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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 January 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): What recent assessment he has made of whether EU development funds for Palestine have been misdirected to terrorist causes. [91780]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): Without EU assistance to the Palestinian Authority, it is likely the Authority would by now have collapsed, further exacerbating the dire humanitarian situation in the occupied territories. The European Commissioner for External Relations, Christopher Patten, has made it clear that

At the London meeting on Palestinian reform on 14 January, which I chaired, there was widespread recognition that the Palestinian Authority has achieved great progress on financial reform.

Mr. Key : Meanwhile, Israel kills three Palestinians for each Israeli killed. This policy is going nowhere. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, as we know in this country, it will take more than revenge to achieve peace?

Mr. Straw: We all accept the right of all countries, including Israel, to take effective and proportionate action to deal with a security threat. We have faced a similar but not such a great terrorist threat in our time, and the terrorists have to be pursued vigorously. At the same time, we also know from our experience that there has to be a political process—not to excuse the terrorists, for whom there is no excuse, but to deal with the environment in which terrorism breeds. That is why we are fully committed to the quartet process and the development of the road map.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): I endorse what my right hon. Friend says about the progress made by the Palestinians in reforming and, indeed, the tribute that has been paid to the new Finance and Industry Ministers of the Palestinian Authority in taking that

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forward. However, if we are to achieve reform and the kind of transparency referred to, does he agree that it is vital that the Palestinians are allowed to hold the elections that they want to hold, but which is rather difficult when candidates cannot move from one town to another because of daily curfews and closures? Does not Israel have a responsibility to lift them to allow those elections to go ahead?

Mr. Straw: There are two sets of responsibilities. There is one on Israel to facilitate elections and to lift unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on the Palestinians' daily lives, including the operation of their democratic processes. Separately, there are responsibilities on the Palestinians themselves. There is much that they can do to reform the way that they operate, notwithstanding all the unnecessary restrictions. That has been shown by the progress in reforming the way that their financial systems operate, and it therefore raises in stark relief the lack of progress, which we agreed last Tuesday had to be dealt with, in respect of other issues, including security sector reform and judicial reform.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Given that the military wing of the Palestinian Authority, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, claims responsibility for blowing up and murdering at least 23 Israelis in Tel Aviv on 5 January this year, does my right hon. Friend accept that the Palestinian Authority is at the centre of terrorist activity?

Mr. Straw: I have not seen any evidence to suggest that the people from the Palestinian Authority whom I met were at the centre of terrorist activity—rather the reverse. They expressed similar horror and repulsion at such unnecessary and gratuitous killing as anyone else who is a member of the civilised world. However, I certainly accept one implication of my hon. Friend's question: a huge agenda remains for reforming the security sector inside in the Palestinian Authority. We cannot have a situation where there are nine separate security organisations, some under effective control by the Palestinian Authority, but some no more than terrorist organisations masquerading with the authority of the Palestinian Authority. That has to be changed.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that dialogue is the best way to combat terrorism? Bearing that in mind, why did he decline to meet Mr. Netanyahu when he was in London?

Mr. Straw: I had already met Mr. Netanyahu, and I gave him a very good lunch.


2. Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): What assessment he has made of the situation in Bangladesh. [91781]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I can confirm what my right hon. Friend said, because I was at that lunch, too.

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We are concerned by reports of mistreatment of detainees, including deaths in custody, associated with Operation Clean Heart. We are monitoring closely the detention of journalists and opposition politicians, and have urged the Bangladesh Government to ensure that the due process of law is followed in all cases.

Ms King : Following the reported human rights abuses, may I thank the British high commissioner in Dhaka, David Carter, for the representations that he has made? What steps are the British Government taking to help strengthen democracy in Bangladesh? Will the Minister continue to raise the tragic case of the British resident, Surat Miah, who was beaten to death? Will he write to me on the indemnity Bill?

Mr. O'Brien: I will pass on my hon. Friend's thanks to the high commissioner. We are following closely the circumstances in Bangladesh and particularly the arrests of some journalists and opposition leaders. We welcome the release of Hussein Chaudry and others. Democracy means allowing disagreement and debate, and in Bangladesh that means that the Awami league as well as the Bangladesh Nationalist party must have the right to voice their opinions. We have raised our concerns informally with the Bangladesh authorities, and will continue to do so. I will write to my hon. Friend on the issue of the indemnity Bill. Surat Miah, who was killed at Dhaka airport, was a British resident but not a British national. We have let the Bangladesh authorities know that there is widespread concern about the case in this country, and we have made representations in that regard.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): In spite of the plague of violence in Bangladesh—for example, the bombing in Mymensingh, various murders and the general unrest that has been mentioned—will the Minister tell the House whether, following the historic visit of President Musharraf to Bangladesh, there has been any progress towards solving the long-standing problem of the Bihari population? Is there any chance of them at last being accepted in Pakistan?

