HC Deb 18 April 1994 vol 241 cc641-56 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about events in Gorazde and elsewhere in Bosnia over the past few days.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reported to the House on 12 April on the circumstances in which NATO aircraft, to protect. United Nations forces, had carried out close air support attacks on Bosnian Serb forces threatening UN personnel in Gorazde on the two preceding days. Following those attacks, efforts were made to achieve a ceasefire between the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Government forces as the prelude to a general political settlement. But by last Thursday, 14 April, the situation on the ground had deteriorated and a number of serious incidents occurred in and around Sarajevo and in other parts of northern Bosnia.

On Friday afternoon, 15 April, the Bosnian Serbs resumed their shelling of Gorazde. A patrol of British soldiers serving as joint commission observers at a Bosnian army location about 3 km north of the town became involved in an exchange of gun fire. One of them, Corporal Fergus Rennie, sustained a gun shot wound as a result of Bosnian Serb fire. A second soldier was less seriously wounded by shrapnel. Corporal Rennie was retrieved by helicopter and brought to Sarajevo, where, sadly, he subsequently died.

On Saturday 16 April, three Bosnian Serb tanks began firing on the hospital in Gorazde. General Rose called for close air support, which was approved by Mr. Akashi. Two Sea Harriers from HMS Ark Royal, and two American. A10 aircraft, were tasked with attacking the tanks. During a reconnaissance run, the Sea Harriers were attacked by a surface-to-air misile, which they managed to evade. At 4.45 pm local time, the Sea Harriers commenced a bombing run. A second surface-to-air missile was fired and hit the lead aircraft, which caught fire. The pilot, Lieutenant Nicholas Richardson, ejected and landed safely.

In an unrelated incident late on Saturday night, another British service man, Marine Timothy Coates, who was serving on attachment to the UNHCR in Sarajevo, was shot dead by personnel manning a Bosnian Government checkpoint in the city. He was off duty and wearing plain clothes at the time.

The House will wish to join me in sending condolences to the families of Corporal Rennie and Marine Coates. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Both were brave men serving in Bosnia and trying to bring peace to that country. As the House will know, yesterday, Bosnian Serb forces advanced further on Gorazde, which is now virtually undefended. There are now no British military personnel in the town.

The events of the past few days represent a serious setback for the United Nations' peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and will have grim consequences for the people of Gorazde. There is a tendency in some quarters to criticise the efforts of the senior UN personnel in Bosnia, including Mr. Akashi and General Rose, for failing to deal with the situation. In my view, such criticism is unjustified. Mr. Akashi, General Rose and their UN colleagues have achieved as much as was humanly possible, given the UN military forces available to them and the mandate under which they operate. They deserve our full support.

The United Nations troops in Bosnia are not, and never have been, intended to be a war-fighting force. They were sent to Bosnia for purposes of humanitarian relief and to give time for the peace process to bring results. Some have had quite unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved by the use of air power alone, or by ground forces that are not equipped or organised to operate in a combat role.

A vicious civil war is taking place in Bosnia with a total of almost 200,000 heavily armed Bosnian Serb, Croat, and Muslim forces. There are at present only 15,000 UN peacekeeping forces on the ground. The House is well aware that there has been no support from any quarter for deploying the large UN or NATO combat army that would be needed for the UN to be sure of imposing its will on the warring factions. In the absence of such support, it is quite unreasonable to berate the UN in Bosnia for having been unable to stop the fighting.

General Rose did recently call for more troops to assist in his peacekeeping role throughout Bosnia. The United Kingdom took the lead in co-ordinating an international response, which pledged those additional troops. I have to inform the House that, of the 8,000 troops pledged, only the battalion group promised by the United Kingdom and 300 others, totalling 1,200, have so far arrived.

The United Nations will now need to give careful thought to the implications of current events in Gorazde. Both the United Nations and others who call for action must avoid rhetoric and resolutions that cannot be enforced. There must be a proper assessment by the UN of its continuing ability to carry out the mandate, of what it can do to strengthen that ability and the peace process in general, and of the degree of co-operation that it can expect from the various Bosnian factions. It must also assess the level of risk to the safety of UNPROFOR troops, for which we all have an abiding responsibility.

Events in Gorazde represent a serious setback. It is important to remember that over large parts of Bosnia the UN has been successful in implementing an effective ceasefire and the population are able to resume something like normal life. Sarajevo is no longer under artillery attack. Those achievements are indeed creditable and we continue to give our full support to our troops, and other UN troops in the field, and to their commanders.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. This is a matter of great concern to many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. Opposition Members are glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not currently contemplate the withdrawal of British troops from Bosnia.

