Wednesday 6th March 2019

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered bilateral relations with the Kurdistan region in Iraq.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. It has been nearly two years since our last debate on bilateral relations with the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The political context has changed dramatically and is now improving quickly for the Kurds and for Iraq more widely.

When we last debated this matter, we were weeks away from a referendum on the principle of eventual and negotiated independence from Iraq. I supported the referendum, whereas the all-party parliamentary group for the Kurdistan region in Iraq, which I chair, broadly took a neutral position but supported the Iraqi Kurds’ right to self-determination. The APPG sent observers to the referendum, including the former UK security envoy, Sir Simon Mayall, who disagreed with the referendum. We observed it in Irbil, Kirkuk and Slemani on 25 September 2017. It was clearly a joyous and colourful day, and the result was also clear: a 93% vote for independence on a 72% turnout.

Nothing changed much on 26 September, the day after the referendum, and the Kurds hope to keep negotiating with Baghdad—maybe not for full statehood, but for confederation or genuine federalism. The referendum was a reaction to the failure of federalism and the feeling that the Kurds could no longer rely on Baghdad, which had grown increasingly hostile to them. After the referendum, Baghdad quickly realised these fears by blockading the airports for six months and issuing punitive diktats to stop international money transfers. Worse than that was its use of the army to seize Kirkuk—that violated the constitution, which bars the use of the military to settle internal conflicts. Some 100 peshmerga were crushed to death by Iraqi army tanks and Iranian proxy militia, using the same tanks that were sent there to help deliver the defeat of Daesh.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I am following his speech with great interest. Given the fact that if it had not been for the Kurds, Daesh would have been all over Iraq, does he agree that the reaction of the Iraqi Government was even more extraordinary? When the Iraqi army was in full flight, it was only the Kurds who prevented Kirkuk from being taken by Daesh, and they also saved Irbil. Without the Kurds, Daesh would probably still be in control of Iraq.

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Kurdish peshmerga saved Iraq. When the Iraqi army dumped its weapons and ran, the peshmerga took up arms and helped contain Daesh. They were then instrumental in pushing them back. I will come on to that later in my remarks.

As my hon. Friend just said, Kirkuk had been saved by the peshmerga in 2014, but Kirkuk turned against the Kurds after the referendum. Their language was banned and their flag torn down, and Shi’a militia displayed photos of Ayatollah Khomeini in the governor’s office where we met Najmaldin Karim, who only just escaped with his life thanks to an American tip-off. Arson, rape, murder and extortion fuelled a mass exodus of Kurds from Kirkuk, and the situation there is not yet back to how it was in the past. I ask the Minister to make it clear that Kirkuk and other territories are still disputed and should be subject to article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi constitution, which promised resolution of the Kurds’ final status by 2007. I ask the Minister to encourage the UN mission in Iraq to make that a much bigger priority.

The Iraqi forces then sought to invade the Kurdistan region but were repulsed at several battles. France, Germany and the Holy See broke the diplomatic blockade by sending an invitation to the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, who was able to transit via the land border—obviously the airports were out of use. Thankfully Baghdad backed down, and the KRG has parked the referendum result for now. I put on record that whatever the tactical or strategic wisdom of the referendum, I am disgusted by Baghdad’s violence, which was carried out, ironically, in the name of upholding a constitution that it had flouted. Its opening article states that Iraq is a “voluntary union”.

Fortunately, the supposed strongman in Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi, lost the premiership. His successor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who once fought alongside the peshmerga, seems to be a much more reasonable character. A host of positive measures have now been agreed. Stranded oil in Kirkuk will eventually be piped via Kurdistan, and there seems to be a deal in the offing that finds a third way between total Kurdistani or Iraqi control of Kurdistani oil. Some will be sold by Baghdad in return for guaranteed salary payments to KRG civil servants and peshmerga, and some will be sold by the KRG. Internal customs posts are being demolished, which means that Shi’a militia can no longer extort duties and that Kurdistan can again become a dynamic gateway from the world to Iraq.

