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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of North Africa and the Middle East.
Before turning to the entirety of that subject, Mr Speaker, you have indicated to me that it would be in order to say a few words about the situation in Japan, and that that would be an appropriate way of keeping the House up to date.
Clearly, the situation in Japan is of great concern. The devastation suffered in this crisis is truly appalling, and we are doing all we can to support the Japanese people during this traumatic time. We have severe concerns over a number of British nationals whom we have so far been unable to locate. Our consular teams in London and Japan are working round the clock to locate and assist British nationals. We are following up all the leads from the helpline that we have set up.
We advise against all non-essential travel to Tokyo and north-eastern Japan, given the damage caused by the earthquake and resulting aftershocks and tsunami. We are providing high levels of support for British nationals who are directly affected and their families, and have sent more than 50 additional staff to the affected region. They have been visiting reception centres, hospitals and locations affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Our assistance includes help with transport out of the immediate danger zone and from Sendai to Tokyo, and financial support for people who need essentials such as food, accommodation, clothing and telephone calls home. We are bussing British nationals from the Sendai region to reach Tokyo later today.
We know, too, that British residents in Tokyo and other parts of the country that were not directly affected by the tsunami are concerned, particularly by the situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility. We advise British nationals to follow all relevant advice from the Japanese authorities, and as an additional precautionary measure, not to go within 80 km of the site, and to stay indoors if they are within and unable to leave that area.
Owing to the evolving situation at that nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, we are advising that British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area. To help British nationals who wish to leave, we are chartering flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong to supplement the commercially available options. Full details of those flights will of course be made available through our website, and we are keeping that travel advice under constant review.
As someone who has visited Japan regularly for 30 years—most recently last November—I want to place on the record my personal tribute to David Green, the ambassador, and his staff. The Foreign Office and its staff have done everything that could be done, and I was rather dismayed by the unpleasant criticisms in some of the papers today. Frankly, at this moment of tragedy, we should unite with the Japanese people and our staff in Japan, who are doing tremendous work.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I agree wholeheartedly with his comments, although David Warren is our ambassador in Tokyo, as I am sure he knows. Our staff are doing a tremendous job. There have been some criticisms of them, but I believe them to be baseless, and I hope the newspapers that have printed them will correct their accounts.
For good reason, the middle east has long been a central preoccupation in foreign affairs for successive British Governments and Members on both sides of the House. It is vital to our security and our economy, and many of the greatest challenges in foreign affairs, including nuclear proliferation, terrorism, religious extremism and piracy, are all present in the region. The search for peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians alone has demanded more international attention and effort than any other single international issue for most of the past 60 years, and the House will need no reminding of the loss of British lives during the war in Iraq.
On top of all those considerations, however, an unprecedented wave of change is now sweeping across the Arab world, triggering a series of simultaneous crises. Almost every middle eastern country has been affected at the same time by demands for greater political openness and democratic freedom. In Egypt and Tunisia, it has led to new interim Governments and the hope of a more democratic future. In Libya, legitimate protest has been followed by bloody civil strife at the hands of a Government willing to countenance any loss of life in order to cling to power. In each instance of instability, there have been implications for thousands of British expatriates who live and work in these countries, and I pay tribute, following the words of Mr MacShane, to British and locally engaged Foreign Office staff who are serving British citizens valiantly in extremely difficult situations. I put on the record my gratitude to them for their continued and often unsung efforts.
Each nation involved has a distinct culture, political system and level of economic development, so whatever their futures hold, there will be no single model. However, there is clearly a common hunger for justice, accountability, political rights and economic opportunity, given that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrations that we have seen have been peaceful and staged spontaneously by ordinary citizens. Our message to all Governments of the region is that without change popular grievances will not go away. The right to peaceful protest must be respected and responded to with dialogue.
Did the Foreign Secretary notice, as I did, the impressive women-only demonstration in Benghazi yesterday? Does he agree that there can be no real democracy in any country unless there is the participation of women? It is regrettable that the military regime now in place in Egypt has appointed a constitutional committee in which no female lawyer is present.
I very much agree with the right hon. Lady. If democracy is able to develop in these countries, it will be much stronger for the widespread participation of women. In the view of this House and the country, it would not be true democracy without that participation, but we cannot impose our culture on other countries. However, I will come on to ways in which we can act as a positive magnet for change and a demonstration of such democratic values.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that there is a thirst for peaceful, constitutional and democratic change across the region. However, that raises questions about at what point Britain has seriously contested human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain and several other places, and at what point our thirst for selling arms outweighed our serious concerns about human rights throughout the region. We need a complete rethink of western strategy towards the whole region. Does he agree?
I agree with part of the last bit of what the hon. Gentleman said. The pace and scale of events are such that many things will have to be rethought in the future. There is no doubt about that. However, to be fair to previous Governments and our record in office over the past 10 months, Britain has always been prepared to raise human rights. In Bahrain, for instance, which is a country with which we have strong and friendly relations, we have never hesitated, within the context of that strong relationship, to raise human rights concerns. Our ambassador there has always done so, sometimes to the annoyance of the Bahraini authorities. When I was there last month, of course I met the leaders of Bahrain, but I also met human rights organisations and raised their specific cases. It is possible, therefore, to have working relationships while pushing hard on human rights and arguing that future economic development and political stability are not in contradiction to human rights, but actually depend on the better observance of human rights and other such values. This country should take that position strongly.
Is the Foreign Secretary particularly concerned about this morning’s news from Bahrain and some of the footage on the internet that clearly shows unarmed protesters being shot in the streets there? The authorities are clearly beginning to follow the path of brutality and repression that I am afraid other states have tried as well.
I will come on to Bahrain. I want to make a few general points and then go quickly through each of the countries concerned. Perhaps I can respond to those points then.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that for decades British ambassadors throughout the Gulf, pressed by their political masters, having been urging political reform on those countries? It is nothing new; it is just that they have not been heeded.
My hon. Friend, who knows the region and our diplomats there well, is absolutely right; it has been done by British ambassadors under, as I said, successive Governments. This is not a partisan point. However, its importance has been enhanced by recent events, and the connection between political stability, the proper observance of human rights and the development of democracy has been underlined by them.
The Prime Minister speaks to President Obama extremely regularly. The same goes at all levels of the US and UK Governments. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman the number of times they have spoken about human rights, but we have continual discussions with the US Government on all these issues—I spoke to Secretary Clinton last night, for instance. I can update the hon. Gentleman on that point another time, but I do not have the details to hand.
My right hon. Friend speaks of human rights, but human rights include the right to live as well as the right to protest. As we speak, it appears that Benghazi airport is being attacked and people there are being massacred. Why have the arrangements for lifting the arms embargo in relation to those in the resistance not been followed up, despite calls by me and others over the past two weeks—when there was time to do that—for such action? I understand the problems, but it appears that no real attempt has been made. I think that we will pay a great price for not having done so.
Again, I will come on to the situation in Libya. My hon. Friend knows that UN resolution 1970 was passed nearly three weeks ago, which placed an arms embargo on the whole of Libya, as well as many restrictions and sanctions on the Libyan regime. He also knows that we are arguing urgently—these discussions are starting again as we speak in New York—for a new UN resolution that would improve our ability and that of our international partners, including in the Arab world, to protect and support the civilian population in Libya. I will say more about that in a moment.
My argument fits with the issues that hon. Members have been raising. The right to peaceful protest must be respected and responded to with dialogue, and no country can safely or legitimately ignore these demands. Indeed, in both Tunisia and Egypt, Governments paid the price for not responding quickly enough to the aspirations of their people. The example of Tunisia, where preparations for elections are being made, media censorship has been removed, political prisoners have been freed and formerly banned political parties have been allowed to operate for the first time, has inspired others in the region and raised their expectations. To some extent and in some ways, the same is true in Egypt, although there are deficiencies, as Joan Ruddock has pointed out. However,
Egypt’s internal security agency, which for decades has been blamed for human rights abuses and was regarded as a powerful symbol of state oppression, has been abolished.
These extraordinary times call for an unprecedented response by the international community. We have not brought about these events, and neither we nor our allies can determine the future of middle eastern countries or dictate who leads them, but we cannot be bystanders. Our values and interests require us to be actively involved in encouraging economic and political development, to stand up for universal human rights and to give practical assistance where we can. If change can be achieved peacefully in the middle east, it will be the biggest advance of democratic freedoms since the countries of the old Warsaw pact threw off the oppressive yoke of communism. However, if change cannot be achieved peacefully, we are likely to see turmoil and unrest that sets back the cause of democracy and human rights, erodes gains that have been made, betrays the hopes of many who look to us for support, and damages our interests, including our security. As the Prime Minister said in his speech to the Kuwaiti Parliament:
“political and economic reform in the Arab world is essential as a long term guarantor of stability,” prosperity and security. We will not be silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success, and that each country should find its own path to achieving peaceful change.
I look forward to an update on the current situation in the middle east. On the points that the right hon. Gentleman has already raised, is it not critical that, while recognising the great differences among those countries, the UK and the west should be consistent in upholding democratic and human rights principles?
It is indeed important to be consistent, but it is also important to couple that—as the hon. Gentleman did—with a recognition that there are many differences in countries and cultures. The imposition on other countries of everything that we believe in our country is not always the best way of getting people to do what we think is the right thing.
I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary for allowing this intervention. May I take him to Yemen? He might not have mentioned Yemen yet, but he might be mentioning it later in his speech, so may I ask that the process that has been started will continue and that a Minister will attend the Friends of Yemen meeting in Riyadh that starts next week? I acknowledge the need for reform, but let me say that the enormous amount of face time that the Foreign Secretary and the Department for International Development have invested in keeping Yemen as stable as possible is also important.
I will come to Yemen in a moment, to which several of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and I give great priority. The Friends of Yemen meeting may have been overtaken by events, but the Gulf Co-operation Council is attempting to convene a meeting to bring about agreement between Government and opposition forces in Yemen on the way forward. That is the essential next step.
My right hon. Friend has explained the gargantuan changes taking place across the region. There can be a tendency on our part to celebrate the removal of one dictator but then encourage the same thing to continue somewhere else. Will my right hon. Friend focus on what is happening in Egypt, where the revolution—if we can call it that—is only 40% of the way there? There are worrying developments involving the Muslim Brotherhood and the army excluding other opposition voices. Where Egypt goes other Arab countries often follow. We may have got rid of one dictatorship, but we need to be careful about what is put in its place.
That is a very helpful intervention because it brings me neatly on to the next paragraph of my intended speech, which is about exactly that point.
The Prime Minister and I both met young people in Egypt and Tunisia respectively whose passionate desire to live in democratic societies bounded by the rule of law was inspiring and a great source of optimism for the future of those countries. We are ready to play our part and help to ensure that the scenario that my hon. Friend pointed to does not come about. In Tunisia, I announced our new Arab partnership initiative, which will support the development of the core building blocks of democracy, including free media, civil society, political participation and private sector development—work that we hope will be continued for many years with cross-party support in this House. We are already funding experts to assist Tunisia’s political reform commission as it drafts the new electoral law. We are also offering advice on financial governance and the key economic challenges that the country faces. In Egypt, our embassy is working closely with the Government, opposition political activists and think-tanks, calling for a clear timetable for democratic elections that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.
We will continue that active role in British foreign policy. The Prime Minister and I have between us visited 11 countries in the region since January, and we will be visiting many more, but this is clearly a challenge to the international community as a whole. Together we must encourage further change across the region, support those countries that have already made a democratic transition and welcome positive steps towards reform by others, which is an important part of the policy. Such steps include the Government of Algeria ending their state of emergency, the important statements made by the King of Morocco last week on constitutional reform, and the programmes of political and economic reform put forward by the leaders of Jordan and Oman. These are all important steps that have been brought about directly by recent events.
Iran, of course, is an exception to that. Iran has shown breathtaking hypocrisy in claiming to support freedom in the Arab world, while violently suppressing demonstrations and detaining opposition leaders back home—acts that we deplore. We want Iranian citizens to enjoy full civil, political and human rights, and all the benefits of an open relationship with the rest of the world, but that will require the settlement of the nuclear issue, where the ball is firmly in Iran’s court. Until Iran negotiates seriously on that issue, the international pressure on it will only increase.
The Foreign Secretary is right that there is a passion for democracy, although I find that this passion is often shared more by would-be politicians and political leaders. The public in Egypt and many other countries want not just free elections but, much more importantly, the institutions that are the foundation of democracy—the rule of law, a free and independent judiciary, and a free press. Obviously they take rather longer to develop, but what efforts will we make to ensure that they develop?
My hon. Friend is quite right that democracy is not just the holding of elections. We are all familiar with countries where elections of a kind are held, but we would not call them democracies. Indeed, some of the countries concerned used to hold elections. Democracy does indeed require all those things—an independent judiciary, strong civil institutions, free media, and so on. I have already outlined what we are doing in Tunisia to support their development, and I want to put the argument about what the European Union as a whole can do to encourage them.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the position of the Iranian Government. Does he share my absolute disgust at the nauseating, hypocritical remarks of President Ahmadinejad, who has protested about what is happening in Bahrain, but at the same time is suppressing people in his own country? Can the Foreign Secretary say something about the role that Iran might be playing in fomenting difficulties between Shi’a and Sunni communities in the Arab world?
The hon. Gentleman does not overstate his case. The words that he uses are wholly appropriate to the words and behaviour of the President of Iran. I do not have direct evidence of Iranian interference in, for instance, the affairs of Bahrain—although many would suspect such interference and influence—but with Iran’s links to Hezbollah and Hamas, I do not think that it is currently playing a positive role in bringing about peace in the middle east.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that economic progress in such countries will be an important buttress to democratic progress? Does he also agree that a unity of purpose both among European Union and NATO members and across the Atlantic will give us the best chance of achieving the objectives that he has set out?
Yes, very much so. Again, that brings me to my next point.
There are many international organisations, such as the United Nations and the World Bank, that will have an important role to play in supporting democratic development in the region. However, there is a particular onus on European countries to be bold and ambitious.
In a sense we have been here before, when we helped the young democracies of central and eastern Europe. The nations of north Africa are not European and will not join the European Union. Nevertheless, this is the most significant watershed in the external relations of the EU since that time, and we must be ready with a positive vision for the region that can act as a magnet for change.
Over the past two months, the Prime Minister and I have made the case in EU meetings for a transformed EU neighbourhood policy that supports the building blocks of democracy in the Arab world, offers incentives for positive change and targets its funding effectively. The German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, and I wrote to our colleagues last week calling for a comprehensive partnership of equals between the peoples of Europe and the European neighbourhood, underpinned by deeper and wider economic integration and using the many instruments at the disposal of the EU to promote freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. We believe that this transformation partnership should bring all the EU levers and incentives into one policy, and give the greatest support and benefits to those countries reforming fastest, with clear conditions attached.
We have proposed a path towards deeper economic integration with the European market, in clear stages leading up to a free trade area and, eventually, a customs union, progressively covering goods, agriculture and services. We are calling for an increase in the number of scholarships and grants, access to the resources of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the re-apportionment of EU funds in favour of democratic reforms, the removal of existing quotas for countries that disregard the fundamental values of the EU, and consideration of an EU regional protection programme for north Africa to support the protection of displaced persons and to improve local infrastructure.
I did not want to upset my hon. Friend by talking about the European Union, which in this case has a hugely positive role to play, with the nations of Europe acting together. I will give way to him one more time.
In the light of the Prime Minister’s attempts to get a no-fly zone—which are greatly appreciated by many people on this side, and across the House—and the problem of not being able to supply arms to the resistance, surely the Foreign Secretary understands that these problems have arisen because the European Union, among others, has been resistant to those ideas. We do not have the necessary unity, and talking about quotas, assets and all the rest of it has no bearing on the real problem, which is that we need to help the people who are in such peril in Libya at the moment.
I am going to talk about Libya in a moment. What I am talking about now is the long-term approach of the United Kingdom and, we hope, the whole of the European Union to the region. I am talking about the offer that should be made, and the magnet that should be held out to encourage positive change in the region. If all the levers and policies of the
European Union relating to its neighbourhood were brought into one coherent policy, even my hon. Friend might be driven to agree that that could play a positive role in the developments in the region.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the European neighbourhood policy has spent several billion euros over the years on trying to evolve a policy on that region. At the same time, Turkey has been much more successful, in economic and political terms. Will he tell us whether Turkey will be included in this new initiative, rather than excluded, as it has been in the past?
Yes, that is a very important point. I certainly want this to be coherently organised with Turkey as well. Turkey is of course a positive model of democracy in a Muslim nation, and it has a vital role to play in the entire future development of the middle east. That is one of the reasons that we have placed such importance on bilateral relations with Turkey, and on the EU’s relations with the country.
First, may I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his excellent leadership of his Department, given the multiple challenges that it faces? I also congratulate his ministerial colleagues.
Turkey wants to become a key member of the European Union. It is today a key member of NATO. This is a moment of truth for Turkey. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement that the no-fly zone proposed by the United Kingdom Prime Minister would be an unacceptable intervention in Libya will perhaps not help Turkey to attract the support of the Turkey-sceptics in this House or in other European Parliaments, especially that of France, that it needs?
We must not expect the countries that we work with to agree with us or with each other on every single issue all the time. Yes, the Prime Minister of Turkey has made remarks to that effect, but that does not mean that Turkey will not have a powerful role to play in the wider relationship between the European nations and the countries of the middle east over the next decade.
The European Union must now follow through on the European Council’s declaration of last Friday and make a real and credible offer to those countries, involving genuinely broader market access and the prospect of closer association with Europe. I hope that there will be considerable support across the House for such an approach. It is a long-standing strength of British foreign policy towards the middle east that it receives a wide degree of bipartisan support—tripartisan support, indeed—in Parliament and beyond, and that is something that this Government hope to foster and continue.
I also believe that there is support in the House for our view that the peace process must not become a casualty of uncertainty in the region. It is too important to be allowed to fail. There are dangerous undercurrents in the region, including the existence of armed groups wedded to violence and young people vulnerable to radicalisation, and a vacuum in the peace process risks conflict and even greater instability. Furthermore, the changing situation on the ground—in particular the illegal encroachment of settlements on the west bank and East Jerusalem, the isolation of Gaza and the entrenchment of Palestinian divisions—has made a two-state solution harder to achieve. Such a solution is the only lasting hope for sustainable peace and security in the region, but it is possible to foresee that the option of a two-state solution will have an expiry date if it is not taken up now.
In our view, the Quartet could help to achieve a breakthrough in the current stalemate by setting out in a statement the parameters for a future settlement. These should include: 1967 borders with equivalent land swaps; arrangements that protect Israel’s security and respect Palestinian sovereignty; just, fair and agreed solutions for refugees; and Jerusalem as the capital of both states. The statement should call on both sides to commit to negotiations based on those clear principles. Britain, France and Germany made such a statement at the UN on
I certainly recognise all the difficulties that the Foreign Secretary has identified, but does he also recognise the problems created by Iran in relation to the peace process? For example, it sent more than 50 tonnes of illegal weapons bound for Gaza on a ship that was intercepted by the Israelis only a few days ago.
I fully recognise the often deeply unhelpful role of Iran; I have already referred to that in a different context. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady about that, but I also say, as a long-standing friend of Israel, that putting real energy into bringing about a two-state solution is the best way to secure the future that the friends of Israel want to see for it—namely, as a peaceful, secure democracy and a homeland for the Jewish people. We will make that case energetically over the coming weeks. For Britain, that also includes continuing our firm and frank dialogue with Syria on Lebanon, including the special tribunal for Lebanon, and on the importance of progress on a peace agreement between Syria and Israel.
Settlements are often cited as a barrier to peace, but does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that Israel initiated a 10-month freeze on the building of settlements and that the Palestinians came to the negotiations nine months later, leaving only one month for talks?
I am not arguing that all the fault is on one side. There have been failures by Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the past few years to take the opportunity to make real progress in the peace process. However, I strongly wish that the Israeli Government had decided to continue the moratorium on settlement building, in order to give the direct talks that began last September a better chance. We urge all concerned, on both sides, to make the necessary compromises to bring about peace.
I am conscious that many other hon. Members wish to speak, so perhaps I should continue. I want to talk about the instability in Bahrain, Yemen and, of course, Libya. I shall then conclude my speech so that others can speak.
As we speak, there is continued unrest in Bahrain and deep instability in Yemen. In both cases, our immediate priority is the welfare of British nationals as well as the need to support dialogue and political reform. In Bahrain, the situation is serious and deteriorating, and the whole House will deplore the loss of life and the escalation of violence. The Prime Minister spoke to the King of Bahrain two evenings ago to emphasise that violence is unacceptable and counter-productive—whether it be from protesters, vigilante groups or the security forces. I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Bahrain along the same lines yesterday.
We call on all security forces in the country not to use violence against the demonstrators, and on the demonstrators not to engage in provocative or intimidating actions. It is essential for all sides to take steps to calm the situation in Bahrain. We are extremely concerned by reports that opposition figures have been arrested. We do not want to see a reversion to the days when Bahrain routinely held political prisoners. The Government and the security forces must respect the civil rights of peaceful protesters, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and must uphold their obligations to ensure that wounded protesters get immediate access to medical treatment. We also call on opposition groups to enter the dialogue offered by the Bahraini Government and to desist from violence themselves.
We advise against all travel to Bahrain until further notice and we recommend that British nationals who do not have a pressing reason to remain should leave. The first option for British nationals should remain commercial routes, which continue to fly to and from Bahrain international airport, which is operating normally. In addition, the UK Government are chartering planes to supplement those commercial flights. That will assist the departure of British nationals from Bahrain to Dubai today and further flights will be provided as needed.
I have absolutely no illusions about the thuggery of Gaddafi, which has been evident since 1969. If we had already intervened in Libya—I mean western intervention or British intervention on its own—would not the response inevitably be, including from myself, why not intervene in Bahrain?
It is important not to think about the issue—I am coming on to Libya in a few moments—in terms of western intervention; it is about the responsibilities of the wider world, including the Arab world. That is why we have said that whatever we do in Libya—it applies to other nations as well—it must be legal; there must be a demonstrable need for it; and there should be broad support for it within the region. Any action that appeared to be “the west” trying to impose itself on these countries would be counter-productive, as has been suggested.
I thank the Foreign Secretary, but does he agree that the monarchy in Bahrain has made considerable reforms, including a referendum on a constitution in 2001 and an elected Parliament? Has my right hon. Friend made an assessment of Iran’s current involvement in the Bahrain situation?
I mentioned Iran’s involvement earlier, but I agree with my hon. Friend that there have been many positive attempts at reform in Bahrain. It is important not to view Bahrain and Libya as analogous. In the case of Bahrain, the Government have genuinely offered dialogue with opposition groups and offered a referendum on a new constitution. Colonel Gaddafi is not in the position of offering a referendum to his people on a constitution—he is at the other extreme. All these circumstances should not be considered to be analogous.
We are also advising against all travel to the whole of Yemen, where the situation is very fragile. On
The most immediate challenge—several hon. Members have already raised the issue and it is the last subject that I shall address—continues to be the appalling situation in Libya. As we speak, regime forces continue to bombard rebel-held areas and are making threats to retake Benghazi. We remind all concerned in Libya that the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has begun his investigation, and that for those committing or considering crimes, the reach of international justice will be long.
The UK has been at the forefront, with France, of international efforts to isolate the Gaddafi regime. As we have been reminded in the debate, time has been of the essence throughout this crisis, as the regime has sought to use every day to regain ground. We have already achieved the fastest EU sanctions, the fastest UN Security Council sanctions regime, the fastest referral to the International Criminal Court and the first suspension of a member state by the UN Human Rights Council. We are working at this moment to agree a new UN Security Council resolution, following up urgently the lead given by the Arab League, which has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya and the creation of safe areas in places exposed to shelling.
The grounds for a new resolution are clear: there are multiple breaches of resolution 1970. Gaddafi is ignoring the Security Council’s unanimous call for
“an immediate end to violence”, and we also have concerns about the policing of the arms embargo and the use of mercenaries. Following extensive consultations with Lebanon, France, the US and others, the text of a further UN Security Council resolution on Libya will be under discussion today.
