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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett):
We welcome the latest bilateral meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas on 11 March and hope those meetings continue. We also hope that the national unity Government will
support President Abbas in taking the process forward. The peace process will move forward only through constructive dialogue.
Simon Hughes: I thank the Foreign Secretary for her answer. I hope she agrees that everything needs to be done to support and sustain the unity Government and to encourage the surrounding countries, including Israel, to see that Government as a sign of progress, not a backward step. Will she assure the House that we as a Government are working as closely as possible with the Palestinian Authority to make sure that Corporal Shalit, the Israeli soldier, and Alan Johnston, the BBCs Gaza correspondent, are released as soon as possible? That will be seen as a test of the credibility of the Palestinian authorities in working for peace for all the people in the region, and not just one faction.
Margaret Beckett: We continue to work closely with the Palestinian authorities and I spoke to President Abbas only yesterday, I think. We welcome the formation of the Government of national unity and we hope to see them move clearly in the direction of respect for the Quartet principles. We will judge not only their platform, but their actions in that respect. I accept entirely the burden of the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made. Few things could do more to breathe fresh life into the middle east peace process than the early release of Corporal Shalit and of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): What pressure are the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office putting on the Israeli Government in respect of the continued policy of illegal settlements throughout the west bank by Israel and the continued construction of the wall on Palestinian land, which encroaches on Palestinian villages and prevents the legal and free movement of ordinary Palestinian people? That is a major cause of some of the problems between the two communities.
Margaret Beckett: We continue to have dialogue with the Israeli Government to press them on the issue of settlements, which, of course, we oppose and on the war. Our approach on these matters has been consistent for a considerable period, but certainly we continue to press the Government of Israel on these issues, not least because we believe that they are counter-productive from the point of view of moving the peace process forward.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Hamas should agree the principles enunciated by the Quartet? What steps does she propose to take to make sure that the new unity Government do that as soon as possible?
Margaret Beckett: As I said a moment ago, we continue to have dialogue with those who have been negotiating the formation of the new unity Government. We strongly share the view that this is a moment of considerable potential and that it is important that the new unity Government are seen to move in the direction of the Quartet principles. We also, of course, share the anxiety to maintain international support for the people of Palestine, because their humanitarian and economic situation continues to be grave and needs attention.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Palestinian unity Government about the fate of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who has been missing, presumed kidnapped, for more than eight days, with no word on what has happened to him? Will she use all diplomatic resources and channels at her disposal to ensure Mr. Johnstons safe return? He is a brave journalist who has done much to illuminate the plight and the suffering of the people of Gaza to the British people.
Margaret Beckett: I assure my hon. Friend that when I spoke to President Abbas we discussed the case of Alan Johnston. For our part, wethe British Governmentare using every channel and opportunity that we can to try to secure his release. I am assured by President Abbas that that is also very much a goal of the Palestinian Government and authorities. It is extremely important that we try to secure his release. I saw the tail-end of an interview yesterday with Mr. Johnstons father. It is particularly sad when someone who has been a long-standing friend of the people of Palestine suffers in this way, and it does nothing to help.
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): We regularly assess the human rights situation in China and Tibet. I have invited the Foreign Affairs Committee to meet me to discuss our work on Tibet in more detail. We welcome recent progress on human rights in China, including on the death penalty. However, we retain serious concerns about a number of areas, including the non-ratification of the international covenant for civil and political rights. My first meeting with the incoming Chinese ambassador will include those issues, as well has how to take forward the UK-China human rights dialogue.
Norman Baker: I am grateful to hear that, because the Minister knows that China, as the occupying power in Tibet, continues to show a blatant disregard for the human rights of Tibetans, not least with the recent shooting in the back of innocent refugees who were attempting to flee across the Himalayas and the detention and torture of those who survived. With the Olympic games shortly upon us in Beijing, will the Minister hold the Chinese firmly to their word and ensure that there is uninterrupted and unrestricted access by journalists to Tibet? Will he press for the early release of the Panchen Lama, who was six when he was taken prisoner and is 18 next month and is the longest-serving, youngest political prisoner in the world?
