My Lords it gives me great pleasure to open this debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, in which we will consider the Government’s priorities for foreign affairs, European affairs, international development and defence. Those priorities are: to protect our people; safeguard international order; and invest in development.
I would like to record my appreciation for the expertise noble Lords bring to debates. It is a resource I value greatly. The House has, for example, benefited from the expertise in the educational field by the contributions made by my noble friend Lady Perry of Southwark over the past 25 years. Today we will hear her valedictory speech. I value her friendship and her role in this House highly and wish her well in her retirement. We also look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jowell.
I feel privileged to be the Minister responsible for leading the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s work to promote respect for human rights and freedoms around the world. Violations and abuses of human rights create unstable, undemocratic societies where extremism can take root and terrorism can flourish. The absence of democratic freedom, good governance, and the rule of law undermines prosperity because it hinders enterprise, reduces innovation, and restricts opportunity. This damages our scope to trade with other countries, create jobs and boost growth. That is why in the last Session the Foreign and Commonwealth Office refreshed and strengthened its approach to human rights.
Our annual Human Rights and Democracy report, published just last month, sets out how we will continue to strive to defend human rights, firmly believing that to do so is in the UK national interest. We will focus on 30 priority countries. This allows us to make the most of our strengths, influence and global network. It allows our diplomats to focus on the issues where they can make the greatest difference—from LGBT rights to the abolition of the death penalty, to protecting rights to freedom of religion or belief, or no belief.
A highlight of my work continues to be taking forward the ground-breaking initiative of my noble friend Lord Hague of Richmond on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. We are making progress. Victims are being supported. Experts in healthcare, security and law are being educated and trained. Perpetrators are being brought to justice as a result of UK support. This year we are focusing on tackling stigma, which sees many survivors ostracised from their communities. We must challenge the attitudes that cause this to happen. We must shift the burden of shame from the victim to the perpetrator.
The importance of this work was brought home to me during my visit earlier this year to Nigeria. Women and young girls who had escaped from Boko Haram were suffering a double trauma: stigma about their experiences in captivity was significantly hindering their return to their communities and their families. The welcome news last week about the release of Amina Ali, one of the Chibok girls, brought this home starkly. Amina came back with a child born to a Boko Haram fighter. In Nigeria, as elsewhere, this issue needs to be addressed urgently, and we plan to work with PSVI champions around the world to identify ways to give survivors better support.
Promoting accountability will also be crucial. That is why we will also be encouraging more widespread use of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, and encouraging security forces to do more to prevent and respond to these crimes.
The FCO, Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development have together made great progress in promoting the women, peace and security agenda. I am pleased to say that General Messenger is now the Ministry of Defence military champion for women, peace and security and for PSVI. It is a privilege to work closely with him to ensure that we deliver on our national action plan commitments—in particular, that by November, all British troops deploying on overseas missions will receive training on women, peace and security.
At the United Nations high-level review on women, peace and security last October, my noble friend Lady Verma announced the UK’s eight new commitments. These included increasing women’s participation in peace processes and peacebuilding, and ensuring that our military doctrine and analysis work are gender-sensitive. We also pledged $1 million to support the creation of the United Nations global acceleration instrument. The United Nations comes up with some rather odd descriptions for straightforward things but what this does, straightforwardly, is support and empower women to play a role in preventing conflict, building peace and ensuring a lasting recovery.
This is exactly what our diplomats and UK-funded projects are doing in conflict zones and areas recovering from conflict. In Syria and Yemen we are working to ensure women are represented at and participate in peace talks. In Libya our projects are promoting women’s rights and their participation in the drafting of the constitution, and in the process of national dialogue and reconciliation. We will use our influence at the United Nations to continue to promote women’s participation in the peace and post-conflict processes in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan. In April, I met the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, when I was in Geneva. I welcomed his formation of the Women’s Advisory Board, and we agreed to continue to support board members and to look more broadly at women’s representation in the peace processes. This agenda will also feature prominently at the London peacekeeping summit this September.
My noble friend Lady Verma would normally be with us on the Front Bench today, but she is representing the UK at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. We are proud of our commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development. Like our support for human rights, it is firmly in the UK’s national interest—rather than wait for the problems of the world to arrive on our doorstep, we must take action to tackle them at source.
The world is changing and our strategy on aid needs to change with it. That is why we have restructured our aid budget. The UK aid strategy aims to create a healthier, more stable and more prosperous world, shaped around four strategic objectives. The first is strengthening peace, security and governance. At least half of DfID’s budget will be spent on stabilising and supporting broken and fragile states and regions, including regions of strategic importance to the UK, such as the Middle East and south Asia. Second is strengthening resilience and crisis response. That means preparing countries to deal with emergencies and improving the speed and quality of humanitarian response. Third is promoting global prosperity. By that we mean helping to boost growth and create jobs so that countries can lift themselves out of poverty, as well as providing growing markets and trading partners for Britain. Finally, there is tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable. The UK lobbied hard to ensure the UN’s global sustainable development goals focused on this, and we will continue to champion them.
