HC Deb 28 March 1991 vol 188 cc1094-102 9.36 am
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I greatly appreciate this opportunity to refer to the situation in the middle east following the successful outcome of the Gulf war. Although the House has held several debates about the winning of that war, curiously there has been no debate until now on winning the peace. Therefore, I intend to discuss several of the issues that must be addressed if we are to resolve the outstanding problems which have caused so much tension, conflict and persecution in the area and which have produced such large numbers of refugees.

I have no doubt that history will judge Saddam Hussein as having done the world a service by taking it by complete surprise by invading Kuwait so ruthlessly last summer. In doing so, he dispelled any complacency that had been encouraged by the remarkable events in central and eastern Europe, which led to the end of the cold war and to a new order which heralded peace and security and encouraged democracies in countries as far away as Nicaragua, Namibia and Nepal.

On 2 August last year, Saddam Hussein demonstrated that human nature does not change and that there would always be a need for collective security and for the international rule of law to deal with the aggression and atrocities of dictatorships such as his. Thanks to him and to the remarkable coalition of more than 30 countries which sent forces to the Gulf, the world today is a more realistic place and the authority of the United Nations has been considerably enhanced. That represents a great tribute to the initial response of President Bush and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Thatcher). Now all of us, as member states of the United Nations, have a responsibility to learn the lessons of that experience and to avoid its repetition.

It is encouraging to see our world leaders calmly sharing ideas about how that can be done without rushing into, for example, an ill-prepared international conference or European Community initiative. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the bilateral meetings that they have undertaken thus far and also to the United States Secretary of State James Baker for his untiring work.

I do not want to dwell on the current situation in Iraq since it would not be right for us to dictate who governs that country. That is a matter for its own people, although we would all like to see a pro-democracy movement emerge from the civil war. Nevertheless, no one who has seen on television the destruction of the Kuwaiti oil wells and the terrible atrocities that Saddam Hussein perpetrated on the Kuwaiti people will want his crimes to be forgotten or ignored. I understand that we regard those war crimes as, in the first instance, a matter for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to pursue. However, I shall look forward to learning from my hon. Friend the Minister how we anticipate that Saddam Hussein will be held accountable for his crimes.

Obviously we welcome the Kuwaiti Government's intention to introduce a democratic process once their people have been able to resume a more normal existence and the economy and infrastructure have been repaired. Current reports of the persecution of Kuwait's remaining Palestinian population must, however, be of concern to us. Whatever new arrangements the Kuwaiti Government might want to make for the future employment of foreigners, there can be no justification for the kind of violent treatment and discrimination that we have read about. Any evidence of Palestinian collaboration or treachery during the Iraqi occupation must await the consideration of an independent judiciary, which will certainly be one hallmark of Kuwait's new democracy.

I want to refer to the larger, long-standing issues of the middle east. The first is the continuing plight of the British hostages. John McCarthy will begin his sixth year of captivity on 17 April, Terry Waite is now in his fifth year of captivity, Jackie Mann will soon commence his third year of captivity, and Roger Cooper remains imprisoned in Tehran. Following the war, surely there now exists a degree of good will between our allies, including Syria, a degree of relief, and perhaps appreciation on the part of Iran, now that Saddam Hussein has been so resoundingly beaten, and even some realism on the part of the Hezbollah in Lebanon that life will never be the same again in the middle east. Surely we can appeal to those new feelings when presssing for the immediate release of those hostages. I look forward to learning from my hon. Friend what new initiatives the Government intend to take in that respect.

The situation in Lebanon must now be resolved. After nearly two decades of civil war and internal terrorism, of invasion and occupation by two foreign powers—Israel and Syria—and armed interventions by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the United States, its people can surely expect a settlement that will restore Lebanon's sovereignty. Surely they can expect a settlement that re-establishes Lebanon's representative Government and that delicate balance between Christian and Muslim which once enabled that country to be the most prosperous in the middle east. The prerequisite for that is, of course, the complete withdrawl of all Syrian and Israeli forces of occupation. I accept that that is unlikely to be achieved without international inspiration—one could say, without divine inspiration.

