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2 July 2008 : Column 252WH—continued

2 July 2008 : Column 253WH

Sir Robert Smith: The Minister has rightly emphasised the HSE’s important role in the offshore safety regime, but with the skills shortage facing the industry, and the HSE having to recruit from the same pool of available people in a climate of competition around the world, how easy is it for the HSE to find the right skilled people to operate that safety regime effectively?

Mrs. McGuire: I hope that the HSE continues to carry out its obligations and recruit the right people for the right job. Anybody who has dealt with our officials at HSE level, particularly in our offshore division, will recognise that we have some good people who understand the industry and know how to challenge it over health and safety issues. Obviously, we must recognise that there is always competition for high-quality people, and the HSE will keep the matter under review.

May I deal now with installation or asset integrity? I have said that the infrastructure is ageing. We need to get some informed decisions about the continued suitability of assets and properly thought through resource maintenance regimes so that they can be put in place and regularly reviewed.

My third point covers the involvement of the work force, which chimes in with some of the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North has mentioned. The industry has much more to do in that respect. The work force, too, has a key role. They are closest to the hazards and often best placed to alert managers to problems and to ways of improving safe practice. They have the benefit of an excellent network of safety representatives and safety committees covering all staffed installations. I commend their commitment and initiative, but that network can only work effectively
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in an atmosphere in which everyone is encouraged to have an open discussion on health and safety problems and solutions. Evidence suggests that there is still some way to go before we can ensure a fully effective safety culture in all companies that work offshore. I want to see those at the top of the industry giving more support to safety representatives. I want them to create an open environment in which those people who work on the rigs and the offshore installations can openly discuss some of the health and safety issues that are of concern. I made that comment last week as well. If I have not dealt with any specifics, I will certainly will get back to hon. Members.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North for raising this matter this morning. The offshore oil and gas industry remains crucial to the UK economy, but we must ensure that our health and safety standards are the highest in the world. The industry must raise its game and I welcome its commitment to address the issues through the three priorities that I have already mentioned. If we get this right, there is no reason why the industry should not enjoy a long, safe and prosperous future.

In this place, we often seek to fill the time that is allocated to us. With your permission, Mr. Bercow, I think that it would be appropriate for this House to fall silent to remember the 167 men who died, their families and those who were injured rather than to continue to fill the allocated time. That would be a suitable and appropriate memorial for those who died on Piper Alpha.

10.50 am

Sitting suspended.

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Israeli Wall (ICJ Opinion)

11 am

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): I have instigated this debate because I, like many others, believe that the suffering of the Palestinian people is both a terrible humanitarian disaster and the cause of continuing instability and anger across the Arab and Muslim world.

I agree with all those who argue that the best way to bring relief to the Palestinian people and to calm the bitter anger of the middle east would be to implement a two-state solution with the Palestinians establishing their state on the lands that belong to them in international law. That would mean a Palestinian state based on the 1967 boundaries, with East Jerusalem as its capital. That proposal was accepted by the Palestine Liberation Organisation as part of the Oslo peace process and is the basis of the current peace plan supported by the whole Arab League. I believe that if the international community were willing to uphold international law and insist that Israel honour it, peace could be assured on that basis in the near future.

Unfortunately, when we examine the Israeli wall, its route and the associated infrastructure of control in the Palestinian occupied territories—closures, settlements, settler-only roads and so on—it is absolutely clear that Israel has no intention of agreeing to the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state in accordance with international law. We should be clear that that is the policy of successive Israeli Governments, whoever the leader or whatever the party.

Israel made 14 reservations to the road map, which is the supposed route to peace behind which the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia are combined. Reservation 5 states, among other things:

Clearly, that is not a description of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.

It is important to be clear that although Israel insisted that the PLO, before entering the Oslo process, recognise the right of Israel to exist, and that although Israel and the international community insist that Hamas should do the same before rather than after negotiations, successive Israeli Governments have not recognised the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state. They mention “certain aspects of sovereignty” in reservation 5 to the road map, and other phrases used are “autonomy plus” and “state minus”.

If we are clear about that and then examine the route of the wall, or security fence—in some places it is a wall and in others a monstrous fence—it is clear that Israel is intent on confining the Palestinian population to a series of cantons or enclaves that are intended to perform the same function as did the Bantustans under the South African apartheid system. Israel seeks to control the whole of Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river—the confiscation of land along the Jordan river is truly shocking but little discussed. It seeks to control the whole territory and confine the Palestinian
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population to prison-like conditions such as they currently experience in Gaza and, increasingly, in the west bank and East Jerusalem.

