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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 May, 2004, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
You asked Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw answered your questions in a special edition of our global interactive phone-in programme Talking Point.

  • Transcript

    Since becoming foreign secretary in 2001, Mr Straw has played a key role in shaping the UK government's policy on Iraq, the 'roadmap' for peace in the Middle East and in the historic enlargement of the European Union.

    On Iraq, Mr Straw has said recently that the recent increase in violence would not delay the transfer of sovereignty back to the Iraqi people.

    Mr Straw has also pushed for peace in the Middle East, condemning the recent assassinations of Hamas leaders in Gaza.

    The foreign secretary has also been central in the discussion on the UK's decision to hold a referendum on a new EU constitution.

    You can also watch the programme on BBC World TV and listen on BBC World Service radio on Sunday 16 May at 1400 GMT/1500 BST.



    Transcript

    Bridget Kendall:
    Hello and welcome to Talking Point. I'm Bridget Kendall and we're here in the Ambassador's waiting room at the British Foreign Office with the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Since he last talked to Talking Point a year ago the global picture has changed considerably - in Iraq, in the wider Middle East and here in Europe, which has just welcomed in 10 new members.

    Thank you for joining us Foreign Secretary. And I'd like to start with the whole issue of the photos of prisoner abuse by coalition soldiers in Iraq that have shocked so many people. Now there are photos of British soldiers whose authenticity is questioned but there are also photos of American soldiers and their authenticity seems to be accepted by most people. What was your reaction when you first saw those photos?

    Jack Straw:
    Well let me just deal first with the photos of British soldiers. Their authenticity, as you say, is challenged, we're far from sure that they are authentic. Where there have been abuses - and to the best of my knowledge they've been very isolated as far as British soldiers have been concerned - they have been investigated thoroughly and will continue to be investigated thoroughly.

    Let me now deal with the photographs of abuse by US personnel. They are authentic, as we know, I was as profoundly shocked as everybody else was around the world, as the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was and I know for certain Secretary Powell and President Bush were. These are terrible photographs giving evidence of much worse abuses. They are thoroughly being investigated and as has already been made clear by the US administration those who committed these abuses and those who authorised them will be dealt with severely.

    Bridget Kendall:
    How big a crisis is this for the coalition in Iraq?

    Jack Straw:
    Well it's a setback for certain and of course, to make a very obvious point, it makes much more difficult our job of explaining that what we are doing amongst many other things is greatly to improve human rights in Iraq, compared to where they were before. That truth, that reality, however, remains and although it's a desperately point to make at the moment, this kind of thing went on but unrecorded and unnoticed under the Saddam regime to far greater numbers - there were mass graves, I think the United Nations have estimated that there are altogether mass graves accounting for 300,000 people, which have been identified as an estimate - which gives some indication of the scale of the atrocity perpetrated by Saddam. But of course higher standards are expected of countries in the international community and high standards are achieved but this is a very bad blot on our record which has to be dealt with.

    Bridget Kendall:
    It's caused shock waves around the world. We've had this e-mail from Dr Roy Tollefsen in Norway and he wants to ask: Do you feel that your own position - your job is at risk now because of this crisis?

    Jack Straw:
    I don't feel that. Look we have very clear responsibilities here, we made decisions, I've often thought about whether they were the right decisions but I believe that they were and I'm very happy to explain those decisions as to why we took military action to deal with defiance of the United Nations by Saddam Hussein which included his terrible human rights records but we made those decisions, we have to accept the responsibilities which go with that and we have to see this through. And I understand people's shock, I share this, so does everybody else in the British government up to and including the Prime Minister. These are terrible abuses and of course they have been very damaging politically as well and affect the credibility of the coalition in Iraq. But if you talk to Iraqi leaders, as I have done in the last two weeks, they are still very committed indeed to the agenda that has been set in train since the removal of Saddam. And underneath this a lot of things have been getting better in Iraq, and I gave an account of those recently in the British House of Commons, as far as the southern sector, which we control, is concerned and we can look forward to a transfer of power to a sovereign Iraqi government in less than seven weeks.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Well let's go to our first caller. Our first call is from Iraq from Sulimaniya and it is a human rights lawyer, let's hear what he has to say:

    Safawat Rashid:
    My name is Safawat Rashid. I am living in Sulimaniya, Kurdistan of Iraq. I am a lawyer with a Kurdistan human rights organisation. I am confident that his Excellency is aware of a lot of violations to the human rights now in Iraq - whether by coalition forces, current Iraqi authority or various Iraqi militias while CPA is still in power. What safeguards there will be when the power goes to a weak Iraqi authority after June 30th and what is the responsibility of the international community, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, after that date concerning human rights situation in Iraq?

    Jack Straw:
    Mr Rashid, the principle responsibility for human rights, once the transfer of sovereignty takes place on the 30th June will obviously be to the Iraqi government, which at that stage will become the government of a sovereign state. We hope that we will be able to stay in Iraq, and that is our very confident belief, with a multinational force in support of the government of Iraq and therefore we day-to-day will have considerable responsibilities. Our responsibilities therefore will continue, albeit within a different legal framework and coalition forces will continue to be required to observe very clear international obligations about the treatment of people, our own domestic law, which is tough, and of course Iraqi law. I noted, however, that you talked about the problems of abuses of human rights arising from inside Iraq and there are two things to say about that. First of all we've been working very hard to improve the - and extend - the training of Iraqi security forces because as you know better than I do they were not trained in human rights at all under the Saddam regime. The second point is that of course the people who commit the worst abuses of all are the terrorists and they will continue to be a challenge in the post-sovereign Iraq.

