HC Deb 24 May 1993 vol 225 cc571-81 3.30 pm
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the latest United Nations plan for Bosnia.

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

The Foreign Ministers of the United States, France, Russia and Spain, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, met in Washington on 22 May and issued a statement containing a joint programme of action on the former Yugoslavia.

They agreed to continue working urgently to halt the conflict—starting with further action in the United Nations Security Council on safe areas, monitoring of the Bosnian border with Serbia-Montenegro and the establishment of a war crimes tribunal—and to continue efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement building on the Vance-Owen process and intensified international efforts.

They reaffirmed their view that sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro should be rigorously enforced until the conditions set out by the United Nations for their review are met, including the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb troops from territories occupied by force, including the withdrawal of Bosnia-Serb troops from territories occupied by force.

Mr. Robertson

I thank the Minister for his answer. However, such a radical and fundamental new policy shift on Bosnia should have merited a full Government statement and not just a reply to a private notice question.

I shall set out what we welcome in what was said in Washington on Saturday. First, it is right to make it clear that aggression against Macedonia will lead to grave consequences. Would that threat not have had a little more force if we could get round to using the name of the country that the Macedonians have chosen—"Macedonia" itself?

Secondly, we welcome the recognition that there should be a greater international presence in Kosovo to protect human rights in that province of former Yugoslavia. Thirdly, it is of course right that the flames of violence should not be further fanned by lifting the arms embargo on the region, and it is good that the effort to deliver humanitarian supplies will continue.

Having said that, can I ask the Minister precisely what is the plan? Is it a plan at all, or will it not simply be seen as a cleverly constructed and diplomatically phrased climbdown in the face of the Bosnian Serb rejection of their leader's signature on the Vance-Owen plan three weeks ago in Athens?

What has happened to that plan in the light of this new policy shift? Is this the end of that plan, which was so carefully and painstakingly put together by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance for a multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzogovina? Was Lord Owen consulted about what went on in Washington? What is his view about the new plan that has been unveiled by the five countries?

Will the Minister tell us about the new proposed safe areas? For whom are they to be safe? It appears that civilians in those areas will be disarmed and any air cover supplied or offered by the United States will be restricted to the UN troops in the areas. Of course, any protection of the poor persecuted civilians in that area is welcome, but is not the proposal just a recipe for creating five or more new permanent refugee camps?

Why are we continuing to be so pathetically weak about continuing Croation aggression? Given the continuing actions of some Bosnian-Croat forces in Bosnia, surely the same ultimatums on sanctions that have been given to Belgrade should now immediately be aimed at Zagreb.

What is meant by "sealing the borders of Bosnia", when all it seems to amount to is what the communiqué says: We are watching to see if the border closure is effective"? How does that stand, especially in the light of Mr. Milosevic's apparent statement that there will be a veto on all foreign observers and monitors on the border?

What about the section of the communiqué entitled, "Further measures", which speaks of keeping open options for new and tougher measures. What precisely is meant by that? What are those measures and how can that be seen as a potent threat when the measures so far used, including sanctions, have been pursued with such a spectacular lack of success?

The Foreign Secretary said yesterday on the BBC: The Bosnian Serbs need to realise that they are not going to be able to retain what they have grabbed by force. I ask the Minister, quite simply, how? How will that be done? Can he tell us? Can anybody tell us how that will be achieved?

Finally, what can the Minister tell the House this afternoon, and how can he reassure an increasingly puzzled and suspicious world community, who, in the light of the new policy, may well now conclude that the standing of the United Nations has been gravely undermined and that the legitimate rights of the Government of Bosnia and the people they seek to represent have been abandoned?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has given me ample opportunity to amplify the Government's position, and I am grateful to him for that. On the question of Macedonia, he will bear in mind the fact that we fought for its admission into the United Nations. Some outstanding matters need to be settled, if possible, between Greece and Macedonia, and discussions are going ahead under the chairmanship of Lord Owen to promote that.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supported the Government's attitude towards not relaxing the arms embargo. I believe that that is right.

The hon. Gentleman asked a whole range of questions, to which I shall try to reply. However, it is important to keep in mind the fact that those on his Front Bench and those on this one agree on one thing—that it would be wrong to deploy United Kingdom or any other ground troops in a combat role. Certain consequences flow from that, and they are set out in the Washington agreement.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to explain the plan. I shall try to summarise the main elements of it—first, to continue with the humanitarian mission, which is well known to the House; secondly, to keep the sanctions in place until there has been a withdrawal from occupied territories; thirdly, the positioning of monitors on the border of Bosnia and Serbia; fourthly, the creation of safe areas—I shall say more about that in a moment; and fifthly, the setting up of a war crimes tribunal.

