Friday, 16 March 2012
Middle East, Motion to Take Note
Moved By Lord Howell of Guildford
That this House takes note of recent developments in the Middle East.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford)
My Lords, the purpose of this debate is to reflect on the momentous events of the past 15 months in the Middle East and North Africa and their implications for our own security and prosperity.
Of course, the past 15 months represent only the very beginning of the process of change. In Syria, appalling violence and instability continue. New Governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya need to stabilise their economies, draft new constitutions and meet the expectations of their people. In Bahrain, steps are being taken to implement the recommendations of the committee of inquiry into the violence that went on last year, but this needs to be seen through fully. The important consideration is that change will be a long process-possibly very long. The path was never going to be, and will never be, straightforward. There are enormous challenges ahead, both economic and political, but, as my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has said, the whole Arab spring phenomenon does at least raise the prospect of the greatest enlargement of human freedom since the end of the Cold War and of course of a wider Middle East that could be made up of open, prosperous and stable societies. That is of the greatest importance to us in the United Kingdom and to our interests in that region, and it is a goal worth expending prolonged efforts to move towards and showing great patience to achieve.
Perhaps I may be allowed to share with your Lordships some detailed views on the unfolding scene. I shall comment, first, on Tunisia, where in a sense it all began 15 months ago with the dramatic and tragic death of the fruit-seller, Mohamed Bouazizi. I applaud the remarkable process that the people of Tunisia have made in their so-called jasmine revolution. Following successful elections in October, a new broad-based Government have now been established, and the Constituent Assembly is leading the drafting of a constitution for Tunisia based on democratic values and human rights. We maintain full support for the Tunisian transition and the elected coalition Government. Tunisia is also beginning to take a more active role in foreign affairs, and it hosted the important 24 February Friends of Syria meeting. President Marzouki has recently completed a regional tour of all the Maghreb states, arguing strongly that now is the time to chart a new relationship between these countries. That is encouraging.
I shall say a word on Egypt. There, too, truly historic parliamentary elections represented an important step along the country’s path to change. We welcome continued progress on the political transition, including the announcement of presidential elections during May and June, and the transfer of power to an elected President by 1 July. Of course, the economic challenge in Egypt is extremely significant. Its faltering economy fails to meet the public’s high expectations for growth, jobs and better standards of living, and that could undermine the process of political reform. Violence over the past year has shown the scale of the problem that the Egyptian authorities must tackle, including the need to build full respect for human rights. We continue to urge the authorities to enshrine human rights in the constitution, including guarantees for minority rights, and to develop the other building blocks of democracy, such as a free media and a vibrant civil society. That is what the Egyptian people want and this is where we can help.
Turning to Libya, the Libyan authorities are making steady progress in their transition to a peaceful and stable country. In June, the Libyan people will have their first democratic elections in 40 years. I think that they can be immensely proud of the inspiration they have given to others around the world, as indeed we are of the UK’s role in supporting them. There is a lot of hard work ahead, including disarming militias, restarting the economy and building government institutions, but in our view Libya’s future is potentially brighter than it was a year ago. It will take time. The issue of how much federalism there is to be in the new constitution will have to be sorted out. However, we will continue to support Libya, especially in dealing with the legacy of the grim Gaddafi era, entrenching the rule of law and preparing for the June elections in close co-operation with the United Nations and other partner countries. It is to be expected that some will be frustrated by the pace of reform, but just over one year on from the beginning of the revolution the future of Libya is firmly in the hands of the Libyan people, where it should be.
As events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, which I have mentioned, and more widely have shown, change has been led by the people of the region. It is not for the United Kingdom or any western power to dictate the pace or nature of the change from outside. We must also respect the choices that Arab citizens make democratically through the ballot box. This includes being prepared to work with new elected groups that draw their inspiration from Islam, while holding them to the same high standards of non-violence, respect for human rights and a willingness to respect the outcome of future elections that are expected of others. These things can, have in the past and will in the future, go together.
There is no one model of democracy; it is for the people of each country in the region to determine their own path in accordance with their different cultures, traditions and political systems. That is why we applaud in particular steps taken in states such as Morocco and Jordan, where leaders have initiated gradual reform processes. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke to Morocco’s newly elected Head of Government, Abdelilah Benkirane, on 20 January to offer his congratulations and the UK’s full support for Morocco’s constitutional reforms. This country also stands fully ready to partner with Jordan as it undertakes to implement the reforms of His Majesty Kind Abdullah. We also look forward to upcoming parliamentary elections in May in Algeria, which I recently visited and where we have high hopes of closer relations. We also welcome the conference organised by the Maghreb countries on border security, which called together all those countries, including Algeria and Morocco, to reach decisions on co-operation.
I will say a word about Bahrain. We are urging the Government there to continue to implement the full recommendations of the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry. However, they must go further and implement political reforms. The Government and opposition parties say that they are ready to re-engage in dialogue, and we call on both sides to begin talks quickly. Agreement between the Government and the trade unions on the reinstatement of workers is a welcome move forward.
A much more difficult scene is found in Yemen. After 33 years as head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down and formally handed over power to a new president. This followed the agreed Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered plan to bring about peaceful political change. The UK welcomed the inauguration of President Abbed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The second phase of transition will not be at all easy. The economy is in disarray after years of intense unrest. Security must be re-established and Iranian meddling, which is clearly evident, must be resisted. The humanitarian crisis is growing and many disaffected parties who have been outside the political process will need to be brought to the table in an attempt to resolve their grievances. However, the opportunity is there and it deserves our optimistic support.
I will come to some more difficult areas in a moment. I will say a word about the role of Turkey, which is of increasing relevance and importance. The events of the past year have reinforced the importance of Turkey. It played a very important role in supporting the NATO mission in Libya. With its stable democracy and thriving economy, it continues to act as an inspiration for countries affected by the Arab spring process. We will continue to work together in the context of the G8’s partnership, agreed at the Deauville meeting, to support political and economic transitions in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. We welcome Turkey’s efforts to share its experience of the political process by inviting those involved in the revolution in Egypt to meet its political parties.
In Syria, which I will come to in more detail in a moment, Turkey is a vital partner. We are working closely together as part of the Friends of Syria group, and at the United Nations, to increase international pressure on the Assad regime to end its violence and improve access for humanitarian organisations. Turkey can also play an important role in encouraging Iran to negotiate seriously on its nuclear problem, and we look forward to the prospect of further talks there.
I come to the very difficult and grim situation in Syria. President Assad and his regime have refused to recognise a central truth. The UN estimates that since protests began in Syria in March 2011, more than 7,500 people-I believe 8,000 is the latest figure-have been killed, including 380 children. The Syrian regime is engaged in a brutal campaign of repression through widespread and systematic human rights violations, including torture and the rape of men, women and children. The registered Syrian refugee population in neighbouring countries now exceeds 30,000, although the actual figure could be much higher, and it is believed that more than 200,000 people have been displaced. We continue to play a prominent role in international efforts to convince the Syrian regime that it must end its brutality. There is no room in the Middle East of the future for butchery of this kind.
We seek a robust Human Rights Council resolution on Syria in Geneva, and are working hard in New York to get the UN Security Council to put its weight behind efforts to bring peace and improve humanitarian access. We continue to call for an immediate end to the brutal repression of human rights, and demand an end to all violence and immediate and unhindered humanitarian access. We support the work of Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the UN and Arab League, to bring about an end to the violence and facilitate a political transition. We also support the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the current Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who is known to us all. We call on the Syrian Government to implement their commitments to the Arab League by stopping military action, withdrawing their forces from towns and cities, releasing political prisoners and allowing the media access. We strongly endorse what the Arab League and Kofi Annan are doing. The Foreign Secretary recently addressed the House of Commons on the issue and announced the suspension of the service of the British embassy in Damascus and the withdrawal of all diplomatic staff. They have now left Syria. We continue to follow developments on the ground very closely.