I completely agree that, as far as Libya is concerned, we cannot be bystanders. The Prime Minister has acknowledged in the past 24 hours the wide range of views on the Security Council about the no-fly zone, and I was encouraged by the Foreign Secretary’s comments. I was surprised, however, to read that the Prime Minister has spoken to President Obama about Libya and the imposition of a no-fly zone only once in the last week. I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary could expand on what he sees as the principal obstacle for the American Administration in moving towards the no-fly zone. In the Foreign Secretary’s view, what is holding them back?
There is nothing holding them back. Yesterday, the US proposed a strengthening of the resolution, which the UK, France and Lebanon put forward together at the Security Council, so the US position came out very clearly there. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as I said earlier, there is massive, sometimes hourly contact between the United States and the United Kingdom—at the Security Council, with the Secretary of State, with the National Security Adviser, with the State Department, with the Pentagon and between 10 Downing street and the White House. That contact is going on all the time, so trying to make out that we are not in touch with the US Government, when we should all be working together on these huge issues, has something ridiculous about it.
I shall give way only to Members to whom I have not already given way. I really must conclude my speech in a few minutes’ time.
I thank my right hon. Friend. Will he confirm whether assessments show that a no-fly zone is likely to be effective against the ground attacks against the Libyan rebels? Will he confirm that in order to mount such a no-fly operation quickly, carrier-borne aircraft—sadly, not ours—will be essential at the beginning? Will he further confirm that if we are involved in such operations, they will be paid for by funds additional to the existing defence budget and not subtracted from it?
Financial arrangements will depend on the circumstances and discussions in government, and are secondary to the urgency of taking these decisions. No, carrier-borne aircraft are not necessary, as none of the contingency planning of any of the nations involves the use of aircraft carriers. I agree with my hon. Friend on one point—that a no-fly zone is not the complete answer, although it might be one element that helps. Having a no-fly zone does not mean that everything would be sorted out and everybody would be fully protected. We should not pretend otherwise. As I say, it is one element and the Arab League has called for it.
Notwithstanding the bravery of the diplomatic corps and, indeed, the military in Libya, may I share with the Foreign Secretary the experiences of my constituent James Coyle, who was eventually brought back to Britain from Libya? He and his family, and indeed his employer, experienced great difficulty in communicating with the Foreign Office and obtaining information. Has the Foreign Secretary had time to reflect on what lessons have been learned, and on how we can best deal with such circumstances in the future?
It is important for the hon. Gentleman to remember that, thanks to the commendable organisation, immense bravery and skill of the Royal Air Force and the special forces, people such as his constituent were lifted out of the desert in Libya and brought safely home. That is something of which we in the House should be proud, rather than trying to find fault with the way in which the exercise was carried out. I am sure that people who are rescued in those circumstances will be grateful for what the United Kingdom did for them. Certainly the people of 43 other nationalities in whose evacuation from Libya we assisted are very grateful for our assistance.
My right hon. Friend told us that a new Security Council resolution might be in the process of being tabled. If I understood him correctly, he said that part of the thinking behind it related to evidence that Colonel Gaddafi might be seeking to breach the arms embargo restrictions. Does he agree that it would be intolerable for the Gaddafi regime—which is already very heavily armed—to be able to continue to obtain additional armaments while the insurgents who are fighting it are being denied access to any military equipment because of legal advice that the arms embargo has been drafted so tightly that it extends beyond the Gaddafi regime to other elements in Libya? If there is to be a new Security Council resolution, will my right hon. Friend do all in his power to ensure that it clarifies the fact that the embargo is directed against the Gaddafi regime, and does not prevent the provision of help for those who are fighting it?
The situation described by my right hon. and learned Friend would indeed be intolerable. That is why the proper enforcement and policing of the arms embargo is an important and legitimate subject for the resolution. However, I do not want to leave my right hon. and learned Friend in any doubt about what the Security Council intended by the arms embargo in resolution 1970. It was clearly intended to apply to the whole of Libya. Any change would have to be embodied in a further resolution: that is the legal position, as understood by the Security Council and all its permanent members. The solution, or attempt at a solution, that is most likely to be agreed by the Security Council is a thorough and full enforcement and policing of the arms embargo, rather than amendments to an embargo that was agreed nearly three weeks ago.
No, I will not give way any more. I must be fair to the rest of the House.
The draft resolution that is being discussed today includes demands for an immediate ceasefire, a complete end to violence, and a ban on all flights in Libyan airspace with the exception of humanitarian flights. It authorises all necessary measures to enforce compliance with that ban. It calls for all necessary measures short of an occupation force to protect civilians under threat of attack, including those in Benghazi. It also includes a variety of measures to enforce the arms embargo in Libya, to tighten the assets freeze and travel ban imposed on regime members, and to deny Libyan planes permission to take off from, land in or overfly the territory of UN member states.
There is a range of views in the Security Council on the measures that have been proposed, and the draft resolution already reflects that range of views. We must not pretend that agreement on the proposal, or even on large elements of it, will be easy. However, we are clear about the fact that it is right to seek authority for a combination of measures for the people of Libya, for all those in the region who are campaigning for change, and for Britain’s national security. Negotiations on the proposals are beginning now in New York, and the Government will keep the House and the country informed of developments as they arise. We will do our utmost to ensure the passing of a resolution that places the maximum pressure on the Libyan regime and extends protection to the beleaguered and oppressed civilian population of Libya.
This, then, is our approach to the middle east. It is to be on the side of the legitimate hopes and aspirations of millions of people who seek change and reform; to encourage Europe to act as a magnet for the long-term future for economic openness and political stability and democracy; to champion the cause of the middle east peace process, and to advocate renewed strong international engagement on it; to confront the dangers posed by the nuclear intentions of Iran; to seek, however we can and at all times, to protect British nationals and bring them to safety; to encourage dialogue in very troubled countries such as Bahrain and Yemen; and now—today—to seek international agreement on protection and support for the people of Libya.
Let me begin by associating myself with the Foreign Secretary’s expression of support for the people of Japan. I have noted all that he has told the House today about the position of United Kingdom nationals. I urge him to continue to monitor this very worrying situation closely, and, of course, to keep the public and the House up to date in the days ahead.
I welcome the debate. It is always important for the House to dedicate time to discussing complex issues such as this, but it is especially significant today. As Members in all parts of the House will be aware, we meet at a time when north Africa and the middle east face a moment of great possibility but also great peril. In the 20th century, our own continent of Europe twice generated conflicts that in turn engulfed the world. Today, the middle east generates many of the most threatening challenges faced by the international community.
The courageous youthful protests and their advocacy of human rights, freedom and democracy, in what has come to be termed the Arab spring, have swept aside old assumptions, and still present an opportunity for the catalysing of fundamental change in the region. Although these popular revolts have been generated within and not beyond the region, I believe that the international community must develop a coherent and strategic response which encompasses countries that have experienced popular revolts in recent weeks and now aspire to be democratic Governments, and other countries in the region with which we have long-standing relations; which maps our response to the security challenges that still confront the region; and which, even at this late hour, responds with urgency to the distinctive circumstances in Libya.
I am keen to make a little progress, but I shall be happy to take an intervention later.
Peace and security in the middle east remains one of the most important foreign policy objectives of our country. Let me begin by addressing the conflict that has generated grievance across the region for so many decades: the Israel-Palestine conflict. There is today, I believe, fairly broad agreement across the House about the steps that are required for movement from a peace process to a peace agreement. We are broadly united in the view that the entire international community, including our friends and allies in the United States, should now support the 1967 borders with land swaps as the basis for resumed negotiations. The outcome of those negotiations should be two states, with Jerusalem as a future capital of both, and a fair settlement for refugees. My party will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government if they take the necessary steps to bring others in the region, and beyond, to that point of view. Let me incidentally affirm that the Government’s decision this month to back a United Nations Security Council resolution making clear Britain’s opposition to illicit settlement building by Israel was the right decision, despite the veto exercised by the United States.
Does my right hon. Friend not accept that settlement building is illegal, end of? Why are we still talking about moratoriums and suspensions, when the issue should be no settlement building whatsoever, and withdrawal of those settlements from the west bank? This should not be a matter for negotiation; it should be a matter for the assertion of international law.
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that there may be a rather Jesuitical distinction between a moratorium and an end to settlements. However, we are on common ground in believing that settlements are illegal. As I have said, this is an urgent issue, which needs to be addressed through a reinvigorated process in the months ahead.
Historians will spend decades analysing the causes of the sweeping changes across the broader region in recent months, but we can, perhaps, all agree on one overriding factor. In a speech in Cairo in 2009, President Obama affirmed his
“unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.”
The events of the last few months have given the lie to the idea of Arab exceptionalism: the notion that somehow the middle east is immune to the appeal of more democratic governance and that the aspiration for a better life is somehow not universal. We can, and must, use British influence to support political transitions in north Africa, a region that is just 8 miles from Europe at its nearest point. Europe’s security and stability would be better served by having more stable, prosperous and democratic neighbours on its southern border.
I have said previously that I believe the European Union to have been “slow off the mark” in its response to the events in Egypt and Tunisia, but the EU has an honourable record in assisting its eastern neighbours in their transition to democracy. For those countries to the east, there was a clear link between democratisation and the rule of law and the goal of accession. Given that accession is not on offer to the north African countries, we must think about what Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski has rather colourfully called “multiple small carrots” in respect of European support for countries in transition to democracy in north Africa. In years to come, that should mean multiple elements of conditionality too, if regimes backslide into the ways of the past.
How would such a programme need to develop? First, as was the case when the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development swung into action almost 20 years ago, these societies are in need of capital investment. The European Union’s High Representative has spoken about the European Investment Bank increasing its work in north Africa, and I take from the brief reference to that that the Government are supportive of the suggestion.
Yesterday a number of Members from all parties met Tunisian Ministers and the Tunisian ambassador, and found out that, rather dismayingly, Tunisia has not been, and is not, what is called a priority country in respect of the overseas trade activities of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. That highlights the real problem: we have taken our eye off the north African ball for far too long—that applies to both recent Governments.
Let me continue the recently established tradition of the Foreign Secretary in thanking my right hon. Friend for that intervention, especially given that the next paragraph of my speech addresses the issue of trade.
I welcome the fact that the Government now advocate that the Commission should be developing a package of trade measures that addresses in particular the tariffs and quotas that currently lock out north African agricultural goods, not least those from Tunisia. Further, each European country, with their different democratic traditions, should stand ready to assist those countries working to strengthen and support civil society. I hope I speak for all in this House in paying tribute to the work of our own Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I hope it will be able to play an active role in supporting that transition.
However, just because the media’s focus has moved on from Egypt, that does not mean the process of change in Egypt is now complete. When the Minister winds up, will he update the House on what discussions the Government have had with the military authorities in Egypt about the timetable and preparations for the free and fair elections?
On the right hon. Gentleman’s recitation of the advantages of the EU in the context of trade and investment, it should be pointed out that we have been supplying moneys to the Maghreb countries for generations, so there is nothing new in that. The real question about the crisis in Libya, and the massacre that may yet come, is this: does he believe it was right that there was resistance within the EU to the no-fly zone, and what does he think about the failure to lift the embargo for those in the part of Libya around Benghazi who need arms and are fighting valiantly, but who are increasingly in peril?
Let me try to address each of the three questions that the hon. Gentleman cunningly asked within that single intervention. First, I was seeking to make a different point about the EU position. I was saying that trade barriers are a crucial issue if we are to enable these countries to trade their way out of the stagnation that has contributed to many of the problems in the region. I accept that there are issues in relation to resource transfer, and I am on the record as saying about the EU’s external budget that we should look at whether, for example, resources should be transferred from Latin America to north Africa in the light of what we have witnessed. There is a pressing challenge in relation to trade, therefore.
Secondly, on the European Council’s deliberations on Friday, it was disappointing that there were such discordant voices around the table. It is not yet fully clear to me whether a specific proposal was tabled at the EC, or whether a general conversation ensued. From my experience of working in the Foreign Office as Europe Minister in a different period, I was surprised that the judgment was made that a joint letter issued by the British Prime Minister and the French President was likely to secure European unity. Given the need to try to secure not least the support of Chancellor Merkel, I would have thought a more judicious approach might have been to try to ensure the co-operation and engagement of Berlin at an earlier stage in the process.
The hon. Gentleman’s third point was about the arming of the rebels. I have consistently made it clear during this crisis that all options should remain on the table and all contingencies should be considered by the international community. I am not convinced that the EU would be the appropriate body in that regard, but I have said that all contingencies should remain on the table.
Let me now make a little more progress with my speech. First, I ask the Minister who winds up this evening to answer the following questions on Egypt: have the British Government taken steps to ensure that the Egyptian authorities release the political prisoners who were detained at the time of the protests, and what specific recommendations have been made on the recognition of trade unions and other institutions in Egyptian civil society?
“We have also received a request from the Egyptian Government to freeze the assets of several former Egyptian officials. We will of course co-operate with this request, working with EU and international partners as we have done in the case of Tunisia. If there is any evidence of illegality or misuse of state assets, we will take firm and prompt action.”—[Hansard, 14 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 715.]
We discovered only at Foreign Office questions on Tuesday of this week that the Government did not have the necessary information from the Egyptian authorities and that our European partners were not moving quickly enough. Will the Minister therefore tell the House what steps the Government have taken to get the necessary information from the Egyptian authorities, and what the Government are doing to move the process along in the European Union?
Bahrain has, rightly, already been the subject of a number of interventions. The situation in Bahrain is deeply worrying, and it is deteriorating. The real risk today is not simply that the legitimate aspirations for reform and change in that country are denied—important thought that is—but that this tiny island could become the violent fulcrum of a wider battle for regional influence. That is why I stand with the Government in their urging of restraint in these dangerous days. Indiscriminate violence used against peaceful protests is unacceptable anywhere and should be condemned comprehensively.
The security response taking place in Bahrain cannot be a substitute for a political resolution. A political solution is necessary and all sides must exercise restraint and work to produce a dialogue that addresses the needs of all the Bahraini citizens. I listened with care to the Foreign Secretary’s remarks indicating that our Prime Minister had talked to the King of Bahrain and that the Foreign Secretary himself had spoken to the Bahraini Foreign Minister, and I welcome those interventions, but may I ask the Minister to tell the House what representations the Government of the United Kingdom have made to the Government of Saudi Arabia to urge restraint, and have our Government obtained a clear picture of Saudi Arabia’s intentions in Bahrain?
Reform towards a constitutional monarchy is being countenanced not only in Bahrain: in Morocco on
Elsewhere across north Africa and the middle east we need to be consistent in urging the embrace of more democratic reform, which is why, on Yemen, the
Government are right to urge progress on national dialogue with opposition parties and democratic reforms. Clearly, there also needs to be a clear plan for economic development and poverty reduction in Yemen, as well as an intensification of action against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
I wholeheartedly agree with what my right hon. Friend has said, which is much in accordance with what the Foreign Secretary has said on Yemen. As my right hon. Friend started the Friends of Yemen process last year, in January 2010, does he not believe it is important that it continues? I was disappointed to learn that the meeting will not be taking place in Riyadh next week, but even if a formal meeting does not take place it is important that we ensure that what has been started should be completed; otherwise, we will see al-Qaeda running Yemen.
As so often, my right hon. Friend speaks with great authority on Yemen. Of course, it was under the previous Government that the Friends of Yemen process started, when we welcomed Secretary of State Clinton here to London. At that time, clear and solemn undertakings were given that the international community would not forget Yemen; and that there would be a continuing focus not simply on the real security issues that are of direct concern in the United Kingdom and other countries, but on a commitment to the long-term development that is necessary. If my recollection serves me rightly, Yemen is the only low-income country in the middle east. It has a truly horrendous number of weapons per head of population and is afflicted by many simultaneous challenges. Although I fully respect the fact that difficult judgments have to be made on the formal timing of meetings, I agree with my right hon. Friend that we must not lose sight of or the focus on the continuing urgency and importance of the situation in Yemen.
May I also take this opportunity to condemn outright the utterly unacceptable behaviour of Iran that resulted, on
“Iran should not think that recent events in the middle east”— and north Africa—
“have distracted the world’s attention away from its nuclear programme.”
Given the continuing risks represented by Iran’s nuclear programme and Iran’s failure to engage in any serious way in the recent talks in Istanbul, could the Minister perhaps update the House on the Government’s discussions with international partners on the next steps to increase the legitimate peaceful pressure on Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency?
In the time remaining to me, I wish to deal with the most urgent and pressing issue of Libya. I agreed with the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington
(Sir Malcolm Rifkind), a former Foreign Secretary, when he wrote in an article in
The Times on Monday:
“The reaction of the international community to events in Libya has, so far, been uncertain, disunited and at best tactical rather than strategic.”
In recent days, the international community’s disagreements on the important issue of the no-fly zone has been a dispiriting reminder of the importance of the international community speaking with one voice in circumstances of crisis.
Given what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, does he accept that his Government got it wrong in having such close relations with Gaddafi, and in facilitating business and academic links? When he was responsible for the Export Credits Guarantee Department, he allowed defence equipment to go to Libya. Does he agree that that was a big mistake?
A trend seems to be developing whereby those on the Government Benches ask three questions under the guise of a single intervention. On the issue of arms exports, it is a matter of record and the records were rightly published transparently by the previous Government. I have also made it clear that if changes need to be made in relation to the consolidated agreement between the European Union and ourselves on arms sales, I will support the efforts of the Governments in that endeavour.
On the second issue, may I make a general point and then a specific one? The general point is that in trying to understand the stimulus to the changes that we are seeing across north Africa and the middle east, it is indisputable that engagement with the outside world has contributed, in part, to the extraordinary courage, passion and bravery that we saw from demonstrators in, for example, Tunisia and Egypt. In that sense, it is important that the default setting of the international community should be engagement with countries, even where there are profound and long-standing disagreements.
On the specific issue as to whether it was appropriate in the early years after 2001 to engage directly with Gaddafi, I find myself in agreement not with the hon. Gentleman, who is a Back Bencher, but with his Front-Bench team, who generously but wisely have recognised that foreign affairs at times involves dealing with those with whom one has profound disagreement in the service of a greater good, which in this case is the security of the United Kingdom and the broader international community. We were trying to address a situation in which Gaddafi had, by any reckoning, armed the IRA—he was responsible for the largest arms shipment to the IRA—and so had actively sponsored terrorism against United Kingdom citizens. He was also in the course of developing a capability for ballistic missiles, for nuclear missiles and for other weaponry. There is and will be the opportunity to look more broadly at what other lessons can be drawn from our engagement with Libya, but I do not resile from the difficult judgment that was exercised at the time to engage with Gaddafi, notwithstanding his record, in the service of what I think was the right judgment to make British citizens more secure.
May I take the shadow Foreign Secretary back to his expression of disappointment at the tentative nature of the international community’s response? Does he understand that those of us who were in the House during the Bosnian crisis feel some familiar echoes from that period, when the response of the international community was equally uncertain? Should we not have learned lessons from that unhappy period?
As so often, not only in recent days, but over many years in this House, the right hon. and learned Gentleman speaks with great authority and wisdom. I was coming on to a passage in my speech where I was keen to suggest to the House that it is illuminating at times to take, momentarily, that longer view and to appreciate the full extent of the failure that we have seen over recent weeks.
In different times and, admittedly, in different circumstances, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen said of the Kosovo conflict:
“We ran a military campaign and in parallel we ran an information campaign. Both were professional and focused but it was, to my mind, the information campaign which won it.”
He went on to say:
“Publics across the world got the message that we meant business and that we were absolutely committed to achieving our objectives summed up succinctly as ‘NATO in, Serbs out, refugees home’. The Kosovars watched and were reassured by our resolution and in Belgrade the generals and the Serbs generally began to understand that once NATO had taken on a mission, it was simply not going to fail. And as they got that message their resolution crumbled and even though their immediate military advantage remained, they gave up.”
Sadly, the clarity, coherence and effectiveness of that communication have not been matched in recent weeks by the international messaging to the Gaddafi regime.
I am keen to make just a little progress.
The Foreign Secretary said on
“it is time for Colonel Gaddafi to go, that is the best hope for Libya.”
A few days later, on
The Foreign Secretary has already told the House that the Prime Minister and the US President speak “extremely regularly”, so may I ask the Foreign Secretary to take this opportunity genuinely to confirm to the House what is more than of passing interest: whether or not the Prime Minister has spoken to President Obama regularly in the wake of this crisis, over the past seven days? I ask that question because Downing street briefings suggest that there has been only one telephone call, and I would be happy to afford the Foreign Secretary the opportunity to intervene on me today to clarify the facts. Calling for action is not the same as acting to ensure that the action takes place. Public statements at a time of crisis need to be matched by the important work of private diplomacy. I suggest that if ever there was a time when such dialogue, leader to leader, was needed, it is a time like now. Indeed, not only has uncertainty about the international community’s position delayed action, but it will have been closely observed in Libya itself.
As United States Senator John Kerry commented yesterday, the time lost by the international community has
“compacted the choices, diminished the options. And it’s changed the state of play somewhat.
The calculation that many people in Libya might have made a week…10 days ago, if we’d started to announce and move certain things, might have been considerably different than the calculation that they might make today. And those calculations are critical in these kinds of events.”
Senator Kerry’s analysis is as accurate as it is devastating, for as we debate today the opportunity for meaningful action is simply slipping away.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about a lack of action, but it is the Prime Minister who has provided that action, calling for a no-fly zone. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the lack of a voice across the international community, I believe that he is referring to the Obama Administration. When the call of “Democracy!” was shouted, where was the leader of the free world?
My point is that public declarations of support for a policy need to be matched by private diplomacy. It appears that there is a fashion in the Government to take a different view and a different approach from the previous Government on many aspects of policy. There might be a view in the present Government that the action the previous Prime Minister took ahead of the G20 meeting—getting on a plane, travelling to Brazil and travelling around the world making the case for concerted international action in circumstances of economic crisis—was somewhat overplayed. I personally think that there is a genuine need for action to be taken at this stage but that public words need to be matched by private conduct. In that sense, there must be concerted efforts to try to bring the international community together. That challenge is not unique to the United Kingdom—it is a responsibility that falls on all those in positions of leadership—and I would be the first to concede that this is a challenging and difficult set of circumstances in which, to date, the international community has not been united. That is why, however, I think it demands effort, skill, application and judgment to ensure that we do what we can to cohere the international community rather than further to divide it at a point at which judgments are being made not only in Tripoli but in Benghazi about the commitment of the international community to supporting these changes.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is a danger of Governments giving mixed messages. In that vein, will he accept that his Government did that too? Does he now regret granting arms licences and promoting arms sales—including of ammunition, crowd-control equipment and tear gas—to the Gaddafi regime in the closing years of the Labour Government? That does not sound like the sort of positive engagement that he seemed to be talking about earlier.
Let me repeat my point: if there is evidence that British exports have been used in the appalling repression that we are witnessing, that should be cause for change. I stand ready to work with the Government effectively and in a constructive manner to try to secure the tightening of the arms regime if that proves necessary. On the substantive question of whether it was correct for the UK Government, many years ago, to engage directly with the Gaddafi regime, I think that there might be an honourable disagreement between the pair of us. I have made it clear that—
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will finish the point and then I will be happy to take a further intervention—perhaps from somebody who has not yet had the opportunity to intervene. I think that there can be an honest disagreement between us about whether it was right for the UK Government to engage with Gaddafi at the time. There has been much criticism of former Prime Minister Tony Blair for shaking hands with Colonel Gaddafi. I would simply point out that President Obama and Nelson Mandela have both shaken hands with Colonel Gaddafi. Any serious consideration of the issues recognises that it is important for there to be engagement with regimes in order to try to secure change.
I am afraid that my right hon. Friend is right. The former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who has just left the Chamber, was eloquent on this subject on the “Today” programme and in this House: the diplomatic gain of weaning Gaddafi off WMDs and terrorism was worth the connection. The previous Conservative Administration gave a knighthood to Robert Mugabe as Sir John Major tried to make friends with him and, up until
Is not the most important issue in this debate the fact that events in Libya appear to be at a turning point? I am sure that the Government are grateful for the support that Her Majesty’s Opposition have given to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the no-fly zone initiative and the toppling of Gaddafi. Is this not, if it fails, a crucial test of the credibility of British foreign policy, which has perhaps not adapted to the shortage of defence capability we now suffer as a result of the strategic defence and security review or to the fact that we have a completely different kind of United States, which is prepared to be passive in an international crisis?
