HC Deb 22 February 1991 vol 186 cc568-77
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, if he will make a statement on the latest developments in the Gulf conflict.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

As the House knows, last night a Soviet spokesman announced a further set of proposals about ending the conflict in the Gulf.

We have not yet received from the Soviet Government the full text of those proposals. When we do, we will analyse them and consult carefully and urgently with the Governments of other countries whose forces are participating in the coalition alongside our forces.

Such details as were given in last night's announcement in Moscow indicate that those proposals are an improvement on those that had previously been put forward by the Societ Union. We welcome that. But they still contain serious deficiencies. They fall significantly short of full and unconditional implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions.

It is not yet clear whether Iraq has accepted the Soviet proposals, even as they currently stand.

Mr. O'Neill

I thank the Minister for that reply. I note that, no matter how pessimistic we may have been last night, there may be some grounds for qualified optimism. The hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that the cornerstone of our policy must continue to be the cessation of hostilities by an unequivocal commitment to withdraw from Kuwait, backed by immediate concrete steps leading to full compliance with the United Nations Security Council resolution.

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that the statement requires close and continuing study not only of the details as he receives them but of the talks in Moscow today? Does he accept that there are gaps where the United Nations commitments should be? That may be due to the insertion of some Iraqi points in the list. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman in a position to confirm which of those points may be attributable to the Iraqi Government?

Finally, can the hon. and learned Gentleman shed any light on the change of step that seemed to occur between Saddam Hussein's broadcast yesterday and Tariq Aziz's meeting in Moscow last night? Who is now determining Iraqi policy in this matter?

Mr. Hogg

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the clear way in which he has set out his own position. I find myself in very substantial agreement with everything that he said. We have not, as I said, had a full text of the proposals or a full read-out of how the proposals exactly came to be constructed. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I cannot tell him the extent to which the proposals emanate from the Soviet Union or have been adjusted by the Iraqi representative.

As to whether Tariq Aziz or President Saddam Hussein speaks for Iraq, I frankly do not know, but the fact that there is a different tone and emphasis to what they appear to be saying makes all of us extremely cautious.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that everyone in the House and outside hopes that the talks and other measures that are being taken may lead to our not having to have a ground war? Would not it be essential that, in any agreement that is reached, it must be clear that Iraqi troops must withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait and not be in a position later on to attack it again? Does it not seem, at least from an initial reading, that the so-called terms fall short of that and, in particular, show no sign of Iraq's having abandoned its claim to Kuwait in the future?

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend makes a number of important points. He will of course know well that resolution 678 of the Security Council calls for complete, immediate and unconditional withdrawal by Iraq from Kuwait. He will know also that that resolution provides for the restoration of peace and security in the region. Those objectives remain the objectives of the coalition, and we shall not derogate from them.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Should not we now be adopting a twin-track approach, in which we vigorously pursue the possibility of a peaceful solution that is consistent with the United Nations resolutions, while maintaining military pressure? Does the Minister agree that such a peace is likely to be durable only if Iraq acknowledges the legitimacy of the Government of Kuwait and, indeed, the legitimacy of the borders of that country? Further, will not it also be an important part of any such peace that the United Nations embargo on arms sales to Iraq is maintained and even strengthened?

Mr. Hogg

Once again, I have considerable sympathy with the remarks of the hon. and learned Gentleman. On military pressure, the answer is, yes indeed: military pressure must be maintained until there has been a complete and unequivocal compliance with the relevant Security Council resolutions. The hon. and learned Gentleman made specific reference to the restoration of the legitimate Government of Kuwait. He will of course know that that is one of the important elements within resolution 678 and remains the objective of the coalition countries.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

From what my hon. and learned Friend has gleaned so far, what evidence is there that a durable arms control regime is to be put in to place and effective monitoring established? Is not it absolutely crucial that Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities be removed and not replaced? Can he reassure the House as to the Soviet Union's role? It has been Iraq's most consistent ally. We have the memory of Nasser and Suez. We should not wish to see a repetition of anything like that—a job half done.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend may recall that, in yesterday's debate, I spoke of a number of important issues that would have to be tackled when this conflict came to an end. One was the ways in which the international community could introduce a more effective arms control regime within the area. That remains a very important issue, of which we will not lose sight.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Minister aware that the proposals emerge not from Tehran but from Moscow? The Soviet Union has supported the United Nations resolutions from the beginning. It is a permanent member of the Security Council and it has an interest in the area due to its geographical position—the fact that it is so near. Really, it is necessary for the proposals to be taken very seriously. It would be quite wrong for them to be rejected out of hand.

