HC Deb 07 February 1994 vol 237 cc19-28 3.30 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whether he will make a statement about the weekend's tragic events in Sarajevo and about what action Her Majesty's Government intend to recommend to Britain's partners and allies as a consequence.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Alastair Goodlad)

The whole House will share a feeling of horror and outrage about the massacre at Sarajevo on 5 February. The Government condemn that brutal and senseless act. Over the weekend, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed the response of the international community with the United States Secretary of State, with the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, Spain and Canada, and with Lord Owen. My right hon. Friend is now attending a meeting of European Union Foreign Ministers in Brussels.

The events of the weekend again emphasise the vital importance of negotiations between the parties to reach a political settlement as soon as possible. The Government reiterate their full support for the efforts of Lord Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg to that end, and call on the parties to show maximum flexibility at the scheduled talks in Geneva on 10 February.

However, action over Sarajevo cannot await an overall settlement. It is essential that the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation should consider immediately practical means for halting the bombardment of civilians there. The demilitarisation and international administration of Sarajevo are also being pursued by the two co-chairmen.

The Government welcome the United Nations Secretary-General's letter, asking NATO to authorise its military command to be ready to use air power on request from the United Nations. The Government support an early meeting of the North Atlantic Council to give that authority. The United Nations and NATO, taking into account military advice, will thereafter seek to achieve a ceasefire around Sarajevo. The Government remain determined that everything possible is done to ensure that that appalling conflict is brought to an end as soon as possible.

Dr. Cunningham

I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with the condemnation of that appalling atrocity in Sarajevo. Does not the recent history of the former Yugoslavia show that western policy about those problems is in disarray? The record is one of failure to prevent atrocities, resulting in the wanton slaughter that shocked the world this weekend. The record also, sadly, shows that resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations, declarations by the Council of Ministers of the European Union and decisions of the NATO summit have never been implemented.

Those decisions and declarations are regarded by the Serbs and Croatians as empty threats, so their aggression and the carnage continue. Indecision about Britain's proposed troop withdrawal has further encouraged Serbs and Croatians to believe that their aggression would not only be ignored, but be rewarded by territorial gain. Tragically for all of us, the European Union bears the principal responsibility for that catastrophe.

What, specifically, does the Prime Minister mean when he says that he wants to see urgent, effective and more muscular action in Bosnia"? Will the Government immediately press for the opening of Tuzla airport, for the lifting of the siege of Sarajevo and for the proper implementation of the UN Security Council resolution defining safe areas, as set out in resolution 824 adopted in May 1993—almost one year ago? Do the Government agree that if the Serbs and Croatians do not immediately accept and allow the implementation of those decisions of the international community, they should be enforced by the use of the vastly superior air power of NATO?

Mr. Goodlad

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for joining in the condemnation of what has taken place. As usual, he is longer on analyses than on solutions to the problem. We are looking for effective action—if necessary, muscular action—to protect the civilian population of Sarajevo. They have been subjected to mortar attacks from both Serbian and Bosnian forces. The UNPROFOR command, with NATO support, must apply the pressure necessary to halt the attacks. If the military commanders advise that this requires tactical air support, we shall back their judgment; that has always been our position and remains so.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Tuzla. It is, of course, essential that Tuzla airport is reopened. The NATO summit expressed readiness to support UNPROFOR in Srebrenica and in Tuzla, where it was being obstructed. NATO air power is available if needed. Pressure is being exerted on the Serbs over Tuzla airport. The United Nations is discussing plans with troop contributors in that theatre.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned air strikes. There is a distinction between strategic air strikes and tactical air strikes. Military commanders, whether in NATO, the United Nations or the United Kingdom, have consistently advised that a generalised policy of strategic air strikes would not end the war. It could make the situation worse by bringing the United Nations into the conflict and disrupting humanitarian relief. In specific situations, the tactical use of air power can help to achieve defined objectives. NATO will consider on Wednesday how that air power might be used to reinforce UNPROFOR's efforts to end the Sarajevo bombardment. We await the assessment of the military commanders, but we are fully prepared to see air power used if it will improve the situation. We want UNPROFOR to take strong action to help civilians in Sarajevo and to increase pressure on the parties to end the war.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the United Nations is involved in this conflict and that it is rapidly losing all its credibility? Will he further accept that the vacillation and the indecision have gone on for far too long? It is essential that, by the end of this week, proper steps are taken—with an ultimatum delivered with a threat of real force behind it—so that the siege of Sarajevo will be lifted and the heavy weaponry will be removed from the hills around the city. Will my right hon. Friend further accept that the United Kingdom is uniquely placed to take a lead in this? Can that lead now be taken?