I think that is a positive and a potentially win-win position for all sides. Baghdad and Irbil are finding myriad ways to rebuild their relations, and we can do much more to make a strong KRG within a unified and fully federal Iraq. The Kurds might one day seek independence, as is their right, but not for now and perhaps not for a very long time.

The Minister will know that the UK is highly respected in Kurdistan. Many political leaders hold British passports, English is the second language and there is a strong Kurdish diaspora here in the UK. Four Kurdish universities teach only in English, and our active consul-general, Martin Warr, ably flies the flag and looks after and promotes our interests there. I praise the work of the British Council.

The UK Government are assisting the KRG’s reform programme by encouraging a modern Finance Ministry and the professionalisation of the peshmerga. I pay particular tribute to our servicemen and women at the Zorbash base in Irbil for their work. I visited their camp on two or three occasions and have always been impressed by their professionalism and what they are doing to help train the peshmerga in things like counter-improvised explosive device measures and how to train their own troops and keep a cohesive military force.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)
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I was with my hon. Friend on the APPG’s delegation. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on leading that successful delegation. We were there to monitor the referendum, but, as he said, we also had an opportunity to visit the Mercian Regiment, which was working alongside the peshmerga. Does he agree that that is another strong link between this country and the Kurdistan region in Iraq, and that it was a delight to see our troops working so hard, side by side with the peshmerga?

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was an honour and a privilege to see our people making such a contribution there by training the peshmerga in vital skills such as counter-IED measures, the conduct of war and the cohesion of a modern military unit. It was inspiring to see our forces and theirs working so closely together.

I am pleased to honour the sacrifice of the peshmerga, who lost 2,000 soldiers and had 10,000 injured in defending themselves—they were our frontline against the monsters and fascists of Daesh. We owe them a massive debt of gratitude and respect, and their efforts will never be forgotten. From my four visits to Kurdistan, I can say that it is a hospitable, beautiful and relatively safe place. They have significantly advanced women’s rights: nearly 40% of their MPs are women, which is a higher proportion than in Iraq and the UK. Christians, other religious minorities and ethnic minorities are respected.

The Kurdish Parliament has asked British MPs to help train its MPs in order to make it a more accessible institution and to instruct them on how better to hold the Executive to account. However, Kurdistan needs further and faster economic and political reform to take advantage of its better relations with Baghdad and its central position in the middle east. The peshmerga should be a single-state force. No political party should control security or have armed militia. The oil-dominated and state-centred economy should be diversified, and more efforts should be made to build a strong private sector so that economic pluralism underpins political pluralism and the agricultural, tourist and light-industry sectors are strengthened. We can help with that. I hope the Minister will reiterate the Government’s position on favouring direct flights, and thereby encouraging a commercial carrier service to establish such routes. That would send a very strong signal indeed that Kurdistan is open for business, and would fortify our good relations.

Will the Minister look at amending the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice, which currently says that people should visit Kurdistan only for essential purposes? That raises insurance costs and presents liability issues to British companies and institutions that want to operate there. With new advice, it would, for instance, be easier for British universities to set up campuses with accredited UK degrees, which are in demand and can improve the quality of higher education there.

British companies also need to invite Kurds here for training, but as the Minister knows, there is a very high visa rejection rate—over 70%, often for what seem to be spurious reasons. That does us great harm and hinders our ongoing relationship. Of course we need to control our borders, but we could do that better by reinstating interviews so minor details can be ironed out. We should allow our Ministers and diplomats to exercise their discretion in our national interest. Trade and investment will be much more important after we have left the European Union, so we need to put Kurdistan back on the map. I suggest that she encourage an official trade mission.

We are honoured that the Kurdish Parliament has decided to set up an all-party group for the very first time, and that it will be on the UK. Kurdistan could be a hub for companies that want to help rebuild Mosul, as their personnel could be placed in relative safety in Irbil or Dohuk. We already have a small military base in Kurdistan, which is doing fantastic work, but I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of expanding our military presence there more permanently.

I welcome the Bishop of Truro’s review, and suggest that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary examine the good treatment of Christians and other religious minorities, including the Yazidis, in Kurdistan. I encourage them both to go there.

