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Sri Lanka

5. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What his most recent assessment is of the political situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. [282691]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Following the recent end to military operations, Sri Lanka has an historic opportunity to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict and to ensure a lasting peace. We have made clear our view that that can be best achieved through an inclusive political solution based on respect, equality and the rule of law, which addresses the legitimate grievances of all Sri Lankan communities, including the Tamil population.

Mr. Love: My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the continuing conflicts concerns the events that happened in the last weeks and days of the conflict in the north of the island and whether or not criminal actions took place. Will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts to persuade the Sri Lankan Government that they need to produce a report on those issues if they are to carry the peace process forward?

Mr. Lewis: It is important to put it on record that our immediate concern is for the safety of the more than 280,000 people who fled the fighting and are now being held in camps for internally displaced persons. That has to be our immediate concern, and we have allocated £12.5 million of humanitarian assistance to help Sri Lanka address those issues. In addition, we have been at the
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forefront in calling through the EU for an independent investigation into any violations. We have also supported the UN Secretary-General in his agreement with the President of Sri Lanka to conduct an appropriate investigation into any violations that have taken place. It is really important that we send the message today that we expect the President of Sri Lanka to convert that rhetoric into action.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The Minister will be aware that this country, as well as having a significant Tamil population, also has many people from the Sinhalese area. What steps is he taking with the high commissioner in this country to ensure that there are harmonious relations between Sri Lankans living here in the UK?

Mr. Lewis: The best solution is to have a political dialogue that leads to peace and stability in Sri Lanka. One difficulty for the Tamil population and all minority communities has been to ensure that the Sri Lankans honour their commitment to enter into serious political discourse. We are very exercised about that, as we must put historical enmities behind us and start to build more inclusive relationships with Sri Lanka.

Middle East

6. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. [282692]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The UK continues to support a two-state solution in the middle east. We urge the parties involved and the Arab world to continue to build on the Arab peace initiative as the best basis for establishing long-term regional peace. We urge Israel to implement a complete freeze on settlement construction in line with its roadmap commitments, and we call on all Palestinians to be prepared to engage in peaceful negotiations with Israel. Facilitating peace in the middle east will remain a top priority for this Government, alongside developing the institutions of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Speaker: Eric Illsley.

Mr. Illsley: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and may I offer you my belated congratulations? Will my right hon. Friend maintain a commitment to persuading the Israeli Government to accept the idea of a Palestinian state? Does he accept, however, that if that state is too bound in by conditions and a commitment to retain settlements it will be absolutely unacceptable to the Palestinian authorities and the international community?

David Miliband: I maintain that commitment very strongly. The Government’s position is very clear: a two-state solution must be based more or less on the 1967 borders, Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, and there needs to be a fair settlement of the refugee questions. That is at the heart of securing any stability, never mind security or justice, for Palestinians—and, I argue, for Israelis too. That is why it will remain at the heart of our policy.

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Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): In the past, whatever we thought of the regime running Iran, the EU3 plus 3 countries recognised that it ruled by some form of consent. In the light of the recent elections, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the new president—or President Ahmadinejad—rules by consent? If not, how can we begin negotiations to solve problems to do with the middle east or the nuclear issue?

David Miliband: As I said earlier, there is no way that we are able to count the ballots, and we are not in a position to say whether President Ahmadinejad got 63 per cent. of the vote. Debate remains intense in Iran, and we are watching the process extremely carefully. We will have to address questions about the Government of Iran, and I understand that the inauguration of a new president is scheduled for 26 July. Over the coming three weeks, we will work intensively with our partners to ensure that there is a united international position in respect of dealings with the Iranian Government.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): As soon as this Question Time is over, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary contact his Israeli counterpart about the civilian ship, the Spirit of Humanity, aboard which is a constituent of mine? Its cargo of medical and humanitarian supplies was thoroughly inspected by the port authorities before it left Larnaca yesterday, but the vessel is now surrounded by Israeli warships in international waters. The Israeli forces have disabled the ship’s equipment, have threatened to fire on the ship and have now boarded it. Will he insist to the Israeli authorities that they desist immediately from these blatant violations of international law?