I have few minutes remaining, but there is much more to say on the area. We must do all we can to support the people of the region as they build more open and inclusive democratic societies. To this end, we launched the highly praised Arab Partnership Programme to provide both political and economic support to the region. We have committed to provide £110 million over four years. In Egypt and Tunisia, we supported the electoral processes and helped to encourage political debate. I would have liked to share with noble Lords much more that we are doing in facing these issues.
The old dangers also remain, and with your Lordships’ permission I shall return to them at the end of the debate. Obviously, the Middle East peace process remains central; the conflict there is poisoning the whole scene in the Middle East. Our priority remains to bring the parties to negotiation. The ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis remains a cause of a very grave concern, and we are 100 per cent committed to a peaceful resolution of the issue if we can achieve it. There will be further talks with the Iranians, although a time has yet to be fixed.
In the Middle East mosaic there are of course many blemishes and stains. We make no secret of our wish to see gradual reform in great states like Saudi Arabia. However, we should also note the way in which the states of the Gulf work closely with this country. Everywhere in the region there is genuine and deep affection for Britain. That is why some of the GCC states show a strong interest in links with the Commonwealth, while their trade and business interests turn increasingly to the east and the rising powers of Asia.
I have no more time to expand on what we are doing and intend to do. We can be proud of our role, our diplomacy and our expertise deployed throughout the region-especially, if I may say so, that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under the inspired leadership of my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, William Hague. I look forward greatly in the coming debate to hearing your Lordships’ insights into these tumultuous, dangerous and challenging events. I beg to move.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the debate and for the comprehensive and very helpful way in which he did so. I declare an interest as a chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, and other interests listed in the Register.
As the noble Lord said, the Arab spring impacted directly on some countries in the region through changes of government, while in others the impact was less obvious. However, no one should underestimate the indirect political and social effect that is obvious throughout the whole region. From Tunisia and Morocco in the Maghreb, through the Levant-most obviously in Libya, Egypt and Syria-and certainly in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, we see that impact. We see it perhaps in less obvious ways in the Gulf states, with the great difficulties in Bahrain, and it is certainly also felt in Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and, perhaps most importantly, Saudi Arabia.
Generalities are always dangerous. We all know that these countries, tied as they are by links of language and culture, are none the less very different-often in religion, with the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, but also in customs, social mores and, most clearly, in wealth.
One very obvious political development stands out. It is the increased authority of the collective organisations: the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council. The decisive action of the Arab League over Libya was very welcome, and the effect of its decision at the United Nations to call for the protection of the people of Benghazi effectively opened the way for Libya to begin its path to political development and democracy. The Arab League similarly led the call for the protection of Syrian civilians against a ruthless regime, but Syria’s regime is better organised and resourced than Gaddafi’s regime ever was, so the Arab League’s efforts have been frustrated at the Security Council by China and by the client relationship that Syria enjoys with Russia. None the less, the Arab League has been united, decisive and clear in the leadership that it has offered, and that is to be welcomed. Similarly, the Gulf Co-operation Council has come into its own in relation to Yemen with the plan to remove President Saleh and to try to bring Yemen out of its chaotic and still, sadly, rather lawless state towards a more stable future.
As chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, I see the effect of these political developments on trade and economic activity. Trade in Egypt has been very seriously affected, the Egyptian economy is in real trouble, and the people who hoped for so much are becoming restless at the lack of political and economic progress, as the recent demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere have shown. One of the most worrying and saddest developments has been the sporadic outbreaks of violence towards the minority Coptic Christian community. The overwhelming majority of Muslims deplore this development, but the Coptic community is anxious and watchful about its future.
Tunisia’s trade, particularly in tourism, has been affected, but the political situation is now settling down, as the Minister said, and the elections will lead to a new constitution and further elections next year, but it needs our continuing support, and I hope the Minister can tell us more about what our Government are doing to support the country that led the way with the jasmine revolution.
By contrast, Libya, frankly, had little or no civil society and very few public institutions. As the Minister said, the elections in June will lead to a constitutional settlement followed by further elections next year. Libya has one huge advantage: oil, and therefore wealth. There have been over 10 trade delegations between the UK and Libya in the past six months, mostly concentrating on health but some on financial institutions and on organising the oil industry for the benefit of the people.
That brings out one of the great contrasts of the region: wealth and poverty. There is Saudi Arabia, with over 25 per cent of the world’s oil and a population of 28 million embarking on a huge development programme. There is Qatar, a tiny country with only 300,000 nationals but with the highest per capita income in the world, which is investing in everything from football to art. There are the emirates, with Abu Dhabi arguably developing even greater confidence than Dubai. These countries sit alongside Egypt, which has 80 million people, many of whom are illiterate, with extremes of huge personal wealth and abject personal poverty, and Jordan, with a well educated population but with no oil and a real and pressing need of sources of energy and water.
It is arguably Egypt and Jordan that have kept the Arab and Palestinian understandings with Israel stable and constant in the past decades. It is Egypt and Jordan that have been the mainstays of the peace process in the region, difficult as it has been, uncertain and violent at times, but with no outright, full-scale hostilities. However, Egypt may not be able to go on delivering this role if a Government are elected with a democratic mandate to change their stance on Israel, and if Jordan cannot stabilise its economy and deliver for its people, its courageous leadership will come under increasing pressure with unknown consequences.
However, it is the growing concern about Iran that many Arabs focus upon, particularly in the Gulf. This stems not only from uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear ambitions but from its bilateral relationships in the region, particularly its support of the Alawite leadership in Syria. It is, of course, also a matter of concern that it continues to support Hezbollah’s activities in many countries: destabilising Yemen, going through Syria and into volatile Lebanon.
The Minister rightly concentrated on Syria. We support the huge efforts of the international community to stop the appalling regime and its brutalising, torturing and killing of its citizens, some as young as 11 years old. However the question of what happens next in Syria should concern us all. Iran would fight to maintain its influence and Hezbollah is well entrenched and will not give up easily, so can the Minister tell us what our Government are doing to liaise with Arab countries on what the future holds for Syria internally and on its place in the international community?
In virtually all countries of the region, there is an enormous and growing problem: a huge population of young people. For example, 60 per cent of Saudis are aged under 25. These young people are equipped with the instant communications of the modern day through social networking, and that implies everything about being able to get their voices heard. These young people need jobs, and the UN has calculated that the region needs around 100 million more jobs by 2020 to keep it anything like stable. That should concern us all because young people of the region want worthwhile and fulfilling futures as much as young people in this country, and they deserve worthwhile and fulfilling futures as much as our young people.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and her formidable tour d’horizon based on her tremendous knowledge and experience of the Middle East. I will start by making a few general reflections before coming to one or two specific points.
I agree with the Minister that the Arab world has started down a road that will be long and hard. It is exciting, but it is also very dangerous, and the early euphoria of so many people, with which we all sympathised, has now led to greater realism some 13 or 14 months later. Each country is very different. Arab civilisation was perhaps at its greatest in its first 500 years. Arabs today, particularly young ones, are yearning for more freedom, more knowledge and more education, and the women yearn to have a greater say in the affairs of their country.
The dramatic changes of the past few months have brought about economic disruption, which is inevitable, and this raises the question that the Minister referred to: the challenge for each of these countries to manage growing expectations. We think of the experience of South Africa, the expectations raised when Mandela became the first black president and the very great problems that it is going to have to grapple with in coming years. Then there are the richer Arab countries with oil that are throwing money at supporting Arabs on benefits and investing in infrastructure, the public sector and so on. That is fine up to a point, but it is unlikely in the long term to answer the aspirations of younger people.