There is still some unfinished business. My very good friend, Karwan Jamal Tahir, who is in the Public Gallery, said only yesterday in an email:

“Four years have passed since the crimes of genocide committed against Yazidis but as yet we have seen no justice for the victims and survivors, despite many efforts made internally and internationally. The KRG highly values all the efforts made to recognise these acts as genocide, we acknowledge that British public opinion, MPs, Lords are all asking for justice and prosecution of the perpetrators. The KRG thinks that, if previously there was no international basis for the trial, well now—there is an international and legal base in place—and that is UN resolution 2379 to collect the evidence and bring the perpetrators to justice. The KRG highly value and appreciate the British Government in initiating this resolution, lobbying to get it passed and dedicating budget for it.”

The UK took the lead at the UN, but there has been slow progress in bringing the Daesh perpetrators to justice, so further action is required. Does the Minister agree that, given that the KRG has collected evidence, we should consider an international tribunal? I also ask the Minister to make plans for an official visit of the KRG President and Prime Minister. I hope that, in the very near future, they will meet our Prime Minister.

I am very pleased about the new state of relations with Baghdad. I ask the Minister to keep encouraging that and the full implementation of the Iraqi constitution. None of the all-party group’s requests are about trying to encourage statehood. That is and has to be a matter for the Kurds. Next week, we are organising a unique briefing with the Minister, the Iraqi ambassador and the KRG high representative. I do not know whether I made it clear at the beginning of my remarks that I chair the all-party group for the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I draw Members’ attention to that.

March is a month of many memories for the Kurds. Yesterday marked the beginning of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein. We protected them thanks to public outrage and the actions of John Major and our RAF through the no-fly zone. Another anniversary is 16 March 1988, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the civilians of Halabja, killing 5,000 men, women and children in an instant and injuring 10,000 more, as part of his appalling genocide, which the Commons officially recognised in 2013.

As 21 March is the Kurdish new year, Newroz, the Minister can give the Kurds an early new year greeting by making progress on the points I have raised, and building a better, bigger bilateral relationship with a pivotal autonomous region that is our friend and ally in defeating extremism and helping make the middle east safer and more pluralistic. The Kurds in Iraq keep surviving and thriving, but could do so much better with a bigger, deeper bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this important debate. He is the excellent chair of the all-party group for the Kurdistan region of Iraq, of which I am pleased to be a member. Although I have not visited the region yet, it has been an honour to meet representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government, MPs and others from Kurdistan through my involvement with the group. It has been enlightening and valuable to learn about the region and its past struggles, and particularly about its pro-western values, its immense religious tolerance, which is unique in the middle east, and its role as the primary force in defeating Daesh.

I want to focus on early-day motion 2122, which I tabled last week, on establishing direct flights between the UK and the Kurdistan region. It focuses on an issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised and which has been pursued by the all-party group with Ministers over a number of years. We tabled it following the news that the KRG high representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, recently met representatives of British Airways, which is considering establishing direct flights to Irbil from Heathrow from next summer.

As things stand, there is no choice but to travel via a third country. I am sure hon. Members agree that there is no incentive for companies from the UK or from across the Atlantic to explore the business opportunities that are available, especially as the region’s economy improves due to the increased stability between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad, if there is no opportunity to fly there directly. I know from my airport, Newcastle International, about the importance of seeking new markets, particularly after Brexit. Connectivity is a primary factor for businesses, as it enables them to trade abroad.

A survey has deemed Irbil the fifth safest city in the world, and direct flights would surely encourage more tourism to that beautiful region, which has a wealth of cultural history. A lift in tourism would strengthen the region’s economy and help to diversify it away from reliance on oil reserves. I am quite able to fly to Chicago—the most dangerous city in the whole world, in terms of murders—to visit my daughter, but not to a safer country. We should perhaps bear that in mind when considering where is safe for people in the UK to go.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Hollobone
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I am listening to the hon. Lady’s speech with great interest—she makes a powerful point. Is she aware that Kurdistan attracts 2 million visitors per year for its tourism industry? Although it has a well-established tourism industry, very few of those tourists are westerners. Given that 95% of the economy is dependent on oil, she is absolutely right about the urgent need to diversify.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for emphasising that particular point. I think it adds fuel to the fire of why we want that situation to change.

