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6.9 pm

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): I am pleased to support all that was said by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. If he does not mind, I shall leave to one side Europe and the other matters with which he dealt; we have heard enough about them already this evening.

I shall talk about another aspect of our foreign policy--the role that this Parliament can play in helping to bring democracy to the world, based on our shared values. Britain's foreign policy continues to play an influential role on the international scene. Practical support for democratic reform has been successfully carried out on our behalf--on behalf of all the parties in Parliament-- by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, an organisation that I have the privilege of chairing.

In a world where the quest for civil liberties and human rights has yet to be fulfilled, the foundation has encouraged openness and civic participation in the political process. In order to provide a timely and effective response to those needs, the WFD closely monitors and analyses developments in areas where democratic deficit has caused turmoil and hardship. I shall share with the House some of the thoughts, experience and expertise of the WFD in that vital aspect of our foreign policy.

The year 2000 may prove to be a turning point in the politics of the Balkans. After 10 years of war and political turmoil, there are positive signs that that exhausted and embattled region is moving towards peace and democratic rule. Political changes in Croatia and Bosnia, accompanied by the departure of the wartime leaders, Tudjman and Izetbegovic, and the recent spectacular toppling of the Milosevic regime in Serbia have created opportunities for genuine progress in democratic development.

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The WFD has played an active role in supporting forces for change, including political parties, independent media and civic groups. In Bosnia, in collaboration with the British political parties, we have intensified the training programmes for a new generation of politicians--aimed at developing a fairer and more effective distribution of power locally and nationally.

The Serbian political opposition, non-governmental organisations and independent media received significant support from the WFD in their civic protest action and their "get out the vote" campaign. Over the years, we targeted assistance to a wide range of local activists, youth groups, political campaigners and print and broadcast media. In the run-up to the September elections, several of our partner organisations were constantly harassed by the authorities because of their work. The WFD is one of a small group of international organisations that have provided consistent support for the front-line groups whose foresight and courage led to the success of the bloodless uprising.

We must not forget that in the Balkans peace and democracy are fragile. For example, in the recent Romanian elections, a right-wing nationalist party won 21 per cent. of the seats in the Parliament, reflecting the rise of xenophobic nationalism in that country.

The dangers of backsliding are real and enormous challenges lie ahead. Further support is needed to pave the way for constitutional reform in Serbia and to negotiate solutions on the status of Montenegro and Kosovo. We shall make a priority of working in partnership with Serbian political parties and NGOs in order to build and strengthen democratic institutions. We continue to work with political parties in Kosovo to encourage political and civic engagement, and the practice of value-based politics. As Croatia prepares to join European institutions, the WFD supports activities to strengthen the system of accountability and compliance with international standards in key areas of Government activity.

It is clear that simultaneous democratic and economic development in all countries is a necessity in order to achieve stability and prosperity in that region. In addition to support for individual countries, the WFD will continue to encourage cross-border activity and exchange through joint projects aimed at improving transparency, fair treatment of minorities and greater respect for civil liberties.

In 2000, we saw momentous changes in Russia, with the arrival of President Putin in the Kremlin. However, democracy in that country faces significant challenges. The Parliament is still in transition; its upper house is due to undergo fundamental changes, while in the lower house the parties are moving slowly towards consolidation into larger and more viable entities. Outside Parliament, the formerly strong trend towards autonomy in many of the regions is being curbed--raising questions as to the ability of the more advanced areas to act as standard-bearers for democratisation.

At grassroots, there continues to be a worrying degree of apathy about, or ignorance of, basic rights and participatory democracy. That is both a cause and a consequence of the failure of democratic institutions higher up really to get going. The WFD is trying to address some of the problems with a wide range of projects considering both grassroots and national issues.

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In other republics of the former Soviet Union, progress towards a semblance of democracy is either lagging some way behind that in Russia or, in some places, has completely stalled. However, there are many common problems. We are funding voter education programmes and training for local councils in both Georgia and Azerbaijan. We are supporting the media in countries where they are often prevented from reporting freely; we are trying to assist Azerbaijani journalists to receive training about the legal environment in which they work. In Ukraine, we are helping journalists constantly to assess political bias in state-owned and independent media in order that they can combat it.

