Middle East — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:41 am on 16th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy) 11:41 am, 16th March 2012

My Lords, the purpose of this debate is to reflect on the momentous events of the past 15 months in the Middle East and North Africa and their implications for our own security and prosperity.

Of course, the past 15 months represent only the very beginning of the process of change. In Syria, appalling violence and instability continue. New Governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya need to stabilise their economies, draft new constitutions and meet the expectations of their people. In Bahrain, steps are being taken to implement the recommendations of the committee of inquiry into the violence that went on last year, but this needs to be seen through fully. The important consideration is that change will be a long process-possibly very long. The path was never going to be, and will never be, straightforward. There are enormous challenges ahead, both economic and political, but, as my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has said, the whole Arab spring phenomenon does at least raise the prospect of the greatest enlargement of human freedom since the end of the Cold War and of course of a wider Middle East that could be made up of open, prosperous and stable societies. That is of the greatest importance to us in the United Kingdom and to our interests in that region, and it is a goal worth expending prolonged efforts to move towards and showing great patience to achieve.

Perhaps I may be allowed to share with your Lordships some detailed views on the unfolding scene. I shall comment, first, on Tunisia, where in a sense it all began 15 months ago with the dramatic and tragic death of the fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi. I applaud the remarkable process that the people of Tunisia have made in their so-called jasmine revolution. Following successful elections in October, a new broad-based Government have now been established, and the Constituent Assembly is leading the drafting of a constitution for Tunisia based on democratic values and human rights. We maintain full support for the Tunisian transition and the elected coalition Government. Tunisia is also beginning to take a more active role in foreign affairs, and it hosted the important 24 February Friends of Syria meeting. President Marzouki has recently completed a regional tour of all the Maghreb states, arguing strongly that now is the time to chart a new relationship between these countries. That is encouraging.

I shall say a word on Egypt. There, too, truly historic parliamentary elections represented an important step along the country's path to change. We welcome continued progress on the political transition, including the announcement of presidential elections during May and June, and the transfer of power to an elected President by 1 July. Of course, the economic challenge in Egypt is extremely significant. Its faltering economy fails to meet the public's high expectations for growth, jobs and better standards of living, and that could undermine the process of political reform. Violence over the past year has shown the scale of the problem that the Egyptian authorities must tackle, including the need to build full respect for human rights. We continue to urge the authorities to enshrine human rights in the constitution, including guarantees for minority rights, and to develop the other building blocks of democracy, such as a free media and a vibrant civil society. That is what the Egyptian people want and this is where we can help.

Turning to Libya, the Libyan authorities are making steady progress in their transition to a peaceful and stable country. In June, the Libyan people will have their first democratic elections in 40 years. I think that they can be immensely proud of the inspiration they have given to others around the world, as indeed we are of the UK's role in supporting them. There is a lot of hard work ahead, including disarming militias, restarting the economy and building government institutions, but in our view Libya's future is potentially brighter than it was a year ago. It will take time. The issue of how much federalism there is to be in the new constitution will have to be sorted out. However, we will continue to support Libya, especially in dealing with the legacy of the grim Gaddafi era, entrenching the rule of law and preparing for the June elections in close co-operation with the United Nations and other partner countries. It is to be expected that some will be frustrated by the pace of reform, but just over one year on from the beginning of the revolution the future of Libya is firmly in the hands of the Libyan people, where it should be.

As events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, which I have mentioned, and more widely have shown, change has been led by the people of the region. It is not for the United Kingdom or any western power to dictate the pace or nature of the change from outside. We must also respect the choices that Arab citizens make democratically through the ballot box. This includes being prepared to work with new elected groups that draw their inspiration from Islam, while holding them to the same high standards of non-violence, respect for human rights and a willingness to respect the outcome of future elections that are expected of others. These things can, have in the past and will in the future, go together.

There is no one model of democracy; it is for the people of each country in the region to determine their own path in accordance with their different cultures, traditions and political systems. That is why we applaud in particular steps taken in states such as Morocco and Jordan, where leaders have initiated gradual reform processes. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke to Morocco's newly elected Head of Government, Abdelilah Benkirane, on 20 January to offer his congratulations and the UK's full support for Morocco's constitutional reforms. This country also stands fully ready to partner with Jordan as it undertakes to implement the reforms of His Majesty Kind Abdullah. We also look forward to upcoming parliamentary elections in May in Algeria, which I recently visited and where we have high hopes of closer relations. We also welcome the conference organised by the Maghreb countries on border security, which called together all those countries, including Algeria and Morocco, to reach decisions on co-operation.

