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15 July 2008 : Column 196

Mr. McNulty: With respect, I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that my French colleagues have not invited members of Hezbollah’s military wing to talks of any description whatsoever—

Mr. Ancram indicated dissent.

Mr. McNulty: The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head, but there is a clear distinction—not least on Hezbollah’s own terms—between that organisation’s social, political and humanitarian wings, and its military wing. That is very clear.

Given the evidence of the military wing of Hezbollah’s direct support for terrorism in Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories, I believe that it is right that we continue to proscribe the External Security Organisation and that we extend the existing proscription to cover Hezbollah’s entire military wing.

I commend the order to the House.

6.56 pm

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Under part 2 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Secretary of State has the power to proscribe any organisation that commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promotes or encourages terrorism or is otherwise concerned in terrorism.

Proscription is a very tough power. Any organisation that is on the list of proscribed organisations is outlawed in the UK. It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, or encourage support for, a proscribed organisation. It is a criminal offence to arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation, or to wear clothing or to carry articles in public that arouse reasonable suspicion that a person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation. Proscription also means that the financial assets of the organisation become terrorist property and can be subject to freezing and seizure.

For those reasons, Parliament obviously must take very seriously its role in scrutinising those organisations to be put on a proscribed list. The failure to proscribe an organisation concerned with terrorism could allow it to gain a foothold in the UK, in particular to recruit and raise funds. That would undermine our national security, and I join the Minister in reiterating the Opposition’s strong belief that we need tough anti-terrorist laws. That view is only confirmed when we think of the anniversary of 7/7 and the havoc wrought in this country’s capital city on that day. Nor must we forget the fear felt by many people in this country when they read news reports of the attempted atrocity in the Haymarket some months ago. Terrorism is a perpetual threat in this country, and Her Majesty’s Opposition are strong in their belief that tough laws will be required to protect the public. I know that that is the view of Her Majesty’s Government.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the draconian implications of proscription. Does he agree that the ability given to organisations to challenge their inclusion in the list is vague? Should there not be much more clarity about how that can be challenged?

Mr. Ruffley: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman but, to be honest, that is not something that I have reflected on in depth. I do not propose to explore that
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issue or ventilate my thoughts on it in this debate, but it is certainly an interesting question, and I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to it.

As I was about to say, failure to proscribe an organisation that turns out to be violent and to have terrorist intent could threaten British citizens on our soil, but equally, proscribing an organisation mistakenly or inappropriately could tie up significant resources. The resources available to our security services are, of course, finite, and must be targeted properly. It is important to make that point. This is an important order, and Her Majesty’s Opposition will not oppose it tonight. However, we need to understand the Minister’s precise rationale for bringing it forward. I put my questions to him in a spirit of honest intellectual inquiry, but I repeat that Conservative Members do not oppose the order.

It might be useful to recap some of Hezbollah’s history, and to say how it comes about that we are debating the proscription of the whole of its military wing in this country. Hezbollah is a political and military organisation. The group was first formed in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The group’s military wing, The Islamic Resistance, is believed to have between 500 and 600 full-time fighters—some estimates put the number considerably higher—and to be able to call on many more thousands of reserves. During the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, Hezbollah showed that it is armed with rockets that can reach into northern Israel.

Hezbollah is known or suspected to have been involved in anti-western and anti-Israeli terrorist attacks, including the suicide truck bombings of the US embassy and the marines’ barracks in Beirut in 1983, the bombing of the US embassy annexe in Beirut in September 1984, and the attacks on the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992 and on an Israeli cultural centre in that same country in 1994. In 2000, Hezbollah operatives captured three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped an Israeli non-combatant. Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre recently suggested that Hezbollah has a new, additional presence in Iraq, and on 16 April 2008, UN Security Council resolution 1701 was passed, calling for armed militia groups, including the likes of Hezbollah, to disarm.

I turn briefly to this Government’s history of proscribing parts of Hezbollah’s military wing. In March 2001, the Hezbollah External Security Organisation, part of the broader military wing of Hezbollah, was added to the list of proscribed organisations under the Terrorism Act 2000. The order before us, which was laid before Parliament on 2 July, proscribes the military wing of Hezbollah in its entirety; that is the change to which we are invited to accede today. The military wing of Hezbollah includes the Jihad Council and all units reporting to it, including the Hezbollah External Security Organisation.