International appreciation will certainly need to be applied to the Kurdish issue, which can no longer be ignored. One should recall that the true evil of Saddam Hussein first came to the world's attention through the testimonies of those Iraqi Kurds who survived his chemical weapons by seeking refuge in Turkey.

I appreciate that the demands of self-determination for the Iraqi Kurds will be referred to in much greater detail in the following debate, but this debate would be incomplete without noting the undeniable fact of history that an independent Kurdistan was mentioned by the great powers as part of the break-up of the Ottoman empire in the 1919 treaty of Versailles and was promised under the 1920 treaty of Sevres. That promise was quickly abandoned as a result of the creation of the republic of Turkey in 1923.

Who then can blame the Kurds for their many attempts to seek autonomy, including by armed insurrection, especially where they are strongest in Iraq? Some of those insurrections have resulted in short-lived concessions, but most have resulted in the most appalling brutalities, culminating in the use of poison gas at Halabja in 1988, which killed 5,000 Kurds. It must also be said that some Kurds have resorted to terrorism, most notably the PKK in Turkey. That group's attempts to draw attention to their demands are unacceptable given the unprecedented autonomy that the Kurds enjoy in Turkey.

The reported success of the Kurds in northern Iraq against the forces of Saddam Hussein suggests that they may yet succeed in achieving a Kurdish entity within a more democratic and federated Iraq. That will only serve to encourage the Kurdish people in the other four countries in which they live to seek the same. It is obvious that there will be a Kurdish problem for as long as their demands for self-determination are ignored and denied. That matter must now be on the agenda for resolution.

It must be clear to all that the central cause of continuing instability, tension and conflict in the middle east is the Arab-Israeli dispute. From the day that the United Nations recognised the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, there have been four devastating wars, as well as a series of interventions in Lebanon. The dispute has been responsible for the current figure of 2,420,000 stateless, homeless Palestinian refugees who are registered with the United Nations, which supplies relief services through the United Nations Relief Works Agency.

Just as any resolution of that conflict must end the protracted state of war to enable Israel to enjoy a right of existence within recognised and secure borders—as provided for in UN resolution 242—it is equally clear that there must be a just and permanent settlement for the Palestinians which will enable them to choose permanent accommodation within the realities of the present situation. Only a democratic process towards self-determination and self-governance on the west bank and the Gaza strip will make the work of UNRWA unecessary.

Despite more than four decades of hostility, the problem is not intractable: the Camp David accords, which brought peace with Egypt, should remind us of that. Therefore, it must be helpful to urge Israel's Arab neighbours to end their state of war with Israel and to recognise it and its right to exist.

The gulf between Israel and the PLO is not as great as I thought. I was encouraged to discover that in my discussions with Israeli Ministers and Palestinians during my visit to the region in November to prepare a report for the Council of Europe—a follow-up to the one that I reported to the House in July 1988.

The Shamir peace plan of 1989 and the Palestine National Council declaration of 1988 recognised the rights of the other—in the case of the PLO, for the first time. They represent a foundation upon which both parties are prepared to negotiate.

The disappointment today is that Israel, which has always opposed an international conference to resolve its dispute with its Arab neighbours—understandably, in my view—is failing to take initiatives to introduce its own democratic values to its occupied territories, values upon which a process of reconciliation confidence, security and co-operation can be built. Nor does it appear seriously to b seeking those bilateral negotiations with its neighbours which it maintains is the only way forward, as it was with Egypt. Instead, it continues to stall on its own peace process. It is alienating still further its Arab population by continued Palestinian deportations, further Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and by encouraging a climate in which the basic human rights of the Palestinians are seen to be violated.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

I am sure that my hon. Friend wishes to continue to paint a balanced picture. Will he confirm that Israeli Ministers have said on many occasions that they are prepared to negotiate with any Arab state? Indeed, as is well known, feelers have been extended for some time to Syria. Will he further confirm, on the Palestinian issue, that one of the major problems, which he has not yet mentioned but perhaps will, is that the PLO supported Saddam Hussein in the recent conflict?

Mr. Atkinson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points, to which I was about to come.