Disappointed and saddened though we are by the Gorazde tragedy and its terrible, awful consequences, we ought not—as the Secretary of State implied—to let it dominate our thoughts and actions completely. It is worth recalling and emphasising that the peace is still holding in much of Bosnia and that, in central Bosnia, the Croats and the Bosnian Government troops are no longer fighting. It is also worth emphasising that there is some peace in Sarejevo, however tentative, and that life there is far better than many of us would have dared to contemplate a month ago.

I am proud of the contribution that our British troops have made in Bosnia. Let me place on record the Opposition's deepest sympathy for the families of soldiers who have given their lives in the conflict there. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Will the Secretary of State acknowledge, however, that in a subtle way the mandate of the UN troops needs to be redefined? Is it not the case that that mandate was initially for the provision of a purely humanitarian aid delivery, but has now developed into a mandate for a peace support operation?

Are not the military handicapped by a lack of political direction and strategy on the part of the UN and NATO? Lieutenant-General Rose suggested the role that should be played when he pointed out that he would need more ground troops if the policy of peace support was to be effective. We believe that his request for extra troops was justified, but were disappointed, initially, by the Government's slow reaction. We acknowledge, however, that the Government had a change of heart following the marketplace disaster, and I acknowledge the Secretary of State's efforts in persuading our countries to earmark troops for Bosnia.

Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House on the numbers of troops? What has happened to the troops from other countries, whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman recently told the House were to be sent to Bosnia? Where have they gone? Of the 8,000 troops promised, only 1,200 have arrived.

On his visits to the United States last week, did the Secretary of State discern any change of policy by the United States Administration? In particular, will he comment on reports that the United States has blocked the request, made at the United Nations, to send an additional 8,500 peacekeepers to Bosnia and has approved only 3,700 —many fewer than General Rose requested?

Is the problem in the United States with the Administration or with Congress? What steps are the Secretary of State and the European Union taking to try to reverse that decision? Has any attention been paid to replacing Nordic troops in Macedonia with American troops, thus releasing the Nordic troops for action in Bosnia proper?

After Gorazde, we must ensure that we can reassert the authority of the United Nations, because it is in the interests of Britain and of the rest of the world to do so. In fighting to try to re-establish the authority of the United Nations, we are trying to do something to secure the long-term interests of Britain and Europe.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the efforts of General Rose, of British forces and of UNPROFOR as a whole. He is correct to emphasise that much has been achieved by the United Nations in other parts of Bosnia, and we do not want to lose the benefits of that hard work.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the UN's mandate has developed from being purely humanitarian to assisting in peacekeeping, wherever that has proven possible. It is very important, however, to draw a line between that kind of mandate and any possibility of the United Nations adopting a combat role, which, as he knows, would not be acceptable or consistent with a bipartisan approach. I know that he shares that view.

The hon. Gentleman acknowledged the efforts of the British Government in responding to General Rose's request for more troops and the lead that we took in the United Nations in co-ordinating that effort and in sending additional troops. He asked why so few have so far arrived from other countries. In part, that is, I am sure, because of genuine logistical problems in getting them to Bosnia from various countries around the world, but it will be important that all countries that have pledged additional troops make every effort to send them. The United States has offered logistical support for those who might require it and that should be borne in mind.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the United States Administration and Congress. Congress, not the Administration, has blocked the full funding of additional troops to Bosnia. I know that the President and his Administration are doing their best to persuade Congress to release the necessary funding, and we naturally hope that they will succeed in the near future. The United States has also indicated its willingness to ensure that some of the Nordic troops in Macedonia are released for service in Bosnia, which might have an impact on the number of American forces required.

Sir Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the events of the past few days have shown that, no matter what weasel words are spoken by the political negotiators on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian Serbs' armed forces are determined to achieve their own objectives, which makes it exceedingly difficult to forecast what will happen?

In those circumstances, is not every other Muslim enclave surrounded by Serbs now under threat throughout Bosnia? Without the United Nations taking another very long look at its policy, what guarantees can be given that people in those enclaves can be secure? Surely it would be tragic to suggest to them that they might be safe, when, as the people of Gorazde have found, even their hospital is being shelled.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the Serbs have shown themselves to be completely untrustworthy in terms of the assurances that they have given: that has been true not only in the past few days but for many months—many ceasefires have been negotiated which have not been honoured by the combatants.