The hon. Gentleman is continuing the newly established tradition of making a number of points. Let me try to address them. On the substantive point of whether the hugely significant events we are witnessing in north Africa make the case for reopening the strategic defence review, I find myself in sympathy with him. Serious questions are prompted by the fact that we have aircraft carriers without planes, given the context of the discussions we are now having in this House.
The hon. Gentleman’s second point is important and I shall reflect on it in my remaining remarks. This is an issue not simply for the people of Libya or for the west, but for the broader interests of the international community. It appears from what we have heard that the decision was taken by the Saudi Arabian Government and the Gulf Co-operation Council to provide troops and tanks to the people of Bahrain without consultation with the United States. To me, that would have been inconceivable only a few weeks ago. It is one of the further assumptions that have been directly challenged by the huge events that we are witnessing across the region. I think, therefore, as I sought to reflect at the beginning of my speech, that this is a time of great possibility and also of great peril. If, however inadvertently, the message is heard by dictators and despots not just in the region but in the wider world that the words spoken by prominent international leaders are not matched by actions, that will be a worrying development with consequences far beyond the borders of Libya.
Is it not important that one message that is heard by dictators is that once they are indicted by the International Criminal Court, they will remain indicted and there will be a determination sooner or later to bring them to justice? There is no statute of limitation for war crimes or crimes against humanity, as Charles Taylor well knows as he stands trial in The Hague.
That is an important point. Of course, we have seen the trial of Charles Taylor but we have also seen the example of Milosevic, who died while on trial at The Hague. That is an issue on which we stand together, both in our advocacy at an early stage of the International Criminal Court and as regards its applicability in the face of the terrible scenes we are witnessing.
I am conscious that a number of Members are keen to speak, so I want to make progress. The Security Council meets as reports say Libyan rebels have deployed tanks, artillery and a helicopter to try to repel an attack by pro-Gaddafi forces on the key town of Ajdabiya. It is said by those on the ground to be the first time defecting army units have faced Government forces. If that town falls to Gaddafi, the next step will be Benghazi and the 1 million people who live there. It is often forgotten in the coverage that Benghazi is comfortably the second largest city in Libya.
As I have argued over recent weeks, there are concrete steps that the international community can and should be considering to support the Libyan people who stand between invasion and acquiescence. A no-fly zone would be a strong step forward but it would not be a panacea. The importance of a no-fly zone, however, should not blind us to other measures that can be taken.
The Government should be considering a range of contingencies, such as taking measures to disrupt Gaddafi’s military communication and IT infrastructure and using British naval assets in concert with other nations to deliver further humanitarian support to areas such as Benghazi, so that Gaddafi cannot literally starve people into submission. Other possible actions include further efforts to set up an escrow account, as has been suggested by a Government Member, to hold revenues in trust for the benefit of the Libyan people rather than allowing those resources to be used for hiring foreign mercenaries, and, of course, taking immediate and strong diplomatic action against those countries whose nationals are fighting as mercenaries for Gaddafi in Libya.
I have been arguing for weeks now that the Arab League, which has been shown in recent weeks to be taking a leadership role in this crisis, should come together as a matter of urgency with the European Union in an emergency summit to communicate the breadth of international revulsion at the regime’s actions and the breadth of support for the Libyan people. I have also been arguing for the establishment of a friends of Libya group, bringing together the Arab League, the European Union and the United States to overcome the very institutional inertia that has so blighted the international response to date and to allow for rapid decision making in the face of rapidly changing events.
The Libyan people could be facing defeat in a matter of days. Time is not our friend. We should be under no illusion that if Gaddafi were to triumph, this would not only represent a defeat for the Libyan people, for whom the Arab spring would be replaced by a brutal and bleak winter, but would have long-term and damaging consequences for the United Kingdom, the European Union and the broader interests of reform and stability in the region. Now, at this late hour, debate must give way to decision and argument must give way to action. The international community’s response in the coming hours and days will not only impact upon events in Libya but will echo through history and will affect our strategic position and the future of democratic, social and economic reform across the broader region for years to come.
I do not propose to follow the formidable speech of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who dealt very easily with the situation in many of the countries that we are discussing, nor the Opposition’s preoccupation with the telephone habits of President Obama, but rather to concentrate on what has animated the extraordinary events that we have seen across the middle east in the past few weeks.
In north Africa and the wider middle east, we are now at the centre of the most momentous events. History is sweeping through the region. The events that we are debating today were inevitable but largely—indeed, almost wholly—unforeseen. A Tunisian man who set himself on fire because no official of a deeply corrupt state would listen to him after months of his asking has caused the lid to be blown off an entire region with frail institutions, scant civil society and virtually no democratic traditions or culture of innovation. We are, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, witnessing something akin to the importance of the fall of the Berlin wall, and we will need to be clear in the days ahead about what these developments mean and how Britain and the west in general should respond to them.
The democratic transition will be a very hard road to follow, for the truth is that the much-vaunted stability that we all went along with for generations was a stability frozen in time and that the hopes and aspirations now stirring in many parts of the Arab world have been smothered for generations. People are now seeking their rights, sometimes at great personal danger to themselves. Nothing will ever be the same again, and a complete policy rethink will be demanded and required in the days ahead as we all struggle to keep up with unfolding events. I urge the House not to underestimate the profound sense of change sweeping across the whole middle east that the Arab humiliation is now over and that there is a long overdue dawn of pride and dignity and a great expectation that freedom and opportunity have arrived—a tide that is unstoppable and that brings with it great uncertainty and very great difficulties.
Contrary to much received opinion and caricature, quite apart from its vast, unmatched contribution to civilisation in the past, the Arab world is proving that it rejects injustice, that it wants freedom and that it is willing to die for democracy. There is thus no overstating the importance of the fact that this Arab revolution is the work of the Arabs themselves. The answer is broadly that reform, and not repression, is the way to lasting stability, and Arab Governments need to understand very quickly that denying people their basic rights does nothing to preserve even a veneer of stability. As W. B. Yeats said after the difficulties in Dublin:
“A terrible beauty is born.”
I fear that the wealthy western nations have regarded with complacency for far too long the hopeless stagnation of many Arab countries. Protesters in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, Gaza, Algeria and Tunisia are denouncing the malignancy of joblessness, the lack of opportunity and the dreadful corruptness of oppressive rule. It is thus far bad news, in my judgment, that no single leader in the Arab world has yet put forward a creative political strategy to address this discontent, opting instead for half-measures designed principally to safeguard the very systems that public opinion is rejecting. We do not know where this will end, but Britain must play a big role and I am confident that she will do so, particularly through the judicious use of our soft power with all that that involves.
Further, as the Prime Minister has said, now is not the time to park the middle east peace process. I pay great tribute to the energetic work of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt, in the middle east and I commend the excellent way in which he goes about his very difficult job. I hope that he will consider whether it would be right to resurrect the Arab peace initiative of 2002—the Saudi peace initiative—which still lies on the table and is the only remaining architecture extant for the continuation of the peace talks. My hon. Friend Robert Halfon and I take a slightly different view on these matters but we both want to see peace in the middle east. He is a doughty champion of these causes and he knows that peace cannot come about unless the Arabs and the Palestinians are made to go back to the table and proceed. There is no better time than now; an Arab peace initiative at this time would give the Arabs face and confidence, and the Israelis should seize this moment. They should see that a tide and spirit of change is sweeping though the middle east and should catch this great surf of history.
Contrary to what my hon. Friend Mr Cash might think, the European Union can give substantial practical help to the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law within the Arab League countries, particularly via the Barcelona process and through many other means. We should, of course, provide every assistance that we can to those countries that clearly intend to do the right thing. Britain should press in the Council of Ministers and the Foreign Affairs Council for properly supervised arrangements to support the training of police and civil servants and the setting up of electoral commissions and independent legal and prosecution services. We should also seek to assist in the building of political and other institutions—a piece of work that has been most admirably done by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, to which an hon. Member has already paid tribute. We should, at all costs, provide large-scale assistance for those countries that are truly prepared to change.
The peoples of the middle east now demand a better life. After years of betrayal, bad government and oppression, they deserve the opportunity to enjoy the rights and freedoms that we take for granted. I am confident that the British Government, with our American allies and European partners, will play a bold and energetic role in securing that endeavour.
As we look at these events around the world, we must reflect on whether there are historical parallels and past occasions when similar things have happened. At the moment, everyone is talking about the events in central and eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union, in the late 1980s, but there are other parallels, such as what happened in the revolutions of 1848. We could also draw parallels with the student protests of 1968.
The important thing about this revolutionary process is that it has been widely broadcast through new technologies that did not exist in those eras. As a result, as we have clearly seen, the regimes have tried to stop such technology, close down the internet and prevent people inside and outside from accessing messages on Facebook, on Twitter and online. That is another argument for retaining BBC World Service shortwave radio broadcasts at key times, and the Foreign Affairs Committee is engaged in that debate with Ministers.
The other difference from 1989 is that while these events are happening in a multitude of Arab Muslim countries, there is no Gorbachev figure. There is no restraining hand on Erich Honecker. There is no one to persuade and to deal with the situation faced by Jaruzelski in Poland. Of course, we had Ceausescu in 1989, and perhaps the closest parallel with Saif Gaddafi is Nicu Ceausescu. I do not know whether the Ceausescu family’s fate will befall the Gaddafi family, but there is nevertheless a clear parallel: a family regime that uses the state as its own private bank. Unfortunately, the Libyan regime is not the only one for which that is the case. We have heard reports from Tunisia, and there have been accusations about the Mubarak family in Egypt. I read on the web just a few hours ago that there is a “kleptocracy” in Bahrain.
The public can now access information in ways that they could not in the past. The United Nations Arab human development report that was published about a decade ago highlighted the lack of publications and limited number of books per head of population in the Arab world compared with other parts of the world. However, such availability is not as necessary when a generation of young people can access new technologies. There has therefore been an acceleration of change, especially among the young populations of north Africa and Arabia who, in huge numbers, are unemployed. This social and global phenomenon will continue for decades.
Nicholas Soames said that not everything that happens in such revolutionary situations is pleasant. Some very unpleasant things came out from underneath the stones in 1989 and 1990: growing anti-Semitism, racism and nationalism. We may well find that one of the consequences of the removal of military authoritarian regimes will be that people lose not only their fear, but their inhibition about saying things that are difficult and unpleasant.
We have already heard comments about what the Iranian Government might be up to. I worry that those people who want to gain political power by attacking other minorities will do so in ways that lead to tensions and conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a. We have seen the terrible carnage caused by that conflict in Iraq. We were right—I stand by my opinion—about the removal of the Saddam regime, but none of us estimated quite what terrible crimes would be carried out as a consequence of lifting that repression. That problem is still not resolved in Iraq.
Egypt is at the beginning of the process, so what will happen there? There will be a presidential election and a new constitution, and then, as in central and eastern Europe, we will probably see a multitude of small political parties—or individuals and groups calling themselves political parties.
Some 22 years ago, I was working in the Labour party’s international department. My job was to go to central and eastern Europe, where I met people who said, “We are the true new social democratic party.” I met groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia as was, Russia and elsewhere who all said that they were the true inheritors of the social democratic tradition. People from the Conservative party were also involved in a similar way, because Dr Lewis was in Prague just a few weeks after me in late 1989. We all discovered that most of the people who claimed to represent the new political forces did not do so at all.
The process will take time, and we will need dedicated and well-funded democracy-building exercises throughout the Arab world. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has been mentioned. I chaired its board until 2005. At that time, its total budget from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was £4.1 million, which was peanuts, but since then it has been cut. I understand that it will receive an additional £500,000, which is welcome, but that will still leave its budget below what it was a few years ago.
International democracy foundations need to work together. Our Government, our European partners, the National Democratic Institute in the US, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Germany, for example, need to work in a co-ordinated way because governance, democracy and institution building will take time. It would be useful if people from central and eastern Europe could make a contribution because many of them went through such a process 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
Finally, if, potentially, Gaddafi regains control of Libya, we will face the most immediate, appalling crisis. It will be perceived as a major setback. It will send a clear signal, which may already have been picked up in Bahrain, that regimes can keep power if they are repressive and brutal because the international community will either make grandiose statements, as many Europeans have done—I am not critical of our Government on these matters, as we are doing the right thing and are on the right side—or prevaricate, as unfortunately the Americans have done. Let us hope that the Security Council adopts a robust resolution today and then does the right thing.
It is a pleasure to follow my predecessor as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Leaving aside his international adventures on behalf of the Labour party, I agree with everything that he said. I also pay tribute to the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend Nicholas Soames. No one has a better knowledge of the Arab world than he has. There was much power in what he said. I particularly agree with the important point that the EU has a role to play in this.
It was Comrade Lenin who said that revolution is unpredictable but when it comes it comes very quickly. I think that the speed with which everything has happened has caught us all very much on the wrong foot. With hindsight, we should have seen it coming after last year’s food riots in Egypt, brought about by unsustainable levels of population growth and the fact that 50% of its population is under 25. The other factor that combined with others to form the prefect storm is the role of the internet as the method of communication of those young people, which Mike Gapes referred to. The situation is fast-moving but has a long way to go. I watch with concern how things are developing in Bahrain and possibly in Saudi Arabia. I believe that things will get worse before they get better.
I support what the Prime Minister said in his statement on Monday: that we must encourage freedom, democracy and an open society in the Arab world. He said that against the background of the EU resolution calling for broader market access and political co-operation. These are desperately important factors, but there is a whiff of inconsistency here. We have lived with this situation since the second world war, and the reason we have turned a blind eye to much of this is that we want the energy resources of the region. I think that we should give those countries time to make the transition. In Britain, 300 years passed between the civil war and women getting the vote, so we should not be driven by the drumbeat of the 24/7 media. We should give those countries time to develop their reforms as they come naturally.
The major issue of the day, and the one I have been most concerned about for some weeks, is the no-fly zone. The Prime Minister set out three conditions that would have to be met before he would support a no-fly zone: regional support, a demonstrable need and a clear legal basis. With the resolution of the Arab League, there is clearly regional support. Demonstrable need is subjective. We have moved on from the slaughter of innocent women and children and now have a civil war in Libya. In truth, we will be taking sides, and the rebels are armed. I think that we have to look at the clear legal basis very carefully indeed, because we can see the mess that we got into in Iraq because of the uncertainty over whether there was a clear legal basis. What we need is clarification.
The need for a UN chapter VII resolution is crystal clear, but I would be surprised, and relieved, if we got it. Whether or not Russia or China will veto it remains to be seen. If we do get it, we can all row in behind the Government because we will have a clear legal basis. I wish them well in their efforts in the coming hours to achieve that.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s very powerful speech. He mentioned the Prime Minister’s three conditions. I humbly urge caution, in the words used by the Arab League. It is an important symbolic gesture, bringing together a collective voice, but it has no power. The organisation is made up of Foreign Ministers who have no organisational power over many of the dictators to whom they report back. In making a statement and linking it to their respective Governments, they have as much power as the Foreign Affairs Committee has when it produces a report.
In that case it has great force. Joking aside, my hon. Friend makes an important point, but we cannot ignore a resolution of the Arab League. It is indicative of the way things are shifting.
My concern is that we might get a legal basis that is not clear. If we do not get a chapter VII resolution, the fallback situation would be what is known in the UN as a responsibility to protect. It is not clear whether that is a part of international law. It suggests
“collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII”.
It sets as high a hurdle as a chapter VII resolution. We are yet to see how things will develop, but I would be rather surprised if we were to get that through. We would then be left with a legal basis that was not clear. If there is another doctrine, I would very much like to hear it.
Yesterday, the Government added a fourth condition: the national interest. In the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday I asked the Foreign Secretary how he would reply to a request from a country such as Ivory Coast, where genocide was going on, or Burma or Somalia—there are plenty of places with internal conflict. He replied that that has to be judged on a case-by-case basis, and that is under the national interest. If we intervene in Libya, will that set a precedent that will be relied on by those countries?
That means, in effect, that we are picking our countries. Let us be clear exactly what that means. It is a reincarnation of the Chicago doctrine introduced by Tony Blair 12 years ago. It is worth reading the speech that he made in April 2009 in Chicago, 10 years after his original speech in Chicago. He said that it
“argued strongly for an active and engaged foreign policy, not a reactive or isolationist one: better to intervene than to leave well alone. Be bold, adventurous even in what we can achieve.”
That is a pretty gung-ho approach. I am not saying that the current Government are being gung-ho, but it is a warning about how we could get carried away unless we sit back, are rational and address the need for a clear legal basis.
We then have the problem of what will happen if another Arab state behaves in the same way as Libya does. We have seen what is going on in Bahrain, with the state of emergency. We all heard reports on the radio this morning of protesters being killed. We cannot intervene in every case. We could end up with a very awkward situation where one Arab country provides aircraft to help police the no-fly zone and then ends up attacking its own people. Then what is our national interest?
I would add a fifth condition. If this does not succeed, we must have a strategy. There has to be a plan B. Where exactly is this leading? My hon. Friend Bob Stewart has great experience of the no-fly zone in Bosnia, and there was a no-fly zone in Iraq. In both cases, we had to put in ground troops to seal the deal and finish the job. A no-fly zone in Libya is most likely to end up with a stalemate in which the rebels cannot lose and Gaddafi cannot win.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that the ground troops did not go into Iraq in 1991 and 1992 and that for 11 or 12 years the no-fly zones, which protected the Shi’a marsh Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north, were very effective in stopping Saddam using his air force to bomb them?
I have heard the hon. Gentleman make that point before, and the answer to it is that Saddam Hussein remained in Baghdad. My point is that the policy under discussion would end in stalemate, too, with Colonel Gaddafi still in Tripoli, the rebels in Benghazi, a no-fly zone and a completely static situation.
If we want to get rid of Colonel Gaddafi, we will have to use ground troops, so I would like the Minister to answer the question, what is our commitment on ground troops? Would we be prepared to use them to finish the job? What is the Government’s attitude to the use of warships? The war is being conducted along a coastal strip. At the end of the day, if we commit to a no-fly zone, we have to be prepared to finish the job and to put troops in on the ground, otherwise we should not start. That is why I am concerned about where this is all leading. I do not think that we have the troops to put in on the ground, and that is why I come to the difficult conclusion that, without a UN resolution, we should not consider a no-fly zone.
The Prime Minister posed a question to people such as myself, who have their reservations about a no-fly zone, when he said on Monday:
“‘Do we want a situation where a failed pariah state festers on Europe’s southern border, potentially threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean and creating a more dangerous and uncertain world for Britain and for all our allies as well as for the people of Libya?’”—[Hansard, 14 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 27.]
That is a very good question, and it deserves an answer. My answer is, we have had this pariah state for 42 years, and we have lived with it: we have put up with it; we had to bomb it once; we had Lockerbie; and we are still here and it is still there.
I do not want to see us get sucked into a war—a dispute—in the middle east. We need to tighten the noose as hard as we can, with the toughest sanctions possible, and if necessary we need to give all support, short of intervention, to the rebels. But we should not go down the road of arguing, campaigning or pushing for a no-fly zone without a UN resolution on either chapter VII or the responsibility to protect. There are huge risks politically and militarily without one, and I urge the Government to proceed with caution.
John Major, but Margaret Thatcher was also involved.
In the same way, action not words dealt with the situation in the former Yugoslavia. My hon. Friend is right in his conclusion that, if the situation in north Africa is to be solved in any way acceptably, it will be by action, not by continued talk. The world community should hang its head in shame at the prolonged delay to take practical action on behalf of the people of Libya.
Time is very short, indeed, before it becomes too late, but complacent indifference has long dominated the west’s approach towards Gaddafi’s brutality. Even in recent months, the Home Office has insisted deplorably on sending a Libyan asylum seeker back into Gaddafi’s clutches, just as it insists on sending asylum seekers back to Iran. As usual, the United States, under its present Administration, has been vocal about Libya, but words are easy; action is what counts.
In the case of Israel’s transgressions and brutalities, the Americans have been even more shameful. As is his wont, Obama has been long on self-indulgent, vacuous rhetoric, but absent when it comes to meaningful action. Let us witness the illegal Guantanamo Bay torture camp, remaining open two years after he promised that it would close. “Absent”, though, understates Obama’s pernicious policies. When he sought to wheedle the Israelis into a moratorium on settlement building, he promised that if they paused such building he would veto any Security Council resolutions regarded as critical of Israel. The Israelis ignored him, and still he vetoed the recent, otherwise unanimous, Security Council resolution on settlements.
Yet that United States Administration, if they wished, could bring the Israelis to heel, simply by cutting off the supply of arms and economic aid to that rogue country. Economic sanctions on Israel work, as was demonstrated when President Bush senior forced Yitzhak Shamir to talks in Madrid by suspending loan guarantees.
Certainly, when it comes to rogue regimes, the world is long on denunciations but short on action, and it is important to place on the record those transgressions against international law by a country that has one of the most aggressively right-wing regimes in the world. The Israelis have built an illegal wall through occupied Palestinian territory, in many, many cases cutting Palestinians off from their livelihoods, as I have seen for myself recently. The Israelis’ settlements are, again, a violation of international law, yet they expand them. Again, I recently saw for myself how, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, settlers, with the connivance of the Israeli police, throw Palestinians out of their homes and force them to live in tents. Israel’s hundreds of checkpoints on the west bank make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for Palestinians to get to workplaces, schools, universities and hospitals. The Jordanian Foreign Minister told me recently how, when he was travelling with the Palestinian President on the west bank in separate cars, he felt obliged to invite the President to travel in his car, because the President’s own car was continually being stopped at checkpoints.
I will proceed for a moment. I think I can anticipate the kind of thing my hon. Friend would say if I were to give way to her. The Israelis kill Palestinians whenever they feel inclined. They have killed two this very week, and the blockade of Gaza—of 1.5 million people—is totally illegal. Rebuilding after the havoc caused by the Israeli invasion has been minimal because of the Israeli embargo on the entrance of many supplies. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency reported to me on the appalling effect on nutrition of the Israeli blockade. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children are growing up malnourished, and that affects both their physical and mental growth. The estimable head of UNRWA, whom I have met several times, says that the alleged easing of the blockade, following the Israeli attack on the flotilla on
The Israelis have the most extremist Government in their history, with a Foreign Minister who is actively racist and overtly advocates ethnic cleansing. The Israeli Parliament, elected by proportional representation, which should be a warning to us all about changing electoral systems, now persecutes non-governmental organisations that work for progress and racial harmony.
The Israelis do not believe in a two-state solution and are completely uninterested in any kind of genuine peace process, yet what is being done to curb this regime? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. They get away with it by exploiting guilt over the holocaust. They get away with it by whimpering about their need for security, when they have the strongest armed forces in the region, nuclear weapons and the fourth-strongest armed forces in the world. They get away with it, because Obama, apprehensive about the United States presidential election next year, is scared of Jewish pressure groups in the United States.
The world’s tolerance of the Israeli persecution of 5 million Palestinians is a blot on whatever international morality exists. When Palestinians commit atrocities, as with the murderous attack on the Fogel family of settlers last weekend, there is justifiable anger. Israeli soldiers shot two Palestinian parents dead in front of their children in Gaza, as those children told me: the girl stood there, an Israeli soldier shot her father in the head, and then shot her mother in the head. When things like that happen, nobody bats an eyelid.
We are right to be profoundly concerned about Libya and about the lethal tension in certain Gulf states. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South is absolutely right when he says that if the people of Libya go under, other countries will take that as a lesson that suppressing their populations by force works. This is a very big test for the entire world community. We are right to be vigilant about Tunisia, and right to keep an anxious eye on Egypt to ensure that the revolution there is not baulked or frustrated. But until the world takes action to force Israel to deal justly with the Palestinians, the middle east will remain a turbulent and dangerous region and a blot on all our consciences.
I should like to touch briefly on matters relating to Libya, and then, as chairman of the all-party group on Tunisia, to refer to that country.
I wish to revert to the comments that I made to the Prime Minister following his statement to this House on Monday. In 1956, the Hungarians were led to believe by the United States that were there to be a revolution, the Americans would give them support. There was a revolution. I remember sitting in our kitchen as a 13-year-old, listening to a crackling valve radio, with a voice from Budapest screaming at us, “Help me, help me!” No help came. The US cavalry did not arrive, the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, and the revolution was crushed. A decade later, almost the same thing happened in Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek was removed, the west did not help, the Russian tanks moved in, and the revolution was crushed. I believe that unless the free world stops talking and starts acting within the next 48 hours, then as far as Libya is concerned, the Arab spring will be over, and that revolution, too, will be crushed.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took a brave lead in calling for a no-fly zone, and he was derided by the British media for sabre-rattling. That, of course, is precisely the same courageous British media who are now complaining that the Americans are not backing a no-fly zone forcefully enough.
