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2.32 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who has shown great consistency over the years, both in participating in these debates and in successfully fulfilling his responsibilities as Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I am sure that he will be leaving that post with a pang.

I must say that it was slightly unexpected to find myself speaking on defence from the Back Benches, after so many years speaking from the Front Bench on the subject. Nevertheless, all conflicts have casualties, and some of us must accept the fact that those in my position are what the military historians would describe as "collateral damage". Collateral damage should always be minimised, but sometimes it cannot be avoided entirely.

When I used to sit on the Opposition Front Bench, people used to ask me how I managed to retain my air of imperturbability and cheerfulness, after so many years as a shadow Armed Forces Minister. I shall now share with the House a slight confession. The confession is that I discovered something that Opposition Members are only just about to discover, which is that if they sit on the Opposition Front Bench just by the Dispatch Box and look to their left, every time the door into the Chamber opens they will see pointing at them, perfectly framed in an aperture, the great statue of Margaret Thatcher. I found that desperately inspiring. Whether they will have the same reaction, as they sit thinking about what they are going to do against this great new coalition Government, may be open to doubt.

I wish to say a few words about nuclear weapons, but not many; I wish to say rather more words about Afghanistan. The few words that I wish to say about nuclear weapons relate to something that the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) mentioned, when he raised the possibility of perhaps having a nuclear deterrent based on cruise missiles carried on Astute class submarines. I have to tell him-or I would tell him, were he still in his place-that that really is a non-runner. Cruise missiles have a single warhead and a limited range. Cruise missiles have not even been designed yet with a warhead that could be fired from Astute class submarines.

What would happen if we had cruise missiles on Astute class submarines as our nuclear deterrent? First, the submarine would have to become a much closer
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inshore weapon, because cruise missiles do not have the range, so the submarine would be more vulnerable. Secondly, we would have to have many more cruise missiles, because there is only a single warhead on a cruise missile. That would be much more expensive, not only because we would need more cruise missiles, but because we would need more submarines, in order to deploy enough cruise missile warheads. Thirdly, there is a slight problem when a cruise missile is fired, in that whoever it is being fired at cannot tell whether it has a nuclear warhead or a conventional warhead. So, to put an end to this facile nonsense, let me just say-

Mr MacShane: He's on your side!

Dr Lewis: I am on the Back Benches; I am not bound by this stuff. Cruise missiles are more expensive and less effective, put the submarines at risk and could start world war three by accident-but apart from that, it is a really great idea.

I am about to break a rule that I have never broken before and which I hope never to have to break again. I am going to quote from one of my own speeches-not much; just a little bit-but there is a special reason why I have to do so. I am going to quote from the last speech that I made as a shadow Defence Minister from the Front Bench, in the debate on defence policy on 15 October last year. I was responding to an hon. Friend who had pointed out that the anti-opium campaign was failing in Afghanistan, that the promotion of women's rights was failing, that democracy was failing and that corruption was rife. I said that that was to suggest that the objectives of our presence in Afghanistan were to get rid of the opium trade, assert the rights of women, create a democracy and root out corruption. I pointed out that those were worthy and desirable aims, but that they were not the reason why we were there. The reason why we were there was, of course, that an attack had been launched by al-Qaeda militants against American cities. Our response was to ensure, once and for all, that that could never happen again from Afghanistan.

I also pointed out something else. I said that we needed to wage a campaign in Afghanistan

and that that, above all,


I also ventured to suggest-I was a little worried when I made this remark-that

Why have I broken my rule and quoted from my own speech? The reason is very simple: because I am going to develop that theme in the short time available, and I do not want anyone to say that I am saying what I am about to say only because I am speaking from the Back Benches and that I never said it when I spoke from the Front Bench. We have got a dilemma in Afghanistan, and nobody knows which of two courses to take. My argument is that there is a third course.

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The first of the two courses being put forward says that we need to get out of there as soon as we reasonably can. The other one says that winning a counter-insurgency campaign means that we have to go on for the long haul. Those words were used on the Front Bench by the Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), in his capacity as Liberal Democrat shadow defence spokesman. We also have to reform the society so that it will be self-sustaining.

We are not going to turn Afghanistan into a self-sustaining society that will be able to reach a deal with the reconcilable elements of the Taliban if we simultaneously say, as President Obama has, that we will start withdrawing our troops from the middle of next year. We cannot have it both ways.

