HC Deb 06 December 1990 vol 182 cc468-74 4.25 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the hostages in Iraq and Kuwait.

President Saddam Hussein has today sent a letter to the Iraqi National Assembly requesting that the Assembly allow all foreigners on whom restrictions were placed to enjoy the freedom of travel and to lift these restrictions". This appears to mean that all foreign hostages in both Iraq and Kuwait will, once the Assembly has given its approval, be free to leave.

The Government welcome this implementation of one of the Security Council's requirements. We have throughout been pressing for the release of all hostages. We are delighted for all the hostages and their families. They have suffered with great dignity and courage over the past weeks and months. We are in close contact with our embassy in Baghdad over the practical arrangements for the departure of all British citizens trapped in Iraq and Kuwait. The ambassador is actively seeking early clarification from the Iraqi authorities. We will then do everything in our power to help those concerned get home as soon as practicable.

Saddam Hussein should now implement in full the United Nations resolutions, which means withdrawing unconditionally from Kuwait and allowing the legitimate Government to return to that country.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for responding to our request for a statement on this matter. We express satisfaction at the decision to release the hostages who, of course, should never have been detained in the first place. We share the rejoicing of the hostages' families that their ordeal will soon be over and that they will be reunited with their loved ones. We greatly welcome the news, not simply for its human implications but for what it may signify.

This is the first positive response by Iraq to any of the United Nations Security Council resolutions—namely, No. 664. Since the inhumane purpose of holding the hostages was to use them as human shields in the event of war, this decision may carry important implications for Iraqi policy. It suggests that the talks between the United States Administration and the Iraqi regime could have a chance of bearing fruit. Taken with the report that the United States may now join the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in advocating an international conference on the middle east, it signals the possibility of a transformation for the good of the agonising situation in the region.

It is clear evidence that sanctions are working, and that they should be given a chance to work further to bring about, if possible, the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait by peaceful means. The United Nations has been and continues to be steadfast on this issue, and a great prize may be available to reward that steadfastness. We remain absolute in our support for the United Nations.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and for welcoming the news.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if the news is correct, as we hope it is, it is very welcome? Even in this moment of welcome, will he not forget the other hostages—I am sure that he would not do so—who have been held in Beirut for much too long, and who should be released as soon as possible? They should have been released long ago. Will he reassure us that despite this, and even with the news of the international conference on long-term security in the middle east, nothing will detract from the determination of the nations of the world to fulfil the United Nations' resolution to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait not only unconditionally and completely but immediately?

Mr. Hurd

I confirm the last point that my right hon. Friend made. I cannot possibly predict how long it will take to carry through what President Saddam Hussein has asked the Iraqi Assembly to consider and to do. I gather that the Assembly is meeting tomorrow. We have many people involved. There are 440 British nationals in hiding in Kuwait. I hope very much that they are covered. We have 355 British nationals at liberty in Iraq and a further 342 detained at strategic sites—about 1,150 all told. The references that have been made to the international conference relate to reports of discussions in the Security Council, particularly between the United States and several non-aligned delegations. The British Government have long felt the need for an international Arab-Israel conference as a way of carrying that forward. It is a little too soon to say whether that possibility has been brought closer. I would advise the House to be a bit cautious.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Will the Foreign Secretary ascertain whether the statement to those who have successfully evaded capture in Kuwait and that they will be free to leave without intimidation? On the wider issue, does he agree that, although there is naturally rejoicing for the hostages and their relatives, there should be no votes of thanks to Saddam Hussein for undoing something that he should not have done in the first place? He must be hoping that, by this manoeuvre, international resolve may weaken. It would be a terrible indictment of the House or of anybody else if we were simply to say, "Our citizens are free, therefore we can forget about Kuwait." Will he reaffirm that we shall remain resolute on the wider issue?

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman's first point, about the position of our people who are in hiding in Kuwait, is one of the main points that our ambassador is trying to clear up with the Iraqis. The right E.on. Gentleman is entirely right on his second point. Three main requirements were laid down not by us or by the President of the United States but by the Security Council of the United Nations—the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the restoration of the Kuwaiti Government and the freeing of all hostages. If the third of the requirements is carried through, that is welcome news, but it does not detract in the least from the importance of the others.

Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although we welcome the statement from Baghdad today, we should not forget that the hostages should never have been taken in the first place? The fact that they have been released does not make Saddam Hussein a hero.

