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5 Nov 2002 : Column 129continued
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday on the telephone. I told her that Britain is very concerned about the lack of political movement in Burma and the renewed political arrests. The Burmese regime must enter into substantive dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi without further delay if the credibility of the reform process is to be maintained. We will continue to put pressure on the Burmese regime until firm steps towards democracy are taken.
Mr. Luke : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that like all hon. Members on both sides of the House who have an interest in Burma he was heartened by the release of Suu Kyi earlier this year from house arrest but disappointed by the apparent reluctance of the military junta in Burma to reinstate democratic government there. Can he do all he can in the policies that he pursues to encourage those British interests still with an economic presence in Burma to follow a policy of disinvestment, which has had some success in the pastcompanies such as Premier Oil in the UK withdrew investment in September this yearand to encourage other countries that have economic interests in Burma to do the same?
Mr. O'Brien: There is virtually no inward investment in Burma from other countries at the moment. The EU reaffirmed its common position only last month in relation to Burma. Its provisions are worth setting out: an arms embargo, bans on the supply of equipment that would be used for internal repression, no defence links, no non-humanitarian aid, no high-level visits, a visa ban and an asset freeze on the members of the regime. In addition, the EU suspended Burma's trading privileges in 1997 due to concern about forced labour in Burma and the UK does not encourage any trade, investment or tourism in Burma.
Bob Spink (Castle Point): Is the Minister aware of the plight of the Karen people in Burma, which some people have characterised as genocide? Will he undertake to try to draw the international community together to focus
Mr. O'Brien: In short, the answer is yes. The human rights situation in Burma is very poor, particularly in relation to the Karen people and other ethnic minority groups. We are seeking to put as much pressure as we reasonably can on the Burmese regime to try to get it to amend its ways, to ensure that we get some movement towards democracy and, I hope, some reduction in the amount of repression that the Karen and other groups face from the Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The Foreign Secretary met Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Foreign Minister of the transitional Administration of Afghanistan, on 24 October. They discussed progress on eliminating opium production in Afghanistan. I was in Afghanistan three weeks ago and discussed poppy farming issues with President Karzai and other Ministers.
Mr. Dalyell: Was a UN survey right in suggesting that, whereas opium production in 2001 was 185 tonnes, this year it will be a staggering 2,700 tonnes? Is it true that 90 per cent. of the heroin that comes to Britain originates from Afghanistan?
Mr. O'Brien: It is true that about 90 per cent. of the heroin that comes to the UK is from Afghanistan, and it is certainly true that the poppy crop is higher this year than last year, although probably not as high as the 1999 peak. The Afghan Government's best assessment is that interventionthe destruction of 17,300 hectares of the crop this yearreduced the quantity of drugs on the market by about a quarter. We should remember that last year, for one season, the Taliban reduced production to drive up the price, holding on to their stockpiles for sale later. However, their threat to hang anyone who grew poppies cut production.
The UK's long-term strategy focuses on four areas: we will provide alternative livelihoods for opium poppy farmers, improve Afghan drug law enforcement capacity, build up the capacity of Afghan drug control institutions, and reduce drug demand in Afghanistan. We are determined to work with the Afghan Government to reduce the extent of poppy growing in Afghanistan.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): The United Nations drug control office says that poppy production has increased 18 times in the past year. During that time, Britain has spent #40 million on trying to eradicate poppy production in Afghanistan. Has not that drug
Mr. O'Brien: As I have already saidI suspect that the hon. Gentleman was not listeningthe reduction by some 25 per cent. in the size of the poppy crop has been achieved by intervening in this year's production process. Some pressure has therefore been exerted, but it is undoubtedly true that the poppy crop is increasing. We are not pursuing the Taliban's policy of hanging anyone who grows poppiesa policy that they pursued for one year only to drive up the price. Instead, we must recognise that this will be a long-term process, and that the growth of poppies is likely to increase in the next year. What we need to do is to put in place a strategy that will deal with the problem over years to come, and which will apply the downward pressure that, in the long term, will save lives in this country, as well as in Afghanistan.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Does the Minister agree that alternatives to poppy growing must be put in place quickly? When representatives of the International Development Committee were in Afghanistan just two weeks ago, the Afghan Finance Minister told us that he felt let down by the international community. He stuck his neck out by saying to the farmers, XI have an alternative for you," but the international community has failed to come up with the money. Does the Minister also agree that, unless ISAF is extended and security and stability ensured, there can be no reconstruction of any kind in Afghanistan?
Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend raises three difficult and complex issues, but I shall try to deal with each of them. I, too, had discussions with Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan Government's Finance Minister, when I was in Afghanistan a few weeks ago. His main concern was to ensure that the money came through to pay the farmers who had allowed their crops to be destroyed. I have had further negotiations with him, and we have reached an agreement with the Afghan Government, so that that money will be coming through. It is essential that we provide for poppy farmers alternatives such as those that my hon. Friend describes, so that they can produce a crop that gives them a livelihood, thereby preventing them from believing that they have to grow poppies to survive. We will therefore put resources into seeking to provide, as soon as we reasonably can, the alternative livelihoods that they require.
It is important that we look at ISAF and related issues. There are discussions under way on ISAF and its deployment, but the key point is that the extension of the authority of the Afghan Government throughout Afghanistan is best achieved by the Afghans and the Afghan army.
Andrew Selous : Given the vital importance for the whole middle east region of a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Alexandria process is just about the only viable part of the middle east peace process still working? Can he tell the House what steps the Government have taken to encourage the European Union and the United States to support that process both politically and financially, given that the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry cathedral has largely funded the process?