Deliberate discrimination against women is exacerbated by the fact that they are the worst sufferers from the economic reverses in those former Soviet countries. The WFD supports groups in the Caucasus, central Asia and the Slav republics which are trying to educate women about their rights and training them better to defend those rights.

Mr. Trend: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I too am a governor of the WFD, under his excellent chairmanship; I warmly acknowledge the support of the Foreign Office for the foundation's important work. If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope to raise this subject later: in the context of conversations that we have held at the WFD, does it surprise the hon. Gentleman that, last week, the British Council closed its office in Minsk--in one of the countries about which we are most concerned? So far, I have been unable to discover why we are leaving the last tyranny in Europe--perhaps I shall find out later in the debate.

Mr. Ross: I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman is able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may receive an answer on that point from the Minister who responds to the debate.

In Africa, UK political parties continue to increase the assistance that they provide to sister parties. The Labour party in particular sought to support more parties on the continent than ever before. The Liberal Democrats continued their programme of work with the CUF in Zanzibar, while the Conservative party supported sister parties through the African Dialogue Group. All three parties working together provided crucial help for the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe--with obvious results: for the first time since independence, the country has a viable opposition party within Parliament.

Elsewhere, the WFD worked alongside wider UK initiatives to assist Sierra Leone's efforts on the road to peace, stability and democracy; we are part-funding a British military assistance and training team project on democratic control of the security forces; providing funding for vital equipment for the only radio station outside Freetown; and supporting two other peace-building programmes. In Nigeria, the WFD has continued to support a range of projects aimed at building democracy in the most populous African state.

In other parts of the world, the foundation supported visits to the UK by members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and supported human rights monitoring projects in Palestine. In Israel, we worked alongside NGOs which were working for reconciliation between Arab and Jewish Israelis. In Egypt, the foundation supported training for

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women candidates in the run-up to elections, and the development of civil society. Elsewhere in the middle east, the WFD has been involved in Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen.

In south-east Asia, the foundation has supported the US-based human rights group in China, the Human Rights Monitor based in central Hong Kong, the Tibet Information Network, Voice of Tibet radio, the API foundation in Indonesia and the East Timor International Support Centre. Support for those organisations reveals just some of ways in which we have sought to spread the benefits that we enjoy in this country to countries emerging from troubled pasts. On behalf of the foundation, I thank the Foreign Secretary for the support that we have been given by all Foreign Office departments and all its stations abroad.

In conclusion, I shall spend a couple of minutes dealing with the middle east. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did not refer to it because of other issues. I hope that other hon. Members will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and say a few things about that region. If there is one message that the House should send out tonight, it is that the killing must stop. We should all be united about that; it is the one thing that all hon. Members should try to ensure. I should like to make my contribution by reminding the Israeli Government, who now have no Prime Minister and are moving into an uncertain period, that the only real times of peace and security that Israel has enjoyed have occurred when it has worked within international law and agreed to resolve its differences with the other middle east countries--its neighbours--by accepting that international law forms the bedrock of such agreements.

I remind the House that the original Camp David accord required Israel to withdraw completely from the Egyptian territory that it occupied after 1967. When Egypt and Israel failed to reach agreement on withdrawing from Taba, they referred the issue to the international court. Two years later, Israel accepted the court's decision that Taba belonged to Egypt, withdrew and peace--perhaps not the warmth of peace that many would have preferred--has existed ever since.

The other occasion when Israel accepted international law was when it withdrew completely from every inch of Lebanon. Clearly, subsequent events have not proved as successful as the agreement with Egypt. However, we need to remind the Israeli Government that forces whose agenda is not that of the Lebanese Government can exploit the fact that the Israelis continue to hold Lebanese citizens in jail and over-fly Lebanon without the consent of the Lebanese Government.

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