James Cleverly, Minister of State for Middle East, North Africa and North America, responds to MPs’ questions to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
1. What recent discussions she has held with (a) the Government of Israel and (b) representatives of the Palestinian Authority on supporting the peace-building process. (905224)
3. What recent discussions she has held with counterparts in the middle east on the Abraham Accords. (905226)
13. If she will take diplomatic steps to support the creation of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. (905236)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Israeli President Mr Herzog and the Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid during their respective visits to the UK in November. I also recently discussed the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Roll and Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh.
The Foreign Secretary made clear her commitment to the Abraham accords at the Gulf Co-operation Council-United Kingdom Foreign Ministers’ meeting on 20 December. The UK is working with Gulf partners to help deliver shared prosperity and security for Arabs and Israelis alike. We support the objectives of the US Middle East Partnership for Peace Act and we will continue to engage with the US to identify opportunities for further collaboration. I outlined the UK’s support for increasing dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians at the Alliance for Middle East Peace’s “light the way” gala on 12 December.
Meanwhile, evictions and demolitions continue in East Jerusalem aimed at eradicating Palestinian presence from the whole basin, with a cemetery desecrated to make way for a Jewish national park and new settlements planned that are designed to smash the concept of a two-state solution. When will the UK Government actually take actions to demonstrate that violations of international law do indeed have consequences?
The UK enjoys a close and important relationship with Israel, and that enables us to raise important issues such as settlement demolitions directly with the Israeli Government, which we do. The UK’s long-standing policy is to pursue actions that support the creation of a viable two-state solution, and that will remain the focus of our engagement with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
If anybody wants to see something genuinely positive and uplifting in foreign affairs, they should look at the Abraham accords and the fruit stemming from them in the remarkable growth in trade, investment and people-to-people contact between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states. Given the UK’s excellent relations throughout the Gulf region and our bilateral ties with Israel, does my right hon. Friend agree that we are well placed to help foster the growth of the Abraham accords’ fruit? Will he look at how he can encourage other states to embark on the same journey of peace and friendship with Israel?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the UK enjoys excellent relations with all the signatory nations to the Abraham accords. Indeed, I was in Bahrain when the first ever Bahraini ambassador to the state of Israel was announced, and it was genuinely a joyous occasion. The UK will continue to support the Abraham accords and greater joint working between the states in the region. Ultimately, that is the best way to pursue peace, prosperity and freedom for all.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Israel and Palestine, and what I saw in the west bank really shocked me. We must never see a return to last year’s violence. Will the Minister renew our commitment to an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, based on the model of the International Fund for Ireland, and update the House on our international efforts to make the fund and lasting peace a reality?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. The UK has, does and will continue to support and facilitate people-to-people contacts and cross-community contacts as well as ensuring that the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority also have a good working relationship. That is and will remain a foundation stone of our foreign policy in the region.
With regard to ALLMEP—the Alliance for Middle East Peace—we have had discussions with the United States of America, and I have had discussions with representatives of the organisation. We will continue to explore what role the UK might play in the future delivery of that.
The successful conclusion of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is key to bringing peace to the region, yet Hamas publicly condemn peace negotiations and has committed itself to Israel’s destruction. Does my right hon. Friend agree that until Hamas disarms, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a terror group which calls for its very destruction?
Hamas has not proven itself to be good for the Palestinian people. The simple truth is that its aggressive posture and threats to eradicate the state of Israel have harmed relations between Israelis and Palestinians. We wish to see a viable two-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace, prosperity and freedom. Hamas has long been a roadblock to that. We call upon it to set aside its violent ways and pursue a path to peace.
Afghanistan: Humanitarian Situation
2. What recent discussions she has had held with international partners on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. (905225)
6. What diplomatic steps her Department has taken to help secure safe routes for refugees as part of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. (905229)
11. What diplomatic steps she is taking to help secure safe routes in third countries for people seeking to leave Afghanistan. (905234)
The UK has supported more than 3,400 people in leaving Afghanistan since the end of the Operation Pitting evacuation and we will continue in our efforts. The UK is contributing £286 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan in this financial year and we have disbursed more than £145 million already so far. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad visited Qatar on 17 January to discuss these issues directly with the Qatari Government.
What was a monumental military miscalculation has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe, with Gordon Brown—bless his cotton socks—warning of 23 million people, including women and children, facing starvation. That is 97% of the population below the poverty line. What are the Government doing to ensure that aid bypasses the Taliban and reaches those in need, who include constituents of ours—British nationals who are still trapped in that nightmare, harbouring hopes of getting home?
