Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen raised in Foreign Affairs Questions

Posted by on 24 Jan 2019
On 22 January 2019, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen were all raised in Foreign Affairs Questions by MPs. Here, we have compiled the questions asked according to subject. The debate can be read in full here and watched here.
Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia
Stephen Timms MP asked what recent assessments that been made of the safety and security of human rights defenders such as women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Mark Field responded by emphasising UK’s role, and long-standing membership of the UN Human Rights Council and that they support their work for the protection of human rights worldwide. 
Stephens Timms MP (Labour, East Ham) 
  • There has been a surge of attacks against and repression of human rights defenders around the world. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women’s rights activists, including Samar Badawi, have been detained since last May, and there have been reports that some have been tortured. I welcome Lord Ahmad’s announcement last month that the Department will publish the guidelines for embassies about support for human rights defenders, to aid clarity and consistency. When does the Minister envisage that publication taking place?
Rt Hon Mark Field MP, Minister for Asia and the Pacific 
  • The UK is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide and supports the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the High Commission for Human Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UK is one of the longest-standing members of the Human Rights Council, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware. Regrettably, human rights defenders face unprecedented attack in many parts of the world. In 2018 alone, more than 300 such defenders were killed, and thousands more were imprisoned, attacked or tortured around the world.

Stephen Timms MP raises imprisoned Saudi female human rights defenders in Parliament from Caabu on Vimeo.

MPs stressed the situation of women and of children in Iraqi detention camps, and also the plight of Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS. They also asked about what dialogue the Government has had regarding Kurdish Iraqis in the region. Alistair Burt responded that, following the election in Iraq, it is vital for the rebuilding of the country that all communities in Iraq get a share in the government, and in the development of the country based on human rights. He also said that relations between the Kurdish community and the Iraqi government has been strengthened, and reiterated the importance of ensuring that the Kurdish community feels part of a united Iraq. He said that the Iraq-UK business council, along with the international community, has a responsibility to provide and support Iraq with the rebuilding and reconstruction of the country. 
Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire)  
  • Ben Taub reminded us recently in The New Yorker that the murder and rape of women and the brutalisation of children in Iraqi detention camps do not bode well for peace and security. Does the Minister agree that when he next meets his counterparts he should remind the Iraqi state that it should be building peace and reconciliation rather than creating breeding grounds for a new Daesh insurgency?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, Minister for the Middle East 
  • That is absolutely right. The future of Iraq, which has real possibilities now following the elections some months ago, has to be built not only on the understanding that all communities in Iraq need a share in government and in the development of the country but on human rights, which can be exploited if they are abused. That forms a fundamental part of the future of Iraq. These issues are indeed raised.
Alex Chalk MP (Conservative, Cheltenham) 
  • A successful economy is vital to secure Iraq’s long-term future and the wellbeing of its people, who have suffered so much. What steps are being taken to ensure that British companies can participate in building that better future?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • We have an active and thriving Iraq-UK business council. Baroness Nicholson has been involved for many years in efforts in this area, particularly in the south of the country in Basra. The contracts and opportunities for the rebuilding and the reconstruction of Iraq will be much helped by the international community’s determination to support Iraq and Iraq’s own use of its oil revenues. British companies should be well placed because of their history and expertise.

Catherine West MP (Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green) 
  • What dialogue has the Minister had with the Government of Iraq on the rights of Kurdish Iraqis and Kurds across the region?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • The Kurdish community is represented through the Kurdish Regional Government, and we keep in regular contact with them. Relationships between Baghdad and Irbil are vital for ensuring that the Kurdish community feels a full part of a united Iraq. Those relations, I think, have been strengthened since the election of President Barham Salih, but the Kurdish people’s future in a united Iraq is fundamental to the future and progress of a united Iraq.
Khalid Mahmood (Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr)  
  • The Government are supposed to provide the House with an update on the campaign against Daesh every quarter. The last I checked, the duration of a quarter is 92 days, but the most recent Daesh statement was more than 200 days ago, so when will we get the next update, or has the policy changed?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • No, the policy has not changed. The short answer is soon, of course.
Marsha De Cordova MP (Labour, Battersea)  
  • Soon?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • Yes, soon. It seems the best possible word to use. The definition of quarter has obviously stretched a little bit too far, but it is important both to keep up the relationship with the House on this and to confirm progress in relation to Daesh across Syria and Iraq, which continues to be vital.
Helen Jones MP (Labour, Warrington North)  
  • Of the almost 7,000 Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS, there are still very few who have received treatment for their physical and psychological injuries, and many have been unable to return to their homes. What more can the Government do to support those women, and to urge the Iraqi Government and the Administration in Kurdistan to work together to bring about their resettlement? [908727]
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • That is another good question. When I was last in Iraq I met agencies involved with Yazidi women, and I hope to go there again in the not too distant future to make the same representations. The difficulty of going back to such areas is related to the overall security situation in Iraq. It is essential for the Iraqi authorities to be able to protect everyone, and that work is ongoing in very difficult circumstances.


