[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair] — Arms Export Controls

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:10 pm on 26th March 2009.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 3:10 pm, 26th March 2009

I am sure that the Minister who is replying to the debate has heard what my hon. Friend said.

I turn now to the two countries to which I want to refer. The first is China. I have been going through with considerable interest a very useful report entitled "Good Conduct? Ten years of the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports", which was produced by a variety of EU NGOs in June 2008. The report states that in the five-year period 2002 to 2006, the UK received approval for licences to export military equipment to China valued at just over €450 million. That represents a substantial element of arms export business. That value of that business must, I believe, be set alongside China's performance on human rights. I shall not go into that in detail, because all hon. Members present will be familiar with China's human rights record, but I shall clarify one area: the Chinese record on capital punishment.

As hon. Members may have seen, Amnesty International has recently produced a further, updated report on the matter, and it was covered in detail in The Independent on 24 March. The newspaper report stated:

"Death sentences handed down by China for crimes including tax evasion and bag-snatching represented three-quarters of the 2,390 executions carried out around the world, up from 1,252 in 2007."

Elsewhere in the two-page spread is a picture of a rather attractive tourist-type posh bus. When one looks at it more closely, the bus is distinctly more sinister. The report about the bus states:

"China is innovating in the market of death with a fleet of execution buses in which convicts are efficiently and cleanly put to death by lethal injection.

The mobile death chamber means executions can be ordered and carried out by courts in towns and villages around a particular province, with executioners and medical staff shuttling between different jurisdictions. Authorities say the initiative is a deterrent against crime."

The report continues with a quotation:

"'First we established there was a demand for execution vehicles. Then we designed the vehicles and applied to the government for certification. This procedure is a must,' said Mr Zhang, from the marketing department of Jinguan Auto".

It concludes:

"The makers of the van say sales are steady, and urge any foreign governments interested to get in touch."

I fear that around the world there will be Governments who think that a death bus is an important item of public expenditure for their regime, and that they will make purchases.

If the record of China on human rights internally is put alongside its systematic, ruthless and continuing denial of human rights in Tibet, its continuing threatening posture towards Taiwan and the close interest that it now takes in its near neighbour Nepal, which itself has a Maoist-led coalition, the British Government need to look closely at the question whether we should be doing hundreds of millions of euros of arms-export business with China. I urge the Minister to review policy in that area.

Last week I went with members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza. I want to tell the House what I saw with my own eyes in Gaza. I want to make it clear at the outset, as I have done every time I have spoken on this subject, that I condemn absolutely and unreservedly the sending of rockets by Hamas into Israel. We started at a hospital in the centre of Gaza City. It was burnt out, through the use of phosphorous munitions. It was not possible to tell whether, or to find anyone who would say whether, there were any Hamas fighters in the hospital. I have no grounds for believing that there were any, but equally I cannot say absolutely that there were not. However, there could not be any conceivable justification for burning out an entire hospital on the ground that one or two Hamas fighters, or a small group of them, were in the vicinity, or possibly on the roof of the hospital.

We then went to one of the two very large Commonwealth war grave cemeteries in Gaza. In the cemetery, which has 4,000 headstones, we met the splendid Palestinian gentleman who is in charge of it and keeps it immaculately. He came to meet us in his suit and tie, wearing his decoration, an honorary MBE. He showed us the 300 headstones that had been destroyed or seriously scarred, which will all now have to be replaced. He also showed us, a considerable distance away, the Israeli tank firing-points from which shells had come into the cemetery. I asked him whether any Hamas fighters had been in the cemetery at any point, to which he replied, "Absolutely not."

We went to a relief distribution centre, run by Islamic Relief—a very good charity among the Islamic countries—and funded by the Department for International Development. It distributed food, tents, kitchen equipment, sanitary items and so on. I had heard and read about—and hon. Members will have seen in the press—the extent to which the Israelis targeted food production and Palestinian farms during the recent offensive. I met a Palestinian farmer who told me his farm had been destroyed; his orange trees had been smashed. He told me it would take at least 10 years to replant those orange trees and bring them to maturity for fruit. I asked him, "Were there any Hamas fighters in your farm?" He said, "Absolutely not."

Then, perhaps most disturbingly of all, we went to one of the largest industrial estates in Gaza. If there had been Hamas fighters there one might, yes, have expected one or two of the factories and warehouses to be destroyed, and a few others to be damaged. It was a huge estate, providing employment opportunities and income to what must have been many thousands of people. It had been flattened. Not a single building was standing. It had been destroyed, brought down to the ground, for as far as one could see. It was a horrendous sight. I came away with only one conclusion. The engagement was not military to military, with armed people on either side engaging each other. It was an engagement about collective punishment, and that is what has been inflicted on Gaza.

That brings me to my next point, about an interesting and important piece of information given to me about the rules of engagement under which the Israelis operated during the recent Gaza conflict. I was told on very high authority, completely independently and not by Palestinian or Israeli sources, that in the rules of engagement—I have not had sight of them, which is not surprising, as they are highly classified—the members of the Israeli defence forces were told that above all else they must avoid being captured.

Hon. Members will know the extent to which Israel is transfixed by the Corporal Shalit case. Corporal Shalit was kidnapped and is still a hostage. He has been a hostage for three years. Indeed, outside the Prime Minister's house in Jerusalem we saw the demonstrations and the tents of the people there who are calling for Corporal Shalit's release.

If someone's rules of engagement include an overriding requirement that they should under no circumstances allow themselves to get captured, an absolutely certain military consequence is that the fire positions in which they engage will be of a stand-off nature and will be at a considerable distance. Indeed, I was told that the vast majority of the IDF forces that were engaged did not at any point see a Hamas fighter. If someone engages at a great distance, they can also be certain that they will maximise civilian casualties.

So, I ask the Minister to consider what happened in southern Lebanon three years ago, when, as he knows, a vast number of cluster munitions were sown over the whole of southern Lebanon—including in the civilian areas—in the 72 hours after the ceasefire had been agreed and before it came into effect. He should also consider the degree of destruction of Gaza, where there were nearly 1,500 civilian casualties—including hundreds of women and children. Against that background and the background of what I have said about the rules of engagement, which are likely to be the same in any future conflict and are likely to lead to a high level of civilian casualties, the Minister and his colleagues must look extraordinary closely at the compliance by the British Government in respect of weapons systems and the components of weapons systems sold to Israel—either directly or indirectly—in relation to the EU combined code.