HC Deb 13 November 1991 vol 198 cc1202-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Davis.]

11.45 pm
Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

At the beginning of this debate, it is necessary for us all to hope that the current ceasefire in Croatia and the negotiations are successful. If they are not, I fear that the worries that I will express tonight will be fulfilled.

For more than 20 years in the House I have tried to be a friend to all the peoples of Yugoslavia. Two weeks ago, I revisited Zagreb having previously led a parliamentary delegation there a year ago. At the time the possibility of the present disastrous conflict was already becoming clear.

At that time, as chairman of the parliamentary group, I urged the newly elected politicians to accept that, although some change was necessary, complete separation was not inevitable. I asked them to work for a loose confederation of equal republics, largely self-governing, but with certain specified powers on a federal basis.

As an encouragement to them, my fellow officers and members of the parliamentary group called on our Government to help admit Yugoslavia to several international institutions to give greater credibility to the federal Government and greater respectability and authority to the name of Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, that opportunity was lost. The western powers misread the situation. They did not see that the rampant nationalism that had brought Presidents Tudjman and Milosevic to power would so fan the flames of separatism and so reawaken the enmities of 50 years or more, that the compromise that might well have been possible earlier this year and which the European Foreign Ministers have since tried to impose has now become impossible.

Then, greater diplomatic pressure, combined with the offer of a stronger attachment to the European Community and help to deal with the genuine grievances of Serbs and Croats, might have worked. My recent visit has convinced me that that kind of solution is now dead. Although both sides say that they want peace, innocent civilians are being slaughtered, their economies are being ruined, more than 400,000 of them are refugees and homeless and Dubrovnik, that jewel of the Adriatic, faces destruction.

Croatia is desperately calling for international recognition as a sovereign state. I do not believe that that would necessarily bring the help that the Croats think they need. Indeed, in the short term it could only further inflame Serbian nationalism, with bad results. Such recognition, which will come, should be part of a general agreement to resolve the whole situation. Once we play the card of the threat of recognition it cannot be used again.

If the current ceasefire does not hold, we will have to ask what should be done now. Diplomatic activity so far has failed, despite the gallant efforts of Lord Carrington. Perhaps he was brought in too late to succeed—I hope not.

The move towards economic sanctions is necessary, unfortunately, but sanctions will take a very long time to work. Direct military intervention on the ground would be extremely dangerous and even foolhardy without an effective ceasefire. In any event, a ceasefire has to be observed on agreed front lines. There is little doubt that the Serbs would want to retain most of what they now occupy, whereas the Croats would want to return to frontiers drawn up by the late Marshal Tito.

Even if there were agreement, much of the disputed territory would still be at the mercy of both Serb and Croat irregulars, acting outside the control of their Government, and those forces would continue to be a source of fighting and unrest unless they were disarmed. That would be an essential prerequisite for any United Nations force being asked to take over a policing operation.

There is one immediate step that Serbia could take as a clear sign that it wants peace. That step is to cease attacking Dubrovnik and to withdraw from it. It was an appalling mistake for the city to be attacked in the first place. Serbia has never had any legitimate claim to it, and the assault has done much to weaken the Serbian case in the eyes of the civilised world. A clear warning from the international community about Dubrovnik is long overdue. Perhaps we should even contemplate some naval action to alleviate the blockade and bring help to the 50,000 civilians still trapped there. Firm action over Dubrovnik might impress both sides that European powers or the United Nations really meant business.

On Croatia's part, the immediate implementation of its plans to establish and safeguard the rights of minorities would be a sign that it recognises that there have been and are legitimate fears, particularly among the Serbs in Croatia. Many Serbs, however, continue to live in the cities and the urban areas of Croatia, and they must be encouraged to do so, if necessary, by an international guarantee of their rights.

I met Serbs and the leader of the Jewish community while in Zagreb. They wanted to stay in Croatia, but they felt that continued conflict would only threaten their own personal security and future.

Any agreement or any peace treaty, when it comes, must recognise that to humiliate either the Serbs or the Croats would be a great mistake. It is necessary to take steps to deal with legitimate grievances and to consider how a plebescite might be organised, how more aid might be given, and how refugees might be resettled. No matter what settlement is reached, if either republic, particularly Serbia, feels that it has been unfairly treated, any ceasefire will be temporary, and sooner or later the matter will rise again.

