Blair hails push on debt relief for poorest

Posted in Other | 11-Jun-04 | Author: Larry Elliott and David Teathe| Source: Guardian

US President George W. Bush (C) and US First Lady Laura Bush greet British Prime Minister Tony Blair (news - web sites) for dinner during the Group of Eight Summit.
Tony Blair and George Bush were last night dismissing talk of a rift between the world's most powerful states as they hailed a series of initiatives on Iraq, the Middle East and Africa at the close of the G8 summit.

The two leaders downplayed the re-emergence of their old differences with France and Germany, which came to a head over Nato's future role in Iraq and the failure to agree on immediately writing off the $90bn (£49bn) debt built up by Saddam Hussein.

The prime minister cited the passing of a UN resolution on sovereignty in Iraq at the opening of the three-day event as evidence of unity, which he will seek to build on at next year's G8 meeting at Gleneagles in Scotland.

"It would be misguided to underestimate the importance of the UN resolution," Mr Blair said. "Just because there is disagreement on the precise contribution Nato might make, that should not overshadow the agreement on the way forward. The fact that we have a UN-blessed political process and an Iraqi capability to do their own security work far outweighs any residual disagreement."

Both Mr Blair and Mr Bush stressed that further Nato troops would only be used for training Iraqi security forces, and that they would only go in on invitation from Baghdad. Mr Bush said: "The spread of freedom throughout the broader Middle East is the imperative of our age."

Mr Blair also called attention to the G8's support for the return of the multilateral "Quartet" group to Israel by the end of the month, with a mandate to put the road map to peace back on track, as further evidence of a common line on the world's problems.

Despite scepticism from aid agencies, Mr Blair was confident that the G8 had laid the foundations for a major breakthrough on debt relief during Britain's presidency of the organisation in 2005. He said the UK's priorities would be Africa and climate change, adding: "There will be real focus on what the G8 can do to help those in great difficulty."

British sources said last night that the language of the summit communique gave the green light for work by finance ministers in the coming months to draft a fully-costed proposal for writing off 100% of the debt owed by poorest countries to multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

"The key thing is that we have got it on the agenda that finance ministers should look at debt sustainability," said one official. "We now have the chance to push harder."

One option being looked at is the possibility of selling IMF gold to fund part of the annual $1bn-plus cost of multilateral debt relief.

Debt campaigners however accused the G8 of unnecessary delay and demanded that Mr Blair back up his words with action in this month's comprehensive spending review to boost Britain's aid budget.

"At this critical moment, when every minute another African child dies of Aids, the global community needs 100% cancellation of multilateral debt without harmful conditions," said Marie Clarke, the national coordinator of the Jubilee USA Network.

Under the debt proposals, the summit agreed to extend the time limit for states to apply for debt relief under the HIPC (highly indebted poor country) scheme until the end of 2006, and will boost the funding of the programme by $1bn.

Seth Amgott of the debt campaign group Data, said: "Tony Blair talked the talk for Africa here in Georgia. But this is irrelevant if he does not walk the walk back in London next week when he and Gordon Brown set the aid budget."