All this is against the background of increasing fundamentalism, strains between Sunni and Shia-just as we had strains between Roman Catholics and Protestants-the historic strains between the Arabs and the Persians and the growing intolerance that arises from that. We have already had a debate in this House about the treatment of the Christians, who are an integral part of the Middle East. It is interesting to observe that the three Abrahamic faiths have managed historically from time to time to live peacefully together. Is it not about time that they renewed their common bonds rather than divided?
Then there is the reference by all of us to democracy. It has taken us centuries to evolve the system we have today, and each of those countries, with different degrees of sophistication, will need to develop the rule of law and a free press to create the right conditions. Some argue that there should be no elections until that happens. I think that is wrong. I think elections can help to point countries in the right direction. Certainly, we have seen that in Egypt and Tunisia and more recently in Kuwait.
From all this has emerged the political parties-the Minister referred to this-particularly the Islamic parties coming into parliaments in Egypt, Tunisia and Kuwait, which brings out the question of the relationship between religion and politics, with which we have grappled in Europe over time. We still have an established church here. We have had Christian democratic parties in Europe. They will have to grapple with these problems too, hopefully taking Turkey as much as possible as a model to follow.
All these countries are grappling with systems of accountability and the rule of law, and each one is different. Egypt has to decide on the relationship between political parties and the military. Tunisia has stronger middle classes, women play a prominent role, and it has a civic society. Libya has had 42 years of dictatorship and now has been given a chance. Syria, of course, is a disaster, but one positive point emerging from this is that Hamas appears to be turning away from Syria and Iran towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
I should like to say a word about the Gulf monarchies, many of which could evolve into constitutional monarchies if they handle things in the right way. Speaking as someone who has been to Bahrain since the 1950s, the spring of last year was a great disappointment to me. The events were extremely bad and damaging, but at the same time, when something positive happens, it is very important that in this country, in the media and in Parliament, we acknowledge and encourage it. To my mind, it was remarkable that the king decided to appoint an international commission and allow it to make recommendations, all of which he has committed to fulfil. I wonder how many other countries would do that. Would we be prepared to have an international commission and implement all its recommendations? It is important that we give encouragement where encouragement is due; otherwise our influence in those areas will erode.
It is a polarised society with a Shia majority and a Sunni Government. It is vital for the Bahraini Government to demonstrate that they are treating the Shia and the Sunnis as equal under the law. Here, the position of Saudi Arabia is critical, as is our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Although King Abdullah is trying to introduce some reforms in this country, we acknowledge that there is a Shia community on the Bahrain borders. If Saudi Arabia tries to restrain the Bahraini Government from reforming, all I can say is that it could be totally and utterly counterproductive for Saudi Arabia, let alone the other Gulf countries. I hope that the British Government and other friends of Saudi Arabia are having an intense dialogue with it about that.
I end on the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa, interlinked with the Middle East. Some 25 per cent of world trade passes through the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden where it is threatened by piracy and terrorism. The Malacca Strait’s experience of piracy shows that it is essential to stabilise the littoral states. I congratulate the British Government on taking the lead and convening an international conference to try to build stability in that area, particularly in the Horn, and to work with the international community in getting the regions of the Horn and the clans to co-operate together by building up the peacekeeping forces and working to defeat piracy through criminalising the proceeds of ransom money.
A key to this is Somaliland, which is becoming increasingly stable and successful. The British Government are rightly giving support to enhancing security, and strengthening health and education services, the private sector and so on. But the Somalis are a very proud people. I have worked with them. They are an independent-minded people who are ruthlessly suppressed by Siad Barre, the President until 1991. It is crucial that we build on the success of Somaliland and give it every encouragement. I hope that it will be encouraged to negotiate with the newly formed and emerging Government in Mogadishu so that it can decide what kind of relationship it will have with them in the future.
I have run out of time and I hope that others will deal with the very difficult problems of Palestine and Iran.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his expansive coverage of the countries of the Middle East in today’s debate. I will focus on only three countries. Noble Lords will note the expansive talent on these Benches and several colleagues will comment on other parts of the region. My focus will be on Iran, Israel and Syria. All three are interlinked in a more complex manner than just being geographically proximate.
Let me go directly to the most intractable foreign policy issue in recent times-namely, the concern that Iran is moving towards a nuclear weapons capability. The latest IAEA report of November 2011 concluded that this remained a possibility; hence the belated move towards strong sanctions by the international community. We know that Israel considers the idea of a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat. I respect that concern and would say to it that its concerns are well understood beyond its own borders. We are all aware of the dangers of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East as may well happen if the NPT is wantonly disregarded by Iran. We are also aware, however, that Israel stands on shaky moral ground when, as a nuclear weapon state itself, it seeks, potentially through the use of force, to prevent another state’s programme, especially where the stated purpose of that programme is civilian nuclear development.
Even if we were to accept that Iran is moving towards a nuclear threshold state-the jury is still out on that-we know from experience elsewhere that reaching a nuclear threshold is not to say that it is anything other than a deterrent position. If we look at North Korea versus South Korea, India versus Pakistan, or, indeed, the United States versus the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it is not to say that this situation is sui generis. We have unhappily lived alongside states which have had nuclear weapon capability and who face hostile neighbours. Thankfully, we have reached a modus operandi within those constraints.
I appreciate too that opinion in Israel is divided on the use of military strikes against Iran. In fact, my Israeli interlocutors have gone beyond the terminology of using phrases like military strikes and have spoken candidly about “war”. It is clear that the experts in intelligence and the military itself in Israel are more conscious of the unpredictability of war against Iran, arguing publically as the retired head of Mossad, Mier Dagan, has done that this could result in a new catastrophic Middle East war. Therefore, it is with some relief that one reads in the Israeli press that a powerful new coalition is forming around his view to counter the politicians in their drumbeat to war.
Let me also address the other argument often deployed in Israel; namely, that sanctions are not working or that they are not working fast enough. Smart sanctions have worked in the past and are increasingly effective against Iran. Iran has started stockpiling grain reserves to pre-empt future food shortages. We now have the implementation of controls on financial transactions through SWIFT, which serves as a crucial conduit for Iran to repatriate billions of dollars worth of earnings from oil sales and other exports, which is already having an impact here and now. Major foreign exchange houses in the United Arab Emirates have stopped handling the Iranian rial over the past few weeks. This has resulted in a depreciation of more than 50 per cent in its value. Countries which are dependent on Iranian oil have quietly moved to other suppliers and inflation in domestic prices is biting.
Domestically, the Iranian political dust is settling since the 2 March elections to the Majlis. If, as looks likely, Ayatollah Khamenei’s supporters are likely to prevail, this may well not be a bad thing from the international community’s perspective. The Ayatollah’s fatwa ruling that the use of nuclear weapons is completely contrary to the teachings of Islam has been reiterated as recently as in the last few weeks. This, too, should provide reassurance to Israel. It is perhaps no coincidence that Iran has finally agreed to a return to the P5-plus-one talks. It is now imperative that it allows further IAEA inspections to go ahead, particularly to allow access to the Parchin nuclear facility, as it has announced it will do.
Let me turn now to the situation in Syria. As a Liberal who is committed to the emerging norm of Responsibility to Protect, it is with some regret that I conclude that any form of western military engagement is out of the question. Syria is not Libya. The humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Syria has deep geopolitical roots. This is a civil war by proxy. We know of Russia’s strategic interest in Syria, not least as it has a naval base at Tartus, and 10 per cent of its total global arms sales are to Syria, where Russian shipments continue unabated. We know, too, about the long-standing Russian-Saudi Arabian rivalry, not least during the years of communism and then more recently in Afghanistan. The alignment of Russian and Iranian Shia interests against those of Sunni Islam is all too evident. The re-election of Mr Putin in Russia does not help either, and all indications are that we are in this for the long haul.
