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5. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the political situation in Iran; and if she will make a statement. [98352]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We remain deeply concerned about the political situation in Iran. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms continues to deteriorate, and Iran is increasingly isolated as a result of its support for terrorist groups, its attitude towards Israel and its role in Iraq and Lebanon. The regime is thus preventing Iranians from enjoying the political and economic benefits that would flow from an improved relationship with the European Union and the rest of the international community.

Peter Luff: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, but we have of course all seen the reports that the United States of America may be seeking Iran’s co-operation in the next stage of the operation in Iraq. Does the right hon. Lady think that there is any contradiction between such an approach on one hand and, on the other, attempts to isolate and censure Iran both for serious breaches of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and for human rights abuses?

Margaret Beckett: No one is trying to. In so far as Iran is isolated, Iran is isolating itself. In particular, with regard to breaches on the nuclear file, the international community has bent over backwards to offer Iran what it says that it wants: access to modern civil nuclear power. I do not think that there is any inconsistency. We recognise that Iran is a major player in the world and the region, and that it could play a very positive role, and we would like to see it do so.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): Following that question, may I say to my right hon. Friend that I thought that her interview on the radio some weeks ago about the position in Iraq and how it relates to Iran was admirable? It showed clear and forward thinking. Does she believe that, for a future constitutional settlement in Iraq that was stable and that allowed the withdrawal of British and American troops, there would need to be an understanding on that constitutional position that had at least a large measure of support from the Iranian Government and also the Syrian Government? If she does believe that that has to be taken into account, will she indicate to the House what kind of initiatives she might be willing to take?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, but I hope and believe that we are a long way from considering a different kind of constitutional settlement in Iraq. There is a great deal still to be done in Iraq—I do not want to pre-empt the debate later and I know that you would not wish me to do so, Mr. Speaker—but we remain of the view that it is in the interests of the people of Iraq for the country to be united and to remain united, and for the Government to be united and to work on the security and services issues that are of such concern to their people.

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My hon. Friend makes an important and serious point about the influence that either Iran or Syria can have in the region, but all that I would say is that I know that he will forgive me if I tread with considerable caution, because, after all, it is the people of Iraq in whose hands the future of their country must lie. I am in no doubt at all from conversations that I have had with members of that country’s Government that there would be great resentment if it were believed that other countries were trying to run theirs.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I ask the Foreign Secretary, for whom I have great regard and respect, how we can improve our relationship with Iran? She indicated in an earlier reply that she believes that Iran is highly influential in its particular region of the world. Like her, I believe that perhaps Iran is the linchpin of a peaceful settlement in the middle east. What can be done by our Government, and the House through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to improve our relationship with Iran and its current leadership?

Margaret Beckett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I know that he is well aware that I return his regard and respect, due to the exchanges that we have had in the House over many years. [ Interruption. ] It is all right, we are moving on. However, the question that he is asking is one of the most difficult in present-day foreign policy and one that everyone is mulling over in their minds. How is it possible to improve a relationship with a country that, on the one hand, says that it wishes for that improved relationship, but, on the other, does not engage, even in the most favourable circumstances, in constructive dialogue with the rest of the international community? For example, we continue to offer Iran a way out of the dispute over the nuclear file. The door remains open on those negotiations and we would be willing to undo any steps that were taken, if Iran were to come into compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency advice.

With regard to the role played by organisations such as the IPU, I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that that kind of parliamentarian-to-parliamentarian relationship can be of merit and value and I would welcome any steps taken in that regard.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): How much more difficult is the Secretary of State’s task of protecting and promoting United Kingdom interests in relation to Iran and persuading Iran to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency when a leading Opposition spokesperson writes in The Daily Telegraph that he thinks that Iran should be allowed to have a nuclear weapon? I am referring to the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who I understand aspires to be in government, as a member of the shadow Cabinet. Given that that is also read in Iran, does it make the situation more difficult?

Margaret Beckett: I share my hon. Friend’s view that that is extremely unhelpful. One can only hope that in Iran they are as aware of the reputation of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) as a jokester as people are here.

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Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Not dissenting entirely from the Foreign Secretary’s last comment, may I ask whether she shares the legitimate concern that in the nine months since Iran was referred to the Security Council, no concrete measure to curtail its pursuit of nuclear weapons has been agreed—not for want of trying by the British Government, I recognise? Will she be redoubling the Government’s efforts in the coming days to ensure that a strong Security Council resolution on weapons programmes, arms sales, visa bans and asset freezes will be agreed so that the united resolve that has been shown over North Korea can also be shown over Iran?

