As UK parliamentarians, we sometimes take things for granted. We can express our views on the Floor of the House, in the media and with our colleagues without
the fear of persecution, harassment, torture or death. Tragically, that is not so for many of our colleagues. As parliamentarians, we therefore have a duty to stand up for those who do not enjoy the privileges that we enjoy.
Finally, we need to use every opportunity to raise the cases of those parliamentarians whose rights have been abused and whose mandates are not respected. Burmese parliamentarians, for example, who have never been able to take their seats in Parliament following their success in elections, have instead been killed, disappeared, imprisoned or hounded out of the country. The IPU committee on the human rights of parliamentarians has been lobbying on their behalf and meeting exiles to discuss their plight and that of their fellow countrymen.
Parliamentarians are often just the tip of the iceberg. If they are subject to abuse, it is more likely that the people whom they are supposed to represent suffer even more. By lobbying for those parliamentarians we are often able to address the plight of the wider community, such as opposition activists and journalists, human rights and anti-corruption campaigners, and poor, marginalised and oppressed ethnic communities.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): I welcome the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) to the club of former Foreign Secretaries. May I pay tribute to the work he did as Foreign Secretary? He served his country well during his period in office. It is clear that he now has his mind on other matters-indeed, he indirectly referred to it in his speech. The country will face the unusual situation of two brothers vying for the highest position in their party. I must tell him that the precedents are not encouraging. I am thinking not so much of Cain and Abel, because so far as we know, the two brothers in this contest are very amiable towards each other, but of Moses and Aaron. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that sadly, Moses never reached the promised land. That was left to Aaron, who turned out to be his younger brother. We must wait and see what the future holds.
I also congratulate my right hon. Friends the new Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Defence. I have been privileged to have been involved with both Departments and-as my right hon. Friends will already know-they are two marvellous Departments to look after, each unique in its own way. The special role of the diplomatic service is different from that found in any other Department, and the armed forces clearly have their own role.
I was sad that the right hon. Member for South Shields made a rather snide remark about the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). He was my Parliamentary Private Secretary, is well known in the Foreign Office and was an entirely suitable appointment. He will serve it extremely well.
I was especially pleased that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said-and the Prime Minister has agreed-that the new Government do not wish to preside over strategic shrinkage, because they wish to maintain Britain's role in the world at its previous level. That is important at a time when both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence will face the serious prospect of heavy cuts. I make one particular point to my right hon.
Friend the Foreign Secretary. Although he will have to absorb his share of the cuts, I hope that he will not be tempted or persuaded to allow any embassies or high commissions to be closed. That has been the temptation in the past, but the damage that it does is disproportionate to the relatively minor savings achieved. Closing the high commission or embassy in Vanuatu, Costa Rica or Niger may sound as if it would only upset those countries, but in fact the whole region-be it Africa, Asia or the Pacific-would interpret it as a sign of growing disinterest on the part of the United Kingdom.
The closure of such embassies or high commissions by a Conservative Government might have another ironic consequence, because it would create a vacuum, that I predict would be filled by the new External Action Service of the European Union. British interests would have to be represented somehow, and it would be ironic if our withdrawal led to the European Union having to fill the gap. I hope that the Government will not succumb to that temptation.
Jeremy Corbyn: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern at the large number of embassies and missions that have been closed in Latin America and the growing centralisation of diplomatic representation in Mexico and one or two other places, which is seen as offensive in many of the smaller countries in that region?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Yes. I recognise, of course, that at this moment we can keep only a modest high commission or embassy in some places, but a micro-embassy is better than none at all, because it can be built on when the financial situation eases.
I turn now to the wider question of the foreign policy that has been pursued over the last 13 years. It has been an extraordinary period. It is often forgotten that we have been virtually continuously at war for most of that time-in Kosovo, in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. There has never been such a period of uninterrupted military action. Some of these wars have been wars of choice, and some have been wars of necessity. Kosovo and Iraq were wars of choice. We had not been attacked, nor had any of our allies, but in both cases the Government of the day-led at the time by Tony Blair-concluded that there was some reason to initiate those wars in the name of liberal interventionism. Afghanistan is different. Although there may be equal concern and nervousness about the outcome, Afghanistan has been, and continues to be, a war of necessity, because it originated with the al-Qaeda attack on the United States, and it is important to recognise what flows from that.
A war of choice is different to a war of necessity. With the Falklands war and the first Gulf war-provoked by the invasion of Kuwait-winning the war was relatively straightforward. Conventional forces were used to expel the Argentines from the Falklands and the Iraqis from Kuwait, the wars were over and the mission accomplished. However, when a decision must be made to initiate a conflict that is not simply the expulsion of an enemy from a given bit of territory, but rather to eliminate a future threat, the situation-as in Afghanistan-is much more complex and cannot be addressed in traditional terms.
