Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. I think that is what I was saying.
  (Mr Hain) Then we are agreeing.

  Sir Peter Emery: Good.


  21. Minister, in that context, we look forward to the Foreign Office reply to our recommendations in respect of China.
  (Mr Hain) Indeed. We will be getting those to you, Chairman, in the early part of next year.

  Chairman: Generally, the consensus has been that the reports of 1998, 1999 and 2000 have been a distinct improvement one on the other and a refinement. However, there are still omissions, and I would like to call on Mr Mackinlay.

Mr Mackinlay

  22. We were promised a Green Paper on mercenaries. We have not had it. I cannot find any mention in this report about the whole area of mercenaries. This Government has had some embarrassment from predecessors dealing with this matter. The principal opposition spokesperson, which the Queen's Speech referred to in relation to Sierra Leone, Mr Maud, thought that mercenaries could be acceptable to a Sierra Leone Government. There seems to be a vacuum now as to our thinking on this. It is a cause of some embarrassment to the United Kingdom that we have not got, at least, a Green Paper on where we are going to go. Also, there are some conventions which we have yet to ratify on this, I think. What say you on that?
  (Mr Hain) Andrew, I understand your concern about it and I share it. I regret the fact that the commitment we gave to the Green Paper being published—I think we gave it to your Committee—by last month or, at least, the end of this year has not actually been fulfilled. That does not detract at all from our commitment to publishing it, our commitment to getting this right and our commitment will be honoured as soon as we have concluded our own consideration of what is a very complex area, both legally and in other respects. There is no drawing back from the commitment given to the Foreign Affairs Committee that a Green Paper would be published and on which your own views would be invited.

  23. When is the next target date, then, or expected time of arrival?
  (Mr Hain) I cannot give you that.

  24. Why not?
  (Mr Hain) I am just not in a position to do so.

  25. Why not?
  (Mr Hain) Because I cannot do it. If I had the authority to give you the target date, then I would do it.

  26. What is the impediment? Just to say it is complicated—I can understand it is complicated but is this months away or is it a year away?
  (Mr Hain) Having missed one deadline before, I do not want to give you an answer which I cannot stick to. Whilst we are still discussing it within different departments that have an interest in this and considering some of the complex and other legal issues involved, I think you would agree that you would want a Green Paper which was one that was as good as it is possible for us to have.

  27. Of course I agree with you, and I even accept that you cannot give a definitive date. I also accept you do not want to be embarrassed again. However, you have got to get—and it is right for us to say—a grip on this matter—you the Government and, probably, the Foreign Secretary, or the Defence Secretary, or even the Prime Minister. They need to understand that it is not tolerable that matters are allowed to drift. What say you to that?
  (Mr Hain) I give a commitment to pass on that very firm view and I think it is a reasonable view, which I understand.

  Chairman: Another omission we will come to shortly is the Palestine/Israel peace process and Dr Starkey. I would like to begin now with Mr Illsley.

Mr Illsley

  28. Can I ask you, Minister, one or two questions in relation to forced marriages and the protocols in relation to the right of the child? Firstly, on forced marriages, you are probably aware that a Sub-Committee of this Committee did actually visit the Asiatic Continent two or three years ago, where we came across this problem first-hand. Could I ask you whether there have been any tangible results so far from the joint Home Office/Foreign Office action plan which was announced in August to tackle the overseas dimension of forced marriages?
  (Mr Hain) The action plan to which you referred has been carried through by ourselves and the Home Office, and we will report on our progress in the new year. Obviously, we would wish to bring to your notice a copy of that report. We have also been working closely with the NGOs involved. We deal with round about 100 cases a year. In every case it is British nationals whose rights are being abused, and we are working with NGOs, the courts and the police. We have raised it, also, with the countries concerned, because it is a matter of real concern to us, as it is for Members, possibly including yourself, who have constituents in this predicament.

  29. Has there been any response, so far, from the posts overseas who were asked, under the action plan, to re-examine their procedures for giving assistance abroad?
  (Mr Hain) That has been part of the on-going re-orientation of our work on this, on which we will report on next year, because it is not something that we are at all complacent about; it is something we are anxious to get on top of.