Much more has to be done by the European Community. Already the Serbian economy is suffering from raging inflation. In the words of the Vice-President of Croatia, the economy is disintegrating.

Hitherto, European efforts have been well meaning but ineffective. My right hon. and hon. Friends must take stronger action in concert with our European partners to show the world that we take this situation much more seriously than many people in Yugoslavia seem to think. I have considerable respect and sympathy for my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), but we must make further efforts, even if some risk is attached, or the present conflict will spread to Bosnia and other parts of Yugoslavia and perhaps beyond that to other countries.

What is most disappointing is the European Community's failure to act as we should have liked. In last week's edition of The Sunday Telegraph, Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote: It was a woman speaking from inside Dubrovnik against a background of shellfire who said: 'We expected so much from Europe and got so little.' Here is the reality of the 'European idea': a Community whose finest administrative minds devote themselves to deciding whether a carrot is a vegetable or a fruit, whose political leaders discuss not so much ambitious as fantastic plans for military integration—and which cannot in practice prevent Europeans tearing themselves to pieces and destroying part of what it is not exaggerated to call our European heritage. Serious consideration must be given to further diplomatic and other action. If Europe is serious about a common defence and foreign policy, it must face and deal with the challenge of Yugoslavia. If it does not, thousands more will die and in future generations the name Dubrovnik will produce anguish and remorse at the stupidity of mankind and the failure of the international community to act effectively.

11.56 pm
Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) have the consent of both the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) and the Minister to participate?

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

indicated assent.

Mr. Fry

indicated assent

Mr. Macdonald

I am grateful to both the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) and the Minister for their generosity in allowing me to contribute to this Adjournment debate.

I recently visited Zagreb along with the hon. Gentleman. It was my first visit and I learnt a great deal from his experience. I am impressed tonight to see how much we agree about the position there and on the need for much stronger action than has been taken so far.

We have to face the facts of the current situation. Yugoslavia, as it was, cannot be brought back to life now. So long the sick man of Europe, it is now not only dead but hung, drawn and quartered. We have to recognise Serbia and Croatia as separate entities. Once that recognition is made, all else begins to fall into place. It does not make it any easier to do what we have to do, but it makes seeing what we have to do much clearer, because it then becomes obvious that Serbia has been the blatant aggressor in the war and that its aggression simply cannot be tolerated by the international community. The real danger today is not of being seen to condone precipitate separatism but, through the impotence of our response so far, of being seen to condone brutal and barbaric behaviour of a kind that has not been seen in Europe since the 1940s.

The Government, together with their European partners, should go immediately to the Security Council of the United Nations and call, in the first instance, for full and effective sanctions against the Serbian Government, including an oil embargo; and for the authority that is necessary to allow the Community to take whatever further measures, including military measures, may be necessary to bring about an end to the Serbian Government's aggression should Lord Carrington's latest efforts fail.

Of course, everyone is aware of the difficulty of introducing an EC peacekeeping force before there is a genuine peace to keep, but the Government should urgently consider other options such as the naval action which the hon. Member for Wellingborough suggested. There is also the possibility of an air blockade which would not only guard against sanctions busting but make the Serbian air force desist from its present bombing campaign.

The British Government have a special responsibility in this matter, because British manufacture cluster bombs are being used by the Yugoslav air force, which is de facto a Serbian air force, to attack civilian targets. I have seen the cluster cases in a village on the front line in Croatia and I can testify to their British markings.

The Serbian forces must be starved of supplies and oil and denied the use of their air power. It must be made crystal clear that they must withdraw from the land that they presently occupy in Croatia before there can be progress towards a lasting settlement. The question of borders is always difficult. There is no such thing as a natural border. Every border is in some sense arbitrary, but the international community must rigorously enforce the golden rule that no border can be changed by unilateral resort to force. Changes to borders can come about only by mutual agreement and consent. That must be made crystal clear to the politicians and generals of Serbia. There can be no reward for the aggresion that they have undertaken. If the European Community fails to make that lesson stick in the context of the present crisis in Yugoslavia it will in time feel the consequences as other regions become afflicted with the same madness.