I will say a word about Bahrain. We are urging the Government there to continue to implement the full recommendations of the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry. However, they must go further and implement political reforms. The Government and opposition parties say that they are ready to re-engage in dialogue, and we call on both sides to begin talks quickly. Agreement between the Government and the trade unions on the reinstatement of workers is a welcome move forward.

A much more difficult scene is found in Yemen. After 33 years as head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down and formally handed over power to a new president. This followed the agreed Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered plan to bring about peaceful political change. The UK welcomed the inauguration of President Abbed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The second phase of transition will not be at all easy. The economy is in disarray after years of intense unrest. Security must be re-established and Iranian meddling, which is clearly evident, must be resisted. The humanitarian crisis is growing and many disaffected parties who have been outside the political process will need to be brought to the table in an attempt to resolve their grievances. However, the opportunity is there and it deserves our optimistic support.

I will come to some more difficult areas in a moment. I will say a word about the role of Turkey, which is of increasing relevance and importance. The events of the past year have reinforced the importance of Turkey. It played a very important role in supporting the NATO mission in Libya. With its stable democracy and thriving economy, it continues to act as an inspiration for countries affected by the Arab spring process. We will continue to work together in the context of the G8's partnership, agreed at the Deauville meeting, to support political and economic transitions in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. We welcome Turkey's efforts to share its experience of the political process by inviting those involved in the revolution in Egypt to meet its political parties.

In Syria, which I will come to in more detail in a moment, Turkey is a vital partner. We are working closely together as part of the Friends of Syria group, and at the United Nations, to increase international pressure on the Assad regime to end its violence and improve access for humanitarian organisations. Turkey can also play an important role in encouraging Iran to negotiate seriously on its nuclear problem, and we look forward to the prospect of further talks there.

I come to the very difficult and grim situation in Syria. President Assad and his regime have refused to recognise a central truth. The UN estimates that since protests began in Syria in March 2011, more than 7,500 people-I believe 8,000 is the latest figure-have been killed, including 380 children. The Syrian regime is engaged in a brutal campaign of repression through widespread and systematic human rights violations, including torture and the rape of men, women and children. The registered Syrian refugee population in neighbouring countries now exceeds 30,000, although the actual figure could be much higher, and it is believed that more than 200,000 people have been displaced. We continue to play a prominent role in international efforts to convince the Syrian regime that it must end its brutality. There is no room in the Middle East of the future for butchery of this kind.

We seek a robust Human Rights Council resolution on Syria in Geneva, and are working hard in New York to get the UN Security Council to put its weight behind efforts to bring peace and improve humanitarian access. We continue to call for an immediate end to the brutal repression of human rights, and demand an end to all violence and immediate and unhindered humanitarian access. We support the work of Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the UN and Arab League, to bring about an end to the violence and facilitate a political transition. We also support the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the current Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who is known to us all. We call on the Syrian Government to implement their commitments to the Arab League by stopping military action, withdrawing their forces from towns and cities, releasing political prisoners and allowing the media access. We strongly endorse what the Arab League and Kofi Annan are doing. The Foreign Secretary recently addressed the House of Commons on the issue and announced the suspension of the service of the British embassy in Damascus and the withdrawal of all diplomatic staff. They have now left Syria. We continue to follow developments on the ground very closely.

I have few minutes remaining, but there is much more to say on the area. We must do all we can to support the people of the region as they build more open and inclusive democratic societies. To this end, we launched the highly praised Arab Partnership Programme to provide both political and economic support to the region. We have committed to provide £110 million over four years. In Egypt and Tunisia, we supported the electoral processes and helped to encourage political debate. I would have liked to share with noble Lords much more that we are doing in facing these issues.

The old dangers also remain, and with your Lordships' permission I shall return to them at the end of the debate. Obviously, the Middle East peace process remains central; the conflict there is poisoning the whole scene in the Middle East. Our priority remains to bring the parties to negotiation. The ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis remains a cause of a very grave concern, and we are 100 per cent committed to a peaceful resolution of the issue if we can achieve it. There will be further talks with the Iranians, although a time has yet to be fixed.

In the Middle East mosaic there are of course many blemishes and stains. We make no secret of our wish to see gradual reform in great states like Saudi Arabia. However, we should also note the way in which the states of the Gulf work closely with this country. Everywhere in the region there is genuine and deep affection for Britain. That is why some of the GCC states show a strong interest in links with the Commonwealth, while their trade and business interests turn increasingly to the east and the rising powers of Asia.

I have no more time to expand on what we are doing and intend to do. We can be proud of our role, our diplomacy and our expertise deployed throughout the region-especially, if I may say so, that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under the inspired leadership of my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, William Hague. I look forward greatly in the coming debate to hearing your Lordships' insights into these tumultuous, dangerous and challenging events. I beg to move.