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Immigration (Adela Mahoro Mugabo)

10.30 pm

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): As the local Member of Parliament of Adela Mahoro Mugabo, I wish to submit the petition of the Mahoro Must Stay Campaign. It contains 1,000 signatures, although a further 1,000 have been collected since the petition was handed to me a few days ago. I am delighted to support it.


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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Khan.]

10.31 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Presidential elections in Lebanon have been postponed for the 13th time. The country has been without a president since 23 November last year, and the next possible date for Parliament to meet is 11 February. That means more than 11 weeks of failure to agree on a way forward, and political paralysis. It is, by common consent, the worst political crisis since the civil war in the country ended in 1990. It also has the potential to spill on to the streets of Lebanon, with unknown consequences for the country and, perhaps more important, for the wider middle east.

That is not a fanciful statement. We can confirm our worst fears by noting recent events. Yesterday eight opposition supporters were shot dead in street protests in Beirut. Accusations abound: some say that the army bears responsibility, and there is also talk of “unknown gunmen”. Amal, the political party representing the protesters, says that it is not yet clear who is responsible, but the situation remains very tense. I know that troops are on the alert for any further violence, although I understand that calm has returned to the streets of the capital to some extent.

As if that were not enough, last Friday a senior police officer who was involved in investigations of recent assassinations was himself assassinated, along with three others, two of them totally innocent civilians. In the past three years there have been 30 bombings in Lebanon. Since UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which is supposed to be patrolling the southern border—arrived in the country in September last year, there have been three attacks on its forces and six soldiers have died. A car bomb recently struck a United States embassy vehicle. Although, fortunately, no one from the embassy was injured, three innocent bystanders were killed. On the eve of President Bush’s visit to the region earlier this month, two rockets were fired from Lebanon into northern Israel. While there is confusion over whether Hezbollah or one of the Palestinian parties was responsible, it will be ominous if that is repeated, and even more ominous if we see an increase in the number of rockets going into Israel.

In the past two years, four Government Members of Parliament have been assassinated, and during that time no one has been arrested or charged with any of the crimes. Since the period of instability began, opposition supporters have blockaded the Parliament and launched regular demonstrations in the capital. Indeed, yesterday’s events began as a demonstration against power cuts in southern Beirut. There was a transport strike last week and there are, of course, constant threats of civil disobedience and a campaign to follow.

Sadly, early hopes that the Taif agreement introducing the confessional system of politics and how Parliament operates would deliver strength and stability in the country have been dashed. The reasons for that go back a long way—many complex issues are involved—but the reality is that we can see in more recent events how the spiral towards conflict has happened. In 2004, the
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Syrian authorities rammed through an extension to ex-President Lahoud’s term of office, causing great consternation. In 2005, Prime Minister Hariri was assassinated, which further—and intensively—polarised the country. That led to a popular backlash. Elections following his assassination brought in the 14 March coalition and led to Syria’s withdrawal, but the hopes at that time for a fresh start and a new initiative were dashed in 2006 with the invasion of Israeli troops.

It is estimated that 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis died during that invasion. Unfortunately, Hezbollah, which was the cause of the instability in southern Lebanon, was able to claim victory as the defender of Lebanon. That enhanced not only its position in the wider middle east but its role in Lebanon.

That enhanced role following the invasion led to Opposition demands for a blocking majority in the Government of Lebanon. That was not possible; indeed, it should not be possible, and we must stand up for the right of the Government to govern. However, the consequence of not agreeing that was the withdrawal of the Opposition, and political paralysis has followed.

The prospects of avoiding further instability are bleak. Prime Minister Siniora, who has led the Government during the recent period, stated a few days ago that Lebanon is going through the most difficult and dangerous of times. That is saying something for a country with Lebanon’s history. I do not think it is going too far to say that civil conflict remains a genuine possibility. The question I pose tonight is: what can Parliament, and more importantly the Government, do to help? International pressure to resolve the instability is crucial—pressure to keep up the dialogue, and to keep insisting that the parties to that dialogue be prepared to compromise to find a solution.

The United Kingdom is well placed to assert such pressure. We play a prominent role in both the European Union, which should be doing more, and, perhaps more importantly, the United Nations Security Council. The UK has a unique experience in the middle east, and although it might be surprising to some, on the basis of my experience it is clear that the UK has prestige in Lebanon, even now after the Israeli invasion, which can be brought to bear.

Ministerial visits are always welcome in Lebanon as showing a commitment to that country and to finding a way forward. The Prime Minister’s representative, Michael Williams, has recently visited, as has the Minister, and it is important that we carry on doing so. It would show solidarity and help to keep up the pressure if Ministers were able to visit over the next few weeks.

I understand that Prime Minister Siniora has requested the opportunity to come to the United Kingdom to report on the situation. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on that request and expedite such a visit. I know that Prime Minister Siniora wants to keep the UK in touch with what is going on in his country, and to elicit its support to help ensure the quickest possible resolution of the conflict.