    Bridget Kendall:
    If I could just inject there Mr Straw - do you think that the Americans and the British should go on running the prisons in Iraq after the hand over?

    Jack Straw:
    Well that will be a matter for direct discussion with the Iraqi government but plainly it will be for the Iraqi government, sovereign authority, to decide that.

    Bridget Kendall:
    But given what's happened - this whole question of abuses of prisoners inside jails which are run by Americans and in a few cases by British.

    Jack Straw:
    Yeah, the problems of conditions in the jails are being sorted out now and were the powers to be transferred tomorrow or in a year's time they would have to be sorted out. What's important is that there are jails because it's very important that people are, who've committed or are alleged to have committed crimes, are detained but they are detained in humane conditions. But let us be clear, what is happening on the 30th June is a hand over of sovereignty to the people of Iraq. Now the people will exercise that sovereignty for seven months through a caretaker government. From January that will be an elected government which in practice will assume much greater power and authority but the sovereignty will transfer from 30th June.

    Bridget Kendall:
    So what happens to the prisons in Iraq after the 30th June depends on the Iraqis?

    Jack Straw:
    Yes.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Let's go to our next caller who's from Washington DC and it's recorded on video link.

    Lisa Wilson:
    My name is Lisa Wilson, I live in Washington DC and my question for Mr Straw is: How much have the recent allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq eroded the already minority support in the UK for continued involvement in Iraq?

    Jack Straw:
    Miss Wilson, the recent evidence of abuse has obviously shocked people here as it has people around the world and if you're asking me to give the latest in terms of opinion polls that is also reflected in the opinion polls so far as support for the overall military action. However, in terms of support for British troops and for our continued engagement until the job is done that remains at a high level and we have huge admiration here for the way our forces operate across the globe - for their professionalism and integrity - and when abuses do take place within the British sector, as sometimes tragically they do, we also have great respect for the way in which they are subject to investigation.

    Bridget Kendall:
    But it is true isn't it that there's considerable dismay in Britain that thought that there might need to be more British troops sent to Iraq and presumably the prison abuse scandal has had an impact on those views?

    Jack Straw:
    I'm not sure, I mean look there's obviously dismay about the prisoner abuse scandal, as you put it, without any question. So far as troop numbers are concerned the numbers have varied very considerably - there were up to 46,000 in the whole theatre at the height of the major military conflict early last year, they're now down, I believe, within Iraq itself to below 10,000 but they do move around. And on the question of more troops, if and when there's a decision to send more troops from Britain obviously they'll be an announcement made to the British House of Commons. But it's my belief that if such a decision is made, since the explanation for that will be coherent, there'll be broad acceptance of it.

    Bridget Kendall:
    It's in the wider world though isn't it, particularly the Arab world that the reaction to this whole crisis has been so important and we've had - this is one of many e-mails we've had, this is from Jasem Hasan in Damascus in Syria who says: I'd like to know if democracy means torture and if not please tell me what's going on in Iraq presently?

    Jack Straw:
    Well democracy plainly does not mean torture. What democracy does mean is that where such abuses do take place they are properly and fully investigated and the perpetrators at every level are brought to justice. And what I say to you - this gentleman who sent the e-mail - is that there is, however difficult it is for people to comprehend at the moment - a very stark contrast between vicious authoritarian regimes for whom terror is the principle all the way up to the top and summary justice is another so-called principle and democracies, which have to operate by the rule of law. Now there isn't a democracy in the world where there isn't some criminal behaviour, the crucial thing is that what happens in democracies, where there is criminal behaviour, that is dealt with.

    Bridget Kendall:
    But this is all about perceptions isn't it and it has to look bad in the Arab world.

    Jack Straw:
    Well it looks bad everywhere, I mean let's be clear about this, and I don't underestimate for a second the scale of the damage that has been done by these pictures of these abuses of prisoners by United States personnel. Of course it's damaging, everybody understands that, including the UK and US governments. However, we have to deal with those, we have to ensure that the abuses have ended, that they're properly investigated that effective conditions are maintained and supervised in all the prisons, whoever is running them, in Iraq and that we keep the political process on track and the reconstruction process. And one of the really frustrating things is that over the last year huge progress has been made in terms of reconstruction, you don't read stories about hospitals running out of equipment, as you used to do under Saddam, of schools being decrepit, a great deal of investment has gone into that, waterways are being put in, a ring main is being put round Basra. Sadly some of this progress has been stopped because of the activities of terrorists. But that is the agenda which - on which we have to continue to take action to make life better for the Iraqis.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Let's go to our next caller. This time from the Czech Republic.

    Miroslav Trnka:
    My name is Miroslav, I'm calling from Brno in the Czech Republic and my question for Jack Straw is as follows: I trusted the reasons for which the Iraq war has been started and I kind of supported it at the time. It was stated that Iraq possessed the weapons of mass destructions, that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the whole region and that there are the human rights abuses there beyond any comprehension. But how can anybody trust the calls of British and American governments in future if the causes for Iraq invasion were either not existing - as in the case of weapons of mass destruction - or in the light of recent allegations, we as the West seems to be the same as Saddam?

