HC Deb 20 April 1993 vol 223 cc165-7
1. Mr. Churchill

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has for strengthening the British military contigent in former Yugoslavia.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

The size and composition of the British contribution to United Nations deployments to the former Yugoslavia are kept under continuous review. I am at present satisfied that the 2,300-strong British contingent serving in Bosnia is of the right size and properly equipped for the important humanitarian tasks assigned to it. We are, however, discussing with the United Nations the future of the British Field Ambulance unit deployed in Croatia since last May, because we are concerned about whether its capacity is being fully utilised.

Mr. ChurChill

Will my right hon. and learned Friend convey to the Cheshires and all the other British military units in Bosnia the warmest congratulations of all quarters of the House on the superb job that they have done in the winter months this year in bringing humanitarian aid and relief supplies to the hard-pressed population of Bosnia?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that sanctions alone would never have got Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and sanctions alone will not bring the Serbs to heel on this issue? I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will in no way consider the involvement of ground forces in a Balkan civil war, but will he, none the less, together with his colleagues, not rule out the possibility of air strikes as recommended by Lord Owen?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier remarks. He chose to make a comparison with the situation in Iraq. but I am sure that he would be the first to recollect that the massive aerial bombardment of Saddam Hussein's troops in Kuwait did not lead to their departure from Kuwait, and that it was the use of ground forces on a massive scale, which my hon. Friend is ruling out in the case of Bosnia, that was required to expel Iraqi forces. Therefore, my hon. Friend must consider the implications of the Iraqi example that he has chosen to put before the House.

Mr. John D. Taylor

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that if United Kingdom air or naval forces take sides in the fighting in Bosnia, by a form of aggression against some of the participants in the terrible fighting that is taking place there, the United Kingdom land forces will be withdrawn immediately from Bosnia?

Mr. Rifkind

We attach the highest priority to the safety and security of British forces, and it is clear that, even in their current humanitarian role, they suffer exposure to some considerable risk. For example, today a British helicopter in the Vitez area may have been hit by some sniper fire. Fortunately, there appear not to have been any consequences from that incident. But if United Nations forces were to be used in a combatant role, clearly the risks to British forces would be immeasurably higher.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes

Having been one of those with initial reservations about the deployment of British troops in Bosnia at all, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that diplomacy, backed by embargoes and sanctions against some and sustenance for others, is no longer adequate. Given our leadership of the Rapid Reaction Corps, Britain is uniquely well placed to give moral and military leadership in this tragic situation. Will my right hon. and learned Friend urge NATO to deploy elements of that corps so that British troops can work alongside our European allies without our bearing a disproportionate amount of the financial and human costs?

Mr. Rifkind

If my hon. Friend is envisaging what role might be played by the United Nations in the event of a ceasefire, clearly a contribution could be made by the Rapid Reaction Corps in helping to provide the necessary infrastructure of a United Nations operation. It is in that context that the possibility to which my hon. Friend has referred would be most relevant.

Mr. McWilliam

Does the Secretary of State accept that, if air strikes to interdict Serbian supply lines were introduced, the rules of engagement for our forces presently stationed in Bosnia, particularly at Vitez, would have to be changed, because our forces would have to go into the mountains to take the Serb guns—otherwise, they would be blown to pieces?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. An additional consideration must be taken into account by those who advocate the use of armed force by the United Nations. As we have seen in the last couple of days, there is a substantial increase in the conflict between Croat and Muslim forces—particularly in the Vitez area, where the British forces are concentrated. It is incredibly difficult to imagine a scenario in which the United Nations is required to use military force against some combatants but not others, when the bloodshed, loss of life and possibly even the atrocities committed can be found to be the responsibility of the different communities in Bosnia at present.

Mr. Viggers

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is completely unrealistic to imagine that a externally imposed military solution will be found? If there were to be increased military pressure—whatever the merits of that—from Britain, the United Nations or NATO, would that not be inconsistent with the widely praised humanitarian aid?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The Government's extreme reservations about the use of military power in a combat role are partly because we have the gravest doubts that it would have the practical effect recommended for it by its adherents. We are substantially influenced also by the almost certain consequences for the humanitarian operations, which have been a great success and led to the saving of literally hundreds of thousands of lives in Bosnia over the last few months. That work would almost certainly have to be terminated, which would be a heavy price to pay. That aspect should influence the proper moral debate about the proper policy to pursue in Bosnia.

Dr. David Clark

When a ceasefire is finally signed and the United Nations calls on countries to provide troops to enforce it, will Britain play her full part in maintaining that ceasefire? Is the Secretary of State confident that we have sufficient troops, and sufficient helicopters in particular, to play our full part?

Mr. Rifkind

If a ceasefire were signed by the three parties to the dispute, and we were satisfied that that represented a genuine qualitative change in the situation, of course there would be an obligation on the international community, through the United Nations, to do what it could to make the ceasefire a continuing reality and to achieve a permanent peace. The United Kingdom will of course want to ascertain its contribution in those circumstances, in the way suggested. I am satisfied that we could make a significant and substantial contribution, if we chose to do so.

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