HC Deb 03 July 1991 vol 194 cc328-35

4.4 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a short statement about the position in Yugoslavia, which remains dangerous. It seemed that this morning events in Slovenia and Croatia were escalating out of control, and the army is no longer under the effective control of the political authorities.

A large number of armoured vehicles left Belgrade early this morning, moving towards Croatia and Slovenia. There can be little doubt that the Yugoslav army, or at least some of its senior commanders, are intent on further military action against Slovenia. This action disregards international opinion and overturns the ceasefire agreement negotiated over the weekend by the two EC troika missions, and it undermines the efforts of the federal authorities themselves.

Yesterday afternoon, the newly appointed President of Yugoslavia, Mr. Mesic, proposed a five-point plan, consisting of an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of the forces on both sides to barracks, the release of prisoners, the establishment of conditions for a long-term ceasefire and the involvement of the conference on security and co-operation in Europe observers. That was accepted by the Slovene authorities.

Since earlier this morning, there has been intense further diplomatic activity to prevent further bloodshed. I have several times today spoken to the German Foreign Minister, who attempted to mediate yesterday, and I have also spoken to the Dutch Foreign Minister who holds the presidency of the EC. I have spoken to the President of Yugoslavia, President Mesic in Zagreb, and the Foreign Minister of Slovenia in Ljubljana, who urged me to mobilise all possible diplomatic pressure to prevent a further military movement against Croatia and Slovenia.

I then telephoned the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Mr. Loncar, and told him that the use of force would bring disaster on Yugoslavia. He told me that he and the Yugloslav Prime Minister, Mr. Markovic, who are still in Belgrade, were trying to negotiate with the army and the Slovenian authorities to breathe new life into the five-point plan agreed yesterday. I have sent a message to the Yugoslav Defence Minister, calling on the armed forces to exercise restraint. We are in direct touch with the Americans, French and others, including about the possibility of an early meeting of the Security Council. Senior officials of the CSCE are meeting in Prague today to consider further steps, in particular the arrangements which would be needed to underpin a ceasefire and military disengagement, as soon as the situation on the ground permits this.

To sum up, Yugoslavia's problems cannot be resolved by force, and further military action will lead inevitably to widespread bloodshed. The army cannot hold Yugoslavia together in this way. Indeed, it has accelerated its disintegration. The old system is in an advanced state of decay and cannot survive. It may no longer be possible to hold the whole country together, though it is equally hard to see how the dismemberment of Yugoslavia could be brought about by peaceful means. In the end, the peoples of Yugoslavia, not outside powers, will decide on their relationship with one another, but certainly the necessary discussion on the country's future cannot resume until he military return to their barracks and place themselves once again under full civilian control, as in all democratic countries. I appeal to them to desist from a military adventure which is bound in the end to be disastrous.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome the actions that he has been taking to try to help to resolve this serious crisis.

The Opposition welcome the action being taken to ensure the safe departure of United Kingdom holidaymakers and other nationals from Yugoslavia and we ask if the House could be kept informed on those actions.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any solution to the crisis and any long-term solution for the aspirations of the peoples and nationalities of Yugoslavia should be based on negotiation and consent and not on unilateral action on anyone's part? There can be no justification for the Yugoslav army to take action unless in response to a clear and immediate military threat, which plainly does not exist. In any event, the army must always act under the orders of the civilian power, and not unilaterally. Unilateral action amounts to a military putsch, and cannot be labelled a restoration of order. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, it is essential that the positive proposals of the Yugoslav President, and the efforts of the Prime Minister, be given a chance to work.

I welcomed what the right hon. Gentleman said about the possibility of a meeting of the Security Council. In the light of any such meeting, would the Government consider proposing the invocation of article 34 of the United Nations charter, under which the Security Council can investigate a dispute which might lead to international friction … in order to determine whether the continuance of the situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security"? We also hope that continual efforts will be made by the European Community troika, and that something may result from the meeting in Prague today of the officials of the conference on security and co-operation in Europe.

