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4. Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the political situation in Bolivia in advance of the constitutional referendum. [246478]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): We applaud the dialogue that has led to the constitutional referendum on 25 January. We congratulate the Bolivian Government and all parties involved. We are committed, alongside EU and international partners, to help bring stability and prosperity to Bolivia.

Colin Burgon: The Minister will be aware that Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, but at last under Evo Morales it has a Government who are committed to addressing the huge economic and social inequalities in that country. Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to send a clear message to the separatists in Bolivia, who have engaged in violent conduct culminating in the Pando massacre, that any attempt by them to overthrow the democratic will of the Bolivian people, as expressed in the January referendum, will have no international support whatever?

Gillian Merron: As the House knows, my hon. Friend is a great friend of the Bolivian people. I share his concern about the recent violence and deaths in Bolivia, which have no place in a peaceful and democratic society. The best way to resolve those issues is through diplomacy, dialogue and democracy. That is why I very much look forward to the referendum at the end of the month and stress our strong support for democracy in Bolivia and our full recognition of the democratically elected Government of Bolivia.

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): We must recognise, though, that within Bolivian society there have been many political clashes and unrest. One of the last clashes led to more than 15 people being killed and 100 people going missing. Although we hope for a peaceful referendum on 25 January, can the Minister tell the House what guidance she has given to British people living in Bolivia in order that they can be secure and safe in the run-up to the referendum?

Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the considerable violence and tension that there has been. We have a difficult year ahead, but I believe that there are prizes to be won. The involvement of our high commissioner in the process, along with the EU, has been welcomed. We continue to keep an eye, as we do in all countries, on our consular advice to British people, whose safety is always our primary concern.


5. Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of Iran’s nuclear programme; and if he will make a statement. [246479]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): We remain seriously concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities. It is difficult to believe its claim that its nuclear programme is intended for purely peaceful purposes. Iran continues to enrich uranium and to increase its capacity to enrich uranium in defiance of five UN Security Council resolutions. It is failing to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency. We will continue to work closely with international partners to persuade Iran to suspend enrichment and to engage in substantive negotiations, leading to a diplomatic solution to the issue.

Mrs. Dorries: We are all aware that Iran trains, supports and arms Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Given that it is reported that Iran will be nuclear-ready by the end of this year, what steps are being taken to ensure that Iran does not enable its favoured terrorist groups to make use of its impending nuclear capability?

Bill Rammell: That is a real issue of concern. We remain fundamentally committed to resolving it diplomatically and to the E3 plus 3 dual-track strategy, but that means, bluntly, that Iran has a stark choice. There will be increasingly tough sanctions to persuade the Iranians to change course. However, if they take the alternative path, there can be a dialogue that will lead to full negotiations if the Iranians suspend their enrichment-related activities. That is the argument that we are putting forward. That is the offer that we are seeking to get Iran to engage with, and we will be looking to work on that with the new US Administration when they are formed next week.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Given that the Russian Government have some relationship with the Iranian regime and considerable nuclear expertise, what discussion is my hon. Friend having with Russian counterparts to bring forward in Iran a nuclear programme that is for domestic purposes only?

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Bill Rammell: That is a regular feature of our discussions with Russia. As part of the E3 plus 3 process, an offer is on the table from Russia to secure on an external basis Iran’s reported civil nuclear needs. That is why I strongly urge Iran to take the offer that is on the table, engage and find a resolution to the issue.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The middle east region is a powder keg at the moment. Given the basis on which the overthrow of Saddam Hussein took place in Iraq, what assurances can the Minister give the people of the United Kingdom that the information that he is giving about Iran is accurate and dependable?

Bill Rammell: It is clear that Dr.el-Baradei from the IAEA has reported on Iran four times since 2008. It is also clear that Iran kept its nuclear programme hidden from the world for two decades before it was exposed in 2002. There are outstanding issues for which the IAEA has asked for an explanation but those explanations have not been forthcoming and that is why I believe strongly that the situation is very serious indeed.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): The Minister talked about the need for tougher sanctions and we agree that such sanctions are needed to complement what we hope will be direct United States engagement with Iran. But will he not share my dismay that we still have no EU-wide ban on either export credits guarantees or on new investments in Iranian oil and gas? Have the Government now given up hope of achieving EU agreement on such measures, and if not, when does he think they will be agreed?

Bill Rammell: No. We have been at the forefront of arguing coherently and strongly that to make this dual-track strategy work, the sanctions need to be as robust and effective as possible. The EU, at our prompting, has gone beyond the rest of the international community, for example, freezing the assets of more entities, including Bank Melli. But I take nothing off the table. We will keep trying to ensure that the stick of sanctions is as strong and effective as possible to encourage and persuade Iran to take the fork of diplomacy.

