Foreign Affairs

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Tuesday 5th March 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
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That this House takes note of the United Kingdom’s position on foreign affairs.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, it is an immense honour to open this important debate on behalf of my noble friend Lord Cameron. I look forward to some insightful contributions.

I must admit that, in preparing for this debate, I do not know if I should feel a sense of trepidation in having my boss watching my performance or, indeed, a degree of nostalgia, because it was of course my noble friend Lord Cameron who first appointed me to this House. As a Minister, I am sure it is a mixture of both. I of course welcome my noble friend’s appointment and the intensity of diplomatic effort we have seen in recent months. His experience, insight and engagement on the global stage have been a real reflection of the strength of British diplomacy. I assure noble Lords that this is a welcome opportunity for us to listen and to consider the UK’s place in the world and its position on the full range of foreign affairs issues—development, diplomacy, defence and security.

What is clear is that we face a world that is increasingly unstable and insecure, and we are facing, frankly, a daunting set of challenges with direct implications for our country. I assure noble Lords that we are working with old friends and new partners to address these challenges, bringing together our best efforts across diplomacy and development to protect our security and shape an open and stable international world order.

This approach has defined our approach to issues across the Middle East, in particular to the Israel-Gaza crisis, where we are driving progress towards a sustainable peace, a peace that lasts, and a solution that delivers justice, security and stability for Israelis and Palestinians. Let me be clear: Israel was shaken to its core by those horrendous terror attacks perpetrated by Hamas. Today, we see Palestinian civilians in Gaza who are facing a devastating humanitarian catastrophe. We need to act, and we are doing just that. That is why we have said that the fighting needs to stop now. That call was echoed by the US Vice-President Kamala Harris just this weekend. The most effective way, as we have said consistently, is to agree an immediate humanitarian pause, a stop in fighting. That will lay the ground and the space to create a sustainable ceasefire. It would allow for the safe release of hostages and a significant increase, which is vitally needed, in aid going into Gaza. I stress again: this must happen, and happen now. It is a position shared by many partners, and I assure noble Lords that it has been the focus of all our extensive diplomatic efforts. Indeed, since his appointment, my noble friend and I have conducted more than a dozen visits to the region, sometimes visiting countries twice over, as well as the other engagements we have had on this issue in multilateral fora.

As Foreign Secretary, my noble friend Lord Cameron has visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories twice over. He has also visited Qatar and Turkey. I have had the opportunity to join him on visits to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt, as well as the visits I have made to Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait, Israel and the OPTs, Egypt and Morocco. We have been clear that there are five vital elements for a lasting peace. These include, first, the release of all hostages, which should also allow for unhindered humanitarian access to Gaza; secondly, the formation of a new Palestinian Government for the West Bank and Gaza, accompanied by international support—meaning support for reconstruction to rebuild schools and hospitals, and allowing for basic amenities to start again; and, thirdly, removing Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel.

We also want to see an end to extremist settler violence, which we have seen perpetrated in the West Bank, and Hamas no longer being in charge of Gaza. Importantly, we want a political horizon which provides a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution, with two states—Israel and Palestine—living in security and peace. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, my noble friend Lord Cameron and I have reiterated these messages with senior members of all Governments, including Israelis and Palestinians, in all our various visits, engagements, telephone calls and diplomacy in recent weeks.

I assure all noble Lords that we make the point that civilians must be protected and have made it clear that all parties must act within international humanitarian law. Israel must focus its operations on military targets and avoid civilians being killed. A military ground offensive into Rafah is, frankly, a chilling prospect and we are urging Israel to stop and think seriously about the impacts of such an offensive.

Meanwhile, we are doing all we can to alleviate the suffering. We have trebled our aid commitment this financial year and are pressing to get more crossings into Gaza open. We have reminded Israel of its obligation to ensure that significantly more humanitarian aid enters Gaza. In this respect, we are focusing on five key humanitarian needs: an immediate deconfliction mechanism to enable safe distribution of aid through that extended humanitarian pause; increased capacity inside Gaza, enabling the humanitarian system and private sector to scale up the provision of goods; increased access for aid through land and sea routes; an expansion of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, including fuel, shelter and public health items, as well as items critical for infrastructure repair; and, of course, the provision of electricity, water and telecommunications.

I turn to the wider region and the situation in the Red Sea, where the Houthis have been using the events in Israel and Gaza as an excuse for their attacks on commercial shipping. I assure noble Lords that we are using every diplomatic lever at our disposal to pressure the Houthis to desist, working with our allies and international partners, including through Operation Prosperity Guardian—an international naval force to deter mounting attacks. We are working alongside the US with non-operational support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand. We must protect these lanes: 15% of the world’s trade and shipping passes through them in the Red Sea. Let me also be clear: military action is always treated as a last resort.

I turn briefly to Iran. We believe that Hamas alone was responsible for the horrific terror attacks on Israel last October, but Iran also bears responsibility for the actions of such groups, which it has long supported politically, militarily and financially. This includes Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah, militia groups in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. As my noble friend has made clear to his counterpart, Iran must actively restrain them.

I turn to Mr Putin and Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine. The brazen violation of the UN charter strikes at the heart of the rules on which our security and prosperity depend. Mr Putin’s recent address, simply put, was deplorable. The threatened use, yet again, of nuclear weapons is chilling and irresponsible. Two years on from his illegal invasion, Ukrainians continue to stand strong, as they fight to defend their country and the principles of freedom and democracy.

