Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 15th May 2013.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bath and Wells The Bishop of Bath and Wells Bishop 4:30 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate on the humble Address, particularly in the area of foreign affairs. I welcome the Government’s continued commitment to preventing conflict and reducing terrorism and acknowledge their intention to strengthen the Reserve Forces, although I regret the lack of legislation to enshrine the necessity of consulting Parliament prior to the deployment of military force.

The promised support of countries in transition in the Middle East and north Africa and the opening of the peace process in Afghanistan are also significant. I welcome the various remarks made in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and agree entirely with the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on the urgency of this matter. I declare an interest as the recently appointed chair of Conciliation Resources, whose work is committed to supporting people at the heart of conflicts who are striving to find suitable solutions.

Like many of your Lordships, I am deeply concerned about the situation in Syria. I welcome the recent visit of the Prime Minister to President Obama, but I particularly wish to acknowledge the initiative of US Secretary of State Kerry in his dialogue with the Russians and the proposal to convene an international conference on Syria before the end of the month. Last year, I met the Russian ambassador to gain first hand the Russian perspective on the conflict. I welcome the initiative that looks to be in the process of being taken. That meeting last year followed one with Alistair Burt, who expressed the hope that a tipping point had been reached in Syria. Regrettably, no such tipping point was reached, and the evidence of that is clear in the growing sectarian nature of the conflict. A particularly disturbing piece of evidence lies in the recent kidnapping of two metropolitan bishops from Aleppo and the absence of any ransom demands for their release.

While some evidence exists that the various parties are realising that a negotiated transition is better than a fight to the death, does the Minister agree that in the absence of a political solution, the international community needs to contain the crisis by limiting the flow of arms to Syria and by strengthening the capacity of neighbouring countries to provide for the welfare of refugees? I raise this question because I regret the ongoing intention to seek an amendment to EU sanctions in relation to arms for Syria because if the Americans and Russians are successful in convening a peace conference, is such a strategy over arms provision the wisest thing we could be doing? The recent intervention in Libya offers evidence that the provision of arms without due attention being paid to the potential decommissioning thereof ought to leave us with some anxiety. Providing arms in this increasingly fragmented conflict makes any strategy for decommissioning arms, post conflict, very difficult.

Further, much as we hope and pray that a peace plan emerges from the diplomatic process, history suggests that such plans have durability only if the plan is owned locally and championed internationally. Rather than seeking the lifting of sanctions on the supply of arms, could Her Majesty’s Government consider how their role might contribute to being a custodian of any settlement? That would include taking steps to ensure that the Syrian National Council plays a constructive role at the peace conference, offering support to any regional or international peacekeeping force and facilitating, ensuring access and co-ordinating the humanitarian response. This would be an entirely appropriate action for our Government to be engaged in. While it is widely accepted that President Assad has no future in Syria, the wider question is whether his departure should be seen as an outcome of a diplomatic process, rather than the precondition of beginning one.

I return briefly to the impact of the sectarian conflict on religious minorities. Can the Minister kindly elaborate on the conversation that Alistair Burt recently had in Lebanon with religious leaders, and will he reassure this House that the Government will continue to take a robust position on the rights of all religious minorities in Syria?

It is now five years since seven Baha’i leaders in Iran were imprisoned. I welcome the remarks of Alistair Burt yesterday on these leaders and the need for freedom of all Baha’is in Iran to worship and practise their faith. I encourage Her Majesty’s Government to continue to pursue this matter with some urgency in the coming months.

While on the subject of religious freedom, I ask finally what consideration is being given to appointing a special envoy on freedom of religion and belief issues, and to foster dialogue and understanding as outlined in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2012 human rights and democracy report? I welcome the initiative of Her Majesty’s Government in respect of the United Nations humanitarian initiative and hope that it will be successful.

I acknowledge that these are substantive and difficult issues to which there are no easy answers, but Her Majesty’s Government are to be encouraged to see themselves as a custodian of a constructive approach to a diplomatic process, and cautioned against further arming in what is an already dangerously overarmed conflict.