Prospect was in conversation last night with the Rt Hon William Hague MP, the foreign secretary. He was interviewed by Bronwen Maddox, editor of Prospect, and then took further questions from the audience.
Listen to the event below
Here is the full transcript of the event:
Bronwen Maddox: Thank you very much for coming, I’m Bronwen Maddox, editor of Prospect, and I’m delighted to welcome you here to Prospect in conversation with the Right Honourable William Hague, foreign secretary. We’re delighted that it’s supported by Inmarsat and CH2M Hill.
No foreign secretary expects a peaceful life, but William Hague has had more than his share. Since May 2010, when he took the job, he’s had what you might call excessively interesting times. He’s had the Libyan revolution, Syria, Egypt, Iran (ongoing), North Korea, and the Euro crisis —he memorably called the currency a burning building with no exits.
He spent last week with the G8 foreign ministers, he’s just been talking at Commons about them, the week before with Angelina Jolie in Africa, and this morning launched the Foreign Office’s annual human rights and democracy report. Despite that, he’s presided over the Foreign Office with the mantra, ‘No one should panic,’ in fact it’s now affectionately known, the Hague regime, if you like, as the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ approach to the job, and he’s here to tell us why.
We’re going to have an in conversation for about half of the hour, and then we’ll go to questions—and I know there are a lot from the people here. And with that, let me kick off—I’ve asked the foreign secretary if he’d like to make some opening remarks, but after a day of making more than opening remarks he’s said, “Let’s kick straight off.”
We’re spoiled for choice, if that’s the phrase, for crises on your desk at the moment, but I wanted to start with Syria. You said last week when your counterparts were in town, that this was on track to be the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in the 21st century. We’re two years in, the United Nations thinks 70,000 have been killed—what should the west do now?
William Hague: Several things, and I think this is heading for that worst humanitarian catastrophe so far in the 21st century, we’ve just been discussing it in the House of Commons, we’re now to more than 1.3 million refugees in neighbouring countries, including more than 400 000 in Jordan, I think the Jordanian ambassador is here—this is the equivalent of 8 or 9 million people arriving here in the UK. The $1.5 billion appeal to help people is only 34 per cent subscribed.
The first thing we’ve got to do is make sure that humanitarian aid is delivered, the second thing is to maintain our diplomatic efforts with Russia to try to find an agreed diplomatic way forward. We must never rest on that, there is a better solution than that, it’s just that we haven’t been able to attain it. The third thing we have to do is to keep increasing the practical assistance we give to the Syrian opposition, the National Coalition. Not because we believe in a military victory of one side over the other, but to send a signal to the regime that they do have to come to a settlement, and to try and save lives.
The debate, of course, is about to what degree, and what the nature of that assistance will be. At the moment we’re delivering to them bulletproof vehicles, body-armour and other things that help to save lives. The debate is about whether we should go further than that. I’ve said that there is a strong case for amending the arms embargo further, or even lifting the embargo
BM: This is the European arms embargo that runs out at the end of May.
WH: Yes that’s right. But there will be many discussions—whatever we do we have to be doing it with our partners. Some of the countries involved, the friends of Syria, will be meeting in Istanbul this weekend with Secretary Kerry to discuss the way forward. We will meet as EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday and discuss the way forward, so we haven’t taken any decision yet about the next steps, but we have to keep doing all of those things that are just described, none of which are the complete answer.
BM: At the end of May, when this arms embargo runs out, is Britain going to press for it to be extended, or at that point do you say look, we really should supply arms to the opposition.
WH: Our options are open on that, and we have until the end of May to consider that with our partners. France has advocated the lifting of the embargo, we have said that as things stand today that there’s a strong case for amending or lifting the embargo, but we want to act with as many of the countries as possible. This doesn’t mean we’ve taken any decision to send arms to the Syrian opposition, as the Prime Minister made clear, but we are looking for stronger signals to the regime. Policy can change and we must be flexible enough to be able to respond to a changing situation. So I can’t give you a definitive answer on that now, it’s one of the things on debate at the moment.
BM: Did your Russian counterpart last week give you any encouragement that Russia might be more helpful to the kind of aims that Britain has.
WH: We nor any of the other Western countries have reached an agreement with Russia on the way forward. Russia and China have vetoed resolutions that at the Security Council, we’ve discussed this endlessly with my Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavarov, in the last few weeks, and the prime minister has discussed it with President Putin. There is an overlap of interests and anxieties between European nations and Russia on this. We’re all concerned about extremist groups gaining a stronger foothold, we’re all concerned about the humanitarian situation, the effect on neighbouring countries.
What we haven’t succeeded in doing with Russia is agreeing on the mechanism that would bring about, what we agreed in Geneva last year, a transitional government drawn from the opposition and the regime with full executive powers. We’re still in favour of that, we haven’t succeeded in agreeing with Russia how we bring that about. That is the gap. As Cathy Ashton said in another context a couple of weeks ago: “It’s narrow but it’s deep,” and we haven’t managed to get over that gap.
BM: There were reports over the weekend that Ministry of Defence scientists had found traces of chemical weapons. Is that right?