My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, says “Quite right”, but his view is that we should not act because we should not walk to the drumbeat of the 24/7 media. I fear that we shall shortly be walking to the drumbeat of death if no action is taken.
The supply lines from Tripoli to Benghazi are long. It is a moot point as to whether Colonel Gaddafi’s regime can service troops entering Benghazi, so the logical progression is that he will use his war planes. I do not believe that Colonel Gaddafi will be remotely concerned about bombing and rocketing the women and children of Libya. Unless the free world moves to take out the planes on the runways, innocent women and children will die, and the revolution will end. This morning, I received a telephone call from rebels currently in London. They told me that they have three aircraft that they have used so far—sparingly, because they do not have the resources to back them up.
My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind has referred to the lunacy of UN Security Council resolution 1970, which imposes an arms embargo on an already very uneven playing field. Gaddafi’s regime has the weapons, the resources and the back-up; the rebels do not. At the very least, therefore, the free world has to allow the rebels the opportunity to obtain the equipment that they need to defend themselves. I do not believe that anybody can be held to account for allowing people to fight for what they believe to be right in their way and to defend their women and children. I can only repeat: failure to act will lead, within a very short time, to the end. What has been described as the defining moment will be a defining moment in the failure of democracy, and those who have failed to act will have the blood of the innocent on their hands. It may yet prove to be the defining moment of Mr Obama’s legacy.
Turning to Tunisia, the entire process began as a result not particularly of oppression, although of course that was a very relevant factor, but of unemployment. Very many bright, well-educated and well-qualified people in Tunisia found themselves unable to earn a living. We need to look carefully at what is happening in Tunisia and what will happen unless we give the Tunisians wholehearted support. There were some 400,000 jobs related to tourism in Tunisia prior to the revolution. That translates into a dependency on tourism of some 2 million people—two in 10 of the population. Hatem Atallah, the Tunisian ambassador, came to the House of Commons yesterday and told us that in the first three months of this year Tunisia’s tourism has effectively been halved. Of the 7 million visitors a year, 3 million came from Libya and related states, leaving 4 million from France, Germany and the United Kingdom. They need us to give them the support that will enable their businesses and commerce to survive. Without that, that revolution could also fail. The message is very clear: it is a 3,000-year-old civilisation, and it is open for business. We must have faith in that.
I repeat: in Tunisia, democracy is absolutely dependent on economic success. Economic failure was the reason for the revolution, and it could cause the country to fail again. I urge the Minister in responding to the debate to state clearly that we are four-square behind that regime and what it is trying to achieve, and that it has our good will.
To conclude, the Tunisian Foreign Minister yesterday passed Members a letter in which he said:
“I strongly believe that our two countries have the opportunity to further strengthen their friendship and partnership, on the basis of common interests and common values.”
If the Arab spring is to survive and if those words are to mean anything, Tunisia deserves and must have our support.
In 1993, the current President of Israel, Shimon Peres, wrote a visionary book called “The New Middle East”, in which, elated after the signing of the Oslo accords, he wrote about his concept of a community of nations across the middle east. He said that four conditions were required before that could become a reality: political stability, higher living standards, national security and democratisation. I hope that in recent weeks we have seen the beginning of that democratisation spreading across the middle east.
At this stage, none of us can be certain whether that will be successful. However, even now we can see that what has happened over recent weeks and what has come from the hearts of the people of the middle east have given the lie to the commonly accepted view that the only major conflict in the middle east is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that Israel is responsible for all the problems of the middle east. That has never been true and now it evidently is not true.
What is needed to solve the tragic conflict of the clash of nationalisms between the Jewish people in the state of Israel and the Palestinians, two peoples who deserve national determination in a land of their own? First, it is essential that there is a resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to create two states. Much has been said about the impact of the WikiLeaks revelations. Those revelations showed how close Palestinians and Israelis came to achieving a durable peace at the Annapolis conference in 2007. It is sad that when those leaks emerged, the Palestinian people realised that they simply did not know what their negotiators were doing. The Israelis were very well aware of what the Israeli negotiators were doing. What happened during the discussions at that conference shows that both sides were, and I hope are, willing to make the compromises necessary for a durable peace.
It is important that it is recognised that Israel has genuine security issues. Two checkpoints were removed last month near Nablus. It is right that checkpoints are removed to support the development of the Palestinian economy, but it also has to be recognised that in the month following the removal of the those checkpoints, there have been two major incidents in or near Nablus. Only last week, the Fogel family were murdered, among them three children. Their throats, including that of a three-month old baby, were slit in cold blood in their home. That was a harsh price to pay. Such atrocities must be recognised, and it must be realised that Israel has genuine security issues. Much has been said of Israel’s action in Gaza in relation to its security. Just in the last few days, the Israeli navy seized a boat that had 50 tonnes of weapons hidden in bags of Syrian lentils. The boat was bound for Gaza and is thought to have come from Iran. That was a genuine security issue.
It is vital that proper recognition is given to the nature of Hamas, which is running Gaza. Hamas’s charter shows clearly what it is about. Its religious convictions mean that it cannot accept the concept of a Jewish state. It displays blatant anti-Semitism, such as in article 22 of its charter, which states that Jews
“amass great and substantive material wealth… With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we…hear about.”
That is just one example of the blatant anti-Semitism of Hamas. That should be recognised by those who talk loosely about “Jewish influence” impeding a solution of the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
Hamas recently attacked a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school because it did not like girls and boys being educated together. It has also said that it will prevent the teaching of the holocaust in Gaza, because it believes that doing so would poison the minds of Palestinians. In recent days the Foreign Press Association has bemoaned the clampdown on the press in Gaza, while Hamas continues to attack those who do not belong to or support its organisation.
In seeking a durable peace, it is also important that we recognise the malevolent influence of Iran in both Lebanon and Gaza. In just the past week the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has stated again that Israel is a “cancerous tumour”. The problem is not just about words, because by arming and training Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran is actively involved in preventing a negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis. The involvement of Iran adds to the complexity of the situation and must be recognised when people rush all too quickly, and without much thought, to condemn Israel as the reason why peace has not been reached. That is not the case.
Finally, it is vital that more is done on the domestic scene, and that there is a proper challenge to the hate talk against Jews and Israelis in this country and to the vicious boycott campaigns that are gathering force. The problem shows itself in many ways. It is leading to the attempt to create an atmosphere of intimidation on student campuses, where Jewish students feel increasingly uneasy, and disquiet is being caused among Jewish communities in this country. It is leading to anti-Semitic discourse, as shown so graphically by the invaluable work of the Community Security Trust.
I shall give just one recent example of what has happened. On
It is vital that efforts are maintained to find a solution to this complex problem. The two peoples have a right to a homeland, and the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians have a right to their land. All efforts must be made to bring both sides back to the negotiating table on the basis of creating two states. All the key issues—borders, refugees and the need to share Jerusalem—must be resolved around the negotiating table. I applaud all efforts that bring that situation about.
Many of us are inspired by what we have been seeing in the middle east and north Africa in recent weeks and by the courage and heroism of the protesters, particularly the young people who have lived their entire lives under repression. Equally, many of us feel sick at the prospect of repression triumphing in many parts of the region.
In that vein, I welcome many of the things that the Foreign Secretary announced today. The new Arab partnership and the promise of practical support for what we hope are the emerging democracies of Egypt and Tunisia are excellent. I think he said that there would even be promotion of think-tanks. I am not entirely sure whether that is a good thing, but they are certainly better than the other kind of tank.
The Foreign Secretary also reported positive developments in both countries, including the abolition of their secret police organisations. That is welcome, but there are also worrying reports, including the recent one in Egypt about the forcible clearance of Tahrir square. The experience of Europe, Latin America and the new African democracies is that old habits sometimes die hard among security forces. Perhaps we should take up that theme with the Egyptian Government in particular and with all the emerging democratic movements.
It is also welcome that the Foreign Secretary described a bold and ambitious vision at the European level. A positive vision of transforming the European neighbourhood and actively promoting freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights is very good indeed, as is the role of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in that. I hope that the Department for International Development will also play an active role in considering how that programme should be carried out. It is very important that the people of the middle east and north Africa see a democratic dividend from their transition to democracy, and DFID can play an important role in that.
Sadly, however, freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights are not all that British Governments have promoted in the region. In 2009, EU arms exports to Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, none of which enjoyed good human rights records at the time, totalled €2.3 billion. Export licences granted by the previous Government—the most recent details I have are from 2009—make disturbing reading. We sold tear gas to Bahrain, imaging cameras to Iran, bombs and missiles to Egypt, anti-riot shields to Kuwait, crowd control equipment and tear gas to Libya, crowd control ammunition to Qatar, small arms ammunition to Syria, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia and so on. For that reason, I welcome the Minister’s announcement on
“We will not authorise any exports…we assess…might be used to facilitate internal repression.”
That is an incredibly important announcement.
I agree with the burden of what the hon. Gentleman says about arms sales and I welcome the suspension of arms sales to Bahrain, but we still pursue massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and the people dying on the streets of Bahrain are being killed with equipment that has been sent there from this country. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time to stop the whole arms sales policy to that region?
Bluntly, yes—the use of Saudi arms and armour in Bahrain, particularly in the context of today’s disturbing pictures of unarmed protesters being shot in the streets by security forces, means that we must question any continuing arms sales to countries that have records of repression.
I regret that in the midst of the democratic revolutions, the Prime Minister, on his tour of the middle east, which had many positive aspects, was nevertheless accompanied by representatives of BAE Systems, QinetiQ, the Cobham group, Thales UK, Babcock International and Atkins.
In the spirit of coalition, I remind Ministers of the Liberal Democrats’ pre-election criticism of arms sales to the region, and specifically to Libya, and of our support for an international arms trade treaty and the prevention of arms sales to any regime that could use them for internal repression. That last objective has now been strongly expressed by the Minister, but I hope he confirms today that the sale of tear gas and crowd control ammunition to anyone is completely incompatible with those objectives.
There is a clear danger that Libya will not be seen in future in the same light as Egypt and Tunisia; sadly, we might see it alongside Czechoslovakia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Hungary as one of the great failures of the international community to intervene on behalf of the people. I do not envy the Foreign Secretary the decisions he must make, but I can assure him of Liberal Democrat support for any belated action by the international community, although he was right to be wary of any intervention that could be described as “western”. That would be a dangerous path to go down, and any intervention must be undertaken with wide international support.
I support the remarks made by Mr Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, who said that we should look at other imaginative ways of intervening, particularly in respect of IT infrastructure, to make life impossible for the Libyan regime.
Nicholas Soames made an eloquent speech in which he called for a complete policy rethink. There is a lot of truth in that. At UK, European and international level, we need to review how we can rapidly respond to situations such as the one in Libya. We need to do that quickly, because similar situations could soon emerge elsewhere.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on
“agree to a wide review of UK foreign policy in the region before it is too late”?—[Hansard, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1136.]
I made that call, and I am glad that one month later more Government Members are supporting it.
I am not sure what I am supposed to say to that, except that I have already said that I support a review of international policy. That has to happen quickly. We also need to review—unfortunately—how we treat brutal dictators who survive using violence and repression. That needs to be addressed urgently. At an international level, we need a strategy for persuading Russia and China in particular—both quick enough to intervene in their neighbourhoods—that the international community’s responsibility to protect needs to become a practical reality. Perhaps we also need some fresh faces in the international community’s peace efforts, not least in the context of the middle east, and Israel and Palestine. In that vein, will Ministers tell us exactly what contribution and progress the former Prime Minister Tony Blair is making in his role as the Quartet’s special envoy? He was always a rather bizarre choice as a middle east peace envoy, and I would like to know whether Ministers think the time has come for him to go and to make way for fresh faces and those slightly more actively engaged in the massive changes taking place in the region.
The clear policy of Arab partnership also needs to extend to states and people currently overlooked. I will end with one example that I hope Ministers will take up: the case of Dr Kamal al-Labwani. He is a Syrian doctor, writer and artist who took part in the brief but unsuccessful Damascus spring in 2001 and the founder of the excellently named Liberal Democratic Union. In 2005, he was charged with weakening national morale and imprisoned. He was behaving only as a free citizen in a free country would have done—an extraordinarily courageous approach once described in Europe by Vaclav Havel as living in truth—but it resulted in his imprisonment. The charge was changed to scheming with a foreign country with the aim of causing it to attack Syria, and he was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment. He is now on hunger strike, along with other prisoners in the Adra prison. His detention has been condemned by a UN working group on arbitrary detention as arbitrary and contrary to the UN declaration of human rights, and there is now disturbing news of fresh detentions and disappearances, including of members of Dr al-Labwani’s family, who bear no responsibility for any of his political actions. If we are to have a real Arab partnership for peace, democracy and reform in the region, it must reach out to people such as Dr al-Labwani and other courageous members of democratic movements who might not be in government, and not just to the emerging democratic Governments.
I want to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but first on north Africa I want to say that I, like everyone who has spoken, welcome the popular uprisings that started in Tunisia. Nicholas Soames gave us the background to it: the suicide of the person involved and what followed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and now Bahrain. However, I disagreed with him when he gave the impression that all along Britain has been on the side of those in Arab countries seeking freedom, dignity and respect. That has not been the position—I only wish it had been.
One of the few advantages of age is that one can remember what has happened in the past in one’s own lifetime. Sixty years ago, there was a reforming Iranian Government with Mossadegh as Prime Minister. In no way was he ever accused—it would have been farcical had he been—of being an Islamist or connected with terrorism. The truth was far from it. However, that reforming Government was overthrown by Britain and the United States, and of course a few years later came the sad and tragic Suez episode. We do not have an honourable record, and I only wish that we did.
It came as no surprise to anyone—certainly not to me—that Gaddafi’s murderous regime refused to give way, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia. Gaddafi was determined to stay on with his cronies. What is happening in Libya now is deplorable to say the least, and the International Criminal Court should certainly keep a careful record and prepare the necessary indictment of Gaddafi and those responsible. However, as I have argued in the past fortnight, I am not persuaded that western military intervention in that country would be the right course to pursue, let alone any unilateral action by Britain. It would be interpreted in most parts of the Arab world—if not by the Governments, then by the population—as an attempt once again to control a country because of its oil resources, and would be looked on as a colonial or imperialist intervention. As I said in an intervention on the Foreign Secretary, if we were to intervene in Libya, why not in Bahrain? What would be the argument for intervening militarily in one country, but refusing to do so in Bahrain? There would be absolutely no logic to it.
May I politely suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the answer depends on the difference between Bahrain and Libya? We cannot adopt a world view that assumes that all those countries are the same; it is the specificities of those countries that are relevant.
Yes, of course there are differences, and no matter how non-democratic Bahrain is, I am not suggesting that it is on the same level as Gaddafi’s regime, but there has already been a foreign intervention in Bahrain. What I am saying—and I do not see how it could be contradicted—is that if we were to intervene in
Libya, there would be no less of an argument for doing so in the case of Bahrain. However, if the United Nations Security Council agreed to a no-fly zone, it should be supported by the international community at large. That would give legitimacy if any intervention was to take place, but without such a resolution, there would be no legitimacy whatever.
One or two hon. Members who have spoken—including Martin Horwood, who spoke a few moments ago—have rightly deplored arms sales to Libya, but there was an arms fair in Libya last November. I am not making a party point now—if my side had been in government, that arms fair would obviously have taken place and we would have participated as a country—but is it not deplorable? We read of France and other countries deploring what is happening, but information published by the Library shows that
“Bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles…other explosives” were all sold to Libya by France and Germany, including some no doubt sold by us. They are being used now against the Libyan people, so I ask the question: when we sold that ammunition, who did we believe it was going to be used against? I think the answer is pretty obvious.
Let me say a few words in the time I have left about the Israel-Palestine dispute. My remarks will be somewhat different in tone from those of my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman and my hon. Friend Mrs Ellman. It goes without saying that I deplore the murder of the Fogel family which occurred last week. There could be absolutely no justification, no matter what policies Israel had pursued, for that murder, which was absolutely deplorable. I totally agree with every single word that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside said about anti-Semitism, whether from Hamas or sources in this country. I recently had a letter in a newspaper where I again made it clear that there should be total condemnation of every aspect of anti-Semitism, and I doubt whether anyone here would disagree.
Similarly, what I am about to say should in no way be interpreted as any kind of justification for the murders, but some 1,355 Palestinian children have been killed as a result of Israeli military action in the occupied territories since 2000. There is obviously a difference. However much we deplore the military action, there is a difference between what I have just described and the deliberate murders that took place last weekend, but can anyone imagine what the parents of those Palestinian children must have gone through as they watched their children being killed? A book has been published recently about a Palestinian surgeon whose three daughters were killed. He has no desire for revenge; he wants reconciliation and a settlement. This is all part of the ongoing tragedy of a dispute that continues year after year. At the end of October last year, 256 Palestinian children were in Israeli detention, including 34 between the ages of 12 and 15.
I respect my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, and I respect the way in which she defends Israel at every opportunity, but I did not hear one single word of criticism of Israel in her speech. I have already said that I endorse her condemnation of anti-Semitism. As far as the occupied territories are concerned, however, there seems to be no recognition by Israel that the settlements are completely illegal under international law. Such settlements now occupy 42% of the land area of the west bank. Indeed, that was the figure last June; a large amount of construction has taken place since then. What justification exists for that? It is being done in defiance of international law.
I am very pleased indeed that the British Government supported the resolution deploring such settlements, although the resolution was unfortunately vetoed by the United States. I am not in the habit of congratulating this Government, but I am also very pleased that the Palestinian delegation here has now been upgraded to a mission. That is the right course of action, and I am sure that it is fully supported by those on my Front Bench.
Israel, and those who support it, often refer to their wish for two states, but I do not see how that can be taken to be genuine if, at the same time, they use every opportunity to build further settlements in such a way that makes it almost impossible for a viable Palestinian state to come into existence.
If, as we all now recognise, there is a wish in the Arab world for a new life, for dignity, for the rule of law and for being able to work and to hold a similar position to those in the western world, why cannot the Palestinians have those things too? Do they deserve any less? How long must they remain under almost military colonial occupation? The Palestinian people have a right to a land and a state of their own, and I only hope that that will come about in my lifetime.
We have certainly heard some interesting contributions in the debate today. Unfortunately, the previous speaker was not one of them.
Following the collapse of the Berlin wall, many political commentators were left considering what the implications would be, beyond that of a reunified Germany. Since then, we have seen changes in immigration across Europe, as well as different forms of terrorism being promoted and the economic markets being subjected to different problems from those that they had experienced before the fall of the wall.
I urge Members to consider what the implications of the recent unrest and demonstrations in the middle east will be. The collapse of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt as a result of the region-wide uprising provides a unique opportunity for the development of genuine democracy in the middle east. The Government must not, however, make the same mistake as occurred in Iraq, by introducing a political vacuum that extremism will fill.
In Egypt, the cultural and political heart of the Arab world and a strategic pillar of EU policy in the region, the stakes are immense. The emergence of a democratic Egypt could serve as a moderating element throughout the region and promote a more stable, peaceful and progressive middle east.
Democracy is, however, more than mere elections. To avoid having a repressive Government freely elected, it is first necessary to introduce and firmly establish institutions of democracy such as a free press, free speech, a constitution, freedom for religion and freedom from religion, equal justice under the law, laws based on individual rights and women’s rights and an independent judiciary. The UK should not press for immediate free elections without the fundamental pillars of democracy being in place. If democracy is not nurtured and built steadily, radicals will emerge. This will not only drive a wedge between Israel and the Arab world, but deepen the divide between the west and the Islamic world.
Recent history has shown that having free elections in a country, without the entrenched safeguards of a genuine democracy, can result in the election of oppressive and undemocratic organisations. These dangers were witnessed in 2006, following the election of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which subsequently launched a violent civil war to oust the moderate opposition group, Fatah. We also saw it in1979 in Iran after the Shah was toppled. Within nine months, radical Islamists cemented their control of the country with the election of the ayatollahs.
It will take time for legitimate political movements to establish themselves in Egypt, after several decades in which the extreme Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, stood as the only alternative, albeit outlawed, to President Hosni Mubarak’s monolithic national democratic party. The Muslim Brotherhood, as the only large organised opposition group, could use elections to get into power before completely abandoning democratic structures. It is one of the world’s most influential Islamist movements, guided by an expansionist and anti-Israel agenda, and its goal is to implement strict sharia law, which is the antithesis of democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood leader, Kamal al-Halbawi, issued a series of provocative statements on a trip to Iran in this month, and expressed his hope that Egypt would become a “true Islamic state”.
The political future of Egypt has implications that go far beyond that country’s borders. The UK Government must provide support for Egypt during this important transition period while making it clear to the current military leadership that it must continue to meet its regional responsibilities. Egypt has a critical role to play in promoting Israel-Arab dialogue: indeed, its peace treaty with Israel remains the cornerstone of wider peace and stability throughout the region. It is in the interest of the international community, Egypt and the wider middle east that this agreement remains firmly in place. The UK Government should also strongly urge Egypt’s military authorities to continue to confront radicalism, particularly by taking an active role in preventing the flow of weapons to Hamas in Gaza. Last week’s terror attack in Itamar, which claimed the lives of five Israeli civilians, along with the recent seizure of Iranian-supplied weapons designated for terrorists is a reminder that extremist elements pose an ever-present danger to regional peace efforts.
A truly democratic Egypt that promotes regional peace is of paramount interest for the UK. The UK Government can contribute to this by helping to foster the traditions and institutions of a democratic society and by actively encouraging the country to continue to play a positive and stabilising role in the region.
In mentioning the middle east, commentators often focus on Israel itself. Her detractors, as we have already heard this afternoon, claim human rights abuses, while her supporters speak of a beacon of democracy. I believe now is the moment when we can all unite to seek a better middle east. Now that the opportunity has arisen, the Government must ensure that the Quartet, with Tony Blair as its representative, takes a leading role in making it happen. For too long, there has been a political myopia as to what is happening in the middle east beyond the borders of Israel. Our debate today provides an opportunity to address that and reveal to the world the truth about what we can achieve in the middle east.
This is a very important and valuable debate, in which a wide range of opinions have been expressed. I was disappointed that Mr Offord should make such an unpleasant remark about my hon. Friend Mr Winnick, who had expressed a perfectly legitimate and well thought-out point of view. Remarks of that kind do no credit to the debate.
I am glad that I have helped to perpetuate the sense of equality that we are observing this afternoon.
Obviously, this is a vital debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North rightly drew attention to its historical connotations, and to Britain’s historical involvement in the region. We tend to delude ourselves in the House that Britain is seen as a benign liberal democracy that never operates out of self-interest but is concerned only with the greater good of mankind as a whole, and that we seek to promote the rule of law, democracy and independence throughout the world. Sadly, the history of Britain’s involvement in north Africa and the middle east hardly adds up to that. We have seen, for instance, the 1952 coup in Iran and all its subsequent ramifications, the Suez operation in 1956, the United States bombing of Libya in 1986 when the planes took off from this country, the obsessive dealing in arms in exchange for oil, and the turning of a blind eye to volumes and volumes of human rights abuses in countries that we claim are close friends of ours.
Last week I tabled what I thought was a perfectly innocuous and reasonable question to the Secretary of State, asking him to tell me on which occasions since June last year
“human rights issues have been raised with… (a) Morocco, (b) Tunisia, (c) Algeria, (d) Libya, (e) Egypt, (f) Yemen, (g) Saudi Arabia and (h) Bahrain”.
I was very disappointed to be told that the Minister would answer “shortly”. I hope that he will answer shortly—
I will not give the answer quite yet, but I signed off the question this morning, and it is therefore in my mind. I will ensure that the text is available to me in time for my winding-up speech so that I can make one or two references to it. The hon. Gentleman can be sure that a very good and complete answer is well on its way to him.
I would expect nothing less, but I should have loved to have it before the debate so that I could have referred to it. That is why I tabled the question. However, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing the debate in the first place.
We need to embark on a complete reappraisal of our policy on the whole region. We cannot go on supporting potentates and dictators, absolute monarchs and abuses of human rights. We cannot continue to sell arms, tear gas, riot shields and all kinds of weapons of destruction, and then not be surprised when they are used. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North said in relation to the sale of arms to Libya, who on earth was supposed to be attacking Libya? Why should it require such a vast array of armoury, along with Saudi Arabia among other countries? We need to think carefully about that.
