Foreign AffairsSpeeches

Peter Hain – 2000 Speech on Britain’s Policy in the Middle East

The speech made by Peter Hain, the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, to the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding on 17 July 2000.

I am grateful to you, Mr Chairman (John Austin), and to Sir Cyril Townsend, for this opportunity to address the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, and the many members of the Arab community in London represented here.

You have invited me to speak on Britain’s policy on the Middle East. I hope, though, you will permit me to range a little further, covering – like CAABU – the whole of the Arab world.

The Middle East and North Africa remain central to British Foreign Policy. The region is our neighbour, our trading partner, and a strategic priority. We are in regular contact with Ministers and parliamentarians in every country. In the last year I have been to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar. The Foreign Secretary has visited the region. The Prime Minister has seen President Arafat, Prime Minister Barak, King Abdullah, Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia, and the Amirs of Bahrain and Qatar. Lord Levy, too, has been extremely active on our behalf.


The key to the Middle East’s development is peace.

Over the past year we have seen Syria and Israel come desperately close to peace. We have seen Israel withdraw from Lebanon. And we have seen the Palestinians and Israelis edge closer.

I wanted to let you know how the Israelis and Palestinians were getting on at Camp David, but the Americans took away their mobile phones. So let me leave that until later, and start with Lebanon.

The end of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon was a major step towards peace. I hope that the Government of Lebanon will now take rapid steps to assert its effective authority in southern Lebanon, including by deploying the Lebanese Armed Forces.

There were many who refused to believe that Israel would ever withdraw. They were wrong. Israel under Ehud Barak has worked hard to comply with the requirements of the United Nations to achieve full implementation of Resolution 425. Of course, it was high time.

I look forward to the next step, also long overdue: implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, in Syria, and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Syria will emerge this week from its 40 day period of mourning for Hafez al-Asad. The transition to President Bashar Al-Asad, completed today, has been very smooth, and I welcome the emergence of another leader of the new generation in the Middle East. I believe that, over the past year, Britain and Syria have laid the foundations for a new relationship between our countries. I welcome President Asad’s commitment to social and economic reform, and to the strategic choice of peace. Britain will, as an old friend, seek to help Syria in both.

As I speak, Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak and their teams are meeting in Camp David. They both face enormous challenges. Britain recognises the pressures on both sides. President Arafat in particular bears the burden of many expectations, in the Islamic world and beyond. But I am very hopeful of a positive result, even if a full permanent status agreement is not achieved in the next few days. I look forward to the negotiations leading to the creation of a viable, democratic and peaceful Palestinian state. It has often been said that the consequences of failure – for both sides – are too great to contemplate. The prizes of success are also too great to be discarded.

Our efforts towards peace extend well beyond the Middle East Peace Process. You will all be aware of the terrible suffering in Sudan caused by civil war – a war that has lasted 16 years in its current phase alone. You will also be aware of Britain’s long and close association with the Sudan. That link remains strong, as I see from my mail-bag each week.

Only a negotiated settlement can bring sustainable peace to the Sudan. That is why we have been trying to bring the parties – indeed all stakeholders – to talks. We have provided political and financial support for a permanent negotiating secretariat in Nairobi and we are in regular contact with all the parties, pressing the case for talks and explaining the benefits that peace would bring to the civilian population.

Tomorrow I shall be meeting the Sudanese Foreign Minister, Mustafa Osman, who I gather will be visiting you at CAABU later this week. We have seen a number of positive developments in Khartoum recently, and I look forward to discussing with him the prospects for peace, and how we and the international community can help.

Nor will we forget the Western Sahara, sometimes called the ‘forgotten war’. We have supported the UN mission in the Western Sahara consistently and unswervingly, providing civilian administrators and peace-keeping contingents, and substantial funds to underpin them. We continue to believe that a just solution to the problem depends on the people of the western Sahara having the right to express their will at the ballot box.

A solution also requires all parties to be constructive, flexible and committed to peaceful means. We have been happy to support James Baker, the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy, providing facilities for him to hold talks in London in recent months. We urge all sides to respond positively to what he has to say. I have carried the same message to Morocco and Algeria.

As you can see, much of our diplomatic and aid effort in the Middle East and North Africa is dedicated to promoting peace and understanding between communities. Another priority is promoting the observance of human rights.


Human rights are fundamental and universal. They are one of the foundations of the international community, which is why all members of the United Nations accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How a state treats its citizens is a matter of legitimate concern to all states and all citizens, not just the West.

So I am wholly unapologetic about our desire to promote human rights, in the Middle East and North Africa, and right across the world.

There is real progress. The establishment of consultative councils in the Gulf, the elections in Iran earlier this year, and the formation of a human rights committee in Bahrain, all reflect changing attitudes. The increasing rights of women in a number of countries, and the development of the Arab media in the region, in particular Al Jazeera in Qatar, also reflect a more liberal and modern approach.

We shall continue to promote progress, through political channels, and by financing programmes – the Palestinian rights programme, for example, was the largest UK-funded human rights programme in the world last year. And we shall continue to consult Non-Governmental Organisations before visits to the region, and to raise individual and collective cases when we meet leaders from the Middle East and North Africa.