There appears to be a developing consensus around the election of General Michel Suleiman as a possible next President; we have to build on that. Although the process has been difficult, it is critically important that there appears now to be cross-party support for that,
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and we need to do what we can to ensure that it leads to the rest of the package necessary to resolve the conflict. In my estimation, the mediation of the Arab League is a positive development in this regard. Although it has so far been unsuccessful—we understand the intensity of the differences between the political parties in the country—it is the only game in town at present. If we are to find a way forward, we need to get behind the work that the Arab League is doing not only in finding that presidential candidate, but in leading toward a Cabinet of national unity that can take the country forward.

I hope that the Minister is alert to the need for United Kingdom support in finding a solution in Lebanon. I hope, too, that he is giving every assistance to the process that will need to be gone through—the hard negotiations that will have to take place—to deliver a solution in Lebanon. However, through his contacts in the United Nations and the European Union, and through the very good relationship that I know exists with the French authorities, who have played such a prominent role in the country, he must be aware of what is happening and what more can be done.

That is the essential question that Parliament wants to ask: given the concerns in the international community about the decline into conflict in Lebanon, what more can we do not only to resolve the situation in that difficult country, but to ensure that we do not see a developing conflagration in the wider middle east? Given the other negotiations going on in trying to develop a dialogue between the different parties, Lebanon really does not need to be a negative at this point. Will the Minister reassure us that everything is being done to help in that situation?

10.42 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) for raising the issue of Lebanon. We have shared in a number of debates in the past couple of weeks, and I know how passionately he feels not just about trying to stop the conflict, but about finding solutions to the frozen conflicts that have been going on for so long. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the situation in Lebanon and on what the United Kingdom is doing to help.

First, I am sure that the House will share my deep concern about the deteriorating security situation in Lebanon. As my hon. Friend told us, yesterday saw protests that left at least seven people dead. It is essential that all political leaders urge their supporters to remain calm and respect the rule of law. The UK is investing £600,000 to train and equip the Lebanese armed forces to help them maintain public order and security during civil disturbances, while respecting human rights and limiting the risks of escalating violence. I hope that the reports that my hon. Friend has heard are not true—I cannot believe that the Lebanese army is responsible for these deaths. It has acted incredibly responsibly over the past 12 months. We have teams on the ground in Beirut delivering the training to which I referred. We hope that this will have a direct effect on the Lebanese Government’s ability to preserve law and order amid the current tense political environment.

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I also condemn utterly Friday’s bomb attack in Beirut, which killed and injured several people, including Wissam Eid of the Lebanese internal security force. I express my sympathy and condolences to the families of those killed and injured. Captain Eid was involved in the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, and his death must not be allowed to derail that important investigation or the work for justice in that case. A stable and prosperous Lebanon is an important component of our wider objectives of preventing conflict in the middle east and combating the threat of international terrorism in the region and, indeed, in the United Kingdom. A peaceful Lebanon is also crucial for all the communities in Lebanon, be they Christian, Sunni or Shi’a. Resolving the current political crisis, combating extremism and supporting the Government of Lebanon in their efforts to promote security and stability are, and will remain, high priorities for the United Kingdom.

I visited Lebanon last month to talk to political parties on both sides, to try to understand more closely the nature of the disagreements and to encourage the sides to work for a compromise. During my visit, I met politicians from the March 14 Government and the Opposition, and the head of the Lebanese armed forces, General Suleiman, who is the only candidate for President upon whom both sides can agree. I urged all parties involved to take advantage of the ongoing mediation efforts, and to work towards the election of a new President and the formulation of a functioning representative Government as soon as possible. I remain hopeful that a deal can be done, but it was clear from my discussions that a gulf of misunderstanding and mistrust lies between the sides. It is essential that all sides are able to overcome that in the interests of all communities in Lebanon.

I also went to see what remains of the Nahr El Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The camp was devastated by three months of intensive fighting last summer between the Lebanese armed forces and the extremist group, Fatah al-Islam. The sight would have reminded you, Mr. Speaker, of pictures of Stalingrad after the huge battle in world war two. I had never seen such devastation. I saw terrible devastation after the Israel-Lebanese—or Israel-Hezbollah—war of a year last July. It was an extraordinary sight. As somebody said to me there, Fatah al-Islam is neither Fatah nor Islam, but it is a very dangerous group.

The visit highlighted to me the suffering of those civilians caught up in the fighting—30,000 of them in that camp have been displaced—and, most of all, the bravery of the Lebanese army, which suffered the killing of more than 150 soldiers during the fighting last summer. We ought to remember that the country is awash with arms. When the so-called Fatah al-Islam went in there—we do not know where it came from; it could have been Syria, but it might have been other places—it did not have to take guns, cannon, grenades and rocket launchers, because those things were already there. They had been put there by Yasser Arafat’s forces many years previously. Fatah al-Islam easily outgunned the Lebanese armed forces when they went to try to restore some degree of order to that area. It is a warning to all of us that this is an extraordinarily dangerous place. It is a tinderbox that could easily catch fire. Indeed, it remains a cause of deep concern, and it is an area in which the UK is looking to help.