Hence it is so regrettable that Qataris and Saudi Arabia have resolved to take up arms shipments to the Free Syrian Army. The proposal of the Tunisian president at the recent Friends of Syria meeting was to resolve the situation through the negotiation of a safe exit for Bashar al Assad and the formation of a transitional government. It should have been discussed further. It was a proposal worth exploring, and it is regrettable that the Saudi Arabian foreign Minister walked out of the meeting at that point. The proposal, to add arms to the conflict, cannot be one designed to put out the fire.
The fact that these external factors are resulting in the sacrifice of the lives of innocent civilians does not for a minute exonerate the Syrian leadership of its responsibility for these crimes, and while we cannot do more than move for sanctions through the UN Security Council, we must do more to make the sanctions bite. Like Iran, it might actually prepare the ground for the beginning of negotiations to a ceasefire. All we can do at the moment is to hope that the efforts of the former UN Secretary General will bear fruit. If they do not, we have in the EU to think again collectively, and in the UK individually, as to our own responsibility in this humanitarian tragedy.
My Lords, in following my noble friend, I agree with her that if you look at any subject in Israel, you will find a wide range of opinion. That is in the nature of the Israeli political process. There are 12 different political groups in the Knesset and only one overall majority in 18 different parliaments. My question is narrow and concentrates on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly the West Bank. The question I want to put it this: why does Israel pursue the policies that it does in the West Bank?
The United Nations calculates that there are 150 settler villages and agricultural outposts in the West Bank, along with 100 smaller outposts. These constitute 300,000 people, which must be compared with the Israeli population of 7.5 million and the West Bank Palestinian population of 2.4 million. Every one of those settlements demands an Israeli Defence Forces commitment to its security and, of course, a certain level of violence is to be found all the time. Many of the incidents are quite minor, but nevertheless there is always violence somewhere. It has been calculated by the United Nations that if the wall is completed, 87 per cent of it will not be on the Green Line settled in 1949.
I want to give three brief examples of things that are happening in the West Bank. The first is the Jordan valley. The only Palestinian possession in the Jordan valley is in the city of Jericho. It is quite a big area with a large population, but the remainder of the Jordan valley is an “Area C” area under the terms of the occupation, which means that it is a security zone and that only Israelis can live there. It is extensively settled. It is highly irrigated with water taken from the north by the water carrier system which is a brilliant piece of engineering. Indeed, one has to recognise straightaway that if there is a country that knows about irrigated agriculture, it is Israel. Its technology is state of the art. However, the fact remains that agricultural products account for somewhere between 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent of Israeli GDP and the future of Israel does not depend on agriculture. It is, after all, a sophisticated industrial and digital economy. The question must be asked: since the Palestinians are very short of water-including water shortages for domestic purposes-is irrigated agriculture the best use of the scarce water supply coming to the Jordan valley?
I shall cite another example of an Israeli settlement on one side of a narrow valley and a Palestinian village on the other. It has a traditional, reliable water source which has been cut off from the Palestinian village under the security arrangements put in place by the IDF. Every Friday, the Palestinian villagers attempt to march to the water source. They are deterred by the water cannon and tear gas of the IDF. One wonders what the cost of this endeavour to separate the settlers and the Palestinians is. What is it doing to the future potential of relationships between people who share the same land?
I turn now to Hebron, which is a sacred city closely associated with Abraham, and it is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. In 1969, after the 1967 war, Israeli Jews started to settle in Hebron and they have been there ever since. There are now several hundred of them. On and off there has been almost continuous violence, even if it is conducted at the low level of stone throwing to break windows. However, under the intifada there has been much more serious violence in the town. The IDF, with its responsibility to maintain the security of the settlers, outnumbers them by a large majority. The centre of Hebron could now be characterised as a ghost town. The Palestinian population has basically left. All the markets in the centre are shut and it is a desolate place.
Out of this there come no winners. The settlers have a very uncomfortable life. The Palestinians either leave or also have a very uncomfortable life. The IDF has its responsibilities and, as has been said by an organisation called Breaking the Silence, the effect on the young people who do their national service in the IDF is very deleterious. It is difficult to see why any of this is in the interests of Israel, either in the short or the long term. It must be economically a disbenefit and it cannot be any use to relationships. Is it just that the fundamental tail is wagging the dog? Do we not have to think much more seriously about how we can influence Israeli domestic politics?
Lord Anderson of Swansea
My Lords, I welcome this long-awaited debate and congratulate the Minister as usual on his tour d’horizon. My only concern is the short time for the debate, which meant that even the Minister could mention only Israel/ Palestine and the Iranian crisis at the very end of his speech.
In the Middle East, all things are connected; all things are distinct. As democrats, we must and should support the Arab awakening which affects the whole of the Arab world, but it is perhaps only the monarchies that appear to survive well at the moment. I heard what the Minister said about the key countries involved. In regard to some, there was, with respect, a touch of Pangloss in what he said. I agree that Tunisia is the pioneer and model of transition, but Egypt is far more problematic. The Minister might perhaps say whether it is his judgment that the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to steer a moderate path. Will the Salafists gain influence? Can the expectations of the great mass of young people be satisfied in Egypt? Most difficult of all is Libya, where there now is chaos. The militias seem to control much of the country and there is a real danger of Cyrenaica separating from Tripolitania.
It is in Syria, of course, that there is the most serious of problems. The real problem is this: can one envisage a more reasonable, moderate, safe and bloodless transition from this time on? Surely not, because the Assad regime, having watched what has happened in Libya, realised that its own future is at stake. It is fighting for survival, knowing what will happen to it if it loses. Ultimately, will the Assad regime, which observers now conclude is doomed, continue to inflict yet further bloodshed on its people? As it appears that there is obviously and rightly no prospect of western military intervention, what are the prospects of some form of regional intervention? What are the limits of what the West can do to help? Where do we draw the lines in terms of medical and non-lethal equipment? I wholly concur with the Minister that the caution of the West is surely justified.
Turning quickly to Israel/Palestine: it is surely a very bleak picture. If I were to ask the Minister to spell out where the signs of hope are, he could probably tell me only to look at certain of the economic and security developments on the West Bank. The rest is gloom. Premier Netanyahu knows that, whatever isolation there is for Israel and whatever defeats there are at the UN, he can rely on the US Congress for unqualified support. Certainly, there is no possibility of movement before the presidential election and there can only be movement at the point where the US decides to engage. The hopes raised by the Cairo speech of President Obama and by Premier Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan University speech have become a part of history. Does the Minister see any signs of hope at all?
I shall end by dealing with Iran, which is clearly the most difficult problem on the Israeli agenda and the great headache for US policy makers. I very much understand the Israeli concern about a second Holocaust from the Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad. However, there remains, in relation to the nuclear threat, the question of capability- even if it stops at the threshold-and the question of intention. I hope that President Obama has made it clear to Premier Netanyahu that the red lines of the US and its allies do not necessarily coincide with those of Israel. It is clearly a formidably difficult problem to destroy the installations. It rests on the agreement of the US; it relies on overflying and refuelling; there must be very accurate intelligence and there must be precision bombing. Iran has the recipe and perhaps such a strike could lead only to a delay of two years or so.
What are the malign effects of Iran gaining such a capability? Clearly, there would be a major shift in the power balance in the region, a major blow to US and western influence and a great effect on nuclear proliferation in the region. Iran might be emboldened to commit further acts of subversion and there would be an increased threat to Israel. It may well be that its proxy, Hezbollah, already can reach most, if not all, of Israel with its weaponry.