US Secretary of State

6. Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): When he expects first to meet the incoming US Secretary of State. [246480]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary looks forward to a close working relationship with the incoming US Secretary of State following the President’s inauguration, which will of course involve face-to-face meetings in the US, the UK and elsewhere. He has already spoken to her by telephone.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: When the Foreign Secretary first meets Hillary Clinton, will he stress to her that the closure of Guantanamo, the ending by the United States of extraordinary rendition of suspects to countries with dubious human rights records, and the total abolition by the United States of torture such as water-boarding as a US army interrogation technique, will restore to the US the moral leadership of the world, a leadership that has been sadly eroded over the last eight years?

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Bill Rammell: I understand the force of conviction with which the right hon. and learned Gentleman puts forward those arguments. President-elect Obama has particularly made clear his intention to close Guantanamo Bay, something for which we have argued for a long time, and that will help to reinforce the legitimate leadership position that the US has within global affairs.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): May I urge my hon. Friend when he meets the Secretary of State to raise the issue of Cyprus? I do so for a particular reason. [Interruption.] Wait until you hear it. Both communities are committed to a peace settlement, yet the negotiations have stalled, and they have done so because the other parties to such an agreement are not actively involved. Both the US and the UK have great purchase with those countries. I think particularly of Turkey and Greece. This would be an opportunity for the US to have an early win in the new Administration. May I urge my hon. Friend to raise that?

Bill Rammell: I know that my hon. Friend takes a genuine interest in these matters, and we continue to work with both communities for a resolution of the issue within Cyprus. This will be one of a long list of issues that President-elect Obama will have to address. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will visit Cyprus in February when I am sure that the issue will be considered.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Can the Foreign Secretary remind the Secretary of State, if she needs reminding, of the enormous popularity and support that President-elect Obama has within the continent of Africa? Can the Foreign Secretary urge her to use that support and influence, particularly with the South Africans, to bring about the end of the terrible tyranny of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe?

Bill Rammell: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is critical that the genuine crisis that is taking place in Zimbabwe is brought to an end. Regional neighbours within Africa have a particularly important role to bring to bear in making it abundantly clear to Robert Mugabe that the current conduct is completely and utterly unacceptable.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, rather than keep asking what America can do for us, should we not seek here in Europe to say what we can do to work with America to solve pressing problems on the economy, the environment, Russia, the middle east, Afghanistan and, indeed, Africa? To achieve that, can the Foreign Secretary work towards a more united, coherent Europe, because the last thing that President Obama needs is 27 nationalistic European foreign policies—the ideology of Opposition Front Benchers?

Bill Rammell: As on many issues, I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. There is a real risk in some quarters that people feel that, with the passing of President George W. Bush, all the difficult issues in the international community will disappear. There is an important necessity for the international community to work together on these issues, and that means that Europe needs to come together with the United States of America. That was one of the issues discussed at the General Affairs and External Relations Council last week.

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Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Right at the top of the agenda with the new Secretary of State must be strategy in Afghanistan. Given the expectation that the United States will ask its allies to send more forces to Afghanistan, when will the House be informed of the outcome of the Government’s own review of Afghanistan strategy, which the Minister said in November would be completed in 2008, with the House informed of the implications of the assessment? Will he accept our calls for regular quarterly updates to Parliament on the strategy, objectives and progress made in Afghanistan so that, with thousands of our troops deployed and serious casualties being suffered, the nation gets the transparency from the Government and in Parliament that our commitment to Afghanistan warrants?

Bill Rammell: That review is ongoing, and we will report to the House at the appropriate time. We have regularly updated the House on the situation in Afghanistan. It does have a military component, but a military solution on its own will not succeed. That is why we are working in the way that we are, and this is one of the issues on which we will work exceedingly closely with the new Obama Administration.

Middle East Peace Process

7. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What assessment he made of progress in the middle east peace process during his visit to the region in November 2008. [246481]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): Recent events in Gaza have highlighted more than ever the importance of a two-state solution for any decent vision of the future. The Israelis and the Palestinians must continue to negotiate in 2009. We must make the case, too, for a comprehensive approach to resolving the conflicts in the middle east. The Arab peace initiative is an important basis for progress. Real peace will come only when Israel and the whole Arab world are at peace. That means making progress at the same time on establishing a Palestinian state and on other sources of conflict, notably the Golan heights and stability in Lebanon.