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Palestinian refugee camps are also, of course, a breeding ground for extremists who seek to destabilise Lebanon and the wider region. I do not believe that those extremists have much support among the majority of Palestinians, or among the wider Lebanese population, but they are nevertheless seeking to strengthen the foothold they have among a small minority. We are working in camps at the grass roots level to counter that radicalisation. We are also working with the UN and the Government of Lebanon to counter the fundamental causes of the radicalisation by improving the physical, legal and economic conditions of the refugees, which are pretty appalling.

If I may, I shall give the House a brief update on the current political situation in Lebanon and its implications for the country’s security and stability. As my hon. Friend told us, President Lahoud’s mandate expired on 23 November 2007. Since then Lebanon has been without a president. Parliamentary votes to elect a successor have been delayed 13 times. Both the governing March 14 coalition and the Opposition have agreed on General Suleiman as candidate for the presidency, but the Opposition coalition are insisting on a package deal, involving not only agreement on a president, but on the distribution of seats in a Cabinet in a new national unity Government. That raising of the stakes has made getting an agreement even more difficult.

It is essential that both sides continue to work to resolve their differences free from outside obstruction and interference. In particular, we call on Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty and its independent democratic institutions, as stated in numerous UN Security Council resolutions. Syria’s actions in Lebanon, and its unacceptable internal human rights record, highlight the regime’s lack of respect for democratic norms. In past months, we have seen a worrying deterioration in the human rights situation in Syria, with activists being detained simply for holding a meeting calling for greater democratic rights. There are reports that those activists are now being held in poor conditions. The use of torture also remains a serious concern, and there are several reports of other suspects dying during interrogation. We call on Syria to address that situation urgently. The British embassy in Damascus, working with other EU missions, continues to press the Syrians to improve conditions in general, as well to raise individual cases of concern.

The international community has a role in supporting Lebanese leaders to resolve the crisis. We have consistently supported efforts by France and the Arab League to help the Lebanese find a way out of the current impasse. My visit was aimed squarely at supporting those efforts, and at getting Lebanese leaders to take the necessary difficult decisions, in the interests of all the people of Lebanon. I remain firmly convinced that a deal is within reach, if the political will is there. We must continue to support and encourage those efforts.

Most recently, the Arab League has led international efforts to promote a resolution. Arab League Foreign Ministers met on 5 January to discuss the situation and agree a plan of action. I pay tribute to Amr Moussa, the Arab League Secretary General, who subsequently visited Beirut in a renewed push. I hope that his
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initiative succeeds and I urge the Lebanese leaders to seize the opportunity that Amr Moussa’s leadership provides.

The UK is taking practical steps to encourage a resolution. We have been working closely with international partners, particularly with our partners on the UN Security Council and in the EU, to provide political support to mediation efforts. As well as my visit, the UK special representative to the middle east, Michael Williams—an experienced diplomat—visited Lebanon last year to help promote a resolution. Of course, the British ambassador in Beirut, Frances Guy—a very talented and dedicated ambassador—continues to meet the key political figures regularly. In addition, we hope that Prime Minister Siniora will visit London in the near future. I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be an important visit.

Mr. Love: I am very heartened by what my hon. Friend has said so far. I hope that either the Prime Minister’s representative or a Minister from the Foreign Office will be able to visit the area in the near future to show that solidarity. I understand that an application has been made on behalf of Prime Minister Siniora, and I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that it is expedited, so that we can show our solidarity with the Government of Lebanon.

Dr. Howells: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that undertaking. I have great regard for Prime Minister Siniora, who is a very brave man. He has never flinched from the responsibilities of his post and we would very much like him to visit.

I pay tribute to the peacekeepers of the United Nations interim force in Lebanon. My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that some of them had died in attacks in the past six or seven months. They were cowardly attacks—there have been roadside bombs, and innocent bystanders have been killed. I am afraid that such attacks have been replicated in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a pattern to them, and it is very worrying.

The British embassy in Beirut is monitoring the security situation closely, and advice to British citizens in the country is, of course, regularly updated. I know that my hon. Friend will pay tribute to the tremendous job done by our people in Lebanon, and to our armed forces for the job that they did in July 2006. They faced a huge exodus of British and other citizens from Lebanon, while bombs and rockets fell all around. They did an enormous job.

Finally, I turn to the practical assistance that the UK is providing to the Government of Lebanon to help them in their efforts to promote security. First, we continue to work closely with the Lebanese Government to implement UN Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the conflict in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah. Our focus is on working with the Lebanese to improve their border security and prevent the illegal flow of arms across the Syria-Lebanon border. To date we have invested £800,000 in training and equipment to improve Lebanon’s border security. I went there to see it for myself. A good job is being done in the north of the country, but the terrain is very difficult. It is ideal terrain for smugglers; they smuggle not just guns but all kinds of matériel across the border.

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The special tribunal for Lebanon has the United Kingdom’s strong support. Achieving a swift and just outcome to the investigation into the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will be vital to demonstrate that acts of political violence in the middle east will not go unpunished. The United Kingdom co-sponsored Security Council resolution 1757, which brought into force the agreements necessary to establish the tribunal. We also committed $1 million to getting the special tribunal up and running. That underlines our commitment to promoting the rule of law in Lebanon.

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