There have been 20 exchanges involving Lord Polak and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
|Mon 22nd February 2021||Covid-19: Surplus Vaccine Doses (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (104 words)|
|Thu 21st January 2021||Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (88 words)|
|Wed 4th November 2020||Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (161 words)|
|Thu 22nd October 2020||Guantanamo Bay Detainees (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (129 words)|
|Thu 8th October 2020||Iran: UN Arms Embargo (Lords Chamber)||5 interactions (171 words)|
|Wed 23rd September 2020||China: Uighur Internment Camps (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (95 words)|
|Mon 21st September 2020||Nigeria: Religious Violence (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (110 words)|
|Thu 3rd September 2020||Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (146 words)|
|Wed 10th June 2020||Sub-Saharan Africa: Water and Sanitation (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (133 words)|
|Thu 30th January 2020||Middle East Peace Plan (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (104 words)|
|Thu 30th January 2020||Iran: Stability in the Middle East (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (397 words)|
|Tue 14th January 2020||Iran: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (88 words)|
|Thu 20th June 2019||Anti-Semitism (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (650 words)|
|Thu 7th June 2018||Palestinian Territories (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (654 words)|
|Tue 15th May 2018||Gaza (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (133 words)|
|Thu 18th January 2018||Freedom of Religion and Belief (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (87 words)|
|Tue 4th July 2017||Middle East (IRC Report) (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (1,226 words)|
|Thu 22nd June 2017||Queen’s Speech (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (1,032 words)|
|Wed 23rd March 2016||Palestinian Authority Television (Lords Chamber)||5 interactions (185 words)|
|Mon 1st February 2016||Palestine (Lords Chamber)||3 interactions (87 words)|
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, Oxford and AstraZeneca have worked very closely on intellectual property. Indeed, close collaboration with the Serum Institute of India has allowed it to produce exactly the same vaccine in India. On his earlier point about COVAX and other countries, he will have noted that UK leadership—we used the first G7 summit led by the Prime Minister—resulted in major contributions to COVAX, not least $4 billion from the United States as well as from the European Commission and Germany.
My Lords, I am all too aware of the strong sentiments about the Government’s announcement on ODA spending. Of course, the Government are working through, and we have previously said we will come back to your Lordships’ House on the provisions we need to make in legislation. On my noble friend’s earlier point, I totally agree with him, but I assure him that it is not just our funding of COVAX and the AMC facility. My noble friend will also be aware of the commitment we have given to Gavi, CEPI and the World Health Organization to ensure equitable access not just in our fight against Covid-19 but in other pandemics as well.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord in recognising that the UK has a long-standing opposition to the death penalty, whatever the reason and in whichever country. We continue to make that case to Iran and other nations. Iran’s criminalisation of co-operation with the British Council and the attacks against BBC Persian employees are also deeply concerning. The Government continue to provide support to defend them repeatedly at the highest levels in Iran.
My Lord, on my noble friend’s second point, we are acting in conjunction with our E3 allies to ensure that the JCPOA remains alive and on the table. It prevents Iran becoming a nuclear state, which must be a priority.
My noble friend raises concerns about the IRGC. We share them, particularly regarding Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and the challenge that she has been presented with the IRGC. On the efforts that we are making, we continue to work with our US allies and E3 partners to ensure that the current ban that was lifted on arm sales to Iran can also reach a conclusion that satisfies our allies across Europe and in the US.
My Lords, as I said, the case is ultimately one for the parties involved: the UAE, Yemen and the United States. We will continue to engage with the UAE. We will raise concerns, as we do, at senior level, and we will continue to encourage the UAE to uphold its obligations and promote regional stability.
My Lords, the UN arms embargo on Iran is due to expire on 18 October. We remain committed to countering Iranian proliferation to non-state actors. The EU’s arms embargo and the UN ballistic missile restrictions will remain in place, as will other prohibitions on the proliferation of weapons to Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
My Lords, I share with my noble friend the intention to stop the destabilising influence of Iran. The United Kingdom abstained because the resolution could not attract the support of the council, and therefore did not represent a basis for achieving consensus. He asked about the way forward. We are addressing systematic Iranian non-compliance. Iran must engage seriously with our concerns, and I know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has asked the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, to convene a ministerial joint commission as soon as possible. On what else the UK is doing, we sought to facilitate dialogue between the two positions to achieve a desired outcome. However, as I said earlier, sanctions remain, both from the EU and through the UN ballistic restrictions on Iran.
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, I cannot speculate on designations. On the organ harvesting report, I have, as she knows, met with Sir Geoffrey Nice. We have also carefully considered the group’s report of 1 March. That report contains numerous disturbing allegations of serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence, torture, and forced DNA testing. After reviewing the situation this morning, I have again written formally to the World Health Organization
My Lords, on the issue of election to the Human Rights Council, I assure my noble friend we consider carefully all countries’ policies on standing up for human rights both internationally and domestically. On his earlier point, I spoke with High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet last week, and we have made the point directly to her that we continue to lobby for her unfettered access in Xinjiang.
In terms of the UN machinery generally, the United Kingdom has led on two statements—the only joint statements at the UN on Xinjiang—once last year and once this year in June at the Human Rights Council. I am intending to raise the issue in the UK’s national statement at the 45th session of the UNHRC, which is scheduled shortly.
My Lords, let me assure the noble Baroness that I would be happy to meet with her and the team. Let me add to this the reassurance that during the current pandemic, as the Minister responsible for south Asia, I have been working very proactively with both the Government of Bangladesh, as well as other Governments across south Asia—as my colleagues have in other parts of the world—to ensure that our response to the Covid pandemic does reflect the needs the most vulnerable around the world. I look forward to meeting with the noble Baroness in due course, and I have received her correspondence in this respect.
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, that it is important that we talk about our role as a force for good. As Minister for Human Rights, I believe that the merger of the Foreign Commonwealth Office with the Department of International Development allows us to directly align our values agenda with the important support we give to the most vulnerable communities around the world. The noble Lord mentioned, in particular, the recent agreement reached between the UAE and Israel. He knows that I welcome that, and I know the UK Government have welcomed that, as forward progress in reaching out and ensuring that we see lasting peace in the Middle East. It is an important step forward. On the issue of the UN and the United Kingdom’s consistency of statements, as he will be aware, we have, for example, strengthened our position on the Human Rights Council. I agree with my noble friend: not only the Palestinian people but any recipient of aid, anywhere in the world, must be the direct beneficiary. Where there are shortcomings, and things need to improve, we will do just that.
