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It must be so comforting to the Foreign Secretary to have that presence. He has said today in defence of his colleague that we must judge him by his actions rather than his words, which is what we all say about people who have made a string of verbal blunders. Unfortunately, according to The Sunday Times “Gordon” will not be brave enough to sack him, which is all too believable after all the other things the Prime Minister has not been brave enough to do over the last few weeks, including calling a general election.

The challenges of foreign policy are now such that there is vast scope, even where we agree, for the discussion and scrutiny of Government policy. Parliamentary accountability and scrutiny of foreign and defence policy are no bad starting points for this debate. The Government consultation paper on limiting Executive power over war powers and treaties is most welcome—we called for it in an Opposition day debate earlier this year—but of comparable importance once a conflict is under way is Parliament’s ability to scrutinise its conduct, so far as the need for secrecy in military operations allows. The Government should now set an example by improving Parliament’s ability to hold regular and informed debates on those conflicts where our troops are engaged in theatres of war. We have called for, and I call for again today, regular quarterly statements to Parliament on Iraq and Afghanistan, accompanied by the Government’s definition of the military and political objectives in view, and our success, or otherwise, in meeting them. As things stand, the US Congress receives far more extensive evaluations and reports, and can hold far more informed debates on a regular basis than is possible in our Parliament. That the Prime Minister made a full statement on Iraq last month and is expected to do so on Afghanistan next month is proper and welcome, but when so much of our foreign policy, our national reputation and, above all, the lives of our servicemen and women are at stake, parliamentary scrutiny should be extensive and habitual, not limited
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and sporadic. I hope Ministers will commit themselves to such regular scrutiny as part of the constitutional innovations the Prime Minister is fond of proclaiming.

The issue of scrutiny inevitably brings me back to a subject we have debated on several occasions in the last year and more: the need for a high-level and independent inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war. On the most recent occasion that that was debated in this House—11 June—Ministers accepted the principle of an inquiry, but insisted that the time to commence it was not yet. It will be important to revisit the subject in this Session, for recent events mean that the arguments for delaying the inquiry that we now all agree is necessary are shrinking by the day. By the end of this Session, important decisions made in the run-up to the war will be seven years distant, and it will soon become impossible for the events and discussions of those times to be recreated. By that time, too, only a small number of British troops—or a relatively small number, compared with the previous deployment—are expected to remain in Iraq and they should be in an overwatch role. In the meantime, memoirs, lectures and diaries of the time multiply, and often give controversial but incomplete assessments. It seems to me, therefore, that if we are ever to have a serious inquiry—which is so important to understand how we can improve the machinery of government, how mistakes made in Iraq can be avoided in Afghanistan, and how our troops can best be used in the future—it must begin sooner rather than later. If the Government do not grasp this issue and make their own proposals, it will return—and to their cost.

Let me turn from accountability to the substance of what is happening in the theatres of war. The operations in Afghanistan remain one of the most challenging tasks NATO has ever taken on. Our troops have done an outstanding job there, always prevailing militarily in some of the most difficult terrain on earth, but unless there is a strengthened and better co-ordinated drive to deliver long-term strategic success in Afghanistan, those hard-won tactical successes will ultimately have been in vain. Some of the mounting difficulties are apparent: Taliban attacks have increased in scope; public support for the Afghan Government appears to have diminished; the contribution of NATO forces, even by some allies who have been highly present and active in recent years, is in doubt; and proceeds from drug trafficking are fuelling the insurgency. Do Ministers think there is a case for an immediate high-level independent assessment of the state of Afghanistan, similar to the Iraq Study Group in the United States, in order to acknowledge publicly that state of affairs and the need for reform? With or without such a study, we have been advocating for more than a year the appointment of a senior co-ordinator of the international effort in Afghanistan approved by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, with a clear mandate to lead the aid effort on the ground and non-military aspects of the mission there. Has not the need for that now become urgent?

Do we not need also a renewed effort to bring together the different military commands in Afghanistan and to remove more of the national caveats that lead to differing tiers of commitment from NATO forces there? I hope that the Government will be able to tell us more, perhaps in the Defence Secretary’s winding-up speech, about
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what role the UK is now playing in the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan, since we are no longer designated as lead nation. What alternative approaches to combating the spread of poppy cultivation are being thought about, evaluated or piloted? The problem is immensely difficult, but we cannot give up on it.

Many more of our soldiers, of course, are now deployed in Afghanistan than in Iraq. We have supported the troop reductions in Iraq announced by the Government and we expect to support further reductions, although we hope that future announcements will be unencumbered by spin, double counting or any search for political advantage. The anticipated handover of Basra province to Iraqi forces is of course welcome, but there are, naturally, important questions about the role of our remaining forces in their overwatch capacity. Who will assess when the Iraqi army is capable of operating without British support? In what circumstances would our forces be redeployed, and will the remaining forces be able to protect themselves in all eventualities?