Increasingly we work on human rights in close cooperation with the countries of the region. We look forward to working with those recently elected to the UN Commission on Human Rights, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Algeria and Libya; and with Qatar, which continues on the Commission. Together we can improve the human rights situation throughout the world.


In working together to achieve peace and secure human rights, we shall also increase prosperity. Because respect for individual freedoms and good governance permit the talents of individuals to flourish, and provide the secure environment needed for investment.

I am convinced that the Euro-mediterranean partnership, in particular the Free Trade Area, offers the best prospects for economic development. It is the agreed objective of the EU and nearly all our Mediterranean partners. I look forward to Libya joining us soon.

With the EU, the Mediterranean partners, and the countries which have applied to join the EU, the Free Trade Area will include more than 700 million people. That is more than one in ten of the world’s population, and a much higher proportion of its wealth – an incredible and diverse community and market which will benefit us all, and the Gulf as well.

The building blocks are gradually falling into place. Of course, much turns on progress in the Middle East Peace Process. At present flows of state money to the region are large. But following peace I am confident that investment from the private sector will dwarf aid from states. We have seen the pattern – starting from a much lower base – in Central and Eastern Europe. If the investment environment is stable and attractive, international capital quickly follows. The companies that invest bring know-how and create jobs. And it is better for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa that investment should come from a wide range of private investors, rather than as aid from a few states.

Britain’s bilateral trade relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa remain very healthy. Just a few weeks ago I was privileged to address the ‘Investing in Saudi Arabia’ conference, in the presence of Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki. The two pillars of British Trade International, Trade Partners UK and Invest UK, continue their efforts to promote investment in both directions.

Last year, no doubt partly because of the strength of the pound, and partly because of the low oil price, UK exports to the region fell, while our imports from it increased. I am pleased to say that our exports to the region are now rising again, and in January to March of this year were 4% higher than in the equivalent period of last year. Imports were a remarkable 34% higher.

The economic links between Britain and the Arab world are increasing steadily, a welcome trend which I am confident will continue.


Iraq is an issue of great concern to many of you, as it is to us. That is why we, the UK and the UN, intensified our efforts to look creatively at the situation, resulting in the Security Council’s adoption of the ground-breaking Resolution 1284.

This resolution for the first time provides for the suspension of sanctions in return for progress by Iraq short of full compliance.

It offers Iraq an unprecedented opportunity to make quick progress on sanctions – an opportunity we must all encourage Iraq to take. This does not mean the international community is going soft on Saddam’s aggression. 1284 makes clear that Iraq must allow the new monitoring organisation, UNMOVIC, full access to sites still of concern. That is an exacting requirement. But it is also necessary, if we are to prevent Saddam from once again threatening his people and Iraq’s neighbours.

As the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Kuwait approaches, none here will need reminding of the deadly results of those threats in the past. But we need to be looking forward. Resolution 1284 clearly maps out the way to the lifting of sanctions, and is the only way of doing that. I urge the Iraqi government to accept it.

The Iraqi government are fond of claiming that they have given up their weapons of mass destruction and that they have nothing to hide. If that is so, then they have everything to gain by seizing the opportunity offered by 1284.

In the meantime we strive to help those suffering in Iraq. Resolution 1284 contains a raft of humanitarian measures, providing a bigger and better humanitarian programme – none of it conditional on Iraq’s behaviour on weapons of mass destruction.

There has, for example, been no ceiling on the amount of oil which Iraq can export under the ‘oil for food’ programme since December 1999. That means that more than $10 billion should be available for humanitarian relief this year alone. This will make a real difference on the ground, prompting the UN Secretary General to underline recently that the Government of Iraq is in a position to improve the health status of the Iraqi people. 1284 has also streamlined the approvals procedures for exporting ‘oil for food’ goods to Iraq. More essential goods are arriving more quickly.

We are doing all that we can to help the Iraqi people. We urge Saddam Hussein to do the same.

Much too has been made of claims of a UK/US bombing campaign against Iraq. Let me say here categorically: there is no bombing campaign. Nor do current UK and US patrols in the No Fly Zones represent the continuation of Operation Desert Fox. That was a limited operation to diminish Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction capability. It ended on 19 December 1998. Our aircraft now patrol the NFZs, as they have for nearly nine years, to protect the Kurds, the Shias and others from Saddam’s attacks. The patrols are not without serious risk. Iraqi forces have attacked our aircraft on more than 820 occasions. Our aircraft only respond when they are attacked. If Iraq stops its aggression, we shall stop responding. But we continue the patrols because, as a visiting Kurdish delegation told us just last week, it is only these patrols which deter Saddam from repeating his past attacks on the Kurds.

The states in the region know the reality. We are grateful for the support of so many of our oldest friends in the Gulf. We have acted to provide a path to achieve improvement. Saddam must decide to go down it.


I want to end on a positive note.

The Middle East stands on the brink of a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. We all hope that Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak can find the strength to take the last leap to achieve it. We hope that President Bashar Al-Asad will soon be able to achieve the peace that eluded his father. And we look forward to the gains from Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon being consolidated through a Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement.

Increasingly the importance of trade, human rights and good governance in increasing prosperity is understood.

I look forward to closer cooperation between Britain and all our friends in the states of the Middle East and North Africa, in a world where, increasingly, the international interest, the national interest and the citizen’s interest are the same.