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House of Commons

Tuesday 13 January 2009

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. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What work his Department is undertaking in Palestine; and if he will make a statement. [246475]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): Mr. Speaker, before I answer the question may I say that, as you will be aware, the Foreign Secretary is on an official visit to India, where he is meeting the Indian Government and Opposition and making a speech on terrorism. He will also be discussing India’s relations with Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings, as well as other regional issues. My right hon. Friend sends his apologies.

Our current focus is on securing an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have urged both sides to stop the violence and fulfil their humanitarian obligations. Last week’s United Nations Security Council resolution, tabled by the United Kingdom, called for an immediate ceasefire. The Government are also working on making a ceasefire sustainable, including exploring ways to stop arms trafficking and to open the crossings to Gaza.

Mr. Carmichael: Does the Minister share my concern that many reports of Israeli activity in Gaza, including the use of phosphorescent shells and the use of heavy-fire shells in built-up areas and attacks on medical facilities, all constitute prima facie evidence of war crimes. What will the Government do to ensure that where that prima facie evidence exists there will be a full investigation and that those responsible will be brought to justice?

Bill Rammell: Extremely serious allegations about the conduct of both sides during the conflict have been made by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others. Those allegations have to be properly investigated. The hon. Gentleman referred to the alleged use of white phosphorus. Those allegations have been made but not substantiated and although the use of white phosphorus is not illegal, the UK Government are very clear that it should not be used as an anti-personnel weapon and certainly not in a civilian environment. We
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will continue to make our view very clear to the Israeli Government and to urge them, as we have done, to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I understand that evidence of white phosphorus on civilians in Gaza has been confirmed. If that is the case, is it the intention of the UK to report the Israelis to the war crimes tribunal?

Bill Rammell: May I make it clear to my hon. Friend that my understanding is that the allegations have not been substantiated? Nevertheless, it is the case that extremely serious allegations about the conduct of both sides have been made. Those allegations have to be properly investigated and I remain absolutely firmly of that view.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): But while these allegations are being made, is there not an interest in having some balance and remembering that this undoubtedly began through unprovoked aggression by Hamas firing a huge number of rockets into Israel, aimed at civilian targets? Would the proper step not be for Hamas to stop firing those rockets? As long as they are being fired, they are derailing the peace process in the middle east, which may be the intention.

Bill Rammell: I visited Ashkelon, near the border, just before Christmas and the air raid sirens were going off while I was there. If that is happening on a sustained daily basis—as it has been—it is a real cause for concern. That is why we have argued as strongly as we have both for the rocket attacks to stop and also for an effective ceasefire. There has been massive loss of life in the Gaza strip; the figure is now 900 people, 250 of them—crucially—children. That is why we need a ceasefire and why we have argued so strongly for it and why we secured the Security Council resolution last week.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): May I remind the Minister that the allegations of international law abuse have been backed by the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, and by Amnesty? Christian Aid has just reported that one of its mother and baby clinics was bombed by the Israelis earlier this week and completely destroyed. May I press the Minister specifically on what the British Government will do to make sure that there is an independent investigation? Will he take the matter to the EU sub-committee on human rights to see whether the trade agreement can be suspended?

Bill Rammell: I know that my hon. Friend has a genuine and long-standing interest in these issues. Our overriding priority at the moment is to do everything possible, both diplomatically and politically, to get to a ceasefire. That is what we are driving towards. Consistent with that, we have nevertheless repeatedly called both publicly and, crucially, privately on all parties to fulfil their humanitarian obligations and to facilitate the delivery and distribution of aid, and that we will continue to do.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Is the Minister aware of diplomatic reports that the middle east envoy, Tony Blair, had to be recalled from holiday and from lucrative speaking engagements to deal with the present situation? Does he not share my concern that Mr. Blair has not even been to Gaza at this critical time?

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Bill Rammell: Frankly, that is beneath contempt and does not do the hon. Gentleman justice.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will be aware of the terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza and of the fact that 850 people have been killed, 250 of them children. What attempts are the Government making to ensure that Israel makes available more time to enable essential medical aid to get through to the Palestinians? I understand that only one fifth to one sixth of the required medical and food supplies are getting through now.

Bill Rammell: I agree, and we have argued consistently that an immediate and sustainable ceasefire is urgently needed. In tandem, we have argued strongly that humanitarian aid—food, medical equipment and supplies—should be allowed in unfettered. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I met humanitarian non-governmental organisations yesterday; they reported to us that just one fifth of the necessary supplies are getting in daily. That is the reason for the urgency and the reason why we have consistently and continually argued for a ceasefire.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not think it ironic that the present Israeli Government were elected on a programme of withdrawing settlements and negotiating a twin-state arrangement independently, and have shown evidence of that purpose by withdrawing from Gaza and removing their own settlements from the area? Are not the present circumstances therefore primarily the responsibility of Hamas, which failed to take up the offers made by the Israeli Government, but continued its programme of rocketing civilians?