What would be the effect of such an attack on nuclear installations? It would further convince Iran that it needs a nuclear capability; it would destroy the Sunni front; there would be a vast increase in the oil price-there is already an Iran premium on the price of Brent crude-it would rally the Iranian population and it possibly would stifle out the green movement for some time.
For Israel, it would perhaps be rather like Samson pulling down the pillars of the Temple upon itself. All evidence suggests that Iran is moving inexorably to a military nuclear capability, even if it were to stop at the threshold. The question, therefore, is surely this: what if? I hope that western planners are now posing this what-if question as Iran, as is likely, obtains such a capability? We should not neglect the carrots but be ready to make clear the sticks that would be involved. Containment is difficult and possibly ineffective. A nuclear-armed Iran is an awful prospect, but there is a strong case that a military strike on the nuclear installations in Iran would be even worse with even more unpredictable consequences, both in the region and globally.
Lord Wright of Richmond
My Lords, in the time available I propose to concentrate on Syria and the Middle East peace process. On Syria, I declare an interest in having acquired, during my two years as British ambassador in Damascus from 1979 to 1981, a considerable affection for Syria and the Syrian people. I do not condone the terrible things that are being reported in the media, but I am encouraged not to defend but to try to put some of the reports into perspective and to question the motives both of the Syrian Government and of those who are calling for regime change and for military intervention.
The Syrian Government are controlled by a small Alawite minority but are, I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, fighting for survival against a diverse threat from those whom they describe as “terrorists”, however unforgivable has been their reaction to those threats. Remember that al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for bombings in Aleppo, which resulted in 28 fatalities and 235 wounded and which had been confidently attributed to the Syrian security forces. That in itself should make us wary of accepting all the reports that we see on our television screens. I regret that HMG have found it necessary to close the one reliable source of what is actually happening in Syria, namely our embassy in Damascus.
I hope that the Minister can give us some assessment of how many foreign fighters have been infiltrated into Syria in the past few months and from where. A Russian diplomat has recently claimed, on the record, that at least 15,000 foreign fighters are supporting the uprising.
In a question that I put to the Minister in November last year, I argued that we should watch with caution the motives of those calling for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. We have, even this week, seen Senator John McCain’s astonishing call for the United States to “take out” Syria, whatever that means. President Assad himself must be all too aware of the motivation of some members of the Arab League who are openly calling for military intervention and for regime change. Is it far-fetched to see these attacks against a minority Shia Government, allied with Iran and supporting Hezbollah, as part of the Sunni-Shia divide, which has already led to disturbances in Afghanistan, in Bahrain and in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia? The recent attack against a Shia mosque in Belgium should warn us of the risk that this Sunni-Shia divide might spread to our own European Muslim communities.
Have those who are calling for regime change in Syria considered what is likely to replace the present regime? Recent developments in north Africa are a powerful warning of the possible consequences of replacing a secular Baathist regime in Syria. It was the coalition’s failure to listen to the warnings in this House against the invasion of Iraq nine years ago that led to the disastrous outcome of that intervention. Meanwhile, I particularly welcome the Minister’s continuing support for the efforts of Mr Kofi Annan.
One of the tragic consequences of the Syrian crisis is that it has diverted attention from the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process, which, as the Minister rightly said, is central to all the problems of the Middle East. Jordanian efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, and the overwhelming support in the United Nations General Assembly for Palestine to achieve statehood, should have made it easier, not more difficult, for Israel and the Palestinians to reopen talks, with the added benefit that this might well have included Hamas. On that point, I hope that the Minister can accept that the three conditions imposed by the quartet on negotiations with Hamas need no longer be a block on further contacts. As it is, we should welcome the apparent success of attempts by the new Egyptian regime to broker talks between Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli authorities. If the Israelis can talk to Hamas, why cannot we?
The real question underlying peace in the Middle East and, ultimately, peace between Israel and Iran is whether Israel and the Palestinians are yet ready to revert to talks aimed at creating two states, with a shared capital in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the continuing expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from West Jerusalem and the renewal of violence in Gaza make the resumption of talks unlikely. On that last point, I find it grotesque that the State Department spokesman should have condemned the recent launching of rockets against southern Israel with not one word about the targeted assassinations that provoked it.
Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance that the Prime Minister’s talks with President Obama in Washington have confirmed that we and the Americans, and indeed all our European partners, still regard a two-state solution as the only possible recipe for long-term peace in the Middle East. If the Americans and the quartet are unable, as they appear to be, to persuade Mr Netanyahu that a two-state solution is the only hope for the future of Israel, is it not time for the European Union to be more active?
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to say a few words bout the dire situation in Bahrain, which has been overshadowed by the crises in Syria and Palestine but which demands a proportionate share of the attention of Parliament and the Foreign Office.
Last February, disturbances erupted in Bahrain as the people tried to assert their democratic and human rights against the al-Khalifa hereditary dictatorship. The rulers brutally attacked demonstrators, arrested 1,300 people and tortured their leaders and others held incommunicado for weeks on end, killing five of them in custody, and all in a pattern of total impunity. They clamped down on freedom of expression, closing a major newspaper, blocking websites and blogs and dismissing hundreds of suspect dissidents from their jobs.
Faced with mounting international criticism, the dictator appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, BICI, headed by the distinguished jurist Cherif Bassiouni, to report on the events of the uprising and its aftermath. BICI produced a 500-page report substantially confirming the allegations made by national and international human rights organisations. It made numerous recommendations, all of which, at the launch of the report, the King said that he accepted. He appointed a further commission to monitor implementation, due to report next Tuesday. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, gave the regime much credit for this process, which I see as merely an attempt to deflect and postpone the effects of the uprising.
Some of the most critical recommendations are being ignored. The convictions of political prisoners, who did not advocate violence, have not been reviewed, nor have their sentences been commuted. Victims of incommunicado detention and torture have not received compensation. Hassan Mushaima, secretary-general of the Haq Movement, is still serving a life sentence after weeks of incommunicado detention, torture and trial before a kangaroo court, and the same is true for Abduljalil al-Singace and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, foremost human rights activists. All three have spoken several times at seminars on Bahrain that I have chaired in the Palace of Westminster and I have never heard them advocate violence. They are dedicated to the principle of peaceful change, difficult though it may be in a society where the dictatorship holds all the cards.
The official line peddled by the Foreign Minister, Khalid al-Khalifa, another scion of the ruling family, is that there are not any political prisoners. Will my noble friend ask Sir Nigel Rodley, one of the BICI commissioners, to confirm that the, “fundamental principles of a fair trial, including prompt and full access to legal counsel and inadmissibility of coerced testimony, were not respected”, in the trials of opinion leaders? Will my noble friend join with IFEX in the call to immediately and unconditionally release Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and all the other political prisoners, and will they further ask the regime to negotiate with them on compensation for their ordeals?
Sad to say, the lessons of the past year have not been learnt. The security forces still use excessive force against demonstrations, resulting in loss of life. Twenty-two year-old Fadhel al-Obaidi died last Saturday after he was hit on the head by a teargas canister and beaten, kicked and punched by security men as he fell to the ground; last week an infant, Yahya Yousif Ahmed, died because his mother had suffered no fewer than eight teargas attacks on the family home during her pregnancy; and a woman in her 70s, Sakeena Marhoon, died in hospital after repeated inhalation of toxic gases thrown by security forces into her home several times in recent weeks. Will the Foreign Office protest about the continued use of excessive force and, particularly, the use of lethal gases?
