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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, for introducing this debate and for doing it with his customary authority and command of the subject. His was a lucid and powerful overview of the overall foreign policy priorities from the position of a former diplomat, former ambassador, Permanent Secretary and, significantly, accounting officer.

Our debate has been graced by many distinguished contributions, but none more so than from my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. The whole House owes my noble friend a debt of gratitude for his outstanding service as NATO's Secretary-General. It was a privilege to serve with him as a defence Minister; it was also a great deal of fun, as your Lordships will have been able to deduce from my noble friend's contribution. And it was a privilege to represent the United Kingdom at the last NATO Foreign Ministers' meeting, which he chaired last December. I said to him then that he would be greeted in your Lordships' House with enthusiasm and affection. I am very glad to see that, deservingly, that has been the case.

I have a huge task in answering this wide-ranging debate. I start with thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Wright, for his kind words about the FCO White Paper, published last December, which set out the United Kingdom's international priorities and how we intend to achieve them. It may be helpful to touch upon those in order to put my subsequent remarks about specific areas and policies into context.

The strategy analyses changes in foreign policy since the end of the Cold War and publicly sets out for the first time our underlying assumptions about how the world will develop over the next decade. As domestic and foreign policy become increasingly intertwined, it has been important that our international priorities were not agreed with just one department but right the way across government as a whole, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright, noted.

The White Paper identified nine priorities: a world safer from global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction—in regional terms the strategy puts the Middle East at the top of those priorities; protection of the United Kingdom from illegal immigration, drug trafficking and other international crime; an international system based on the rule of law, which is better able to resolve disputes and prevent conflicts; an effective EU in a secure neighbourhood; promotion of the United Kingdom's economic interests in an open and expanding global economy; sustainable development underpinned by democracy, good governance and human rights; security of United Kingdom and global energy supplies; security and good governance of our overseas territories; and delivering high quality public services.

That is a very ambitious global agenda. The priorities are closely interconnected. Security is vitally important but it cannot be isolated from sustainable development or from robust international systems. If we are to fight terrorism and proliferation effectively,
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we need to promote democracy, good governance and human rights. To reduce poverty in Africa we must end the bitter cycles of conflict there.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is right; foreign policy does, indeed, take time. Results do not come overnight and consistency is vital. That is why we have drawn up a Foreign Office strategy. Underlying our approach is a strong commitment to a multilateral system. I agreed strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said. No one country, not even the superpower United States, can tackle this agenda alone. We look for collective international approaches underpinned by strong alliances, and the rule of law.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, put his finger on the central issue: do our policies and priorities really deliver what we want? They cannot be pursued in isolation and the strategy sets out our approach to the key relationships we need to achieve in order to progress these issues. Our most significant partnerships with other countries will be within the European Union and with the United States. There is no choice for us between the EU and the United States.

In that respect I have a very honest disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Wright. Transatlantic partnership, not just between the United Kingdom and the United States but between the EU as a whole and the United States, is indeed essential if we are to make any progress on the issues that we really care about. In that context, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that the United Kingdom is not so much a bridge between two camps as a catalyst for partnership to which a majority on both sides of the Atlantic remain deeply committed and which is vital for our future security and prosperity. We also need to develop our relationships with other key partners bilaterally through the EU and in particular with Russia, China, Japan and India.

The noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, spoke eloquently about our role in Iraq, and I thank him warmly for what he said. I believe, of course, that much of what he said is right. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, also devoted much of his address to Iraq, as did the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, together with my noble friends Lord Brennan, Lord Desai, Lord Mitchell and Lord Stoddart of Swindon.

Some noble Lords have been trenchant and uncompromising in their reiteration of outright disagreement in principle to military intervention in Iraq. Others have expressed disquiet over particular aspects of conduct there. We continue to share the objective of a free, stable, unified Iraq and we remain committed to finishing the job that we have begun. Perhaps I may say, clearly, that I utterly reject the appalling accusations that were put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, but I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Brennan for saying what he did early in our debate about human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere. Such abuses are abhorrent. They are an affront to us all.
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They disgust every decent human being. I would go further and say that we went to Iraq to get rid of this sort of abuse, not to perpetuate it. The United States agrees, as I heard Colin Powell, the United States Secretary of State set out in Jordan clearly, frankly and unequivocally just 10 days ago.

Rather than reflect on the recent past, perhaps I may look over what will happen in the next few months, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, asked. The handover to a sovereign Iraqi Government will take place on 30 June and we expect the announcement of the interim government to be made by Lakhdar Brahimi on or shortly before 31 May. The interim government will have self-imposed limitations of power reflecting the views of prominent Iraqis, not reflecting the views of limitations imposed from outside Iraq but from within Iraq, including Ayatollah Sistani. Those will be there so that an unelected government should not have powers to take fundamental decisions with long-term impact, particularly on constitutional issues before there is an elected government.

