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20 Feb 2007 : Column 133

House of Commons

Tuesday 20 February 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Broads Authority Bill [by order]

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 27 February.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the US Administration on relations with Syria. [121315]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): In our regular and ongoing discussions with the United States, relations with Syria feature from time to time. The UK and the US have some of the same concerns. We would like to have an improved relationship with Syria, but that requires them to play a more constructive role in the region.

Helen Jones: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does she agree that, since it is now increasingly difficult to persuade the public in Israel of the value of unilateral withdrawals from territory, one of the best hopes of forwarding the peace process lies in improving relations with Syria and persuading them to engage in constructive negotiations with Israel? Will she do all she can to persuade the United States to forward that initiative, particularly to persuade them that if a breakthrough can be achieved with Syria, that might influence in turn the Hamas members of the Palestinian Government?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. It is certainly the case that most people would like nothing better than to see constructive negotiations taking place, as she suggests, to address some of the difficult and complex issues in the middle east. There is really no need for me to persuade the United States: the US, in common with ourselves, would like nothing better than to feel that there is a possibility of constructive discussion and
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negotiation with Syria over a number of these issues—not least, as my hon. Friend says, in the context of the influence on Hamas. Sadly, although we constantly look for signs that that is the approach, it is not yet as evident as we would like.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Since Syria seems to continue to violate UN resolution 1701 by allowing the smuggling of arms into southern Lebanon, what effective steps are the Government taking to prevent Syrian interference in the fragility of southern Lebanon, to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah and, of course, to obtain the release of the Israeli soldiers?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman will know that there are now more than 11,000 UNIFIL soldiers in Lebanon; he will also know that we are not direct contributors to that force, but we are nevertheless acting in support of it in so far as we can. He is right to say that there are continued and rather alarming allegations of continued flow of arms across the border. We are in continuing discussion with our colleagues, not least our German colleagues, who are active on the ground in that respect and we are doing what we can to help and support them. The hon. Gentleman will know that the concern that he has just expressed is shared by the whole international community—not least by the UN Secretary-General, who expressed exactly the same anxieties quite recently.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the very close links between the Syrian communities and the Iraqi communities. She will also be aware not only of the historic links, but of significant migration from Iraq to Syria over the last three or four years. In her discussions with the Syrian Government, has she raised the issue of the Syrian relationship with the future in Iraq—looking to the time when there will, hopefully, be a withdrawal of troops—and asked the Syrian Government their view of the future political settlement within Iraq?

Margaret Beckett: First, my hon. Friend is entirely right—I know that he is aware of these issues from his ministerial experience—about the relationships between the communities of Syria and Iraq. He will know that not long ago Syria opened an embassy in Iraq, which we welcome. Perhaps more importantly, continued discussion between the Government of Syria and the Government of Iraq is taking place on these issues. For our part, we continue in dialogue with the Syrian Government to encourage them to adopt a better relationship with the Government and the people of Iraq and to recognise their responsibilities for helping the Government of Iraq to deal with the security situation and other problems there. We have not discussed possible future relationships with Iraq as a whole other than to urge support for the present democratically elected Iraqi Government.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): It is the view of the Syrian Government that the last serious negotiations over the Golan and Israel were stymied by the intervention of the United States. What is the Foreign Secretary’s view? Would it not be better for us
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to support those members of the Syrian Government who are anxious to advance a deal and to act responsibility, as she has requested?

Margaret Beckett: Whoever may have been responsible for the breakdown of talks on previous occasions, everyone recognises that, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), these issues can only and best be resolved through continued negotiation. The hon. Gentleman will know that proposals about what should happen in the Golan are part of the road map and would be subject to any final status decisions on the outcome of negotiations over that road map. There is certainly strong recognition that these issues are linked and that they are and should be part of the same peace process. The hon. Gentleman will know of the strong drive to reinvigorate that process.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Is the Secretary of State not concerned about regional security, including that of Syria, given the emerging reports about the US planning for a military attack on Iran? Do the UK Government not agree that military threats—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This question is not about Iran.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether any positive results came from the visit by Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Syria in October? From her opening response, it sounds as though no such positive results were achieved. Are there any further plans for such visits by envoys to Syria in the coming months? Given that the Baker-Hamilton report called for a new diplomatic offensive by the United States to engage Syria in constructive policies, and that the Prime Minister appeared to endorse those calls in his speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in November, is the United States now showing any signs of being prepared to engage with Syria in that way, if the intention were reciprocated? Would it not be a great mistake for the United States not to be prepared to do so?