    Jack Straw:
    Well let me deal with those two points. First of all on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. It was the whole of the international community - not just the United States and the United Kingdom - which declared that - and I quote this from resolution 1441 that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government posed a threat to international peace and security by reason of its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, long range missile systems and its defiance of a string of United Nations mandatory resolutions. That was the judgement of all countries on the Security Council, including Russia, China, France and Germany, based on their own assessment of the behaviour of Saddam and what we had known about their weapons programmes in Iraq and the fact that after 12 years they'd still failed to give answers about what had happened to these programmes. So I've thought about this a lot, I'm obviously aware that so far the Iraq survey group has not been able to identify major holdings of WMD, of course I'm aware of that, although there's a lot of evidence about programmes being held. I'm aware of that, I happen, however, to think that the judgement we made at the time is still the right judgement and if you disagree with me look at the last report from UNMOVIC dated 6th March 2003 with 29 separate chapters of unanswered disarmament questions for Iraq.

    Now as far as human rights is concerned let me just say this. The level of atrocity by Saddam over the years that he was there was appalling and unequalled by anything anybody could ever imagine in the West or in any other democratic country - 300,000 mass graves appear to have been uncovered. There was no effective rule of law for anybody who was a dissident. Now we have established the rule of law, we have, for example, established real freedom of expression in Iraq, scores of newspapers and radio and television stations, scores of political parties, there are real emerging political freedoms. Of course I understand your point that this evidence of abuse by United States personnel in an Iraqi prison does damage the way in which we're able to make the human rights case. But I also say that our liberation of Iraq will be seen over time to have been a liberation, not least in terms of human rights of Iraqis, and in many ways that is already the case today.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Well perhaps the essential point that our caller - Miroslav Trnka - is making is about this question of whether or not we're seeing activities that are beyond the rule of law. And we've had this e-mail from Dr Amber Khanni, he's here in London in the UK who says: How would the Foreign Secretary answer the accusation that the moment we accepted the conditions in Guantanamo Bay we were laying the foundations for the gross abuses by the coalition forces. Will the reputation of members of this government ever recover? In other words Guantanamo Bay, whereby the American's own admission the Geneva conventions they think should not be used, in fact there was a commander from Guantanamo Bay who was sent to the prison in question in Iraq, so there is a definite link there between those two activities. Is that a valid point?

    Jack Straw:
    I don't think it is, with great respect. The conditions in which prisoners have been held in Guantanamo Bay, according to our reports, have been nothing like the conditions which have been exposed by this evidence of abuse in Iraq. And we've had our own debates and discussions with the Americans about the circumstances in which these people are held in Guantanamo Bay and you will be aware - and I hope the e-mail caller is - that we have said very clearly to the Americans that so far as British detainees are concerned they should either be released or they should be brought to a proper trial process. And that is, if you like, a point of disagreement with the Americans. But I don't accept that there is a connection between the Americans view of the international law, so far as the Guantanamo Bay detainees are concerned, which has been subject to some inspection - although people are held for sure and they're held without trial on the whole the conditions in which they have been held, on the whole, have been satisfactory as I've been told - I don't think there's a comparison between that and these abuses which happened in this Iraq jail.

    Bridget Kendall:
    But it does rather uncomfortably look like a sliding scale doesn't it - that we are allied to a country that says under certain circumstances it doesn't think that it needs to hold to international law and then it turns out in prisons in Iraq there were prison guards who indeed were not holding to international law?

    Jack Straw:
    Well no I don't think it does. The Americans don't say they don't need to hold to international law, the Americans disagree about which part of the international law should apply in Guantanamo Bay. The Americans have accepted their obligations under the fourth Geneva and other conventions, so far as prisoners are concerned in Iraq and indeed they have obviously fully cooperated, as they are obliged to do, with the International Committee of the Red Cross and it's the International Committee of the Red Cross's own report which first drew full attention to the US authorities of the nature of these abuses.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Though rather late it seems.

    Jack Straw:
    Well earlier than the photographs came out is the answer. And so far as I know the ICRC have been provided with proper access to American run jails, they've certainly been provided with full access to the British detention facilities in the south. And where we've been presented with evidence of problems in our own detention facilities they've been dealt with. Last April, 2003, the ICRC drew to our attention some problems in a detention facility which we were running in the south, they were dealt with and when Dr Kraehenbuehl, the Head of the ICRC, came to see me a year ago - last May - he told me that he was satisfied about the conditions then obtaining and subsequently there has been evidence of - isolated evidence - of abuse, that too is being dealt with.

    Bridget Kendall:
    It seems from the many e-mails we've had that what particularly troubles people in other parts of the world is the idea of one standard for Americans, perhaps British, and another standard for other people which is the reason that Guantanamo Bay comes up. And we've had this e-mail from Muhammad Ziaullah Saddiqui in Accra in Ghana who says: What would be your reaction and what action would you have suggested for any country abusing British nationals in the same way as allied forces have allegedly been found dealing with Iraqis in Iraq?

    Jack Straw:
    Well there has to be one standard - I understand the point of the e-mail - but there has to be one single standard. These standards are actually set out in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and in much detail, so there has to be a single standard. I, again, of course given the scale of the shock about the evidence of abuses I understand the point that is being made but there can be only one standard and I am shocked by what I've seen and know about the outrages against Iraqi prisoners and my shock is the same as if it was against British prisoners - these are human beings, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and not abused in this way.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Do you think it puts British nationals, American nationals, at more risk in other countries now?

