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House of Commons

Tuesday 25 July 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Middle East

1. Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): What recent assessments she has made of the threat posed to regional stability in the middle east by Hezbollah. [87867]

11. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): What representations she has made to Syria and Iran on their support for Hezbollah. [87879]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We are gravely concerned about the crisis in Lebanon. Syrian and Iranian support for Hezbollah and other extremist groups is encouraging extremism, threatening the stability of the region and putting peace in the middle east further out of reach. We call on Syria and Iran to stop their support for Hezbollah and end their interference in Lebanese internal affairs in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1680.

Mr. Wright: I agree with every word that the Foreign Secretary said. It is clear that Syrian and Iranian influence on Hezbollah undermines the ability of the region to embark on peace, stability and prosperity. Hezbollah’s principal weapons are terror and violence, but it also has a hand in aspects of the running of normal Lebanese life, such as the raising of taxes and the running of schools. That being so, what steps will my right hon. Friend take to build international support to ensure that the extremist influence of Hezbollah is minimised, not only militarily, but in civic life in Lebanon?

Margaret Beckett: I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s concerns and comments. There is now a widespread view in the international community that we need to take a fresh look at the situation in Lebanon. The international community needs to turn its attention to the implementation of resolution 1559 in particular, and to what can be done to help to support and strengthen the democratically elected Government of Lebanon, so that they are better fitted not only to rebuild what has been destroyed, but to conduct their country’s affairs in a way that will give them peace and security in future.

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Mr. Dismore: Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hezbollah is Syria’s proxy in Lebanon, and that it has been heavily armed by Syria and Iran, which thus bear considerable responsibility for the continuing tragedy in Lebanon and for the missiles that are raining down on Israeli cities? Does she agree that Iran has engineered the crisis to divert attention from its lack of response to the international community on its offer concerning civil nuclear power—no doubt the inference being that there is a nuclear weapons programme there? Does she agree that Hezbollah must be disarmed in accordance with UN resolution 1559 if a repetition of the present disastrous confrontation is to be avoided in future?

Margaret Beckett: I share my hon. Friend’s concerns, as I think does the whole House. I entirely take his point about the potential influence of Iran and Syria and their supplying of weapons, and his point about the timing of the issues. He alleges that the events were perhaps engineered by Iran, but whether they were or not, they are remarkably convenient for that Government.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): To what extent was our British Prime Minister in collusion with President Bush in giving Israel the go-ahead to wage unlimited war for 10 days, not just against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, but against civilians in residential Beirut, drawn from all faiths and nationalities—a war crime grimly reminiscent of the Nazi atrocity on the Jewish quarter of Warsaw?

Margaret Beckett: Since I reject the hon. Gentleman’s allegations, there is clearly nothing with which my right hon. Friend would have been in collusion.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance about the part of the population that needs to be looked after at the moment—the Christians of the Lebanon? Is she aware that some of the Protestant churches in that country have opened their doors as a sanctuary to Christians, but there is difficulty in getting food to them? Can she do something to help?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and of course I understand that all the communities in Lebanon are at risk and are placed at hazard by present events. One of the things to which, in recent days, we have given a great deal of attention, and are pressing with a great deal of urgency, is the potential for humanitarian action and relief. I anticipate that that will be high on the agenda of the core group meeting in Rome, which I shall attend tomorrow, but I will keep the right hon. Gentleman’s words in mind.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Ministers have been in the region and the US Secretary of State is now there. What discussions have there been about the proposal for an international force in the south of Lebanon, and is that being worked up in such a way that it will be introduced in the near future, rather than waiting several months until the conflict has subsided?

Margaret Beckett: There have been extensive discussions over many days—since very early on after
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the crisis began—about what contribution an international force could make, how it could be deployed and the range of arrangements, and that work continues intensively. As my hon. Friend and, I think, the House will fully understand, it will take time to put in place a substantial force. What I take to be the underlying thrust of his question is that we should all be seeking as early an end as possible to any hostilities or violence, and that that should not be linked to a full force being put in place, which might indeed take some time to arrange.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that only last year the Lebanese Government saw the back of the Syrians, who arm and organise Hezbollah, financed by Iran? The Lebanese Government have done very well disarming a number of other militia groups. Given that we have so far been unable to disarm the militias in Afghanistan or Iraq, is it right that Israel should be allowed to bully that entire country and put it back 20 years, in the words of one Israeli Minister, in order to get back at Hezbollah, the real villains?