Margaret Beckett: The discussion as to the content of any such Security Council resolution is quite difficult. We said in Vienna during some of the earliest talks that we had—certainly during my tenure in this office—that we wished to proceed incrementally precisely so that we could ratchet up pressure, but be ready to reduce that if it appeared to be having an effect and causing Iran to move. That is what we really want. No one wants to implement sanctions; we want to get into negotiations on the basis of Iranian agreement. We will keep up the pressure. Indeed, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I was having conversations on exactly that matter with the relevant people only this morning.


6. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What recent discussions she has had about the continuation of the African Union force in Darfur; and if she will make a statement. [98354]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The African Union force plays a vital role. It is imperative, as an interim step, that the force stays and is strengthened until a United Nations force arrives. We were the first country to finance the African Union force and we will continue supporting it until a UN force deploys. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development discussed the force when visiting Darfur on 16 October.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that considered reply. Given that the United Nations has been no more effective at protecting life in Darfur than it was in Srebrenica or Rwanda more than a decade ago, does he agree that the time has now come for the international community unambiguously to accept the responsibility to protect, to ignore the posturing by the Sudanese Government, and to set about enforcing the no-fly zone over Darfur so that the African Union force can at least have some cover when it is offering invaluable protection to vulnerable civilians?

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman has made some very sensible suggestions. This test for the United Nations is as great as any that it has faced over the past 20 years. If we do not step up to the mark, if nations do not realise that the situation is desperate—we are trying to alter it through diplomacy—and if we cannot step up our action, I fear that we will live to shame our behaviour on Darfur.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will be aware that Salva Kiir, the vice-president of Sudan, is visiting London. I and other hon. Members had the opportunity to meet him yesterday. The message from Salva Kiir is that the comprehensive peace agreement will come under enormous strain until and unless the Darfur situation is sorted out. Cleary there is a split in the Government in Khartoum, and, in the meantime, there has to be some bolstering of the AU forces. Does my hon. Friend agree that the sands of time will run out unless action is taken to bolster those forces and that this Government have a great stake in making sure that that happens?

Dr. Howells: I agree very much. Ministers and senior officials are engaging international partners to ensure that there is unified pressure on the Sudanese Government to accept a UN force, agree to a ceasefire and commit to a renewed political settlement with the rebels. We have a team of diplomats working in Darfur with parties to the Darfur peace agreement to bring non-signatories into the political process. We are assisting the African Union to implement the Darfur peace agreement.

The United Kingdom has not been mean in its financial assistance to the African Union. We have pledged a total of £52 million in financial assistance to AMIS, including £20 million pledged in this financial year. We are the second biggest bilateral humanitarian donor to the Darfur crisis, and since April 2004 we have contributed over £190 million in humanitarian assistance to Sudan. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) just told us, however, we have to do a lot more, and that means galvanising the opinion of UN member states to take much tougher and more focused action.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): The whole House is united in its horror and disgust at the killings and suffering in Darfur, the scale of which was underlined by the expelled UN envoy Jan Pronk, when he said that the Sudanese armed forces


Further to the question by the hon. Member for Buckingham, will the Minister tell us whether enforcement of the no-fly zone is actively being considered?

On the broader issues in Darfur, does the Minister agree that China and Russia hold the key to the credibility of the United Nations in this instance, and that they must robustly ensure that the resolution is implemented in full?

Dr. Howells: It is difficult to understand, in diplomatic terms anyway, why Russia, China and, of course, Qatar abstained in the crucial vote on Sudan, although we are glad that they abstained rather than trying to veto any movement on this issue. We have to consider all means of trying to put pressure on the Sudanese Government to make progress on this issue, and there is a range of options that we can look at, including sanctions and proper monitoring of military activity. We must do everything that we can to try to enforce the African Union mission force so that it becomes more, not less, effective. However, we must
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remember that its remit runs out on 31 December, and our aim must be to get a UN force in there to do what it, and no one else, can do.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I am very heartened by the Minister’s statement that the UN force is on the way out there. The remark by the hon. Member for Buckingham comparing this situation with Rwanda is very telling. I spent time in Rwanda during the summer and read extensively on that and Darfur; the similarities are incredible. People are talking about civil war when what we are watching is genocide committed by a Muslim-Arab Government on a non-Muslim and prominently Christian population of Africans. To do the job properly, we need the forces to have not only the necessary numbers, but the right rules of engagement. What will be the rules of engagement for the UN force which will make the mission effective and stop this genocide now before it is just like Rwanda—something for which we will apologise for the rest of this century?

Dr. Howells: The UN force will be operating primarily under chapter 6 but partially under chapter 7, which gives it the right to take action against armed groups who are blocking the peace process. That will be a step forward.