The prospect of enhanced business connections and increased tourist travel depends on whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will consider revising its travel advice to UK travellers. At present, the advice means that UK travellers have to buy extra travel insurance, on top of their ordinary annual global insurance, to travel to Kurdistan. That sends out completely the wrong message to would-be travellers, who might question why they have to go for that extra insurance, and perhaps suggests to them that there might be more safety problems than there actually are. We do not want to deter would-be travellers from visiting that beautiful country.

Although the Government have to be cautious and do all they can to ensure the safety of all UK citizens, wherever we may be or are travelling to, in the light of the increased stability in the region—the hon Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke referred to it—which boasts English as its second language, I hope that the Minister will tell us that her Department will give serious and urgent consideration to revising advice for travel to Kurdistan, and that many more people will be able to enjoy all the delights that that wonderful region in Iraq has to offer.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his speech introducing the debate.

I want move away from the areas that my hon. Friend covered to look at some of the capacity-building and humanitarian aid issues that occur in the country. If one thinks back, only a few years ago the humanitarian aid made available to Kurdistan was not reaching its target by around 63%. The UN could manage only 37% of its aid fund target. We have to ask why, and maybe the Minister will be kind enough to give a take on that.

It is crucial, in the light of the history of warfare with Daesh and the huge number of people who have been caught up in it, that the humanitarian aid for the crisis is more prevalent there than in other regions. The area’s need for humanitarian assistance is much greater and we should therefore mention that there is and has been a major short-term funding gap in the provision of humanitarian aid for the country. That need for humanitarian aid is not finished—it is still growing because of the result of the conflict; the aid needs to be predictable; and improvements need to be seen and appreciated on the ground.

A number of things are putting enormous pressure on the provision of that humanitarian aid, one of which is the mass movement of people. Where there is a mass movement of people, there will always be a need for more humanitarian aid. As to a country where there is such need for that aid, it is difficult to talk of the need for capacity building, but I will mention five points in no particular order. They are not ordered by priority, but are just my thoughts on a number of issues.

First, I want to stress the need for capacity building in the provision of gender equality. There are two aspects to gender equality: the provision of humanitarian aid and the way women and girls have been treated as a result of the prevalence of Daesh in the area for so long. The number of vulnerable women is quite large, and they are vulnerable whether or not they are the female heads of their households. There is an enormous risk of gender-based violence and there have been absolutely horrific reports of sexual and gender-based violence throughout the region.

We need to concentrate on a number of things to improve women’s ability to survive and function in that society. A larger point on that, as we look to build an area with a great deal of capacity in future, is to ensure that women can use their skills to the best of their ability and that they play a full role, whether in politics, the economy or whatever it may be. We need to make sure that there is a tremendous amount of activity on that.

My second point on capacity building, which may seem a little strange in that these aspects are chalk and cheese, relates to cultural heritage. The UK has an enormous capacity in archaeological and cultural artefacts. In fact, I must admit that I am a product of that, having spent most of my early years as an archaeologist. I am not volunteering to go out to Kurdistan to provide the information and the training that people need, but I think we should make use of the skills that we have in the UK to deal with the tremendous trashing of cultural heritage in that region. One has only to look at the activities of Daesh there to see the effect it has on many people.

The third area is education, which my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke mentioned in the context of further education. We should be building capacity not just in further education, but in education throughout the lives of young people in the area. We should not necessarily concentrate solely on academic education, but we need to provide the skills that people need to ensure that the programmes of placements can be improved enormously—I have seen in other parts of the world how our concentration on education can achieve enormous results.

The fourth area is in the medical field. We have already heard that 10,000 people were injured in Kurdistan, and they need treatment. We need hospitals and qualified doctors to be able to provide that, and I think that a tremendous amount of capacity building could take place there to improve that situation.