Mr. Ancram: The reason why I am asking questions is that although we might debate the issues in the House in isolation from what is happening in the middle east, Israel and Hezbollah are currently negotiating a very complicated prisoner exchange. Both sides are having to deal with people who find it very uncomfortable to deal with each other. Does my hon. Friend believe that the order will make that negotiation easier or more difficult?

Mr. Ruffley: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that. I will not venture to give an expert view on foreign affairs, a subject that I am not
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accredited to speak on; I am no expert. It might interest him to know that I was in Damascus during the Whitsun recess with Members from both sides of the House, and heard about the delicate, vital negotiations to which he refers, and which we hope will lead to peace. I venture no view on whether the order will make peace more or less likely, but I hope that he will give us his views on the subject.

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to ask the Minister some questions that might assist my right hon. and learned Friend to understand what lies behind the order, and exactly why the Government seek an extension to ban the entire military wing at this particular time, and in this particular way. So that the Minister does not misinterpret what I say—not that he ever does that, although some people think that he misinterprets what I say on a range of security and policing issues—I repeat that we do not oppose the order, so he must not take my questions as an indication of scepticism about the intent of Her Majesty’s Government. We Opposition Members are merely trying to understand why the order is being brought forward now, and what the evidence is for doing so.

When the Prime Minister announced the decision to proscribe the whole military wing of Hezbollah, he gave us some clues to the Government’s thinking. On 2 July, in Prime Minister’s questions, he indicated that the proposal before us was based

that is, Hezbollah’s—

I should be grateful if the Minister expanded on what the evidence is to which the Prime Minister referred and said when that new evidence came to light. Does the reference to terrorism in Iraq include any specific threat to, for instance, UK personnel there? Is there any specific evidence of a threat to the United Kingdom, or to UK interests elsewhere?

The Prime Minister went on to say:

Will the Minister explain exactly how that distinction will work in practice, if the order is agreed and implemented? Will he tell us something about what the political and social wings are, and how the objectives of the political and social wings differ from those of the military wing? The Prime Minister’s remarks imply separate wings of Hezbollah that operate independently of one another.

To what extent does Sheikh Nasrallah’s contact with, or control over, Hezbollah politicians in Lebanon figure in what the Government are trying to achieve with the proscription order? I ask because other organisations proscribed by this Government, or by Governments prior to 1997, such as the Tamil Tigers and the Kurdish PKK, had both political and military wings. In those two cases, Her Majesty’s Government decided to proscribe the whole organisation—that is, both the political and the military parts. On what basis did the Government decide to proscribe, in this order, just the military wing of Hezbollah? That is an interesting question, given that they went the whole hog in relation to the Tamils and the Kurdish organisation to which I referred.

Keith Vaz: A very good point.

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Mr. Ruffley: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to intervene, I am happy to give way, because I always enjoy his interventions.

Keith Vaz: I am happy to intervene. The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of points that I hope to raise if I catch Madam Deputy Speaker’s eye. The fact is that, previously, proscription has affected not just a part of an organisation, but the whole organisation, and also any groups that may be from the same area. For example, the British Tamils Forum, which is not a supporter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and does not campaign for it, is affected by the decision that the Government have taken on proscription, so the hon. Gentleman is right to raise those points, and I agree with him.

Mr. Ruffley: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not wish to engage in too much high-flown metaphysical analysis, because we are not here to do that. However, I hope that the Minister will address his point, which was also mine—that is, how, in the context of the order, do the Government define the political and social wing of the organisation and how do they define its military wing? That is an important practical, rather than metaphysical, distinction that the order draws for us, whether we like it or not. The order is about separating out Hezbollah’s military wing in its entirety from its political and social wing. As an honest seeker after truth, I am not clear about how the Government have come to make that distinction. I am sure that the Minister has a good answer; he is well briefed and an intelligent man. If he could enlighten us, we Conservatives would be grateful.

My next point follows on from that issue. Will the Minister share with us the evidence in his possession about Hezbollah’s fundraising activities in the United Kingdom? Are the Government and their agencies taking any steps to identify any such activity? As the order falls short of proscribing the whole organisation—political, social and military—has the Minister considered whether there is a risk of the fundraising for political purposes, which will be legal even if the order goes through, being diverted to Hezbollah’s military activities? I am thinking about the political wing of Hezbollah, a non-proscribed organisation, raising funds quite legitimately after the order has gone through but passing money to the military wing, which will be proscribed by the order. It seems an obvious point, so what thoughts does the Minister have on it? What consideration has been given to the possibility of people getting around the proscription order?

