5 Dec 2006 : Column 137

5 Dec 2006 : Column 137

House of Commons

Tuesday 5 December 2006

The House met at half-past Two 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. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): What steps are being taken in pursuance of United Nations resolution 1701 to disarm Hezbollah and secure the release of Israeli soldiers held hostage. [107305]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The deployment of the Lebanese armed forces and UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—in southern Lebanon in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1701 has had a positive effect on security in the area and has helped to reaffirm the authority of the Government of Lebanon. That Government should be the only body able to authorise use of force in Lebanon.

My visit to Lebanon on 1 and 2 December was undertaken to show support for the constitutionally elected Government and for the full implementation of the UN resolution. We continue to call for the immediate release of captured Israeli soldiers and support efforts by the UN to broker their release.

Mr. Scott: Will the Foreign Secretary lobby further the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross on the release of the two Israeli hostages? There have been no reports on either of them and their families have had no word on whether they are alive. I ask for that lobbying to take place immediately.

Margaret Beckett: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we keep in continual contact with all the many disparate individuals and groups endeavouring to obtain the release of the soldiers. Indeed, I met the wife of one of them in London a few days ago. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is particularly tragic that those holding the soldiers have so far not even been prepared to provide proof of life. That is very distressing for the families. Everyone is doing everything they can to procure the soldiers’ release.

5 Dec 2006 : Column 138

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the UNIFIL commander, General Pellegrini, has stated that he is unable to prevent arms from Iran and Syria from being passed to Hezbollah? How seriously does she take that violation of the UN resolution?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend probably knows, we take such issues very seriously and we continue to work with the Lebanese authorities—and to work through the European Union—to do everything that can be done to strengthen border security. There are obviously concerns about arms passing across the border. At present, there is a certain amount of dispute about whether, and to what degree, such transfer is taking place, but all such transfer is undesirable and we will try to halt it.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary join me in welcoming the Israeli Government’s decision not to take immediate retaliatory action if they suffer rocket attacks? Does she agree that that is a courageous decision that might help the middle east peace process, particularly if Hamas can play its part by restraining the Palestinians from launching such attacks?

Margaret Beckett: I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I think that most people would. There have been many previous attempts to pursue the peace process, and many of them havebeen bedevilled by one side or another reacting very swiftly to provocations that were clearly designed to undermine it. The step that he mentions is very welcome, and I share his hope that such restraint is shown on both sides.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Violations of resolution 1701 are obviously unacceptable from whichever side they come. Therefore, would my right hon. Friend also care to comment on the large number of Israeli overflights of Lebanon, which also violate resolution 1701? What representations is she making on that, bearing in mind that such overflights have been taking place since well before the events of this summer?

Margaret Beckett: I can tell my hon. Friend that we have indeed made repeated representations to the Israeli Government on the issue of overflight, particularly since the events of the summer. I am sure he knows that this discussion goes straight back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on whether arms continue to flow into Lebanon. Nevertheless, we accept that that tactic can bring considerable dangers in itself, and we have urged the Israeli Government to cease using it.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Foreign Secretary said that she was recently in Lebanon giving support to the Lebanese Government. Is she convinced that they will be able to face down the extra-parliamentary demonstrations that are taking place, or is she concerned that they will result in the fall of the Lebanese Government and effectively lead to a Hezbollah regime that will be to the benefit of neither the Lebanese people nor Lebanon’s neighbours?

5 Dec 2006 : Column 139

Margaret Beckett: There can be no certainty about the situation in Lebanon, and I share the concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. Certainly, the step that is being taken, with the clearly expressed wish of bringing down the elected Government, is potentially very damaging and destabilising. When I was in Lebanon, among the points I made to my many interlocutors were, first, that the international community supports the Government—whom the people of Lebanon themselves elected—and secondly, that there are many pressing issues and problems on the plate of that Government and of the Lebanese people in reconstructing their country, and that that should surely be their top priority.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): As the Israeli soldiers remain captive four months after a war that devastated large parts of Lebanon and killed huge numbers of Lebanese civilians—and Israeli civilians, too—does that not make the visit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Washington this week all the more important in terms of emphasising that none of these problems can be solved without an overall settlement in the middle east?

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. We have repeatedly made the point—not only in Lebanon, but at the broader middle east conference in Jordan a couple of days beforehand—that although moves toward a peace process in Israel and Palestine are not sufficient to solve all the problems of the region, they are a necessary step, since none of the other problems of the region is likely to be resolved without them.


2. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What recent discussions she has had with the Government of Iraq and other Governments about war reparations. [107306]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I have met the Governments of key debt holders and urged them to consider the long-term benefits of reducing the burden of Saddam Hussein’s legacy, including the financial burden. As part of the Paris Club creditors’ agreement, the United Kingdom has agreed to forgive 80 per cent. of the Iraqi debt to the UK. Other countries have also slashed Iraqi debt, but some—especially among Iraq’s Arab neighbours—have declined to do so. We continue to encourage others to follow our lead in order to help significantly with the vital reconstruction of the Iraqi economy.

Dr. Cable: I welcome the tone of the Minister’s reply, but why have the Government acquiesced in an arrangement whereby $40 billion of Iraqi oil money that should have gone into reconstruction and development has been siphoned off for reparations, including very large payments to companies such as Bechtel, Halliburton and even Kentucky Fried Chicken for lost profit opportunities during the first Gulf war? Is that not obscene, as well as stupid?

Dr. Howells: I am not entirely sure that I go along with the adjectives that the hon. Gentleman has just used. I remind him and the House that reparations for
5 Dec 2006 : Column 140
losses incurred as a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait have been dealt with by the United Nations Compensation Commission, which was set up by the United Nations Security Council in 1993. These have been paid out of the UNCC compensation fund, and payments to British recipients have now been completed.

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, in that the vital need is to reconstruct Iraq. This situation does not help and is unsatisfactory, and I certainly agree that the new democratic Iraqi Government should not have to pay for the crimes of Saddam. However, thosewho loaned money to Iraq and who suffered under the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait have a right to expect recompense—a right that was recognised, as I said, by the United Nations.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend not agree that the UNCC regime must be brought to an end? It undermines the democratically elected Government of Iraq, because they are forced to levy their oil revenues to pay wealthy Kuwaitis and American big business. It is a regime imposed by the United Nations that was appropriate in its time, but its time is now over. Will the Government help to bring it to an end?

Dr. Howells: We have made it clear to the Paris Club creditors’ that this debt burden is a significant hindrance to the reconstruction of Iraq. However, I should point out that many honest businesses and countries suffered as a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait—not least the Kuwaitis themselves. I am sure that in a perfect world we could bring this situation to early closure, and we have to convince those Governments and companies that that is the right thing to do. Believe me, some of those Governments and companies feel extremely bitter about the losses that occurred as a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s illegal action.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Does the Minister agree that a resolution of the reparations question must involve the regional powers, such as Syria and Iran, and that an allied withdrawal from Iraq would force those countries to face up to their responsibilities in the region? Rather than arming the militias in Iraq and fomenting the civil war there, they should start to build for stability. So in fact, an allied withdrawal might accelerate peace and stability in the region.

Dr. Howells: I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that Syria and Iran—the two main countries that he is talking about—should take a much more positive role to try to bring stability and prosperity to Iraq. We have to talk not just to the Syrians and the Iranians, but, most importantly, tothe Iraqi Government—the democratically elected Government of Prime Minister al-Maliki. They have made it clear to us that they want a transfer of responsibility for security and for shaping the future of their own country. They very much hope that their neighbours will play a more positive role, and have been trying to achieve that in discussions with Syria and Iran.

5 Dec 2006 : Column 141

I note that Syria, for example, is to open an embassy in Baghdad, which is a good move. However, I am not sure that a hasty retreat from Iraq would necessarily help that process. We have to undertake it in stages carefully and, most importantly, with the co-operation of the Iraqi Government.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): What are the Government doing to improve quality of life for ordinary Iraqis, in southern Iraq in particular?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question, as those issues hardly get any coverage in this country. I was in Basra last week and saw for myself how initiatives such as Operations Sinbad and Better Basra are achieving a great deal. I know that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who speaks on foreign affairs for Her Majesty’s Opposition, has also been in Iraq recently.

I saw one project that alone involves the planting of 8,000 date palms, as part of Operation Sinbad, and employs 4,000 people in Basra. What Basra needs above all is for young men and women to get jobs and not to be prey to the militias that cynically use them to kill our troops. Many good things are happening in southern Iraq, and in the Basra area in particular, which is reflected in the urge of the provincial Government and other authorities in southern Iraq to take on more responsibility.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): While we are talking about war reparations, will my hon. Friend look at the situation of the British people taken hostage in Kuwait when a British Airways plane landed there during the invasion of that country by Saddam Hussein? Many of those families were taken to Iraq as human shields and many are still suffering from the trauma of their ordeal. The Americans on the plane received compensation; the British never have. Will my hon. Friend look again at the matter?

Dr. Howells: I will be only too glad to do so. I know that my right hon. Friend feels strongly about what happened during the early days and weeks after the invasion of Kuwait. I believe that a comprehensive statement was issued by the previous Government, and I shall be glad to furnish her with a copy so that she and I between us might be able to discover what compensation might be paid out.