The wall separates Palestinian villages from their land, surrounds Palestinian towns, separates East Jerusalem from the west bank and incorporates massive illegal settlements within Israel. The more than 300 permanent closures and the settler-only roads mean that Palestinians cannot move about their territory. They are hemmed in and humiliated whenever they wish to travel. Their economy is shrinking and thus unemployment and poverty are growing and will continue to grow.

The point that I want to put to the Minister today is that everybody knows that such behaviour is a complete breach of international law. Israel is incorporating territory taken by force in breach of the UN charter. Its settlements, collective punishments, failure to provide decent conditions for civilians in the occupied territories and treatment of prisoners are grave breaches of the Geneva convention, yet the UK Government, the European Union and the United States of America are doing absolutely nothing to uphold international law.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the route of the wall illegal and called for it to be dismantled. I shall read some passages from the judgment, which is obligatory on us and all other states. It states that the Court is of the view that

in the occupied Palestinian territories, including in and around East Jerusalem. They are also under an obligation

It is also for all states,


that is virtually every state in the world—

Given that, would not any reasonable person think it outrageous that authorities such as the US, the EU, Russia, and, shamefully, the UN—it should not be part of the Quartet taking forward a road map that so dishonours international law—and the rest of the international community do nothing to enforce the judgment but continue to negotiate on the basis of the road map while knowing what the ICJ and the facts on the ground tell us?

I am afraid that the conclusion is clear. Israel intends to offer the Palestinians a series of Bantustans. It will give them no control over their borders, or access to the sea or air, as in Gaza now, and call it Palestinian autonomy. That would be the outcome of the road map process of negotiation, or negotiations can continue indefinitely or break down and never reach a conclusion. This is now, and will be, the reality on the ground.

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President Bush has made his position clear, and I hope that today the Minister will make clear the position of Her Majesty’s Government. President Bush, in his letter of 14 April 2004 to Prime Minister Sharon, basically spelled out that the Israeli proposal was acceptable. He made it clear that Israel’s illegal settlements would not have to be handed over and that the 1967 boundaries need not be honoured. He also made it clear that, as progress was made, Israel would continue to control the borders and access to the sea and air.

I am afraid that we cannot comfort ourselves by arguing that that was the view of an unpopular President whose term of office is about to end, because two months later the House of Representatives endorsed those commitments in a vote of 407 to nine, and the Senate endorsed them the next day in a vote of 95 to three. As might be expected, Prime Minister Sharon called the vote supporting the Bush letter one of the greatest diplomatic achievements in Israel’s history. However, it is a setting aside of international law—a very serious matter.

We must also be clear that it is not just the US that is tearing up international law and accepting the idea of the outcome of the peace process being a Palestine that is a series of cantons or Bantustans without any control over its borders. The EU has not uttered such words, but it has a trade treaty with Israel that gives it privileged access to EU markets. It contains human rights conditionalities, but the EU has not seen fit to invoke them to uphold international law in the occupied territories, despite the ICJ making clear the binding nature of its judgment and the duty of all states to comply with it.

My conclusion is pessimistic. As I said, I agree that the best way to bring relief to the Palestinian people and a just peace to the middle east would be a two-state solution that, in time, leads to an opening of borders and the integration of Palestine and Israel into the region. But the facts on the ground and the realities of international diplomacy tell us that what is to be offered to the Palestinians is a series of Bantustans and no control over their borders, within which they are to be offered autonomy. Furthermore, according to President Bush’s letter, those Bantustans will also be obliged to accept all the refugees. No responsible Palestinian Government can accept that and any that did would not have the support of the Palestinian people.

The conclusion has to be that we are facing years, if not decades, of terrible suffering, bloodshed and conflict. We will see, as Prime Minister Olmert has said, a campaign growing again—it is starting—for one united Palestine for all its people; it will be the second great anti-apartheid campaign. That will be the consequence of the reality on the ground, which is that the prospect of a realistic two-state solution is being destroyed. This is a recipe for endless conflict and bloodshed. In addition, the situation spells out that might is right and that international law can be set aside when it suits. That endangers wider international stability and feeds the justification for the use of violence by non-state actors.

My questions to Her Majesty’s Government, through the Minister, are as follows. First, do they accept the International Court of Justice judgment on the war? Secondly, if they do, do they accept that that judgment is binding on the United Kingdom and that the UK is bound to take action to see it implemented? Thirdly, do the Government not agree, therefore, that they are
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obliged to take action to ensure that the judgment is implemented and that, as a first step, they should surely invoke the human rights conditionalities in the European Union-Israeli trade agreement and refuse Israel’s application to become a member of the OECD, which has conditionalities about respect for international law?