Mr. Hurd

No, indeed. His policy has been entirely wrong. I hope that today's announcement means that President Saddam Hussein realises that it has also been a mistake.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that in the Palace of Westminster at the moment are 12 women whose husbands are held hostage in Kuwait or in Iraq? They are determined to make their way to Baghdad to obtain the release of their husbands. In the light of the statement that we have heard today, would it be appropriate for a Minister to meet them to give them counsel and advice in this new situation?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to tell me of this, and I am glad to say that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, in conjunction with him, will gladly meet those ladies. I hope that their journey may no longer prove to be necessary.

Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)

In welcoming the announcement that apparently has been made today, may I echo my right hon. Friend's word of caution? Will he clarify whether a clear indication has been given of the timing of the release of the hostages, whether they are part of the human shield or whether, as was said previously, they are still in hiding?

Mr. Hurd

In his letter to the National Assembly of Iraq, President Saddam Hussein refers to the fact that he had earlier considered a different timing and concentrating on Christmas and the new year. The implication, but not the clear statement, is that he is now talking of immediate release. But that is an implication. It must be cleared up. as must the crucial question whether all the British people, whatever their circumstances and whether they are in Iraq or Kuwait, are covered by the announcement.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, having spent three hours with Saddam Hussein and his Cabinet last week trying to persuade him to do the very thing that he has now done, including the form of words "freedom of movement" for every resident and an amnesty in Kuwait, I strongly welcome what has happened? However, is it not important now that some of the loose talk from Washington and from Ministers about toppling Saddam Hussein, about demilitarising Iraq by force and about bringing him to trial as a war criminal should be abandoned? There are no United Nations resolutions that encompass that in any way. The path is now open. Saddam Hussein's compliance with the resolution on Kuwait, which I also put to him, would be accelerated if he could be persuaded that he would not be attacked whatever he did.

The question of disputed territory, on which the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) has touched, should be dealt with by arbitration, and the compliance by Israel with resolution 242 and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the Lebanon are part of a long-term peace process. The lives have been saved——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but I want to remind him that there will be a debate on this subject next Tuesday.[Interruption.] Well, there is great pressure on subsequent business. We should confine our questions to the Foreign Secretary today to the immediate issue and not deal with wider issues.

Mr. Benn

I respect your judgment, Mr. Speaker. However, you will recall that I asked that there should be a clear Government statement before Tuesday on the matters that I have tried to raise. Otherwise, we shall not know on Tuesday whether we agree with the Government's line.

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman asked in business questions for a further full and authoritative statement; he will get that on Tuesday. I want to refer him to what the Prime Minister has said, to what I have said and to what Secretary Baker has said—that, if President Saddam Hussein does not comply in full with the Security Council resolutions, he will be forced to do so. If he does comply, he will not be attacked.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is not it a fact that Saddam Hussein rounded up two Britons in Kuwait yesterday for use as human shields? Is not it also a fact that his dearest wish is to establish some linkage between his invasion of Kuwait and the settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem? Will my right hon. Friend stand against any such linkage?

Mr. Hurd

I cannot confirm my hon. and learned Friend's first point, but I will look into it and let him know whether our information confirms it.

On the second point, President Saddam Hussein has no particular standing as regards the general problems of the middle east or the Arab-Israel question. We have all been trying for many years—many people tried long before me—to achieve a just and lasting settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. There is no reason why we should stop doing that because of the aggression. However, as I have often explained to the House, I do not see, in practical terms, any prospect of useful initiatives on that subject as long as Saddam Hussein remains the aggressor in possession of Kuwait.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the second most important aspect of the statement—the first, obviously, being the release of hostages—is the fact that Saddam Hussein is starting to comply with the United Nations resolutions? Those hon. Members who are concerned about resolving the issue of the Palestinians and the Israelis should understand that the sooner all states begin to comply with United Nations resolutions the more likelihood there is of resolving the Palestinian question.

The Secretary of State was correct. Today's statement on the possible change in United States policy is intended to ensure that the United States does not use its veto in the Security Council. Will he ensure that our ambassador encourages the United States to accept, for the first time ever, a statement in a resolution that calls for the convening of an international peace conference?

Mr. Hurd

We are very anxious that this aspect of the Security Council's discussions should be carried forward without the dissent and upset that go with a United States veto—or with any veto. I confirm that to the hon. Gentleman.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Would my right hon. Friend clarify the meaning of the word "hostage" in his statement? Does it include all the British subjects who were working on contract in Iraq and in Kuwait? I have in mind especially the British service men who were on contract to the Kuwait armed forces. Are they covered by this welcome statement?