My hon. Friend asked about the other enclaves. He will know that General Rose had been hoping to send a United Nations force into Gorazde to make it much more difficult for the Serbs to act aggressively towards that town. The Government had agreed to allow British troops to be redeployed there if that, in his operational judgment, was the right thing to do.

As for the other enclaves, there are already significant United Nations forces in those towns: in Srebrenica, there are about 500 Dutch United Nations forces; in Zepa, there are about 150 Ukrainians; in Bihaj, about 1,200 French; and in Tuzla, about 800 from the Nordic battalion. Clearly, that will be of considerable assistance to the United Nations in its objectives.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

In painting a necessarily sombre picture of events in Gorazde, does the Secretary of State accept that there might be lessons to be learned from the rather different circumstances of Sarajevo, where the credible threat of military action, coupled with intensive diplomatic effort, has managed to restore that community to some semblance of normality? Will he confirm that the Government will not support any lifting of economic sanctions against Serbia as long as safe areas are at risk and there is no overall peace settlement in place?

Mr. Rifkind

Of course, the circumstances in Sarajevo were unique, in that artillery was attacking from the heights, which were themselves credible targets for the use of air power. In addition, there is every reason to believe that the combination of Russian diplomacy and the Serbs' own assessment of the importance to be attached to maintaining that artillery barrage both contributed to that operation having the result that it did.

As for the latter part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, of course the imposition of economic sanctions is causing a great deal of economic hardship to the Belgrade Government, as well as to the Serbs in general; it is, therefore, an important weapon, which must be used to its maximum extent.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I am sure that the Government and my right hon. and learned Friend will, like the whole House, have as their first interest the security of British armed forces personnel on the ground and in the air over Bosnia. May I express my condolences to the family of Corporal Rennie of the Special Air Service Regiment and to that of Marine Commando Coates who so tragically died? What arrangements have been put in place to enable the commander of the United Nations Protection Force and his subordinate commanders in Bosnia to call on close air support more rapidly and more effectively when the lives of their own forces are at serious risk?

Mr. Rifkind

There is no difficulty about the use of close air support where it is required for the defence of UNPROFOR forces. As we saw in Gorazde itself, General Rose was able to call on air power, which was available within 45 minutes. Therefore, where it is required for the defence of United Nations forces, I believe that the present procedures are indeed appropriate.

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, unless more United Nations troops are sent to Bosnia, other safe havens will be in danger of being overrun?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree that we must take very seriously the judgment of the United Nations commanders on the ground about the minimum manpower they require to carry out the policy that is expected of them. We cannot have expectations of the UN in Bosnia and then not provide it with the means of carrying out that policy. General Rose has emphasised that he does not wish to adopt a combat role in Bosnia, but that he needs a certain minimum number of personnel if he is properly to implement a peacekeeping role. We agree with him.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Is it not deeply disturbing that as we begin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the glorious victory which set Europe free, at the very heart of Europe, in a country where 200,000 people have been slaughtered in the past two years, the words "safety and protection" mean very little?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend not feel that the time has come for the leaders of Government of the four permanent members of the Security Council most concerned to meet together? Will he ask our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to take the initiative in summoning a meeting of President Clinton, President Mitterrand and President Yeltsin, so that something can be done? It is in no one's interests that ethnic cleansing and the alteration of boundaries by force of an internationally recognised sovereign state should be successful.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend further, and finally, agree that if it were not for the fact that the bulk of the blame attaches to Serbia and the Serbs, we should not have sanctions against them? As we do, let us therefore make it abundantly clear to them that they will not get away with this.

Mr. Rifkind

Close contact between world leaders is, of course, important. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to the President of the United States yesterday. My hon. Friend will also be aware of the considerable need to ensure that Russia, who is a member of the Security Council, works in the closest harmony with the other permanent members. Over the past few days, Russia has tried hard to impress on the Serbs the need for considerable restraint. The House will have heard the remarks of Mr. Churkin, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, who expressed his own frustration with Serbian mendacity over the past 48 hours.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the warnings given that the situation could lead NATO to stumble into a civil war in Bosnia are turning out to be frighteningly true? NATO is not the United Nations, although the humanitarian and peacekeeping roles may be successful. However, with the experience of 18,000 troops in Northern Ireland for 25 years, with 33,000 people killed or injured during that period, there must be some lessons to be learned.

Will the Secretary of State resist the siren voices from the White House and from this House encouraging further military action? Will he take the matter back to the United Nations Security Council, where all the permanent members can contribute their opinion, and restore it to a UN function, in which any military operations are under the command of the Military Staffs Committee and not under the command of NATO?

