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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin): I am going to the Niger delta later this week to see the problems at first hand. I look forward to reporting back to the House in due course.
Mr. Tynan: My hon. Friend's visit to the Niger delta is very welcome. Non-governmental organisations in particular welcome the fact that he is going to Nigeria and will pay special attention to the Niger delta. Amnesty International and Nigerian groups have reported that 600 people have been killed in the area, and tens of thousands displaced. Will my hon. Friend press the Nigerian Government to put an end to the conflict in the Niger delta by disarming the gangs roaming there and causing untold misery for the population?
Yes, I accept that there are serious problems in the Niger delta, of which criminal violence is one. Neglect of the non-oil economy is another. There
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are extremely high levels of unemployment, which gives rise to the fact that large number of youths engage in violence. There is endemic corruption and large-scale theft of crude oilup to 100,000 barrels a day are disappearing. There is also environmental degradation and a proliferation of weapons. All those problems need to be addressed, and we are encouraging the Nigerian Government to do that.
John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): What about the gangs that my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) mentioned? Does the Minister agree that they pose a threat to the oil industry in the area, and to British companies? What are the Government doing to protect British companies?
Mr. Mullin: The gangs certainly pose a threat, not just to British companies but to all proper activity in the Niger delta. We are working with the Nigerian Government to try to improve the situation in the delta, which includes providing technical advice. But it is primarily a matter for the Nigerian Government to assert control over the delta, and we judge that they are capable of doing so. What is necessary is to find the political will.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell): We welcome the success of the recent Palestinian presidential elections, and congratulate President Abu Mazen. We hope that his victory with a strong majority will provide an opportunity to move the middle east peace process forward. We look forward to welcoming the new Palestinian leadership to London on 1 March. We are committed to helping them build the institutions that are needed to underpin a future viable Palestinian state.
Mr. Dismore: Given the commitment of Abu Mazen to end the intifada and return to the road map, which requires an end to terrorism and the reform of the Palestinian Authority security services, will my hon. Friend say what progress has been made towards a ceasefire by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, among others? Although the deployment of PA security forces in Gaza is welcome, will he confirm reports that PA Gaza security head, General Saeb el-Ajez, has said that his forces will not arrest terrorists?
I am not aware of that specific report, but I will contact my hon. Friend about it. Abu Mazen's credentials and commitment to tackling terrorism are clear and unambiguous. That gives us an opportunity. Part of the way in which he looks to deal with the security situation is to reduce the capacity and will of those who espouse violence. If he believes that he can do that through political dialogue, that should be welcomed.
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Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD): The Liberal Democrats also welcome the success of the Palestinian elections and wish President Abbas every success for the future, not least in his early serious efforts to improve the security situation in the Gaza strip. The peace process outlined in the road map is now at least two years behind schedule. Does the Minister see recent Palestinian developments as a positive step forward? How does he expect the Israeli Government to respond?
Mr. Rammell: As I said earlier, I think that there is a real opportunity with the election of Abu Mazen. We are doing everything we possibly can to take that opportunity to help the process forwards. On the subject of the conference that we are calling here for 1 March, I was talking this morning to my noble Friend Baroness Symons, who has been travelling in the middle east in the past week, and she informed me that that initiative has been widely welcomed there. We will continue to undertake that commitment, while at the same time making it clear that the road map remains the best way forward for the peace process. There are commitments on both sides that need to be fulfilled, and we urge that that should happen as quickly as possible.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): As an election observer, I can tell my hon. Friend that the elections went very well throughout the west bank, with the possible exception of Jerusalem, where there were immense problems. Is he aware, however, that the Israeli Government decided last summer to invoke the 1950 Israeli absentee property law to confiscate more property that Palestinians own in east Jerusalem? What hope is there for peace when the Knesset provokes the Palestinians in such a way?
Mr. Rammell: There are faults on both sides, and actions in accordance with the road map that need to be undertaken by both sides. One of the key commitments under the road map is for the Israeli Government to freeze settlement activity. It is important that they are cognisant of that and take those actions forward, and we will continue to press them to do so.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): I join others in welcoming President Abbas, but does the Minister agree that in a week when we are thinking of the holocaust, it is important that the states around Israel recognise its right to exist, and encourage it and the Palestinians to come to better terms?
The 60th anniversary of the holocaust is a very significant event, and should be an opportunity for us all to make clear our opposition to anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms. That should be a clear message, but on the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, we have consistently made it clear to regional neighbours that they need to do everything possible to stop support for terrorism. What is abundantly needed is an acceptance of the right of the state of Israel to exist, while we rightly continue to push for a viable Palestinian state.
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Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): I, too, was privileged to be one of the thousands of international observers who travelled to the west bank for the Palestinian elections. Under the gaze of those international observers, the Israeli army considerably eased the restrictions on Palestinians passing through the checkpoints. Does my hon. Friend agree that the presence of international observers could have a huge impact on the way in which the Palestinians are allowed to travel around the west bank, and so engender a much better atmosphere for peace?
Mr. Rammell: May I firstI should have done so previously in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)thank the observers for the efforts that they made in observing those important elections? That was a crucial part of ensuring not only free and fair elections, but a very high turnout. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) makes about the general importance of international observers is crucial in ensuring that the conditions needed to underpin the road map are taken forward. That is an argument that we will continue to press.
Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): The Opposition join other hon. Members in congratulating the Palestinians on their successful elections and Abu Mazen on his decisive victory. We all hope that that will contribute to a lasting peace settlement in the middle east and facilitate the two-state solution. What specific steps are the British Government taking to assist the new Palestinian President and the Palestinian Authority to suppress terrorist activities and improve Palestinian security, thereby establishing calm and the atmosphere for constructive dialogue and negotiations with Israel, including a peaceful and orderly Israeli withdrawal from Gaza?
Mr. Rammell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. It is clear that, with this Government's lead and the Prime Minister's personal commitment, we are taking a significant lead to support Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority. We are doing that in political terms with the meeting that is taking place here on 1 March, but we are also doing it in practical terms, through the Department for International Development and through advice and funding support. We will continue to do that, and if those efforts are made and there is an increased focus on the part of the Palestinian Authority on improving its security performance, we will be better able to urge the Israeli Government to move forward with their commitment to the disengagement plan as a first step along the road to fulfilling the objectives of the road map.
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