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6. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What steps he is taking to strengthen measures to tackle torture in overseas countries. [40202]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): International action against torture has been a priority for the Government since the launch of the United Kingdom anti-torture initiative in 1998. We work hard with our international partners to eradicate this abhorrent practice. This includes efforts to strengthen UN and other international mechanisms, diplomatic activity such as lobbying, and funding project work.

Dr. Cable: What knowledge do the Government have of so-called black sites in EU applicant countries being used for the interrogation of terrorist suspects, the existence of which has apparently now been confirmed by Egyptian sources?

Dr. Howells: None.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Do the Government condemn what is happening in Guantanamo, and do they accept that it is a blot not only on the reputation of the United States but on all the democracies in whose name, apparently, such practices are being carried out? Does my hon. Friend agree not only that what is being done there is wrong but that it gives splendid ammunition, sadly, to all the dedicated enemies of democracy?

Dr. Howells: I agree with much of what my hon. Friend said. We are not happy about the way in which events in Guantanamo bay have proceeded, and we have made our views known to our American allies.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): In response to allegations that the torture of suspects has followed rendition through the United Kingdom, the Foreign Secretary has said that the Clinton Administration asked in a few instances for permission to render a detainee through United Kingdom territory or airspace, but is it his understanding that the current US Administration will follow the same protocol if they wish to use the UK for rendition? Can he assure the House that Ministers are satisfied that rendition through the United Kingdom leading to torture in a third country has not taken place in recent years, and is not taking place now? If they are not satisfied, what further inquiries will they instigate?
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Dr. Howells: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the Government's position clear to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. The Government do not deport or extradite anyone to another state where there are substantial grounds to believe that that person will be subject to torture or where there is a real risk that the death penalty will be applied. If we were requested to assist another state in a rendition operation and such assistance were lawful, we would decide whether or not to do so, taking into account all the circumstances. We would not assist in any case if doing so put us in breach of UK law or our international obligations, including those under the UN convention against torture.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): That is an interesting reply, but it does not answer the question asked by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). This is a fundamental issue for this country as a signatory to the European convention on human rights, so can my hon. Friend make it clear to the House that the Government deny both that there has been any such request and that they have any knowledge that renditions took place without a request? Importantly, can he make it quite clear that we would investigate, as we are bound to do by law and treaty, any suggestion that rendition is taking place in this country?

Dr. Howells: We have no knowledge of this and we have received no requests from the Bush Administration and, as I have said, if we received such requests, we would investigate every single case very, very carefully.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): The ambiguity of the Government's position on this clandestine practice of extraordinary rendition seems to deepen with every answer given. Can the Minister explain why the Government, as the Prime Minister did on 7 December, fully endorse the US Government's approach to rendition while at the same time admitting, as the Government have done in a written ministerial statement today from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that in 1998 the Government refused a US request to refuel a flight carrying two detainees en route to the United States? Surely that indicates that the Government, at least behind the scenes, had much graver doubts about this clandestine practice than they have been prepared to admit so far. Why else were the flights refused?

Dr. Howells: That is a typical tacky Liberal question. If one throws mud it is in the hope that some of it will stick. I do not think that even with a new leader they will ever act any differently. This is what the Liberals do for a living. But I will say this to the hon. Gentleman. The Government are opposed to torture. They do not torture anyone, nor would we ever, ever put up with any other Administration torturing individuals. We will watch this matter very, very carefully, as we always have done, and we will make sure that we do not take part in any activity that results in individuals being tortured.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): The Government have a very good record in legislating to prevent the export of instruments of torture, but there is the matter of monitoring and enforcement. With regard to the
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Defence Systems and Equipment International arms fair in Docklands in September, is my hon. Friend satisfied that sufficient measures were in place to prevent companies from advertising the sale of weapons of torture throughout the world?

Dr. Howells: I very much hope so. If my hon. Friend has information that he thinks shows that insufficient attention has been paid to that, I would very much like to see it.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Do the Government recognise that there is a wider concern about US policy that the American Administration have been seeking to justify a right in certain circumstances to use cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment against prisoners in their control? Will the Government agree that not only is such behaviour unacceptable but, following previous attempts by senior members of the Bush Administration to redefine torture, that such an approach is not only morally repugnant but incompatible with the very welcome efforts of the American Government to promote human rights and democracy around the world?

Dr. Howells: On 5 December, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a detailed public statement on the treatment of detainees, clarifying that the US respects the rules of international law, including the UN convention on torture. The Secretary of State also stated:

Dr. Rice formally replied to the UK presidency on 7 December by referring to her public statement. The presidency has forwarded that reply to its EU colleagues.

Eastern Africa

7. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): What discussions he has had with his counterparts in Ethiopia and Eritrea on troop mobilisation along their shared borders. [40203]

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): We remain concerned at the continuing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and at reports of troop mobilisation. We raise these concerns regularly with both sides. My noble Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister with responsibility for Africa, Lord Triesman of Tottenham, last did so with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles on 17 December, and with the Eritrean ambassador to London on 6 December.

Tim Loughton: I am relieved that the Minister is concerned, but with 250,000 troops massing on the border, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border is the most militarised border in the whole of the continent of Africa at the moment. Barely six years on from a war between those two countries that resulted in 70,000 deaths, cost £1 million per day per country and was described as a fight between two bald men over a comb, what real
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pressure will the Government, as the second largest donor of aid in that part of Africa, bring to bear on these two impoverished countries to make them understand that the only fight that they should be interested in is the fight against poverty and famine, not against each other?

Ian Pearson: I cannot confirm or deny the hon. Gentleman's figures on troop movements. It is increasingly difficult to obtain accurate figures, because the UN mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea is finding it difficult to carry out its work due to the current situation. Our approach and that of the international community is based on three simple principles: that there should be no return to war; that the boundary commission's decision is final and should be implemented; and that the two parties must enter into dialogue on the issues between them. The hon. Gentleman may know that the UN Security Council discussed the situation in Ethiopia and Eritrea yesterday and that senior US representatives intend to visit the region within the next few weeks in the light of that discussion. Those representatives will report back to the UN Security Council in 30 days, and the Security Council will decide the appropriate next steps in the light of their report.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Has there been any recent contact with President Isaias? One of the difficulties in this dispute is that Eritrea is one of the world's most isolated countries. Its isolation is self-imposed—it will not deal with the African Union, the United Nations or the EU—and it is extremely difficult for foreign leaders to obtain access to the President. Does the Minister know of any recent contact between President Isaias and the outside world? Eritrea relies on aid to feed 70 per cent. of its people, and it is beyond contemplation that it should want another war.

Ian Pearson: Lord Triesman tried to have a meeting with President Isaias on 17 December, but the President was unavailable. I am not aware of recent meetings involving UN member states and President Isaias. My hon. Friend is right to point out that Eritrea depends on aid and that it needs to engage with the international community. Eritrea should engage positively in discussions with Ethiopia and other interested parties to solve all the remaining issues of difference.

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