Margaret Beckett: The chief thing with which I did not disagree in the remarks of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) was the concern that he expressed for the civilian population in Lebanon, as indeed people are concerned about the civilian population in Gaza. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) will appreciate that it creates difficulties when missiles are deliberately sited in civilian centres. That obviously leads to potential suffering— [Interruption.]—and death, as has just been said. But I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s view that what is happening to Lebanon is a tragedy, where the so-called cedar revolution was so frail and needed nurturing. I can assure him that it is very much part of all the intensive discussions that are taking place to consider how that Government can be sustained and supported. I believe that Prime Minister Siniora and other members of his team will be in Rome tomorrow.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Leaving aside any absurd comparison with what the Nazis did in Warsaw—that hardly helps the situation at all—is my right hon. Friend aware that people in the United Kingdom in the main had no time for Hezbollah and such organisations, but find it almost impossible to understand how Israel can act as it is, causing so many deaths and serious injuries to people who are in no way involved in Hezbollah? Is it not time that the United Kingdom——and one would like the United States also——to make it as loud and clear as possible to the Israeli authorities that what they are doing cannot be justified under any circumstances? That is the view, I believe, of the vast majority of people in this country.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend may be right that that is the widespread view in this country. I would only say to him that since the beginning of the crisis there has been a consistent thread of appeals for the utmost restraint—on both sides, by the way—from the G8, the Foreign Ministers Council of the European Union, and the European Council itself, all calling for a cessation of violence and conflict, in exactly the way that my hon. Friend seeks. I know from reports, for example from my
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hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, that there has indeed been a policy of deliberately siting missiles in the heart of civilian populations. I do not say that that is a reason for anything. I simply say that it is bound to cause difficulty when those missiles are continually raining down on Israel, and clearly there is pressure on Israel to attempt to take out those missile sites. That is a strong contributory factor to the terrible events that are taking place in Lebanon.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): We welcome the hard-hitting comments made by the Minister for the Middle East during his visit to the region at the weekend. We would go further and repeat the view, as Kofi Annan has said, that there should be an immediate ceasefire. Hezbollah and Hamas must return the soldiers and stop their attacks. But will the Foreign Secretary accept that, for as long as the United States, and, by extension, the United Kingdom, tolerate the disproportionate military response by the Israelis, the diplomatic efforts will be undermined completely?

Margaret Beckett: I can only say again to the hon. Gentleman that if he looks through the statements that have been made, which have always included a call for the return of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers as well as a cessation of violence and hostilities—the European Council called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the G8 called for an immediate cessation of violence—he will see that everything is being done through diplomatic channels to try to create the conditions in which not only can there be a ceasefire, but such a ceasefire can be maintained and can be durable. That, I fear, is probably the key to any kind of good outcome to the problems that we see at present.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Sheikh Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, has said:

Does she believe that the international community has the resolve to deal with such a threat?

Margaret Beckett: Certainly, Sheikh Nasrallah and his colleagues have done everything that they can to exacerbate what was already an extremely dangerous situation. I do not believe that the goals that they have set themselves are in the long-term interests either of the Islamic nation as a whole or of people in the middle east, because they seem to concentrate only on fear and terror, and it is on the road to peace and peace negotiations that, in the end, all parties to this conflict will have to end up, and the sooner they get there, the better for everyone concerned.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Foreign Secretary might have heard a representative of the Syrian Government on this morning’s “Today” programme indicating that, in their judgment, a lasting settlement to this human tragedy and crisis could come about only if the Syrian and Iranian Governments were involved. Could the Foreign Secretary give the House an assessment of that statement?

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Margaret Beckett: I heard a brief account of that, and certainly if what he is saying is that the Syrian and Iranian Governments have it in their power to contribute to a potential peaceful outcome, who can disagree with that? I just wish that I saw any signs that at the moment they wished to do so.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In rightly condemning the terrorism of Hezbollah, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that no party to this conflict has clean hands or occupies the moral high ground, that the father of the Israeli Foreign Minister, with whom my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East had talks, was a terrorist leader who organised the blowing up of the King David hotel in Jerusalem, to which the Israelis have just disgracefully unveiled a memorial plaque, and that it is absolutely essential that we follow up the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to solve this conflict and end the killing?

Margaret Beckett: I entirely share my right hon. Friend’s view that the best possible outcome is, as he says, for those who understand that the way forward is through peaceful negotiation and through the road map being heard in the region and beyond it, and for a move towards such negotiations to take place.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel’s demands for the return of kidnapped soldiers, an end to Hezbollah’s rocket attacks and the implementation of resolution 1559 are wholly legitimate, but that its case will be greatly strengthened by desisting from attacks on purely civil infrastructure and on other areas of Lebanon?