As I said in response to the hon. Lady’s initial question, the UK has committed £286 million and already distributed £145 million. We recognise that there is a pragmatic need to have a relationship of some sort with the Taliban. However, our conditions for that have always been clear. They need to renounce violence, not be a haven for terrorism and not take part in reprisal actions. Aid diversion is always an important consideration and that is as true in Afghanistan as it is anywhere else. We are seeking to support the Afghan people, not prop up the Taliban regime.
Yesterday I heard the shocking story of a refugee stuck in Iran, unable to leave because he has been told he needs to register with the Iranian Government. There have been cases of refugees in Iran being returned to their countries of origin, so he is too scared to register. Will the Minister act to ensure that cases such as that do not occur, secure a safe route and meet me to discuss this special case?
I invite the hon. Gentleman to write to me about the case. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad speaks with countries in the region that border Afghanistan. The House will be unsurprised to hear that our relationship with Iran is more strained than the relationship we have with other countries in the region. Nevertheless, we recognise that land routes across to Iran are an exit route for some people who are in fear of their lives in Afghanistan. It is not possible for me to comment on individual cases without more details.
Afghan citizens at risk cannot move, because without safe destinations and third countries to escape to, they will not be safeguarded by the specific measures in place against many of the risks they are experiencing in Kabul. With the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme inoperable and Government promises to protect minoritised groups and human rights activists and campaigners in tatters, what discussions is the Minister having with the leadership in third countries to guarantee a safe destination? How is the UK contributing to the safety of those people at this time?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answers I have already given on this issue. We have supported more than 3,400 people in leaving Afghanistan since the end of the Operation Pitting evacuation in August. That includes more than 2,200 Afghan citizens who either worked for the UK or worked in support of the UK’s objectives, or who are vulnerable—female judges, LGBT activists and injured children, for example. The UK is absolutely playing its part and we will continue to liaise with other countries, both in the region and those bordering Afghanistan, to help alleviate the terrible situation that Afghans find themselves in.
The all-party parliamentary group on Afghanistan invite the Minister’s Department to give an update on what representations the Department has made to international counterparts about the force used by the Taliban against those protesting against deteriorating living standards, in line with the comments by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).
I will pass my hon. Friend’s comments to our noble Friend Lord Ahmad, who I know takes these issues incredibly seriously. He visited New York in October to hold events with Afghan women and to speak in the UN’s annual debate on women, peace and security. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has visited a number of countries in the region and beyond to solicit their support in alleviating the situation in Afghanistan.
The Open Doors world watch list identifies Afghanistan as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian.
Will the Government put the protection and support of Christians around the world and in Afghanistan at the heart of their foreign policy?
Freedom of religion or belief remains an incredibly important strand of UK foreign policy. The plight of Christians in Afghanistan is dire, but indeed that reflects the plight of a number of other religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. A cornerstone of our foreign policy is our pursuit of genuine freedom for all, and freedom of religion or belief is an important part of that—without it, is anyone really free at all?
Many of my constituents have connections to people stuck in Afghanistan who they believe would have had a pre-existing visa entitlement to come to the UK. What steps will the Government take to ensure that those people who would have been entitled, had the Afghan Government not fallen, can come and join their families in Wycombe?
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office have maintained a close working relationship on such issues throughout this situation. Entitlement for foreign nationals to settle in the UK is ultimately a Home Office competency, but we will continue to work closely with the Home Office on such issues.
The situation facing millions of Afghans right now is unimaginable—starving families lining up for food; parents selling their babies and handing teenage daughters to the Taliban for cash; a mother so desperate that she sold her kidney and two of her daughters. Yet amid this horror the UK Government slashed the overseas aid budget, actually cut their support for Afghanistan from 2019 levels and, with only two months to go, disbursed only half of the humanitarian aid and assistance they promised. With 5 million children now on the brink of famine, will the Government show leadership by releasing the remainder of the pledge and taking the action proposed by the UN, Save the Children and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown by convening a humanitarian pledging conference to raise the £5 billion needed? Failure to act will cost more lives.
I remind the hon. Lady that the £286 million that we have allocated to Afghanistan was put in place in the autumn, and we are still ensuring that the money is distributed. She made the important point that doing so quickly can sometimes come at the cost of doing so carefully. We want to ensure that our money reaches the people who are in need and is not diverted to support the Taliban regime. The UK remains at the forefront of international efforts to support Afghanistan, and I am proud of the work that my Department and the whole UK Government have done.