Margaret Beckett: There were indeed positive results, in that Syria expressed a willingness to become more constructively engaged with the Government of Iraq. Shortly thereafter, there followed a visit by the Syrian Foreign Minister to Iraq and further discussions between the two Governments. I believe also that it is not long since the President of Iraq went to Syria, and, as I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), Syria has now set up an embassy in Iraq. So, yes, there were positive results, and we continue to look for further signs of Syrian willingness to act more constructively in the region. We therefore continue to keep under consideration whether there would be merit in further contacts in the coming months, as does the European Union, where there is much discussion on whether and how it would be possible to encourage a more constructive relationship with Syria. The question of whether the United States should have more contact with Syria, if the willingness to do so were thought to be reciprocal, is a matter for the Government of the United States.

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3. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the political situation in Darfur. [121317]

11. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): What recent assessment she has made of the political situation in Darfur. [121325]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The situation in Darfur is completely unacceptable. We utterly condemn the violence targeting civilians and humanitarian workers. The Government of Sudan must stop their bombing. We are supporting the efforts of the United Nations and the African Union to achieve an immediate ceasefire; a political process to bring in the non-signatory rebel groups; and a hybrid African Union-UN peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, it is vital that the African Union mission in Sudan continue to operate. The UK remains one of its leading funders; we have committed £67 million to date.

Mr. Brown: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He mentioned the excellent work being undertaken by the humanitarian aid workers, and I want to raise the issue of the tragedy of the ongoing attacks on those workers, who are doing their utmost to help the beleaguered people of the Darfur region. What can the Government and their counterparts in Europe do to encourage more support and assistance, so as to prevent further such attacks?

Mr. McCartney: In my answer, I described the measures that we need to take, but let us be clear that, following the attacks on 19 January, we made an immediate response. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development condemned the attacks, we have written to the Sudanese Government to protest, and we are calling for the police and security officers responsible to face appropriate judicial action. In addition, the United Nations has condemned the attacks and the decline of security in Darfur. I hope that, in the discussions that will take place in the next few days, we shall be able to move forward on these issues to ensure that all aid workers can operate effectively without fearing for their lives.

Jim Dobbin: Does the Minister think that the time has come for sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes to be imposed on Sudanese companies, and on those ruling party officials who travel around the world doing business?

Mr. McCartney: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have made it clear that if the violence does not cease and if there is no co-operation towards achieving a political solution, we could move to tougher measures, including sanctions. Decisions on individual sanctions would have to be taken by the UN sanctions committee in New York, so I cannot comment on individual cases ahead of any such decisions. Let me make it quite clear, however, that we are prepared to move to that position.

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John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the Sudanese Government’s genocide policy in Darfur has now spread to Chad and the Central African Republic, and that diplomatic sorcery by the regime has thus far precluded any concerted action to prevent the continued slaughter of black Africans, does the right hon. Gentleman consider that the time is now right for the European Union to apply sanctions on a selective and targeted basis against this most despicable regime?

Mr. McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and the concern that he expresses regularly about the issue. We are very concerned about inter-ethnic fighting in eastern Chad and attacks by militias from Sudan. The UN has sent a technical assessment mission to eastern Chad that should report back on the situation in the next few days. The Security Council is now considering what steps to take next. As I said in response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), we are considering appropriate sanctions, but that would have to be done in the context of the United Nations.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): How did we get ourselves into the crazy situation in which, effectively, the Government of Sudan have a de facto right of veto on any action by the United Nations? Some months ago, the Prime Minister espoused the concept of the responsibility to protect. Where is that responsibility in Darfur? It simply is not happening.

Mr. McCartney: That is why so much effort has been made by us and others, and will be made by the Minister with responsibility for Africa in the next few days, to get agreement between the warring factions, including the Government, first, to end the bombing, and secondly, to engage the rebel organisations in the peace process. Indeed, there are two peace processes: the north-south dialogue and the Darfur peace agreement dialogue. While neither works effectively, an excuse is provided for the continuation of violence. That is why we have supplied humanitarian aid and been involved with the United Nations and other colleagues in bringing together the warring parties to find an effective way forward. It is a frustrating process, because 2 million people are displaced and 4 million need food and humanitarian aid. That is an international calamity, but hon. Members should rest assured that we are playing our part to bring the warring factions to the table and reach a settlement.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Is there any sign that the International Criminal Court has any plans to unveil its indictments against the Sudanese leaders alleged to be responsible for the catastrophe in Darfur? Does my right hon. Friend think that the time has now come for that to happen?

