Libya and the Middle East

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:32 pm, 28th February 2011

I would like to update the House on the evacuation of British nationals from Libya, the actions we are pursuing against Colonel Gaddafi and his Administration, and developments in the wider region.

On evacuation, we have been working intensively to get our people out. As of now, we have successfully removed about 600 British nationals from Libya. The evacuation has centred on three locations: Tripoli airport, the port at Benghazi and the desert oilfields. At Tripoli airport, a series of six aircraft organised by the Foreign Office and an RAF C-130 Hercules flight have brought out more than 380 British nationals and a similar number of foreign citizens. At Benghazi, HMS Cumberland has carried out two evacuations from the port, bringing out 119 British nationals and 303 foreign citizens from more than 30 countries. The first of those evacuations took place in difficult sea conditions, and the second arrived in Malta earlier today. The evacuations were assisted on the ground by five rapid deployment teams. In total, nearly 30 extra staff from the Foreign Office helped to marshal British citizens in the midst of chaotic scenes in and around the airports and ports.

Clearly, the most challenging part of the evacuation has involved those British nationals scattered across more than 20 locations in the oilfields deep in the desert. On Friday evening, I authorised a military operation to bring as many of them as possible out of the desert. On Saturday, two RAF C-130 aircraft flew into the eastern desert and picked up 74 British nationals and 102 foreign nationals at three different locations. A second mission took place yesterday, bringing out a further 21 British nationals and 168 foreign nationals. One of the aircraft involved in the second mission suffered minor damage from small arms fire. That underlines the challenging environment in which the aircraft were operating.

Britain has now taken a leading role in co-ordinating the international evacuation effort. Our airborne warning and control system aircraft are directing international aircraft that are involved. Brigadier Bashall, who is commanding the UK operation, has established a temporary joint headquarters in Malta to help to co-ordinate the efforts of many countries. I have thanked the Maltese Prime Minister personally on behalf of the country. Not for the first time in our history, we should pay tribute to Malta and her people for the role that they are playing.

The number of British citizens remaining in Libya is of course difficult to ascertain precisely, given the situation on the ground. Many of them will be dual nationals, and not all of them will want to leave. I asked for urgent work to be done on accurate numbers in both categories—those who wish to leave and those who currently do not. Our current indications are that, as of today, there are fewer than 150 British citizens remaining in Libya, of whom only a very small proportion wish to leave. Clearly, that can change at any time, and we will keep the House regularly updated.

We will continue to do all we can to ensure that those who wish to leave can do so. HMS Cumberland will remain in the area, together with HMS York, which also stands ready off Tripoli to assist. We also have military aircraft, including C-130s and a BAe 146, in Malta ready to fly in at very short notice.

The Government will continue to focus on ensuring that our citizens are safe. Cobra has met regularly to co-ordinate the effort, and I personally chaired three meetings over the weekend. The National Security Council is looking at the overall strategic picture, and it met last Friday and again today, not least to look at other risks to British citizens in countries in the wider region. As I said last week, there will be lessons that we will wish to learn from this evacuation, including in respect of the hiring of charter aircraft, the use of defence assets and the need for greater redundancy.

Clearly, an important decision was when to extract our embassy. That decision was taken at the Cobra meeting on Friday and carried out on Saturday, after the remaining civilians had been extracted from Tripoli airport and in parallel with the start of the desert operations, which were of course planned from Malta. Our judgment throughout has been that the risk to British citizens, including our embassy, has been growing, and the Americans, French and Germans have similarly suspended the operations of their embassies. Britain retains a consul in Tripoli and a consular warden in Benghazi, and we have arranged that Turkey, which still has several thousand of its own citizens in Libya, will look after British interests while our embassy’s operations remain suspended.

I am sure the whole House will want to put on record its thanks to all those who have made the rescue effort possible—to the RAF pilots, the Royal Navy crews and all those involved from all three armed services for their skill; to our diplomatic service; and to all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help our people leave safely.

I turn to the pressure that we are now putting on Gaddafi’s regime. We should be clear that for the future of Libya and its people, Colonel Gaddafi’s regime must end and he must leave. To that end, we are taking every possible step to isolate the Gaddafi regime, to deprive it of money, to shrink its power and to ensure that anyone responsible for abuses in Libya will be held to account. With respect to all those actions, Britain is taking a lead.