According to an article in the online edition of The Guardian,
“NMS took up to 50 British companies to arms fairs in Libya in 2008 and last November. The last exhibition reportedly showcased military wares such as artillery systems, anti-tank weapons, and infantry weapons.”
All those are being used as we speak. As for the question of arms sales, the Campaign Against Arms Trade refers to
“UK weapons used against pro-democracy protesters in the Middle East”, and goes on to report:
“The UK sold tear gas, crowd control armament and sniper rifles to Libya and Bahrain in 2010.”
As we speak, they are being used against protesters there. The Prime Minister, rather bizarrely, took a number of arms salespersons with him on his recent trip. Only a year before that, we were selling equipment to Saudi Arabia that is currently being used in Bahrain. And so the list goes on and on.
We cannot continue to assume that none of that has anything to do with us. It is time that we changed our policy on arms sales completely, and ceased to have an economy that is apparently so dependent on the sale of arms to so many people around the world. You cannot sell arms and then complain about human rights abuses when those arms are used against people who suffer as a result.
“would strongly oppose any interference in the affairs of Bahrain by other nations”.—[Hansard, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1135.]
Is my hon. Friend aware of any statement from the Foreign Office calling on the Saudis immediately to withdraw their invasion force?
I am not aware of any such statement, and I wish there was such a statement, because the Gulf
Co-operation Council sending forces into Bahrain is an invasion and an occupation, and is resulting in a great deal of oppression of people in Bahrain at present.
I want to mention three further specific matters. Palestine has been raised on a number of occasions, and there are a lot of issues to do with Palestine; indeed, last weekend I was at a conference dealing with Palestinian prisoner issues. I shall refer to just one astonishing fact, however: since 1967, Israeli occupation forces have arrested more than 800,000 Palestinians, and at present there are thought to be 6,600 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including children, elected members of the Palestinian Authority, a number of prisoners who are in isolation and at least 1,000 who are deprived of any kind of family visit. Those are abuses of the human rights of those individuals. Add that to the construction of the wall, add that to the settlement policy, add that to the checkpoints, add that to the imprisonment of the people of Gaza, add that to the huge levels of unemployment resulting in Gaza, add that to the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians living in the Negev desert, add that to the removal of Israeli-Palestinian homes in Haifa and Jaffa—add all that up and what we clearly get is a constant harassment of all the Palestinian people.
I hope that we are serious about human rights, but Israel has been building the wall and continuing the settlements in defiance of all international law and all pressures to the contrary. Where are the condemnations and the sanctions? Where is the public discussion in the west of Israel’s behaviour and policy? I do not want any bombing or assassinations—I do not want any murders or killings—but we see a whole process of hate developing because there is no condemnation of what is being done, which is so damaging to the Palestinian people.
One issue that has not so far been raised is the situation in Morocco, and the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara and the several hundred thousand Sahrawi people who have been in refugee camps in Algeria since 1975. I hope that one day the UN through MINURSO—the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara—will take on a human rights role, which I think it should have, and that it will succeed in carrying out the decolonisation statutes, which would give the people of the Western Sahara a right of self-determination.
There is now a third generation of residents in those refugee camps in Algeria, hoping one day to be able to go home. Can we imagine what that must be like? It is not good enough for Morocco to say, “Well, there can be a degree of autonomy in the Western Sahara.” Under international law, it is absolutely clear that, as a former Spanish colony, Western Sahara should, on removal of the colonial power, have the right of self-determination. That right has been denied to the Sahrawi people. It is a sore that runs through their feelings and that runs through the whole region. Again, that can be the start of a problem for the future. I am well aware that the Minister has some sympathy with the views that I am expressing. The all-party group on Western Sahara had a useful meeting with him, and I hope he will be able to give us some further news on this issue in his speech.
Three weeks ago I went on a short visit to Tunisia, where I spent a lot of time talking to people of all political persuasions: those of the left, the centre, a number of Islamic groups and others. It was clear that they were delighted with the removal of President Ben Ali, but they were frightened about the possible return of the Ben Ali regime in a different guise through the power of the security services and patronage in the state. They were therefore frightened of what may well happen in the future.
I was talking to some students in the central square who were very effectively kettling a group of army officers and soldiers, as well as their equipment and tanks. It was slightly bizarre to see a lot of students keeping the army in a square, because in most demonstrations I have been on if the army turns up, people generally think it is bad news. These students thought it was good news to keep the army there because, as they explained to me, a vast array of European-supplied anti-riot equipment was around the corner in the hands of the riot police and they thought that keeping the army in the square would keep the police out because they probably would not fire on the army. It was therefore a perfectly logical choice to make.
I discussed with the students what their hopes for the future were, and the answers were diverse; there was no coherent central theme to what they wanted, except freedom to demonstrate, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and so on. When I asked them whether they wanted western help they said, “No, because when the west comes in it never leaves. We want to do this ourselves and we want to achieve something different ourselves.”
Amnesty International has sent out a very interesting briefing, pointing out the abuses of human rights and the shootings of people that have gone on in so many countries: Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The list goes on and on, and it includes Yemen, describing what is happening there at the moment. There is a common theme, which relates not only to the thirst for peace and democracy, but to an economic issue. So many of those countries have adopted economic policies that resulted in mass youth unemployment. This is about the anger of young people who see no future and no security for themselves in an oppressive state that has been largely supported by the west.
We need to think very carefully. We need to express a great deal of hope about what is going on throughout the region, but military intervention has brought problems in every place that we have been in in the past. I understand all the arguments for a no-fly zone over Libya, but I do not see how it will do anything other than exacerbate an already tense situation.
This debate is, of course, an extraordinary phenomenon. We have been stuck in intervention for the past 20 years. We have spent $3 trillion, we have had 100,000 lives lost and we have had more than 1 million soldiers pass through Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, yet we do not seem to have a clear answer on what we do in Libya. The lessons that we are taking from history are very dubious. People are referring to Bosnia, but they are forgetting that Bosnia was a sovereign, independent state when it asked for assistance—the entire debate in the Security Council was completely different. We fail also to understand ourselves. As hon. Members from all parts of the House have mentioned, we fail to understand our own tendency to be unable to do something with passionate moderation. We shift quickly from dipping our toe in the water to being submerged up to our neck—we go from a no-fly zone into a troop deployment.
The final thing that we misunderstand—this is the reason why we need to lift our eyes from Libya—is the way in which we are increasingly perceived in the middle east after our interactions with Iraq and Afghanistan. If we were discussing this immediately after the events in Kosovo, the whole debate would be completely different. If those events had just happened, we would be able to stand up and say, “We don’t care that the Russians are blocking us in the Security Council. We have done a good job in Kosovo and we are going to do the same thing in Libya.” But the intervening 10 years have made that option impossible, which is why the Government’s position is the correct one.
If I understand it correctly, the Government’s position is to push strongly for a no-fly zone, but a no-fly zone only with strong international backing. Many people on both sides of the House have suggested that that is a paradox and that it is somehow impossible. They say, “Either you push for a no-fly zone or you don’t. Your rhetoric has to be matched with your action. If you think you have a humanitarian right and an obligation, you should do it regardless of the international politics.” That no longer makes sense. It is perfectly consistent to say that we have a moral right and a moral duty to impose a no-fly zone but will not do so without the support of the United Nations. One of the most important things to remember in that context is not Russia but Brazil, India and South Africa—the emerging powers who are not, at the moment, on our side. If we try to lurch into this thing without bringing with us what will probably be the majority of the countries in the world, it will be extremely unwise and very dangerous. Does that mean that we should do nothing? No. It means that we need to lift our eyes above Libya. We need to see the incredible potential in this region, if we are patient, over the next 20 to 30 years.
We tend, I think, to get caught up in exactly what happens when a helicopter lands near Benghazi, rather than keeping our eyes on Egypt and Tunisia and on what the middle east and north Africa mean to us. They mean so much to us. It is not just that they are on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is not just that they have this incredible young, unemployed population who are both a potential source of prosperity for their own nations and for us and a potential threat to us. We also have much greater leverage on those countries than on the nations that are much further away, such as Afghanistan.
The relationships between France and Morocco and between Italy and Libya—indeed, around the whole Mediterranean littoral—are so close that that region is definitely within Europe’s sphere of influence. If we can move from panicking about exactly what is happening in Libya to considering how to invest over the next 10 to 30 years and how to put ourselves in a position where all the talk about what we do to make this our 1989 and to make the middle east and north Africa another example, along with central and eastern Europe, of how we can move countries to a more prosperous, democratic future, it will obviously be good for us and for them.
We need to be cautious. A lot of nonsense is talked about democratisation and it is very easy for us to imagine that we can somehow go into someone else’s society and create civil society and good governance and eliminate corruption when those are not things that we have proved very able to do in Kenya, Nepal or Afghanistan. That does not mean, however, that we can do nothing.
The lesson from the experience of central and eastern Europe is that progress is possible, but the kind of progress we should make is exactly the kind of progress that we have been speaking about. I applaud what the Government have said about access—to markets and to people—but the lesson from eastern Europe is that that needs to be adjusted. What was very smart about what we did in eastern Europe was that our policy, for example, towards Slovakia was different from our policy towards the Czech Republic—we were more open towards the Czech Republic, and people in Slovakia saw that and moved. Too often, our policy towards north Africa has been a one-size-fits-all policy. We now need a policy that not only no longer says that Tunisia is simply within France’s sphere of influence—that we will not do anything about Tunisia because that is a French affair—but says that Tunisia might deserve different treatment from countries such as Libya, and that Egypt might deserve different treatment from countries such as Morocco.
The hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating speech. Frankly, the comparisons with 1989 are wrong, because this is more like the crushing of what happened in Hungary or Prague than a gentle transition to democracy. We should never forget that Mrs Thatcher did not support German unification at that time. In 1980, when Solidarnosc was suppressed, many countries were quite happy to see stability restored and caution was the watchword of the day.
On the hon. Gentleman’s narrow point about how we treat Tunisia, when I was Europe Minister I tried to get Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria switched to the European department of the Foreign Office, but the Africanists put their little feet down and said, “No, they belong permanently to Africa.” Will he talk to his colleagues at the Foreign Office and get those countries treated as part of the broader south Mediterranean and European hinterland rather than African ex-colonies?
I disagree very strongly and I think that in 10 to 20 years’ time, the right hon. Gentleman will have been proved wrong. I think the situation is equivalent to 1989 and that is the direction in which those countries are heading. It is patronising and mistaken of him to believe that this is simply a repeat of the 1950s and 1960s.
Let us look at Libya specifically. Gaddafi is going to be a very peculiar, eccentric and isolated figure even within his own country. Everything is shifting against that man. When he came to power, the population was rural and there was an anti-colonial movement. He now faces a situation in which 80% of Libyans live in cities in which he is perceived as a colonial oppressor. He has gone from the bloodless revolution that brought him to power four decades ago to a bloody attack on his own people. What we are hearing in Egypt and Tunisia is not some accidental, sporadic pop-up that will be constrained by inevitable forces of tyranny or Arabic culture. It is probably something closer to what we have seen in central and eastern Europe and in Latin America in the past 20 to 30 years. Furthermore, it is in our political and moral interests to support it. Even if I am wrong and it is not an inevitability but only a probability that things are going in that direction, it is the direction in which we should be pushing. This is Britain’s opportunity and Europe’s moment, and that is the direction we need to go in.
I take absolutely no issue with the hon. Gentleman’s comment that it is our political and moral duty to do that. However, at the risk of rehearsing European history, the 10 countries that joined the European Union in 2004 were democracies before the iron curtain fell, so we were restoring democracy and we did it within the framework of membership of the European Union. It is different.
I thank the hon. Lady for those comments. The last thing that I, or any of us, want is to be starry-eyed about this. The differences that she has raised are incredibly important and have to be considered in relation to how we speak to the middle east. The whole movement in central and eastern Europe and the ability to speak about democracy, liberty and joining NATO and the European Union was driven by the history of the 1930s and by the cold war. The language on the streets in the middle east today is very different. I am afraid that George Bush has done a great disservice to words such as liberty, equality and democracy—words that were on the lips of Vaclav Havel—which do not sit so easily today when we talk to those countries. We need new words and I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend Nicholas Soames talk instead about dignity and justice. We need a whole new language and it needs to be driven by them, not us. Freedom is not something that is given but something that is taken.
All those words of caution need to be considered, but we can, nevertheless, have a constructive role over the next 20 to 30 years in helping the middle east and north Africa be more stable, more prosperous and more humane than today. That is our mission. That is what we have to put our weight behind and is where we need to invest, which means a number of things for our foreign policy. Rhetorically and financially we have been stuck in Asia. Financially, if we include debts and veterans’ costs, we are spending more than £7 billion a year in Afghanistan. Rhetorically, we have been in China and Brazil for good reasons—they are big emerging countries—but this is a wake-up call about what is going on at the other end of the Mediterranean, which, in demographic, energy, religious and security terms will prove to be more important to our institutions and future than we have acknowledged in the past five to 10 years. We therefore need to invest in institutions.
I absolutely celebrate what the Foreign Office is doing in recruiting more Arabists. We need people who can focus on Azeri and people who speak different languages. There are not enough British ambassadors in the middle east who speak fluent Arabic. We need to make sure that Tunisia is no longer seen as some French extension and we also need to take into account the lessons from European enlargement. We need to look at the way in which the Commission approached Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and we need to give the prestige and investment to our energies in north Africa and the middle east that was given to those countries.
If we get those things right and we keep to the principles on Libya that the Government have put in play—first, clarity; secondly, a coalition; thirdly, a recognition that we can set strategic direction without having to rush in with our troops; and finally, institutional investment over the next 10 to 20 years in our relationships with these countries—I think we will find that although we can do much less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and to follow the interesting and thought-provoking speech made by Rory Stewart.
We are living through extraordinary times when a single incident in Tunisia has sparked a movement against dictatorship and repression, and a movement for democracy, human rights and freedom, throughout the regions of north Africa and the middle east. It is still too early to say whether these times possess the precise significance of the events that led to the fall of the communist regimes in eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the international community must ensure through its collective action over the coming days and weeks that the Arab spring does not become simply another Prague spring. While democracy should never be imposed by external forces, we should endeavour to assist those who are campaigning for human rights and freedoms in their hour of need.
Let me turn first to the most pressing area of concern: Libya. The unrest there began on
There is a need for immediate action by the international community to prevent further attacks by the Gaddafi regime on the protesters and the interim national council. While we have been engaged in this debate, the BBC and Reuters have said that air strikes have been reported on the outskirts of Benghazi and at Benghazi airport, so the situation is clearly fast-moving. If the regime launches a brutal counter-attack, there is a strong possibility of a severe loss of life in Benghazi, so the international community must be ready to consider measures such as a ceasefire and a no-fly zone over Libya. Latest reports, and indeed the Foreign Secretary’s opening speech, indicate that the UN Security Council might consider and vote on the draft resolution on Libya in the next few days.
Views differ about the nature of any no-fly zone. General McPeak, the former US air force chief of staff who helped to oversee no-fly zones in Iraq and the Adriatic, has advocated a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas, which would not require the incapacitation of air defence systems. Other no-fly zones have been extremely demanding to police, as they have required AWACS, aircraft refuelling support and round-the-clock monitoring. We should be mindful of what we might ask of the pilots involved in policing a no-fly zone, as well as the risk of incidents of friendly fire. A no-fly zone did not stop the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, but if such a measure proves vital for humanitarian reasons in the coming days and weeks, the Security Council should follow the lead of the Arab League.
A no-fly zone did not stop what happened in Srebrenica—I was there earlier than that—but the no-fly zone over Bosnia was ineffective because it was not properly set up. If we are going to do something, let us do it properly and make sure that it works—otherwise forget it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and one I will refer to later in my remarks.
We ought to follow the lead of the opposition national council and the EU and take the steps required to protect against future and further atrocities by the regime. There are important contrasts with the more complex no-fly zone that operated in Iraq between 1991 and 2003, which required on average 34,000 sorties a year, at an annual cost of nearly $1.5 billion. Shashank Joshi said recently:
“In Libya, by contrast, NATO might only need to cover Tripoli, its transport corridors, and… urban areas threatened by Qadhafi loyalists.”
As he also pointed out this week, arming the opposition would cause a serious risk. Portable anti-aircraft missiles could slip out of responsible hands and be used against western targets, and small arms proliferation is already a blight in that part of the world.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise what he has just said? I think that he said that we should not arm the resistance movement. Does he realise that Richard Dannatt and many others who have great experience are calling for these people to be properly armed? Otherwise, there will be a massacre. Does he really appreciate what he is saying?
There is a range of views on this, and we should proceed very carefully and in full recognisance of all the arguments before taking steps over the next few days, particularly on arms.
It is clear that any no-fly zone would require a sound legal mandate invoking chapter VII of the UN charter where possible. There are also practical difficulties in enforcing a no-fly zone against helicopters, as a breach of it might require attacks against ground targets.
The humanitarian situation in Libya and its neighbouring states has worsened over the past few weeks, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reporting that more than 280,000 people have fled Libya and crossed the borders into Tunisia and Egypt. This week, the UNHCR reported that people seeking to flee combat areas in search of refuge are unable to do so or are being prevented from doing so, with a particularly critical situation affecting trapped refugees and asylum seekers who have been detained. We should support
UNICEF in its efforts to make an immediate response to alleviate the humanitarian crisis as soon as it can safely enter the country.
The key point is that the international community cannot abandon the Libyan people in this time of need. This must not be another situation like 1992 where, having supported the Shi’a community in Iraq, we then abandoned them when Saddam began to attack them and gave little other than moral support thereafter.
In the few moments remaining I will turn to some of the other states in the neighbouring areas. In Bahrain, movement towards a genuine constitutional monarchy seems to me to be the most likely step to bring about reconciliation and progress. Other middle east Governments must respond to the movements for political and economic reform, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. As many Members have said, we need to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and secure a viable Palestinian state, cohabiting alongside an Israeli state, in order to begin the process of providing a better future for people in the region.
I saw some very interesting data from the Pew global attitudes project last year, which found a decline in support in the Muslim world for radicalism and terrorist attacks. I think that that shows the genuine beliefs of the people in the middle east. They want peace and security and, above all, economic development and reform. As Secretary of State Clinton set out in her speech in Doha on
Developing civil society, helping to reform the economy and helping the peoples of the middle east and north Africa to increase their human rights and freedoms will be vital to their future and to the security of the region, and in an interconnected world it will be increasingly important for our security here at home in Britain, too.
My mind has been expanded by many people’s contributions today. We have looked at the situation in the middle east from many different perspectives, and I was interested to hear Mr Bain talk about trade issues. I will begin by looking at what has been going in the middle east and its wider diplomatic impact on us, and then I will come back to the pressing issue of what we must do for the 1 million people in Benghazi.
The world has changed fundamentally. It has changed financially in the past four years, and now our diplomatic policy, which has held for decades in the middle east, has been shaken. Stability, over legitimacy, has been the watchword, but now we have reversed that and need to ensure that not only we as a country but Europe and the west are at the forefront of this new, emerging and neighbouring area in the middle east.
We face a new world order, with not only instability in the middle east, but changing priorities for some of our closest allies, and that requires a revised response from this country—a reshaping of our approach to diplomacy. Dealing with volatility diplomatically is always difficult, and certainty is most certainly elusive in the middle east and north Africa, but the desire for certainty must not tempt us to back winners throughout the region.
Many, including myself, think that it might be more than 10 years before we can see an exact pattern—an exact level of stability—in countries that are going through such fundamental change, but it would be extremely dangerous if we at this stage chose who we believed were going to be the Governments or the winners in those countries, so we need to be cautious of supporting one iteration of these dynamic events over another.
We need to be seen to be the supporters of the citizens of those countries, rather than of their Governments. If their future Governments reflect the wishes of those citizens, our stated support for their aspiration will coincide with support for their Government. If those Governments are not in step with their people, they will not represent stability, so we need to be more subtle, nuanced and sensitive to the citizens, not just to their Governments. Volatility in diplomacy is going to be the new certainty.
Fundamental changes in power structures are also taking place. Regional power is playing a stronger role, over the global structures that we have had in the past, and it is really positive to see the Arab League making some decisions. For too long it has been merely a talking shop, but Europe needs to be more united, too, and to have a stronger voice throughout north Africa and the middle east.
These developments, particularly in the middle east, have revealed a changing world and, explicitly, changing expressions of interest. Direct national interest appears to be determining countries’ appetite for engagement, and the US has shown quite a reluctance to commit one way or another, but ironically that has offered greater space for, and demanded increased responsibility from, regional actors, such as the Arab League, Europe and the African Union.
Our Government and European countries are taking the lead in the UN. I know that there are some questions about certain members of the European Union, but it is a European initiative that is coming forward. We now need to allow for regional solutions to come forward too, with people neither expecting nor depending on intervention by global powers. However, although regional responses may be positive in sharing responsibility and expanding the horizons of different parts of the European and African space, they might create increasing instability and less international control over conflicts and crises.
I should like to return to the point that my hon. Friend Mr Cash has ensured we have not forgotten. One million people are trapped in a town that has been surrounded and is being bombed at this moment. We are facing a very horrid dilemma. Do we enter Libya? Do we arm the rebels in Benghazi? Are we to ensure that we deliver a no-fly zone? Should we be looking at the supply lines as being the crucial bloodstream that is allowing Gaddafi to intervene?
These are some of the approaches that we have used in the past. I believe that we now need to look carefully at a new international peacekeeping and humanitarian toolkit. Are we being creative enough? Will our UN resolution allow for arms to enter Benghazi as part of the UN right to protect? Are we able to adopt new mechanisms that reflect our support for people over their Governments? I ask one question of the Government: are they offering support for the Libyan rebels in support of their desire and need to establish a small enclave very quickly? I am looking to see whether it would be possible to establish a humanitarian state over a short period and create a humanitarian protectorate immediately. We need game-changers, because the game has changed. I hope that the new, more creative and immediate responses that we need will be put in place quickly enough to save the 1 million people in Benghazi.
It is a pleasure to follow Laura Sandys, who put her finger on the main issue that I want to address—no-fly zones. There has been a confusion between military and humanitarian aims and outcomes, and if we are not clear when we are taking military action and do it under the guise of humanitarian action, we might end up doing neither properly.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the move towards a duty to protect—a concept that the United Nations has started to develop. The question of the stage at which the United Kingdom feels that it should step into the breach in a duty to protect is a very live one. The Foreign Secretary said in his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee that it depended on circumstances. Of course, that is right, but this place, at some stage—probably not now—needs to think through what the duty to protect would mean in practice. If there was one mistake that the Blair Administration made in the run-up to the Iraq invasion it was that the debate should have been about “Why now?” rather than weapons of mass destruction. That should have been the logic of his Chicago speech and the subsequent actions.
However, today’s debate is about north Africa and the middle east. I should like to make a technical and narrow contribution about no-fly zones, which many people have talked about. Even when the Prime Minister raised the issue, I was not entirely convinced that he really knew what he was asking for. I thought it might be useful to look back at the experiences of previous no-fly zones and the lessons that we should have learned from them regarding where they worked and where they did not.
The no-fly zone in northern Iraq from 1991 to 2003 is, by and large, seen as a successful one. The reason is that the northern no-fly zone linked western air operations with Kurdish political parties and militias. In combination, they deterred Iraqi military action against the Kurds, which enabled a stable and sophisticated political and economically prosperous autonomous Kurdish cell. That success endured, even after the 2003 chaos. The northern Iraqi no-fly zone is arguably the most successful single engagement of the entire UK military engagement in Iraq since 1991. We ought to hold on to that point, because I do not think that the subsequent two no-fly zones were successful and we must consider why.
The southern Iraqi no-fly zone lasted from 1992 to 2003, and was imposed after the brutal repression of the Shi’as was effectively complete. In other words, we stepped in after the disaster had happened. No coherent
Shi’ite political structure was accessible to the west and there was no appetite for direct action to prevent Iraq draining the southern marshes, on which the Shi’as depended for survival. From a humanitarian standpoint, the no-fly zone achieved little. As a coercive policy instrument, it achieved more. In 1994, it was extended from latitude 32° north to 33° north. To prevent a re-attack on Kuwait, its terms were widened to make it a no-drive zone for Iraqi armoured and mechanised divisions. In 1998, Operation Desert Fox was launched through the southern no-fly zone against sites associated with the development of weapons of mass destruction in central Iraq. The capture of Iraq’s senior commanders in 2003 revealed that Operation Desert Fox persuaded Iraq to abandon its manufacture of WMD.