Mr. McCartney: I am certain that the International Criminal Court will do that at the appropriate time, and we are supportive of that not only with regard to Sudan but in relation to those other countries for which indictments are either in the process of being submitted or of being dealt with. It is critical that those who are in the process of carrying out genocide have a clear understanding that they cannot act with impunity and
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that appropriate steps will be taken. First, however, an agreement to end the violence must be reached, so that the 4 million people affected can return to some form of normality and security and are not in fear of their lives every day.

Human Rights (Russia)

4. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What recent assessments she has made of the human rights situation in Russia; and if she will make a statement. [121318]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report on human rights, published on 12 October 2006, sets out a range of our concerns about human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Russia. We continue to engage with Russia on human rights issues, critically as necessary.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and I am glad that he agrees that there are real problems with human rights in Russia, exemplified not least by the failure to find the killer of Anna Politkovskaya and the recent appointment of President Kadyrov in Chechnya. When the EU negotiates its new partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia—I understand that the negotiations are due to start this year—will he ensure that human rights are given a much higher priority, and that the provisions have real teeth, so that the next President of Russia takes such issues more seriously than the current one?

Mr. Hoon: We raise such issues regularly with our Russian counterparts—I was in Russia towards the end of last year and had some fairly firm exchanges with them. My right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for human rights attended a meeting in January at which such issues were discussed—again, critically, as I indicated. The UK continues to raise such questions regularly with Russia, and we urge our partners in the European Union to do the same.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Those of us who have wanted Russia to move to democracy and European values since the end of communism are now disappointed by its tactics, tone and bullying rhetoric. But is not the answer to work for a united position from Europe? Russia is playing divide and rule between the European capitals, and if we forged a common European approach to Russia, based on European and British values, we could talk face to face and ask it to back off from some of the positions that it is taking today.

Mr. Hoon: I recognise that my right hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in these matters. There is little doubt that the situation of human rights and democracy in modern Russia is rather better than it was under its predecessor state, the Soviet Union. We continue to discuss with our European partners and with Russia, both bilaterally and directly, how it can continue to improve human rights and democracy. As I have indicated already, it is a matter that we raise regularly when we have meetings with our Russian counterparts.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Minister of State agree that, despite the depressing deterioration of human rights in the Russian Federation, and although under Putin it will not become a genuine democracy, Russia today remains a far more open society than the old Soviet Union? Does he further agree that, if Margaret Thatcher was able to do business with Mr. Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, we and the west can continue comfortably to do business with Mr. Putin’s Russia?

Mr. Hoon: I made that first point in my previous answer. The Government judge that it is right to continue to engage with Russia, to have the opportunity of a dialogue and to raise concerns that we have about human rights and democracy. That remains the Government's position.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Surely one test of doing business with Russia is that the Russian authorities co-operate, hopefully, with the British police in the investigation of the death—it was almost certainly murder—of Mr. Litvinenko? What has been the attitude so far of the Russian authorities? Do they understand the concern that someone from Russia could have been murdered in the way Mr. Litvinenko was, and the suspicion that the Russian authorities, or at least those acting on their behalf, were responsible for his death?

Mr. Hoon: These matters are, obviously, subject to a continuing investigation. It is something that we have pressed Russia to take seriously. I am confident that they understand how important that issue is. In the United Kingdom, we will continue to pursue the investigation. It is something that we want to see taken up vigorously by Russia.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): The Minister mentioned that he had discussions at the end of last year with Russian authorities about human rights in Russia. What about human rights in other territories that were recently part of the Soviet Union, including central Asia, and the key role that Russia has, or should have, in promoting human rights there? What representations did he make there?

Mr. Hoon: I went to Moscow from Kazakhstan, which is one of the countries that the hon. Gentleman was perhaps thinking about. I have visited Russia in recent times. I am shortly to visit Ukraine. I hope that those countries are the ones that he had in mind. Issues of human rights are regularly raised by Ministers. I assure him that in each of those visits I had meetings not only with representatives of the Government but with representatives of civil society. Contrary perhaps to the implication that he is making, there is a vigorous discussion of the state of human rights and democracy in each of those countries, which I suspect would not have pertained during the existence of the Soviet Union.

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