The international community stands just as firmly in support. We are leading the international response, giving the Ukrainians what they need to defend themselves, to succeed against Russian aggression and to build a secure and prosperous future. Russia and Mr Putin should be in no doubt of our resolve. This is why the Prime Minister made his first foreign visit of the year to Ukraine, with one message:

“The United Kingdom stands with you”.


Indeed, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, upon his appointment, made Ukraine his first visit. This underlines the strong support we are giving to a key ally and partner. It is why the UK signed, with President Zelensky, a historic agreement on security co-operation, providing assurance for the long term. It is why we have pledged almost £12 billion in overall support to Ukraine since the war began, including £2.5 billion in military assistance this year and a further £245 million for artillery ammunition to boost Ukraine’s reserves.

Meanwhile, our sanctions have deprived Russia of over $400 billion in assets and revenues. In a joint call with G7 leaders and President Zelensky to mark the second anniversary of the invasion, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary renewed our pledge to make Russia pay. Russia must also be held to account for the terrible impact of Mr Putin’s despotism on ordinary Russians. We saw this most recently in the tragic death of the brave and courageous Alexei Navalny. Our thoughts and prayers extend to his family. As the Prime Minister and my noble friend have done, I call again on Russia to release our British citizen Vladimir Kara-Murza. Release him—release him now.

Elsewhere in the world, the UK’s approach to China is to strengthen our national security protections, to work closely with our partners and to engage directly where it is in our interests to do so. My noble friend met his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on 16 February at the Munich Security Conference. They agreed that our countries should continue to engage across a range of areas. The Foreign Secretary also urged China to use its influence with Iran to pressure the Houthis over their attacks in the Red Sea and further stressed the UK’s support for Ukraine. My noble friend also raised the case of British parliamentarians sanctioned by China, some of whom are present in the Chamber, and reiterated his call for the British national Jimmy Lai to be released.

On human rights, I assure noble Lords that the UK continues to play a leading role in holding China to account over its human rights violations, both through sanctions and international action, as our joint statement in October on the situation of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang demonstrated.

Elsewhere in the world, we are also demonstrating leadership in our work with regional partners, particularly and most recently to de-escalate tensions and ensure respect for Guyana’s sovereignty. I know that my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and my colleague Minister Rutley have engaged extensively on this issue.

I turn to multilateral organisations. There are, of course, many brutal conflicts taking place, humanitarian crises that are gripping us and human rights violations taking place as I speak. We could talk about Myanmar, Sudan, Yemen, Venezuela, the DRC, Syria and Ethiopia —the list goes on. It is important that we strengthen our work in multilateral organisations, including the UN. Our role as a P5 member of the Security Council is key, as well as being a leading ally within the expanding NATO. We are also looking at new partnerships, to see how to reinvigorate the Commonwealth, and new alliances, such as strategic dialogue within ASEAN.

Amid all our diplomacy, international development plays a pivotal role in our approach, helping to protect our interests in an open and stable international order, and the sovereignty, security and prosperity of British people. As such, we are drawing on the UK’s diplomatic and technical skills, its science and technology expertise and its role as a global financial centre, to partner with developing countries, including the most fragile ones, so that we can deliver, with them, our collective ambitions. This means unlocking the full potential of UK development finance and programming, while also pushing for reform and delivery of a bigger, better, bolder and fairer international financial system. I pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Development Minister for pushing this agenda and these priorities to ensure that those in the developing world get a fair deal. It also means supporting countries to cope with the effects of climate change; UK international climate finance has helped more than 100 million people cope with our changing planet, giving 70 million access to clean energy. On preventing sexual violence in conflict—a personal priority—we have helped to shape this agenda over a number of years, and I pay tribute to the people we have worked with, including the Nobel laureates Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, and to the convening power of Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Edinburgh.

I turn briefly to the topic of trade and growth during these unstable times that are affecting all economies. Enhancing our trade partnerships is, as ever, a key priority in order to boost security and prosperity at home and abroad. Accordingly, we continue to work around the clock on the FTA negotiations with India and our GCC partners. We are also expanding British international investments, including in the Indo-Pacific, where up to £500 million focused on climate finance will be invested. This will contribute to the £11.6 billion international climate finance commitment that we pledged to spend by March 2026, along with our pledge of $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund that was announced by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister at the G20 summit last year. Meanwhile, our developing countries trading scheme offers one of the most generous sets of preferences in the world, supporting jobs in partner countries and cheaper imports for UK consumers and businesses. Finally, I will mention the Blue Belt, which is another great example of British leadership. The UK and its overseas territories are custodians of the fifth-largest marine estate in the world, and the Blue Belt now protects 4.4 million square kilometres of ocean. We need to work with other countries to ensure that our oceans are protected for generations to come.

To conclude, when faced with so many international challenges, I assure your Lordships that the UK stands ready to continue working with key partners but also to continue to show leadership. On issue after issue, noble Lords can see the difference we are making with our partners. We are using our global convening power, working closely with old friends and new; and this is how, in the spirit of co-operation, we can shape that open, stable international order, despite the immense challenges and conflicts we face. From conflict resolution to climate change, from embracing new technologies to strengthening cybersecurity and facing the challenge and opportunities of AI, from standing against aggression and aggressors to fighting the cause of justice and security through strengthening alliances and supporting friends and allies, both old and new, we, the United Kingdom, remain committed to building a world in which freedom, democracy and justice can truly flourish. I beg to move.