9. What recent diplomatic steps her Department has taken to help strengthen security partnerships with nations around the world. (905232)
We are building a network of security partnerships to protect our people, our partners and our freedoms. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already outlined a number of interactions that she has had at multilateral and bilateral level, which echo conversations that the Prime Minister had last week. The Foreign Secretary was in Australia alongside the Defence Secretary for talks with our Australian counterparts, and on 12 January I was at the NATO headquarters alongside European and Atlantic allies for the NATO-Russia Council. As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, we are working through those partnerships to advance our interests from a position of strength.
I am very proud of the firm support that the UK has shown for Ukraine as we see increasingly unstable and threatening behaviour from Russia. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that as Russia’s threatening behaviour towards Ukraine continues and intensifies, he and all Ministers are working with our global partners to encourage further support for Ukraine?
I can absolutely confirm that our support for Ukraine is discharged not only bilaterally, with training teams and defensive military equipment support, but with work at a multinational level through the Quad, which I attended recently, through NATO and through other international institutions such as the G7, to ensure that all countries support the principles of self-determination, territorial integrity, peace and freedom.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development.
As the world becomes more dangerous and more uncertain, we need to tackle the root causes of security threats to the UK, namely poverty and instability overseas. I therefore find it very concerning that spending allocations for the conflict, stability and security fund show huge reductions to aid programmes around the world for this financial year: a 63% drop in funding in the middle east and north Africa, for example, and a 53% reduction in the western Balkans. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s cuts throughout overseas development are compromising UK security and global stability? What will the Government do to address that?
We have spoken at length in this House about the economic impact that the country and indeed the world have felt from covid, which has forced us temporarily to reduce our expenditure on official development assistance. We have had confirmation that we will return to 0.7%. With respect to the historical reductions in key areas such as humanitarian aid and women and girls, we will ensure that that money is returned to the budgets, as the Foreign Secretary has made clear. The process for future budget allocations has not concluded; until it has, any talk about figures can only be speculative on the hon. Lady’s part.
While all eyes have been on Ukraine, my right hon. Friend will be aware that as a result of recent Russian naval activity, Sweden has taken the decision to send hundreds of troops and arms to the island of Gotland in the Baltic. What are the Government doing to support Baltic and Nordic countries, which feel very much in the frontline, against Russian aggression?
I can confirm that the Defence Secretary has been doing a lot of work in that area. The Foreign Secretary was in Riga not so long ago. We absolutely recognise that our northern partners, the Baltic states and the Scandinavian countries, are in a geographically difficult and vulnerable place. I can assure my hon. Friend that our support for freedom, democracy and peace extends to that part of the world, as well as to more high-profile issues such as those in Ukraine.
Iran: British Detainees
12. What diplomatic steps she is taking to help ensure the release of detained British citizens during negotiations with Iran. (905235)
I can assure the right hon. Lady and the House that we remain committed to securing the immediate and permanent release of those British dual nationals unfairly detained in Iran. We continue to work together with our international partners. The Foreign Secretary pressed the Iranian Foreign Minister on 8 November for Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be released and to return home to be with their families as soon as possible. I raised their cases with my Iranian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Bagheri Kani, on 11 November. We continue to call on Iran to do the right thing and allow the immediate release and return home of these British dual nationals.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but that was in November. Anoosheh Ashoori is on hunger strike and he needs diplomatic protection. He is innocent. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, six years a hostage: innocent. Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist: innocent. Mehran Raoof, a trade unionist: innocent. Will the Minister commit to working closely with the United States special envoy Robert Malley to bring these innocent hostages home?
I would remind the right hon. Lady of the point I made before. Our Department works tirelessly, daily, in our attempts to bring these people home and we do so not because questions are raised in the House or sent to us in correspondence but because it is the right thing to do and it is what we are committed to doing. We work tirelessly with international partners, both in the region and across the Atlantic, to bring about the release of these people, whose detention is completely illegitimate and completely wrong and is the sole responsibility of the Iranian Government. They are the ones who are in the position to release these people and we call on them to do so immediately.
14. What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to help support a negotiated peace settlement in Yemen. (905237)
20. What recent assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the civil war in Yemen. (905243)
A negotiated political settlement is the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen. On 10 January, I hosted the UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, here in London and reiterated UK support for the UN-led peace process to drive forward the political process in Yemen. We urge the parties to engage constructively in negotiations to end this conflict, which is bringing death and suffering on an appalling scale.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but this brutal conflict is in its ninth year. Recent deadly coalition-led attacks on children and civilians have rightly been condemned by the UN General Secretary. As the UK is the penholder at the UN for Yemen, does he believe that the continued sales of arms from the UK and the recent withdrawal of UK aid are helping or hindering diplomatic efforts?
