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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain): The Government have led the way in the creation of an international certification scheme to deny conflict diamonds access to world markets, and help to protect the legitimate trade on which so many livelihoods depend.
Judy Mallaber: I welcome the hard work done by my hon. Friend and the Foreign Office in cleaning up the diamond trade; but does my hon. Friend accept that sanctions-busters are still taking diamonds from Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone and from Unita in Angola, and supplying them with weapons that are used to perpetuate these murderous wars?
Mr. Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend that sanctions- busters are continuing to perpetuate the conflict in Sierra Leone and Angola, with the result that countless lives are being lost and mutilations are taking place. Victor Bout is indeed the chief sanctions-buster, and is a merchant of death who owns air companies that ferry in arms and other logistic support for the rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone and take out the diamonds which pay for those arms. All the countries that are allowing him to use their facilities and aircraft bases to ferry that trade in death into Sierra Leone and Angola are aiding and abetting people who are turning their guns on British soldiers, among others, in Sierra Leone. It is important that they stop doing that.
Mrs. Williams: Will my hon. Friend tell me what pressure has been put on the Governments of Liberia, Rwanda, Togo and Burkina Faso to stop sanctions-busters dealing in illicit diamonds and operating in their countries in blatant defiance of United Nations sanctions?
Mr. Hain: I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that matter, as one of the cruel ironies and tragedies of the appalling conflict in Sierra Leone and Angola is the fact that fellow Africans are allowing sanctions-busters to operate within their boundaries, and carry in arms and take out diamonds. That practice perpetuates such conflicts. All the Governments named by my hon. Friend, including some Presidents and senior Ministers, have been complicit in that barbarous trade, and it is vital that they cease it immediately, comply with UN sanctions and help end those wars
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Is not it essential that the conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone cease to be such as soon as possible, and that the areas affected are returned to the control of the Government? Would it not have been better if that had been achieved by a British-led UN force or, indeed, a British-led Sierra Leonean force in the first instance, so that the Sierra Leonean Government had regained control of those diamonds early on? How long will it take us to train the Sierra Leonean army to achieve that task on its own?
Mr. Hain: We have already helped to train 3,000 members of the Sierra Leonean army and another 3,000 will receive further training in the coming months. One will not end the conflict, win the war or create peace unless one takes control of the diamond-mining areas, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point that out. The way to achieve that is for the Sierra Leonean army to go in, with UNAMSIL filling in behind, to take control of those diamond mines and stay there permanently, or at least for the foreseeable future.
The new national certification scheme that the Sierra Leonean Government have introduced will allow the proceeds from those diamonds to make the people of Sierra Leone rich, instead of poor and torn apart by war.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Although I welcome the initiative on conflict diamonds, will the Minister explain what happened to joined-up government? He will be aware of the civil war in the Congo and the problems there, and know that the Zimbabwean army is operating in the Congo. I am sure that he is also aware that a British Army team is training the Zimbabwean army that has gone to the Congo, where its sole purpose is to protect the diamond trade that is lining the pockets of Mugabe and his henchmen.
Mr. Hain: I agree that it is intolerable that the Zimbabwean army is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo helping to perpetuate that war, draining Zimbabwe's own budget and assisting with the collapse of that beautiful country. However, the British military advisory and training team in Harare is not contributing to that effort. It is not there to train the Zimbabwean army, but to support a regional peacekeeping initiative and work with the UN to bring stability to the region. That is the purpose of that British team's operation.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): We warmly welcome the powerful rejection of Milosevic by the people of Serbia. We acted immediately to lift European sanctions. We have admitted Yugoslavia to the European stability pact for the Balkans. Britain is also supporting Yugoslavia's admission, at the ministerial meeting later this month, to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since the fall of Milosevic, the European Union has allocated 200 million euros for immediate aid and reconstruction. We promised that if the people of Serbia voted for democratic change, we would bring down the barriers between them and Europe. We are delivering on that promise.
Mrs. Mahon: I welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks on aid for Yugoslavia. One of the main consequences of the war was the blocking of the Danube, because bridges over it were bombed. I am therefore glad that the Secretary of State has made it clear that aid and not loans will be made available. However, does he not agree that circulating planted questions--in the hope that a hapless Back Bencher will stand up and call those of us who opposed the bombings abusive names--will do nothing towards achieving peace and reconciliation in the Balkans?
In April this year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister held a meeting with representatives of the Royal British Legion to discuss the British groups who had been held prisoner by the Japanese during the second world war. He subsequently initiated a reconsideration of the longstanding policy of the Government towards those far eastern prisoners. The review took time to conduct because of the complexity of the issues involved, but it has now been completed.
I am very pleased to be able to inform the House that, as a result of the review, the Government have decided to make a single ex gratia payment of £10,000 to each of the surviving members of the British groups who were held prisoner by the Japanese during the second world war, in recognition of the unique circumstances of their captivity. In cases in which a person who would have been entitled to the payment has died, the surviving spouse will be entitled to receive it instead.
As hon. Members will recall, on a number of occasions in recent months, in debates in which many right hon. and hon. Members have spoken, the House has debated the situation of those who were held prisoner in the far east during the second world war. We had those debates because what happened to those prisoners was often so appalling that, for many, it has remained with them for the rest of their lives.
Many hon. Members will be aware of the stories told by now frail constituents about that terrible time, and members of the public will be familiar with the books and films about it. However, if we look back at the histories, we come across a simple, stark fact that makes clear to everyone the enormity of what happened: of the 50,016 British service personnel who were reported captured by the Japanese, 12,433 died or were killed in captivity. In other words, conditions were so bad that one in four did not survive.
We are all very thankful that such a situation did not occur anywhere else during the second world war and has not recurred since. The unique nature of Japanese captivity in the far east was recognised in the 1950s, when those who had been held became eligible for modest payments from Japanese assets, made under the provisions of the 1951 San Francisco treaty of peace with Japan. As hon. Members are aware, the maximum payment available at that time was £76 10s.
In the intervening years, the former far east prisoners pursued the issue of additional compensation with Japan. More recently, they have also campaigned for the British Government to make a payment. However, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will be well aware, it has been the policy of successive Governments over many years not to make payments in such circumstances.
We are now making an exception for the British groups that were held prisoner by the Japanese during the second world war in recognition of the unique circumstances of their collective captivity. Those who will be entitled to receive the payment are former members of Her Majesty's
We estimate that up to 16,700 people may be eligible for the ex gratia payments, which will accordingly cost up to £167 million to make. I will not go into detail about the new payment scheme now, except to say that this single ex gratia payment will not be taxable, nor will it be taken into account for benefits purposes. We intend to make these payments as quickly as possible, although it will take a little time for the appropriate regulations to be made. We expect everything to be in place by February.
Further details of the scheme are being published today in a leaflet by the War Pensions Agency, which will be administering it. A copy will be placed in the Library of the House. The leaflet and a claim form will also be available on the agency's website.
The Government recognise that many UK citizens, both those serving in the armed forces and civilians, have had to endure great hardship at different times and in different circumstances, but the experience of those who went into captivity in the far east during the second world war was unique. We have said before that we believe the country owes a debt of honour to them. I hope that I am speaking for everyone here when I say that today something concrete has been done to recognise that debt.