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17 Nov 2004 : Column 447WH—continued


2.7 pm

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): I rise to speak with some trepidation as a relative newcomer to this elevated plane of international relations. I was pleased to secure this debate because I have had a long-standing interest in Lebanon, and the British people have closely followed the issue for decades. Obviously, it was on television much more frequently during the dreadful happenings of the 1970s and 1980s, with the civil war and the Palestinian refugee camps, and the Israeli invasion in the 1980s, followed by occupation and events such as hostage taking, which is now commonplace in Muslim countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. No one can forget the trials and tribulations experienced by the three hostages, Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan, in Lebanon during the 1980s. I have read all the accounts of their time in captivity when they were stowed away in darkness in a country that is full of light. They inspired this debate and my involvement in the all-party group on Lebanon.

Issues relating to Lebanon no longer appear so much on our television screens, and some people—such as Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt—who became household names as leaders of militia groups during the 1970s and 1980s have now moved into mainstream politics. I was a member of the parliamentary delegation—to which I shall refer later—and was lucky to visit Lebanon in September to meet both those people and other representatives of political parties in Lebanon.

One of the reasons why I am speaking in the debate is that I have been involved with the all-party group on Lebanon, which was formed last year to improve relations between ourselves and Lebanon and which has been reasonably active. I know that a lot of its members are not here today because they are abroad or because they have been delayed by the Division, but I want to pay tribute to people such as my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) and for Edmonton (Mr. Love), and the hon. Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire), for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who have formed the nucleus of the all-party group. Those people are much more experienced in international relations than me, and they have helped me to feel my way through my role as an office bearer and as part of the deputation that went out to Lebanon in September.

I want to draw attention to the fact that this is the first time that Lebanon has been debated for a considerable period. The two previous debates took place on 15 July 1994, when John Gunnell, who was then the Member for Morley and Leeds, South, was successful in securing a debate on the refugee problem in Lebanon, and on 28 July 1989. Those debates took place a long time ago and since then there has not been much discussion in Parliament of the situation in Lebanon. It is worth making the point that when the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) stood up on 28 July 1989, he said that he was grateful for the opportunity to have that Adjournment debate. Like the one in 1994, it was a half-hour debate. I am glad to have an hour and a half for this debate, although I know that the Minister is supposed to go to Brussels today, and is stretched in that regard, so I will try to limit my comments.
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The hon. Member for Canterbury said:

Those words about the west's understanding Lebanon and doing all that it can to aid it are as relevant today as they were then—even more so given what has happened internally in Lebanon in the past four or five months.

As part of a deputation from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I was lucky to visit Lebanon at first hand and meet a wide range of people, from President Lahoud all the way through to people at the grass roots who were involved in health issues throughout the country. It was an interesting and informative visit, which was heavily promoted by our sister organisation in the Lebanese Parliament, the all-party UK friendship group, which is chaired by Mr. Yassine Jaber.

Yassine Jaber is an influential person. He is an MP for the southern part of Lebanon, which we visited as his guest. We visited the Fatima gate, as many people do, to see the border between Lebanon and Israel. It is a guarded frontier post, from which shots often come, but it was relatively quiet when we were there. Yassine Jaber took a lot of time to show us the country from the north to the south.

Yassine Jaber has played an influential role in creating in Lebanon a sense of the need to build bridges between the UK and the Lebanese Parliament. He was a Minister at some stage, and since the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri, he has been promoted on a temporary basis—I believe that the Administration in a formal sense is still being considered. He is now a Minister serving Lebanon. I am sure that, in that post, he will continue to highlight the need for better relationships between us and Lebanon.

Indeed, that was one of our major aims when we set up the all-party Lebanon group, with the Lebanese ambassador, Mr. Jihad Mortada, in attendance. We were looking to strengthen the ties between our two countries. It is amazing that most of the politicians in Lebanon have a dual existence. Obviously, they are based in Lebanon, but they have strong contacts elsewhere—many of them with the UK, if not with America and western Europe. They are keen to stress the need for better relationships to be struck between our two countries.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Members who came on the trip. The leader of the deputation, who cannot be here today, was my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who is active on the issue of reconstruction of Iraq. We also had my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ), and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who is certainly interested in the Palestinian situation. I will refer to that issue in my summing-up.

