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26 Jan 2010 : Column 215WHcontinued
For the reasons I have given, the process of, as much as a peaceful outcome to, the forthcoming elections is very important. I hope, as does the whole international community, that a repeat of the arrests and killings of 2005 will be avoided at all costs. Not only would an irregular general election in Ethiopia be a bad outcome for its people; it might also create the danger of destabilising an already fragile region. I want to make it clear that I fully recognise the efforts of the Government of Prime Minister Meles. Since 1991 infant mortality has fallen by half. Life expectancy is also up, as is school attendance. However, democracy and human rights need to expand and mature, as does the independent voice of non-governmental organisations. I have my concerns about the civil society Act and some of the resulting restrictions
on advocacy groups and non-governmental organisations in Ethiopa. Progress has been made, but more is needed, and it is needed far more quickly. It is vital to the whole of the horn of Africa that the United Kingdom and its partners should do all they can to ensure that Ethiopia remains stable.
That is why Eritrea is a vital part of the equation. Perhaps the chaos and tragedy that is modern day Eritrea would not be as bad as it is if it were not for the continuing interference of two of Britain's so-called friends, and possibly allies-Libya and Qatar. Yes, close co-operation with both Governments is important, but that should not mean the United Kingdom Government turning a blind eye to the funding of the Eritrean regime or the destabilisation of other parts of the horn region, as Eritrea does its work often by proxy. The Eritrean Government's aggressive and intransigent posture against Ethiopia is particularly unhelpful to the region. The Government of Eritrea need to stop using the border dispute with Ethiopia as a means to keep their citizens in a perpetual state of anxiety. That is why I welcome the United Nations arms embargo. I hope that it will be monitored particularly closely. It must be effective; it must work. I have a message for the leadership of the Eritrean Government: the Eritrean people want peace, not war. They want food, not more guns and bombs. They want an end to the siege of their blighted lives, which have been bruised and crushed by a confused, unimaginative leadership. They want an end to the provocation of neighbours, including Djibouti. Despite denials, Iran's dark hand casts a long shadow over both Asmera and Aseb.
Regional security in the horn of Africa remains fragile, but it need not deteriorate further. Whether that happens will depend in large part on the responsible or irresponsible actions of Qatar, Libya, Saudi Arabia and, most notably, Iran. It will also very much depend on the strategic view that the United States, the European Union and the Government of the United Kingdom take on the question of whether the horn matters. I believe that it does matter. It should not be the victim of strategic drift at the Foreign Office or of the failure to allocate the necessary resources from within existing budgets to identify and tackle those elements in the region that are undermining the UK's national interests and security.
Finally, if the British Government believe that freedom is a universal right, as I believe the Minister does, because he is a decent man, who has taken on his Foreign Office role very capably, the UK, when invited-that is key-has an international obligation and a human duty to defend those rights and freedoms.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing the debate, because this is an important issue. Unfortunately, it has not been the subject of many debates in the House, although I suspect that we will return to it in the foreseeable future because the situation in the region is not good by any stretch of the imagination.
It is well known that I represent an inner-London constituency, and a significant population from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan live in the community. The instability throughout the horn of Africa and the poverty that many people face there is therefore very real for
many of those in my community. The asylum seekers and others whom I meet, who have been resident in my borough and other parts of London for a long time, have often been traumatised by their experiences and the abuses that they have suffered in Somalia and other places. None the less, people in the settled Somali community have a real wish and desire to make the best of their lives here, and they make an enormous contribution to our living standards and way of life. We have to recognise that that diversity is a strength, not a weakness.
I followed the hon. Gentleman's remarks closely. Although there are many analyses of what is happening throughout the horn of Africa, one should not ignore the region's colonial heritage. Ethiopia managed to avoid being colonised at any stage by the European powers so it has a special place in the lexicon of African history and culture. However, the surrounding countries were divided up quite callously at the Congress of Berlin in 1884, when straight lines were drawn on maps. There was another divvying up after the first world war and again after the second world war. That colonial heritage is not the sole cause of all the problems in the area, but it is a contributory factor to the instability and the problems.
