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House of Commons

Tuesday 25 March 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect of the situation in Iraq on the UK’s foreign policy goals. [196044]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The United Kingdom, with its international partners, remains committed to supporting Iraq’s development into a secure and stable country, able to play its rightful role in the region and within the international community. This is consistent with our proactive approach to foreign policy, centred on the strategic goals that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary outlined to the House on 8 January 2008.

Mr. Ellwood: On 23 May 2003, Jerry Bremer, head of the coalition provincial authority, ordered the dissolution of the Iraqi army. A week before that, he had disbanded the Ba’ath party, alienating tens of thousands of Iraqis, including some 40,000 teachers and as many nurses and doctors. Will the Minister now concede that those were two of the biggest schoolboy errors in recent peacekeeping history and explain why Britain supported those decisions?

Dr. Howells: I do not think that “schoolboy errors” is the right description. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that tremendous resentment was felt towards the Ba’ath party and the Iraqi army for what they had done over the previous 10 years, including the appalling events in Kurdistan and the massacre of Shi’a s in the south. If he is asking whether I think, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was a mistake to do that, I shall defer to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) who is, among other things, a military historian, and can give his hon. Friend a more considered view. I think that it is easy to look at things with hindsight and to assume that the facts as we now know them were apparent at the time.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Are we not seeing a post-Iraq foreign policy emerging, exemplified by President Sarkozy’s visit here, his desire to see a reintegration with NATO and to send more troops to Afghanistan, and also by Senator John McCain’s statement on the front page of Le Monde at the weekend that the US must listen to its allies and rebuild relations with Europe? Is not the real lesson to learn that Europe and the US must work together and the US must listen to Europe? Britain has to be a leader in Europe, and the way forward is neither the anti-European populism of the right nor the stupid anti-US rhetoric of the left.

Dr. Howells: There is very little I disagree with in that.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The Minister will know as well as anyone the amount of disappointment felt by Britain’s allies in the middle east at our failure to exercise more influence over the course of events in Iraq, in particular on the mistakes in American policy.
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Could the Minister give his assessment of the damage that has been done to the achievement of British foreign policy goals by the damage to our influence with our friends in the region?

Dr. Howells: I admire the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this issue and I always have done. However, if he is implying that what Britain has done in the middle east is somehow more damaging than, for example, the duplicity that we have witnessed from some of the capitals in the middle east on issues such as Lebanon or support for the rejectionists in Gaza and the west bank, I disagree. The real damage is being done by those who want to see the middle east not as a settled, prosperous area, but under the influence of certain extremist groups and terrorists.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): Last month I was in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and I met women’s groups and trade union groups. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is by forging links with such groups seeking social justice that we will achieve our foreign policy goals in Iraq?

Dr. Howells: Yes, it is important to stress that there are parts of Iraq that have done extremely well over the past year or so. Like my hon. Friend, I visited Irbil recently and saw the encouraging developments there. What is required now is a sense of unity between Irbil, Baghdad and Basra that will enable that country to start to tap its enormous potential, because it could be very prosperous and a key country for the whole middle eastern region.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does the Minister understand that many of us believe that our involvement in Iraq has done immense damage to Britain’s national and international interests, and that that is one of several disreputable reasons why the present Government will not allow an immediate inquiry into Iraq?

Dr. Howells: No, I certainly do not agree. I do agree that our involvement in Iraq has generated tremendous controversy, and we have to accept that. It would be silly to deny it. However, on the other hand, I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider that Iraq is not now in a position to attack its neighbours, to gas and poison its own people or to commit the sort of atrocities that occurred before Saddam Hussein was removed.


2. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had at EU level and at the United Nations on the political situation in Gaza; and if he will make a statement. [196045]

7. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the situation in Gaza and its impact on the middle east peace process. [196050]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): We have been working with partners to address the situation in Gaza. I have recently
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been in contact with the key players, including the UN Secretary-General and EU colleagues as well as leading figures in the region. The EU presidency issued a statement following the European Council last week. We call on all parties to exercise restraint and minimise civilian casualties, and we use our aid resources to mitigate the worst aspects of the situation. However, a lasting solution can come only from a strong political process, to which we are contributing. Rejectionists must not divert us from that path.