It was important that we went and listened to what was being said. We went at a time when things were stable, despite all the troubles of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. An impressive range of reconstruction programmes are going on, primarily in Beirut, which is an impressive centre for any country. However, it was
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also a time when, despite that reconstruction, there was a lot of uncertainty in the country about where it stands politically, and about where politics there stand.

Just before we arrived, there had been the issue of the extension of President Lahoud's term of office, which was believed by many to be at the behest of the Syrians. That issue certainly caused a lot of controversy. A fairly substantial vote had carried that measure, but a significant number of people in Walid Jumblatt's group, and others—specifically the Maronite Christians—were unhappy about it.

Prime Minister Hariri was under a great deal of pressure while we were in Lebanon. He was the one politician whom we were unable to meet, because he was in Spain accepting an award, from the UN, I think, for the reconstruction of Beirut. He has gone because he was under considerable pressure, and has been replaced on a temporary basis by an MP from Tripoli, Prime Minister Omar Karameh. He has been Prime Minister before, but there are a whole set of uncertainties about the President, the status of the Prime Minister and the relationship between Lebanon and its closest ally and partner, Syria.

We arrived just after UN resolution 1559 was passed by the General Assembly in New York. That was the major issue of contention. Many people asked why that had been done, especially in Lebanon. There is an outstanding remit for the Syrian troops to leave Lebanon. I tabled an oral question and received a written answer from the Minister on that subject. People accept the need for the Syrians to go at some stage, but they are concerned about the strategic need for some Syrian presence to balance what they see as a threat to their integrity and independence from the Israelis.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab): On that point, my hon. Friend speaks about things flying over the border from the Israeli side. On Monday, two rockets were fired in the other direction, into Israel. My hon. Friend will recognise that our relationship with Lebanon has the Syrian perspective and experience and the Lebanese experience of Syria in Lebanon bound into it. Given that Syria opposes the middle east peace plan, does he not think that if Syria took a more constructive position that would be good for us, the Lebanese and the Syrians?

Mr. Luke : I do not support the occupation, and a lot of people were unhappy about the occupation—or rather the presence, as it is not an occupation, of Syrian troops in the Lebanon. They feel that it is necessary for strategic reasons. It is a breach of the agreements set down in the Taif agreement in 1989, which talked about the eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops. However, there is a great deal of tension. The south of Lebanon is now dominated by the Hezbollah group, which has been on a war footing against the Israelis in the past and has taken the credit for moving the Israelis out of Lebanon. There is a series of tense border issues. The big issue put to us by the Members that we met was that they wished to keep as calm as possible. The Lebanese do not want to get involved in any conflict with Israel. They told us that they want to work constructively to discuss and resolve some of the issues that have been left open by the occupation.
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Water is such an issue. There is a river in the south of Lebanon that flows through parts of the area still occupied by the Israelis, for example the Shebaa farms. That water needs to be used in the north of Lebanon for agriculture and cultivation as well as by the Israelis. The Lebanese want to discuss the arrangements positively with the Israelis.

There are tensions and the Syrians heighten them, so it is to the benefit of everyone to work for an agreement and that the Syrian presence is removed. It is not merely the Syrian presence that upsets people opposed to such actions in Lebanon. As well as the 15,000 troops placed there as a strategic force to balance out the Israelis, there are rumoured to be about 5,000 intelligence officers or people who are not attached to that force and who have an undue influence in Lebanese civil society. There is a need, under the Taif agreement, struck I think in September 1989, to modernise civil society and bring it up to date to what would be considered an acceptable norm for western countries. There is still progress to be made and the physical reconstruction has perhaps not been mirrored by such modernisation and the withdrawal of the Syrian troops.

That modernisation is an end goal. People in Lebanon accept that, but they are still worried about strategic issues related to ongoing problems with the Israelis. The point was made that it is only a 45-minute drive from the Israeli border to Damascus. One of the reasons that the troops are there is perhaps to hold back the threat if there were ever a war between those countries again. It is in everybody's interests to find a lasting and peaceful settlement to all the existing issues, and there are problems on all sides.