Mr. O'Brien: We have made representations to the Pakistani authorities on the issue of the Biharis. We are concerned that religious minorities should be able to practise their religion with freedom and with a recognition of their rights. I very much hope that the Pakistani authorities will respect those rights, although there have been problems with that in the past.


3. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): If he will make a statement on progress with indicting senior members of the Iraqi regime for the taking of hostages in Iraq during the Gulf war. [91782]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). The Government warmly recognise the activities of the INDICT organisation, and in principle encourage INDICT in its aim of bringing to justice members of the Iraqi regime

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who have committed criminal acts. Criminal investigations or prosecutions in England and Wales of individual members of the Iraqi regime under the Taking of Hostages Act 1982 are a matter for the police and the prosecuting authorities.

Ann Clwyd : I thank my hon. Friend, but I remind him that it was two and a half years ago that I gave the Attorney-General and the Government details of war crimes that would enable indictments to be issued against leading members of the Iraqi regime. Is he aware that our Queen's Counsel, who is a leading human rights lawyer, says that we have enough evidence for that to stand up in a British court? Short of getting Saddam Hussein to sign a confession in his own blood, we have all the evidence we need to indict leading members of the regime. Does he recollect that Milosevic was indicted while he was still head of state?

Mr. O'Brien: As sympathetic as we are to my hon. Friend's wishes to take action in relation to Saddam Hussein—in full recognition of the appalling human rights abuses committed by him—we must operate within the law. Saddam Hussein has not left Iraq for some 21 years, and we do not accept the principle of trials in absentia in this country. We need to continue to examine these matters and to continue to encourage my hon. Friend in her campaign.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Is the Minister saying that no action has been taken against Saddam Hussein because he has not left Iraq and we cannot get him out, or is the reason an unwillingness of Governments, prior to the information given by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), to take action earlier, as it is more than 10 years since these atrocities took place?

Mr. O'Brien: No one would be happier than my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary or me to see Saddam Hussein out of Iraq and behind bars. We must operate within the circumstances prescribed by law, however, and that is the way that Ministers are expected to act. In principle, however, we want someone like Saddam Hussein to answer for his crimes. The best place for him to answer in practice would be in a properly constituted Iraqi court in a democratic Iraq.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): Is my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) not correct in saying that Saddam needs to be dealt with because of his responsibility for these matters? The Government have taken a leading role in international tribunals that deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity, so, instead of letting people off the hook, is it not now time to find a way of bringing them to book? How will the British Government go about doing that?

Mr. O'Brien: The whole purpose of resolution 1441 is to make sure that Saddam Hussein is not let off the hook. For all too long, he has been developing weapons of mass destruction and, indeed, abusing the rights of his people. We need to find a way of making sure that he does not develop weapons of mass destruction and does not abuse the human rights of his people. We want to pursue the matter through the United Nations and

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resolution 1441. That is the process that we are undertaking. We also hope that the circumstances will arise in which we will be able to deal with Saddam for the crimes that he has so obviously committed.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I commend the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on her persistence and integrity in pursuing the indictment of war criminals. If the law can be applied as she would like, that is all to the good. However, more often than not in foreign affairs and diplomacy, matters cannot be seen in simple black-and-white terms. It is often a case of choosing between different shades of grey. Will the Minister confirm that we will face some of the most supremely vexed moral decisions in the coming weeks and months and that none of them will be easy and simple? Unpalatable though it would be, might not exile for a few guilty men be better than death for perhaps thousands of innocent people? To put it another way, does he agree with Secretary Rumsfeld when he said:

Mr. O'Brien: Given a choice between peace and war, I agree that we would prefer peace and Saddam to be exiled if he would agree to that. I fear that that might not be the option facing us. We will have to see. Some difficult choices are facing the international community and we will have to consider the suggestion made by Donald Rumsfeld and others that Saddam Hussein should be able to leave Iraq. I fear that given the nature of his character, it is probably unlikely that he will agree to do so. However, if the option is there, it should certainly at least be explored.

4. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What estimate has been given by the UN weapons inspectors of the time period needed to complete their work in Iraq. [91783]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): There is no specified time frame for the completion of the UN weapons inspectors' task laid down by UN Security Council resolution 1441. Crucially, the length of the task is dependent on the level of co-operation that Iraq provides to the inspectors. The inspectors will be making their first report on Monday.

Mr. Prentice : It is very reassuring that there are no artificial deadlines, because many people both outside and in the House feel that we are being led by the nose into war. Must there not be compelling evidence of a breach? If there is that compelling evidence, the matter should go to the United Nations for a second vote. A quarter of the British Army are steaming to the Gulf as I speak, and they cannot be committed to war without a vote in the House of Commons.

