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Britain's Place in the World

Part of Speaker’s Statement – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 15th October 2019.

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Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green 6:32 pm, 15th October 2019

It is a real pleasure to be the final Back-Bench speaker in this debate and to follow the wonderful words of my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham, who has probably made the most powerful case for remaining in the European Union with the best deal—the one that we currently have. Certainly, if we do get to the point of having a second referendum, I will be banging the drum to remain in the European Union, not just for the residents of Hornsey and Wood Green but for every region in the UK, where he is quite right to say that there is no proper industrial strategy. In a sense, if we stick within the European Union, that is an industrial strategy. It needs improvement, but at least it is the bare bones of one that we can build on.

I would like briefly to bring out a few themes of the debate. Many Members have raised the right to go out on the streets and to have freedom of assembly. Some have mentioned the protests in Hong Kong, which we would all like to be much more peaceful, but even on our own streets, we see the protests of Extinction Rebellion because we know that climate change should be much higher up the foreign policy agenda.

Other themes include the global challenge of poverty and access to healthcare and education for all, which my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire talked about so clearly, and the UK’s role in energetically working towards a solution to the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. That does not seem to be breaking through at the moment, due to Brexit inertia; we cannot hear that voice.

My constituent Aras Amiri is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Evin prison outside Tehran. Where is the strong voice on these crucial issues and the cases of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Aras Amiri and others who are tragically in prison on trumped-up false charges?

Another theme is the protection of freedom of speech. Mr Speaker, I am not sure whether you have had a chance to read the wonderful book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin”, but I am sure that every Member of this House would like to put on record their thanks to the journalists who go out to the most dangerous parts of the globe and report back on our behalf.

In the dying moments of the debate, I want to underline what, for me, is the most tragic situation currently in the globe: what is happening to the Kurdish people in Rojava in the north of Syria. The Kurdish people have been our friends for a very long time. As an MP representing a constituency in the north of London, I know that the Kurdish community could not be more welcoming. I have enjoyed beautiful breakfasts when door-knocking, with wonderful hospitality—“Come in! Come and have a boiled egg, some lovely salad, a sausage and some tea.” I feel that we have let them down. We have not done enough; whether that is due to the Brexit inertia, I am not sure.

I had a slight hope last week during the urgent question on that issue, when I felt we were in that diplomatic space, which is what we were promised by the Foreign Office, but that night I switched on the television at 10 o’clock and saw the bombs falling. It is an absolute tragedy and a dereliction of duty on the part of the US to land us in it in this way. To not even tell us, but rather announce foreign policy on Twitter, is appalling. I therefore welcome the Government’s announcement today that they will suspend arms sales to Turkey. I would be grateful to have a bit more detail on the sequencing, but I am pleased to be able to say positive things about the Government’s policy, while decrying some of the absences. We need to have a much louder voice on this. We need to speak endlessly about it and try to get Mr Trump to understand that he simply cannot pull the rug from under the Kurdish community in Rojava.

In particular, we must talk about the experiences that so many women in that region have had. Mrs Main talked about the Rohingya women. We, as women MPs, must speak up about the rape and sexual assault that women in conflict zones experience. I want to hear our Government say that it is not on for soldiers to come over from Turkey and exploit women in that way. It is appalling.

We know that tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians have fled the region, and if Turkey is successful in its operation, more than 3 million Arab refugees will be resettled in the area. Although those refugees completely deserve the ability to return to Syria safely, it must not be at the cost of fundamentally changing the demographic make-up of the region and effectively cleansing the area of Kurdish communities who already call the region home. The excellent writer Philippe Sands talks in his compelling book “East West Street” about the difference between genocide and acts of violence against humanity. It is a very interesting intellectual debate. I fear that what will happen in Rojava is genocide, and I want our Government to redouble their efforts to do something about that, because they must not allow the US to get away with just walking away. I hope that the Minister will outline his vision on that.

Sadly, the Brexit debate has led to our voice being softer on the international stage, but I hope that we will be sensible on Brexit, so that we can get back to that central part of our narrative about being compassionate and caring about human rights and peace and being at the forefront of those important debates.