The problems I have mentioned were all raised on our visit and resolution 1559 is a specific ongoing issue. Part of our role was to discuss how the parliamentary scene in Lebanon could be safeguarded and improved, and how we could build links and act as a bridge. Lebanon has been a bridge between the west and Arab countries in the middle east, but we wanted to see how we, as parliamentarians from Westminster, could form another part of that bridge and bring about a two-way exchange of knowledge, friendship, understanding and, I hope, economic aspects.

The political situation is fluid at the moment rather than fixed. A lot of impressive work has been done in Beirut, but there is still a big economic problem. Most of the work has been done on borrowed money and there is a large deficit that will need to be controlled if Lebanon is to make economic progress. Despite the fact that Beirut is a cosmopolitan and westernised city, certain areas in the Beka'a valley, the north and the south, are very rural and poor and need attention. The British Council works in those areas. We did not get a chance to visit any British Council programmes—we would have liked to do so, but time was short and we needed to address a series of other ongoing issues during our time in Lebanon.

There is still the question of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees, some of whom have been in Lebanon since 1948, and some have been displaced in subsequent wars. There are issues about their ability to work and discrimination against them. There is a law that Palestinians are not able to hold jobs that would be done
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by professional people. I was not able to visit camps such as Shatila as the numbers allowed in were restricted, but my Liberal Democrat colleague did.

We met the United Nations Relief and Works Agency chief in Beirut. He raised the problem of money that has been received from organisations such as the Department for International Development but that cannot be used to put in proper sanitation or to make sure that medical services work properly because of the Lebanese Government blocking it. UNRWA operates all the medical centres and schools for those who live in the camps.

The British Government can do a lot to help reform and modernisation. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has been doing a lot of work throughout eastern Europe and the middle east to see how we can assist people to improve and reform their situations. We should be taking a much more active role.

I come now to the Lebanese economy. We saw quite a bit of wealth in Lebanon. We were guests of the Deputy Prime Minister on his yacht. It would not embarrass the Queen to have such a yacht. He was flying out the next day to raise with the UN his unhappiness with resolution 1559. Such wealth, however, is not mirrored throughout the country.

We visited a new health centre in the south of the country. Although it was an impressive building, its equipment and treatment left much to be desired. It was a charitable institution, created by the Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr. Berri, and his family. Such institutions are set up by charitable establishments, not through Government or foreign aid.

The relationship of Syria and Lebanon must be addressed. In answer to a written question, my hon. Friend the Minister stated:

Given that commitment, we would like to see more work done on such matters. My hon. Friend continued:

I sincerely hope that that happens.

Lebanon has made startling progress since its troubles. To an extent, it is a modern, vibrant society—more modern than Syria and other middle eastern countries. It is a country that prides itself on its relationship with the west, specifically the United Kingdom. We need to build on that to make sure that we have a strong ally in that area and that peace can emanate from that country throughout the region. I hope that the Government will do whatever they can in that area. I am sure that the all-party group and the Inter-Parliamentary Union will continue their activities. I am glad to have had a chance to initiate a debate on Lebanon and I am looking forward to hearing what others have to say.
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2.27 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I wish to echo many of the thoughts of the initiator of the debate, the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke). I congratulate him on securing the debate because, when we returned from the IPU visit to Lebanon, we were all determined to raise issues in connection with that country. We want people to recognise the incredible change that has taken place within Lebanon in the past 10 years or so. It is impressive how the Lebanese have reconstructed Beirut, which so many of us remember from newsreel reports. It is a modern, vibrant city with new shops. It is the sort of place that it was perhaps 25 years ago.

Although the economy is undoubtedly fragile, improvements are taking place. Since my return, I have noted in the travel press much publicity to attract tourists back to Lebanon. Its enormous wealth of archaeological history would be extremely interesting to many people, and I encourage people to visit that country, which has not been on the tourist destination map for some time, to see its impressive display.

We received an amazing welcome and hospitality. For some time, Lebanon has felt a little isolated within the world community and it wants to welcome people back to the country. I hope that people will respond. Inevitably, it has difficulties and we caught glimpses of them from time to time. The Syrian influence is a two-edged sword. Clearly, some people feel that the Syrian presence has enabled the country to reach a more stable position and to sort itself out. However, others feel that the Syrians have outstayed their welcome and become rather too engaged in some aspects of public life. A case can be made for both those views.

