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Mr. Cook: On the question of immunity, we published the Bill in draft so that Members of Parliament and non-governmental organisations could comment on it before we commenced debate in the House. I am aware of those anxieties and I hope that we will be able to satisfy them when we debate the Bill. However, I am pleased to say that the Bill will be published on Friday and will shortly be introduced in another place.
Mr. Cook: The other place has to have something to debate while we continue with other Bills. It is important that we make as good speed as we can, and this is a good way of getting on with the matter, so that we can meet the wish of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock to see the measure on the statute book as soon as possible.
Mr. Anderson: Time may well be short in this Session, and it is a key interest that we should be among the first 60 to ratify. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether there has been any indication from the Opposition that, albeit with proper scrutiny, they will seek to facilitate the passage of the Bill?
Mr. Cook: Will my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock allow me to reply? My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East drew attention to an important reason why we are keen to get on and ratify the treaty. After the Rome conference, I said that, having played a leading part in negotiating that treaty, we wished to be among the first to ratify. We wanted especially to be among the first 60 to do so. That number is significant because the treaty comes into legal force when 60 have ratified it, and I am pleased to say that we are now well on course to being among that first 60. That is important for us because of our commitment to human rights and humanitarian law, but also for our national interest, as it gives us an opportunity to shape the court, to choose the bench and to ensure that it gets off to a credible, realistic and well-founded start. I have heard a question asked of Opposition Members in that respect; they, too, will have heard it--I am sure that when the right hon. Member for Horsham rises, he will confirm that the Opposition will co-operate in ensuring that the Bill receives a swift passage.
It is better to promote the observance of humanitarian law in the first place through dialogue and diplomatic pressure. That is why the Government have pursued a policy of constructive engagement by seeking dialogue wherever we can, even with difficult countries. The latest example is the decision that I announced during the Recess to open diplomatic relations with North Korea. We believe that that is a valuable way in which Britain can
That follows from previous cases in which progress through dialogue has enabled us to restore ambassadors. In Iran, we were able to appoint an ambassador after securing a commitment by its Government not to take action on carrying out the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. In Libya, we were able to appoint an ambassador after securing the surrender of the two suspects now on trial for the Lockerbie bombing and a response to the killing of WPC Fletcher. As a result, Britain will have ambassadors to 80 million people in three countries where it had none when the Government came to office. I do not underrate our serious and continuing concerns about the conduct of some of those Governments, but we are better able to express them where we have an embassy to pursue them.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): My right hon. Friend is speaking of difficult countries. As he knows, the International Criminal Court will not take retrospective action. What progress is the United Kingdom making at the United Nations in establishing an international tribunal on Iraq, to ensure that Iraqi war criminals can be tried--something that will never happen at the International Criminal Court?
Mr. Cook: I am aware of the vigour with which my hon. Friend has pursued the appalling humanitarian record of Saddam Hussein, and I commend her for it. I assure her that we want him to stand trial for his crimes, but we currently have no consensus at the United Nations for proceeding with the necessary resolution. However, the case that she raises is a powerful reason for proceeding to set up an International Criminal Court, so that such matters are decided not merely by ad hoc decision of the Security Council, but by an independent prosecutor working to a permanent court.
I was saying that contact should not be left only to ambassadors and Foreign Ministers. Public diplomacy also has a vital role. There is no better vehicle for public diplomacy than the BBC World Service, which reaches a bigger audience than any other nation's foreign broadcasting. It provides unique access to the truth for people who are denied it by their own Governments. During Milosevic's last desperate attempts to suppress an independent media, the BBC World Service defied the ban by re-broadcasting from neighbouring countries.
I am glad that Opposition Members supported me on that, because there is a stark contrast between this Government and our predecessors. In office, the Conservatives cut the budget of the World Service, while we have invested in it. The two spending rounds under the current Government have provided substantially more resources to the World Service. The first spending round enabled it to increase its audience to reach more than 150 million listeners. This year's spending round will enable it to expand access through modern technology. It will develop its online service and expand its FM transmission to 135 capital cities.
