HC Deb 18 November 1991 vol 199 cc19-24

The following Questions stood upon the Paper:—

34. Mr. Harry Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he last met the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to discuss aid for the Kurdish people.

35. Mr. Corbyn

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how much Government aid has gone to Kurdish people since April of this year; what information he has on the amount of aid from United Kingdom non-governmental organisations; and if he will make a statement.

Mrs. Chalker

I held discussions in Geneva last week on the situation in Iraq with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the United Nations Secretary-General's executive delegate, and senior officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organisation of Migration and the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator. I heard of the considerable efforts being made by those agencies to relieve humanitarian need in Iraq and was able to discuss with them how best we might continue to assist the needs of ordinary Iraqis.

The British Government have played their full part. Since April this year, we have spent £44 million to help the people of Iraq, including over £6 million through United Kingdom non-governmental organisations, £500,000 through Iraqi humanitarian groups and £2.5 million through the ICRC. Britain maintains a contribution to the coalition force in southern Turkey which is continuing to deter any renewed repression by the Iraqi authorities.

Iraq is able to and should meet the basic requirements of all its own people. The Security Council adopted two mandatory resolutions, 706 and 712, on 15 August and 19 September. They permit the export of some $1.6 billion of Iraqi oil to meet humanitarian needs. This oil could and should already be flowing, but Saddam Hussein refuses to implement the resolutions. He is clearly using the suffering, especially of women and children, for his own cynical purposes.

Prince Sadruddin leaves for Iraq tomorrow to make progress on these points. I have given him my full support for this vital United Nations task. I am sure that he will have the full support of the whole House. Britain will continue to play her full part in alleviating suffering in Iraq. The last months have proved that the international community is more concerned for the people of Iraq than are their own Government.

Mr. Barnes

What estimates have been made of the needs of the Kurds and how much of the material that has been made available to them has been able to get through? What protections are available? What is the latest information about the field hospital that was sent out by British Aid for the Kurds?

It is a pity that we did not know that a statement was to be made generally about Iraq rather than in response to the two questions that have been tabled about the Kurds, Nos. 34 and 35. There is much wider concern and I am one of those who would wish to see trade being opened up with Iraq so that a devastated country can begin to be repaired.

Mrs. Chalker

It is extremely difficult, as the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) knows as well as I do, to obtain a full estimate of what is needed. I can say that there is great need and that in certain pockets the situation is disastrous. That is so in the north and it is also the position of the Shias in the marshland in the south, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) can testify. Therefore, the need is still great. I made that point with considerable emphasis to Prince Sadruddin and to others whom I met in Geneva last week.

We can protect and, by means of our troops in southern Turkey, deter the recurrence of the awful things that seem to have happened in the past. We have no doubt that medicines that have been sent from Britain and many other countries have been blockaded by the Revolutionary Guard somewhere in Iraq. We know also that other materials have not yet got through but have been sent. We are doing all that we can to unblock the situation and to overcome the problem. That does not absolve Saddam Hussein of the responsibility for looking after his own people. There is his agreement—well, not agreement because the United Nations resolutions are mandatory —when he permits the oil to flow. As soon as that happens, the people of Iraq will benefit and will cease to suffer in the disastrous way that they have for so long.

Mr. Corbyn

The Minister will be aware that I visited Kurdish Iraq in August to see for myself the destruction that had taken place. The right hon. Lady has been informed of the observations that I and others made at that time. It is clear that there is an urgent need for aid to get through to the Kurdish people. What was bad in August is terrible now and it will be appalling in the middle of winter. An urgent supply of aid is desperately needed —medicines, food and building equipment, for example, to assist the Kurdish people.

When I was in Kurdish Iraq I felt that many of the aid agencies should have more confidence in working with the Kurdistan Front in the supply of aid and food to the villages and towns and in co-operating with logistical support. Those in the Kurdistan Front know the region best. They have always lived there and they are best able to advise on appropriate aid.

My final point—

Mr. Speaker

No more please.

Mr. Corbyn

My last concern, which is of great importance—

Mr. Speaker

There are others who want to participate.

