The Independent Group for Change entirely supports the campaign to free Nazanin. Ann Coffey MP, Mike Gapes MP and Joan Ryan MP visited Nazanin’s husband Richard on our party’s behalf whilst he was on hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy in June 2019.
Persecution of Christians
I understand the strength of feeling on this issue – where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other fundamental freedoms often face threat as well. I am appalled by the persecution suffered by millions of Christians across the world who seek only to practise their beliefs openly, in peace and safety. Here in the West those freedoms are all too often taken for granted.
This is an issue upon which there is much Parliamentary consensus, and that within Government, much cross-departmental work is being done on these issues. I am pleased that the Government has recently launched an independent review looking at the persecution of Christians.
In order to expand its efforts to tackle religious persecution, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has established an expert advisory group, increasing training to improve its religious literacy and using these insights to inform Government work in international bodies and individual countries. In January, the FCO also announced the £10.6 million Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy 2016/17 programme, which encourages strong bids for projects focused on promoting freedom of religion or belief. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has recently reissued its toolkit on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) to all of our overseas embassies and missions across the world and encouraged them to promote and defend this important human right. Additional funding of £12 million has also been made available through UK Aid Connect, to work with faith groups, NGOs and academics to promote religious diversity and help countries worldwide embed FoRB policies alongside poverty reduction and development.
I can assure you that the Government is motivated by deep concern for religious communities in the Middle East. Ministers have stressed the importance of guaranteeing religious freedom when working with the Lebanese Government and the new Government in Iraq. Additionally, the Government is prioritising reaching the most vulnerable people across Syria, including Christians and those who have suffered from the ongoing violence, with its extensive aid programme.
With regards to recognition of genocide in Syria, please be assured that the Government firmly believes genocide has indeed taken place. However, as I understand it, genocide is a matter of legal rather than political opinion, and any determination on whether genocide has occurred is strictly a matter for the international judicial system. The UK seeks an end to all violations of International Humanitarian Law, and to prevent their further escalation, irrespective of the definition of specific international crimes. Britain is supporting the gathering and preservation of evidence that could be used in future to hold Daesh to account. British and international justice have a long reach and a long memory, and will track down those who commit these atrocities and hold them to account, no matter how long it takes.
Ultimately, the best way to prevent future atrocities against Christians is to defeat Daesh and its violent ideology. That’s why the UK is playing a leading role in a Global Coalition of 66 countries to respond to Daesh’s inhumanity. The Coalition is attacking Daesh militarily, squeezing its finances, disrupting the flow of fighters, challenging its poisonous ideology and working to stabilise liberated areas.
The Government continues to work with non-governmental organisations to seek improvements on the ground. I know that this has included funding groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation that works to defend the freedom of religion or belief, both in the Middle East, and more widely. During this tax year, the Government is spending £758,000 on freedom of religion projects worldwide, including in Pakistan and Iraq.
One project is helping to develop lesson plans for secondary school teachers in the Middle East and North Africa. The aim is to teach children about religious tolerance, religious acceptance, and the absolute right to freedom of religion or belief. I strongly believe that teaching children in that way is a vital part of promoting tolerance and respect at grassroots level and of helping to build future resilience against extremism.
Reuniting Refugee Families
The reuniting of refugee families is an issue I care passionately about; a passion reinforced by my recent visit to the Middle East as a guest of Oxfam, alongside Dr. Rosena Allin-Kham, the Labour MP for Tooting. This visit took place in February to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which serves as a temporary home to 80,000 Syrian refugees. From our visit we were able to gather greater insight and information into the plight of Syrian refugee families.
As many of the e-mails that I have received have noted, the Government’s refugee family reunion policy allows immediate family members of a person in the UK with refugee leave or humanitarian protection status – that is a spouse or partner and children under the age of 18, who formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country of origin – to reunite with them in the UK. I am very glad that such a scheme exists, which makes sure that family members that have been divided can once again be reunited. I would like this scheme to go further and as such I am a co-sponsor of the Refugee Family Reunion Bill.