I know that my hon. Friend has done a lot of work on this dreadful situation, but I have to say to him that there are many hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are being put under the hammer by the Sudanese Government forces, the Janjaweed and so on. We must not assume that this is a religious war. Elements of it are an attempt by the Khartoum Government to hit opposition of all sorts. We must be careful to recognise that a great many Muslims are suffering at the same time.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is reported in the press this morning that the Vice-President of Sudan will be seeing the Prime Minister this afternoon. Can the Minister give the House an indication of what those talks might contain? The humanitarian situation, which was described by the UN as being the worst in the world, the number of people killed, the 2 million displaced people and now the increasing tide of refugees into Chad, which is destabilising that country, are totally unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister tell the Vice-President that if he does not allow the UN force into Sudan by 31 December, the British Government will go back to the United Nations to seek a renewed mandate under chapter 7, so that a force can go in by force to improve the situation?

Dr. Howells: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the United Kingdom cannot do that alone. We must try to persuade other Security Council members to act with the same determination as this country to bring peace to that region and to put pressure on the Sudanese Government. Everything the hon. Gentleman says about that dreadful situation is true, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be repeating that to a Sudanese politician who has done a great deal to try to bring about reconciliation, especially in the south of Sudan, and who should be congratulated on that.

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7. Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): What contacts the Government have had with tribal leaders in Afghanistan. [98355]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The Government and the international security assistance force—ISAF—recognise the importance of engaging with local communities to help deliver security and as a key element of the work of provincial reconstruction teams—PRTs—which are helping to deliver better governance and support reconstruction and development. The United Kingdom, through its military personnel and civilians based in its PRT in Helmand, regularly engages with local community leaders.

Dr. Pugh: I thank the Minister for that constructive answer. Does he acknowledge that working with the traditional tribal structures is as important as working with the Government in Kabul in order to secure a lasting peace? I have recent e-mails from a paramount chief in Afghanistan, who calls for massive development work and also for direct negotiations with tribal chiefs to bring peace and weaken the Taliban’s grip. Will the Minister comment on that, please?

Dr. Howells: After many trips to Afghanistan, it is clear to me that there will not be some kind of military victory in Afghanistan in one day or in the future; there must be political engagement. For that to be successful, all parties must recognise the structure and the culture of Afghan society. That means engaging with tribal jirgas and understanding the importance of that tribal culture. In some parts of Afghanistan, it determines what happens on a day-to-day basis, so if we ignore it, we do so at our peril.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): If my hon. Friend engages in talks with tribal leaders, will he ensure that justice for women is on the agenda? Although we all applaud the progress made by women in education and in democratic elections, violence against women, particularly honour killings, is on the rise. Human rights workers—Afghan women—have been killed, and there is a high rate of child marriages and abduction of young women. In our dealings with Afghanistan, will my hon. Friend ensure that Security Council resolution 1325 is fully implemented?

Dr. Howells: Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is right to highlight those matters. It is written into the Afghan constitution that women’s rights are equal to men’s rights, and that they should have equal protection and enjoy every opportunity that men do. That does not happen, of course. In reply to the question from the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), I noted that in many places Afghanistan still has a profoundly tribal culture, which means that we must take those issues on as well. That means working with the new Parliament, which has a high percentage of women Members, in order to fight for the changes that my hon. Friend has defended so often in so many venues. We stand by her. Those are some of the most important issues facing the new Afghan Parliament, and we will do everything we can to support it.

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Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Does the Minister recall that the chairman of the House international relations committee in the United States has called on the US Administration to alter their strategy against opium production in Afghanistan, describing the poppy eradication programme as “a failure”? I recognise the immense difficulties in that area, but opium cultivation in Afghanistan has increased by 59 per cent. this year. Are the Government considering changing their strategy? Is there full agreement between the UK, US and Afghan Governments on the most effective way forward, and what is it?

Dr. Howells: We confer regularly—day by day and week by week—with the Afghan Government and the other allies in Afghanistan about that question. The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the increase in the opium crop in the past 12 months, which is shocking and disappointing. He should examine the UN Office on Drugs and Crime report—I know that the executive summary only has been published, but I hope that the full report will be published shortly. In some provinces, the remit of the democratically elected Government has been extended and means something—for example, improvements in infrastructure. However, that remit has hardly touched other areas, such as Helmand province, which we have just moved into, and such provinces are where the greatest increases in opium poppy production have occurred. We must learn a lesson from that. It is possible, and it has been seen to be possible in more stable regions such as Mazar-i-Sharif, to see a decline in opium production, where it is clear to farmers that they can grow something else because there are other markets such as those for fruit and wheat. It will be a long haul, and we were all too optimistic about the possibility of decreasing opium production.

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