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Syria and North Korea

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:13 pm on 18th April 2017.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary 4:13 pm, 18th April 2017

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement and join him in sending my condolences to the families of Chris Bevington and Hannah Bladon.

Obviously, the Foreign Secretary’s statement is somewhat overshadowed by another announcement today, but the issues at hand here are far more important for the future of our world than the Prime Minister’s cynical short-term manoeuvres. She talked about the need for leadership and stability, yet is happy to plunge the country into six weeks of uncertainty exactly at the time Britain needs to provide stable global leadership on issues such as Syria and North Korea. However, we should not be surprised, because on those and other global crises the Conservative party is abdicating any effective leadership role for Britain.

I turn to Syria. We were all appalled by the dreadful attacks on civilians witnessed during the Easter recess. Two weeks ago, there was the horrifying chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of ordinary villagers and injuring many hundreds more. Just two days ago—I was rather surprised that the Foreign Secretary did not see fit to mention this—there was the suicide bombing of so-called pro-regime evacuees in Rashidin, with dozens of children among those who were killed. They were lured to their deaths by the promise of free crisps—a tragic reminder that in this conflict Bashar al-Assad does not hold a monopoly when it comes to horrific atrocities against innocent civilians, including children.

We need a peaceful settlement in Syria now more than ever. Indeed, last week the Foreign Secretary said that his priority was to

“build co-ordinated international support for a ceasefire…and an intensified political process”,

and I agree with him. So why, rather than working for co-ordinated international action properly to investigate, punish and prevent the use of chemical weapons, is the Foreign Secretary instead threatening more unilateral airstrikes by the US against the Assad regime? Why, rather than engaging in that peace process, did he instead cancel his proposed talks in Moscow, and in the process so comprehensively alienate the Putin Government that they have refused to talk to Britain in future? And why, rather than ensuring that the G7 spoke with one strong voice on Syria last week, did he instead present it with a half-baked, quickly rebuffed proposal for sanctions, without doing any preparatory work to win the support that was needed?

The Foreign Secretary ended last week disowned by Downing Street, ignored by Russia, and humiliated by the G7. The only straw he can cling on to, we presume, is this: that the United States State Department is still telling him what to say and do, and which countries he is allowed to visit. To that end, may I ask a final question on Syria? Based on his close relationship with the Trump Administration, can he clarify exactly what their strategy now is?

Turning briefly to North Korea, the Foreign Secretary rightly condemns the ongoing nuclear missile programmes being pursued by Kim Jong-un’s regime. I hope he will agree that, like Syria, this a crisis that can be resolved only through co-ordinated international action, through the de-escalation of tensions and, ultimately, through negotiations. So can he assure us that Britain will argue against any unilateral military action taken by the United States, and instead urgently back China’s call for a resumption of the six-party talks? When it comes to North Korea, the world needs statesmanship, not brinkmanship. We cannot afford blind loyalty to the Trump Administration if they are leading us down the path to war.

Peace in Syria and North Korea and our relationship with the Trump Administration are vital issues for the future of Britain and the world, and, as much as the Prime Minister would like the coming election simply to be about Brexit, we must ensure that these and other international concerns are not forgotten.

To that end, my final question for the Foreign Secretary is this: will he commit to join me in a televised debate between all the parties on foreign policy—no ifs, no buts? I am ready to say yes now, so will he commit today to do likewise: announce the first election debate and put his party’s promise of stable leadership on the line?