Nobody whom we met—whatever their political stance and whether they were from the poorer or richer end of the economic spectrum—wanted to go back to how it was 10 years ago. They will do anything that is necessary to ensure that that does not happen. That is the strength of their desire to go forward; they recognise and remember the terrible things that happened during the civil war and do not want to return to that situation. Although things are not perfect, politically or economically, there is a great will and desire to make things better and not to go back.

Let me say a few words about the Palestinian camps. I was able to visit Shatila. To those who have been to Gaza, I can say that Shatila camp is every bit as bad, except that one can step outside and, within some 25 m, can be on a modern highway with the impressive buildings of an ordinary city, Beirut. Not only Palestinians live in the camp; Syrians, Lebanese and others live there. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly a need to try to establish some basic living conditions. The camp is in need of proper clean water, sanitation and protected power. It was horrific to see major electric cables snaking along the alleyways, through puddles of water, with five to seven-year-old children playing next to them. Those of us who have been brought up with health and safety measures and security concerns were horrified. Those are some of the basic things that could be achieved. I hope that, whatever difficulties the Lebanese authorities have—I know that they have some; we discussed the matter with the ambassador—it
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will be possible to bring some health and safety measures and basic sanitation and water to the people there, regardless of who they are.

Let me also mention our visit to the border with Israel. That was an interesting experience, in that there is a wire fence and it is very clear that Israel is on one side and Lebanon is on the other. Inevitably, there is a feeling that "If you stay on your side and we stay on our side, we can get on." I suspect that there will not be a meeting of minds, but the fact that there is a clear border, respected by both sides, whatever their continuing animosities and political situation, provides an opportunity for peaceful coexistence.

I hope that many of the things that we saw in Lebanon—the creation of an agreed border and the maintenance of people living either side of it—can be translated into the situations in other parts of the middle east that are experiencing difficulties. Beirut can give hope to the sorts of places that we have seen in the occupied territories and now, sadly, in Iraq, in Falluja—

Mr. Joyce : Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is a case for persuading Hezbollah to change its behaviour on the border? Was that what he said? We would all want that to happen.

Mr. Breed : As I said, there is no doubt that people in Lebanon do not want to go back to the past. They recognise the difficulties but do not want to magnify them. They recognise that there will be differences of opinion, but they certainly do not support a return to violence in any way. I think that some influence can be brought to bear on the militia that still have some camps and still have a presence in Lebanon. I think that they are beginning to understand that the Lebanese people do not want such a situation in their country. They want to get on with their lives, pursue peace, build their economy and get away from the things that we saw in the past. Perhaps they can provide an example to others in the way that they handle the militia and the terrorists within their borders.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): First, I apologise profusely to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), who initiated the debate, for arriving late. I would like to press the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on Hezbollah's role on the border. Surely a militia such as Hezbollah should be replaced by the Lebanese army in the border area. That would give confidence to everyone in the region.

Mr. Breed : I agree and I hope that such a move will take place. The Lebanese want to control their own security. In line with that, they would ultimately like the Syrian presence to be removed, so that they can deal with the proper security of their own people. That may be a little way ahead, but they are moving in the right direction all the time. To an extent, the passage of time assists the process. As I said, people are determined not to go backwards but to look for ways to improve their democratic processes, which are not perfect as yet, and their internal economy, which is still subject to considerable corruption. People recognise that and are trying to bear down on it. They recognise that they have a critical role to play in the middle east, not least because
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of the Palestinian refugees who are still within their borders. I wish them well. I was impressed and came away from Lebanon far more optimistic than perhaps I was when I went there. I hope that that optimism will be seen to be well placed as we see the country make progress in future.

2.38 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who understands the situation in the middle east and has a strong commitment to it and particularly to issues relating to Palestine, which was reflected in his speech. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), who initiated the debate. He modestly suggested that he was not qualified to do so, but clearly he and his colleagues in the IPU have done the House a very important service through their work in Lebanon. We hope that they will continue and develop that in future.