Both the hon. Member for Wellingborough and. I were impressed by the EC monitoring force that we met in Zagreb. When we say that the response of the Community so far has been ineffectual, that is not a comment on the team spirit and competence of that monitoring force. It has done its best, but it does not have the tools to enable it to do the job. Now is the time to give it those tools.

12.1 am

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

I fully recognise the knowledge and experience possessed by both the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) is, as he reminded us, the chairman of the parliamentary group. I have had the opportunity of discussing the matter in detail with him on two occasions and I am conscious of his considerable knowledge and experience. The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) has also had the advantage of visiting Yugoslavia recently. Therefore, he brings to the debate a clear perception based on recent experience.

Both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend were perhaps slightly unfair to the European Community in their assessment of what it has done. The European Community has put in place a range of measures which are capable over a period of time of leading to a solution. As both hon. Members will have in mind, European Community monitors are now in place who have been exposed to a high degree of personal risk. At the same time we have established the conference, albeit adjourned, under the chairmanship of Lord Carrington. It provides the framework for a negotiated settlement.

As both my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman will also have in mind, last Friday the European Foreign Ministers approved a package of sanctions. Work is now proceeding within the United Nations to secure further action, most notably perhaps the oil embargo. The Secretary-General may well report back to the Security Council with further recommendations on what should be done. Those are all positive steps which, it is true, have not led to peace as yet. Indeed, while the parties are anxious to continue with the fighting such steps are unlikely to lead to peace. But they establish the framework within which peace could be created if the parties wished to stop the fighting.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman have established several points with which I strongly agree. Both focused on minority rights within Yugoslavia, and I entirely agree that that issue lies at the core of the problem within the country. There are minorities in almost every republic—that is not wholly true but it is almost true. There are no ethnic minorities in Slovenia but there are substantial ones in Croatia, most notably the Serbs.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

There are a few in Slovenia.

Mr. Hogg

I accept the correction.

There are important Albanian minorities in Macedonia and Serbs. There are minorities of Serba, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia.

If we are to see a solution of the problems in Yugoslavia, it must be one that addresses minority rights. I agree with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough about the international entrenching of minority rights. I do not envisage a long-lasting solution to the problem of Yugoslavia that does not take up the issue of minority rights and seek to entrench them, perhaps by international action.

I am sceptical about the proposition that minority rights can be protected by redrawing internal frontiers. With few exceptions it would be extremely difficult to redraw those frontiers to prevent an ethnic group being a minority in a republic.

I agree with the hon. Member for Western Isles about the importance of frontiers. They should not be changed by unilateral action, nor by force. An important presumption to which we should all adhere is that existing frontiers, however inconvenient and however arbitrarily they may have been drawn, are the lines from which we start. They can be changed only by agreement or by the adjudication of a lawful authority such as an international court. There are no frontiers within eastern and central Europe with which everyone is wholly comfortable. Best stay with what we have rather than try to change for something else.

As I have said, the critical problem is that of minorities. I do not think that frontiers should be changed by force or by unilateral action. I think that there exists the framework within which an agreed settlement could be brought about if the parties are anxious to see that happen.

Mr. Wareing

As the Minister knows, I agree with the Government's even-handed attitude towards Yugoslavia thus far. As for minorities and boundaries between Croatia and Serbia, however, there has been a suggestion that President Tudjman of Croatia and President Milosevic of Serbia would agree to a peacekeeping force. I am aware of the argument about peace before a peacekeeping force, but does the Minister agree that we should pursue the idea—perhaps through the North Atlantic Co-operation Council—that there could be a peace-keeping force within the Serbian enclaves in Croatia and along the Croatian border with Serbia while negotiations take place? It is the Serbian minority in Croatia that was part of the spark that set alight the flames in Yugoslavia.

Mr. Hogg

I shall respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and the hon. Member for Western Isles on the question of force and then come to the very issue that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) has raised, which I recognise is relevant.

