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House of Commons

Tuesday 25 April 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mr. Speaker: I regret to report to the House the death of Peter John Law, Esquire, Member for Blaenau Gwent. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and extending our sympathy to the hon. Member's family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

China/Tibet (Human Rights)

1. Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the human rights situation in China. [65116]

6. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the observation of human rights in (a) China and (b) Tibet. [65122]

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): I would like to associate Government Members with your comments on the passing of Peter Law, Mr. Speaker.

The Government have serious concerns about a wide range of human rights issues in China and Tibet which are set out in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual human rights report. Although China has done much in recent years to reduce poverty and promote economic development, we believe that it needs to make substantive progress on human rights and implement serious political reforms to match its economic development.

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. He will be aware that British surgeons have condemned the utterly repellent practice of selling the organs of prisoners executed in China. Of course, he is not responsible for that, but we should not collude with it. Will he consider introducing legislation to make it illegal for British citizens to buy organs, as we have introduced similar legislation to tackle child prostitution?

Ian Pearson: The Government are aware of reports of organ harvesting from Chinese prisoners, but we have not seen any evidence to substantiate those reports. As for allegations by Falun Gong in particular, the Chinese
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Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has denied them and called the so-called organ trade "a lurid falsehood." We will continue to express concern about human rights abuses and about the organ harvesting of death row prisoners in China. I raised such concerns with the Vice-Foreign Minister, Zhang Yesui, earlier this month.

Norman Baker: I entirely endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). The fact that the Chinese Government called it "a lurid falsehood" does not mean that it is not is happening. In Tibet, where China is the occupying power, what are the Government doing to ensure that the religious freedoms that ought to be enjoyed by the Tibetans are observed by the Chinese Government? In particular, what is the Minister doing to secure the release of the proper Panchen Lama, as opposed to the puppet whom the Chinese installed in his place?

Ian Pearson: We regularly raise the issue of religious freedoms in Tibet with the Chinese authorities, and I raised it earlier this month on my most recent visit to China. Religious freedom was a major issue in the EU-China human rights dialogue in October last year. We regularly urge the Chinese Government to engage in serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama and his representatives without preconditions to try to build a peaceful, sustainable and legitimate solution for Tibet. I am pleased that talks took place in China in February. We welcome the fact that both sides confirmed their continuing commitment to dialogue, and we are keen to encourage progress on that.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): The Minister is absolutely right, but the time has come for us to stand up to China. The EU and other countries should tell China that it is unacceptable to suppress Christianity, other religions and trade unions. Tibet is still occupied, and its people are still subject to unacceptable repressions. Can we work with our friends and allies in the EU to say that the situation is not acceptable and that things must change now, rather than being the best friend?

Ian Pearson: As I have said, we regularly raise the issues of Tibet and religious freedom, as well as expressing concern about China's extensive use of the death penalty. We are concerned not just about freedom of religious belief but about freedom of expression and association. We believe that the best way of raising serious concerns about human rights abuses is through human rights dialogue, and we actively engage in both the UK-China human rights dialogue and the EU human rights dialogue. As I said, we raised the issue of religious freedom very strongly with China in the EU human rights dialogue last October.


2. Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): If he will make a statement on Iran's nuclear programme. [65118]

3. Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of Iran's nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement. [65119]
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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): In its statement of 29 March the Security Council set out what Iran must do to meet the requirements of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, including the suspension of all enrichment, reprocessing and related activities. However, on 11 April President Ahmadinejad of Iran announced that Iran had enriched uranium and would expand its centrifuge cascades. The IAEA director general will report again in a couple of days, on 28 April, and the Security Council will then consider the way ahead.

The issue is not whether Iran has a right to the use of civil nuclear power—it does—but whether it is misusing its nuclear programme to create a nuclear weapons capability, to which it has no right whatever. Iran needs to understand that its increasingly belligerent stance serves only to isolate it further and to stiffen the resolve of the international community. Statements like that of President Ahmadinejad yesterday describing the freely elected and democratic Government of Israel as a "fake regime" which

are outrageous and serve only to undermine further the confidence of the international community in the Iranian regime.

Jeremy Wright: Does the Foreign Secretary accept that it looks increasingly likely that uranium enrichment is continuing in Iran? It is equally likely that the Iranian Government will not restrict the use of that technology to non-military purposes. In those circumstances, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that the Government will take all necessary steps to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of the Iranian regime?