The trouble is that that is to assume that the only way to be present in Afghanistan is to micromanage the country as though it were our job to rebuild that society and hold it in place. That is why we are engaged in the folly of sending our troops out from forward-operating bases. I have friends in those bases: they go out day after day and week after week, over highly predictable routes and wearing uniforms that say, "Here we are. We're a target. Snipe us, blow us up." That is insane. We are fighting on the one ground where our enemies are able to defeat us by inflicting on us a level of casualties that our society will no longer be willing to bear. The answer is not to follow the policy of micromanagement in Afghanistan, which has been followed up until now.

Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): The former shadow Minister is speaking in a fascinating way about Afghanistan. However, now that he has the freedom of the Back Benches-and I congratulate him on being prepared to lay down his official position for his allies-may I ask whether he still has the same view of aircraft carriers as he had before?

Dr Julian Lewis: I much admire the hon. Gentleman, but I am wearing today the crest of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy's next aircraft carrier, just as I did when I was a shadow Minister, because I retain precisely the view that aircraft carriers are essential for the Royal Navy in the future. However, that will have to be for another debate.

I have a minute and a half left, unless someone else chooses to intervene, and I wish to explain what we are doing wrong and what we can do right. That is a bit of a tall order, but I may have a fuller opportunity to explain in the future. What we are doing wrong is that we are following a policy of micromanagement: what we should do is follow a policy of minimal intervention. We are putting pressure on Karzai by saying that we will pull out in a certain period of time. We are not putting any pressure on the Taliban to reach a deal with him.

What we should be saying is, "We will withdraw from being involved in Afghan society in a certain amount of time, but we will retain a strategic presence. You won't see it. It will be a sovereign base area somewhere near the Afghan-Pakistan border. We will let the water find its own level, as it were, in Afghan society, but we will not withdraw completely because if we did that the country would revert to what it was before. On the other hand, we will not allow it to revert to what it was before
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if there is any sign of hostile terrorism or of organisational arrangements being made to revive what there was before."

I have 10 seconds left. The House should remember that it heard it here first: strategic base bridgehead area. That is the solution, but we are not in sight of it at the moment.

2.44 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am very pleased that we are having this debate so early in the discussion of the Queen's Speech. For the past years, this House has been dominated by the issues of Iraq, Afghanistan and international law. I opposed both the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars from the very beginning, and I ask the House to consider the damage that they have done to this country's standing around the world.

The wars have undermined international law and the UN. Vast numbers of people, both military and civilian, have laid down their lives in both countries. The overwhelming public opinion in this country is that the Iraq war was simply wrong. It has done enormous damage to my party and to this country's standing around the world. I had hoped that the Foreign Secretary would give us a clearer answer on the possible dates for a timetable of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

What would constitute a victory in Afghanistan? When that question is raised, it is very difficult to get an answer. It is clear that there is still terrible poverty in that country, that drug dealing is rampant and rife, and that corruption is even more so. It is also clear that the war has spilled over the border into Pakistan.

I hope that we can set a very rapid timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and recognise that this is a war that cannot be won. Our continued presence there does not make this country or any western capital safer: to the contrary, I think that the war makes us more vulnerable and puts us in greater danger. We have to understand that, if we wish to be a player in the world, we have to play by international law, in accordance with the UN.

As the Foreign Secretary and others have noted, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference is going on this week in New York. I want to make two points about that.

First, the 1970 non-proliferation treaty places an absolute requirement on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council-the holders of nuclear weapons, of which Great Britain is one-to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. Many of the countries represented at the NPT review talks have not developed nuclear weapons and have no intention of doing so. They feel very aggrieved that the five permanent members of the Security Council continually lecture them about not developing nuclear weapons and about pursuing nuclear disarmament, while at the same time talking about nuclear rearmament. In our case, that means developing a new Trident nuclear submarine system.

I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that the defence review absolutely must include the whole issue of nuclear weapons and the Trident replacement. The system is very expensive and, in my view, immoral. It will not
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increase this country's safety and security, and its cost is so astronomical that there can be no justification for it whatsoever.

However, nuclear weapons cannot be abolished by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. There was an excellent piece of investigative journalism in The Guardian on Monday that demonstrated how Israel had involved itself in trying to arm apartheid South Africa with nuclear weapons. The fact that Israel has 200 nuclear warheads at the present time means that, unless there is to be an acceptance of nuclear weapons in the middle east, it is very hard to say that no other countries in that region should ever consider acquiring them if they feel threatened.

I do not want any country, in the middle east or anywhere else, to develop nuclear weapons. I absolutely do not want Iran to do so: for that matter, I do not think that it should develop nuclear power, but my personal opposition to nuclear power means that I would say that about any country.