I thank the noble Viscount for that question. While examples of donating water supply or treatment equipment have been successful in some cases, our programmes overall focus increasingly on more systems-strengthening and climate resilience, as they are part of our work on ending preventable deaths. I recognise that both “Africa” and “sub-Saharan Africa” are used as shorthand for a continent that is incredibly diverse in people, cultures and contexts, and our work is designed in collaboration with countries and partners to respond to that diversity.
My noble friend highlights one of the ways in which we are helping people in rural villages, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, asked about earlier. I understand that Innovation: Africa works closely with UNICEF, one of our key partners in WASH. Its use of innovative technology is particularly encouraging, especially as it uses green energy to power it. To achieve our ambitious SDG 6 WASH targets will require a major increase of resources and capacity. To use those effectively we must make the most of domestic funding, contributions from households and attract new finance. The WASH team at DfID will be happy to meet with Innovation: Africa, and I will follow that up with my noble friend.
My Lords, on the point about annexation, the noble Lord mentioned the Golan Heights. When the United States made that statement in support of Israel, we made our position clear: we are against annexation, which is against international law. I reiterate that annexation of any territory unilaterally is against international law.
My Lords, my noble friend is right that certain parts of the Arab world share the objective of the plan’s being a first step. Countries have made statements according to how they view it. On the issue of engagement with the Palestinians, and I have said, we hope that the Palestinians engage on the first step of the proposals. We are making efforts. As I said earlier, my right honourable friend has spoken to President Abbas, and we will meet the Palestinian representative to London later today.
My Lords, it is possible that the shocking and tragic downing of Ukrainian passenger jet PS752, with the loss of 176 lives, followed by a farrago of lies, denials and distortions will be Iran’s Chernobyl moment—a moment when another fundamentally flawed regime is exposed for what it is. The conflation of lies, denials and distortions, accompanied by bulldozers trying to plough up the evidence, was a vivid demonstration of the nature of a cruel and barbaric regime, unworthy of a great people and a great country. As widespread demonstrations have shown, this is Iran’s greatest existential crisis since 1979; it is a regime forced to kill hundreds of protestors and to terrorise thousands of others who show its true face. Khamenei and Soleimani are two sides of the same coin.
However, there are harbingers of change. Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medallist, has defected, while the country’s most popular actress told her 6 million followers on Instagram: “We are not citizens … We are hostages”. The sooner that the hostages —the people of Iran—are all freed, the better it will be for Iran and the rest of the world.
Last month I was in northern Iraq and Kurdistan, where I saw the Kurdish Regional Government attempting to build a pluralist and democratic society. That is endangered by a pincer movement of rekindled sleeping ISIS cells and by proxy Shabak militias funded by Iran. All over the region, Iran has destabilised countries, peddling a violent hateful ideology. Think of the consequences in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Since its foundation in 1979 the Iranian regime has been based on two pillars: domestic oppression and the export of terrorism and chaos abroad. Since 2018, Iranian-backed groups of militants have fired over 30 rockets at US facilities in Iraq, including the US embassy in Baghdad, the consulate in Basra and military training facilities in Taji, Mosul, and Nineveh. Congress and the White House have repeatedly warned that this will not be tolerated for ever.
According to the Times, Iran attempted to build, or has built, a dozen underground missile silos in Syria and was doing the same in Iraq. In Lebanon it has over 100,000 missiles. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, warned us in his excellent opening remarks, this remains Israel’s greatest threat. For 40 years Iran has supported acts of terror and been responsible for egregious violations of human rights, and we can be certain that it will not balk at carrying out more.
I have two questions for the Minister. A report in the Daily Telegraph revealed that Soleimani’s Quds force and Afghan mercenaries are secretly directing military operations in the north-west city of Idlib in Syria, despite a promise during peace talks not to attack that city. Could he give us his response to that, and to calls to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps?
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Turnberg for securing this debate. It is a very long time since I spoke in your Lordships’ House. Indeed, I was sitting where the Minister is, before I was whisked across the Channel into some kind of glorious exile. As noble Lords will know, during my time away, I led and chaired the negotiations with Iran for over four and a half years. In that context, I want to make just three brief points in the time I have.
First, one of the criticisms about the Iranian nuclear agreement—the JCPOA—is that it deals only with the nuclear weapons issue. If noble Lords reflect back to 2009, 2010 and the years that followed, the most pressing issue that we faced as a continent, and certainly in the region, was to ensure that Iran did not get a nuclear weapon. We had reason to believe it was months away from achieving that. This was, as I described it then, the boulder in the doorway that prevented us doing anything else about what Iran was doing in the region because we had to stop the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. When we negotiated that agreement —other criticisms have already been raised that I could address, but I do not have time—we did so believing that it was not the last agreement but the first. It was meant to take away the boulder to enable us to tackle issues, including ballistic missiles, but especially what was happening in the region.
That brings me to my second point. In my many discussions with leaders in the region, particularly the Prime Minister of Israel but many other leaders too—I pay tribute to the Sultan of Oman, who recently passed away—they were very clear that the region itself wanted to be in control of what happened, how negotiations might take place and what type of decision-making there might be. In my view, it is important that we recognise that we must allow the region to determine how best it wishes to move forward. That is especially true when you think about the chaos of Syria and Yemen, and of what is happening in Lebanon and Iraq right now.
My final point is about this country. This country has a long and proud tradition of diplomacy. I witnessed it at first hand many times when I was working in the European Union. I pay tribute to the team of diplomats and technical experts who worked on the Iranian nuclear deal. Sometimes, in this House and the other place, one might think that it was a bilateral agreement. But there were brilliant British people and others working throughout to get the agreement to the place that we did. I single out Sir Simon Gass, who is now chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, for the work he did. Because we have that long tradition, I hope that as we look at where Britain should be in the future, we determine to try to use our diplomacy to work effectively in this region.
My Lords, what I can say in response to the noble Lord is that we consistently make the point to the United States, in all our exchanges, about the importance of retention. We have a different view on the JCPOA. Obviously, the United States left the JCPOA, and that was very much its unilateral decision. We do not agree with that. We still believe that there is a role for the JCPOA. It has been shown to work. The triggering of the mechanism will, we hope, also allow a continued commitment to the JCPOA.
The important issue in all this is that we need to see a decrease in tensions. The noble Lord talked of Qasem Soleimani; we debated that in your Lordships’ House. I speak for Her Majesty’s Government, and at all times the role we have sought to play in the first instance is one of de-escalation and in the second of ensuring that we keep all diplomatic channels fully open, whether we are talking about the current tensions or the situation around the JCPOA.