The problem has been increased by the tendency in the early years of the Afghan situation for the Government to try to win public support for what they were doing by
talking of the need to eliminate poverty and corruption, to build democracy and to achieve equality for women in Afghanistan. Those are all worthy objectives, but they have very little to do with the reason we were there in the first place. We all know that the elimination of corruption, the improvement of women's rights and the growth of democracy will take a generation, but by putting them on an equal footing with the need to eliminate the threat from terrorism, we were bound to give the impression that because those objectives had not been achieved within four or five years we had failed in our strategic endeavour.
The reality is that the primary aim of our presence in Afghanistan has already been achieved. We have eliminated al-Qaeda as a credible force within Afghanistan. They are now in their caves on the border, struggling to survive, although I do not claim that they do not represent a threat in other parts of the world. However, their ability to use the sovereign state of Afghanistan to plan and launch attacks around the world has been eliminated and the objective now is to ensure that that is irreversible. However, that requires a political as well as a military solution, as others have said. It requires the ability to create a Government in Afghanistan who, more than Mr Karzai does at present, represent the overall spectrum of Afghan opinion. The UK has had to contemplate a coalition to deal with our national problems, so it is not too much to expect Afghanistan also to see the need for movement in that direction.
I shall suggest the ingredients required over the next few months-even the next two or three years-to make the progress we wish to achieve in Afghanistan. First, we need to support the surge that is taking place at the moment. The decision by President Obama to increase troop numbers was correct, and the way in which the NATO forces are operating sends a message to the Taliban that we do not simply intend to try to end our presence in Afghanistan as quickly as possible regardless of the consequences. Secondly, we need a major effort to develop links and contacts with those in the Taliban who are not committed to al-Qaeda and who have more interest in Afghanistan than in international terrorism. Many of them come from the Pashtun section of the population, which is 40% of the total, so they need to be part of the new Afghanistan whenever possible.
Thirdly, we need to insist on Afghanistan and Pakistan improving their relationship with each other. It is not often realised that the hostile relationship between those two countries goes back to 1949. The Durand line-the border between the two countries-has never been recognised by Afghanistan, and the assistance that elements in the Pakistani Government have given to the Taliban has been significantly influenced by their fear of Pashtun nationalism and the belief that elements in Afghanistan have not reconciled themselves to the existing border. If Afghanistan, under President Karzai or whomever, wishes to have our full and unqualified support, the least that we should expect from it is a greater effort to ensure a cordial relationship with Pakistan. Unless those two countries work together, not just in name but in substance, the prospects of achieving peace look difficult indeed.
Fourthly, by all means let us have economic and social development in Afghanistan, but let us emphasise that as a long-term strategic objective. It will take a
generation and although Afghanistan rightly deserves to be one of our priorities for such expenditure, it should not be linked-for the reasons that I mentioned earlier-to the military effort, which is based on different principles.
Fifthly, we need to build more regional support. Unique to Afghanistan-and therefore very different from Iraq-is that when these matters were discussed in the Security Council of the UN, there was unanimous support for the operation that NATO is undertaking. Both Russia and China have powerful reasons for wishing us to succeed in Afghanistan, but we are not using the potential co-operation from those countries, especially China, to build the necessary support.
Finally, when we look to a future in which NATO forces can be gradually run down-when that can be done safely and wisely-we should seek to achieve a treaty relationship with the Afghan Government so that even after NATO ground forces have gone, we continue to provide air support, the services of special forces and other measures to ensure that in those parts of Afghanistan that its Government may not yet control we will be able to prevent any reappearance of the Taliban or al-Qaeda in a way that would damage our interests.
We can look forward to a more satisfactory outcome to this dilemma. I salute the Government's intentions, and I was delighted by the early visit made to Afghanistan, which demonstrates their determination to implement a successful strategy in all our interests.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and I agree strongly with what he said about the importance of sustaining and maintaining the commitment to Afghanistan. I am also pleased to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has been a steadfast campaigner for democracy and the rights of the Iraqi people, and I agree with her that the Iraqi people are much better off not living under the vile, fascist, Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein. It is important that all people who aspire to high office in my party and in this country recognise that.
I shall concentrate my remarks on the role of Select Committees in scrutinising the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments. We are in a strange period. The House of Commons was dissolved on 12 April, and yet we will not have effective Select Committee scrutiny of the Departments concerned for some months. We have today set in train a process for electing the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee-it will not be me-and I want to draw to the attention of the successor Select Committee and the Government a number of points raised in reports published at the end of the last Parliament by the FAC.
We highlighted a problem of which I am sure that the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers are well aware: there is a fundamental difficulty with the FCO budget. The Government have compounded that difficulty by taking £55 million out of that budget. I would like the new Government to address the overseas price mechanism and the problem, raised in an earlier intervention, about the cost of international subscriptions, which is borne by the FCO on behalf of the UK as a whole. The
declining value of the pound against the dollar has led to a serious erosion, which we highlighted in the last Parliament, although, to his credit, the now shadow Foreign Secretary fought hard with the Treasury to put in place measures to deal with that problem in the current financial year.
