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House of Commons

Tuesday 10 January 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): If he will make a statement on progress towards a settlement which will reunite Cyprus. [40197]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): As the UN Secretary-General noted in his report of last December, progress toward a solution on Cyprus has been "negligible at best". We believe that a comprehensive solution can only be achieved under United Nations auspices, but the UN reported a widening gap and little confidence between the two communities over the past year. Ultimately, both communities have to demonstrate the courage and flexibility required to resume negotiations towards a comprehensive settlement, and we shall play our part in that.

Mrs. Villiers: There is a development boom in northern Cyprus, much of which is taking place on land that its owners fled from, as refugees, after the Turkish invasion. Will the Secretary of State strengthen the advice on the Foreign Office website urging British tourists and holidaymakers not to buy property in northern Cyprus that might have been stolen from its Cypriot owners?

Mr. Straw: The advice that we give at the moment is appropriate but of course, we will always keep it open to review. This is a very complicated issue that goes back many decades. We are seeking to help bring both parties together, which is one reason why I worked so hard to open negations with Turkey on 3 October on membership of the European Union. Only when Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and the two communities recognise that their mutual interests are stronger than their historic antagonisms will we get a settlement.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): One way to build confidence between the two communities is to conclude an agreement at European Community level on a package of measures for the Turkish Cypriot
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community. What progress is my right hon. Friend making in putting that package together and in building confidence between the two communities?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is right and on 26 April 2004, in the aftermath of the decision by the Turkish Cypriot community to vote in favour of the Annan plan, but of the decision by the Greek Cypriot community, for reasons that one understands, to vote against it, European Foreign Ministers, then at 15, unanimously agreed on a package of measures—aid as well as trade measures—to end the economic isolation of the northern part of Cyprus. We have worked ceaselessly to try to ensure that those regulations are introduced. I regret to say that they require unanimity and, so far, we have been unable to achieve it. We continue to work very hard, but meanwhile, it is understandable that the authorities in the north of Cyprus, and particularly the Turkish Cypriot community in the north, are very concerned that aid moneys to be spent in the north of Cyprus have been blocked by others within the European Union.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): At the moment, Greek Cypriot ships and aeroplanes are not allowed into Turkey. When in 2006 will that be reviewed by the European Union?

Mr. Straw: Each side has sought to place blocks in the way of the normal activities of the other—that applies to Turkey in respect of Cyprus, and to Cyprus in respect of Turkey. Part of the reason for being so anxious to open the negotiations for EU membership is that that is the only way to achieve a process of normalisation, leading before accession—not necessarily very much before—to a complete normalisation of relations. I cannot say exactly what progress will be made on that during 2006. I simply hope that both sides will recognise that it is in their interests to lift the blockages. Given the historic enmities, getting either side into a position where they will start is hard going.


2. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the recent Kazakhstan presidential elections. [40198]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The preliminary assessment of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights international observation mission was that, despite some welcome administrative improvements and the fact that the elections were conducted peacefully, overall, they did not meet a number of international standards and OSCE commitments.

John Mann: Kazakhstan has come a long way very quickly, but on whose judgment would the Minister rely the most—our observers who, through the OSCE, acted as election monitors, or those privately funded British politicians who, although they had never been to that country before, described the elections as the "fairest" and "most transparent" in Kazakhstan's history? That group, of course, included the head of the Conservative party's new international development commission.
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Dr. Howells: I have not met representatives of the Caspian information centre, which I understand may have financed the visit by a handful of Conservative politicians from this country, ostensibly to observe the conduct of the Kazakhstan elections. I have therefore not been able to test allegations that the Caspian information centre is simply a Kazakh propaganda tool. However, I know that the OSCE and the ODIHR are no one's propaganda tools, and that their findings are treated very seriously and respected internationally.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Given the growing strategic importance of Kazakhstan and the whole of central Asia, does the Minister agree that this country should do its utmost to build democratic and political stability in the region? What plans does he have to expand the role of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy into Kazakhstan and central Asia, so that the people there may get the democratic freedoms that we in this country take for granted?