On the question of safe areas, we have made it plain that, if UNPROFOR troops in the safe areas are attacked, air assets will be deployed to support them. On the point about Lord Owen, he has been kept closely informed of developments, as the hon. Gentleman would expect. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in frequent contact with him. Lord Owen will express his views at a time that he thinks appropriate.

On Croatia, the hon. Gentleman has a good point. We are deeply concerned by the policy adopted by the Croatian Government, and the hon. Gentleman will see that there is an express reference in the declaration to the fact that sanctions could be deployed against Croatia if policies of military expansion were continued.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the Bosnia that we voted to admit to the United Nations and whose legitimate Government we still recognise has lost about 250,000 people slain in the past year, 2.5 million displaced and countless thousands raped, and their homes pillaged? What comfort can his statement offer to those people? What signal about the powerful nature of the world order does it send out? Has not the west been tried and found wanting in the first test of the post-cold war era?

Can my right hon. and learned Friend do anything to reassure me that this is not a case of aggression rewarded? Can he do anything to reassure me that those who still sorely need protection will be afforded it?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is the greatest tragedy, the greatest crime, that Europe has seen since the end of the second world war. He has fairly asked me whether I can bring comfort. The answer is, I cannot —I wish that I could. What is going on in Bosnia is, in its principal characteristics, a civil war; and we did not think it right—nor did any other country of which I am aware —to deploy ground troops in a combat rule because this was and is a civil war. Civil wars cannot be resolved by the application of external force.

As to the future, we do not accept that the land seized by the Bosnian Serbs will remain theirs. That is why we intend to keep the sanctions on until there is a withdrawal from territories occupied—[Interruption.] Labour Members shout, "What about the Croats?" Them too. I have already made it plain that we think that the policies of the Croatian Government are deeply disturbing, and we have made it plain in the declaration that, if those policies arc persisted with, sanctions could be deployed against them too.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Does the Minister of State recognise why we view his statement about the belated creation of safe areas with total dismay? Does he riot recall that, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) came back from Bosnia last August and argued for the creation of safe havens, they were told that that was quite impossible?

Now more territory has been grabbed from the Muslim communities, as graphically described by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), and aggression by the Serbs is going to be rewarded under the agreement now being made—so the Minister will understand the anger in this quarter of the House.

Is it intended to create a United Nations protectorate of all Muslim areas? Is it intended that the United Nations on the ground will negotiate with the Serbs and Croats to achieve just and defensible borders in the future?

Mr. Hogg

The policy of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has always called for a much more intense level of military activity than that which is now contemplated. The difficulty with the right hon. Gentleman's plan has always been that it has effectively called for the deployment of ground troops in a combat role. That is why it has not been possible to accept it. There has been no substantial support in this place or in any other country I can think of for the sort of policy that the right hon. Gentleman was advancing.

We certainly do not accept that aggression should be rewarded. We shall do our utmost in the ways that I have described already to get the Bosnian Serbs to roll back their occupation.

There are no plans for United Nations protected areas at the moment, but we will build on the Vance-Owen process, with the objective of providing security for the Bosnian Muslims and the rolling back of the Bosnian Serbs.

Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel)

My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned that further action would depend heavily on sanctions. I am sure he is aware that anyone who has consulted with the former Yugoslavia's neighbours in the past few weeks is fully aware of substantial concern over slippage and evasion. What are the chances of tightening the screw? Can my right hon. and learned Friend say a word or two more about the war crimes tribunal, and about the possible appointment of a human rights commissioner?

Mr. Hogg

I am confident that the Security Council will establish a war crimes tribunal, but one must make the point—unpalatable though I know it is—that one can only try people if one has them within the relevant jurisdiction.