This crisis could not only engulf Yugoslavia, but threaten the stability of the Balkans and areas well beyond that. We must stand ready to do all that we can to help to resolve it. Peaceful reform, not violence, must determine the future of Yugoslavia.

Mr. Hurd

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's comments. British holidaymakers have now been advised to leave all parts of Yugoslavia; I think that that is in the interests of safety. I re-read article 34 this morning, and, to my untutored eye, it seems apt for the occasion. There is also a possibility that the Yugoslav President himself, Mr. Mesic, might invoke a meeting of the Security Council.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will allow questions on the Foreign Secretary's statement to continue until 4.30; we shall then move on to the next two debates, which are time-limited.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm the truth of a Reuters report that EC Foreign Ministers are considering recognising the independent status of Slovenia and Croatia—or are threatening to do so—unless the Belgrade war machine is halted?

My right hon. Friend speaks of the old system in Yugoslavia not surviving, and of its being full of decay. That is entirely right. It is absolutely vital to ensure, in all the encouragement and support that we give, that the bloodshed is at least limited. We must show that our minds are on the ability of these independent democratic republics to come together in their own freely formed confederation or federation, rather than being ruled by a bankrupt and out-of-date dictatorship.

Mr. Hurd

At the moment—I say, "at the moment" —the two republics do not satisfy our criteria for recognition, but, obviously, we keep an eye on that all the time. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend's second point.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we are witnessing in Slovenia the same old-style, brutal communist repression that we saw in Budapest, Prague and Berlin? Does he accept that the Minister of State was mistaken when he told me on 22 May, here in the Chamber, that the European Community really had no role in Yugoslavia? Have not both the United Kingdom and the European Community collectively failed properly to work out a democratic and effective response to events in Yugoslavia that were forecast for quite a long time?

Finally, may I take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell)? Does the Foreign Secretary recall that the referendum in Slovenia produced a 90 per cent. figure in favour of independence, and that there was a similar result in Croatia? Will he promise us that he will recommend our EC partners seriously to consider directly recognising the Slovenian and Croatian claims for independence?

Mr. Hurd

I think that the hon. Gentleman has it not quite right. It is not for the European Community to do as he said and devise a political structure for Yugoslavia. It is a European country bordering on the frontiers of the Community and it—or a large part of it—is in danger of being submerged by a military force outside constitutional control. It is also in danger of settling into a period of civil conflict and bloodshed. It is perfectly right and reasonable that, in those circumstances, the European Community should see whether it can help. It has helped. It has brought together the framework of an agreement which all concerned have accepted in principle, although it has not so far worked fully on the ground. However, that is reason not for desisting but for carrying on, while not exaggerating the role that we can play.

Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)

I believe that, throughout the House, there will be widespread applause for the calm and prudent manner with which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is addressing this problem. The applause will be all the greater because we realise what real limitations there are on this country or our Community partners in trying to influence events within Yugoslavia. I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend's proposition that it is not within our competence to devise a political structure for that country. However, in the spirit of diplomatic courtesy, will my right hon. Friend leave with the civil and military authorities in Belgrade the time-honoured words of Charles Stewart Parnell: No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation"? What is sought in equity by Slovenia today will be sought by Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and all those who rebel against the authority of the super-state.

Mr. Hurd

As my right hon. Friend said, I am well aware of the limitations on what we can do. We are all extremely anxious about the immediate situation. I am also anxious about the prospect of Yugoslavia settling into a sort of violent anarchy, with the villages and towns in which different communities live side by side breaking out in spasmodic violence. That future would be grim indeed. Therefore, although we cannot devise a future for Yugoslavia, we can help. We have been asked by Yugoslavia—I was asked again this morning by the President of Yugoslavia—to see what we can do to help create a pause and bring together those who alone can find the answer.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I was interested in what little content there was in the Secretary of State's statement. Will he clarify whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has now abandoned the shabby and duplicitous policy that he helped to contrive and implement in relation to Northern Ireland when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Will he clarify whether he now believes in the right of peoples to self-determination and the impropriety of interference from outside countries?