MPs asked questions regarding the normalisation, and reopening of embassies in Damascus, by some Arab states. The UK government responded that no normalisation of relationships with Syria could occur until the Syrian regime acknowledge that they cannot continue to rule as they did in the past, and learnt from the costs it inflicted on the Syrian people. Alistair Burt said that there needed to be a political settlement to demonstrate that. Considering the withdrawal of US troops, Alistair Burt said it would not effect the continuing global coalition against Daesh. In response to a question about Lebanon and the impact the Syrian refugee crisis has had on the country, the Government emphasised its support and said that support for this and their economy is a fundamental part of the UK’s engagement in the region.

Jeff Smith MP (Labour, Manchester Withington) 
  • What recent diplomatic steps he has taken to secure a resolution to the conflict in Syria. 
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • The Government support and keep in close contact with the UN-led political process to end the Syrian conflict. We have used our relationships and convening power to encourage progress, including by hosting the then UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura and the Syria small group of like-minded countries. We are also engaging with the new UN envoy, Geir Pedersen, who has our full support. 
Jeff Smith MP (Labour, Manchester Withington) 
  • Given the sensitivity at the Syria-Turkey border, what specific steps can we take to keep the US engaged in diplomatic solutions, if it is going to withdraw troops, and, crucially, to keep Turkey engaged in finding a diplomatic solution that does not involve attacking the Kurdish forces?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • I think both states are extremely conscious of the impact of any of their decisions on Syria. We have engaged regularly with the United States as it works through its process of withdrawal to make sure it is manageable and to make sure that everyone remains focused on the importance of continuing the global coalition against Daesh. That contact is constant with Turkey and with the United States.
Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP (Conservative, Chipping Barnet)
  • Will my right hon. Friend condemn the role in Syria of Iran, a regime that is terrorising its people at home and many across the region, including in Syria?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • The actions of Iran in supporting the Assad regime and the way in which it has conducted a civil war against its own people have caused deep concern. Iran can improve its position only if it does not support such a regime and if it encourages a full part in the political process to see a reformed Syria.
Brendan O´Hara MP (SNP, Argyll and Bute)
  • A stable Lebanon is vital to securing a resolution to the conflict in Syria. I have just returned from Lebanon with Aid to the Church in Need, and we saw there that Lebanon is a country barely able to cope with the pressure it is under, having been without a Government for the past eight months. What has been done to ensure, while a Government are being found, that Lebanon remains stable and secure? 
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • I met the Prime Minister of Lebanon, as did my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, on his visit to the United Kingdom. We work very closely with all parties in Lebanon to encourage the process of Government formation. We are acutely conscious of the pressure of 1.3 million refugees in Lebanon. We would encourage the return of refugees from Lebanon to Syria, but only when it is safe to do so. Support for Lebanon and its economy is a fundamental part of the United Kingdom’s engagement in the region.

Rt Hon Priti Patel MP (Conservative, Witham) 
  • The Minister will be aware that countries across the Arab Gulf are now reopening their embassies in Damascus. What work is the Minister doing with some of our Arab allies and partners to do more to get back to rebuilding and to getting peace and consensus across Syria?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • There seems to be a mixed view among Arab states about normalising relations with Syria, and that is certainly not the view of all states. Arab states are understandably worried about the influence of others in Syria, but there is a recognition—certainly by the United Kingdom, the EU and others—that there can be no normalisation of relationships and no return to embassies unless there is clear evidence that the regime in Syria has learned from the terrible costs it has inflicted on the Syrian people and there is a political settlement to demonstrate that.
Fabian Hamilton MP (Labour, Leeds North East) 
  • Given the huge shifts in policy on Syria emerging from the United States Administration, will the Minister provide some clarity on three related issues: when US troops will be withdrawn, what the preconditions are for that to happen and how America’s Kurdish allies will be protected after that withdrawal?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • Is clear that the United States has made a serious appraisal of the impact of its troop withdrawal so as not to affect the global coalition against Daesh, and it is in close contact with its neighbours. We do not know the precise details. It is important that this does not disturb the work against Daesh, but the United States has also made it clear, as have others, that the Kurdish community must not be affected by any untoward incursion by Turkey or any others. It is important that the stability of north-east Syria is not affected by American decisions.