Mr. Rifkind

Although I agree that NATO should not become involved in a combat role in the Bosnian war, the right hon. Gentleman must also take account of the fact that NATO has been successful in assisting the United Nations to prevent the Serbs from using air power against their foes within Bosnia and in enforcing the naval embargo, which is crucial to the effectiveness of the sanctions policy.

Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that probably for the first time ever, I agree with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)? I strongly suspect that many people outside the House who are keen to support our forces in anything they do are deeply concerned at what they perceive to be a change in the main policy that the forces are directed to carry out. If the shooting up of tanks by British aircraft is not combat, please may I know what it might be?

Mr. Rifkind

Of course it is combat, but if it is required for purposes of self-defence, my hon. Friend, I am sure, would be the first to justify it. We have made it clear from the very moment that British and other UN forces arrived in Bosnia that, if their lives were under threat, it was entirely appropriate that we should use all the military means at our disposal to protect them. I know that my hon. Friend would have been the first to criticise us if we had so altered the rules of engagement that we exposed our troops to attack by Serbian or other forces and could not use the means, including air power, to defend them wherever necessary.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

Given the actions of the Serbs over the past two years, is it not self-evident that they have very clear objectives? Have the Government or anyone else yet determined exactly what are those objectives? When do the Government expect them to be achieved?

Mr. Rifkind

I have no doubt that the Serbs—and, indeed, the other combatants in this war—have very clear objectives. The United Nations must seek, in a slow, painful, but determined way, to find a way in which each of the factions will realise that military means alone will not produce a lasting peace in Bosnia. Much has been achieved in most of Bosnia with regard to those objectives. However, as recent events have shown, there is still an awful lot to be done.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

May I add my sympathy to that expressed by my right hon. and learned Friend and by the spokesman for the Opposition, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), on the death of the soldiers in Bosnia, and especially express sympathy to my constituents, the parents of Marine Coates? Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that he will bear in mind at all times the danger of dragging the United Kingdom into another war in a region of historically unresolved conflict, and that he and his colleagues will ensure that we do not slip and slide into a European Vietnam, killing young men and women for no discernible gain?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct to emphasise those points. One of our main objectives over the past two years has been to seek to ensure that the war in Bosnia has not spread to other countries in that region. So far, that objective has been successful.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

In view of the lack of practical purpose shown by the United States of America in recent months, would not the Secretary of State consider looking closely with his European colleagues at what is happening in the context of the European Union? Will he also ensure that those deliberations are made public as far as possible, to take along with them the majority of the peoples of Europe?

Mr. Rifkind

There are quite significant limits to what can be expected from the European Union with regard to military personnel able to assist in Bosnia. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, for its own reasons, Germany is unable to be involved in the process—nor has Italy been able to, until recently. There are severe constraints. If there were an overall peace settlement in Bosnia that required an enhanced UN presence, it would be quite unrealistic to believe that that could be achieved without the active involvement of the United States.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it was absolutely right to support the peace initiative in the past two months, but that our role in Bosnia remains twofold? One role is to support the distribution of humanitarian aid and the other is in monitoring the peace. If there is no peace, there is no mandate. Will he therefore discuss in all the decision-making centres what our role can be in future, but, in doing so, will he bear in mind the fact that there would not be support in this country, in my view, for sending further troops to Bosnia?

Mr. Rifkind

The purpose of the mandate is to try to help to achieve a peace. Much has been achieved, not only in the Sarajevo area, but elsewhere in central Bosnia, where there has been no fighting between Croat and Muslim forces for some considerable period. All the efforts must concentrate on seeking to ensure that the progress that has been made in central Bosnia should also be available in those areas where Serb forces are involved, as that would be the best way in which to ensure that peace was eventually brought to that weary land.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is not the most immediate and pressing matter concern for the security and safety of a town under siege, because of the known activities of the Serbian warlords, such as ethic cleansing and mass murder? Do the Secretary of State and the Government generally accept that what is now at stake is the credibility of the international community? The Serbs have exploited to the utmost the indecision—the manner in which the west generally has been so reluctant to act. Have not we learnt the basic lesson that one cannot appease fascist oppression? One either faces up to it or the fascists will win, as, so far, they have in Bosnia.

Mr. Rifkind

I notice that the hon. Gentleman has been careful to avoid saying what his especial remedy would be for resolving that predicament. Unless he is calling for many thousands of British and other soldiers to be sent in a combat role to Bosnia, frankly, his words are no more than the words of a windbag.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Is it not the case that there has been virtually no response to the call for international support from other countries, and notably not from the United States, in its failure to provide ground support? That being so, and as my right hon. and learned Friend has clearly said that the United Nations will not be involved in a combat role, is it not doubly important that the role of our British forces should be carefully defined, and that clear limits should be set for their involvement?