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that the parallels are particularly close, and I have no more reason to regret the decisions and policies that the Government followed four or five years ago than I have to regret the excellent policies now being pursued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on the way in which he is addressing this difficult and dangerous problem? Does he see any role for the Western European Union—for example, in an observer capacity?

Mr. Hurd

One of the things that is being considered is whether, if there were a ceasefire, we could help in observing and thus to maintain it. I do not think that we can ask European observers from the Community or the WEU to go in until there is a ceasefire. Once a ceasefire were agreed, it might be perpetuated with the presence of observers, and I agree that the WEU might be the right place to organise that.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, whatever happens henceforth, human rights are of the utmost importance? He referred to the agreement about the release of prisoners. Who was involved in that agreement, and what are the circumstances, as he knows them, of the prisoners?

Mr. Hurd

The agreement was reached last night in Ljubljana by the President of Yugoslavia, Mr. Mesic, and the Slovenian authorities. One of the points under consideration was the release of prisoners. As a result of skirmishes in the past few days, I imagine that many people from either side are being held.

Mr. William Powell (Corby)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his bold decision to talk on the telephone this morning to the Foreign Minister of Slovenia —a state that is not recognised, either de facto or de jure, by this country? Does he recall any precedent for Her Britannic Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs speaking to such an official? In the circumstances, will he continue to keep under review Britain's recognition of Slovenia and Croatia —two provinces that are western, Roman Catholic and Austrian and Venetian in origin?

Mr. Hurd

I have spoken to many interesting and admirable people who are not Foreign Ministers of countries that we recognise. I spoke to Mr. Rupel yesterday and this morning; both were useful conversations. On my hon. Friend's serious point, we keep that under review.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the unsympathetic response of western Governments to Slovenia's declaration may have encouraged the Yugoslav military to think that they could proceed without resistance from the west? The right hon. Gentleman spoke of "disaster" if force were used. Is he making it clear to the House that there will be firm and total economic sanctions if the Yugoslav army proceeds into Slovenia and creates the mayhem that we all fear?

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can sustain the first point. We have always made it clear that, in our view, the problem cannot be solved by the use of force. Everything that Britain, the United States and other western countries have said has included and stressed that point.

The hon. Gentleman is moving ahead a bit fast in his second point. If the whole of Yugoslavia were to fall into the hands of, shall we say, colonels, that would create a different situation in which the hon. Gentleman's point would have to be considered.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that much of the problem in Yugoslavia relates to the intransigence of Belgrade? In view of that, will he reconsider the policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Yugoslavia and regard the federation as an unworkable proposition?

Mr. Hurd

I said in my statement that the present structure has decayed past saving. I am sure that that is true. Equally, I am reluctant to imagine that the only future for the peoples of Yugoslavia is a series of small states quarrelling with each other, trying to invoke others in their quarrels and all depending in one way or another on the west for economic support. There must be some relationship—some effective working relationship—between those peoples, but only they can work it out, and they will have to do so on a quite different basis from the one that is now disintegrating.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

What part does the Foreign Secretary think that the conference on security and co-operation in Europe can play in this affair? Further, has he had exchanges or contacts with the Soviet Union?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, we have had exchanges at official level with the Soviet Union, which obviously is important in this matter. The CSCE emergency meeting of senior officials in Prague has just finished, but I do not have an account of what occurred. It has given those concerned an opportunity to make their views known to the Yugoslays, who once again were put under the responsibility of explaining what is happening. I do not know what further can be achieved under the CSCE machinery, which is why we are not relying exclusively on it.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

On what terms of reference is the EC troika of Foreign Ministers operating and to whom is it answerable? Is its intervention considered to be an EC foreign policy intervention with the unanimous support of all 12 members, or have individual states the right to express a view contrary to that of the three gentlemen?