John Woodcock MP (Independent, Barrow and Furness)
  • The Minister for the Middle East knows that we normally agree, but what on earth did he mean when he implied that we might normalise relations with the murderous tyrant Assad if he learned his lesson?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • We do agree; there is no normalisation of the relationship with Syria. The point I was seeking to make was that before there can be any recognition of Syria, there has to be an understanding of what has happened there. We are looking for the regime, in its political settlement, to understand that it cannot continue to rule as it did in the past. There are no plans whatsoever for the United Kingdom to normalise any relationship with Syria. Looking at the numbers of deaths, of people killed and of murders committed by the regime, it is very difficult to see what arm of justice could possibly result in normalisation.
MPs asked for an assessment from the UK Government regarding Israeli attempts to delegitimise human rights organisations operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly NGOs. Alistair Burt stressed Israel’s democratic responsibility to ensure those groups’ freedom to operate. He said that the West Bank needs those who can speak honestly to both the Palestinian Authority as well as to the state of Israel. 
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that recognition of a Palestinian state would be done when the time is right and when it can have the most impact on the peace process as possible.
Julie Elliott MP (Labour, Sunderland Central) 
  • What recent steps he has taken to help secure a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.
Julie Elliott MP (Labour, Sunderland Central) 
  • What is the Government’s assessment of the report by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs about the rise in Israeli attempts to delegitimise human rights organisations operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly humanitarian non-governmental organisations, and the negative impact that that has on their ability to represent Palestinian rights and organisations?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • Israel, as a democracy in the Middle East, has always prided itself on ensuring that those groups have the freedom to operate there, even if they challenge the Israeli Government. It is very important to the United Kingdom that that tradition is maintained, particularly at a time of crisis. The West bank needs those who are able to interpret the situation and speak honestly, both to the Palestinian Authority and to the state of Israel, and the more political space there is to do that, the better it will be all round for the prospects of peace.

Joan Ryan MP (Labour, Enfield North) 
  • Does the Minister agree that Malaysia’s decision to ban Israeli athletes from participating in Malaysian sporting events is shameful and that such attempts to single out the world’s only Jewish state come from a place of deep prejudice does nothing to advance the cause of peace?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • The United Kingdom does not agree with this decision of the Malaysian Government. It does nothing to assist the worldwide recognition of Paralympians. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific will take that up directly.
MPs urged the Government to focus on ending the blockade on Gaza, highlighting the number of civilians killed and injured on and around the border fence. 
He also stressed that if the attacks on Israel from Gaza are ongoing, the two-state solution is unachievable, and that the UK will continue to support Israel’s right to defend themselves. 
Andy Slaughter (Labour, Hammersmith) 
  • In the past year, 186 Palestinian civilians have been killed on the Gaza border and no Israelis. More than 23,000 Palestinian civilians and 16 Israelis have been injured. Should not the focus be on ending the blockade of Gaza and, indeed, the occupation that has gone on since 1967?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • Virtually every statistic from the area cries out for the need to resolve this issue. We have spoken about it in this House for decades. There are arguments and counter-arguments, but in the main, the misery continues, either for those who feel under attack from terrorist sources or for those who feel the humanitarian impact of political decisions made elsewhere. That is why the United Kingdom is so wedded to—and determined to see—a Middle East peace process for all.

Alan Brown MP (SNP, Kilmarnock and Loudoun) 
  • Gaza has been described as the biggest open-air prison in the world. Israel continues to plan settlement expansion and demolitions with impunity, and clearly US foreign policy is making things worse. When will the UK set a realistic timeframe to step up and recognise the state of Palestine?
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs  
  • We have always said that we will recognise the state of Palestine when the time is right—we support a two-state solution—but we want to do it at the moment it will have the most impact on the peace process.