Mr. Corbyn

I appreciate that, Mr. Speaker.

Unless the Turkish army and air force desist from attacks over the border into Iraq, the security of the Kurdish people is once again threatened, not only by Saddam Hussein but by the Turkish air force.

Mrs. Chalker

To clear up the last point first, we made it clear to the Government of Turkey that the people of northern Iraq and the Kurdish people of southern Turkey should not be treated as was seen to be happening some months ago. There has been no difference between us on that.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has been in the area, as have others. There is justified concern about the Kurds facing the threat of this winter. The hon. Member for Cynon Valley has seen the position for herself.

We have been concentrating on pushing through food, shelter facilities and health care to try to avert the tragedy of the mountains, but no single Government or group of NGOs can make things happen if the Revolutionary Guard is stockpiling equipment and necessary food. Prince Sadruddin is going to Baghdad tomorrow to try to solve that problem. We send our best wishes with him; but I assure the House that we shall not let up in our attempts to help Iraqi people in both the north and south.

Miss Emma Nicholson

I thank my right hon. Friend from the bottom of my heart, on behalf of those whom I have seen in southern Iran who are refugees from Saddam Hussein's brutality against the Shia people. I thank her even more warmly for the help that she gave, in the form of food and clothing, to people who fled into the marshes. Their plight is desperate. I saw them recently in the marshes of southern Iraq and I hope to bring over one or two of the smallest victims of Saddam Husseim's brutal napalm bombing—in particular a boy of 10, who needs crucial plastic surgery.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to endorse—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members please ask one question at a time? If not, they take a good deal of time from others.

Miss Nicholson

Tomorrow, the findings will be released of the interim report from Mr. Max van der Stoel, the special United Nations rapporteur on human rights in Iraq, who will present the report to the United Nations third committee. Will my right hon. Friend endorse those findings and make every effort to endorse the resolution, proposed by Belgium, which Mr. van der Stoel will present?

Mrs. Chalker

I am sure that we shall see almost total aggreement with Mr. van der Stoel's report when it is published tomorrow. I have not seen the report yet, but my hon. Friend knows me well enough to realise that we shall use the opportunity offered by it to do all that we can to further help for people in southern Iraq and those in camps in the south-west and other parts of Iran.

The situation is serious. We shall continue to support NGOs in southern Iraq and in the camps in the south-west. I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on the work that she has done, but on going to the marshes of southern Iraq and coming back with the evidence. It took some courage to do that.

Mr. Cormack

What my right hon. Friend has said this afternoon about the activities of Saddam Hussein and his lackeys in the Revolutionary Guard makes many of us extremely ashamed that no attempt has been made to bring this bestial, malevolent, satanic figure to the bar of world opinion, either by seeking to bring charges against him or by forcing him into exile. Cannot something be done? Men's lives were lost in the Gulf war. A war was fought and to what purpose?

Mrs. Chalker

The freeing of Kuwait was the objective set by the United Nations. That was successfully accomplished with—thank goodness—a minimal, although sad, loss of life.

It is extremely difficult to speculate about what will happen next. I understand my hon. Friend's grave and deeply felt anxiety and the wish of all the British people that Saddam Hussein be brought to justice. It is not in the British Government's power to do that; we must continue to work through the United Nations. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will do that with all the force at their disposal.

Sir David Steel

The Minister will have seen all the independent reports—including that of Reuters news agency—of deliberate attempts to prevent fuel, medicine and food from reaching Kurdish areas. The reports include a remarkable quotation from the health minister in Baghdad, who, tacitly, more or less admitted that that was happening.

Did the Minister discuss with Prince Sadruddin the possibility of staging a United Nations airlift of supplies, aimed directly at the area and paying for it with the frozen Iraqi funds that are in our banks?

Mrs. Chalker

Prince Sadruddin and I have indeed discussed the issue and we shall continue to discuss it when he returns from his mission in Baghdad. We hope that, by then, the $1.6 billion worth of oil will be starting to flow: that would help more than anything else.