Trials are continuing, too, of students and staff from the University of Bahrain and of some of the 42 doctors originally convicted by the security court. The crackdown on freedom of expression continues. Reporters Without Borders says that Bahrain goes in for a remarkable array of repressive measures: technical, judicial and physical censorship methods; keeping the international media away; harassing human rights activists; arresting bloggers and netizens, one of whom died in detention; smearing and prosecuting free-speech activists; and disrupting communications, especially during major demonstrations. To avoid scrutiny, the regime has postponed a visit that had been agreed by the UN special rapporteur on torture. It has forced the cancellation of visits by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch by imposing unacceptable conditions on them and it has made it impossible for international journalists to carry out their normal newsgathering activities in the country.
Above all, there is no sign of the ruling family loosening their grip on power. Yes, there is a two-Chamber Assembly, but the Government are entirely nominated by the al-Khalifas, with all important Ministers drawn from within the family, including the Prime Minister-the King’s uncle-who has held the post for more than 40 years.
When my honourable friend Mr Alistair Burt visited Bahrain in December, he made it clear to all groups that they should, “seize this moment for reconciliation and broader reform”.-[Official Report, 9/2/12; col. WA98.] How can that be when leaders of opinion are in prison and their followers are gassed and beaten by the al-Khalifas’ mercenaries from Pakistan and Syria? Will my noble friend condemn the policy of giving those mercenaries citizenship in a bid to alter the demography of the state? Will he urge the regime to allow that freedom of expression without which reform is a remote and unattainable aspiration? The cosy relationship that we cultivate with these dictators helps them to stay in power. It is time to reform our policy to give meaning to our professions of encouragement for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
My Lords, undoubtedly the Middle East is a highly complex, incendiary and volatile area, where peaceful solutions are elusive. There are too many extremists amid the two populations-Arab and Jew-for whom “sensible compromise” represents dirty words. Implacable hostility can result only in dire consequences for both sides.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wright, has said, a two-state solution has to be encouraged. It is the only way out of the present debacle. However, the intractable problem is how we can convince all the parties that this is so. In the past negotiations have almost reached this goal and then broken down. It requires strong moral leadership from within the power bases of both Israel and Palestine to urge their respective followers to face up to reality and to accept what will ultimately deliver a peaceful future. Sadat and Begin pursued that objective.
Iran’s quest for aggressive, long-range nuclear weaponry, capable of doing real damage to the Israeli population, as well as potential harm to its close neighbours, cannot be lightly dismissed. This is no figment of the imagination in the light of Iran’s stated aim to annihilate Israel. The fact that numerous Arab states share this fear of nuclear empowerment indicates that Iran’s threats and words strike huge fear across the region. Iran has few friends, the beleaguered Syrian regime being among them. It is also divided within itself. Free speech is suppressed in a violent way. Notwithstanding these bleak facts, it would be foolhardy for Israel to be engulfed in what appears to be an unwinnable war. However, the ceasefire declared in the past few days between Hamas and Israel offers a glimpse of hope-I put it no higher than that-that negotiations are not beyond the bounds of possibility. However, ongoing hatred and suspicion mar this desirable objective.
It is essential for all advocates for peace on both sides of the divide to speak out now so that a two-state solution can arise and avert a conflagration. It has to be in the interests of Palestinians and Israelis-at least for their children-one day to realise a dream of a future based on peace, trust and prosperity for the region that both peoples inhabit.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is not, as many people attest, the sole issue in the Middle East. In a number of countries there is poverty, disease and inequality, all adding to the dangers which bedevil this part of the world, and these must also be tackled. The Governments of the United States, Europe and others, confronted by fierce armed conflicts, instability brought about by religious, social and political turmoil and the cruelty and intransigence of dictatorships, are not to be envied. What is needed now are cool heads, profound thinking-outside the box when necessary-considered reflection and a determination to stay the hands of those who would lead us inexorably into a war beyond anyone’s control. I thank the noble Lord for leading this debate in the most constructive way.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the advisory council for the charity that supports the work of Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad. I have visited Israel with both Conservative Friends of Israel and the Conservative Middle East Council to try, as a good lawyer, to see things from both perspectives, and I was in Egypt last September. I could not help but think in Egypt of the error in the lines of the hymn “Jerusalem”, when it asks:
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green”?
Frankly, they did not-but they did touch base in Egypt.
I wish to speak to three common mistakes when looking at the region, and three risks facing Egypt in particular, namely religious cleansing, the constitution and emigration. As outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, the first common mistake is to attempt to treat this region as one block when all countries differ economically, politically and socially. The problems can be very different. As Canon White has said, what is going on in Israel has nothing to do with Iraq.
Another common mistake is to look at the region through a lens of only western interests and anxieties-namely trade, investment and security. This led the UK Government among others to become uneasy bedfellows with regimes with worrying track records on human rights and respect for the rule of law. Such mistakes may be coming home to roost as police are currently poring over the documents about the alleged M16 involvement with the Gaddafi regime. In light of past experience, I wonder what Her Majesty’s Government’s baseline is for involvement with still potentially dubious but now democratic regimes. It is easy to remove rulers, but not so easy to remove the corrupt system behind them, and elections may not yet serve to be a thorough cleanser.
The third common mistake is to fail to see a vital part of DNA of the region-religion. This is a different and perhaps difficult perspective for western Europeans to fully understand, as over recent decades we have seen the trend of secularism while the rest of the globe has got seriously more religious. China is now the second largest producer of Bibles in the world and Brazil is now second only to America for the number of Christian missionaries that it exports. Some 96 per cent of Egyptians say that religion is an important part of their lives; not to understand that is like trying to understand America without knowing about the free-market economics. I dare say that our recent news stories on militant secularism-and whether my freedom to stand in this Chamber wearing a cross around my neck should also be enjoyed by employees of our national airline-must seem like an anathema to many in the Middle East. On a serious note, if any of the worrying scenarios that I go on to outline materialise for minority religious communities, will not UK diplomats and politicians be weakened if cheap retorts can be given by foreign politicians to get our own house in order first?
The establishment of the FCO’s religious freedom panel is a most encouraging step by the Government, but still too often when religion is talked of in regard to the region it is with only partial understanding. One such example arose just before the Deputy Prime Minister’s trip to Egypt last year, when he wrote an article in the Independent about the rise of “sectarian violence” in Egypt. Really, Deputy Prime Minister, was it sectarian violence, in which religious communities attack each other? Have the minority Baha’i, Sufi Muslim and Coptic communities really taken leave of their senses and decided to start launching attacks on the majority Sunni population in Egypt? There is, I believe, a need to show British Copts and Baha’is a more sophisticated understanding of the situation than this.
The suffering communities in the region-whether the minority Baha’i in Iran, the majority Shia in Bahrain, the Christians in Egypt or the Jews in the region as a whole-predominantly identify as religious communities. A great fear in parts of the region is religious cleansing, which is what lies behind the most depressing reports on the BBC this week-that the minority Christian community in Syria is supporting the Assad regime, as it fears this religious cleansing over the plight of their fellow Syrians. Worryingly, there are reports that religious cleansing is beginning to happen in Alexandria to the Copts. Walking the streets there last year as a woman without a covered head, one could have cut the tension in that city with a knife.
Will my noble friend please outline how Her Majesty’s Government are making it clear that not only will religious cleansing not be tolerated but that international justice will apply to the perpetrators? Moreover, what is the Government’s view on whether UK taxpayers’ money through IMF loans, EU funding and UK aid will continue if the soon-to-be-written Egyptian constitution fails to protect minority and women’s rights and breaches Article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights? This article, which is often not given its correct status as a fundamental human right, states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change”, your “religion or belief”.
However, if the constitution of Egypt does not also promote equal participation in every level of Egyptian society, there could be another damaging consequence for Egypt. I asked a young Copt who gave me a lift what his ambition in life was. He said that it was, “to leave. There is no future for me here, I am a Copt”. Egypt could lose much of its human capital and needs to retain its educated young people, particularly the 1 million to 2 million Copts who under the Mubarak regime could find no place in government, civil service or the military, and so thrived as entrepreneurs and doctors. A huge proportion of Egypt’s wealth is held by the Coptic community.