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that we have triggered this particular mechanism for the reason I reiterated. I do not think that the Statement I repeated from my right honourable friend could be any clearer; it was very clear in the detail. I state again that this was not a UK decision but one that we took in absolute lockstep with our European partners: namely, Germany and France.
We have been deeply concerned by Iran’s continuing destabilising influence in the wider region as well and continue to make that point. My noble friend talked about limitations in the original deal. I have already said during this discussion that there were limitations to that deal. It did not cover certain elements, including ballistic missiles. I have also alluded to the fact—my right honourable friend the Prime Minister also made this point in September—that the JCPOA is the deal that we currently have. There may well be a time in the future when we look at a more all-encompassing deal that ensures that the United States can return to the table as well as Iran. It is the United Kingdom’s view that we will continue to ensure that every element of this deal is sustained and that we do not leave out any avenue that can ensure its retention, but at the same time we will work towards diplomatic solutions to what are rising tensions in the region.
The Runnymede report on anti-Semitism had as its title some very telling words of Conor Cruise O’Brien—A Very Light Sleeper. Sadly, since that report was published in 1994, particularly in the past two years, there has been a terrible increase in anti-Semitic incidents and verbal abuse. This has been well set out with facts and figures from other noble Lords and I will not repeat what they have said, except to stress that I find this deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable.
For nine years, I had the privilege of being chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, which continues to do so much good work to combat anti-Semitism and put the State of Israel in proper, true perspective. However, there is no doubt that the historical link of churches in this country with those in the Middle East, and the fact that many Christian aid agencies work there, mean that the State of Israel is, as we know all too well, a source of continuing tension.
My starting point is some words of an American scholar, Paul Van Buren, who surveyed all the Protestant church documents on the subject of Israel since World War II and concluded:
“Because the state of Israel is in part the product of the ancient and living hope of the Jewish people and is of deep concern to almost all Jews, disregard for its safety and welfare is incompatible with concern for the Jewish people”.
That, I stress, is the bare minimum: disregard for the safety and welfare of Israel is incompatible with concern for the Jewish people.
In this connection, I find it very disturbing that the word Zionist has become so tendentious in modern times. The hope of returning to Jerusalem has been part of the soul of Judaism ever since the first century, when the Jews were expelled from their country. It gathered pace in the 19th century with the emergence of what we think of as Zionism, a noble movement expressing the legitimate desire of the Jewish people to return to their historic homeland with the freedom to create a society of their own. The word Zionist should not be used as a term of abuse. When it is, we have to ask why.
The excellent new book by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, is entitled Anti-Semitism: What It Is. What It Isn’t. Why It Matters. She is quite clear that there can be legitimate criticisms of the policy of particular Israeli Governments without these being anti-Semitic. It is always important to note that the fiercest critics of particular Governments come from Israel itself and are often echoed by Jews in this country. There is, however, no doubt in her mind—or the minds of many of us—that legitimate criticism has too often recently morphed into an anti-Zionism tinged with anti-Semitism.
It is clear, as the Government repeatedly state, that the settlements are illegal under international law, but that criticism must not be allowed to detract from the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Whatever criticism there may be of recent legislation on the position of Arab citizens in Israel—and the noble Baroness is very critical—it is not true that Israel is a racist state. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism contains 11 examples. One states:
“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
We are right to hold Israel accountable to the high standards of David Ben-Gurion, who said:
“The State of Israel will prove itself not by material wealth, not by military might or technical achievement, but by its moral character and human values”.
If we judge that particular policies sometimes fail that test, we need to bear in mind that Israel safeguards fundamental human rights not even acknowledged in some of the surrounding countries.
The present increase in anti-Semitic attacks and verbal vitriol, both in the UK and abroad, is deeply worrying, totally unacceptable and must be countered at every opportunity.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for introducing the debate, and in particular for starting off by referring to the Prime Minister of Malaysia. He may be 93 years old, but Mahathir Mohamad has given us a powerful backdrop for the debate. Addressing the Cambridge Union a few days ago, he said:
“I have some Jewish friends, very good friends. They are not like the other Jews, that’s why they are my friends”.
He even said that some of his best friends were Jewish. Well, with friends like him, who needs enemies? Malaysia is 5,000 miles away from the Middle East. It has no Jews and few Christians, yet 72% of its population have strong anti-Semitic views. Come to think of it, its record on gay rights is not that great either.
In 2015, the Anti-Defamation League in the United States updated its periodic analysis of anti-Semitism around the world. While some of the results surprise, others do not. At the top, 71% of Turks hold strong anti-Semitic views, as do 67% of Greeks, while 60% of Iranians have the same. These countries are followed by the usual eastern European countries, all hovering around 30%. As my own family background bears witness, eastern Europe has been a hotbed of anti-Semitism for many centuries, and old habits die hard. That said, Ukraine, which has a high rating of 32%, not only has a Jewish Prime Minister but a Jewish president. As they say in Brooklyn, “Go figure”.
The lowest scores are also predictable, with the Netherlands at 11%, the United States at 10% and Denmark at 8%. Where does our country stand? We are at 12%, which is not great but not too bad either. The ADL and Jewish policy review surveys both report that Jews are well regarded in the UK. However, these sentiments are not reflected or shared in the opinions of British Jews themselves, who feel that anti-Semitism is a major and growing threat. In the UK, attitudes towards Jews have also been analysed by political leaning. Hostility from the far right is centred around ancient anti-Semitism: Jews have too much power, they have different loyalties from the rest of the population and they get rich at the expense of others. From the far left, the vitriol is centred more on Israel. Israel is an apartheid state, it is committing mass murder in Palestine and it has too much control over global affairs. These attitudes are strongly prevalent in the circles that control the Labour Party and it is why I reluctantly resigned three years ago. Here I must pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, for his powerful and emotional speech. I will reflect on what he had to say.
We have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings, an event that marked the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. Over the next 10 months we will commemorate the liberation of Europe as well as its death camps. Noble Lords will probably be aware that there is a well-developed project for a Holocaust remembrance centre to be constructed next to these Houses of Parliament in Victoria Gardens. It has been backed by all five past and present living Prime Ministers. In Berlin, the German Holocaust Memorial is sited opposite the Bundestag. How fitting it would be for our own national memorial to the world’s greatest crime to be built here, alongside the Mother of Parliaments.