Mr. O'Brien: We need to take the issue of the time that the inspectors have step by step. Let us see what Dr. Blix and Dr. el-Baradei say on Monday. The obligations on Iraq under resolution 1441 are very clear. This is not just about Iraq sitting back and waiting to see whether the inspectors find something. The Iraqis must stop concealing weapons of mass destruction and start

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complying with UN resolution 1441. If my hon. Friend wants a path to peace, the real path to peace is compliance with resolution 1441.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): In recent days, the Prime Minister has said that the UN weapons inspectors should be given sufficient time and space to do their work and that they should not be subject to an arbitrary time scale. Despite the significant military build-up in the Gulf, will the Government ensure that the UN process is not short-circuited and that the inspectors get the time that they need to do their job?

Mr. O'Brien: It is the case that 100 inspectors are now in Iraq. It is hoped that 150 inspectors will be there by the end of February. We will be able to assess the progress of the investigations when Dr. Blix and Dr. el-Baradei make their reports on Monday. I repeat that we are not talking about a game of hide and seek. This is about the Iraqis complying with the obligation on them to provide a full and complete declaration, which has not yet been provided, while ensuring that they co-operate fully with the investigations. Obviously, we will have to wait and see what Dr. Blix and Dr. el-Baradei say on Monday.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Does my hon. Friend agree with Hans Blix that inspections are for the purpose of disarmament? Assuming that all intelligence is provided to the inspectors and they consequently discover weapons of mass destruction, will they have an opportunity to destroy those weapons in compliance with resolution 1441? If they do, what will be the justification for military action?

Mr. O'Brien: As we have said repeatedly, there is no decision to take military action at this point. We are awaiting the report of the UN inspectors. When we have that on Monday, we will be able to move on to the next step and make a proper assessment of the course of the inspections. The opportunity to destroy weapons of mass destructions will, to some extent, depend on the Iraqis. They have shown a lack of willingness to co-operate in the past. We want them to take the opportunity—the final opportunity, in the words of resolution 1441—to co-operate fully with the UN. If they fail to do so, again in the words of resolution 1441, serious consequences will follow. We must have full co-operation from Iraq. That is the requirement.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does the Minister agree that given the correct policy of a major military build up, which is putting substantial pressure on Saddam Hussein, it is nevertheless vital that the weapons inspectors are given the time and the number of people to do their job properly? Does he also agree that if Saddam Hussein truly has any feelings for the people of his country, he will ensure that the arms inspectors receive the fullest co-operation so that the most awful military disaster is not inflicted on the people of Iraq?

Mr. O'Brien: It certainly is the case that if Saddam Hussein had any feelings for the people of his country he would have co-operated fully before now. He could have

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co-operated after 1991 and ensured that the weapons of mass destruction were removed, so avoiding sanctions, which would have given Iraq the opportunity to develop as a proper country. He did not do that. Why not? Because he does not have the sort of feeling for the people of his country that the hon. Gentleman wishes he had. I, too, wish that he had those feelings, but he does not. We must ensure that we put pressure on Saddam Hussein because it is the only thing that he understands. He would not have allowed the inspectors in without the threat of military force.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Does the Minister agree that it is very important for the weapons inspectors to be given as much time as possible to do the work thoroughly? What is his view of the opinion of the International Atomic Energy Authority that it may well take 12 months to complete a full inspection?

Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the comment by Dr. el-Baradei, I should explain that the question he was asked was if, and it is a big if, the inspections were continued, at what point would sanctions be lifted. As I understand it, he said that there would be at least a year's worth of inspections before we could even consider lifting sanctions against Iraq. I think that he was answering a slightly different question to the one raised by the hon. Gentleman. On a time scale for the inspectors, we will consider the situation when we get a full report from Dr. Blix on 27 January, when we will be able to evaluate how the issue of the inspections is taken forward.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): If, as some critics maintain, the United States is hellbent on war, why is it suggesting that Saddam should go into exile to prevent military conflict? As for the protesters over the weekend in various democracies who exercised their democratic and legitimate right to protest on the streets, would it not be nice if the people of Iraq could demonstrate against their Government and the terror-inflicted state gave them the opportunity that democracies give to people who hold different opinions?

Mr. O'Brien: I agree that the Iraqi people should be able to express their views. As for the United States, it has made it clear that it wants to follow the UN route.

5. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): If he will make a statement on the meeting of Iraqi opposition representatives in London in December. [91784]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The Iraqi opposition conference held in London in December was the first large gathering of opposition groups since autumn 1999. An official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office observed the conference.