One should not forget that the cold war was fought by proxy. In the wars surrounding Ethiopia and the battle over the Ogaden, massive amounts of armaments flooded into the area from the Soviet Union and the United States. That led to a great deal of instability. That instability still continues, albeit in a slightly different guise. The whole area is a victim of its history.
There remain a couple of subjects that I wish to raise, but essentially I am interested to hear the Minister's reply, and to find out what degree of engagement this country proposes for the future in order to bring about or encourage some form of peace and stability in the region.
The people that I talk to are victims of everything. They are victims of colonialism; they are victims of the cold war; they are victims of instability; and they are victims of poverty. Everyone on the planet deserves rather better than that. The longer the instability goes on-principally in Somalia, but not exclusively-the more it will spread into neighbouring countries. I think particularly of the Somali people who feel forced to migrate to Yemen in order to escape what is happening in Somalia, although the situation in Yemen is not good at present.
Mark Pritchard: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although the problems would not necessarily disappear, the current fanning of the flames might turn to shallow embers if the dark hand of Iran was not over the horn of Africa? Notwithstanding the Iranian nuclear issue, the malevolent, oppressive and destabilising influence of Iran is seen not only in Latin America, central America, the Balkans, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the horn of Africa, where it has been very active over the last 24 hours. If Iran were to be removed from that region, there would be at least some hope for the continent.
I am not in favour of anybody interfering in the horn of Africa if it makes the situation worse. The hon. Gentleman probably ascribes to Iran a rather greater power than it has. Nevertheless, influences at work throughout the region are not necessarily positive.
One should look towards building political solutions in the horn of Africa rather than indulging in a blame game, and blaming everybody else in the region. A process of involvement rather than isolating all those Governments might be a better approach. That would include Iran as much as Eritrea or Somalia.
Mark Pritchard: Given Iran's internal problems-its young people being addicted to drugs and its economy in a real state-does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Iranian Government should focus more of their political attention and some of their limited resources on dealing with their internal problems rather than destabilising the region? He mentioned Eritrea, which is being particularly unhelpful in sending arms and extremist groups into Somalia. That has not helped. I hear that in the last few hours, Somalia has been very much involved in sending al-Qaeda affiliates to Yemen, yet we know that Yemen has a direct impact on this nation's security. If Iran is taken out of the equation, it would help matters considerably.
Jeremy Corbyn: I am absolutely not in favour of Iran or anybody else developing nuclear weapons. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about the economic situation in Iran, its problems with drugs and the human rights problems that exist there. However, I think that we might differ on whether we should engage more not only with the Iranian Government but with a range of people there as a way of promoting engagement rather than promoting isolation. The more one promotes isolation, the more it gives space for those characterised as extremists to gain political power. We might differ on degree, but that is something that should be considered.
I have mentioned the role of the west and the matter of the cold war, but there is also a sort of rubric and policy, both in the European Union and the United Nations, that the problem is Africa's and should therefore be left to the African Union to sort out, even though the African Union-as wonderful and as great an institution as it is-lacks the necessary resources to be able to do it. It is easy for the west to say that African peacekeeping forces should go in, but when those forces turn out to be largely from Ethiopia and one considers the previous wars over the Ogaden in which Ethiopia was involved, one has to wonder whether it is such a clever idea to send Ethiopian forces into Somalia when there are previous disputes over territory between those two countries. Might it not have been better to send in some more obviously neutral forces at an earlier stage? I accept that forces have come from Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, but the initial very large deployment of Ethiopian forces has not been terribly helpful in building a feeling of reliability among the various elements of government in Somalia.
On the question of Somalia, the collapse of the Siad Barre regime and the disputes between Somaliland and Puntland in the southern part of Somalia obviously go to the heart of the problem. The violence is much greater in the south around Mogadishu and in the north around Puntland than it is in Somaliland itself, which is relatively stable-I use my words advisedly and carefully here. The west has put much emphasis on supporting the transitional Government in Somalia, and the Obama Administration appears to be even more supportive than previous US Adminstrations. Although I can see where it is coming from and why it is trying to achieve
it, we must ask whether the transitional Government are representative of the people of Somalia. How effective are they and how much land do they control? Are we not in danger of fuelling an even greater war there? Is there not a necessity to revisit the concept of a longer-term peace conference on the issues surrounding Somalia and its instability?