Mr. Goodlad

My hon. Friend, who takes a close interest in the matter, will be aware that at the NATO summit it was the British Prime Minister who took the lead, together with Mr. Balladur, in proposing that NATO urge UNPROFOR to draw up plans for Tuzla airport. We have made it clear that NATO air power will be available. I hope that the consultations that are taking place this week will achieve the ends for which we and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) earnestly hope.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Is the Minister aware that most hon. Members commend the question that has just been asked? It is, nevertheless, true that military action is much more hazardous now than it was when we advocated it during the siege of Ozijek. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that it is clear that the continued indiscriminate shelling of Sarajevo is bound to reproduce horrors such as occurred on Saturday—indeed, the shelling is now almost worse in Mostar—which means that the civilised community demands that clear, specific military action to defend Sarajevo, Mostar and Tuzla, which United Nations resolutions permit us to take, should now be taken?

Mr. Goodlad

It is irresponsible of the Liberal Democrats' spokesman to play politics over the tragic situation in Bosnia. If the half-baked, half-measures advocated by the Liberal Democrats had been adopted, we would be no nearer a solution, but United Nations troops would very likely have become participants in the conflict. The ex-post facto wisdom of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) is preposterous. It was even more preposterous for him to have asserted that he reflects the general wish of British troops that the United Nations mandate should be changed. He has been challenged by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to substantiate that assertion. He has failed to do so—precisely because, as he knows, he does not reflect the views of our commanders.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

The Bosnian conflict is littered with tragedy and atrocities. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it would be wrong for the Government and the United Nations to change their policy because of the latest appalling tragedy in Sarajevo? Will he further confirm that we will not change those policies until we can secure the safety of our troops who are involved with the humanitarian effort and in humanitarian aid? If there is to be any change of policy by the United Nations, will he please ensure that we put our troops and humanitarian aid workers in a place of safety before we embark on an act of aggression that will make us participants in the conflict?

Mr. Goodlad

My hon. Friend is right to advance that argument. The commanders of UNPROFOR and of the British contingent will, of course, take full account of the need to ensure the safety of civilian aid workers and UNPROFOR troops. That is an important element. Aid is vital to Sarajevo, but it is also vital to stop the bombardment. The United Nations objective must be an effective plan to protect Sarajevo and to create a better environment for humanitarian relief work.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is not it clear, even to this Government, that Saturday's butchery, in which nearly 70 people were murdered, occurred because, as with previous atrocities, the Serbian warlords believed, to a large extent, that they were secure from any form of western intervention and retaliation? Is the Minister aware of the feeling of deep betrayal that is felt by people in Bosnia, who believe that they have been let down by the United Nations and by western Governments and are the innocent victims of aggression? Unlike what happened with the Gulf war, in which action was rightly taken, the Bosnian people are being allowed to be murdered without any intervention from the western community and international organisations.

Mr. Goodlad

The Serbian warlords have no grounds for holding the beliefs ascribed to them by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Winnick

Not much.

Mr. Goodlad

Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, the international community will continue its efforts to bring an end to this tragic conflict.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there has been enough prevarication on air strikes in the past six months to a year? Does he further agree that it is utterly hypocritical for Labour Front-Bench spokesmen to believe that the European Union is responsible, when the real reason why it is impossible to make that organisation take any decision is that, under title 5 of the Maastricht treaty, with which Labour Members agreed, it is impossible to arrive at a proper line of control and command?

Mr. Goodlad

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend that there has been prevarication over air strikes, which have been authorised and are being considered in the context which I described to the House. I do not find myself with any surprise at hypocrisy on the part of the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is increasing concern and anger throughout all the Muslim communities in the world at the appalling lack of decision of the European Union Governments and that, more particularly, there is considerable dismay at Britain's craven conduct in these matters—this country is the leader of the "don't let's do anythings"—under a Christian Foreign Secretary and a Jewish Minister of Defence?

Mr. Goodlad

I understand the feelings in the Muslim communities throughout the world. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, whose question was unworthy of him, that there has been anything craven on the part of the British contribution. Our aid workers and troops in Bosnia, whom I visited, have behaved throughout with enormous courage.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Is not the basic decision for the Government either to play our full part in humanitarian relief work in that tragic country or to become a party to the dispute by taking air strikes against Serb weapon positions?

Mr. Goodlad

We have never ruled out the use of tactical air strikes. Military advice is being taken at the moment, and no doubt decisions will be taken in due course.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

The Minister has spoken this afternoon of "muscular action". May I ask how and when?