Elections for the transitional national assembly will be held by the end of January 2005. The UN is due to announce the establishment of an electoral commission by the end of May. It estimates that it will then take eight months to prepare for the elections. I hope that your Lordships will be pleased to know that already 11 ministries have been transferred to the Iraqi authority.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, asked about the UNSCR. The text has been distributed to the Security Council and coalition partners and the initial response has been generally positive. We are still aiming for an agreed text by the end of the first week of June. The key goals of the Security Council resolution are to mark clearly a new phase in the political transition, reconfirm the mandate of the multinational force and to specify the future role of the United Nations.

Security is a constant source of difficulty and anxiety, as I have seen from my own visits to Iraq. US and UK forces operate in very different areas with different challenges. Tactics in each area reflect the situation on the ground. We want to avoid violence and confrontation wherever possible but remain ready to use appropriate force as a last resort.

The post-30 June security arrangements are crucial, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, argued. The Iraqi Government will be fully sovereign. Therefore, the multinational force will remain only at the invitation of that Iraqi Government. But the key is handing over to the Iraqis themselves. More than 131,000 Iraqis are currently providing security and there are now 78,000 Iraqi police working on the ground.

I turn to the other big issue addressed by many noble Lords—the Middle East peace process. The noble Lords, Lord Wright of Richmond, Lord Biffen, Lord Weidenfeld, Lord Eden of Winton, Lord Jacobs and Lord Hylton, all concentrated on these points. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Wright, that we
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continue to attach the highest priority to this issue. All Ministers do and, as the Minister with particular responsibility, I do. But we do not do so to the exclusion of all else, and we do not do so as an excuse for lack of progress on other issues in the region.

The announcement that Israel intends to withdraw the Israeli defence forces from Gaza and dismantle all Israeli settlements there as well as four in the West Bank will be a significant step towards the goal set out in the road map and in Security Council Resolution 1397, the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.

But as the Minister responsible for the Middle East let me make two points clear. First, any withdrawal must be without prejudice to the final status issues negotiated between the parties; that is, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. Secondly, the road map remains the best—indeed currently the only—way forward to the two-state solution; that is, Israel living in peace and security with its neighbours and Palestine stabilised as a viable and contiguous state.

I thought that the quartet statement of 4 May made this position abundantly clear and went further. It came forward with some practical suggestions for how this could be achieved; suggestions about security, financial help for the Palestinian Authority administered by a trust fund through the World Bank and, vitally, work about monitoring developments on the ground.

We support both sides taking actions in line with the road map, unilaterally or otherwise, provided it is done within the context of a road map. We are calling for Israel to co-ordinate its withdrawal from Gaza with the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority also needs to react positively to the initiative by taking the steps needed to improve security and its capacity to take responsibility for law and order.

I agree strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, said on this issue. Above all, it poisons so much else in the region. I have travelled widely in the past few weeks. I have been to four international conferences with colleagues in the Arab world in the past 12 days. Let there be no doubt that as far as they are concerned—I would say this is true of them all—this issue above any other, even that of Iraq with all the recent hurt that it has suffered, has to be tackled with determination, courage and understanding.

I thought the communiqué from Tunis was very helpful. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, that I thought it addressed terrorism and organised crime and rejected what it called "the spirit of hate" in all its forms. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, to read the Arab League Tunis summit communiqué.

In respect of what the noble Lord, Lord Jacobs, said, I agree that the Geneva accord is a bright light, but so is the Tunis summit statement, not least because it raises the whole question of Arab modernisation—of democracy, economic reform, development in a civil society, tackling poverty, human rights and the rights of women. It put them firmly on the Arab League agenda.
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So I hope that the G8 will pick up these initiatives at the Sea Island summit and react in a spirit of partnership, acknowledging, as all people of common sense must, that reform comes from within a country—it cannot be imposed from outside—and that the countries in the region are in many ways as different as we Europeans are from each other.

I turn to the points made about NATO by my noble friend Lord Robertson and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. As your Lordships are aware, NATO heads of government and states will meet in Istanbul at the end of June. The agenda will focus on three main issues—operation, capabilities and partnership. We want to use the summit to encourage the additional military assets required by ISAF's expanding operations in Afghanistan. A decision to terminate the SFOR operation in Bosnia is also likely. That will pave the way for a UK-led EU stabilisation force to take over.

Progress on the Prague capability commitment set out by my noble friend Lord Robertson in 2002, will also be reviewed. The recent accession of the seven new allies provides an opportune time to modernise NATO's partnership programmes. The Mediterranean dialogue should be made more substantive with more focus on practical co-operation. Discussion will also take place on establishing a series of relationships with countries in the wider Middle East—if that is what they want. NATO is also planning to hold meetings with Ukraine and Russia.

