Foreign & Commonwealth Office Questions

Hugh Robertson answers back bench MPs’ questions on issues including protecting minority Christian communities in the middle east, the human rights situation in Bahrain and Afghan security arrangements after 2014.

Christians (Middle East)

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to protect minority Christian communities in the middle east. [902063]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): Government Ministers regularly speak out against abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief. I met minority Christian communities in Egypt in December and in Algeria during my visit there last week precisely to highlight this issue.

Stephen Phillips: My right hon. Friend will be aware of the plight of Christians in Iraq, which often goes unreported in the western media. The scale of the exodus of Christians owing to sectarian violence is unprecedented and those who remain often flee to Kurdish-controlled areas to escape violence in Baghdad. However, although they are physically safer in places such as Irbil, they are struggling to survive. What steps is the Department taking to encourage the Iraqi Government to protect Christians in that country and to improve their security?

Hugh Robertson: My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct. The security situation of Iraq’s Christians, and indeed other minorities, remains precarious. We continually urge the Iraqi Government, through ministerial contacts and by all other means, to protect all communities and to deal appropriately with those who are found responsible for acts of violence and intimidation because of political, ethnic or religious affiliation.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): The Geneva II peace conference for Syria is taking place tomorrow. What actions are the UK Government going to take to ensure that the voices of Christians and other religious minorities are heard during those negotiations, to ensure that freedom of religion and belief are enshrined in any new constitution?

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue, and it has been a key concern for the Foreign Secretary and all involved on behalf of the Government. We have absolutely urged the coalition to make sure it is broad based and includes Christians who it will bring to Geneva II. Our hope is that that will be achieved.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that persecution of Christians is also continuing unabated in Iran, with reports of Christians being lashed for drinking communion wine, having their homes raided and having Bibles confiscated? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the particular case of Maryam Naghash Zargaran, who last year received a sentence of four years of imprisonment on account of her Christian beliefs and whose health is now reported as deteriorating? Will my right hon. Friend take up her case with the Iranians?

Hugh Robertson: I certainly will, and my hon. Friend correctly highlights the serious position of Christians, and indeed of other minorities, in Iran. It is important to remember that despite the very welcome unfreezing that is going on in some areas, in other areas little or nothing has changed, and that will very much be part of the negotiations as we move forward.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the last three years have proved among the most difficult for Christians right across the region. What specific steps is the Minister taking to point out consistently that tackling the persecution of Christians in the region is fundamental to the UK Government’s approach to dealing with issues of toleration?

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise an issue that is often raised in correspondence that Members from across the House send into the Foreign Office. As a result of that, I have made a particular point of going to visit Christian communities in order to highlight their concerns and to ensure that the Governments in many of those countries know we care about those concerns. I had a very good visit with the Coptic community in Egypt the week before Christmas and, as I said in my answer, I have just been to see the Christian community in Algeria during my visit there. I will continue to do that and also to examine with the Churches, and in particular with people such as the Archbishop, with whom I had a conversation about this over Christmas, what more we can do to work better with them.

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Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the human rights situation in Bahrain. [902066]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): The most recent assessment of the human rights situation in Bahrain is in the FCO’s update to its annual human rights report, published last September. The report noted the positive steps taken by the Bahraini Government to improve the human rights situation and highlighted areas where more needed to be done.

Dr Huppert: The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs recommended that if Bahrain’s human rights record did not substantially improve by this January, the Foreign Office should designate it as a country of concern. Today, Human Rights Watch launched its world report and stated:

“Bahrain’s human rights record regressed further in key areas in 2013”,

from, I have to say, a fairly low base. Will the Minister accept the recommendation of the Select Committee and designate Bahrain as a country of concern?

Hugh Robertson: Clearly, we follow events in Bahrain very carefully and the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Crown Prince about the situation recently. With the full backing of the King, the Crown Prince has begun a set of meetings to start a political dialogue process. We very much hope that that will see concrete steps taken to improve the situation.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): What is the Foreign Office doing to object strongly to the stripping of nationality from 31 Bahraini citizens? That is a disgrace. Bahrain always cites the UK as an example of another country that has in the past stripped people of their nationality, so I would be glad if the Foreign Office would refute that.

Hugh Robertson: We have a regular programme of contacts with the Bahrain Government that cover a considerable number of areas across our bilateral relationship. That is an issue that we discuss with them regularly and it will most certainly be part of the Crown Prince’s new political dialogue. I very much hope that some progress will be made.

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Afghanistan (Security Arrangements)

10. Mr Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with his Afghan counterpart on security arrangements after 2014; and if he will make a statement. [902072]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed this issue with Foreign Minister Osmani at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in December. The UK’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan is made clear in the enduring strategic partnership document signed by the Prime Minister and President Karzai in January 2012 and reviewed annually by a ministerial joint commission.

Mr Brown: I am sure that the Minister is aware of the campaign being run by Amnesty International aimed at strengthening and protecting the rights of women in the security arrangements and more broadly in civic society. What can he say to the House that will reassure those campaigners?

Hugh Robertson: The UK has made it absolutely clear to the Afghan Government that the historic gains since 2001, including on women’s rights, must not be lost. These commitments are enshrined in the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, and we will be doing everything possible to ensure that the Afghan Government meet them.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the security situation in Afghanistan post-2014 is linked to working with Pakistan to stop the terrorism that is going from one country to the other across the large border between the two countries?

Hugh Robertson: Absolutely. Anybody who has come back from Afghanistan recently, particularly from the military side, will point to the real improvements made by the Afghan security forces. It would be a great shame if that were lost in the political discussions that take place above that.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): May I join my right hon. Friend for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and old boss in paying tribute to the work of Amnesty International in Afghanistan and thank the Minister for his reply? On 23 April last year, I asked the Foreign Secretary what steps he was taking to ensure the protection of British forces and civilians in Afghanistan. In the light of the shocking events in Kabul in the past few days, can he provide reassurance to them and their families as to what is being done to provide protection now and after the military draw-down?

Hugh Robertson: After the military draw-down, of course, the hope is that a NATO-led mission will replace the international security assistance force. Britain’s part in that will be to provide mentors and trainers. We keep the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere under close review on a daily, if not hourly, basis, and we amend the advice accordingly.

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