Sanctions have been a great deal more effective than has commonly been allowed. The Serbian economy has been devastated by sanctions. It is true that they have not been as completely watertight as we would wish. In particular, at the turn of the year, consignments of oil got through. Since then, we have been most effective at tightening up the sanctions in the Adriatic, by toughening the rules of engagement; on the land frontiers, by positioning sanction advisory missions and securing agreement from adjoining states; and on the Danube itself, where there has been no substantial breach of the sanctions regime.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Is not the message of the agreement to aggressors and ethnic cleansers around the world, "Do your worst—you have nothing to fear from the United Nations and the international community, except bluster, dither and delay"? Does not the agreement represent a massive betrayal of the people of Bosnia—Muslim, Serb and Croat—who have seen their independent state literally go up in smoke? Does it not represent a massive defeat for the United Nations and the international community, and dash any hopes of establishing a new world order on this wretched globe of ours?

Mr. Hogg

No one can deny that we have seen both tragedy and a crime. It gives no one in this place any pleasure to know what the Serbs have done. That said, we must ask ourselves what we are prepared to do in the context of a civil war. Unless we—all nations—are prepared to deploy ground troops in a combat role, perhaps we should not embark on too much bluster.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Government are absolutely right to resist the military ambitions of some American and other television armchair warriors? Will he give an assurance that there is no question in future of British troops being further embroiled in a mad adventure which will not resolve a civil war but from which it might take years to extract our forces?

Mr. Hogg

I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend says. We will not deploy United Kingdom ground troops in a combat role. We have no plans at the moment to increase the number of United Kingdom troops in former Yugoslavia; nor have we any present plans to change the existing mandate.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

While I recognise that many right hon. and hon. Members would like to pursue in greater detail many aspects of the Washington agreement, I want to ask specifically about the war crimes tribunal. Given that between 20,000 and 30,000 women have been raped, often systematically in rape camps established for that purpose, will the British Government ensure that the details that have emerged from the United Nations, Helsinki Watch and Amnesty International will guarantee that rape becomes a war crime and that there will be no amnesty for the perpetrators of that crime as part of any deal in reaching a negotiated peace settlement?

Mr. Hogg

Rape probably already comes within the definition of a war crime. It certainly is a crime. The problem, of course, is that we must have the people to try. We are supporting the establishment of the tribunal, but the tribunal will be able to try people only if it has jurisdiction over those people. It is extraordinarily difficult to solve that practical difficulty.

Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the change that has been enshrined in the Washington agreement is a very substantial one? It was only a few weeks ago, was it not, that the Prime Minister of Greater Serbia, Milosevic, was able to put substantial pressure on the Bosnian Serbs.

What in the new agreement will lead to any restraint being placed on the Bosnian Serbs? Why, for example, will they still retain the right to determine who should be the United Nations monitors and where they should go? What is it that has been positively gained for those who live in the Bosnian Muslim communities over what has been offered, and apparently grabbed, by the Bosnian Serbs?

Mr. Hogg

I shall make three replies to my hon. Friend. First, we have clear unity of purpose. That is very important. It is through our collective strength that we have any chance at all of reversing aggression. Secondly, we have the concept of safe areas and the agreement to use air action to defend UNPROFOR troops should they be attacked within those safe areas. Thirdly, there is the stated principle, to which we shall adhere, that we shall not accept the annexation by force of the ground now occupied by the Bosnian Serbs, and that the sanctions will remain in place until there is a withdrawal from territory thus taken.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Has the Minister any idea at all of the strong, understandable and angry sense of betrayal that is felt by the Government of Bosnia and the people they represent? Does the Minister not understand that this is not a victory in any way for dealing with aggression? It is a victory for appeasement, it is a victory for excuses, it is a victory for allowing the aggressor to get away with it.

Despite all the right hon. and learned Gentleman's talk today about war criminals being punished, and the rest of it, the sad truth is that this is a decisive defeat, not only for the people who live in Bosnia, unfortunately, but for the international community and for the United Nations. All of us should be very ashamed of what has occurred.

Mr. Hogg

Yes, indeed, I understand the sense of pain and despair that is felt by the Bosnian Muslims. All of us in this place share much of that. What we have seen is a very brutal crime, and we have been unable to reverse it in the way we would have hoped to do. But the plain truth is —we come back to it every time—that in its essential characteristics this was a civil war. It is virtually impossible, by the application of external force, to put an end to a civil war.

The hon. Gentleman says, impliedly, that we should have done a great deal more than we did. I do not accept that criticism, but that is his point. We cannot use United Kingdom ground troops, for example, in a combat role unless the country is solidly behind such a venture. The truth is that it is not, and there is not such an opinion in this House either.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

My right hon. and learned Friend said that sanctions will continue to be applied against Serbia for so long as the Serbs hold territory that is not rightfully theirs. Does that mean that Royal Air Force aircraft will continue to be deployed in theatre to maintain the air exclusion zone over Bosnia for so long as the sanctions endure?

