Libya and the Middle East

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 7th March 2011.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 3:31 pm, 7th March 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on developments in Libya and the middle east since the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday 28 February.

Members on all sides of the House will be concerned by the violence in Libya. The Gaddafi regime is launching military counter-attacks against opposition forces. There has been intense fighting in the east and centre of the country along the coastal strip between the opposition-held Ras Lanuf and the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte. There are credible reports of the use of helicopter gunships against civilians by Government forces and unconfirmed reports of a helicopter and jet shot down over Ras Lanuf. There have also been serious attacks against the cities of Zawiyah and Misrata in the west by soldiers backed up by anti-aircraft guns and by tanks. Many of those taken to the city’s hospital, including a young boy of 10, have wounds to the head, neck and chest; and supplies of food, fuel and medicines have been all but cut off.

In Tripoli, there have been disturbing reports of hostage taking and large military deployments around the city designed to consolidate Gaddafi’s position and intimidate his opponents. His forces remain in control of Tripoli, Sabha and Sirte, but his authority is contested in large swathes of the country where local tribes have withdrawn their support. There is a clear risk of protracted conflict and an extremely dangerous and volatile situation in large parts of the country.

Our position is that Colonel Gaddafi must put an immediate stop to the use of armed force against civilians and hand over power without delay to a Government who recognise the aspirations of the Libyan people and are more representative and accountable.

On 5 March, opposition groups in the east formed an interim national council based in Benghazi. Ministers and FCO officials are in contact with members of this council, who welcomed the idea of a British diplomatic mission to Libya. This engagement is vital in gaining a better understanding of the political, military and humanitarian situation on the ground.

Last week, I authorised the dispatch of a small British diplomatic team to eastern Libya in uncertain circumstances, which we judged required protection, to build on these initial contacts and to assess the scope for closer diplomatic dialogue. I pay tribute to that team. It was withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about its role, leading to its temporary detention. This situation was resolved and it was able to meet council president, Mr Abdul-Jalil. However, it was clearly better for this team to be withdrawn. We intend to send further diplomats to eastern Libya in due course.

The safety of British nationals in Libya remains an important priority. Since the Prime Minister’s statement, the UK military have undertaken a further two evacuation operations from the port of Benghazi, with HMS Cumberland and HMS York both evacuating British nationals and foreign citizens. In total, we have evacuated more than 600 British nationals from Libya, as well as nationals from many other countries. I hope that the House will join me in paying tribute to all those involved.

We are aware of about 180 British nationals still in Libya, some of whom—including some journalists—have told us that they currently intend to stay. We continue to provide assistance and information for those who wish to leave. We are also working with other countries to isolate the regime, and to ensure that anyone responsible for abuses or contemplating further crimes knows that there will be a day of reckoning.

On Thursday, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced his investigation of alleged crimes in Libya, following referral by the UN Security Council. We welcome that swift action, and will do all that we can to assist. We also welcome the important decision by the UN General Assembly, following referral by the UN Human Rights Council, to suspend Libya’s membership of the council. European Union sanctions on Libya came into full force last Thursday. That was the quickest-ever delivery of an EU sanctions package, and it goes beyond the sanctions imposed by the UN. It includes an arms embargo on Libya, and an assets freeze and visa ban on Gaddafi and 25 of his associates—strong foundations on which we can build.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we are making contingency plans for all eventualities in Libya. NATO has been tasked to work on a range of options, including the possible establishment of a no-fly zone, the evacuation of civilians, international humanitarian assistance, and support for the international arms embargo. There will be further NATO meetings this week. At the UN Security Council, we are working closely with partners, on a contingency basis, on elements of a resolution on a no-fly zone, making clear the need for regional support, a clear trigger for such a resolution, and an appropriate legal basis.

My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary visited Tunisia on Friday to assess the humanitarian situation. The UK has flown in blankets for 38,000 people and tents for over 10,000 people, and has sent aeroplanes to repatriate more than 6,000 stranded Egyptians and 500 Bangladeshis. This remains primarily a logistical emergency, but it is essential that international agencies are provided with unfettered access to help to prevent the development of a humanitarian crisis. With our support, the UN’s emergency co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, convened a special meeting in Geneva today to call for unfettered humanitarian access inside Libya. HMS York has also delivered 1.3 tonnes of Swedish medical supplies to Benghazi.

The Prime Minister will attend an emergency meeting of the European Council on 11 March, this Friday. We will use the Council to press for further action in response to the situation in Libya, and—as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in Brussels last week—we will also urge the European Union to change radically its thinking about its neighbourhood. As I agreed with the French Foreign Minister in Paris on Thursday, it is time for European nations to be bold and ambitious, and to show that while Europe will not seek to dictate how these countries should run their affairs, we will always be the lasting friend of those who put in place the building blocks of strong civil societies, economic openness and political freedom. We must give every incentive to countries in the region to make decisions that bring freedom and prosperity. At the Council meeting, the Prime Minister will call for Europe to set out a programme to bring down trade barriers, to establish clearer conditions for the help that it provides, and to marshal its resources to act as a magnet for positive change in the region.

The G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting will take place in Paris next week. It will provide a further opportunity to widen the international coalition addressing the crisis in Libya; to underline with the United States, Russia and others the urgency of progress on the middle east peace process and on Iran’s nuclear programme; and to reaffirm our collective support for political transition in Egypt and Tunisia and democratic reform in the wider region.

There has been welcome progress towards democratic transition in Egypt and Tunisia. There has also been further progress, including the announcement of a national referendum on constitutional reform in Egypt and of a date for elections in Tunisia. However, the resignations of the Prime Ministers of both Governments show that significant challenges remain. There continues to be instability in other countries, including Yemen. We have changed our travel advice: we now advise against all travel to the whole country, and recommend that British nationals without a pressing need to remain in Yemen leave using commercial means. We look to Governments across the region to respect human rights, including the right to peaceful protest, to avoid the use of force and to respond to legitimate aspirations for greater political openness and economic reform.

It remains more vital than ever that we press for a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We want to see an urgent return to negotiations, based on clear parameters, including the 1967 borders. We will work with all the parties to press for a decisive breakthrough this year. President Abbas is visiting the UK this week. I will discuss these issues with him tomorrow, when I will also confirm that, given the extent of our aid to the Palestinian Authority and our work with them, we will join many other countries in upgrading the status of the Palestinian delegation to London to the level of a mission.

If change and development can be achieved peacefully in the middle east, that will be the greatest advance in world affairs since central and eastern Europe changed so dramatically 20 years ago and many of those countries entered the European Union. If not, this could mark the start of even greater instability emanating from the region. It is vital for the people of these countries and the rest of the world that the international community play a coherent and ambitious role in supporting their aspirations. The British Government are deeply committed to that endeavour, and I commend this statement to the House.