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Neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups, currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan.[ Official Report, 18 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 342W.]
It would be interesting to know whether that assessment, which seems rather complacent, is shared by Foreign Office Ministers. Although an enormous amount of good work has been done in Afghanistan, the overall picture after five years is still of a country with weak institutions, widespread corruption and a deteriorating security environment. It is of paramount importance to give renewed vigour and co-ordination to the international reconstruction effort. We have advocated the appointment of an international co-ordinator of such efforts with a powerful mandate. The Government have said that that is a constructive suggestion, but I am not aware that anything has been done about it, even though, given the persistent reports of poor co-ordination, waste and corruption, the matter would seem to be of the highest urgency.
All those issues have common threads, which I shall draw together. Time and again, the same countries deliberately work against our efforts to secure peace in the middle east. The same grievances of western bias and unfair policies are voiced by parties in the different conflicts. All those grievances require a firm, clear and hard-headed approach from the British Government, but the fact that there are so many interlocking conflicts underscores the need for all of us in this country to develop a clear and coherent foreign policy towards the middle east, and to pursue it consistently over many years. Our genuine influence in the middle east is at a low ebb, and no Foreign Secretary can be satisfied with that. That is a great challenge for an incoming Foreign Secretary, so I hope that the right hon. Lady will take it up.
Such a strategy for the middle east must include serious economic and security initiatives, accompanied by a serious effort to raise and sustain the level of our contacts throughout the region. A glance at our relations with the Gulf states illustrates the point and the need for the strategy. Countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates could play key roles in our dealings with Iran and in the future of Iraq. They are our natural allies, yet in nine years of highly active foreign policy the Prime Minister has not visited those countries. There may be much more that we could do to help them with their regional security framework, and there is almost certainly more that we could do to boost trade and economic ties. There is a great deal more that we could do to foster links between Parliaments and educational institutions, to promote cultural links and to encourage civil society and co-operation on terrorism, religious radicalism, climate change and nuclear proliferation.
Today, I received a written answer from the Foreign Secretary saying that if any security initiative in the Gulf is to be successful, leadership must come from within the region. That may be true, but much more could be done to stimulate such an initiative. Maintaining contacts in the region should be one of the highest priorities for the Foreign Office. The Prime Ministers personal envoy to the middle east should not be his fundraiser, however well intentioned he may be; I put it to the Foreign Secretarythis is intended to be helpfulthat the Prime Ministers personal envoy to the middle east should be the Foreign Secretary, relentlessly backed up by our ambassadors. Other instances of what could be done include elevating NATOs Mediterranean dialogue, which includes Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, to the level of genuine partnership in the broader region of the middle east. That could contribute to regional security, stability and so onI could go on, but many other hon. Members wish to speak.
Those measures and probably many more are required if the United Kingdom is to make diplomacy in the middle east a strong priority. We need to ensure that the machinery of government in our country is properly equipped and designed to deliver such a co-ordinated approach. Three weeks ago in the House of Lords, the noble Lord Owen, a former Foreign Secretary, delivered a speech that ought to be read by all hon. Members, in which he argued that the changes introduced by the Prime Minister to the way in which the Cabinet is involved in and informed about foreign
and defence policy has contributed to a series of miscalculations. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who served in the Cabinet, is nodding at that.
Lord Owen pointed out that the introduction of Cabinet secretariats inside No. 10 no longer serving the entire Cabinet led to other senior Ministers being denied access to the full flow of information coming back from Army commanders or from the Foreign Secretary to the Prime Minister, leading to issues not being evaluated and decisions not taken in a properly balanced way. Given the lack of planning for reconstruction in Iraq and the evolution of policies so far in relation to Afghanistan, such issues need to be addressed. Our armed forces have never let us down and it not acceptable if the operation of Government might do so.
I believe that to drive reinvigorated and long-term policy of British engagement in the middle east is a major challenge for the Foreign Secretary, but it is one that she ought to take up, for we know full well that even when the immediate crisis has passed, the forces that precipitated that crisis will create many more and are becoming stronger all the time.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): On behalf of those of us who follow foreign affairs closely, I begin by saying that the dedication and commitment of the British people who are helping to get our citizens out of Lebanon has rightly been praised in the debate. When the crisis is over, I hope that the Foreign Affairs Committee will look at the issue in the same way as we reviewed what was done after the tsunami and after hurricane Katrina in the United States. The work that is done by many, many people in the crisis teams and in the region is often taken for granted, but they work long hours and incredibly hard, and we should recognise the role that they are playing.