Beyond the involvement of our own forces, we have a continuing responsibility to do all we can to assist the overall strategic position in Iraq. The progress made towards national reconciliation by the Government of Mr. Maliki is disappointing, and I hope that Ministers will intensify the pressure on Iraqi Ministers to make the necessary progress.

Mr. Ellwood: Although we are no longer in the headlines because we have withdrawn back to the airport, does my right hon. Friend agree, first, that we should pay tribute to the 4th Battalion the Rifles, which is part of 1 Mechanised Brigade and which has returned to the airport, and also that, although they are not in the headlines over here, the ever-present dangers have not gone away? The Mahdi army, for example, runs rife, and the police do not have people’s respect. The situation in Basra has not changed at all and people are now pointing back at the period between 2003 and 2004, that critical window of opportunity when the Department for International Development failed to get involved with the peacekeeping and reconstruction development that should have happened. That led to the current situation.

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the forces involved, and again I do that on behalf of the Front-Bench team. He is right to say that there must be no complacency. He has made the point about the specific situation in Basra, and I make the same point about the situation in Iraq overall: we have our responsibility to the overall strategic situation. Last year, responding to the Baker-Hamilton report, we called for the creation of an international contact group—a formal group with a permanent secretariat to ensure continuous international co-ordination on the crucial issues facing Iraq. The idea has not been taken up and much time has been lost. Beyond the periodic meetings of representatives of neighbouring countries and the major powers to discuss Iraq, there is no long-term strategy of political support for the Iraqi Government or their security forces.

The difficulty of the issues in Iraq is now rivalled by the dangerously destabilising policies of the Government of Iran. I had hoped that the Foreign Secretary would say more about Iran. A new Security Council resolution
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on Iran is now six months overdue, as the last one expired in May. That resolution stated clearly that Iran must

but since then Iran has continued to install, test and feed nuclear material into its centrifuge facility and has reached, or is thought to be close to reaching, the threshold of 3,000 centrifuges. The US Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns referred a few weeks ago to

Mr. MacShane: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Iran has legitimate reasons for wanting nuclear weapons? That is the official position of the Conservative Muslim forum, headed by Lord Sheikh in the other place.

Mr. Hague: No, I do not agree with that. Anyone who has listened to anything that I have ever said could not possibly think I agreed with that in any way. Iran is in breach of the non-proliferation treaty and of all the agreements and commitments that it has ever entered into, so I do not agree with the quote that the right hon. Gentleman mentions.

I hope that the new Security Council resolution will include a ban on new arms sales to Iran, more effective steps against those involved in its nuclear programme and action to tackle the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Conservative Members continue to argue for much tougher action by European nations—peaceful, multilateral and legitimate action—to place Iran under economic pressure, which, difficult though it may be, is necessary to reduce the chances of others taking far less peaceful action in the future.

The advent of the Sarkozy Government has seemed to be a major opportunity for Britain and France to drive this agenda forward together, but it must be said that the October meeting of EU Foreign Ministers appears to have been a wasted opportunity, finishing merely with an agreement to

Is it not time for an energetic effort by the British and French Governments to secure EU agreement to implement sanctions parallel to those of the United States, banning certain Iranian banks from our financial system and progressively cutting export credit guarantees?

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the right hon. Gentleman think that in this process concerning Iran it would be a good idea to open a dialogue with all sections—I stress “all sections”—of Iranian society in order to build some degree of confidence and, we hope, peace in the future? Does he share my concern that all the talking being done by him and many others leads us inexorably towards the same kind of crisis we faced in 2003, when we ended up bombing Iraq? That has resulted in 500,000 people dead.

Mr. Hague: We are certainly in favour of dialogue at all times, but the strong, peaceful action that I am advocating is essential in order to avoid military confrontations in the future. The way to avoid the
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future crisis is through strength now rather than weakness now—that is the choice now facing Europe and the rest of the world. I hope that Ministers can explain which European Governments are opposing the type of initiative that I have been describing. Since the French Government have said that they are advising French energy companies not to invest in Iran, will Ministers confirm that the British Government are now doing the same?

I hope that Ministers will also be able to elaborate on the specialised teaching or training of Iranian nationals in the UK in disciplines that might contribute to Iran’s nuclear programme. I was told by the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor:

However, it was said that a “mandatory scheme” would be introduced “at the earliest opportunity.” Why therefore do we learn, five months later, that 60 Iranian nationals have been granted places at British universities to study advanced nuclear physics and engineering in this year alone? Given that European sanctions are already clear that states must

is it not time for the Foreign Office and others to pull their fingers out and get this mandatory scheme in place?

The subject of Iran brings us naturally to the matter of human rights around the world, as the human rights record of the Iranian Government is truly appalling. I would not want this debate to take place without bringing to the fore the torments of the people of three quite different nations—the very three mentioned by the Foreign Secretary—whose Governments are grievously at fault when it comes to respecting the rights, liberties and lives of their subjects.

