Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence

Letter to the Chairman of the Committee from Dr Kim Howells MP

  Thank you for your letter of 1 May following the Foreign Affairs Committee's visit to the Middle East, I hope that this response provides you with a full account of the points that you raised.

Q1  The Committee learnt in Damascus that the FCO has a negative stance towards Syria's application to the World Trade Organisation. What is the FCO's current position on Syria's application to the WTO, and why is this position being held?

  The WTO is a largely apolitical body. Membership is achieved as a result of negotiation, amounting to a balance of rights and obligations. Countries who apply to join must make commitments to open their markets and to abide by the WTO's trading rules. Membership is generally granted on the principle of consensus. The European Commission has sole competence to negotiate on behalf of the EU member states in the WTO with an applicant country. Neither the EU nor the UK has political reservations about Syria's application to become a member of the WTO.

Q2  The Committee learnt in Damascus that the UK has developed an "understanding" with EU partners on a policy of no ministerial visits to Syria. The Committee was told that this "understanding" was "evolving". What is the current policy of the UK with regards to ministerial visits to Syria?

  UK and EU policy towards Syria in recent years has reflected the concern of the international community at the unhelpful role that Syria has been playing in the region. The UK continues to have full diplomatic relations with Syria and has contact with Syrian ministers when we deem it will usefully advance our interests. On 14 May the Foreign Secretary met the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, at the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council in Brussels. During his visit last year, Sir Nigel Sheinwald met with the President and Foreign Minister. The Foreign Office Director for the Middle East, Peter Gooderham, also met Syrian Ministers during his visit from 8-10 May this year. However, we continue to calibrate the extent of our contacts against Syria's behaviour in the region and based on an assessment of whether such contact will advance our interests.

  Within the EU there has been a discussion about the extent to which Syria might be ready to change its policies and how the EU might help bring this about. As a result of this debate, the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, visited Damascus in March to articulate to Syria what needs to happen for Syria to progress its relations with the EU. With EU partners we will continue to keep under review the case for further discussions.

Q3  The Committee was told that the EU was adopting a "go slow" policy towards ratification of the Association Agreement with Syria. What is the current position of the UK on ratification of the Association Agreement?

  The UK shares with EU partners a number of concerns about Syria's policies in the region. The European Commission concluded negotiations on an Association Agreement with Syria in 2004 that would enhance economic relations. However, this has not yet been signed. More constructive Syrian policy in the region is a pre-requisite for progressing its relations with the EU. The EU High Representative, Javier Solana, set out what Syria would need to do in order for such progress to be made during his visit to Damascus in March.

Q4  The Committee was told that $1.2 million more funding would be required to complete the clearance of unexploded cluster munitions in south Lebanon by the target date of December 2007. What consideration has the Government given to providing this extra funding to ensure this work is completed on schedule?

  The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC) estimates that around one million cluster bombs were left unexploded in Southern Lebanon following the conflict last year. So far UNMACC has cleared approximately 50,000 unexploded cluster munitions. This clearance represents over 16% (31.5 sq. kms) of the land that was affected by unexploded ordnance from last year's conflict. However, there is a continued threat to civilians posed by the remaining unexploded cluster bombs. It is estimated that it will take 12-15 months to clear the remaining bomblets and it is currently estimated that an $1.2 million will be required to complete the work of clearing it.

  We have provided significant levels of funding to help with the clear-up operation. The UK has committed a total of £2,782,000 for de-mining work in Lebanon so far. The Government is planning to provide a further £320k this year to the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) for their £2.3 million cluster bomb clearance programme in Lebanon, and £1 million to the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), some of which will be allocated to Lebanon.

Q5  What representations has the Government made to Israel to a) ask it to hand over all relevant maps locating unexploded ordinance and b) ascertain how many cluster bombs were dropped on Lebanon during the most recent war? What is your assessment of the overall level of co-operation provided by Israel in helping to clear unexploded cluster munitions from south Lebanon?

  Since the conflict last year we have made clear to the Israeli Government on several occasions our concern about levels of unexploded ordnance and cluster munitions in south Lebanon. We have no clear figures for the number of cluster munitions Israel dropped on Lebanon. However, drawing on Israeli media reports, UNMACC estimate that Israel dropped in the region of 4 million cluster bombs on Lebanon during last year's conflict from artillery projectiles. This does not take into account cluster bombs dropped via aerial delivery.

  We have raised the issue with the Government of Israel. Through our Embassy in Tel Aviv we have sent a formal request to the IDF asking them to hand over the artillery data for their cluster bomb strikes. On 20 November 2006 an IDF Spokesperson informed us that, following the conflict, Israel had transferred maps to UNIFIL identifying areas suspected as consisting of duds, including those of cluster munitions. However, the UN continues to claim that the data provided is insufficient.

  The Israeli Defence Forces have launched an inquiry into the use of cluster munitions during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah between 12 July and 14 August last year, including on the chain of command between in ordering their use. This enquiry is ongoing and its findings will be made public once the investigation has concluded.

Q6  What representations has the Government made to the United States to encourage it to persuade Israel to provide figures for the number of cluster bombs dropped on Lebanon during the most recent war and to hand over all relevant maps locating unexploded ordinance?

  The UK has not made representations to the United States to encourage it to persuade Israel to provide figures for the number of cluster bombs dropped on Lebanon during the conflict or to hand over all the relevant maps locating unexploded ordnance. We have, however, raised the issue directly with the Israelis and made a formal request to the Government of Israel to hand over all relevant maps locating unexploded ordnance.