The last point that I will raise, which encompasses all those things, is about dealing with corruption. I have a lot of experience of dealing with corruption—I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, after all. The way corruption is dealt with needs to be tackled and made specific to each country. Corruption is not corruption is not corruption is a much broader picture there. Where there are not effective institutions that can function properly, there will always be a risk of corruption. Corruption is corrosive on everyone. It needs to be tackled head on.

Those are the five areas that I would recommend that the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concentrate on. That does not take away the need for humanitarian aid, but those are the areas we need to concentrate on next as we develop.

Fabian Hamilton Portrait Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab)
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It is always a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on introducing the debate. My first contact with Iraqi Kurdistan was in 2010, when I received a telephone call from the then Chief Whip of my party, asking me whether I would be willing to fly via Vienna—no direct flights even then—to Irbil in order to speak to the Kurdistan regional Parliament about the importance of opposition parties. That was a good introduction to being in opposition in 2010, which was fairly new to us after 13 years in government. I had been to Iraq once before, in 1980, but I had never been to the north, to Irbil.

As the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said, what a surprise it was to arrive in a region of a middle eastern Arab country that I had visited so long ago—it was quite progressive in 1980 and went downhill after that—and to see the progress being made. What a surprise to see how that Parliament was developing, and to see the Kurdish values that I already know from my constituency, where we have a small but substantial population of Kurdish refugees in the city of Leeds, who sadly are now increasing. I saw for myself what was going on, and it felt like a separate nation. It felt like a region that was going to secede from the Republic of Iraq any time soon, because the values seemed so different. We were told that a visa was needed to go from Baghdad to Irbil at that time.

I was fortunate to go back to Irbil and Slemani just a year later with the all-party parliamentary group, under the leadership of the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, and with the secretary, Gary Kent, who knows the region and the country very well. During that visit we learnt more about the Anfal—the terrible slaughter of Kurds because they were Kurds under Saddam’s presidency. We learnt what the Halabja gas attack really meant for men, women and children. We heard more about that in a conference two or three years ago in London on the anniversary of the 1988 atrocity. The Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments have since learned—we have agreed—that was genocide.

There is no doubt that the violence by the then leadership of Iraq was aimed at the Kurds. The Kurds always seem to attract the wrath of the regimes in the region. Let us look at what is happening in Turkey—nothing like what happened in Iraq, but quite a lot of oppression—and in Syria and Iran. But it is in Iraq that there has been the only regional autonomy, until the referendum—as the hon. Gentleman so clearly stated, until the disgusting attack and oppression by the Iraqi army in Kurdistan. We were all shocked by that violence. I was in regular contact with Gary Kent at the time.

The Opposition believe in people’s right to self-determination, in whatever part of the world. I know the Minister will emphasise that too. If they have cultural integrity, linguistic individuality and cultural separateness, no matter the religion, they have the right to self-determination, to decide for themselves what their future as a nation should and could be.

In talking to the families of the victims of the Anfal in 2011, I was struck by the comparison they made to the holocaust of the Jewish people in the second world war. I come from a Jewish background—it meant a lot to me; it meant a lot to me. My family died in the holocaust and in the concentration camps. To hear people of the Muslim faith, who are Kurds, talk about their empathy with the Jewish people and the state of Israel was a revelation. One MP said to me, “You know, if Israel opens an embassy in Baghdad tomorrow”—unlikely, but perhaps more likely today than it was seven or eight years ago—“they will open one the next day in Irbil. We would welcome an Israeli presence here.” I had never heard anybody in the region say that before, and I was struck by it.