Mr. Rifkind

I could not agree more with what my right hon. Friend has said. It is extremely important when lives are at stake that functions should be clearly spelled out. We should not have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved at the military level. It is precisely because rhetoric has so outstripped reality over so many months that people are now able to claim that the United Nations has failed in its task. I believe that those on the ground in Bosnia serving the United Nations have achieved all that could reasonably be expected of them. That needs to be acknowledged.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

Is the Secretary of State for Defence saying that resolution 836, which authorises the use of force to defend safe areas as defined by the United Nation, is a piece of rhetoric and a resolution that cannot be enforced? The right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument seems to rest on the proposition that it is not practical or feasible to impose a peace over the whole of Bosnia. But that was not the proposition that was tested at the weekend, which was much more limited—whether the UN and the international community had the will to defend a small enclave of a few square miles and fewer than 100,000 people.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman cannot escape the fact that even the very wording of resolution 836 is ambiguous. It refers to "any measures" and uses the phrase "acting in self-defence". That implies the ambiguity that is at the root of the problem. We have seen the limitations that air power alone has in resolving a problem of this sort.

I know that the hon. Gentleman cares deeply about this subject and I respect his sincerity. Unless, however, one believes that air power by itself could relieve Gorazde, one has either to consider the use of ground forces in a combat role or to recognise the limitations in implementing resolution 836 in the way that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

Is it not time to abandon the fiction that peace can be imposed from outside if the combatants do not want it? What knowledge does Her Majesty's Government have of the real aims of the Serbian Administration? They have 70 per cent. of Bosnia already; how much do they want?

Mr. Rifkind

We can only speculate on the objectives of each of the factions. It is clear, however, that it is a war about territory and that each of the factions is seeking to grab as much territory as possible to strengthen its negotiating position for the final political settlement. That clearly is part of their thinking. It is also evident that no political settlement that is not rooted in the consent of all the three communities can have any chance of bringing lasting peace to Bosnia.

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

May I say to the Secretary of State what I really do believe? If Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister today, she would have sorted out this bloody—I use the word advisedly—nonsense one and a half years ago. At least she demanded that fascism should be stopped in its tracks in the heart of Europe, whereas this Conservative Government have ducked the issue.

Mr. Rifkind

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I would remind him that even my noble Friend Lady Thatcher made it clear that she did not support the use of British or other UN troops in a combat role on the ground in Bosnia. If an individual is not prepared to support that policy, and unless one is arguing that the use of air power alone can somehow impose peace on Bosnia, the hon. Gentleman is putting forward a proposition that is not sustained by reality.

Sir Archibald Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)

My right hon. and learned Friend referred to the fact that there was not a large enough force forthcoming to be sure of the UN imposing its will in Bosnia. Does he accept that no force, however large, could impose the UN's will on Bosnia? Surely we should learn the lessons of the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan.

There is no military solution to the problems of Bosnia. There is a civil war into which it appears we are being inexorably drawn. I hope that there is no question of changing the UN's mandate there beyond humanitarian aid. I hope that we will consider withdrawal seriously, before we suffer some ghastly disaster, as the Americans did in the Lebanon.

Mr. Rifkind

My right hon. Friend is correct to point out that even a large combat army could, at best, hope to achieve only short-term objectives in Bosnia, because it would very quickly become an occupying army and, without a political settlement, would experience the same difficulties as those experienced by other such armies in other parts of the world. Therefore, I agree with my right hon. Friend's analysis.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the look on the Prime Minister's face tells everyone everything today? This is another Government failure—and they were warned—and it is a Common Market failure into the bargain. Does the Secretary of State have any contingency plans to withdraw the troops before the television crews withdraw first? For God's sake be careful before the Government follow them into the next cockpit.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman makes his usual constructive contribution on these occasions. With regard to the latter part of his remarks, of course we have quite properly considered the safety requirements of the British forces. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that whatever would be required to ensure their safety—whatever the eventualities might be—has been taken into account.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many of us are deeply concerned about the risks that our troops are taking? Their professionalism and courage have never been in doubt. However, attempts to pretend that surgical air strikes could somehow take place were wishful thinking, given the terrain and weather conditions in Bosnia. Anyone who has flown over the area is aware of that.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend also realise that the absence of the Germans' and Americans' presence on the ground means that the prospects of obtaining realistic measures in terms of negotiations have been substantially weakened—if they were ever viable? The absence of those two great powers on the ground is causing problems in the negotiations.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend referred correctly to a number of considerations. He is correct to emphasise the limitations on the use of air power. Air power can assist in defending our forces and it can be of assistance in certain very specific circumstances. However, it is quite unrealistic to believe that it can somehow deliver a peace to Bosnia in the absence of other factors pointing in the direction.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

If the international community is going to allow the Bosnian Serbs to put two fingers up to the United Nations, could we at least lift the arms embargo so that the Bosnian Government can defend themselves adequately?