WH: I’m not able to comment on intelligence matters, but we believe that among the growing number of reports of the use of chemical weapons, we believe some of the reports to be credible. Let me put it that way. That’s why we’ve joined in asking the UN secretary general to investigate. And now what we’re trying to ensure is that that investigation is broad enough that it can look at all the allegations of the use of chemical weapons, and that’s a very, very important investigation.
BM: Let’s move to North Korea. How worried should we be?
WH: We should be worried about any country pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes in contravention of the non-proliferation treaty, but we should not respond every day to rhetoric feeding the expression of paranoia within that rhetoric. My watchword, as you said earlier on, we always make sure that there’s a calm atmosphere in the Foreign Office, my watchwords on North Korea are that we should be firm, united and calm, and all of those are important.
We should be firm about North Korea’s international obligations, and that it has a choice to make. We should be united in working with all our partners, including China, on this, and I welcome what they have done in agreeing to resolution 2094 imposing new sanctions on North Korea. But we should also be calm in the face of rhetorical provocations. Earlier this month the North Korean authorities informed embassies, including our embassy in Pyongyang, that they couldn’t guarantee their safety in the event of a conflict after the tenth of April. But I think responding that by evacuating our embassy would have fed the atmosphere of crisis, so we and other countries have maintained our embassies in Pyongyang. This is where the calm comes in, and we haven’t changed our travel advice on North Korea or South Korea since this ramping up of rhetoric. If we think we need to do so, we will do so. We will react in this calm but united way.
BM: Does North Korea pose a direct threat to Britain?
WH: Well it claims to do so. It claims that it already has the capability to fire missiles at the whole of the United States. That would be exactly the same as being able to hit the United Kingdom, if you look at the globe. That’s not to say that we accept such a capability, but clearly they are ambitious in this regard, clearly they are working on more and more ambitious ballistic missile programmes. The prime minister was right, two weeks ago, to use this as an example of why looking to the long-term, the decisions we have to make about our own Trident missile system over the next few decades, that when you look at something like that it shows you why we must make sure that we have our ultimate line of defence and deterrent.
BM: We might come back to Trident, but on North Korea, do you regard the leadership as rational? What would you say they want?
WH: We shall see about the rationality of the leadership. It’s a fair assumption in most situations in international affairs that leaderships of other countries are rational, but, not in—there will be cases where that turns out to be wrong. So we start from that assumption. If you look back in history, there are instances where countries did not behave in a rational manner, and so we do have to be alert to the danger of miscalculation or irrational action.
That’s again why being firm and united comes into it, and working closely with Japan, the United States, with South Korea so that they can’t mistake the fact, in North Korea, that this is a path that is not going to produce results for them. If they carry on with the choice they are making now they will end up with a broken country that is internationally isolated, even increasingly isolated from China, and yet there is an alternative open to them, we remain open to engagement with North Korea, we encourage them as Secretary Kerry was doing at the weekend, to come back to a true multilateral process of negotiations.
What do they want? Well, we could spend the whole evening analysing what they want, but I think in a country which is developing such weapons but where people are regularly and seriously short of food, it is important to justify the existence of such a military society and the development of such weapons, and therefore being able to portray the country as a victim of some kind, needing to protect itself, is presumably important for internal reasons. But, there are other theories as well, people in this audience might have as many theories as there are members of the audience.
BM: We may come onto that in questions. Staying on the nuclear theme, I wanted to go on to Iran. Over the weekend, Iran’s ambassador to France, who is not here, said that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could trigger World War Three, and after the failure of the talks in Kazakhstan a week ago, John Kerry that talks can not go on forever. Do you think that Iran can be dissuaded from getting a nuclear weapon, and failing that could it be stopped?
WH: I think that Iran can be dissuaded, we don’t know whether or not this will work, but again we have good international unity on this. The E3 plus 3 includes Russian and China, it includes all five members of the Security Council, those countries are working very well together on these negotiations, and of course it’s disappointing that they’ve not succeeded so far.
I think a crucial period will come after the Iranian presidential election, which is scheduled for 14th June, because if after that, in any further, we don’t know yet if there will be any further negotiations, if there are further negotiations then, and again there is no reasonable progress made, then many countries will conclude that no progress is ever going to be made in those negotiations. I think then the pace of this crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme will pick up. So that, I think, is becoming a crucial time—the second half of this year.
BM: Would Britain be one of those countries?
WH: We shall see what the situation is then. A good foreign secretary leaves his options open, of course. But certainly we will be, like the United States, like France, if we were listening to the President or the foreign ministry of France, we will be running out of patience, and we haven’t taken any option off the table in dealing with this crisis.
We are making every effort to deal with it through peaceful negotiation, through the twin-track process of sanctions and negotiations, we have some very serious sanctions that are applied to Iran, and we are very serious about the negotiations, but clearly you can’t go on for years getting nowhere with that and still have faith in it. Some minds would turn to alternatives, whether or not in this country.
BM: As you said, your government and its predecessor and the Obama administration have all been careful not to take the military option off the table. In what circumstances would a military attack be legal?