My Lords, those in this debate who are friends of Israel, including myself, have no need to fear criticisms of the Israeli government policy on this matter. What an enormous tragedy we face in the Middle East with this problem—an enormous, unconscionable tragedy that has now gone on for 50 years. Saddam Hussein was rightly expelled by the international community after his invasion of Kuwait one year later and everyone supported that, but Israel is still in occupation 50 years later. Many Israeli citizens are now fed up to the back teeth with this policy. The trouble is that the very right-wing newspapers in the British press rarely report anything other than what the Israeli Government say, and indeed what the American Government say. This unspeakable President is the worst in American history; what he has done in Jerusalem is disgraceful. Because of that reporting we get a false picture, but a lot of moderate Israeli people that I know of, along with a lot of the Israeli press and organisations such as Haaretz, B’Tselem and Peace Now, want a change. They want negotiations and they want to see a two-state solution.
Israel is quite rightly the unbeatable military power because when it first began it always needed protection. That having been established beyond all measurements, though—including the illegal holding of nuclear weapons, apparently—Israel is now an established state. It has been so for 70 years, and the celebrations of that were very joyous. Because of that, however, it has the solemn obligation to take the lead in these negotiations. It is not up to Israel to say, “Oh well, there’s no one to negotiate with”. It has to give the lead.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for securing this debate. I agree with everything that he said in his excellent speech; and the noble Marquis, Lord Lothian, and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said very similar things: we are friends of Israel but nevertheless we are asking for proper negotiations. Those can come only by Israel taking the lead. It is no use waiting for the hopeless Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who has lost all authority over the Palestinian citizens in those territories. Hamas has made proposals that have been ignored. The 2002 offer by the Arab League was ignored and dismissed out of hand by the Israeli Government of the time, a disgraceful reaction to such a special offer of instant recognition of Israel by all the Arab League member states. That massive problem has never been repaired, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said.
The other part of the tragedy is that we have the two worst leading politicians in Israeli history dealing with this matter. Netanyahu is a hopeless Prime Minister, despite all the publicity that he gets and the glowing support for him from right-wing extremists in Israel. There is a growing number of the latter at the moment, which is a disturbing factor in an otherwise very tolerant and fair-minded country that I always enjoyed visiting, although I must say I do not like going there very much at the moment. Meanwhile I believe I am right that Mr Lieberman is the only Foreign Minister to live in a foreign country; he actually lives in the Palestine Occupied Territories, occupied illegally because the United States has now imposed 37 vetoes allowing Israel to ignore international law, disagree with the international community and do what it likes.
This cannot go on. It is not right for Israel to think that this is a good policy. Israel will suffer as well as this goes on and gets worse. Arab and other countries in the Middle East have different views about these matters and want some action on Israel so that there are proper negotiations. It can be done.
Where is the de Gaulle in Israel? Where is the Rabin? What a tragedy that he was murdered, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said. Where is the de Klerk or the Nelson Mandela? There is no leadership of that quality yet, but it will come as the Israeli public wake up and improve their electoral system, which is very flawed and seriously adds to the extremism of the present political process in Israel in a very disturbing way. It can be done: the will is there. The United Nations must be allowed to ask the international community to respond properly and faithfully in this case.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Polak. There can be no doubt that the Palestinians deserve better. I feel as deeply as anyone about their parlous position, especially those 2 million citizens who exist in a limbo of deprivation in Gaza. But where I depart from some speakers is in ascribing their terrible situation entirely to Israel’s actions. Of course, Israel’s Government are far from innocent, but the Palestinians, and in particular Hamas, must bear some responsibility.
We should remember that in 1947 the UN partition plan divided Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. The Jews accepted what was an almost indefensible thin sliver of land along the coast, while the Arabs immediately rejected what then was a very much larger state, which included a huge piece of land that later became Jordan. What a huge mistake that was. It would have avoided so much pain, bloodshed and death on both sides, and it is unfortunately the case that the Palestinians have continued to reject the very idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Hamas constantly preaches death and destruction for the Jews, and even the seemingly more moderate Mr Abbas has never accepted the Jewishness of Israel. One only has to glance at the Palestinian Authority school textbooks to see how they are feeding their children a frightening anti-Semitic diet.
It is little wonder that attitudes in Israel have hardened and, unfortunately, turned to the right. It is hardly surprising, too, to find that the two-state solution is in very cold storage, when Palestinian attitudes have stalled and one looks at the threats that Israelis see surrounding them on all sides. While the UK Government’s policy is to support a two-state solution—quite rightly in my opinion, as it is the only show in town—for now it is impossible to imagine that it can be achieved when Iran constantly spouts a virulent anti-Semitic diatribe and a keen desire to see Israel and the Jews completely destroyed. The history of the Jews makes them take it very seriously when someone threatens to kill them off. Iran is creeping ever closer to Israel’s northern border, while its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, is pointing over 100,000 armed and increasingly accurate missiles at Israel, ready to fire when Iran dictates. Of course, there is also Hamas, funded and armed by Iran, posing its own threat to Israel from Gaza, not on the same scale, of course, but bad enough for local Israeli residents rushing to their shelters every day. While Israel builds shelters, Hamas builds tunnels.
So with all that going on around them, Israelis are not going to be too happy to have yet another independent Arab state on its long border with the West Bank without a reliable security arrangement. They see that an independent Palestine would soon be vulnerable to an influx of belligerent extremists, probably allies of Iran, as they seek to take over the whole of the Middle East. While Hamas knows that it cannot throw Israel into the sea, as it threatens, it can provoke the sort of response that brings opprobrium on Israel from the international community that we have heard about today. The more Hamas pushes its citizens into the firing line, the better—and the more they refuse medical aid from Israel, and the more they blow up the Kerem Shalom crossing to prevent aid from Israel arriving, both of which they did recently, the more they gain sympathy for their plight. A year or so ago, Hamas prevented the construction of a desalination plant in Gaza, built by UNESCO, because UNESCO wanted to use Israeli technology.
So where are we with the two-state solution? The details have been on the table for many years, but we seem no nearer. Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to suffer. The only glimmer of hope seems to be the Arab peace initiative, proposed by the Saudis, who may be able to exert some pressure on both sides to reach an agreement. The peace dividend is enormous. I fear that it will be entirely dependent on new and braver leaders on both sides.
That will be a matter for the independent investigation. Of course, the investigation will look at the principles of international humanitarian law and then report back appropriately. That is why we are supportive of this transparent and independent process.
The right reverend Prelate is right to draw attention to the detail. I have written specifically on that point to the APPG. There are assessment criteria that colleagues at DfID apply. Those ensure that freedom of religion and belief, as well as other elements of the wider human rights agenda, as I said, are protected in the support that we provide.
