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Britain's Place in the World

Part of Speaker’s Statement – in the House of Commons at 4:54 pm on 15th October 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee 4:54 pm, 15th October 2019

I wish to address the commitment in the Queen’s Speech that

“Government will ensure that it continues to play a leading role in global affairs, defending its interests and promoting its values”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 October 2019;
Vol. 800, c. 3.]

and to make the case that the guiding principles of our foreign policy should be justice, security and human rights, through a renewed focus on active diplomacy, multilateral engagement and sustainable development. Our diplomats are among the best in the world and our status as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council gives us real clout. We need to exercise that clout—and let us start with Syria.

The disastrous decision by President Trump to withdraw US troops from northern Syria has opened a horrifying Pandora’s box, out of which the only winners can be Daesh and Assad. As ever, the losers are innocent civilians, including children. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s response to the urgent question earlier, but I invite the Minister to be clearer, when he responds to the debate, about the Government’s approach to a new UN Security Council resolution on Syria, on which the UK could show leadership. Syria represents a collective failure from which we must learn.

Last week, some of us attended the parliamentary screening of “For Sama”, the story of Waad al-Khateab and her family’s life through five years of the siege of Aleppo. The film is a harrowing account of war in the age of impunity, when war crimes go unpunished and the laws of war become optional. Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, the bombing of civilian infrastructure and the blocking of humanitarian supplies have seemed to become the norm. I welcome the Government’s announcement earlier this year that they are reviewing the protection of civilians strategy. This is an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the rules-based order. With other Members, on a cross-party basis, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary earlier this year to impress on him that that strategy must address the key challenges that arise from conflicts such as those in Syria and Yemen.

In Yemen, the Group of Eminent Experts has found violations of international humanitarian law by all sides. The bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure surely warrants consistent and clear condemnation and independent investigation. As the penholder on Yemen, surely the United Kingdom should be a neutral broker. The previous Foreign Secretary, Mr Hunt, showed real leadership on Yemen; I urge the Government to maintain that UK leadership.

The idea of leadership applies more widely, because we are in an era in which tragically the United States is retreating from its role as a defender of the rules-based system. Human rights should surely be the foundation of a fair, open and transparent society. I say strongly to the Government that, with an increasing void created by that American retreat, the defence of human rights and the rule of law must be at the heart of our policy—even more so than before.

Let me cite the particular example of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. President Obama made LGBT rights a pillar of his foreign policy, but that work is being undone by President Trump. Let me take just one example of the challenges that we still face: last week, a member of the Ugandan Government again suggested the introduction of the death penalty for gay sex. I urge the Minister to set out what the Government are doing to press Uganda to withdraw this appalling proposal.

The Ugandan announcement is not an isolated incident: we see growing authoritarianism around the world and a shrinking of civic space. In Hong Kong, we have seen protest leaders jailed, savage beatings and the firing of live rounds against demonstrators. Under the Sino-British joint declaration, Hong Kong residents were promised a range of civil rights; it is extremely difficult to argue that the treaty has not been breached. Surely it is now time to declare that China is in breach of its international obligations and to press the Chinese to change their position.

As we face great crises—on displacement, the climate emergency and widening inequality—the case for multi- lateralism is stronger, not weaker. I praise the commitments that the Department for International Development showed last week to replenish the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It is estimated that that fund has saved 27 million lives, making a real difference around the world. None the less, we need coherence in our policy. In Yemen, we have seen the real difference that aid has made, but our role there is a paradox of aid and arms in that we support Yemen on humanitarian relief and yet we are one of the main suppliers of arms to one side of the conflict. We need to address that. I now struggle with the Government’s suggestion that we have a system of arms control that is one of the most rigorous and robust in the world. I no longer believe that we can genuinely say that. We need to address this issue as a matter of urgency, and one of the ways that we can do that is to improve parliamentary oversight by making the Committees on Arms Export Controls a stand-alone Select Committee focused solely on that issue.

Finally, let me say something about DFID and our aid commitment of 0.7%. As colleagues from all parts of the House have said, that commitment is widely applauded internationally. We are a development superpower and, arguably, that is our greatest asset when it comes to exercising soft power. We should be proud of it and we should reaffirm it. I welcome the Queen’s Speech commitment to ensure that all girls have access to 12 years of quality education. The UK’s commitment at the General Assembly to investment in education is hugely welcome and positive, but we must address the particular needs of those who are displaced—those who are living as refugees or who are internally displaced. In particular, let us not forget the Rohingya people. It is now more than two years since 1 million people fled from Rakhine State to Bangladesh. We need to address their humanitarian needs, but we also need to hold the Burmese military to account. I urge the Government to be more proactive on this in the United Nations. Let us use this debate today to reject isolationism, reject any movement away from multilateralism and demonstrate our commitment to those shared values.