I am glad that the Minister has said today that further thought would be given to the matter, because the hopes of the world rest on it—for example, the lives of many British troops, the families here, the Saudis and the Iraqis. Also, there is no prospect of peace and stability in the middle east if the United States sees this matter, as President Bush continually says, as some way of avenging his defeat in Vietnam.

Hon. Members


Mr. Benn


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is continuing the debate that we had yesterday. Please put questions to the Minister of State.

Mr. Benn

I appreciate that, Mr. Speaker, but I speak for millions of people around the world, including the World Council of Churches.

Mr. Speaker

I know, but the right hon. Gentleman fully appreciates that this is a private Member's day and that we cannot enlarge upon these matters today.

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to put the point that there are millions of people in the world whose hopes rest on a successful conclusion of this matter without mass bloodshed. Will the Government keep that point in mind?

Mr. Hogg

Of course we take the proposals seriously. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's views on this matter, but, as I have already said, we have not yet had a full text of the proposals and nor do we know whether additional proposals may be attached to those that have already appeared in the press. Moreover, we have not yet had the opportunity fully to consult our coalition partners and, of course, the Arab states within the coalition. For that reason, it is not possible for me to go beyond what I have already said, save to stress the fact that we treat these matters extremely seriously, but that our objective is to ensure full and unconditional compliance with the relevant Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

I welcome my hon. and learned Friend's assurance that there will be maximum consultation with our Arab coalition partners before any decision is made. Is he satisfied with the proposals for the early release of prisoners of war? He knows how sensitive that subject is on the Conservative Benches. Finally, will he please explain why the world should lift economic sanctions from Iraq before Iraq has withdrawn all its soldiers from Kuwait?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend stresses the need for maximum consultation, especially with the Arab countries within the coalition. I can give him the assurance that he seeks. I regard it as very important that there should be the maximum consultation with the Arab countries within the coalition. My hon. Friend will recall that I specifically addressed the question of prisoners of war yesterday, when I stressed the high importance that we attach to an immediate release of the allied prisoners of war and the third-party detainees who are now held in Kuwait. Those are the things that I said yesterday and they therefore need no repetition today.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I welcome the Government's prudent and cautious approach, but does the Minister recognise that regional peace and security is closely linked to total withdrawal, as is implied in the 12 resolutions of the United Nations, and that it would be difficult to understand any decision to allow back into Iraq all the heavy equipment and tanks before Iraq has signed up to concrete measures to ensure that it cannot again become a power which threatens nuclear weapons, long-range missiles directed at regional capitals, and an overwhelming regional military force?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for expressing his anxiety so clearly. I am sure that he found considerable support in the House.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

While I appreciate that the decision on these matters must rest predominantly with our American allies who have contributed most of the power, in such advice as we convey to the United States, will my hon. and learned Friend bear in mind Sir Winston Churchill's verdict on Suez: I don't know if I would have dared to start, but I would never have dared to stop"?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his advice on this matter.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

While there are defects and omissions in the Soviet proposals, the Minister is surely right in saying that the Government will give serious consideration to what is clearly a significant advance. However, can he tell the House something more about the status of the proposals? Are we being told that, despite the presence of the Iraqi Foreign Minister in Moscow yesterday, the proposals have not yet been wholly endorsed by the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Hogg

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are uncertain about the status of the proposals. To start with, we have not had a full text and most certainly we do not know what the considered response of the Iraqis might be to the proposals. We do not know, for example, whether Tariq Aziz's position is accepted by his President, a point that I made to the right hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill).

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his meticulous and balanced monitoring of these complex matters. Will he confirm that, while we are waiting for those clarifications, there is no question of coalition or British forces being in any way endangered and that vigilance will be maintained in military terms? Does he agree that, if one reads closely the text of yesterday's speech by Tariq Aziz, one sees more and more evidence of a split in the Iraqi leadership?

