendum should occur in tomorrow's report, but will instead ask for an extension of the MINURSO--the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara--mandate until the end of June, to enable him and other officials to continue progress on the possibilities of devolving power into the western Sahara from Morocco.

Over the years, I have initiated a number of debates on the western Sahara, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham), and I know that that is not what the people of the area have been campaigning for and demanding all these years. They want the right to vote on their self-determination. I am sorry to say that, if we merely keep imposing delays, hot war fighting will break out again, whatever the oratorical abilities of the leaders of Polisario or any other group. I do not want that and I do not advocate it. I want a peaceful solution, but I believe that the right to a referendum should be sacrosanct, and I hope that the British representative at tomorrow's Security Council meeting will make that point.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cause of the people of western Sahara and their right to a referendum have not been helped by the British Government's recent decision to allow the repair of gun parts and arms? I understand that the work was carried out against the will of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was overruled by the Department of Trade and Industry. Does he agree that that was a very false move?

Mr. Corbyn: I am glad that the hon. Lady intervened; she made a point that I was going to make anyway. I agree that if we want to achieve a peaceful solution to what is, for want of a better term, a post-colonial conflict, it is not sensible for us to allow the refurbished arms to go to Morocco. We know that there is no external threat to Morocco from anybody and that the weapons can be used only in an internal conflict--it will be internal in terms of the current political arrangements--against the people of western Sahara.

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I hope that the Minister will assure us that it remains the British Government's position to support a referendum in which the people of western Sahara can vote freely on whether to be part of Morocco or to follow their own independent path.

The people of East Timor had that right. As one who observed the referendum in East Timor, I know that when a referendum takes place, United Nations officials have to attend--they did wonderful work in East Timor--but some security system must be put in place immediately afterwards. The carnage in East Timor after the referendum was horrific to witness.

This afternoon, I attended a briefing for Members of Parliament by a lawyer who represented LAW, the Palestinian legal rights group. The picture that she painted of the conflict in the middle east, the attacks in the Palestinian territory and the heavy weaponry that Israel deploys was horrific. I hope that the British Government will renew their criticisms of Israel's actions in the occupied territories and help to bring about some serious developments that will lead to a long-term peace process. The more the helicopter gunships go in and the more bombardments, random arrests and killings that occur, the more the chances for long-term peace diminish. They are diminishing by the day. The rest of the world must engage in upholding the rights of people to a peaceful existence.

Many UN resolutions have been passed to support the right of the Palestinian people to have a safe, secure place in which to live. Israeli forces have breached them often. Despite the supposedly even-handed approach and way in which the media report the conflict, the victims of the current conflict in Israel and Palestine are predominantly the poor and Palestinian civilians.

The LAW briefing stated:

Any death is to be regretted and deplored, but the conflict is hardly even handed. Using helicopter gunships against a civilian population is an outrage anywhere in the world at any time. We should deplore that and try to encourage a peace process in the middle east.

My last point concerns the huge issue of national missile defence and the role of President Bush, who was not elected but somehow achieved office. We live in one world where 36,000 nuclear weapons are available. The Bush Administration are hellbent on developing a national missile defence system that was initially devised by Ronald Reagan and the defence companies. Defence contractors are doing well; they are making billions of pounds from Government contracts. The four main defence contractors in the United States receive a fast rate of return for the $34 million that they spend on lobbying on Capitol Hill and the $3.7 million that they contributed to Congress members' election campaigns last year.

The danger for the rest of the world is enormous. The incident involving the spy plane and the rising tension between China and the United States showed the dangers. We hear the rhetoric of right-wing think tanks in the USA that casts China as the enemy and claims that developing national missile defence will somehow protect the US for all time from any events elsewhere in the world. That is

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crazy and extremely dangerous. Going ahead would require rewriting if not tearing up the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Countries worked hard for that treaty and it constituted an important step forward. It would also require tearing up the treaty that provides for space to be a weapon-free zone, and would at least undermine the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

While many European countries have said that they oppose national missile defence and would not be prepared to grant facilities for it, most other countries in the world are terrified at the very idea of national missile defence, the nuclearisation of space and all that goes with it. I would hope, therefore, that instead of waiting for the US to make an application to us, this country would join in and say that we, too, are not prepared to grant facilities for, or be supportive of, the national missile defence proposals put forward by the United States.

If we want to live in a world that tackles environmental destruction and pollution, poverty, human rights abuses and the small wars that are going on with terrible consequences all round the globe, how on earth does national missile defence fit into that, other than to stuff full of gold the companies that have already been manufacturing weapons of mass destruction for a long time and to encourage the redevelopment of a nuclear arms race between Russia, China and the United States that can only be dangerous and damaging to the rest of the world?

I would have hoped that in this century we would have learned some of the lessons of the wars of the previous century, so that we could say no to this system and encourage others to say no to it. We should put all the pressure that we can on the US Administration to abandon this mad system and instead use that skill and technology to do something good for this planet rather than something bad and dangerous.

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