Foreign & Commonwealth Office Questions

Hugh Robertson answers back bench MPs’ questions on subjects relating to the treatment of Palestinian child detainees in Israel, attacks on Christians in Pakistan and reports of child executions in Iran.

Palestinian Child Detainees

1. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the treatment of Palestinian child detainees in Israel. [900728]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): Before answering, may I briefly place on the record my appreciation for the work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? He will be greatly missed by his many friends in the House and across the region.

Despite some progress, we retain serious concerns about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian child detainees. The British ambassador in Tel Aviv wrote again to the Israeli Justice Minister on 14 October to urge further action.

Alex Cunningham: I welcome the Minister to his new post. May I commend the Foreign Office report “Children in Military Custody” for exposing how the authorities in Israel arrest Palestinian children in the middle of the night, interrogate them without parents or lawyers present, bully them into signing confessions in a language they do not understand, and jail children as young as 12 years old? Will the Minister outline what action he is taking and tell the House how many of the 40 recommendations in the report have been carried out?

Hugh Robertson: I am due to make my first visit to the region next week, so will be addressing many of the concerns outlined in the hon. Gentleman’s question. As he knows, the Foreign Office funded the report carried out by Baroness Scotland. We continue to urge the Government of Israel to implement it in full. As I have said, I will be taking that up next week.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I warmly welcome the Minister to his responsibilities—if I may say so, he brings a terrific track record.

Does the Minister agree that the question of detainees is inextricably linked to the overall security situation in the region and progress in peace talks? Does he share my concern that Hamas is resolutely and literally trying to undermine the peace process in the region by building a tunnel from Gaza into Israel, no doubt for the purposes of promoting terrorism? What can we do to remove that obstacle?

Mr Speaker: That was quite a cheeky attempt by the hon. Gentleman. I think the Minister should try to focus his remarks on the issue of child detainees. We are grateful to him for doing so.

Hugh Robertson: Thank you, Mr Speaker—it will, of course, be a great pleasure.

As I said in my answer to the previous question, I look forward to my initial visit to the region next week. The concerns that my hon. Friend raises will be a topic of much discussion. The encouraging thing is that, for the first time in many years, we are in a process. I encourage both sides to engage in that peace process for the greater good of the country and the region.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): When the Minister visits the region, will he raise with his Israeli counterparts why Israel is the only country in the world that systematically tries children in military courts, and why about a quarter of the children currently in custody are held in Israel, which is also contrary to international law?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, I will do so. As I have said, the Foreign Office helped to fund Baroness Scotland’s excellent report into many of the issues surrounding child detainees. We not only funded that report, but entirely support it. During my time as a Minister, I will do everything I can to ensure that its recommendations are properly and correctly implemented.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I join hon. Members who have concerns about the treatment of detainees, but is it not important to focus on the source of the problem, which is Palestinian children being infected by the glorification of violence and hate education, which, sadly, are supported by the Palestinian Authority? Can the Minister assure me that taxpayer funding does not support such activities?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, on the basis of three weeks’ work, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In a sense, his question points to the importance of everybody concerned getting behind the peace process. If that comes successfully to fruition, many of those problems will be solved in its wake.

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Attacks on Christians (Pakistan)

5. Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): What recent discussions his Department has had with the Government of Pakistan regarding attacks on Christians in that country. [900732]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): We have publicly condemned the attacks on the Christian communities in Peshawar and raised the issue of religious minorities with the Pakistani Prime Minister and other Ministers, including during recent ministerial visits to Pakistan and at the UN General Assembly in September.

Sheila Gilmore: I share the Minister’s horror at the recent incident, as do many people in this country, particularly in the Christian community. We are accustomed to tolerance here. What practical steps are the Government taking to ensure that the Pakistani Government take steps to protect Christians in their country?

Hugh Robertson: That assistance effectively comes in two ways, not only through the help we provide to tackle counter-terrorism, such as the enhanced strategic dialogue and the joint working group on counter-terrorism, but through our aid programme to Pakistan, which I hope addresses—and I am sure does address—the root causes of extremism and tries to ensure that this does not happen again.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to protect freedom of religious expression not only in Pakistan, but across the world?

Hugh Robertson: That is a good one for my first Foreign Office questions. I will restrict my answer purely to Pakistan. The guarantees to which my hon. Friend alludes are established in the constitution of Pakistan, and we would urge everybody involved in the process to uphold those guarantees and ensure that these sorts of acts do not happen again.

21. [900750] Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The recent bomb attack on All Saints’ church in Peshawar, which the Minister referred to, was felt deeply not just in Pakistan, but by many in Scotland of Pakistani origin and others, because it was the home church of a Church of Scotland minister, who lost his mother and two other relatives in that dreadful attack. Besides going through the United Nations, how can the Minister raise this issue within the international community? For example, can the EU not also be involved in raising these concerns with Pakistan?

Hugh Robertson: Yes, of course it can. Many other countries will have links to Pakistan in the same way that this country and the church the hon. Gentleman mentioned do, and I know that the EU will be raising the issue in the same way. There are very special relationships between this country and Pakistan, however, and the help that communities such as the one he represents and mentions can offer will be of enormous benefit at a time like this.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the treatment of Christians is the canary in the mine for the treatment of other minority faiths and ethnic groups—especially, in the case of Pakistan, the Hazaras and Ahmadis—and will he press the Pakistani authorities first to provide protection for Christians and their property, and secondly to take action against discrimination, whether by the state or by other groups?

Hugh Robertson: The answer has to be yes. It is a good question and a good point. Absolutely a key part of our intervention and conversations with the Pakistani Government is about ensuring that minority rights and religious freedoms, as enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan, are indeed protected.

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Iran (Child Executions)

12. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What recent reports his Department has received on child executions in Iran. [900741]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): We receive regular reports on the human rights situation in Iran, including information about executions. Executions for crimes committed by people under the age of 18 are a breach of international law, and the UK opposes the use of the death penalty as a matter of principle.

John Howell: According to leading human rights groups, Iran has the shameful record of being the world’s largest executioner of juvenile offenders. What representations can the Government make to ensure that that barbaric practice ends, in accordance with the country’s obligations under the convention on the rights of the child?

Hugh Robertson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This country has, under the EU sanctions regime, helped designate over 80 human rights violators in Iran, and, of course, helped establish the UN special rapporteur on Iran’s human rights and lobbied for his mandate to be renewed at the March UN human rights council.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Minister aware of growing concern about the human and civil rights of Baha’is in Iran and, in particular, about the UN special rapporteur’s report? What action does he intend to take?

Hugh Robertson: I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. I am absolutely aware of that concern, which is a key concern of the UN special rapporteur. As I said in answer to the previous question, our country lobbied extremely hard to ensure that the mandate was extended for a further year and will do so again in the future precisely so that these concerns can be addressed.

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Foreign & Commonwealth Questions