Much has been said by the Foreign Secretary about the origins of the present crisis and I shall not dwell on that. I shall focus on how we can move forward and out of the crisis. The situation is potentially extremely dangerous. One reason is that Syria and Iran are using Hezbollah as a proxy for their own political positions. Syria and Iran have the ability to tell Hezbollah to stop what it is doing. They have the ability to cut off its supply of weaponry and stop its funding and training camps. The question is what Syria and Iran will do.
On the other side, we have seen the reaction by the Israeli Government, who are a new Government with a Prime Minister who has been in office only a short time and who does not have a military background, and a new Defence Minister who is a trade union leader, whose own town was attacked by rockets from Gaza for a considerable time and who feels, as I suspect the new Prime Minister does, that this is a test for him. The situation is extremely dangerous.
I have had many conversations in the past few days with diplomats of a number of countries in the region. It is clear to me that there is a perception that neither Hezbollah nor the Israeli Government wish to end the crisis immediately. Hezbollah wishes to pursue it because it is part of its realignment of its strength in Lebanon and in the interests of Syria and Iran, and the Israeli Government have a policy and believe at this moment that they may be able to eliminate Hezbollah as a threat to Israel. Both positions are extremely dangerous.
As has been said, one cannot eliminate a terrorist organisation that is living in a community by air attacks or military action. There must be a combination of military, political, diplomatic and economic action, and it is time that we started thinking about the other ways to reduce Hezbollahs influence among the Shia communities of southern Lebanon.
Several Members, including the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), referred to Hezbollahs global threat. Hezbollah has carried out terrorist actions not only in the middle east but elsewhere. Years ago, it attacked a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina. The Gulf states have been mentioned. There is deep concern in the Emirates and elsewhere in the Gulf about the potential threat that it poses to many other countries in the region.
Before this crisis blew up, the Foreign Affairs Committee published a report on 2 July in which we highlighted, among other things, an international role played by the Iranians that is not helpful in several respects. We talked about their links to terrorist organisations and the way in which they could do more damage if the crisis over their nuclear programme deteriorates further. We are on the cusp of a very serious international situation that requires cool heads and diplomacy. It also requires our Government, the European Union Governments and the G8 Governments to work with Governments in the Arab world. At this moment, the Governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working desperately hard for diplomatic solutions. It is interesting that the statements made by Arab Governments in the region were very critical of Hezbollah and what it has done.
Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): In agreeing with what my hon. Friend says, does he think that it would be positive for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to have a far greater role in trying to influence Syria and Iran, and Hezbollah and Hamas, to achieve a settlement so that we can put Israel back where it belongs and allow a peaceful settlement in the whole area?
While we are all focusing on this immediate crisis, other things are happening in the world. At this very moment, the Union of Islamic Courts militia in Somalia is marching towards Baidoa, which is the base of the transitional Government in Somalia. The UIC militia is backed, militarily and in other ways, by Eritrea. The transitional Government are backed by Ethopia. The BBC World Service reported at
lunchtime that Ethiopian troops have moved into Somali territory around that area. There are potential dangers there. Although the UIC is an unusually broad organisation, it contains elements, including the speaker of the Shura Council, who are on the international list of terrorist organisations and have links with al-Qaeda.
Somalia is on the other side of Saudi Arabia from the area that we are discussing. Nevertheless, there are several conflicts in the region, with Muslim-on-Muslim violence, Shia against Sunni violence, as in Iraq, and, on top of that, the ongoing, long-standing struggle of the Palestinian people for their own state while Israelis feel that there is a threat to their very existence through organisations such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. We need cool heads and active engagement by the international community.
That brings me to my final point. It seems that the United States Administration have at last decided to send the US Secretary of State to the region. It is at least a week too late, but if it happens this weekend, I hope that some influence, with the weight of the only global superpower, can be brought to bear on trying to solve and defuse this crisis. Last December, Condoleezza Rice played a positive role in the opening of the Rafah crossing. The Select Committee visited the region and Rafah. We saw the Italian-led carabinieri mission, with Romanian and Danish people policing the border between Rafah and Gaza that is so vital for the Palestinian people and their economy. Condoleezza Rice did a good job at that time. She has the ability and the political clout to play a big role now.