My noble friend is quite right to raise the important issue of anti-Semitism. It is a scourge that we all despise, and it is important that we come together and raise our voices wherever we see religion being used to discriminate, be it anti-Semitism or Islamophobia—or any particular view or belief. On the specific point of Auschwitz, if I may provide a personal anecdote, I remember visiting Auschwitz with schoolchildren just before I took on my ministerial responsibilities at the Department for Communities and Local Government. As anyone who has been there knows, while we have heard about it and may have seen films about it, the first experience you have is chilling, and then you reflect on the importance of what is in front of you. I totally agree with my noble friend: it ensures that your mind becomes focused, that never means never, and that we never allow such a genocide to take place again.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. I know, as the House does, how much he has done in fostering dialogue and co-operation at a local level between Arabs and Israelis and passing on his experience of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Organisations like Forward Thinking can do an enormous amount to help in the dialogue and discussion on how to find peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the longer term. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and all members of the committee who clearly worked extremely hard at this report, which makes us think again—which we need to do in the Middle East—and think afresh. I agree with the broad thrust of the report—there are parts of it with which I do not totally agree—and believe that it is making an important contribution.
As we have all discussed, the Middle East today is going through its own dark ages. We have been through ours in Europe centuries ago. Today, the Middle East is tearing itself apart with Arab versus Persian, Sunni versus Shia and dictators versus citizens. All this is exploited—as it will be, of course, so long as it lasts—by extremists such as Daesh and al-Qaeda. There is a collapse in Arab self-confidence and a deep anger and frustration, particularly among the young. We should all be very grateful for the discussion on young people as they are critical for the future of the Middle East. The shockwaves from extremism and migration are transmitting outwards, affecting us all. They have now become everybody’s problem.
We should pause and reflect for a moment and remind ourselves a little of the history. In the two centuries after the Prophet Mohammed, there emerged a great Arab empire which extended from Baghdad and Asia to north Africa and Andalusia. It was driven forward by innovation, scientific learning, a great diversity of races and culture, even freedom of travel—a contemporary issue—and a great deal of tolerance. This empire brought about advances for humanity through architecture, textiles, commerce, art, astronomy and mathematics. We have only to look at Andalusia today to see that extraordinary historic achievement. That so-called Arab enlightenment of that period all that time ago demonstrated a separation between faith and reason. There were fierce philosophical debates at that time but since then we have seen centuries of crusades, the Ottoman Empire and the colonial empires. This has led to a hardening of views, sometimes of both religions, and certainly to a growth in fundamentalism and a collapse in self-confidence at the end of the day. Today, in the Middle East we see poor standards of governance, lack of confidence, no internal capacity to escape oppression, economic mismanagement and the great frustration of unemployment, particularly for young people. We need to learn some lessons.
I want to reflect for a moment on this history. First, it is in keeping for Islam to have a separation of politics and religion. Conservative theocracy is not a necessity for Islam. Secondly, there is no case for having a clash of civilisations between Islam and the western world: 13 million Muslims live in Europe and 3.5 million live in the United States, many of whom live there happily. Thirdly, against the background of this collapse of Arab self-confidence we must remind ourselves that they should not wait for outsiders to solve their problems—exactly the point that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made. It is for them to solve their own problems. I understand that the Arabic interpretation of the great British saying, “God helps those who help themselves” is, “Trust in God but tether your camel”. They need to tether their camels a bit more.
My fourth reflection is that the West has no interest at all in trying to run the affairs of the Middle East. I have seen it all myself. I am the son of a former governor of Aden and political resident in the Gulf. Those days are over but we have a role in supporting and helping these countries to resolve their conflicts where it helps them and where it responds to their wishes.
On the United Kingdom’s role, I broadly agree with the report. We have to work multilaterally to help those countries find political resolutions to their conflicts. We have to use whatever influence we have, given our present post-colonial resources. We have to work multilaterally—I agree with the report that we should try to work as closely as possible with France, although with a sense of realism about that, trying to avoid the Sykes-Picot rivalry of the past. We should also have a comprehensive approach to the Middle East, not just trade or security but education, healthcare, culture and other areas as well, working in areas that we know something about and others may know less well. We should recognise the emerging powers of the Middle East—Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. We need to work with them and strike our own position with regard to the United States but be consistent in our advice and the views which we express to their Administrations.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that the rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran is absolutely key. It is a tinderbox which could lead to much wider conflict including in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. They are both important regional powers. Saudi Arabia has its 2030 vision of a way forward with which we can work and co-operate. On Iran, we should keep that nuclear agreement which prevents a nuclear weapons capability. What point is there in withdrawing it other than to exacerbate the tension? However, we need to take seriously the proxy wars that are going on, and I like the committee’s recommendation that we should use the same multilateral group for dialogue with Iran on proxy wars and try to help both those powers to move forward. We should certainly work with Iran in developing trade links and easing banking services and regulations. However, at the end of the day, only those two regional powers can find a solution to the regional conflict.
On the Gulf, I first visited that area in 1959, and today it is unrecognisable. With the change in oil prices it will change again, and we will see a different Gulf in 10 years’ time. We have some long-standing friends there, such as Oman and Kuwait—the two rulers of those countries—but we are moving on to a new age. The monarchies have survived although many forecast that they would not, but if they want to be stable, as we want them to be in the future, they have to evolve into their own form of a kind of Arab constitutional monarchy. We have critical links with the Gulf—£30 billion of trade in the last year—and we need to develop that relationship.
As to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this has happened before—it is not the first time, although the situation is tenser this time. I suggest that the new GCC-UK strategic partnership which the Prime Minister formed in Bahrain last December should also provide a framework, not for us to interfere but for us to have a dialogue with the Gulf countries about the definition of the groups and individuals that cause instability in the Middle East and to try to help them reach a common view about that.
Lastly, on the Arab-Israel issue, I would like to see—one day, in 10, 20 or 30 years—that remarkably vibrant nation of Israel have a closer and closer rapport with some of the Arab countries, to the benefit of the Middle East as a whole. I do not want to give up on the idea of a two-state solution and I support the recommendations of the report that we should try to help by recognising the Palestinian state internationally.
It will be a painful and long haul. We cannot yet see the framework for the future post Daesh. I would like to echo to the Government the advice given by that excellent journalist, Jeremy Bowen, in his recent broadcasts: “Don’t make things worse. Try to make things better”. The report certainly helps in that regard.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for introducing this debate, highlighting many issues of profound importance in a violent and fragile region in which countless innocent civilians are suffering.
