HC Deb 04 March 2002 vol 381 cc125-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McNulty.]

10.16 pm
Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

Everyone in the House will agree that this debate on Government policy towards countries providing support for terrorist organisations takes place at a heartbreaking moment. Lives are still being lost in Afghanistan in the ongoing effort to rid that nation and the region of the terror of al-Qaeda and on both sides in the continuing tragedy that is the middle east conflict. I am delighted to introduce the debate, but I regret having to seek it.

I want not simply another debate on the middle east peace process, but a much wider discussion. I believe absolutely that there will he a lasting peace in the middle east, but events of recent weeks and months have made me uncertain as to whether that peace will be delivered by this generation of politicians. I also have absolute faith that there will indeed be a viable Palestinian state, and so there should be, that lives in security and peace alongside a secure neighbour, the state of Israel.

The tragedy is that so many innocent people on both sides have died so needlessly over recent months when peace seemed such a realistic prospect under the prime ministerial leadership of Ehud Barak and his partner in peace at the time, Chairman Arafat. Now it appears that both sides are looking up from an abyss. I hope that at least one or two steps forward result from the most recent suggestions emanating from Saudi Arabia. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on the Government's position in respect of the latest reported Saudi effort.

I shall concentrate on the terror organisations that so undermine that drive for peace and three states—Iraq, Syria and Iran—that do so much to support and give succour to those terror organisations. In respect of Iraq, there is a history that everyone acknowledges of support for terror organisations within its borders and the use of domestic terror as a means to carry out low or occasionally medium-level conflict with regional opponents, Iran in particular and, of course, Israel.

More recently, Iraq has again assumed a high profile, taking centre stage in world politics. It is now absolutely clear in the wider sense of global and regional security that Iraq must act. Saddam Hussein, newly armed with an improved weapons of mass destruction capability, is a threat not only to his own people and his neighbours, but to international security. The United Kingdom, along with its allies, is rightly considering action, but I firmly believe that we must also publish whatever evidence we can, notwithstanding the lack of observers on the ground.

There is evidence of the increased viability and range of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and we need to persuade not only the House but the British public and world opinion—especially Arab opinion—that, because of the threat posed by Saddam to his neighbours and to world security, we may, unfortunately, be left with no alternative as an international community but to act, in more than a diplomatic sense. That gives me no sense of enjoyment—it gives me a considerable sense of foreboding.

I believe firmly that the Prime Minister was right to go to Syria following 11 September, to try to impress on the Syrian leadership that it should step back from support for terror organisations. He was absolutely right to stress that terrorism in all its forms must end. I am not aware, however—the Minister may have evidence to the contrary—of lasting or meaningful efforts being made by the Syrian Government since that visit to clamp down on the terror organisations that operate within its borders.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Does my hon. Friend think that there is sufficient international appreciation of the threat from the terrorism that he describes to there ever being a successful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Mr. Murphy

Personally, I do not believe that there is a widespread understanding of the role played by these terror organisations. Their very raison d'etre is the destruction of the state of Israel, not an accommodation or peace with it. We must do all that we can to ensure that people understand that, while we hope that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority can be resolved in the foreseeable future, it is very difficult to envisage an accommodation between Israel and Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and others. The international community must understand the lack of any desire on the part of those terror organisations to recognise the state of Israel's right to exist.

Of the 28 foreign terrorist organisations that the co-ordinator of counter-terrorism in the United States State Department listed in October last year, about three and a half weeks after the horrific events of 11 September, seven operate from Syria. The Syrian Government provide succour, support and sponsorship for those organisations in many different ways. The organisations include Hamas, which continues to cause such devastation; Hezbollah; Palestinian Islamic Jihad; and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which I had the misfortune of meeting in Ramallah in 1994, just as the Oslo peace accord was published. The disappointment among its leadership that a compromise and a lasting settlement could be viable was palpable. I am sure that it is much happier with events as they stand today.