David Taylor: Foreign politicians by the planeload arrive in Jerusalem to heap praise upon the Israeli Government, but none goes to the Gaza strip to see how Israel’s sanctions and its siege of the 1.5 million Palestinians have caused economic collapse, starvation, pitiful conditions and hundreds of deaths. Will the Foreign Secretary condemn Israel’s actions at the EU and UN, as a political and moral obligation, and so end the collective international blindness to those outrages and deafness to Gaza’s cries of despair, and the silence as Israel suppresses and destroys with impunity?

David Miliband: I know that my hon. Friend has followed the issue for some time. In respect of actions, we can point to the genuine work that this Government are doing, I think with the support of the whole House, to try to mitigate the worst aspects of the humanitarian situation. Some £30 million was given last year, as part of an €800 million contribution from across the European Union.

In respect of statements, I refer my hon. Friend to what I said on 2 March, which I think was the most recent occasion on which I commented on Israel’s actions in this area. I said:

I hope that that is a point of unity in the House. However, two weeks ago I met the mayor of Sderot, a town that has been the subject of 7,000 rocket attacks, I think, in the past decade, and I hope that it is also a point of unity that suffering and insecurity on a terrible scale are being suffered in Israel as well. From our point of view, the Palestinian suffering and Israeli insecurity are two sides of the same coin, and they need to be addressed together.

Andrew Gwynne: I, too, met the mayor of Sderot. With rocket attacks increasing to more than 250 a month on both Sderot and Ashkelon, and with the Israeli counter-measures in Gaza, may I urge my right hon. Friend to redouble the efforts of the UK Government to get both the Palestinians and the Israelis talking again, particularly President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, to seek the peaceful resolution and two-state solution that I believe we both want to see?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I would say two things in response. First, the discussions between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, which have continued throughout the past few weeks, when violence has been at a very high level, speak to the commitment of both those leaders to see
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through the Annapolis peace process that has started—a process fragile in many ways, but none the less better than having no process at all, which has been the problem for the past seven years.

Secondly, it is important to continue to emphasise that the goal of a two-state solution has cross-party support in the United Kingdom, and we certainly want to contribute to it in practical ways. The next stage will be the next meeting of the ad hoc liaison committee, a key group of countries that supports the development of a Palestinian state and a Palestinian economy. It will be meeting in London, under the chairmanship of myself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, on 2 May. It will be an important occasion to take forward practical and political measures.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Since Israeli disengagement in Gaza back in 2005, there have been something like 4,000 rocket attacks emanating from there into Israeli territory. Those rocket attacks are not just perpetrated by Hamas; the al-Aqsa brigade is involved. What specific pressure are the Government bringing to bear on the Palestinian Authority to stop those attacks on Israel?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. Of course, the split that now exists within the Palestinian population, between Gaza and the west bank, is one of the most significant problems. The absence of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza is a significant issue that blocks progress. We are supporting the reopening of the crossings from Gaza into Israel, which would involve the Palestinian Authority, giving it a new bridgehead back into Gaza. I continue to believe that the leadership of President Abbas, who has been elected by all the Palestinian people, offers the best hope of progress. The hon. Gentleman’s wider point deserves wider discussion, because he is right to say that the rocket attacks have not come only from Hamas, although they have come predominantly from Hamas.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Does the Foreign Office, with its long and expert knowledge of the area, regard it as a success that its Secretary of State seems sensationally to have overturned 1,300 years of Islamic antagonisms by driving Sunni Hamas into the arms of Shi’a Hezbollah? Both groups are being armed by Shi’ite Iran, so that the possibility of a two-power settlement without the involvement of all three now looks very remote.

David Miliband: I think that the past 40 years of history are more important than the 1,300 years that the hon. Gentleman referred to. I fear that he is right to say that the prospect of a two-state solution is further away than it has been for many years, but that redoubles the importance of the very fragile peace process that has been started. Iran’s support for terrorism in the region is a significant matter and one that we have raised directly with the Iranian authorities. It obviously causes genuine instability across the region, and we should all be seeking to counteract it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is hard to see how there can be a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians while the latter remain divided between
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Gaza and the west bank, Hamas and Fatah? Will he therefore welcome the discussions over the past five days between Fatah and Hamas to promote national reconciliation? Does he agree that our job is to win both groups over to an effective peace process and not, as Vice-President Cheney appears to have been doing over the weekend, to try to drive Hamas further away from that process?