Too many lives have been lost to gain the freedoms that we take for granted, but when a country is not politically stable, as in Iraq and Egypt, religion can be used as a justification to remove the other, whether by creating the conditions for mass emigration or worse. Western European Governments need to understand thoroughly the religious as well as the economic and political dynamic of the region, and to learn the truth of the words of Archbishop William Temple, I think, who said:
“When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong”.
My Lords, noble Lords have referred to a number of factors that could be argued to have defined the Arab spring, which started in Tunisia and spread into Egypt and Libya-and now of course Syria-in a very complex and diverse manner. As with similar movements developing across the region, they involve and engage a large range of issues. By the time we have got to this stage of the debate, of course, many of those have already been referred to, so I will try to keep my points succinct.
Perhaps I could comment on the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, because I, too, see the very severe challenges between the different faiths and sects-between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or Coptic Christian-and between different forms of government, be they through sheiks or sovereign rule, or hereditary dictatorship and quasi-Parliaments. All those are part of the equation, but the fundamental issue that, to me, remains almost unchallenged is the denial of human rights, particularly for women, right across the region and, in many cases, a huge democratic deficit.
I will restrict my contribution to this debate to just three countries by way of example: Egypt, Libya and Syria. In the case of Egypt, a key factor is that the revolution was led by the people. It was neither spontaneous nor leaderless. It was a culmination of a series of waves of protests that began at the start of this century, each focused on a different issue and mainly ongoing. Some protests focus on a regional event, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some protests focus on the Iraq war; others focus on democratic reforms and human rights abuses; and still others are concerned with labour conditions and economic hardship.
The failings of the Egyptian state and society, and the brutality of the police and the military towards the people, played a major part in fuelling unrest and provoking protest. The rise in support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the country and its growing strength in the Egyptian Parliament is one of the outcomes of the revolutionary cycle of protests over the past decade. As the Mubarak regime’s legitimacy began to erode, so protests gathered pace and the police became more indiscriminate. There is a long history of police violence in Egypt. As protests and strikes were illegal, so police brutality, in reaction, spread. Rather than being seen as the provider of security for the people, the police became the regime’s principal enforcer against the people.
The situation in Egypt is still far from stable. The economic position, as referred to by my noble friend the Minister, is still desperately deteriorating. The economy needs to grow at a rate of 7 per cent per annum to provide employment for the 700,000 young people entering employment each year, or trying to. Currently, the economic growth rate is just 5.1 per cent. The IMF offer of $3 billion in support to Egypt has so far been left on the table, presumably because of concerns over conditionality. Egypt does not want aid and has made its preference known for support from the Gulf states. But the sums needed are eye-watering, running at more than four times the IMF offer, at $13 billion. Looking at the daunting challenge facing Egypt, it might appear that toppling Mubarak was the easy part.
In Libya, the major challenge was and remains security. Security on the street remains in the hands of a variety of armed factions, operating with various degrees of loyalty to their region or their tribe, or the type of Islamism or religion that they follow or profess, rather than to a national structure. One in six of the population are apparently ready to resort to violence for political ends against a background of rising crime. There is an overall lack of capacity and political will to act, which drags the economy down, impeding development of and improvement in public services, particularly healthcare and education.
There is a strong reluctance to commit funding to capital projects, partly out of concern for a lack of political legitimacy, partly out of fear of accusations of corruption and partly because sifting through the backlog of 13,000 suspended contracts is frankly overloading the system. Nearly 100 embryonic political parties have been created. Election laws have been passed and an election commission appointed, but the timetable to the anticipated election date in late June is tight. A further complication is that, for several months, a federalist agenda has been promoted in the east of the country. After over 40 years of being ignored by Gaddafi’s regime, citizens in the east are unsurprisingly pressing for their concerns to be addressed, for the oil wealth to be distributed and for the governance of the country to be devolved in part to Benghazi and the regions. I would be grateful if the Minister in his reply could expand on what we are going to do to help to build civil society in Libya. What is our engagement with federalism as opposed to separatism in Libya and, in this context, what assistance are we planning to provide for the Libyan security sector urgently, in advance of elections, as opposed to just advice?
Finally, in Syria, President Assad’s regime’s record of brutality towards his citizens is without parallel. For over a year now, he has used the destructive power of his modern forces and weapons mercilessly against his own civilian population, including women and children, and not for the first time. Now the international community must make sure that it is the last time. This week, Human Rights Watch confirmed that Syrian armed forces had sown landmines along the border in the path of fleeing civilian refugees. The Turkish authorities have confirmed that on Wednesday more than 1,000 refugees made the perilous crossing into Turkey, bringing the total of refugees who have flowed there to around 15,000. As the Minister pointed out, the importance of Turkey should not be overlooked. I hope to visit Ankara and the refugee camps near the Turkish border during the Easter Recess.
A coalition of some 200 aid and human rights organisations has called on Russia and China to support the UN’s attempts to bring an end to the violence, which has cost more than 8,000 lives over the past year. I understand that Kofi Annan delivered a proposed peace plan to Mr Assad last week and will brief the UN Security Council today. Assad now faces rare criticism from Russia. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, told the Duma this week that Syria has failed to take Russia’s advice and failed to reform with sufficient speed. As a matter of utmost priority, will our Government use every means as part of the UN peace proposals to gain access for international observers to monitor and report any use of violence, torture and arbitrary detention against civilians?
Lord Hannay of Chiswick
My Lords, anyone who believed that the events of the Arab spring, which I would rather see described as the Arab awakening, would lead to a quick, uncomplicated and largely peaceful transformation of the Middle East, resulting in the emergence of functioning democracies and greater prosperity for the burgeoning populations, can surely not believe that now. What faces us is a period of considerable turmoil that could well last for decades, not just years, in a region that is on Europe’s doorstep and can fundamentally influence our own security and prosperity. Should we be surprised or repelled by that? Neither, I would suggest. Revolutions are always messy and, like earthquakes, are invariably followed by aftershocks. If we were unwise enough to try to distance ourselves from these developments, we would surely surrender all influence and would soon find ourselves being painfully bitten on the ankle.
I believe that we were right to intervene militarily, as we did in Libya, with a UN mandate, which I do not believe we exceeded. The responsibility to protect, to which every member of the UN signed up in 2005, was clearly engaged and the action taken conformed to just-war principles. Now that the people of Libya have been liberated, we should do everything in our power to help them to establish a working democracy, while trying not to be too prescriptive and recognising that the journey on which they have embarked is necessarily a long and difficult one, starting as they did from zero.
Should we follow the same course in Syria, even if a Security Council mandate was not being blocked by the callous and opportunistic policies of Russia and China? I rather doubt it. The situation there is much more complex and less clear-cut. Those who are rebelling against the Assad regime are divided. It is possible that external military intervention there would make things worse, not better, leading to even more carnage than we have already seen. However, we should sharply step up our humanitarian support for those who are suffering and remove the regime’s impunity for the crimes that it is evidently committing by pressing for the extension of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to Syria. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on those two points. Nor do I think that we should necessarily rule out supporting external military intervention in all circumstances, particularly if the Arab League were to give a clear lead.
Elsewhere in the Middle East-in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, where regime change has come about, as it should, though the actions of their own people-we need to focus firmly on building up their economies and encouraging trade and investment. If ever there was a case for applying the new emphasis in DfID’s mandate on helping fragile states, it is here before our eyes. I hope that we can hear a little more about what we are doing from the Minister. I suggest that what is needed, above all, is a well co-ordinated European Union effort, not just a solo British one. It would be good to hear what is being done in that respect.