I wish to focus on Syria. During recent visits, everyone whom we met, including representatives of different faith communities and professions, highlighted four concerns. The first is the UK Government’s commitment to regime change and the removal of President Assad. It is impossible to condone violations of human rights, including the use of torture, by President Assad and other Middle Eastern Governments, but everyone to whom we spoke now sees President Assad as the only effective bulwark against ISIS and its related militias. These include people active in opposition who took part in the demonstrations that erupted into the current war. There is a widespread fear that any regime change and the removal of Assad would lead to a far greater evil—another Libya or Iraq.
In Lattakia, approximately 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes, many having suffered atrocities perpetrated by ISIS and related groups. I met many of them, among them a Muslim woman who had been forced to flee from her home by ISIS. Weeping, she embraced me and told me how her husband and brother and their sons had been beheaded in front of her. She said, “In war, people on both sides are killed by shelling. But on one side, you die from shells; on the other, you die from shells and beheadings, and we don’t want the beheadings. The Government protects us from these”. Another person put the position very vividly, and his feelings were typical of many whom we met. He said, “I never voted for Assad. I always called for reforms and change. But now I would die for him”. Among those most fearful of regime change are religious minorities and women. Even those most critical of President Assad acknowledge his commitment to the protection of religious minorities and to the promotion of women’s rights. These approaches are to be respected.
The second concern is the UK Government’s role in the war. To many, it seems that the UK is now keener to strike at Syrian government forces than to destroy ISIS—which should surely be the priority. Robert Fisk, in the Independent, used virtually identical words regarding US policy. Britain is reportedly supporting and training so-called “moderate rebels”. Many are active members of radical groups, some of whose fighters are among the most ruthless in the Middle East. The UK has also effectively given air support to ISIS by apparently striking pro-Assad forces on more than one occasion.
I say “apparently” because it is difficult to be certain; the US, the UK and other allied forces operate under the appellation “coalition”. However, in December 2016 the coalition admitted killing 82 Syrian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor, where they were defending that city against ISIS, and the British Government have not denied participating in that appalling action. More attacks were committed recently against forces allied to the Syrian Army in the Tanaf area on the Syrian/Iraqi border, allegedly to protect British and other forces working with anti-Assad militants—a mission for which British forces had absolutely no mandate from Parliament or the UN. Many civilians were killed in these attacks.
I ask the Minister for his response to deep and widespread concerns that the UK has no legal grounds whatever to intervene militarily in Syria. There is no UN mandate to do so, there has been no request from the legitimate Government of Syria to intervene, and the UK has not been attacked by Syria. In addition, I will ask two related questions: what has UK taxpayers’ money done for peace for Syria, and will the Government provide public accountability for the use of taxpayers’ money in supporting rebel groups in Syria?
The third concern is the US/UK response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad in April. To recapitulate, on 4 April a severe aerial attack occurred in Idlib, the stronghold of al-Qaeda in Syria. Reports emerged of the possible use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces. Within two days, without proper investigation, the Americans retaliated with 59 Tomahawk missiles, hitting an airbase used in the fight against ISIS near the government-controlled city of Homs. The UK Government praised President Trump’s response, despite the fact that questions remain about the details of the initial attack.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons produced a report concluding that sarin was used but that no conclusions could be reached concerning the dispersal mechanism—in other words, whether it was delivered by a bomb. The OPCW report itself has many flaws. The team of inspectors were unable to visit the site, as it is controlled by jihadists. The team took at face value evidence provided to it by people and organisations linked to the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra. The report also pays scant attention to disconfirming evidence, such as the fact that video evidence shows responders exposing themselves to materials which, if they had traces of sarin, would have killed them.
Moreover, a team from Médecins Sans Frontières, treating victims from Khan Sheikhoun at a clinic 60 miles to the north, reported that,
“eight patients showed symptoms … consistent with exposure to a neurotoxic agent such as sarin gas or similar compounds”.
MSF also visited other hospitals that had received victims and found that patients there,
“smelled of bleach, suggesting that they had been exposed to chlorine”.
In other words, the evidence suggested that more than one chemical was responsible for the symptoms observed, which would not have been the case had the Syrian air force dropped a sarin bomb, which has no percussive or ignition power to trigger secondary explosions. The range of symptoms is consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and organic phosphates, used in many fertilisers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.
Yet, despite the lack of firm evidence, the President of the United States has warned the Syrian Government against a repeat of the April incident, threatening a devastating strike. Our Defence Secretary applauded President Trump’s threat and our Foreign Secretary continues the allegations that Assad bombed using sarin. These threats and allegations by the United Kingdom are deeply disturbing. Surely the priority should be defeating ISIS and related terrorists and protecting civilians rather than striking at those forces which are attacking ISIS and kindred jihadi groups. Moreover, President Trump’s threat is causing widespread, profound terror among civilians throughout Syria and can provide the jihadis with every incentive to stage a fake attack, with civilian victims, in order to precipitate the US strike that President Trump so unwisely promised.
Fourthly, I turn to humanitarian needs and the effect of sanctions, which are crippling the state and preventing it from providing essential supplies to its people. Syria is struggling to get machinery, raw materials, fuel and basic necessities such as flour and medicines. This is causing great suffering to innocent civilians. When we met the Syrian doctors’ society in Aleppo, it emphasised the disastrous effect of sanctions on the procurement of essential medicines and equipment such as prostheses, exacerbating the suffering of innocent civilians.
The effect of sanctions on food supplies is also having a detrimental effect on attempts to encourage people who have been displaced by ISIS to return to their homes once they have been liberated. The effect of food shortages was graphically expressed by a community leader from the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula. This town had been captured by ISIS, which perpetrated atrocities, including martyrdom of Christians who refused to convert to Islam. It was subsequently liberated and he is trying to encourage citizens to return to their homes. This is difficult because of the lack of food. The situation regarding food shortages is exacerbated by the fact that much of the wheat-growing land in Syria is under ISIS control. This community leader told us, “If you don’t die from the bombing and the bullets, you die from the beheadings. If you don’t die from the beheadings, you die from starvation thanks to sanctions”.
Given the continuing suffering of the people of Syria, exacerbated by UK foreign policy, I was encouraged to read the committee’s conclusion:
“British confusion and disarray in Syria is a reflection of the contradictions in international policy on President Bashar al-Assad, which must be rethought. The objective of displacing Assad as a prerequisite of any settlement, with the current means and policy, has proved unachievable. Despite the chemical attack and the recent escalation of military conflict Assad, with Russian support, remains in power … There are no good options available in Syria but the recent chemical attack, the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, with the potential to destabilise the EU and countries of the Middle East with refugees, requires the UK, and international community, to redouble its efforts to achieve a negotiated solution”.