The third no-fly zone I will discuss was in Bosnia from 1993 to 1995, and I am glad that there is somebody in the Chamber who knows much more about it than I. The assessment is that it was neither a practical nor a political success. Its effectiveness was limited by restricted rules of engagement that prevented action against helicopters, and by poor co-ordination between NATO and the UN. Its coercive impact was seriously undermined by a bitter political dispute between European capitals and the Clinton Administration over America’s preference to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims and to strike the Bosnian Serbs directly.
I come now to the practicalities and what we should do in Libya. The conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yugoslavia indicate that air forces equipped with 1970s and 1980s Soviet and French aircraft are comprehensively outmatched by air forces equipped with modern western aircraft and training. Technically and tactically, the US and NATO have consistently proved their ability sufficiently to suppress 1980s vintage integrated air defence systems, and thus enable air operations at an acceptable level of risk. That does not necessitate the complete destruction of the IADS. Indeed, that was never achieved in Iraq or the Balkans. In Iraq, between 1998 and 2000, there were 470 separate engagements of American and RAF aircraft by Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. They were defeated by a combination of tactics, self-protection counter-measures carried by all participating aircraft, aircraft equipped with anti-radiation missiles designed to attack air defence radars, and airborne stand-off jammers. Importantly, the US remains the only nation with the electronic warfare and ARM capabilities needed to support sustained operations against a functioning IADS.
Clear command and control to prevent the destruction of friendly military or civil aircraft is a prerequisite for any air operations, as are legal and unambiguous rules of engagement. Ambiguities that might allow transport aircraft and helicopters to fly or for civilian aircraft to be used for combat operations provide obvious points of challenge. The southern Iraqi no-fly zone was undermined by Iraqi Airways flights between Baghdad and Basra, and Baghdad and Mecca. The Bosnian no-fly zone was rendered ineffective by the consistent use of helicopters, particularly by the Bosnian Serbs. The success of the US special forces and air power and the Northern Alliance’s forces in Afghanistan 2001 reinforces the experience of the northern Iraqi no-fly zone. To be effective, air operations must be designed to affect the surface of the earth and influence protagonists.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case about something that we are only starting to understand—the strength of the armed forces involved. She is absolutely right to say that second-generation bits of kit are involved in the current situation, some of which have fallen into the rebels’ hands and are being used. However, it is dangerous to compare Libya with Bosnia, Iraq and other places, because the terrain is very different. A 750-mile stretch of land, 5 miles wide, is the area that needs to be controlled, so we are comparing apples and pears. I urge caution in suggesting that because something did not work in Iraq or Bosnia, it could not work in Libya, which is a very different ball game.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he allows me to correct the impression I might be giving that I am against no-fly zones. I believe that we need to consider this carefully and positively and work out how to make it happen. In a sense the Libyan terrain is much easier, not least because, to state the obvious, it is much flatter than Bosnia in particular.
However, I do not believe that we yet have the local engagement with the political parties and groups on the ground that made the northern Iraq no-fly zone successful. We have not yet achieved that in Libya, and we need to establish it. I suggest that the Libyan air force capabilities are probably pretty much comparable with what Yugoslavia and the Iraqis had in the 1990s.
I think it was Rory Stewart who cautioned us to try to learn from history. As A. J. P. Taylor said, it is perfectly possible not to learn lessons from history and to make entirely new mistakes. There are some things that we can learn from no-fly zones. We need absolutely clear and unambiguous rules of engagement and absolute clarity about when the purpose is humanitarian and when it is military, and unless the no-fly zone supports something that is happening on the ground, it will not help. We had better be aware of that.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I have listened carefully to all the contributions so far, and I have been struck by the efforts of various speakers to understand better what is going on by finding some frame of historical reference to link it to. Is it more like 1989, 1956, 1918, 1848, 1789 or 1453? It is a tempting game to play. As Ms Stuart made clear, historians often debate whether we can learn adequately from the past, or whether we repeat mistakes from the past. I would argue, however, that we can learn some lessons from the themes of the past.
Members have spoken about the revolutions that we have seen in the Arab world. It is worth remembering the etymology of the word “revolution” and the circumstances in which it was first used. It was in the Italian city states of the renaissance, where rich families ruled cities and feuded with each other. One family would take over amidst much bloodshed, and there would be a change of ruling family. That was called a “revolution”, because there had been a full cycle and things came back to exactly where they had started.
The big fear about the situation in north Africa is that we will see the blooming of potential but then a return to the status quo. That would be the greatest tragedy of all. History has shown that at the moment when autocracy is weakened and a dictator takes his foot off the neck of the people whom he is oppressing, not only is there the greatest opportunity for more freedom and democracy but there is the greatest risk that extremists will be able to use the opportunity to flourish and to gain legitimacy through the ballot box.
I was pleased to hear hon. Members speak earlier about the importance of civil society. One contributor said that civil society could not be created from outside, but I strongly believe that the greatest contribution the Government can make to what is sadly occurring in north Africa and middle east is to do all they can to use their soft power to strengthen civil society.
My hon. Friend Nicholas Soames was quite right to point to the need for evolution over time, but equally we have been urged to raise our sights over and above Libya. That is difficult to do on the day we hear of Benghazi being bombed, and of a million inhabitants being threatened. Who knows what Muammar Gaddafi will unleash?
When an autocrat takes his foot off the gas, the international community seems to get the message that now is the time for him to go, as we saw in Egypt and Tunisia. However, when a dictator appears to be more implacable, as in Libya and—dare I say it?—Côte d’Ivoire, they appear to manage to gain greater legitimacy, and indeed more staying power, and the developed world ceases to take notice. Suddenly, those dictators are not on the front page but on page 2, or on page 22 of Le Monde, as someone noted earlier. It is important that when the international community sends a message, it remains resolute, so that the message does not diminish over time.
As someone who came to political maturity—if I can call it that—during 1989, I found it deeply inspirational to see people reclaiming democracy in Egypt. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston pointed out, the Egyptians had a history of democracy and civil society, and were claiming it back. However, true democracy and true freedom is not a matter of forming an orderly queue outside a polling station to cast a vote; it is far greater than that. I want to ensure that we do not replicate in Egypt what we saw happen in Gaza, where the mechanisms of freedom and an electoral process gave an opportunity to Hamas to take power, and to exploit and misuse those opportunities. Mrs Ellman spoke eloquently and more than adequately about the true nature of Hamas—I have no wish to repeat what she said, because it was all entirely true.
I would rather we looked to the example of Turkey, where an Islamist party has managed to demonstrate its democratic credentials and minimise the role of the army. My great concern in the case of Egypt is the immense strength that the army retains, in terms not merely of military power but of economic power. The Egyptian army has fingers in so very many pies—it even owns tourist hotels and transport companies. The great danger is that we will see a true renaissance revolution in Egypt, whereby in a few months’ time we will have gone through the cosmetic process of creating an electoral register and holding notionally free elections, but the power behind the throne remains. That is not a democratic revolution, but merely a changing of the guard.
I am also greatly concerned about the impact that events in Egypt will have on Israel. No matter what some in the House say, Israel remains in a very fragile strategic position. Compromise becomes ever harder to find in Israeli politics. We have spent a lot of time in this debate discussing the impact of demographics on the unleashing of the Arab spring. As one hon. Member said, the combination of a young population and the lack of economic growth conjured up a perfect storm. We see a similar perfect storm in Israel. The higher birth rate among the orthodox community and the Arab population in Israel is changing Israeli electoral dynamics. As Mr Winnick rightly pointed out, Israel has a very pure form of proportional representation that allows very small parties to get in on very small shares of the vote. It then becomes extremely hard to build broad-based, stable and endurable Governments that are committed to the cause of peace.
I am greatly concerned that as these demographic trends continue the pro-peace centre of Israeli politics will shrink and shrink, and it will become ever harder for the great number of people in Israel who want peace to prevail within their own political system. I know that we do not like to interfere in other people’s electoral systems, but I strongly believe that until Israel addresses the stability of its Governments, the chances of achieving a lasting and endurable peace will be that much harder.
The hon. Gentleman is making an admirable speech, and I support a lot of what he says. He made an interesting point about the nature of Israeli politics and its influence on the peace process. However, does he agree that if Israeli citizens felt more secure they might choose candidates and Governments more conducive to the peace process?
That is an interesting point. There is a wider one though, which is that the nature of the electoral system gives a disproportionate amount of power to those more radical. It is their influence rather than the amount of support they have that causes the problem in Israel.
Finally, I want to make the point I feel most passionate about. We have spoken about the importance in north Africa and the middle east of inculcating democracy, freedom and the ability to live a free, harmonious, economically meaningful life. That is at risk, however, for a key and important group of people in the region—the Christian community. I have been deeply disturbed to learn of disquiet—bordering on violence—in Cairo, with the Coptic Christian community, and deeply concerned to learn of the murder of a Polish monk in Tunisia. Mike Gapes rightly pointed out that a lot of nasty things will creep out from under the stones of revolution, and I deeply hope that one of those is not more violence against Christian communities of whatever denomination. We have seen it happen in Algeria, and I do not want it happening across the whole of the middle east, because if that region is to succeed in the way that my hon. Friend Rory Stewart pointed out, it needs a deeper level of harmony. That means the ability of people of all faiths, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian, to get on. Until those divides are healed, I fear that the middle east will not take up its rightful role in the world.
It is worth bearing in mind that many in Europe regard the Mediterranean as a border. However, some of the finest Roman ruins are in Leptis Magna on the Libyan coast. In Roman times, the Mediterranean was called Mare Nostrum—“our sea”. As someone who usually does not have much time for the European Union, I think it is important that in the Euro-Med process and in what President Sarkozy has sought to do we reach out to north Africa and see it as part of Europe, not just another continent that we do not wish to know about.
It is a pleasure to follow Paul Maynard. Of course, if he goes to Tunis, he will see the ruins of Carthage, where our dear Roman friends sought to ensure that the Carthaginians were destroyed and not permitted a future. We do not want to revert to that kind of parallel.
There are a couple of interesting anniversaries for us to consider today. One is dear to me: it is 30 years since the suppression of the Polish union Solidarnosc at the end of 1981. That great hopeful moment of liberation for the Polish people was then crushed by a cruel dictatorship, and we did not know how to respond. I hope that we can think constructively about what is happening in north Africa, which indeed is a revolutionary moment and a hopeful moment for the world. We have heard good speeches from both sides of the House in what is a most enjoyable debate to listen to.
Today is also an anniversary of a different sort, because exactly one month ago, on
“Does he agree that a wind of change is blowing through the Arab world”?
I also put it to him that he should
“agree to a wide review of UK foreign policy in the region before it is too late”.—[Hansard, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1136.]
I wish that such a review had taken place earlier, but as so often in our country, it is now taking place under the force of events. There have been some unhappy reactions, but there is no point going over who made a mistake, who went on an arms sales trip, which planes could not leave the tarmac and the rest of it. Rather, we should work out how we need to go forward.
I will not talk about making any sort of military intervention in Libya, because there are others who are experts. However, if, as Rory Stewart pointed out, the intervention in Iraq helped to increase al-Qaeda’s standing and status, then perhaps non-intervention in Libya will have exactly the same impact. In the non-intervention philosophy of the 1930s—if I could take my hon. Friend Ms Stuart a little before her birth date—the line was “Do not intervene”, and as a result the most horrible dictatorships and repressions were given the green light.
What do we have as a foreign policy? There are perhaps three components to our foreign policy: hard power, soft power and political influence. Sadly, because of cuts in the military our hard power is, frankly, decreasing. We have two aircraft carriers that are now Britain’s no-fly zones because we do not have planes that can fly off them. We are also heavily engaged in Afghanistan. However, just as America’s international influence was drained by its presence in Vietnam year after year—the Americans stayed for many years after they could serve any useful purpose, allowing Brezhnev and other horrible dictators to roam freely round the world—we need to look at reducing our profile in Afghanistan faster.
We need to look at the fact that we are cutting back our diplomatic service, including our diplomatic foreign language training schools. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border appealed for more Arab-speakers. “Ditto,” say I, but we are not just cutting Arab-speaking diplomats; we are cutting our entire diplomatic presence.
Moving to soft power, the last time the Foreign Secretary came to the House to answer an urgent question, it was to defend the cuts to the BBC World Service. Two weeks ago the Secretary of State for International Development announced that he was cutting support for the International Labour Organisation’s core funding. However, there are trade unions in Egypt and Tunis; indeed, I have been meeting them on and off for 20 years, including the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, the one Tunisian trade union that has some independence. That union wants help from the ILO and the TUC, but we are cutting such aid at the very moment that it could be most useful in building civil society.
We are also reducing the number of students from those areas coming to study in Britain. We have fewer Chevening scholarships, but more importantly, we are saying to those students around the world, “You’re no longer welcome to come and study in mainstream British universities,” because of the anti-immigration nostrums of the Conservatives, in thrall to an unpleasant press. That is the decline in our soft power. I put it to the House that every Tunisian, Libyan or Egyptian who comes and gets a degree in Britain leaves a friend of Britain.
Does my right hon. Friend also recognise the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy? Its funding has been increased, but it has also been working in Lebanon and Egypt on strengthening parliamentary democracy.
I am a fan of the WFD, but its total income is less than half the going rate for a banker’s bonus—[ Interruption. ] For once, that was not my phone.
Madam Deputy Speaker and I have a relationship over my mobile phone—over it sounding in the Chamber, I hasten to add.
We are saying to the students of the region, “You are not welcome in Britain any more.” We are losing it on the soft power front. We are even withdrawing the pitiful amount of funding that we give to the Quilliam Foundation, whose director was imprisoned in Cairo and who knows the leaders of the Cairene opposition. It is preposterous that the Home Office should be shutting down that outfit at a time when it needs more help, not less.
I understand from replies to my parliamentary questions that the Department for International Development will spend more than £1 billion in the next four years on aid to India, a country with more billionaires and millionaires than we have, with a space programme—almost a man-on-the-moon programme—and with its own aid programme. We are giving £1 billion to India, yet we are not finding any money at all for Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco because they were not on any United Kingdom aid programme. Tunisia was not even a target country for our trade promotion activities.
That is what I mean about the Government’s utter lack of intuitive, emotional understanding of the changes that are about to take place. I know that there has been a crisis at the Foreign Office and that that has been uncomfortable for Ministers, and I do not blame officials, although perhaps I am not so sure about all the strategic top grip. I wrote an article in May last year saying that Mr Clegg should become the Foreign Secretary and that
We also need to find ways of making our Parliament more involved and engaged in these extraordinary events, not only in the region that we are discussing but elsewhere around the world. Since November last year, I have made 11 requests at business questions for a debate in Government time on international and foreign affairs. We are now having such a debate, but only thanks to the Backbench Business Committee. Yes, we have debates on specific issues relating to the middle east or to a particular country or cause of concern, but we do not discuss synoptically what we want from our foreign policy. Of course we can all do the party political knockabout, but there should be much more that unites us than divides us. For that to be achieved, however, we need more parliamentary involvement. When hon. Members go abroad, the event should not be pilloried in the press as a “junket”, and the Whips have to understand that travel not only broadens the mind but makes for a better House of Commons.
Finally, I repeat the appeal that I made to the Prime Minister, to which I have received a sympathetic response, that we need to create a British foundation for democracy development. This would in part incorporate the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and transform it from a £4 million or £5 million a year outfit to an £80 million or £100 million a year organisation. Even that amount would still not be remotely close to the annual allocation that we will give to India and other countries that benefit from DFID aid. Let that be what we will learn from this whole crisis, which will continue, albeit unevenly. I learn from
Le Monde today that there is a lot of repression in Morocco, for example, and I am worried about Prince Charles going there later this week. Tunisia is also far from stable, and Egypt still effectively has military power. Britain needs to think differently, and this House should be at the heart of making that happen.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr MacShane, who always brings an interesting angle to these debates.
I begin by congratulating the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and my Front-Bench team on recognising the scale of the unprecedented change that is taking place in the middle east and the role that the international community must play in promoting democratic reform. That is in stark contrast to some of our allies, who have been either slow or deliberately hesitant to speak out and join us in calling for change. It poses the question: how good are the international alliances and organisations of which we are part if they fracture at the first contact with an international crisis? For the UN, the EU and the G8, these are questions worth addressing so that we can act more propitiously when these events take place in future. I pose a question to Germany. It is a staunch ally and close colleague in Europe but why does it remain silent and fail to support a no-fly zone over Libya?
I called some friends in America, two Senators in particular, to ask why we had not heard more from the other side of the Atlantic. A lot of noise came back: concerns about spreading forces and interests too widely across the world, still undecided issues about Afghanistan, but also questions about who we are dealing with and the consequences of removing this particular dictator. After all, he is a much-improved dictator than he was 10 years ago.
If it is any consolation to the hon. Gentleman, he gets an extra minute by giving way to me. In some respects, the hon. Gentleman and other speakers are slightly behind the curve, as the United States is now working at the UN with Britain and France on a composite motion with good things in it. On Germany, I agree with him, but is the response surprising when some Members make speech after speech in this House attacking Germany and the EU and then, when they need Germany’s help, turn round and say, “Will you be our friends after all?”?
First, I am aware of where the US now stands and, secondly, I am not attacking anyone, but simply asking for some form of clarification of why Germany has taken the stance it has. I have inquired about it, but got no reply.
On the issue of why countries might be reticent, the particular dictator we are dealing with is a relevant issue. Gaddafi had, after all, turned his back on terrorism; he had stopped funding the IRA; he had paid compensation to victims of the Lockerbie bombers; he had suspended his nuclear programme; and he was no longer seeking weapons of mass destruction. He was co-operating with the EU on the movement of refugees. Yes, he might well be bad, but what will his successor be like? If we want to avoid another Somalia, perhaps we should keep this guy.
We also need to bear in mind the reputation we gain for wandering into countries, particularly in Arab countries such as Iraq. I happened to disagree with our invasion in 2003, but the long-term consequences of it on Britain’s reputation in the Arab world as a whole are huge—and stay with us to this day. This reticence to go into Libya is strengthened by reports circulating in America that suggest that twice as many foreign fighters against the US in the Iraq invasion came from Libya than from any other part of the Arab world. I can understand those arguments, but I do not agree with them.
The first problem is that such arguments fail to recognise the changing mood across the Arab nations. The mother of all Parliaments here should, after all, encourage democracy. The world is a much smaller interrelated global community. Oil prices, stock exchanges, trade movements and deals, business interests and so forth: for all these, we are so much more interrelated in comparison with the independence we used to have—perhaps enjoyed—in the decades and centuries before. Politicians move; ideas are set; and there are consequences when an event happens in one part of the world—whether it be a natural disaster as in Japan, or a human catastrophe such as we are seeing in Libya, with the movement of refugees and so forth. We cannot dissociate ourselves from what is going on in north Africa.
There are also more moral questions. One issue not much talked about is the level of genocide. How many people need to die before we wake up and say, “We must step in”? I am reminded of the spokeswoman who, in May 1994, said of Rwanda—Members might recall it from the films about the country—that the word “genocide” should not be used, and that “acts of genocide” should be used instead. She could not bring herself to use that term.
Apparently, 5,000 people have already died in Libya. We must ask ourselves at what point we should make a judgment from a moral perspective, let alone a legal one.
The Prime Minister has made clear three requirements for the establishment of a no-fly zone: a need for it, legal grounds for it, and of course regional support. Unfortunately, the dithering that has taken place over the last couple of weeks has allowed Gaddafi to regroup his forces. It has allowed to him to recruit mercenaries—because he cannot trust many of his own troops—and to steal the initiatives.
We should also ask ourselves why the “good” dictators, if I may call them that, have stepped down in this Arab spring, while the bad dictators—the ones who stay in there and fight—are being rewarded by being allowed to keep their jobs. Our failure to support the people in that regard sends a message to the other dictators, who say, “Let us hold our ground. Let us stick it out.” That is what will happen if the international community is not organised enough, and has not the necessary gravitas and determination, to mount a challenge.
The Arab League has been mentioned, and I referred to it in an intervention. The Arab League has no power. It is a group of Foreign Ministers who have no influence over the dictators to whom they report back. Moreover, Arab forces have never been organised. If we look back at the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars, we see that they have never been united. If a no-fly zone is imposed or intervention takes place, it will not be through those Arab nations. Their armed forces are nowhere near as strong as they seem to be on paper.
It is also necessary for us to understand the terrain. As I said when I intervened on Ms Stuart, a no-fly zone in Libya would be very different from a no-fly zone in Bosnia or Iraq. We need to understand the structure of communities in Libya. There is one long road leading from east to west which contains two main cities, two main groups of communities in Tripoli and Benghazi. We should control Libya with not just a no-fly zone but a no-drive zone. Such a measure would be far easier to implement than any that we have seen before.
Allowing Gaddafi to stay will have a number of consequences. There will be repercussions for his own people, and questionable alliances will develop. Gazprom will eye the region with envy, and will resolve to take over all the operations in north Africa and Libya in particular if Gaddafi stays. That may be one reason why it is not willing to support a no-fly zone.
We have also touched on military tactics. What is the purpose of a no-fly zone? Is it humanitarian or military? Those of us who have served in the military know that it is a force multiplier—a way of creating an advantage for one side or another. It would probably be necessary only to create a no-fly zone over Benghazi initially, and then to move forward from that. A no-fly zone is intended to prevent aircraft from moving, but that can be done in another way. A Storm Shadow missile could be fired right now, landing on the runways and preventing the aircraft from taking off in the first place. The aircraft that are available are not good, and many of them are already in rebel hands. There are other questions we should ask about tactics. We tend to grab at labels and to say, as armchair generals do, “That is what we have done in the past, so that is what we should do now.”
My hon. Friend asks, “What is a no-fly zone?” That is exactly the question that should be asked. Does he agree that it should not be merely a humanitarian air umbrella protecting people from being attacked in Benghazi, but should extend to Tripoli, so that Gaddafi cannot import more mercenaries—his merchants of death?
We are getting into the weeds here. We need to step back and consider the creation of a no-fly zone from a strategic perspective. What is our mission in supporting the rebels, rather than trying to create something about which the military tacticians need to decide? We must determine what our strategy is. A no-fly zone may be part of it, and the extent of the no-fly zone might be considered as well.
We are becoming very focused on Libya, but I mentioned the importance of Egypt in another intervention. The revolution there is not complete. There are worrying signs, such as the agreements that we have seen between the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces. People are being told, “You can only be a full citizen of Egypt if you can prove that your grandfather and your father were born in the country.” That completely removes a group of middle-class citizens who could possibly help to establish a new political society. We must not lose sight of where Egypt is going. Because it is so influential in north Africa and the Arab world in general, where Egypt goes other nations will follow.
Many comparisons have also been drawn with the changes following the fall of the iron curtain, and they are useful to some extent. However, communism was a one-party system, and it is far simpler to make the transition from that to a democracy—especially as many of the countries concerned were democracies prior to being entrapped behind the iron curtain—than it is to make the transition to democracy from a dictatorship, where the power is focused on an individual and the society is based on fear. Huge dangers arise when oppressive rule is released from its shackles, when they have been broken because of the creation of a power vacuum. We should consider our experiences in Afghanistan: 10 years after we wandered in there and tried to install some form of democracy, we are still struggling.
The world has been following the latest headlines very carefully. As we speak, Gaddafi is doing exactly what I said he would: he is deliberately bombing the runways in Benghazi to stop the rebels using their planes. The world is asking why the international community is not doing more, and the people of Libya are asking the same question. The turbulent chapter in world history that we are now experiencing, and which opened with the fall of President Mubarak, is far from over, and future generations will judge the current generation of leaders on its outcome.
At the heart of the matter is freedom, and the desire to grasp a rare opportunity to sow the seeds of democracy as people-power tries to usurp dictatorships across north Africa and the middle east. Events in the middle east are testing the international community, and they are moving too swiftly for us to be able to be a positive influence or force. To do nothing is to leave things to fate, and I fear that Iran is not going to do that, and nor is al-Qaeda. It is a sad irony that the global community is more than willing to help on one side of the world in saving and rebuilding lives after a natural disaster, but fails to act to prevent, or intervene in, a man-made disaster.