The gracious Speech emphasised our role in safeguarding international order. In the Middle East and north Africa we must work to counter the extremist threats that Daesh and its affiliates pose to the stability of the region. As Daesh is pressurised in Iraq and Syria, we have seen branches appear in other countries, most notably in Libya. We remain committed to supporting the Libyan Government of National Accord. Just last week in Vienna, we and the international community reaffirmed our support for the GNA and called on legitimate military and security forces in Libya to bring together their military and security in the form of a unified command under the GNA to fight Daesh.
On Syria, the Government are clear that we need an inclusive political solution to the conflict that will deliver a transition away from Assad to a Government who provide stability and represent all Syrians, and with whom we can work to tackle Daesh.
We will continue to support efforts to reach this political solution, working with our international partners in the International Syria Support Group and the UN Security Council, supporting the UN special envoy’s efforts to facilitate intra-Syrian negotiations in Geneva. We will continue to play a leading role in alleviating humanitarian suffering, as we did recently when hosting the Supporting Syria and the Region conference. That raised more than $12 billion in one day, the largest amount ever for a humanitarian crisis.
The regime continues to block and delay access by humanitarian convoys to besieged areas such as Darayya, and to pilfer medical supplies from them. This is unacceptable. The ISSG called on the United Nations World Food Programme to carry out a programme of air bridges and air drops, starting on
The United Kingdom will continue to play a leading role in the campaign against Daesh, in Syria as well as in Iraq, as part of the Government’s commitment to keep this country safe from threats of terror. The global coalition of 66 countries and international organisations has a comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh. We are attacking it militarily, squeezing its finances, disrupting the flow of fighters, challenging its poisonous ideology and working to stabilise liberated areas. Over the last 18 months, the UK conducted air strikes and provided advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assistance in support of the coalition effort in Iraq and Syria. We are making progress. Daesh is under pressure.
The total number of Daesh fighters is estimated to be at its lowest for two years. Its senior figures are being targeted and killed at an increasing rate. It has lost about 40% of the territory it once held in Iraq and 10% of the territory it held in Syria. Thousands of people have been freed from its rule and been able to return safely to their homes. In recent months, Daesh has lost control of Hit and Ramadi in Iraq. In Syria it has lost the strategic Tishrin dam and its former stronghold of Al-Shadadi, on a key route between Mosul and Raqqa. By halting and reversing its territorial advance, global coalition military action has squeezed Daesh’s sources of revenue.
We must continue to expose Daesh for what it is: a failing organisation that is losing territory, struggling to pay its fighters and betraying Islam and all it stands for. We must ensure that Daesh is held to account for its barbaric crimes against majorities and minorities: against Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, Kurds and others. This Government will work with our international partners to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. Two years ago, the United Kingdom co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council resolution mandating the investigation of Daesh abuses in Iraq. We are now working hard to find ways to support the gathering of evidence which could be used by courts to hold Daesh to account, while also seeking to provide victim support and justice for those who have suffered so severely. Ultimately, the only way to put an end to these crimes and liberate the people of Iraq and Syria is to defeat Daesh.
Furthermore, we must look at the complete disregard for international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the Syrians. Civilians and civilian infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities, have been targeted by cluster bombs, barrel bombs and chemical weapons, killing as many as 400,000 people and resulting in millions of refugees and displaced people. Assad and Daesh have callously used siege and starvation tactics. We continue to support the UN Commission of Inquiry’s investigations into human rights violations and abuses in Syria.
The clock is ticking in many senses. In 31 days’ time, the referendum will give voters in this country the opportunity to decide whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union or leave the EU. It will be an historic moment. The Government are clear that the United Kingdom will be stronger, safer and better off as a member of a reformed European Union. We will be stronger because we can play a leading role in one of the world’s largest organisations from within, helping make the big decisions that affect our future. We will be safer because we can work closely with other countries to fight cross-border crime and terrorism, giving us strength in numbers in a dangerous world. We will be better off if we retain full access to the European single market of 500 million people—the largest in the world—bringing jobs, investment, lower prices and financial security. This is the best trade deal of all, better than anything we could get outside the EU. A vote to leave would mean that Britain would be permanently poorer to the tune of approximately £4,300 a year for every household.
Of course, the task of reforming Europe goes on—and it must—but our special status in Europe gives us the best of both worlds. It means that families across the UK get all the benefits of being in the EU, including more jobs, lower prices and greater security. At the same time, we are out of the parts of Europe that do not work for us.