    Jack Straw:
    I don't think it does that and I think that - I mean all the evidence suggests, in any event, although people may be understandably angry with governments they are able to sensibly differentiate between governments and British or American citizens.

    Bridget Kendall:
    But what about in Iraq, there's already, tragically, this week apparently been one case of an American being beheaded, doesn't it put coalition troops and civilians - contractors - they're supposed to be reconstructing Iraq under more threat?

    Jack Straw:
    Let me make this clear that there has been a difficult environment for the reconstruction for some time, caused not by this evidence of abuse but caused by the way in which the terrorists and the insurgents have been behaving. And the terrorists and the insurgents have been pretty indiscriminate about which overseas contractors they have sought to kidnap or to kill and the number of victims includes nationalities from China, from Russia, from a number of other countries which did not support the military action in Iraq, as well as obviously those that did. It is dreadful what has happened, certainly in respect of this beheading, and many of the other atrocities against contractors, it is also of course self-defeating because these people are there to help Iraq be rebuilt.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Well let's go to our next caller, also by video link, who has a question indeed about the future of Iraq and the handover:

    Gazi Faris:
    My name is Gazi Faris, I live in Esher, Surrey and I have a family in Basra - I visited Basra recently. My question to Mr Straw is this: Why are we going to replace the existing government in Iraq with another unelected one, while we could leave the government where it is until January 2005 or go for the election before June 30th and let the Iraqi people decide what kind of government they want?

    Jack Straw:
    Well Mr Faris, the answer to this - it's a very good point because there were various options considered by the Iraqi governing council when this was looked at early last year and then again in November. The short answer is this is happening because this is what the Iraqi governing council and the coalition provisional authority agreed was the best course. It could have been the case that the Iraqi governing council could have stayed in place until elections took place next year, it was decided to operate in a different way. Personally I support the approach that the IGC agreed on the 15th November last year which has been subsequently broadly endorsed by the international community because you have to have a transition from a wholly appointed governing council, which is what you've got at the moment, through a more substantial caretaker government and then to an elected government. And originally the plan was to delay the handover of sovereignty for about another 18 months. In the light of experience last year everybody thought that that was going to take too long and that was why it was decided to hand it over more quickly.

    The other point you asked was couldn't we have elections now. There are practical reasons for that. The United Nations are giving advice on the running of elections and it's thought that it would take at least until early next year before you could have the electoral processes in place.

    Bridget Kendall:
    This readjusted plan - November 15th - that's actually quite a long time ago when you think what's happened in Iraq since, why not adapt your plans again, given the dramas we've had in the last few weeks, why not have a quicker handover? A lot of Iraqis seem to be saying it's time for the occupation to end.

    Jack Straw:
    Well the occupation will end on 30th June...

    Bridget Kendall:
    Symbolically?

    Jack Straw:
    Well no there'll be big differences - let's be clear about this. I mean...

    Bridget Kendall:
    There'll be a very powerful American ambassador with the biggest American embassy in the world, huge stake in the economy, a four star US general still in charge of security.

    Jack Straw:
    But a point that Secretary Powell himself is making, when he's talking about this, is that Ambassador Negroponte is not going in to replace Ambassador Bremmer, who runs this coalition provisional authority, it's to run - Ambassador Negroponte is going there to run an embassy which is accredited to a sovereign government. I may just say, by the way, that Secretary Powell turns out to be an avid fan of the BBC's programmes and he noticed that he could e-mail me with a question...

    Bridget Kendall:
    On this programme?

    Jack Straw:
    For this programme and sent me an e-mail to say he'd been thinking about this but he decided otherwise.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Perhaps we should say to Mr Powell we would have been delighted to have your question.

    Jack Straw:
    So does that answer your question?

    Bridget Kendall:
    Well the question is - isn't it in the light of what's happened, the violence of the last month, the violence in Falluja, the use of heavy weaponry and civilian deaths, the violence in the south including still in Najaf and now this whole prisoner abuse crisis, doesn't it change things so dramatically that perhaps June 30th needs to be rethought - at least the role of the international community, there are quite a lot of people calling for a bigger role for the UN and less of a role for the occupation force?

    Jack Straw:
    I don't think it's practical to bring forward the handover before - earlier than the 30th June, it is only seven weeks away and what's important is we get there in the best possible shape in what are difficult circumstances. That will be an end of Occupation with a capital O. Of course it will be true that foreign, mainly US and UK troops but many others from participating nations, will remain there but they'll remain there on very different circumstances, they'll remain there under ultimately the decision of the sovereign Iraqi government. So that's a really different circumstance. You then come on to talk about what happened in Falluja and Najaf and again I mean I understand the concerns but it is worth bearing in mind that so far as Falluja was concerned the Americans did try to negotiate, they took action because of the terrible atrocity against four American contractors and at various stages in that military conflict in Falluja they wanted a stand off, they wanted a ceasefire. In the end they got one, tragically after quite a lot of loss of life but what has also happened, which is more benign, is that that area is now being policed and supervised by Iraqi forces, which has to happen more and more across Iraq. As for Najaf, well what we face is insurgency by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric, it is insurgency which is not supported by the overwhelming majority of Shia, he's seen as a renegade by them and it has unfortunately to be dealt with but needs to be dealt with, as ever, by a combination of military and political means.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Well I suppose for British people the question is - British troops are going to be there beyond June 30th, who are they going to take their orders from? And we've got a phone call about that now:

    Jack Wheatley:
    My name's Jack Wheatley, I'm from London. And my question for the Foreign Secretary is this: After a UN appointed government takes over in Iraq on what basis will British troops remain in the country and how long will they stay there?