I’m particularly proud of our efforts on a local level in providing support for Syrian refugees in Broxtowe. So far we have provided homes and support for four Syrian refugee families. A collaborative effort made by Broxtowe Borough Council, local businesses and churches has done vital work in this area by providing places of safety for people fleeing the Assad regime. Whilst we have taken strides to help refugee families locally, more still needs to be done nationally to provide them with the essential support they need.
Freedom of expression is both a fundamental right in itself and an essential ingredient for delivering the full range of human rights in any country. The freedom to debate, discuss, criticise and hold governments to account is essential.
I know that the UK Government shares your concerns about the violence occurring during the recent protests in Sudan, including credible reports of the use of live fire by the Government of Sudan, and of multiple deaths during several protests. I am assured that the UK has urged the Government of Sudan to respond to demonstrations appropriately, through uniformed police acting in accordance with Sudanese and international human rights law.
The Minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, visited Sudan last year, to reiterate the UK’s commitment to Sudan becoming a more stable and prosperous country. During her meetings with Ministers from the Government of Sudan, she discussed the importance of improving human rights and introducing political reforms.
I know that the UK Government is continuing to monitor the situation closely, as will I.
Human Rights Defenders
Human rights defenders are at the forefront of work to promote and protect human rights and democracy, often at great personal risk to themselves. In many places they are persecuted, imprisoned, attacked or even killed because of their work.
In the light of increasing levels of intimidation and persecution of human rights defenders in many parts of the world, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has worked with several civil society organisations to update its internal guidance on working with human rights defenders. This updated guidance was issued to all Embassies and High Commissions in December 2017, and tasks the FCO’s network of Embassies and High Commissions to find practical ways to support human rights defenders. I am assured that this guidance is kept under constant review.
I know that the Government very much supports the work of Human Rights Defenders and that the FCO works with and supports a wide range of organisations committed to helping human rights defenders either through emergency assistance or by building their capacity to protect themselves.
Support is provided to human rights defenders through the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, most of which is allocated for implementation of projects by human rights defenders and civil society organisations. The FCO also highlights repression of human rights defenders in its Annual Human Rights Report.
Human Rights in Bahrain
I know that the British Government monitors events in Bahrain closely. Where there are concerns on specific issues, including prison conditions, the UK raises these with the Bahraini authorities. It also encourages those with concerns about treatment in detention to report these to the relevant human rights oversight bodies, and encourages those oversight bodies to carry out swift and thorough investigations into such claims.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Embassy in Bahrain have follow cases closely, and where there are concerns, these have been raised with the authorities in Bahrain.
I believe, however, that it is right that the UK Government makes no apology for the partnership with Bahrain – our two countries share a close and lasting bond that dates back more than 200 years. This partnership is built on mutual interests, shared threats and a desire to promote greater security and peace in the Gulf. That said, Bahrain certainly has more work to do on human rights and that is why it is one of the FCO’s Human Rights Priority Countries.
In my view, the best approach with human rights is to engage with Governments and work with international partners and civil society organisations to promote and defend universal freedoms, and bring about positive change.
I am encouraged that the UK will continue to support Bahrain to address human rights concerns, both through bilateral engagement and through international institutions. However, it is right to acknowledge and welcome the steps that Bahrain is taking to address a range of rights issues.
The depth and breadth of the UK’s relationship with Bahrain means the UK Government can, and does, express its concerns about human rights in a frank and open way at senior levels. It does this publicly, but crucial and more often, in private discussions. The FCO’s latest annual human rights report outlined action taken by the UK, relating, for example, to the prison sentence given to Nabeel Rajab, as well as concerns about the deprivation of nationality, where that renders an individual stateless.
I was encouraged by the decision of the Bahraini Minister of Justice to refer the cases of Mohammad Ramadan and Husain Moosa back to the Court of Cassation for retrial.