Mr. Hogg

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question is that the lives of our soldiers and service men, and of the other service men within the coalition, remain our paramount consideration. There is no question of our relaxing our vigilance. Indeed, hostilities are continuing because there is no reason at the moment why they should be discontinued.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Minister accept that, although the Government are of course entitled to ask for clarification and explanation, there would be a grave danger in following the initially negative line that is coming from Washington? Does the Minister further accept that many of us who have strongly supported the position of the United Nations are extremely anxious to seize on any diplomatic opportunity to settle the conflict without a ground offensive? Does he also accept that the correct body to consider the proposals is the Security Council of the United Nations, under the auspices of which these matters are being pursued? Finally, will he assure us that there will be no precipitate extension of the ground conflict until the diplomatic initiative has been allowed to run its course?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman must determine his priorities. He is implying that the avoidance of a land campaign is his priority. That is not the priority of the coalition countries. Our priority is to ensure full and unconditional compliance with Security Council resolutions. If Iraq is not willing to do that, there will be a land campaign.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Will my hon. and learned Friend continue to view these talks with meticulous care, as suggested by another hon. Member, but will he also view them with a healthy dose of scepticism? Is he aware that it is very much in Saddam Hussein's interests to ensure that the talks are as protracted and difficult as they possibly can be? While the talks are continuing, will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that it is the intention of the allied forces to pursue with great vigour the preparation of the battlefield?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is wholly right. We treat Saddam Hussein with great caution and great scepticism. As I told the House yesterday, it is impossible to forget that right up to the eve of 2 August 1990 Saddam Hussein was assuring Arab countries that he had no intention of invading Kuwait. He lied.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Of course, we shall all rejoice if it is possible to end the conflict without the carnage that will result from a full-scale land war, but what is the Minister's view of the chances of a lasting peace if Saddam Hussein remains in power and with power? Is it not significant that the reports that we have received about the Soviet proposal make no mention of compensating the Kuwaitis, who are, after all, the greatest sufferers from this wicked advance? There is no mention of Saddam Hussein leaving behind any of his weaponry, which he could use again, and no mention of dealing with the stocks of chemical and biological weapons which he undoubtedly has, which he has threatened to use and which he could use again if he decided to make another assault.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. and learned Gentleman has expressed his anxieties clearly, and I am grateful to him for doing so. He will recall that I touched yesterday on the issue of the status of Saddam Hussein, when I said that we would not grieve if Saddam Hussein were persuaded to step aside or otherwise ceased to be the leader of Iraq, but it is not a war objective to displace him. It is not our intent to change the Government of Iraq, for that is a matter for the people of Iraq.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that one element that appears to be absent from the proposals emanating from Moscow is the idea of compensation for the damage to lives and property suffered by Kuwait and most of the rest of the world? Does he further agree that, without such an element, no peace proposal would be acceptable?

Mr. Hogg

I am once again grateful to an hon. Gentleman for so clearly articulating his concern on matters that are of great importance.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

If the Iraqi leadership is prepared to agree to a full and unconditional withdrawal, on a fixed timetable, starting on the second day of the ceasefire—the first three of the eight points—that is a tremendously important development. The Minister said that it is not a Government priority to avoid a land campaign, but he must appreciate that, even on the best case scenario, thousands of service men will be killed if we embark on that campaign. Is it not clear that the world will never forgive President Bush if he kills this peace process by initiating a huge land offensive?

Mr. Hogg

I was talking not about priorities but about paramount considerations. I told the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who speaks for the Scottish National party on this matter, that he was making the avoidance of the land campaign his paramount consideration, but that the achievement of a full and unconditional implementation of the Security Council resolutions was the paramount consideration of the coalition countries. If it is necessary to wage a land campaign to achieve that, we shall do so.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Further to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) said about prisoners of war, will my hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the fact that there are western prisoners in Iraq other than prisoners of war, who are often held on trumped-up charges and for long periods? I am thinking particularly of Ian Richter, our citizen, who is held in Iraq in appalling conditions.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for reminding the House of Mr. Richter, whose position in Iraq causes us considerable concern.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

We all welcome the possibility of peace and believe that this option should be fully explored, but did the Minister hear, as I expect most of us did yesterday, the reports that the Iraqis may have passed the decision on use of chemical weaponry to their battlefield commanders? Will he take this opportunity, while we are discussing peace options, to make it clear to the Iraqis that any use of chemical weaponry against our troops or any other targets during such discussions will be seen as a deliberate and calculate attempt to sabotage them?