When we drove from Slemani on that road route back to Irbil, I took a number of photographs—we were delayed by a whole load of sheep crossing the road. I was struck by the similarity of the countryside to my native Yorkshire, which I have represented for 22 years. When I showed the photograph to my wife, she asked if it was Ilkley moor. I replied, “No, this is an area you won’t visit. This is Slemani to Irbil.” She was as shocked as everyone else.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising such an important issue. He said that the Kurds could no longer rely on Baghdad. He pointed to the army seizing Kirkuk after that referendum was crushed. He talked, most importantly of all, of the Kurdish peshmerga saving Iraq. The Opposition would certainly concur with that. They contained Daesh through their bravery and extraordinary organisation. Their army contains men and women—something unseen and unheard of in the region.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), who has considerable experience of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish cause, talked about the direct flights issue. Anyone who has been to Irbil knows what a struggle it is to have to change in Vienna, or whichever third country, but it is much more important than that. If they are going to develop tourism, as she said, there must be direct flights. The contrast with Chicago was a brilliant one, because I got that feeling too. I am sure every other right hon. and hon. Member who has been to Irbil, and had the pleasure of seeing school children in Slemani dancing the local dance and of listening to the music of the region, will know that it is a safer, more accommodating and more welcoming city than Chicago or many other American cities. They will have felt safer and not vulnerable, and that nobody was out to attack them. That is very important to the development of business and communities, and to economic development in general.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the need for humanitarian assistance. We should never forget how important that is; that need may well still be growing, as he indicated. Gender inequality and the risk of gender-based violence is something we need always to be aware of and to combat.

Between 1986 and 1989, about 180,000 people—the numbers are disputed—perished in the Anfal. The UK supported the creation of the Iraqi constitution after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Kurdistan Regional Government were formalised in the present constitution of Iraq in 2005. The UK has given military and financial assistance to the peshmerga, especially during the ISIS surge. I hate to quote him, but the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), stated that

“we owe a great debt to the Peshmerga for their bravery and sacrifice. What they are doing is on behalf of all of us.”

That is perhaps one of the few things I have agreed with him about over the years.

Governments of all colours have agreed that it is important to have a strong Kurdistan region of Iraq, within a strong, successful, unified Iraq. We know that would ensure stability in the country and the whole region, which is why we are so concerned about the destabilising effect of what happened a couple of years ago. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs stated in a report on the subject in 2018 that

“the FCO should support meaningful political participation and representation for Kurds, as well as cultural recognition, equal rights, and economic opportunities for them, underpinned by national constitutions and achieved through negotiation, as a means of fulfilling Kurdish aspirations. It is not in the UK’s interests for any state to deny Kurdish identity through law or force.”

I am sure that the Minister will refer to that.

The UK Government have played a diplomatic role in attempting to reduce tension between the Kurdish and the Iraqi federal Government. I pay tribute to the Foreign Office and to current Ministers for that. However, bafflingly, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside said, the Foreign Office still advises against all but essential travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, putting it in the same category as Baghdad and southern Iraq. That needs to change, and I hope we will hear more about that from the Minister.

In February 2019, one of the people I shadow, the Minister for the Middle East, announced £30 million in funding to help rebuild Iraq and to aid the economy. He visited the region in January 2019, and he gave particular support to policies preventing sexual violence in conflict areas in Iraq. As we know, since 2014 the Department for International Development has provided more than £250 million towards humanitarian assistance in Iraq, the vast majority of it in and around the Iraqi Kurdistan region. I hope that I have not stolen the Minister’s thunder—she is also a DFID Minister.

The United Kingdom gives indirect support through international bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme funding facility for stabilisation, which has focused on areas liberated from ISIS. The UK trained more than 9,000 peshmerga in infantry, counter-IED, engineering and medical skills, and provided—I believe it continues to provide them—arms and ammunition to the peshmerga.

As we know, there are still no direct flights from the UK to Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. As Members have said, there have been rumours that British Airways will commence flights next year. Let us hope that happens and that the Government can encourage that. As I mentioned, the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan are particularly proud of the religious tolerance in the region. The Kurdish authorities launched a commission to investigate crimes by ISIS, particularly against the Yazidis, during the conflict. I think we all welcome that.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke on bringing this important issue before us. Let us hope that we can continue to work together to ensure that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have a truly autonomous future, that they can govern themselves, and that we can look forward to Irbil, Slemani and the many other cities of Iraqi Kurdistan being tourist destinations for everybody from Europe.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait The Minister for Africa (Harriett Baldwin)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this debate and on his long-standing passion and interest in this area. I am probably the only person to speak in the debate who has not had the pleasure of visiting the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. Obviously, my colleague the Minister for the Middle East would usually have responded to such a debate, but he is travelling. He sends his apologies for not being able to take part.