Rosie Cooper: In commending the Foreign Secretary for his key role in drafting the United Nations Security Council resolution seeking to end the devastating violence in Gaza and southern Israel, may I ask what assurances my hon. Friend can give that any new ceasefire agreement will be long-lasting and will serve as a real basis for peace talks in 2009?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend’s question hits on a very important issue. We will certainly do everything that we possibly can to get that durable and sustainable ceasefire, but we do not have the power to mandate it. We are using every ounce of political and diplomatic capital at our disposal, but ultimately to get that sustainable ceasefire we need words to be translated into action—and that means action on the part of Hamas and the Government of Israel.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): At the last count, there were more than 600 checkpoints, barriers and fences in the west bank, which undermine human rights, freedom and the economy in that part of
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the world. What pressure are the Government putting on the Israeli Government to reduce dramatically the number of those barriers?

Bill Rammell: We are constantly pressing that issue with the Government of Israel. I visited Hebron during my visit just before Christmas and highlighted those concerns. The crossings and the settlements that are illegal on occupied territory are among the components that must be addressed in any lasting peace resolution in the middle east.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar broadcast that Hamas was entitled to kill Jewish children anywhere they could be found, anywhere in the world, echoing the messages of hate in Hamas’s charter. Does the Minister believe that those people who challenge Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas’s rockets understand the true nature of Hamas as set down in its charter and as shown by its actions?

Bill Rammell: I agree with the underlying thrust of my hon. Friend’s question; Hamas is not a benign organisation. It is committed to the obliteration of the state of Israel and to acts of terror. The statement that was made last week saying that it was now legitimate to attack Jewish children anywhere in the world was utterly chilling and utterly wrong.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): If it is the case that Iran is using Hamas as its proxy to attack Israel by supplying rockets, what further representations are the British Government making to Egypt to try to control the flow of rockets into Gaza through the tunnels and via the Rafah crossing?

Bill Rammell: I said earlier that to get a durable, sustainable and immediate ceasefire, one of the critical issues that must be addressed is the flow and the smuggling of weapons across the border, particularly at Rafah. That is why we have constant dialogue with all the parties, and critical discussions are taking place in Egypt at the moment.

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): Will the Minister assure us that, rather than being diverted by Gaza, more attention will be given to the west bank? Should we not redouble our efforts to get some sort of move forward in the west bank, so that it can be used as an example to show Israelis and Palestinians that it is far easier to make progress through negotiation than through conflict?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Over the past year, genuine progress has been made on building and bolstering the authority of the Palestinian Authority in the west bank. Above all, we need to make progress on all fronts, because until we resolve the conflict in the middle east, we will not resolve many other conflicts in the world.


8. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Somalia; and if he will make a statement. [246482]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): The President resigned on 28 December 2008 and a permanent successor has yet to be selected. The transitional federal Government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia have agreed to form a unity Government. We hope these changes will help to promote the peace process.

Mr. Evennett: We are all deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis, but piracy off the coast of Somalia is helping to pay for, and therefore perpetuate, the war in that country. What progress can the Minister report on minimising that source of instability?

Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to talk of the humanitarian crisis, which is indeed a tragedy in Somalia. I can assure the House that the UK has made progress by co-sponsoring UN Security Council resolutions 1816 and 1838, which called for measures to combat piracy off the coast. We are working on military options through the EU and NATO, and we are specifically working on what our naval contribution can be. The EU has a naval counter-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, and the UK is providing the commander and the operation at HQ. Tomorrow, in New York, a new international contact group will meet to discuss international efforts in this regard.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): While there is chaos in Somalia, will my hon. Friend recognise that to the north of that country, there is a small and young democracy called Somaliland? It is struggling against appalling and great odds, but doing so very well, to bring stability to that part of the world. However, it is not recognised by the international community and has received very little international help. Will she start to work with other members of the EU, with the United States and with members of the African Union to see how we can get recognition for Somaliland? Will she accept that Mogadishu is de facto not the Government there, and that it should not be the Government de jure either?

Gillian Merron: As my hon. Friend will be aware, we do not currently recognise Somaliland as an independent state, and neither does the rest of the international community. The UK has signed up to a common EU position and to many UN Security Council presidential statements that refer to the territorial integrity and unity of Somalia. Nevertheless, I assure my hon. Friend that the UK is well aware of the position of the authorities and the people who live there, and of the opinion within Somaliland which itself is very divided.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): By every criterion, Somalia is a failed state. There are horrendous activities by different groups of armed individuals, with an appalling impact on the local population. The Minister has said that hopefully the transitional federal Government will come up with an answer, but does she see the Islamists playing any part at all in that? Many people on the ground, particularly the non-governmental organisations, believe that the only way in which the Government can be got back on track to any degree is through some form of involvement by at least some of the Islamist parties.

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