Mr. Hogg

It would indeed be so seen. It would be a monstrous thing to do. It would be very much against the interests of Iraq to do so.

Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

Does my hon. and learned Friend see any consistency between these proposals and the speech yesterday afternoon by Saddam Hussein? What is the status of the Soviet proposals? Do these proposals represent an improvement as far as this country is concerned, particularly on prisoners of war? Is that an improvement brought about by representations by our Government? Have the Government made it clear to the Soviet as well as to the Iraqi Government that we regard it as essential that all resolutions of the United Nations should be complied with?

Mr. Hogg

It is difficult to say that there is consistency between the statement made by Saddam Hussein and the apparent position taken up by Tariq Aziz. Much that is done within Iraq is irrational; that being so, I do not always expect to find consistency. My hon. and learned Friend is making an important point when he says that, because of this inconsistency, we should treat the present position with caution.

On the more substantive part of my hon. Friend's question, this is a step forward and a step beyond what has previously been suggested either by the Soviet Government or the Iraqis. For the reasons that I have already set out to the House, it falls short of a full and unconditional acceptance of the Security Council resolutions, and that remains our objective.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Will the Minister assure the House that he does not for one minute suggest that all aspects of all the Security Council resolutions have equal value? Will he assure us that, while he may be prepared to countenance a land war to liberate Kuwait, insistence on compliance with every dot and comma of all the resolutions is out of any balance when weighed against the scale of slaughter that would follow such a battle? In every conflict, there has to be compromise. We weigh the lives of our service personnel in the balance. While they may be prepared to die to liberate Kuwait, they might not feel the same way about every dot and comma of every United Nations resolution. That would not have the support of public opinion either.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say from time to time that our objective is to ensure compliance with all relevant Security Council resolutions. The hon. Gentleman has a point here. If he reads the resolutions, he will find that a number of the provisions in them do not impose obligations on Iraq. They empower the coalition countries to do this and that. Therefore, we have to be sure that we are focusing only on the relevant terms.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that, in view of the approaching weather difficulties in the Gulf, any change that we may introduce should be dealt with with great speed and that we should treat these proposals not only with scepticism but with determination not to allow Saddam Hussein to inject an element of delay?

Mr. Hogg

There must be no delay.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Do not the Iraqi concessions to the Soviets show that the resolve and determination of the allies and the coalition forces is paying off? Would not a liberated Kuwait be entitled to retain all the military equipment that belongs to Iraq but is in place on Kuwaiti territory and to the return of all the billions of pounds' worth of confiscated assets? Is it not entitled to be assured that the minefields that the Iraqis have laid are cleared and to know that there will be peace and security in the region? Do not we want statements from Saddam Hussein rather than from a sidekick whom he sends to Moscow?

Mr. Hogg

Restoration of peace and security to the region is an element of resolution 678 and therefore is one of our objectives. Yes, the progress that has been shown by the Iraqis, albeit wholly insufficient thus far, shows the wisdom of the policy that has been adopted by the coalition.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

As my hon. and learned Friend has said, resolution 678 emphasises peace and security in the region. Does he agree that we went in not only to ensure that Saddam Hussein got out of Kuwait but to protect Saudi Arabia, which has been subject to a rain of missiles and Scuds, as has Israel? Therefore, is not it imperative that we make certain that we pursue our determined objectives in line with the resolutions to ensure that Saddam Hussein and his brutal dictatorship achieve nothing out of this dreadful venture?

Mr. Hogg

The security of Israel and of Saudi Arabia are major considerations for the House and for the coalition. They are subsumed within resolution 678, which calls for the restoration of peace and security in the region.

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is the Minister aware that, for ordinary people, not familiar with the details of Security Council resolutions, the Russian initiative represents the last opportunity to avoid the killing? Does he accept that the great fear, not least of the families of British service men in the Gulf, is that, paradoxically, an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait does not suit the Americans now because the military machine has achieved a momentum of its own, they are bent on removing Saddam Hussein and dismembering his military machine and they will not be baulked? Does he agree that, if Paris was worth a mass, the peaceful liberation of Kuwait is worth negotiating on the fine print of Security Council resolutions?