    Jack Straw:
    They will remain there under the aegis of international law. We're currently under discussion with our partners in the Security Council to get a new Security Council resolution in place, before the transfer of power on the 30th June. And amongst other things that Security Council resolution will lay down the mandate for the multinational force and that will include detail of the interrelationship between the command and control of the multinational force and the sovereign powers of a sovereign Iraqi government. May I just say too, in answer to you and to a previous question from Bridget, that we are concerned to see the widest possible United Nations role in Iraq, they are already heavily involved in the electoral processes in helping to build up the legal processes. And I might also remind everybody that the UN were really very heavily engaged up until the 19th August of last year and had it not been for the terrible atrocity on the United Nations themselves and the murder of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations special representative in Iraq, the UN's role would have been much, much more extensive and effective than tragically it has been in the last nine months.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Can I just clarify this point, because I think a lot of people are confused. After June 30th is it still your intention the British forces that are there and American forces will be like the occupying coalition there now under control of an American general or are you talking about some new arrangement - you talked about a multinational force with a new command and control structure which means that if there were other foreign allies who were willing to send more troops, they don't seem very keen at the moment, that they wouldn't find themselves under the command of an American general?

    Jack Straw:
    Well there are 30 countries, by the way, who are participating in the multinational force at the moment, which is a substantial number. The precise arrangements have yet to be worked out but everybody is clear that from the 30th June you then have an Iraqi sovereign government and it's a matter for a sovereign government, wherever it is, including in Iraq, to decide whether or not, amongst many other things, foreign forces should be on its soil - it's their sovereign decision. Now the precise arrangements for command and control are still being worked through, there are various models from around the world where there are similar - or have been roughly similar circumstances, they include Korea and Afghanistan. There's obviously a point where tactically command and control has to be under the command and control of the troops immediate commanders - if they come under fire, for example, they've got to be able to respond, the rules of engagement have to be clear in advance. But in terms of a wider military strategy, the overall approach, and ultimately final decisions that in all sovereign countries ultimately is a matter for the sovereign government. But filling that detail is something which we're doing at the moment.

    Bridget Kendall:
    So it's still not decided what sort of multinational force it will be and under whose command?

    Jack Straw:
    Well as I say the ultimate decisions will be made by the sovereign Iraqi government. If you're asking me, as you are, at what point in this arrangement an Iraqi general will fit in with the US or the UK or other multinational force general I can't give you that answer because final decisions have not been made. But they will be made and they will be made appropriately to the circumstances.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Let's go to our next caller. This time it's from someone in Brussels in Belgium.

    Sean Hammond:
    Good afternoon Mr Straw, this is Sean Hammond, I'm calling from Brussels in Belgium. And the question I'd like to pose is: In your opinion do you think that the war in Iraq has increased or decreased the likelihood of a terror attack on Western targets?

    Jack Straw:
    Mr Hammond, I think it's done neither actually. The truth is that the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda and international terrorist organisations was there years before the military action that took place in Iraq and I'll remind listeners and viewers and readers that al-Qaeda first started major attempts at atrocity 11 years ago when they tried to blow up the World Trade Centre the first time in 1993 and a whole series of further atrocities. And their worst atrocity of all on the World Trade Center in 2001 took place before Afghanistan and before Iraq. There is obviously, self-evidently, a higher level of insurgency inside Iraq now than there was before the military action and that is having to be dealt with. But I do not accept that it's led to higher levels of insurgency or terrorism around the world, that threat was there and had to be dealt with. And I also point out that it's a threat which has affected countries which did not support the Iraq war, as it's affected countries which have supported the Iraq war. For example, the president of Germany had about five weeks ago to cancel a visit to Djibouti because the German security authorities believed that there was authenticated intelligence of an attack against the German president when he went on that state visit.

    Bridget Kendall:
    But inside Iraq civilians - contractors - who are nothing to do with the invasion itself are now finding themselves targeted aren't they, it's making the reconstruction very difficult and there's quite a lot of firms have had to pull their people out.

    Jack Straw:
    Well it's a self-evident truth it is making things difficult, we need to ask why - this is not because of what the coalition forces are doing, nor what the vast majority of Iraqis are doing. It's because there are these insurgents inside Iraq - some from outside and some home grown as it were - former regime elements and some fanatics - who are seeking to undermine the political processes and seeking to undermine democracy in Iraq. Now it is a bad circumstance but that's the cause of it.

    Bridget Kendall:
    We've had this e-mail from Chris Hunter in Bedford in the UK who says: As Iraq appears no better off - some would say it's demonstrably worse off - than it was a year ago and the invasion of Iraq has made the UK a target for fundamentalist terrorism, does Mr Straw still think that invading Iraq was a good idea and if so how does he justify his opinion?