I will take all three questions. First, we are committed to working for the Panchen Lamas well-being and for access to himwe have been extremely active on that. Secondly, I take a stronger view on access during the Olympic games. We welcome
the fact that access will be opened up during the Olympic games and hope that that will be a Pandoras box and that access will be maintained after the games. We had an active conversation on 5 February with the Chinese Government at a high level about the Nangpa La pass shooting, which was described to me as an accidental incident. In May, at the European Union human rights dialogue with China, we will follow up the shooting and the ill treatment of detainees that followed it.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Some of the worst human rights abuses in China take place against women as part of the countrys coercive one-child policy. As many as 130,000 women a year undergo forcible abortions, sometime days before birth, or are compulsorily sterilised. Will the Minister look into the case of Chen Guang Cheng, a blind human rights activist who has been given a long jail sentence for the alleged crime of trying to represent some of the women in such circumstances? Will he read my early-day motion 586, which has garnered widespread support across the House, and reply to me about the issues that it raises?
Mr. McCartney: I am happy not only to read the early-day motion, but to meet my hon. Friend and any of his colleagues to discuss the issue. At the human rights dialogue that we recently held with the Chinese, we raised a substantial number of individual cases that we were pursuing. I cannot remember off hand whether the case to which my hon. Friend refers was one of them, but if it was not, I assure him that I will add it to the list for the discussions that I will have with the Chinese to follow up such cases.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): There will be concern on both sides of the House about the lack of justice in Tibet. Would it not be appropriate for the Prime Ministerwhoever he might then beto meet the Dalai Lama when he next visits Britain, which might, apparently, be next year?
Mr. McCartney: I am sure that the Dalai Lama could meet the Foreign Office and have discussions about a range of issues with senior Ministers, including the Prime Minister. As it stands, I do not think that we have had such a request yet. However, if one comes in, it will be dealt with more than sympathetically.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): At present there is no consensus among EU Governments on the future of the constitutional treaty. The German presidency will present a report on the state of discussions with regard to the treaty and possible future developments to the June European Council. I set out the Governments approach in a written ministerial statement on 5 December 2006.
I thank the Minister for that reply. When the Foreign Secretary was asked on the BBC on Sunday whether she could envisage any
circumstances in which the UK would ratify a treaty without a referendum, she said that
if we can get agreement and common ground, that ... could be in an area where it wouldnt ... trigger a referendum.
Mr. Hoon: The Governments position has not changed in any way. We have made it quite clear that should the constitutional treaty return, there will be a referendum. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, as a student of constitutional history, will have looked carefully at the decisions taken by Conservative Governments on amending treaties. They resisted vigorously the idea of holding a referendum.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The Minister for Europe will be off with the Prime Minister to Berlin this weekend for the 50th birthday party of the EU. When the Prime Minister gets there, he will sign the new Berlin declaration. Is the Minister confident that the Government have been fully consulted on all the values that will be expressed in that document? When the text is agreed on Saturday, will he ensure that he uses it as the basis for a campaign to show the people in this country the enormous benefits of our membership of the European Union?
Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend is quite right that in celebrating 50 years of success of the European Union it is important to set out right across Europe the benefits that have flowed. It provides a platform for discussion in the UK and other member states of the considerable achievements that have been made. There has already been an extensive discussion with the German presidency of the main principles contained in the declaration. The UK will also celebrate and offer our contribution to 50 years of EU success by joining our schools with others across Europe in a learning together programme that will allow schools to take advantage of talking online in real time with other schools in other parts of the EU [Interruption.] Conservative Members would do better if, instead of scoffing, they looked more carefully at the benefits for their constituents and for schools in their constituencies provided by this opportunity.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): With just five days to go before Angela Merkels Berlin declaration, it is still not clear from any of the Ministers answers whether the British Government now support an EU constitution or, if so, what they want it to say. Even the former Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), says in early-day motion 1155 that he
fears that writing the declaration in secrecy goes against the key European values of transparency and openness.
Will the Minister now be open with the House and state clearly whether he has pressed for Sundays declaration to rule out further transfers of power to the EU, for which there is clearly no public support in this country?