Mr. Goodlad

As I have told the House, the European Council of Ministers is meeting this afternoon. NATO is taking counsel from its military advice, and announcements will be made after that process is completed.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that surgical air strikes may sound grand, but not if the objective is to deter? The only way that deterrence will work will be if the United States is committed in the air and on the ground, as it was in the Gulf. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, without that commitment, surgical air strikes will only escalate the conflict and will not produce the desired result?

Mr. Goodlad

My hon. Friend points his finger at some extremely important considerations, and, of course, the deployment of ground troops has not been ruled out.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Following the tragedy at the weekend, the Minister has used the word "muscular", as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) said. The right hon. Gentleman did not explain what the new muscular attitude—rather than the wind power which we have had so far—amounts to. Will the Minister, for instance, support the new UN commander if he decides to use force to ensure that our humanitarian aid gets through? Will action be taken then?

Mr. Goodlad

The House can congratulate General Rose on the start that he has made. The troops are guaranteed our full support, and the commanders have not asked for the rules of engagement to change.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that everyone wants the negotiated settlement about which he speaks? What are the statistical chances of getting such a negotiated settlement when negotiations have failed to achieve one during the past two years, when one side in the dispute has overwhelming weapon power and when the UN has so far shown itself to be a paper tiger?

Mr. Goodlad

I do not know what the statistical prospects of a settlement are. The parties are at the negotiating table, and they have received a clear message that a Bosnian settlement should include one third of territory and access to the sea for the Muslims. The details of the territorial exchange and the arrangements for access to the sea remain the key differences. Those are matters for the parties to solve with the co-chairmen, and that can only be done at the negotiating table.

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

Can the Minister say exactly what was in the UNPROFOR report concerning the criminal act on Saturday? What offers of co-operation have been forthcoming from the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims towards setting up an investigating commission to see precisely what did happen?

Mr. Goodlad

It is almost certain that the shell came from Serb positions, but there is no absolute certainty about it. I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's suggestions to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Accepting the Minister's statement that air strikes might relieve the pressure but could not end the war, and remembering the experience of air strikes in Vietnam and in the Gulf war, when they were unable to find and remove military targets on the ground, and also remembering the ability, nowadays, of troops to live underground and to move at night, can he tell us whether there has been any military advice to suggest that air strikes could make a significant difference to the tragic situation in Sarajevo and in other places?

Mr. Goodlad

As always, my right hon. Friend brings great wisdom to bear on the situation. It has not hitherto been military advice that air strikes would help the situation, because of some of the considerations which my right hon. Friend has drawn to the attention of the House. As I have said, the matter is continually being assessed by the military commanders. The intention must be to improve the situation, not to make it worse.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Minister aware that the caution that has been shown up to now is much wiser than may be thought to be the case from some of the comments made across the Floor of the House? If air strikes were undertaken, not only would all humanitarian aid come to an end, which could lead to far, far greater loss of life, but British and other United Nations troops could be endangered and the peacekeeping attempts made by Lord Owen and others could terminate. That could lead to the long-term involvement by Britain and other countries in a Balkan war, the outcome of which could not be foreseen. Those possibilities raise political and not just military questions.

Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that the point made by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) about the uncertainty of so-called surgical strikes, as a means of bringing to an end a war that has a deep history and is the source of great bitterness, raises grounds for considerable caution? Were the Government to be cautious on the matter, they would receive far greater support than might be apparent from some of the comments made in the House today.

Mr. Goodlad

The right hon. Gentleman, again, focuses the attention of the House on the points that he has made in this context previously. As I said earlier, we await the assessment of the military commanders as to whether air strikes would improve the situation, but, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, some complicated factors must be taken into account.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Does not it follow, as night follows day, that if my right hon. Friend were to take the advice of the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the United Nations would be committed as a participant in this war, which would then further escalate the United Nations' military commitment and, therefore, that of this country? Following that, it would be impossible to deliver the aid that we are currently delivering to the starving and very badly treated people of Bosnia.

Mr. Goodlad

My hon. Friend makes some extremely shrewd points.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The weekend actrocity underlines the extent to which the Muslims in Bosnia have suffered from Serb aggression. Is not it the case, however, that the Muslim army has been trying to compensate for the losses it has suffered through Serbian aggression by driving Croats from their homeland in central Bosnia? Can the Government impress on the Bosnian Government that such action makes it more difficult for people to help them?

Mr. Goodlad

It is inherent in a situation of civil war that events such as those described by the hon. Gentleman will take place. For that reason, our efforts will continue to be directed towards bringing that civil war to an end.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that international organisations should concentrate on the long-term strategic objectives, which they have not yet done with sufficient clarity? Does he further agree that decisions on the ground in Bosnia should be left to local commanders, whose advice will clearly be that air strikes against any of the three sides in Bosnia will render the humanitarian effort impossible and place our troops in great danger?

