Middle East

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 15th June 2004.

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Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle 11:30 am, 15th June 2004

What further steps he will take to encourage the establishment of democracy in the middle east.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I set out the United Kingdom's approach to encouraging modernisation in the Arab world in a speech that I made at the Foreign Policy Centre on 1 March. In that speech, which has been generally well received in the region, I made it clear that we will work in partnership with countries in the region in support of locally led political, economic and social reform.

In the coming period, we will be responding to the forward-looking statement from the Tunis summit, and concentrating on implementation of the G8 and EU strategies, as well as continuing effective use of our bilateral programmes.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

The Prime Minister told me yesterday that democracy in the middle east has got to come from within, but if that is the case, surely we will be waiting for ever. What are the Government doing to force the pace of change in dysfunctional societies such as Saudi Arabia, where women cannot even legally drive a car? In a recent case, a female television presenter was beaten up by her husband for daring to answer the telephone. Saudi Arabia is supposedly an ally of ours. What are we doing to force the pace of change?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I resist the idea that we should force the pace of change in the way that my hon. Friend sets out. We in Europe need to have a certain amount of humility in respect of this issue. Only 30 years ago, which is within the lifetime of many in this House, not only was half of Europe under the Soviets' control, but three countries in southern Europe—Portugal, Spain and Greece—all had fascist dictatorships. We would have resisted the idea that our pace of change within Europe should be forced from outside. We have to encourage change and support the many people in all countries in the region who are actively pursuing change.

Saudi Arabia is beginning a process of reform, even though it might not be as fast as my hon. Friend would wish. Local council elections will be held shortly, and in many countries in the region there are now the beginnings—in some cases, more than the beginnings—of active democratic institutions.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House what his view is of conditions for democratic life in Gaza, where the infrastructure has been systematically damaged, houses have been indiscriminately destroyed and demolished, and the quality of life has been comprehensively diminished? At the moment, the international community is raising substantial sums for the restoration of Iraq. If the Sharon proposals for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza are implemented, who will pay for Gaza?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

It is self-evidently the case, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman points out, that operating democracy within the Gaza area is and has been very difficult since the incursions by the Israeli defence force, some of which—such as the terrible incursions in Rafah—have been roundly condemned by a United Nations Security Council resolution that the United Kingdom supported. That said, the Palestinian Authority themselves have to take further steps—they could take such steps, even now—to improve the operation of their democratic institutions. For example, they could place the security forces under the full and proper control of the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister, and ensure that they are paid through bank accounts rather than in cash.

In terms of the withdrawal from Gaza, there may be a need for further international aid. I am afraid that the value of some of the aid has been destroyed by Israeli incursions, but we simply have to accept that and try to move on.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments on democracy in the Arab world. Of course, the middle east also encompasses Iran, where there is nominal democracy but there are significant human rights abuses. I doubt whether any of us in the House would recognise Iran as a true democracy. What steps are the United Kingdom Government taking to encourage true democracy in Iran?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I should tell my hon. Friend as an aside that it is an unwise idea to suggest that Iranians are Arabs, because they are not. On his wider point, among many other aspects of an intensive dialogue with the Iranian Government, we have a human rights dialogue, and so does the European Union.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

Would the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether there are any democratic states in the middle east other than Israel?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

There are states in different stages of democratic development. [Laughter.] I do not believe that we should mock the progress that has been made. Oman and Qatar have recently introduced direct elections, and of the states within the Arab world, only Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have no public plebiscite for national assembly and/or head of state elections. Of course, their political institutions are not in a state that we would describe as full democracy. The important thing is that that is now recognised within the region itself, and there is a clear programme of reform that has been agreed by the Arab League, not least at its summit in Tunis.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

My right hon. Friend will know that, when the Palestinian parliamentary delegation came to this place a few weeks ago, it stressed its wish to hold elections in the occupied territories, which are now several years overdue. It made the point that it is difficult to hold elections where candidates cannot get from one place to another and voters do not know whether they can reach a polling station because they are under curfew. All that is directly related to the occupation. What does my right hon. Friend feel that the international community can do to ensure that elections take place in the occupied territories as soon as possible?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

The key thing for the international community, as well as for the Palestinians, the Israelis and those in the region, is to support the active implementation of the road map. If we could get an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza under proper conditions, that could at least set the stage for the normalisation of life within Gaza.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The right hon. Gentleman has just referred to the withdrawal by the state of Israel from Gaza. Would he accept that that must be just the first step and that further steps must include withdrawal from all the west bank settlements, together with sensible proposals for sharing the sovereignty of Jerusalem?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Yes is the answer, and the stages are clearly set out in the road map. As the G8 summit acknowledged, the basic template for our position and that of the G8 in respect of Israel-Palestine remains Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.