I also note that, in April, the Minister for the Middle East stated in a written parliamentary answer:

That Minister also said that the UK had had no contact with Hezbollah during the 12 months preceding his reply. Will this Minister confirm whether the Government have had any contact with Hezbollah since April this year, when that written question was answered? Will the Government’s position on contact be affected in any way by the decision today to proscribe the
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military wing? That point follows up what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said.

Furthermore, will the Minister enlighten us on whether the Government are seeking a Europe-wide proscription of Hezbollah’s military wing? Is there support for such a move in the Government? In particular, is the Minister aware of any discussions that the Government have had, are having or are likely to have in the short term with French officials about how the French presidency of the EU could achieve an EU-wide proscription of Hezbollah’s military wing in its entirety?

Will the move to ban the military wing be linked to any specific steps to achieve the group’s disarmament? What is the Government’s assessment of the UN Secretary-General’s statement that Hezbollah’s military wing is rearming, and allegedly——the information comes from no more than a report widely available in the media—smuggling arms across the Syrian-Lebanese border? I do not know whether that is true, but it is what the UN Secretary-General thinks. What is the Government’s assessment?

I shall not detain the House much longer, but my questions need to be answered because people listening to this debate will want to understand the precise rationale behind why the order is being put forward at this time and what the evidence is, particularly with regard to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes said about delicate negotiations, occurring outside this country, on a peaceful solution for the Palestinians in the middle east.

My questions are intended to tease out the Government’s thinking so that we all understand the basis on which they are acting. I look forward to the answers to my questions. I should like to conclude by putting on the record that, in another place, my noble Friend Baroness Neville-Jones has said that we believe that there is a case for a complete ban on Hezbollah—not only its military, but its political wing—in the UK. Has the Minister considered my noble Friend’s comments, and will he keep them under consideration?

7.16 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): When we debated this issue in 2001, I recall advocating that the then ban on Hezbollah—on the external security organisation, as it then was—did not go far enough, and that, as has just been suggested, we had to proscribe Hezbollah entirely, in all its shapes and forms.

Obviously, I welcome the extension that my right hon. Friend the Minister is proposing today, as it would include the entire military wing of Hezbollah. However, its political and social wings will not be proscribed and that does not reflect the true operational structure of the organisation. As has been said in interventions, other organisations such as the LTTE and the PKK have been banned in their entirety because of the difficulty of separating out their respective forms of activity. That applies in the same way, if not more so, in relation to Hezbollah. The Hezbollah founding manifesto of 1985 makes it clear that the organisation operates under one common command structure and shares the same goals:

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A whole series of other quotes make the same point. Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of Hezbollah, said:

Mohammed Fannish, a member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, made a similar statement:

I am sure that I could give more examples; there is a whole series of them to show that Hezbollah is a unified organisation as far as its command and operations are concerned. To try to draw a distinction between its social, political and military activities is, in my view, to draw a false distinction—a point that I made back in 2001.

Obviously, I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister has introduced the order to extend the proscription to all aspects of Hezbollah’s military wing. He has made a good case in showing the mounting evidence that the military wing has been providing active support to terrorists in Iraq, including in training in the use of improvised explosive devices. He has also shown evidence that the organisation has been supporting Palestinian terrorist groups in the west bank and Gaza, and organisations such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The case in relation to the military wing is absolutely clear, but we must not try to draw a false distinction. The Shura council, the organisation’s executive board, is in command of Hezbollah’s military and terrorist operations and its social and political activities. Hezbollah operates social programmes in Lebanon, for example, but those are used to rally support among the sections of the population who depend on Hezbollah handouts because of inadequate state provision in those parts of the world.

As was hinted at by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), funds raised by Hezbollah for such social programmes are often diverted into other parts of the organisation, including its military branches, to help to fund terrorist attacks. That should not come as a surprise to any of us, because that is the nature of terrorist organisations, whether in relation to the PKK, the LTTE or the Irish terrorism that we saw in the 1970s. People went around rattling the tins for the prisoners or whoever it happened to be, but we all knew where it was going to end up. As we have proscribed Hamas in its entirety, we should follow suit in the case of Hezbollah, despite the fact that it also provides these social functions and fields candidates for political office, as in the 2006 Palestinian elections. We would not be isolated in that. The United States, Canada and the Netherlands have proscribed Hezbollah in its entirety, as has Israel, but that has not prevented the sensitive negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah on prisoner exchange.

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