WH: Well I’m not going to speculate about a military attack, because, well, for obvious reasons I’m not going to do that. We want this policy of negotiations and sanctions to succeed. I’m not going to try to foresee all the circumstances that might arise, all the legal considerations. I think that’s a discussion to be had at the time, if it ever comes to that.
BM: Let’s move on, not very far in the Middle East, to Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is turning up here very soon—24 hours or so—and you said in the Commons in January, on the day of the Israeli elections, “if we don’t make progress in the coming year,” on a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, “people will increasingly conclude that a two-state solution has become impossible.” We’re three months on from that. You’ve had a trip by President Obama, John Kerry, the Palestinian prime minister has now gone—many would think that’s not a help—does it look bleaker than it did in January?
WH: No it doesn’t look bleaker than in January. All things taken together it looks better than it did in January. It’s just as urgent. I think that some would say one year, some would say two years.
BM: You said one year.
WH: Yes. I think at the G8, foreign ministers, when we discussed it, we agreed to split the difference and say that there’s about a year and a half. But some people would say it’s gone now – this is how pragmatic foreign ministers are—but I’m sometimes asked questions in the House of Commons, “Is the two state solution dead already?” and I have to argue that it’s just alive, but it is only just alive.
There isn’t going to be another opportunity after this incoming US administration if we could describe it as that, the re-elected Obama Administration, with Secretary Kerry coming in to the State Department. He’s clearly very enthusiastic and committed to this, he’s already been several times to the region, President Obama has been too, and their commitment to push forward on this I think therefore is not in doubt. The first thing I was asking for this year was asking the United States to make the greatest level of effort on this since the Oslo Peace Accords. I think they are putting in the effort—I’ve stopped calling on them to make an effort because they are doing it. There’s no doubt about that.
BM: Is it the kind of effort you want, though—they’ve made the trips there, but is it the kind of effort that you were calling for?
WH: Well it is the kind of effort that I want. We don’t know if it will succeed. It’s important to make the effort and to try, for all the obvious reasons. But it is the kind of effort, because it’s incremental, it’s working with all parties. I think that if there is to be a successful process of negotiations on a two state solution, a lot of it won’t happen in the glare of publicity. A lot of it will happen when you don’t notice it happening, in media, public terms. So you do have to give it time, and have confidence in the people involved.
There’s a new Israeli coalition, there are the constant shifts in the Palestinian leadership that you’ve been describing. All of this can make it more or less complicated each week, but it is very important that we all support this. I intend to visit the region soon, in the coming weeks, and to add the UK’s support for these efforts, because time is running out for a two state solution.
BM: What does Israel’s future look like without a deal?
WH: Well this is the argument that we make to Israeli leaders. I think in the long-term Israel’s future without a two state settlement of Palestinians is bleaker. And the long-term strategic security of Israel becomes more difficult without that.
If we look at a one-state solution, once you get in to any solution for the future that involves a greater distinction between classes of citizens in Israel, Israel would lose a very important part of its appeal from when it won the sympathy of many in the Western world in the 1970s. This is a very important moment for the Israeli leadership, and the prime minister will discuss with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the way forward, and strongly encourage him to do everything possible to advance the two state solution in the coming months.
BM: You mentioned back in December, when Israel had announced an expansion of West Bank building, that there was no question at that moment of EU sanctions, but you said that if there was no reversal of this decision you would want to consider what further steps European countries should take. There has been a new government in Israel, but there hasn’t been a reversal of that decision. Can you conceive of European sanctions on Israel?
WH: Well there hasn’t been an implementation of that decision either. This is about the unfreezing of the potential development at an area known as E1. The Israeli government announced in a kind of retaliation of the vote at the UN general assembly I suppose, the unfreezing of planning applications in that area; that’s different to a decision to actually go ahead and develop in that area. I think that the broad answer is that European countries and the UK, have to be ready to assist in a US-led process, and Arab countries as well, with incentives for Palestinians and Israelis, at key moments, and disincentives as well, at key moments. But as we get to any key moments, we will have to judge how to use those things.
BM: The Conservative party has based its strategy on an in-out referendum on the EU by 2017. You and the prime minister have said you want to renegotiate the relationship with the EU and strike better terms for Britain. Is that really on offer?
WH: Well I think there is an increasing identification in Europe with what the PM has been saying. He had some very good discussions about this with chancellor Merkel. The case that he made in his speech of the 23rd January about the need for Europe to be more competitive more flexible, for more power to rest with national parliaments, I think that strikes many chords around Europe and so yes I think we will win increasing support.
Of course there will be a vigorous debate, but we are used to that and the PM has succeeded in a whole series of negotiations which were said to be difficult if not impossible: to achieve a multi-annual financial framework, with a lower total than the previous one, was widely thought to be impossible, but working closely with chancellor Merkel, they succeeded in agreeing that for the whole of the European Union. We have had an important new innovation on negotiations about banking union where it has been agreed at our request that when decisions are made about the European Banking Authority, in requiring a qualified majority, it requires a majority of those not only in the Euro but those out of the Euro. So we can advocate other innovations as well.
BM: The redrawing of terms that you and he have called for rests on the redrawing of a new treaty with Europe. Many think with the ebbing of the immediate part of the eurozone crisis that’s not really on offer.
