Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)

MR JACK STRAW MP, MR DAVID RICHMOND CMG AND DR PETER GOODERHAM

24 OCTOBER 2005

  Q100  Mr Mackay: Foreign Secretary, that is an appropriately robust response that you have given, and I commend you for it. Does that mean that your answer on Syria is the same as the one you gave on Iran, when a colleague a few moments ago asked if we would take part in any invasion—that we would take part in any invasion of Syria or taking out certain key people from Syria? You were very specific about Iran and said that there were no plans, that it was not on the agenda; that we should cool it, calm it. Is that what you mean for Syria?

  Mr Straw: As I said, we are at the moment in discussion with the Americans and other partners and drafting a response that will go before the Security Council. Let us take these things one step at a time.

  Q101  Mr Mackay: That is a very interesting answer. The last question, which perhaps you can answer slightly more fully than that, is this. Your relationship with your opposite number in Damascus must be—

  Mr Straw: Dr Farouk al-Shara?

  Q102  Mr Mackay: They must be very ragged now in the light of this report. Is it worthwhile keeping up diplomatic relations at the moment with Syria?

  Mr Straw: As it happens, I have not seen Dr Farouk al-Shara since I saw him at the conference earlier in the year in Sharm e-Sheikh. My judgment is that it is worth keeping up diplomatic relations with Syria, and I would certainly not wish them to be brought to an end unilaterally. We keep up diplomatic relations with a great many countries, for example Burma—although I am not comparing them directly—but we do so because we think it is worthwhile—and with Zimbabwe.

  Q103  Mr Purchase: The answer that Mr Mackay described as interesting was also unconvincing. People will be extremely concerned, following President Bush's remarks in regard to his view of Syria. We do need some assurance that it is not the intention of the British Government to be led by the nose into an attack on Syria. We have been there before, and many people would be very unhappy if they thought we were going there again.

  Mr Straw: Let me assure you, the issue—we are talking about diplomatic decisions being made within the United Nations system. There has been no discussion that I have taken part in with the United States about military action in respect of Syria—none whatever. I do not think it is on their agenda either; let us be clear about that.

  Q104  Mr Purchase: The President seemed to put it on the agenda.

  Mr Straw: Well, I provided the reassurance that Mr Mackay sought. Iraq was Iraq, and we supported—I know you did not, but the British Parliament supported the judgments that we made as a government in respect of Iraq. We did it in a very open way. We had three debates running from September 2002 to March 2003, with votes; and it could not have been done in a more open way. Again, we made our judgment, and we happen to think it was the right one. People can discuss, as it were, the counter factuals, and if we had not supported the United States I think the situation would have been altogether worse. That is where we are. On these other issues we are working very carefully and well with the United States Government. Judge them by the decisions they have made. With respect to Iran, judge the United States by the fact that it has given us increasing support for the E3 EU process notwithstanding the fact, as I was agreeing with Mr Pope, that the environment has become more difficult not less difficult. In respect of Syria we have a problem. It is a problem for the international community. Resolution 1559 was co-sponsored originally by France and the United States, with us coming in behind. France has been as much in the lead on this as has the United States. I have just come from a commemoration service at St Paul's Cathedral to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the United Nations. What we all know about the United Nations is that where it works together it is a force for good, without the necessity for military action. In respect of Iraq, if we had ever been able to get that second resolution with an ultimatum, the chances are that we would not have had to go to war, as a matter of fact; but there we are! You do not have to have these on the agenda particularly where you have good, strong backing in the international community.

  Q105  Sandra Osborne: I would like to ask you about the issue of extraordinary rendition. In response to this Committee's report of last year on the war against terrorism, the government said that it was not aware of the use of its territory or air space for the purposes of extraordinary rendition. However, it appears that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the UK air space is indeed being utilised for this purpose, albeit mainly in the media. Some of the suggestions seem to be extremely detailed. For example, the Guardian has reported that aircraft involved in operations have flown into the UK at least 210 times since 9/11, an average of one flight a week. It appears that the favourite destination is Prestwick Airport, which is next to my constituency, as it happens. Can you comment on that? What role is the UK playing in extraordinary rendition?

  Mr Straw: The position in respect of extraordinary rendition was set out in the letter that the head of our parliamentary team wrote to Mr Priestley, your Clerk, on 11 March; and the position has not changed. We are not aware of the use of our territory or air space for the purpose of extraordinary rendition. We have not received any requests or granted any permissions for use of UK territory or air space for such purposes. It is perfectly possible that there have been two hundred movements of United States aircraft in and out of the United Kingdom and I would have thought it was many more; but that is because we have a number of US air force bases here, which, under the Visiting Forces Act and other arrangements they are entitled to use under certain conditions. I do not see for a second how the conclusion could be drawn from the fact that there have been some scores of movements of US military aircraft—well, so what—that that therefore means they have been used for rendition. That is a very long chain!

  Q106  Sandra Osborne: The UN Commission on Human Rights has started an inquiry into the British Government's role in this. Is the Government co-operating fully with that inquiry? Why would they start an inquiry if there were no reason to believe that this was actually happening?

  Mr Straw: People start inquiries for all sorts of reasons. I assume we are co-operating with it. I am not aware of any requests, but we always co-operate with such requests.

  Q107  Mr Keetch: They are not flying under US military flags; these are Gulfstream aircraft used by the CIA. They have a 26-strong fleet of Gulfstream aircraft that are used for this purpose. These aircraft are not coming into British spaces; they are coming into airports. Some are into bases like Northolt, and some into bases like Prestwick. Whilst it is always good to have the head of your parliamentary staff respond to our Clerk, Mr Priestley, could you give us an assurance that you will investigate these specific flights; and, if it is the case that these flights are being used for the process of extraordinary rendition, which is contrary to international law and indeed contrary to the stated policy of Her Majesty's Government, would you attempt to see if they should stop?