Dr. Howells: I agree that the region is very important. Kazakhstan is a very important bridge between Russia and China, and a very important supplier of oil and gas for all western European countries, including Britain. It is very important that we build good, democratically based links between this country and Kazakhstan.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the politician's natural instinct is to hold on to power and that therefore it is very difficult for some of the young, post-Soviet states actively and properly to encourage genuine democracy? Does he also agree that it is very important that they should do so? The all-party Kazakhstan group, of which I am member, has received reports that opposition parties have been actively discouraged: is it not important for those states to behave differently and have more confidence in what they are doing? After all, as he has noted, the region has a very important role to play.

Dr. Howells: I agree very much with my hon. Friend. It is vital that we continue to do what we have done all along—that is, to encourage proper transparent and democratic activity in Kazakhstan. That will strengthen that country by enhancing its reputation abroad.


3. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on human rights in Zimbabwe. [40199]

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): The human rights situation in Zimbabwe is appalling. Last year's flawed elections have done nothing to restore democratic accountability, while mass housing demolitions have forcibly displaced over 700,000 of Zimbabwe's most vulnerable people. We share the grave concerns expressed by the UN, the EU and others in the international community. We will continue to work for the restoration of democratic governance and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. Recently, the British Government donated £10 million to the World Food Programme for use in
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Zimbabwe. What safeguards are in place to ensure that that money will be used for the needy in that country, and not end up in the pockets of President Mugabe and his henchmen?

Ian Pearson: My understanding is that very careful checks are made by our Department for International Development and by the UN, which maintains rigorous oversight of the WFP. I would like to believe that there will not be a problem in ensuring that the money is devoted to helping those people in Zimbabwe who suffer the most depressing conditions, and that it is not diverted to members of what everyone acknowledges is an odious regime.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): We are told continually that South Africa must take the lead in helping to find a solution to Zimbabwe's problems. What comments does my hon. Friend the Minister have to make about that, and will he make representations about the matter to the South African Government? Last week, South Africa deported 160 asylum seekers, and over the past two years it has continued to deport people back to Zimbabwe by force, even though they were quite clearly at risk. Those people were held in police custody for many hours, and some of them remained in custody even at the airport. What message does that send out about the South African Government's attitude to Mugabe's regime?

Ian Pearson: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She asks about South Africa and other Africans taking the lead, but it is important that the international community as a whole takes the lead on Zimbabwe and the terrible human rights abuses there. African leaders have begun to exert real pressure on Mugabe. President Obasanjo of Nigeria, Chairman Konaré of the African Union Commission, and Kofi Annan and his special envoy Anna Tibaijuka have all been active in the past few months in seeking to tackle the crisis. Only in December, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights passed a tough resolution on human rights abuses, and that will go before the African Union summit later this month. We hope that African leaders will respond positively to that and continue to put more pressure on the Zimbabwe regime because 2005 was a terrible year for Zimbabwe and its people, and the Government of that country are continuing to condemn its people to suffering. We want African leaders and the rest of the international community to put the most pressure possible on that regime to change.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Three years ago, the Foreign Secretary welcomed and endorsed the South African policy of quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe. Who does the Minister think has been the beneficiary of quiet diplomacy over the past three years? Is it not the evil tyrant Mugabe and is it not about time that this Government stopped walking by on the other side?