The hon. Gentleman appears to be confusing the negotiations and discussions on the future constitutional treaty with Sundays declaration, yet they are clearly two separate documents. We have
made it clear that we believe that the declaration should be a celebration of 50 years of success of the EU and should set out the way forward in principle. It should not, however, try to solve in detail the issues that will be addressed later at the June European Council meeting.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I thank the Minister for clarifying to the Opposition that what happens on Sunday will not be a conclusion to any declaration; it is only the beginning of discussion on the declaration as put together by the Sherpas on behalf of all the Governments. We have between now and June in which to do that. Will the Minister assure us that if institutional changes need to be made that can be done by treatywithout a referendumwe will not allow Europe to continue as it has with the current confusion of institutional arrangements. Will he confirm that our Government would support a sensible move through a quick treaty to allow Europe to continue with 27 members?
Mr. Hoon: We have always made it quite clear that it is important to the UKand I hope to all Membersthat the EU should have the institutional arrangements that allow it to take efficient and effective decisions. That is in the interests of the UK and I hope in the interests of the wider EU. I repeat that, as yet, there is no agreement and no consensus on a way forward. Obviously, the Government will be positive and constructive in negotiating with our partners, but unless and until there is an agreement of all 27 member states, there cannot be any further amendments to the treaty.
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): Helping the Democratic Republic of the Congo to secure lasting peace remains a priority for the UK. We worked closely with the Congolese leaders throughout the peace process, leading to last years elections, and the UK was the largest bilateral donor, providing £35 million. We continue to work with the newly elected Government to support the DRC to reinforce its democratic institutions and rebuild the country. We have also increased our development programme to £67 million this financial year in order to support the Government in their work. We have made it clear that we will maintain and even increase that support if the DRC Government work to deliver on their promises.
While I greatly welcome our support for the elections and for the reconstruction of the DRC, will the Minister ensure that the Government continue to press on President Kabila the need to provide political space, respect and positions in the Parliament for the Opposition? In particular, will the Government and our ambassador in Kinshasa continue to press the case for the releaseand, if
evidence is available, a fair trialof Marie-Thérese Nlandu, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience? Will the Government also press to reopen the case of the assassination of Pascal Kabungulu so that the democratic process that has been started in this country can continue properly?
Mr. McCartney: Yes, it is worth remembering that these are the first democratic elections in the country for 40 years. That, among other things, is a good sign, but as my hon. Friend points out there are also some bad signs. At the very highest levelsincluding directly with the Presidentwe are raising these issues and will continue to raise them not just through our post, but through the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will visit the DRC in April. Between now and then, detailed discussions will take place with the Government to ensure that we have a development programme and that it is operated in a transparent, accountable and responsible way.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has had a very close relationship with Mr. Mugabe and the Government of Zimbabwe. What representations have the British Government made to the newly elected Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to bring about an exit strategy for the current President of Zimbabwe, in order to bring peace, stability and humanitarian aid to the long-suffering people of that country?
Let us be clear about this. The DRC has taken a different road from the Zimbabwean Government: it has taken a democratic road, difficult
as that has been for a massive country with complex problems resulting from 40 years of internal conflict. We must support its action, and continue to support the democratic institutions. I am certain that the DRC, along with other emerging democratic Governments in Africa, will want a similar situation to arise in Zimbabwe, and I expect the hon. Gentleman to support us in our efforts to ensure that that happens.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend take up with the new Government of the Congo the safety of asylum seekers who return to the country? There is some concern about it.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does the Minister agree with the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict that child protection must be a priority for the new democratically elected Government of the DRC? Will he do all he can to ensure that the United Kingdom Government help the new Government to secure demobilisation of all the child soldiers who were so brutally recruited into armed groups, and to ensure that they are safely reintegrated into their home communities?
Mr. McCartney: The use of child soldiers, not just here but throughout Africa and in countries such as Burma, is a blot on humanity, and is one of the issues on which we are concentrating our capacity-building measures. It is an example of modern slavery. Its effect on children, both intellectually and emotionally, is so damaging that, once we have democratic institutions, one of the first things we must do is return those children to not just a civil but a civilising society.
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