My right hon. and learned Friend also spoke in a notably unspecific way about air action and air assets and United Kingdom ground troops. Does that mean that, if United Nations troops are attacked in the safe areas, Royal Air Force aircraft will be used in action against ground targets—in other words, in a combat role?

Mr. Hogg

On my hon. Friend's first point about how long the RAF will remain engaged, the RAF is there at the moment, along with other air forces, to enforce the no-fly zone. So long as there is a no-fly zone in place and there is the risk of breaches which might cause serious combat, it will be necessary to maintain some air enforcement.

On the question of enforcement against targets which are attacking UNPROFOR troops, my hon. Friend will know that the Government have already said of the Canadians in Srebrenica that we would rally to their support if the company were attacked by the Serbs. We are making it plain that air forces will be used to defend UNPROFOR troops should they be attacked in the safe areas designated in the resolution.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I take us back to where we were 12 months ago when the horror began? Why, after 12 months, are heavy munitions still firing on major centres of population in the former Yugoslavia? Why has that heavy equipment not been taken out?

Mr. Hogg

We come back to the point that I have stressed many times. We are talking about a civil war, and the question that the hon. Gentleman, along with everyone else, must contemplate is the extent to which British military assets, or any other country's military asets, people, troops and airmen, should be used to prevent fighting in a civil war. There is no will in the House for that.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

May I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that, in view of the fact that no NATO country was prepared to put combat forces on the ground in this deeply tragic situation, this seems to be much the most realistic plan so far, and the first that seems to offer some hope of ending the killing, and that it therefore cannot be regarded as wholly contemptible?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with him.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

We all know what the Vance-Owen "plan" is or was, but what, if anything, does the Vance-Owen "process" mean, especially when it is not specifically endorsed by the two men whose names it bears?

Mr. Hogg

That is a fair question. The Vance-Owen plan had within it a range of specific agreed elements, agreed at least by most of the parties, although not by the Bosnian Serbs. The Vance-Owen process has a mechanism for negotiating. I agree that it is not the same thing, but that is the difference.

Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Is it not yet clear that, if the international community makes it plain time and time again that, whatever happens, it will do nothing to stop the Serbs, the Serbs will go on doing exactly what they will? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that is not a civil war? Is he further aware that it is absolutely clear that the Serbs will break their word again and again?

In that context, is it riot wholly inadequate merely to monitor what is happening on the border between Serbia and Bosnia, and is it not clear that effective action should be taken to ensure that the embargo on the flow of arms and resources across the border is enforced, not ineffectively monitored?

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend has identified a problem that is inherent in democracies. People rightly ask of Governments what their policies are. If I were to flannel or deceive the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) would be the first to blame me. Indeed, I would be not only blamed but thoroughly criticised. In open societies—in democracies—it is jolly difficult to pursue policies other than those that one declares—or, to put it differently, one must declare what one proposes to do.

As to whether this is a civil war, it is primarily a civil war. I do not dispute for one moment that Serbia plays a prominent part in supplying fuel, arms, money and men, but it is nevertheless in its essential characteristics a civil war.

My right hon. Friend said that the Bosnian Serbs and the Serbs themselves were likely to break their word. I should have thought that there was an extremely high probability of that. That is why, when one is considering the cost in terms of human lives of trying to make peace by force, one must come to the conclusion that it would take about half a million men.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Why cannot United Nations policy be seriously built on so that the safe havens become proper safe havens, in which the population is defended, and so that the safe havens can be extended to other areas to defend people, irrespective of their ethnic background? The borders with Croatia, as well as the borders with Serbia, should be not only monitored but controlled. Should we not look to the establishment of a United Nations transitional authority?

Mr. Hogg

I agree that the policies of the Croatian Government are a matter of considerable concern, first because they have supported the Bosnian Croats, and secondly because we are anxious to see a renewal of the UNPROFOR 1 mandate in Krajina. Some of the remarks made by President Tudjman are not very assuring on that point.

