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House of Commons

Tuesday 8 January 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Middle East Peace Process

1. Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): What recent representations he has received concerning the middle east peace process. [22993]

2. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What recent discussions he has had with Palestinian leaders on the political situation in the middle east. [22994]

6. Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): What diplomatic measures the UK Government are taking to encourage the Israeli Government to return to the peace process. [22998]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): Her Majesty's Government are fully engaged with the United States and our European Union partners in trying to move the peace process forward. The recent reduction in violence in Israel and the occupied territories is encouraging, but this must be sustained. Both parties should take the opportunity to move towards the implementation of the Mitchell and Tenet plans and the early resumption of negotiations. The Palestinian Authority should bring terrorists to justice and dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist organisations. Israel should withdraw its military forces from area A, lift restrictions and closures and freeze all settlement activity in the occupied territories.

Mr. Clappison: What is the Foreign Secretary's response to the letter that he received from Shimon Peres about the call from Mr. Rafsanjani, one of Iran's leaders, for jihad operations against Israel to continue until Israel no longer existed? Given the vile propaganda that keeps coming out of Iran, the widespread suspicion that Iran had a hand in the attempted smuggling of 50 tonnes of rockets and other weapons aboard the Karin and the need for our struggle against international terrorism to be consistent, can the Foreign Secretary clarify where yesterday's Government announcement of a £28 million export credit guarantee for Iran fits into all of this?

Mr. Straw: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the ingenuity of his question. We condemn those who believe

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that the state of Israel should not exist. Indeed, there will be an effective peace process only if the state of Israel recognises the right of the Palestinians to their own viable state. At the same time, not only the Palestinians but everyone else in the Arab and Islamic world, which includes the state of Iran, must recognise the right of Israel to live safely within secure borders. That is fundamental to our approach towards the peace process, the approach of the United States and that of the European Union.

As for the question about relations with Iran, about which I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask me, we believe that we can make these points better through dialogue with Iran rather than, as I think was implicit in his suggestion, by withdrawing diplomatic relations.

Helen Jackson: What possible justification was there for trying to prevent the leader of the Palestinians from attending the inter-faith Christmas mass at Bethlehem? What representations did the Government make to Israel about this? Is it not extremely dangerous, in the current situation, for anyone in the Israeli Government to present President Arafat as being the same as the terrorist organisations Hamas or Jihad?

Mr. Straw: We did not think that this restriction was justified. Our position is that closures should be lifted; that must apply to the leader of the Palestinian Authority, as it must to all residents within the occupied territories.

Mr. Mahmood: I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend in condemning all terrorism, but does he agree that the time has come for the debate to move forward and for people to start addressing these long-standing issues and the problems that have existed between the state of Israel and Palestine? Until we have a viable discussion on how to move matters forward, the issues that will extinguish the roots of terrorism will not be addressed. As one great statesman in this House once said, we need more jaw-jaw, not war-war.

Mr. Straw: Of course there has to be a political process towards a settlement of this long-standing conflict in the middle east, but a reduction in violence and terrorism is a pre-condition of any peace process. In that context, we greatly welcome the reduction of violence since President Arafat's speech on 16 December, in which he called for a halt to all military operations, especially suicide bombings. Since that date, just one Israeli has been killed and 15 Palestinians have died. That is a very significant reduction from the previous levels of violence.

We support the peace process and we support negotiations, but better efforts must also be made by both sides in the current context, particularly by the Palestinian Authority, to restrain the terrorist organisations based in the occupied territories from acting in Israel.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I welcome the Secretary of State's even-handed approach to the problem. However, if we look at the Palestinian problem historically, does it not behove the Government to make extra efforts to ensure fair play for the Palestinian people? The issue has rightly been brought into focus because of the war on terrorism but many people outside this place believe that all the Palestinians get paid is lip service.

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Mr. Straw: I fully understand the need for fairness towards the Palestinians. That is essentially and actively the approach adopted by Her Majesty's Government, not least in the context of the European Union, which is providing more aid to the Palestinian Authority, with our full support, than any other international donor. We are doing a great deal else to support the Palestinian Authority's legitimate activities and to relieve the humanitarian situation in the occupied territories. That is essential, as is a recognition by those who lead the Palestinian Authority and the rest of the Arab world of the right of Israel and Israelis to live in peace, with security.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Does not the Foreign Secretary accept that the peace process requires Palestine Liberation Organisation cum Palestinian Authority structures that offer strong leadership and the ability to control their citizens and uphold an agreement? What recent assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of Yasser Arafat's position in the PLO? When the Prime Minister next visits Israel and the middle east, will he deign to take with him the Foreign Secretary or, indeed, any other Foreign Office Minister; or with foreign policy now being entirely conducted from Downing street, will he and his Foreign Office colleagues continue to be sidelined and ignored?