Bill Rammell: I believe very strongly there are responsibilities on all sides. The situation in the Gaza strip and southern Israel is desperate; that is why we urgently need a ceasefire. We must remember that as long as the conflict is taking place, the prospects for a longer-term and durable middle east peace settlement are moving further away. That is why dealing with the situation is so important and why we have argued as strongly as we have for a ceasefire.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary adequately and unequivocally condemned the terrorist means being used by Hamas. Does the Minister of State accept that the essence of terrorism is to attack civilians and civil infrastructure with a view to achieving or imposing political ends? When, therefore, will the Government similarly condemn the onslaught by Israel on the people of Gaza and stop the twin pretence that there is either military equivalence or moral difference between the terror tactics being deployed by the Israelis and those used by Hamas?

Bill Rammell: We have consistently and rightly argued that the sustained rocket attacks on the state of Israel are wrong and unacceptable; but we have also rightly called for a cessation of the Israeli activity in the Gaza strip. At the beginning of the conflict—this is the point the hon. Gentleman is driving at—a European Union statement was made that described the Israeli response as disproportionate. We supported that view and that is one of the reasons why we have argued as strongly as we have for a ceasefire.

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2. Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Belarus on human rights in that country. [246476]

The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): I met the Prime Minister of Belarus in London on 17 November. I urged the Government to make tangible human rights progress in a number of areas, including greater freedom of the media, engagement with civil society and political opponents of the regime.

Mr. Streeter: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. She will know that, since 1994, that country has been run by an autocratic Soviet-style president, who keeps himself in office by locking up political opponents and rigging elections— [ Interruption. ]nothing like this country whatsoever. Given that we are talking about a European country—a country in the centre of Europe—surely the UK and EU can do more to support the movements for change and the opposition in Belarus, and to bring about a peaceable, transforming, democratic revolution in that country.

Caroline Flint: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I know that he plays an important role in human rights issues. I reaffirm to the House that, although the EU, with the UK’s support, has opened up some opportunities, there is a six-month window: come March this year, Foreign Ministers will take a decision on whether some of the opening up and reduction of restrictions should continue. Although some small progress has been made in the past few months in relation to the media and political prisoners, a lot more could be done. It is up to those who run Belarus to make the effort. We shall continue to press, as we have for many years through our mission in Belarus, to support those who want more democratic engagement and freedom of expression.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): During last September’s elections in Belarus, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe provided a team of observers, who concluded in their subsequent report that despite some minor improvements,

Does the Minister have any real evidence of progress made by the authorities in Belarus since then—progress that might give us greater confidence that the country is at last moving towards a more pluralistic, democratic model in which we can have some confidence?

Caroline Flint: The OSCE election monitors made a number of recommendations, as the hon. Gentleman points out. In my previous answer, I referred to some small progress; for example, there have been no further political prisoners, and the opposition press has been given some limited circulation in Minsk. However, undoubtedly, in the next few months, we would like to see some opportunity for the OSCE recommendations to be fulfilled on the ground, including in relation to freedom of the press, the engagement of the opposition parties, and the ability for people to make their views
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known, including through demonstrations. Also, we would like an end to use of the law to harass those with different political views from those of the people who run the country. We will continue to press on all those fronts.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): To what extent do the Government hold Russia responsible for the state of human rights in Belarus? Is it not interesting that while Ukraine struggles for freedom and democracy, and has its gas supplies cut off, Belarus has free and easy gas supplies from Russia without any agreement whatever?

Caroline Flint: We should remember that while there is, clearly, a long-standing relationship between Belarus and Russia, it is Belarus that has approached the European Union and the Council of Europe, indicating a desire and a wish to have, in future, a good partnership with the west. The country recently received an International Monetary Fund loan, because it faces huge difficulties with its economy. The future is about holding those in Belarus to account, in terms of what we would expect in a good partnership with the European Union. At the same time, we should recognise that Belarus initiated contact with the EU and the west. If that means that we can improve human rights, trade, and so forth, that is a good thing.


3. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the political situation in Gaza. [246477]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): The UK Government are extremely concerned about the current violence in Gaza. We are in close contact with all the key players and are at the centre of efforts to reach a ceasefire and secure urgent humanitarian assistance. The Foreign Secretary was instrumental in gaining Security Council agreement around a British text, which became resolution 1860; that now needs to be reflected in reality on the ground. For any ceasefire to be sustainable, it has to include action to stop illegal arms trafficking into Gaza and opening the crossings into Gaza.

Mr. McGovern: May I thank the Minister for that response? Last week, along with three other hon. Members—my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), for Livingston (Mr. Devine), and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher)—I visited Pakistan, where we were fortunate enough to meet the Prime Minister, the President, and the Leader of the Opposition, all of whom expressed deep concern about what is happening in Gaza. I was left with the overwhelming impression that without peace in Palestine, there will not be peace anywhere in the middle east. Does the Minister agree that current efforts are being undermined by the conflict in Palestine, and that the Palestinian moderates, who seek a peaceful settlement with Israel, are being undermined by the conflict?

Bill Rammell: There is widespread, genuine concern across the whole international community at the current situation. I share with my hon. Friend a real concern, and I say this as a friend of the state of Israel: there is a real risk that current actions will reinforce extremism
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within the region and the wider world, and undermine those who are arguing for peace, particularly in the Arab states.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): But is not one of the fears of the world that the tragic loss of life in Gaza today will be compounded, and be seen to have been in vain, unless on this occasion, when hostilities stop, they do so on the basis of the chance of a secure, long-lasting peace? That will not be the case until Hamas and its allies move tangibly towards an acceptance of, and stop terrorising, the state of Israel.

Bill Rammell: I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. While Hamas remains committed to the obliteration of the state of Israel and to acts of terror, launching rocket attacks on a regular basis, we will not make progress. We need to move forward and agree a ceasefire, which must address the critical issue of arms smuggling across the border. That is one reason why the talks in Egypt are incredibly important.

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): According to reports from Egypt, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, and Saeed Jalili from the Iranian security services are actively encouraging Hamas not to enter into a ceasefire and, indeed, to step up the rocket attacks. Does my hon. Friend agree that those reports not only underline Iran’s wholly malign influence in this region but underscore genuine fears among the Israeli public that behind Hamas is a country led by a lunatic and committed to the destruction of the state of Israel?

Bill Rammell: There are genuine and long-stated concerns about the regional role played by Iran. We constantly urge all parties and states in the region to work with us to try to secure a ceasefire as the first step that is desperately needed for the Palestinians in Gaza and for the Israelis.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Would the Minister not accept that the situation in Gaza is horrific? There are no words to describe what is going on there at the moment, but does he not accept that if Hamas gave an undertaking to stop the rocketing of Israel, the Israeli defence forces would withdraw, and it would give all those who are concerned about the future of Gaza, particularly President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the opportunity to bring peace? Will he tell us what influence President Abbas, for whom I have great respect, is trying to bring to the chaotic situation in Gaza?

Bill Rammell: President Abbas has been crucially involved in all the discussions, and he was involved in the discussion that led up to the Security Council resolution in New York last week. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need a ceasefire, and a key element of that ceasefire is stopping on a sustainable basis the rocket attacks by Hamas into Israel. If that is to happen, we must address in a real and meaningful way the smuggling of arms across the border.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary was right to emphasise the need to facilitate Palestinian unity in his statement on Monday, which is difficult, given the violent methods that Hamas employed to seize control of the Gaza strip, executing Fatah supporters and expelling Palestinian trade unionists.
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Is my hon. Friend concerned about reports coming out of the Gaza strip that the execution of Fatah supporters has resumed? If so, what are the British Government doing to make their views known?

Bill Rammell: We make very clear our opposition to such actions, and we need to move forward. We need Palestinian recognition, but that fundamentally requires movement on the part of Hamas.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): The Minister rightly said that the Government have argued for better access for humanitarian aid to Gaza, but will he say more specifically what the Government can do, or are doing, about the representations from the ICRC on the creation of safe passage, particularly for ambulances, for the evacuation of the most urgent medical cases, and on the need for both sides to meet their obligations under international law to protect aid workers at all times? Is he satisfied that all necessary plans are being made now, so that Gaza can receive a great deal of aid and assistance for its civilian population whenever there is a cessation of hostilities?

Bill Rammell: We are certainly working to that effect, and the announcement that the Government made last week of $10 million additional support for aid is a demonstration of that commitment. We need to keep arguing, too, that we need to reach that ceasefire as quickly as possible but, notwithstanding that, we must ensure that the aid is getting through on an unfettered basis, and continuing discussions are taking place about what is the most effective route to get that aid into Gaza.

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