Given the time constraints on the Minister and others, and given the strange business in the main Chamber this afternoon, I hope to be brief, although perhaps I shall not quite be finished before the next interruption. I shall seek to avoid repeating points that hon. Members have already made, except in a couple of cases.

Most of us associate Lebanon with the difficulties of the 1970s, '80s and '90s. That region of the world was barely out of the television headlines, for terribly sad reasons, throughout that period. It has still had its troubles recently, although there has been a great deal of progress. As both contributors so far have highlighted, the economic situation in the country is fragile, even if it is making progress. Many problems still surround the politics of the country, not least because of the complex demographics and the religious mix. All that has been reflected in the recent, slightly difficult goings-on to do with the country's constitutional arrangements. Lebanon has important democratic credentials in a region where that is sometimes a rare experience. Our concern is that what we have seen in recent times might lose the Lebanese people those valuable credentials. The political crisis in the country has created real unease, to a sufficient degree that the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1559, expressing anxiety about the need for free elections, to disarm the armed militias and for foreign forces to be withdrawn. Syria's 15,000 or so troops are clearly the main concern, and we should certainly like to see them being withdrawn in line with that UN resolution as quickly as possible.

The security situation in Lebanon is difficult, both internally and because of its strategic significance in the middle east. The proximity of Israel and Syria has led to much conflict and the threat of further conflict. Understandably, Syria has a concern about Lebanon and has been a key player at many of the crucial moments of Lebanon's history and development. However, our fear is that Syria is now overplaying its hand, and must recognise that the concerns of the international community are legitimate by complying with the recently passed resolution.

It is understandable that Israel has concerns about its own security situation. For decades, Lebanon has been used—by Lebanese or others—as a base from which to
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attack Israel. The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) rightly pointed out the recent attacks from Hezbollah, and there is evidence that they have developed new technology and new capabilities that can only make that situation more difficult. The whole position centres around, and will come to bear on, the middle east peace process. I conclude by saying that we have heard, since President Bush was re-elected and the Prime Minister visited him, that the middle east peace process will be the cornerstone of their foreign policy. We must hope that we shall see the fruits of that in Lebanon, sooner rather than later.

2.42 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), not just on securing the debate but on reporting to us on his recent interesting visit to Lebanon. We pay tribute to the work of the all-party Lebanon group, which is designed to increase relations with that country, and we hope that that goes well. Although the hon. Gentleman has described himself as a newcomer to international relations, both in this debate and in others in which he has taken part, he in fact speaks like a veteran and brings depth and understanding to our debates, for which we thank him.

I also thank the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), whom I know well as a near neighbour, for his encouraging report on what the all-party group found in Lebanon on its visit. I am aware that I am about to be interrupted, but I should like to put on the record a few thoughts about that strategic country. In biblical times, the name Lebanon was synonymous with prosperity and riches, and many references to cedars and wine from Lebanon were a tribute to its fertility, fruitfulness and prosperity. It was, perhaps, the most prosperous part of the region.

Mr. Luke : The hon. Gentleman refers to the cedars of Lebanon. The Lebanese are still very proud of them, although the actual number of cedar trees is being reduced. There is, however, a very progressive programme—I do not know how well it is going—to reforest much of Lebanon with cedars.

2.44 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.56 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Streeter : Sadly, to anyone growing of our generation, the names of Lebanon and Beirut are synonymous with conflict, destruction, civil war and strife. However, we have had a happier report from the two hon. Gentlemen who have just come back from Lebanon. Indeed, since the Taif accord there has been a growing measure of stability in the country, which is extremely welcome. Beirut is once again a bustling and safe city, and prosperity is returning, although, as has been mentioned, Lebanon has a debt overhang problem, which it must tackle. None the less, we welcome those
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more positive reports and, as we know, there is a strong Lebanese community in the United Kingdom, which makes a positive contribution to this country.

Issues of concern have been raised, including Hezbollah's continued presence in Lebanon, particularly on the southern border, and its aggressive attitude towards Israel. I hope that the Minister will touch on Government policy towards Hezbollah.

Mr. Love : If one reads the reports about activity at the border, one sees that they normally speak of finely tuned rules working between Hezbollah and the Israeli authorities. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although there continues to be friction on the border, it is well controlled?