Over the weekend, we secured agreement for a UN Security Council resolution that we had drafted, which is unusually strong, unanimous and includes all our proposals. It condemns Gaddafi’s actions and imposes a travel ban and asset freeze on those at the top of his murderous regime. It demands an immediate end to the violence and the killing of protesters, access for international human rights monitors, the lifting of restrictions on the internet and media and an end to the intimidation and detention of journalists. It also refers Libya’s current leaders to the International Criminal Court to face the justice they deserve. We were also the driving force behind a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, which started work to eject Libya from the council, and the Foreign Secretary is in Geneva today, along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to see that work through.

With our European partners, we have today secured agreement on freezing the assets of a wider group of individuals and banning them from entering the European Union, and on imposing a wider arms embargo on the Libyan regime. Britain is also leading in implementing those direct measures against the regime. A special

Privy Council session was held yesterday, as a result of which we have frozen the assets of Gaddafi, five of his family members, people acting for them or on their behalf, and entities that are owned or controlled by them. The Treasury has stepped in to block a shipment of some £900 million of banknotes destined for Libya. The Government have revoked Colonel Gaddafi’s immunity as Head of State, so neither he nor his family may enter the UK. We have also revoked the visas of a number of Libyans linked to the regime, who are now on immigration watch lists.

We will look at each and every way of stepping up pressure on this regime, such as further isolation by expelling it from international organisations and further use of asset freezes and travel bans, to give the clearest possible message to those on the fringes of the regime that now is the time to desert it.

In addition, we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets. We must not tolerate this regime using military force against its own people. In that context, I have asked the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff to work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone. It is clear that this is an illegitimate regime that has lost the consent of its people, and our message to Colonel Gaddafi is simple: go now.

Everyone hopes that the situation will be resolved quickly, but there is a real danger now of a humanitarian crisis inside Libya. We have dispatched technical Department for International Development teams to be in place at both the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. Currently, the most pressing need is to assist the large numbers of migrant workers into Egypt and Tunisia to get them home. The International Development Secretary will visit the region later this week to assess the situation on the ground for himself, but in the meantime Britain will fly in tents and blankets from our stocks in Dubai for use at the Tunisian border.

North Africa and the wider middle east are now at the epicentre of momentous events. History is sweeping through this region. Yes, we must deal with the immediate consequences, especially for British citizens caught up in these developments, but we must also be clear about what these developments mean and how Britain and the west in general should respond.

In many parts of the Arab world, hopes and aspirations that have been smothered for decades are stirring. People—especially young people—are seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases they are doing so peacefully and bravely. The parallels with what happened in Europe in 1989 are not, of course, precise, and there have been many disappointments in the past, but those of us who believe in democracy and open society should be clear that this is a precious moment of opportunity.

While it is not for us to dictate how each country should meet the aspirations of its people, we must not remain silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success. Freedom of expression, a free press, freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate peacefully are basic rights—they are as much the rights of people in Tahrir square as they are of people in Trafalgar square. They are not British or western values, but the values of human beings everywhere.

We therefore need to take this opportunity to look again at our entire relationship with this region—at the billions of euros of EU funds, at our trade relationships, and at our cultural ties. We need to be much clearer and tougher in linking our development assistance to real progress in promoting more open and plural societies, and we need to dispense once and for all with the outdated notion that democracy has no place in the Arab world. Too often in the past, we have made a false choice between so-called stability on the one hand and reform and openness on the other. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse.

We should be clear too that now is not the time to park the middle east peace process—quite the opposite. In short, reform, not repression, is the way to lasting stability. No one pretends that democracy and open societies can be built overnight. Democracy is the work of patient craftsmanship, and it takes time, as we know from our own history, to put its building blocks in place. However, what is happening in the wider middle east is one of those once-in-a-generation opportunities—a moment when history turns a page. The next page may not be written, and it falls to us to seize this chance to fashion a better future for the region, to build a better relationship between our peoples, and to make a new start.

As the inspiring opposition leaders whom I met in Tahrir square said to me last week, we now have the opportunity of achieving freedoms that people in Britain take for granted. I am determined that we should not let them down, and I commend this statement to the House.