We have heard a range of really interesting and enlightening speeches. I will start by trying to address some of the common points that were raised before recapping the UK’s long-standing partnership with the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Some important issues have been raised. We heard questions about the UK’s position on the 2017 referendum for independence. Colleagues will want to know that we continue to support the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. That is why we did not support the Kurdistan region’s referendum and do not recognise the results of the referendum. We believe that any referendum or political process towards independence must be taken as a result of an agreement with Baghdad and in line with the Iraqi constitution. We continue to help Iraq to build a more stable, prosperous and inclusive Iraq in which all Iraqis, including Iraq’s Kurds, have the security, jobs and opportunities they want and deserve.

The UK continues to encourage the Iraqi Government to resolve outstanding disputes with the Kurdistan Regional Government, and we continue to encourage the Kurdistan Regional Government to respect the Iraqi federal court ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. At the right time, when both parties are ready, we would want both sides to return to substantial negotiations to resolve all outstanding issues, in line with the Iraqi constitution, including making further progress on oil and revenue sharing and the status of the disputed territories, so the Baghdad-Irbil relationship is placed on a more sustainable footing within a unified Iraq.

Turning to the specific question of Kirkuk, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke noted, in 2014 Daesh captured large swathes of territory in northern Iraq that were disputed between Baghdad and Irbil. As the Kurds pushed Daesh back, they controlled many of those disputed territories, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Following the referendum on 25 September 2017, the federal Government of Baghdad reasserted control over those areas. The UK wants to see a long-term, peaceful and sustainable solution to the governance of those territories, in line with article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.

A number of colleagues raised the question of flights. Of course, individual airlines will want to make their own commercial decisions. I certainly thought that a range of colleagues made some powerful points in support of direct flights. The Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Department for Transport keep the issue under constant review, as indeed we at the Foreign Office keep travel advice for the Kurdistan region of Iraq under constant review.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of visas. He may want to raise that question more directly with colleagues from the Home Office, but the Foreign Office can commit that we will continue to work with Home Office colleagues to ensure that the requirements for visas to the UK are clearly, simply and effectively communicated to those applying for them.

My hon. Friend raised important issues to do with the atrocities committed during the conflict. The UK took action in 2017 to secure United Nations Security Council resolution 2379, which established an investigative team to gather evidence of Daesh’s crimes in Iraq. That team has now deployed. It has the full support of this Government, and we continue to encourage the UN to make rapid progress on that important work.

My hon. Friend raised the question of an inward visit from Kurdistan to the UK. He will know that the Prime Minister herself visited Iraq in 2017, and he will appreciate that she had a bilateral meeting with President Salih last week in Sharm El Sheikh. We would be very glad, at the appropriate moment, to welcome a delegation from the Kurdistan region of Iraq to the UK.

The UK has long and historic links with the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which colleagues alluded to. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) raised the important work we have been doing on the humanitarian side through the Department for International Development. I did not realise that he had such an interesting experience of archaeology. I think he will be very interested in the British Museum’s Iraq scheme, which is funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and trains Iraqi archaeologists. It brings them to London for two months and then gives hands-on training in Iraq for a further two months. I think we can all agree wholeheartedly how important that is.

Successive British Governments have enjoyed a close working relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government since its formation in Iraq in 1992. As a number of colleagues noted, we stood by the Kurdish people in 1991. We introduced safe havens, we policed no-fly zones, we protected thousands of lives in the Kurdistan region and we provided a refuge from the brutality of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein for many years. We also stood by the Iraqi people in their fight against Daesh, and I take this opportunity to pay particular tribute to the courage and tenacity of the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces in the face of the barbaric assault by Daesh on their livelihoods and their cultural identity.

I pay tribute to the incredible generosity of Iraqis from across the country, including the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in supporting millions of people displaced from their homes by the brutality of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. As an integral part of Iraq, the Kurdistan region is a natural partner for the UK. We share many strategic interests. We respect the Kurdish people and our relationship is strong.