Cluster Munitions

3. Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): What assessment she has made of progress towards banning cluster munitions; and if she will make a statement. [107307]

8. Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): What assessment she has made of progress towards banning cluster munitions; and if she will make a statement. [107312]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The United Kingdom raised the question of cluster munitions at the recent review conference on the convention of certain conventional weapons, and we
5 Dec 2006 : Column 142
secured an agreement to hold urgent expert-level discussions on their humanitarian impact. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East explained Government policy in a written ministerial statement issued yesterday.

Mr. Leech: In the 108 days since the ceasefire,177 people have been injured or killed by unexploded bomblets from cluster munitions in southern Lebanon. If casualties continue at the current rate, by 2007, when the Government’s proposed discussions are to take place, the figure will have risen to 500. Will the Minister make a commitment to hold truly urgent discussions with the Israeli Government regarding their violation of international law through their use of cluster bombs this summer?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman sets out clearly the nature of the problem. That is why the United Kingdom led the initiative at the recent CCW review conference for urgent discussions to take forward a comprehensive solution to the problem he describes so well. In addition, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary demonstrated on her recent visit to the area, the UK Government have provided financial assistance for the clearance of unexploded ordnance in southern Lebanon and we will continue to provide such assistance.

Willie Rennie: The Government have been trying to draw a clear distinction between smart and dumb cluster bombs—the latter of which they apparently disapprove of. Why then are they waiting until the middle of the next decade before ridding themselves of the large stockpile of dumb cluster munitions? Why not ditch them now?

Mr. Hoon: I accept the implicit criticism in the hon. Gentleman’s observation about the distinction between smart and dumb weapons. However, the matter is not as clear cut as that. There is no internationally agreed definition. He has to face up to the fact that that weapons system, if used properly and in accordance with humanitarian law—that is, where there is no direct threat to the lives of civilians—is the most effective weapon for dealing with armour. He has to bear it in mind that, for example, if that weapons system was not available to British forces under threat from an armoured group, large amounts of high explosives would be required to deal with that threat, so there would be greater risk to the civilian population and greater risk of further damage to people in the area.

That is why it is appropriate to use this weapons system in accordance with humanitarian law, but at the same time to ensure that we take steps as best we can to reach an agreement internationally that, in particular, those weapons that cannot be properly targeted—those considered dumb, in the language that the hon. Gentleman uses—should not be used by any country.

Mr. Shahid Malik (Dewsbury) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, according to the Mines Advisory Group and a cross-party group that was in Lebanon last month, some 32.7 million sq m of land are infected and contaminated by cluster munitions? According to the Mines Advisory Group, if the Israelis were to give it grid references for the 1.2 million bombs
5 Dec 2006 : Column 143
that were let loose in the last three days of action, instead of three children dying a day, as is the case, the number would, it hopes, be much less. Will he use his good offices to ensure that we put sufficient pressure on the Israeli Government to move forward on this important issue?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is quite right. We have repeatedly urged the Israeli Government to provide the UN with detailed maps and other help in locating unexploded cluster munitions in the area that he describes. There is, however, a very determined effort under way to clear that area of unexploded weapons. As I have already indicated, we have given significant financial help to that effort.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Although I understand my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the military capability of thoseweapons, does he understand that the humanitarian consequences are so vast that there is a requirement to move as quickly as possible? What assessment has he made of the progress and what chance does he think there is of reaching an international solution in the way that we did for land mines?

Mr. Hoon: That is why the United Kingdom has adopted the approach that I set out. What is important is that we secure an international agreement in precisely the way that we did in relation to land mines, as my hon. Friend indicated. It is important that all countries move together as part of international law on this question. However, I emphasise that the United Kingdom’s use of that particular weapons system is always governed by humanitarian law.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): But should not equal priority be given to removing the causesof conflict, which lead to the use of destructive armaments such as these and, for that matter, the 4,000 missiles that were rained down on Israeli towns and cities at the beginning of this conflict and which have a pretty contaminating and non-humanitarian impact on those who are on the receiving end of them?

Will the Minister give equal priority to supporting all those in the middle east who seek a peaceful solution, including the President of the Palestinian Authority and the Prime Minister of Israel? Would not a good start be made if there was an initial settlement that led to the release of the two hostages, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev?

Mr. Hoon: Of course, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, as I mentioned, were in the region very recently, as was my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East. So, a determined effort has been made by the Government, and will go on being made, to reduce the causes of conflict and to find a way back to a peace process.

Next Section Index Home Page