The money that the UK has allocated and distributed in Yemen has helped to protect lives and feed children, and I am incredibly proud of the work we have done. The fact of the matter, however, is that we cannot properly help the people of Yemen until this conflict has come to a conclusion. That is why we continue to work with the United Nations special envoy, Hans Grundberg. I remind the hon. Lady that aggression has been perpetrated by the Houthis in Yemen and across the borders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We call upon the Houthis to lay down their arms and engage with the peace process so that we can bring peace to Yemen and properly help the Yemeni people to lift themselves out of poverty.
The situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate, and the attacks are ever more brutal. Just last week, three children who were out playing football were among 60 people killed when missiles struck Hodeidah and Saada. Does the Minister agree that this demonstrates the importance of re-establishing the group of eminent experts? What fresh efforts does he believe are needed within the UN Security Council to end this terrible conflict?
The recent loss of life in Yemen, and in the nations surrounding Yemen that have received attacks emanating from the Houthis, is terrible. Ultimately, the best thing we can do as a leading member of the international community and the penholder at the United Nations is to push for peace in Yemen. I have in the past done that directly with the Houthi leadership, and we have done it indirectly through countries in the region that have some degree of influence with the Houthis. We also have these discussions directly with the Government of Yemen and the Governments in the surrounding countries. It will remain a priority for this Government to pursue peace through the United Nations special envoy and others so that we can set that country on a road to recovery and out of the hell that it currently finds itself in.
We were all horrified by the atrocities of the airstrike on Friday, which led to dozens of deaths and was another horrific incident in this conflict. It adds to one of the world’s greatest humanitarian disasters, with an estimated 20 million Yemenis in need of assistance. As the Minister knows, the Saudi air and sea blockade means that hardly any humanitarian aid is getting through, so I ask him: what influence are the Government using to bring about a peace conference to end the blockade, so that people on the brink of starvation can get the humanitarian aid they need?
I have in the past spoken both with the Government of Yemen and with countries in the region to ensure that fuel supplies that are needed, both to transport grain and also for grain milling for bread, have been made available, and I am pleased that the UK intervention at those times facilitated the distribution of aid to Yemen. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the loss of life that has been experienced, and I remind him that the only way to meaningfully reduce the loss of life, both within Yemen and in the nations around it, is for the parties to get to the negotiating table—and that means the Houthis. We will continue to support the United Nations special envoy in his work to bring that about.
T9. With the NATO leadership set to change this September, does my right hon. Friend think it apposite that the leadership should go to a representative from a country that actually meets its defence spending commitments, which are vital to repel aggression from states such as Russia? (905257)
The UK is proud to be a long-standing—indeed, founding—member of NATO and to consistently meet its 2% target. NATO remains one of the most important institutions for Euro-Atlantic security and it is incredibly important that its future leadership recognises not only traditional threats, as we now see on Ukraine’s borders, but emerging threats such as cyber, space and other realms of conflict.
T7. Last week saw the first eviction of a Palestinian family in Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem in five years. Demolitions of Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories have increased by 21% in 2021, and currently, 200 more Palestinian families have eviction orders and are at risk of being displaced. The forced evictions of Palestinians must stop, so will the Minister condemn these demolitions, and what action will he take to stop further evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah? (905255)
I forgive the hon. Lady for not being a devoted follower of my social media feeds and statements; I have already put out a statement on those demolitions. As I said in response to an earlier question, the UK enjoys an incredibly strong relationship with Israel. That allows us to bring up difficult and sensitive issues such as this, but also enables us to work with Israel on areas of mutual interest and concern, including ultimately a viable two-state solution.
The Minister will be aware that I have raised repeatedly the case of Maira Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl forcibly abducted, raped and forced into a marriage. Will the Minister assure me, given that we give hundreds of millions of pounds in aid to Pakistan, that we are insisting that aid is contingent on reform of the blasphemy laws and making sure that there are no forced conversions in that country?
My right hon. Friend will understand why I will not go into specific details of that case. I can assure him that in our bilateral relationships with Pakistan and other countries where we are aid donors, we also ensure that we use that relationship to promote the values not just of tolerance but of protection of religious freedom. That is as true in Pakistan as it is in other areas, and it is an issue that my noble Friend Lord Ahmed raises bilaterally.