It sometimes seems that the orphan child in all this upheaval is Palestine. Israel is in a state of denial over the need for a negotiated two-state solution, hoping that the problem will somehow go away, which it will not. The US Administration are in balk during the election campaign. If this stagnation is maintained beyond the end of this year, we should have no illusions. There will be more violence in a region where the new democratic states will be subject to the promptings of popular opinion much more than in the past. Meanwhile, I hope that the Minister can confirm that if the Palestinians pursue their quest at the UN for an enhanced status, albeit one that is short of full UN membership, Britain will support that, and that if Fatah and Hamas establish a Government of technocrats, we will give that Government our full support and co-operation.
At this moment, no debate on the Middle East can afford to ignore the tensions arising as a result of Iran’s nuclear programme. The Iranians have no one to blame but themselves for the fact that the temperature is rising so sharply. Indeed, at times, they seem to be seeking to provoke such a rise. However, everyone will be the loser if a diplomatic negotiated solution cannot be found. It is surely deeply worrying that we appear to be in one of those situations where one mis-step or misjudgment could tip the balance decisively away from such a peaceful outcome.
Much will therefore be riding on the next round of negotiations between Iran and the five plus one. What are needed are both some short-term confidence-building measures and a clear route towards a long-term solution, in full conformity with Iran’s obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and its membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Many ideas have been canvassed for ensuring that Iran can develop as much civil nuclear energy as it wishes, while removing any conceivable threat of a weapons programme. It is time that a little more imagination and flexibility were demonstrated on all sides in discussing such possibilities. At the same time as addressing these urgent nuclear issues, it is surely vital also to address Iran’s general security concerns and to demonstrate in practical terms that we recognise the need for Iran to be an important regional player, preferably as part of some grouping of states in the Gulf region.
Finally, later this year there is to be a first-ever international conference on the creation of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. That may sound a trifle optimistic-indeed aspirational- but establishing the beginnings of a continuous dialogue on that issue could mark the difference between a region moving, however slowly, in the right direction and one sliding back towards conflict. I should be most grateful if the Minister could say a few words in his summing up about the attitude that we are taking to the organisation of that conference.
Lord Palmer of Childs Hill
My Lords, Iran threatens world stability and the very existence of Israel. My noble friend Lady Falkner has given a very professional and detailed analysis of the situation. However, if one can believe Iran’s rhetoric, Israel should be destroyed. However, a large part of the political world appears to say, “Don’t worry, it’s only words”, and the fact that Iran has, or almost has, a nuclear bomb capability is acceptable, and the fact that it is burying its nuclear attack capability underneath an impregnable mountain is purely an innocent desire not to blot the landscape with launching pads-rather like a proliferation of wind-power farms. That is not the case.
Nuclear weapons and the means to deliver a bomb are increasingly spreading around the world. However, the bomb is nowadays seen as a deterrent-again, as my noble friend Lady Falkner said. Only Iran says very clearly that it will destroy the Zionist entity of Israel. So when, in these conditions, Israel, whose very existence is threatened, considers a preventive strike, the world loses its memory of the bad guy being Iran, not Israel. Please do not take this as an argument for bombing Iran, which could have disastrous consequences.
We have spoken about deterrence. We have so far seen many countries acquire nuclear weapons, and there is a “my bomb is bigger than your bomb” attitude. Does Iran have that same attitude? That is the problem. The world needs to be aware of the nature of those who rule Iran. This week, 22 people were arrested in Azerbaijan who were working with Iran to bomb American and Israeli targets there. That follows the Iranian terrorist plots in India, Georgia, Thailand and Singapore.
Returning to Israel and the Palestinians, there are problems nearer to their home. Speaking as someone who wants a secure Palestinian state living alongside a secure state of Israel, I plead with other noble Lords to do everything in their power to further the peace process. The Israelis tell me, despite what some other noble Lords have said, that they say yes to the quartet’s suggestions and are willing and ready to engage with the Palestinians in negotiations without preconditions, but the Palestinians will apparently not go that far. Of course, there are so many obstacles on both sides, two of which are the Palestinian objections to settlement expansion and the Israelis refusing to sit with Hamas because of its belligerent policies.
Despite all that, the solution must be that, prior to formal negotiations, the Israelis say that when they sit down they will announce as a first step the freezing of settlement expansion including, albeit reluctantly, in east Jerusalem. I say that although there was no precondition in the past for there to be no settlements. The Palestinians will, prior to formal negotiations, need to confirm that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will, when they sit down, accept, albeit reluctantly, the state of Israel and cease rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Both sides must get to the table knowing that those will be the opening announcements. Then peace negotiations will concentrate on fixing the borders between Israel and the new Palestinian state. That will need to involve acceptance of the three large Israeli settlements just on the West Bank side of the 1967 line, with the Palestinian state receiving other Israeli land of equal size to compensate.
All that has been on the table for a long time. At a stroke, the settlements that other noble Lords have deplored, spread throughout the West Bank with connecting roads, will disappear. They will be taken over by the Palestinian state. If we get to that stage, we can forget about history, because it is about the future of a Palestinian state without that spread of settlements, just as Israel moved all its settlers out of Gaza-to get what? More rockets raining on it. Towns such as Sderot and Ashkelon in southern Israel will stop having rockets raining down upon them. The residents of southern Israel can cease to worry about how near the nearest air raid shelter is. In Sderot, every bus stop is an air raid shelter. That is how they and their children live.
I started my contribution to the debate by talking about the threat from Iran. This very week has seen rockets from Gaza into Israel. Many of those rockets originated in Iran. Forget how it all started and why that has happened; rockets have been raining down on those southern Israeli towns for a long time.
My noble friend Lord Eccles, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, talked about water resources. Water is such an important resource in the Middle East. He should read in Hansard the wonderful debate on water that we had in this Chamber, when I and other noble Lords spoke about the progress that has been made in the region. Within two years, Israel will get virtually all its drinking water from desalination plants; and Gaza, with access to the sea, could have exactly that if peace can rein.
For progress to be achieved on all sides, we must answer the question: do we want our people to live under continual threat or are we prepared to compromise for peace? When my noble friend replies, I hope that he will be able to assure us what Her Majesty’s Government will do to influence Iran’s intentions and that, even if it looks a bleak prospect, the future for the Palestinian-Israel dispute is for both sides to sit down at the negotiating table.
Lord Hughes of Woodside
My Lords, anyone who has seen the reports on television and elsewhere about Syria must be appalled at the carnage that has been shown and must feel anguish, concern and great anger towards the Assad regime. There is no doubt that we all want to see a peaceful end to that process, and we want to see it quickly. None of us has a silver bullet that is going to bring it about overnight, and we are therefore perhaps left in the position of seemingly imploring the world to act to stop the carnage.
I was brought up during the Second World War and I remember the saying, “Careless talk costs lives”. There are those who are now advocating that the opposition-now called “rebels”-be armed, and there is the beguiling prospect of giving those who are defenceless the possibility of defending themselves. However, as noble Lords must be aware, this policy would make matters worse. This really is careless talk that would cost lives. Those who advocate it are seized of the inevitability of a full-scale civil war or indeed believe that such a civil war would be desirable. I am deeply disappointed that at one stage the Foreign Secretary, Mr Hague, appeared to give some sort of support to the idea of arming the rebels. I hope that he has changed his mind or that the reports have not been entirely accurate. Also, talk of arming the rebels seems to give some credence to Assad’s claim that it is an outside-fomented revolution, and it will do nothing whatever to encourage the Chinese and the Russians to come on board with the Security Council.
Lord Hannay received a written answer to his question from Lord Howell. Read the answer here.