Mr. Straw: There is not much doubt that the Iranian Government are continuing to enrich uranium. There is a question—it is at the heart of the argument—about Iran's intentions. I have been through this on many occasions. There is a high level of suspicion about Iran's intentions, caused by over 18 years of failure to disclose to the IAEA board what it was doing. Subsequently the inspectors have discovered research on, for example, plutonium and polonium, which has mainly military uses, and have discovered a manual from A. Q. Khan on how to manufacture depleted uranium hemispheres, which again have only a military application. There is no absolutely conclusive evidence, but given the refusal so far by Iran—the onus is on it—to satisfy the international community that it is living up to its obligations, we are pursuing the resolution of the matter by diplomatic means, and the whole world is united in that. Diplomatic means include action in the Security Council under article 41, which we are taking. At each stage, as I have said before, Iran has miscalculated, thinking that if it tests the patience of the international community, the international community will divide. At each stage Iran has made the wrong calculation, and the international community has come closer together.

Mr. Scott: The United States has called on Russia to cease its support for the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr and for the Iranian nuclear programme in general. What is the Government's position on that?
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Mr. Straw: We have not made a final decision about the demands that we make to Russia. It is clear that Russia has co-operated well, particularly recently, in arriving at agreed positions in respect of Iran, after many months of abstaining on resolutions in the board of governors. At the crucial board of governors meeting on 4 February, Russia and China voted to report the matter to the Security Council. They also supported the presidency's statement in the Security Council on 29 March. If we are to continue with effective pressure on Iran, we must have Russia and China with us, but it must be tough pressure as well. So far we are achieving that.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with the Foreign Secretary's condemnation of the statement by the Iranian President. Does he accept that the Iranian President is not necessarily in a strong position domestically, and that there is a level of pluralism and opposition to some of his policies? Does he agree that when we confront Iran, we should do so in a way that   strengthens the voice of Opposition forces in that country, rather than pulling them all behind the regime, which is not necessarily popular?

Mr. Straw: We should certainly seek to reach out to the Iranian people as a whole. Nobody else around the world would describe Iran as a democracy: last year, 1,012 candidates submitted their names for the presidential election, of whom more than 1,000 were disqualified by the Guardian Council, which is an unelected body, so President Ahmadinejad had an advantage when it came to winning the election.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Despite the obvious dangers, which my right hon. Friend has just mentioned, and the inane ravings of the Iranian President, is it not essential that the problem should be dealt with only by the United Nations Security Council and that there should be no unilateral action by any individual country? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Britain and the United States were responsible for supporting the previous unwelcome and hated regime, which made it that much easier for the fanatics to seize power in 1979?

Mr. Straw: There is a history to Iran, as there is to many other countries. [Interruption.] That was a statement of the blindingly obvious, and I shall withdraw it, if I may, Mr. Deputy Speaker. [Laughter.] The Iranians are very suspicious of the Russians, because the former Soviet Union and the United Kingdom occupied Iran for five years between 1941 and 1946. However, that does not excuse the current behaviour of the Government of Iran, who refuse to face up to their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, which they not only signed, but recently endorsed. All of us are working for a diplomatic solution through the United Nations agencies, including the IAEA and the Security Council. I only wish that the Government of Iran showed the same respect for the United Nations, the Security Council and the board of governors of the IAEA as the five permanent members of the Security Council and other UN members.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): A few weeks ago, the Foreign Secretary failed to give one
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example of a terrorist action against western interests committed by the People's Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran. Is it not time for him to reconsider the proscription of that organisation on the basis that my enemy's enemy is my friend?

Mr. Straw: I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the proscription of the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq organisation, which was endorsed by this House and the other place on an all-party basis. It is open to any of the organisations proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000 to make an application to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for deproscription, which leads to a process of consideration and appeal. If that organisation, with which the hon. Gentleman appears to have closer links than me, wants to make such an application, it is a matter for it.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that a delegation from the Iranian Majlis is in the building as we speak. At this morning's meeting with the Foreign Affairs Committee, it called for further dialogue. On the weekend before last, Senator Richard Lugar, the chairman of the United States Senate foreign relations committee, called on President Bush to enter direct negotiations with the Iranian President. That call received a less-than-lukewarm reception, but it is gaining momentum. Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps it would be a good idea for the Americans to enter direct negotiations?

Mr. Straw: The United States Government must make their own decisions about their direct relationship with the Government of Iran, and it is not for me to give them advice, because the history of their relations with Iran is different from ours. I am glad that the delegation from the Iranian Majlis is here, and I am glad that it is meeting hon. Members from both sides of the House and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East. The European three, which has been expanded to include the permanent five, have been engaged in dialogue with Iran. However, dialogue must lead to a conclusion, and the problem is that Iran thinks that dialogue involves everybody else agreeing with it, while it makes few concessions to those with whom it is conducting the dialogue.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): From these Benches, Mr. Speaker, we echo your comments on the sad news about Peter Law's death.

