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Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 30th June 2009.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I hope that the House will join me in welcoming the UN Secretary-General's determination to visit Burma this week. The political and human rights situation in the country is dire and demands the world's attention. Ban Ki-moon's personal engagement underscores the concern of the international community. It presents an opportunity for the military Government to respond to those concerns by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners, and by beginning a credible and inclusive dialogue that leads to political reconciliation and a new start for Burma.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I certainly wish to associate myself with the Foreign Secretary's remarks, but may I take his attention back to Iran, and in particular to the situation facing the seven Baha'i spiritual leaders who have been in detention for more than a year and are apparently to stand trial on 11 July, whose lawyers are reported to have suffered intimidation, and who do not yet know the nature or the number of charges against them? Will the Foreign Secretary bring pressure to bear from this country and others to ensure that their trial conforms to the principles of natural justice?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have long spoken up about the treatment of the Baha'i minority; they were featured in the Foreign Office's human rights report, and he is right to draw attention to the importance of the events on 11 July and beyond.

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Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Given the information that only two people will be able to testify in defence of Aung San Suu Kyi, and given the mockery of the trial in Burma, what more can the Government do about that event?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

It is a cruel irony that the regime should have tried to schedule the next date of the trial for this Thursday—the day that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon goes to Burma. Our best hope is to support his mission and to be absolutely clear that there is unanimous support for it from the international community. We very much hope that either he will come back with progress or the Security Council will return to the issue.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

Will the Department pay particular attention to the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and does it think it strange that this country continues to give a lot of foreign aid to countries that are building nuclear weapons? In particular, is the Department aware that the biggest single recipient of British aid is a country with a nuclear weapons programme, a space programme, a development programme of its own and more billionaires than we have, who own substantial chunks of British industry? I am referring to India.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to cite our support for Pakistan; if he was in fear of radicalisation, I would have one answer. In respect of India, he will know that British aid now amounts to about £240 million over this spending review period, but it is on a declining trend, and by 2011 will have stopped, not because of the Indian nuclear programme but because India is becoming a richer country. It is clear from international development legislation since 1997 that development aid should be directed according to poverty, and that is the basis on which India is pulling itself away from aid, according to its own wealth-generating potential.

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Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Special Envoy to PM on Human Rights in Iraq

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his US counterparts on the BBC's allegations of prisoner abuse at Bagram air base? Is it not a fact that two British prisoners have either been held there in the past or are being held there now? Will my right hon. Friend take some action on that important issue?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Obviously, this is a US issue, not a UK issue. All detainees taken under British control are governed by our memorandum of understanding with the Afghan authorities, which requires the passing of detainees to those authorities. I think that the US Administration themselves have made clear their determination to get to the bottom of the issue of detainee treatment at Bagram. A review by the US authorities is currently under way, and we look forward to its being concluded as soon as possible.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Three armoured vehicles financed by the UK taxpayer destined for use by the UN in Gaza have been refused entry. Ludicrously, they have incurred more than £40,000 in storage charges at an Israeli customs depot. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Israeli Government about getting that situation resolved?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I raised precisely this issue with Foreign Minister Lieberman when he came to London six or seven weeks ago. I understood that there had been some progress, but on the basis of the question that the hon. Gentleman has asked, I shall be happy to write to him as soon as possible to give him the latest position. He is absolutely right to say that the vehicles are needed for humanitarian delivery purposes. They are essential, they are from the British taxpayer, and there is no reason why they should not be taken out of their compound and delivered as soon as possible.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Neither the Palestinian people nor the middle east peace process are well served by divisions among the Palestinian voices. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis and the desperate need for reconstruction in Gaza are doing exactly what is not in the interests of the Israeli Government either—fuelling militancy and creating disunity among the Palestinian voices? Will he therefore redouble his efforts to bring pressure to bear on Israel to allow humanitarian and reconstruction aid into that living prison?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I am happy to redouble my redoubled efforts. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the closure of the crossing serves no one except those who want to say that there can be no peaceful resolution. I think that she would also agree, however, that the divisions among the Palestinians themselves are an important impediment that needs to be overcome. That is why we strongly support the Egyptian-led reconciliation process, in which I know that she has taken an interest.

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Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander Shadow Minister without Portfolio

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that among the appalling abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime is its record on executing children? According to a report to be published today by the Foreign Policy Centre, in the past five years 33 children have been executed, and a further 160 juveniles are on death row. Will he work through international bodies to put pressure on the Iranian regime to end that abhorrent practice?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the excellent work of the Foreign Policy Centre, especially in this regard. The number of children executed in Iran was rightly highlighted in the Foreign Office's human rights report. Not only does this run directly contrary to all sorts of humanitarian considerations, but Iran is a signatory to the international covenant on civil and political rights; that at least, if nothing else, should guarantee proper safety for the children.

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Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge

Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the situation with regard to the Turks and Caicos Islands? Notwithstanding the serious problems that have arisen there, does he agree that it would be far better for Her Majesty's Government to work with the new democratic Government than to take the draconian step of returning the islands to colonial rule, which would be unpopular not only in TCI but right across the wider Caribbean?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

It is important that we make sure that there is no corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I pay tribute to the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee on this matter, which pointed us to the process that has led, first, to an interim report, and secondly to a final report, which we hope to publish soon. It would be wholly inappropriate for us to take no action whatsoever with regard to very serious issues that have been highlighted by the commissioner.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Two years ago, I asked the then Prime Minister why Britain was providing training for members of the Sudanese military. I was told that it was part of a peace agreement that had been signed in January 2005. Given that the whole peace process in Sudan is now in total disarray, that President Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and that Darfuris and other minorities continue to be persecuted, does the Foreign Secretary believe that it is time to review our military obligations to that vile regime?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I certainly think that it is time that the Foreign Secretary reviewed the exchange that the hon. Gentleman had with the former Prime Minister two years ago and then updated him on our reflections on it. One has to be slightly careful about saying that the comprehensive peace agreement has completely failed, because that is what is holding the situation together, to the extent that it is held together at all.