WH: Well I’m not sure that after the last few weeks one can talk about an ebbing of the crisis.
BM: But is a new treaty really on offer?
WH: There are many advocates of treaty change. Germany is looking at ideas for treaty change. The European Commission has talked about after 2014 the need for treaty change. There are many different reasons—and sadly as we have seen in Cyprus, the problems of the Eurozone have not gone away. We wish they would go away. It’s in our own economic interest for the euro to succeed though we are very clear about not joining it.
Clearly there are many countries that for different reasons advocate treaty change. If there is no other treaty change coming forward in the next few years, then we will enter a bilateral negotiation with the rest of the EU about what we think we need and the changes that we would like to see, but there’s a very strong possibility that other countries will need treaty change for other reasons.
BM: What is your response to the many alarmed headlines about the many Romanians and Bulgarians who are said to be heading this way come 1st January.
WH: I think this also calls for calm. Freedom of movement is a fundamental principle of the EU. The transitional arrangements have been applied for seven years to entry from Bulgaria and Romania by Britain and by many other European countries – those come to an end at the end of this year. We’re clear about that.
But we’re also clear, as the prime minister announced in the past few weeks, that we will make sure as best we can that our benefit and social security system is not an artificial magnet. This is not directed at people from Bulgaria and Romania—this is a general, this should be generally the case that what’s become known as “benefit tourism” is not something that we’re going to promote in this country. But we will treat people from Bulgaria and Romania just the same as people from all the rest of the European Union, remembering that British people benefit enormously from freedom of movement and work. About 1.5 million British people are busy working in other countries of the European Union.
BM: Does Britain actually benefit from immigration from other EU countries?
WH: It depends on the immigré, it depends what they do when they get here. But, as I say, the freedom of movement of people is something Britain has always supported.
BM: You’ve supported the principle but what are the economics of that?
WH: We’ve also supported it in practice. As we know, in fact, at one stage—I don’t know whether we have anyone from Lithuania here—but at one stage a very large proportion of the whole population of Lithuania were here in Britain. Something like 15 or 20 per cent. And of course the Polish plumber has become a figure of legend in Britain.
So we do believe in that freedom of movement but we also believe in it being fair and in not giving any artificial or perverse incentives for people to come to the UK because of our benefits system. And I think that is the right balance.
BM: Let’s return to the battlefields, literally. Afghanistan: 441 British military deaths. What have we achieved?
WH: Well we have achieved a lot, of course. We have greatly reduced the international terrorist threat in that region and massively reduced it from Afghanistan itself.
BM: From al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan..
WH: Yes, and that was the original reason for going to Afghanistan. So the efforts that have been made, and you’re quite right, we have lost all those people in Afghanistan, in doing their work for the national security of this country.
Now time will tell over a longer period, of course, what we have achieved.
But we are doing everything we can to leave behind us, when our military, when our combat role comes to an end at the end of next year, Afghan national security forces that are well trained and are able to secure their country and lead their security operations themselves, and a viable state. These have been very difficult challenges in one of the poorest countries of the world.
BM: And you think we’ve achieved them?
WH: Yes, we have achieved them. The Afghan national security forces are now more than 300,000 strong. The Afghan state is functioning in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a few years ago. If you go to Helmand, where British troops have been for the last seven years, there are children going to school and people walking to their local health centre who had no access to education or health before we were there.
So yes, a great deal has been achieved. It will increasingly be up to Afghans, though, to make sure those gains are maintained. We will support them through helping to finance their security forces, through development aid, through leading the officer training academy—the so-called “Sandhurst in the sands.” Britain will play a leading role in that. So we’ll still be helping them in many ways, but it will be Afghans who will be doing the security work on the ground.
BM: Does it seem to you that Afghanistan is Britain’s last significant war for some time? Have we become Little Britain?
WH: I wish I was in a position to predict that.
BM: I’m not predicting the end of war—but the end of a British significant role
WH: Clearly we can answer that with two points. If you look at the conflict in Mali or in Somalia, we are following a particular model there, in Africa, where we promote legitimate government, we help to finance and if necessary to train, as in Mali, the African forces to do the work on the ground. And then we give a lot of development and diplomatic support from outside. And I think that increasingly will be the model in dealing with failed or near failing states.
But it would be a brave man and a particularly brave foreign secretary who said we had come to the end of deploying our army in the rest of the world. We cannot possibly foresee some of the crises that may happen over the coming years.
BM: Let me go to one of them that is in and out of the news: the Falklands. Do we have the military capability or the international support to defend the Falklands?
WH: Oh yes, absolutely. I have no doubt on both of those. The answers to both of those questions is yes.
BM: Nice short answer, but stay on the international support for a second. The US has held back from giving unequivocal support to the principle of self-determination. There was a press conference when the State Department was taken to task after the Falklands referendum, where the people obviously voted overwhelmingly to stay a British Overseas Territory. And a State Department spokeswoman said, “The residents have clearly expressed their preference for a continued relationship with the United Kingdom. That said, we obviously recognise that there are competing claims. We recognise the de facto UK administration but take no position on sovereignty claims.” And it went on and on with the journalists saying, “Why don’t you stand by the Brits? They’re supposedly your great allies.” That didn’t sound like wholehearted support.