One of those countries, of course, is Burma, which we debated in this House only two weeks ago. I will not cover all that ground again, but I repeat the request that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow International Development Secretary, made in that debate. We ask that the EU tightens targeted sanctions against the military regime, and that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, demonstrates the huge importance attached to this issue by the international community by going to Burma himself to demand talks between the regime and opposition leaders without the farcical normal preconditions.

A second country at fault is Sudan. The adoption at the UN Security Council of resolution 1769 in July mandating a 26,000 strong hybrid peacekeeping force by the end of this year was a major step forward, on which all the Governments involved are to be congratulated. But Ministers will be aware that momentum has seriously stalled since then, with a sharp increase in attacks on peacekeepers and relief workers.

The latest report from the UN Secretary-General warns that the deployment of the peacekeeping force is being delayed because of such problems as obtaining
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land for the construction of offices and feedback regarding the list of troop-contributing countries submitted to the Government of Sudan. Bringing peace to Darfur is no easy matter, and the refusal of many of the rebel groups to attend the peace talks in Libya clearly demonstrates that, but this country and others must prepare to step up the pressure if necessary, including implementing further sanctions against members of the Sudanese Government and rebel leaders; implementing a UN arms embargo to cover the whole of Sudan; and looking again at the possibility of a no-fly zone over Darfur. If such things are not done, how many more innocent people will die in Darfur and how many more global days for Darfur must there be?

The third great offending nation in our mind at the moment is Zimbabwe. We cannot know how long a political system will survive with inflation at 13,000 per cent.—or whatever it may now be—and shop shelves empty, but I put it to the Government that we should be preparing now for the day after Mugabe, when Zimbabwe may be plunged into a period of change and uncertainty. That preparation should include a clear package of international assistance that would follow as soon as a new Government, committed to democratic reform, are in place. That assistance should include help with the restructuring of the army and police and the disbanding of paramilitary groups, and readiness to supply humanitarian assistance.

In the meantime, international efforts to place pressure on Mugabe and his odious regime are pathetically ineffective. We all understand that the ability of our country on its own to influence these events is very limited, and we certainly support the stand that the Prime Minister has taken on attendance at the EU-AU summit, but is it not a shocking failure of responsibility by the European Union that Mugabe has now been invited to the Lisbon summit next month, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s objections?

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was very disturbing to read about the last British Airways flight from Harare? It seems that the only people who could afford a plane ticket were those close to the regime who were coming here to do business or to see members of their family who are studying here or using our health service. Should not the Government do more to ban a wider group of people who are close to that evil regime, to put pressure on them to bring an end to Mugabe’s rule?

Mr. Hague: I agree with my hon. Friend that there are people who should be added to the reserve list and banned from the EU. But what is the point of having a banned list of individuals from the Mugabe regime who are generally refused visas to travel to Europe when the dictator himself is able to come to Lisbon and be paraded, fed and feted there? Mugabe’s presence at this summit will damage the cause of development in Africa and the moral standing of the European Union. I hope that Ministers will soon explain who will represent Britain at the EU-AU summit and that they will go on to ensure that the prime responsibility of whoever it is—

Mr. Keith Simpson: Lord Malloch-Brown.

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Mr. Hague: Well, it might be another job for the Minister of State, but perhaps it should be someone who watches their words more carefully. The prime responsibility of whoever is appointed to do that job should be to lay before the summit the extent of the crimes of the Mugabe regime so that a complacent gathering of national leaders can hear in detail what they currently chose to ignore.

The utter failure of EU ministers to show any collective strength over Zimbabwe is not a good advertisement for the European Union. That brings us, of course, to European Affairs. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will agree with me that we are approaching a time when we must be extremely vigilant about developments in the Balkans—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has referred to that. The future status of Kosovo remains the primary challenge for the Balkan region and we agree with the Government that the status quo there is not an option, and that UN Special Envoy Ahtisaari’s comprehensive proposal represents the best way forward.

I hope that Ministers will also agree that any independence package the international community settles upon must enshrine the protection of Kosovo’s minorities and a sustained international presence. Depressingly, the situation in Bosnia is also now giving rise to alarm. The recent report of the Political Directors of the Peace Implementation Steering Board said that the situation had deteriorated further, that responsibility lay with political leaders from both entities and

It is extremely important that the international community’s high representative in Bosnia is given all the support that he needs to implement measures aimed at making the country more functional, and that threats by Serbia to back the secession of the entity of Republika Srpska if Kosovo wins independence will be most rigorously resisted.

Of course, it is on European affairs that there is the sharpest differences of view across the House. The weakness of the Government’s arguments is exposed by the fact that the actions of Ministers are now often characterised by embarrassment or concealment. First on the list is the European Communities (Finance) Bill, which is to have its Second Reading next Monday. It is the first piece of legislation to be presented to the House after the Gracious Speech, yet for some reason it received no mention whatever in that speech, or any previous one. Could that possibly be because it involves giving up £7 billion of the British rebate to the European Union, for nothing concrete in return—a rebate that the Prime Minister once described as non-negotiable—and because it represents a total failure of negotiation, and a betrayal of the national finances, never mind the national interest?

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