Mr. Streeter : I think the hon. Gentleman is right. In the turmoil of the middle east, the current situation on the border is relatively calm and peaceful, although there are incidents. It was he, I think, who suggested that Hezbollah's presence on the border should be replaced by a proper Lebanese border control, and that would be most welcome.

The continued presence of Syrian forces and Syria's continued reach into Lebanese politics are, of course, matters of concern. We have heard reference to Security Council resolution 1559, which was passed recently and which we support. It would be interesting to hear how the Government intend to continue the conversation with Syria on complying with that resolution. I would be interested in the Minister's assessment of the Lebanese population's attitude towards the Syrian presence. We have heard that it takes some comfort from their presence because of concern about Israeli attitudes, and that is understandable, but it would be interesting to hear the Minister's take on that.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East expressed concern at recent events, including the extension of President Lahoud's term of office. Such things sometimes happen around the globe, although they nearly always happen in controversial circumstances and nearly always turn out to be a mistake. I would be interested to hear the Government's view of that extension, of the resignation of Mr. Hariri and his Cabinet, and of the implications the new Prime Minister might have for stability in the country.

It is reassuring to hear from the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall that the people of Lebanon do not want to go back to the old days of strife and civil war, but it would be interesting to know the Government's assessment of the implications for stability of recent changes. We have also heard about recent opportunities for a new initiative on the middle east peace process. Those opportunities are there—with the Prime Minister's commitment and President Bush's recent words and, we hope, a new Palestinian leader to be elected on 9 January, whom the Palestinian people will get behind and who will support engagement in the peace process and withdrawal from Gaza. All of those things are positive.

Will the Minister comment on the engagement, or lack thereof, of Syria and Lebanon in the road map and the middle east peace process? Does he think that there should be a greater buy-in to that process by and for them, and that they should be bound to an overall
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settlement? Does he intend to raise the situation in Lebanon with President Chirac while he is in the country, to see if the President of France can shed any light on the situation, given their long relationship?

Is not the situation in Lebanon an example of how complex it is to try to increase democracy in the middle east? That country has some kind of elections, but not as we know them. Whatever we do to encourage democracy in any middle east country, or anywhere else in the world, is it not important that any such democracy has its own local flavour and grows out of the community, provided that the rule of law, freedom of speech and some kind of representative governance are part and parcel of that democratic process? It should not be about exporting Westminster or US-style democracies, or about imposing anything on those people; it should be about encouraging their version of democratic principles to take root and take hold.

Is it not also the case that, of necessity, the pace of change will be slow in most middle east countries, and that we would be mistaken to try to force the pace of change at an unsustainable rate? We can take some encouragement from the progress that Lebanon has made over the past 10 years. It will be interesting to hear the Government's view on the likely impact of recent changes.

The plight of Palestinian refugees has been mentioned. What future does the Minister think they will have if we are fortunate enough to see some kind of final status agreement reached between Israel and Palestine in the next three to six months? How will that affect the 400,000 Palestinians living in the refugee camp that was described so vividly by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall? Does the Minister believe that some of them will have the opportunity to return to Palestine or Israel under the right-to-return proposals, or is their future to remain in Lebanon? If so, I strongly support the call for improved facilities for them.

3.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) on securing the debate, throughout which he demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of the political situation in Lebanon. His comments, and those of other hon. Members, showed a degree of modest confidence that progress is being made in the Lebanon; that came through strongly in several hon. Members' contributions. I welcome this chance to set out the Government's view, not only of the difficulty facing the Lebanon, but of the opportunities that exist for it to prosper and make a real contribution to peace and stability in the region.

Britain has had long, close and constructive relations with the Lebanon. The two countries are joined by ties of affection dating from the Lebanon's achievement of independence, with British support, in 1943. Lebanon's sovereignty and independence continue to be of special importance to us. Lebanon has historically done a great deal to develop modern political thought in the Arab world as a whole, and has brought to that role the tolerance, learning and openness that are marks of its society. Lebanese educational institutions retain their leading place in the region, and the vigorous, lively ethos
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of the Lebanese media, which enjoys a wide degree of freedom, has been a positive stimulus to the emergence more widely of an increasingly open and free Arab press. Those elements—modern education and a free press—are essential to the development of what the people of the region aspire to more than anything else. Many of us who travel to that part of the world would underline that point.