Perhaps I may turn to some of the geographically specific issues which were raised. I think that Iraq and the Middle East peace process are rather different in this respect, so I turn to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on Iran. In contrast with our friends the United States of America, we believe that the best approach to Iran is our policy of critical engagement. Iran is too important and complex to ignore. We are better able to promote reform through frequent dialogue. We share key interests in regional stability and drugs, but of course we are very aware of the difficulties in dealing with Iran.

We have grave concerns about Iran's nuclear programme, its human rights record and its support for terrorism and for groups that oppose with violence the Middle East peace process. The EU has stressed that relations cannot develop without concrete Iranian action to address human rights concerns. The UK and most EU partners co-sponsored a Canadian-run resolution on human rights in Iran at UNGA last year.

We welcome Iran's progress so far in disclosing its past deceit about its nuclear programme. But Iran still has a great deal to do to satisfy the international community. We want to work more closely with Iran to defeat terrorism. We also want deeper EU commercial relationships with Iran.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, that we are trying to reach out to the Iranian media. I hope that he will be pleased to know I actually spent an hour with the Iranian media this week doing exactly that.

My noble friend Lord Desai concentrated his remarks on India and Pakistan, as did the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, with whom I agree very warmly indeed. Over the weekend the new Indian Government
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was sworn in. That was the climax to what was a thrilling exercise in vibrant democracy by the world's largest electorate.

The relationship between India and the UK is very good. Co-operation with India is essential to achieving at least six of our eight strategic priorities. We have shared interests in tackling key global challenges—terrorism, environmental degradation, climate change, drugs, international crime, illegal migration and people trafficking, regional conflicts and impediments to trade.

The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, also touched on the issues in relation to Pakistan. Her Majesty's Government welcome the recent public statements made by the new Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the external Minister Natwar Singh for confirming their commitment to strengthening, widening and deepening India's bilateral relations and continuing the peace process with Pakistan.

The Pakistani Government have also reaffirmed publicly their continued commitment to improving relations with India and the peace process. We hope that the Indian and Pakistani Governments will continue to build confidence through their peaceful engagement. As a friend of both countries, we, and indeed our key international allies, stand ready to assist and support India and Pakistan as they move forward.

My noble friend Lord Parekh and the noble Lords, Lord St John of Bletso and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, spoke—some movingly—about Africa. A more prosperous, stable and peaceful Africa would benefit not only Africans, but the entire world community. Terrorism, illegal immigration, instability and, above all, poverty in Africa have implications outside that continent.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, for his encouragement of our role in trying to bring together the parties in Zimbabwe. I agree that there is a vital role for Zimbabwe's neighbours to support that process.

Currently we are spending a great deal more in Africa than in the past. The amount has risen rapidly over the past 10 years. By 2005–06, the United Kingdom will have increased its annual bilateral assistance to sub-Saharan Africa to £1 billion. Africa will be a priority for the United Kingdom in the run up to our G8 and EU presidencies and beyond.

As part of our commitment to the G8 Africa Action Plan, we have focused on key action areas, such as peace, security, governance, trade, education and HIV/AIDS. Again, the spread of retroviral drugs is very much to be welcomed, as the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, said.

Conflict remains a huge barrier to Africa's development. We support conflict prevention, management and resolution initiatives in Africa and are actively engaged in the peace processes in Somalia, Sudan, DRC and Uganda.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, spoke with her customary passion about Darfur. I can tell her that a UN presidential statement was issued yesterday,
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following intensive work by the United Kingdom with our international partners. It expressed grave concern at the situation in Darfur and called for the parties to protect civilians and facilitate access to humanitarian organisations.

The Sudanese have announced that they will issue visas to humanitarian agencies within 48 hours. I shall keep the matter under review. I am happy to talk further to the noble Baroness on the issue. I agree with her that this is a terrible and vicious problem and that we ought to engage with the area more.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke about Cyprus. We respect the outcome of both referendums and the Cypriots' right to decide. I shall try to be as clear as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked. We regret that an opportunity was missed for a settlement. The Secretary-General's plan is the result of many years of work and we believe that it is a fair and balanced compromise that offers a real prospect to Cyprus to move forward as a united island within the European Union.