Nigel Huddleston MP (Conservative, Mid Worcestershire)
  • What recent assessment he has made of the effect of renewed rocket fire from Gaza into Israel on the political and security situation in that region. 
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • Rocket fire and attacks on Israel from Gaza remain unacceptable and damaging to any prospect of eventual peace. We continue to urge Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume direct negotiations towards a two-state solution, and we remain in regular contact with many parties on this important issue.
Nigel Huddleston MP (Conservative, Mid Worcestershire)
  • Last year more than 800 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza into communities in Israel. Does the Minister agree that we must not forget that Gaza is run by Hamas, who are not our friends but an internationally proscribed terrorist organisation? Will he update the House on what help we are providing to Israel in its fight against terrorism?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • We never forget that Gaza is under the control of Hamas, and that other military groups operate there. As long as there are terrorist attacks on Israel from Gaza, the situation will remain impossible to resolve. We will continue to support very strongly the right of Israel to defend itself.
Andrea Jenkyns MP (Conservative, Morley and Outwood) 
  • What assessment has the minister made of the effect of the tunnel construction into Israel by Hamas? 
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • The recent discovery of tunnels from Lebanon into Israel has caused much concern. It is important that they are dealt with on both sides of the border. There is no reason for that work to continue, either by Hamas in the south in Gaza or by Hezbollah in the north in Lebanon.
Bob Blackman MP (Conservative, Harrow East) 
  • Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) on materials that are sent to Gaza for building homes, but are being diverted to build terror tunnels, what action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that our aid is used to build homes for people in Gaza rather than terror tunnels?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP 
  • The principal control of materials flowing into Gaza is of course exercised by the Israelis, with their concerns about dual-use material. We are in regular contact with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to make every attempt to ensure that such materials are not diverted. Ultimately, there is no future for Hamas and for Gaza unless they stop the terror tactics and the diversion of materials, and respond to the Quartet principles and make peace.
Phillip Hollobone MP (Conservative, Kettering)
  • Human rights defenders face particular challenges in the Gaza strip, which is controlled by Hamas. Journalists are oppressed, demonstrations are violently put down and public executions take place. What are we doing to support human rights defenders in the Gaza strip?
Rt Hon Mark Field MP, Minister for Asia and the Pacific 
  • I reassure my hon. Friend that Ministers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, do make clear our concerns about the rights of human rights defenders and the importance of their work in every part of the world.
UN Aid to Palestinian Refugees
MPs urged an ensuring of help for the long-term sustainability of UN aid to Palestinian refugees, and answers regarding what the UK intends to do regarding plans to close down health centres and schools. Alistair Burt said that the UK Government had increased its funding to UNRWA in 2018, providing help to Palestinian refugees, and was looking at ways to further increase its funding. 
Marsha De Cordova MP (Labour, Battersea)
  • What steps he is taking to help ensure the long-term sustainability of UN aid to Palestinian refugees.
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • The UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, is a necessary humanitarian and stabilising presence in the region, providing vital services to millions of Palestinian refugees every day. We have increased our funding to UNRWA, providing £65.5 million in 2018.
Marsha De Cordova MP (Labour, Battersea) 
  • On 9 January, the Minister said: “Work is going on to ensure that, in the long term, UNRWA is sustainable.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 349.] However, UNRWA is already closing health centres, and doubling and trebling up, and shifting schools to cut costs. If it closes down, what will happen to the 526,000 children in UNRWA schools and the 3.1 million patients of UNRWA health services? Will the Minister set out exactly what is going on?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • We sought to increase our funding, as I mentioned to the hon. Lady, but we also talk to other donors. It is impossible for the United Kingdom to fill the gap created, but the point she makes is extremely pertinent: if the education of those in Gaza and children of Palestinian refugees stops, I wonder what organisation in the region would like to take over the education of impressionable youngsters.

Richard Burden MP (Labour, Birmingham Northfield) 
  • Does the Minister agree that the announcement by the Israeli authorities that they plan to close UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem is a direct attack on the welfare of Palestinian refugees in two refugee camps there, including 3,000 students? I welcome the Minister’s increased funding for UNRWA, but will he commit to support the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate later this year?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP 
  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; he knows the area very well. Of course we will continue to support UNRWA, and look hard at the mandate renewal. It is important that it continues its work there because, as I have said, there is concern about what the impact would be if that work is not done. As I said earlier, all this tells us that such disputes and concerns will not change unless there is overall agreement on a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Unless that is done, these problems will continue to occur, much to the misery of all involved.