  30. Turning to the two protocols on the rights of the child, which the United Kingdom, I believe, have not signed. On the First Optional Protocol on the sale of children, and child prostitution (which, incidentally, was featured in the British press over the last few days) what steps will be necessary before ratification of that Optional Protocol can take place?
  (Mr Hain) I will ask either of my colleagues to fill in on any details, but we are intending to ratify them. The Prime Minister signed the two Optional Protocols to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in New York on 7 September, the first one dealing with the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and the second with the involvement of children in armed conflict. So this is an on-going process of pursuing this matter, getting ratification of the final protocol right, and we are continuing to negotiate on that.

  31. On the Second Protocol, which looks to reduce the number of under-18-year-olds involved in armed conflicts and so on, do we have any problem with that, bearing in mind that this Committee also was on the green line in Cyprus recently being guarded by a 17-year-old British soldier who was part of the UN force there? It comes to mind that the figure of 18 might debar us from ratifying, when we have got soldiers on active service.
  (Mr Hain) We were in the minority in not being able to accept 18, and we have a policy of recruitment at 16 and deployment at 17. The MoD, I think, have taken note of the whole concern there, which, of course, really came from the exploitation of child soldiers in places like Sierra Leone, Angola and so on. I think we are well aware of the complexities here and want to do as best we can. That is why we have been negotiating to seek a common position on this.
  (Mr Brenton) We have signed this protocol and it is our firm intention, of course, to ratify it. As you said, there is a question about deployment of under-18-year-olds. The protocol requires states to take all feasible measures to ensure that under-18s do not take a direct part in military action. The MoD are currently looking at how their procedures can be adapted so that we are confident we meet that requirement. Once they have done that we will be in a position to ratify.

  Chairman: I would like to go around several of the trouble-spots in the world geographically.

Dr Starkey

  32. Compared with the 1999 annual report the 2000 annual report makes only an extremely brief reference to human rights abuses in Israel, and just mentions "administrative detention". It makes no mention of abuses in the Occupied Territories by the Israeli Government, nor, indeed, of the expropriation within Israel of Bedouin land for housing for Jewish and Israeli citizens and does not make any mention of abuses in Lebanon under Israeli control. Is this a policy decision to exclude criticisms of Israel from the annual report?
  (Mr Hain) No. On these and other matters we consistently raised our concerns with the Israelis. Obviously, since the recent outbreak of extensive violence in the last 11-12 weeks we have consistently been engaged. So there is no policy to exclude criticism, as it were, in this respect.

  33. You do not find it embarrassing that there is less mention in a British Government document than there is in the United States' State Department report on human rights, even though the United States Government is generally felt to be the most favourable government to Israel in the whole world—apart from the Israeli Government itself, obviously?
  (Mr Hain) No, I would not say that because the format of our documents are different—more modest than the US one. I think the US have some 23 staff working on their report on human rights and we have two full-time equivalents. So we do not attempt the kind of, as it were, country-by-country analysis, and use the US as a benchmark. There is no attempt, either, to dodge the issues in Israel to which you refer and which I am equally concerned about.

  34. Can I take up the point that you and I were discussing this time last year, which was about human rights clauses in trade agreements? At that point, last year, you agreed that if you had a clause in a trade agreement and you never activated it then there is not much point in having it. Why have we not made any attempt whatsoever to activate the human rights clause in our trade agreement between the European Union and Israel, given that clearly those human rights clauses are being abused in the Occupied Territories and within Israel itself?
  (Mr Hain) I think the main answer to that question is that what we have sought to do, especially over the last year or two, when there has appeared to be, at least until the last three months, a real opportunity for peace, is to focus on the peace negotiations. Whilst constantly raising the human rights concerns, as I did when I visited Israel, in fact twice, this year—and the Foreign Secretary as well and in a bilateral engagement with Israeli Ministers and others—we thought that the really important thing was, rather than get into a dispute between the EU and Israel over this matter, to try and push forward the peace process, because that, in the end, is the best guarantor of human rights protection.