Israel and Palestine
I remain entirely committed to a two-state solution to the conflict in the region. It is the only way to see a safe and secure Israel coexistent alongside a viable, sovereign Palestinian state. A long term political settlement, one that ensures a safe future for all, is the only way to resolve the conflict so that the Israeli and Palestinian people can live in peace.
Coexistence Projects Between Israelis and Palestinians (and UK Aid)
The UK has supported a number of cross-border coexistence projects in the past and I am encouraged by the Government’s decision to provide up to £3 million over three years to fund a people-to-people programme. This will help Israelis and Palestinians work together to achieve improvements in their lives and build understanding between people on both sides of the conflict. The programme will facilitate interaction between youth leaders, religious communities, and strengthen cooperation in the health sector.
More generally, DFID’s programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) works to build Palestinian institutions and promote economic growth, so that any future state will be stable, prosperous, well run and an effective partner for peace with Israel. It is essential that the Government’s funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) delivers the best value for money and maximum impact for Palestinians. DFID’s direct financial assistance to the PA is used only to pay the salaries of education and health public sector workers on a vetted list, thereby delivering basic services, maintaining stability and reducing poverty. This is in the mutual interests of Israelis and Palestinians and is a pre-requisite to a two-state solution.
Violence in Gaza
Like you I am deeply distressed by the deaths and injuries in Gaza, the violence is shocking and tragic. There are a number of important facts which need to be established urgently, including why live fire was used. Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself, however the number of those killed and injured demonstrates that we desperately need Israel to show greater restraint. The Government is supportive of an independent and transparent investigation into the violence and is working at the UN to find the correct formula for this investigation.
I believe the Palestinian right to protest is important, however these protests must remain peaceful. I am extremely concerned that extremist elements may have used the protests to further their own violent and deplorable aims against the State of Israel. This is another reason why I believe there is an urgent need to establish the facts. Above all, it is important that this violence is not repeated and that all those involved commit to peaceful protest, restraint and observe international law.
There is a pressing need for all parties to reach a wider agreement that addresses the underlying causes of conflict in Gaza and to take the necessary steps to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction and economic recovery. Any agreement should ensure that Hamas and other militant groups permanently end rocket and other attacks against Israel, that the Palestinian Authority resumes control of Gaza and restores effective governance, and that Israel lifts its restrictions to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians.
Operation Defend Israel
I am deeply concerned by the recent activities of Hamas in Gaza, including attempts to rearm and rebuild tunnel infrastructure. These actions undermine efforts to improve the situation in Gaza and harm prospects for the Middle East peace process. Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously signed agreements.
The Government’s policy towards Hamas is clear – it does not have contact with Hamas, which is a proscribed terrorist organisation. Hamas must make a credible movement towards the conditions set out above, which remain the benchmark against which their intentions are judged, before we consider a change in our stance.
Israel, like any state, has the right to ensure its own security, and its citizens also have the right to live without fear of attack. I can assure you that the UK will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself. The UK Government has called on Iran to end its financial support for Hamas as well as its supply of military equipment.
There is an urgent need for all parties to reach an agreement that addresses the underlying causes of conflict in Gaza and to take the necessary steps to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction and economic recovery. Any agreement should ensure that Hamas and other militant groups permanently end rocket and other attacks against Israel, that the Palestinian Authority resumes control of Gaza and restores effective governance, and that Israel lifts its restrictions to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians.
I can assure you that the UK remains focussed on securing progress towards a two-state solution, with a sovereign and democratic Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel. Only a negotiated settlement can achieve this.
Israel Arms Embargo
I do not believe that imposing a blanket arms embargo on Israel would promote the Middle East Peace Process. Defence and security exports support a country’s legitimate right to self-defence. Israel has this right as much as any other nation.
I know that the Government takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust licensing systems in the world. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, taking into account all relevant factors.