Ian Pearson: With all respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I do not think that that is a mature contribution to the serious situation in Zimbabwe. We are devoting much time to working with African leaders
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to put pressure on the Zimbabwe regime. We are supporting those who are working for peaceful change in the country and we are ensuring that the regime remains isolated in the international community. We are also helping practically those Zimbabweans who are in the most depressing situations of poverty, who have lost their homes, or who suffer from HIV/AIDS. We believe that that is the most sensible and appropriate strategy to put pressure to bear on the Zimbabwe regime and we will continue to implement our policies in that regard.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Over the Christmas holidays, did my hon. Friend see the excellent report by "Newsnight" reporter Sue Lloyd-Roberts from inside Zimbabwe that showed thousands of men, women and children without food, water or shelter? Can he put more pressure on the United Nations humanitarian agencies to use more muscle with the Zimbabwean Government? I do not think that the agencies are doing as much as they could. Given that people are living in abject conditions, it is the agencies' responsibility to act.

Ian Pearson: My right hon. Friend is right. Anybody who saw that television programme or other reports of what is happening in Zimbabwe today can only be appalled by the actions of the regime. What is happening is not a result of famine but of deliberate Government mismanagement of the economy and the treatment of their people. We will certainly continue to have dialogue with the UN humanitarian organisations, which are doing a great job in curbing some of the worst excesses of the Zimbabwean regime and helping to keep some of those people alive. We will continue to work with them and through them to try to bring about positive change.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The Minister's rhetoric is impeccable, but is it not now time for the British Government to take a new initiative to put further pressure on what he has rightly called an odious and repressive regime?

Ian Pearson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for what I regard as a compliment on my rhetoric. We are certainly open to all suggestions for new initiatives to put pressure on the Zimbabwe regime. We have sought to ensure that Zimbabwe has been brought before the UN Security Council. We have been able to do that. Recently, the UN under-secretary general said that the situation in Zimbabwe was

The situation is tremendously serious, which is why we want to keep it before the UN Security Council. We shall certainly want to consider all possible ways of bringing the Government of Zimbabwe to international account.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Just before Christmas, I returned from visiting Zimbabwe. I have also spoken to Anna Tibaijuka about the victims of the land clearances. There is a real issue about the need for the UK Government to put pressure on the UN agencies and particularly on the Zimbabwean Government, to provide resolutions and make breakthroughs on the problem of rehousing the victims of the land clearances. About one in 12 of all Zimbabweans have been made homeless. I have seen
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people sitting on the rubble of their own homes, with no prospect of permanent housing. The UK Government can do something about that.

Ian Pearson: I commend my right hon. Friend for her work and for the interest that she has shown in Zimbabwe. We are actively working to try to deal with some of the consequences of Operation Murambatsvina. The UK is providing £10 million in support for the emergency housing programme—one of the largest donations. I am sure that more can be done and I shall be more than happy to have a discussion with my hon. Friend about that if she has positive suggestions to make.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I must put on record what some of my colleagues have been whispering throughout these exchanges: with respect to the Minister, his replies are weak. The human rights abuses in Zimbabwe have been getting distinctly worse since the election last year, to the extent that in a statement on 22 July the UN Secretary-General said that the "profoundly depressing" report confirmed that Operation Murambatsvina had done

That is a strong statement. What are the British Government doing to stop those human rights abuses continuing? Are they exerting the maximum influence through the UN, through the blocking majority of Russia and China? Are they exercising their influence over President Mbeki since the Foreign Secretary's visit in November? The situation is getting much worse and could destabilise the whole of south Africa. What are the British Government doing?

Ian Pearson: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to the shadow Foreign Office Front Bench.

The UN is doing all it can to bring about change in Zimbabwe. The UK is supporting those who are working for peaceful change in the country. We are supporting, through practical, political and financial means, human rights defenders, non-governmental organisations, groups in society, defence lawyers and trade unionists. We are trying to ensure that the regime stays isolated, which includes making sure that Zimbabwe is on the UN Security Council agenda. We are certainly internationalising the issue. We are enlisting the support of African Union leaders and will continue to work with them and encourage them to do more to bring pressure to bear on Zimbabwe. We are trying to do all the things that we believe it possible to do with regard to Zimbabwe, but nobody should be under any illusion: it is a terrible, despotic regime that does not respond easily to international pressure, but the Government will continue to put that pressure on through our policies.

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