  35. I understand that point, but the point that you and the Foreign Secretary seem to be making is that it is an either/or, and you cannot do both. The problem is that some of the human rights abuses we are talking about are the acceleration of settlement building within the Occupied Territories, which has been greater under the Barak Government than under the Netanyahu Government, which positively obstructs the peace negotiations. Yet, the position the British Government seems to have got itself into is that it will talk in private about settlement expansion, but, actually, it is quite willing to see the Israelis create facts on the ground, to change the status of negotiations and that all that matters is getting some sort of agreement even if it means compromising on human rights, even if it means an agreement which is unlikely to be sustainable. Can I add to that that I think there is a particular danger in that there are, within Israel itself, a lot of groups and individuals who, very bravely, speak out about the human rights abuses that their government poses. Is it not true that it undermines them if they cannot point to any government outside which is actually taking any concrete action against these human rights abuses?
  (Mr Hain) I met with a number of them—very principled and admirable Israeli citizens—who have a civil society human rights agenda, and we had a discussion in which none of those concerns were put to me about Britain's position. On the contrary, I think we found we had a common agenda. So I do not think that is valid. I do agree with you that the incremental settlement extension is unacceptable. We have made consistently clear to the Israeli Government that we do not recognise any basis in international law for these settlements and that they are not defensible. There is no kind of backing-off that principle, but the settlement issue is one of the issues which is, as you will know—following the processes as you do with great expertise and concern—at the heart of the Land for Peace part of the peace negotiations, and will clearly feature, one way or another, if we do achieve an agreement, as we hope.

  36. Can I just then take up another issue about Article II of the EU trade agreement? The Foreign Secretary, on 21 November, before this Committee, said: "Any EU move towards suspension of the Association Agreement on human rights grounds would involve tough and harsh negotiations with Israel." I contrast that with assurances that were given by Mr Hanley in 1997, who I think was your predecessor, by one or two, at the Foreign Office. When he was being pressed by the Honourable Member for Great Grimsby, Mr Hanley said that we may be ".  .  .  losing a bargaining counter by accepting the agreement, but in return we are gaining a mechanism in the agreement that could be used as a further item of pressure which, if terms of the agreement were broken, would give rise to a breach of the agreement. If those terms were serious enough the agreement could be withdrawn." There is no mention there about "it could be withdrawn but only after tough and harsh negotiations with Israel". If the human rights clauses are breached, why do we have to discuss it? Why can the European Union not simply suspend the agreement?
  (Mr Hain) Well, of course, we could. The issue which the Foreign Secretary was right to identify before you—and which I myself said a few moments ago—is what would the cost of doing that be? If I am right, and I do not recall exactly when Mr Handley gave that evidence to the Committee—

  37. It was the Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, so it was in the discussion of the ratification of the trade agreement that those assurances were given.
  (Mr Hain) But I do not know whether that was in a period when Netanyahu was in power and there were no negotiations going on of a serious kind. We have been in a situation, which I have tried to explain, without in any sense detracting from the validity of your questioning on this matter, where you have to decide what is the most important thing to achieve at the present time—to get into (to use an earlier phrase) an isolationist position with Israel or to seek to engage with its government in order to drive the peace process forward. It has been so desperately difficult and complicated that we took the view (and still do) that to go down this road is not going to achieve what we all want which is peace, prosperity, stability and respect for human rights in the area.

  38. Would you not accept that the policy we are pursuing gives the opportunity for an Israeli Government to go on and on negotiating knowing that whilst negotiation continues we and the other European Member States are not going to ever say anything effective about continuing abuses of human rights?
  (Mr Hain) No, I do not accept that. I can understand why critics might look at it in that way but I have yet to see a suggestion from anybody, this is in a sense a repeat of the point I made earlier Chairman, of a better strategy, a better policy stance towards Israel which would produce a better chance of a settlement. I think we are positioned exactly where we ought to be, with considerable influence with the Israelis and the Palestinians, and other key players internationally and within the region, to bring precisely the kind of pressure and concern and influence to bear as we do.

  Dr Starkey: I guess I will repeat this conversation with you in a year's time and at that point we might know whether you are right or not.

  Chairman: Not today.

  Dr Starkey: I hope there are not going to be another 300 deaths before we get there.

Sir David Madel

  39. Surely, the first priority, Minister, is that the violence should stop between Israelis and Palestinians? Does the Government feel—and you have laid great stress on bilateral discussions and our general influence in the Middle East—that there should then be a commitment from Israel to remove certain settlements?
  (Mr Hain) We would have preferred the settlements were not there in the first place; that is absolutely clear. That has been Britain's position certainly under this Government and I think our predecessors. Besides being unjust it is complicating a resolution of this appallingly difficult problem. We want to see a negotiated agreement resolve this matter in the best practical way that both sides can achieve.

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