Democratic forms of government derived from the Arab world's long and rich culture are also important; that relates to the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter). Such government does not mean that we simply transplant the systems that we have in the west; it means the emergence of a home-grown version of democracy from the needs and aspirations of an increasingly articulate Arab public opinion—a version that fits the culture, mores and traditions of the country. That is how the process should go forward.

I started by describing Lebanon's cultural influence on the region. It would not be enough to consider the situation in Lebanon without setting that in the wider political, international and regional context; that is why Britain attaches particular importance to the health of Lebanon's democratic institutions, which reflect a long tradition of parliamentary rule successfully practised in the region. Those institutions are under pressure at the moment, and our concerns should be directed towards them.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of United Nations resolution 1559. One of the reasons that led the Government to support that resolution was our concern that foreign intervention in the operation of Parliament, the Government and the judiciary is unacceptable, and is degrading and damaging the ability of Lebanon to face important policy challenges with the necessary commitment and support of the Lebanese people. We share the concern of many Lebanese citizens about corruption in the public sector, the ultimate inability of Governments over a number of years to provide adequate economic and social policies and the weaknesses of the judicial system.

My hon. Friend asked a question about resolution 1559. I shall paraphrase him; I think that his point was that he recognised the need for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, but had worries in the short term about the results of complete withdrawal and what would fill the vacuum. In response, I say that we welcome the withdrawal of Syrian troops that has already taken place. With the international community, we will work with the Lebanese Government to assist them in the development of their own security forces. That has to be a key factor. One of the key terms of resolution 1559 is the disarming of the militia, particularly of Hezbollah. A number of hon. Members have raised that issue, which is a key element of the process.

The concerns that I have addressed are shared by many of Lebanon's other friends abroad. The strategic aim of the European Union's Mediterranean programme and the new European neighbourhood policy, with Britain's full support, is to bring improvements to the quality of governance in countries such as Lebanon. Only with such improvements, based on a strict respect of the rule of law and for Lebanon's independence, will Lebanon be able to meet its many challenges.
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Lebanon borders the European Union, and its stability, prosperity and success, like that of all countries in the region, is a major European interest to which we fully subscribe. That is why Europe is offering assistance to Lebanon in the form of the technical co-operation offered under the European Union-Lebanon association agreement, and that is an important, positive step forward. I believe that that mechanism will soon be ratified. We also have a small bilateral assistance programme, and, as my hon. Friend said, the British Council contributes to education and the cultural industries. As important is the consistent political support that we give the principles of democracy and independence that were recently enshrined in the Security Council resolution to which I referred.

As my hon. Friend said in his opening comments, Lebanon has an integral role to play in the search for a just and lasting settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which would include a solution to the conflict between Israel and its neighbours Lebanon and Syria. Since the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 425, Lebanon has had no fundamental quarrel with Israel, and that has been a welcome development. The occupation by the latter of Shebaa farms, which Lebanon claims is its territory and which Israel and the United Nations Security Council considers to be Syrian, is as much a symptom as a cause of the continuing tension in the wider region. That and other territorial issues will ultimately be solved by negotiation between the parties concerned, within the road map framework. That has to be the way forward.

The long-standing division between Israel and Palestine is at the core of the problem in the middle east, but there are associated conflicts that must also be addressed within the road map process.

Mr. Love : I rise to take up the point of the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter). There appears to be no room in the road map process for some of the states that any solution will have an impact on. That is strongly felt in Lebanon. When the road map process begins again, can efforts be made to involve all the states in the region?

Mr. Rammell : That was the point that I was trying to make. The concerns of neighbouring states where there are residual and continuing conflicts that impact on the overall middle east peace process must be taken into account. That is set out in the road map process; those issues must be resolved.