The FCO, however, cannot sustain its current level of commitments on its existing budget, so we face very hard choices. It is all very well for people to talk about increasing our footprint in parts of the world such as Latin America, but we are faced with the fact that in Commonwealth countries-in southern Africa, the Pacific and elsewhere-high commissions and embassies have closed. That process will be accelerated if we do not recognise in this country that funding for diplomacy and soft power is as important as funding for hard power and hardware. We need to think about that for the future.
Mike Gapes: That is absolutely right. In a number of countries in Europe, earlier in the year-until the then Foreign Secretary got additional support from the Treasury-budgets were being overspent. Last year, when the FAC visited the United States, we highlighted the fact that the locally engaged staff there were working four-day weeks and taking unpaid leave to ensure that the budget for those posts did not exceed the annual allocations. That is the context in which the new Government and Foreign Secretary have agreed to an additional £55 million in cuts. That situation will get worse, and I implore Members of all parties to recognise that we need to defend the fundamentals of having a global diplomatic footprint and effective diplomacy in many parts of the world.
I am conscious of the time limit, but I want to highlight an additional aspect published in one of our reports. We produced a brief report on the situation in the Turks and Caicos islands. I hope that the new Government will continue to fund adequately the special prosecutor in Turks and Caicos, so that there can be proper investigations of the corruption and scandals that took place in that overseas territory. I have something else to say to future FAC members: it is fundamentally important that we keep an eye on the overseas territories. They do not represent many people, but they are important, and they are the responsibility of the House. It is crucial that we maintain the interest and scrutiny, because the citizens of our overseas territories do not yet have democratic representation in this country-they do not have the right to speak in this Parliament-so we have to speak for them and maintain the relationship with them.
Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that a lot of the legislation to do with the overseas territories is done by Orders in Council? There is therefore no discussion or transparency about those arrangements and they cannot be debated in the House.
Mike Gapes: This is not for this debate, but we need to consider mechanisms under which the overseas territories can be involved in the process, whether in this House or the other place. We need to find ways to do that.
In the time left to me, I shall move on to some of the issues that featured in the new Foreign Secretary's speech. Clearly, we have this week a very important conclusion-or, perhaps, not a conclusion-to the non-proliferation treaty review conference. It has become clear already that the processes to get an agreement are proving difficult. The conference on disarmament, which is chaired by the Zimbabwean UN ambassador, could not reach agreement, and its proposals have now been pushed into the general discussions about the sections dealing with non-proliferation in the plenary. The main reason is that the developing world, in particular, wishes to have a timetable under which the declared nuclear weapons states who are signatories to the treaty will begin the process of taking real measures towards nuclear disarmament. There was no agreement on that timetable proposal, because the United States and France, in particular, did not wish to go down that route, and nor did Russia.
I urge the new Government, in the days that remain, to consider sympathetically how we can assist getting an agreement. It will be a disaster if the 2010 NPT review conference goes the same way as the 2005 review conference. I hope that we can find a solution through Britain, France and the other nuclear weapons states making concrete offers on how they can contribute to the achievement of article VI, under which the nuclear weapons states are to agree to act in good faith to secure real measures of nuclear disarmament. The previous Labour Government did a lot in that way. They did more than any other of the nuclear weapons states, and now we have this new Russia-United States agreement on deep cuts in strategic nuclear warheads. That is very important.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement about the maximum number-225, he said-of warheads for this country. However, I had understood, having read various of these documents over recent years, that it was thought that the UK had nowhere near 225 deployed warheads. We therefore need some clarification. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) said that there might be a case for co-operation between the United Kingdom and France on future nuclear weapons activities. That might be a way forward, leading to an overall reduction in the nuclear arsenals of European signatories to the non-proliferation treaty, which might help in reaching an agreement at either the current conference or a future review conference.
Proliferation generally poses big threats to the world. We have seen what has been happening in Korea this week, and I am not as relaxed as some seem to be that we might not get into a hot conflict between North and South Korea. This is potentially an extremely dangerous situation. Through the efforts of China in particular, I hope that we can find ways to get the six-party talks or some other mechanism to defuse the conflict and show to the North Koreans that this is not the way to behave. Ultimately, however, the South Korean Government are absolutely right to take the matter to the United Nations. They need solidarity and support from the whole of the rest of the world. China is clearly playing a big role in the Korean peninsula. It also plays a big role in the debate on Iran-I do not have time to go into that now-as well as having played a pretty bad role with regard to what has happened in Sri Lanka in the past few years.
This century, and the next decade in particular, will pose big challenges for those of us in Europe, as we adjust to the shift of economic, political and military power from our part of the world towards Asia. We need to handle that shift carefully. In that context, I note that the Foreign Secretary did not choose to repeat the words of the Prime Minister, as Leader of the Opposition, when he sought to justify the retention of British nuclear weapons on the basis of a potential nuclear threat from China. I hope that that is not Government policy. I hope that it was just a slip of the tongue and that we will work in a measured way to have good relations, but also express our view with regard to human rights abuses in China-