Syria directly also supports other terror organisations, including the Palestine Liberation Front, allowing them to have headquarters, training camps and political and propaganda offices throughout the nation, including in and around Damascus. As if that were not enough, some of the leading international terrorists live in Syria, with the full knowledge of the Syrian state. The general secretary of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and his deputy live there, as do the head of the Hamas political bureau and his deputy. The chairman of the Hamas interior committee and the leadership of the PFLP also live there.

Two days after the Prime Minister's visit, an event took place in Damascus that underlined the degree of co-operation between the Syrian regime and the panoply of terrorist organisations in that country. A gathering took place in Damascus to pay tribute to the secretary general of the Islamic Jihad. Such events cannot take place without the full support of the tightly controlled political elite that runs Syria. The gathering was attended by the Iranian ambassador, and representatives of the Syrian Ba'ath party, Hezbollah and others. Such a commemoration of a leading terrorist could take place only with the Syrian Government's support. Some of those individuals appear on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "most wanted" list of terrorists, which was published just after 11 September.

It is because of those individuals, organisations and events that I find it very difficult to see Syria in any sense as a partner in peace. Indeed, the opposite is true. Syria plays a festering role in undermining any middle east peace process. Although I entirely support the Prime Minister's visit to that country, and any Government effort to convince the Syrian regime to join the family of nations in enforcing international law and order on terror organisations, I do not perceive any great movement in that regard. Indeed, the Jordanian media reported security officials' attempts to undermine Syrian attacks on Israel and the embassies of Jordan, Britain and the United States. By comparison with Syria, Jordan is playing an entirely mature and constructive role in the campaign against terror and for peace in the middle east.

The third and final nation on which I seek ministerial comment is Iran. I publicly pay tribute to Iran's courageous efforts to control trafficking in the opium poppy. Many hundreds of Iranian border guards have been killed in their strenuous efforts to prevent opium poppy from leaving Afghanistan and, tragically, coming to this country. I understand the need for closer relationships with Iran, but despite internal political and cultural conflict in that country, as yet I see no detente with its partners in the middle east, or support for a lasting and meaningful middle east peace process. Iran continues to arm terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, which causes such strife and bloodshed in the region, and supports Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Perhaps my hon. Friend will bear in mind the fate of missing Israeli service personnel held by Hezbollah, which, as he says, is supported by Iran. They include Elchanan Tenenboim, for whom today was his 500th day in captivity after being kidnapped in Switzerland; Ron Arad, Tzvi Feldman, Zacharia Buamel and Yehuda Katz, who were kidnapped in the Lebanon in the 1980s; Guy Hever, who was kidnapped in the Golan heights in 1997; and Benny Avraham, Omer Suaed and Adi Avitan, who were kidnapped on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border in the past few years. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to speculate on why Iran supports Hezbollah, which refuses to give any information whatsoever to the families of those people, who have been missing for so long.

Mr. Murphy

It is clear that Iran has considerable influence over Hezbollah. An easy way for it to play a role or to make a symbolic shift in its position would be to instruct those that it funds and supports—namely, Hezbollah—to provide information on the whereabouts of, tragically, what might prove only the remains of the individuals whom my hon. Friend mentions. Certainly, the Iranian Government could easily instruct Hezbollah to make the limited concession of revealing the whereabouts of those poor individuals, whether living or dead.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran, but I am also worried by the recent Karine A shipment of weapons from Iran, seemingly bound for the Palestinian Authority. That is worrying, and I hope it is not part of a wider pattern. It is frightening that such an enormous arms shipment could go to an organisation that publicly remains committed to a peace process in the middle east.

Iran shamelessly uses anti-semitism as a strategic weapon. The Iranian Government's recent refusal to accept Her Majesty's Government's nominee for the post of ambassador is yet another example of that.

Many of us are determined—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is—to continue to press the Iranian and Syrian Governments, in particular. As the Prime Minister said in Damascus, terrorism in all its forms has to end.