WH: These are only describing a well-known position over a long time of the United States. But I don’t detect any movement at all in a negative direction in the international community on this. And I think what is good, and what I support, although this is their own initiative in the Falklands Islands, is that Falkland Islanders themselves are travelling, including in Latin America and the Caribbean, and are getting a good hearing in media in what you might think are surprising countries on this.
It doesn’t mean that the governments of those countries have changed their position but people are beginning to see that this not about territories, it’s about people. And in the 21st century, people do have the right to determine their own futures and their own government and their own way of life. And they’re very good at putting that case themselves, the Falkland Islanders themselves
BM: They are indeed but there are not that many of them.
It would be more comfortable in your position, surely, if the United States were more wholehearted in supporting the British position.
WH: As foreign secretary looking at the positions around the world on this, I don’t detect, I don’t feel that we are under pressure or that opinion around the world is moving in any way against the Falkland Islanders.
BM: We’ve come to a couple of questions where foreign policy hits upon debates within Britain. One is from business, and the question of not just how can the UK compete, but whether your government has helped business enough to compete. We’ve had Lord Jones among others saying this government has not been as helpful as it should.
WH: Well, we’ve had a great many people saying we are dramatically more helpful than anybody who has come before us. But of course we have no monopoly on wisdom—we are always grateful for additional suggestions.
I have made the prosperity of the country one of the three key objectives of the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office had, when I became foreign secretary, more objectives than people could remember. And that’s no good.
We have three objectives: the prosperity of the country, the security of the country and looking after British nationals overseas. And everyone, in one way or another, supports those things.
We have greatly enlarged that work on prosperity. We train diplomats in commercial diplomacy. We are shifting our diplomatic network heavily towards emerging economies, opening 20 new embassies and consulates. Our entire diplomatic network is now charged with supporting business, which it wasn’t before.
And we have some strong increases in exports, but from too low a base: to China, to India, to many other countries. Since we agreed the free trade agreement with South Korea, I think our trade has gone up more than 100 per cent with Korea.
Of course it’s difficult because a flat market in the eurozone, that is our biggest single market, is a difficult environment for exporters.
But we are really putting on a huge diplomatic drive. We have tripled the number of ministerial visits to Latin America. We are one of only three European countries represented in all the ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] states. We’re building up British chambers of commerce, with UK TI funding, in the emerging economies.
So we’re doing a huge amount but I welcome further proposals and suggestions. I will hoover up ideas.
BM: Be careful what you wish for! You’re very likely to get them and immediately after this.
Moving on to the aid budget and the debate that is really quite noisy over the past few months, about whether Britain should keep its ringfence round the aid budget that David Cameron promised when this parliament began. The aid budget is now about £10 billion. What is the future of that budget?
WH: We’re very committed to that. We are one of the few countries in the world to have reached the 0.7 per cent of gross national income target on overseas development aid. This is a cross-party commitment in the UK. So I believe it will endure. Of course if GDP doesn’t grow as fast as one hopes, the figure isn’t quite as high. But as a proportion it is there and we’re hitting it now. And it’s a very important part of this country’s presence in the world, of our efforts to improve our own security and the prosperity of other countries.
When you look at what we’re doing in Pakistan, helping with one way or another in the education of up to six million children, this is really important work. And it is of strategic importance to the UK.
One of the things we’ve tried to do in the current government is make sure the Foreign Office and the department for international development work much more closely together. There was always a rivalry in the last government. They are each other’s best friends now in government and we are working extremely closely together.
BM: The Pakistan education one I personally particularly care about. But I was just wondering whether the aid budget might be shared with the ministry of defence as some commentators have suggested.
WH: What is certifiable as ODA expenditure is according to internationally agreed definitions. So everything has to be consistent with that. Our commitment is to 0.7 per cent ODA by international standards, so we will maintain that.
BM: Finally, with Lady Thatcher’s experience in my mind, and the part that foreign policy played in her winning elections, I’m wondering whether you thought the next general election in the UK would turn partly on foreign policy.
WH: That is difficult to foresee. General elections in most countries, including this country, turn predominantly on the domestic situation and on economic affairs, and really turned predominantly on that even in the aftermath of the Iraq War. So it’s rare for foreign affairs to determine the result of a general election, and indeed there’s a lot of cross-party consensus about many of the issues that we are talking about.
And even on issues that there wasn’t a consensus, my objective is to create a consensus. For instance about the expansion of the diplomatic network, the engagement of the emerging powers, and so on. So I see a lot of my job as being to try to create cross-party enthusiasm on international issues, but of course international events can always cause domestic controversy.
BM: The sharp heart of that question is obviously about Europe.
WH: That’s the international issue that is most often debated and disagreed about between the political parties. Will it be an issue at the coming election? The Conservative party is looking for an improved settlement in Europe and is committed to a referendum—and other parties will have to decide their position on that. Yes, that will be an issue at the general election. And I think the Conservative party will be on the right side of that issue.
BM: Thank you foreign secretary.