There is a slight incompatibility between the arguments that have been advanced. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and the hon. Member for Wesern Isles began their respective speeches by saying, in effect, that now is not the time to introduce land forces into Yugoslavia. My hon. Friend was certainly of that mind. I think that he accepts that that would constitute a long-term commitment, and a hazardous and dangerous one. My hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman have suggested, however, that there is a step short of that that they would recommend—most notably air interdiction or, alternatively, a naval force. There is a distinction.

There is a distinction to be drawn between an evacuation of the kind that we may see tonight in Dubrovnik and an interdiction naval force designed to prevent, for example, the shelling of Dubrovnik by Yugoslav gun boats. I shall address the second point: whether we could deploy naval units in that form of action. I do not believe that we can because there is no authority to do so. Let us be clear about this: if we were to deploy naval units, they could be effective only if they were authorised to fire. That is an act of war. We cannot commit an act of war unless it is lawful. I do not believe that it would be lawful unless it were underpinned by some appropriate resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations. It is unlikely that we would get such authority at the moment.

The same applies to air interdiction. That will not be successful unless it is backed by the readiness to fire. That, too, is an act of war. That being so, in the absence of the Security Council resolution it would not be justified or, indeed, possible. Therefore, for the moment I could not commend either proposition to the House.

In any event, I would be cautious, because once taking the path of force it is difficult to stop going the whole way. It is difficult to draw any intellectual distinction between, on the one hand, the deployment of naval and air forces and, on the other, the deployment of land forces. If we do the one, we are driven to the other. I must be honest about this: I fear greatly the prospect of committing land forces to that part of the world. I shrink from it.

Mr. Macdonald

The Minister may have answered my question. He pointed out that it was not right to take those measures without authority from the Security Council. Why are not the Government pressing harder in the Security Council for such measures? He expressed his doubts about the quagmire that we would involve ourselves in, but does he realistically expect the Serbian aggression to be halted without a sign of a more firm stance by the international community?

Mr. Hogg

I do not believe that at present the Security Council would authorise the use of force. There is no prospect of its doing so within the foreseeable future. Therefore, we are focusing on what is obtainable within the Security Council, most notably the UN underpinning of sanctions and of the oil embargo. We may be able to achieve that. We shall have to see. But I do not believe that the authority would extend to military action of the kind suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

The proposition of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby is not unattractive. I understand the intellectual force of it. He is saying that we should protect the enclaves by some form of peacekeeping force. If I may, I shall restate the Government's position on a peacekeeping force in general and then come to the particular.

The Government do not think that the time is right for the introduction of such a force because there is no peace to keep. We would be called upon to make a peace, that is, to prise the fighters apart. That would be an extremely hazardous operation. Moreover, although both President Tudjman and President Milosevic have invited the Security Council and, indeed, the international community to deploy a peacekeeping force, it is clear from the small print that there are substantial differences between the two positions. The Serbs say that such a force should be along existing fighting lines, whereas the Croats say that it should be along historic frontiers. Those views are incompatible.

There may come a time when we would be willing to deploy a peacekeeping force. The circumstances have been defined by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. First, there must be an effective ceasefire. Secondly, those who request it must genuinely be prepared to accept it on their territory. Thirdly, the deployment of the force must be seen to be positively productive in terms of contributing to a settlement. None of those three conditions genuinely exists. When they do, we can seriously address the question of a peacekeeping force. It may be that in such circumstances the hon. Gentleman's proposal that there shall be some deployment into the enclaves becomes an option that we shall seriously consider.

As of now, we have no peace to keep. If we were to introduce forces anywhere in that country, I am afraid that they would be shot at by both sides. They would be committed to an operation that would be lengthy in its duration and extremely hazardous in its character.

I accept, as the hon. Members have stressed, that this is an extremely distressing situation. It is beastly. I recognise that it is extremely destabilising to the eastern marches of Europe. That does not mean that we should act rashly or imprudently. We want to keep step with our European Community partners and with our friends and allies outside the EC. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough about recognition, but I think that it would be premature to do it now, as it is an important lever in our efforts to secure the protection of minority rights.

This has been an important debate and I hope that I have addressed the various questions that——

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.

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