  Mr Straw: I would like to see what it is that is being talked about here. I am very happy to endorse, as you would expect, and I did endorse, the letter sent by our parliamentary team to your Clerk on 11 March. I am happy, for the avoidance of any doubt, to say that I specifically endorse its contents. If there is evidence, we will look at it, but a suggestion in a newspaper that there have been flights by unspecified foreign aircraft in and out of the United Kingdom cannot possibly add up to evidence that our air space or our facilities have been used for the purpose of unlawful rendition. It just does not.

  Q108  Mr Keetch: I accept that, but if there were evidence of that, you would join with us, presumably, in condemning—

  Mr Straw: I am not going to pre-judge an inquiry. If there were evidence, we would look at it. So far there we have not seen any evidence.

  Q109  Richard Younger-Ross: Our former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has stated in a document to us: "I can confirm it is a positive policy decision by the US and UK to use Uzbek torture material." He states that the evidence is that the aircraft that my colleague referred to earlier, the Gulfstreams, are taking detainees back to Uzbekistan who are then being tortured. Is that not some indication that these detainees are being transferred through the UK?

  Mr Straw: It is Mr Murray's opinion. Mr Murray, as you may know, stood in my constituency. He got fewer votes than the British National Party, and notwithstanding the fact that he assured the widest possible audience within the constituency to his views about use of torture. I set out the British Government's position on this issue on a number of occasions, including in evidence both here and to the Intelligence and Security Committee. I wrote a pretty detailed letter to a constituent of mine back in June, setting out our position. As I said there, there are no circumstances in which British officials use torture, nor any question of the British Government seeking to justify the use of torture. Again, the British Government, including the terrorist and security agencies, has never used torture for any purpose including for information, nor would we instigate or connive with others in doing so. People have to make their own judgment whether they think I am being accurate or not.

  Q110  Mr Illsley: Foreign Secretary, the letter which you supplied to the Committee in March which gave the conclusion that the British Government is not aware of the use of its territory or air space for the purpose of extraordinary rendition was taken at face value by most members of the Committee at that time, before the election. We took that to mean that we were not aware of any extraordinary rendition, and that it was not happening. The press reports were therefore something of a surprise. Would our Government be contacted by any country using our airspace, taking suspects to other countries? Would we be asked for permission or would there be any circumstances where we would be contacted; or is it the case that it could well be happening but that our Government is not aware of it simply because we have not been informed, or our permission is not necessary?

  Mr Straw: Mr Illsley, on the precise circumstances in which foreign governments apply for permission to use British air space, I have to write to you, because it is important that I make that accurate.[2] What Mr Stanton on my behalf said in the letter is exactly the same: why would I, for a second, knowingly provide this Committee with false information, if I had had information about rendition? We do not practise rendition, full-stop. I ought to say that whether rendition is contrary to international law depends on the particular circumstances of the case; it depends on each case, but we do not practise it. I would have to come back to you on that question.

  Chairman: We will expect a letter. Thank you very much. John Horam, Afghanistan.

  Q111  Mr Horam: Foreign Secretary, there are worrying signs of deterioration there, are there not?

  Mr Straw: Well, the situation—

  Q112  Mr Horam: Did you say there are not?

  Mr Straw: I am sorry, I am not quite sure what signs you are referring to.

  Q113  Mr Horam: The strengthening of the Taliban and al Qaeda and the evidence that the sort of methods used in Iraq are now being used in Afghanistan.

  Mr Straw: There has been a terrorist problem in Afghanistan from the time that the Taliban were, in the main, defeated. When I visited Kandahar in the summer of 2003 there had been a bomb in a mosque the day before, and some people had been killed and a large number of people had been injured. Indeed, I saw many people who had been severely injured laid out in a field hospital in what had been the departures lounge of Kandahar International Airport—so this had been going on for some time. The better news, Mr Horam, is that there has been the presidential election. We have now had the parliamentary and provincial elections, with the final results expected by the end of this month. The first session of the parliament will be on 19 December, and that will mark the culmination of the political tract of the Bonn process. If you think about where Afghanistan was four years ago, this is a dramatic improvement. Nobody would then argue—

  Q114  Mr Horam: I accept entirely that point, but equally the evidence we have to set against that is that there are clear signs that the Taliban and al Qaeda are reviving, certainly in some provinces. Is that right?

  Mr Straw: I do not have the precise figures about Taliban activity. It is certainly the case that they are not completely defeated, and there remains quite a serious challenge. That is something we need to deal with, along with our American colleagues and those—as you know there are two operations; there is ISAF and there is also Operation Enduring Freedom, which is based on Kandahar.

  Q115  Mr Horam: Presumably, the Nato Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's argument that they must increase the amount of military capability there from 10,000 to 15,000 is presumably working on the assumption that unless it does that, the situation will get worse.

  Mr Straw: There is the issue of terrorism and there is also the issue of ensuring that the writ of the elected government runs.

  Q116  Mr Horam: They are linked, are they not?

  Mr Straw: They are in some areas and they are not in other areas.

  Q117  Mr Horam: They are linked in the problem areas.

  Mr Straw: In ensuring that there is effective order. As you will know, Mr Horam, we are proposing to do two things: we propose to put the ARRC in from May 2006, and then to increase our total forces quite substantially.

  Q118  Mr Horam: Have you got a figure for that?

  Mr Straw: There is a figure but I am not certain whether I am at liberty to issue it, because it is a matter for my colleague John Reid. I am told sotto voce that an announcement will be given later this week.

  Q119  Mr Horam: Are we going to have to make a bigger effort to further improve the situation in Afghanistan?

  Mr Straw: Yes.


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