Mr. Hurd

It was agreed unanimously on Saturday in Luxembourg by the Heads of State and of Government that the three Foreign Ministers should go. Their remit was set out, discussed and agreed. They have twice achieved a bringing together in principle of the main leaders involved, but the writ or authority of those leaders does not operate fully on the ground. There is no difficulty or doubt about the remit of the EC troika which has our full support in that respect. There is no question of majority voting or of people being outvoted or disgruntled —it is something to which we all set our hands.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Yugoslav peoples, on the verge of having killed the devil of Stalinism, are now in danger of discovering the devil in themselves, and that the chief characteristic of that devil is a notoriously violent nationalism? We must be careful that we do not regard Serbian nationalism as somehow entirely different from that of Croatia and Slovenia. We must handle it with extreme care. I am glad that so far the Government have done so, but we must be aware of that characteristic of the Yugoslav area.

Mr. Hurd

We have learnt that one cannot suppress nationalist feeling or force it into a framework against which it revolts. However, we have also learnt the hard way in Europe this century that, if nationalist feeling is let rip and if there is no attempt at conciliation or no attempt to prevent that feeling getting completely out of hand, the result is continuous strife. We have solved that problem in the western part of our continent. Now that communism is out of the way, the great question for eastern and part of central Europe is whether they too can find a way of allowing nationalist feeling without permitting it to destroy societies in the way that it has in the past.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

At this time of crisis, does my right hon. Friend agree that Yugoslavia needs someone to act as a focal point and figurehead? Will he confirm that he has not overlooked the possible future role of Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia?

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that it is for me to look at or to overlook the role of the Crown Prince. That must be a matter for the Yugoslays.

Mr. Jim Siliars (Glasgow, Govan)

Can we have some honesty for the record? Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the people of Slovenia and Croatia are on the record as saying that there must be a fundamental, structural adjustment in the relationships between the peoples within the present state of Yugoslavia, that they have attempted that adjustment by peaceful reform through the ballot box and that the only reason for the present violence is that the Yugoslav army prefers the bullet? Will the Secretary of State bring that to the attention of the Security Council, if it discusses the matter?

May I raise finally what the Secretary of State said earlier, to the effect that, so far, Slovenia does not accord with the criteria for recognition as an independent state by the United Kingdom? How does it fall short? It cannot be because of a failure to express its view of independence through the ballot box.

Mr. Hurd

The criteria include the effective control of territory and independence in foreign policy but, as I said to earlier questioners, we need to keep the matter under constant review. I agree broadly with the hon. Gentleman's first point. The present concern and the reason why we are considering with our friends recourse to the Security Council is precisely the danger of military action by the Yugoslav army, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Given the level of violence that has already taken place, is it not about as fruitful to try to reassemble Yugoslavia as it would be to put a soft-boiled egg together when it has been hit on the head with a heavy spoon? If my right hon. Friend wants the two republics to hang together, might it not be better for them to hang together with Austria rather than with Serbia, on which they seem to want to turn their backs at the moment?

Mr. Hurd

As I have said, I believe that the present structure is disintegrating past recall. When we consider that Slovenia is just about the only republic in Yugoslavia which has a relatively small number of non-Slovenes inside its borders, and that every other republic, including Croatia, has very large numbers of Serbs or others inside its frontiers, it is very hard to imagine a tidy repackaging of the type about which I occasionally read in some of our newspapers. Yugoslavia may not hold together in any form. It may be that, after having looked into the abyss, the people will want to work together on a new relationship. We cannot be sure of that or impose it, but perhaps we can help to create the pause in which such thinking and discussion can take place.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, however restricted our ability to help in this tragedy, it is right and proper that we should do what little we can to bring an end to this appalling tragedy? Will he accept that both Slovenia and Croatia are part of the constitution of Yugoslavia, and that therein lies the problem? Its constitution cannot be changed without the unanimous support of all the republics that go to make up Yugoslavia. That problem must be overcome before we can bring about constructive change in that fine country.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those thoughts. The immediate point is that, partly under pressure from the EC, the Yugoslavs moved to appoint Mr. Mesic as President in the past few days—something for which we have been pressing for a long time because the interruption of that appointment was one of the difficulties. Now that this President is in touch with us and speaking in his constitutional position as the President of Points of Order Yugoslavia, we have to pay very careful attention to what he says.