I emphasise the fact that deep concern over the UK’s policy regarding Syria is not new. Before Christmas last year, three former UK ambassadors to Syria signed a letter to the Times in which they expressed their criticism of the UK position regarding regime change. Will the UK Government consider establishing an embassy in Syria? It seems utterly unjustifiable to deny this when the UK has embassies in North Korea, with its deplorable human rights record and current concerns on nuclear weapons, and in Khartoum, despite the fact that the President of Sudan has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and is continuing genocidal policies against his own civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Finally, I and many others were deeply disappointed by the Minister’s response when winding up the debate on the gracious Speech. It was a repetition of the Government’s mantra commitment to regime change and the displacement of President Assad. However, the situation in Syria has changed fundamentally and the committee’s report has recognised these changes, making well-argued recommendations for changes in UK policy. I therefore conclude by urging the Government to respond positively to the well-reasoned and significant recommendations promoted in this important report.
My Lords, I add my own very warm welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, to his new portfolio. I will focus on two countries that I visited recently, Sudan and Syria.
Starting with Sudan, I shall highlight four key issues, beginning with the continuing violence perpetrated by the Government of Sudan in Darfur, the Nuba mountains in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, that was so well described by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. In Darfur, war has claimed over 300,000 lives and displaced over 2.5 million people. Although violence has erupted again between the Government and rebel groups, the UN Security Council is contemplating severe cuts to the UNAMID budget. This is dangerously inappropriate, and I hope the UK will be pressing for the extension of UNAMID to all areas of Darfur and the investigation of human rights abuses, particularly the allegations of the use of chemical weapons in the Jebel Marra region.
Secondly, there are humanitarian crises in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. I visited the Nuba mountains in January to obtain first-hand evidence of the suffering of the people there. I climbed a steep mountain to visit families forced by the Khartoum Government’s aerial bombardment to flee from their homes and live in horrific snake-infested caves. I sat with a woman dying of malaria in one of those caves, and I met a father whose five children had been burned alive when a shell dropped by a government Antonov ignited the straw around his home. There are no medicines, and every drop of water and all food has to be carried up that steep mountain. There is still no peace deal and no resolution to the aid blockade. Will Her Majesty’s Government pressure the Government of Sudan to reach an agreement with opposition forces to open up humanitarian corridors as a matter of great urgency?
Thirdly, I refer to the UK/Sudan strategic dialogue. Will the Government link any further engagement with Sudan to the issues I have highlighted: humanitarian access to the two areas, the survival of UNAMID and permission for UNAMID to access the Jebel Marra region?
Fourthly, there is the issue of the lifting of sanctions. The US is likely to approve the full lifting of sanctions on 12 July. However, the lifting of those sanctions should be allowed only with clear and measurable progress, including the following requirements: unimpeded humanitarian access to the war-affected areas in Darfur, the Nuba mountains and Blue Nile; the verifiable cessation of hostilities; and serious peace negotiations with the armed movements. Without peace, the lifting of sanctions will enable more resources to be available to the regime to fuel the war. On 26 April, when Brad Brooks-Rubin gave his testimony to the US House sub-committee on Africa, his previous testimony was cited as follows:
“Sudan has used the provisional easing of sanctions put in place in January not to begin the necessary reforms of structural deformities of the country’s economy but instead order fighter jets and battle tanks from its traditional arms suppliers in Russia and China”.
Human rights must be added to the conditions. At a bare minimum, sanctions should not be lifted while human rights defenders Mudawi Ibrahim and Hafiz Idris are detained and mistreated. Targeted sanctions are needed that will impact the regime and those responsible for the continuing conflict and abuse of human rights, such as freezing the assets of those responsible or sectoral sanctions focused on those involved with weapons manufacturing and companies associated with corruption and human rights abuses. Will Her Majesty’s Government maintain close monitoring of the fulfilment of these conditions if sanctions are lifted and intervene appropriately if they are violated?
I turn now to another tragic country: Syria. During our visits, everyone we met, including representatives of different faith communities and professions, such as the doctors’ society in Aleppo, highlighted common concerns. The first is the UK Government’s commitment to enforced regime change and the removal of President Assad. While it is impossible to condone violations of human rights, including the use of torture, by President Assad and other Middle Eastern Governments, everyone to whom we spoke now sees President Assad as the only effective bulwark against ISIS. These include people active in opposition who originally took part in the demonstrations that erupted into the current war. One put the position very vividly—and his feelings were typical of all whom we met. He said, “I never voted for Assad; I always called for reforms and change—but now I would die for him”. There is a widespread fear that any regime change and removal of Assad would lead to a far greater evil—another Libya or Iraq.
The second concern is the UK Government’s role in the war. The UK had no legal grounds to intervene in Syria. It did not act according to the UN charter or the UN Security Council; it was not asked by the legitimate Government of Syria to intervene; and it was not attacked by Syria. But Britain is supporting and training so-called “moderate rebels”, who are actually members of radical groups, many related to ISIS and its related groups. The UK has also given air support to ISIS by striking the Syrian army on many occasions. In December 2016 the UK admitted taking part in the killing of 82 Syrian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor. More crimes were committed recently against Syrian soldiers in the Tanaf area on the Syrian/Iraqi border. Perhaps I may ask the Minister what UK taxpayers’ money has done for peace for Syria, and whether the Government will provide public accountability for the use of taxpayers’ money in supporting rebel groups in Syria.
Thirdly, I turn to the US/UK response to the recent chemical weapon incident. To put this in context, President Assad is recognised internationally by the American and French Presidents and several Governments. The Syrian army is advancing and claiming territories previously lost to terrorists groups. Suddenly an unknown chemical attack occurs in Idlib, the stronghold of al-Qaeda in Syria. Without any investigation, the Americans hit an airbase in Homs that is used in the fight against ISIS. The UK Government praise the hit. There are many questions about the kind of gas used, its availability and by whom it was used. Therefore, the aerial attack was widely seen as intemperate and immensely harmful—and, until today, there have still been no investigations.
Fourthly, I turn to humanitarian needs and the effect of sanctions, which are crippling the state and preventing it providing life for its people. Syria is struggling to get machinery, raw materials, fuel and such basic necessities as flour and medicines. This is causing great suffering to innocent civilians and having a detrimental effect on attempts to encourage people displaced by ISIS to return to their homes once they have been liberated. The effect of food shortages on innocent civilians was graphically expressed by a local person who said, “If you don’t die from the bombing and the bullets, you die from the beheadings. If you don’t die from the beheadings, you die from starvation thanks to sanctions”.