On the international buffer force that has been proposed, given that British troops are not available——and American troops perhaps not appropriate——and that the French have said that the idea is premature, is she confident that there can be put in place a sufficiently capable and well-equipped force when necessary?

Margaret Beckett: I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point that Israel’s legitimate demands are viewed against the prism of events taking place in Lebanon and, indeed, in Gaza, which there is a tendency for people not to mention, but where also we have grave concerns. The words “buffer force” do not fall happily on people’s ears in the area, but the right hon. Gentleman is certainly right to identify, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chair of the Select Committee did, that this will be time consuming and not easy, and that the mandate of such a force, and its nature and construction, will be a matter of difficult negotiation. I expect that that will be very much a part of the discussions in Rome tomorrow, but that is why I believe that one of the strong efforts that we must make is to see what can be done now to ameliorate the situation, partly and perhaps primarily in the short term through humanitarian means, but also what we can do to help to improve matters, because it will undoubtedly take some time to answer the very pertinent questions that he has just put.

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Mr. Hague: On Hezbollah’s international links, the Foreign Secretary has already acknowledged that in this crisis we must not lose sight of Iran’s nuclear programme. Is she confident that consensus will be maintained among the permanent members of the Security Council, that momentum will not be lost, that we will see swift agreement on a Security Council resolution under chapter VII of the UN charter and, if necessary, that any early sanctions on Iran will include a ban on the sale of military equipment?

Margaret Beckett: The extent to which consensus, unity and momentum have been maintained among the permanent five has been striking and for a lot of people, including Iran, surprising. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that it is vital both to try to maintain that unity and not to lose the momentum. Talk of sanctions is, perhaps, a little premature. If he casts his mind back to our detailed statement to Iran, which is now in the public domain, he will recall that we deliberately set out a gradual progression of steps in order to make it easy to draw back if there was a response. He has rightly identified a possible key area, if sanctions have to be considered.

International Arms Trade Treaty

2. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): What progress has been made towards an international arms trade treaty; and if she will make a statement. [87868]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We are committed to securing an international treaty on the trade in all conventional arms, and we intend to introduce a resolution in the United Nations first committee this autumn to progress the initiative. With other supportive countries, we are now circulating an initial draft resolution, which we hope will stimulate debate and help to secure the broad international support required.

Anne Snelgrove: That is welcome news, and I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for her work in that area. Does she agree that the language on human rights in the resolution must be robust? Will she reassure me that the UK and other signatories will press for the strictest possible guidelines on the arms trade? And does she agree that it would be much better for the security and safety of the world if the UN could report on the international arms trade treaty before 2008?

Margaret Beckett: Of course, I take my hon. Friend’s observations very seriously, and I share her view that we must do as much as we can to make the resolution as strong as possible. An initial draft text is being circulated this week by a consortium of nations from across the globe, of which the UK is one. She is right to try to set a time line for about 2008 for some of those issues to be considered further. However, the process will take time, and it is important for the House to recognise that we are at the preliminary stage of the discussions. Nevertheless, I hope that the core principles can be agreed in this Parliament, but there will undoubtedly be tough negotiations about the detail.

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Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State press ahead with all speed and diligence, confident in the knowledge that the lobbying is the work of not only pressure groups, but a vast number of ordinary people in this country, including, of course, the Christian Churches and the defence industry? The Defence Manufacturers Association and those involved in defence exports want to see a treaty, so they can differentiate from those who are following the law and those who are cheating, which destroys the lives of innocent people around the world.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an extremely important point. As he rightly says, there is huge popular support for this move. Hon. Members will have already seen that in their constituencies, and I expect them to see more in future. He is also right to identify that there is support not only among non-governmental organisations but, crucially, in the defence industry. That is an enormously important feature of this campaign and one that should assist in its success.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the statement that we are making some progress in this respect. There has been a bit of a lull over the past few years in trying to negotiate an international treaty. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that small arms, in particular, are central to everything that is done? As she knows, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are killed and maimed every year by the small arms that are sometimes brokered beyond these shores, even under our existing law. Will she ensure that that loophole is closed as part of the international treaty?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have given a great deal of attention to that; indeed, we have restarted the process in Geneva. He is spot on in identifying this as a key area where action is needed. However, because such arms are so widespread, it is also an area of considerable sensitivity that needs a great deal of attention, support and work, which we will indeed give it.

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