Mr. Straw: We have been in discussion with both our European Union and United States colleagues, and I am happy to follow up those discussions with specific proposals. We have also helped to fund the process initiated by the declaration. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is one of the few viable processes of reconciliation between the two sidesthe so-called track 2 processbut alongside that, and notwithstanding the dire situation between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied territories, is the work initiated by the so-called quartet of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and the Russian Federation. At the moment, the quartet is working on a road map for progress towards peace talks and a final settlement. I hope that that work can now be pursued and that the road map will be published.
James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Will my right hon. Friend condemn yesterday's suicide bombing in Israel? Can he confirm that it was carried out by a Fatah activist and that therefore some suspicion must arise that it occurred under the control of Arafat? Will he take measures to ensure that EU or British aid is not used by terrorist organisations? What steps is he taking to further the peace process in Israel and the middle east?
Mr. Straw: I condemn all terrorist acts, including the outrageous suicide bombings, without qualification. I have no more details than my hon. Friend about the background of the terrorist. We take extremely active steps to ensure that money that is put into the occupied territories, directly or through UN or EU organisations, is used only for the peaceful purpose intended.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I wish to express my support for the spirit of the Alexandria declaration. It is important to see different religious groupings coming together in a common cause, especially when that cause is peace. At the same time, I trust that the Foreign Secretary will share my disapproval of the sort of religious extremism that causes obstacles to peace, be it from those who are intent on pushing Israel's borders to the River Jordan or those in Arab countries who refuse to recognise Israel at
Mr. Straw: I agree almost completely with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. He is right to say that we must not allow the prospect of elections in Israel further to delay the path to peace, because it is in the interests of every single peace-loving person in Israel and in the occupied territories that we get the peace process under way. I am in almost constant touch with Secretary of State Colin Powell and my EU colleagues about how we give further impetus to the peace process set out in the road map. In addition, the hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his speech to the Labour party conference, spoke about the need for the final status negotiations to begin by the end of the year. Notwithstanding the elections in Israel, we are actively looking at the positive steps that we can take to assist in that process.
Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the withdrawal of Labour members of the Knesset from the arrangement that meant that they were in government with the Likud party is a helpful sign? They withdrew because the Likud party was trying to promote the establishment of even more illegal settlements, which is one of the main stumbling blocks to a resolution of the middle east conflict. What is my right hon. Friend doing to help the Israeli Labour party to return to the doctrine of Xland for peace", under which they won an election under Prime Minister Rabin, and to achieve the objective of getting the Palestinians and the Israelis back around the negotiating table?
Mr. Straw: Obviously, decisions by the Israeli Labour party, a sister party to the British Labour party, about participating in the inevitable coalition Governments are a matter for that party. However, I have two comments to make. First, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my very good friend Shimon Peres, who has just resigned as the Foreign Minister of the state of Israel, and to salute the astonishing work in pursuit of a path of peace that he has done in very difficult circumstances.
Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) mentioned the extension of the settlements in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. They are illegal settlements, and it is wholly wrong that the Israeli Government should have continued to extend them. The settlements now account for more than 41 per cent. of the total land area in the West Bank, and the continuing process of establishing settlements is encircling east Jerusalem. That is unlawful and plainly bad for the Palestinians but, because it makes it more and more difficult for there to be a viable and secure
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, if we are moving towards a more warlike stance towards Iraq, it is even more important that we show that we are concerned about establishing peace between Israel and Palestine, that we do not accept the illegal settlements that Israel has placed there, and, on the other side, that we are also wholly opposed to the sort of terrorist acts that have taken place in the region? If we are to persecute the process that the Foreign Secretary has outlined, does he agree that we must be seen to care about the results of the battle between Israel and the Palestinians?
Mr. Straw: I think that the right hon. Gentleman meant to use the word Xprosecute" rather than Xpersecute". There is a difference. Internal persecution is the process going on in the Conservative party, whereas prosecution is a recourse.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). We are trying to avoid military action against Iraq, but I accept that the fact that it is a possibility means that we should strive all the harder to secure justice for everyone involved in the middle east conflictthe Israelis, the Palestinians and those who belong to neighbouring states. That includes ensuring the enforcement of all the UN Security Council resolutions242, 338, 1397 and 1402which place obligations on the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Arab states.
Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): The chances of success for the peace process are further eroded by the continuance of the Israeli Government's policy not only in building settlements but in constructing their security/isolation wall. Will my right hon. Friend pass comment on the fact that Israel continues to construct this wall on Palestinian land, in doing so destroying Palestinian property and razing Palestinian farmland? Will he give a commitment that the United Kingdom Government will be protesting as strongly as our counterparts in France and Sweden? It is my understanding that the French and Swedish consuls in Jerusalem are occupying a peaceful protest at Jayyous to try and stop the construction of the security wall. Can my right hon. Friend say what he and the Government will be doing to ensure that our protest is just as strong?
Mr. Straw: I have already spoken about the Government's position in respect of the settlements. Although I fully understand the need for security by the state of Israel and the Israeli defence force, and the fact that in certain circumstances there is sometimes a need to put up security fencesIsrael is not alone in thisit looks as though the route taken by the fence was decided partly on the basis of security and partly on what land was available. That is unacceptable. My information suggests that when joined with the planned fence around Jerusalem, another 7 per cent. of the west bank will be annexed by the fence and 70,000 Palestinians without