Mr. Straw: On the serious part of the hon. Gentleman's question, we will continue to do all that we can to work for a settlement inside the occupied territories. The hon. Gentleman asks me about the position of the leader of the Palestinian Authority. He is the elected leader, and we work on the basis—it is wise for any hon. Member to do so—that we should deal with him as that elected leader. That is exactly the point that we have urged on the Government of Israel.

Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester): Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), may I ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary whether the Israeli authorities have furnished him with any evidence to show that the arms being carried by the cargo ship that was apprehended by the defence forces were destined for the Palestinian Authority, rather than another terrorist group in the middle east?

Mr. Straw: The Israeli Government have passed to the United States Administration and ourselves information that they claim to have received about the destination of that ship and those who were sailing on it. The position of the US State Department and the United Kingdom Government is that we continue to assess all the information that we have received about the origin of that ship and its destination, but we have yet to reach firm conclusions.


3. Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): What recent discussions he has had with Commonwealth counterparts on Zimbabwe. [22995]

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11. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): When he next expects to visit Zimbabwe to discuss the Abuja agreement with the Government; and if he will make a statement. [23003]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): Since the House last discussed Zimbabwe and despite the Abuja agreement of 6 September, political violence, including deaths, the occupation of property and the harassment of independent journalists, has continued. The situation overall in Zimbabwe constitutes a serious and persistent violation of the Commonwealth's political values and the rule of law, as enshrined in the 1991 Harare Commonwealth declaration. That is our view, and it was also the unanimous conclusion of the meeting of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, which was held in London on 20 December. At that meeting, CMAG decided, because of its deep concern about the conditions, to place Zimbabwe on its formal agenda and to review the situation at its next meeting on 30 January.

Mr. Moore: The Foreign Secretary is correct to say that, since the Abuja agreement and the Commonwealth ministerial meeting, intimidation, torture and violence against political opponents and the press have increased substantially. In those circumstances, will he tell us exactly what Mugabe has to do before the Commonwealth will introduce sanctions? Is he confident that the advice that he is giving to the Home Secretary will ensure that people from Zimbabwe who oppose the regime there will not be deported back to that country, where they face almost certain personal physical danger, or possibly death?

Mr. Straw: Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman's final specific point before I deal with the general situation. On the deportation of failed asylum seekers, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary exercises the same very great care as I did and officials in the Home Office did to ensure that, wherever humanly possible, no failed asylum seeker is deported—even though their claim for asylum has failed—if they are to be in danger when they are returned. That remains the position. In the case to which I think the hon. Gentleman refers, the asylum seeker had his application turned down by officials and by an independent judicial tribunal and leave to appeal was then refused by a further appeal tribunal. However, the matter is still being considered by my right hon. Friend.

The main issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is the position of the Commonwealth. He will know that it consists of 54 member states of which we are simply one. One of my key aims has been to ensure that the issue ceases to be a bilateral one and is made an issue of shared concern by the international community. However, as far as the position of the United Kingdom is concerned, if the situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate, Britain will argue for Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in March.

Mr. Bellingham: The Foreign Secretary said that opposition politicians had been intimidated, and they have also been arrested on trumped-up charges. Is he aware that, today, President Mugabe presented a Bill to Parliament to ban foreign journalists and to ban

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independent foreign observers from the country? All that is taking place while the economy of Zimbabwe is sinking to its knees. If the United States Congress can introduce measures against despots such as Mugabe and can freeze their bank accounts and prohibit their foreign travel, surely our Government can do the same. Surely the Government must now get off the fence and start to get tougher.

Mr. Straw: I think that the hon. Gentleman wrote that supplementary before he heard my remarks. On Zimbabwe, no one could accuse me of having been on the fence from the very moment I took this job or since. I was extremely anxious at the Abuja meetings on 6 September to ensure that the concern about Zimbabwe that had long been felt in this country and on both sides of the House was shared by other Commonwealth countries and particularly by African Commonwealth countries. The hon. Gentleman refers to the condition of the Zimbabwe economy. It is very serious and, in turn, it is seriously affecting the economies of other south African states.