A licence would not be issued for any country if there was a clear risk that any exports might be used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law. The Government continues to monitor the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and takes into account the latest circumstances when assessing licence applications.
Israel Apartheid Week
I would like to make it clear that I condemn all acts of antisemitism in the strongest possible terms. Any discrimination or hostility based on religion or race is deplorable and there is no place for it in our society. Acts of hatred in any form will not be tolerated, and I am assured that the Government is committed to addressing antisemitism wherever it occurs.
All institutions, including universities, have a responsibility to provide a safe and inclusive environment. All higher education institutions have a legal obligation for ensuring that students do not face discrimination, harassment, abuse or violence. Universities are expected to have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law, and to investigate and swiftly address any hate crime and anti-Semitic incidents that are reported.
In 2015 Universities UK (UUK) was asked to set up a Harassment Taskforce to consider what more can be done to address harassment on campus, including on the basis of religion and belief. Last year, it published a directory of case studies detailing the innovative projects universities have developed to address the taskforce’s recommendations. Further to this, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has provided £1.8 million for projects to improve responses to hate crime and online harassment on campus. In addition, I welcome the new partnership between the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education, which is providing nearly over £144,000 of joint funding for a new programme to support universities in tackling antisemitism on campus.
Our universities have a proud history of encouraging freedom of speech and freedom of religion. However, I share your view that there is no place in any education institution for hatred and no student should face discrimination, harassment or racism – including antisemitism.
Humanitarian Situation in Gaza
I share your concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan assessed that 1.1 million of Gaza’s population are acutely vulnerable and in need of humanitarian assistance in 2017; and report that a lack of funding for water, sanitation and hygiene interventions have left 1.45 million Gazans at risk of waterborne diseases.
I am encouraged that the UK is a long-term supporter of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, providing basic services to 1.3 million people in Gaza, including basic health care. The UK is also supporting approximately 1 million Gazans by addressing critical water, sanitation and hygiene needs through the United Nations Children’s Fund. Moreover, the Government’s direct financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority now focuses solely on vital health and education services, in order to meet the immediate needs of the Palestinian people and maximise value for money.
The Government also continues to lobby the Israeli authorities on the issue of improving movement and access into Gaza, and encourages Egypt to show maximum flexibility on opening the Rafah crossing. By stressing the damage the restrictions are doing to the living standards of ordinary Gazans, the UK is working to highlight that supporting legal trade for Gazans is firmly in the region’s long-term interests.
As you highlight, we must continue to encourage prioritising progress towards reaching a durable solution for Gaza, taking the necessary practical steps to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction and economic recovery.
I fully agree that further restrictions placed upon Gaza will have a detrimental impact on ordinary citizens. I am told that UK officials from our Embassy in Tel Aviv raised these concerns regarding additional restrictions with the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories on 18 July. There already exists a dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and the Government is clear that Israel should reverse its decision to impose further restrictions.
I also agree that it is vital that efforts are made to alleviate pressures on the Palestinian economy. That is why I am pleased my colleagues in the Department for International Development have committed to more than double its support for economic development in Gaza and the West Bank, which will create hundreds of jobs, install vital new infrastructure and boost exports to Israel. I hope that a thriving Palestinian economy will create the necessary conditions for a peaceful two-state solution with Israel that will allow Palestinians to truly prosper.
Proscription is an important part of the Government’s strategy to disrupt the activities of terrorist groups and those who provide support to them. Under section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Secretary has the power to proscribe an organisation if they believe it is concerned in terrorism. If the statutory test is met, the Home Secretary may then exercise discretion to proscribe the organisation, taking into account a number of factors in considering whether to exercise that discretion. These include the nature and scale of an organisation’s activities and the need to support other members of the international community in tackling terrorism.
Peaceful protest is a vital part of our democratic society. It is a long-standing tradition in this country that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views, however uncomfortable or repugnant those can be to the majority of us. However they must do so within the law. Protesters’ rights need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or serious disruption to the community. Rights to peaceful protest do not extend to violent or threatening behaviour, and the police have the necessary powers to deal with such acts.