Ruth Cadbury (Labour, Brentford and Isleworth) 
  • Given the Minister for the Middle East’s earlier expression of support for UNRWA and the concern about the alternative education that Palestinian children might receive if UNRWA pulls out, will the UK Government consider filling the vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of US leadership in this important service?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • As I indicated earlier, we support UNRWA’s work and work hard with the organisation in case reform is needed. In the long term, UNRWA’s future will be about the future of refugees and their final settlement status. In the meantime, we cannot completely plug the financial gap left by the United States, which is why we are working with others, but leadership is vital, as is trying to get it across to the world that UNRWA is doing important work, and the UK will remain a champion.
Rt Hon Stephen Crabb MP (Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire) 
  • Ongoing humanitarian support for Palestinians is vital but, given the track record of Hamas in seeking to abuse and exploit UNRWA, what assurances will the Minister give about protecting the independence and integrity of UNRWA and ensuring that taxpayers’ money is used to good effect?
Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
  • I hear my right hon. Friend, but it is really important for the House to be clear that UNRWA is an independent organisation run by the UN. Of course practical pressures are caused in Gaza, because Gaza is run by Hamas, but it is wrong to suggest that UNRWA is in hock to anyone else but those who contribute as donors. It does vital work—health, education and services—and it is essential that that continues, because if UNRWA does not do it—I ask the House—who would step in to provide support, where would the finances come from and what would be done with them?
MPs called for a broader and more robust UN resolution on Yemen, and highlighted fears that the Swedish agreement and UN resolution were too limited in scope and were not enough to enforce compliance. They also asked what priority is given to the safety and security of aid-workers in Yemen, following the deaths of five aid workers whilst de-mining parts of the country. The Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt emphasised the importance of the first ceasefire in four years, and the opening of the road between Sana’a to Hodeidah, which is vital for deliveries of food and other supplies. 
Liz Twist MP (Labour, Blaydon) 
  • What recent diplomatic steps he has taken to help secure a resolution to the conflict in Yemen. 
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 
  • Last Wednesday, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2452, which establishes a six-month, 75-strong UN mission to monitor the ceasefire in Hodeidah. We obviously wish it every success.
Liz Twist MP (Labour, Blaydon)  
  • One of the fears about the Swedish agreement and the accompanying UN resolution was that they were too limited in scope and too loose in enforcing compliance. Does the Secretary of State accept that those fears are being realised? Is it not time to consider a broader and more robust UN resolution?
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP 
  • I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. I simply say that we wanted to establish a ceasefire—this is the first time that has happened in four years of conflict—and then move on to the next stage, which is a second set of peace talks where we can agree a political settlement. There have been some worrying signs—there have been attacks on both sides—but I was in touch with Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy yesterday, and broadly the ceasefire is holding. The key thing is to open the road from Sana’a to Hodeidah so that World Food Programme food can be released to the population.

Ruth George (Labour. High Peak)

In the coming weeks, both Houses of Congress are due to vote on whether the US should continue its support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen. Both are expected to vote that it should not. Will the Government give this House the same opportunity to vote on whether the UK should maintain our support for the war if it continues?

Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP 
  • This House has shown recently its high ability to have votes on anything and everything it wishes to, so I am sure that there are plenty of opportunities to have votes on that. However, to answer directly in response to the point that the hon. Lady is making, breaking off support for the Saudi-Emirati coalition would reduce our influence with those two countries. At the moment, the ceasefire is broadly holding because those two countries are playing ball, and we would not want to change that.
Kevin Brennan MP (Labour, Cardiff West) 
  • I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he said before Christmas about my constituent Jackie Morgan’s daughter, Safia, who was kidnapped from Cardiff and taken to Yemen in the ’80s. I am glad to report to the House that she, her family and her husband, who are now in Cairo, have been granted the visas to travel to the UK, I hope tomorrow. Will the Foreign Secretary pass on my thanks to the Minister for the Middle East for the efforts that he has made to help in this case?
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP 
  • I am happy to do that. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister and all the Foreign Office staff involved in that work.
Keith Vaz (Labour, Leicester East) 
  • I thank the Foreign Secretary for travelling to Stockholm for the peace talks, and for resolution 2452. Yesterday, however, five aid workers were killed in Yemen as they tried to de-mine parts of the country. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the safety of aid workers is a priority during the talks?]
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP 
  • Absolutely. In fact, I had an exchange with Martin Griffiths, the Yemen special envoy, yesterday. De-mining the road between the port of Hodeidah and Sana’a so that food supplies can come from the port into the rest of the country is essential, and I think that the whole House will wish to express our admiration for the bravery of the aid workers who are in Yemen right now.