The Minister of State from the Sudanese Government was in Trieste with me last Friday, and one thing that the UK Government have prioritised is the maintenance, development and implementation of the CPA, which is the only basis for legitimate government in Sudan. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point that in no way should the UK Government support vile regimes, and will we certainly look into that.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. We have just over five minutes to go and I want to accommodate as many hon. Members as possible, so I am now looking for short questions and economical answers.

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Photo of Doug Henderson Doug Henderson Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne North

When I was in Afghanistan with the European Security and Defence Assembly slightly more than three weeks ago, the commanders in the international security assistance force made it clear to me that in many ways there was a common view between the Iranian Government and ISAF on how to deal with the Taliban. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a very important issue, and an area of some common ground?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Iran certainly has a very strong interest in counter-narcotics work there. Until I have more details of what my hon. Friend thinks the Iranians said to ISAF, I think I should restrain my comments on that, but Iran certainly has the potential to contribute to stability in Afghanistan, and we should certainly work with it on that prospect.

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Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Liberal Democrat, North East Fife

Last week, the Foreign Secretary repeated the Prime Minister's claim that the Iraq inquiry had not been set up to establish civil or criminal liability. Does that mean that the Government propose to grant legal immunity to any witness who gives evidence to the inquiry—and if so, by what means?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I remember no discussion of legal immunity in our debate last week. We have a clear mandate for Sir John Chilcot to pursue a wide-ranging inquiry. He will do so, and I hope that he will publish in the not-too-distant future his views on how he is going to conduct his inquiry, covering all the issues that were raised in the debate last week. That is the right next step.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

In view of the Secretary of State's view, now shared by the US and clearly restated a few moments ago, that settlements are the absolute key to progress, and in view of Israel's repeated refusal to institute a freeze on settlement building, does the Minister agree that the stalemate can be broken only if a sanction of some kind is imposed on the Israeli Government for their defiance of international law?

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

We have made it clear that, as my hon. Friend says, settlements are illegal and a major impediment to peace. We are encouraged by the fact that President Obama's speech in Cairo was seen as such a significant development, and we regard Prime Minister Netanyahu's response as a step forward, although only a small one. At this stage in such a delicate process, the question of sanctions may be best put on hold. However, our feelings about settlements are clear: settlements are illegal, and they are getting in the way of the peace process.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Regarding the seven Baha'i leaders detained in Iran, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he will meet me, as the chair of the all-party Baha'i group, and a delegation of Baha'is, to understand the issues and see what representations might respectfully be made to secure their release?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I am happy to arrange a ministerial meeting with one of my colleagues on that important issue.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

The Foreign Secretary has registered his concern about the announcement yesterday of the Israeli Defence Ministry's plans in respect of Adam. Is he further concerned that the overall master plan is for 1,450 units there and involves the immediate relocation of 50 hard-line settler families from Migron? Beyond the screensaver diplomacy and the backing vocals for George Mitchell in the House, what clear, strong message will go to the Israeli Government, and what reliable and credible message will go to the Palestinian Authority?

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I think that Senator Mitchell's efforts are far more than screensaver diplomacy, because they are backed by the President of the United States and have the wholehearted support of the European Union, never mind the Quartet, along with a battery of UN Security Council resolutions. That is why people are now talking about a middle east peace plan, not just a process—or another process—that fails to deliver. I share the hon. Gentleman's sense of urgency and frustration about the issue, but I believe that there is now a more united international effort than has existed previously. It needs to be brought to fruition.

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Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health)

The excellent charity Kidz In Kampz, which is based in my constituency, reports increasing difficulty in delivering aid on the Burma-Thailand border because of political turmoil. As well as putting pressure on Burma, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary held with the Thai authorities in trying to read that difficult situation?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He knows that in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the UK was the second largest donor to humanitarian help in Burma. We think that that was the right thing to do. I was not aware of the particular case that he raises, but I spoke—not recently but some time ago—to the Thai Foreign Minister, and I shall be happy to get an update from our embassy in Thailand about the latest Thai effort. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Thailand has an important role to play.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The deployment of British troops in Helmand province in 2006 was once described as being as futile as the charge of the Light Brigade. At that time seven soldiers had died; now the figure is 169—far more than died in the charge of the Light Brigade. What has happened in that impossible war to justify the loss of 169 brave British lives?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the bravery, intelligence and skill of our servicemen and women in Helmand. They have made a huge difference in that province, which was previously ungoverned space. As I said earlier, there is still a long way to go, but the help that people are getting, the security forces that have been established, and the role that Governor Mangal has played in political leadership for that province would not exist without the efforts of our troops and their supporters. The further intensive activity as a result of American efforts in neighbouring provinces means that the next few months will be important in Helmand, as well as in the rest of Afghanistan. Voter registration has happened for 85 per cent. of the population of Helmand, which would have been impossible before 2006.