Questions from the audience
Baria Alamuddin, Al Hayat newspaper: Foreign minister, I remember at the beginning of the conflict in Syria we were talking about the possibility of people like Jabhat al Nusra moving in and taking advantage of the chaos. Well they are there now and we seem to be in the same position. Are western governments unwilling or unable to do anything? And how long is this sustainable? How long are people willing to sit down and watch not only Syria but the whole area really be at risk of terrorism and disintegration?
The second question: There was an earthquake in Bushehr last week and people truly panicked because they were scared of the atomic threat. Also this seems to be on a slow burner—we seem to be giving Iran more and more and more time. When does that end?
WH: Well I think the question about Iran we discussed earlier, and as I’ve said the second half of this year or the period coming up just after—I think we were also discussing it in the House of Commons just now—after the presidential elections will be an absolutely crucial period when countries will want to know whether Iran is serious—we’ve been asking that for a long time—about negotiations.
On Syria, you can gather that we’re doing an enormous amount. This country is one of the biggest donors of humanitarian aid—so far more than $200m. We’ve set an example to the rest of the world in that regard. We are sending assistance that saves lives to the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition.
We don’t send assistance to extremist groups, obviously—one of our concerns is that this crisis allows extreme groups to gather more support, that jihadists travel to Syria and they then return to the countries they have come from as a greater danger to those countries. We are trying everything we can to promote a diplomatic and political solution. And we are looking, we are debating with other countries, other actions that we could take—and often receiving a lot of criticism for it.
So we are all doing all of those things—we are one of the most active countries in the world on trying to deal with the Syrian crisis. But it does not have easy solutions. In the absence of a united United Nations Security Council, in the absence of a willingness on the part of the regime to negotiate on the basis of the Geneva Communiqué, does not have easy solutions—and none of us should pretend that any military intervention would be an easy matter.
So I have a lot of sympathy with your question. I have argued the world is failing in its responsibilities on this. The Security Council has failed in its responsibilities. So a country like ours is doing its best in these very difficult circumstances.
Chris McLaughlin, Inmarsat: If I may, your PSVI [Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative] is to be welcomed—you re to be applauded on it. But the emphasis is always on needing to shine a light and to find out what is going on, and Inmarsat does that and has done throughout the whole Arab spring. I’m a little surprised: my colleagues have told me that there’s no communications element in the non-lethal aid to Syria currently planned. Why is that, why are we not thinking about showing the world what’s going on?
WH: Thank you for the first part of your question. For those who don’t know the acronyms, PSVI is the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. This is one of my—well it’s my top personal priority this year, apart from dealing with all the crises that we’ve talked about, it’s very important for us to be working all the time on improving the condition of humanity. And actually, preventing future conflict involves dealing with such issues as sexual violence in conflict. I think that what we agreed at the G8 last week and that I will now take to the United Nations is a very important advance in this area, and would be happy to talk about that in answer to further questions.
We do supply communications equipment. It’s not in the latest package, actually, partly because it’s in earlier packages of assistance that we have sent to the National Coalition. So we have assisted with communication equipment and there will be further packages of assistance as necessary. So certainly we will help people with that.
And we have, very much in the spirit that you’re working in, trained so far 300 Syrian journalists to document human rights abuses and to be able to report the truth about what’s going on in Syria. So we are very much working in the same direction as you are.
Melanie Ward, Action Aid: I wanted to start by really echoing what the man said before the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I think it deserves real credit. It’s not very often that a foreign minister would put an issue like sexual violence at the top of the agenda, so really to start by recognising that.
My question, though, is about women in Afghanistan. Obviously at the start of the intervention women in Afghanistan were made all kinds of promises about what change for them. So my question is what do you think the future holds for women in Afghanistan now? Is this still an issue that you raise with the Afghan government? And what kind of response did you get last time you asked?
WH: Thank you for what you said about sexual violence in conflict. This is important work but you’re going to see a lot more of it over the coming months. I’m really determined. We are going to change attitudes and events on the ground globally on this subject.
You are quite right as well to ask about women in Afghanistan. Many positive things have happened, as you will know—if you look at the number of girls going to school, which is into millions, in Afghanistan compared to virtually none under the Taliban, there has been a big change.
Now we constantly remind the Afghan government of their responsibilities, the responsibilities under their constitution now, and under international agreements that they have made, that women’s rights are a fundamental part of the human rights that they subscribe to.
We have encouraged in a whole series of ways the involvement of women in Afghan society and decisions—so have many other western nations. When we’ve been holding summits over the last few years we’ve had parallel summits held by representatives of women around Afghanistan. And so we do continue to work very hard on this.
The Afghan authorities do say all the things we would want them to say about this. But of course it’s very important for us to keep working on it with them, for it to be present in our development there, an important factor in our development aid, on our work with them in education for the future.
I found when I sat down—I had a very good discussion a while ago with a visit in Herat, with young Afghan students. Marvellous to see them going to university in a largely peaceful city—a very different image from the image most people have of Afghanistan. But there was undoubtedly among the male students still some attitudes, their cultural attitudes that are different from those that we regard as being the right attitudes towards women students. And so there’s cultural change still taking place in Afghanistan. We have to work with that and recognise that it’s still difficult for them. But we will keep encouraging them and so far we have positive answers.