Mr. Goodlad

Once again, my hon. Friend points to some of the difficulties that face the military commanders in advising on air strikes.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

While the Minister is rightly listening to the advice of military personnel, does he accept that the western world has a clear moral and political responsibility to deal with the issues now facing us in the Balkans which, after all, have been going on for two years? Does he therefore accept that Sarajevo is specifically under threat from the Serbs? In that context, what recommendations are his Department and the Government making to the meetings of the NATO and European Union allies? Are the Government prepared clearly to state that they accept that moral responsibility and will take action when necessary?

Mr. Goodlad

It is precisely because we take that responsibility that, since the most recent manifestations of the dispute have been apparent to us, we have been involved in seeking not only to deliver humanitarian aid to Bosnia but to bring about an end to the civil war. The situation in Bosnia requires a more robust response than hitherto by the United Nations and NATO, but its purpose must be to improve the position in Sarajevo and contribute to pressure on the parties to end the war and reach a negotiated settlement. As has been pointed out by Members on both sides of the House, the plan must take account of the importance of the relief operation and the safety of soldiers and civilians running it. This week's discussions are taking place precisely to achieve that plan.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

While I welcome the fact that the possibility of more muscular action to alleviate the suffering of Sarajevo is being considered, does my right hon. Friend agree that the downside of such a policy depends on how much humanitarian aid is getting through? Has he seen recent reports that Larry Hollingworth, a former British Army officer and the head of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Zenica, estimates that only 10 per cent. of humanitarian aid is getting through to central Bosnia? That figure is borne out by the World Health Organisation.

Mr. Goodlad

I have seen that report, but most reports on the amount of aid getting through give much higher estimates—a figure of 70 per cent. has been mentioned. More than 1,000 flights and most of the convoys have got through, so the figure that my hon. Friend mentions is probably not realistic.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Minister appreciate that western Governments are partly to blame for all the slaughter on the streets of Sarajevo? Does he agree that when former Yugoslavia was in the throes of splitting up, Germany wanted to recognise Croatia? That was confirmed by Lord Carrington at the time and since. The Government and the House were wary of the possibility of that happening. Bosnia followed because Germany twisted the British Government's arm and a quid pro quo deal was done on the two opt-outs for Maastricht, and we have finished up with this mess. If there is any guilt—there is a lot of guilt around the conflict in the Balkans—does the Minister agree that the Government's hands are not clean?

Mr. Goodlad

Not for the first time, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's contribution—in this case, in the form of a history lesson of his usual inaccuracy—takes the situation no further forward.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

May I put it to my right hon. Friend that when he spells out the political aims—in the short term, humanitarian; in the long term, getting a settlement—he will enjoy the support of all who judge their politics by the week, not by the day?

Mr. Goodlad

I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend's sensible remarks.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Will the Minister agree that the west does have a policy towards Bosnia—that it does not stand neutrally by? Will he remind the House that the two pillars of that policy are, first, waiting for the three sides in the combat to fight themselves to a standstill; and, secondly, denying the legitimate Government of Bosnia the right and the means to defend their people and their capital?

Mr. Goodlad

The hon. Gentleman does less than justice to the efforts of this Government and of the international community to assist the parties to reach an agreement at the table. They are at the table; that is where an agreement must be reached. The hon. Gentleman should face up to that.

The majority of the European Union countries, the co-chairmen, and the United Nations agencies are all opposed to lifting the embargo. We have never ruled that out, if all else fails, but we believe that it would do much more harm than good in Bosnia. It would escalate the fighting and seriously jeopardise the relief effort. It could also draw others in and lead to a widening of the conflict. I do not think that that is what the hon. Gentleman wants. I therefore suggest that he ceases suggesting it.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if bombing raids are undertaken under the UN flag, the neutral, peacekeeping role of the United Nations will be wholly undermined and, in future, people will view the UN in a wholly different light? It will no longer be seen as an agency facilitating the bringing of aid to the people who need it.

Mr. Goodlad

I note my hon. Friend's view. It is a consideration which must be borne in mind.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

If the Government are unwilling to lift the Bosnian arms embargo—I think that there is a strong case for lifting it—what is their view of extending sanctions against Croatia and providing financial assistance to the countries that are bearing the greatest burden in respect of the enforcement of the sanctions?

Mr. Goodlad

The hon. Gentleman should bear it in mind that getting an agreement on sanctions against Croatia would have implications, for instance, for the position of our troops and of the United Nations relief workers in Split and on the road up to Vitez. So it is not entirely a straightforward matter.

Madam Speaker

We must now move on. Unfortunately, we shall no doubt return to this subject again.

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