10.31 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) for raising this subject. I want to speak first about the Government's general policy on countries that promote terrorism, and to illustrate it with reference to positive developments in a couple of countries, before turning to the specific examples raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that Iraq—we have concerns about support for terrorism there, but especially about the programme involving weapons of mass destruction—will be debated in Westminster Hall on Wednesday morning. My hon. Friend and other Members who support the Government on this issue may wish to make their views known then.

State promotion of terrorist groups is a cruel, destabilising and ultimately self-destructive instrument of the foreign policies of some Governments. It is an instrument that Governments should and must now abandon. The last six months of terrible attacks on civilians and those engaged in the democratic process have exhausted the tolerance of this Government, and of the international community, of terrorism of any kind. I am thinking, of course, of 11 September, but also of the savage murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl: the attack on the Indian Parliament which destabilised relations between two nuclear powers; the hijack of a Colombian airliner last month; and the sickening bomb attack in Jerusalem on Saturday—a terrorist attack that has perpetuated the current cycle of violence in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Yet there are Governments who persist in providing terrorist groups with funds, weapons, information and political support—Governments who continue to believe that agreement with the objectives of terrorists justifies terrorist methods. The British Government's view is simple: such state promotion of terrorism is unjustifiable and must end. There is no moral distinction between an attacker who kills civilians or parliamentarians and a state that wittingly provides the resources that facilitate such a terrorist attack.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

Does the Minister agree that Syria, Iraq and Iran do not have inter-continental ballistic long-range missiles that could reach the United States? Does he agree that article 15 of the 1972 treaty on the limitation of anti-ballistic missile systems, which gives the Russians and the Americans the right to withdraw from the treaty, does not help? The treaty's globalising of peace and war, whether it refers to American, British or Iraqi terrorism, really does not help. It is the poor who suffer.

Mr. Bradshaw

I do not agree with my hon. Friend one bit. Although the countries that he mentioned may not have the ballistic missile capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction to that extent at this moment, we do not doubt that at least two of them are actively attempting to acquire that capability, and may be much closer to it than any of us would like to think.

We welcome the progress that has been made by Libya towards abandoning state sponsorship of terrorism and the importance of a strong international condemnation and concerted action against the states concerned. A decade ago, Libya sponsored and incited terrorists. The international community responded by imposing an effective sanctions regime on Libya. The sanctions have resulted in Libya returning to international standards of decency.

The Libyan state has satisfied us that it has severed its links with the IRA. The joint United Kingdom-Libya statement on the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher allowed us to re-establish diplomatic relations. Libya has taken steps to make amends for the terrible damage that it caused in the past. The Security Council recognised Libya's surrender of two suspects accused of the Lockerbie bombing. Sanctions were suspended at that point and can be lifted entirely once Libya has complied with the final requirements of the Council.

There has also been progress in Sudan, which in moving away from tolerance of terrorism has offered an example to other nations that retain links with terrorist groups. In the mid-1990s, Sudan allowed bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organisation to organise their international terror campaign from Sudanese territory. The international community's response was robust—we delivered a clear message that such activity could not be tolerated. The imposition of Security Council sanctions was again a valuable tool. Sudan responded. The Security Council in turn responded by lifting sanctions in September last year.

My hon. Friend raised the prospect of military action against a state sponsor. The Government are prepared to use a military approach, as we did in Afghanistan, if again confronted with an Administration who threaten us and care nothing for the views of the international community. There are, of course, many other means of effecting change that we would explore first. We would pull all available diplomatic and economic levers. We would work with Governments who are willing but unable to confront terrorists. Military action is very much a last resort.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

I suspect that the Minister is talking about the situation in regard to Iraq. What conversations has he had with colleagues from other European Union countries? Do they share the Prime Minister's views about the possibility of widening the campaign against terrorism into a military phase in regard to Iraq?