The recent Amnesty International document on international military and policing assistance states that the whole policy should be reviewed in respect of Somalia, because it feels that the substantial arming of the transitional Government that is going on is possibly in danger of fuelling an even worse situation, rather than making the situation better. We must consider the issue carefully. If we pour a lot of arms into the area, we must ask what happens to them afterwards.
There was an interesting article in The Guardian on 22 January by Murithi Mutiga, entitled "Yemen: lessons from Somalia". In it, he said:
"The path to peace in Somalia lies in separating these forces and pursuing a settlement with the more political and realistic members of the Islamist movement. Analysts such as Abdi place the likes of Sheikh Aweys and his Hizb Ul Islam offshoot of Al Shabaab in this bracket."
"If the pragmatists in the Islamist movement are persuaded to join a government of national unity that can craft some sort of peace deal, that would make a bigger difference than any number of millions of aid poured into the country after an international summit."
Essentially, his plea is that Islamist forces in Somalia-perhaps not all of them-should be involved if a longer-term peace is to be found. It is something that may be difficult for some people to comprehend, but it is an issue that cannot be ignored or wished away. As the hon. Member for The Wrekin pointed out, the implications for the region and everyone else of further and worse instability in Somalia are very grave indeed.
The last point that I want to mention concerns Eritrea. There is a substantial Eritrean community within my constituency, and I have obviously met and held discussions with many of its members. It is surprising that the UN resolution on arms, travel and banking and financial embargoes against Eritrea received very little publicity in any of the newspapers in the world, because it was a major decision that was taken by the UN Security Council. Might not such a draconian measure against the Eritrean Government be utterly counter-productive in the long run if there is no process of greater engagement?
When I intervened on the hon. Member for The Wrekin, I made a point about the border dispute with Ethiopia, which is unfortunate, to put it mildly. It has cost the lives and money of an awful lot of people and ought to be resolved. Indeed, that was the whole point of the Court of Settlement. The lack of a resolution provides a huge propaganda victory for the Eritrean Government because of Ethiopia's apparent refusal-this is why I intervened on the hon. Gentleman-to accept the arbitration agreed by both sides as binding.
Notwithstanding the many Eritreans in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, does he not accept that the Eritrean Government, as I said in my speech, might also want to use the border dispute to maintain a
permanent state of emergency or to keep the people in a permanent state of anxiety to suit their own purposes? The border issue, although important, is not due to the recent talks. The progress made on the border dispute is the primary reason why Eritrea is acting as it is. It is an internal rather than a border issue.
Jeremy Corbyn: The point that I was making-perhaps I did not put it well-is that the lack of a settlement to the border dispute has led both Eritrea and Ethiopia to use the issue as a cause of national discord. As both parties agreed to go to arbitration and an arbitration settlement was made, it is surely incumbent on both parties to accept that settlement and implement it. Surely that must be the right way forward. The lack of a settlement is a useful cause célèbre, as the hon. Gentleman was trying to point out.
When the Minister replies, will he indicate what degree of economic aid and support this country and others can provide to help break some of the cycles of poverty in the region? Essentially, however, it is a political problem that must be addressed with a political solution. The area is not unfertile; the seas are not without fish; the land is not without minerals. There are opportunities for a much better standard of living. The area also has an extraordinarily rich cultural history. However, if we do nothing and the situation worsens-if the abuses of human rights, hijackings, kidnappings, warlords and all the other aspects of an inoperative state continue-the instability will clearly spread more widely, including to Yemen and other places. I wonder whether we are not sometimes too simplistic in looking at goodies and baddies, and whether a much higher degree of involvement is needed.
I conclude by differing with the hon. Member for The Wrekin. The beginning of his contribution seemed to be almost a counsel of despair that the war on terror must be pursued all over the place. I do not think that it has been overwhelmingly successful in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It certainly has not been successful in bringing about a settlement of the problems faced by the Palestinian people. Surely we must engage much more and recognise the causes of the instability and the heritage leading to it.