Lest it be thought from the critical comments—I accept that they have been critical—that I have made about Israel that I am no longer a Conservative Friend of Israel, let me say that one of the most enduring influences in my life was my experience of working on a kibbutz within range of Syrian guns from the Golan heights. I assure my hon. Friend that I am wholly committed to Israel's right to exist as a Jewish homeland within secure borders. But I also recognise, as surely do most Israelis, that Israel cannot indefinitely impose a military occupation on an increasingly militant people. The wholesale deportation of its Palestinian population in favour of a greater Israel, as a few extremists advocate, is a solution totally unacceptable to its friends, as it is, I am sure, to most Israeli citizens.

Indeed, as I found on both my fact-finding visits in 1988 and last year, the Israeli defence force which has been assigned the almost impossible task of seeking to provide a civil administration and a semblance of municipal services in the occupied territories—including, to its credit, the replacement of temporary refugee camps with planned, attractive, permanent settlements for which Israel does not receive sufficient credit—does not believe the current situation to be tenable. The only plausible solution, as it and I believe, is a political one.

In turn, it should be stressed that the Palestinians are proving equally short-sighted in failing to appreciate the political advantages of publicly ending the intifada to encourage a climate within which a dialogue can be initiated, as well as, of course, to help to restore international goodwill which they undoubtedly lost in foolishly and blatantly supporting Saddam Hussein.

Unfortunately, this situation is now threatened by a wholly new dimension, which I was also asked to investigate by the Council of Europe's Committee for Refugees, Migration and Demography. I refer to the sudden and growing number of Soviet Jewish immigrants coming into Israel—120,000 last year, 200,000 this year of the total 1.2 million invitations issued to date, and a total of at least 3 million expected by the Jewish Agency in due course. Whilst the vast majority are currently settling in Israel proper, which is their right, there is now no doubt that a growing number are settling beyond the green line. While it is suggested that the majority of Soviet Jews will not seek the labour-intensive employment performed by Palestinians in Israel, it is clear that both the employment and housing opportunities for Palestinians in Israel and its occupied territories, already under severe pressure as a consequence of the Gulf war, will become even more so as a result of this massive influx of Soviet Jews.

That situation can only become more inflammable as time goes on. For that reason alone, the new climate of reconciliation and negotiation generated by the Gulf war is timely and necessary if we are to avoid further tension and bloodshed in the occupied territories and in Israel.

At the outset, I applauded the unhurried approach currently being conducted in seeking solutions acceptable to all the parties in the middle east. It has been right to emphasise that neither the United States nor the principal European Governments involved wish to keep our forces in the region a moment longer than necessary.

It has been right to stress that we are not in the business of seeking to impose a cold-war style solution such as a Baghdad pact. It must be for the states themselves to decide on those structures which will enhance regional security, but in our bid to encourage lasting peace in the region, it is clearly sensible to recommend a process which has been proved workable and within which bilateral problems can be resolved peacefully by dialogue and consensus. As the Foreign Secretary told the UN General Assembly on 26 September of last year: The slow and steady progress of the CSCE process in Europe may be useful. He continued: The CSCE process allows political dialogue, and has established common principles ranging from respect for borders to human rights. There is transparency through confidence and security-building measures. He was surely correct. The CSCE process offers to the middle east a practical blueprint based on territorial integrity and the inviolability of frontiers. It would encompass many of the peace plans on offer without the disadvantages of an international conference feared by Israel.

Indeed, since my right hon. Friend spoke those words, the Foreign Ministers of 10 western Mediterranean countries, including the Mahgreb states of Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, have agreed to explore further the prospect of a CSCM for the Mediterranean. In addition, Italy and Spain have proposed its extension to include the middle east—a CSCME—as the specific institution for the solution of regional crises and as a framework for co-operation for peace and security, for which the Arab League clearly would not be appropriate.

Such a process, based on the Helsinki baskets, can in no way be interpreted as an imposition of western values on a predominantly Muslim region. They are universal values upheld by the United Nations, to which all subscribe and which, indeed, are inspired by Islamic principles.

Certainly an application of basket 1, which has produced much progress in recent years in both conventional and strategic arms control and on-site verification mechanisms, is an essential element in establishing security in the region, which is the prerequisite to peace.

