Ukraine, Syria and Iran

Part of New Member – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 24th February 2014.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 3:34 pm, 24th February 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the situation in Ukraine and Syria and on relations with Iran.

Last week, more than 80 people were killed and 600 injured during the worst bloodshed in Ukraine since the fall of communism. It was the culmination of unrest that began in November, when President Yanukovych announced that the Government would not sign an EU association agreement. I know that the House will join me in sending condolences to the families of those who died or were injured.

On Thursday, I attended the emergency meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, which agreed to sanctions on those who have been responsible for the violence, as well as assistance to promote political dialogue and help for the injured. On Friday, President Yanukovych and the Opposition signed an agreement, supported by the whole European Union. I pay tribute to my French, Polish and German colleagues for their efforts to bring that about.

Events moved rapidly after that, including the departure of President Yanukovych from Kiev and the removal of guards from Government buildings. On Saturday, the Ukrainian Parliament, the Rada, voted to restore the 2004 constitution, to release Yuliya Tymoshenko and to impeach the President. He has said that he will not step down, but it is clear that his authority is no longer widely accepted. A number of members of the previous Government have been dismissed and appointments have been made to a new unity Government. Speaker Turchynov of the Rada has been appointed acting President until early elections take place on 25 May.

Ukraine has a pressing need for constitutional reform, improvements to its political culture, free elections, an end to pervasive corruption and the building of a stable political structure. We look to the new Government to create the conditions for such change in a spirit of reconciliation, while ensuring that there is accountability for human rights violations.

For our part, the international community must work with the new Government to discourage further violence and agree international financial support. Ukraine’s financial situation is very serious and, without outside assistance, may not be sustainable. An economic crisis in Ukraine would be a grave threat to the country’s stability and could have damaging wider consequences. I discussed that work with the German and Polish Foreign Ministers over the weekend and I spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia earlier this afternoon. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Putin, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Tusk, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer discussed Ukraine with G20 Finance Ministers in Australia. Later today, I will go to Washington to discuss this and other issues with Secretary Kerry.

While in Washington, I will hold talks with the International Monetary Fund, which is best placed to provide financial support and technical advice to Ukraine. Such support could be provided quickly once it has been requested by the new Government. It requires a stable and legitimate Government to be in place and for there to be a commitment to the reforms that are necessary to produce economic stability. International financial support cannot be provided without conditions and clarity that it will be put to proper use.

Baroness Ashton is visiting Kiev today and I will visit shortly. Our fundamental interest is democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ukraine. This is not about a choice for Ukraine between Russia and the EU; it is about setting the country on a democratic path for the future. We want the people of Ukraine to be free to determine their own future, which is what we also seek for the people of Syria.

On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2139 on humanitarian assistance to Syria, which the United Kingdom called for and co-sponsored. It is the first resolution that has been adopted by the Security Council on the humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict three years ago, and it was agreed unanimously. It demands an immediate end to the violence, the lifting of the sieges of besieged areas, and the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid including, importantly, across borders where necessary. It authorises the UN to work with civil society to deliver aid to the whole of Syria. It condemns terrorist attacks and demands the implementation of the Geneva communiqué, leading to a political transition. It states that that should include the full participation of women.

The passing of the resolution is an important achievement, but it will make a practical difference only if it is implemented in full. We will work with the United Nations and our partners to try to ensure that the regime’s stranglehold on starving people is broken.

The UK continues to set an example to the world on humanitarian assistance. Our contribution to the Syrian people now stands at £600 million: £241 million has been allocated for humanitarian assistance inside Syria; £265 million has been allocated to support refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt; and £94 million of allocations are currently being finalised. We have pressed for other countries to do more, including at the Kuwait conference last month, which resulted in more than $2.2 billion in new pledges.

The Security Council resolution is a chink of light in an otherwise bleak and deteriorating situation. An estimated 5,000 Syrians are dying every month and a quarter of a million remain trapped in areas under siege. The bombardment of civilian areas with barrel bombs continues unabated, and there are reports of attacks with cluster munitions as well. An inquiry led by distinguished British experts reported on the photos of the bodies of around 11,000 tortured and executed Syrian detainees. Some 2.5 million Syrians are refugees in the region, three quarters of them women and children. The UN expects 4 million refugees by the end of this year.