Q7  On the Today Programme on 22 March 2007, you said that former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton's remarks suggesting the US had deliberately blocked a ceasefire in Lebanon to give Israel a chance to destroy Hezbollah had "come as a surprise". You said that "I certainly didn't get a sense that there was some kind of formal collusion between the Israelis and the Americans. They certainly didn't communicate that to us in any shape or form". Is it still your view that such a "formal collusion" did not exist?

  Yes, that remains my view. During last year's conflict between Israel and Hezballah, the UK worked strenuously for a resolution to the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. The Foreign Secretary flew to New York in August to work towards agreement on UN Security Council Resolution 1701 with international partners. This followed a period of intense diplomatic activity, in which the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and I were all heavily engaged. The UK's objective was to secure a lasting resolution rather than a temporary ceasefire with an open ended risk of a return to conflict. UNSCR 1701 established both a ceasefire and a comprehensive process for addressing the causes of the conflict. The fact that hostilities have not resumed attests to the validity of this approach. We also urged the Israelis to exercise maximum restraint and avoid civilian casualties.

  The UK continues to be actively involved in efforts to bring stability to the country and the region. I visited Lebanon in March, where I met the Prime Minister, the Speaker and key figures in the Army and in the UN. The UK was certainly not involved in collusion with either the US or Israel to support the continuation of hostilities or to block a ceasefire. Whilst I cannot speak for the US position this matter, I do not believe they acted differently.

Q8  In a press conference in March, you suggested that based on your visit to Lebanon, there is no evidence that large amounts of weapons are being smuggled to Hezbollah from Syria, although some may have been smuggled before UNIFIL's deployment. Does the FCO have any evidence to suggest that weapons are currently being smuggled across borders to Hezbollah?

  During my visit to Beirut in March I gave a number of press conferences and media interviews, in which I expressed my concern about reports about Hezbollah's arms smuggling activity. As I said in an interview for Radio 4 given in Beirut, "I sense the frustration that there is amongst the democratically elected Government at the prospect of Hezbollah arming itself to the teeth again and being prepared...presumably to take more action which will not only challenge the Israelis but will challenge the elected Government in Beirut."

  During my visit to Lebanon I also visited the south of the country and held meetings including with UNIFIL Force Commander, Major General Claudio Graziano. Having seen the area for myself and discussed the situation on the ground with the Force Commander, I made the point in another interview that I was reassured that, within UNIFIL's area of operations, there was no significant Hezbollah activity in breach of UNSCR 1701. This remains my assessment. UNIFIL is also helping the Government of Lebanon prevent smuggling by sea. And the Government of Lebanon, with support from Germany and others, has taken measures to improve security at Beirut airport.

  Nonetheless, I remain concerned by smuggling across the Lebanon-Syria border. Obtaining evidence of arms smuggling across that border is of course difficult. But our concern about Hezbollah's arms smuggling activity is shared by other organisations. In his latest progress report on UN Security Council Resolution 1701 in March, the UN Secretary General highlighted credible reports of arms being smuggled over the Syrian border to Hezbollah. He said that evidence had not been independently verified. But Hezbollah Secretary-General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, himself appeared to provide corroboration when he said publicly that Hezbollah is back to full military strength. In his latest report on Security Council Resolution 1559, published on 7 May 2007, the UN Secretary General also reports that he has been provided with detailed information related to an extensive number of illegal crossing points between Syria and Lebanon. We are not able to estimate the volume of arms being smuggled.

  The UK continues to regard it as vitally important that all possible action is taken to support the Lebanese authorities in addressing this issue. In response to mounting concerns, and with full UK support, the Security Council agreed on 17 April 2007 to the UN Secretary General's recommendation to dispatch an independent mission to assess the monitoring of the border. In accordance with the Security Council's Presidential Statement of 17 April, the Secretary General will keep the Council informed and report back to the Council in due course.

Q9  What is the estimated frequency of Israeli overflights into Lebanon's territory? We understand that the Government has made representations to Israel on this issue. Is it your assessment that these representations have had an impact on Israel's behaviour?

  The UK is not in a position to monitor the frequency of overflights into Lebanon's territory directly. However, we know that overflights are continuing UNIFIL have recently announced the following that the following overflights have occurred.
Month (2007)Number of overflights

  The Israelis claim that such overflights are necessary to monitor arms smuggling to Hezbollah across the Syria/Lebanon border. Both the UK and other international partners have made representations calling on Israel to cease overflights into Lebanese territory. We continue to call on all parties, including Israel, to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and to respect Lebanon's territorial sovereignty and integrity. It is difficult to assess whether these representations have had an impact on Israel's behaviour, but we will continue to urge Israel to bring overflights to an end.

Q10  What number of Iraqi refugees does the Government intend to allow to resettle in the United Kingdom in 2007?

  The Home Office is exploring with UNHCR the possibility of resettling a small number of very vulnerable Iraqi cases within our existing Gateway resettlement programme. Should the UK participate in resettling Iraqis, the exact numbers will be determined at a later date.

Q11  What is the breakdown of staff employed by the FCO at each position from Ambassador to Third Secretary in each of the following countries in each year from 2000-07? Are changes expected in the next two years?

Countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE

Q12  What has been the expenditure of a) the FCO and b) DFID in each of the countries listed in the question above in each year from 2000-07? How is this expected to change in the next two years?

Q13  How many staff based at the FCO in London have been working primarily on a) the Middle East excluding Iraq and b) Iraq in each of the years from 2000-07?

Q14  How many members of the diplomatic service have held fluency in Arabic in each of the years from 2000-07? How is this expected to change in the next two years?

  Due to changes in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Management Information system, the information you have requested in Questions 11-14 is not readily available. I will write again addressing these questions shortly but wanted you to have, at least, answers to the previous 10 questions before the recess.

Kim Howells

23 May 2007

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