Given the continuing suffering of the people of Syria, exacerbated by UK foreign policy, I was very encouraged to read the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations, published on 2 May, already referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Purvis of Tweed. The report states:
“British confusion and disarray in Syria is a reflection of the contradictions in international policy on President Bashar al-Assad, which must be rethought. The objective of displacing Assad, as a prerequisite of any settlement, with the current means and policy, has proved unachievable. Despite the chemical attack and the recent escalation of military conflict Assad, with Russian support, remains in power ... There are no good options available in Syria but the recent chemical attack, the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, with the potential to destabilise the EU and countries of the Middle East with refugees, requires the UK, and international community, to redouble its efforts to achieve a negotiated solution”.
I conclude by asking whether the Minister will give an assurance that the Government will respond positively to these very important recommendations.
My Lords on my way to the Chamber today, I was congratulated on my new post in the Foreign Office. Let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, on my behalf as well as that of the noble Lord who congratulated me, welcome to your new job.
History is marked by landmarks of time, people and places. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, when a Labour MP and a Conservative Peer worked to pass the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. It was by no means a perfect piece of legislation, but it started the process of bringing life for gay men out of the shadows and into the open.
It is easy against the backdrop of Brexit and the threat of terror attacks to forget to acknowledge and celebrate the progress we have made together as a nation. It is easy to forget how extraordinary this country is and how extraordinary the people of this island are. When our way of life is attacked it is because we have a choice, that we as a people will be free, and that we will recognise, tolerate—and, more than that, celebrate—the diversity of our island. We see this not just in the plight of gay rights but in the progress in the rights of women, in racial equality and in the rights for people with disabilities. There will always be those who seek to create a wedge between communities and countries, or try to pitch one section of society against another or nations against nations.
We should be vigilant in this House against those who try to divide us. My freedom as a gay man or a racial minority is irrevocably linked to the freedoms of every Member of this House and of the nation generally. As we reflect on the Parliament ahead, it is worth remembering that divided people are a weaker people. That is why equality matters not only to the individuals concerned but speaks to the character of our country, in a way that matters to all of us all whether gay or straight, black or white, religious or not.
This Parliament will be dominated by Brexit. It could, if we are not careful, define our foreign policy. I want our foreign policy to be based on values and morality, not Brexit. I want a modern morality, not the Victorian version but a new modern British version—one that is based on equality and freedom and one which we should be proud to export. Too often we duck the big moral issues to advance self-interest. Too often it is the big corporations that drive the international agenda and the values that we cherish are relegated to second place: trade for hunger; disease to keep medicine at a competitive price; supporting oppressive regimes to further our short-term strategic interests; selling arms to people who have no business owning them. The people who see this most clearly are the young in our society. They can see the growing discrepancy between the super-rich corporations and the individual. We experienced some of that at the last election.
I want to focus in the time that I have left on the treatment of gay men and women across the world. Despite the progress that we have made, it is still surprising that homosexuality is still criminalised in more than 72 countries, many of which are in the Commonwealth. In retrospect, one mistake made back in 1967 was not to ensure that the change in the law at home was the driver of reform across the Commonwealth too. It was Britain which imposed the vast majority of these laws and we therefore have a duty to be part of removing them. As the UK prepares to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, we need to see clear leadership to get that number from 72 to zero. Across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the threat of the death penalty remains in place in a number of countries. We should use our United Nations voice to act to outlaw the death penalty on grounds of sexual orientation and sanction states that do not do so.
I am sorry that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is not in his place because I agreed with so much of what he said. I would say to him that religion also has its role to play in defining a new modern morality. There are some simple things that the most reverend Primate could do. A liturgy for civil partnership would be a small step, and the acceptance of gay marriage—maybe a step too far—would give some hope. Morality can stem from love too.
In the last few months alone, we have seen shocking reports of the persecution of gay men in Chechnya, with documented reports of torture, disappearances and the return of concentration camps to our continent. I raised this issue with Members of this House before the election and I genuinely thank all those who replied and all those who wrote to the Russian ambassador to outline their concerns. I hope that the Government will now look favourably on the asylum claims of those fleeing persecution, as President Macron has recently done in France, and I ask the Minister to put pressure on the Home Office to speed up this work.
There is still much to do on the broader moral issues, and much to do in relation to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Commonwealth and beyond. And it is noble Lords in the Foreign Office who have the opportunity to do it. I say to Ministers and their colleagues in the other place: do not look back and regret not taking the opportunity to act. Governing is a real privilege and those who sit on the Front Benches have, sometimes, the opportunity to effect change. My plea to noble Lords is to use it well.
My Lords, we regularly raise incitement with the Palestinian Authority. The Minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, did so during his visit to the region in February. The UK’s consul-general to Jerusalem last discussed incitement with President Abbas on 17 March, including our concerns about television broadcasts. We also raise incitement with Israel. We encourage the revival of a tripartite committee on incitement to address precisely these issues.
My Lords, I do indeed join my noble friend in condemning incitement and terrorism wherever they occur. It was a mark of respect from this House that at 11 am today we had one minute’s silence in memory of the appalling events with the murder of those in Brussels. I know the Prime Minister has said that we will do all we can to help there. I also note that both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed their opposition to the terrorism that had taken place in Brussels.
My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to a United Nations resolution. She may be aware that our team in the United Nations, led by Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, negotiate the best terms they can with regard to resolutions so that the language is as close to being realistic as possible, but there always have to be compromises on those matters. We did so against the background of maintaining the policy that I set out in my first Answer: that it is important that we have a negotiated solution. That is when there would be a two-state solution, and that would be followed by a discussion about the ownership of resources. Sadly, we are not in that position yet. I note what the noble Baroness says with regards to the reports today that the French Foreign Minister, Monsieur Fabius, has announced that the French will try to organise an international conference on the Middle East peace process in the coming weeks. Whatever conferences we have, and however welcome an exchange of views, the only thing that will bring about peace is for both Israel and the Palestinians to come together to agree those terms; terms that I have set out in detail on previous occasions.
My Lords, all those who have the interests of peace at heart will want to bring together the sides that disagree to negotiate. I notice that, just recently, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made the following comment,
“as we continue to uphold the right of Palestinians to self-determination, let us be equally firm that incitement has no place, and that questioning the right of Israel to exist cannot be tolerated”.