Against this horrifying backdrop we continue to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict, but there is no sign of the Assad regime having any willingness whatsoever to negotiate the political transition demanded by the UN Security Council. The second round of Geneva II negotiations ended on 15 February without agreement on future talks. UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had proposed an agenda for a third round of talks focusing on violence and terrorism—the regime’s stated priority—and a transitional governing body, in parallel. The regime refused this. As a result the talks were suspended, with Mr Brahimi clearly laying responsibility for that at the regime’s door.

The national coalition, by contrast, approached the negotiations constructively and in good faith. It published a statement of principles for the transitional governing body, stating that it would enable the Syrian people to decide their own future and protect the rights and freedoms of all Syrians. Those supporting the regime side, including the Russian and Iranian Governments, need to do far more to press the regime to take this process seriously and to reach a political settlement, as we have done with the opposition. We will continue our support to the national coalition and to civil society in Syria. We are providing £2.1 million for Syrian civil defence teams to help local communities deal with attacks, and improve the capability of local councils to save the lives of those injured and alleviate humanitarian suffering. This includes training, which is now under way, and £700,000 of civil defence equipment including personal radios, rescue tools, fire-fighting clothing, fire extinguishers, stretchers and medical kits.

The UK is also proposing a £2 million package of training, technical assistance and equipment support to build up the capacity of the Free Syrian Police, working with the US and Denmark. I have laid before Parliament a minute to approve £910,000 of equipment, including communications equipment, uniforms and vehicles for the Free Syrian Police. We also intend to make a contribution to the Syria Recovery Trust Fund, established by the UAE and Germany, focusing on health care, water supply, energy supply and food security. We are working with the Supreme Military Council to agree the best way of restarting our non-lethal support, which we halted temporarily in December.

The regime’s foot-dragging is also clear on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, only 11% of Syria’s declared chemical stockpile has been removed, and the regime has missed the 5 February deadline for removing all chemicals. That has delayed the destruction operation by months, and puts the 30 June final destruction deadline in jeopardy. This slow rate of progress is unacceptable. The UN Secretary-General and the OPCW have made it clear that Syria has all the necessary equipment to enable the movement of the chemicals. The OPCW’s director general is pressing the Syrians to accept a plan that would see the removal of all Syrian chemicals in a considerably shorter period, enabling the deadline to be met.

Turning finally to Iran, the first step agreement with Iran came into force on 20 January and continues to be implemented. The E3 plus 3 and Iran met last week to start negotiations on a comprehensive agreement, aimed at ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is and always will be exclusively peaceful. The talks were constructive. The E3 plus 3 and Iran agreed on the issues that need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive agreement, and in broad terms on the approach to negotiations in the coming months. The next round of talks will be in mid-March in Vienna. The E3 plus 3 and Iran plan to meet monthly in order to make swift progress on the issues that need to be resolved in the ambitious time frame we agreed in the Geneva deal in November. The House should be under no illusion that the challenges remain very considerable. A comprehensive solution must address all proliferation concerns related to Iran’s nuclear programme. To that end, existing sanctions remain intact and we will enforce them robustly.

We continue to expand our bilateral contact with Iran; indeed, Iran’s non-resident chargé d’affaires is visiting the UK today. Last Thursday, the UK and Iran brought protecting power arrangements to an end. This is a sign of increasing confidence that we can conduct bilateral business directly between capitals, rather than through intermediaries. I thank the Governments of Sweden and Oman for acting as protecting powers since the closure of our embassy, and for their strong friendship and support to the UK. We will continue step by step with those improvements in our bilateral relations, providing they remain reciprocal. We are, for example, working together on ways to make it easier for Iranians and British citizens to obtain consular and visa services.

On all these issues, we will maintain intensive diplomatic activity in the days ahead and I will continue to keep the House informed on our work with other nations—whether in Europe, the middle east or on the prevention of nuclear proliferation—to ensure a more peaceful and stable world.