David Miliband: I shall certainly follow up my right hon. Friend’s question; he mentioned the issue to me on the way in to the Chamber. If the contact has not been made already, it will be made as soon as Question Time is over. It is obviously vital that all states respect international law, including the law of the sea. It is also important to say that we deplore the interference by the Israeli navy in the activities of Gazan fishermen, which has been brought to my attention on previous occasions. Resolution 1860 was clear about the basis of peaceful progress in respect of Gaza, and we are determined to uphold all of its aspects.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Can the Foreign Secretary indicate when he last discussed the middle east with President Barack Obama of the United States? He will agree that the United States probably stands a greater chance of exercising influence in the middle east than any other major power in the world. It is important that we create a stable government in both Palestine and Israel.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman is right that the United States has a pivotal role in promoting a peace process and a peace plan for the middle east. I think he will agree with me that the determination of the Obama Administration to engage on this issue from day one has been a welcome contrast to the rather belated interest in the middle east which has been shown by previous Administrations. Before 20 January, the European countries unanimously asked for that engagement, and since then the stance of the US Administration has been clear, principled and forceful. I welcome that wholeheartedly.

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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): While I agree with my right hon. Friend that at last we have an American President who recognises the suffering and the plight of the Palestinian people, is it not unfortunate that this wretched Israeli Administration continue to build illegal settlements in defiance of international law? What action is going to be taken by the leading powers over what Israel is doing?

David Miliband: The position of the Government on settlements is clear—settlements are illegal under international law and a major blockage to peace in the middle east on the basis of a two-state solution. Reports are coming through that the Israeli Ministry Of Defence yesterday granted permission for 50 new housing units at the Adam settlement, which we completely deplore. This is the worst possible time for new settlements to be initiated or for construction to be started. We are at a vital moment as the new American Administration come to a decision about how they will prosecute their commitment to a two-state solution, and the call for a settlement freeze is clear and wholehearted.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it will be hard to build trust and peace in the middle east while hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza are still without sanitation, adequate medicine or the materials that they desperately need to begin reconstruction? What action are the British Government taking to find ways to allow supplies into Gaza in order to end what the International Committee of the Red Cross described a couple of days ago as an

David Miliband: I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman continues to draw attention to the Gaza issue, because so do we. The danger is that Gaza gets left behind in discussions of a peace plan or peace process. On Friday at the G8 meeting, I made a point of saying that the UK believed that we could not pursue a Gaza-last policy, that practical help in Gaza was essential—our £46 million of aid is just a part of that—and that adherence to the call of the UN Security Council resolution for an immediate opening of the crossings is in the interests of all right-minded people in thinking through how we can build any kind of solution or trust, to repeat the word that the hon. Gentleman used, in the middle east.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has been very clear about the Government’s position on Israeli settlements. President Obama, in his Cairo address, made it clear that Israeli settlements on the west bank have to stop. On 26 June, the G8 too was entirely clear that Israeli settlements on the west bank have to stop, but they are still carrying on, so perhaps the key question is: what can the international community do to ensure that Israel implements in practice its obligations under international agreements?

David Miliband: That is indeed a key question—or the key question. Defence Minister Barak is in Washington or New York today for talks with former Senator Mitchell. That is a key part of the engagement between the United States and Israel in preparation for further development of the American peace plan. We should see how those talks go, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that a settlement freeze is now universally recognised as absolutely key to progress.

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Helmand Province

8. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of the effectiveness of the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand province. [282694]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The provincial reconstruction team’s mission in Helmand is to help the Afghan Government to deliver effective governance and security. The number of UK civilian staff working on a joint civilian-military operation has more than doubled since 2008 to more than 80, and all of them are delivering tangible results for the people of Helmand. The PRT has helped to built nearly 2,000 wells, benefiting more than 400,000 people. It has contributed to 160 district infrastructure projects, reaching more than 300,000 families, and provided paid work for nearly 19,000 people.

Mr. Ellwood: In the Opposition day debate on Iraq last week, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), a former Secretary of State for International Development, admitted that she deliberately instructed her Department to have nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the drawing up of reconstruction plans once the war fighting had stopped in March 2003. With no plan, chaos ensued for many years. We are now in our seventh year in Afghanistan. As US assistance is required in Helmand province, it seems that there are still lessons to be learned from Iraq. Is it not time there was a major overhaul of how the MOD, the FCO and the Department for International Development conduct modern stabilisation operations, as outlined in recommendation 16 in a powerful Institute for Public Policy Research report issued today?