Mr. Rifkind

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the arms embargo. He will appreciate that if the arms embargo were lifted, two factors would flow: first, there could be no continuing United Nations presence in Bosnia, with all the humanitarian consequences that would flow from that; secondly, there could be no possibility of continuing Russian co-operation with the rest of the United Nations. As I understand it, it would require a resolution of the Security Council to lift the arms embargo. I find it difficult to believe that the Russians would agree to that. It would therefore have quite serious consequences.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider withdrawing completely? Some of us said at the beginning that it was a mistake for British forces to be in Bosnia under any circumstances. We have now lost four British lives. What are the circumstances that my right hon. and learned Friend will consider when he thinks about withdrawing? People are sick and tired of having British forces at risk when there is no British interest there at all.

Mr. Rifkind

British and other UN forces have been responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives over the past two years. We must therefore think hard and long before considering that that role has come to an end. We have always argued that the presence of British forces should be continued so long as two criteria are met: first, that they can carry out their mandate and, secondly, that they can do so without unacceptable risk to themselves. We must constantly monitor the situation to see whether both the criteria continue to be met.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the credibility of the United Nations and the stopping of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia are in Britain's interests? Has it not been obvious from the outset that the only thing that would stop Serbian aggression is overwhelming superior force, and from the outset some of us have argued that that is what should have been employed, including—in case the Secretary of State accuses me of mincing words—the use of ground troops? Is not the reason why we are in this mess the fact that we failed to exercise leadership from the outset?

Mr. Rifkind

I certainly acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has been one of the few to carry through the logic of his position. I also acknowledge that if military force were to be part of international policy, that would require the massive deployment of ground forces. There are some 15,000 UN troops in Bosnia. There are about 200,000 heavily armed Serbs, Croats and Muslims who are fighting each other.

Clearly, the hon. Gentleman can work out for himself the likely size of a UN or NATO force that would be required not simply to make an impact but to take over the permanent military occupation of a country as large as Bosnia. He must also take into account how long that force would be likely to be required, and what would be the likely response of Serb, Croat and Muslim fighters over the many years that such a force would have to try to pacify Bosnia.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

As this is a European civil war, will my right hon. and learned Friend please make the strongest possible representations to his brother Ministers in the Western European Union and NATO that they must shoulder a greater part of the burden of the peacekeeping operation? At the same time, may I echo what the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said earlier—that we must keep sanctions in place and, if possible, intensify them? Sanctions work well, but there are some distressing seepages.

Mr. Rifkind

I very much agree with my hon. Friend that European countries must make the fullest possible contribution to helping in problems of this sort. I know that the Federal Republic of Germany is anxious to see an end to the constitutional constraints on its own contribution and we hope that that will be possible before long.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

As the Bosnian tragedy unfolds, is it not clear that what is happening is the direct and terrible consequence of appeasement, which has continued since the start of the conflict? Does the Secretary of State agree that, as we are at the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, this is not the time for politicians, who are the guilty parties, to try to shift the blame on to the United Nations, the military or anyone else? Is it not now clear that the international community, through the United Nations, should either mobilise the means to stop aggression in Bosnia or give the people of Bosnia the means to defend themselves?

Mr. Rifkind

Once again, the hon. Gentleman is careful not to spell out exactly what he is recommending. If he did, people would be able to pass comment on the merits of his proposals.

Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is impossible to overstate the gravity of a situation in which the United Kingdom, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has pledged to honour and maintain safe havens in Bosnia, when one of those safe havens is being overrun by hostile forces at present? Can he assure the House that at no time in recent days have requests by General Rose for air strikes been turned down, other than on weather grounds?

Finally, can my right hon. and learned Friend say whether the Sea Harrier that was shot down over Gorazde at the weekend was equipped with a hands-off fully automated electronic counter-measures system? When will his Department give approval for the urgent operation requirement which it has already drafted for unmanned air vehicles, which could avoid the necessity to deploy the Special Air Service Regiment in such exposed areas?