Above all, we must overcome the huge disparities between rich and poor in that part of the world, and between that part of the world and the rest, which is one of the factors involved. I meet the victims of the conflict, as do many others in the House. They are the people who suffer loss of homes, family, friends and livelihood and are forced to migrate. They do not necessarily want to be forced out of their own country; they want to be able to live in peace in that society. I think that we should do what we can to support them in that wholly human and decent aspiration.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD):
One of the great benefits of the Westminster Hall forum is that one can come and listen to colleagues who know an awful lot about a subject either because they themselves have visited a particular country or because they have populations in their constituency who are from the country that they are talking about and they have worked with those populations, so that over a period of time they have really begun to understand the issues
affecting that country. Consequently it is great for Front Benchers to be able to listen to that experience and knowledge.
It is particularly good that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) has brought this issue to the attention of colleagues today. That is because, as we think about Yemen this week with the conference on the country taking place in London, we should be worried about other areas where there is a potential for the "virus" that the hon. Gentleman described to take hold, so that those areas become a breeding ground for terrorists who not only threaten the people in those areas but security across the globe.
Therefore the hon. Gentleman is quite right to warn about that threat and to talk about the dangers of false Islam. However, I slightly want to play devil's advocate with him. No doubt he will be able to quote facts and figures against the sort of reading that I have done in my preparation for this debate, but I have come across the suggestion that the Islamic movements that we see in some parts of the horn of Africa are quite dynamic movements, which are changing all the time and which are not necessarily part of some sort of global jihad movement. There may well be some actors who fit that description, but equally there are many other actors who would not recognise any affiliation to some sort of global ideology in the way that the hon. Gentleman described. Indeed, quite a lot of people who are in the Islamic movement in Somalia or elsewhere in the horn of Africa are much more focused on trying to win power nationally. They are often part of a nationalist movement, involved in local disputes in their areas, and their links to al-Qaeda and that form of dangerous Islam are tenuous at best.
For example, I read a little of what has been written by one of the Chatham House experts on Somalia, Roger Middleton. He has said:
"Shabaab and Hizbul-Islam are nationalist movements first and foremost. The commanders are fighting to control Somalia. Their agenda is local, not global."
That is not to say that those groups may not find links to other groups elsewhere, as the hon. Gentleman has described. However, trying to understand the intricacies of this Islamic movement is important as we debate the right policies to deal with the threat that it presents.
Mark Pritchard: Given the demands on the time and resources of al-Shabaab, one of the examples that the hon. Gentleman used, and his comments that it may not have strong links with global terrorist organisations, does he find it surprising that, even as we speak, al-Shabaab in Somalia is trying to make its way to Yemen to support its al-Qaeda brothers there as they take on the Yemeni Government and indeed the Saudis on the border?
I have no doubt that what the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely right. However, I just say to him that when people have looked at the Taliban in Afghanistan in much greater detail and read the comments of some of those people who have gone to Afghanistan and talked to the Taliban in all the different provinces of the country, as some of us have begun to do, the message that comes out is that the Taliban is not some sort of homogenous group, with a unified command structure, that works together with one shared aim.
Instead, the message that comes out is that the Taliban is a very mixed, incredibly heterogeneous movement and I would guess that it is the same for al-Shabaab. I bow to the hon. Gentleman's greater understanding of this issue, but the fact that there may be one or two people, a group of people or a small militia going over to Yemen from Somalia does not necessarily mean that all the people who are behind that movement in Somalia subscribe to some sort of al-Qaeda network.
That is the only point that I am making and I am not even sure if I am absolutely right to do so. I will be frank; I have been reading what others who have spent their lives thinking about this issue are saying. A recent report from the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point in the United States said that al-Qaeda had not found a promising base in Somalia and that, if anything, coastal Kenya had been a more fertile territory. It stated:
"At one point, Al-Qaida operatives were so frustrated that they listed going after clan leaders as the second priority for jihad after expelling Western forces."
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