    Jack Straw:
    Well I wouldn't put it in those terms. What I've always thought was that military action in respect of Iraq was a last resort but obviously, like everybody, I've thought a great deal since the military action took place about whether it was the right decision. And my judgement is that it was. And I invite listeners and viewers to think about the 12 years that led up to the military action - the years of defiance of United Nations resolutions and the fact that Saddam had so many opportunities to put things right. He could have put things right after 1441 had been passed, could easily have done by a full declaration, he failed to do that, by full compliance and cooperation with the inspectors, by answering the 29 chapters of unanswered disarmament questions, including - let's just take one example - what happened to 10,000 litres of anthrax, which unquestionably had been in Iraq and which the inspectors said were still viable as a lethal poison? And indeed he could have accepted the final ultimatum which was to leave Iraq. Now on that basis, I think if you take account of all of that, I think it was the right decision. And although this is actually quite a difficult argument to make at the moment what I also invite people to think about is what would have happened had we not taken the military action because I think the world would have become a much more dangerous place with Saddam re-empowered, re-invigorated, there's no question that the rest of the Middle East were in fear of him. And I put into the balance as well the fact that at least coincidentally we have now secured a situation where Libya is disarming itself of its weapons of mass destruction and Iran is cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency and neither of those things was happening before the military action in Iraq.

    Bridget Kendall:
    We've had quite a few e-mails that say hasn't Britain paid too high a price for loyalty to the Bush administration. This is from Manoj Sharma, who's in Springfield in the United States: It seems the US [sic] government agrees with anything that comes out of the White House, like Iraq and the Middle East, don't you think that the UK government is losing its credibility to the people of the UK and all across the world? And this e-mail, which comes from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, Ian Bromage - who doesn't sound like a Mongolian admittedly: I'd like to ask the Foreign Secretary when he intends to adopt a foreign policy that is in British and European interests rather than just being an outsourced adjunct to the disastrous policies of the Bush administration?

    Jack Straw:
    Well we have our own foreign policy but a key part of our foreign policy is of our twin alliances with the United States and the European Union and those are fundamental. This does not mean that we always agree with the United States or indeed that we always agree with colleagues in the European Union and there are many areas where we have a policy which differs from either or both. But maintaining a fundamental alliance with the United States is of a profound importance to Europe and the world and that was why not just the United Kingdom but half the countries in our expanded European Union actively supported and are actively supporting this engagement in Iraq. So it is not the case, as people are trying to parody, this was US/UK against the rest. As far as the Middle East is concerned our position is very clear indeed. Which is that we absolutely support the road map, resolutions 242, 338, 3097 and on the very specific issue, which has caused controversy, we are against any prejudging of the final status of the negotiations including the return of refugees and for example the status of Jerusalem. But if I can just mention two other issues to put into the balance, which people sometimes forget. We have a very different view from the United States about Kyoto, for example, which is actually a foreign policy issue, as well as an issue of climate change, and we believe that unless the world gets on top of climate change there'll be more instability and conflict in the world - so we have a big argument with the US. Or for example in respect of Iran, where I personally have developed a distinctive policy with France and Germany in respect of Iran, we've cooperated with the Americans, it's no great secret that their approach to Iran, they don't have diplomatic relations with Iran, is different from ours.

    Bridget Kendall:
    You mentioned the Middle East. We've had an e-mail from Mark Messenger in Brighton who says: What's your opinion of the letter written by 52 former UK diplomats? Do you feel they had a valid concern about this government's relentless following of a right wing American administration that seems to support political assassinations in Palestine and illegal settlements in the West Bank?

    Jack Straw:
    Well they were entitled to their opinions, is what I say, and at least it shows that contrary to the parody that Foreign Office diplomats are not sort of clones.

    Bridget Kendall:
    But did they raise a valid point?

    Jack Straw:
    Well of course they raised points which were valid to them. Were they justified? No I don't happen to think that they were. And we are against assassinations or killings, let's be clear about this, by the Israelis, no one, in a sense, has been more vocal than have I - making it clear that we regard the so-called assassination policy as unjustified, unlawful and counterproductive. And people need to listen to that and when I saw Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, he and I discussed very frankly why they thought this was justified, why I think this is unjustified. We also however, need to take account of the terror which has been perpetrated against the Israelis. And that too has to be put into the balance. But what we want to see, so far as the Middle East is concerned, is a secure Israel living alongside a viable and contiguous state of Palestine, a negotiation based on Security Council resolutions and a route to get there following the road map. And that is our - British - foreign policy.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Let's just hear this call by video link from Nashville, Tennessee on this subject:

    Paul Rosenblatt:
    My name is Paul Rosenblatt, I'm from Nashville, Tennessee. In light of the total absence of a long-term plan for Iraq at what point would the British government loudly voice their interpretation of what our goals are there in the Middle East in terms of the next decade or more?

    Jack Straw:
    Well there is a long-term plan for Iraq, which is to make Iraq democratic, prosperous and free and although of course there are self-evident difficulties at the moment that is what we are doing and will take a further step in that course when there's a handover of sovereignty on the 30th June. Overall, in terms of the wider Middle East, we've got to resolve the Israel/Palestine issue and if there is one issue above all else which inflames opinion across the Arab and the Islamic world and in much of Europe and elsewhere it is the unresolved issue of Israel and Palestine - that requires a real engagement by the international community. We also have to encourage the process of reform in the Arab world. I pick my words delicately and it's about modernisation, development in the Arab world. Many Arab leaders now recognise this, it's not for us to dictate to them how they should do this at all but it is for us to support and encourage processes which are already underway.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Thank you. And just a reminder that you're listening to Talking Point with Bridget Kendall and our guest today is the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

    And let's turn to another momentous subject - the future of Europe. Here's a caller, again this time on video link.