David Miliband: Our job is to support everyone who is committed to a peaceful resolution on the basis of two states able to live side by side. The unity of the Palestinian people under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas is something that we should all support.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I endorse what the Secretary of State has said, and the Opposition accept that security and the need to tackle the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in the Gaza strip are inextricably linked. What contact are he and his colleagues having with the Egyptian Government? Does he agree that the Egyptian authorities are crucial to ensuring that explosives and materials for making rockets do not get through the tunnels into the Gaza strip, from where they can threaten Israeli cities? Are they not also crucial to efforts to reopen the border crossings, so that legitimate trade can resume in the not-too-distant future, as we both hope?

David Miliband: It is for precisely that reason that I went to Cairo two months ago, and it is also why I spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister the Friday before last. Egypt has an absolutely pivotal role to play, both in practical terms in respect of the smuggling to which the hon. Gentleman rightly referred—and which is a long-term and not a short-term problem—and in respect of the crossings. Twenty-two nations supported the Arab peace initiative, which remains a very important contribution to the peace process. It shows that moderate Arab opinion is rallying around reconciliation with Israel, and reflects the Arab world’s determination to take its responsibilities very seriously. That is to be wholly welcomed, and I know that Egypt’s Foreign Minister is determined to continue to play what is an important role for Egypt and other leading nations.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Hamas goes on indiscriminately murdering innocent Israelis, including children and babies, while the Israeli forces continue indiscriminately murdering Palestinians in Gaza, including children and babies. The Israelis continue to break international law by building an illegal wall, expanding illegal settlements and imposing collective punishment on the people of Gaza. When are the Quartet going to do something other than utter platitudes that get no one anywhere?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend makes an important comment about the role of the Quartet. The economic work that the Quartet is taking forward is important, although it is frustrated by the current insecurity, and I know that discussions are going on about the Quartet’s next meeting in an attempt to forge a more active unity. As he knows, our position is that the settlements are illegal under international law. I am glad to hear him repeat that the indiscriminate terrorism of Hamas is a murderous attack on the peace process, as well as on the individuals who are affected.

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3. Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): If he will make a statement on UK relations with India. [196046]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The United Kingdom enjoys a strong partnership with India based on the shared values of democracy, fundamental freedoms, pluralism, rule of law and respect for human rights. The Prime Minister’s recent visit to New Delhi strengthened that partnership by ensuring that progress was made on a range of bilateral and wider international issues. Both sides will use the outcome of the visit to deepen the relationship further.

Dr. Kumar: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but does he recall the joint declaration signed in September 2004 by our Government and the Indian Government? In the declaration, it was agreed that both sides would pursue permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council for India. What progress has been made, and what effort has the Minister made to ensure that the Indians succeed in gaining that seat?

Dr. Howells: The United Kingdom publicly and consistently champions reform of the UN, including the introduction of an enlarged UN Security Council, with a permanent seat for India. The Prime Minister reaffirmed the United Kingdom’s support for India’s candidacy during his speech in Delhi in January. Our mission in New York is trying to break the long-standing deadlock over reform, and we will continue with our efforts to persuade Governments that India should have a permanent seat on the Security Council—alongside Brazil, Japan and Germany, in our view—and that there should be representation from Africa.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): The Minister will be aware that India has gone to war with Pakistan over Kashmir three times since independence, and that both India and Pakistan are nuclear states. What discussions has he or other Ministers had about a way forward for Kashmir?

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right: back in 2002, those two nuclear states were facing each other in what was probably the most dangerous confrontation anywhere on Earth. I am sure that he will agree with me that we should be greatly encouraged by the fact that India and Pakistan are dealing with the matter themselves. It will be interesting to see how quickly the new Pakistani Government take up the mantle and ensure that the peace that is thankfully now being experienced in Kashmir becomes permanent.


4. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the outcome of the UN special envoy’s recent visit to Burma. [196047]

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