The principles of economic and cultural co-operation of basket 2 will be equally essential to resolve the common, long-standing problems of the region, such as the shortage of water, of energy production, and distribution, of agriculture and medicine, much of which already stands to be assisted by the guarantees of official aid from the United States of America, the Community and Japan.

Of course, the human rights principles of basket 3 will encourage greater protection of minorities and respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion in an area which is the cradle of the world's three major religions and the source of so much religious conflict over the centuries.

I remind the House of the difficulties experienced by British and American troops in conducting Christian services in Saudi Arabia and recent alarming reports of the imprisonment and torture of four converted Christian Egyptians, about which I shall be seeing the Egyptian ambassador later today.

As a result of what the international coalition achieved, the world today is a far safer place, and weaker neighbours of stronger states can feel more secure as a result. As James Baker rightly emphasised, we now have an historic opportunity to resolve those outstanding problems in a region—the middle east—that has been the chessboard of the super-powers and the predicted trigger of a third world war for far too long. I hope that today's debate will represent a modest contribution toward that end.

10 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) on raising this issue, and shall do my best to answer most of his questions. His visits to the Arab countries of the middle east and the long period that he spent in Israel will have helped him to judge the problems from both sides.

Now that Kuwait has been liberated, we are working to ensure the establishment of a just peace in the region. The main focus of our attention at present is the United Nations, where the Government have been and are closely involved in negotiations on the next Security Council resolution, which we hope will be passed shortly. We hope that the resolution will set out the conditions with which Iraq will be required to comply for a permanent end to hostilities in the Gulf. They will be comprehensive and designed to ensure that Iraq meets the requirements placed on it by the Security Council.

In the shorter term, there is a pressing need for international relief for the Iraqi civilian population. The latest reports prepared by the United Nations and non-governmental organisations such as the Save the Children Fund are very troubling. We have asked the United Nations to do everything possible to ensure that relief supplies reach Iraq as rapidly as possible.

We must also consider ways to strengthen security throughout the Gulf region to ensure that there is no repetition of the conflict. The priority tasks are to achieve progress on Gulf security, regional arms control and the Arab-Israeli question. New security arrangements in the region are matters for the Gulf states to decide. The Gulf Co-operation Council states—Syria and Egypt—have already made a good start. We welcomed the Damascus declaration issued by their Foreign Ministers on 6 March and, if asked, we stand ready to play our part. However, there is no question of British ground forces remaining permanently in the Gulf.

Thereafter, the highest priority should go to constraining the supply of material for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to the whole region. We want Iraq to comply fully with the non-proliferation treaty and with the relevant biological and chemical weapons conventions. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we shall be working at the United Nations for the destruction, under international supervision, of Iraq's missiles and NBC capacities.

One of the important issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East raised was war crimes. Anyone who breaks the provisions of the Geneva conventions may be held liable. Thus, individual Iraqis now bear personal responsibility for breaches of them. That position was reaffirmed in Security Council resolutions 670 and 674. The superior orders defence will not be accepted as an excuse. Machinery already exists under Geneva conventions of 1967 for prosecuting grave breaches of them. The three avenues are: first, a trial before Iraqi courts; secondly, extradition for trial before courts of another party to the conventions, including other Arab states; and, thirdly, the possibility of special international tribunals. There are obvious difficulties with all those approaches, and it is too early to say what mechanisms might be applied in this case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East also mentioned Kuwait's future and the constitutional arrangement in Kuwait. It is for the Government and people of Kuwait to decide those matters, but we welcome the outcome of the Kuwait national conference last year which cleared the way for a return to the 1962 constitution and new elections for a national assembly. Difficulties and uncertainties will be inevitable in the first few months after liberation, but in a message to his people on 24 February, the Emir spoke of a national pact that will govern his country's future course. I remind my hon. Friend of the comment made by the Crown Prince on 7 March, when he recalled the Kuwaiti Government's commitment to popular participation and the 1962 constitution.