BM: Very diplomatically put. There’s a real question about how much has stuck.
Admiral Lord West: Foreign secretary, first just as an aside: I think you need to be careful with the acronyms of some of your bon mots, which come out maybe not the way you think they should.
But my question really is partly enhancing British trade. Do you think there’s a window of opportunity, as a result of the Venezuelan elections, for us to make a very positive mood in terms of inward investment and maybe encouraging British firms, particularly in the oil and gas sector, with Venezuela, to try and make some large changes in the way they’ve looked upon these things in the past.
WH: That’s a good point. We will try to do that. We have a very active embassy in Venezuela. There are major opportunities for British companies all through Latin America. As I said, we have massively increased the number of ministerial, senior official and trade visits all across Latin America. And I’m opening new embassies. Sitting in front of you is His Excellency the ambassador of Paraguay. And we’re just opening an embassy in Paraguay. We didn’t have one before. We’re opening am embassy in Haiti. We’ve opened a new consulate in the north of Brazil. We’re strengthening many of our embassies in the region in order to promote trade and investment.
We will want to work with the new president of Venezuela, of course, and we will want to push two-way trade and investment between the UK and Venezuela. We’ll be onto it, absolutely.
Benedictine Paviot, France 24: Often it’s thought that preventing sexual violence is about women but it’s also about women. Often it’s thought that it’s about teens or older people but it’s often about babies. May I reiterate a little bit a question that I put to you on Thursday after the end of the G8. A little bit of glamour goes a long way. To see a statement by actually an awful lot of men ministers takes a whole strength takes a whole lot of strength and potency, when actually you see what is by many accounts an extremely glamorous woman who is not actually trivialising the subject but adding weight and opening it up to a whole new public. So are you going to continue your duet with Angelina?
WH: Yes. I’m obviously going to too many events where I can be asked questions, because this is the third question in a week that you have asked me about this subject. But you’re good on your theme. And yes is the answer. Absolutely. An issue like this does require a real alliance, actually, and I see this as an alliance with several wonderful people. One, to take another woman first, is Zainab Bangura, the UN secretary general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict and the former foreign minister of Sierra Leone. She is doing a great job and she was there with us at the G8 last week as well.
And yes, Angelia Jolie, the UN special envoy on refugees, is very, very committed to this and knowledgeable about this issue. You need a combination: you need governments, you need somebody like me with the power and reach of a government on the Security Council and with 260 diplomatic posts and everything we’ve got to really get behind this. Ad I hope that’s making a big difference. But a lot more people notice it because Angelina Jolie is doing it with me. And that’s good, that means we can change global attitudes as well as change treaties and protocols and work with the UN and the G8. So we’ll certainly be continuing that work and I’ve made a careful note of the fact that you’ve volunteered to come on the next international visit that we make together, which you told me last week.
BM: We’ll try her on North Korea next.
Charles Grant, Centre for European Reform: I’d like to ask you about Russia, foreign secretary, which you haven’t mentioned yet. Some of the trends in Russia seem quite concerning. Big increase in military budget, NGOs having a tough time. A lot of very anti-America, anti-European, anti-German rhetoric now from the Russian leadership. Meanwhile Britain’s own relationship with Russia is relatively warm, I suppose—perhaps compared with how it was a couple of years ago.
My question is: how should the west respond to what’s happening in Russia. Should we be relaxed, treat some of the rhetoric as a bit of a joke and just assume that their self-interest will push them back to getting on better with the west?
Or should we be seriously concerned and should our concerns have relevance for our defence spending in the west?
WH: Well that’s a very good question Charles, and I think there are different levels to it. There is no single answer to this.
We should be clear, as with any country, about our views on human rights, therefore about our disapproval of recent NGO laws, about taking up issues such as the Magnitsky case, which I discussed last month with the Russian foreign minister. We do make sure we discuss these issues with our Russian counterparts.
We have to remember that we need a working relationship with Russia. Russia is a member of the Security Council. Russia is a major nation in the world. Often I’m being asked this question from the other angle: why haven’t we succeeded in agreeing with Russia the way forward on Syria?
So we do need to have a healthy working relationship, and although we haven’t be en able to agree at the Security Council about Syria, it’s important to remember that on Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, now what’s happening in Mali, the Security Council is working well together. And all of this requires our daily cooperation with our Russian counterparts.
So from my perspective as foreign secretary the ability to work with my Russian colleagues is essential. And indeed our ability to work with Russia on arms control issues in Europe, at the Nato-Russia Council. To be able to have an honest exchange of views about these things is also very important.
So you say: how worried should we be? I don’t think at this moment western nations have to change their foreign and defence policies because of developments in Russia. I do think we do have to plant a clear flag in people’s minds in Russia that we do stand in any society for greater openness to the rest of the world. And in whichever society this is—we’re not picking on Russia—and we have to have the hope and belief that people in their own country will support those things over time. So I think we should react in that way and not forget we need a good working relationship with Russia.