On safe areas, the resolution will define a number of towns in Bosnia in respect of which we shall introduce UNPROFOR troops. As the hon. Gentleman knows, air forces will be employed to defend those troops should they be attacked.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, notwithstanding the open-ended need for help and support for the United Nations operations in Bosnia, the British Government's operation has cost between £70 million and £100 million? What other substantial contributions in cash terms have been made by the 150-odd other members of the United Nations?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend will appreciate that, if I were to give a detailed answer, I might take a longish time. My hon. Friend is saying—I entirely agree—that the British have made the most considerable troop contribution in Bosnia. We have delivered more than 36,000 tonnes of supplies, and the RAF has delivered more than 7,000 tonnes of supplies. It is universally agreed that the British service men, both the troops and the RAF, are by far the most efficient of any forces operating within Bosnia.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Would that the Foreign Secretary were here so that I could tell him to his face that he should be ashamed of himself for having put his name, and Britain's name, to this absolutely atrocious Washington agreement which totally abandons the Bosnian Muslims. What minute prospect is there of the Bosnian Serbs being forced to abandon their conquests?

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has heard the hon. Gentleman on many previous occasions. I shall tell him that the hon. Gentleman has said what he has said previously.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

As somebody who witnessed some horrible scenes in another civil war only three years ago, may I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that, even if the will existed in the House and in the country to send a large ground force to Bosnia for an indeterminate period, experience from other similar cival wars, whether in Palestine or now in Nagorno-Karabakh, suggests that the most likely outcome would be a complete and bloody failure?

The best way forward and the best hope for the Bosnians in the long run is for us all to recognise that there is no putting Bosnia back together again against the wishes of the Serbs and the Croat Bosnians who form a majority of the population. We need an ethnic partition, as has happened in Cyprus.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend has deployed clearly, and in my view rightly, the arguments against deploying ground troops in a civil war. On the second part of his question, we now need to build on what has been agreed within the Vance-Owen peace plan, and to use that process to try to carry forward a chance of a settlement.

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

Does the Minister agree with me that there is always a risk that the conflict will spread again to Krajina and to Kosovo and Macedonia and that that risk would become an absolute certainty should there be massive intervention by the west in Bosnia-Herzegovina, because it would give succour to all the extreme forces, including extreme forces among the Albanians in Kosovo? Those who think that there is a simplistic way out of the problem in Bosnia should think before they speak. Were the detention centres discussed? How are the detainees to be released?

Mr. Hogg

I believe that the hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to see some of the things that he has described. I agree with the broad premise that there is a serious risk of the fighting flowing into the adjoining countries, particularly Macedonia and Albania. The risk in Kosovo is very great indeed. That is one of the reasons why there is now a Nordic battalion in Macedonia and why there are CSCE observers in Kosovo. I would like to see the numbers of the latter increased. It would be better by far if we were able to get the United Nations presence into Kosovo. However, that would depend on the acquiescence of Serbia.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

For month after month, the Government have rightly supported the policy of sanctions. However, for month after month, the Government have also gone along with the European view that breaches of sanctions shall remain entirely confidential. Do the Government really believe that the policy of sanctions as opposed to war can ever prevail if that sort of attitude is maintained? May we ask whether that information can now be released as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Hogg

The policy of sanctions has been a great deal more effective than the hon. Gentleman allows. As I said earlier in response to this private notice question, the policy of sanctions has caused very considerable damage —as it was intended to—to the Serbian economy, and that will continue until there is a withdrawal from the territory that has been occupied.

With regard to the question of confidentiality, I am not absolutely clear about what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. There is one serious problem: quite often, we receive information about sanction breaches from very confidential channels. It would be extremely difficult to release that information without impugning the source. That is the problem. If there are other problems which the hon. Gentleman feels that I have not addressed in my reply, I am happy to talk to him about that.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)

Is it not the case that, when the fine diplomatic words are put to one side, the new piece of paper adds up to a policy of appeasement? Surely the Minister should understand that, just as appeasement did not work 50 years ago, Europe's policy of appeasement today will not stop aggression, mass rapes or genocide?

Mr. Hogg

While there are clearly close parallels in moral terms between what has happened in Bosnia and what happened in Germany and as a result of Nazi policy, it is very wrong to regard Serbia as posing anything like the kind of strategic risk that Germany posed to Europe in the 1930s. Therefore, it is unwise to talk about appeasement in that sense. We are not embarking on a policy of war. By a range of policies, involving substantial pressure, we are seeking to get the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from the territory that they have occupied.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We must now move on. I have an application under Standing Order No. 20 from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).