Mr. Wilkinson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the continued repression of the Kurdish people and the Shia people in the south and the brutalities inflicted upon them by Saddam Hussein and his Government were entirely predictable when that Government were left in power? What would be the attitude of the Turkish authorities to humanitarian air supplies from bases in their territory?

Mrs. Chalker

The Government of Turkey then in office gave us a great deal of help earlier in the year. I am quite certain that the new Government of Turkey will give the international donor community similar help if that is the only way in which we can get assistance to the people. However, the fact remains that there is $1.6 billion-worth of Iraqi oil money that should benefit ordinary Iraqi people.

Mr. Winnick

The large numbers of Iraqi people of all kinds who are suffering so much at the moment do not question whether the war was justified—they know that it was. Rather, they are wondering why the allies left them at the tender mercy of a notorious and murderous criminal dictator. Bearing in mind the questions asked by hon. Members on both sides of the House today, if it is clear that Saddam Hussein is not going to take the necessary action to relieve the suffering which the Minister has described, will the United Nations take further measures and adopt a new resolution to ensure that the people of Iraq do not continue to suffer under that notorious dictatorship?

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I will have made certain plans for the future under certain circumstances. Prince Sadruddin is going to Baghdad tomorrow; after the discussions that he and I and others have had in the past week, I believe that we must await the outcome of that visit. We sincerely hope that Saddam Hussein will see sense. Whether he does or not, we are prepared to do what is necessary for ordinary Iraqi people in future.

Mrs. Clwyd

Does the Minister know that reports today claim that 5,000 Kurdish villagers have just fled from their homes near Arbil after coming under Iraqi mortar fire and that Iraqi troops are today telling Kurds to leave or be shot? Has she heard the reports from Arbil, where I was last week and where I saw 18,000 Iraqi troops two miles away with their tanks and artillery ready to strike? Does she realise that shells like this in my hand, which I picked up from the roadside near Arbil, are being fired at the Kurds from helicopters? Clearly—

Mr. Michael Morris

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I remember being apprehended by a previous occupant of your Chair when I brought an orange into the Chamber.

Mr. Speaker

I would like that shell taken out of the Chamber please.

Mrs. Clwyd

I am sorry that people are so squeamish. The shell is empty. I was making a serious point that helicopter gunships are still being used against the Kurds. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) could not take the point seriously.

Does the right hon. Lady remember that when the Prime Minister proposed a plan to protect the Kurds from further attacks by the Iraqi army, he promised to provide shelter and housing to the Kurds until it is safe for them to return to their own homes. Seven months later, does she really expect us to believe that the promises to protect them and the Shias in the south are being honoured? Does she realise that the failure to honour those promises means that the United Nations agencies cannot do their job properly? Is she aware that little has changed for the refugees and that last week I saw tens of thousands of them once more on the moutainside where I was in April? They were still living in desperate conditions because they are either too frightened or unable to return to their homes in Iraq. Is she also aware that I saw hundreds of people fleeing once more in trucks, tractors and cars with their meagre possessions piled up round them?

Can the Minister urge the Prime Minister to honour his promises and ensure that the Kurds are given air cover backed by a visible will to use it until they are no longer threatened by the terror and butchery of Saddam Hussein?

Mrs. Chalker

I sincerely welcome the hon. Lady back safely to this country. Allied aircraft and men based in Turkey are having a deterrent effect. There may be a need to do more than is being done now, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), we must give Prince Sadruddin the chance this week to change what we believe can be changed under the existing Security Council resolutions.

There has been no failure to honour promises. This country has given more than £44 million since April alone. We have United Kingdom engineers working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in northern Iraq. Other British people are working out there at present. We have consistently inquired about the funding of the agencies. We have resources. We have been responding positively to requests from NGOs and we will continue to respond.

The hon. Lady keeps asking me whether I know this, that and the other. Of course I know. But I also know that the practicality of getting through the help that we genuinely and willingly will give Iraqi people can happen only if we can make sure that Saddam Hussein will make it happen. That is what we are engaged upon at the moment and that is what we shall do, one way or the other.