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
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
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
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
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.
23 May 2007