International Development Questions
Questions Wednesday July 15th 11.30 am
You thought DfID had already been abolished? Well, so did the Foreign Office. They styled themselves “Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office” at question time a couple of weeks ago as though the merger had already taken place.
But the parliamentary timetable has scheduled one last question time for the Department for International Development on July 15th – the day of Boris Johnson’s last question time before the summer recess.
This will give MPs a chance to mourn the passing of DfID – a Government department that has done a huge amount of good since it first broke away from the Foreign Office in 1964 – and also a chance to interrogate Foreign Office ministers about what, if anything, they are going to do about the annexation of the West Bank.
Boris Johnson wrote an article in an Israeli newspaper last week saying that th UK will not recognise any annexation as it would be a “violation of international law”. That was a welcome statement of UK policy but it says nothing about what he will do.
The French foreign minister has said there will be “consequences” if Israel goes ahead. The Belgian parliament has voted for sanctions. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, has called for a ban on settlement trade. There have been several attempts to get the issue debated in Parliament before the summer recess, but the Government doesn’t seem to want to answer the obvious question: if it’s illegal, what are you going to do about it?
There are three theories about why annexation did not happen on July 1st. Israeli government spokesmen say July 1 was never supposed to be the annexation date, just the beginning of the period in which the issue can be formally considered. Netanyahu himself has sasid that officials are still working out the final details with their US counterparts and annexation can be expected later in July. Others say annexation is a decoy to allow Netanyahu to seem statesmanlike if he decides not to go ahead and to make continued occupation seem a reasonable compromise.
There will be little scope for annexation to be raised in DfID questions, though it’s worth asking whether the Foreign Office will continue DfID’s funding of schools and health centres in the Jordan Valley if it is annexed. That would mean the UK was spending money in areas which Israel considers to be part of Israel, thus relieving Israel of its responsibilities. The UK will have to choose between subsidising the Israeli taxpayer or impoverishing Palestinians even further.
What criterion will he use to judge when recognition of the state of Palestine will best serve the cause of peace?
Since November 2011 UK policy has been that Palestine is ready for statehood and that the UK should recognise Palestine. The only stipulation made by the then foreign secretary William Hague was that it should be done “at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace”. But every time it could have helped the peace process – in April 2014 when the Kerry talks broke down, in October 2014 when the House of Commons voted 274-12 in favour of recognition, in January 2016 when France said it would recognise Palestine – the UK has refused. Now would be a perfect time to recognise Palestine. Countries like Ireland and Spain are likely to follow suit if the UK takes the lead.
What action will he take to end UK financial involvement with illegal settlements in the West Bank?
Hundreds of times ministers have made “representations” to Israel over “illegal” settlements in the West Bank. But no action is ever taken. As early as 2011 our Foreign Secretary started talking about imposing “incentives and disincentives” on Israel to comply with international law. In 2014 the Foreign Office issued guidance to UK business that “we do not encourage” and “we do not offer support” to firms that firms that trade with illegal settlements. But look at the contrast. When Russian troops were first spotted in Crimea in 2014, it took just 17 days for the EU to impose sanctions . After 50 years of settlements Israel continues to escape any action, even though the Foreign Secretary announced sanctions on Iran, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea only this week. Israel has come to the conclusion that the threats were empty. We didn’t really mean them. As former Conservative aid minister Sir Desmond Swayne has said, “by our refusal to act we make ourselves complicit”.
Will he strengthen guidance to UK businesses and banks against trading with illegal Israeli settlements?
Other than recognition, the only action the UK can take that will help the peace process is to make sure peace is in the economic interest of the Israeli government. We could start by strengthening existing business advice, so that we discourage and advise against trade with illegal settlements. Another approach would be to stop public procurement contracts with companies operating in illegal settlements or supplying checkpoints or walls inside occupied territory. There are many steps that can be taken short of full economic sanctions. In the case of Crimea the EU did not immediately reach for the heaviest sanctions but used imagination to devise appropriate actions, such as travel bans and asset freezes. A similar step-ladder approach could be adopted, targeting banks that offer mortgages in the settlements or outposts, travel bans on leading settlers and asset freezes on companies benefiting from land, water or mineral resources taken illegally from the occupied territories.
What estimate has he made of the number of Palestinian children currently held in Israeli prisons?
Does he accept that holding Palestinian children in prisons inside Israel constitutes a war crime under Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention?
And that that the UK is obliged under Article 146 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing “unlawful transfer”?
According to figures released by the Israeli Prison Service there are 205 Palestinian children from the West Bank held in Israeli prisons for conflict-related reasons and nearly half of them – 100 – are held in prisons inside Israel. This means their parents can only see them on short infrequent visits organised by the Red Cross and many parents are refused permits to visit them at all. As a result most young Palestinians arrested in night raids in their villages see neither parents nor lawyer until they appear in court and after they have been persuaded or coerced to sign ‘confessions’ in a language they don’t understand on the basis that it will get them out of prison sooner. This practice is illegal under international law which bans occupying powers from transferring occupied populations, as ministers often acknowledge in written answers. They should also be made to acknowledge that it constitutes a war crime (under Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) and that the UK is obliged under Article 146 to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing “unlawful transfer”.