It is a matter of real concern to us that the Hezbollah militia continues to maintain a state of tension along the blue line, with the encouragement of Iran and Syria and the acquiescence of the Lebanese authorities. Israel also bears its share of responsibility for that tension as a result of its frequent illegal and provocative invasions of Lebanese air space. However, we are discussing Lebanon, and the UN Security Council has made clear the requirement on the Lebanese Government to end the operations of the Hezbollah militia and to extend their effective control over all their territory. That obligation
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extends equally to those states that fund and support Hezbollah. We urge restraint and good sense from all parties.

Mr. Luke : The Minister has referred to Hezbollah, but would he pay tribute to Ayatollah Fadlallah in Lebanon, who is very moderate and preaches co-operation and dialogue between communities—Sunni, Shi'a and Maronite Christian—in order to build a new understanding that bridges the religious divides in the country?

Mr. Rammell : Progressive voices that preach moderation, tolerance and understanding are to be welcomed from wherever they come.

We welcome Lebanon's commitment to fighting terrorism, which it recently demonstrated by arresting al-Qaeda terrorists who were planning to attack the Italian embassy in Beirut in September. We would like to help the Lebanese to build a better counter-terrorism capacity within the rule of law, through more effective policing, better border control, and aviation and maritime security. Earlier this year, the Metropolitan police visited Lebanon to review how we might help its internal security force and we are considering how to take that assistance forward. I think that all parties would welcome that.

I understand that some hon. Members visited the camps housing Palestinian refugees during the IPU visit in September. To echo some of the concerns expressed in the debate, the Government are concerned by the living conditions of Palestinians in camps in Lebanon. We have made that known to the Lebanese Government on a number of occasions. We would welcome action from them to improve the situation of the Palestinian population living in Lebanon by allowing them easier access to education and opportunities for better paid employment.

Ultimately, the answer to the problem is a permanent peace settlement of which a just resolution of the refugee question would be a part. It would be best if that were pursued as part of the road map. The UK fully supports the Quartet's efforts to achieve a political solution that will deliver a better future for all Palestinians.

Mr. Love : I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way. I wanted to touch briefly on the Palestinian camps. The important point to stress is that the hopelessness in those camps breeds terrorist activity. If we are not careful, that will become a factor not only in the Lebanese situation, but more widely. It is therefore important that the Government make that entirely clear and known to the Lebanese authorities.

Mr. Rammell : I need to be clear: nothing justifies terrorism. Nevertheless, I understand the thrust of my hon. Friend's point. The issue of the injustice felt by refugees in those camps has to be addressed; that was my point. We put our views about the condition of the refugees in those camps to the Lebanese Government.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who is leading for the Liberal Democrats, referred to the middle east peace process and the Government's recent initiatives to re-inject some urgency into the process. I can tell him that the issue is
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genuinely consuming time within Government; it is a real priority for us. Nothing could contribute more towards beginning to rebuild and tackle divisions in the world than finding a solution to conflict in the middle east. However, that is easier said than done, although it is a priority for the Government. The Prime Minister has made it clear that it is a personal priority, and that was a central feature of his discussions with the US President at the end of last week.

The hon. Member for South-West Devon talked about the Syrian presence flowing from the internationally supported Taif accord. It is important to make it clear that that has contributed to the past decade's stability in Lebanon. The Lebanese people recognise that, but they want to move on. Parliamentary elections are due in 2005, and we are certainly of the view that territorial integrity, independence and democracy in Lebanon are paramount in that process. It is fundamentally for the people of Lebanon to determine their country's relationship with Syria.

I finish by again congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East on securing this debate, which has allowed us to discuss a number of issues affecting Lebanon. As highlighted by the recent UN Security Council resolution, it remains a country of great interest to the United Kingdom and the wider international community. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that it has been a long time since there has been an Adjournment debate on the subject, and I hope that it will not be too long before we have another opportunity. I also thank all hon. Members involved in this debate for their co-operation in helping me with my personal commitment to get to a train in time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I should explain what is about to happen. In this place, time is relative—well, it is relative anyway, in a mathematical sense, but in this place it is very relative. The next debate is due at 3.30 pm, as we have now caught up the time lost. If there is a Division before then, the sitting will be suspended for 15 minutes from the start of that Division. That Division has to be no later than 3.31 pm precisely. The sitting is suspended.

3.18 pm

Sitting suspended.

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