We look forward to the Secretary-General's report on the talks about the future of his Good Offices mission. I want to be clear on this: we see no prospect for an early resumption of talks. Now is a time for thought. It is an opportunity for the Greek Cypriots to reflect on whether their choice was the right one for them, for Cyprus and for the European Union.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that we have a duty to those Turkish Cypriots who voted in favour of a settlement and EU membership. I think that I spelt that out fairly clearly the other day when I spoke in your Lordships' House.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, spoke about Colombia. I fully agree with him that UK military aid is not fuelling the conflict. Our aid is helping to dispose of bombs, build democratic accountability for the Armed Forces and develop better rules for engagement. Stopping the aid would hurt the people we are trying to help.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised the subject of Serbia. In Kosovo in particular, as the noble Lord said, there is much to be done, as the March violence exposed. Minorities, particularly the Kosovo Serb minority, need to feel safe and to have access to institutions and services. The Kosovo Government need to be given support, but they also need to show that they really are capable of exercising more responsibility, most importantly on the economy.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans raised interfaith dialogue. In particular, we have supported the Alexandria process under the guidance of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey. We have supported work on the Israel/Palestinian interfaith dialogue, and we are supporting work on interfaith dialogue in Iraq. We were doing that as recently as last weekend in a seminar. We also support the work in Africa of Coventry cathedral.

Our support has been not only in terms of participation but also in terms of hard cash. At home we have an outreach programme trying to bring together the faith communities across a whole range of discussion on foreign policy issues. As an example of
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that commitment, we held the first ever multi-faith week in the FCO from 7 to 11 October last year. I would be happy to discuss that further with any right reverend Prelate on the Bishops' Benches or other noble Lords who feel that it would be helpful.

The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, asked about funding for human rights. The FCO will continue to support grassroots human rights, good governance and democracy projects. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, since 1998 the Human Rights Project Fund has funded more than 700 projects in more than 90 countries, worth £30 million. With the creation last year of the new Global Opportunities Fund, which ran in parallel with the Human Rights Project Fund, the FCO supported more than 150 new human rights, good governance and democracy projects, which were worth over £11 million.

International action against torture is a priority for the Government. We launched an initiative to tackle torture throughout the world in 1998. We are lobbying for the ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. I shall write to the noble Baroness to fill in more of the substance on that point.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, directed our attention to counter-terrorism. That is a priority for the Government. Security Council Resolution 1373, passed in September 2001, set the standard for states and made them accountable for their performance. All states have now reported to the counter-terrorism committee at least once; this country has reported four times. In March the Security Council decided to strengthen the committee further, and last week the Secretary-General of the United Nations appointed the first executive director to lead a strengthened expert team. We wish him well; he will enjoy our full support.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke with real conviction about establishing a foreign policy committee in your Lordships' House. Sadly, on this occasion, I do not agree that that is a real priority. That is certainly not because I am not happy to answer noble Lords' questions or indeed noble Lords' debates in this House, which I always enjoy. But he was right when he said that it was a matter for the House itself. It is very much in noble Lords' hands if they wish to take the matter forward.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for his acknowledgement of the importance of the British Council and the BBC World Service. I would not wish them to go unmentioned, as they are very important aids to us in taking forward our priorities, as he rightly acknowledged.

The noble Lords, Lord Wright of Richmond, Lord Alderdice, Lord Selsdon, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Howell of Guildford, all concentrated quite a lot on transatlantic relations. Of course the context of our transatlantic relationships has changed fundamentally over the past 15 years. The common threat from the Soviet Union that unified Americans and Europeans
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has disappeared. That is a very good thing, as we all know. The European continent is firmly on the path to freedom and prosperity.

However, the end of that overwhelming threat means that we must find new ways of co-operating. The major task for Europe and America is now to build a common approach to the challenges and threats of the 21st century. To some, the disagreements over Iraq have demonstrated that Europe and America view those threats very differently. Iraq exposed divisions not only between Europe and the United States but also within Europe. But both Europeans and the United States have made clear that we want to move beyond those differences. On the fundamentals, including the threat that Saddam Hussein posed, we agreed fundamentally. As the European Security Strategy, published in December last year, demonstrates, Europe and the US agree that the major threats we face come from WMD, terrorism and failing states. We also agree that we must tackle a broader agenda, including climate change, poverty and disease, in order to build a global consensus based on security and justice.

Noble Lords have debated a huge agenda today. The FCO's network of 233 posts is a vital asset in advancing this global agenda. It is a delivery mechanism for the whole of government, not just the FCO. Over half the staff who work in it are engaged in providing information services, consular and commercial support and visas. We consider that public service role an absolute priority in its own right.

To excel in all those areas is a very tall order for an organisation that employs fewer people than Harrods and costs less than 0.25 per cent of GDP. To achieve our aims, the FCO will need to become more flexible, better able to make use of diverse talent and work even more closely with other government departments in this country and with multilateral organisations overseas.

I have worked in and around Whitehall for almost 28 years, in a variety of different government departments and representing senior civil servants as a whole. I commend to noble Lords the diplomatic corps, whose expertise and commitment are the rock upon which our foreign policy is built. Under the leadership of Sir Michael Jay, the Foreign Office has become more open and responsive and has reached out more, not only overseas, but to communities in this country, too. It has a clear path set ahead now, through its strategic objectives, and the men and women who work for it should be a real source of pride to all of us.

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