David Miliband: That is indeed a good IPPR report, which fully endorses the idea of a joint civilian-military operation in Afghanistan. That has been pioneered by the DFID-FCO-MOD liaison in Helmand province. Of course, as I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions across the Dispatch Box, we should always seek to learn lessons and improve the operation, but I hope that he will agree that the shared leadership across the traditional civilian-military divide in our operation in Helmand is indeed the right way forward. I hope that he will also agree that the bravery of the civilian aid workers and diplomats, alongside that of the military, has made a difference. As for whether there is further to go, of course there is, and we will certainly look at the IPPR report and other ideas—including those of the hon. Gentleman, because he has experience in this respect—in order to take the matter forward.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Reconstruction cannot happen unless we have security. Security requires a national military and a national police force. Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the progress that we have made in supporting and building up the Afghan national police force in Helmand?

David Miliband: No—or rather, I am satisfied that we have made an awful lot of effort, but I am not satisfied with overall progress, for obvious reasons. My hon. Friend will know from the debates that we have had in
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this House and elsewhere that the development of a trusted Afghan police force is perhaps the major challenge, or certainly one of the major challenges, that we face. The appointment of some of the new district governors under Governor Mangal in Helmand is making a sincere and real difference in that province, but to claim that things are better than patchy would be an exaggeration. The issue is certainly a priority that we intend to pursue.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Many hon. Members think that the Foreign Secretary’s comments about progress in Helmand province are optimistic. Recently, a lot more effort has been made in that area, but NGOs, hon. Members, and military and civilian experts believe that it is ludicrous that less than 10 per cent. of British aid to Afghanistan goes to Helmand province. I draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to an article by an Army officer published in the most recent issue of the British Army Review, entitled “A Comprehensive Failure: British Civil-Military Strategy in Helmand Province”. We are catching up very slowly indeed. I am afraid to say that although there has been a loss of British military personnel, and there are threats to the lives of brave British civilians, the British Government have so far failed to pull together a comprehensive strategy. I am afraid, Foreign Secretary, that it has been a failure.

David Miliband: I think that the denigration of the efforts of the people on the ground, who have, as the IPPR report says, led the way on improving civilian-military stabilisation efforts is beneath the hon. Gentleman. The truth is that we pay our development aid through the Afghan Government, according to the best practice of international development around the world. We are not seeking to establish a British county in Helmand. We are supporting indigenous efforts, led by Governor Mangal, to build reconstruction as well as security in that province. As for the founding facts that I mentioned, facts are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I offered no optimism or pessimism. I recited facts about the number of people who have been helped by the efforts of the provincial reconstruction team. I also said to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who has taken a long-standing interest in this matter, that there are a number of areas in which we all need to do better, led by the Afghan authorities, and that is what we are determined to do.

Sri Lanka

9. Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. [282695]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): We remain concerned at continuing reports of abductions, disappearances, violence and intimidation against the media, all of which appear to affect Tamil communities disproportionately. We raise these issues regularly in international forums and with the Government of Sri Lanka and call upon them to take decisive action to tackle human rights abuses.

Mr. Moss: Does the Minister agree that after 25 years of bloody conflict in Sri Lanka, any reasonable Government would reach out to the defeated community, not incarcerate about 300,000 Tamils, many of them children and the
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elderly, in squalid and inhumane detention camps? What are the Government doing to improve humanitarian conditions in those camps? More important in the longer term, what are the Government doing to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to close down the camps entirely and allow those innocent people to return to their homes and families?

Mr. Lewis: Since last year we have made sure that a total of £12.5 million of humanitarian assistance has gone specifically to deal with the displaced civilians. We have made it clear that we want the UN and humanitarian agencies to have full access to those civilians. But as the hon. Gentleman said, the long-term solution is political. On the political direction that the president of Sri Lanka has indicated towards a new inclusive Sri Lanka, we have to see step-by-step evidence of action. There have been encouraging words since the conflict was brought to a close, but confidence-building measures on the ground are now needed to demonstrate that the Government of Sri Lanka are serious about a new inclusive country where Tamils and other minorities feel that they have an authentic voice and equal status.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank the Minister for what he just said. Does he agree that the continued incarceration of large numbers of Tamil people in refugee camps is a form of imprisonment, and that denying the right to return home is illegal under international law? Will he make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that they must not try to resettle the Tamil people outside their traditional homelands, villages and towns, in order to bring about some degree of stability in the future?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend is right. The first test of the good intentions and political will of the Government of Sri Lanka is how they treat the displaced civilians. It is imperative that those people return home as soon as possible and that they are given the opportunity to begin to rebuild their lives. That will be the greatest evidence that things are changing for people on the ground in that country.

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