Turning to Iran and its continued and unacceptable failure to comply with its international obligations, we also condemn the outrageous comments made recently against Israel. Will the Foreign Secretary use his special relationship with the United States to explore the possibility of security guarantees, which will clearly have to be the basis of any long-term solution to this growing crisis? However hard it is to convince the Prime Minister to rule out pre-emptive military action against Iran, will he keep trying?

Mr. Straw: No one is talking about that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear in this House last Wednesday that, in relation to military options, including nuclear weapons,

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That is what he told this House and that is the truth. We are seeking to resolve this matter by diplomatic means, including—yes, maybe—the pressure of sanctions under article 41. No purpose is served by trying to stir up differences within the international community where none, in practice, exists. Every member of the permanent five of the Security Council and the board of governors of the IAEA is committed to the path that France, Germany and the United Kingdom originally set out on three years ago and on which we have now been joined very actively by the other permanent members of the Security Council.

The hon. Gentleman asked about security guarantees. There were proposals for helping Iran with a greater sense of security in the document that the E3 put forward to the Iranians in early August last year. Tragically, President Ahmadinejad decided to reject that document even before he had seen it, which rather puts a bit of iron into the soul when it comes to dealing with the Iranians. No one is threatening Iran. No other country in the world is threatening to wipe Iran off the face of the map, but Iran has chosen to challenge the fundamental security of Israel. If Iran came to the table and complied with its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, then normalisation of relations in respect of trade, culture, travel and everything else, including security, could quickly be agreed, but Iran shows no sign of wanting to go down that path just at the moment.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Having recently returned from conferences on civic society, democracy and trade in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, one of the common themes that I heard expressed by leaders of Arab and Muslim nations was their concern not only about Iran but that every diplomatic avenue, tough and soft, should be explored in order to avert the threat of nuclear propensity within the region. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what discussions he has had with Arab leaders and whether they would concur with the impressions that I brought back from those two visits?

Mr. Straw: My impressions coincide exactly with those of my hon. Friend. Last week, at the same time as my hon. Friend and several other hon. Members from both sides of the House were there, I had discussions about this in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Sultan and with His Royal Highness Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Foreign Minister. They are very worried indeed about Iran gaining a military nuclear capability. They wish, as does the rest of the international community, to see it resolved by hard and soft diplomatic means.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): May I echo what has been said by those from all parties about the tragic loss of Peter Law from this House?

Taking up a point made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), would not it be better if the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister could use exactly the same words on this matter? The Foreign Secretary repeatedly says that military action against Iran is inconceivable, and the Prime Minister says that no one is talking about it at the moment. There is a distinction between those two statements that clearly needs to be put right. It is a vital subject on which the Foreign Secretary and the Prime
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Minister should speak with a united resolve. Since we all want to see a peaceful and diplomatic solution to this, is the right hon. Gentleman confident that diplomatic and economic pressure can now prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

Mr. Straw: On the first point, I have just used the Prime Minister's language to the House last week when he was asked about military options, "including nuclear weapons", and he said that

We all know the formal position of the United States on the matter, but it has fully backed the position of the United Kingdom, the other members of the E3 and Russia and China in trying to resolve the problem by peaceful and diplomatic means.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I was confident that the process would work. I believe that it is the best available process to achieve a satisfactory solution to a difficult problem. I cannot say with certainty what will happen—none of us can—but I defy any hon. Member to offer a better route. However, it is clear that the matter will be resolved only if the international community can show strength through unity and determination. That requires constant consultation, especially with Russia and China, which, early on, were reluctant about our stance but have increasingly toughened their position and joined us.

Mr. Hague: That strength and unity to which the Foreign Secretary refers will undergo a crucial test in the next few weeks if, as expected, there is a negative report from the IAEA at the end of the week. Will the Government vigorously support sanctions, which would stop the flow of dual use nuclear technology to Iran, halt assistance to Iran's nuclear industry and cease the selling of arms to Iran—carried on even by members of the Security Council? If there cannot be agreement on those ideas, we cannot exert strong pressure on the Iranian Government.

Mr. Straw: I have made it crystal clear that we do not rule out the use of measures under article 41, which is the Security Council's basis for applying sanctions. The Iranians need to be clear about that. In my judgment, they would miscalculate if they believed that Russia or China would block appropriate and effective sanctions that targeted the regime, not the ordinary population. Without going into detail, let me say that we are actively considering those matters.

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