Mr. Bradshaw

Our European allies very much share our concern that Iraq should comply fully with its obligations under the United Nations resolutions to allow weapons inspectors back into that country without any conditions attached. If Iraq fails to do that, the international community will face some very difficult decisions. Those who oppose in principle any talk of a military response against countries such as Iraq in such circumstances need to say how they would deal with rogue states determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them on their neighbours and elsewhere.

My hon. Friend also expressed concerns over the behaviour of Iran. We share his concern about the support that the Iranian Government give to terrorism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are satisfied that the Iranian Government make material contributions to the capabilities of terrorist groups, including Hezbollah's External Security Organisation and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Both organisations are proscribed in the United Kingdom under the Terrorism Act 2000.

Iranian encouragement of those opposed to the peace process can only inflame and escalate the cycle of violence. The Government take every opportunity to tell the Iranians that we condemn their support for those terrorist groups and that it is without any possible justification. We believe that that critical engagement is helpful, and I am glad that my hon. Friend supports us in that policy.

In answer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), we raise the case of the captives at every opportunity with the Iranian and Syrian authorities and in the limited contacts that we have with the political wing of Hezbollah in the Lebanon. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met with the families of those captives on his recent visit to Israel.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

Before my hon. Friend the Minister continues, can I say that there is great unease on his own Benches at what some see as a softening-up process for taking action that will not get the support of our allies and friends in the middle east? I ask the Foreign Office in particular to take cognisance of that concern and to think about it before we go down a road from which we will find it difficult to withdraw.

Mr. Bradshaw

Of course my colleagues and I will take notice of the points made by my hon. Friend, because of his wisdom and experience in this area. However, we should not overestimate the amount of support that Saddam Hussein or his regime have in the Arab world, if that is what my hon. Friend was implying by his question. We need to think carefully and rationally about how the international community deals with a state which has used weapons of mass destruction on its own people and its neighbours, and which is acquiring chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as we speak. We believe that that state would have no inhibitions about using those weapons not just on its immediate neighbours, but on us and further afield. If my hon. Friend has a miracle solution as to how one deals with such rogue-state behaviour, I should be pleased to hear it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood also mentioned Syria. We accept that Syria plays host to a number of terrorist groups. It allows terrorists to set up their headquarters in Damascus. As my hon. Friend has said, both the External Security Organisation of Hezbollah and the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine have a presence in Syria. Both these organisations are proscribed in the UK as terrorist organisations.

We have made it crystal clear to the Syrians that we expect them to use their undoubted influence to secure de-escalation and restraint. They must dissociate themselves from the terrorists responsible for the tragic and futile upsurge in violence over the last 12 months. I will look into the specific allegations that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood made and, if he will allow me, I will write to him.

We are broadly encouraged by the Government's contacts with the Syrians in recent months. There are signs that Syria may be exerting some helpful influence to contain the violence. If such a policy is confirmed and sustained, Syria will find that it can advance its objectives effectively using political means.

It is also a cold fact that no party in the current confrontations will obtain security or peace until the cycle of violence ends. There is no solution through violence for either side. As the Foreign Secretary wrote in a newspaper article last week: The conflict will never be solved by military means alone. But every day the violence continues, as the number of families broken by the bloody conflict increases, the extremists are strengthened, distrust grows and peace is more difficult to achieve. The violence and state-sponsored terrorism must stop. It is futile and serves only to postpone the day when Palestinians and Israelis can achieve a permanent settlement in which two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace and security". My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood asked me to comment on the recent proposals from Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. These are not exactly new or revolutionary ideas, but we have warmly welcomed them and believe that both their timing and their source are extremely significant. We wish the proposals well.

State sponsorship of terrorism is a cruel and cowardly policy that is now more than ever beyond tolerance. The Government will engage with sponsors and potential sponsors in order to tell them how profoundly we deplore their conduct and how gravely their actions destabilise fragile regional security.

All nations have new obligations to stop supporting terrorism under the two UN resolutions passed unanimously after 11 September. The international community is determined to ensure that those resolutions are fully implemented and, in doing so, it will enjoy Britain's full support.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.