In his speech, my hon. Friend dwelt on the Palestinian question and the problems of Palestinians in Kuwait, an area that concerns him. We have repeatedly made clear to the Kuwaiti Government at a high level that alleged collaborators should be dealt with under the rule of law. We made our fears about that known even before liberation, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister repeated them to the Crown Prince when he saw him on 6 March. As our ambassador in Kuwait said, a large number of Palestinians have been screened by the Kuwaiti security forces. The aim is to indentify those who collaborated. Unfortunately, as tends to happen in such circumstances, the manner of the Kuwaiti authorities has not been particularly gentle. However, we welcome Kuwaiti assurances that the law will be respected. We shall continue to review the matter, but I emphasise that we have seen no reports of Kuwaiti authorities carrying out summary justice.

The Palestinian question is central to the affairs in the middle east. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein set back the search for peace in the middle east. Iraq's unprovoked missile attacks on Israel have shown that Israel's fear of threat from her Arab neighbours is not unjustified. The Palestine Liberation Organisation has lost credibility by acting as an apologist for Iraq. That will undoubtedly have increased Israel's reluctance to talk to representative Palestinians.

New opportunities have, however, arisen. The coalition's action against Iraq has shown that aggression does not pay, which is important for Israel to consider. It has created a new climate for confidence-building measures, and all the states in the region will have new strategic perceptions and a new determination to live at peace. We must grasp that opportunity for progress. My hon. Friend mentioned a CSCM for the Mediterranean. We are discussing that possibility with our European colleagues. It is worth exploring, but my hon. Friend will agree that other issues must come first.

The Americans will continue to play a central role in the peace process. We welcome President Bush's reassertion, in his speech to Congress on 6 March, that a settlement of the Arab-Israel question must be based on United Nations Security Council resolutions, especially 242 and 338, and on the principle of land for peace. Secretary of State Baker's tour of the area was a good start. It was well received by the Arabs and revealed areas of common ground on which we can build.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East drew attention to the settlements in the occupied territories of the west bank. We welcome unreservedly the liberalisation of Soviet emigration controls, including the freedom of Soviet Jews to go to Israel. But Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, including east Jerusalem, are illegal. Allowing Soviet Jews to settle there would set back further the search for peace. Recently, Israel announced that it intended to deport four Palestinians from Gaza. We deplore that intention and, with our colleagues in the European Community, are making representations about it.

I wish to refer to the principles that must underly the way ahead. The detail is not yet clear, but we believe that there is a need for discussions between Israel and the Arab states that are not at peace with her and between Israel and representative Palestinians about the future of the occupied territories. It is not realistic to imagine that there can be progress on the first without movement on the second. We have been working to achieve that. The result should be a settlement that guarantees Israel's right to exist within secure borders and the Palestinians' right to self-determination.

The Arab-Israel dispute is not the only political problem in the middle east, as my hon. Friend noted. We have observed the signs of progress towards greater stability in the Lebanon and remain committed to the Taif accord as the best means of achieving a united Lebanon free of all foreign troops. We welcome the renewed undertakings of countries in the area to bring what influence they can to bear to secure the release of the British hostages still held in the Lebanon.

We are greatly concerned at the continued captivity of our three hostages in the Lebanon. We are pressing Iran, whose influence we believe to be decisive, to honour its commitment to achieve the release of western hostages, including our own. We are making clear to the Iranian Government the importance that we attach to freeing our hostages and are making it clear that future advances in our bilateral relationships with Iran depend on progress in this matter. We are also encouraging Syria to use its influence in this direction. On several occasions, the Syrians have repeated their willingness to help, and we welcome that. We shall continue to do all that we can to achieve the release of Terry Waite, Jack Mann and John McCarthy.

The peace and stability of the middle east are of vital interest to us all. The reversal of Iraqi aggression was the first of our tasks, but many more lie ahead. The determination of the coalition against Iraq and the unprecedented co-operation of the Security Council offer new hope for an international effort to win peace. We shall play our part. The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the Security Council, one of the European Twelve, a close ally of the United States and a traditional friend of many states in the region. We are determined to make the most of every opportunity in our efforts to bring a just peace to the region. We and our European Community partners continue to have an important role to play in the occupied territories. For example, we provide substantial support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees and have valuable aid programmes. We also monitor human rights closely and regularly remind the Israelis of their obligations to administer the territories in accordance with the fourth Geneva convention.