The question of sanctions will come up before the European Union at the meeting of Foreign Ministers on 28 January. It will be before the meeting of the Commonwealth ministerial action group on 30 January, although decisions have to be made at the full Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at the beginning of March.

On the United States, I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that the law that has been passed simply empowers the President to consult other members of the international community. No decisions to impose sanctions have yet been taken and are not likely to be taken in the short term by the United States Administration. However, we continue to keep the question of sanctions under very close review.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I recognise that my right hon. Friend has referred to issues of great concern and note that the presidential election is less than three months away. However, can anyone be sure that there will be a free and fair election for the President of Zimbabwe? If we cannot be sure, should we not have Commonwealth and other observers in place now to examine what is taking place there at this time?

Mr. Straw: No, we cannot be sure that there will be free and fair elections in Zimbabwe whenever they take place at some time in, what I imagine, will be the next two or three months. However, we can be sure that, if the elections are not free and fair, Zimbabwe will be in the clearest and most flagrant breach of declarations to which it signed up in, ironically, Harare in 1991, in Millbrook in New Zealand in 1995 and again when it recommitted itself to both those declarations on 6 September in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Have we done any research into whether President Mugabe has laundered money either through the City or through Switzerland?

Mr. Straw: I have seen no evidence to that effect.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): The people of Zimbabwe must have been mightily reassured last Friday

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to learn that, far from resenting the Prime Minister running his own foreign policy, the Foreign Secretary is enjoying

On the day that Mugabe and his henchmen are forcing through legislation destroying the freedom of the press, forbidding independent electoral scrutiny, cancelling the Abuja commitment to freedom of expression and at a time when intimidation is institutionalised, murder of opposition members is commonplace and the democratic process is being dismantled, could the Foreign Secretary tell us what on earth his well developed policy is actually achieving?

Mr. Straw: Again, someone wrote a supplementary question before hearing the answer.

I repeat that I have been trying to ensure that Zimbabwe, not Britain, is isolated for the terrible actions that President Mugabe and his henchmen are taking. That has received the approbation of many Conservative Back Benchers, as well as Labour Members. The right hon. Gentleman wants us to follow a policy that is the exact reverse, in which Britain is isolated and we play into Mugabe's hands so that he can parade himself as the anti-colonialist hero against the former colonialist power. That would be the worst possible approach, and it is of course the one that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to follow.

Our approach has been to internationalise the issue, while taking a firm lead within all the international forums in which we speak. That is why the General Affairs Council—the Foreign Affairs Council—of the European Union is in train to take firm action on this; why I called a meeting of Commonwealth Ministers for 20 December; and why I have spelled out to the House that if the situation in Zimbabwe continues to disintegrate we will argue for Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth.

Mr. Ancram: May I say that I listen carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman says, but all I hear is him talking about talks in the future, more promises and more talks after that? We want to hear about effective action. Does he remember stating on 6 September last year that the Abuja agreement would be regarded as a positive step forward and that he was pleased with it? Does he agree that in practice it has not added up to a row a beans and that the situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated since then? Why has he proved so toothless and left it to the Americans to take the lead by imposing personal sanctions on Mugabe and his henchman, which have been welcomed by Morgan Tsvangirai? Regardless of what he said a minute ago, why are we not helping to bring pressure on Zimbabwe, but instead are busy deporting Zimbabweans, such as Gerald Muketiwa, back to Zimbabwe, where he is now the victim of Mugabe's violence, as we learned from The Observer on 30 December? When will he stop faffing about and start putting together an international coalition to bring real pressure to bear on Mugabe and his henchmen, or is he waiting for the Prime Minister to take that over from him as well?

Mr. Straw: The United States has done no more than bring the powers that are available to its Executive into

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line with those that are already available inside the European Union. None of those powers has been implemented.

As for Abuja, I made it clear on the very evening that the statement was signed that it would be judged not by the words on the paper, but by whether action followed it, especially by the Government of Zimbabwe. It is a matter of record that action by President Mugabe has not followed the agreement. The crucial thing about the Abuja settlement is that it provides us with a template—a yardstick—against which to judge the action or inaction of the Government of Zimbabwe. The right hon. Gentleman talks about putting an international coalition together; that is exactly what I have done. I note that whenever he is asked what else he would do or what he would do differently, he has no answer.

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