However, a nuclear-free middle east means that a nuclear weapons convention must be developed. Israel and all the other countries in that region would have to involved. When the NPT review talks in New York conclude this week, I hope that the need for a nuclear weapons convention will be accepted. If we do not develop such a convention, the likelihood becomes ever greater that countries beyond North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel will develop nuclear weapons before the next quinquennial review in 2015.

At the heart of that, of course, is the issue of Palestine and the middle east. Both Front-Bench speakers referred to the situation facing the people of Palestine, and in particular to the isolation of the people of Gaza at the present time. Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and a number of parliamentarians from countries all across Europe, I took part in a delegation that went to Gaza earlier this year. Two things hit us, and the first was the isolation and poverty of the people of Gaza. We were also struck by the shortages of food, medicine and everything else that they are suffering, and by the sheer hopelessness of the situation facing many young people. The blockade must be lifted, and the EU has an important role to play in that by imposing trade sanctions on Israel, if necessary, to encourage that.

Mr MacShane: Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that there is also an Arab country blockading Gaza-namely, Egypt? Does he agree that many of these problems would be solved if Egypt were to lift its blockade?

Jeremy Corbyn: Egypt does indeed maintain a blockade of Gaza, but it is not the country that is threatening or trying to occupy Gaza. The crossings between Gaza and Israel, where there are endless restrictions on UN trucks, food, medicines, building supplies and everything else, make life intolerable for people in Gaza. At the moment, a peaceful flotilla of vessels is going from Turkey to take aid, support, succour and comfort to the people of Gaza. I hope that the British Government will put all the pressure that they can on the Israeli Government not to interfere with that flotilla and to
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allow it to land, so that the people of Gaza can receive the support that is being offered by peaceable people from all over the world.

We are not going to solve the problems of the middle east region by further rearmament. I am concerned that the United States' policy, announced last week, of giving a further £150 million for a new missile defence system for Israel is a provocative act that will only encourage further armament within the region. The same applies to the deployment of Patriot missiles all along the Gulf. There must be dialogue, negotiation and debate on all the issues, including human rights, with Iran and every other country to bring about peace in the region. We will not achieve it by rearmament, by nuclear weapons or by turning a blind eye to what happened in Operation Cast Lead or to the abuse of Palestinian rights by Israel in its process of occupation.

The Foreign Secretary made a strong point about human rights being the core of foreign policy. Indeed, the previous Foreign Secretary made much the same point. There are many issues that could be raised on human rights, but I just want briefly to say that, if we go down the road of lifting the universal jurisdiction that applies in British courts to people against whom there is prima facie evidence of war crimes or the abuse of human rights, we diminish ourselves in the eyes of the rest of the world and undermine the whole principle of international law and international jurisdiction. If there are people in any country against whom there is such prima facie evidence, they should be brought before a court and tried for war crimes or the abuse of human rights, as appropriate. If we start being selective about this because we like or dislike a particular person or country, it diminishes our standing in the world. I also ask the new Government to pay attention to the deportation of people from this country to countries that have not signed the various protocols on torture and the abuse of human rights. I ask them to stop the process of such deportations.

I want briefly to mention three other issues, which I hope the Minister will be able to respond to later. There is massive abuse of human rights and massive loss of life going on in the Congo. This was not mentioned in the speeches of those on the Front Benches. It is the largest loss of life in any conflict anywhere in the world at the present time. Millions have died, and tens of thousands-if not hundreds of thousands-of women and families have been abused in the eastern part of the Congo. The Government have a decision to make on the future deployment of the MONUC force, and I hope that they will do that with sensitivity. I also hope that they will recognise that human rights abuses have not gone away just because we have good relations with the Government in that country, or indeed because the Congolese army is in the east of the Congo-I have to say that the reverse is the case.

I also want to mention the right of return of the Chagos islanders to the islands in the Indian ocean, which has been fought for through our courts. The case is now going to the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will intervene, withdraw the case from the European Court and accept the inalienable right of return of those people to the islands from which they were so brutally dragged away in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Finally, there is a group of people living in refugee camps in Algeria who were driven out of Morocco in the 1970s as part of the war waged by the Moroccan forces against Western Sahara. Western Sahara remains a territory occupied by Morocco. Unfortunately, Britain acceded to the European fishery agreement, which means that fishing takes place off the coast of Western Sahara, mainly to the benefit of Spanish vessels. The people of Western Sahara remain in those camps. Let us make some effort to ensure that a referendum takes place that allows peace to return, and allows those people to return. They must be allowed to exercise their right under decolonisation statutes to decide on their own future. Whether they become independent or not, they should at least have that free choice. It is simply not right to have left them living in refugee camps for more than 30 years. We can do better than that, and it is up to us to make sure that we do.

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