Mr. Rifkind

On the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, clearly there are some operations for which ground-based forward air controllers will always be required. My hon. Friend knows that that must be true in many circumstances, but not in every circumstance.

On the earlier part of my hon. Friend's question, I am not privy to any internal conversations within the UN. However, I have no reason to believe that General Rose has made any requests in recent days in respect of Gorazde that have not been accepted.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Do negotiations ever take place with Serbia about economic sanctions? Economic sanctions are fast becoming one of the few cards we hold, yet they are a problematic card. It is likely that they assist Milosevic to retain power, while devastating the country economically. Sanctions also hit the Albanians in Kosovo, but do nothing to control the armed position with regard to the Serbs in Bosnia.

Mr. Rifkind

There are always different views on the efficacy of economic sanctions, but it is clear that Milosevic and his colleagues would dearly like sanctions to be lifted because of the damage they are doing to the economy of his country. Therefore, in that respect they are clearly a useful part of the pressure which can be applied against him.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

Can my right hon. and learned Friend clarify the status of the safe havens policy, and say whether the UN has any means to maintain and achieve it other than persuasion?

Mr. Rifkind

It has been General Rose's view that, to make the safe havens policy effective, it is necessary to get significant garrisons of UN personnel into the safe havens. That is what he was trying to do in Gorazde, but he was unsuccessful. We have garrisons in the other safe havens, and that aspect of General Rose's policy is much more likely to succeed in respect of the other towns.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

What are the Government doing to get the release of the UN hostages who were taken by the Bosnian Serbs? Is the Secretary of State still satisfied that the humanitarian aid policy is the one which results in the least loss of life in Bosnia?

Mr. Rifkind

I understand that some 16 UN personnel have been released, and efforts are continuing to ensure the release of the others.

On the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, it is at the heart of the dilemma we all face that there is no doubt that the humanitarian efforts lead to the saving of many thousands of lives, yet one is conscious that, by themselves, they do not contribute to ending the war. Therefore, it is constantly necessary to balance the factors and to come to an honest judgment on where the interests of the people of Bosnia most lie.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that military advice on the ground should not be ignored? If that military advice says that 8,000 more troops are required, but those troops are not forthcoming from the other member states, my right hon. and learned Friend may well have to decide, in the interests of British troops, between leaving those troops there and facing yet more casualties and withdrawing them and their armaments from the UNPROFOR.

Mr. Rifkind

Twelve hundred of the 8,000 have arrived and, as far as I am aware, the other countries that have promised troops have not said that they have changed their minds or that they are no longer proposing to send them. It is clearly important that they act as quickly as possible, so that the troops can arrive in Bosnia and be available to General Rose to help carry out the policy that he is seeking to implement.

Ms Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Does the Minister realise that many of us—on both sides of the House—have been saying for more than two years that the Serbs were not interested in diplomacy, discussions or talking, and that they were interested in a Greater Serbia? Does he now agree that, as the international community has failed so dismally, we cannot sit in the House of Commons and say that we will prevent the people of Bosnia, including the Government and the Muslims, from being armed and able to defend themselves if we are not prepared to do it?

Mr. Rifkind

I appreciate the hon. Lady's point of view, which is perfectly respectable, but she must accept that it implies the ending of the humanitarian operation in Bosnia. She must also realise that there are practical difficulties in implementing such a policy, given that it would require the repeal of Security Council resolution. As Russia—a permanent member of the Security Council—has made it clear that it would not support such a resolution, any ending of the arms embargo would have to be in defiance of a UN resolution. I am afraid that that cannot be ignored.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

May I take this opportunity, which has been denied me by parliamentary convention for two years, to pay tribute to members of our armed forces who have fought the humanitarian war in Bosnia, sometimes at the ultimate cost? Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that he has given, and will give, General Rose the UK military support that he demands? Was not General Rose right to say that wars cannot be fought from white trucks?

Does it not behove those who appear to wish to fight to the last drop of somebody else's blood to say clearly how many troops they wish to send, how long they want them to stay there, and how many body bags they are prepared to see come home? If they are not prepared to do so, should they not recognise that there is a limit to what the United Nations can achieve?

Mr. Rifkind

May I use this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for his sterling work as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my colleague, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence? I agree with his assessment that it is important that we do not create false expectations. Nothing could be crueller to the people of Bosnia than to use rhetoric that creates an expectation which, in the event, cannot be fuilfilled.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

As the Government's current policy is based on the Serbians not turning their fire on United Nations personnel but confining their attack and slaughter to civilians and others in Bosnia, is there not a moral imperative to permit the Bosnians the right to defend themselves?