For Libya, the window of opportunity is closing. Gaddafi has taken advantage of our collective dithering to regroup and unleash hell on those who dared to stand up to him in the name of democracy. Across north Africa and the middle east I believe that, unfortunately, the worst is still to come, and the west must be better prepared to respond.
I shall end as I began, by praising the work of our Government and the lead they have taken. I only hope our allies will now play catch-up.
I, like all other Members of the House, am pleased at events in Tunisia and Egypt, and I welcome the desire of the people of the Arab world to bring about change in their countries. That certainly puts paid to the myth peddled by some in this House and the media that democracy is somehow incompatible with Islam. We should now provide humanitarian assistance, and help the people of the Arab world to set up a good system of civic governance and capacity-building. I know that the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office are supportive of that.
Today and in the past, we in this House have talked about the hypocrisy of various countries around the world, and Iran has been mentioned many times, but is it fair to single out one country as hypocritical? Have we not at many—or, indeed, all—times applied double standards in our dealings with different countries? As the senior American politician, Senator Lindsey Graham, observed last month:
“There are regimes we want to change, and those we don’t.”
Let me give some examples of our double standards. We talk of democracy, yet there was a democratic movement in Egypt in the ’50s, and we quelled it. We did the same in Iran in the ’50s: we opposed democracy there, and supported the Shah on the throne. As we see on our television screens, there are many parts of the world where there has been systematic genocide, ethnic cleansing and humanitarian disasters, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, yet we did nothing. Countries we could mention include Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. To those who say, “Well, those are past conflicts,” I refer to current conflicts in countries including Zimbabwe, Sudan, Palestine and Sri Lanka, with the Tamil Tigers’ rebellion. Thousands and thousands of people died in that war, so why did we not intervene there? Why do we choose where we want to intervene?
The answer to the hon. Lady’s rhetorical question is that we can do only what we can do. We would like to go into some of these countries, but we cannot possibly do so because we just do not have the means or the local support—we have got to have that.
But that is not right, because if the test is whether a humanitarian disaster is taking place or whether human rights are being violated, we should not be cherry-picking which fights we want to have; we should be prepared to go for all of them or stay out of all of them.
I just want to deal with my next point.
I was not planning to talk about Palestine, but I shall do so because so many hon. Members have referred to it and it is an interesting case. The undisputed facts of the history of Palestine are that before the creation of the state of Israel 9% of the land belonged to the Jewish people and 91% belonged to the Palestinians; the Nakba resulted in 75% of Palestinians being forced out of their homeland; 4 million people have since been left displaced—they are living in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere—and many thousands have died; and the massacres at Shatila and Sabra refugee camps killed more than 20,000 people.
The UN has passed a number of resolutions regarding the illegal settlements, but they have not been dismantled and continue to be built. As the Prime Minister said on Monday, if Israel carries on in this way there will be no land for a two-state solution. The people of Gaza have been collectively punished, with some 1.5 million people living on 3 km of land. That situation has been declared illegal by the UN, and when visiting Turkey our Prime Minister described Gaza as a “prison camp.” I went to Gaza last year and I was appalled by the conditions in which people are living there. If that is not an abuse of human rights, what is? The segregation wall has also been declared illegal. Again, land and livelihoods have been taken but nothing happens. We do not do military intervention there. I am not asking for military intervention there, but I am saying that we need to be careful when we start invading other countries.
We have heard about the concept of so-called “liberal interventions.” If we really want to undertake those, the United Nations should set up a special international army representing all the different nations. All the nations would make a contribution and it could then go to all the various hot spots of the world to sort the problems out. However, I know that that is unrealistic and it is not going to happen. We cherry-pick the disputes we want to have and decide that we do not want to bother with others, perhaps because the regime has been sympathetic to us in the past or perhaps because we have economic trade with the regime and we conveniently forget about whatever else it might have done. That has been the problem for our international policy, because perhaps we have not been an honest broker in a lot of these world disputes—perhaps it is about time we became one. This is not a party political point, because successive Governments have been carrying on with these policies. However, in some respects there has been no genuine honest brokering of the peace.
I recall hearing the speech that Robin Cook made in this Chamber setting out in a very analytical way the reasons not to go into Iraq. He mentioned a number of things, including the lack of information, the fact that the need for the war might have been pumped up and the fact that drumbeating for the war had risen sharply. He urged caution and said that we should not go into the war. Many people did not accept or heed what he said and now, with the benefit of hindsight, most people say, “Oh yes, what Robin Cook said was right.” We now hear that we had the wrong information.
On Libya, the situation is bad and I do not condone the death of anyone. I was sad to hear about the Fogel family in Israel. I do not believe in killing people and do not think that it can be justified. On those grounds, I am one of those people who do not believe that we should go into a sovereign nation and invade it. If we want to do that, we should invade all other nations where there have been even bigger problems. For example, in Sudan, 100,000 people have died—Libya is nothing in comparison.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that wars are awful, invasion is awful and occupation is awful and that at the end every war has to be settled politically in some way? Does she join me in regretting that far greater efforts were not made at the beginning of the Libyan crisis to emote some sort of political settlement despite all the obvious obstacles?
I agree entirely. We do not have to look far afield—we need merely to look to Ireland, with all its history and violence. In the end, a political settlement was reached. That has been the way forward. We need to try that with all the countries in the world.
Hon. Members can call me cynical, but the difference is that Sudan, Zimbabwe, Kashmir, Palestine, Sri Lanka and all those other countries do not have oil. Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo do not have oil. Libya does. Is that our motivation? Do we want to ensure that we control that country?
My hon. Friend mentioned Robin Cook and I served with him as a Parliamentary Private Secretary for a number of years. I remember how bitterly he was criticised by some hon. Members who are now present in the Chamber for authorising and supporting the intervention in Kosovo without UN sanction and, indeed, the bombing raids on Iraq, some of which were without UN sanction. Kosovo had no oil—the intervention was illegal and did not have UN authority. My hon. Friend was not in the House at that time, but where did she stand on that particular armed intervention?
I happened to spend two years working in Kosovo after the armed conflict and after the Serbian bombing. Having seen the situation, I can say that that was an immediate international humanitarian disaster that followed the massacre of 100,000 Muslim Bosnians. It was very much an effort by the United Nations to do with that particular war.
As has been mentioned, one cannot compare two things as though they are the same. Libya is a very different ball game to Kosovo and Serbia. Everybody knows what happened in the former Yugoslavia—hundreds of thousands of people were massacred and something had to be done. That is not the situation that we are talking about here.
A number of people in this country, even at that time, did not want to go into Kosovo. One might say that there was no economic rationale for going into Kosovo, but there was certainly an American strategic reason. The listening post in Cyprus was soon coming to an end and they wanted an additional listening post in the area of Kosovo. I spent two years in Kosovo and I saw the Americans’ Camp Bastion, which was a solid construction while most other countries had NATO flat-pack constructions, so there was certainly a strategic reason for the Americans to go in there. I agree that Robin Cook was able to persuade the then Government regarding Kosovo, but that has been the only honourable exception in all the disputes of the past 30 to 40 years.
I thank Yasmin Qureshi for her speech. I have to say that I am struck by the idea of there being a listening post in Kosovo and I am particularly struck by the idea that the second world war and the Falklands war were negotiated settlements. We actually had to fight to win those wars.
I am afraid that I, too, want to talk about Libya, particularly about the timing of decisions and what we should do. I feel very lucky, as we all do, to live in the United Kingdom. I have been to a few rotten places in my life and I feel very strongly as an internationalist that we should help countries and peoples who are less fortunate than ourselves. Where we can help, we should—I made that point earlier in an intervention—but we have to be pragmatic about our foreign policy. There should also be a moral dimension and we should be constructive. I am no warmonger. I have seen for myself what conflict brings. As the first British United Nations commander in Bosnia, I witnessed man’s inhumanity to man and I found it loathsome. For me, the political lesson of Bosnia was this: if you are going to do something, do it—make your decision and act. Be decisive, and be clear about your objectives. I do not think we can pussyfoot around when it comes to international crises. We should either do something effective or do nothing. Indecision is next to useless.
In such situations, the mission has to be clear from the start, but that did not happen to me in Bosnia. I had no formal mission for three months, but I said to my soldiers that we would have a mission. I told them that our mission was to save lives and I do not reckon that would be a bad mission for us in Libya—I think that all hon. Members present would agree with that. The tactics being used by Gaddafi’s thuggish forces seem remarkably similar to the tactics that I saw being used by General Mladic in Sarajevo in 1992 and 1993. He had no thought whatever for civilian casualties. I watched that happening and I felt impotent with rage because we could have done something about it but we did nothing. We all abhor what is happening in Libya on the road to Benghazi. Some hon. Members have suggested that we should not take too much from the past, but I am afraid that I am a bit of a dinosaur and I think that the lessons of Bosnia hold true.
The military situation for the rebels in Libya, which we have not touched on, is pretty dire at the moment but is not terminal yet. In the west, Gaddafi’s forces have not yet taken Misurata. In the east, approximately 5,000 of Gaddafi’s troops are besieging Ajdabiya, which is close to the strategic crossroads leading to either Tobruk or Benghazi. We know that Gaddafi’s forces rely heavily on mercenaries. Those guys carry out their business for gold, not love, and we somehow have to get to them.
I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend, who is making a powerful speech, but does he agree that Gaddafi’s trust in his armed forces is questionable? He cannot predict that a pilot getting into an aircraft who is told to go and bomb the rebels will actually go and do that and not fly somewhere else. That is why he is having to resort to using mercenaries.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Gaddafi has unreliable forces, so he needs to use mercenaries, whom he pays in gold.
Gaddafi’s forces are on extended lines of communication and supply, which is a good thing because he is not going as fast as he would want to. The key point is his rate of progress. Assuming the current rate of progress of his forces, it seems that they might take another month to get to Benghazi. There might therefore be a window of opportunity for action—perhaps up to 28 days or even more, but hopefully not a shorter period. However, as more time goes by, our chances of helping drop dramatically, so we must act as soon as we can. We are in a race against time and we must move fast.
Despite speed, however, we still must act morally and within a legal framework. What do we need in place? Many hon. Members have touched on the requirement for a Security Council resolution. The trouble with the Security Council is that it often takes decisions at the speed of a striking slug. Of course, there might also be a problem with one or two of the permanent members. However, as many hon. Members have stressed, it is essential that we have such a resolution because it gives us top cover.
Secondly, we must have Libyan support. By hook or by crook, we must ensure that whatever we do has the support of those people who oppose Gaddafi. At the moment they want a no-fly zone. As Gaddafi’s forces advance—I hope they do not; I hope they are defeated—I bet those people’s wish for more extensive military action in their support will become greater. I would like to see the no-fly zone for which they are calling, but let us be clear that there cannot be a no-fly zone without the United States.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but the answer is that I do not know. I would like to think that we would have some form of answer. I would also like the Arabs to come forward with assistance for their brothers in arms, which brings me on to my next point. We have good Arab League support although, as my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood stressed, it might not be speaking for its members’ Governments, even though it should be.
And everyone else as well.
I was interested that the hon. Gentleman said, “I don’t know,” when my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn asked what would happen if the rebels asked for more help. The hon. Gentleman talked about the hope that other Arab countries would intervene, but surely we cannot plan a war without knowing what we are ultimately prepared to do.
I shall not take another intervention from the hon. Lady. I was generous because she gave way to me.
Europe must participate, too. France is doing its best, but I would like to know where Italy would stand, given that Libya was one of its colonies—until, of course, the Eighth Army kicked them out in 1943. Finally, we must consider our own British public, who need to be fully on side. I suspect that they would be on side if the conditions that the Prime Minister and other hon. Members have laid down came into play. I do not think that we could do it unilaterally, and certainly not without a Security Council resolution.
I agree with the no-fly zone, but it must be effective. It cannot just be words. We must be able to strike on the ground if necessary. I am sorry about that, but that is what a no-fly zone means. I was underneath Bosnian Serb jets in 1993; there was supposed to be a no-fly zone, but they were 200 feet above me. A no-fly zone requires a lot of organisation and, of course, it requires the Americans to help. I happen to agree with the idea of arming the rebels, but when we arm people we must also train them.
There is an embargo in place on Gaddafi. My long-standing right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind has made a plea that we should somehow get around that embargo for the rebels, and I support that idea. Military ground intervention, which is another option, is extremely unlikely on the part of the west. Some have suggested that Egypt might do something, but I think that that, too, is unlikely. If we have time we can establish a no-fly zone. We could even start to arm the rebels in Benghazi.
In conclusion, I am prepared to support a no-fly zone and the arming of rebels, particularly if the substantial conditions I have outlined are in place. The Libyans are crying out for our help. They are pleading for help.
One of the reasons we need to have this debate today is that recent events have shown that Government policy toward the middle east has failed lamentably in recent years. It has been inconsistent, because on one hand we played realpolitik, appeasing certain regimes, and on the other hand we have said that dictators are evil and that we must take action against them. It has been ineffective, because we are friendly with a number of repressive states, particularly those in the Gulf, hoping for low oil prices. However, as current events have shown, this appeasement has not led to the stability we hoped for. More significantly, the policy has been intolerable, because it has had a very limited effect on stopping human rights abuse or promoting democracy, with exceptions that I will come on to later.
It is often said that the measure of a man can be found by looking at his friends. In the same way, the measure of a country can be found by looking at its allies. Honour killing is still legal in Iran, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority. Homosexuality is still punishable by death in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and by three years’ imprisonment in Syria. The events of recent years in particular have shown us that our middle eastern policy has been wrong.
I am not ashamed to admit that I tend towards the neo-conservative view of the world, as someone who believes that freedom, human rights, property rights, the rule of law, equality towards women, religious tolerance and rejection of terrorism are all inalienable human rights and should be spread all over the world. They say that a neo-conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. While I am not talking about my colleagues on the coalition Benches, I prefer to use the term “muscular enlightenment”.
It seems to me that realpolitik involves appeasing or collaborating with unsavoury regimes in order to achieve certain foreign policy objectives. It is as far removed from an ethical foreign policy as it is possible to be. Let us examine how realpolitik has failed. With the Saudis, the deal seems to be that we work with them financially, and in exchange they are allowed to promote their strain of Wahabi Islam throughout the world, a branch of Islam which many orthodox Sunni and Shi’a groups consider extremist and heretical. On top of that, the Saudis are allowed to pour millions into our universities. What has been the result? There has been terrorism at home and abroad; Islamist extremism in our universities has increased; and we are no closer to a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.
Nowhere is the failure more true than in our relations with Libya. My family knows something about that country, as my grandfather lost his home and business to Gaddafi, and my father was born there and even remembers shaking Gaddafi’s hand sometime in the 1950s, before he took power. With the release of al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, the previous Government hid behind the fig leaf of devolution to help facilitate the release of a mass murderer. In return for stability and curtailing Gaddafi’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, Tony Blair and Mr Brown went far beyond what was necessary to build relations with Libya. Appeasement became collaboration, and we saw that Government boost business links with Libya and facilitate university contracts with the Libyan authorities.
As reported on the website of Liverpool John Moores university, dated
“My vision for Libya…is”— for—
“a closer and more productive relationship with the UK than with any other country.”
Let me repeat that phrase:
“a closer and more productive relationship with the UK than with any other country.”
If hon. Members think of Libya, they will find that that statement is quite astonishing. It is a totalitarian state which murdered our own citizens in the Lockerbie massacre, yet our own ambassador says that he wants deeper relations with Libya than with any other country. Truly, the fish rots from the head down.
It was wrong for universities in Britain to do deals with Libya, but we cannot blame them completely. Yes, the London School of Economics and other universities signed contracts worth millions of pounds, but the Government urged them on, and, as written answers have revealed, the previous Labour Government met at the most senior levels to push those issues forward with the Gaddafi regime. We have to ask: why was this happening, what were we selling and what were the Libyans buying in terms of influence and acceptability?
John Kennedy said that foreign policy should be idealism without illusions. The realist school says, “You can’t just drop democracy from a B52 bomber,” but that was always a misrepresentation of muscular enlightenment. It was never just about military invasion; it was about winning hearts and minds and supporting throughout the globe those democratic movements that share the ideals of freedom. I reiterate the point that has been made this afternoon: democracy is not just about elections. If it is only about elections, we have the situation of 2006 in Gaza, where Hamas sent its militia on to the streets, attacking members of the more moderate Fatah party and throwing them off the rooftops.
Those who oppose freedom in the middle east, however, are exactly like those who opposed the end of slavery in the southern states of America in the 19th century. They always said, “Yes, we want to end slavery, but not yet,” and the realpolitik of the middle east says, “Yes, they should have democracy and human rights for women, but not yet.” So, what can we do to help freedom spread throughout the middle east?
Does the hon. Gentleman condemn the settlements in the occupied territories and agree with the UN resolution, which was voted for by Britain but vetoed by the United States?
No, I do not agree, actually. I believe in a two-state solution, and I believe that some of the west bank will obviously be given over as part of a Palestinian state, but I did not agree with my Government when they voted for that motion.
I accept that popular uprisings, such as the waves of protest throughout north Africa and Arab countries, might lead to Islamist fundamentalist rule, and we are not sure yet whether this is eastern Europe 1989 or Iran 1979. Arguably, indeed, Iran is living through its own version of the terror that followed the French revolution in 1789, with a despotic and brutal regime. That is why we have to divert aid into building democratic institutions and nurturing them where they exist.
I want to turn to Iran as the elephant in the room. Through Hezbollah, Iran has huge influence in Lebanon. In Gaza, Iran supports Hamas. Iran also has close relations with the President of Syria. We know that Iran supports activities against British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It may soon have more influence in Bahrain. And, of course, it is about to have nuclear weapons. Iran is what Reagan once described the Soviet Union as—the new evil empire. Using the example of Iran, we must not let the middle east fall out of the frying pan of dictatorship into the fire of Islamism.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I agreed with much of his speech. The Iranian people have a totally opposite view from that of the regime which, sadly, has suppressed them for so long.
What is to be done? We need a radical reappraisal of our foreign policy. We need a strategy that supports democracy over dictatorships. The thrust has to be to support reformist movements in the region. Let me briefly talk about two of them. First, there is Kurdistan. To those who argue that democracy takes hundreds of years to evolve, and who say that we should not interfere, Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, proves the opposite. Established only in 2003, the regional government makes its own laws, controls its own army, and decides its own pace of economic development. It is a relatively terrorist-free and progressive Muslim country, despite facing continuous threats from al-Qaeda. I declare an interest, because I am an active member of the all-party group on Kurdistan and recently visited the country. Only today, the Bishop of Arbil was in Parliament—because I was here in the debate I was not able to go—explaining that Kurdistan has welcomed thousands of Christians who have suffered very badly from terrorist attacks in Iraq. I urge the Government to do more to support Kurdistan in its welcoming of Christians to the region.
In the same way, our current policy towards Israel should be much more supportive. Criticism of Israel is out of all proportion to that of other countries. It is always incredible how everyone wants to be a candid friend of Israel but no one is a candid friend of France, Germany or America. Yes, of course Israel is imperfect, and yes, there are problems with settlements, but the fact is that in a region of dictators, Israel is a bulwark of freedom. The excuse is often given that Israel-Palestine is the driving force behind all conflict in the middle east, but recent events have disproved that. I believe that peace would happen incredibly quickly in Israel with two states—a Palestinian state and an Israeli state—if Arabist dictators stopped funding terrorism. The more democratic these countries become, the less likely there is to be a war. I do not think there is an example in history of two democracies that have fought each other. I have often met Palestinian moderates who have the will to make peace, but not the authority, whereas Hamas, sadly, has the authority but not the will.
Let us have a foreign policy in the middle east that actively supports democracy over dictatorships. As my hon. Friend Bob Stewart said, let us do all we can to have a no-fly zone in Libya. Let us do all we can to supply arms to those bravely fighting against Gaddafi—today or tomorrow, if possible, and unilaterally, if we have to. In doing so, we will reverse the many mistakes of recent years and make a stand for the people in the middle east who have the right to freedom.
It is an enormous pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robert Halfon, and to have learned for the first time that his father shook the hand of Colonel Gaddafi. I suspect that there are many in the House this afternoon, and indeed across the world, who rather wish that he had shaken him by some other part of his anatomy.
There have been contributions of great substance during the debate. For the most part, they have rightly focused—for perfectly understandable reasons, given where we are today—on the situation that currently prevails in Libya. I will concentrate my remarks a few hundred miles to the east, on the nation of Egypt. In
Egypt, a largely bloodless transition occurred and elections have been promised by the interim military Government within the next six months. As my hon. and gallant Friend Mr Ellwood indicated, those elections are extremely important and our Government will have to hold the interim Egyptian Government to that promise.
Like many people, I think that Libya would not be in the state that it is today if it had followed the template of what happened in Egypt. It has an uncertain immediate future and has the potential to return to its pariah status, should the Gaddafi regime prevail in the current struggle. Most, if not all, Members hope that that does not occur.
The lesson from Egypt, as from other areas of the world, is clearly one of hope. We must not lose sight of that in the course of this debate. Authoritarian regimes across the region may from time to time win battles against those in whose name they purport to govern. However, in the end, like Ozymandias, their fate is always the same: it is to fall at the hands of those to whom they have done such disservice.
This country has a historical responsibility for Egypt. We played a part in its governance, although not always a glorious one, for a not inconsiderable period. Given current events, it is not without irony that I read what Valentine Chirol wrote as long ago as 1920 at the end of chapter 16 of his book entitled “The Egyptian Problem”:
“Not till we have left behind us the No Man’s Land of government by martial law can we hope to regain the confidence of a new generation of Egyptians by applying to the altered conditions which any measure of self-government must imply the same broad constructive statesmanship which won for us the confidence of an older generation.”
With the exception of an 18-month period between 1980 and 1981, martial law has effectively held sway in Egypt since 1967 when the emergency law of 1958 was first used. The transition to democracy in Egypt will not be easy. However, we all hope—and I have no doubt this will prove to be the case if the Government hold to their position, as they should—that this marks the end of the application of that emergency law, with all that it has entailed for ordinary Egyptians and for peace in the middle east.
The removal of that law and other emergency laws across the region is necessary for the democratic aspirations that led to the recent uprisings to find expression in Governments who have broad support. In Egypt, there must be a Government who have support across a nation that straddles the east and the west, and which has so often been the hinge on which world events have turned. It is now a nation of more than 80 million people. It has a unique history, of which all Egyptians are justifiably proud.
This situation is not something of which we should be afraid. Democracy is not easy. It has mostly been easy for people in this country, but that is not the experience across the world. Democracy is not something to which we should pay lip service only. Our interference in the middle east, often ostensibly in the name of stability—Egypt is as good an example as anywhere else—has done our nation little good. It has caused resentment and on occasion bloodshed, as well as setting back the cause of democracy for others across the world.
The demonstrations of the 1920s in Egypt and the subsequent rise of nationalism were ample indication of a people ready to govern their own destiny. Had we left the Egyptians to get on with their own lives rather earlier than 1954, the generations that have come since might well have had a better quality of life, and the Egyptian state a growing democratic maturity, which would have assisted in the cause of peace throughout the region. It is for that reason, if for no other, that the Prime Minister was entirely right to hold talks with the interim Government last month in Cairo immediately after President Mubarak announced that he would step down.
There is little in Egypt or in the region by way of a model for an open and democratic society upon which those who seek to promote such a society can draw. There is only so much that can be borrowed from nations such as ours, given the different cultural histories and the lack of entrenched democratic traditions in the region. Demonstrations of support for the transition to democracy are important, since Egypt and the other countries in which revolution—if that is the right word—has been seen this year need to know that the interference of the west is a thing of the past. They need to know that, like them, we have grown up and that the rights that we take for granted but value are not just for us but for the southern and eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf states. In short, they need to know that we now trust the nations of the middle east in a way that the generations that immediately preceded us showed no sign of doing. Those demonstrations of support are important also for reasons alluded to by my hon. Friend Paul Maynard. We do not want to see in countries across the middle east the sort of revolution that merely involves one dictator stepping down to be replaced by another.
I have alluded to the fact that we have not always done well by those in the middle east, but one exception, and one person who supported Arab independence, was of course T. E. Lawrence. In preparing my remarks today, I came across his review in The Observer of
“is to learn that the diseases of the Government of Egypt are mostly mental, and the statement of the causes nearly cures them”.