Mr. Hurd

The word used by President Saddam Hussein is "foreigners". He does not distinguish between one kind or another. We are trying to clear up as soon as possible the exact scope of the announcement. Obviously, we shall be pressing that it cover all British citizens and all foreigners living in Iraq and Kuwait and wishing to leave.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

On behalf of my colleagues I welcome the statement, particularly as President Saddam Hussein kept his word on the release of the Mivan workers when they completed their contract. I hope that his word now given will be speedily fulfilled, and ask him to bear in mind the fact that, in our understanding, a guest is free to move around in the house or in the country. If there are gatecrashers at a party and they do not quietly withdraw when requested to do so, they would be expelled from the country or the house that they were occupying.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this welcome announcement totally vindicates the British Government's stand in refusing to treat with hostage takers and rather endorses the view that we should adopt an uncompromising attitude to those who would seek to infringe human rights and invade sovereign integrity?

Mr. Hurd

I think the whole House would be very pleased if we could move from a situation in which a certain number of hostages—a few dozen here and a few dozen there—are doled out to eminent visitors at the whim of President Saddam Hussein, to the situation for which we have been pressing, in which all hostages are released.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am bound to have regard to the subsequent business before the House. A large number of hon. Members wish to participate, so I shall take three more questions from each side. I bear in mind the fact that we will have a debate on this matter on Tuesday.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Foreign Secretary of the view that the message should go out from the international community loud and clear that the totally unprovoked aggression which occurred on 2 August must come to an end? We must remember, of course, that the people in Kuwait are also hostages to the criminal and terrorist regime of the past few months. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that many Opposition Members opposed the Tory action in 1956, when the Government collaborated with France and Israel against Egypt, and those of us who demonstrated against that totally unjustified aggression take the view that, to be logical, we must totally oppose what happened on 2 August and insist that Saddam Hussein withdraws from Kuwait?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman has always been consistent in his belief that on this occasion the Security Council resolution should be fully complied with.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the hostages and their relatives who have suffered a period of great stress will be delighted at the statement. Without waiting for further details from Baghdad, will he make arrangements for planes to be available to take all the hostages back home to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hurd

We are looking into that matter. Recently, the Iraqis have insisted that people leaving should leave by Iraq Airways. One of the points that we need to establish quickly is whether that will remain their requirement or whether it would be possible for us to mobilise and send aircraft to carry people home.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

May I ask the Foreign Secretary to say as much as he can about this welcome news and the suggestion that the Americans will support a middle east peace conference? Is this part of a peace package? When, as I presume, the Prime Minister meets Mr. Shamir later today, will he say to him that there can be no double standards in the middle east, that just as Saddam Hussein must withdraw from Kuwait, so must Israel withdraw from the occupied territories, and that the way to long-term peace and disarmament in the middle east is the settlement of the Palestinian issue?

Mr. Hurd

I would discourage the hon. Lady from linking those matters. That is why I spoke rather cautiously about the reports of an international conference. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is seeing Mr. Shamir at this time. I am sure that he will set out for the Israeli Prime Minister the efforts that we are making—it is not a matter of dissent between the parties —to bring about a just settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the news seems to be helpful, but that it hardly gives rise to optimism in the face of the previous behaviour of Saddam Hussein— Can he reassure the House that we will maintain all pressure through diplomatic channels to ascertain the timing of the release and to press for as speedy a release as possible? That is crucial, for political and humanitarian reasons.

Mr. Hurd

I agree with all the points that my hon. Friend has made.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

In welcoming the Foreign Secretary's statement, may I ask him whether he will once again press the Iraqi authorities to allow the two remaining diplomats to the British embassy in Kuwait City to resume their proper duties so that they can assist in what we hope will be the repatriation of the 440 British subjects still in hiding in Kuwait?

Mr. Hurd

Yes. Mr. Michael Weston and Mr. Banks have persevered in circumstances of growing difficulty precisely because it was their wish, as well as mine, that they should continue to be able to give some help—not as much as they would like—to the British citizens in Kuwait. I am sure that they will want to continue that.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

While sanctions no doubt play their part, does my right hon. Friend agree that the threat of force was no doubt the critical element in the decision? Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to pay tribute to the men of our armed forces and their families who have been under considerable stress for their part in what is undoubtedly a sacrifice for all concerned?

Mr. Hurd

I gladly join in that tribute. The Security Council resolution last week and the knowledge that it has brought home to Baghdad—that the military option is not a bluff and that, if Saddam Hussein does not leave Kuwait in peace, he will be forced out—is the strongest of the peaceful pressures which can be brought to bear.