Mr. Rifkind

I can only repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Ms Hoey): this is a dilemma, and there is no simple answer to it. But the hon. Gentleman must also question the implications for the UN humanitarian operation, which, I notice, he carefully avoided referring to.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those hon. Members who subscribe to the "something must be done" school of thought and talk airily about committing more troops to Bosnia, should be pressed to say exactly what they mean, so that their constituents can weigh up the dangers to which those hon. Members are prepared to expose British troops?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend puts the case eloquently and reasonably. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will realise that if this House is to command respect, it must not call for policy through rhetorical flourishes unless it is prepared to live with the consequences of what it recommends.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

My right hon. and learned Friend has rightly described to the House the vicious and nasty civil war in what was Yugoslavia. Bearing in mind the events of the past few days and the huge contribution made by British troops towards reducing the slaughter in that country, does he feel that the UN mandate can continue to be applied without further resources from other countries, and the burden being shared by other nations? If that proves impossible, can British troops continue to carry out their present role without that further help?

Mr. Rifkind

I said in my statement that careful thought will have to be given to how the mandate is operating and whether anything is needed to increase its effectiveness. At present, we should attach importance to the successful achievements which General Rose and his colleagues have to their credit in Sarajevo and the Croat and Muslim areas of central Bosnia. Their achievements have brought a welcome peace to many hundreds of thousands of people. Were that to be put in jeopardy by a withdrawal of the UN, it would be a heavy responsibility, on which we would not wish to embark unless there was no credible alternative.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

In rightly stressing the importance of having realistic objectives, does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that that must extend also to existing UN stated objectives? Does he accept that there is no historical example of safe havens being maintained by air power alone, the first unsuccessful attempt at that being Dien Bien Phu?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my hon. Friend that the use of air power alone will rarely have more than a limited military consequence, which must be borne in mind in any statements of policy by either the Security Council or others interested in these matters.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

Is it not remarkable that those who advocate more troops and a more aggressive military stance are at a loss to explain where they will get those extra troops? Is it not now clear that, unless we can sustain our peacekeeping role and allow our troops to protect themselves effectively—that requires United States involvement to have any credibility—we shall have to look seriously at withdrawal? I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that it was Lord Owen who drew our attention to the fact that we might have to withdraw.

Mr. Rifkind

Certainly the United Kingdom makes the second largest contribution of forces to the United Nations in Bosnia. I do not believe that anyone would want to suggest that we are not carrying our full share of responsibilities. If there were a need for a significant number of additional UN forces, that burden would have to be shared more widely.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend be more forthcoming about nations that have promised troops and not delivered them, and about those that have not promised any at all? Surely that is the point that gung-ho types opposite should take into account before running the risk of shedding the blood of our own forces.

Mr. Rifkind

The immediate objective is to meet the need for the 8,000 personnel whom General Rose has said he requires to carry out his current policy. If the countries that have pledged troops are able to ensure their arrival, that requirement will have been achieved.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

What discussions has my right hon. and learned Friend had with the Russians in the past 24 hours, and what discussions does he plan with them? Does he agree that Mr. Churkin has been disappointed by the response from Belgrade, but that any hopes that we may have must rest with the Russians exerting due influence on Belgrade? After all, that is where the sheer energy for this brutal war has been coming from.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the Russians have been constructive over the past few days. The Russian Foreign Minister, Mr. Kozyrev, has been in Belgrade; Mr. Churkin has been negotiating in Bosnia. It is therefore important that all the permanent members of the Security Council speak with a single voice on this matter, as far as possible.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

The Secretary of State for Defence has continuously referred to the "warring factions" of the Croats, Bosnians and Serbs, ignoring the American-brokered agreement between the Croats and the Muslims. That agreement makes it clear that the only aggressors in the current circumstances are the Serbs. The Muslims are not trying to break out of Gorazde to gain territory, certainly. Is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman essentially telling us that the west, the international community, is incapable of dealing with Serbian aggression?

Mr. Rifkind

The events in Gorazde of the past few days have undoubtedly been the consequence of Serb aggression, but there still are a number of warring factions in Bosnia. One of the British soldiers who lost their lives in the past week was killed by Serbian action; a Bosnian Government soldier shot the other one dead. The hon. Gentleman must therefore appreciate that the war continues, although I welcome the progress made in respect of the Croat-Muslim relationship.