Andrew Hogg, Christian Aid: Foreign secretary, going back to the question of the 0.7 per cent, which was ringfenced by your government up to the budget. To some of us in the world of NGOs, it seems like some of the fencing’s beginning to come away. I’m referring particularly to the suggestion that some of that money
could be linked to military projects. However well intentioned those projects might be, words like “peacekeeping” and “demobilisation” have been bandied around, there are those in the humanitarian world who fear that any connection between military and aid spending could easily be misinterpreted by combatants in the field to the detriment of any aid project underway there.
What’s your response to those claims?
WH: Well, we must always be alive to any such concern. I do stress the point that I was making earlier to Bronwen that, as you know very well, there are international definitions and there has to be international agreement on what counts as ODA spending. There are many things that we do through what we call our conflict pool funding that help stability and peace in other countries. Sometimes it would be quite difficult to define which bit of it is the department for international development, which bit is Foreign Office, which bit is ministry of defence. We work on these things together.
And of course the level of our development spending helps us to find some of that expenditure. You may be thinking we’re going to pay for an aircraft carrier with the ODA budget. This cannot be done even if we thought it was desirable.
We’re very alive to these concerns. I think you’d have to ask the secretary of state for international development in more detail. But I think now we are hitting the 0.7 per cent to an international standard, it’s very important we encourage other nations to do the same. And I know Christian Aid want to join us in encouraging other countries now to meet that target because the amounts then involved would dwarf any disputes at the margin of our own expenditure.
Jonathan Eyal, Royal United Services Institute: Foreign secretary, when you first came to power you said that the Gulf was a largely neglected area. You spent a lot of time there; the prime minister did too.
Of course, in between there were fundamental changes that took place in the Middle East and there was some sweeping criticism of British policy. Are you broadly content with the way we positioned ourselves in the Gulf up to now, Iran excepted? Do you see any changes, especially since we’ll have a state visit at the end of this month from one of the Gulf countries?
WH: Yes, I am content. I’m glad you’ve asked this question because we’ve not discussed this earlier.
We have pursued the Gulf initiative. This has meant intensifying our links with the Gulf states. I think that’s importance because of their strategic importance, their economic importance. The UAE—which you’re referring to, the state visit at the end of the month—is a big export market for this country, as well as there being at any one time well over 100,000 British people in the vicinity of Dubai.
So working with these countries is very, very important. There is great opportunity for improved trade and investment in both directions with nearly all of the Gulf states. So we have attached great importance to it and I think our relations have correspondingly improved. I regularly hold meetings with the GCC foreign ministers as a group.
In situations like Libya two years ago, of course the UAE and Qatar were key partners for us in taking the action that we took, so our strong bilateral relations with them pays dividends in international crises.
Is there a change taking place? These societies are all changing in their own ways. In fact I was proud to be a few weeks ago I think the first foreign minister in the world to meet the Shura Council of Saudi Arabia since women became members of it. Their first stop of the first women members of the Shura Council was in London and in my office just across the road.
Now of course this does not mean they’re instantly transformed—we were talking about Afghanistan earlier—to our concept of women’s rights and equality. But when you meet the up-and-coming generation of women in Saudia Arabia, who have been educated, many of them, to a very high degree, you know the society is going to change and evolve because the women are not going to allow any alternative to that. It is going to change and evolve.
And so we must understand that these societies are changing, sometime in more subtle and quieter ways than we would do things ourselves. I think we’ve got to give them the encouragement to do that. We shouldn’t hold back from criticising them. I published today our human rights and democracy report and Saudi Arabia is listed there as a country of concern on human rights issues because of other things that we don’t at all approve of. So we can be frank about things like that while building up our strategic and economic cooperation in the interests of this country. I’m broadly happy with where we’re heading on this.
Richard Dowden, Royal African Society: I was delighted but slightly surprised when I saw that the themes of the G8 conference were going to be tax, trade and transparency.
I work on Africa and money goes missing there sometimes from governments. Very often it shows up in unaccountable and untransparent British tax havens. These are also used a lot by British countries for mispricing and transfer pricing and tax avoidance, depriving poor countries of their rightful revenue. Do the themes of the G8 suggest that Britain is now going to deal with this scandal?
WH: Well, without accepting, and indeed without being an expert on everything that you describe, it is addressed to this sort of issue. Let’s be clear about that. I think particularly in extractive industries there is a need for greater transparency. I think people can make the criticisms that you are making of how companies might behave. Others might also make criticisms of the domestic governments in some of the countries concerned as well. And of course transparency in revenues would be an enormous help in many of the countries concerned. Not in Africa but it’s in my mind because I was there a few weeks ago, in Lebanon, which now has oil and gas discoveries off its count. Given the internal political situation in Lebanon, transparency in terms of how any future revenue is handled is not only desirable but of fundamental importance to the state being able to work in the future, to people being able to have confidence in each other and to work together.
And there’ll be many situations in Africa the same. So yes, the prime minister is very serious about this. What you’re talking about is the themes for the G8 heads of governments meeting as opposed to the foreign ministers meeting that I held last week. But yes, tax, trade and transparency, including countries working together to tackle tax evasion or aggressive tax avoidance, and pursuing transparency including particularly in extractive industries—these are important things of the G8. So I hope they will go some way to address your concerns.
This event was kindly sponsored by Inmarsat and CH2M Hill