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House of Commons

Tuesday 13 May 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—

Durban II

1. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the progress made at the April preparatory meeting for Durban II on racism. [204795]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): The United Kingdom wants the Durban review conference to contribute to the global fight against racism. The preparatory work is ongoing, but there should be no repeat of the disgraceful anti-Semitism that blighted events surrounding the 2001 world conference against racism.

John Mann: With Libya chairing the preparatory committee and Cuba and Iran supporting it as officers, the signs are not too good. Can the Minister assure us that if there is even the slightest whiff of anything comparable to the disgrace of the first Durban conference, the United Kingdom will not participate?

Mr. Murphy: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members in all parts of the House who played such an important part in the all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism. My hon. Friend is right that there have been dreadful comments and behaviour of an anti-Semitic nature in previous gatherings of that type. I wish to be clear that the UK Government will play no part in a gathering that displays such behaviour. We will continue to work to make sure that the conference is a success, but we will play no part in an international conference that exhibits the degree of anti-Semitism that was disgracefully on view on the previous occasion.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Although the Minister’s comments are welcome, and his remarks about the anti-Semitism group are equally welcome, does he agree that it is interesting that Canada, whose Government are one of the most responsible and friendly with whom we ever have dealings, has already decided not to attend the conference? Is he in touch with the Canadian Government about their reasons for doing so?

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Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman was another important contributor to the all-party inquiry and it is right to put that on record. We are in touch with international partners on this serious issue. One of the reasons why the Canadian Government withdrew, as I understand it, is that unacceptable conditions were placed on a Jewish non-governmental organisation from Canada, initiated by the Iranian authorities. We continue to discuss that with Canada and other international partners and that dialogue will continue. If it gets to a point that we come to the view that the conference cannot be a success, the option of withdrawal from the conference remains available to us.

Iranian Nuclear Programme

2. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): If he will make a statement on the Iranian nuclear programme. [204796]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): Iran continues to enrich uranium and carry out heavy water-related projects in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions requesting it to stop. We urge Iran to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to implement the additional protocol that it has signed with the agency, to respond to the serious questions that the agency has put to Iran on weaponisation, and of course to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. On 2 May, I chaired a meeting of my E3 plus 3 colleagues to agree a refreshed offer to Iran as part of our dual track strategy to persuade Iran to comply with its international obligations. That will soon be transmitted to the Government of Iran.

Mr. Jones: Much of the west’s knowledge of the Iranian nuclear programme is the product of information passed to it by the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, most recently in respect of the nuclear warhead facility at Khojir. Given the historic helpfulness of the PMOI to the west and given also the trenchantly expressed judgment of the Court of Appeal last week, can the Foreign Secretary please say when the Government will make a statement to the House as to the continued proscription of the organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000? [Interruption.]

David Miliband: We were deeply disappointed by the result, given the well documented history of terrorist attacks involving the MEK. I am happy to give details. It explicitly claimed responsibility for a number of serious acts of terrorism on Iranian interests for a number of years. [Interruption.] It has never publicly given up violence and gave up its arms only in the face of overwhelming military might in Iraq in 2003. [Interruption.] None the less, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will be pleased to hear that we will of course abide by the ruling of the court, and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will lay an order before Parliament in the next few weeks to take forward that judgment.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Foreign Secretary is aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee published a report a few months ago on the situation on
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Iran. In that report we expressed concern that the current strategy to prevent the Iranian regime from developing a nuclear weapon is not very successful. Does the Foreign Secretary share the Committee’s view that on present trends Iran could have such a breakout capability in about seven or eight years? What will the Government, with their international partners, do over the coming months and years to make sure that that does not happen?

David Miliband: I am obviously not going to comment on intelligence—ours or others’—in respect of the timeline for the Iranian nuclear programme. However, the sense of importance that came through in the Foreign Affairs Committee report is shared by the Government and by our partners as well. Not only the three European countries and the United States, but Russia and China are part of a coalition that sees the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the middle east, which all sane people would see as a danger.

Our quarrel is not with the people of Iran, which is a country of huge civilisation and education; in the end, our quarrel is not with Iran’s rights under the non-proliferation regime, which ultimately include the right to civilian nuclear power. Our quarrel is with the responsibilities, or the lack of responsibility, exercised by the regime. That is why it is important that we take forward at each stage the dual track strategy. There is the offer to Iran of economic, scientific and cultural co-operation, but if it refuses to co-operate with the international community, it is right that sanctions be in place.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that last year’s United States national intelligence estimate that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 was deeply misleading, because it referred only to warhead production? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the real threat is from the uranium enrichment programme, which, far from slowing down, has been accelerated by the Iranians in recent months? Will he do all in his power to ensure that that point is fully understood, both by public opinion in this country and at the United Nations?