I hope that the United States will not do what it did at the beginning of the Bush Administration. It should become actively engaged because we need not only a solution to the crisis in Lebanon, which is a humanitarian and political disaster, but a middle east solution, whereby we get back to the road map, with the two-state solution that so many of us want.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): My hon. Friend has spoken strongly about the capacity of the United States to make a difference. Does he believe that the message, which appears to have been heard internationally from the United States, that Israel can act with impunity, is one element that creates some of the risks?
Mike Gapes: I am not sure that the Israeli Government would be restrained by people saying that they would not act with impunity. I do not believe that the American position is that Israel can act in any way that it wishes. I have seen the declaration from the G8, and the United States has signed up to several things that call for restraint. One could say that there are signals, but we all know that the US Administration contain different voices. The statement that the US ambassador, John Bolton, made to the United Nations was unhelpful. However, Condoleezza Rice will now visit the region.
The House must maintain close scrutiny of the position. I welcome the debate this afternoon and I concur with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) about the need for an extended period of questions or a statement on Tuesday. I hope
that Parliament will be recalled if the situation deteriorates so that the House can discuss it in the next few weeks.
Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), with whom I worked closely when we both served on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. He, along with the Select Committee, is doing excellent work. I join him and others in welcoming this afternoons debate and especially the Foreign Secretarys commitment.
There are honestly and strongly held differences of opinion in the House about the reasons for the conflict and the nature of our response to it. Given everything else that the Foreign Secretary has on her plate, her willingness to meet a group of hon. Members the other day to discuss the matter and to be here this afternoon is welcome. I am sure that the House is grateful to her for that.
Our television screens, newspapers and websites are full of the sickening images of carnage and destruction from the middle east, on a scale we hoped never to see again. We are now beginning to hear some of the personal accounts of the violence, destruction and fear in the region from the first of those mercifully evacuated in the past couple of days.
Our immediate attention is understandably focused on the safety of British citizens and their families who are seeking to leave and those who judge that they need to stay. We all welcome the speedy evacuation of those British nationals so far and applaud the efforts of the Royal Navy, the rest of the armed forces and especially the diplomatic services for their tireless efforts in truly shocking and difficult conditions. We also welcome the information about the continued efforts to provide additional resources to them as they go about their difficult and dangerous work.
The tragic mess that British citizens and others wish to leave behind is getting worse by the day. Although our immediate focus is on the events in Lebanon, we must not forget what is happening in Gaza. I shall revert to that briefly later. The origins of the unfolding disaster in Lebanon are clear. The unprovoked attack by Hezbollah on Israeli territory and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers was the trigger, and should rightly be condemned. The return of those soldiers is essential to the prospects for peace.
Israel has a moral and legal right to live in peace within recognised and secure borders, and a right to act in self-defence. Let us not forget that at least 29 Israelis, including 15 civilians, have been killed by rockets fired by Hezbollah into Israel, and that thousands now live in terror. But, as the shadow Foreign Secretary highlighted, the Lebanese Prime Minister has estimated that as many as 300 people have now been killed in his country, and about 500,000 have been displaced by the violence. They too live in terror.
The scale and aggression of the Israeli military action is clearly disproportionate. It amounts to collective punishment and is therefore illegal under international law. Whatever the Israelis objectives, their actions are destroying a country only recently rebuilt after decades of war. As others have said, they are undermining the fragile political state of Lebanon, and all but guaranteeing the radicalisation of swathes of people in the middle east and around the world. We need an urgent ceasefire and collective world action to prevent this crisis from spiralling into other parts of the region.
Mrs. Ellman: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in attributing blame, it is right that he should blame Hezbollah for the way in which it is acting from Lebanese territory to destroy the citizens of another country, against United Nations resolutions? Will he not castigate the Lebanese Government for permitting that to happen, despite promises to the contrary?
Mr. Moore: I am disappointed by the hon. Ladys question, because I thought that I had dealt robustly with the first of her points. On her second point, of course the Lebanese Government have responsibilities under United Nations Security Council resolution 1559. However, the Foreign Secretary has highlighted plenty of other United Nations resolutions that oblige the Israeli Government to take certain actions. Given the fragility of Lebanon, we are kidding ourselves if we think that every last requirement of resolution 1559 can be delivered without the due and proper political process that will now end up on the scrap heap unless we take concerted international action to help Lebanon to get back to where it was.
Mr. Moore: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. If I may, I will ask him to pay attention to some of the points that I shall make later. Clearly, this depends not only on Hezbollah listening to the international communitys demands for a ceasefire but on others in the region, such as Syria and Iran, putting pressure on Hezbollah.
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