The strength of our partnership was evident during the recent visit to Iraq, to which the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) alluded. During the visit, the Minister for the Middle East met senior politicians and leaders in Baghdad, as well as the Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and Chancellor Masrour Barzani. He reiterated the United Kingdom’s deep and unwavering support to all Iraq. He also met representatives from Christian and Yazidi communities, and stressed that all groups, regardless of religion or ethnicity, should be treated equally. We continue to emphasise to our partners the importance of upholding and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all minority communities in Iraq.

It is clear that Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, continues to face significant challenges. The UK remains committed to working in partnership with the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure a successful Kurdistan inside a thriving, multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq.

As colleagues have noted, since 2014 the UK Government have committed over a quarter of a billion pounds-worth of humanitarian support to Iraq, including to the Kurdistan region. That money has provided vital food, shelter, medicines and clean water to millions of people. In addition, we have committed over £110 million to Iraq since 2015 to help to stabilise the liberated areas and to enable internally displaced persons to return to repaired homes, with rebuilt water supplies and restored electricity networks.[Official Report, 12 March 2019, Vol. 656, c. 2MC.] To be sustainable, that infrastructure support needs to be underpinned by an ongoing commitment to reconciliation and security. That is why we are supporting community-level reconciliation in the liberated areas of Iraq through our conflict, stability and security fund, which we believe will play a vital role in building long-term stability.

While Daesh no longer holds territory in Iraq, it continues to pose a security threat to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and to other parts of the country. The UK is committed to working with the Iraqi Government and Kurdistan Regional Government to counter this security threat, through our ongoing support to the Iraqi security forces and to the Kurdish peshmerga. The success of the Kurdistan region of Iraq requires much more than security capabilities. It also needs political and economic stability. We are encouraged by some early signs of a rapprochement between Baghdad and Irbil, and we will continue to support the strengthening of this critical relationship.

The formation of a Government in the Kurdistan region is crucial. The people of the Kurdistan region need a stable and functioning Government who can attract business and investment, grow the economy and provide much-needed jobs. Reform will be important too—not only to strengthen the economy, but to improve public services. The current leadership recognises that and we stand ready to support it in its efforts. We will continue to urge the political parties to conclude their negotiations as soon as possible, and set a forward-thinking programme of government focused on building prosperity and security for the people.

The UK’s commitment to the Kurdistan region of Iraq is long term, and we will continue to work with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to strengthen our partnership. Our defence and security support is helping to strengthen and reform the peshmerga; our humanitarian and stabilisation efforts are helping to rebuild communities; and our political support is helping to bring politicians closer together, so that trade and investment can grow the economy and bring the prosperity that the people of the Kurdistan region of Iraq want and deserve.

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti
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I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate and offered their support, from across the political divide.

I will not list all the Minister’s points, but I thank her for addressing important matters to do with disputed territories, religious freedom and tolerance, and giving hope on direct flights. I will take her advice and bring up matters about visas with the Home Office.

There were some kind comments from the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). I agree with what he said when he reiterated what some of us had said about the peshmerga saving Iraq. Not only did they save Iraq; they also helped to a large degree in keeping our own streets safe and defeating some of our enemies. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

I was intrigued by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and his past in archaeology. I would be happy to spend some of my summer with him, because there are lots of artefacts, historic battlefields and great historical places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he could have a good dig around. I would implore anyone who has not yet done so to visit the region, for all the reasons we have discussed. It is a fantastic, wonderful place, with wonderful people, where people are always made to feel welcome and, as others have said, safe and secure.

Gary Kent would normally be here—it is rare to be at event that has anything to do with Kurdistan and find he is not there—but I hope he does not mind me saying that he is on a pre-arranged family holiday in Madeira. He has still been emailing this week and I have spoken to him most days. He has been very helpful indeed and he epitomises what we are doing in the all-party parliamentary group for the Kurdistan region in Iraq in his running of the secretariat.

I thank hon. Members again and I thank you, Sir Henry, for your chairmanship.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered bilateral relations with the Kurdistan region in Iraq.

Sitting adjourned.