Mr. Hogg

We are talking not about fine print but about issues of major importance, such as a full and unconditional compliance with relevant Security Council resolutions. When Saddam Hussein accepts that fact, the killing will stop.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that Ramadan begins on 16 March. May not the confused words coming from Iraq merely be an effort to delay the allied effort until that crucial date? Is it not therefore the more important that the allied effort continues unrelenting?

Mr. Hogg

If the Iraqi Government suppose that they can spin this matter out, they are wrong.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

The Minister is perfectly right to read the mood of the House in relation to resolution 678 and peace and security in the region. It is important for the House to consider the future after the liberation of Kuwait. How does that square with point four of the Soviet plan, that two thirds of the Iraqi troops should withdraw and that economic sanctions should then be lifted? If that were the case, would not we see an almighty arms race in the middle east that would further destabilise the area, rather than lead to peace and security?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has put an important point clearly. I have made it plain that we judge these proposals as falling short significantly of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Can my hon. and learned Friend go further than he did in answer to the most important question about chemical weapons? Has he seen the report in The Times today that chemical weapons have been issued widely and extensively to Iraqi forces? Without breaching security, can he confirm whether that is so? If it is so, does he think that that from President Saddam is the language of war, not of peace?

Mr. Hogg

We have always recognised that Saddam Hussein possesses chemical weapons and, judging from his track record, he may well use them. To do so would be a breach of the 1925 convention. It would be a gross crime and it would be contrary to morality and the interests of Iraq.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On the subject of consistency, will the Minister confirm that, on 15 January, the Prime Minister said in a speech that if the Iraqi troops went back beyond the Kuwaiti border, they would not be attacked? Can he confirm that that is still the case and that it is part of the peace treaty that has been announced today? Or is it the case that the Government, in their pathetic responses at all times during this war, must wait for the Americans, and Bush in particular who is leading this American-led mercenary war, as they do not have the guts to respond until the people in America tell them what to do?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman will remember that we debated precisely this issue yesterday. Our position has been consistent throughout—that our war objectives are to ensure a complete and unconditional compliance with relevant Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

While any positive sign of change from Baghdad is to be welcomed, is it not clear that the Iraqi regime is speaking with two distinct and different voices at this time? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that there is no justification whatever for changing the coalition strategy before we have incontrovertible evidence that all the United Nations resolutions are being implemented in full by Iraq?

Mr. Hogg

I agree with both elements of my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Minister take this opportunity of putting on record the thanks of many people for the efforts of President Gorbachev and the Soviet Foreign Ministry in at least attempting to keep the hope of peace alive when there has been markedly less effort by the British and United States Governments in pursuing a peaceful solution to the conflict?

Will the Minister tell us what are the war aims of the British and American Governments? Do they intend to move the troops on into Iraq? Do they intend to maintain a permanent base within that region? Are they interested in getting peace and grasping an opportunity that is available to us now or do they think that the land war has a momentum of its own? Does the Minister expect the carnage to start this weekend or does he intend to spend the weekend working for a peaceful solution to this awful conflict before any more lives are lost?

Mr. Hogg

I invite the hon. Gentleman to read what I said yesterday in the House about war aims. I dealt precisely with the questions that he has been good enough to put to me now. On the first part of his question, the activities of the Soviet Government have given Saddam Hussein yet another opportunity to comply fully and absolutely with Security Council resolutions. We are pleased and grateful that such an opportunity should have been presented.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Should not we remember the Low cartoon in the Evening Standard in 1936, which showed the whole of the League of Nations cowering in a corner in front of Hitler, and what followed three years after that? Is not it clear that Saddam Hussein is morally wrong, a military loser and internationally required to do the opposite of what he said in his broadcast yesterday? While listening to what the Russians and others have to say, let us remember what the man himself said only yesterday.

Mr. Hogg

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to remember the kind of man with whom we are dealing. He uses war as an instrument of policy. He is by instinct and by practice a killer.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Which of the eight points of the peace plan are, in the words of the Prime Minister, "not good enough"? The Prime Minister said that despite the fact that, seemingly, he had not seen the text of the proposals. If the text is available, will there be a chance for a statement to be made in the House before we adjourn for the weekend?

Mr. Hogg

As I have already said, we have not had a full text of the proposals. Nor have we had an opportunity fully to consult all our coalition partners, including the Arab states. That being so, it is inappropriate for me to seek to expand on what I have already said.