Mr. Luff : Did the Government explain to those Iraqi opposition representatives why they appear reluctant in public to explain exactly what humanitarian support will be made available to the Iraqi people in the event of a war? Given the growing public nervousness about war reflected in opinion polls published this morning,

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does the Minister think that it is time for his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to ask the International Development Secretary to come to the House and explain exactly what will be done to help the Iraqi people, should there be a war?

Mr. O'Brien: We have held some discussions with the United Nations. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed this matter with Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, yesterday. We are looking at all those issues. Clearly the objective at the moment is to avoid war if Saddam Hussein allows us to do so. We need full compliance with resolution 1441. If a war should occur, we will obviously have to work closely with the UN and other organisations to make sure that we try to minimise the damage to the Iraqi people. Our disagreement, our debate and our conflict, if it comes to that, are with Saddam Hussein and those around him rather than the Iraqi people, who themselves have been his victims.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Which Iraqi opposition groups favour the intense bombing likely to be conducted by the Americans to minimise the number of body bags that will be taken back to Alabama or Wyoming?

Mr. O'Brien: The Iraqi opposition groups want the removal of Saddam Hussein. If there were a choice between a peaceful and democratic regime in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and a war, the issue might be different, but the fact is that Saddam Hussein has carried out the wholesale slaughter of large numbers of his people. I urge my hon. Friend to remember the 5,000 men, women and children who died at Halabja in 1988 and the 9,000 who were injured there. We need to make sure that Saddam Hussein is recognised as the tyrant that he is, and is dealt with accordingly.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): The reason for those Iraqi opposition groups gathering in London is, of course, the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. What estimate has the Minister made of the number of Iraqi people who have died as the direct result of Saddam Hussein's policies since 1980? With how many resolutions has Saddam Hussein complied, and how many outstanding resolutions require his compliance? How long, since 1995, have the UN arms inspectors had to find arms in Iraq? Why do so many people prefer to listen to announcements from war criminals in Baghdad than to our own Prime Minister or the US President?

Mr. O'Brien: There are about nine resolutions with which Saddam Hussein has failed to comply, and about 23 obligations before resolution 1441—which imposes a number of other obligations, some of which duplicate previous obligations—was passed. There are a substantial number of UN obligations with which Saddam has not complied.

In terms of the numbers who have died, it is difficult in the circumstances of Iraq to estimate how many people Saddam Hussein has murdered. Some of the Iraqi opposition groups put the figure at about 2 million,

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while others have suggested that it is about 1.5 million, but either way, this tyrant has killed a very large number of people.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): The Minister will be aware that the British public support the wish of Iraqi opposition groups to see a return to democracy in Iraq, but he will also be aware that today's polls show that their support for this war, even with a UN resolution, is dropping away. Does he accept that the British public understand, as do many in this House, that in the absence of concrete, positive evidence—such as that which could perhaps be found by the weapons inspectors—a UN resolution arrived at by contrivance and arm twisting will be devalued as a signal of genuine international consensus behind the war?

Mr. O'Brien: The UN resolution was passed unanimously in the Security Council. Many people in this House asked for a UN resolution. Many said that it could never be done, but it was passed unanimously. Even Syria signed up to it. There are those who say that we should never have threatened force. If we had not done so, the inspectors would not be in Iraq now, UN resolutions would have been worth nothing, international law would have meant nothing and a message would have gone out to large numbers of other countries that are contemplating whether to develop weapons of mass destruction—especially nuclear weapons—saying that the UN would do nothing, that Britain would do nothing and that certain Members of this House would wish to do nothing. This is not a situation in which we can act in such an irresponsible way. This Government will act, and we will do so responsibly.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): I support the Minister in what he has just said. Does he agree that, as the situation develops in Iraq, the role of opposition representatives becomes increasingly important? Does he accept the imperative to keep Iraq as one country within its current boundaries? Is he satisfied from his contacts with Iraqi opposition leaders that that is not only achievable but sustainable? What discussions has he had with any potential successor Government or Governments to secure the total removal in perpetuity of weapons of mass destruction and their programmes of development in Iraq? What steps has he taken to ensure that any successor Government would be democratically mandated and reflect the various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq? Why have we heard so little about those important matters?

Mr. O'Brien: I think that I counted five questions and I shall try to answer them briefly. We want to see Iraq as one country, as is set out in resolution 1441. On the question whether that is sustainable, yes, we believe that it is. Our discussions with the opposition groups suggest that they accept that that is an international requirement set down by the UN and the view of all the countries on the Security Council. Indeed, in this case at least, all the countries around Iraq take a similar view. No one wants to see the break-up of Iraq.

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On weapons of mass destruction, the opposition groups understand very clearly from us—indeed, they must understand this from the UN—that there is an obligation on Iraq to remove all development of weapons of mass destruction.

On a successor Government, we want to see a Government who are not a threat to their neighbours, are not developing weapons of mass destruction and are not repressing their people, but are representative of them.

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