We are, as I have said, facing the prospect of years, if not decades, of bloodshed, conflict, suffering and international destabilisation coming out of the middle east. We are also seeing the authority of international law and international humanitarian law being gravely undermined. Surely, Her Majesty’s Government understand the danger and can and should do better to uphold international law and help bring peace to the middle east.

11.12 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on securing this important debate. The middle east peace process continues to be a high priority for the Government as well as a topic of great interest to the House. We have had many debates on the subject and will continue to do so. The United Kingdom is committed to supporting Israel and the Palestinian Authority in their attempts to negotiate a peace agreement. We need one. We have heard not only the right hon. Lady’s descriptions of the tragedy that has been this conflict for so long, but this morning we heard of more deaths in Jerusalem.

We recognise that huge challenges to the peace process remain. The Israeli barrier, and specifically the route of that barrier, is one such challenge. The right hon. Lady is right to highlight that. I would like to take this opportunity to set out the Government’s legal view on the barrier; to say something about its impact on Palestinians; and to set out what the Government are doing to influence the Israeli Government’s actions in relation to the barrier.

The Government agree with the conclusion of the International Court of Justice that building a barrier along the current route is unlawful. Building the barrier on occupied land is contrary to international law. The Government therefore supported the United Nations General Assembly resolution that acknowledged the ICJ’s advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the construction of the barrier in occupied Palestinian territory. While we recognise fully Israel's right to self-defence and agree that, if it decides that it wants to build a barrier it should be able to do that, we call for the barrier to be built either on or behind the green line. I take this opportunity to reiterate that call, which I have made many times in this place and in other places.

The Government are seriously concerned about the impact of the barrier on the lives of Palestinians, and deplore the destruction of Palestinian homes and the confiscation of Palestinian land associated with its construction. We are concerned about the effects of building the barrier on the Palestinian community and its access to agricultural land and water. I have seen for myself the impact that the barrier has had on the daily lives of Palestinians. During one of my visits to the occupied Palestinian territories, I met a family who, prior to the erection of the barrier at the end of their road, which was previously the only access, could get
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into work in about five minutes and drop their kids off at school. Both parents were doctors working at the local hospital. Now, as a result of the construction of the barrier, that same journey takes them about 40 minutes on a good day, but that depends on how people feel at the checkpoints and whether they are obstructive or in a good or bad mood.

It is abundantly clear that the barrier has had a huge negative impact on the daily lives of many ordinary Palestinians. Nevertheless, as the right hon. Lady knows, the barrier is popular among a lot of Israelis. They have seen a huge decline in the numbers of suicide bombings and, as a consequence, a decline in the number of innocent people who have died at the hands of murderers and terrorists. That is, in a sense, the essence of the problem. The barrier is popular inside Israel and unpopular almost everywhere else.

Clare Short: The Minister refers to the number of Israeli civilians who have been killed by terrorist action—of course, any attack on civilians is always an offence in international law—but I hope that he will acknowledge that far more Palestinians suffer as a consequence of collective punishments that are also a breach of international law. The Israeli and Palestinian people, whenever they are asked, say time and again, in all surveys, that they support a two-state solution. To quote the popularity of the wall is to quote something that undermines what they really yearn for: a just peace, which can only come through two states.

Dr. Howells: No, I disagree with that analysis. I think that it is possible for people to yearn for justice and a two-state solution and to acknowledge that the barrier has made life safer inside Israel. I would not deny for one moment that Palestinians and Israelis have been killed needlessly and horribly as a consequence of this conflict. I think that I have mentioned to the right hon. Lady in previous debates that even old friends of mine inside Israel—she would recognise the phrase “old lefties”—who believe that there ought to be one country, a fully integrated region, where people would live in peace with each other, acknowledge that they feel a lot more sanguine about their children going out at night or visiting restaurants in downtown Tel Aviv or wherever they happen to live. The wall is one of the reasons that it has been much more difficult for suicide bombers to get inside to kill people. Although I understand and acknowledge what she says about the medium and longer-term aspirations of people on both sides of the barrier who yearn for justice and peace, there is, nevertheless, a mentality inside Israel that the wall is protecting them from suicide bombers, and we must take that into account when discussing this subject.

Clare Short: If the wall was built on the 1967 boundary, it would have the same effect and would be legal.

Dr. Howells: Absolutely.

Clare Short: So to use that argument to justify it is to justify the breach of international law.

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