    Mari Skarholt:
    Hi my name is Mari Skarholt and I'm currently living and working in Brussels. Mr Straw, do you really believe that a referendum is the best way of determining the future of Europe's constitution? Surely attempts to properly explain the issues to the British public would be hampered by your Euro-sceptic media. For this reason is it not best to resolve the question through Britain's tried and tested mechanisms of parliamentary democracy, which have a long history of working?

    Jack Straw:
    Well we will be resolving them through Parliament and it will be for Parliament to decide whether or not there is a referendum. But one of - just to contradict what you have said Madam - one of the problems which we all face is that there was such a demand for a referendum that in a sense it crowded out the detailed arguments about what was in this convention. So people became suspicious about it. What I hope and believe is that now we have made the decision to go for a referendum we will be able better to explain the benefits of this constitutional treaty, if that is agreed, there are some things which we want changed and we won't agree it unless they are changed. But there are significant benefits from this in making the European Union more effective, more democratic, more responsive to national parliaments and one of the points that I'm already making to the so-called Euro-sceptic press and some of the so-called Euro-sceptics in Parliament is that I thought they wanted national parliaments to have a greater say over what was going on in Brussels, well if they do why the devil are they not supporting this draft constitutional treaty, which includes a mechanism for the first time to do that? They say they want to see some competences handed back to national governments - well if they do why don't they support this draft treaty which contains that mechanism in Article 110? Some of them say they want to leave the European Union - well that's a sovereign right of any country, if they do why don't they support this treaty because in the treaty, for the first time ever, there's a very straightforward mechanism by which a country can leave the European Union if it so decides?

    Bridget Kendall:
    But Mr Straw you argued vociferously against the idea of having a referendum, that this was a treaty that was a tidying up exercise, didn't need to go to the people, then you changed your mind, by all accounts you were one of the key people to persuade the Prime Minister there should be a referendum - why the change of heart? Was it to strengthen your negotiating position before the treaty's finalised?

    Jack Straw:
    We have changed our mind, let's be clear about that, although I also make it clear that I never used the word tidying up and the context in which it was used was very specific. Part of this treaty is about consolidating an existing mess of treaties, part of it is about changing things and we need to be straightforward with people. This treaty will not change the fundamental nature of the relationship between ourselves and the European Union if it's agreed, and we won't agree it if it were to do that. And that central point, that I was making when I was arguing against a referendum, remains. But it is also the case that you have in politics you've got to listen to the nature of the arguments and just to repeat myself - what I found was that although people may have taken that from me - that it wasn't going to change fundamentally, the relationship - they kept saying - well you are providing referendum on a range of other issues and it's true, as a Labour government, we're rather proud of this, we've introduced referendum as part of our political process on issues which appear to be less significant. And having done that it was then quite difficult to handle the argument. The other point which certainly weighed with me was a sense by people - well you gave us a referendum 30 years ago on whether we should stay in or leave the European Union in 1975, even if this constitution is not going to change things significantly quite a lot has changed in the intervening 30 years and so we would like a chance to say yes or no to these new arrangements. Add it all together and yes we and cabinet colleagues came to the decision that we did. If you change your mind you have to say you've changed your mind but I think people have greater respect for you if you're able to say well we have changed our mind and one of the reasons we changed our mind is because we listen to people, which is what you have to do in Parliament.

    Bridget Kendall:
    How soon can the referendum be?

    Jack Straw:
    That very depends and I can't give a timetable. If there were to be agreement in June - at the end of June - on this draft constitutional treaty - and I can't say whether there will or not - if there were there would be legislation likely either at the end of this year or the beginning of next year and the referendum decision - or the referendum would take place in due course after that.

    Bridget Kendall:
    It's hugely risky though isn't it - we heard the concern from our caller from Brussels in Belgium and we've had this e-mail from Simon here in Southend in Essex in Britain who says: Can you clarify exactly what the Government position on the new EU constitution is? We understand there's to be a referendum, which I for one welcome, but if the Government gets a no vote what's the next step?

    Jack Straw:
    Well the position on the referendum is that if we think the constitutional treaty is worth signing up for we shall sign up for it...

    Bridget Kendall:
    That's still an if?

    Jack Straw:
    Yeah, for sure because our position was set out very clearly in a white paper which I published last September - it's available on the website for everybody - sets out very clearly our so-called red lines - what we think is good about this, what we want to have changed. We got a lot of changes in negotiations with the Italian presidency, we've now got to get extra changes if we're going to sign up for it. But if we sign up for it we'll recommend it very thoroughly, we'll go out and evangelise about what is in it and why it's good for Britain. And we're aiming for a yes vote and I believe we'll get a yes vote. If we get a no vote we have to accept the decision of the people - that's called a referendum.

    Bridget Kendall:
    An even bigger question - an e-mail from Charles Paxton in St. Andrews in Scotland: Is there a natural limit to the size of the EU? Will nominally non-European states eventually be allowed to join? Morocco for example, even Israel?