David Miliband: I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is quoting from my article in the Financial Times that appeared after the national intelligence estimate came out, but I certainly echo entirely what he has said. A very important confusion was created by the national intelligence estimate report about the difference between, on the one hand, weaponisation, and on the other, the three processes—above all, the uranium enrichment process—that are important for building a nuclear weapon.

It is precisely the dangers of the expanded uranium enrichment programme that have motivated successive United Nations Security Council resolutions that have demanded the suspension of that programme. Last year, the E3 plus 3 put forward a proposal for a “freeze for freeze”—a freeze on sanctions in response to a freeze on the uranium enrichment programme. We are refreshing our offer, but are absolutely clear that underlying it is a determination to ensure that Iran fulfils its responsibilities as well as exerts its rights under the NPT.

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Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): What is the best estimate available to my right hon. Friend on the number of centrifuges available to the Iranians for uranium enrichment at present? Where are those centrifuges coming from?

David Miliband: I am not going to comment on our estimate of the number of centrifuges. My hon. Friend will have seen President Ahmadinejad’s claim—I repeat that it is a claim—that 3,000 centrifuges have been increased to 6,000 centrifuges. As I say, that is his claim. I am afraid that I am not able to go into any details on their origins, but obviously we are working across all parts of the international community to staunch the flow not only of equipment, but of personnel and ideas.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Following on from the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he sets more store by the United States intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability, to which he has referred, or by the very much more bullish assessment made by Israeli intelligence, on which he had a report this week?

David Miliband: What is bullish and what is bearish in this context I will not go into. What I rely on are British intelligence estimates. That is the right basis for policy— [ Interruption. ] I am very, very surprised to see Opposition Members querying the exceptional quality of British intelligence. [ Interruption. ] I might expect the Liberal Democrats to denigrate the work of public servants, but I will not do that. What is important is that the international community is united in recognising that the problem is serious and that it is not a question of pursuing a vendetta against the people of Iran, or even the regime of Iran. We are seeking a change in behaviour, not a change in the regime. It is right that we devote ourselves diplomatically to achieving that end.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The centrifuges are based on a design stolen by A.Q. Khan; that is how the Iranians acquired them. May I clarify something with my right hon. Friend? Are the use of the centrifuges or the lack of inspection agreements at the core of the problem? How is he proposing to change the inspection regime to ensure that although Iran can continue with a nuclear power programme if it wants to, nuclear weapons conventions will be protected?

David Miliband: There are three charges against the Iranian regime: first, in relation to its refusal to comply with UN Security Council resolutions in respect of uranium enrichment; secondly, in respect of IAEA demands for full information on previous programmes, not just the P1 but the P2 programme—I apologise for going into the detail—and thirdly, there is the question of the additional protocol, which the IAEA has demanded that Iran lives up to. These are not my demands; they are demands that have been made by the international community, unanimously on successive occasions, and by the International Atomic Energy Authority—[Hon. Members: “Agency.”] I am sorry; I
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am grateful for the correction. Living within the bounds of UN and IAEA requirements is what we ask of the Government of Iran. I should also add that we are asking nothing more of them than to live within boundaries that are set for every other country; that is a point that we can all do well to remind people of, in Iran and more widely.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Can the Foreign Secretary give us a clear assurance that if Iran were now to reject the new offer that he has described to the House, the sanctions against Iranian oil and gas, which the Prime Minister promised as long ago as last November, will finally be imposed? Does he agree, too, that with Lebanese Ministers alleging that Iranian republican guards have been deployed and are fighting on the streets of Beirut, the need for effective pressure on the Iranian regime really is urgent?

David Miliband: I certainly reaffirm our commitment to take this up at European level. We said that we would pursue these actions at the European level, because that is the right place to do it, and we will certainly continue to do so. It is worth reporting to the House that the latest figures for the UK’s action alone show that £513 million of Iranian assets have been frozen, and EU trade with Iran is down 34 per cent. in the year to March 2007.

In respect of the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which takes us into new territory, all I can say is that I spoke to the Prime Minister of Lebanon on Friday, discussed the very serious situation there, and expressed my total support for his Government in seeking to maintain the integrity and democratic legitimacy of the Government of Lebanon. I hope that in topical questions I may be able to say more about last night’s phone call of the Friends of Lebanon group, which involves 12 countries around the world, mainly from the region. I will be happy to report on that to the House.


3. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the human rights situation in Guatemala; and if he will make a statement. [204797]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): We are encouraged by Guatemala’s participation in the United Nations universal periodic review of human rights. As part of this process, the UK has raised its ongoing concerns about the human rights situation in Guatemala—in particular, widespread impunity, child rights, human rights defenders and the rise in murders of girls and women. I raised these issues with the Guatemalan Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Vice-Minister, during my recent visit.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She will be aware that there were 6,000 murders in Guatemala last year, which is equivalent to 28,000 murders in a country the size of Britain. There are terrible problems with policing and the justice system in that country. Will she comment on the recent Bill on the death penalty vetoed by President Colom?

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Meg Munn: Certainly—my hon. Friend is absolutely right about these concerns. We have also been putting in support for training of police officers. The UK worked with EU partners and we were successful in lobbying President Colom to veto the recent law that the congress had passed seeking to restore the death penalty. I stressed with the Guatemalan Minister for Foreign Affairs the importance of finally abolishing the death penalty. I can assure my hon. Friend that the UK and the EU will continue to work towards the abolition of that in its entirety.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the Minister agree that if the new President of Guatemala, Álvaro Colom, is serious about human rights, he will deal with the corruption in the judiciary, in the army and in some parts of the Government, and he will introduce the measures that he said he would introduce prior to his election as President to deal with what is perhaps Latin America’s worst human rights record?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman raises important points. During my visit in April, I had a frank discussion with Ministers about their unacceptable human rights position. They insisted that the Colom Government would work energetically to improve matters, but clearly those good intentions need to be put into action and we will continue to press the Guatemalan Government on the fact that good human rights are essential to good democracy.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I would like to thank the Minister for visiting Guatemala and for raising human rights concerns with the Government there. She must be aware of the marginalisation of women, particularly non-Spanish speaking women, in society; they have little access to justice or human rights and are fearful of the army and the police in all that they do. Is there anything that she can do by way of providing practical or financial support to human rights defenders and human rights advocates, and training programmes for them, so that they can try to defend themselves legally against unaccountable forces?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those are the precise issues that we raised. The Department for International Development has committed £60,000 in support of a United Nations anti-impunity commission in Guatemala, and there is a range of other support for projects there. Perhaps I can write to my hon. Friend in greater detail on that.


4. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What progress the Government have made in co-ordinating the new Government of Helmand in Afghanistan. [204798]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The UK works to support the Government of Afghanistan at both national and provincial levels through an extensive, co-ordinated programme of development assistance and military support, as well as diplomatic activity. That includes providing support to the local government structures in Helmand. We have frequent and wide-ranging contacts with Governor Mangal
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of Helmand—the new governor—as well as with the independent directorate of local governance, working together to extend governance and the provision of services in the province.

Mr. Bailey: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Given the crucial importance to the whole world of a stable and democratic Government in Afghanistan, can he outline the progress being made in the international community to ensure better co-ordination of economic, military and political assistance to the Government?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are now 46 countries in Afghanistan, and the danger is that the Government of Afghanistan spend all their time in a series of bilateral meetings with each of those Governments instead of getting on with the business of running Afghanistan. The appointment of Mr. Kai Eide as the new UN Secretary-General’s representative in Afghanistan is a major opportunity. My meetings with him suggest that he is a serious figure who has the confidence of all sides, and he will be able to play a co-ordination role at national level as well as the rallying role in capitals around the world that is so important.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What does the Foreign Secretary think the new Secretary-General’s representative will be able to do about improving the security situation in Helmand province, which is where our armed forces are primarily deployed? When will we see some improvement in the situation for our security forces?

David Miliband: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the first responsibility for security after the Afghan Government lies with the commander of the international security assistance force, General McNeill. The responsibility of Mr. Eide, the UN Secretary-General’s representative, is to ensure that civilian work matches that military activity properly. The two are two sides of the same coin.

One indicator of improved security in Helmand is the fact that drug production is falling so fast. That also reflects the rising wheat price, which is encouraging farmers to go into farming wheat. In a way, that is a leading indicator of security. That is not to say, however, that our forces do not face serious danger every day that they are doing work. Kai Eide’s appointment, and his professed determination to get to grips with policing issues as a counterpart to the military campaign, is essential. It is in respect of policing that we hope to see the greatest improvement over the next couple of years.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the long term the only way to resolve issues in Afghanistan is through a greater involvement of the Afghani military and police, and the civil structure? The quicker that we establish those relationships, the quicker we can deal with those issues.

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