I agree that Hezbollah’s beliefs are outrageous, disgusting, and should be condemned at every opportunity. The UK Government has long held the view that elements of Hezbollah have been involved in conducting and supporting terrorism and, as a result, proscribed Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation in 2001, and in 2008 proscription was extended to include the whole of Hezbollah’s military apparatus, namely the Jihad Council and all the units reporting to it. Hezbollah’s military wing is also designated in the UK under the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010. Funds or economic resources owned, held or controlled by Hezbollah’s military wing in the UK therefore can, and will, be frozen.
A decision to proscribe an organisation is done on the recommendations submitted by law enforcement agencies, security services here and intelligence services overseas. However it is crucial that we constantly monitor these groups and individuals involved in them, and review the use of proscription as a means to take action where we see fit.
Israel – Human Rights Defenders and Organisations
I welcome the fact that the Government continues to support a range of projects and organisations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel which work on promoting human rights, dialogue and coexistence.
I am clear that the UK Government is deeply committed to promoting our trade and business ties with Israel and accordingly is strongly opposed to the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.
I do not believe that imposing sanctions on Israel would be a constructive step. The UK enjoys a productive relationship with Israel which enables us to express our views at senior levels very frankly. The Government also believes that the best way to combat the BDS movement is through discussion rather than proscription.
I am aware that British Government officials raised the recent publication of a list of organisations that may be subject to Israeli proscription with the Israeli Ambassador on 8 January 2018 and made clear the UK’s position. Officials from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv have also raised the matter with the Israeli authorities.
Palestinian Human Rights – Demolitions and Children in Prisons
Demolitions and evictions of Palestinians from their homes cause unnecessary suffering; call into question Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution; and, in all but exceptional cases, are contrary to International Humanitarian Law.
I know that the Government shares our concerns on this issue. The British Embassy in Tel Aviv, along with European partners, most recently raised the UK’s grave concerns about demolitions with the Israeli authorities in a joint demarche on 2 November 2017. Israel can be in no doubt of our concerns about demolitions and the damage that they do for the prospects of a peaceful settlement.
I would like to assure you that my colleagues in Government raised strong concerns with the Israeli authorities over the demolitions at Khan al-Ahmar and repeatedly called on the Israeli Government to halt these demolitions. I understand that a British official from the UK Consulate General in Jerusalem visited Khan al-Ahmar to show British support for the community.
I know my colleagues in Government remain particularly concerned about the treatment of Palestinian children detained in Israeli prisons. In 2012, the Foreign Office funded and facilitated the independent report on Children in Military Custody by leading British lawyers. Since its publication, Ministers and our Ambassador to Israel have strongly urged the recommendations of the report to be implemented. Minister of State, Alistair Burt, raised the issue of children in detention with Israeli authorities when he visited the region.
It is long standing UK Government policy that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law, an obstacle to peace and make a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, harder to achieve and that is why the UK supported resolution 2234 at the UN.
I am encouraged that Government Ministers consistently urge the Israeli authorities to cease all settlement building and to remove illegal outposts, and I know the Israeli authorities are well aware of the UK’s long standing position.
It is my understanding that the British Embassy in Tel Aviv continues to monitor the situation, having raised this issue with the Ministry of Justice and the Israeli Prime Minister’s office. The Government remains deeply concerned by Israeli relocation proposals, which the UN has said could have a devastating impact on the communities concerned and endanger the potential for a two-state solution.
The Government’s view is clear: demolitions cause unnecessary suffering to ordinary Palestinians, running contrary to international law and threatening peace in the region. I am assured that the Government will continues to encourage the Israeli authorities and Bedouin communities to engage in a dialogue, respecting the equality of all of Israel’s citizens in a way which avoids forced relocations, and is consistent with Israel’s commitments under international law.