    Jack Straw:
    I think there is a natural limit to the size of the European Union. Some people in Europe say there's no natural limit to the extent of European values and of course that's true but Europe is defined by geography, as well as by values, it has to be. And my own sense is that if we get the accession of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey and the Balkan states in due course and one or two of the near eastern neighbours of the European Union that that will be Europe.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Ukraine.

    Jack Straw:
    Ukraine for example.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Georgia?

    Jack Straw:
    Well it's a mute point is the answer and I'm not aware that Georgia has applied for membership.

    Bridget Kendall:
    They're pretty keen on Nato.

    Jack Straw:
    Well that's a rather different matter because Nato, by definition, is not Europe specific. And it is important to maintain the cohesion of Europe because there is obviously European history, there are European values, and it is that history and values which has provided very important glue for the European Union and it's obviously the case that the bigger this organisation becomes the more difficult it is to run it, although there are many advantages in it becoming bigger.

    Bridget Kendall:
    The bigger it becomes the more concern there is about sensitive issues like migration. And we've had this e-mail from Oscar Lima who's in Iraklio in Greece who says: As an old EU citizen I've already enjoyed the privilege of moving freely for jobs between member states and I feel it's unfair that citizens from new member states are denied this freedom of movement, as if we were to be flooded with millions of hungry people the second day we open the labour market. What's your view?

    Jack Straw:
    Well we've actually been very good about this - we've been criticised by some people in this country but we are the best in Europe in terms of making arrangements for free movement. We have had to say that if people come here to work they've got to work or they go back, if they come here to live on their own resources that's a different matter for a phase-in period. There were phase-ins for Spain and Portugal and I'm pretty certain for Greece, there were actually similar anxieties when Spain and Portugal and Greece came into the European Union that they too, because their income levels were so much lower at that stage than in the average in the European Union, would "flood" the labour market. It's very interesting that it hasn't happened and as far as Spain, for example, is concerned the great worries about all sorts of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards coming to take British jobs - many more British people have gone to live in Spain and work in Spain than ever Spaniards have come to live and work in Britain and who can blame them, given the weather.

    Bridget Kendall:
    You talked about European values and this brings us back in part to the questions about Iraq and human rights and we've got this phone call from a caller in Canada and she wants to ask specifically about human rights and Libya.

    Rehanna:
    Hello, my name is Rehanna, I'm calling from Toronto, Canada. My question to Mr Straw is: Now that Britain has almost totally formalised relationships with the Gaddafi regime in Libya I am wondering what has been done about the fact that almost 98% of the population of Libya still live without basic human rights and why is it that Mr Gaddafi is allowed to imprison non-violent political groups - and that is not my description, that is the description from Amnesty International in their 2004 report on Libya - why is he allowed to imprison these people, hand out death sentences and life sentences? Isn't this a double standard for Britain, are we not supposed to be promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East?

    Jack Straw:
    No it's not double standard and it doesn't follow that because we have human rights - sorry because we have diplomatic relations with a country we therefore are complacent about their human rights, quite the reverse. And it is much easier to handle human rights concerns with a country if you do have diplomatic relations with a country and effective relations, than if you don't. Everybody would applaud what we have done and this was the United States, the United Kingdom working together, people seem to have forgotten it, but the Libyan regime had a very extensive nuclear and chemical weapons programme, as a result of very careful and secret diplomacy last December 19th Libya announced that it was renouncing that and it's brought itself into full compliance - this removes a major threat, not only in the Middle East and the Maghreb but for the wider world, it's of huge importance. And it's a very good step. Yes of course there's an agenda on human rights with Libya, as there is sadly with many other countries around the world, but that will be able to be intensified with the closer relations we have with Libya, rather than relaxed.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Just a final question Foreign Secretary on Iraq. It's been a pretty traumatic last few weeks - the violence in Iraq, this whole crisis over the question of prisoner abuse, uproar around the world, concern among public opinion in the US and UK, not to mention the Arab world - do you think if it gets worse it might require a complete rethink from the coalition on their Iraq policy?

    Jack Straw:
    No I don't because I think the policy we're following is a sensible one. I mean what we are doing is securing a transfer of power in just seven weeks to an Iraqi government, we're working very closely and collaboratively with the United Nations special representative - Lakhdar Brahimi, we're working cooperatively with our Security Council partners, including those who had a different view from us about the military action in Iraq. And it is my very profound belief that this is the only way forward, which is to hand over sovereignty as quickly as possible to the Iraqi people and then to support the Iraqi people in their transition to democracy with elections next year and then to the prosperity and stability which everyone seeks for them.

    Bridget Kendall:
    And then get out as quickly as possible.

    Jack Straw:
    Well then get out, of course, at the appropriate time yes, but not to evade our responsibilities because these were decisions which we made and we have responsibilities which we have to follow through.

    Bridget Kendall:
    Thank you very much Foreign Secretary. And that's where we come to the end of this programme. My thanks to Mr Straw and to all of you who sent us your questions and e-mails and apologies to those of you who we didn't manage to get on air. You can still keep sending your e-mails to talkingpoint@bbc.co.uk or go to our website at bbcnews.com/talkingpoint. Next week Talking Point will be coming from Namibia. Roger Hearing will be talking to the country's president - Sam Nujoma. But for now from me Bridget Kendall and the whole of the Talking Point team goodbye.




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