The BBC World Service is an immense asset to Britain. It gets us respect around the world for our values of freedom and of expression. It gets us gratitude from victims of oppression, who often go on to be leaders of their country--for example, Nelson Mandela, for whom the BBC World Service was the only link with the outside world during years of imprisonment. The Conservatives were prepared to run down that tremendous national asset, in which we are now investing. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham says, "Rubbish." When her party was in office, it carried through swingeing cuts to the BBC World Service. Indeed, it has taken the past three years for it to get back to where it was before the Conservatives cut it in the first place.
Public diplomacy also means that we must provide an efficient and polite service to the millions of people who come into contact with our posts abroad. I want to comment on the staff of the Foreign Office and the people whom they serve, such as the millions from the Indian subcontinent who every year apply for visas to visit relatives or friends in Britain.
The visa service, which we inherited, to foreigners in parts of the subcontinent fell well below any service that would be acceptable from a domestic Department dealing with British citizens. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), has addressed that problem with energy over the past year. We have still not achieved the standard that we want and that the public deserve, but I congratulate my hon. Friend on the substantial progress we have made. For instance, in Islamabad, we have cut the waiting list for a settlement visa for elderly relatives from 10 weeks to three, and, for spouses, from 30 weeks to 18.
We also want to respond to the concern of many people in Britain that their relatives in the subcontinent have to make long and expensive overland journeys to the nearest visa office. I am delighted to announce to the House that, during this Session, we hope to reach agreement with the host Governments to open new visa offices in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. That will be welcome both to those Governments and to the many hon. Members who represent communities from those areas. Those communities are an important part of the diversity of Britain, which is an asset to our foreign relations. In a multi-polar world, it can be a strength for Britain to show the rest of the world the modern character of a multi-ethnic Britain. I am therefore pleased to tell the House that we now have in the Foreign Office 50 per cent. more staff from ethnic communities than at the time of the previous election. The more staff we have from our ethnic communities, the better able we will be to serve those communities.
This year, Britain was the first western country to send a consular delegation to the Haj in Mecca. [Interruption.] I do not know why the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham finds that funny. That service was much appreciated by the many pilgrims from Britain who went on the Haj and it fulfils the Foreign Office's commitment that we are there to serve people from all the communities of Britain. One such community, which is thriving here in London, is the Sierra Leonean community. I know how much Sierra Leoneans support the action that we have
For the past 30 days, Sierra Leone has enjoyed an agreed ceasefire. I shall be frank with the House: we remain to be convinced of the rebels' commitment to the terms of the agreement signed last month. In any extension of the ceasefire, we will look for evidence of the handing over of weapons and of the surrender of the territory that they promised. Nevertheless, there have been no attacks by the rebels during the past 30 days, which have been free of the rebel violence that has marred the dry seasons for the past decade.
There would have been no ceasefire if it had not been for the commitment that Britain has shown in Sierra Leone. The other week, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is a member of the Conservative defence team, demanded a deadline for British withdrawal from Sierra Leone. I can think of nothing that the rebels would more want us to give them. They could then settle down in their jungle hideouts and wait until the deadline came around and we went away. The hon. Gentleman might want to reflect on the fact that his demand for a British withdrawal was faithfully echoed by the rebels, who made the same demand in the ceasefire negotiations.
We will withdraw when we have completed our task of equipping Sierra Leone with a trained army that is capable of defending that country's democracy and protecting it from rebel atrocities. We intend to complete that task partly out of simple human decency. The most harrowing experience I had in the past Session was my visit to the amputees camp outside Freetown, where I saw 2,000 victims who had had at least one limb lopped off by the rebels. Many of them were children; some were infants who had been unable to crawl before they had lost their arms. Everywhere I looked, I saw stumps held out to me in a plea for safety and justice. I defy any hon. Member to go to that camp and talk to those victims about setting a deadline for British withdrawal.
We will also complete the task because it is important to our standing in the world. Britain is one of only five permanent members of the Security Council. It is important to our standing at the United Nations that we support the UN's largest peacekeeping operation. Britain is a leading member of the Commonwealth, and our standing in the Commonwealth would be diminished if we left one of its most vulnerable members in the lurch. Our standing in those bodies is important to Britain. If we want to make a difference in the world, we cannot do so in isolation. We can do so only by setting the agenda in the unique range of international bodies in which Britain has an influence.