As he also noted, this country provided a sorry sequel to Lord Cromer’s magnificent beginning. It has taken 90 years for the prospect of good government in Egypt to re-emerge.
The current picture is one of hope. If the Egyptians succeed in creating a successful model of what a free Arab democracy can look like in this century, their neighbours, including in Libya, will be hard-pressed not to follow suit. It is the task of Members of this House to assist the Egyptian people and those across the middle east as best we can. Given the prize before us, I look forward to hearing from the Minister at the end of the debate, and again as often as may be convenient in future, precisely how the Government propose that that task should be accomplished.
This has been a timely and excellent debate, and Members on both sides of the House have made valuable contributions. I wish to follow on from the comments of my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, who made some very good points. One was about the amount of time that we should allow for significant changes to take place in north Africa and the middle east. He talked about it taking two decades or more, and I think he was absolutely right. Although things are happening very fast in the immediate situation, we have to take a long-term view.
My hon. Friend was also right to say that we have to be more engaged and flexible with the various nation states that we are dealing with and make use of collective European values as well as the experiences of individual states. The relationship between France and Morocco is a good example, but not the only one, and we need to be intelligent about how we respond to developments.
My hon. Friend Mr Gale made an interesting point. He wondered why we were not in Hungary in 1956. The answer is that we were in Suez. He wondered why the west was not dealing with Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the answer is that we were in Vietnam. Well, we were not, but certainly the United States was. That is a signal that we have to think about our interests much more carefully than we have in the past.
There are some parallels between the current situation and 1989 to 1991, but one of the most important parallels is with 1975, when the Helsinki accords were agreed. They gave comfort to the people of the Warsaw pact countries, because President Gerald Ford and others insisted on including human rights as a key plank of the accords. We should remember that and think about what it did later. We need to give that type of comfort to the middle east and north Africa now.
The points that other hon. Members have made are worth embellishing. Democracy is a great thing, but the Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to say that we cannot rely on elections only—we also need democratic institutions, the rule of law and so forth. The Westminster Foundation is valuable in providing such help, but the EU needs to be willing to promote our values. Many hon. Members asked why the EU should show interest in the middle east and north Africa. The answer is that they are nearby, and we should have interests and links in nearby places.
I cannot, because we have only five minutes left, and I know my hon. Friend Bob Blackman wants to say a few words.
Developing economic links and ensuring that countries benefit from the opportunities of trade links and entrepreneurial activity is important. I have been to many countries in the middle east, including Morocco and Israel, and noted an interest in getting on with entrepreneurial activities, which we need to stimulate.
Saudis make the suggestion or was a request made? He was quite right to ask whether the Americans were involved. There is a danger in unilateral action; we need more collective and multilateral action, which is why I emphasised the role of the EU. We also need to work hard with other key nation states, notably America, but also those that neighbour north Africa and the middle east. In that respect, should Turkey, whose geopolitical role we need to think about carefully in this context, be involved?
I firmly believe that we need a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. Nothing less will do, and we must ensure that we encourage the US to think in the same terms. It was refreshing to hear other hon. Members say that the 1967 boundaries should, broadly speaking, give or take, be respected. The truth is that the Israelis, who must be fed up with wondering who will attack them next, will also benefit from a solution. We must make it abundantly clear that they need the security that will come from a two-state solution.
Obviously, things are moving fast in Libya and, worryingly, Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are moving towards Benghazi. I am not convinced that a no-fly zone will happen, and nor am I convinced that it would necessarily work, because there is an awful lot of ground activity rather than air activity. However, we must learn lessons. Our attitude to such crises must be based on a willingness to construct coalitions. We must also learn how to deal with such situations in future, because in some respects we have failed to act quickly enough.
However, we should never think that interventions should happen just because we feel like it. We must ensure that people in the countries involved want us to be there. This country, other EU members and other active nation states, but above all states in north Africa and the middle east, should encourage that.
The situation in the middle east and north Africa is the most challenging and tumultuous for more than 30 years. Our Foreign Office team faces a great challenge in dealing with countries emerging from dictatorships that, for whatever reasons, Governments of both political persuasions have had to make deals and arrangements with. As a result, the people who have rebelled against those dictators have a natural distrust of Britain, the United States and other western powers. The challenge for our foreign policy, as we develop it over the next few weeks and months, is to ensure that it embraces the people who will be forming the next Governments in these countries.
I believe that Iran’s Government have had a long-standing aim to be the central, dominating power in the region. Western policy used to be that Iraq and Iran balanced each other out. As colleagues know, more people were killed in the wars between Iraq and Iran than in the first world war; both sides sacrificed their personnel by throwing them against each other. When our country joined the US in invading Iraq, we unbalanced the position, and now we have an Iranian state that wishes to pursue the nuclear option and to dominate the region. I was shocked when I heard that Iranian battleships had been allowed to use the Suez canal for the first time. It will start to make all countries in the region nervous about Iran’s intentions, so we should make representations to the new Egyptian Government to ensure that they do not allow Iran that free and unfettered access. The fear is that it will unbalance the countries in the region that we count on as allies.
Much of the debate on north Africa has been about Libya, yet we forget Tunisia, which depends on visitors. People there are suffering because the economy is shot to pieces, and it needs to rebuild and encourage visitors, yet people remain deterred from visiting. As a result, unemployment is high and the economy is in a state of shock. That needs to change.
My next remarks will concentrate on the situation in Israel and Palestine. Israel faces a challenge to develop a two-state solution with Palestine—a solution I wholeheartedly support—but on the northern border Hezbollah, armed by Iran, is preparing once again for a potential attack on Israel. The Israelis say it is only a matter of time before there is another war between them and Hezbollah, which could trigger other events. We have to put pressure on Iran to stop it arming Hezbollah in order to prevent those attacks.
On the west bank, the economy is growing well—it is developing far better than the British economy. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are ready and willing to become a proper democratic state, yet in Gaza Hamas refuses to take part in elections. In this fledgling democracy, the party ruling Gaza refuses to participate in elections, so does not have a renewed mandate. We need to put pressure on the PA and Hamas to agree on elections, so that we can have a democracy under the PA that can negotiate with Israel.
Finally, on the situation in Israel, those who go to see Jerusalem will know that the security barrier has stopped suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis and Arabs in Jerusalem, and that has to be good news. Although the security barrier looks unacceptable to the outside world, it has clearly solved the security problem. I look forward to the day when that security barrier is dismantled and all the people of Israel and Palestine can coalesce together. That is the challenge.
I will end with the issue that I raised in Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions earlier this week. The murder of the Fogel family in Itamar has made it much harder for Prime Minister Netanyahu to drive forward the peaceful settlement that we all seek. What we need to get across to the terrorists in Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad is that their activities will never, ever succeed. They need to participate in a peaceful process leading to the two-state solution so that everyone can thrive.
Last month I visited Israel and the west bank, and I refer hon. Members to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate, with a number of powerful speeches, in particular from the hon. Members for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I found myself in pretty much complete agreement with what both had to say. We have also had a number of interesting speeches from Opposition Members, including from my hon.
Friend Mike Gapes, the previous Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. However, I should apologise to the hon. Members for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and to my hon. Friend Ms Stuart for not being in the Chamber for their speeches.
Members in all parts of the House have addressed the practical challenges that we as British politicians face in providing the support to build democracy in the middle east and north Africa. I want to echo what a number of hon. Members have said about the importance of the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. There has been some discussion about the appropriateness or otherwise of drawing parallels with previous periods of our history. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy was born out of the collapse of the iron curtain and the Berlin wall, and it has done some important work in central and eastern Europe, Africa, Lebanon and other parts of the world. We in the Opposition applaud that work and see an opportunity for the foundation, working with similar European, American and other foundations in north Africa and the middle east, to provide practical support in building democracy, not just for elections, but for all the other aspects of democracy that hon. Members have described.
Quite understandably, hon. Members have referred to the history of the region and the mistakes that we and others have made. Let me say that because we have got things wrong in the past—and we have—that does not mean that we should not try to get things right in the future. It is not about the external imposition of democracy; it is about how we respond most appropriately to the demands of the people. My right hon. Friend Mr MacShane made an important point about Parliament’s role as an institution in supporting democracy, both in discussions such as today’s debate and in all the practical ways that we can support the development of democracy in other parts of the world.
Crucial to that is the point that Mr Ellwood made about the failure of multilateral institutions in the past few weeks, and in particular the slow response of the United Nations and the European Union. There are significant lessons that we need to learn from these crises, both now, as a matter of urgency, and moving forward. Richard Ottaway, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke about the responsibility to protect. The crisis in Libya demonstrates that a great deal more work needs to be done to make policy on the responsibility to protect fully operational, otherwise it is, frankly, meaningless.
My hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi challenged us to consider the grounds on which intervention should be made. She was absolutely right to remind us of the need for rigour in deciding when we should and should not intervene. We all have perspectives shaped by our own experience. For me personally, the failures of the international community in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s shaped my outlook on many of the challenging issues that we now face. As I think the hon. Member for Beckenham said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East: where we can, we should. That is absolutely right. What we actually do is a whole other matter, and it will not necessarily involve military intervention. The discussions on intervention on both sides of the House have tended to focus purely on the military, which has relevance, but it also involves broader diplomatic, economic and other forms of engagement.
Another important point made by a number of speakers was that there is no one-size-fits-all response to what is happening. The countries involved are very different from each other, with different histories, different political systems and different levels of development in their civil society. No two countries will require the same response.
The one thing that most of those countries do have in common is that they have been the recipient of large amounts of arms sales. Most of them have trade agreements with the European Union, all of which contain human rights clauses. Those clauses have all been universally ignored. Does my hon. Friend not think that we need to be a bit more proactive on the legal front, particularly on human rights and arms sales?
My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. Members on both sides of the House have referred to this matter today, and my simple answer to him is yes, we do need to have that debate. We need to look at how we can strengthen the existing codes, which, as he rightly says, refer on paper to human rights and other considerations. Those terms do not always seem to be kept to when arms sales are taking place.
Let me focus now on the middle east peace process. Several Members have referred to the appalling murders last weekend of the Fogel family in Itamar. I join them in deploring those wicked acts. As the Foreign Secretary said in questions earlier this week, we must respond to that appalling act by stepping up our efforts to reach out to the moderate majority of Israelis and Palestinians who really do want to see the two-state solution to which speakers on both sides of the House have referred today. This week, in Gaza and on the west bank, we have seen thousands of young people protesting for peace and national unity in Palestine.
I welcome the Government’s decision to upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation here in London to that of a mission. I echo the view expressed by a number of hon. Members that it is vital that Israel place an immediate moratorium on the building and expansion of settlements. It is equally vital that Gilad Shalit be released. These are the conditions that can create reconciliation and peace. I echo the views expressed by the hon. Member for Mid Sussex on the Arab peace initiative in his powerful speech, and I want to say to the Government that we see that initiative as central to the prospects of moving forward in this crucial period for the middle east peace process.
It is difficult in 15 minutes to do justice to all the elements of today’s debate, but let me say something about Iran. In his opening speech, my right hon. Friend Mr Alexander reminded us of the threat of Iran’s nuclear programme, and invited the Minister to update the House on what work the Government were doing, with international partners, to increase the legitimate pressure on Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. A number of hon. Members referred to Iran’s negative role in exploiting Sunni-Shi’a divisions in the region and in supporting terrorism. Its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for the Taliban in
Afghanistan were mentioned, and we must not forget the appalling domestic human rights position in Iran itself. That must remain high on our agenda.
On Libya, everyone who has spoken today has shared the feeling of revulsion at what Gaddafi has done and what we have seen on our television screens over the past few weeks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South asked a number of questions, to which I hope the Minister will respond, about the possible military, diplomatic and economic measures that could be put in place to make a difference to the situation on the ground in Libya.
These events since January—in Tunisia, through events in Egypt, Libya and parts of the Gulf—remind us, as a number of hon. Members have said, that democracy, human rights and freedoms are universal aspirations. We have witnessed the enormous courage of people across the middle east and north Africa in standing up against dictatorships. Ordinary people in the Arab world value democracy just as much as we do.
When I was in Israel and Palestine last month, I met young people in Nablus and Tel Aviv, whose passion for justice and freedom matched that of the young people we have seen on the streets of Cairo, Tunis and now Benghazi. For the Palestinian people, justice must mean a viable state based on 1967 borders with equivalent land swaps, appropriate security arrangements, Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine and a just solution for Palestinian refugees. For the people of Israel, justice must mean true security, an acceptance that security is a real challenge for them and recognition by the Arab countries of the middle east of Israel’s right to exist. I hope and trust that a democratic Egypt will reaffirm the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
What today’s debate has demonstrated is the profound sense of solidarity felt by us in Parliament but, more importantly, by the people we are sent here to represent. Yet it is a solidarity, I would argue, that is tempered by a frustration at the weakness and inertia of international institutions. Almost 20 years on from the genocide in Rwanda, the United Nations has again been too slow to act. Two decades on from Bosnia, Europe has again been hesitant and divided. I would say to the Minister and to the Foreign Secretary as a matter of some urgency, that the British Government have an opportunity to lead a debate on making the responsibility to protect a practical, operational reality. Otherwise, it will simply be fine words on paper. We must also press our European partners to give practical support to help achieve democracy and self-determination across the region.
As a number of Members have said, stability has been the cornerstone of our policy in the middle east for decades; stability based on the suppression of freedom, however, is no genuine stability. It is in our national interest, as well as being morally right, for us to support democracy, strong civil societies and the protection of minorities across the middle east and north Africa. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham made the point that this House has an important part to play in promoting these shared values. Today’s debate has demonstrated that we are rising to that challenge.
I thank Stephen Twigg for his contribution, which has been absolutely up to the high standards we have seen this afternoon; I agree with much of what he said. I also commend the House for the excellent standard of contributions in these genuinely extraordinary times.
We began with an outstanding contribution by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in which he analysed the broad sweep of events into the turn of the year. He then looked at the more immediate issues on which we urge or will an end to the violence, which prevents the establishment of the conditions necessary for the peaceful pursuit of legitimate aspirations and the chance of a response from existing Governments.
It has become a commonplace to recognise the events we are living through in north Africa and the middle east as a generational shift—a massive historical change in the Arab psyche. As my hon. Friend Nicholas Soames noted, in what I thought was a succinct, deep and well-informed speech that set the tone for the debate, the stability we went along with for so long was frozen in time and nothing will ever be the same again. He is right; it will not.
My hon. Friend Richard Ottaway said that history would ask whether we should have anticipated these events and what we could have done. I suspect that that will be a matter of debate for a long time to come as we examine all the ramifications. It should not go unsaid, however, that this countryhas persistently maintained in relation to many other countries—both publicly and privately, and often quietly—that although there may be different roads to stability, there are certain building blocks for democracy. It may not necessarily be a Westminster style of democracy, but key factors are freedom of expression and assembly, human rights, some form of representative system to express opinion, free trade, and peaceful relations with neighbours.
Equally, as has been recognised in several speeches today, the strategic needs of the United Kingdom have required, and still require, that we maintain relationships with Governments of many kinds, not all of whom have demonstrated the fullest adherence to international obligations or been free from problems with their own people. That applies to the region that we are discussing, and to other parts of the world. A number of Members have reflected today that these events provide an opportunity to reset relationships, and that must be true. The Prime Minister has referred to the “precious opportunity” that they have created, an opportunity that should be seized and not denied. I think that the House will re-examine those relationships with great excitement and genuine relish.
It is in that atmosphere of change, and recognition of change, that today’s debate has taken place. Let me set the tone by making some key points before dealing in more detail with issues that Members have raised.
There must be a recognition of the sovereign position of the peoples in the region. This is not a west-inspired change; it is an Arab-inspired situation, locally driven and locally led. I too have met some of the young people in Egypt. I met some just last week who had been part of the Tahrir square protest, and who are now part of the national dialogue. Their style and commitment should give any of us in this place genuine hope for the future.
Our policy needs to be resilient. We need to remain on a crisis footing. Members did not linger on consular issues today, but they will be aware that some of the changes in the region have raised significant consular issues for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, both here and overseas. In the main, that office has responded remarkably. There are tales all over the world of people who have been brought back to this country thanks to its extraordinary work and effort. I appreciated what Mr MacShane said about that. However, we must remain alert to future emergencies.
We need to keep an eye on strategic issues, including immediate issues that may pop up. We have discussed the middle east peace process and Iran, and I will return to those subjects later. We need to continue to make a case for those building blocks for the future, based not on western values but, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby said, on universal values. We need to take account of the clearly expressed views of the Arab League. We must recognise that the case for Arab exceptionalism may now be weaker than it has ever been before, and that the tides of history affect all. We must also recognise that all countries are different, and will handle the pathway to reform in different ways.
Finally, we must build on relationships in the region. When we came to office, we recognised that both north Africa and the Gulf would repay closer attention. With the Gulf initiative and our activities in relation to north Africa, we sought to build and boost relationships. I do not think we expected then that quite so much attention would be focused on the Gulf and north Africa, but I think that both this Government and this Parliament are ready to meet the challenges.
I want to divide some of the issues that have been raised today into themes, and then answer some of the questions that have been asked. The broad sweep of the events in the region was mentioned by a number of Members, notably my hon. Friend Laura Sandys spoke with great passion about the opportunities for relationships between peoples that had been generated, and my hon. Friend Rory Stewart brought his experience to bear in discussing that broad sweep of events. More colleagues raised a number of these issues, but I have not mentioned them now as I want to try to refer to Members only once.
Several Members addressed future opportunities for the exercise of soft power. I am pleased that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was mentioned by, among others, Mike Gapes, the right hon. Member for Rotherham—again—and my hon. Friend Neil Carmichael. When any of us visit any of the countries mentioned, we are struck by the extraordinary respect that there is for our language, the British Council and the Chevening scholarships, all of which help to create a relationship between peoples, and we can only see greater opportunities for them in the future. The House can rest assured that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is alert to the opportunities that are available in this regard.
A number of colleagues mentioned specific countries. My hon. Friend Mr Gale spoke of Tunisia. I recently met the ambassador, who is a first-rate ambassador for his country. We have spoken to him about the opportunities for economic progress. My hon. Friend was right to say that the economics of what has happened is as important as the politics. A number of these countries—especially Tunisia and Egypt—have been greatly affected by the changes in tourism and other industries. It is essential that the work on the economic package that we are currently doing with our European partners bears fruit, and that support is made available. I can assure my hon. Friend that that is indeed the case. We have drawn up priority areas for our own bilateral support, and we are also working with the EU on new, more substantial financial packages, which are likely to be available in the new financial year. My hon. Friend’s comments were well drawn.
On Morocco, we welcomed the recent statement by His Majesty the King, and Jeremy Corbyn rightly drew attention to issues there, as he often does. Egypt was mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend Stephen Phillips, and I want to turn briefly to that country as the shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Alexander, made a number of remarks on it, and I am keen to respond.
The sense that I got from being in Egypt last week was one of optimism. I do not think there is any sense there that the military are looking to hang on to office. Indeed, the reverse is the case; I think they wish to push power back to the people as quickly as possible. There is widespread debate about the sequence of the elections. There is no firm timetable yet; indeed, there is no agreement as to whether the presidential should come before the parliamentary, and there is much talk about that.
There is a general sense of optimism in respect of the engagement between the politicians, and their relationship with those activists who were outside the Government, as well as the relationship between all of them and the military. Many things can go wrong, and there is concern about those who might have ties to the old regime seeking to create trouble between different communities such as the Muslims and the Copts, but the people seem to be alert to that. There is a lot of time still to go, but the signals from those with responsibilities were good, and I suspect any colleague visiting would pick that up.
The right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South asked about asset freezes. The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of the arguments within the EU to take action on Egyptian requests to freeze the assets of several members of the former regime. A decision on that has not been taken, but we expect that a decision will be taken soon at EU level. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary suggested, the difficulty has been the lack of information that has been supplied by the Egyptian authorities. We need to see evidence of corruption as well as further information about the individuals in question, but that process is under way.
I have mentioned the election timetable. The right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South asked about representations made in respect of political prisoners. We have continued to urge the authorities to respect fully human rights and democratic freedoms, including freedom of expression and communication and the right of peaceful assembly. On numerous occasions throughout the revolution we raised our concerns with the authorities about the mistreatment of journalists and human rights defenders, and during the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Egypt he called on the Government to release all political prisoners and end the state of emergency. I think the right hon. Gentleman and I find ourselves in tune on that.
A number of colleagues mentioned the middle east peace process and issues affecting Israel and Palestine. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex raised the Arab peace initiative, and we support that. There is a huge sense of urgency in this House about the need to get an element of certainty introduced to an uncertain area. That is why we are working so hard to help both the Israelis and the Palestinians appreciate that seeking a settlement now, or at least getting the parameters set out, would be of such benefit to all. We have been working tirelessly on this over the past few months and we are not letting this ball drop just because people’s minds have been distracted by other things.
Many colleagues, including my hon. Friend Mr Offord, Sir Gerald Kaufman, the hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), my hon. Friend Bob Blackman and Mr Winnick, spoke of some of the misery on both sides. This House knows of this catalogue of misery only too well, and what it does, whether we are talking about the Fogels or another group, is increase the urgency of finding an answer. This Government will press on that, with all parties, as much as we can.
Iran was mentioned by a number of colleagues, principally my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Harrow East, and we are all watching to see what exploitation there might be of the current situation. Despite everything else that is going on, we remain concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities. Following the disappointing talks in Istanbul, which were sabotaged by the attitude of the Iranians, we are continuing not only to keep a door open, but to make clear suggestions that the tightening of sanctions will continue. They are having an impact and we all want that process to lead to an abandonment of the Iranians’ desire for nuclear capability. Civil nuclear power is something that we all support and that can be controlled, but Iran must be open about its nuclear ambitions. It must open its doors and its books to the International Atomic Energy Agency in a way that it has not done before. It must come back to the open negotiating table of colleagues in order to reassure the world community.
Understandably, the no-fly zone and Libya dominated a great deal of what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and other colleagues said, and the concerns expressed echoed the warnings that the Prime Minister gave here just the other day. If Gaddafi were able to secure victory at the point of a gun and again dominate and terrorise his people, that would send out a sad signal. So far, the work that has been done to isolate and shrink that state, and warn it of the consequences, has had an effect: it has reduced the money that could have gone towards arms and it will have affected behaviour on the ground. However, as the troops advance, the urgency gets ever more acute. That is why the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister are working so hard, and why so much work is going on in New York today on the resolution. We are hoping that the urgency of the situation will convince those who have been reluctant. Nobody should underestimate either the difficulty or the commitment that this Government have to see that through. We have heard the pleas of the people of Libya for what it is they wish to see and we, too, call on the international community to respond to the resolution that we have put forward with others and, crucially, with the support of the Arab League, to make some of this a reality. It is much needed and time is short.
We watch the situation in Bahrain with great concern. We know that the Government of Bahrain have been involved in a political dialogue, but that it has been stalled for a period of time. We are monitoring the situation closely. We call on all parties to exercise maximum restraint and avoid violence, so that a political dialogue can begin.
Arms is the only substantive topic that I have not really touched on, and I have only a minute in which to do so. The issue has been raised before, and the Prime Minister said the other day that although we have the most rigorous arms control legislation, which does require looking back and revoking licences when necessary, there probably are some questions to be asked. It must remain rigorous and colleagues are right to examine the issue in terms of the future. The regime will remain as rigorous as possible, not only to satisfy the legitimate desires of nations to defend themselves—this is an industry that we are able to supply well—but to ensure that neither internal repression nor regional conflict is supported.
The House of Commons has been thoughtful and informed this afternoon. It has expressed itself optimistic that the changes sweeping the region could be beneficial. We have said that we would desire such an outcome and that both bilaterally and with friends we will do all we can to will the means—economic, political and social—to make such an end possible. But we have rightly also been wary. Long experience of such matters in this place means that we would not be doing our job if we were not cautious and careful of what we wish for and of dangers that lurk around the corner. We have reasserted the values that uphold us, although we are not blind to our past or to the reality of the future. We seek to support those in other places who have the same wishes as us. The great thing about what has happened is that it is led by those in those countries who wish to see the freedoms and freedoms of expression that we have. We hope that we will stand by them. What the Prime Minister has called a “precious moment of opportunity” will be watched carefully at Westminster—
Motion lapsed (